Friday, 29 April 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 22-24, 2015:
1 (1) The Jungle Book (PG) **
2 (3) Eye in the Sky (15) *** 
3 (new) Bastille Day (15)
4 (2) Zootropolis (PG)
5 (new) Friend Request (15)
6 (4) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12A)
7 (5Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
8 (6) The Huntsman: Winter's War (12A)
9 (new) Shakespeare Live! (12A) ***
10 (new) Miles Ahead (15)


My top five:   
1. Son of Saul [above]
2. Arabian Nights vol. 2: The Desolate One
3. BFI Presents: Richard III
4. Heaven Knows What
5. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Top Ten Streaming:

1 (1) Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (18) ***
2 (new) Hitchcock/Truffaut (12) ****
3 (3) Carol (15) ****
4 (2) Black Mountain Poets (15) ***
5 (5) Court (PG) ***
6 (new) Symptoms (15)
7 (new) Macbeth (15) ***
8 (4) Eisenstein in Guanajuato (15) **
9 (7) BFI Presents: Richard III (15) ****
10 (8) Sunset Song (15) ***

(source: BFI)

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12) **
2 (2The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
3 (3) SPECTRE (12) ***
4 (4) The Martian (12) ****
5 (5) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
6 (6The Good Dinosaur (PG)
7 (8) The Intern (12)
8 (7) The Dressmaker (15) ***
9 (9The Last Witch Hunter (15)
10 (re) Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)

My top five:  
1. Innocence of Memories
2. Hitchcock/Truffaut
3. Next to Her
4. Krampus
5. The Survivalist

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Cop Land (Friday, C4, 12.10am)
2. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sunday, five, 4.30pm)
3. Elysium (Sunday, five, 9pm)
4. Drive Angry (Sunday, five, 11.10pm)
5. Rabbit-Proof Fence (Sunday, BBC2, 11pm)

"Heaven Knows What" (Guardian 29/04/16)

Heaven Knows What ***
Dirs: Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie. With: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress, Eleonore Hendricks. 94 mins. Cert: 18

The Safdie brothers’ divisive portrait of a New York heroin addict’s deadbeat existence hews closer to Larry Clark than Trainspotting. A cast of varyingly unwashed, toothless, abrasive semi- and non-professionals scratch harsh truths from lead Arielle Holmes’ memoir of her time on the margins: as they shuffle, zombie-like, from one grating encounter to the next, you feel the Safdies shaping deathly dull flophouse downtime so as to make even upright citizens feel the need for a hit of something. As with actual junkies, it can be a headache, a bore or a horror show, but the directors keep finding the right arresting detail to illuminate aspects of this experience. A quasi-epic attempt to thread a sewing needle suggests our heroine’s desperation to restore some part of a broken life, although here, as elsewhere, Holmes is so convincingly zonked one can only wonder what’s still in her system, and in her soul. Cautiously recommended.

Heaven Knows What opens from today in selected cinemas. 

"Ratchet & Crank" (Guardian 29/04/16)

Ratchet & Clank **
Dirs: Kevin Monroe, Jericca Cleland. Animation with the voices of: Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Bella Thorne, Rosario Dawson. 94 mins. Cert: PG

Converted from the Sony console game, this latest factory-line animation so insistently generates intergalactic spectacle that it tramples its own message about rejecting grand gestures and doing the right thing. As our plucky vulpine hero progresses from self-doubting cadet to resistance top gun, the animators prove rather better at rendering hovercars and bogeyguns than original ideas, repurposing key narrative and design elements from Pixar, TV’s Futurama, perhaps even the old Super Nintendo shoot-‘em-up Starfox. Again, it’ll fill a screen and kill ninety minutes if the kids have seen everything else – surely its biggest hope – but the ratio of hardware to heart badly needed another tune-up.

