Thursday, 30 September 2010

House of cards: "Collapse"

We're fucked. In Chris Smith's new documentary Collapse, a greying, middle-aged man - a former LAPD beat cop (from which post he retains the 'tache and paunch), sometime CIA operative and investigative journalist; no obvious Cassandra, in other words - sits down in a basement, lights himself a cigarette and, with the cameras rolling, tells us, very calmly and very persuasively, that we're fucked. The man in question is Michael Ruppert (above), who's taken it upon himself to debunk the capitalist myth of "infinite growth"; Smith went to interview him for work on a film he was planning on drug trafficking within the CIA, but ended up hearing a very different, far gloomier story.

For the past few decades, Ruppert's field of expertise has been the world's energy reserves, and to what extent they've now been eaten up. His thesis is that scouting around Alaska or the Gulf or the Alberta Tar Sands for oil is as scraping the bottom of the barrel, not that our governments - keen to mainstain stock prices, not to mention some semblance of order - are likely to admit as much. Alternative fuel options are, in Ruppert's eyes, a joke: ethanol requires more energy to produce than it gives off, clean coal a plain contradiction in terms. And no, you can't have an electric car, either, because you still need oil to make the tyres and fixtures. With no fuel, you have no currency (which similarly requires oil as part of the production process), with no currency, no government; with no government - and it's hardly as if we're suffering under a surfeit of leadership right now, is it? - you have no essential services, and when no essential services are provided, anarchy or the law of the jungle will prevail. Who cares which Miliband you choose? We're fucked.

Smith has smartened up in the ten years since his amiably shambling American Movie followed an amiably shambling amateur filmmaker - like Ruppert, a visionary of sorts. Collapse's framing - a mix of archive footage and head-on interrogation of the subject - and its Philip Glass-like score clearly invites comparison to Errol Morris, even as it allows for the possibility Ruppert may be either an overlooked prophet or a paranoid crank. Certainly, there's much to question in his backstory: a rather sketchy account of how he came to leave the CIA (something to do with "a woman who betrayed [him]"), a self-published newsletter ("From the Wilderness") in which he first sent forth his grand unifying theory of global collapse - tying together the energy crisis with population growth and our present financial woes - in a method more commonly ascribed to a bright schizophrenic personality.

Ruppert proves an undeniably tough interviewee, venturing off-question to mutter hardline survivalist dogmas, and frequently puncturing his sceptical rhetoric with flickers of arrogance. When Smith films him saying "We have been waiting so long for someone to listen to us", we understand that "we" to mean I, and that "to us" to mean to him, the fired operative who's since distanced himself from mainstream society and may or may not have a colossal axe to grind accordingly. (In this reading, the collapse would leave Ruppert with a consolatory level playing field.) Then again, he could just be onto something: he did, after all, predict the financial meltdown several years before it happened, and he has credible-sounding theories on why Cuba and North Korea are best placed to survive the gathering storm, and what the reverse-migration of Polish labourers from the UK tells us.

Certainly, Ruppert was convincing enough to make me wonder whether the current round of state-sanctioned cuts wasn't just an attempt to make an inevitability look like an active choice on the British government's part; whether, in fact, the latter's hands are tied because the money's already gone for good. If the subject matter of Collapse is bleak, there's nonetheless something thrilling and provocative in how this worst-case scenario - "major bankruptcies, starvation, dislocation" - is conveyed, and finally something hopeful in Ruppert's vision of "a new age of evolution" in which we all shuck off our remaining material possessions, cherish our family and friends ("our tribe"), take the dog for a walk, and count how many smiles we receive from passing strangers. It's a clever Rorschach test of a film, designed to weed out the Pollyannas from the eternal Eeyores among us, and I don't hesitate to betray my own allegiances in stating the following: if even 10% of what Ruppert forecasts comes true, we are all still, very much, fucked.

Collapse opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Ryan intestate: "Buried"

Buried begins where The Vanishing left off: with a man in a coffin, armed only with a cigarette lighter, coming to terms with the slow realisation he may be six feet under, more or less. Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a truck driver working for a private contractor in Iraq, has woken up somewhere beneath the desert; the last thing he can remember is his convoy being attacked by insurgents, and blacking out at the wheel. Aside from his trusty Zippo, the only other tool at Conroy's immediate disposal is the mobile phone that's been buried with him, upon which he's obliged to negotiate his own ransom payment. The usual aggravations associated with these devices are here heightened tenfold: when you're sealed in a wooden box and struggling for oxygen, the rote operator response "I understand your frustration" really isn't good enough.

This is, then, the ne plus ultra of that inventive subgenre of films dealing with the manoeuvrings of a limited number of people in a single room (the better for budgetary concerns): in Buried, it's one person (and a passing snake), and the room is no more than seven feet in length and four foot across. It's no surprise to find the director, Rodrigo Cortés, hails from Spain, the nation that has been making some of the best genre movies in the world these past five years. Cortés knows how to work his location, and the minimal props available to him, cleverly addressing the now-expected mobile-phone issues by ensuring only one corner of the coffin gets reception; there are only three bars of battery power left, and it takes Conroy half the running time to figure out how to change the phone's operating language from Arabic to English.

