Sunday, 29 August 2010

For what it's worth...


Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of August 20-22, 2010:

1 (new) The Expendables (15) **
2 (new) Salt (12A) **
3 (1) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
4 (new) Piranha (15) *** [above]
5 (new) Marmaduke (U) **
6 (2) Inception (12A) ***
7 (4) Knight and Day (12A) **
8 (3) The Last Airbender (PG) *
9 (6) Step Up 3D (12A) **
10 (5) The Sorcerer's Apprentice (PG) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Illusionist
2. The Leopard
3. Avatar: Special Edition
4. Wah Do Dem
5. Diary of a Wimpy Kid


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (re) Shutter Island (15) ***
2 (re) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
3 (re) The Bounty Hunter (12) *
4 (1) Whip It (12) ***
5 (re) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
6 (5) Valentine's Day (12)
7 (3) The Joneses (15) **
8 (re) Invictus (12) **
9 (re) The Lovely Bones (12) **
10 (new) Dear John (12) **

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Cemetery Junction
2. Lebanon
3. Hot Tub Time Machine
4. Repo Men
5. Lymelife


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. An American in Paris (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC2, 1.10pm)
2. Grosse Pointe Blank (Friday, BBC1, 11.15pm)
3. Stand By Me (Saturday, C4, 12.05am)
4. The Bourne Supremacy (Saturday, ITV1, 9.45pm)
5. All the King's Men (Thursday, BBC2, 11.30pm)

On DVD: "Hot Tub Time Machine"

We presumably have the unspeakable success of The Hangover to thank for the retro-comedy Hot Tub Time Machine, in which a quartet of life's losers - selfish divorcee John Cusack, dog dewormer Craig Robinson, car wreck Rob Corddry, plus Cusack's nephew, nerdy Second Life recluse Clark Duke - head off for a boys' weekend in a snowy mountain resort. For the older members of the party, this was the hippest place in the world when they were young, but upon arrival, they discover it's since been overrun with cats and oddball characters such as Crispin Glover's one-armed bellhop. A whirl in the jacuzzi offers them a second shot at life in 1986 - but to return to the present, the assembled have to retrace the steps of their younger selves, which in two cases requires these now fortysomething males to get their way with their teenage sweethearts, the camera having to pan across to nearby mirrors (in which the men appear as boys, as they do to these girls) to reassure us this isn't nearly as gross as we might think.

The Hangover's (bad) influence can be felt in the way no laugh in Hot Tub Time Machine is ever considered too broad or violent: we get vomit on squirrels, and men juggling chainsaws, and when the characters ski off cliffs, they land with a thump and a thud. The joke regarding the precise fashion in which Glover lost his arm is pitched squarely at those who yukked their way through the Final Destination series; and whole stretches seem to rely on Corddry getting his bum out, or otherwise being as repulsive as possible. (Call me a prude, but I think we could all do without the sight of him attempting to fellate Robinson.)

What rescues it from its own worst instincts is that it's savvy indeed about its own place in pop culture. On first entering the titular hot tub with his pals, Corddry's Lou insists that getting naked with your pals is a vital act of male bonding, adding "Have you never seen Wild Hogs?"; later, with the machinations of the plot beginning to kick in, it's left to a weary Robinson to utter the immortal line, "Am I going to have to be the asshole who has to say, 'the hot tub took us back to 1986?'" There's a cameo from Chevy Chase as the resort's possibly mystic repair guy; director Steve Pink, who co-wrote Grosse Pointe Blank with Cusack, knows precisely the right moment in a T&A scene to switch from Animotion to Foreigner, and that he can elicit the cheapest of laughs from reviving Cutting Crew's "(I Just) Died in Your Arms" at a crucial interval.

All Hot Tub Time Machine really adds to that first wave of frat comedies is a comforting veneer of irony, an awareness of where the boundaries of screen comedy have been pushed back to in the intervening 25 years, and of which of that decade's songs have survived the test of time; it's not big, or especially sophisticated, and gets oddly lukewarm and feelgood (rather than feelgross) towards the end, employing Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home" as an ode to 1980s conservatism. Having said all that, Cusack makes something unexpectedly winning out of his relationship with Lizzy Caplan, a journalist who - unlike Heather Graham's stripper-madonna in The Hangover - gets to keep her clothes on; the skiing sequences are better than those in Better Off Dead...; and the first hour made me snort more snot out my nose than any other film for an awful long while, which seems an appropriate critical index for this sort of thing.

Hot Tub Time Machine is available on DVD from today.

Can we be fronds?: A critic makes peace with "Avatar"

Because hardly anyone shelled out to see it first time round, James Cameron's Avatar has been reissued this August bank holiday weekend - a full eight minutes longer - as Avatar: Special Edition, strengthening the (in this case, not altogether helpful) parallels with Cameron's other insurrection-on-another-planet picture Aliens, which similarly existed in a number of cuts back in the days of VHS. Of course, the film benefits from reappearing after eight months of retrofitted stereoscopic junk - one-time contenders such as Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans turned out to be scarcely worth the glasses hire - and the new additions are negligible loose ends, barely observed within the fabric of what's gone before.

I was all set to condemn the director for his gaudy showmanship, his flagrant peacocking even in the face of that Oscar defeat, until about fifteen minutes in, when I realised there's something in the way Avatar takes it to the max. Any old hack equipping himself with this new format could shoot a scene in which a character putts a golfball towards the camera - but only a filmmaker of the utmost chutzpah would replay the same effect within seconds and expect us to remain impressed. (And, I'll admit, be correct in that assumption: something to do with the satisfying noise of club striking ball.) Avatar treats digital 3D as sport, and goes about its business with the casualness of a five-time Masters winner enjoying a swift 18 holes at the local rec.

Watching the film again, I arrived at the same conclusion the paying public must have done first time around: that it doesn't matter that the storyline is rote, that leading man Sam Worthington is a humorless cut-out who only comes alive in avatar form, that the MacGuffin is stuck with the stoopid name of unobtainium (geddit - or, rather, don't get it; geddit?); that the whole is still so cartoonish, never mind that its integrationalist, plugged-in-branched-out foreign policy feels a good deal healthier than The Hurt Locker's terse appeal for America to keep its distance. No, what counts here is exactly how multi-layered those visuals are.

It's possible you could go see Avatar once more just to shut out the inevitable Pocahontas/Dances with Smurfs comparisons the narrative leads you to and keep a closer eye on the background action. Depth of field hasn't been this deep since Citizen Kane; the jungle hasn't looked this lush and inviting, this full of wonder and surprise and threat, since the days of Henri Rousseau. Cameron's mastery of space is evident even in those relatively spare scenes onboard the ships heading to Pandora. When Jake Sully records his video log, we're confronted not just with his outpourings in the middle ground, but the graphics in the foreground, and the techies milling about behind him; stick Na'Vi-to-English subtitles, or a light drizzle of forest rain in front of that, and it's no wonder Avatar seemed so overwhelming on a first viewing - why my initial instinct was to back away from it a little.

