Sunday, 12 August 2018

1,001 Films: "Out of Africa" (1985)

Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack's stab at a long, widescreen, Oscar-snaffling David Lean movie, adapts Isak Dinesen (a.k.a Karen Blixen)'s autobiographical account of a Danish writer (Meryl Streep) who, unmarried and tired of the harsh Scandinavian winters, ended up on a farm in Kenya during the First World War, married to an aristocrat (Klaus-Maria Brandauer) yet rather taken by an English hunter (Robert Redford). Oddly, for a film released in 1985, their affair is conducted within the exact same moral strictures Lean was bristling up against in his Forties films, lessening any suggestion of adultery by making the Baron a jovial, philandering husband of convenience who keeps reminding his other half not to fall for him, and who's barely present in the marital home, save - at one point - as a nasty case of the clap. There's never really any question of who's going to gain our heroine's heart: Redford's so breezy he gets to keep his own accent, and the audience is invited to forgive him for it. 

With any other potential sources of tension or drama deferred to an unspecified point on the horizon - the farm's coffee crops take four years to grow, the war never reaches Kenya in any palpable form, and this Blixen has no deadlines to meet - and the substantial theme of ownership only raised with 45 minutes to go, it's left to Pollack to chuck extraordinary things at his leads (local wildlife, Masai warriors, STDs) in a bid to persuade us there might be anything at stake. (It remains the only film in history in which Meryl Streep is snarled at by a lioness and has to battle syphilis.) The equation - pretty music (John Barry) over pretty pictures of reasonably pretty people - yields another acceptable wallow, and certainly there's a lot less to object to here than there would be in the equally long, not incomparable Cold Mountain two decades later, though perhaps because there's much less to it full-stop, save a polite assertion that if you love something, you should set it free. (And Sting got there first.) I watched it on a Sunday afternoon, while drifting in and out of sleep, which felt about right.

Out of Africa is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

From the archive: "Wanted"

Everything there is to know about the attitudes of modern Hollywood towards its audience can be gleaned from the single line of dialogue that gives the tongue-in-cheek shoot-'em-up Wanted its tagline: "Six weeks ago, I was ordinary and pathetic just like you." Which "you" would that be, then? The single mother, doing her best to raise her child right? The retired colonel in his early seventies? Lebanese goat herders? Nope: it's the geeks. Nowadays, it's always the geeks. But what spectacular contempt to demonstrate towards your "ordinary and pathetic" core audience. Still, perhaps it would be churlish to chide a major studio release for refusing to engage with any reality outside of its own in a week where Hancock approaches the superhero movie from a quasi-realist perspective and gets it so wrong, and especially when Wanted moves, from the word go, in the exact opposite direction.

Based on a series of comic books by Mark Miller and J.G. Jones, the film opens with a title card introducing us to The Fraternity, "a clan of weavers who formed a secret society of assassins". We barely have time to ponder this dramatic career shift - did they just run out of wicker? - before being introduced to Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a nebbishy office worker. Young Wesley is the sort of no-name who Googles himself only for his search to yield no results; a pushover with a domineering boss, a crummy apartment under the railway tracks, and a girlfriend busily screwing his own best buddy. The good news for him, not that he's aware of it at first, is that he's apparently the son of one of the best assassins in the business. After his estranged pa's death, the search for a replacement killer leads The Fraternity to call Wes in for training under the aegis of Sloan and Fox (Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie), who school him to use his inherited instincts and bend bullets like Beckham.

It's been directed by the amply named Timur Bekmambetov, the man behind Russian blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch, which did a fair impersonation of Hollywood's own Matrix trilogy. The initial impression is that that same Hollywood has imported yet another filmmaker whose interests go no further than sensation - Bekmambetov is a poet of breaking glass (the multiplex Tarkovsky, if you will), but still at something of a loss around narrative - and that Wanted may ultimately be no less of a nerd's wet dream than The Matrix was in the first place: a film in which a pallid drone is transformed into a buff killer, and transformed by Angelina Jolie at that (a figure altogether more conducive to fantasy than Noriyuki "Pat" Morita in the Karate Kid films). Men being what they are, I don't doubt that some will even sigh longingly as Jolie pummels away at McAvoy's midriff with a knuckleduster.