He's also adept at finding new angles on and within the coffin, changing up the lighting from lighter to glowstick to torch (with red and white light options!), peering through the coffin's cracks, probing it for signs of structural weakness, turning the screen over to darkness when all appears especially hopeless. Somewhere in Buried, there's a reworking of the conventional two-shot dynamic: sometimes the camera is placed at Reynolds' feet, looking up at his head; at others, it's placed at Reynolds' head, looking down at his feet. I'm guessing that, not for the first time in film history, a director and their chosen star got to know one another very well indeed in the course of a production.

You can't really blame them: on paper, Buried offers the most obvious star-making role since 2003's Phone Booth, which positioned Colin Farrell in a kiosk for 90 minutes, selling himself to potential future employers. Reynolds, for his part, has been shuffling around the A-list's fringes for almost a decade now, ticking off stoner comedies (Van Wilder, Harold and Kumar), buff superheroics (Blade: Trinity), idiosyncratic indies (Chaos Theory, The Nines) and slick romcommery (Definitely, Maybe) without ever quite seeming ready to open a movie, and this is his most prominent placing yet. Though Chris Sparling's script provides solid opportunities for the actors on the other end of Conroy's phone - and full marks to Cortés for choosing an Englishman as the voice of calm, reassuring reason - Buried is otherwise all Reynolds, all of the time, playing the hypertensive end of the acting spectrum: despair, frustration, tetchiness in having to deal with his (ex?) mother-in-law, vulnerability in making peace with his own befuddled, institutionalised mother.

Yet I'm pretty sure Paul Conroy isn't going to be as heroic as an audience might demand him to be in the situation: Farrell's bystander could at least fight back with words, but this Everyman's defining characteristic is that he's stuck. (And despite the heat, Reynolds doesn't even get to perform his usual unveiling of torso: he merely has to sweat it out and wait for someone - or something - to release him.) As Buried unfolds, what becomes clear is that the concept's the true star and selling point: the film is no more than a stunt, and a stunt designed to turn the real-world horrors of the Iraq conflict into a palatable, popcorn-shilling entertainment at that. We're meant to get off on Paul Conroy's plight, not recoil from it.

The backing off is left to the direction, instead. Last week's stunt thriller Frozen - made by the type of filmmaker you could well imagine getting stranded up a ski lift with his stoner buds - put us right there alongside its protagonists as they dangled, but Cortés is keen to keep a studied, knowing distance, and while pulling back from the coffin makes it much easier for the audience to return to the surface once the house lights have come up, it results in at least one golden missed opportunity: how much more affecting (and human) would Buried have been if the filmmakers had more closely mirrored Conroy with cinemagoers - themselves shut in the dark with only the light of a screen to guide them - and made him increasingly desperate for a pee?

Buried is in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Back to "Back": Notes on the return of Marty McFly

At last, the first must-see blockbuster of 2010. After a summer spent watching pre-eminent American producers scrimping and saving (Prince of Persia; The Losers), or reaching for 3D as a revenue-generating last resort (Clash of the Titans), it's a greater pleasure than usual to return to Back to the Future, and an era when the major studios had both money to burn, and some confidence in what an audience might want to see of a Friday evening. The reputation and reach of Robert Zemeckis's 1985 film has only grown in the years since: giving boyband McFly their name, for one, and sparking a flurry of erroneous Tweets earlier this year when some bright spark Photoshopped the time-travelling DeLorean's readout to suggest this was the year Marty and Doc were all set to zoom off to in the closing moments. (In fact, their destination is 2015 - so you've got five years to devise your next witty BTTF-derived Facebook update, providing the Mayan prophecy set out in 2012 doesn't intervene.)

Final-scene pleas for sequels have become commonplace in event movies - but this boyishly charming film remains one of the few where the process of sequelisation feels thoroughly earned by that conclusion. It's a toss-up between this and the no less pop-culturally savvy E.T. for the title of The First Truly Self-Aware Blockbuster - which may be the reason BTTF gets away with this much Huey Lewis, not only on the soundtrack, but in the singer's brief cameo as the high-school music teacher who judges Marty's band "too loud". (At the risk of going all Patrick Bateman on you, I've always found "Back in Time" preferable to "The Power of Love", the then-ubiquitous break-out single, positioned front and centre as the film opens.)

The two-man Libyan terrorist team operating out of a VW camper van now seems a quaint touch, but otherwise irony and hindsight are as central to the narrative structure as the flux capacitor is to the DeLorean, as is a sense of things and wonders to come: while following Marty's progress, Obama-era viewers might care to consider in passing the less pyrokinetic (yet more significant) journey undertaken by Hill Valley's foremost black resident, Goldie Wilson, in proceeding from put-upon busboy to mayor. (Some compensation, possibly, for the Enchantment Under the Sea sequence, where Marty's rendition of "Johnny B. Goode" apparently gives no less an individual than Chuck Berry the idea for rock 'n' roll - which, while funny, smacks a little too much of white moviebrats trying to reclaim rhythm 'n' blues for themselves.)

