Tuesday, 13 March 2018

"Mary Magdalene" (IndieWire 27/02/18)

For fourteen years, the heathens of Hollywood have struggled to build on the lightning-strike success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, with its bizarre combo of torturous piety and throat-grabbing showmanship. Gibson infamously became persona non grata shortly after submitting his softer 2005 recut; the studios’ initial response – 2006’s The Nativity Story, overseen by a pre-Twilight Catherine Hardwicke – sunk without much trace; and the gap in the market came to be flooded, and eventually saturated, by those evangelically funded and minded indies (of which 2014’s God’s Not Dead remains the most prominent) preaching wholeheartedly, if not always so elegantly or competently, to the converted.

Universal’s Mary Magdalene might, then, be counted as the first serious mainstream reckoning with faith for almost a generation. Toplined by the ever-committed, never-smiling pair of Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, helmed by Lion’s emergent Garth Davis and produced by the team behind the laurelled The King’s Speech, it would presumably have been pitched into the 2018 awards mix itself had key distribution partner Harvey Weinstein not been kicked out of the temple at a critical moment in its genesis. Rescheduled for a not inapt Easter release, what emerges is the definition of a mixed blessing: a film of (often literal) peaks and troughs, scattering occasional moments of grace.

Davis approaches his task with the same unimpeachable sincerity he brought to Lion, aiming for a very specific patch of centreground: to draw out those elements of this story that might be considered human and enduringly relevant, and to do so without incurring the wrath some brought down on Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. His film, accordingly, is Sunday-school tasteful, deeply politically correct, and informed by an evident level of scholarship – much ritual, sporadic speaking in tongue – even if it doesn’t always easily translate into compelling action or credible behaviour. These characters move in mysterious, even mystifying ways; as with a lot of faith-based dramas, you may feel as if you need to have The Book to hand.

The script, by the British pair of Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, strives to reposition Mary Magdalene – slandered in early Church texts as a prostitute, a slur that stuck for centuries – as something akin to a radical free spirit. First seen engaging in impromptu yet improbably successful midwifery, she rejects the love match made for her by an overbearing father (Denis Menochet), and flees home altogether after pa attempts to flush out the demon he perceives to have got into her. Here, Edmundson and Goslett suggest, are the roots of that slander: that Mary was a young woman who resisted patriarchal control to travel her own path, and came to be roundly denounced by her elders for doing so.

A question mark lingers, however, over the extent to which this early A.D. creation can convincingly be converted into a feminist icon. Her limpid eyes front and centre, Mara plays the part as a quivering reservoir of empathy waiting to be channelled in the right directions; after some shaky introductory scenes, it’s a performance that grows on you, yielding a more thoughtful and touchingly relatable Mary than, for one, Gibson’s altogether idealised, two-dimensional, none-more-Catholic Madonna (Monica Bellucci). Yet in this incarnation, Mary remains a gal longing for a saviour – it’s just he happens to be the Saviour, that’s all.

A further problem: we start to doubt whether he’s all that. The unpredictable JP as JC sounds promising, and the actor undeniably looks shroud-ready, Biblical mane, prophetic mien and mystic gaze all very much in place. (In a film of prodigious facefuzz, his beard would give Homeland’s Saul a run for his shekels.) Phoenix scarcely radiates warmth, however, and his big oratorical moments are undermined by some affected speech patterns a more experienced director might have stepped in and shut down. Instead, he appears smug and superior, a holier-than-thou hippy tutting through a first-wave toga party – the first Jesus outside the blasphemies of Family Guy to seem a little bit of a dick.