The good news for the rest of us is that, in Bekmambetov's hands, that sensation need not necessarily preclude traces of wit. They're there in the "Don't Miss" promotional banner glimpsed amid a supermarket shootout; in McAvoy's anguished slo-mo cry of "I'm sorry!" to the cops whose barricade he's in the process of flipping his car over; they're there, even, in the way letters displaced from a computer keyboard used to smash some poor sod about the face contrive to spell out "FUCK YOU". (One U is represented by a displaced molar.) Bekmambetov is good with locations: if Wanted's anonymous metropolis-for-hire can't quite match the Watch movies' deployment of Moscow by night, he mines for maximum atmospherics the Fraternity's castle-cum-textile-mill-cum-slaughterhouse base, with its deep-pool baths of candle wax (it aids healing, supposedly) and its incongruous reading room (it's round for a reason; but you have to question whether these guys are the sort who are into rare books).

For an action director, he's also unusually attentive to his performers. I haven't been wholly convinced by McAvoy's claims to leading-man status, but he's an effective, sympathetic presence here - a pipsqueak elevated beyond his workstation - and he nails all the revenge-of-the-nerd moments. Jolie, meanwhile, has reached a point where, Sphinx or Mona Lisa-like, she can appear before us, move not one muscle, and still exert the strangest of fascinations. Perhaps because she understands the need for fixed points in a film as restless and reckless as this. Wanted is almost wholly irresponsible - racking up remarkable levels of carnage and collateral damage, while never letting us in on why the Fraternity's targets need to die (it's "fate", apparently) - and if you weren't in the mood, it could well seem morally reprehensible. Any objections could be muted with a large handful of popcorn, however, and I wouldn't want Bekmambetov to tone down his mayhem if it meant losing a minute of the summer's most stupefying action sequence, involving a train snaking off a bridge over a ravine, or of a finale that calls for a dustcart full of rats crazed on peanut butter.

(June 2008)

Wanted screens on ITV tonight at 10.55pm.

Friday, 10 August 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 3-5, 2018:

 (new) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12A)
2 (2) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
3 (1) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12A) ***
4 (3Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
5 (4) Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)
6 (new) Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (PG) ***
7 (8) The First Purge (15)
8 (6) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***
9 (7) Skyscraper (12A)
10 (9) Ocean's 8 (12A)


My top five: 
1. Heathers [above]

2. Cléo from 5 to 7
3. Jacquot de Nantes
4. The Gleaners and I
5. The Meg

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) Peter Rabbit (PG)
2 (new) Pacific Rim: Uprising (12)
3 (2) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (3) Tomb Raider (12)
5 (new) A Wrinkle in Time (PG)
6 (6) Mamma Mia! (PG) *
7 (8) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
8 (5) The Incredibles (U) ****
9 (9) Coco (PG) ***
10 (7) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***


My top five: 
1. Sweet Country

2. Lady Bird
3. Ready Player One
4. Love, Simon
5. Isle of Dogs

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Hue and Cry (Wednesday, BBC2, 12.20pm)
2. Suntan (Sunday, C4, 1.45am)
3. Wanted (Saturday, ITV, 10.55pm)
4. Devdas (Saturday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
5. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Sunday, ITV, 3.30pm)

"The Meg" (Guardian 10/08/18)

The Meg ***
Dir: Jon Turteltaub. With: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Ruby Rose, Rainn Wilson. 113 mins. Cert: 12A

Last week, the Academy invited its Twitter followers to boil down the plot of their favourite film to five words. Here’s a plot that requires no more than five: Jason Statham versus prehistoric megashark. That formula might merely have generated a boneheaded Jaws reboat [sic], or a flimsy disappointment along the lines of 2006’s Snakes on a Plane, where movie wound up secondary to pitch. The face-off we actually get comes in on or around an acceptable par with 1999’s enjoyably lively Deep Blue Sea, where LL Cool J had his parrot chomped by an angry Frankenshark: its wittily handled pulp will do you just fine on a Friday or Saturday night, given the right, modified expectations.

