Saturday, 27 August 2016

1,001 Films: "Super Fly" (1972)

For several reasons, we might consider Super Fly Son of Shaft. In 1971, Gordon Parks made the keynote blaxploitation feature about the private dick who reportedly gets all the chicks; the following year, Gordon Parks Jr. directed a film clearly indebted to his father's work (and, no doubt, Shaft's box-office success) yet possessed of the somewhat brattish desire to shock and never compromise in the way Shaft had. The latter film, released by MGM, was very careful to point out its lead character stood firmly on the right side of law and order. As an independent production, Super Fly seems altogether readier to prickle delicate sensibilities, introducing Ron O'Neal's eponymous dealer hero Youngblood Priest snorting coke off a crucifix while in bed with - zut alors! - a naked and willing white chick. Richard Roundtree's Shaft kept his cool, but O'Neal's Priest - a karate nut getting high on his own supply, in possession of a handlebar moustache so vast he could probably smack his enemies upside the head with it - is furious; in his righteous ire, he could be a black brother to the Angry Young Men who'd emerged in the previous decade's British working-class drama - or American cinema's first real attempt at putting something of the growing Black Panther roar on screen.

More interesting today as an artefact than as a movie per se, Super Fly is a far rougher proposition than Shaft, attempting a gritty realism that gets scuppered whenever a character sporting a silly hat or facial hair stumbles into view. Parks fils is more at home watching life pass by on Harlem street corners or through the windows of Priest's thoroughly pimped-out ride than he is having to record any of the dialogue that clues us in on his protagonist's big score (namely to import "the best shit in town... rocks and lumps as big as marble") or making dramatically involving those tryingly long scenes in which the gathered pimps, hustlers and junkies strike the requisite poses. Even approached as a character study, it's still variable, with a few grace notes scattered here and there, chiefly Curtis Mayfield's timelessly funky score - knowing and playing to its strengths, the film stops the action altogether at one point to accommodate a live performance of "Pusher Man" - and a strange, erotic encounter in a bubble bath that provides some brief, temporary relief from the surrounding one-note snapshots of a resolutely grimy, wholly unromantic New York. 

Super Fly is currently unavailable on DVD.

Friday, 26 August 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of August 19-21, 2016:
1 (2) Finding Dory (U) ***
2 (1) Suicide Squad (15)
3 (new) David Brent: Life on the Road (15)
4 (3) Jason Bourne (12A) ***
5 (4) The BFG (PG)
6 (new) Lights Out (15)
7 (6) Pete's Dragon (PG)
8 (new) Swallows and Amazons (PG)
9 (new) Nine Lives (PG)
10 (9) Star Trek: Beyond (12A) ***


My top five:   
1 (new) The Jungle Book (PG) **
2 (1) Zootropolis (PG) ****
3 (5) Eye in the Sky (15) ***
4 (2) Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
5 (3) Deadpool (15)
6 (4) London Has Fallen (15)
7 (6) Allegiant (12)
8 (7) The Revenant (15) ***
9 (8) Grimsby (15)
10 (9) The Big Short (15) ***

My top five:  
1. The Pearl Button
2. Weiner
3. Knight of Cups
4. Midnight Special
5. The Hard Stop

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Schindler's List (Monday, five, 10.05pm)
2. The Bourne Ultimatum (Saturday, ITV1, 9.30pm)
3. Shine (Thursday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
4. Hot Tub Time Machine (Saturday, C4, 11.05pm)
5. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Saturday, BBC1, 11.50pm)  

"Kids in Love" (Guardian 26/08/16)

Kids in Love ***
Dir: Chris Foggin. With: Will Poulter, Alma Jodorowsky, Sebastian De Souza, Cara Delevingne. 87 mins. Cert: 15 

As the kids in question emerge from the trust-funded Gabriels and Violas of West London, some might take this handsome YA romance as further evidence of creative-industry elitism. Chris Foggin’s first feature nevertheless retains two highly favourable elements. Will Poulter is typically no-nonsense as the Portobello Road set’s own Ben Braddock, drifting from his straight-edge lifepath under the influence of worldly Parisian Evelyn (Alma Jodorowsky); Foggin’s fondly satirical eye, meanwhile, permits these characters their moment among the Notting Hill carnival crowds, while spotting how frivolous, lost and isolated they are elsewhere. (Money here affords mobility, not happiness.) Despite the credible evocation of this milieu – including a sparky Cara Delevingne as the most prominent sofa-surfer – it needed a touch more narrative oomph to hasten it past its final-reel moping. Yet it remains a sincere, sweet-minded venture: one of those debuts where characters and filmmakers alike appear to be finding themselves before your very eyes.