Granted, Davis is going for youthful idealism – floating the notion that these kids were revolutionaries seeking to topple an oppressive regime – with Mary consolidating the disciples’ impeccable intersectionality. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings his usual gravity to bear as an identifiably African Peter, a choice that might seem risky were we in less sensitive hands, while Tahar Rahim, as Judas, seizes upon the closest thing here to a character arc, boyish enthusiasm shading into sad-eyed betrayal. For much of the film, though, they’re left looking like backpacking students, set to endless trudging up hillsides where someone or other starts proclaiming dialogue apparently sourced directly from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As Godly spectacle, the film is too introverted to be overwhelming: in place of miracles and wonders, we get pauses and shuffles. Everything Lion made transporting and otherwise moving – the sense of youth finding its chosen place in the world – turns repetitious and uninvolving in the draggy second act. Only when we get to Jerusalem does Mary Magdalene snap into focus as narrative, chiefly because it gives these kids something to physically rail against – moneylenders, Judas kisses, Romans and all. It’s a little on the late side, though: where Gibson made you feel the agonies of his Christ for what seemed like weeks, we’re whizzed through this Calvary in less than five minutes.

Along the route, Davis arguably reclaims this story from the religious right, rerouting it away from lacerated, victimised flesh and back towards tolerant souls: he’s aided by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s typically searching final score, and cinematographer Greig Fraser, who – while not on Bright Star form – stages the odd fresco of bodies at prayer that might have made even a syphilitic Old Master offer thanks to the heavens. What’s missing is anything much of Gibson’s passion, which – however wayward or inflammatory – might just have pepped up those stretches of Mary Magdalene that become indistinguishable from sermons or unleavened bread: manna for believers, perilously dry for everyone else.

Rating: B-

Mary Magdalene opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of March 2-4, 2018:

1 (1) Black Panther (12A) **

2 (new) Red Sparrow (15)
3 (2) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (new) Game Night (15) ***
5 (3) Lady Bird (15) ****
6 (new) Kobiety Mafii (18)
7 (8) Coco (PG) ***
8 (5) I, Tonya (15)
9 (6) Finding Your Feet (12A)
10 (7) The Shape of Water (15) ****

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. Sweet Country

2. Erase and Forget
3. The Ice King
4. Lady Bird
5. The Shape of Water

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
2 (new) Jigsaw (18)
3 (new) The Death of Stalin (15) *****
4 (new) Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG) ***
5 (1) Geostorm (12)
6 (3) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
7 (5) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
8 (8) Victoria and Abdul (12A) **
9 (new) Thor Triple Pack (12) **
10 (new) Breathe (12)

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. The Death of Stalin

2. Paddington 2
3. The Florida Project
4. Boy
5. Hotel Salvation

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Lady Vanishes [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 12.55am)
2. The Artist (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
3. 45 Years (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. Dial M for Murder (Saturday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. 2 Fast 2 Furious (Saturday, ITV1, 11.05pm)

On TV: "Dial M for Murder"

Retrofitted 3D entertainments are ten-a-penny these days, but Dial M for Murder takes us back, way back – to a moment when Hitchcock was growing restless in America, and casting around for new twists and gimmicks to inflict upon the paying public. That’s right: it’s a revival of a film old enough to have been in 3D first time around. One could argue a certain snobbishness is at play in addending digital whistles and bells to an auteurist touchstone like this, and not, say, Bwana Devil or House of Wax: the implication – read: bald-faced lie – is that 3D has always been the connoisseur’s choice, rather than the studios’ way of grubbing a few extra bucks off us at the box-office. (Hardly a buttock-tester at 105 minutes, Dial M also came complete with an intermission, by way of boosting popcorn sales.)

Even Hitch, in his career-spanning interview with Truffaut, was prepared to admit he was “playing it safe”, using 3D to lend an extra dimension to a penny-dreadful scenario every bit as stage-bound as 1948’s similarly experimental Rope. This is a much straighter proposition in every sense, though, with Mayfair belle Grace Kelly, in brazen scarlet dresses, carrying on an affair with her smooth American lover (Robert Cummings), while her suavely patrician hubby (Ray Milland, so reminiscent of Fifties-era Jimmy Stewart as to seem a placeholder) plots to have her offed.

