Sunday, 26 July 2015

From the archive: "Adventureland"


Back to the 80s again. As if listening to La Roux or Little Boots wasn't enough to make us all feel like a 15-year-old circa 1987, along comes Adventureland, almost as a reflex response to the crudeness of its director Greg Mottola's previous Superbad: a gentle, autobiographical coming-of-age comedy centred on a moptopped protagonist who could scarcely be any further removed from Jonah Hill. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is a studious sort, trying to finish reading Quiet Days in Clichy in the weeks between high school and college when he learns the savings set aside for his further education have been wiped out. To scrape some funds together, he takes a job at the titular Pittsburgh amusement park. Though he's obliged to deal with the park's blustering manager (Bill Hader) and knife-wielding customers, it's not all bad: he gets to hang out at will, and develops a crush on one of his colleagues, the reticent Emily (Kristen Stewart) - although she has, in modern parlance, issues.

There's been a rise recently in what I'm tempted to call location (rather than situation) comedies, cultural items made up almost exclusively of the background jokes and telling vignettes their setting provides them with. (The most prominent example was Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which gave rise to the warehouse knockabout of Employee of the Month and TV's Reaper.) Here, Mottola makes workably atmospheric use of a still-standing, real-world funfair, with its rigged games, baffling array of cuddly toys and incessant playing of "Rock Me Amadeus". (The film is particularly adept in its deployment of period-specific music, differentiating between those tunes its teens choose to let into their ears and souls, and those rammed down their throats through repetition; for those who cherish such things, Adventureland makes near-definitive use of Judas Priest and Animotion.)

It's clear from a very early stage, however, that the title is intended to stand for something more: not just a place, but a state of mind. This Adventureland connotes a new frontier, one that combines the thrills and spills of the waltzers and dodgems with the highs and lows of first love. James and Em's courtship is a dreamy, unreal thing: these are heightened emotions re-evaluated through both the mists of time and the steam rising up off the corndog fryer. Trace elements of the Superbad crudeness remain - one character exists chiefly to punch our hero in the crotch and vomit - yet the new film is tender and sincere, inclined less towards blunt laughs than recreating the sensations of having your heart broken and hopes shattered at a formative stage - and the memories of picking up the pieces and trying to get on with one's life.

The performers, accordingly, are allowed the time and space to set down something memorable, rather than simply having to careen wildly between joints and boner jokes. Eisenberg establishes himself as among this generation's foremost young romantics - an American Simon Amstell - flattered by his co-worker's attentions, if not entirely sure as yet what to do with them; removed from the Twilight franchise, Stewart delivers a study in troubled self-possession, although it's unfortunate for her that the big finale should be so dependent on what looks like nothing more than a standard-issue teenage strop. (The intergenerational conflict throughout has the look of a watered-down Ice Storm.) As with this year's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the older you are, the more chance there is you'll have seen something like it before; if you happen to be among those going back to school in the coming days, on the other hand, it may strike you as one of the truest films ever made on the end of the holidays. Yet truthful - and touching - it is: no mere exercise in retro bandwagon-jumping, but a summer somebody somewhere lived through, once upon a time.

(September 2009)

Adventureland screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.20pm.

Friday, 24 July 2015

For what it's worth...



Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of July 17-19, 2015: 
 
 
1 (new) Ant-Man (12A)
2 (1) Minions (U)
3 (2) Ted 2 (15)
4 (4) Jurassic World (12A)
5 (new) Andre Rieu's 2015 Maastricht Concert (U)
6 (3) Terminator: Genisys (12A)
7 (new) Bajrangi Bhaijaan (12A) ***
8 (5) Magic Mike XXL (15) **
9 (new) The Gallows (15)
10 (6) Amy (15) ****

(source: theguardian.com)
 

My top five:   
1. Eden
2. 13 Minutes
3. Southpaw
4. Best of Enemies
5. The Legend of Barney Thomson
 

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
 
 
1 (1) Big Hero 6 (PG) ***
2 (2) American Sniper (15) ***
3 (3) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12) **
4 (4) The Theory of Everything (12) ***
5 (5) Interstellar (12) **
6 (7) Still Alice (15) ***
7 (6) Shaun the Sheep Movie (PG) ***
8 (9) Annie (PG) 
9 (8) It Follows (15) **** 
10 (re) Whiplash (15) ****

(source: lovefilm.com)
                                 
 
My top five:  
1. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
2. Listen Up Philip
3. Exit
4. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
5. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Zodiac [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 10.40pm)
2. Singin' in the Rain (Saturday, BBC2, 12.45pm)
3. Crank (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
4. Adventureland (Sunday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
5. Pitch Perfect (Saturday, C4, 9pm)

Thursday, 23 July 2015

1,001 Films: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971)


Unlike Tim Burton's 2005 version of the tale, which found one auteur layering his own vision on top of another's (even as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reverted to Roald Dahl's original title), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971's first screen adaptation of the beloved novel - directed by the otherwise unknown Mel Stuart from Dahl's screenplay, with Leslie Bricusse songs - preserved the source text's satisfying moral tang, despite an approach you might call collaborative. Or schizophrenic, even: the result proved weird enough to count as Marilyn Manson's favourite film of all time.