Kids in Love opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

"Mechanic: Resurrection" (Guardian 26/08/16)

Mechanic: Resurrection **
Dir: Dennis Gansel. With: Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones, Michelle Yeoh. 99 mins. Cert: 15
2011’s The Mechanic, a carefully calibrated remake of the Charles Bronson hitman thriller, presented as a notable development in Jason Statham’s transition from hired muscle to self-made leading man. This humdrum spot of repeat business ditches the definite article, and with it much of the precision and gravity. Formerly a meticulous one-off, Statham’s Bishop now looks more like another cut-price Bond, obliged to assemble his own lethal weapons while drifting through exotic Pacific locales in a dreary opening travelogue. Matters pick up with the three hits Bishop undertakes to rescue bikini-clad aid worker Jessica Alba: there’s an ingenious kill involving a rooftop pool, and it’s amusing watching Tommy Lee Jones’ return to Under Siege styling as an eccentric arms dealer. We’re stuck with a nondescript Mr. Big, however, and the perfunctory action climaxes with a submarine-base shootout that screams “direct-to-DVD”. The Stath, alas, is following orders throughout: given his revelatory comic turn in last year’s Spy, he may yet return to material that allows him to raise smiles and smash heads, but this shrugging afterthought isn’t it. 

Mechanic: Resurrection is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Bad Moms" (Guardian 26/08/16)

Bad Moms **
Dirs: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore. With: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate. 100 mins. Cert: 15
The assumption here may be that Hangover scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have lazily passed their signature middling-to-lojinks through screenwriting software that switches gendered pronouns. Actually, Bad Moms risks occasioning a different kind of insult, timidly redacting the raucousness lest it scare anybody off. Mila Kunis’s PTA refuseniks thus gain self-knowledge within a soft-focus Mommiverse reminiscent of the average Hallmark movie: a hoodie-clad Kristen Bell’s penis impersonation is as off-the-leash as it gets. (Network TV’s Mom is filthier.) Reduced expectations will help – the leads wring odd snickers from second-rate material – but with its bland blasts of chart pop, it’s less riot-grrrl provocation than sporadically rowdy coffee morning.

Bad Moms is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Chameleon: "Gary Numan: Android in La-La Land"

As befits its subject, everything about Steve Read and Rob Alexander's documentary Gary Numan: Android in La-La Land is slightly off. Numan himself freely admits to camera he wasn't the first serious young man to turn his hand to alienated synth pop, nor the best - Kraftwerk might well lay claim to both of those titles - nor, really, the sexiest; fame, he confesses, left him even more baffled and panicked than he already was, obliging him to retreat to a bedsit where an inflatable dinghy served as the sofa and he could subsist chiefly on a diet of oven chips. Numan's current domestic life, as presented here, appears scarcely less off-the-wall. If there's one thing Smash Hits' plethora of Numan Facts taught us - other than the singer's standing alongside Bruce Dickinson among the licensed pilots of rock - it's that our Gary married superfan Gemma, who told her school careers advisor she didn't need a job, because she was going to marry Gary Numan. Reader, she did, and - rather wonderfully - the pair are still together, despite her tendency to mock him as a scaredy-cat for ducking the Paranormal Activity series of films. A further level of insider commentary comes care of the pair's adorable young daughters, who tease daddy for dying his hair Goth-black. Very quickly, you sense this is not going to be another of those musical vanity projects.

