Wednesday, 25 May 2016

From the archive: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind - The Director's Cut"

For some reason, the special edition of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the version in regular circulation growing up, and I had nothing to compare it to: it was what it was, and that was that. Now, thanks to Columbia TriStar, we have the director's cut, which arrives at a particularly interesting point in this director's career, just after the release of War of the Worlds (again: watch the skies). Revisiting CE, a contemporary viewer is bound to be struck by the quiet eerieness of its opening stretch; it's very different to the unrelenting bombast of Spielberg-doing-Wells, which kept having to insist something of thunderous import - A Major Motion Picture Event - was about to take place before our very eyes. 

Rather than noise and fury, the earlier film is powered along by that beautifully crisp, no-nonsense form of 1970s editing - you'll have witnessed enough of it in The Conversation and All the President's Men for it to qualify as a style in its own right - which maintains that just when a scene is on the verge of a crescendo, the most effective choice is to cut to silence, or something approximating it. (Would that 21st century blockbusters were so understated: the new normal is to try and sustain that crescendo for as long as technologically possible, at risk of monotony and/or tinnitus.) My father walked into the room just as Richard Dreyfuss's Roy Neary was commencing work on his mashed potato mountain, and - not unjustly - wondered whether I was watching with the sound off.

In the modern blockbuster, built on equal parts chutzpah and insecurity, everything has to be front and centre - partly so the audience can be reassured we're getting exactly the right amount of bang for our bucks. But the Spielberg of Close Encounters keeps throwing in background jokes that very nearly go unseen: the lights that first appear in the rear windscreen of Neary's electrical repair truck, the TV coverage that gives away what the hero's obsessive-compulsive mountain-making has been geared towards. Were audiences really this much sharper back then? Or have we just got dumber, and lazier? War of the Worlds, for one, assumed its viewers were drooling morons who'd miss stuff - the hero's Everymannish nature, a 9/11 allusion, complex CG effects - were it not dangled in their faces.

If there is movement and madness in Close Encounters, it's both recognisable and, in the main, realistic: the clutter of an all-American household, with toys lining the floor and kids creeping about with first-wave video cameras. This is at once further confirmation of why Spielberg (and in particular his early work) was and is so popular in the West: that he had broadly the same childhood so many of us were lucky enough to have had. The same backyards and brand names; the same shows, interrupted by the same adverts. More of that bedrock of innocence was preserved in him than in his fellow 70s moviebrats, who surely eroded much of theirs - while gaining other, harsher life-insights - with every shot of bourbon and each nostril of coke.

Still, for all the film's reassuring familiarity, there remains a lot of weirdness, and a lot of displacement here - ships in the desert, an opening sequence that has much in common with The Exorcist, one shot late on of a soldier crouching among helicopters that prefigures Apocalypse Now - all of which perhaps explains why, however blockbusting, the film didn't quite post E.T. numbers. (As a child touched by otherworldly forces, the spooky Cary Guffey doesn't have the Reece's Pieces sweetness of Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas; when playing the five-note musical motif on the xylophone, he appears genuinely possessed.) Nonetheless, Spielberg cleaves to the wondrous point-of-view of a child to see us through, which is why Guffey's first response to the aliens' flashing lights is not to duck for cover but scream for ice cream; and why, perhaps, Dreyfuss has to pitch this extraterrestrial intervention to his offspring as "better than goofy golf". Almost, Roy Neary; almost.

(April 2006)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - The Director's Cut returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Summer Arts Agenda: Film (ST 22/05/16)

Twenty titles to keep an eye on this summer, for the annual Sunday Telegraph Top 100:

The Nice Guys (June 3)
Snark merchant Shane Black (Iron Man 3) pairs Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as disreputable detectives driving the Mob from 1970s L.A. in this knockabout actioner. Expect trashy Friday-night fun, and frankly terrible menswear.