Produced by the Quaker Oats company, Stuart's version takes place not in some all-American town that might flag up the material's idea of factory-line capitalism (what are the Oompa-Loompas, if not migrant workers?), nor the mid-Atlantic state - part-theme park, part-industrial London - envisioned by Burton. As signalled by the street scenes at the start or the view from the elevator at the end, this is a genuinely otherworldly Mitteleuropean backwater: the most "foreign" of the Golden Ticket winners, Augustus Gloop, seems the most at home here. This world is populated by intriguingly strange (male) characters: the tinker outside the Wonka factory gates ("no-one ever goes in, and no-one ever comes out") with his trolley full of cleavers, the rival chocolate boss who appears out of nowhere to whisper in the Golden Ticket winners' ears in a continental accent. (All this before we get to Willy Wonka himself.) Dahl writes in psychiatrists and even a kidnapping, the ransom for the latter being the last case of Wonka bars in the country.

On the level of performance, this is easily the equal of My Fair Lady or Mary Poppins. For Burton's film, Johnny Depp based his Wonka on Manson and Michael Jackson. Gene Wilder bases his performance on Willy Wonka: an Oz-like control freak, prone to hucksterism, but with a redeeming sideline in candy-coated practical jokes. Anglophone participants include the great Roy Kinnear as the Northern peanut magnate Mr. Salt, father to "bad egg" Veruca, and Tim Brooke-Taylor, on leave from The Goodies as a computer egghead. Between them, Peter Ostrum (Charlie) and Jack Albertson (Grandpa Bucket) make the characters of virtue - generally a weakpoint in family films - interesting (Ostrum makes particularly affecting Charlie's rationale in the light of his early Golden Ticket disappointments: "I bet those Golden Tickets make the chocolate taste terrible", "I don't care much for chocolate"), and have fun with their one lapse in the Wonka bubble room. (In a typical Dahl touch later replayed in The BFG, burping brings everyone down to earth; you have a feeling his favourite Simpsons character would be the town drunk Barney.)

It remains a remarkably sophisticated, unsentimental family film that works for children on the level of exceptional spectacle, and which seems to get richer the older one gets, perhaps because Wilder's Wonka resides in that melancholy distance between childhood and adulthood. The verbal and visual puns remain very sharp, and the nastier material - we never do learn whether Charlie's rivals survive - isn't quite jollied over by the Oompa-Loompas' catchy songs. As an example of how the film champions imagination over force-feeding (something Burton's over-stuffed version never quite pulled off), contrast the Wonka idea of Rainbow Drops ("suck them, and you'll spit seven colours") with the sweets we actually got with that name growing up: seeds of cardboard corn pumped full of artificial colouring. Yet from the way the confectioner doles out the lollipops and gobstoppers during the opening "Candyman" number, this is surely the number one film on which to have been a child extra.


(September 2007)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

1,001 Films: "The Sorrow and the Pity/Le Chagrin et la pitié" (1971)


There is an anecdote, a few minutes into the second part of The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls' overwhelming four-hour documentary of the Nazi occupation as experienced by one French town, which perfectly illustrates the compulsion to maintain business as usual by any means necessary - the normalisation of extreme behaviour being exactly what Ophuls is getting at here. A German officer of the time, and a French cinema owner, are recalling an incident in which a platoon of German soldiers filing into the latter's establishment came to be ambushed by Resistance fighters armed with grenades. Eight soldiers died, and as the cinema owner wryly notes: "The ambulances arrived, and the show went on."

Unlike Lanzmann's similarly lengthy Shoah, which roamed across Europe to plot a map of the Holocaust, Ophuls limits his inquiries to the town of Clermont-Ferrand, making his documentary a more contained viewing experience, the territory explored less geographical than psychological: a stamp round the adjacent areas on either side of the fine line between resistance and acceptance, opposition and collaboration. Given today's anything-goes, shot-on-the-hoof documentary culture, where subjects and interviewees tend to be shot wearing whatever they happen to be in at the time, what's initially most beguiling about Ophuls' film is that everyone has clearly dressed up to make the occasion of being filmed, and often gathered their family and friends around them, either for support or to give the illusion of a united front. This is clearly a big moment for the people of Clermont, a chance to get their experiences and their opinions on the record a full twenty-five years after the events under discussion. 