Ratchet & Clank is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Saturday, 23 April 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 15-17, 2015:
1 (new) The Jungle Book (PG) **
2 (2) Zootropolis (PG)
3 (new) Eye in the Sky (15) *** 
4 (3) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12A)
5 (4) Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
6 (1) The Huntsman: Winter's War (12A)
7 (new) Fan (12A) ***
8 (new) Theri (12A)
9 (new) Criminal (15)
10 (5Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG) ***


My top five:   
1 (new) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12) **
2 (1) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
3 (new) SPECTRE (12) ***
4 (3) The Martian (12) ****
5 (4) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
6 (2) The Good Dinosaur (PG)
7 (6) The Dressmaker (15) ***
8 (7) The Intern (12)
9 (5The Last Witch Hunter (15)
10 (8) Brooklyn (12) ****

My top five:  
1. Innocence of Memories
2. Hitchcock/Truffaut
3. Next to Her
4. Krampus
5. The Survivalist

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (Friday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
2. Contraband (Saturday, C4, 11.20pm)
3. Fort Apache (Saturday, BBC2, 7.55am)
4. Heartbreakers (Wednesday, C4, 1.30am)
5. Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Saturday, BBC2, 12.05am)

Swingers: "The Jungle Book"

In the half-century since their canonical animated version, Disney have continually returned to Mr. Kipling's best-known narrative, whether to retain a copyright or see if it might enchant youngsters anew: one senses it has become as sacred a text to the company as, say, the Holy Bible was to Cecil B. DeMille. If Stephen Sommers' live-action take from the early 1990s has now largely been forgotten about, its fate may be preferable to that of the generally reviled The Jungle Book 2, an animated 2003 product born of the Mouse House's millennial lowpoint. Jon Favreau's new live-action adaptation The Jungle Book, on the other hand, displays the bounteous commercial confidence you'd expect from a post-Frozen proposition: it arrives with plentiful 3D-appointed, IMAX-ready spectacle (lush forestscapes, rushing waterfalls, mudfalls, tree climbing) and a full menagerie of photorealistic CG animals who presumably took far longer in the rendering than their hand-drawn predecessors.

With the very savvy, very businesslike Favreau - who pulled in a cool $620m worldwide on Iron Man 2 - at the helm, all this was perhaps a given: the executives can return to the massage table knowing they've got what they presumably set aside a whole lot of money for. There are, though, bigger questions to be asked of it. Like: does this smoothly engineered product have much in the way of charm to go with its polish? And, perhaps most crucially for anyone not overly engaged by the business of weekend box-office figures: will we all still be watching it in fifty years' time? In these matters, I think, the Favreau version is walking barefoot on altogether rockier ground. Take our entry point into this universe, the film's one flesh-and-blood representative Neal Sethi: a very Californian Mowgli, he speaks all his lines as though he were auditioning to play one of Tim Allen's sons on Home Improvement. (You'll look for signs of the enfant sauvage in vain; even the animated Mowgli was seen to wrinkle his nose and his forehead from time to time.)

As with its hero, so with the film, which purges any real wildness from the frame, and keeps offering up bizarre mismatches between voices and bodies. George Sanders brought experience and worldliness to the task of voicing Shere Khan in the original animation; the wildly overhyped Idris Elba, by contrast, sounds like a wannabe DJ dropping by on his way to the next Hoxton garage night. Scarlett Johansson's Kaa exists as no more than a single, breathy note: behind-the-scenes footage will surely show Favreau directing her as he gazed upon her changing clothes while playing Tony Stark's chauffeur in the Iron Man sequel. And while, yes, there's a degree of wit in having the Christopher Walken-voiced King Louie emerge from his mountain lair as though he were Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, recruiting Bill Murray to voice Baloo feels an all too obvious and pandering choice, ten years after Peak Murray. (The actor's lazy irony has always needed someone or something to work or rub against to be funny; simply indulge it, as Favreau does here, and you end up with A Very Murray Christmas, and truly nobody deserves another one of those.)

Of course, a modern multinational megatainment has to get saleable names onto the poster, but in this case it makes for a jolting experience; you're marvelling at the effects or hearing the voice work, never quite engaging with the characters or narrative. This is a major problem for a film with an already episodic narrative, nudging its hero towards maturity: you're just settling into it, only for some element to throw you out. In the '67 version, the songs helped to cultivate a vibe upon which viewers might be carried, but that film was close enough to the movie musical boom to know how a decent tune could function as an expression of character, and not merely the cue for another setpiece: folding, among others, the noted bandleader Louis Prima into its foliage, it was - along with the subsequent The Aristocats - perhaps the closest the uptight Disney squares, hunched over their drawing boards, ever got to the looseness of jazz.