In the background lurks a disquisition on the inner workings of a marriage, and how – once two become one – everyone’s obliged to live a double life, the latter an inchoate form of what would become one of this director’s major themes. Mostly, though, Dial M for Murder is a showcase for Hitchcock the technician. Witness the glee he takes in deploying stereoscopy to punch up what would otherwise be conventional insert business: the horizon-filling “M” on every telephone dial, the close-ups of the scissors Kelly grabs while fighting back, the persistent emphasis on keys being trousered or palmed. There is still something novel and thrilling in Hitchcock's use of the new format to unlock the medium’s spatial possibilities: in the overhead shot tracking Milland’s attempts to rehearse the murder, one senses an early rendering of the CG-reliant forensic examination shows like CSI would later make commonplace.

The drama will depend on hubby losing control of this crime scene, first to the inspector who insists on picking over its every detail (John Williams, the definition of scene-stealer), then to the lover, who proposes another version of events entirely, and in doing so comes to save Kelly’s life. It’s theatrical in more than just its origins (a Broadway hit for writer Frederick Knott): these characters serve as both directors, blocking out and guiding the flow of movement through this space, and actors, shifting the props around and constantly questioning the motives they’ve been given.

Hitchcock, in need of a hit, perhaps valued the (entertaining) chicanery more than he did character or any metatextual interpretation, which is why Dial M remains a diversion rather than a landmark in his filmography, an occasionally dynamic blueprint that would be set aside in the wake of a run of fully-realised masterworks. Over the next decade – in Rear Window (a 3D plot, no less effective for being filmed in 2D), Vertigo and Psycho – this director would find other, more enduring ways of getting into his characters’ (and audience’s) headspace. Hitchcock was big enough to walk away from this technology and make better films: Dial M for Murder may not be the week’s best release, but it stands as the most instructive.

(MovieMail, July 2013)

Dial M for Murder screens (in 2D) on BBC2 tonight at 11.15pm.

On TV: "45 Years"

In the Paul Auster-scripted 1995 film Smoke, William Hurt recounts an anecdote about a mountaineer who, while ascending the peak on which his father perished decades before, discovers the body preserved in the ice – the old man now younger than the son in outward appearance. It’s a potent aside: one that speaks to the way we measure ourselves against our predecessors, and to the different ways in which man and nature measure time. The corpse forms a physical manifestation of a distant memory, and the punchline to one of the chilliest and most unsettling of modern ghost stories.

45 Years – Weekend writer-director Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of David Constantine’s short story In Another Country – begins with a similar discovery. A week before he’s due to celebrate the anniversary of the title with wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling), Geoff (Tom Courtenay) learns his previous girlfriend’s body has been found, after a half-century, in a glacier in the Swiss Alps. Kate, recoiling at her husband’s tendency to refer to the deceased, with detectable wistfulness, as “my Katya”, becomes increasingly perturbed by Geoff’s reaction – at first distracted, then consumed by unprocessed emotions. For her own part, everything from a snatch of Gary Puckett on the radio to a recorded history of the nearby Norfolk Broads will serve as a too-painful reminder of what’s been excavated, and her own place in this landscape.

The attention to detail throughout is exquisite. As in Weekend, whose lovers had merely to figure out whether to stay or go, Haigh puts us right in the middle of a tricky, complex moment for his characters: the flat calm of the Norfolk countryside provides a graph of their relationship up to this point, and an isolation entirely appropriate to a very English ghost story. (For Rebecca, read Katya.) Time and again, the camera begins at some remove, only to nudge us closer to the leads, whom we find operating in such a low-key, naturalistic mode that every flinch and twinge registers with the force of a controlled explosion, and every lingering, half-finished sentence (a single “still…” from Rampling, say) serves as a declaration of hostilities.

It’s crucial that Haigh casts Courtenay, one of British cinema’s beautiful dreamers, as Geoff – but this filmmaker is even more sympathetic towards the woman trying to get inside his head. (Almost literally so: the use of the couple’s attic space is an act of cinematic trepanning as inspired as anything in Inside Out.) Rampling, oft cast as arch, has rarely seemed more alive than she is here: more practical and active than her partner, as women in long-term relationships often are, and trying to snap her somnolent hubby, lost in dreams of what might have been, back into the present.

