Thursday, 21 February 2019

Prince charming: "The Kid Who Would Be King"

Here's a funny thing: Joe Cornish, the tall, skinny one who made skits with plush toys on The Adam & Joe Show, has spent a small number of 20th Century Fox's millions on making a Brexit movie for kids. (This follows 2011's action-comedy Attack the Block, where Cornish pitched an alien invasion into inner-city tensions that preempted that summer's London riots.) Arthurian legend would appear to have returned to the forefront of our creatives' imagination in recent times, perhaps with good reason: it offers a vision of a kingdom "divided, fearful, leaderless", as an early line in The Kid Who Would Be King has it. The twist Cornish puts on the legend is to make the chosen one who pulls the sword from the stone and then unites warring factions against the wicked Morgana a bullied kid: Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Lorraine and Andy's very likeable son), whose walk to school from his one-parent household on Malory Lane sees him bypassing rows of closed shops, headlines reporting infighting in Westminster, and huddling homeless people. Faced with the responsibility of banishing evil and restoring the country to working order, our boy feels obliged to point out "I'm twelve! I'm not even old enough to do a paper round."

Cornish, for his part, is of a generation just old enough to remember the days when the output of the Children's Film Foundation - matinee timekillers such as 1970's Egghead's Robot, starring the young Keith Chegwin - was still a mainstay of the British cinema circuit; some of that influence has clearly lingered. Initially, Kid can seem a touch constrained. It's a small enough production for real care and attention to have been lavished on its visual effects: trees that uproot themselves to fight Alex and his pals, skeletal warriors, a young Merlin (Angus Imrie, a potentially great screen eccentric in the making) who shapeshifts into first a moulting owl, then an equally dishevelled Patrick Stewart. Yet the live-action, analogue scenes have a distinctly televisual look, doggedly staking out the backstreets of Harrow. (You can see immediately why the film nosedived upon its US release last month: it's self-evidently the product of a country looking in the mirror, talking to itself, fighting its own battles.) Once it leaves the suburbs behind, however, setting out on a thinly disguised Megabus down Tintagel way for a second act training mission, the film expands beyond modestly diverting and starts charming our socks off.

I began beaming around the time of the Adam Buxton cameo, and the smile didn't leave me through the raid on a seaside amusement arcade ("Cameslots") to fund a shopping spree for armour, and grew wider still during the journey to the centre of the Earth - lair of this version's Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson, ever the signifier of budgetary limitation, but more interesting as a vengeful harpy than she's ever been as a love interest) - with its fun Marcus Rowland production design. Perhaps there's an element of overreach in the way it shoots past the logical CFF ending (which arrives bang on the 90-minute mark) and onto a full-on VFX fest come the actual final reel; Fox (and possibly Cornish himself?) may have conceived of this as a project bigger than its natural shape. If nothing here has the grabby, ready-made cult appeal Attack the Block possessed in spades, the storytelling carrying everyone from A to B is far more consistent and better developed than it was there: a decade of script-doctoring in the Hollywood saltmines has served Cornish well. There will be less satisfying movies around to take your youngsters to this half-term, or to discover alongside them after it's been shunted onto the streaming services - and who knows, maybe one of those youngsters will be the one to lead us out of the state we're in?

The Kid Who Would Be King is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Dead again: "Happy Death Day 2U"

Repetition was an inbuilt feature of 2017's Happy Death Day, the (mildly) gory Groundhog Day riff in which college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) tried to find a way out of the timeloop that saw her repeatedly knifed to death by a killer wearing a babyface mask. Repeat exposure, with this week's Happy Death Day 2U, reveals this as a franchise keen to be pretty much anything other than the slasher fare it first presented as. The original was part-Mean Girls comedy - the cattiness of its inspiration pushed a little further into stabbiness - and part-parable of self-improvement, with the rhythms and punchline of a well-told joke: it was an enjoyable ride, but unlikely to trouble the sleepover crowd beyond its 93 minutes. With this month's Netflix sensation Russian Doll muscling into similar territory, the sequel takes on inflections of science fiction, finding its way back into Tree's predicament via Ryan (Phi Vu), the seemingly dimbulb Asian bro who dubbed our heroine "fine vagine" last time round; here, he's revealed to be the mastermind behind some particle accelerator doohickey that was responsible for the blackouts, and perhaps the events, of the first movie. HDD2U picks up where that film ended, then cycles backwards, replaying scenes and stretches of dialogue from new angles; it occasions the kind of plot that may only make complete sense with a very large pinboard and lots and lots of string, but which gets tidied away on screen with the assistance of a cafeteria napkin.

