Saturday, 26 July 2014

1,001 Films: "Marketa Lazarova" (1967)

For some reason - countercultural affinity? A desire to get away from the clean lines of consumerism, and re-engage with the mud and blood of history? A satirical attempt to tie the tyrannies of the moment with what had gone before? - a new medievalism swept through the arthouse cinema of the 1950s and 60s, of which the most prominent examples remain Bergman's The Seventh Seal, the tangled Polish artefact known as The Saragossa Manuscript and the properly byzantine epic Marketa Lazarova, which somehow survived the rigours of Czech state censorship to emerge as among the country's best-loved features. 

In part, that may be down to the fact that it's borderline incomprehensible - or, at least, not easily read. Like the current TV hit Game of Thrones - which similarly clings to women's breasts as fixed reference points in a bloodily unstable, chaotic universe - it would appear to be a tale of squabbling clans in a snowy, godforsaken backwater, interrupted by verbose chapter headings that bear scant relation to what we're about to see, and narration that frequently drifts away from the images director Frantisek Vlacil deigns to put before us. 

Somewhere in the middle of it all is the attempt of a father to protect the virtue of the daughter enshrined in the title - her face the only one here unspecked by dirt or facial hair - though that virtue often appears the only thing at stake, and one suspects its survival at long odds may be the reason a film otherwise defined by grisly violence, trippy, modish nudity and a general air of grubbiness dodged the censor's scissors. Vacil at least ensures it looks like something significant, putting to work all the tricks the cinema had discovered for itself in the preceding years (handheld, distortion lenses, freeze-frames) and which might just have made this history come alive again - if you didn't badly need a scholar of said history sitting next to you to point out, at almost every juncture, just what exactly is going on.

Marketa Lazarova is available on DVD through Second Run.

Friday, 25 July 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of July 18-20, 2014: 
1 (new) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
2 (2) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG) ***
3 (1) Transformers: Age of Extinction (12A)
4 (new) Monty Python: 02 London (uncertificated)
5 (new) Andre Rieu's 2014 Maastricht Concert (uncertificated)
6 (3) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *
7 (new) Pudsey the Dog: The Movie (U)
8 (7) Boyhood (15) ***
9 (4) The Fault in Our Stars (12A) **
10 (6) 22 Jump Street (15) ***


My top five:
1. Some Like It Hot  
2. The Lady from Shanghai
3. Finding Vivian Maier  
4. Norte, the End of History  
5. Branded to Kill

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Need for Speed (12)
2 (2) The Wolf of Wall Street (18) *
3 (re) Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy (U) **
4 (1) Non-Stop (12)
5 (4) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12) **
6 (3) Under the Skin (15) ****
7 (5) Robocop (12)
8 (8) Vampire Academy (12)
9 (7) Dallas Buyers Club (15) ***
10 (9) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12) 
My top five:  
1. Noah
2. Venus in Fur
3. The Lego Movie  
4. 20 Feet from Stardom  
5. Under the Skin 

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Insider [above] (Sunday, C4, 12.40am)
2. Up in the Air (Saturday, BBC2, 10.30pm)
3. Victim (Wednesday, C4, 2am)
4. Twister (Saturday, ITV1, 4.30pm)
5. The Negotiator (Sunday, C4, 10pm)

"The Purge: Anarchy" (The Guardian 25/07/14)

The Purge: Anarchy ***
Dir: James DeMonaco. With: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zack Gilford. 103 mins. Cert: 15

Last year’s hit The Purge ventured an superficially eye-catching premise – what if the US Government granted its citizens an annual mischief night, to get any crime out of their system? – before retreating indoors into indifferently staged runaround. The sequel, again overseen by James DeMonaco, finally thinks the idea through, following those left outside as the Purge kicks in. Flickers of dread creep in – care of those one-percenters co-opting the event for sicko entertainment – though again we’re mostly in second gear: if the first movie was a lacklustre Assault on Precinct 13 (the remake of which DeMonaco penned), this one’s a modest Escape from New York, with growly lone wolf Frank Grillo steering representative survivors between Gothy bikers and lip-smacking private armies. For Universal, the franchise is clearly a low-cost, low-risk work-in-progress, but DeMonaco is improving as a shotmaker: this entry just about plays, albeit on the level of a straight-to-DVD item or tentative TV pilot. 

