Saturday, 15 November 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of November 7-9, 2014: 
1 (new) Interstellar (12A) **
2 (7) Mr. Turner (12A) *****
3 (1) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (12A) **
4 (4) Gone Girl (18) **
5 (3) Fury (15) **
6 (5) The Book of Life (U) ***
7 (2) Ouija (15) ** 
8 (6) Nightcrawler (15) ***
9 (8) The Maze Runner (12A)
10 (9) Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (PG) **


My top five:   
1. Mr. Turner
2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
3. Life Itself [above]
4. Leviathan
5. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Maleficent (PG) *** 
2 (2) The Lego Movie (U) ****
3 (3) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (12)
4 (new) Monty Python: (Mostly) Live (15)
5 (new) Pudsey the Dog: the Movie (U)
6 (4) Seve (PG)
7 (5) Bad Neighbours (15)
8 (6) Road (PG) ***
9 (8) Rio 2 (U) **
10 (new) Begin Again (15) *** 

My top five:  
1. The Golden Dream
2. Finding Vivian Maier
3. 22 Jump Street
4. The Purge: Anarchy
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Dog Day Afternoon (Wednesday, ITV1, 2.30am)
2. The Painted Veil (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
3. Chronicle (Saturday, C4, 10pm)
4. Down Terrace (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15am)
5. Dumb and Dumber (Sunday, five, 5.25pm)

On demand: "Virunga"

The documentary Virunga opens by recounting the sorry backstory of 20th century Congo - a woeful tale of colonial exploitation, crushing dictatorship and, eventually, civil war. Some light becomes visible around 2006, with the country's first democratic elections for forty years, but the bulk of the film will demonstrate how these green shoots of hope were comprehensively trampled when renewed fighting broke out on a spectacular battlefront: the vast Virunga National Park in the west of the country. 

Initial explorations are at pains to point out how the area has long been sustained by a delicate ecosystem: we could be watching a nature doc, were we not so aware of the dark clouds passing over this particular landscape. In recent years, tourism has put much-needed money in the pockets of the locals - and with its abundant natural beauty and varied wildlife, it's clear Virunga has a good deal to show off. The park's gorilla orphanage scoops up the babies of those creatures picked off by poachers, and nurses them until they're old enough to be returned to the wild; local fishermen ply their trade on the well-stocked Lake Edward.

Yet there is trouble in this paradise, sparked by the recent discovery of oil reserves under this very same body of water. The question of land exploitation rears its head once again with the arrival of the British company SOCO, who've acquired mining rights through a variety of means, some as stealthy as the fracking bigshots documented in Josh Fox's Gasland: their preferred tactic is to roll up in town, and then approach cash-strapped communities and individuals - including, in this case, figures within the Virunga administration - with promises of schools, jobs and money. It's classic divide and conquer.

For his part, director Orlando von Einsiedel adopts multiple lines of inquiry, as befits a story as complex as this: you sense he'd mike up the bugs and herons, if they had useful information to give. In the early stages, we're often out on patrol with the park rangers, seeing for ourselves how poachers are being deployed as - it's alleged - an advance party, with the aim of destabilising the park. (The idea is that wiping out the animals will leave the park's administration with nothing to defend: in the film's most indelible image, the rangers encounter the carcass of an elephant, tipped up on its side like a car abandoned by joyriders.)

In the second half, however, von Einsiedel piggybacks on the work of French investigative journalist Melanie Gouby, whose work takes her in closer to key SOCO figures, using a hidden camera to record these neo-colonialists' attitudes: let's just say these haven't changed appreciably since the early days of the last century. As a young woman among rapacious men, Gouby offers one of the film's many models of heroism; the staff at the gorilla orphanage, touchingly devoted to their charges even as shells begin to fall outside their door, offer another; then there's Prince Emmanuel de Merode, who occupies a tricky post-colonial position as the aristocratic Belgian appointed to oversee park management.

Virunga makes something truly stirring from the sight of this embattled yet devoted civil servant attempting to rally his staff during the daily rollcall, reminding them they're here to serve the wildlife, not the encroaching business interests. By the final reel, with the fighting between Government troops and the M23 rebels getting too close for comfort, everybody - not least von Einsiedel himself - is obliged to duck and scurry into the wilds, leaving us with a vivid sense that the patch of land de Merode's men are trying to defend is getting smaller and smaller with every passing hour: in cinematic terms, the closing act is practically a negative image of Zulu, with the encircled natives battling to hold out against teeth-baring white folk.