The pleasures of this series reside in that ability to flex and pivot casually between realities, genres and reference points. Tree's curly-haired beau Carter (Israel Broussard) cites Back to the Future Part II as precedent at an early juncture, though HDD2U more closely resembles a Looney Tunes version of Inception (also namechecked), breezing blithely through those elements of theoretical plotting Christopher Nolan built into a grandiose vision, and simply shrugging and starting from scratch whenever one or other of its characters meets their maker. A second trip on this merry-go-round confirms Rothe as one of the more committed and capable heroines in recent teen horror: she makes very funny Tree's incandescent rage at having to revisit events she'd thought were behind her. (She's like a critic learning that a sequel has been made to their least favourite movie.) And while the character's relationship with a mother absent from the first movie has the air of a calculated demographic sop - part one presumably played well among daughters - it's played with a sincerity that makes it possibly the franchise's most surprising aspect to date.

There is, alas, a marked tail-off in energy and invention in the second half. Happy Death Day set out its logic, then stuck rigidly to it; it was mechanically efficient, a device to make the suggestible viewer jump in their seat and then giggle for having been such a silly sausage. HDD2U, by contrast, begins to shake and sputter around the hour mark: you catch it flapping around the margins of its own set-up, in a desperate attempt to keep an insanely complicated plot moving. A sequence of painfully unfunny slapstick recasting the sorority's queen bee-yotch Danielle (Rachel Matthews) as a Frenchwoman called Amélie Le Pew is followed by a limp wrap-up, and a sting for a third movie that suggests the valuable life lessons gained in the original are about to be thrown out in the name of franchise expansion. (The director, Paranormal Activity 5's Christopher Landon, has taken over scripting duties from the original's Scott Lobdell; it's by no means an improvement.) Perhaps the kids the series is aimed at will themselves shrug off this sudden dip in quality control, but just because a film's knowingly aiming for déjà vu, it doesn't mean you won't feel as if you've already paid for it, and what horror there is here still seems very mild, designed to cause a weekend spike in popcorn sales rather than anything in the way of lasting night terrors.

Happy Death Day 2U is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

On demand: "Happy Death Day"

Happy Death Day is another of Blumhouse's bright ideas: a gorier Groundhog Day, in which a young college student is knifed to death on her birthday and then wakes up to find herself replaying the same events with an eye to avoiding that grisly fate. (This set-up was arrived at a full year before the current Netflix hit Russian Doll.) As the narrative string theory unravels, clues get scattered across the screen, both as to why the heroine (Jessica Rothe) might be stuck in this timeloop (something to do with the rejection of her dormmate's birthday cupcake, or indeed any other show of affection?) and the identity of her killer; our girl gets first more freaked, then smarter with each iteration of the same events, learning to swerve the red herrings and dead ends in the realities presented to her. What the writer Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon have done is found a way around that old gripe that slasher movies basically consist of stupid people doing mindless things, by centring their action on a protagonist who has to draw on her experiences and raise her game in order to stay alive. (She even gets a shape-up montage set to Demi Lovato's "Confident".) 

In that slick Blumhouse fashion, it runs on casters, always sensing which realities are worth poking around in and which ones need whizzing through to cut to the punchline; it's nifty and fun, like a well-told joke. Is it scary? Not especially, being more beholden to Mean Girls than it is to The House on Sorority Row. Much as Scream (another inspiration) used its various blades to hack away at and better organise all that was unruly and disreputable about earlier slashers, Happy Death Day inserts a MBA-armed commercial savvy between itself and anything like primal fear. Instead, you find yourself smiling at the soundtrack's conspicuously tolling bells, and the fact the heroine, Teresa, is commonly known as Tree: she grows before our eyes, using her nine lives to become sex- and body-positive, and to work through her more toxic relationships. This push for affirmation feels novel for the genre, but it occasions some softening: it's very much a 15 certificate, and even the killer's disguise (a baby's face) isn't quite as terrifying looming out of the dark as Scream's Munch mask. Still, on some nuts-and-bolts level, it works - and it's as good a showcase for Rothe as Groundhog Day was for Bill Murray, obliging the actress to cycle through terror, incomprehension, acceptance and blithe indifference en route to self-knowledge and the one reality in which she isn't in some way wasted. It may be the closest anyone's got to making a Buddhist slasher flick, which explains its considerable charm and novelty value - but also goes some way to nailing its limitations.