The question of historical perspective hovers over the film throughout. It's not too difficult to read BTTF as an attempt to rewrite American history along conservative lines, flat-out ignoring the 1960s (too progressive) and the 1970s (Vietnam); as Marty's grandfather says at the family dinner table, "Who the hell is John F. Kennedy?" Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale take a hard line on crime: poor Uncle Joey, announced as a jailbird in 1985, is confined to a playpen in 1955, and resigned to his fate. ("Get used to those bars, kid," Marty urges the nipper.) What the film does achieve is to unify the conservatism of the 1950s with its 1980s equivalent - to make momentary sense of how Ronald Reagan rose from Hollywood bit-player in one time frame to most powerful man in the world in the other. "No wonder your President is an actor," 50s Doc proposes, marvelling at Marty's unmarvellous, briefcase-sized JVC camcorder, "He has to look good on camera!"

For Marty, the journey is - as he puts it in his closing words to 50s George and Lorraine - "educational", chiefly about discovering that his folks, schlubbily sexless and wholly uncool in the present tense, once had desires similar to his own: the film is unusually sophisticated in its appeal to both adult and teenage audiences. This being a PG-rated family feature, it isn't, of course, allowed to go too far: yes, Marty ends up in his own (younger) mother's bed, stripped down to his purple Calvin Kleins, and yes, the two of them very nearly kiss - ew! - in the car park before the dance, but clever plotting means fate intervenes whenever matters threaten to get too far out of hand.

It's the upside of Twin Peaks, which similarly meshed the 1950s with a more contemporary aesthetic and morality, but plumped for the unhappy ending: there, Laura Palmer found out the hard way about the needs of her parents. It may not be coincidence that the tramp roused from his slumbers by Marty's return to the present is none other than Jack Nance, the regular Lynch player caught napping somewhere in time between Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. And what of BTTF's Twin Pines Mall, eventually reduced - in one of the film's subtlest gags, thrown away late on - to the Lone Pine Mall after Marty ploughs the DeLorean through Old Man Peabody's prized front yard?

For all the above speculation, Back to the Future remains not just a model, but a miracle of crisply economical screenwriting: after the opening half-hour of pure, undiluted set-up, Zemeckis and Gale manage to resolve the George-and-Lorraine subplot within 90 minutes, a feat which - in this age of unspeakably flabby blockbusters - serves as its own testament to just how hard that middle hour works. In fact, the film proves in such a rush to set up a sequel for itself that another look reveals how the screenwriters bungle the ending. Viewed objectively, the world hasn't improved when Marty returns to the present; it's just shifted its axes. Now George is the big-shot, rich off the back of his (terrible-looking) sci-fi opus A Match Made in Space, and Biff is the one reduced to menial labour. The dynamic is still that of bully and victim, only now the McFlys have a nice new car in the garage: this was 1985, after all.

Back to the Future returns in selected cinemas from Friday.

On DVD: "Mother"

No-one is having more fun with genre right now than the director Bong Joon-ho. You may remember the name from 2006's monster mash-up The Host, which pitted a dysfunctional family of misfits against a giant amphibian creature emerging from the Han river, but seasoned Bong-ites have been spreading the word since 2003's outstanding Memories of Murder, which took a melancholy tale of true-life serial-killing that shocked Korea, and added grace notes of crime-scene and interrogation-room knockabout: it kicked its characters up the backside, and then - once the laughs had subsided - left us feeling a lingering pain and sadness.

Trace elements of this latter film resurface in Bong's latest, Mother, which sets out as an offbeat detective story about a provincial simpleton framed for the murder of a young girl he drunkenly followed part of his way home one night. The police are convinced the murder was the accused's way of proving himself anything other than nice-but-dim; the only person who believes in his innocence - who refuses to give up on him, even as his own lawyer retreats to a nearby karaoke bar, clutching a plea bargain - is his dear Mum. She's sure her boy couldn't have done it, because it's she who was sleeping next to him (albeit on the other side of the covers) that evening. Now that's an alibi.

It could have been a fairly distasteful one, too, adding another mother to that pantheon of creepily possessive movie matriarchs that includes Mrs. Bates and Mommie Dearest, and even Debbie Reynolds, fussing over Albert Brooks in the American comedy of the same name. Yet Bong rather admires this momma's pluck and resilience, her willingness to go to places nobody else will to plead her son's case: to a wake for the deceased, for example, where the dead girl's own mother is pointedly shown checking her reflection in a framed portrait of her daughter; or into the heart of an all-male squadroom, dispensing treats to all and sundry as she goes; or - when push comes to shove - into a suspected murderer's lair armed only with a set of acupuncture needles.

The mother is driven by her lack of vanity, a kind of blithe, imperious selflessness, a desire to help out (some might say interfere) wherever possible - heightened versions of characteristics displayed by good-to-great mothers everywhere. The real devilish joy lies in the detail Bong embroiders into this yarn: the detective who, William Tell-like, practises his obscure martial art with the aid of a desk drawer full of apples, the never-explained sex game observed from the closet of one suspect (very Blue Velvet, this) that involves the participants breaking words down into their constituent syllables. Bong is doing much the same himself: dismantling anything remotely familiar, and reassembling it in ways that seem fresh, appealingly strange - heck, even stimulating, if it's the sort of thing that floats your boat.