Unlike many films in the recent Silver Screen revolution, Haigh gives Kate and Geoff histories and softspots. We discover their musical and political leanings, and where they go in the middle of the day; their unforced intimacies trump all the innuendo at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. These are flesh-and-blood human beings, not flimsy avatars for the target audience: Haigh crafts a fully-dimensional relationship in order to show exactly what’s under threat, and every subsequent scene of quiet, careful observation further raises the stakes: an hour in, you’re aware how much this pair have to lose, and you’re gripped.

In doing so, Haigh – who’s been away in America of late, overseeing the HBO series Looking – reasserts himself as a major British director: if the talkiness doesn’t sound obviously cinematic, he finds, with his performers, remarkably compelling ways of approaching and shaping it. Here is some astonishing acting, the kind of deep-frozen emotion that has sustained many of the great British features, a scenario that still, after all these years, haunts the imagination, and an ending that should keep couples of every vintage talking until their heads hit the pillow. Awards have been handed out for far less.

(MovieMail, August 2015)

45 Years screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Badlands: "Sweet Country"

It's long been a reassuring pleasure to watch Sam Neill at work on screen, and the filmmaker Warwick Thornton knows this - which may be why his bracing new Western Sweet Country makes such sparing use of the actor. Neill is there in the opening minutes, certainly: his Fred Smith is, if not a preacher, then very definitely a Godly man, perhaps a little complacent with it, prone to nodding off on the porch of his farmhouse, Bible in hand, a dozy sentinel in the borderlands between light and dark. One afternoon, Smith is woken from his slumbers by Harry (Ewen Leslie), a new neighbour assigned some kind of official status after returning from the front, seeking to borrow the services of Fred's Indigenous right-hand man Sam (Hamilton Morris). Where Fred insists that all men are equals in God's eyes, Harry regards Sam no better than a slave, snarling at him, assigning him punishing work, and leering at the wife and young niece his new recruit has brought along with him; when he finally lays his hands on the former, it's with a grunted "I wanted the other one, but you'll do." Fifteen minutes into Sweet Country, and already we're missing Neill, with his aura of gentle decency; when he returns, it's as part of a posse riding out from so-called civilisation, from which Sam has fled after putting a bullet through Harry's neck.

It's been almost ten years since Thornton's debut feature Samson & Delilah came along like a winding punch to the gut - too long, by anyone's reckoning, although one suspects his absence from our screens has something to do with the kinds of stories he wants to tell, which aren't entirely flattering about certain aspects of his country's history. (He would presumably feel some kinship with those British filmmakers presently suffering because they don't want to make Downtonesque period dramas dressing up the uglinesses of Empire.) His new film is a bleak and violent tale, but it ultimately has far more to communicate about that violence - how it gets wielded, who it's wielded upon, and its immediate and lasting effects - than, as an example, this weekend's other major arthouse release. Sweet Country opens with an extended overhead shot of a pot of coffee on the boil: as a scuffle takes place off-camera, you fear it might come to be tossed in some poor sod's face, as screen gangsters used to, but instead it serves to set up one major theme - Australia as melting pot, heated, volatile - and the manner in which this narrative seems to simmer, threatening to boil over, and occasionally erupting before our alarmed and horrified eyes.

The posse, after all, are riding out into territory their people have technically claimed as their own, but which, as more than one character points out, they simply do not know. It's scant surprise, then, when they find themselves up against the tribesmen thereabouts, as red as the rocks, who don't wear the hats and boots the gentrified Sam does; nor indeed that they should be up against Sam himself, exerting a vaguely mystical control over this environment: how else to explain how the scorpion we see him trapping in one scene winds up inside one of his pursuers' boots in the next? Thornton and co-cinematographer Dylan River ensure this Outback gets harsher and harsher with each extraordinary frame that passes: the initial snapshot of humdrum station life gives way to the scant vegetation of the bush, then a vast, screen-filling salt flat that might have set the von Stroheim of Greed to salivating. Venturing way beyond their usual, comfortable jurisdiction, the party dwindles to one: Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who seems to take this blackfella's escape as both a personal slight, and a test of his own manhood. That movement might suggest a straightforward revenge trajectory, but Sweet Country never quite moves in the directions you expect it to; there are reasons you feel it coming to cover such a lot of ground.