Happy Death Day is available on DVD through Universal, and to purchase via Amazon Prime; a sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, is now in cinemas, and will be reviewed here tomorrow.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Strange developments: "Capernaum"

Nadine Labaki is the Lebanese writer-director who enjoyed an arthouse hit with her beauty-salon romcom Caramel back in 2007. A decade or so on, Labaki has returned to our screens with a film that scooped a Jury Prize at Cannes last year and at the very least has an immediate and not inconsiderable hook. In its opening minutes, Capernaum shows us a scrappy street kid (Zain Al Rafeea), barely older than ten, being dragged in cuffs into a courtroom and demanding he be allowed to sue his parents for divorce. OK, you say: I'm in. It arrives as a pretty colossal disappointment, then, that this pronouncement should only cue a long flashback that explains why this kid should have been pushed into this extreme stance: the long days of child labour in heat and rain, the nights of sleeping three or four to a bed, the draining efforts to protect a sister, herself barely fourteen, from a local shopkeeper's predations. These scenes are not without value as a guided tour of an unfamiliar place, and generate a certain energy and colour: after several handheld-shot skirmishes with Bad Mum and Dad, the kid absconds to a fairground and falls in with an Ethiopian single mum who doubles as a toilet attendant, Labaki letting her camera run as our boy feels his way into this new domestic set-up. Yet the point (life is hard) is made early on, and the more it gets underlined, highlighted, put in capital letters and then set in neon, the more the underlying structure seems neat, tidy and naggingly simplistic. Labaki forsakes the chaos of the title for something far more diagrammatic, photogenic and saleable. In an extended sidebar within the central flashback, we're shown how the kid becomes an impromptu guardian to the woman's toddler, a development that has nothing to do with the divorce proceedings, yet must occupy half the running time, purely as it gives a writer-director access to a certain symmetry: the boy who wants nothing to do with his parents caring for a kid who desperately needs one.

The framework placed around these plot turns is something like the arthouse equivalent of a superhero origin story, taking two hours to circle back around to the present tense, and thereby explaining exactly how the protagonist was toughened up. Labaki actually seems to be aware of this similarity, setting young Zain down on a bus next to an aged oddbod in a knock-off Spider-Man costume who calls himself Cockroach Man; our boy is presumably meant as the Cockroach Kid, hard-shelled and indestructible. Yet with his doe eyes and moptop hair, Al Rafeea is way too model-agency to convince as a down-and-dirty mite who grew up in the gutter; he's the poster boy for child poverty. Labaki made some of the right choices on set, which explains why you stick with it: individual scenes have a whirlwind urgency and spontaneity, catching even passers-by up in the eye of the storm, and she delights in letting the kids run their mouths off at grown-ups and one another, which cuts through the sentimentality to some degree. (They really do say the funniest things.) But she's covering up the many ordinary - sometimes outright misguided - choices she made at the writing stage. You want to know what's going on between Zain and his birth parents back at the courtroom, source of Capernaum's most promising drama, and your hopes slowly fade as scene after scene in the flashback burps up no more than cutesy-poo neo-realism. By the time we get back before the judge, there's not enough time for anything other than dashed-through, phoney-seeming resolution, frantic gabbling meant to tie these events together in a heartwarming, tearjerking bow. Caramel was very enjoyable, and there remain elements to admire here, but it's been a long while since I saw a film that sets off this clearly down completely the wrong path.

Capernaum opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

1,001 Films: "Children of a Lesser God" (1986)

Children of a Lesser God is a film with its own inbuilt subtitle track, and a real, quality throwback: practically the only elements tying Randa Haines' drama to the 1980s are some period-specific dancing to Pointer Sisters tunes, and the fact we learn the sign language for "Terminator". Idealistic teacher James Leeds (William Hurt) arrives at a new school to apply his new-fangled methods - such as, gosh, music and swearing - to hard-of-hearing pupils. While helping his students find their voice, his attentions are drawn towards Sarah (Marlee Matlin), one of the brightest students the school's ever had, now languishing in her day job as janitor; she's profoundly deaf, and in most other senses, hard to get. As these two protagonists start to communicate in the language of love, some part of the film can't help but register as profoundly corny. The school appears to be cut off from the rest of the world on some grandly melodramatic Isle of the Soundless, while casting Piper Laurie as Sarah's mother feels like an unfortunate Carrie nod: you might well wonder what Sarah endured on prom night. Yet the second half subjects James and Sarah's relationship to a surprisingly tough examination, and even before then, it's evident that this cleverly scripted and performed weepie delivers an entirely different (more complete?) experience for those viewers with some knowledge of sign language. The key info signed by Sarah has to be released to non-signing viewers in other ways, chiefly by having Hurt translate, but also through Matlin's expressions and body language; it's a rare American movie where eyes and hands are as eloquent, and as graceful, as lips and tongues. 