Fire at Sea (June 10)
Cinema’s recent run of exceptional travellers’ tales continues: our own Tim Robey described this close-up documentary study of migrants circling Lampedusa as “shattering” at this year’s Berlin festival, where it won the Golden Bear.

Gods of Egypt (Jun 17)
Hollywood turns to CGI in an attempt to revitalise the old-school epic. Alex Proyas’s film sparked “whitewash” controversy after casting Caucasian actors as Arabs: bellower-in-chief Gerard Butler aims to drown out the lukewarm buzz.

Independence Day: Resurgence (Jun 23)
Twenty years on, and with Hollywood running out of fantasy franchises to rejig, the aliens return to Earth. President Bill Pullman and nerd-for-hire Jeff Goldblum return; original breakout star Will Smith, conspicuously, does not.   

Elvis & Nixon (Jun 24)
Liza Johnson’s film offers a light-comic take on the 1970 incident when Elvis pitched up on the White House lawn. Michael Shannon, a performer in peak form, dons the rhinestone jumpsuit; Kevin Spacey is Nixon.

The Secret Life of Pets (Jun 24)
Despicable Me’s animation powerhouse Chris Renaud ponders what animals do once their keepers go to bed: butt-sniffing and death metal, the trailer suggests. A fine comedic voice cast (Jenny Slate, Louis CK, Albert Brooks) assists him in his research.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (Jul 1)
Big-screen Britcoms face a make-or-break summer (cf: Aug 19). Jo and Jen’s perma-pickled Patsy and Edina here acquire a showcase accessorised with front-row fashion faces; let’s hope the jokes aren’t so last century.

Maggie’s Plan (Jul 8)
A textbook “Sundance sensation”, Rebecca Miller’s indie comedy sets up a love triangle examining the impact a hot-to-trot Greta Gerwig has on happily married Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. Early reviews have been glowing.

The Neon Demon (Jul 8)
Few modern filmmakers have arrived at images as boldly gaudy as those Nicolas Winding Refn did in Drive and Only God Forgives: the world of high fashion, setting for his latest, Cannes-applauded freakout, would appear a perfect, sheeny fit.

Ghostbusters (Jul 15) [above]
To the chagrin of fanboys, they’ve redone 1984’s supernatural extravaganza with – eww – girls. The less virginal can but savour a considerable comedy pedigree: Bridesmaids’ Paul Feig directs Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig alongside SNL alumna Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.

Ice Age: Collision Course (Jul 15)
Yes, we know: somewhat amazingly, there have been five of these now. The latest picks up where last year’s (rather good) short Cosmic Scrat-tastrophe left off, with heroes Sid, Diego and Manny facing a new threat from the heavens. 

The BFG (Jul 22)
Pre-eminent storytellers power this live-action/animation hybrid: Roald Dahl’s book has been adapted by the late Melissa Mathison (E.T.) for Steven Spielberg to direct. Early reviews suggest a generally whizzpopping experience; Penelope Wilton plays the Queen.

Chevalier (Jul 22)
Leftfield counterprogramming: Attenberg’s Athina Rachel Tsangari floats another absurdist comedy, this time about six men in a boat engaging in increasingly ridiculous competitions – because, well, men. Tackle will be measured; ribs tickled; heads scratched. Everyone’s a winner.

Jason Bourne (Jul 28)
After 2012’s sidestepping The Bourne Legacy, the millennium’s premium action franchise gets back on track: director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon both return as a now-ageing JB remembers what he came in the room for. Or something.

Finding Dory (Jul 29)
2003’s Finding Nemo remains a high animated watermark; expectations for this sequel are no less elevated. With Pixar buoyant after last year’s Inside Out, fins crossed it’s more Toy Story 2 than Cars 2.

Suicide Squad (Aug 5)
Heaven forbid summer should be a comics-free zone: D.C. follow March’s ill-received Batman vs. Superman with this raucous/noisy-looking mash-up, in which motley supervillains – including Jared Leto’s Joker – are enlisted to do America’s dirty work.

