Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Faltered states: "Synchronic"

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are the indie writer-directors who announced themselves via a run of genre-twisting puzzle pieces: to a degree, these were something like Christopher Nolan only without the fuss or budget, and with at least a little more human interest. Their best film remains 2014's
Spring, which pursued the young-Americans-in-Europe trope into genuinely fresh and surprising territory, though some admired 2017's (to these eyes, self-conscious) cult-movie-about-a-cult The Endless. Their latest, Synchronic, has a set-up you could imagine a more illustrious studio production running with: a laddish pair of paramedics - ever-tailchasing Steve (Anthony Mackie) and listlessly settled Dennis (Jamie Dornan) - are summoned to an increasingly bizarre series of callouts linked to the titular new designer drug. Yet Moorhead and Benson develop their material laterally, and in a way that might well seem counterintuitive, forsaking cheap thrills in favour of cultivating a heavy, brooding atmosphere. Every dingy, rundown flophouse the crew relocates to gets misted up; Mackie's Steve, who just so happens to be dying from a brain tumour, is invited to quote from a letter Einstein wrote to a deceased friend's wife. This is a trip movie, then, but it's a trip movie labouring under a bad case of brainiac strain: I can understand why my Guardian colleague Peter Bradshaw lost all patience with it, and there are stretches - particularly early on and towards the end - where I think I, too, might have preferred to be watching Bradley Cooper in Limitless

One perma-niggling limitation: neither Mackie nor Dormer are quite as dynamic as they need to be - rather than "Synchro", they need speed, or a dose of whatever Nic Cage was snorting through Bringing Out the Dead - though it hardly helps the performers' cause that these medic bros appear far more interested in themselves than they are in anybody else around them. (The plot boils down to Steve solving Dennis's problem, rather than anybody addressing the casualties flooding ERs in the present-day.) What diverted me for at least some of the running time were the budget-defying setpieces, which amplify the way the drug erodes linear time and space: thus Mackie can be seen sitting on his sofa one moment, and wind up being chased through swampland by crocodiles and conquistadors the next. This second act, which is basically the Falcon tripping his balls off while zipping around the universe, is where Synchronic belatedly and briefly starts to fizz; once Steve uses this pharmacological superpower to access and start tinkering with formerly sealed-off parts of the plot, however, the exhilaration wanes, and the directors resort to overthinking once again. What they're puzzling over here - and it's a puzzle even they can't solve this time - is the correct ratio of profundity to momentum; it's how much ambition, characterisation and fragmentation a B-movie plot can bear before it buckles under the weight. As an experiment, Synchronic never takes; but I see that its chief scientists are now headed for the MCU - they're overseeing the TV spin-off Moon Knight - so perhaps the bigger puzzle of converting pulp into a viable career has been solved for them. Hey-ho.

Synchronic will be available to rent from Friday.

From the archive: "Crimson Peak"

Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s first horror movie since Pan’s Labyrinth, is a pretty, self-reflexive – and pretty self-reflexive – item: both a story about stories, and the limitations of fiction to protect us from the predations of the real world, and a beautiful film about beauty, and how susceptible we are to it. It joins Inherent Vice, and perhaps even this week’s The Lobster, as the work of a director wearing their broken heart very much on their sleeve.

In 19th century New York, Mia Wasikowska’s aspirant writer Edith Cushing – younger viewers may need schooling in the reference – churns out tales haunted by the ghost of a mother who died young. The entire direction of her life changes upon the arrival of Tom Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet courting Edith’s father to invest in his plans to mine the red clay under the ancestral home he shares back in Cumberland with brooding sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

One look at the siblings’ rare combo of clothes and cheekbones, and you can see why the solitary Edith might fall for them, and turn to them for shelter after her father’s mysterious death: their Allendale Hall holds the exotic appeal of a Northanger Abbey, no matter that it proves a dusty, rusty pile scattered with dead bugs and sinking into said clay. Thus does del Toro’s tale offer its first lesson – that that which appears desirable can conceal nowt but rot – while bidding for every production design award going over the coming months.

What follows there has obvious Gothic antecedents: a touch of Rebecca in the vast portraits mounted over the staircase, a dash of Bluebeard in the basement’s bubbling clay pools. The casting of Wasikowska would appear a nod to both Jane Eyre and Stoker, the movies’ last Gothic fable to boast such conspicuous and consummate stylisation. Yet this is no mere pastiche. Del Toro absorbs all these influences, before going his own way: a heightened, very 21st century violence makes us feel the loss of key characters more keenly yet.