Once more, nonsense science (“Are you saying we’ve opened up a superhighway for giant sharks?”) lashes together a string of monster-movie clichés, some more knowingly deployed than others. Statham’s rogue diver Jonas Turner has sunk into boozing to drown memories of a professional low; the research crew he’s called to rescue inevitably includes his ex-wife. One new ingredient is Chinese investment capital, which provides fancy production design – light-up shark cages! – and a prominent role for local luminary Bingbing Li, but also limits what these seadogs can say and do. Given the threat level, it seems a pity to deprive the star of his Olympian cursing gifts: two discreetly muffled, ratings-conscious S-bombs are as close as Jase gets to going full Stath.

He integrates well, however, with what proves an characterful crew to splash around with (moneyman Rainn Wilson, tech whizz Ruby Rose, Bingbing’s adorable daughter Shuya Cai), and it’s a far better directed shark movie than any of those snickering SyFy channel bombs featuring Debbie Gibson. 90s throwback Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings) stages his setpieces with enough B-movie nous to elicit regular jumps, deftly pulls off a midfilm twist, and keeps everything moving, often in equally surprising directions: if the shark-versus-Statham bout doesn’t tickle you, the shark-versus-Pekinese sidebar might. Not quite killer, but it’s rare to see a 21st century blockbuster having this much fun – right through to its sign-off – with its own premise. 

The Meg opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"The Darkest Minds" (Guardian 10/08/18)

The Darkest Minds **
Dir: Jennifer Yuh Nelson. With: Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore, Harris Dickinson, Bradley Whitford. 103 mins. Cert: 12A

At what point will our dystopic Young Adult narratives transform from escapist entertainment to essential schooling on how to survive any coming Dark Age? This late, mid-ranking cycle entry stumbles fortuitously across its most potent image: that of children being separated from their parents and ushered at gunpoint into state-operated holding camps, a bleak vision that doubtless felt more fantastical when author Alexandra Bracken penned her source novel back in 2012. Its power is muffled, however, by a growing reliance on shopworn YA tropes and a general air of bet-hedging blandness. The pieces of a potential franchise are put in play here without the stakes being raised or pulses quickened.

The silly startpoint is a condition called Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration – its acronym a boon for fans of Lee and Herring’s “Ian News” sketches – which has obliterated much of America’s youth, and left survivors with Jedi-like mind powers that pose an obvious threat to the country’s guardians. Heroine Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) flees the camps to land squarely between two boys: non-threatening proletarian pin-up Liam (Harris Dickinson, dialling back the complexity of last year’s Beach Rats) and sneering President’s son Clancy (Patrick Gibson). As has become YA-standard, this relatable playground melodrama is accorded the same dramatic weight as the end-of-the-world stuff.

The further Ruby travels from custody, the more The Darkest Minds looks like an exercise in recycled teen wish-fulfilment. Our girl gets a Katniss-like makeover involving a flowing red dress, while the second half is an extended layover at a post-apocalyptic summer camp where everybody takes a telekinetic twirl. The leads are sympathetic – particularly Hunger Games alumna Stenberg, long on the verge of a breakthrough – but director Jennifer Yuh Nelson seems overly impatient to get onto Bracken’s later books, and the spectacle she generates is tentative at best, as if the studio wasn’t yet sure whether to go all-in on the budget. Interesting flickers, amid a fudge of mild peril. 

The Darkest Minds opens in cinemas nationwide today.

