Saturday, 27 June 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of June 19-21, 2015: 
1 (1) Jurassic World (12A)
2 (new) Take That Live (PG)
3 (2) Spy (12A) ***
4 (new) Mr. Holmes (PG) ***
5 (new) Entourage (15)
6 (3) San Andreas (12A)
7 (new) The Longest Ride (12A) **
8 (4) Insidious: Chapter 3 (15) ***
9 (7) Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back (U)
10 (6) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) **** 


My top five:   
1. The Third Man [above]
2. Slow West
3. The Long Good Friday
4. Les Combattants
5. Natural Resistance

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Big Hero 6 (PG) ***
2 (5) Interstellar (12) **
3 (2) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12) **
4 (4) Shaun the Sheep Movie (PG) ***
5 (3) Gascoigne (15) ***
6 (8) Jurassic Park (PG) ****
7 (7) Into the Woods (PG) **
8 (6) Kajaki: the True Story (15) ***
9 (9) Annie (PG)
10 (10) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **

My top five:  
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision
2. It Follows
3. Stonehearst Asylum
4. Love is Strange
5. Whiplash

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Edward Scissorhands (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)
2. Beetlejuice (Sunday, five, 5.10pm)
3. From Here to Eternity (Sunday, BBC2, 1.35pm)
4. The Princess Bride (Sunday, five, 1.20pm)
5. Even the Rain (Friday, BBC2, 1.30am)

Friday, 26 June 2015

"Knock Knock" (Guardian 26/06/15)

Knock Knock ***

Dir: Eli Roth. With: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Ignacia Allemand. 99 mins. Cert: 18

Multiple producer credits aside, Eli Roth has been lying low since the skilfully nasty Hostel initiated the torture-porn cycle a decade ago. We might, at a pinch, see signs of a maturing in his comeback film’s premise: here, female sexuality threatens not the snickering fratboys of his earlier work, but a middle-aged man who could stand for any number of ageing showbusiness roués. With calculated perversity, Roth and co-writers Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolas Lopez attempt a crossbreed of Fatal Attraction and Funny Games, staging a sustained assault on the idyllic Hollywood retreat architect father-of-two Keanu Reeves shares with his loving artist wife.

With the latter taking kids out of town for the Father’s Day weekend, Reeves’ Evan has been left to play his old Kiss albums and retrieve the pot previously consigned to a drawer in his mancave. Fleshier temptation presents itself when big-eyed, bodacious party girls Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) turn up on his doorstep, soaked through from a storm. We know Evan regards himself as a knight in shining armour, so it’s hardly surprising that he invites them in. We might question the move, though: first the dude’s pants come down, then his whole civilised veneer.

After a sinuous opening tracking shot, we’re largely left in situ watching the girls playing Evan for a fool: cooing upon discovering his DJ past, marvelling at his muscle tone. The film’s a judicious tease: for much of the first half, we’re anticipating hot three-way action, yet for once, Roth appears less interested in the big bang than he is in the initial tremors, and their possible repercussions. “I like building up the anticipation,” Reeves declares while unwrapping his presents, and his director may now feel similarly inclined: the gorehound of yore here reveals a new-found attention to script nuance and other varieties of kink.

Izzo and de Armas, afforded greater screen time than Hostel’s harpies, actually prove the film’s most valuable players, shuffling through multiple wardrobe changes, each time re-entering as different kinds of little monsters. Keanu, attempting more acting than the recent John Wick demanded, is less certain: he’s nicely courtly when shrugging off the girls’ initial advances, and it’s amusing seeing his inner Theodore Logan reawaken when the flirtation moves up (or down) a notch, but he gets hysterical during the morning-after parenting job. (His final scenes recall his deathless Jonathan Harker, which is entertainment of a kind.)

As a vision, Knock Knock remains pretty grim: the man’s an easily-led dupe who gets what he deserves, the women shape-shifting temptresses. Yet the infrastructure sustaining it – a clever deployment of tensions specific to the Uber app (a mainstream first), one eerily positioned overhead shot establishing the house’s isolation, the tantalising hints this could all be a bad dream – stands as uncommonly sound. Roth remains among our brighter shock merchants; possibly we love to hate his films as we hate to love those of, say, Lars von Trier – because they draw us in as they do.

You may consider it a blessing that the film can’t sustain the frowning moral conservatism of the AIDS-era Fatal Attraction; instead, we witness the director cackling – loudly, maybe reassuringly – as the girls threaten to out Evan as a paedophile, and a punchline that sniggers at the way our nightmares have shifted over recent decades from the private to the public domain. Little here is going to challenge the opinion of Roth as a bratty provocateur, but it’s still fun to experience a latter-day thriller pushing so many buttons in broadly the right order: if Knock Knock’s no more than a sick joke, it’s been very shrewdly constructed.