Ophuls' patient approach yields countless telling moments. An aristocratic ex-fascist leads the crew around his lavishly furnished home; a couple of farmers are overruled by their wives, sitting in the kitchen; a dad recalls the rationing of cigarettes while his young son, a product of the post-War baby boom, lights up. Throughout, Ophuls preserves a strictly democratic feel - a sense that there are, in the majority of cases, other people in the room, and not always people who agree with what the speaker is saying. His point would appear to be that the idea of a united front is, in itself, a questionable if not outright fascistic one: reality is always more complex and contradictory than that, and to throw a rope or draw a line around the French people is, in its own way, as inherently constraining as rounding them all up to be shot as freedom fighters.

The process of testimony necessarily entails a long sit, and one perhaps not quite as enlightening as Shoah. (It's the problem with setting up one's camera in a small town: after a while, you end up meeting the same people and going round and round in circles.) Yet when one interviewee makes the claim "the French aren't very interested in politics... all they do is [something demonstrative like] storm the Bastille every now and again," you do realise even this bluntly participative form of politics has left France in a healthier position than many other nations. There is now something deeply ingrained in the French consciousness - as evident from, say, Irreversible as it is from Ophuls' film - that warns against the dangers of complacency, standing by and watching, of a failure to take action, which jars with the cultures of those Western countries (the US and UK especially) who went unconquered - and whose cinema has always tended to look back on the Second World War with nostalgic reverence rather than sorrow, pity or anger.

(May 2004)

The Sorrow and the Pity is available on DVD through Arrow Films. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Housebound: "Ruth & Alex"


Like last year's My Old Lady, Ruth & Alex - a film that formerly traded under the title 5 Flights Up - is one of those property pickles written and directed by baby boomers for the enjoyment of those audiences old enough and prosperous enough to never again have to worry about making rent: there is a lot of talk about "the market", a non-exciting setpiece as realtor Cynthia Nixon juggles offers from rival bidders, and a general sense of a film operating in its own little bubble. "We're all struggling," sighs Morgan Freeman's Alex, on the verge of seeing his bank account boosted by a sum in the vicinity of a million dollars, leading everybody within earshot to wonder whether some people's struggles might, in the grand scale of things, be greater than others.

Freeman and Diane Keaton are an artist-writer couple who, after forty years of residency, are selling their top-floor Williamsburg flat; it's not a penthouse, as such, although there are frequent trips to the roof garden. This established, we are encouraged to consider what forms a more immediate threat to the success of the pair's upcoming open house, and therefore their financial wellbeing: the plight of Keaton's pet dog Dorothy, who slips a disc on the eve of the big event? The presence of a supposedly radicalised Muslim at large in their neighborhood, a clumsily handled strand meant to evoke the growing threat non-Caucasians supposedly pose to older viewers whose only contact with the outside world comes through 24-hour news cycles? Or Freeman's happy memories of the time the pair have spent in this place?

You can feel old-hand Richard Loncraine - a director who's been on quite the wander since 1975's Slade in Flame - striving with his leads to work up an appealing portrait of blissful inner-city domesticity: Diane does the hoovering, while Morgan watches TV with his slippered feet up. (Feminist-minded viewers might question how exactly far the American cinema has come since the days of Annie Hall and Louise Bryant.) Yet the material's agenda is exposed when the young couples who turn up to view the flat turn out to be such obvious, two-dimensional jerks and flakes. In this, Ruth & Alex unexpectedly chimes with the widely respected Amour, where old timers were presented as fonts of wisdom, culture and tolerance, and everybody else was considered to form a grasping, venal advance party for the apocalypse.

There's the makings of a sharp black comedy in the idea of a couple who inadvertently find themselves under siege, but both the writing and the handling here slide towards cosiness: of course Freeman is encouraged to share his innermost thoughts in voiceover form, but even Silver Screen habituees might find themselves growing restless at the lack of anything like real drama, and the unwavering tone of conservatism means the ending can be guessed from a distance of several miles. As this pair start to look around for a new place of their own, Ruth & Alex's ninety minutes extend into what feels like a lifetime: it really is a film that replicates all the fun of flathunting, entertainment only for those viewers apt to carry their cherished portfolios into the cinema with them. And don't these people have enough already?