Having effectively hung Fletcher out to dry as a walking/staggering grudge, the second half reels him back, tail between his legs, for a kangaroo-court finale composed of remarkably attentive close-ups: here, we're shown with stark clarity the divisions running through Australian society, and the deep scars these divisions have left behind. This final act is set up by an image that subverts the oft-quoted doorway shot from The Searchers in a way I've never seen before: for the white man striding out into uncertain territory, Thornton subs in two chastened natives, sitting in the dust, looking in at us. Like Dee Rees's recent Mudbound, this is a Western of new angles and perspectives, most apparent in the curious editing choice to sporadically drop in a flash or flicker of a later scene. This formal tic seems jarring at first, but over the course of the movie, it makes sense: it's a little Nic Roeg circa Walkabout, especially when a dehydrated Fletcher visualises the barmaid waiting for him back home, but it feels more specifically aboriginal in this application - an inkling or intuition of things, good and terrible, to come. We end up watching a much smaller, sorrier story than it first appears - a tale preordained, with only one possible outcome - but every last one of its frames sends consequences and repercussions rippling outwards, to be felt as fully and as devastatingly in 2018 as they would have been a century ago.

Sweet Country is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday, 9 March 2018

"You Were Never Really Here" (Catholic Herald 08/03/18)

You can tell an actor’s on a roll when he’s cast as Christ and a merciless killer in the course of a single season. Ahead of his idiosyncratic Jesus in this Easter’s Mary Magdalene, Joaquin Phoenix rises again as Joe, the world-weary assassin of You Were Never Really Here (**, 15, 85 mins), Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s take on Jonathan Ames’s novel: bulked out and hoodied-up, he’s the centrepiece of a violent jigsaw puzzle bearing edges so sharp they could take your eye out. Ramsay’s New York bloodbath has been drawing comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s landmark Taxi Driver, yet the most apt review perhaps lies in wait among a police bulletin’s final lines: approach with caution, if at all.

A dishevelled hulk of scar tissue held together by muscle memories of some still-vivid trauma, Joe spends his lonely downtime pondering how to end his torment: his hobby would appear to be sticking his head in plastic bags. As for his uptime, all we need to observe is the way he eyes the ballpeen hammers in his local hardware store. Not for this thug the clean kills of a silenced gun; his tendency to absent himself from rooms, conversations, normal society stems from an awareness no good can come from his being around. Even when he gains renewed purpose – undertaking to rescue a girl from a child sex ring – we can only fear the worst.

Everything about the film has been designed to make its audience flinch. As 2011’s We Need toTalk About Kevin suggested, Ramsay has become increasingly fascinated by the evil men do, and increasingly forceful in her methods of putting that evil across. When Joe squishes a jellybean between his fingers, it registers as if a planet had been vaporised, so you can imagine the impact when somebody’s brains get blown out. There’s skill among its shock tactics – Joe Bini’s editing sublimates the worst exploitation – but I felt Ramsay pursuing this vision of dead-end masculinity into a creative dead end of her own; not even her thoroughly committed star could sell me on Joe’s late and phoney-seeming redemption.

By paring her cinema to the bone, the filmmaker has abandoned the lyricism that elevated her breakthrough works Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar: the balloons floated towards the Moon, how Samantha Morton’s face lit up upon hearing a certain song. (The one vaguely comparable sequence here, involving Charlene’s deathless one-hit wonder “I’ve Never Been to Me”, just smacks of glib Tarantino-ism.) In an increasingly ruthless marketplace, empty violence is one means of impressing yourself upon producers, critics and audiences, I guess – but as any halfway serious student of Joe’s sorrows would intuit, it’s no way to spend your evenings, and not especially good for the soul.