Scarcely a moment in Mother is wasted - which makes it a more compact proposition than the expansive, CG-enhanced The Host - and it's cast superbly, in such a way as to finesse any bumps or joins from scene to scene. As the ma in question, Kim Hye-ja proves an indelible combination of Miss Marple and habitual worrywort, fussing over her offspring even as he lets rip with a stream of urine at a bus stop, and managing against all the odds to retain some degree of sympathy even after the revelation mother dear tried to snuff the lad out with insecticide at an early age. (To be entirely fair, it was simply to generate further motivation to top herself - and she does go on to express remorse for not using a stronger brand to complete the task.)

These two, we gather, are in it together, and Bong recognises as much by isolating the pair of them within the widescreen frame at various points, quietly suggesting the forces against them in a generally unjust, macho society. In the extraordinary closing act, easily one of the strongest this year, the mother finally crosses a line, as we're offered a whole new angle on events - the sound you can hear coming from just off-camera that of Bong giggling hugely as he overturns our expectations once again. It's this glee - infectious, if the final sequence of onscreen revelry is anything to go by - that keeps Mother from growing stale or predictable: the glee of a filmmaker who, like Hitchcock fifty years before him, has realised just how far off-course it might be possible to venture with the idea of a boy's best friend.

Mother is out now on DVD.

Friday, 24 September 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of September 17-19, 2010:

1 (new) The Other Guys (12A) ***
2 (new) Devil (15)
3 (1) Resident Evil: Afterlife (15) **
4 (2) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
5 (3) Grown Ups (12A)
6 (5) Tamara Drewe (15)
7 (4) The Last Exorcism (15) ***
8 (13) Marmaduke (U) **
9 (15) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (PG) ***
10 (6) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. From Here to Eternity [above]
2. The Town
3. Frozen
4. Buried
5. World's Greatest Dad


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (6) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
2 (1) The Blind Side (12) **
3 (2) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
4 (3) Shutter Island (15) ***
5 (4) The Bounty Hunter (12) *
6 (new) Date Night (12) ***
7 (5) Cemetery Junction (15) ****
8 (new) The Ghost (15) **
9 (9) Clash of the Titans (12) **
10 (10) Valentine's Day (12) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. City of Life and Death
2. The Girl on the Train
3. Mother
4. Vincere
5. American: The Bill Hicks Story


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Imitation of Life (Wednesday, C4, 12.05pm)
2. Juno (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
3. Collateral (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. The Secret Garden (Sunday, five, 3.25pm)
5. American Pie: The Wedding (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)

On DVD: "American: The Bill Hicks Story"

American: The Bill Hicks Story, an agreeably straight-ahead account of the iconic stand-up/libertarian gunslinger/sometime Goatboy, employs a somewhat dated photo-animation technique (think 2002's The Kid Stays in the Picture) and the words of Hicks family and friends to describe a trajectory that begins in Texas and ends up somewhere beyond the stars. Archive footage of a baby-faced Hicks in his element on stage in his hometown reveals just how much of the act was in place from an early age: the anti-authoritarian attitudes (first targets included teachers and his ever-resilient parents), the supreme belief in the power of his own words, the sporadic reach for character and physical comedy.

In comedy as in life, Hicks came to overturn all the conventional wisdoms. Only when he took up smoking, drinking and hallucinogens could he let it all pour out: the savagely funny material, as well as the bitterness and disillusionment that was never far from the surface, a by-product of the lonely life on the road that remains jolting, and ensured this performer would continue to alienate as many as he enthralled. The chronological approach points up a progression (or an evolution, as Hicks himself would doubtless have phrased it) in the stagecraft. The harder Hicks drank, the more ferocious (and thus compelling) he became - but when he sobered up, and had to reconstruct both himself and his worldview, the act achieved a greater clarity, one able to distil all that rage into something constructive and edifying, and find the message and the rhythms that have since entered into lore.

There's a sense that the story counts for less than the routines, that the biographical element serves as filler between each provocative snatch of performance; here was a man who (in all senses) found himself, and continued to find himself, on stage, even as pancreatic cancer laid ravage to his earthly form. (And talk about clarity amid chaos: these early 1990s routines - sets that managed the rare combo of angry and funny, which managed to pin down exactly the image or turn of phrase required - suggest there were few sharper critics of American foreign policy or, on the domestic front, its crasser commercial instincts.) As a primer for the unenlightened, or as an illustrated companion to John Lahr's Hicks anthology Love All the People, it'll do just fine.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is available on DVD from Monday.

Handiwork: "World's Greatest Dad"

Bobcat Goldthwait always was one of the least ingratiating of stand-ups - lumped in with that original wave of anti-comedians - and his directorial CV to date has proved every bit as strident, displaying a marked preference for material that ventures some distance beyond the pale. His 1991 debut Shakes the Clown centred on an alcoholic children's entertainer (played by Goldthwait himself) framed for murder; a notable critical and commercial flop, it led to fifteen years passing before Goldthwait's second feature, 2006's Sleeping Dogs, a no less weird one about a young woman trying to come to terms with a regrettable lapse in her past. Just as that follow-up centred on an outré sexual act - coyly encoded in the film's title - Goldthwait's latest, World's Greatest Dad, is perhaps the only release where the IMDb keywords might legitimately include the phrase "fatal wanking accident".