Ruth & Alex opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

"Bajrangi Bhaijaan" (Guardian 19/07/15)


Bajrangi Bhaijaan ***

Dir: Kabir Khan. With: Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Harshaali Malhotra, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. 163 mins. Cert: 12A

Hindi cinema traditionally marks the Eid celebrations – denoting Ramadan’s end – by releasing a wholesome entertainment upon which the entire family can feast. This year, the task has again fallen to hulking action man Salman Khan, which might – after the star’s recent court appearances – seem a little like entrusting Katie Hopkins to say a few nice words before dinner. Nevertheless, Bajrangi Bhaijaan proceeds with a narrative that proves both self-reflexive and highly emotive. This tale of a man who, in shepherding a lost child, not only unites a family but builds bridges between India and Pakistan boasts big shoulders and even bigger ambitions.

Foremost among these is a recalibration of the Khan star persona: it’s one of those meathead-softeners in which a long-established tough guy plays a bit of a soft touch. An early flashback reveals Khan’s country boy Pawan had to abandon his wrestling career due to extreme ticklishness; now, he spends his days worshipping the monkey deity Bajrang Bali, and merrily dancing like a chicken. (This may be for home crowds what it is for Western viewers to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger interacting with those talking meerkats: enough to make one ponder the long-term mental effects of consuming all that whey protein.)

Pawan is presumably how Khan now wants to be regarded: as an entertainer, a safe pair of hands, and somebody to be trusted with our children. All these qualities are to the fore when Pawan encounters Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra), a mute six-year-old Kashmiri separated from her mother while crossing from India to Pakistan. To return her, Pawan must interpret the clues his wordless ward inadvertently provides. That she feels far more comfortable around mosques than her guardian is a biggie; her elation at Pakistan’s victory over India in the cricket both ruffles feathers and points the way home.

As these wide-eyed innocents become embroiled in absurd regional disputes, BB overlaps somewhat with last Diwali’s sensation P.K., although there are more than just physical differences between that film’s wily, questioning frontman Aamir Khan and the barrelling Salman. This script plumps for broad, crowdpleasing comedy over its predecessor’s unusually cutting satire – the chanciest it gets is when Om Puri’s imam conceals Pawan from the authorities in a burqa, setting us to wonder how the mosque found one in his size – and is prone to those odd tonal shifts last experienced in Arnie’s would-be cuddly early 90s vehicles, veering from violence to sentiment.

Still, it remains the kind of package perhaps only Bollywood could now pull together: a movie that feels calculated in its grand design, and yet which plays as wholly sincere and heartfelt on a scene-by-scene basis. Central to its appeal is Malhotra, who emerges as an absolute sweetie, liable to spark queues round the block outside Kashmiri adoption agencies. Shahida’s muteness – pre-empting any offputting precocity – may be even more crucial, but her silent responses are just a treat; whenever the director Kabir Khan cuts to her in close-up, you feel your heart being gently warmed like a marshmallow over a campfire.

This filmmaker grasps the bigger picture, too: his sweeping helicopter shots, locating the hulk and his tiny charge amid desert or mountain ranges, offer proof of Kashmir’s great, diverse beauty, impressing upon us how it’s surely vast enough to be shared. By expanding outwards, Bajrangi Bhaijaan works up this pair’s progress – pressing on despite countless pitfalls and obstacles – into a possible analogy for the peace process. It’s simple and picturebook-ish, granted – so simple even an action hero might have it explained to him – but that doesn’t make it, or the film’s potently melodramatic conclusion, any less effective.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday, 17 July 2015

For what it's worth...



Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of July 10-12, 2015: 
 
 
1 (1) Minions (U)
2 (new) Ted 2 (15)
3 (2) Terminator: Genisys (12A)
4 (3) Jurassic World (12A)
5 (4) Magic Mike XXL (15) **
6 (5) Amy (15) ****
7 (7) Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back (U)
8 (6) Spy (12A) ***
9 (new) Love & Mercy (12A) ***
10 (new) Song of the Sea (U) ***

(source: theguardian.com)
 

My top five:   
1. 13 Minutes
2. The Wonders
3. Bajrangi Bhaijaan
4. The Salt of the Earth
5. Self/Less


Top Ten DVD rentals:  
 
 
1 (1) Big Hero 6 (PG) ***
2 (new) American Sniper (15) ***
3 (2) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12) **
4 (3) The Theory of Everything (12) ***
5 (4) Interstellar (12) **
6 (5) Shaun the Sheep Movie (PG) ***
7 (6) Still Alice (15) ***
8 (7) It Follows (15) ****
9 (9) Annie (PG) 
10 (new) The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (U) *** 

(source: lovefilm.com)
                                 
 
My top five:  
1. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
2. Exit
3. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
4. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
5. Second Coming


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Emperor's New Groove [above] (Sunday, five, 5.30pm)
2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Sunday, ITV1, 2.40pm)
3. We Dive at Dawn (Wednesday, BBC2, 2.15pm)
4. Once (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
5. Dean Spanley (Tuesday, BBC2, 2.15pm)