Sunday, 24 May 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of May 15-17, 2015: 
1 (new) Pitch Perfect 2 (12A) **
2 (new) Mad Max: Fury Road (15)
3 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12A) **
4 (2) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
5 (3) Far From the Madding Crowd (12A) ***
6 (new) A Royal Night Out (12A) ** 
7 (8) Home (U) **
8 (4) Unfriended (15)
9 (6) Fast & Furious 7 (12A) ***
10 (5) The Age of Adaline (12A)


My top five:   
1. Spring
2. The New Girlfriend
3. The Tribe
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
5. Lambert & Stamp

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Into the Woods (PG) **
2 (3) Gone Girl (18) **
3 (7) The Maze Runner (15)
4 (4) Pride (15) ***
5 (6) Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Never Beast (U) **
6 (new) Foxcatcher (15) ****
7 (8) What We Do in the Shadows (15) ***
8 (9) Dracula Untold (15) **
9 (new) The Drop (15) **
10 (10) Automata (15)    

My top five:  
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision [above]
2. Spring
3. Testament of Youth
4. Foxcatcher
5. Big Hero 6

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Great Escape (Saturday, five, 1.25pm)
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
3. Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (Saturday, BBC1, 12.25am)
4. Trance (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
5. Miami Vice (Friday, ITV1, 10.45pm)

"Poltergeist" (Telegraph 22/05/15)

Poltergeist ***

Dir: Gil Kenan. With: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie de Witt, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements, Jared Harris, Jane Adams. 15 cert, 93 min

1982’s original Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper under writer-producer Steven Spielberg’s eye for boosting popcorn sales, was always chiefly a commercial concern: a funfair Exorcist that ditched its predecessor’s spiritual agonies for more material, Reagan-era concerns. It’s hardly an untouchable property; we need not whine unduly about Fox retooling it. It helps that the director charged with renovating this ghost train, Gil Kenan, sets about his task in the manner of his fantastic 2006 digimation Monster House. Lights flicker, things go bump in the night and – thanks to 3D – much of it lands inches from your face. Again, it’s reasonable fun while it lasts.

Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie de Witt, a couple you instinctively warm to, play the Bowens, setting out on a fresh start by installing themselves and their three kids in suburbia. Their new home, inevitably, has a few glitches. Yes, the rats can be trapped; the electromagnetic disturbances attributed to nearby powerlines. Yet youngest Madison (Kennedi Clements) still winds up pressed to the (newly widescreen) TV, son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) unsettled by a cache of toy clowns – a reminder the original just pipped Stephen King’s remake-ready It to coulrophobia. (Were we being warned about children’s entertainers even back then?)

Around these holdovers, Rabbit Hole playwright David Lindsay-Abaire scatters tantalising flickers of subtext. Where the first movie’s Freelings were upwardly mobile baby boomers, the Bowens are subject to recognisable austerity-age stresses and tensions – not least trying to raise three kids on a diminishing income. Within a brisk, two-shows-a-night running time, there’s also room for a little character: since no one person was ever likely to match Zelda Rubinstein’s inimitable work as the original’s psychic, we instead get chewy parts for Jane Adams and Jared Harris as the academic and Derek Acorah-like investigator running tests for paranormal activity.

Mostly it’s a scare machine, and in this respect Kenan’s is the more efficient telling, its VFX lubricating all that now creaks about the original: the 3D enables such shameless jolts as comin’-atcha drill bits, but also reimagines Madison’s haunted closet as a completely enveloping black hole. The Poltergeist phenomenon has never been more than just a ride, inviting us to pay over the odds for some pretty cheap thrills; adding a 3D surcharge scarcely addresses that. Accept it, however, and the remake has been engineered in broadly the right carnival spirit. It should shift a lot of popcorn, if nothing else.