As chaos finally breaks out, von Einsiedel clings to - and makes very shrewd use of - the nature he finds around him: each cut to one or another of the orphanage's terrified gorillas serves to reduce the evolutionary distance between them and us. By the closing minutes of this punchy, energising documentary, with the park under siege on several fronts, we would appear to have more in common with these once affectionate, now shellshocked primates than we might with any of the dead-eyed mercenaries muscling in on their territory.

Virunga is now streaming on Netflix.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 31-November 2, 2014: 
1 (2) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (12A) **
2 (new) Ouija (15) **
3 (1) Fury (15) **
4 (3) Gone Girl (18) **
5 (4) The Book of Life (U) ***
6 (new) Nightcrawler (15) ***
7 (new) Mr. Turner (12A) *****
8 (5) The Maze Runner (12A)
9 (7) Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (PG) **
10 (6) Annabelle (15) **


My top five:   
1. Mr. Turner
2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
3. Leviathan
4. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
5. The Overnighters

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Maleficent (PG) *** 
2 (2) The Lego Movie (U) ****
3 (3) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (12)
4 (4) Seve (PG)
5 (new) Bad Neighbours (15)
6 (6) Road (PG) ***
7 (5) Walking on Sunshine (12)
8 (7) Rio 2 (U) **
9 (new) Chef (15)
10 (9) Postman Pat: The Movie (U) **

My top five:  
1. The Golden Dream
2. Finding Vivian Maier
3. Two Days, One Night
4. 20,000 Days on Earth
5. Moebius

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Psycho [above] (Friday, C4, 11.40pm)
2. Walkabout (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15am)
3. Michael Collins (Friday, BBC2, 12.40am)
4. Lootera (Wednesday, C4, 1.25am)
5. The Notorious Bettie Page (Wednesday, BBC1, 12.05am)

"The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness" (The Guardian 07/11/14)

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness ****
Dir: Mami Sunada. With: Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki. 118 mins. Cert: PG

With news that Studio Ghibli is winding down production, this intimate, all-access study of the animation giant’s tranquil inner sanctum assumes an additional charge: future generations may be as grateful for its footage of Hayao Miyazaki sketching as we now are of early Beatles Super 8. Like many of the studio’s best films, Kingdom takes the form of a measured, wistful leavetaking – a guided farewell tour. Miyazaki roams the ateliers in his craft apron, trying to pass on 20th century etiquette to the kids inking The Wind Rises’ fuselage; outside, blossom falls, and commercial pressures mount, oblivious to the exacting, time-intensive work required in conjuring such committed images from scratch. (“Most of our world is rubbish”, sighs Miyazaki, making any number of recent digimations blush.) From its reflective female voiceover to the Ghibli cat’s frequent cameos, it’s as idiosyncratic, heartfelt and moving as anything to have emerged from the studio’s gates. 

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is now showing in selected cinemas.

"One Rogue Reporter" (The Guardian 07/11/14)

One Rogue Reporter ***
Dirs: Tom Jenkinson, Rich Peppiatt. With: Rich Peppiatt, Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, John Bishop. 55 mins. Cert: 18

Former Daily Star reporter Rich Peppiatt showcases some gift for Michael Moore-ish rabblerousing in this scattershot contribution to the post-Leveson landscape. An initial, imaginatively archived history of journalism, hurtling from His Girl Friday to the Milly Dowler/Madeleine McCann fallout, describes a mostly unarguable decline in editorial standards, backed up over the next hour by testimony from those at the heart of the hacking story (Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant) and industry observers (including this paper’s own Nick Davies and Roy Greenslade). Elsewhere, a fondness for tabloidy pranks and stunts – sourcing nudie footage of jailed NOTW filthmonger Neville Thurlbeck, hacking Kelvin MacKenzie’s texts, delivering dildos to Paul Dacre – only leave one wondering whether two ethical wrongs can ever really make a right. They’re pure payback – Peppiatt’s way of courting the baying stalls even as he stoops to the level of his targets. A less rogue sensibility might have stuck to the higher ground. 

One Rogue Reporter screens at London's Curzon Soho, followed by a Hugh Grant Q&A, this Monday at 6.45pm.