The innocents: "Sicilian Ghost Story"

Sicilian Ghost Story is a tricky one, not least for how it constantly wriggles away from the expectations set up by its own title. For starters, it's based on a true story (from the not-especially-distant 1990s) which was also a true crime story, and - as the regional specificity of the title betrays - an organised crime story. It opens, however, as a coming-of-age story, introducing us to a pair of babes in the woods. Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) and Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) are skylarking sweethearts in their early teens, tailing after one another in the hours after school in the hope of converting an airy crush into something more graspable. The girl clutches a love letter, hand-painted with stars; the boy - a promising equestrian - delights in teasing and trotting around her, as boys do. So it's a budding love story, too. What prevents us from reaching for the Trades Description Act is that the film is shot like a ghost story, composed of shadows, pauses, fading twilight, (ma)lingering atmosphere. For all the kids' youthful ebullience, we're set waiting for something nasty to happen; when the boy fails to return home, our expectations are well and truly met on at least one front.

So now it's a mystery story, and Luna duly turns Nancy Drew to investigate her sweetheart's disappearance, retracing the pair's steps through the forest, sneaking into the spaces Giuseppe once occupied, and generally refusing to let go of his memory. One wrinkle is that you and I already know where he's got to - it's revealed to us not long after Luna notices his absence - which means it's not such a mystery after all. What filmmakers Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza seem to be getting at with this shifting, searching, ever-restless approach, is the undeniably spooky culture of repression and silence that runs through this particular land, which could well lead a young boy to dematerialise - become ghostlike - without anybody saying, or daring to say, a word. One way to denounce silence is with a statement; given that there is barely one conventional set-up in Sicilian Ghost Story's entire two hours, Grassadonia and Piazza's statement has been set out in images that scream at the top of their lungs for attention. Sensitive viewers may need ear plugs for their eyes.

It opens with an extended sequence - the most abstract movie prologue since 2013's Under the Skin - that shows metallic ores forming in the darkened depths of a cave, and even when the directors come indoors, they place their camera in the most counterintuitive positions, high up in the backs and sides of frames, and reach for the widest lenses available. A lot of effort has been made to visualise this narrative in an unexpected fashion; and we often see that effort more than we can a story being served. One shot - of a spectral, black-clad figure viewed from across a river - is a direct lift from English ghost story The Innocents (which might have provided an alternative title); the dreamier stuff - the shadows and sound design, the ne'er-do-wells pulling odd shapes in the background of shots - owes a clear debt to Lynch; a late montage, connecting key characters via song, is pure Magnolia. Increasingly, you wonder whether Grassadonia and Piazza are less interested in making a political or humanist statement as they are in signalling they've been watching the right kinds of movies, and can therefore be trusted to turn the grisliest of tragedies into art.

To a lesser degree, the sheer capital-C Cinema of Sicilian Ghost Story hooks you as it did there, and its stylisation is capable of nice surprises to sit alongside the nasty ones. One brash, spirited sequence combines hair dye, missing-person fliers and the melodic fuck-you of Sinead O'Connor's "Mandinka"; though other songs tend towards emo-kid balladry, Anton Spielman's original score is properly, gorgeously mournful, apparently created alongside those ores in the centre of the earth. It does, however, feel incredibly self-conscious, not least on the level of performance: here be people who act as if directed to act in a movie - as if they're carrying out a plot. (Keep close eye on Luna's mother (Sabine Timoteo), a pale-faced wraith emerging slick from the sauna to count out her money at the kitchen table.) At every turn, Grassadonia and Piazza are actively pursuing effects and textures most filmmakers would shy away from, which accounts for the film's strangeness: there's nothing else like this around right now. Yet I walked away wondering whether I hadn't just encountered two ultra-confident shotmakers unwilling to think through the implications of their own images, a reaction crystallised by two key sequences. The first involves a butterfly being released to the heavens (as one might a soul), the second body parts being released into a lake. Both sequences are virtuosic; thing is, one is utterly sentimental and hackneyed, the other more than a little distasteful. Come dire swings-and-roundabouts in Italiano?

Sicilian Ghost Story is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon and the BFI.