Poltergeist is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Moomins on the Riviera" (Telegraph 22/05/15)

Moomins on the Riviera ***

Dir: Xavier Picard. Animation with the voices of: Russell Tovey, Tracy Ann Oberman, Nathaniel Parker, Stephanie Winiecki. U cert, 76 min

Images flood the mind, of pallid, potbellied creatures dragging their marshmallow-soft forms along the Croisette. But enough about my colleagues on Cannes duty; back home, we have a brand new Moominmovie to consider. Moomins of the Riviera isn’t the first big-screen runout for Tove Jansson’s beloved creations, and on paper, it sounds among the least immediately compelling: this dubbed, hand-animated 2D patchwork of Janssonalia can’t really compete with, say, 2010’s stopmotion Moomins and the Comet Chase – still unreleased in the UK – which boasted an apocalyptic narrative, several Skarsgårds on vocal duty, and a theme song by Björk.

Early pootling suggests Riviera did need more oomph – that it simply wasn’t enough, in our age of aggressive rebooting, just to nudge these characters around their lakeside comfort zone. It takes Snorkmaiden’s obsession with superstar Audrey Glamour to get us to the South of France, whereupon matters liven up. Any fears that Moominland has been tainted by modern celebrity culture – as Greendale was in last year’s Postman Pat: the Movie – should be allayed by the film’s conception of Riviera glitz, which predates even Bonjour Tristesse: here be duelling artists and aristocrats, and a Grand Hotel to check into under the assumed name “de Moomin”.

What follows is composed of bits and skits, some of which likewise go back a while. Parents will sense what’s coming when Moominmamma (voiced by Tracy Ann Oberman) is handed a seltzer bottle in a fancy restaurant, even if their gurgling offspring won’t. The visuals, too, return us to a more innocent, pre-Pixar aesthetic: in place of dazzling 3D spectacle, we’re offered the occasional static long shot that, preface-like, maps the chaos of the Moomin parlour, with its dirty dishes filed away under the furniture, or the precise positions of the main characters on the island they at one point wash up on.

Gradually, the simplicity yields an idiosyncratic charm. The animators have been freed to sketch traces of personality into every passing cat, rat and insect: family dog White Shadow initiates a job swap with his identical cousin so as to elope. More such flourishes would have been welcome; as it is, the film will probably hold under-fives longer than it will older siblings. For accompanying adults, though, its mellow vibe and laissez-faire worldview should make for a pleasurable throwback: a reminder of the literary teatime telly we were raised on, rather than more of the eardrum-perforating, retina-scorching, toy-hawking product we’ve been stuck with.

Moomins on the Riviera is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Return to Sender" (Telegraph 22/05/15)

Return to Sender **

Dir: Fouad Mikati. With: Rosamund Pike, Rumer Willis, Scout Taylor-Compton, Shiloh Fernandez, Nick Nolte, Camryn Mannheim, Illeana Douglas. 18 cert, 95 min

This often happens: a performer hits the A-list, and all manner of skeletons are pulled from their closet for public exhibition. Rosamund Pike scored a career high last year as Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, and what’s notable about her previous project, the salacious indie thriller Return to Sender, is its rough-draft resemblance to the later film. Again, rape-revenge tropes are toyed with in cynical-to-silly ways; again, we’re meant to be titillated by the manoeuvrings of two sociopaths who arguably deserve one another. The end product: cinematic clickbait that hides its weakest material behind spoilers, and hopes its audience will be gullible enough to proceed.

Pike’s Miranda is the kind of movie nurse whose professional standing can be asserted by the performance of an impromptu after-hours tracheotomy; going on the meticulously iced cake she presents at a colleague’s birthday (“it’s just something I do”), she’s also a domestic goddess. All she’s missing is a man, a lack which a blind date is meant to resolve. William (Shiloh Fernandez) arrives early, and given his resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix’s sketchier younger brother, you might hope for an indefinite postponement; instead, he assaults her over the kitchen table, leaving her there for when her actual date – a charming fellow, carrying flowers – shows up.