On the other hand, the plot mechanics are overlaid with tenderness and nuance. Hiddleston’s Sharpe is hardly some heartless, moustache-twirling bounder: the actor brings such remarkable subtlety to the arriviste’s first rejection of Edith – telling her she’s no good as a writer, in order to pocket the cheque her father has promised him – that it almost looks and sounds like constructive criticism, offered in the hope of making a loved one an even better scribe. Or was I, too, being fooled? (A punchline, buried in the closing credits, suggests not.)

She only belatedly recognises it, but Edith, throughout, is surrounded by protectors, inserted by a writer-director keener to watch over his heroine than put her through the mill: her late mother’s spirit, a hideous apparition who proves to have her child’s best interests at heart (“Beware of Crimson Peak!”), an American suitor investigating her father’s demise (Charlie Hunnam, much improved since Pacific Rim), and eventually the ghosts of this house, too, where even a gathering pool of snow comes to provide a soft landing amid the extraction of hard and ugly truths.

Del Toro makes great play of mirroring the mining going on outdoors – slowly bringing the paydirt to the surface – with that going on inside: Edith shuttling up and down in Allendale Hall’s lift, encountering hidden chambers, locked chests, wax cylinders with their own stories to tell. On form, as he is here, this filmmaker is one of the few to be as interested in the baroque possibilities of narrative as he is in those of design; his latest offers the pleasure of seeing a mystery being located, excavated and dusted down for all the world to see.

If that process isn’t as devastating as Pan’s Labyrinth, that may be down to the studio universe del Toro is now operating within: the final act is but a clever runaround, steered towards a happy ending. Yet it remains a work of notable craft and vision, hitting the story beats with style while generating images that look to have leapt fully formed from the del Toro imagination, onto his sketchpad, thence the screen. After several wobbly steps into blockbuster territory, it’s reassuring to see the director of Cronos making his own kind of movie with a whole lot more money.

(MovieMail, September 2015)

Crimson Peak screens on Channel 4 at 1.45am.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The Truman show: "The Capote Tapes"

This is becoming a trope: the theatrical documentary that depends for its existence on the discovery of previously unheard audio recordings. (The pick of these remains Stevan Riley's Brando doc Listen to Me Marlon; more recently, we've had James Erskine's Billie.) In the case of this week's The Capote Tapes, director Ebs Burnough has secured access to conversations the revered journo George Plimpton recorded with Truman Capote shortly before the latter's passing in 1984; these would eventually form the basis of Plimpton's 1997 biography Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. The key question is what any such film has to offer visually beyond stills of the author hobnobbing with highfliers and stock shots of tape spools going round and round. In theory, at least, we're getting a more complete picture of the life than was put forth by those celebrated biopics from the first decade of this century, compiled not just from those tapes, but disparate sources besides: archive footage that confirms that the actual Capote looked far more like Toby Jones than Philip Seymour Hoffman, scenes from the movies that leapt on the author's books and made him a household name.

Yet the gaps in this account tend to be filled with talk rather than telling images. Alternating artlessly between its supplementary interviewees (Colm Tóibín, insightful on Capote's methods; an antsily jovial Jay McInerney; former Vogue supremo André Leon Talley), this is a story being told rather than illustrated, and then told with a prosaic flatness that undercuts even the film's notional revelations. Sidebars on the probability of Holly Golightly being a romanticised portrait of the author's own mother and Capote's final, unpublished tell-all manuscript are afforded the same time and weight as a chapter on a masked ball; Burnough is caught gabbling past the more intriguing material in a bid to condense this life into a somewhat squat, TV-ready 90 minutes. As a unifying concept, Plimpton's tapes offer the advantage of direct recollection, but they're having to compete with a lot of other chatter, and don't - can't - add anything to the visual palette. (Again, we cut back to those endlessly revolving tape spools.) I can see the appeal these tapedocs have for some filmmakers, in that half the spadework of laying down storybeats will have already been done for them. The trouble with them as films is that, handled indifferently, they can all too easily resemble radio documentaries that have taken a wrong turn to reach us.