You Were Never Really Here opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Rolling the dice: "Game Night"

Everywhere you look, filmmakers going backwards. And then there's the duo of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who - after penning Horrible Bosses and its sequel - couldn't go backwards without rehashing one of those old Lumière shorts with trains pulling into stations or workers exiting factories as a vehicle for Kevin Spacey. Maybe it's monkeys and typewriters, or perseverance, or simply a late-blooming realisation they'd do better to step away from their own material, for with this week's Game Night - directed by Daley and Goldstein, from a script by Mark Perez - we've ended up with that rarest of beasts: a funny comedy with a copper-bottomed plot. Granted, it's a plot that's worked before, effectively inverting David Fincher's underrated Michael Douglas thriller The Game for renewed shits and giggles. Everyman Max (Jason Bateman), his wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) and the couple's friends are invited to an immersive game night involving staged kidnapping; the wrinkle is that their host for the evening, Max's flash brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), is perilously in hock to mobsters, which ensures the night's first kidnapping - Brooks being dragged off into the night by armed intruders - goes down for real. His guests, oblivious, applaud the veracity of the action, and return to their cheese and crackers. That's the joke in a nutshell, but it lands, and you find yourself chuckling.

Clue by clue, this narrative nudges itself along, splitting audience sympathies among three couples taking very different approaches to the rescue mission: a pair of college sweethearts (Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris), endeavouring to play by the rules even as an allegation of infidelity rears up between them; a dim bulb and his along-for-the-ride Irish colleague (Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan), who immediately resolve to cheat, and grasp the mess everybody's in some while before their fellow competitors; and Max and Annie, blithely pursuing those they assumed were fakers, and generating a wince or two whenever Annie starts waving what she thinks is a prop gun. You and I will need to bring a fondness-slash-tolerance for confetti-ed pop-culture references, although Perez's are well above average, and not unshrewdly deployed: an early round of the name game - during which everyone fails to remember Ed Norton once played the Hulk - somehow feeds into the Morris character's attempts to guess which celebrity his better half claims to have slept with. (Even this running gag has a surprising payoff.) Elsewhere, we get small, invariably amusing twists on the kind of action staples we've all sat through many times before. When Annie attempts to cauterise a bullet wound Max has incurred, her patient is obliged to clamp his teeth down not on some wooden stick but a squeaky-toy approximation of a cheeseburger, while one very solid riff overturns the Newtonian expectations the movies have left us with concerning bodies falling from height onto resting glass tables. 

Mostly, you find yourself purring with sweet relief at the sight of a studio comedy that's been brought to the screen with a degree of proficiency, and without the need for obvious reshoots or lazy post-production patch-ins, that proves slick in the best sense of the word; just when you think matters are about to wind down in a third act that might need a bit more oomph, a surprise (and very welcome) cameo shifts the film back into top gear, and carries everyone across the finish line. The other players are simply good fun to be around, which is what you'd likely want from any game night: it'll be a leg-up for Morris (increasingly the one reliably funny thing about TV's New Girl) and for Horgan (who plays this material much as she has her own on the small screen), and a much-needed credit on the recently wobbly CVs of both Bateman and McAdams. It's possible this script passed through multiple sets of A-list hands before arriving at this last, unexpectedly perfect pairing: these leads softpedal the clunkier writing, sock over the comedy, and - best of all - suggest a genuine warmth and affection for one another that we don't get to see nearly enough of inside the modern multiplex. Every now and again in Game Night - it's sporadic, but worth noting - we catch a glimmer of what a Thin Man movie might have looked and sounded like if that series had survived the 20th century. Perhaps I'm tempting fate here - the fartcloud of Horrible Bosses 2 is rolling in again, and it might be nice if Hollywood learnt from and built on its rare successes, rather than merely hastening to repeat them - but more adventures in the company of these two would not be entirely unwelcome.

Game Night is now playing in cinemas nationwide.