Favreau's version slashes the songbook in favour of more Spectacle, and presents those few numbers that have survived the test-screening process as half-hearted, semi-embarrassed throwbacks. True, you get to hear Murray sing "Bare Necessities" and Walken do "I Wanna Be Like You", but the music is as deadeningly ironised as any Meghan Trainor cover, and orchestrated after the manner of the Robbie Williams swing album. Deprived of their buoying marching song, meanwhile, this jungle's elephants are reduced to the standing of forlorn screensavers. All of this points to what Favreau surely pitched his Jungle Book as: another goddamned reboot, as though Kipling had written no more than an origin story, and Mowgli were no more than a Peter Parker-in-waiting, awaiting the opportunity to leap from branch to branch across an IMAX screen. The result has scale and sweep, undeniably, but too little in the way of heart, soul or genuine poetry - and, as the lady so nearly said, any Jungle Book don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

The Jungle Book is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Soft bellies: "Kung Fu Panda 3"

It feels some while since 2011's Kung Fu Panda 2, but then a year is a long time in a marketplace where there's now a medium-to-high profile animation release every school holiday. (Back in the day, when these films took far longer to manufacture - and it was all fields, rather than Frankie and Benny's and Cheesecake Factories, around the Odeon - you were lucky to see two a year.) In the course of just under a decade, this mid-ranking franchise has stepped forward, film by film, to occupy the vacuum left once the Toy Story series went on hiatus; its orientalist bent - evident in a voice cast that has encompassed Jack Black and Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie and Lucy Liu - has presumably allowed it to obtain a greater foothold in the emergent Asian markets than, say, the Snoopy or Marmaduke movies ever managed.

Narratively, each instalment has concerned itself with nudging tubby hero Po (Black) further and further away from the undermotivated, mateless sloth he began as. This third pass, which sees the writing staff continuing to raid the Buddhist (or Alcoholics Anonymous) playbook for plot points, has Po turning teacher, and attempting to pass on his learnings to others; he's also obliged to take breaking news about his lineage - plus the arrival from the spirit world of a massive warrior buffalo (voiced by J.K. Simmons) - in his stubby-legged stride. Yet if this series has anything like a signature move, it's in (under)cutting its drama and mysticism with bathetic punchlines and goofy asides: Po's dramatic entrance involves him jumping the queue at a noodle bar, while one character's adoption of heavy battle armour leads to an ornamental vase being filled with vomit. Mostly, directors Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carioni plump for a form of well-cushioned slapstick that suggests a gentler, less inventive Looney Toon or pixellated Paul Blart - and the dumpling-guzzling Po is indeed a hero that kids raised in the middle of an obesity epidemic might cheer all the way back to the popcorn counter. 

Amid long stretches of workaday CG artistry, the background design spins pleasing variations on crimson and jade, arriving at the occasional Hokusai landscape and something more besides in the spirit realm, where the animators can play as fast and loose with gravitational logic as Inside Out did within the Zone of Abstract Thought. Of subtext, however, there is nothing, save a very lightly sketched vision of different species working together for good - an idea reportedly punched up in Disney's Easter release Zootropolis. While it's bumbling along, Kung Fu Panda 3 is fine, entirely adequate product that should provide ninety minutes of much-needed peace and quiet for accompanying adults. (Bonus: the 3D glasses may assist in dozing.) Still, I do wonder what this glut of animated films is teaching our young beyond an obligation to turn up at the multiplex and hand over their pocket money come what may whenever school is out. This series has proven far less opportunistic and grabby in this respect than some, granted, but it remains really no more than an exercise in training up our inner consumer: call it Zen and the art of demographic maintenance.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Faces in the crowd: "Fan"

Dual roles have become to Shah Rukh Khan what masks were to Tom Cruise in that millennial moment that gave the world Eyes Wide Shut, Mission: Impossible II and Vanilla Sky: a way of parsing his own colossal celebrity, while circumnavigating the limitations of an established star persona. Just as the only way we couldn't notice Cruise on screen would be if the actor were to disguise himself (cf. Tropic Thunder), so too the only way we might buy that a character played by Khan could be bested would be if his nemesis were played by Khan himself. To a growing rollcall of cops and robbers, masterminds and naifs, and other yin-yangs, Khan's latest vehicle Fan adds two further mirror images: the one a very loosely fictionalised version of himself, the other the kind of movie-mad ingenu he might have ended up as had the mantle of fame not been placed upon his shoulders at a very early age.