The Capote Tapes will be available to rent from Friday.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Capital punishments: "Citadel"

Here's an early contender for comeback of the year. Citadel is a typically stimulating 20-minute dispatch from the British artist and filmmaker John Smith, director of 1976's great, funny, endlessly teachable structuralist short The Girl Chewing Gum. There are unexpected similarities between the two works, not least how they invite us to look upon London in longshot, although in the far more pointed Citadel, we're very quickly made aware that this is an enforced longshot: the familiar skyline of Gherkin, Shard et al. as viewed from the artist's flat over the first months of the 2020 lockdown. Having locked off that camera position, Smith began working (from home) on his soundtrack, deconstructing and remixing a series of public pronouncements by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, beginning with a February 2020 speech in which he set out his vision of making the UK the Superman of free trade. (With the country languishing in a post-Brexit impasse of its own making heading into February 2021, those words sound even emptier.) That the two positions - geographical and political - are linked is eventually made explicit by a visual effect that suggests one building (not the Walkie Talkie, oddly) is broadcasting Johnson's voice to the world; Smith's thesis is that this PM speaks for business, and for the "business as usual" mindset that has held such deleterious sway over Conservative policy during the pandemic. Still, as a dagger-sharp footnote slipped into the end credits notes, the party's brains trust has overseen not just Europe's highest death rate per capita but also the country's deepest recession in living memory. The 40% still claiming they'd re-elect jolly old Boris in a heartbeat can cling to their talking point: oh come on, they're doing their best in difficult circumstances. Smith, watching on silently from the margins, shows us what a skyline - and a country - starts to look like when a ruling party's best just isn't good enough.

Something more specific, too: what it looks and sounds like then a special interest - really no more than a fetish for finances, a purse-string kink - is allowed to warp beyond the usual parameters. Visually, Citadel expands the idea of major metropolitan emptiness expressed in such lockdown artefacts as Netflix's Homemade, although the old-school Smith never resorts to droneshot cliche: his point is that this latest, ongoing lack of movement, the near-complete absence of mobility, may just be the logical endpoint of ten years of Old Etonian rule, what the Bullingdon Boys were hoping for all along. This London is a grey, cold, steely place, devoid of the colour and life people bring with them to any given location (here, Citadel deviates more or less entirely from The Girl Chewing Gum's glorious street scenes); when we do spy Smith's neighbours - glimpsed in passing through illuminated windows, Rear Window-style - they appear newly boxed-in, imprisoned as per that choice title. The city's skyscrapers have become its overlords, ugly, hollow, misshapen lumps of capital, dumped (and dumping) on a population whether or not it wants, likes or needs them. I watched Citadel on the morning it was leaked to the Government's pet right-wing media outlets that this current lockdown - the third such - could be lifted as early as next month, even as our hospitals continue to struggle to meet the elevated demand for ICU beds. That's business as usual, and doubtless the Wetherspoons crowd and the country's ghastliest columnists and phone-in hosts will be delighted if that does indeed come to pass. (It wouldn't be the first time Johnson's cabinet has turned a blind eye to the science. As Michael Gove infamously said at the height of Brexit mania in 2016, Britain has had enough of experts.) But how many more loved ones will have to die before we collectively learn the lesson here? Covid-19 - reported to have first taken hold in a direly underregulated marketplace, you'll remember - is but a symptom. The real killer remains morbid capitalism, and those doing their level best to assist its spread.

Citadel is now streaming via MUBI UK. 

On demand: "The Dig"

The rules state it's not awards season without at least one well-dressed but emotionally inert British period drama in the mix. (It's just about the only thing we have left to export.) This year, Netflix has thrown its ever more considerable weight behind The Dig, a film of John Preston's 2007 novel about the real-life Sutton Hoo excavation of 1939, adapted by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe, the 2011 Jane Eyre) and directed by Simon Stone (The Daughter). To some degree, it's unusual material, as Preston's focal point wasn't a country manse but a field in Suffolk, some distance beyond anybody's back garden. It's here we watch disparate souls converge. Firstly, there is the widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who thinks this field might be hiding something of note, and the solitary archaeologist, Basil Brown, she calls in to investigate further. Even the positive references Mrs. Pretty obtains describes Brown as "difficult", which makes this a perfect role for Ralph Fiennes, his air of recessive reluctance only mildly tempered by an Adge Cutler accent and a Hulot-like pipe. Soon, it becomes clear that no film this year will be more aptly titled. Basil's initial dig turns up nothing very much; yet when he digs some more, he turns up some old Anglo-Saxon wood. Committing anew to his task, Basil resumes digging, and after a brief, rapidly overcome setback - digging so fast he causes a collapse that nearly does for him - he digs up evidence of an old Anglo-Saxon ship. So he digs some more, and when he gets tired of digging, he recruits a team of helping hands to take up the trowel, including a Rugged Type (Johnny Flynn) and a tweedy couple in matching shell-rimmed specs (Ben Chaplin and Simperin' Lily James). That's right: Netflix have only gone and thrown millions at a medium-screen reboot of Tony Robinson's Time Team.