That’s a neat – if nasty – twist, and what follows, after Miranda recuperates, is elevated by Pike’s smart work in layering up this character: a control freak rattled by the imperfections of lesser mortals. A ruckus in the drycleaners, just as our heroine should be at her most sympathetic, indicates something’s off with her, but the filmmakers find laughable ways of underlining the point: one minute she’s struggling with her piping bag, the next having a tizz playing Operation. When she starts visiting William in jail for intense heart-to-hearts, we gulp: is this a movie in which a survivor discovers she misses her attacker?

That at least would be daring. What’s actually being withheld proves far less potent: coy payback, pre-empted by a scene – suggestive of 18-rated Nicholas Sparks – in which the just-released William and Miranda paint porch furniture (“you’re dripping”). Weaponising those dark-pool eyes, Pike’s remains a preternatural beauty, but it merits a vehicle that doesn’t encourage us to suspect or loathe her for it as these films do – and that may require her to step away from American popular culture, and its ingrained misogyny, just as she’s being embraced by it. For the time being, there aren’t trigger warnings big enough for trash like this.

Return to Sender is now playing in selected cinemas.

"Spring" (Guardian 22/05/15)

Spring ****
Dirs: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead. With: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker, Vanessa Bednar, Shane Brady. 109 mins. Cert: 15

Writer-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead here offer one of the year’s foremost genre discoveries, although Spring’s exact form is revealed only belatedly: at every level, some shapeshifting is involved. The erratic trajectory of smalltown drifter Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), absconding to Europe after a police charge, initially suggests a dread return to Hostel territory. Yet it’s a feint: the filmmakers, forever more serious than sniggering around death, instead tack onto an altogether scenic alternative route. Holing up in rural Bologna, our boy crosses paths with mysterious geneticist Louise (Nadia Hilker), and their courtly romance transforms the film entirely, each scene nudging the characters further beyond predator/prey archetypes and into almost impossibly vivacious landscapes. Long before its unusual, Lovecraft-via-Linklater third act, in which the lovers try to work a situation out rather than put a stake through it, Spring becomes genuinely regenerative: a monster movie with a heart and soul to go alongside its tentacles. 

Spring is now playing in selected cinemas. A longer version of this review can be found here.

"The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them" (Guardian 22/05/15)

The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them ***
Dir: Phil Grabsky. Documentary with the voices of Robert Lindsay, Glen McCready. 91 mins. Cert: U.

The latest in the Exhibition on Screen series – playing for one night only next Tuesday – finds documentarist Phil Grabsky applying his defiantly old-school house style (talking heads, diary readings, steady rostrum camera in the tradition of Kens Burns and Morse) to the acclaimed Inventing Impressionism show now installed at the National Gallery. Interviewees acknowledge these long-canonised works make it hard to convey the shock of the new Impressionism represented; Grabsky wisely deploys his Manets and Monets to illustrate the struggles of Paul Durand-Ruel, the young dealer whose keen commercial and curatorial instincts eventually smashed down the Salon’s locked doors and cracked these artists in America. Given all those personality-oriented “journeys” in TV land, it’s refreshing to encounter a doc that commits ninety minutes to disseminating its info in considered, scholarly fashion: fascinating theories and titbits abound, and the way these canvasses reflect light renders them newly immersive on the big screen. An enriching experience.

The Impressionists... screens in selected cinemas for one night only this Tuesday.

"Dino Time" (Guardian 22/05/15)

Dino Time **
Dirs: Yoon-suk Choi, John Kafka. Animation with the voices of: Melanie Griffith, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Baldwin, William Baldwin. 75 mins. Cert: U

This week’s digimated chancer is a U.S.-Korean fossil dating from 2012 that features Melanie Griffith and William Baldwin as the voices of warring dinosaurs – remember when these things provoked actual anticipation? This one displays early flickers of wit in zapping squabbling kids back to their hometown as it was in the cretaceous era, before a drab quest narrative kicks in, cueing more plodding than any 70-minute feature should. Shameless, 3D-enabling camera pirouettes and tones ranging from “Sunny Delight” to “radioactive Haribo” provide a measure of visual compensation: it’s not one for the ages, but you’ll have likely shelled out for worse. 

Dino Time is now playing in cinemas nationwide.