It's not merely a matter of scale, but of how thematically resonant these images are. Only on a second pass did I spot that the shot of the displaced Na'Vi taking shelter around the Tree of Souls - which had looked one of the kitschier tableaux - had been framed to recall the huddled masses taking refuge in the Houston Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, or indeed, once the Tree has illuminated, how the Na'Vi resemble an audience gathering before the cinema screen seeking comfort, escape, release. (Way to get us on side, Jim.) For all its hippy-dippy, tie-dye Terrence Malickisms, Avatar somehow manages to be hotwired into both the here-and-now and the properly mythic.

Whether the film unites its myriad fields of vision into a wholly satisfying spectacle remains open to discussion - but it's also the reason why the experience of Avatar isn't quite immersive (which suggests a certain passivity) so much as interactive: it forces you to choose where to look. Take the opening sequence of Worthington's Sully - cast in an ominous blue light - having to readjust to see the drop of condensation passing before his eyes; or the cutaways to the insides of cockpits as we first touch down on Pandora, and then again as the natives strike back. Telling that our guide throughout should be in a wheelchair, himself an avatar for viewers who may feel enfeebled by the film's barrage of visual information. Cameron has never seemed more committed to putting us in the driver's seat; now imagine what he could do with this technology and a half-decent screenplay.

Avatar: Special Edition is on selected release.

The skinny: "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is nothing to do with burgers - some other joint got the promotional tie-in, presumably - but a peppy, likable adaptation of author Jeff Kinney's pre-teen favourites. Zachary Gordon plays Greg Heffley, a tween not quite cool enough for the in-crowd, but too savvy for the nerds, negotiating his way through his first year in high school, aided by a clueless buddy, hindered by a dick of an older brother. The scene is set for various set-pieces stitched together, not always fluently, from the source material, usually involving Greg and best friend Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron, in every sense full of beans) adopting some new uniform or other: wrestlers' unitards, Hallowe'en costumes, a hi-visibility tabard worn for the purposes of after-school babysitting.

You could say TV sitcoms - Malcolm in the Middle and Everybody Hates Chris in particular - got here first, though maybe the demographics for those shows track a crucial couple of years older. No mind: director Thor Freudenthal, last observed biding time on Hotel for Dogs, casts well in the lead roles - these kids are lively, but not overly cute - and has fun with such Kinneyisms as "the cheese touch" (a lurgie-like curse that sets up expectations of a massive last-reel game of tig that never follows), a 1980s instructional video on schoolyard self-esteem, and a synchronised mother-son dance routine to the Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic". Best of all - as evidenced by the preservation of Kinney's stick-figure illustrations - he knows the advantages to be gained from keeping things simple. It's refreshing to see a family flick where no-one has superpowers, and someone's laid low with mono; one which extols the virtues of simply hanging out with your pals. And frankly, at this point in the holidays, it's a blessed relief to happen across something that doesn't involve talking CG animals.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is on general release.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Cruisin': "Wah Do Dem"

It's a terrible title, granted, but otherwise Wah Do Dem, the debut from young filmmakers Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner, exudes a certain winning low-key charm. Twentysomething Brooklynite Max (the engagingly gawky Sean Bones) splits up with his girlfriend mere days before the Jamaican cruise the pair were scheduled to go on; with all his friends busy, our boy elects to go it alone, and that's about it for plot. On board the cruise ship, the film adopts documentary-like rhythms, the directors' background in non-fiction coming to the fore: Bones has his picture taken, enjoys the buffet, makes a couple of new friends; he flicks disinterestedly through the news channels while ordering room service, is hit upon by a fellow traveller who misconstrues his use of the words "cruise partner".

Upon arrival at the island, however, Max's lax and lackadaisical attitude to personal security results in matters taking a turn for the nightmarish, albeit in a typically understated, shambling fashion; soon, there's more adventure than he, we and perhaps even the filmmakers expected. The promotional material lumps Wah Do Dem in with the emergent mumblecore movement, possibly for its cordiality, its willingness simply to hang out with its characters and shoot the breeze - Jamaica being as good a backdrop for this as any. Yet it's rather more polished than that classification would suggest: between the crisp photography of New York by night, the bright island colours and its fleeting Norah Jones cameo, frankly it looks too good for mumblecore, and the clearance costs for the hipster soundtrack alone would presumably keep an Andrew Bujalski funded for the rest of their career.

Where Wah Do Dem really differentiates and distinguishes itself, though, is in its ability to look beyond its protagonist's narrow worldview. The cruise takes place in the week leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, and Chace and Fleischner are vaguely critical of their self-absorbed slacker of a lead, drifting through life - all skateboards and headphones - until he's forced to reconnect with those around him; The Harder They Come's Carl Bradshaw enters at a crucial juncture as a village mystic leading this errant knight back to the path of righteousness. If you were feeling less than tolerant, you might note the film's resemblance to an overstretched Gap Year anecdote, but the writer-directors are better placed to appreciate the value of lived experience: finally - and unlike a lot of mumblecore - Wah Do Dem goes somewhere.

Wah Do Dem opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

From the archive: "The Leopard"

The Italian-language equivalent of Gone With the Wind or The Godfather, Luchino Visconti's sumptuous The Leopard charts the lives and loves of a Sicilian family of aristocrats over the late 19th century. Presiding over them all is the compelling Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, played by Burt Lancaster: a character who truly considers himself unimpeachable, above the world, but in reality an arrogant, godless libertine who abandons his family to spend a night with a whore as Garibaldi's revolution breaks out and dead bodies start turning up in the back garden. Alain Delon is the Prince's adopted nephew, who takes up with the revolutionaries, but his the impetuous knack of switching sides at will; Claudia Cardinale the Sicilian aristocracy's idea of the girl next door, daughter of the clan's nouveau riche enemies, for whom Delon comes to fall.

Its influence on The Godfather in particular can be seen in the emphasis Visconti and his collaborators place upon the regime's corruption, at once personal, political and spiritual. The Leopard begins with vote-rigging and marriages of convenience, then goes on to illustrate the Salinas' various other weaknesses. They're blind: Delon returns from the battlefield with a bandage over one eye; Don Fabrizio deceives himself even as he claims to lack self-deception. They're deaf: daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi) receives a book of poems from one suitor with a monograph stating words to that effect; when Don Fabrizio gives the speech that gives the film (and gave Giuseppe di Lampedusa's source novel) its title, he's greeted with a blunt "Sorry, I didn't hear that".

Most of all, they're mute: unable to speak up at the ballot box, failing to say the right things to one another just when they need to be said. The film draws towards its conclusion with a near-legendary, hour-long ball sequence, at which - despite the magnificent costuming - examples of all three flaws are on full display. (No wonder Lancaster staggers off with a headache at the end of it.) If The Leopard is rightly regarded as one of the great book-to-screen adaptations of all time, it's for the way it manages to get the pith of the novel - its sidebars and subtexts - up onto the screen and yet remain kinesthetic, fully dramatising even the heftiest hunk of exposition.