Now: what you need to know about The Dig going in is that it heralds from a country that for decades has devoted no small part of its Sunday night television schedule to a grey thing called Antiques Roadshow, where crowds gather in the grounds of stately homes they wouldn't ordinarily be allowed near to watch experts evaluating relics belonging to individuals who scarcely appear much younger than the objects they're touting. To this day, I remain unable to watch even fifteen seconds of this loathsome, backward irrelevance without feeling my hair turning white and my arteries hardening over. (Just a few notes of the theme tune's twee awfulness is enough to remind me of the doldrums of a Sunday evening, and make me panic that I haven't complete my school homework assignments.) Brits remain suckers for their own history, as recent political events and TV hits have underlined, and The Dig is clearly digging with an eye to tapping this lucrative vein of self-regard. But I'm not at all sure the film ever gets much beyond surface-deep, and the insights this dig unearths are of negligible value. "It speaks, dunnit - the past," grumps Basil, in one of those Lines of Significant Dialogue that probably sound more profound in the context of a trailer. I mean: yeah, clearly it does to some. Yet I would wager there are many more of us who've spent the best part of the past decade wishing it would just shut the hell up every once in a while.

Stone has a few elegant visual tricks on standby to liven up the fusty, stuffy milieu he finds himself working within. He's a big fan of overhead shots that further isolate his lonely leads, or define the furrows they're working within. And as The Dig expands into more of an ensemble piece - an Archaeologists Assemble - it succeeds in opening up small pockets of eccentric life. I enjoyed Ken Stott as a bowtied representative of the prestigious Ipswich Museum, threatening to trample all over the burial site. ("You can't come in here!," Basil grumps at him. "Not a man of your size.") Yet these are few and far between, and outnumbered by episodes of Atonement-level English Ridiculousness: a suppressed homoerotic moment as two of the more sketchily defined diggers glance over at each other's tools, Chaplin going into spluttering mode after he walks in on Simperin' Lily in the bath. Clearly, one or more of the producers felt there was too much digging in places, and so they've prodded Buffini into inserting some contrived action: Basil realising he's forgotten to throw a tarpaulin over the site mid-rainstorm, a huge fuss as a fighter plane goes down in an adjacent river. In Preston's book, all this might have served as scene-setting context; here, these episodes are offered as zero-to-low-octane distraction from the unavoidable truth that this is fundamentally a film about people digging themselves ever deeper into a hole in pursuit of what we already know is there. As a non-motion picture, it's all but a dead loss; but as a film-metaphor for Brexit Britain, The Dig is pretty much unimprovable.

The Dig will be available to stream on Netflix from Friday.

Friday, 22 January 2021

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week beginning January 22, 2021):

1 (new) Citadel (uncertificated) **** (MUBI)
2 (new) 76 Days (12) **** (Prime Video, Curzon, BFI Player, Dogwoof on Demand)
3 (new) Quo Vadis, Aida? (uncertificated) **** (Curzon)
4. Archive (15) **** (Prime Video)
5. Dear Comrades (12A) **** (Curzon)
6 (new) Baby Done (15) *** (Prime Video, Curzon)
7 (new) About Some Meaningless Events (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
8. MLK/FBI (12) *** (Prime Video, Curzon, BFI Player, Dogwoof on Demand)
9. Ham on Rye (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
10. The Basilisks (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) Bill & Ted Face the Music (PG)
2 (2) Tenet (12) **
3 (1The New Mutants (15)
4 (6) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
5 (4) Roald Dahl's The Witches (PG)
6 (7) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
7 (10) The Greatest Showman (PG)
8 (9) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
9 (8) Little Women (U) ****
10 (17) Le Mans '66 (12) ***

My top five: 
1. Shirley

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Election [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 12midnight)
2. Crimson Peak (Wednesday, C4, 1.45am)
3. The Man in the Iron Mask (Sunday, five, 3.25pm)
4. Raging Bull (Saturday, ITV, 10.55pm)
5. Young Guns (Friday, BBC1, 11.35pm)

When words fail: "Quo Vadis, Aida?"