Monday, 6 August 2018

On demand: "Lust Stories"

The liberalisation of the Indian film industry, brought about partly by overseas investment and the leisure and pleasures that follow from money, continues at considerable speed. Earlier this year, Veere Di Wedding proposed that its heroines might go beyond a kiss in a rainstorm, and actively enjoy themselves in a bedroom context; its release was preceded by the Netflix-backed portmanteau project Lust Stories, in which four of the industry's leading filmmakers, freed from the strictures of domestic censorship, offer up a thirty-minute quickie on what it is to desire, and to act on that desire, in a hot climate. The results display one limitation, namely a certain tentativeness around the depiction of the sex act itself: years of finger-wagging conservatism can't be thrown off so easily, which results in a light sprinkling of lingering fadeouts and some ultra-carefully framed and lit couplings. Yet the whole is well written, directed and performed - a consistently satisfying foursome, no matter that it more often than not frames physical intimacy as the most loaded of minefields.

Right from Anurag Kashyap's first entry, in fact, occasion for a tour de force from Radhika Apte as a thirsty college lecturer tying herself in knots after drunkenly seducing one of her students (Akash Thosar, the lad from Sairat). It's less a short story than a rolling character study: subsequent events are intercut with a distinctly Godardian interview that positions the lecturer as the modern Indian woman, struggling to come to terms with her powers in an era that has generated as much confusion as consummation. Apte knocks the punchline out of the park, and - like so many Kashyap projects, up to and including his new Netflix series Sacred Games - it has a terrific eye for locations (comic-book shops, comedy clubs) rarely visited in mainstream Indian cinema. Zoya Akhtar's second part begins mid-fuck, before developing into a textured and very poignant study in post-coital sadness - the sadness of a housemaid discarded by her employer in favour of a more socially desirable bride. An excellent Bhumi Pednekar barely speaks a word, but conveys huge amounts through pauses and gesture; the emotion is further amplified by the rapt attention Akhtar pays to domestic spaces, and the way her characters move through them.

The third short - overseen by Dibakar Banerjee, the least familiar of these directors - benefits from the most immediately compelling situation. A desperate businessman calls his best friend to air his fears that his wife may have another lover; the early twist, as you may already have guessed, is that the pal knows all too well about the infidelity, what with the woman in question being at his side (and underneath him in flashbacks). There follows a negotiation - first via fraught, expertly performed end-of-tether phone calls, then more cordially face-to-face - in which old pals attempt to talk their way out of the mess their bodies have made while keeping their existing relationships intact. It's the most self-consciously "adult" of the four contributions - you can feel the influence of TV's The Affair upon its look and narrative - and the editorial occasionally bobs a little too close to its glassy surface, especially when the husband comes into view: vulgar new money who states a preference for action movies over subtler fare (like, presumably, Lust Stories) and whose black-and-white worldview is such he believes that if his wife doesn't love him, she must hate him. The talk redirects everybody to a more interesting place: an understanding that the truth of most relationships lies somewhere in between the two poles.

That sober lesson is balanced by the fourth and final instalment, wherein that notable showman Karan Johar offers up a contemporary comedy of errors centred on a pair of nervy newlyweds (Vicky Kaushal and Kiara Advani) struggling to get over the husband's inexperience in the boudoir. There's much to like here: Advani's increasingly underwhelmed and exasperated expressions, a very good play on the opening line of Nabokov's Lolita, and another gag, premised on the misapplication of a sex toy, which pays off (one hesitates to say climaxes) in quite the most shameless fashion imaginable. (Doubly so, if you spot the reference to Johar's own Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham....) Running through it all, something actively progressive: a case for sex as a means of recreation, rather than the procreation one's elders might insist upon. Netflix's own parenting - that hands-off approach that has indulged creatives with all the time, space and money they might demand - has proven disastrous for Western filmmakers in the main, as the platform's slew of understreamed, you-couldn't-give-it-away content has made abundantly clear. Yet it seems to be working rather better for Indian filmmakers, less inclined, perhaps, to take such freedoms for granted. The two parties have a good thing going here: long may it continue.

Lust Stories is now streaming on Netflix.