Speaking of hefty hunks, Lancaster was never more immense; even robbed of his own voice by the dubbing, the actor still seemed to demand the Cinemascope format, prowling every corner of the frame. Delon, too, finds himself with more space to romp in - and a character that allows him more leeway for such romping. It's the actor's most playful appearance: he's clearly the jackal following in the Leopard's pawprints. Yet the film suggests each generation is doomed to be undone by their forefathers' weaknesses; the curse of stupidity falls on those at one end of the social spectrum, that of entitlement at the other, and all are bound to perish scarcely more enlightened than when they first entered this world. The more things change, the more they stay the same; the Leopard never quite shucks those spots.

The majority of epics are intended as serious but rousing affairs, intended to send an audience back out onto the street after two, three, four hours so caught up in a fictional world that they want to know where those characters go next. Halfway through Visconti's film, Don Fabrizio voices his belief that humankind has barely a couple of centuries left, and indeed the film's final line - "Now we can take it easy" - suggests a complacency that will be particularly conducive to extinction. Other epics would get bolder and more expansive the longer they went on, but The Leopard turns out to be a very modern, neurotic epic in which the director eventually contracts the screen space down to one blind alley, through which his main character apparently disappears for good.

(October 2004)

The Leopard is rereleased in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday, 23 August 2010

On DVD: "Repo Men"

Miguel Sapochnik's nifty noirish sci-fi Repo Men looks like a major studio's take on material that's already been rehearsed elsewhere, whether in the droll indie Cold Souls or the cult-seeking Paris Hilton vehicle Repo! The Genetic Opera. (Even the title owes a debt to Alex Cox.) In a future America where - universal healthcare be damned - ailing consumers are obliged to buy replacement organs on credit from private corporations, Jude Law's Remy is a collector for leading organ provider The Union (motto: "Helping you get more out of you").

As paired with friend/former sparring partner Jake (Forest Whitaker), Remy spends his time tracking down those who've defaulted on their payments, taking back - with negotiable force - his employers' rightful property. (Squeamish viewers, look away now.) Yet as the opening scene - which finds Remy pecking out a presumably semi-autobiographical novel, "The Repossession Mambo", on an old manual typewriter - or our hero's delicate handling of a gifted music producer's heart suggests, this professional butcher has loftier ambitions for himself; after a workplace accident, he realises there may be more to life than ripping people open - although by that point, his own name has been added to another collector's list.

Sapochnik's art director past shows in the occasionally sketchy storytelling and the absolute attention to background detail; the feeling is that Universal have funded the filmmaker to construct lavishly dystopian sets (Blade Runner-style metropoli and shanty towns, a vast, wipe-clean organ manufacturing plant) around a standard, sometimes perfunctory B-movie plot. It's little surprise, given the director's background, that matter should come to a head on either side of "the Pink Door", a location spoken of with near-mythic reverence. The surprise is Law, an actor whose form in recent years has become as patchy as his hairline - yet one who knows how to pick a SF script, as Gattaca and A.I. demonstrated. Here, he shows signs of actually carrying a film - a lightweight film, admittedly - seguing skilfully between Cockney-inflected corporate goon, soulful marked man, and resourceful action hero.

Repo Men eventually devolves to the status of conventional lovers-on-the-run pic, complete with some very familiar reversals; by the time of the corridor fight that shamelessly rips off Park Chan-wook's OldBoy, you may well feel inclined to shout "Harvest some of your own ideas!" at the screen. Still, Sapochnik has an eye for affordably gorgeous actresses (Carice van Houten, Alice Braga), and the film has several of the other parts vital for engaging speculative fiction: a heart, a brain, even - as in Law's inventive dual use of the typewriter, the fate of the teenager employed as The Union's lung-wearing mascot, or the song cued by the bloody, Cronenbergian finale - some evidence of a funny bone.

Repo Men is released on DVD today.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of August 13-15, 2010:

1 (1) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
2 (3) Inception (12A) ***
3 (new) The Last Airbender (PG) *
4 (2) Knight and Day (12A) **
5 (new) The Sorcerer's Apprentice (PG) ***
6 (4) Step Up 3D (12A) **
7 (6) The Karate Kid (PG) ***
8 (7) The A-Team (12A) *
9 (5) Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (U) **
10 (new) Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue (U) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Illusionist
2. Five Easy Pieces
3. Ma Nuit chez Maud/My Night with Maud
4. Splice
5. Piranha


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Whip It (12) *** [above]
2 (new) Centurion (15)
3 (new) The Joneses (15) **
4 (new) Hot Tub Time Machine (15) ***
5 (1) Valentine's Day (12)
6 (2) Legion (15) **
7 (3) The Spy Next Door (PG) *
8 (4) The Infidel (15) **
9 (5) Old Dogs (12) *
10 (6) Shelter (15) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Lebanon
2. Repo Men
3. Lymelife
4. Whip It
5. Agora


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. His Girl Friday (Friday, BBC2, 12.30pm)
2. What's Up Doc? (Sunday, five, 2.10pm)
3. Junebug (Sunday, BBC2, 12.25am)
4. Crazy/Beautiful (Monday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
5. Outbreak (Friday, ITV1, 2.30am)

For his next trick: "The Illusionist"

For cineastes, The Illusionist will be a collaboration to savour: idiosyncratic French animator Sylvain Chomet directing an unfilmed screenplay by the late, great Jacques Tati - a pairing, perhaps, to rival the high-profile mindmelding of Spielberg and Kubrick on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Except that, here, the two sensibilities mesh seamlessly: Tati's wordless slapstick has transferred remarkably well to the animated form. What else, after all, was Chomet's sublime breakthrough feature Belleville Rendezvous (cycling, sight gags, heightened sound effects and Gallicry) if not a Tati film put over in pen and ink, the hand-drawn visuals providing an equally personal and distinctive stamp?

We can presume Tati wrote the title role of The Illusionist for himself circa 196o: this is Tatischeff, a greying stage magician with an especially plump and troublesome rabbit; the pair of them have crossed the Channel to embark upon a tour of the British Isles. Met with general disinterest in London - where he's regarded as at best an afterthought by the teenyboppers screaming for fresh pop sensations Billy Boy and the Britoons - Tatischeff receives a warmer welcome north of the border, and in Edinburgh (Chomet's adopted home) in particular, playing to houses of, say, ten people rather than just the two. En route, he picks up a travelling companion. Alice is an innkeeper's daughter keen to see the big city - but she, too, belongs to a different generation, apt to be distracted by televisions and shop windows.

A literal changing of the guard in the film's opening moments foreshadows the cultural seachange Tati was writing about: as the Fifties gave way to the swinging Sixties, traditional music-hall and end-of-the-pier entertainment - as embodied by Tatischeff's man in the brown suit - was heading the way of the dodo, a state of affairs that might well have struck a chord with an ageing director putting out quaint comedies at the time of the Marxist-Leninist Hitchcocko-Hawksians that made up the French New Wave. Between his nightly shows, the illusionist is confronted with further signs of his own mortality: Alice drifts off with a younger suitor she meets in a department store, while he himself stumbles into the Cameo cinema to catch a clip of Mon Oncle - the flesh-and-blood Tati on screen being at once younger and more "alive", seemingly, than his animated equivalent.