The Purge: Anarchy opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Northwest" (The Guardian 25/07/14)

Northwest **
Dir: Michael Noer. With: Casper Dyekjaer Giese, Oscar Dyekjaer Giese, Lena Maria Christensen. 91 mins. Cert: 15

The latest item carried over on the Scandie crime wave forsakes chunky-knit sweaters for a notional harder edge, offering a shruggingly naturalistic study of a teenage catburglar caught between rival factions on the Copenhagen periphery. Much of Michael Noer’s film feels anaemic: the switchback plotting that sees bullet-headed antihero Casper (Casper Dyekjaer Giese) become a figure of empathy was put over with greater force and visual flair by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher films. Some site-specific design porn persists – notably in Casper’s quest for a PH Artichoke lamp – but it chiefly resembles that scrappy posturing by which our own film industry habitually bids for street cred. 

Northwest opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Believe" (The Guardian 25/07/14)

Believe **
Dir: David Scheinmann. With: Brian Cox, Natascha McElhone, Toby Stephens. 96 mins. Cert: PG

Just when we thought Man United’s stock couldn’t fall any lower, here’s an often cringeworthy “inspired by true events” supposition that sees the retired Matt Busby (Brian Cox) coaching the blond moppet who stole his wallet to Under-12s glory. Early 80s pointers (Musical Youth, the miners’ strike) are trowelled onto an insistently formulaic plot: the schools cup final coincides with not just a major exam but Busby’s birthday to boot. Cox’s guardedly avuncular turn might have sustained a more rigorous endeavour, but the attempt to evoke the trauma of the Munich air disaster is rendered wholly insupportable by the trifling hooey around it. 

Believe opens in selected cinemas, and is available on demand, from today.

Scrap metal: "Earth to Echo"

The balance between live-action and animated family features has shifted heavily towards the latter in recent years; so heavily, in fact, that it would be easy to overrate the modestly winning Earth to Echo, a low-cost, digital-era refit of that old matinee trope about kids who stumble across a wounded creature and seek to hide it away from uncomprehending grown-ups. The kids here aren't the moppets of yore, but cellphone-wielding nice guys, compiling a video diary on life at the suburban fringes of the Nevada desert; as their treatment at the hands of school bullies suggests, they're born pushovers, whose families face imminent relocation as part of a highway construction project. 

The need to create lasting memories of their time together is thus pressing - and a close encounter of the third kind will provide plenty for everyone. Director Dave Green displays a lot of love for all things Spielberg in his debut outing, not least through his attentive, suspenseful pacing: a fair bit of character detail and a workable sense of place - of nondescript stripmalls breaking up nondescript homesteads overseen by understandably distracted parents - gets sketched in before the discovery of the eponymous Echo: a glowing robotic owl thing who beeps, squeaks and levitates while our humanoid heroes try to figure out the purpose of his visit to our galaxy.

Green is savvy about integrating Google Earth, YouTube and instant messaging - all the elements Spielberg didn't have to concern himself with around the time of E.T., and which the modern multiplex director is now expected to kowtow towards - though there are stylistic limitations, almost inevitably tied to the tired found-footage format: occasional POV confusion (apparently Echo "sees" the world through his finders' mobile phones), much artlessly wobbly camerawork. (Imagine how much less soaring the climax of E.T. would be if Spielberg had clipped his camera, and not the alien, to the handlebars of Elliot's bike.)

Clearly, it's traditional only up to a point, and some of it just feels underdone, a straight-to-DVD item elevated to the standing of a summer-holiday event in the absence of any bigger or better ideas: you feel it most in the absence of familiar faces, and hear it on the anonymous, ten-songs-for-a-dollar soundtrack. (A brief snatch of Michael Kamen's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves score as the boys make plans to go out into the night is about as good as it gets.) The crash site from which Echo is salvaged is visibly a junkyard staffed by men in high-visibility tabards; Echo himself no more than a small, carefully curated amalgamation of pixels, rather than anything you'd especially want to take home as merchandise.

There's something vaguely commendable about the film's downplaying of its own commercial potential - it's not in 3D, and unlike Transformers: Age of Extinction or even The Lego Movie, it finally has nothing to flog but itself - but Earth to Echo finally sells itself most short on a narrative level: you can't help but think the restless barrage of camera perspectives is simply being used to jolt us out of our familiarity with this material (as Cloverfield did) rather than digging a little deeper into this world and its characters (as the similar-looking Chronicle did). By its final act, E.T. was tapping some primal wellspring of emotions; Green can boot and reboot the app as much as he likes, but Google Earth hasn't found a way of mapping those yet.