From a career perspective, the Numan who Read and Alexander joined in late 2012 is entering into a transitional phase: with the fresh ideas he nudged into the charts 35 years ago having long since been absorbed into the mainstream (hey there, Two-Thirds-Good Sugababes!), he's faced with a stark choice: go round and round on the emergent 1980s nostalgia circuit, or - building on the kudos being dispatched his way by such electronica trailblazers as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails - to strike out into fresh new territory. The latter would be a challenge for most musicians approaching their mid-fifties, doubly so for one who admits to being somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and clearly relishes the comforts of home. It is, nevertheless, a challenge Numan and family embrace, in relocating from leafy Virginia Water, Surrey - the clan's base for the past few decades - to sun-blanched California. One wonders whether this will become a familiar sight in post-Brexit documentary cinema: creatives packing up and moving elsewhere.

What we get here, then, is a Numan overview: not technically a retrospective - an approach that might well have been overruled by the film's forward-looking subject - but a snapshot of the artist as a newly middle-aged man. Read and Alexander's wry approach to this portrait means some of what follows can't help but remind viewers of TV's The Osbournes: here is Gemma on her hands and knees, bleaching the cat piss off the curtains in her mansion, here is Gary making a fumbling attempt to solder the motherboard of a malfunctioning hard drive. The pair's bantering affection - "Have you got an A-to-Z on how to put me down?" - is very Ozzy and Sharon, certainly, yet it's obvious that the grounded Gemma is the rock that allows her husband to attempt this giant leap; while he's away operating on another musical planet eight-to-ten hours a day, she can rightly lay claim to being the singer's terra firma. Numan himself is disarmingly candid: there's a sensitivity and a directness about him that makes him a compelling interview subject, particularly when discussing his family's financial fluctuations, and his own struggles with antidepressants. 

This willingness to lay bare his own workings allows Android to better address the question of what makes a musician tick - especially one for whom every step of the recording process exists as a potential source of anxiety. The detailed chapter on how Numan puts a track together chimes very favourably with those resonant in-studio scenes in the recent Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy in demonstrating to those clothears among us how even the strangest and most otherworldly of tunes needs to be assembled, one note at a time, by some presiding creative intelligence, the way you or I might fix a sandwich for lunch. With the emphasis placed firmly on Numan's 2013 comeback album "Splinter", Read and Alexander can make an editorial point of the fact we barely hear a thing of the one-two ("Are 'Friends' Electric?" and "Cars") which made the singer a star: the implication is that there's more to Numan than his past, and that he's a more interesting and innovative figure than those hits - standards as they've become - might imply. If the documentarists joined Numan at a point of transition, they leave him in a far happier, creatively fruitful place - and what's in between does much to establish a safe space for its subject in the contemporary repertoire.

Gary Numan: Android in La-La Land opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.    

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

From the archive: "The Mechanic"

The Mechanic (15) ***
Directed by: Simon West
Starring: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland


Jason Statham’s reliably furrowed brow gets a thorough workout in this generally efficient remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle; one suspects he won’t be the only onlooker baffled by the multiple-crosses playing out here. For starters, there’s no plausible reason for Statham’s hired assassin Bishop to off his own wheelchair-bound go-between (Sutherland) in the opening moments, save to get the plot off with a bang. Out of guilt, Bishop adopts his former employer’s unruly offspring (Foster) as a partner – and while the lad’s aim improves rapidly, his ultimate target remains whoever killed his pa.

There’s not much humour, and little place for women, either, save to pop their heads up (and tops off) every now and again to prove the deadly bromance goes only so far. Yet Brit director West, formerly a blow-it-all-to-hell merchant (Con Air), devotes himself to the intricacies of the hit, sketching neat thumbnails of Bishop’s victims, and ratcheting up the tension when Foster fumbles a bolt at the scene of one assignment. It’s nuts-and-bolts action cinema, indeed, of the kind that does a job come Saturday night: on the Stath-o-meter, nothing so delirious as Crank, but a marked improvement on the Transporters.

(January 2011)

The Mechanic is available on DVD through Momentum Pictures; a sequel, The Mechanic: Resurrection, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.