Around him - a familiar late-Tati concern, this - society is plunging, glossy-locked headfirst, into the consumer age. With the theatre Tatischeff is performing at comprehensively dwarfed by the giant advertising hoarding adjacent to it, the film's thesis is that the illusionist might represent some dishevelled artistry and humanity worth clinging to long after the last quiff has been brillantined. It's a direct fit with the traditionalism of Chomet's methods, for both magician and animator depend upon a skilful sleight-of-hand. In retrospect, part of Belleville's charm lay in its clutter: the experience was like setting foot inside an old curiosity shop, and being confronted with rows and rows of bric-a-brac to sort through. The new film is distinguished by an acute sense of light and space: its watercolour renderings of the London skyline and the Scottish climate rival anything by Turner or his Caledonian counterparts.

If some of the detail - kilted police officers, deep-fried chocolate bars, a graffito for Scottish independence - seem to belong more to a Scotland of the mind rather than specifically to the Edinburgh of the late 1950s, that's all part of the fun: by appending the imaginary to the real, his own doodles to Tati's original blueprint, Chomet can give us the best of both worlds. Take the sequence in a garage, where the animator's rare gifts for pathos and characterisation (viz. the flash-Harry client, his teeth as white as his suit and his Cadillac) chime with Tati/Tatischeff's knockabout, or that in the studios of advertising agency Publicitex, where a team of circus acrobats put the finishing touches to a brand-new soap campaign.

Despite these occasional flurries of activity, The Illusionist is slow by contemporary animation standards; younger viewers - for whom I'm almost tempted to say the film is too rich, too complex - should be briefed going in not to expect The Incredibles. Yet it's never fusty, and achieves a pacing more or less perfect for a work this concerned and tied up with the passage of time: it lingers with a purpose, the better to allow a subtler range of effects and moods, and to show what fades and passes with the day. Beautifully researched and rendered - and finally very moving - it perpetuates the genius of Tati, while confirming Chomet as right up there with the Pixar boys, Nick Park and Hayao Miyazaki in the very first rank of world animation.

The Illusionist is on selected release.

Something fishy: "Piranha"

In a year where James Cameron's Avatar set new technical and financial benchmarks for the movies, it seems somewhat perverse we should find ourselves looking back to the franchise that gave the young Cameron his first directing gig, with the sequel (1981's Piranha II: The Spawning) to a low-budget, Roger Corman-sponsored Jaws rip-off (the, ahem, "original" 1979 Piranha, written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante) - but then the new 3D format is nothing, in the main, if not a throwback to the gimmickry and hucksterism of old. Perhaps we might just be thankful this assignment landed in the hands of Alexandre Aja, the canny French remake specialist who's proved capable of a certain garish flair when the occasion has called for it.

Piranha 2010 sets out its stall with the pointed slaughter of a guest star before the opening credits, then settles into the rhythms of countless creature features before it. A small town is beset by toothy vermin trying to eat their way up the food chain, and it's down to a motley crew - here, sheriff Elisabeth Shue, deputy Ving Rhames, seismologist Adam Scott, plus a demographically representative teen (Steven R. McQueen, presumably cast for his name) - to restore both normality and our faith in the family unit. The one non-stereoscopic novelty is that the remake takes place during the increasingly commercialised spring break vacation, which affords endless gratuitous booty shots, a role for Jerry O'Connell as a Joe Francis-like porn producer you really can't wait to see chewed up, and an extended showcase for Kelly Brook (an actress surely built for 3D, if not perhaps acting) as a walking, talking bosom.

This latter aside, there's a surprising amount of padding in Piranha's 85 minutes, and you don't have to dive too far below the surface layer of irony to butt your head upon a bedrock of give-the-morons-what-they-want cynicism. The first half highlight - guaranteed to shift a few DVDs, and induce a squint in a considerable percentage of the watching male population - is Brook's nude underwater ballet with porn star Riley Steele to the accompaniment of Delibes' "The Flower Duet", which presumably counts as tasteful in Aja's eyes, but doesn't seem all that far removed from the softcore tripe O'Connell's sleaze merchant is serving up. Elsewhere, another leering Eli Roth cameo and the misappropriation of Scott's wry timing as a cut-price Tom Cruise hardly suggests a keen intelligence at work.

Oddly, though, whenever Piranha can tear itself away from the Brook decolletage - and it must have been tough, I know - it perks up. The film's underwater diving sequences bring back fond memories of The Descent: with its 3D effects mostly blah (unless you have a particular yen to watch a movie throwing up or belching severed penises in your face), one atypically subtle moment finds a piranha embryo rearing up in a diver's wake. Christopher Lloyd has a funny bit as a frantic fish expert, and I liked Rhames' last-reel deployment of a hand-held propeller to turn the ocean into the bloodiest of bouillabaisses. As brain-in-reverse Friday night trash, this Piranha will just about do, but it's a pity a director who once made a Futurist horror movie (1999's Furia) and whose first English-language venture (2006's The Hills Have Eyes remake) was so critical of U.S. thinking should have been seduced by a juicy paycheque and acres of sunkissed flesh into churning out something so obviously intended as beady-eyed, sharp-toothed product.

Piranha is on general release.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Meatheads: "The Expendables"

The real heroes of The Expendables are a pair of women: casting directors Deborah Aquila and Mary Tricia Wood, who've managed to wrangle most of the biggest action stars of the past three decades - and, no less impressively, their egos - into the same feature. This is a lot of brawn for one movie; if the DVD were made available in butchers' shops, the proprietors could slice it into slivers, and sell it off by the pound. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham and Jet Li get the above-the-title billing as former marines-turned-mercenaries roped into one last mission south of the border, but the project has been conceived upon roughly similar lines as such tatty 1970s items as The Wild Geese - as an old warriors' club - and the gang is, in a very real sense, all here.

The opening fifteen minutes of The Expendables alone offer Dolph Lundgren trying to hang a pirate, and Mickey Rourke showing up on a motorbike with a tattooed blonde floozy riding pillion, as though Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man had simply never happened. (No Marlboros here, mind: Rourke instead smokes a long-necked pipe last seen adorning the lips of Bilbo Baggins.) Stallone has one scene in a church with Bruce (Willis) and Arnie (Schwarzenegger) - an unholy communion, if ever there was, though it'll doubtless have Hollywood execs fondly recalling those days when actual human names above a title could guarantee bumper box-office. Even the sultry general's daughter the leads rescue en route (Giselle Itié) has a jaw that looks as though it might well withstand the rigours of a Tijuana bar fight.