Here we find Goldthwait setting out to deconstruct the PG-rated family flick that's been so in vogue these past three decades, with the aid of some especially resonant casting. Robin Williams - yes, that Robin Williams - plays Lance Clayton, a dweeby poetry teacher and failed author unreservedly hated by Kyle, his podgy, greasy, porn-addicted ingrate of a teenage son (Daryl Sabara, formerly one of the Spy Kids, circumventing with one, ahem, stroke the usual problems connected with child actors making the leap to adult material). In the likes of Jingle All the Way or The Spy Next Door, dad traditionally has to find a way of proving himself worthy of his offspring's affections; in World's Greatest Dad, Williams does, too, but the character takes an unusual - some audiences may find challenging - route to get there.

For a start, Kyle's fondness for auto-asphyxiation soon gets the better of him: in the tenderest rearranging-a-incident-scene ever filmed, Lance restages Kyle's passing as a dignity-sparing, trousers-up hanging, penning a phony suicide note to go with it. This, naturally, turns out to be the best-received piece of writing of Lance's career, sympathy for Kyle's demise landing him both the colleague he's always wanted to sleep with and the respect of his otherwise unruly pupils. The suicide note also bestows upon Kyle the wholly unmerited reputation of a unheralded literary genius - nay, the voice of his generation - and plans are soon afoot to publish his (dad-faked) diary, under the billing "the biggest posthumous autobiography since The Diary of Anne Frank".

There are a few tonal hiccups early on, as Goldthwait settles into a very particular comic groove, but otherwise World's Greatest Dad marks a significant improvement on the director's earlier films, which played like envelope-pushing ideas in dire need of development.
Kyle's death allows Goldthwait rein to dramatise some spectacular hypocrisies: the jock who made Kyle's life hell now vows to win a game in the dead kid's honour, while the headmaster previously pushing to include the deceased in a special needs class insists Kyle "was not slow... he was just brilliant". At the film's centre is a perfectly pitched Williams performance, avoiding both the unbearable sincerity of Patch Adams and the intolerable wackiness of, well, Patch Adams, whether conceding that Kyle's atypically above-the-belt prose is "a little light on the felching side", or squirming his way through a television talk-show appearance that comes this close to exposing the cover-up once and for all.

You could question how ironic Goldthwait's constant recourse to musical montages is intended to be, but these sequences connect a fair bit of funny business, like the publishing guru who seems to speak only in similes (on the heat being generated by Kyle's diary: "it's like a volcano on the sun"), and the unlikeliest celebrity cameo of the year. (Sorry, but that's just the way it is.) In the end, the film isn't the grand satire it might have been - Goldthwait doesn't, as yet, have the resources of a Billy Wilder at his disposal, and the finale, a countercultural rewrite of all those PG-rated "to thine own self be true" conclusions, isn't quite forceful enough - but it is getting at something knotty and pertinent: our continuing desire for the creation of false idols, and our addiction to such grief as might cloud all our better judgement.


World's Greatest Dad opens in selected cinemas today.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Buying the farm: "Peepli [Live]"

Peepli [Live], produced by the Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, takes the real-life phenomenon of growing suicide rates among Indian farmers as the basis for a droll - sometimes strained - black comedy: part Dead Man's Curve, part Ace in the Hole. Two brothers who've seen their agricultural efforts bested by an American multinational ("Senmonto") learn a) their bank is all set to foreclose on them, and b) the Indian government pays out 100,000 rupees in compensation to relatives of those farmers who've taken their own lives. Realising this leaves them worth more dead than alive, the younger sibling announces his plans for imminent self-sacrifice - a bold statement that results in first local, then national headlines.

The government's immediate response is to send the farmers a water pump, but no means to plumb it in - a development that assumes extra resonance in light of the current Commonwealth Games debacle, not to mention a neat symbol of the disconnection between India's rural and urban centres. With the incumbent local MP - fearing public humiliation - vowing to kill anyone who even thinks of dying, and an opposition candidate from the Backward Caste Party entering the fray, it's left to the mainstream media to fill the void with their usual tact and diplomacy, flocking en masse to a village few of their number had previously heard of, and driven by the demands of rolling news to provide full analysis of the farmer's poop, and how exactly it relates to his troubled state of mind.

It's an appealingly passive, rather bovine performance from Omkar Das in the lead role, and Peepli [Live] proves mildly hobbled by sympathy for its protagonist: the script, for one, can't even bring itself to think about how the farmer might top himself. A weird tension creeps in as we wonder whether the film is going to negotiate a happy ending unimaginable to those the scenario has been inspired by; in the end, it finds a way of unifying country and city that's both neat and not entirely in synch with what's gone before. Generally, writer/director Anusha Rizvi offsets the raucousness - chiefly care of a bedridden mother-in-law who spends most of the film out of her box on the local dope - with more tragic elements, like the painfully thin figure we observe from afar digging a hole that turns out to be his own grave. It's a little overstretched, and the comedy could do with a bit more oomph, but it absolutely underlines Khan's commitment to pressing social themes: even the big mid-film musical number is about the damaging effects of inflation.