The star's 25 years of screen credits, public appearances and award-ceremony acceptance speeches make it very easy for director Maneesh Sharma to establish the immense popularity of Khan's Bollywood megastar Aryan Khanna: an opening montage deploys some frankly jawdropping TV news footage of the superfans swelling outside Khan's own Mumbai abode in the hope of getting a glimpse of their idol. It might, however, have been considerably harder work getting the 50-year-old SRK to convince as the type of hayseed who might at this point look up to a figure such as he - and here Sharma makes a fine choice in turning to the detailed physical effects work of Hollywood's Greg Cannom (Benjamin Button), who has resculpted the star's features with a latex carapace that leaves him looking fresher of face than he has done on screen for several years. (It is, in its own way, a mask.)

Our sympathies may initially go out to Gaurav, an Aryan superfan and part-time impersonator: he's conceived, after all, as one of us, sitting in the cheap seats, dreaming of meeting his hero and emulating his fame and wealth. Yet beneath the film's bright and peppy toplayer, Sharma and the writer Habib Faisal are busy sowing seeds of doubt. The shrine Gaurav maintains to Aryan can't help but remind British viewers of Alan Partridge's infamous stalker; he threatens to throw himself off a speeding train if he's not permitted safe passage to his idol's hometown. By the time this oddball has shown up brandishing duct tape on the doorstep of an acting rival who has dissed Aryan publicly, what began as a journey - in the heavily hashtagged, post-Cowell sense of that word - has started to look ominously like an act of stalking.

This pilgrim's progress entails a degree of tonal fluctuation. What we're watching is essentially the 15- or 18-rated business of a psychothriller like 1996's The Fan (baseball ace Wesley Snipes stalked by Robert De Niro), pulped into a family-friendly multiplex entertainment, which means some of the violence and creepiness has had to be pantomimed. It's also not short on the kind of implausibilities the average American thriller on this theme hopes to usher us swiftly past. What hooks us, though, is Sharma and Faisal's awareness of the cruel symmetry underpinning this tale: that, just as a star without fans is nothing (a point elegantly made when a touring Aryan walks out to the deathly silence of an empty auditorium), so too a fan without a star to gaze upon can quickly lose their bearings. When the action relocates to Europe after the intermission, a humiliated Gaurav stages a one-man campaign to smear Aryan's good name, molesting a waxwork at Madame Tussaud's before groping a young woman at a VIP event. Where the Yewtree-era Fan differs most from the 20th century The Fan is in its recognition that a star's physical self has become far less vulnerable than their public image; nowadays, you go for the brand, not the throat.

Khan's own brand has declined somewhat over recent times: in the Bollywood sweepstakes, he's now possibly placed third behind his namesakes Aamir and (somewhat unthinkably) the resurgent Salman, a fact Fan appears to acknowledge by having Aryan called out on social media by emergent young hunks. Yet far more than his indulgent Christmas vehicle Dilwale, this is a very decent showcase for Khan the performer: at one point in the hall-of-mirrors finale, he's required to play Aryan playing Gaurav impersonating Aryan - a tricky technical challenge he meets with style - and it's an appreciable wrinkle that the closer Gaurav and we get to Aryan, the more we see what a pampered jerk the latter is, an empty vessel who has to read all his speeches off idiot boards because he has no sincere sentiments left in his heart to give. It does feel as though Khan is using his status as an elder statesman to address the excesses of celebrity as much as he is to denounce those of fandom: all similarities here are presumably entirely intentional.

There have been signs over the past year that the Indian cinema's commercial sector is smartening up and becoming a little less gauche, a little more self-aware - a tricky process that has so far given us the fitful Shamitabh (nice idea, poorly developed) and Tamasha (Bollywood Resnais, and as jolting as that sounds). As befits Khan's status, Fan is a slicker endeavour, making exciting action-movie currency from the sight of the star effectively chasing his own tail around the continent, and quite possibly referencing Strangers on a Train in the funfairs that bookend this particular face-off. Yet equally it doesn't lack for resonant, suggestive undercurrents. How many real-life transgressions and trespasses found their way into this screenplay? Enough, one would speculate, for Fan to initiate at least a half-dozen theses on stardom in the modern age, enough to make even a Friday or Saturday night crowd ponder just how terrified their favourite performers are of losing control. Cruise, for one, hasn't ventured anything this candidly autobiographical in years.

Fan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.