Stallone co-wrote and directed as well as starring, and you'd have loved to have been at the script meetings, not least as the muscles (or, to be more precise, the muscles on the muscles) upon his forearms look to have pulled his already palsied-seeming face down further, and left his diction muddied more than that of even Jackie Chan. It's possible he truly wanted to make a sensitive drama about oldtimers attempting to make peace with themselves and the world, only for co-writer David Callaham to have misheard Stallone's "gums" as "guns" and "subtle intimations of mortality" as "automatic anti-tank rifles". With a complete absence of irony, Stallone the director sees fit to subtitle the English of a Somali warlord whose enunciation is positively Rex Harrison-like set against the leading man and much of the rest of the cast.

Obliviousness - an obliviousness to the passing of time in particular - is what The Expendables thrives on, and also what it asks of us as cinemagoers. Odd spasms of B-movie wit are apparent - as in the smackdown between Lundgren and Li under low-hanging struts the once-great Dane keeps banging his head on - but too often, like an abusive spouse, the film reverts to lumpen, neck-breaking type. It is The Movie That Evolution Forgot. Of the cast, only Willis, Rourke and Statham have any feel for the comic-ironic grace notes that might have distinguished The Expendables from any other direct-to-DVD trash; the rest play it as though it were 1987, John Cougar Mellencamp was riding high in the charts, dry, unmoisturised skin could be worn as a badge of manly honour, and their careers didn't need rescuing through prominent repackaging stunts such as the film is.

You may get some enjoyment out of The Expendables if you can get in to see it this Saturday night, but it feels fatally limited to the doings of boys and their toys. "You goin' to start sucking each other's dicks?," Willis asks a gulping Arnie and Sly; even the garage-cum-tattoo bar the heroes hang out in goes under the name Tool's. In its quieter moments, the dialogue brings up the dames these lone wolves let slip through their sausage fingers, but quiet moments are few and far between, to tell the truth. "Friends die together," Li insists early on in proceedings, and as our burly writer-director-star leaves Itié behind at the airport to once more ease himself into Statham's welcoming cockpit, The Expendables sets off finally in the direction of a love that dare not - and in Stallone's case, cannot - speak its name.

The Expendables is on general release.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

A certain loss of piquancy: "Salt" (ST 22/08/10)

Salt (12A) 100 mins **

Like prominent adverts for back-to-school footwear, or the introduction of draconian hosepipe bans, the reappearance upon our bus stops of Angelina Jolie in figure-hugging latex has become a reliable indicator late summer is upon us. That minority eagerly anticipating another Tomb Raider or Wanted may initially be disappointed by Salt, which begins in semi-serious fashion. Jolie’s eponymous CIA wonk is knocking off for another day when in walks a Russian defector, spinning a yarn about sleeper agents operating behind American lines – somewhat incredible, as it happens, until the spy’s casual leavetaking outs our heroine as one of the embedded.

Hence all those posters asking “Who is Salt?” As for what Salt is, the answer’s not quite the twisty-turny contemporary thriller intended, more an extended striptease-cum-makeover montage. Off come Jolie’s heels – too constricting for a girl on the run – swiftly followed by her panties, apparently the only practical way of foiling the Agency’s security cameras. These are replaced by any stray jacket/dry cleaning/military uniform that presents itself; the most pressing national security issue Phillip Noyce’s film addresses is how a rogue female agent is supposed to maintain a presentable change of wardrobe.

It’s a magpie work, really, shuffling bits of Bonds and Bournes to fit, and one that got lucky in the States as the Anna Chapman story broke. Noyce keeps matters moving, cannily deploying Jolie’s pansexual, ethnically non-determinate slipperiness, that sense she could – in the field, as in the boudoir – go any which way. Cartoonish plotting prevails, however, and by the finale, wherein one Nikolai Turncoatski threatens nuclear annihilation while wrestling with a middle-aged white President, the film’s cover has been blown entirely: Salt belongs to another time, another place, and all it can think to do is run and run, until it risks creative dehydration.

Salt opens nationwide on Friday.

Friday, 13 August 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of August 6-8, 2010:

1 (1) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
2 (new) Knight and Day (12A) ** [above]
3 (4) Inception (12A) ***
4 (new) Step Up 3D (12A) **
5 (new) Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (U) **
6 (2) The Karate Kid (PG) ***
7 (3) The A-Team (12A) *
8 (5) Shrek Forever After (U) ***
9 (6) Eclipse (12A) ***
10 (8) Gainsbourg (15) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Five Easy Pieces
2. Ma Nuit chez Maud/My Night with Maud
3. Splice
4. Le Refuge
5. The Sorcerer's Apprentice


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Valentine's Day (12)
2 (new) Legion (15) **
3 (new) The Spy Next Door (PG) *
4 (new) The Infidel (15) **
5 (new) Old Dogs (12) *
6 (1) Shelter (15) *
7 (4) Shutter Island (15) ***
8 (5) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
9 (6) Invictus (12) **
10 (7) Sherlock Holmes (12) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Whip It
2. Revanche
3. Women Without Men
4. Shutter Island
5. I Love You, Phillip Morris


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Psycho (Wednesday, ITV1, 2.15am)
2. Hell Drivers (Monday, BBC2, 11.15am)
3. No Way Out (Sunday, BBC1, 11.10pm)
4. Galaxy Quest (Thursday, BBC1, 10.35pm)
5. Sparkle (Saturday, BBC2, 10.50pm)

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Pregnant pause: "Le Refuge"

The majority of François Ozon's chamber pieces - his feature debut Sitcom, kitschy musicals Water Drops on Burning Rocks and 8 Women, the period adaptation Angel - have been stylised, deliberately provocative, and to a greater or lesser degree insincere. Like his backwards divorce drama 5x2 or his AIDS pic Time to Leave, the director's latest Le Refuge appears rather more heartfelt, perhaps inspired by contact with the disenfranchised of this world. The first of the film's two primary hideaways is an empty flat turned into a drug den by rich, addled dropout Louis (Melvil Poupaud) and his working-class girlfriend Mousse (Isabelle Carré). Their grim existence alters forever upon receipt of a batch of heroin cut with a lethal dose of valium; in a grimly comic scene worthy of the Ozon of old - a filmmaker who knew the importance of interior decoration to a property's value - Louis' mother, whom we gather owns the flat, begins to show a prospective buyer around the place, only to find her son's overdosed corpse lying in wait in the bedroom. (Suffice to say: no sale.)

The focus then shifts to Mousse, after she discovers she's pregnant, as Carré in fact was during filming. Undergoing treatment for her addiction, she's swiftly cut off by Louis's family, who'd rather she abort the child, so as not to have any painful reminders of their son toddling about. Mousse, however, has other ideas. She takes off for the coast, allowing Ozon to indulge his seashore fetish, and his heroine to hole up in a cottage with the deceased's gay brother to mull over the weird existential paradox she's struck by: that though both lovers took the same drug, Louis died, and she (and the couple's offspring) survived.