Knock Knock is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Lauda: The Untold Story" (Guardian 26/06/15)

Lauda: the Untold Story ***

Dir: Hannes Michael Schalle. With: Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton. 90 mins. Cert: PG

That “untold” snipes at Ron Howard’s Rush, where Niki Lauda was deployed as an uptight yardstick against which James Hunt’s roistering could be more efficiently dramatised. This studious documentary profile – Austrian-assembled, despite its overblown American voiceover – benefits from the candid testimony of a driver who went to hell and back while displaying a supremely Teutonic matter-of-factness: on being offered last rites in the wake of that 1976 inferno, Lauda recalls “my pragmatic thinking was that it couldn’t do any harm”. Textured archive punches up Lauda’s transformation from humble berger to post-crash power player, yet after the initial trial-by-fire, the narrative tailgates 2013’s comprehensive F1: Life on the Limit in impressing upon us the sport’s latter-day devotion to risk management. While this has saved a lot of skin, it’s the material of an instructional video; a decidedly MOR closing-credits cover of “Born to Be Wild” damns the untold story as very much the straight story. 

Lauda: the Untold Story plays in selected cinemas for one night only on Thursday 2nd.

"Hippocrates" (Guardian 26/06/15)

Hippocrates **

Dir: Thomas Lilti. With: Vincent Lacoste, Jacques Gamblin, Reda Kateb, Marianne Denicourt. 102 mins. Cert: 15

This oddly bloodless social-realist exercise finds French writer-director Thomas Lilti striving to redefine doctors as distinct from their superheroic small-screen equivalents; the corridors patrolled by boyish intern Thomas (Vincent Lacoste) house only report-fudging, short-staffing and shonky equipment. UK clinicians may recognise much, yet the earnest resistance to melodrama proves self-defeating: despite characterful ensemble work in the vein of Maïwenn’s Polisse, scenes of spinal taps and form-filling outnumber life-or-death resuscitations, and its dramatic pulse weakens scene-by-scene. The result may honour the daily reality of medical professionals – the finale’s a credibly fractious staff meeting – but it makes for a patchy, hesitant dispatch, more “er…” than e.r. 

Hippocrates opens at London's Ciné Lumière today.

"Everly" (Guardian 26/06/15)

Everly *

Dir: Joe Lynch. With: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda, Togo Igawa. 92 mins. Cert: 18

A gruelling gimmick thriller, pitched at dead-eyed graduates of the Matthew Vaughn school of cinematic sociopathy. Working girl Salma Hayek scrabbles to save her daughter while confined to a Yakuza-run cathouse; she does so in kitten heels and a push-up top that gets clingy when the sprinklers go off. Such abject cynicism would have been easier to take cut with any style, wit or momentum, but the contrivances prove exhausting, the digital camerawork’s as crude as the stereotyping, and it’s no kind of star vehicle: it identifies Hayek as a sexy punchbag from minute one, then displays a reprehensible glee in laying into her. 

Everly opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Train of thought: "Station to Station"

For the next month, London's Barbican is playing host to the umbrella event Station to Station, a latter-day happening described by its prime mover, the artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken, as "a journey through modern creativity". By way of an advance party - and an attempt to pull slightly sharper focus on that buzzily vague item of phrasemaking - we have this documentary sampler of the event's US incarnation, tracking 24 days on a train travelling from East Coast to West in 62 dispatches of one minute or less: UK viewers might be reminded of BBC2's Video Nation series, given a new, hipster twist.

As a real-world event, Aitken's inclusive, all-encompassing project - folding in contributions from the worlds of art, music, architecture, photography, dance and literature, not to mention cinema - invited its initial audience to hop on and off, and travel as far with these ideas, as they wanted. The question with the film is whether such a bitty, piecemeal approach coalesces into anything substantial; whether you'd be better off booking for one event at the Barbican, rather than rapidly channel-hopping through all 344, as we often seem to be doing here.

The snatches of artistic self-justification we hear would, for one, almost certainly be better expressed at greater length within the context of a site-specific Q&A, and Aitken's tactic works against his musical star turns (Thurston Moore, Cat Power, Giorgio Moroder, Patti Smith), who can only play sixty seconds of just one of the twenty-odd songs they'd doubtless power through at any live gig. Jackson Browne has the right idea, using his minute to squeeze in a reminiscence of his life on the other side of the tracks; Ariel Pink, observed unpicking a dream while wearing a Bela Tarr T-shirt (nichest merchandise item ever), may be representative. 

Elsewhere, Aitken provides a useful platform for such up-and-comers as the band Bloodbirds, who go all shy when asked to explain themselves; he also catches a lovely moment with reggae veterans The Congos, amusing themselves in fashioning vocal harmonies from the names of places they've visited. This is where you feel the conceit pays off, in demonstrating simple ideas coming together or gathering momentum: in the development of a piece of video art (by Aitken himself) in which a cattle auctioneer caught rehearsing his spiel becomes a resonant keepsake of the territory the train passed through, or in the study of Olifur Eliasson's "Drawing Machine", in which a paint-covered ball was left to create "kinetic canvasses" dependent on the train's movement.

Minute by minute, we're getting a sense of the tremendous, diverse creative energy this project unlocked - energy enough perhaps to power a train all the way across America on its own. What's most stirring, particularly in the context of the defeatism proliferating on social media among the British left in the wake of the recent General Election result, is the very American can-do optimism evident among performers and audience alike; Aitken shows us young people putting themselves out there and getting on with things, moving inexorably forward and in the process opening up new horizons for themselves and the culture.