David Brent: Life on the Road (Aug 19)
After Derek and Special Correspondents, Ricky Gervais could do with renewed momentum: here, his best-loved creation leaves the paper behind to pursue his first love, music. Capable comedy faces lend support.

Swallows and Amazons (Aug 19)
Arthur Ransome’s classic of kidlit – filmed in 1974 as Saturday matinee material – receives a 21st century scrub-up from Call the Midwife’s Philippa Lowthorpe. In an age of digital delights, will it still hold water?

Ben-Hur (Aug 26)
Lew Wallace’s Biblical doorstop gets whipped into lean, globalised multiplex shape, with Russian Timur Bekmambetov at the directorial reins, Brit Jack Huston as Hur, and Brazil’s Rodrigo Santoro as Christ. A 3D chariot race awaits us.

Julieta (Aug 26)
Fresh from Cannes, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest stems from that sincere interest in mother-daughter pairings that previously powered 1995’s The Flower of My Secret and 2006’s Volver. After 2013’s limp farce I’m So Excited!, that sounds muy bueno.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Outstanding returns: "Kiki's Delivery Service"

Kiki's Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki's animated parable of adolescent self-sufficiency from 1989, surely occupies the same cultural position in the East as The Worst Witch and Harry Potter do in the West. Reissued to UK cinemas this week as part of StudioCanal's summer Studio Ghibli season, this is the tale of 13-year-old witch Kiki, who leaves home - as all 13-year-old witches must - and heads for the big city, where she's taken in by a bakery and launches her own courier operation, the broomstick coming in especially handy. But what's a girl to do once her powers wear off? Once again, Miyazaki arrives at a story that could have been told by a parent improvising at bedtime, while managing, without the merest trace of condescension, to preach the virtues of hard work, due diligence, close care and attention; he makes sly points about the callousness of the privileged folk young Kiki bumps up against, and how obstructive other people can be when you're trying to get a job done. 

The artistry is, as almost always with Ghibli, of the highest calibre: if Kiki is drawn in the now-recognisable Japanese style, the cityscapes she passes through are European in their gabled townhouses and cobbled streets, while the character detailing is exceptional. I don't quite know how it's possible for animators in this nervy day and age to observe children this closely (beyond, you know, having kids of their own), but this lot clearly have: witness the changing look on the face of the young boy our heroine's cat Jiji is delivered to as his parents shout for him to stop watching television and get changed, or the slumping posture Kiki adopts while bored on a slow afternoon in the baker's shop. Drifting in on an air of pine trees and freshly baked loaves, populated by the kindest of creatures, and set to another of Joe Hisaishi's charmingly simple, almost nursery rhyme-like scores, this really is a lovely world to spend some time within.

Kiki's Delivery Service opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday, 20 May 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of May 13-15, 2016:
1 (1) Captain America: Civil War (12A)
2 (new) The Angry Birds Movie (U)
3 (2The Jungle Book (PG) **
4 (3) Bad Neighbours 2 (15)
5 (4) Florence Foster Jenkins (PG)
6 (new) Our Kind of Traitor (15) ***
7 (new) Everybody Wants Some!! (15) ***
8 (8) Secret Cinema: 28 Days Later... (18) ****
9 (6) Eye in the Sky (15) *** 
10 (new) Green Room (18) **


My top five:   
1 (1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12) **
2 (2) The Hateful Eight (18) **
3 (3) SPECTRE (12) ***
4 (2The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (12)
5 (6) Room (15) ****
6 (5The Martian (12) ****
7 (7) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
8 (8The Good Dinosaur (PG)
9 (re) The Intern (12)
10 (new) Suffragette (15) ***

My top five:  
1. Creed
2. Lawrence of Belgravia
3. Room
4. Spotlight
5. The Assassin

Top Ten Streaming:

1 (1) The Propaganda Game (15) ***
2 (3) A War (15) ***
3 (2) Like You Mean It (15)
4 (4) Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (18) ***
5 (new) I Am Belfast (15)
6 (8) Hitchcock/Truffaut (12) ****
7 (7) Mr. Topaze (U)
8 (5) Ran (12) ****
9 (new) Iona (15)
10 (new) The Club (18) ****

(source: BFI)

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Psycho [above] (Friday, C4, 12.35am)
2. The Wooden Horse (Saturday, BBC2, 8.30am)
3. I Love You, Man (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
4. Elena (Saturday, BBC2, 12.40am)
5. Evolution (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)

New romantics: "Sing Street"

It's become apparent that John Carney is something of a single-issue filmmaker. This need not necessarily be a limitation: without the persistent, laser-beam focus of Claude Lanzmann, so many of the Holocaust's nuts and bolts might have been left unexamined, and - lest that seem an overly dramatic point of comparison - perhaps we need a Judd Apatow to pick over the pitfalls and occasional pleasures of modern love, ever-changing as they are. Carney's interest lies in music: a filmmaker for a moment when it often seems as though everyone you encounter is walking round with headphones on - either to keep something within themselves, or to shut the world out - he's thus far demonstrated a particular fascination with the ways songs can bring disparate people together, whether on the streets of Dublin (2007's Once) or the fringes of the American recording industry (2013's Begin Again).

His latest, Sing Street, is in one sense an origin story, one in which Carney mulls his own past, and how a young lad might develop an interest in music in the first place. Almost inevitably, a girl is involved. Teenage hero Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a newly arrived outsider at a Christian Brothers school in impoverished mid-80s Dublin who elects to form a band despite a total lack of prior musical experience; the reason is that he's on a promise to Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an older girl he's spied on the steps outside his school, and - with a producer's instincts - invited to appear in one of the group's videos. (Great albums have been composed for less.) What follows is a very simple, not unfamiliar tale. Conor auditions and assembles a close-knit core of fellow dropouts, pariahs and geeks; they start to put together a few riffs, a rudimentary image, even eventually a demo tape - building, in other works, where Keira Knightley's heartbroken twentysomething in Begin Again was obliged to rebuild.

Yet Carney succeeds in finding an entirely new context for this rock 'n' roll rise-and-fall-and-rise again, sketched in his first images here: news reports of Irishmen and women quitting their depressed homeland in droves for a new beginning on the English mainland. Music in Sing Street is less a catharsis than an escape from unhappy homes, institutionalised cruelty and poverty, adolescent awkwardness. For Conor and his cohorts, as yet too young to even consider moving out of their parents' place, those early Duran Duran videos, beamed into beigey-grey living rooms via the weekly Top of the Pops, are the height of aspirational glamour - and when you're faced with being punched on the nose and having your Mars Bar nicked off you by some mardy arse in the school tuckshop, why wouldn't you dream of getting to swank around on a yacht with Christy Turlington?

Certain shortcuts are visible, and audible. It's somewhat implausible that the band Sing Street - a play on Synge Street, the boys' alma mater - should sound so good so quickly, for one. The songs were written by Gary Clark, late of Danny Wilson ("Mary's Prayer"), and they strike the ear as very much the work of a fiftysomething musician with several Top 40 hits under his belt, not spoddy boys setting work-book poetry to half-inched guitar riffs. Carney's on surer ground when describing his hero's musical education: older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) nudging his sibling in the direction of an idea of music-as-Art, the lazy afternoons spent in friends' bedrooms listening to their Jam and Joe Jackson LPs. What Sing Street nails in these sequences is the way we figure out what to listen to at a certain age, and in so doing figure out something of ourselves. (One might note that anybody exposed to Jackson's "Steppin' Out" at a formative moment is going to turn out just fine.) 