There is, it should be noted, a lot of mulling here - it's a film of stillness and reflection, where Ozon's previous films (the intentionally florid Angel, especially) were mannered and frenetic - and we have time of our own to reflect upon such things as Ozon's oddly token and surfacey gay relationships. The brother (Louis-Ronan Choisy) bumps into the only other gay man in the village, and the two spend the rest of the film ruffling one another's hair on the beach, a courtship interrupted only by a hetero sex scene that's likely to be the immediate post-credit talking point, and is possibly almost as preposterous as all the lesbian-converting business in Gigli.

Overstretched even at 90 minutes, Le Refuge is another film-mini, the default setting for certain French auteurs at the moment, and perhaps in no other country in the world would name directors elicit funding to explore such gossamer-thin ideas - to be allowed, in effect, to turn out anecdotes rather than features. Nevertheless, it happens across at least one subtly powerful sight along its meandering clifftop path: that of a woman trying to reconnect with the world - with her body, with her sexuality, with the people around her - in the wake of a sudden, gamechanging rupture; giving herself nine months, in effect, to work out what, exactly, the new life inside her represents. It's another fine, transformative performance from the still underrated (perhaps because so little seen over here) Carré, who - like her namesake Ms. Huppert - has become expert at portraying women whose seemingly delicate exteriors conceal contradictory impulses, and vast, unforeseeable cores of inner strength.

Le Refuge opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A kind-of magic: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

So this was the Jerry Bruckheimer masterplan for Summer 2010: to make not one megabucks blockbuster, upon which a producer might pin all his hopes, but instead to hedge his bets (and spread his costs) across two mid-level releases, using some of the same actors for maximum payroll efficiency. After May's Prince of Persia (co-starring Alfred Molina and Toby Kebbell), a nothing based on a console game, Bruckheimer now serves up The Sorcerer's Apprentice (co-stars: Molina and Kebbell), a rather more winning romp channeling Goethe, which at least offers proof the Hollywood supremo is casting his net far and wide for material.

Taken collectively, the two films actually reveal a mild failure of storytelling confidence, although Sorcerer - playing out closer to home - is evidently the one Bruckheimer's attentions were most closely focused on. It opens in very clumsy fashion, with a jumpy prologue - presumably hacked from a much longer cut, with a voiceover to fill in the gaps/explain what's going on - that sets up the Merlin legend as backstory, and finds Nicolas Cage, Molina and Monica Bellucci running around a castle in eighth century Britain. After that, the film begins to hit its stride, with the tale of a latter-day New York college student (Jay Baruchel) who comes to team up with Cage's junkshop sorcerer Balthazar, in order to vanquish the nefarious Horvath (Molina) and Morgana Le Fey (Alice Krige) for all eternity.

Yes, you can cavil at the way English folk legend has been co-opted to provide passing entertainment for teenagers with short attention spans and too much pocket money; and yes, the days when a Bruckheimer-Cage collaboration could result in a film as gloriously reprehensible as Con Air are apparently long gone. Yet, perhaps more by accident than design, The Sorcerer's Apprentice remains touchingly faithful to its various sources: this being a Disney production, we even get a live-action re-run of the best remembered sequence from Fantasia, with Baruchel wreaking havoc while attempting to clean up his lab space - the difference being the mops are now CGI, the puddles product-placement Mountain Dew.

The talking plug sockets are a nice touch, though, and what Jon Turteltaub's film recognises - more than any of the Harry Potter adaptations has thus far managed to - is that taking a novice wizard as your hero means there are no hard and fast rules, that anything is possible. Bruckheimer has the resources at his disposal to make it so, of course, but the movie pushes its excess to pleasingly surreal extremes. Here's Nic Cage descending from the sky on a GIANT STEEL EAGLE! Elsewhere, a Chinese paper dragon is converted into flesh and blood and scales; hamburgers are marked with the pentagram (surely as good an image as any of American cultural imperialism); a carpet turns to quicksand; hell, we even get Nic Cage delivering a lesson in MOLECULAR FUCKING PHYSICS, which is unexpected enough in itself.

If The Sorcerer's Apprentice wanted to be completely on-trend, it would have made its young protagonist a skateboarding emo kid, but Baruchel imbues his science geek with the same nerdy likability he lent to June's She's Out of My League, forever finding some new reason to fiddle self-consciously with his Tesla coils; his flatmate is played by the amiable Omar Benson Miller, a recent recruit to the producer's bread-and-butter-and-blunt-force-trauma franchise CSI, so the commitment to science runs deep. There's not enough Monica Bellucci (there very rarely is, I find), and both the actors and sense of peril are slightly neutered by the PG certificate - gotta maximise those revenue streams, right? - but for sheer moviebiz chutzpah, I doubt it'll be topped this summer.

The action highlight is a car chase through a Times Square of ever more prominent billboards; at one point, our heroes pass through a mirror into a reverse-universe signified by a lingering shot of the "!OOHAY" logo (geddit?), and only with a no less loving glance at a recto-verso Mentos hoarding can Bruckheimer and Turteltaub think to announce all's right and well with the world again. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is certainly no stranger to crassness, but at a time at which Hollywood's financial and imaginative reserves have never seemed more stretched, it's rather reassuring to see a production so hellbent on providing value for money to audience and advertisers alike.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice opens nationwide today.

Cold cases: "The Secret in Their Eyes", or "Law & Order: Unrequited Affections Division"

Since his internation breakthrough feature - 2003's enjoyable comedy-drama Son of the Bride - the Argentinian writer-director Juan José Campanella has been plying his trade in U.S. procedural drama, of the House and Law & Order kind. The influence of these series can be felt on Campanella's latest, The Secret in Their Eyes, which beat A Prophet and The White Ribbon to take this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and - in doing so - confirmed my suspicion the Academy will always plump for the subtitled offering it feels closest to, regardless of said film's ultimate quality. Oscar surely felt more at home among Secret's crime scenes and depositions than it would have been in the middle of a race war between Arabs and Sicilians, or trying to figure out the complexities of German Protestantism. In short: Campanella got lucky. Maybe his time in television has left him with friends in high Hollywood places.

Secret takes place in two timelines simultaneously, cutting back and forth to demonstrate the ripples the past has left, and keeps making, on the surface of the present. It's here we find Campanella's regular lead Ricardo Darin as Esposito, a legal investigator using his retirement to try and nail down the one case that got away from him: the rape and murder of a young bride, presented as the sort of photogenic corpse that might well inspire obsession in certain morbidly inclined males. Reunited with his former boss, the weathered judge Irene (Soledad Villamil) - upon whom our hero has been cultivating a serious, 25-year office crush - he's inspired to recollect his scattered memories, and to establish once and for all, with the benefit of hindsight, whodunnit.

Your involvement with The Secret in Their Eyes may depend entirely on how you come to view this relationship, between two lived-in middle-agers given cause to reflect upon a quarter-century of personal and professional regrets. Is this, as the Academy clearly thought, foundation enough for a mature and adult entertainment? Or is it instead the basis for a creaky, at times outright cranky film, one where the autumnal romance skews terribly the central murder investigation? Campanella's theme, after all, is quiet obsession, the kind that can lead a widower to sit on a train station platform every day hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved, or to pursue a grudge long after the forces of law have exhausted all their leads.