Peepli [Live] opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Enter the void (#2): "The Hole"

In Joe Dante's fondly remembered, little seen homage to the monster movie, 1993's Matinee, John Goodman played a flamboyant producer apparently modelled on William Castle, the poverty-row tyro prepared to leave no gimmick untried in the quest for a quick buck. The spirit of Castle, and B-movies in general, has always hovered close to the surface of Dante's films: it's what made the likes of Gremlins and Small Soldiers the subversive mainstream experiences they were. The Hole marks the director's first theatrical venture in the new digital 3D format - and part of the fun is that Dante clearly relishes it as as good a gimmick as any available to contemporary filmmakers, short of possibly wiring the multiplex seats up to the mains.

Single mom Teri Polo uproots her two sons for the umpteenth time, relocating to the suburban dead-end of Bensenville, Illinois. With mum out working for much of the day, the boys (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble) roughhouse one another, befriend the girl next door (Haley Bennett) - oh, and stumble across a heavily padlocked trapdoor in their basement covering a seemingly bottomless pit. When the kids prise the door open - oblivious to the scratchmarks on its underside - they unleash all manner of chaotic forces: a plague of jester dolls that do nothing to ease the nervy youngest's bozophobia (or fear of clowns) - these the latest in the strong Dante tradition of very creepy, non-merchandisable marionettes - plus the spectre of a little girl who cries bloody tears and would perhaps be unlikely to appear in a safety-tested studio feature.

The youngsters' investigation into these phenomena will take them to a glove factory ("Gloves by Orlac") abandoned save for Bruce Dern and the thousand lightbulbs with which he's attempting to keep "the darkness" at bay, plus a dilapidated theme park (no longer) operating under the name Frolic Gardens, but there's no escaping the pull of the literal and gaping void in their lives: a repository for all their fears, of which - given the family are on the run from an abusive spouse writing threatening notes to his boys from behind bars - there are plenty. This hole - a suggestion of limitless empty space to which the 3D format is especially well-suited - is the star of the show here, and Dante throws everything he can at it and into it: an idling can of screws, a talking Cartman doll, a camcorder on a rope, eventually his juvenile leads.

For all this shameless, in-your-face spectacle, Dante retains a knack for the skilful shock-reveal: an eye suddenly appearing on a television screen, a patrol officer turning to reveal his brains have been exposed, even - one might argue - the gradual revelation that sunny, placid Bensenville plays home to numerous ghosts and regrets. It still feels slight: if not as eminently throwaway as Dante's work-for-hire Looney Tunes movie, than certainly lacking in the wall-to-wall invention of The 'Burbs, the black comedy that, despite lukewarm reviews at the time, looks increasingly like this director's masterwork. The highpoint is the expressionist finale, which replaces a New Jersey storage facility for the madhouse in Caligari, and plays a handful of neat tricks with perspective; in the main, though, it's just refreshing to see a filmmaker treating 3D with the respect it deserves, which is to say precisely none whatsoever.

The Hole is on nationwide release.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Unfinished business: "The Town"

Ben Affleck must have been keyed-up by the rapturous reception afforded to his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. So keyed-up, in fact, that he elected, with his second feature behind the camera, to take on a renewed challenge: the rehabilitation of Ben Affleck, screen actor. For though Baby provided a showcase role for Affleck's baby brother Casey, big Ben kept himself offscreen throughout that debut, marking a clean break from a past that gave us Gigli and Pearl Harbor; well, with The Town, Affleck the actor is back front and centre, a little older and wiser and more reflective, but not noticeably less square-jawed, which means he looks somewhat out of place onscreen in AA meetings populated by extras who've visibly lived a life.

As troubled Boston bank robber Doug MacRay, the director-star grants himself moments that wouldn't have been beyond the Affleck of old: an early instance of shirtlessness, as though to demonstrate to us he hasn't entirely gone to seed, and a sex scene with a trashed-up Blake Lively, underlining (in a perhaps not strictly necessary fashion, given the gun-toting we've already observed him practising in his day job) the character's potency. Yet Affleck also challenges himself in ways we've not previously seen, having to go toe-to-toe with (and not appearing ill-matched against) actors of the calibre of Chris Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Mad Men's Jon Hamm - in the latter's case, initiating a battle royale of the squarejaws, with the winner presumably going through to meet Luke Wilson in the final.

The reason for all this confrontation is that MacRay and his crew have just pulled off a score that would have been considered perfect - the robbers getting away alive with the cash, leaving the FBI precious little to go on - were it not for the one aspect that's been preying on Doug's mind: the fate of Claire (Rebecca Hall), the bank manager Doug's impetuous, trigger-happy cohort Jem (Renner) took hostage in the wake of the heist and left standing on the banks of the Charles river, awaiting the worst. Something about Claire's humanity, her grace under fire - her general all-round loveliness, in which the casting of Hall plays a not inconsiderable part - nags at Doug: when he discovers she lives in his neighborhood - that she is, in fact, a socially mobile one of them - he follows her to the launderette, asks her out, and eventually ends up in bed with the one witness who could send him away for the rest of his life.