More so than his breakthrough features, Sing Street is the film that best showcases Carney's assured comic touch: he elicits broad laughs from a local rogue's failed attempt at a three-point turn in a car blasting out Phil Collins, but also from such throwaway business as getting one of Conor's bandmates to open his front door while holding his pet bunny ("What you doin'?" "Just rabbit stuff.") And his great skill at accommodating different perspectives is again in evidence: one unshowy yet graceful cut reveals a late-night fraternal heart-to-heart in the kitchen is being observed by Conor's university-age sister Ann (Kelly Thornton), cutting through anything gooey by wondering whether this Raphina girl doesn't sound a tad pretentious. A lovely, genuinely lyrical scene finds the brothers observing their unhappy ma (Maria Doyle Kennedy, trailing echoes of The Commitments) through the backdoor, at which point we begin to grasp what a consolation music can be: it's what the siblings put on whenever their folks start arguing, hoping to muffle the harsher words.

There are points where the generosity of spirit gets too much, where Carney's (p)optimism becomes unmoored from anything so challenging as reality. Around the ninety-minute mark, it becomes apparent there is nothing this music cannot achieve. Get the girl! Heal the wounds left behind by divorce! Overthrow the tyranny of the Christian Brotherhood! Keeping one's headphones on too long risks turning the brain to mush, a caution that came to mind as Carney pushes his youthful leads out on the roughest-looking stretch of the Irish Sea (music can change the course of your life!) come the final movement. He means to leave us punching the air at this great escape, yet this viewer could only fear the worst: that these kids' corpses would wash up on a nearby shore within 24 hours. A song's one thing, adequate health-and-safety provision quite another. At its best, however, Sing Street serves - as did Once and Begin Again - to make music graspable for even those of us who've never been within ten feet of a Peavey amp, dramatising both how and why we're drawn to it, and what it comes to communicate about our fragile hopes and desires. Here's a film that knows a three-minute pop song often expresses something of the world, of ourselves and of others, far more succinctly and stirringly than any number of words on a page.

Sing Street opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"The Call Up" (Guardian 20/05/16)

The Call Up ***
Dir: Charles Barker. With: Morfydd Clark, Max Deacon, Ali Cook, Tom Benedict Knight. 90 mins. Cert: 15

With the IMAX-scaled Warcraft inbound, this lowish-budget Brit attempt to replicate gaming’s immersive properties – stalking nerds around an of-course-mysterious corporation’s wipe-clean HQ while they beta-test a VR shoot-‘em-up – risks looking a touch Amstrad-like, yet it’s been capably produced. Writer-director Charles Barker may cleave to a dusty old slasher-pic template – most evident in the identities of the first to die and last player standing – but he hustles everybody briskly between levels, sending his industrious design team ahead of him to redress a presumably limited number of sets. If it’s far from bleeding edge – within days, it’ll look as dated as Tron and The Lawnmower Man do today – it’s a modest upgrade on all those killer website movies that popped up a decade ago, keeping us at least semi-interested as to who stands and falls. It’ll fill a slot, if your Xbox connection is down and you felt inspired to quit the sofa. 

The Call Up opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

"The Silent Storm" (Guardian 20/05/16)

The Silent Storm **
Dir: Corinna McFarlane. With: Andrea Riseborough, Damian Lewis, Ross Anderson, John Sessions. 102 mins. Cert: 15

Corinna McFarlane’s gibbering Highland melodrama huffs and puffs around the turbulent marriage of none-more-Presbyterian clergyman Damian Lewis and put-upon Andrea Riseborough. Opening to prenatal hyperventilating, it rapidly ascends to the kingdom of heaven-help-us once the Lord places strapping, poetry-quoting delinquent Ross Anderson under their care. Handed a solitary note to hammer away on throughout, both leads come to look terribly silly. A shirtless Lewis (representing “Punishment”) drags a wooden framework across a beach (Christ!). Riseborough (“Forgiveness”) wibbles through a midfilm magic mushroom interlude that finally brings some colour – well, mud – to her cheeks. Considerable camp value, but everybody’s looking for the Tipp-Ex with which to update their CVs. 

The Silent Storm opens in selected cinemas from today.