Yet - shot through with an amber-hued nostalgia - the film's line of inquiry is persistently more romantic than forensic: this, probably, is the reason it got the Oscar, and a film like David Fincher's Zodiac didn't get a sniff back in 2008. Fincher, at least, was scrupulous in his evocation of a time before criminal databases, when pen-pushing and legwork had to take up the investigative slack. When Campanella dispatches Darin's Esposito and his alcoholic (and clearly doomed) sidekick to a football stadium in the vain hope of apprehending one suspect, it's really just an excuse for the filmmaker to inject some helicopter shots and chase scenes into a work that otherwise remains as desk-bound as David Brent - the two lawyers could as easily have happened across their man walking down an empty street.

The differences between the two films prove instructive. Zodiac - based on fact - dared to portray obsession as a force that drove people apart (or drove them unhinged). Secret - which is pure fiction, and feels more Hollywood in its cathartic story arcs - proposes that obsession is useful because it brings people together, in interrogation chambers or over cups of coffee; that it is, in fact, a kind of alchemy, fostering all manner of previously unexplored chemistries. It's true that Darin exudes a rare, wry charisma, and that Villamil's scarcely faded beauty holds the eye, but - outside the final act, with its speculative flashbacks, ageing latex and melodramatic plot hikes - their scenes together are where the film is at its phoniest. In Campanella's eyes, the young woman's rape and murder can be considered a positive thing because, eventually, it meant the lawyer working the case got more than a nod and a wink from the foxy judge he was jonesing for. I don't know about you, but that's what I'd call transference.

The Secret in Their Eyes opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Notes on Crap: "The Last Airbender"

"I knew, from the very first moment we discovered you, that you were a Bender."
(Actual dialogue)

In the interest of fairness, it should be underlined M. Night Shyamalan's adventure fantasy The Last Airbender is aimed squarely at children rather than sniggering teens or adults, and that it's presumably a work-for-hire through which the writer-director sought to redeem himself with his Hollywood paymasters after the non-event of 2008's The Happening (viewed in retrospect, an early example of a big 2010 trend: a B-movie masquerading as a major studio's summer tentpole release). There is, also, nothing anyone can do with that title, which derives from a kids' TV series and must, surely, spark a twinge of brand recognition in somebody somewhere. (I kept wondering how the film might play under the titles The Last Airpusher or The Last Aircutter, but even these alternatives come to sound like euphemisms for flatulence.)

Having sat, generally dismayed, through the film's 103 minutes, my sympathy ends there, though: Airbender absolutely deserves the flop status accorded to it upon its U.S. release, and perhaps a measure more contempt to boot. It begins, as it must, with the defrosting of a young boy from a sphere of ice deposited in the Antarctic. Aang (Noah Ringer) resembles the Golden Child from that little-lamented Eddie Murphy turkey of the same name, only with an arrow inscribed upon his shaven bonce, as though he'd fallen asleep with his head in the road during line-painting day on a one-way street.

Aang is apparently the Avatar - good name, that - using an armoury of kung-fu kicks and punches to control the elements around him: Air, Earth, Wind and Fire. (In this respect, he's like a DJ with especially precocious tastes in soul-funk and French chillout.) Inevitably, his skills have left him much in demand, and see him pursued through such unpromising locales as "The Fire Nation", "The Northern Earth Territory" and "The Great Library" (reference, not lending, evidently) by curiously non-Caucasian forces of darkness. These will include Slumdog Millionaire's thoroughly unthreatening Dev Patel, in the company of whom the film's action sequences come to look like Saturday morning down at the karate club.

In this irony-heavy age, where expertise has generally been devalued, worthless trash such as Mega Piranha can sneak a theatrical release and even obscure follies such as The Room can be revived for the delectation of sneering hipsters, it's tempting to read The Last Airbender as a name filmmaker's deliberate attempt to crack the bad-film market, to make something that might just, in look and narrative and dialogue, rival the dubbed kangaroo kung-fu of 1997's Warriors of Virtue. (Don't knock it until you've tried it.) But humour me here for a moment, and let's assume the intention was to make something good and lasting and worthwhile, a picture for the ages, and not the Razzies.

The Industrial Light and Magic team's most conspicuous CG creation - a furry canine-like transporter the kids clamber onto - is rather too obviously a splicing together of spare pixels: part Star Wars Tam-Tam, part-Wild Thing, the polar bear from The Golden Compass crossed with a similar beast from The Never-Ending Story. Otherwise, the 3D elements (and elements these are: fireballs and duststorms and gobbets of ocean coming right atcha) are some way north of average. Or, rather, they're the film's raison d'être, another example of the new stereoscopic format being used to tart up something that would play as drably undynamic in 2D.

The scale means this is the biggest showcase yet for Shyamalan's fundamental humorlessness, the complete disavowal of irony that made his opening salvoes - the generic rehashing of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs - resonate so. But this is a kids' film, and Shyamalan has cast some of the cinema's least sparky child performers, plied them with gobstopping exposition, and packed them off on a truly tedious quest. The spirit of George Lucas hovers listlessly over the whole production: it's all spectacular backdrops with zero human interest to commend them, save a romance with a drippy princess, and a final round of prizegiving that suggests someone's got their eye on further instalments. (Spare us, Night.)

Accordingly, we have to go looking for wit wheresoever we can find it, hence the snickering delight to be taken in Airbender's bad dialogue ("Bending is forbidden in this village!"); still, the director's self-seriousness proves so relentless it even kills stone dead that outside chance at future cult rehabilitation. That's right: it's a film that even renders boring the business of bender misinterpretation. Coming after a run of critical and commercial flops, it may also be the final blow to the auteur status Shyamalan, his films, and their attendant publicity materials have sought with increasing levels of self-consciousness: I'd argue there are still cases to be made for the batty singularity of The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening, but The Last Airbender arrives pre-packaged, anonymous, and just quite atrociously dull.

The Last Airbender opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

On the road again: "Five Easy Pieces"

In Bob Rafelson's 1970 drama Five Easy Pieces, re-released this week, Jack Nicholson is Robert "Bobby" Dupea, a charismatic upper-middle class drifter who once harbored hopes of becoming a concert pianist; with those ambitions having long since subsided, he's lost himself in the middle of nowhere, making do with a job in the Californian oilfields and a relationship with a dim cocktail waitress (the incomparable Karen Black). As a bowling game early on in the film makes patently obvious, he's carrying her, and the terrible truth is that he knows it - which nevertheless doesn't excuse his callous indifference towards her. Having established its protagonist as at something of a dead end, the film watches - patiently, observantly - as Bobby is obliged to try and move on in his life. When his sole ally on the rigs is arrested for skipping bail (one of several males here just passing through), he grabs his girl with some reluctance and sets off upstate, aiming to reconcile with his ailing father.