Earth to Echo opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Evolutionary road: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

On the timeline of the Apes, matters are intriguingly poised. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to 2011's successful prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes, nudges us a little closer towards the point where the Earth will be reclaimed by simians; presumably, if we keep showing up for these carefully gradated movies - Light Breakfast on the Planet of the Apes, Morning Constitutional of the Planet of the Apes, Elevenses of the Planet of the Apes - we'll eventually reach sundown, and the moment when a new Charlton Heston (Channing Tatum, anyone?) can raise his fists and curse the day those damn, dirty apes first got ideas above their evolutionary station.

As the new film opens, chimp flu has wiped out much of homo sapiens, establishing those monkeys who were unleashed from captivity in the first film's finale as the new kings of the jungle. A bold prologue - possibly indebted to Kubrick's 2001 - flips Rise's premise by dropping us into the midst of the simian community established on the verdant fringes of San Francisco by their leader Caesar: now we humans are the interlopers. The apes have developed their own complex vocabulary of looks, grunts and gestures, among other humanoid traits; they work together and play together, and have gone one better than Michael Gove in establishing an egalitarian, properly functioning education system, overseen by a friendly-faced creature with the somewhat unlikely name of Maurice. (Perhaps he's a gibbon. As in Maurice Gibb-on. Oh, stuff you, then.)

From the off, it's clear that hearts and minds are at stake, and Dawn has at its core one very workable idea: to set out and then explore a world that isn't yet the Planet of the Apes, and yet not quite the world we inhabit. As its CG visions of a newly shaggy, wilded-over San Fran make abundantly clear, everything here is in the balance, up for negotiation - and you get that as much from what's gone on behind the camera as what's going on before it. With the notable exception of Andy Serkis (technically unseen, yet doing more remarkably expressive mo-cap work as Caesar), not a single cast member returns from Rise, and the new faces aren't starry enough to guarantee their survival until the end credits.

Our human hero is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), an engineer who stumbles across the monkey outpost and resolves to build a peace between the species; his greatest opposition will come not from the apes, but from Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a cranky firebrand determined to wipe out all trace of the hairy, disease-spreading knuckledraggers. The film is alert to the way the two communities mirror one another: the wise and stately Caesar has, in the downtime between films, become a father once again, giving him even greater reason to seek stability, while his underling Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose patchy fur speaks of grim spells in animal testing labs, displays a growing resentment with the peacemakers. If you like, Dreyfus and Koba are the Farages to Malcolm and Caesar's cuddly Cleggs; the suggestion is that every community has one of these cage-rattlers, and that our collective future may come down to how many choose to listen to such types.

Some issues are raised by this choice between patriarchies. Koba's appearance hints that Hollywood still hasn't evolved beyond the old saw that equates virtue with physical beauty: say what you like about Farage, he doesn't have a manky eye to offset the appearance of being a thoroughly reasonable, middle-of-the-road chap. (That's Nick Griffin's thing. Burn.) Neither has there been much development of the franchise's female characters. The 1968 Apes deployed Kim Hunter, an actress who'd gone toe-to-toe with Brando, in a dramatically substantial part as the chimpanzee psychologist and veterinarian Zira; here, Keri Russell takes the dismayingly thin role of Malcolm's tagalong girlfriend, presumably because it was a paycheque between seasons of The Americans, presumably because several bigger names passed.

There is, nevertheless, some mileage in watching loyalties shift between this quartet of alpha males: I saw Dawn in 2D, which may have been a contributing factor, but it struck me as far less interested in those set-pieces that bombard and overwhelm an audience than it was in its nervy, tentative, lower-level interactions between man and ape, through which some fragile allegiances can be tried and tested. That suits Matt Reeves, an at best second-rank action director (Cloverfield, Let Me In): there's a glimpse of big-ticket vision in one 360-degree panning shot as the rotating turret of a tank scans the extent of the chaos Koba has wrought on his way to City Hall, but for the most part, Dawn - as Rise did before it - plays like a neat, self-contained B-movie, the kind of endeavour that hits most of its narrative and emotional beats without insulting the viewer's intelligence. Rare to encounter a summer blockbuster of any scale - let alone a sequel to a prequel - that doesn't entirely feel like a done deal: may there be many more such banana skins on the road to the Statue of Liberty.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now playing in cinemas nationwide.