The Town is, then, the business of countless smalltown crime dramas: the history of a conflicted man held back from a fresh start, a bright future, by the ties that bind him to a criminal past. (Needless to say, Jem is not best pleased when he hears Doug has taken a shine to the witness, and has only the best intentions toward her.) The distinguishing feature here - as Gone Baby Gone's working-class Boston milieu suggested - is that Affleck and his co-writer Aaron Stockard really know how this town works: you see it in the manner Doug's dreams of escape are made literal in the double signifier of the planes passing over a neighborhood generally impoverished enough to sit under a flight path. Affleck extends that very Wire-like policy of casting non-professionals in supporting roles for extra authenticity, and the script displays a good ear for telling detail: Hamm's G-man bemoaning there's no way his unit can get 24-hour surveillance warrants on the robbers "unless they convert to Islam", a prison being summarised as so soft, "they get Ben and Jerry's ice cream".

The filmmakers' deep-rooted feel for the various strata and sub-strata of their location - a locale especially conducive to bank robberies, as the crime statistics show - grants them licence to shoot exhilarating getaway pursuits through narrow mazes of brownstone streets, where some degree of local knowledge would indeed be preferable, if not a lifesaver; but Affleck and Stockard are also alert to subtler, class-oriented tensions in a way few contemporary American screenwriters truly are: clock the casual, derogatory use of the term "toonie" (or townie) to denote some form of social mobility denied to the city's underclasses, or the utterly dismissive manner in which Pete Postlethwaite's florist/Mob boss, strafing the pricks off his roses even as he lances an even greater thorn in Doug's side, sums up Claire as "a nice new girlfriend who lives on the Park".

In other words, it's a chance for Affleck the director to show he can handle both character and action, and in this, he mostly succeeds. True, Hamm's underdramatised detection doesn't connect all its dots on camera, and - depending upon personal taste - it'll either be a generic pleasure or an inevitability that Doug gets boxed into performing one last, fateful heist. (Though it's a nice irony it should involve him donning police uniform, with a further dab of local flavour in its Fenway Park setting, home to baseball's Red Sox - this is, we gather, a last, desperate shot at the big leagues, embarked upon by a player facing up to obligatory retirement.) We've seen worse Michael Mann impersonations, not least by Mann himself in his recent projects.

The new Ben Affleck is, however, capable of far greater self-awareness than the dumb ox of yore, referring to The Town in press interviews as "a modest work" - and whenever money becomes too tight to mention, for filmmakers and audience-goers alike, a modest work, one which doesn't overly peacock or flaunt its lavish expenses, may just fit the bill to perfection. Where Gone Baby Gone was a smash-and-grab raid on our emotions, from a personality we never thought capable of such things, The Town is certainly a stealthier, more insinuating work, with the aim of sneaking something intelligent, grown-up even, into the multiplexes - in this, it joins Inception as among the most encouraging features released by a major studio in 2010.

It is, for one, very finely acted, with not one of the leads striking a false note, right down to Titus Welliver as Hamm's weary sidekick, and ex-Gossip Girl Lively, who - after last year's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee - here confirms a growing reputation for delivering eye-catching supporting work, absolutely embodying the frustration of a young mother who's just learnt her sometime fuckbuddy has given his new girl a diamond necklace, while she's left clinging onto his baby: one way of understanding The Town is as a portrait of a city as unfinished business, a catalogue of loose ends a man might trip on while walking these streets. As for Affleck - underlining that his directorial debut was no fluke, but merely phase one of an impressive new development strategy - I think we can all take a deep breath and safety exclaim: Gigli-what now?

The Town opens nationwide from Friday.

Holding on: "Frozen"

Some horror directors get their ideas from their dreams, in the dark; others take their cue from ancient lore, or seek to reinterpret classic genre texts for all they're worth. Some, evidently, take their inspiration while getting stoned in a ski lodge on vacations paid for by the profits from the DVD release of their last film. With Frozen, the writer-director Adam Green follows up the trashily pleasurable Hatchet with a what-if proposition that adheres to the Open Water template, wondering what might happen were its characters to be stranded among the elements in the middle of nowhere; the novelty is that the water comes in solid, rather than liquid form, and actually proves the very least of their worries.

Three college students - new couple Kevin Zegers and Emma Bell, plus nice guy/spare wheel Shawn Ashmore - are left hanging on a chairlift a hundred feet or so above the ground when the ski resort they're staying at shuts down prematurely for a week in anticipation of bad weather. At first, the hold-up is no more than inconvenient: you try answering a call of nature with your friends sitting this close beside you. ("I can hold it in," Bell insists. "For a week?," comes the response, as realisation of their plight slowly filters through.) Soon it's become a matter of life and death, as the snow begins to blow in and a pack of wolves gathers beneath the chairlift, accentuating already mounting tensions between two long-time bros who went up this hill in search of extreme pursuits, and the girlfriend who's (unintentionally) come between them.