40 years on, what seems so radical is how Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman gives us a lead character who can never quite be. Bobby Dupea's middle name, not accidentally, is Eroica; he philanders in a Triumph T-shirt; Jack being Jack, he even has the grin of one of life's winners - but the truth is, for all the protagonist's restless, relentless movement, he simply cannot get anywhere. When a traffic jam snarls up his route home from work one afternoon - Rafelson turning the soundtrack over to blaring horns and barking dogs - Bobby leaves his stationary truck behind, climbs aboard an adjacent furniture removals wagon, and begins picking out notes on an old, out-of-tune piano - only for the vehicle to turn off at the nearest available exit, depositing its passenger right back where he began.

In seeing classical music as a civilising influence - and Five Easy Pieces is nothing if not the tragedy of an individual who once sought the permanency of Chopin, but now has to settle for Tammy Wynette - the film preempts James Toback's later Fingers, another feature about an angry young men faced with a simple existential dilemma that would take on greater resonance as the decade (and the Vietnam War) progressed: should I stay or should I go? It is, also, one of those American New Wave features to bear the marked influence of a Nouvelle Vague original: Godard's 1967 horror-show-on-wheels Week-End, as the overturned cars, rest-stop absurdism and psychotically boring hitchhikers of Rafelson's film suggest.

Like its forerunner, Easy is a comprehensive debunking of the myth of the road as somewhere one might go to find one's freedom - and, in so being, the film becomes either brethren to, or corrective of, the endlessly celebrated Easy Rider. Rafelson's is the smarter, more critical film of the two, I think: where Captain America and chums are ultimately lionised for their martyrdom - to put it bluntly, the easy way out - Bobby Dupea is last seen heading towards a destination entirely befitting his emotional temperature. (Sometimes, the film tells us, there is such a thing as too cool.) The one time he attempts any real show of sincerity - driving off a ferry towards the conclusion, passing a prospective sister-in-law/lover (Susan Anspach) who's heading in the opposite direction, in every sense - he's told in no uncertain terms to keep moving, that he himself is holding up the road.

Staying put is no option, either, as the last of the film's near-classically structured three acts proves beyond all doubt. "He doesn't even know who the hell I am," Dupea rails, as his stroke-bound father sits mutely in front of him; with his past struck dumb, his rootlessness is very nearly complete. What Eastman grasped - and maybe it needed a woman to write this screenplay, to take one further step back from such a seductive central character - is that the A American movies had traditionally had down as for Adventure could also stand for Anomie; that the downside of living in a country where you're repeatedly told you can be anyone is that there's an equal, if not greater, likelihood you may end up being no-one, playing ping-pong in parking lots with absolute nitwits.

Even by the high standards of Nicholson's 70s output, Bobby Dupea sits among the actor's most rigorous performances, the wildness of the crazy Jack first showcased in Easy Rider here undercut by flickers of self-disgust and gentility, an understanding of the Robert Dupea who could have been, by the one who took a different road, and knows all his own failings in doing so. Well ahead of the curve of those landmark Vietnam-era features that sought to reassess the American dream in naturalistic fashion - and sporting a gallery of indelibly unconventional actresses with which Rafelson holds off any notion of special pleading on his anti-hero's behalf - the film looks more than ever a founding countercultural myth.

Five Easy Pieces opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of July 30-August 1, 2010:

1 (1) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
2 (new) The Karate Kid (PG) *** [above]
3 (new) The A-Team (12A) *
4 (2) Inception (12A) ***
5 (4) Shrek Forever After (U) ***
6 (3) Eclipse (12A) ***
7 (5) The Rebound (15)
8 (new) Gainsbourg (15) **
9 (6) Predators (15) ***
10 (new) Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (12A)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Ma Nuit chez Maud/My Night with Maud
2. Splice
3. The Sorcerer's Apprentice
4. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
5. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl


Top Ten DVD rentals (and no, this list makes no sense to me, either):

1 (new) Shelter (15) *
2 (new) Shank (15)
3 (re) sex&drugs&rock&roll (15) ***
4 (new) Shutter Island (15)
5 (1) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
6 (2) Invictus (12) **
7 (3) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
8 (4) The Crazies (15) ***
9 (5) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
10 (6) The Book of Eli (15) ***

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. La Danse: The Paris-Opera Ballet
2. Revanche
3. Women Without Men
4. Shutter Island
5. I Love You, Phillip Morris


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. There Will Be Blood (Saturday, BBC2, 9.45pm)
2. Spellbound (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30am)
3. Sweet Smell of Success (Sunday, BBC2, 12.35am)
4. Westworld (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15am)
5. Ransom (Friday, BBC1, 11.15pm)

On DVD: "Women Without Men"

Women Without Men - an extension, or 95-minute remix, of the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat's well-regarded video installations - takes the form of a patchwork movie, detailing the lives of four women living in Iran during the CIA-sponsored coup d'état in 1953. Though men are ever present in one form or another - the Shah, British and American troops, the demonstrators on the street - Neshat's thesis is that there was no-one on hand to support these women when they most needed it, or to catch them when they fell; in the case of the suicidally curious Munis (Shabnam Toulouei), this proves a particularly deadly absence. (As shown, it will require another woman's touch and patience, her sensitivity to the world around her, to bring Munis back to life.)

Elsewhere, the men we see are uncaring or indifferent, like those wearing away at the lacerated brothel girl Zarin - an unexpected appearance here from Orsi Toth, the travelling bag of bones who, in the films of Hungarian miserablist Kornel Mondruczo, has done more than any actress to take the fun out of nudity, and thus, in Neshat's hands, becomes an angular tool with which to neutralise the male gaze. The casting of Toth perhaps sets up expectations of grim realism, yet her anti-Scheherazade - the courtesan who would make any sane man run a thousand miles in the opposite direction - signals Neshat's desire to subvert the standard Arabian Nights framework, with its male-oriented and male-controlled storytelling. In Women Without Men, the fantasy elements are all in place - the misty glades and stagnant swamps are straight out of a fairytale, as is the unexplained revival of characters thought dead - but there's no sign of a happy ending, that love might just conquer all.

Maybe that's as life was in 50s Iran, yet one recurring frustration with this difficult feature is how - right from the title, with its insinuation of both independence and lack - it seems to occupy a state of betweenness. Too widescreen to languish as an installation, yet not entirely satisfactory as cinema, it converted what would have been a provocative gallery encounter into a fairly glum night at the Curzon Mayfair. (This DVD release naturally encourages viewers to reshape their living rooms into conceptual art spaces.) When Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), middle-aged wife of a general, is inducted into a secret society of "decadent" poets, playwrights and actresses, we can be fairly certain it won't be long before hubby and his troops come knocking at her front door. Any visual and narrative pleasure in Women Without Men comes to be turned against itself; for all Neshat's stunning imagemaking, it remains a pointed text, a prepared statement, more than it is a fully-realised picture.

Women Without Men is available on DVD from Monday.