The Sarajevo-born writer-director Jasmila Zbanic has marked the 25th anniversary of the siege of Srebenica, that defining moment in the Balkan conflict, with Quo Vadis, Aida?, a film about a woman in the very middle of the middle of it. A teacher in peacetime, the eponymous heroine (Jasna Đuričić) has been recruited locally to interpret for the UN in their negotiations between the two factions. It's a crucial role: she doesn't just get to sit in the room, she also plays an active part in attempting to secure and reshape the region's future, determining what requires translation and what's best left unrepeated in the interests of keeping the lines of communication open. Very quickly, we pick up the stress involved; it's hardly a surprise Aida is most often observed with a cigarette on the go. The grave pressure doesn't relent once negotiations break down and the shelling begins, displacing thousands from their homes. One of Aida's sons makes it inside the UN's compound, hastily converted into a shelter, before the barriers come down; but the other is shut out, along with his father Nihad (Izudin Bajrovic). The method Aida alights upon to restore family unity is inventive, opportunistic and perhaps a little underhand - in other words, exactly the kind of choice people make in life-or-death situations. How wise it is will be called into question, minute-by-minute, scene-by-scene, as this situation develops. History tells us the siege will end badly. (A closing caption tallies the death count: 8,372.) What's up in the air for the duration of Zbanic's film is what exactly the damage will look like.

It's a thriller, then, but not one of those fun ones that steer us towards a final righting of wrongs and an unambiguously happy and reassuring ending. No, this is one of those thrillers - horror-thrillers, perhaps - which fill you with uncertainty and nag away at your guts. As if the wider tension of the negotiations failing wasn't enough, Aida finds herself zigzagging between stonefaced factions of men in military garb, and set upon by the refugee contingent - which includes many of her friends and neighbours - who attribute to her a power she doesn't really have within the UN chain of command. At best, she's a hired hand; at worst - and everything here tends to lean in that direction - she's apt to be regarded by the warring factions as one of them, innately compromised and therefore just about as disposable as anybody else on site. The advantage the character presents as a heroine is that she has mobility and access. Unlike those friends and neighbours, left sitting in place for much of these 100 minutes, caught between a rock and a hard place before finally being marched along straight lines towards their historical destiny, Aida has workarounds, ways out - or at least she thinks she does. That's enough to keep the film moving, even if it's just around the grimly functional interiors of the overrun, increasingly embattled compound.

Zbanic stages her crowd scenes - boasting hundreds of extras, representing the thousands of lives at stake in Srebenica - with great assurance, and adds a subtly affecting coda that gestures towards what it must have been like to live on in a country that was no longer recognisable; that appeared to have moved on, with so much business left unfinished and so many questions left unanswered. Yet our eyes are continually drawn towards this one representative woman, treading water in the midst of deadly sociopolitical turbulence. Keeping a schoolmarm's wits about her, Aida sees what's coming down the line when one faction sends bread to feed the refugees and buses to round them up; from a soldier's casually loaded inquiry about her son, she senses some personal animus is being pursued here, and that it's likely to end in bloodshed. She's certainly more alert than her UN colleagues, depicted as either wet-liberal soft touches or wet-nosed kids, hopelessly out of their depth when confronted by the grizzled war machines who swagger into shot, chief among them Ratko Mladic (Boris Izakovic). But this was one of those occasions where to be ahead of the game provided no consolation: Đuričić gives off a harried, nervous energy that transmits all too easily to the viewer. This would not be a good film to put yourself in front of if your New Year's resolution was to give up smoking - but it's a powerful one in many other respects. Zbanic eventually answers the question framed by her own title with a rare moral clarity and force. Where were the Balkans headed circa 1995? Towards outrage, carnage, infamy; towards images that require no translation whatsoever.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is available to stream from today via Curzon Home Cinema.