Whether or not that idea can be sustained in the shadow of the City of London remains to be seen, but in place of moping or handwringing, these sixty-odd shorts collectively venture a modest yet appreciable proposal: if you don't like the enforced immobilisation of society, and if the limitations being placed upon the majority of us do mean we're all going to wind up playing hobo sooner or later, then let's ride the rails for a bit, and see where the journey takes us. Metropolitan London audiences are at a particular advantage in this respect: to board this train, they won't have to travel beyond Zone 1.

Station to Station opens at London's Barbican and ICA cinemas from tomorrow.         

Monday, 22 June 2015

"ABCD2" (Guardian 23/06/15)

ABCD2 ***

Dir: Remo. With: Prabhudheva, Varun Dhawan, Shraddha Kapoor, Lauren Gottlieb. 152 mins. Cert: PG

2013’s ABCD – it stood for Any Body Can Dance, establishing the talent-show territory it was staking out – found Bollywood cutting in on an idea proven profitable elsewhere: its stereoscopic urban danceathon marked another jump-off from the Step Ups. This takeback was more cheeky than venal: Hindi cinema has its own tradition of fleet-footedness, a lineage ABCD2 underlines by appointing a boy schooled in Indian classical dance to head its crew. If you’re looking for flow from your musicals, here it is – and this sequel even folds in claims of plagiarism, the better to transcend them.

It transpires that en route to TV triumph, the Mumbai Stunners pilfered a move from a rival troupe, the steal called out on social media for all to comment upon. Mortal shame is thereby brought upon brooding mentor Vishnu (Prabhudheva) and chief B-boy Suresh (Varun Dhawan), although possible redemption presents itself after it’s revealed the Stunners have won a place in an international competition in Las Vegas – blatant brand expansion, this, not unlike Pitch Perfect 2’s decision to dispatch its Bellas to Copenhagen.

What ensues follows a recognisably Cowellian arc. Early auditions garner cheap laughs at the expense of clumsy no-hopers; the discoveries get a midfilm warm-up in Bangalore that serves a similar narrative purpose to Glee’s recurring regionals; there’s a makeover section; and, eventually, we reach the make-or-break bling of the World Starz Hip-Hop Challenge – or to give it its full, slightly less street title, the Ponds Men’s Face Wash World Starz Hip-Hop Challenge. (These characters have 99 problems, but acne isn’t one.)

All of which is to suggest that, for fullest enjoyment, there is much about ABCD2 that requires forgiveness, or at least overlooking. There is, firstly, that Glee problem of performers who look of an age where they should be shopping for Cath Kidston towels rather than seen wearing baseball caps backwards in public. And, boy, is it gimmicky: festooned in confectionary-wrapper colours, given to item-tossing business designed to justify the 3D surcharge. Its comic stretches deploy a wacky-zany mode even kids’ TV has abandoned; a cantering gag – it hardly reaches running speed – depends on one dancer’s enduringly smelly feet.

Yet none of this matters whenever a beat drops. ABCD2 is the latest film to recognise that – however you gender your gaze – there is an abiding pleasure in watching bodies in motion, and choreographer-turned-director Remo d’Souza keeps nudging more of them on. Many bases are covered: a funny drunk number as Vishnu drowns his sorrows, Dharmesh Yelande’s precision robotics, those Diversity-like massed-rank interpretative stomps that look like some light-entertainment repurposing of the Nuremberg Rallies, a trad clifftop love song lent extra wow by its Monument Valley backdrop.

At 152 minutes, the film is, let’s say, generously edited, but we’re allowed time to admire – and sometimes marvel at – the choreography: by holding shots several clicks longer than the norm, d’Souza offers unbroken passages of movement, and every chance to catch distinguishing flourishes within the overall design. (There may, in fact, be good reason why his kids appear older than their Western equivalents: it presumably takes years of training to attain such expressivity. No-one gave a damn how old Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly were the instant they tapped a toe.)

Having Disney on board has inevitably resulted in a budgetary upgrade: the makers of 2010’s Streetdance, where Nichola Burley stockpiled KitKats within a Frank Harper-operated greasy spoon, will likely gasp in envy at the split-level cocktail bar where Suresh earns his crust. Yet the improvements aren’t merely superficial; they’re structural, too. Relocating this formula to a cinema where song and dance is the rule and not the exception allows d’Souza to slip freely between set-pieces without recourse to his predecessors’ straining narrative contrivance.

Yes, there is here a turned ankle, an estranged son, even – at the last – a nasty case of TB (which hale-and-hearty Channing Tatum never had to overcome), yet the film takes all these elements in its stride. Nothing is allowed to harsh the prevailing youth-club vibe; the film is as lithe, and as blithe, as dancers aim to appear on stage. Frivolous as it may seem on the surface, the material’s been shaped with showbiz savvy, by the safest imaginable pair of jazz hands. d’Souza knows these films are only as good as their last dance – and this sequel retains some undeniably entertaining moves.

ABCD2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.