"The Remaining" (The Guardian 07/11/14)

The Remaining **
Dir: Casey La Scala. With: Alexa Vega, Johnny Pacar, Shaun Sipos. 88 mins. Cert: 15

A minor entry in the Rapture cycle that has given us just-remade Christian movie Left Behind and HBO’s secular talking point The Leftovers. This one errs towards the credulous, dispatching Bible-clutching former Spy Kid Alexa Vega to guide a quartet of ungodly stragglers through a succession of New Testament torments. A semi-compelling idea gets neutralised by blandly scrappy execution: after blowing its budget on the first wave of destruction, everyone’s left to hole up in chapel, dodge indifferently rendered CG demons and wonder where they went astray. Its physical form is in cinemas; its soul is already circling the 24-hour garage bargain bin.

The Remaining is now playing in selected cinemas.

Late Dylan: "Set Fire to the Stars"

Our fascination with Dylan Thomas continues unabated. Set Fire to the Stars opens hot on the heels of a Tom Hollander-starring BBC dramatisation of the poet's final days (A Poet in New York), mere weeks after Michael Sheen's off-off-Broadway restaging of Under Milk Wood, and on the very same day that Christopher Nolan's Interstellar sets out to imprint the poet's work - and one line in particular - on the cinemagoing public's consciousness. This quietly impressive collaboration between director Andy Goddard and writer-star Celyn Jones holds to a stylised, black-and-white evocation of the America of 1950, and a depiction of the visiting Thomas as a big, intemperate, distractible child.

Scarcely more adult-seeming than the undergraduates he charms and alarms on his college reading tour, this Thomas (Jones) repeatedly dodges the responsibility symbolised by an unopened letter from his wife Caitlin, instead succumbing to tantrums and temptations endlessly catered to by an America that, in its post-War form, itself seems scarcely more than an outsized, excitable teenager, keenly plying its new friends with candy bars and comic books, wine and liberated women. "Do you need feeding?," asks the bored, flirty waitress at the diner Thomas's party stops at between engagements; at this juncture, for once, the subtext is served up more than a little over easy.

This is only half the story, however. Goodard and Jones' script at first views Thomas from the perspective of the poet's designated handler, the Manhattan poetry professor John Malcolm Brinnin, as incarnated here by a shrewdly cast Elijah Wood: in these early scenes, we get a jolt from realising this baby-faced Hobbit is by some distance the more mature of the two men on screen. Physically and ideologically, Brinnin and Thomas come to form a recognisable odd couple - one teaching creative writing as quantifiable theory, the other living it out in the wilds - and inevitably there will be a degree of give and take between the two. "Don't open a book, open a window," is Thomas's sage advice to his blocked cohort - words of wisdom that might as usefully be set before today's creative writing students as they are before Brinnin.

Indeed, while our sympathies vacillate between Jones's mewling manchild and Wood's bottled-up, buttoned-down protector-enabler, one of the film's constants is its delight in talk: Thomas's florid pronouncements and filthy limericks may catch the ear, but the heart of the tale is a partly autobiographical story Brinnin tells to a writer couple (Shirley Henderson and Kevin Eldon, two smart, leftfield choices) which may just explain quite why his feelings have, unlike those of his messier travelling companion, frozen over. In this, as elsewhere in Set Fire to the Stars, Goddard proves sensitive to fluctuations of mood and alert to the permeable boundary between lived experience and writerly imagination: the film this travelogue most recalls isn't Walter Salles' petrifyingly glossy On the Road but 1991's modulated, melancholy, surprising The Hours and Times, which found equally odd couple John Lennon and Brian Epstein tilting at windmills around a similarly monochrome Spain.

When Caitlin's letter finally comes to be opened, as it must, it's typical of Goddard and Jones' creditably bold approach that the words aren't read off-screen in voiceover, as movie convention dictates; instead, the film sends on the ever-striking Kelly Reilly - the picture of a fiery colleen, even in black-and-white - to straddle her "crushed boy" in person, and for a good few minutes, we genuinely have no idea whether she intends to fuck him or finish him off. Imaginative to the last, such choices imbue Set Fire to the Stars with rather more integrity and authentic poetry than you might expect from a lowish-budget passion project such as this - the achievement becomes all the greater with the credit-scrawl revelation that a film seeking to conjure up the restless intellectual spirit of post-War America did so on locations in and around Swansea Bay.

Set Fire to the Stars is now playing in selected cinemas.