If anything, the first half is hamstrung by its need to prove deaf people equivalent, to show that the deaf can be as smart, stubborn, foul-mouthed, loving or annoying (Hurt's class, especially so) as anybody else. Still, it seems fair that Sarah should be defined less by her deafness than by her treatment as a girl: in this light, her late-night skinnydipping isn't an attempt to immerse herself in silence (why would she need to?), but to wash away the sins of others in her past. What really hurt her wasn't those who lined up to take advantage of a girl who couldn't say no, but the fact no-one bothered to learn her language. That's the thing about relationships the film skewers: they cut both ways. It's a measure of Children's success that it might, in theory, still work as a relationship drama if every line were spoken out loud by protagonists with pitch-perfect hearing. The real difference between James and Sarah isn't how they hear, but the way in which they communicate: he in a constant babble, looking away from the intended recipient of his wisdom, carelessly throwing words away; she altogether more considered, from a place deep within her. The suggestion is, for all their flaws and whatever their afflictions, these might just be Everyman and Everywoman. Despite the actor's very best efforts, the plot insists Hurt - as a representative of the hearing world - is repeatedly made to look a fool, as though to cancel out his handsomeness and obvious suitability for Sarah's heart; it doesn't help that at least fifty percent of his dialogue is somebody else's. The same, however, never applies to Matlin, allowed to be wilful and even haughty without losing our sympathies. She didn't win the Oscar for playing disability; she won the Oscar for giving one of the most complex and expressive performances of that year, if not the decade.

Children of a Lesser God is available on DVD through Paramount.

Friday, 15 February 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 8-10, 2019:

1 (new) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***

2 (new) Alita: Battle Angel (12A)
3 (1) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
4 (2) Green Book (12A) **
5 (3Glass (15)
6 (5) Mary, Queen of Scots (12A) **
7 (4) Escape Room (15)
8 (6) Vice (15) ***
9 (7) Mary Poppins Returns (PG) ***
10 (new) All is True (12A)


Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (1) Venom (15)

2 (new) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
3 (2) The House with a Clock in its Walls (12)
4 (new) First Man (12) **
5 (3) The Predator (15)
6 (4The Greatest Showman (PG)
7 (8) King of Thieves (15)
8 (5Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
9 (new) Papillon (15)
10 (new) Bad Times at the El Royale (15) ****


Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Toy Story [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 5.10pm)
2. Williams: Formula 1 in the Blood (Saturday, BBC2, 9pm and Sunday, BBC2, 11.55pm)
3. Blades of Glory (Sunday, BBC1, 11.10pm)
4. Spy (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. The Simpsons Movie (Sunday, C4, 4.50pm)

"Instant Family" (Guardian 15/02/19)

Instant Family ***
Dir: Sean Anders. With: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz. 118 mins. Cert: 12A

Director Sean Anders has parlayed whatever goodwill he earned making those Daddy’s Home knockabouts with Mark Wahlberg into filming a light-comic illustrated lecture on the ups and downs of adoption. On paper, Instant Family sounds unapproachably mawkish: Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play Pete and Ellie, a Californian couple circling 40 whose tentative exploration of fostering brings three Latino waifs across their well-ordered threshold. In fact, the worst anyone could say about the finished feature is that it plays a tad square when set against the alternative parenting models US TV now routinely depicts. Very sweet, funny when it needs to be, and evidently drawn from personal experience, it’s not unlike an update of those slickly packaged Lowell Ganz/Babaloo Mandel comedies (Parenthood, City Slickers) that were once in Hollywood vogue.

Within a workable framing gag – that puppyish Pete and overthinker Ellie have no clue what they’re doing – Anders sets about bypassing everybody’s expectations and prejudices. White saviour complexes are shot down, with reference to Avatar, by dream-team care workers Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer; Wahlberg and Byrne, all easy if frazzled chemistry, admit they want nothing more than for their just-installed charges to reach moving-out age. That settling-in period falls between cacophonous and exhausting, as it may well be, yet Anders treats the kids as distinct organisms with issues that require attention, and his casting suggests its own support network. Force-of-nature Margo Martindale and an unimprovably spacey Julie Hagerty provide valuable assists and energy boosts as overnight grannies in a rare American comedy that unabashedly loves its mothers, whatever form they might take.

It doesn’t look like much more than four episodes of a network sitcom bolted together, a midfilm montage to George Harrison’s “What is Life” serving as the height of its cinematic ambition. And the crucial matter of resources has been slyly smoothed over: whatever the chaos wrought there, contractor Pete and the apparently jobless Ellie are blessed with the most aspirational breakfast nook of any onscreen couple since Hidden’s Binoche-Auteuil pairing. (It’s a stroke of supreme movie fortune that their home should be as big as their hearts.) Yet if it can’t entirely banish the spectre of 12A-rated blandness from its doorstep, Instant Family retains the obvious appeal of watching basically nice people attempt a fundamentally decent thing for a few hours. The shamelessly optimistic finale may even leave you with something in your eye, dammit. 

Instant Family is now playing in cinemas nationwide.