As signalled by the opening close-ups of cogs and winding wheels at work, Frozen could merely have become a mechanical exercise on Green's part, testing how long he could string us (and these characters) out, yet it's also surprisingly well fleshed out by likable performers you want to see come down off the mountain in one piece. Full marks to the stunt doubles, asked to perform (without obvious digital safety nets) the kind of high-wire acts more common to the era of Harold Lloyd; and to the make-up team for rendering literal and, indeed, visceral the business of frostbite, chapped lips and skin welded to metal safety bars. Praise should go to Green, too, who - with DOP Will Bart - composes stark, widescreen, you-are-there images, cleverly marshalling the available space in such a way as to prey upon latent viewer vertigo, while generally distancing himself from the adolescent sniggering and easy yuks of his debut. Given the present financial climate, I doubt many of us had trips planned to Val d'Isere, anyway, but there's plenty in this canny, suspenseful piece to keep those who have off-piste.

Frozen opens nationwide from Friday.

Blah, blah, blah: "Eat Pray Love"

Everything comes in threes (the magic number!) in Eat Pray Love, Glee creator Ryan Murphy's extrapolation from the Elizabeth Gilbert lifestyle bestseller. Julia Roberts' quest to find herself takes her to three locations - Italy, India and Bali - and involves crossing paths (and hearts) with three men. There is the Immature Boy-Man: Billy Crudup as the husband trying to force Roberts' Liz into a lifestyle she doesn't want to lead. There is The Rebound Kid: James Franco as a practising yogi who advises our heroine to look East, and who is paid such little attention in general by the film he comes to resemble a signpost with a winning smile.

Finally - it taking something of an eternity to get to him, in a film running two hours and twenty minutes - there is The One in Javier Bardem: knocking our heroine off her bicycle in Bali, and - shortly thereafter - coming to sweep her off her feet. Bardem is such an unlikely, scruffily vivacious screen presence - he looks like a hunky troll, keen to hide Liz under his bridge - that Eat Pray Love can't help but pick up upon his arrival, but his is a nothing part, really, and these three actors, carefully selected to represent an appeal to each of the film's three primary markets (the US, Europe and Asia), are never much more than stepping stones in the Gilbert-Murphy worldview: Liz only ever seems to be a hop, skip and jump away from happiness.

As a travelogue, the film adheres closely to Hollywood's usual selective recognition of other cultures. Italy is a Fellini movie circa 1960, all football, scooters and groups of lusty young men chasing dark-haired lovelies through the village square. It is also, lest we forget, a place of food, thus the ideal location for the film to set out its lite-feminism thesis with regard to body image: faced with a burgeoning muffin-top, Liz insists "tomorrow, we go buy bigger jeans", which might have sounded authentically liberating if it didn't seem so much like one form of consumption superceding another. This central section starts to resemble I Am Love stripped of the latter film's distinguishing style: instead of Tilda Swinton going into raptures over a hand-crafted prawn risotto, we get Julia wolfing down a very ordinary-looking spag bog, which I think even my limited culinary gifts might have stretched to.

The whole is as soapy and diaphanous as one might expect from the source material - we're left in little doubt Gilbert's thesis came first, and everything else (including a multi-million-dollar merchandising industry, its own guarantor of a kind of happiness) followed - but it has lively pockets. During the couple's alimony hearing, Crudup's explosion of rage and heartbreak is an example of premium-grade thespian empathy for a character who knows he can't, or won't allow himself to, grow up; Richard Jenkins has a film-stopping monologue as a fellow traveller recalling the day his wife and child left him - a moment that obliges Roberts to listen for a while, rather than resort to her default mode of gabble and gush.

You could argue these are no more than Oscar-night clips, but - as his present TV day-job bears out - Murphy knows how to write sincere, emotionally supple material for his actors when the situation calls for it. There's also something vaguely appealing in watching Murphy trying to coax trace elements of humility (not to mention humanity) from his star, after a decade of increasingly animatronic Roberts performances. Eat Pray Love is as much Julia seeking a rebirth as Liz, and at a time when the pulling power of our movie stars, their ability to obtain second or third chances from an audience, is approaching an all-time low (cf. the box-office of Knight and Day) to boot. In so far as anyone who draws down $15 million a picture can be considered an underdog, she is it - and in our ultra-Botoxed age, you may even come to cheer the tiny yet discernable patch of crinkles Roberts sports high on her forehead, as though someone had stapled a solitary McCoy (or, for my American readers, a single Ruffle) thereabouts.

Alas, the rest of the film is stuck with the usual arrogance of the self-help manual - it wants us to heed to it, as Liz does to her various guides, yet it seems more than anything else a defensive measure on Murphy and Gilbert's part that one of the wisdoms being passed on here insists we should attribute vast significance to the least significant of things. The emotional climax is a showdown on a beach, as Roberts declines Bardem's offer of a boat trip, citing "a loss of balance", and he challenges her to look into his eyes and tell him she's in love with him. The standard needless third-act chick-flick bust-up ensues, complete with much weeping and hyperventilating, but no-one stops for a minute to consider where exactly Liz stands on commitment, or whether she can, in fact, express herself sexually and romantically. Maybe she's just afraid of boats.

Eat Pray Love opens nationwide from Friday.

Tokyo drift: "Enter the Void"

(A necessarily shortened version of this review will run in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph.)

After the bruising, blunt-force celluloid trauma that was Irreversible, there was perhaps never likely to have been any going back for writer-director Gaspar Noe. That 2002 bummer laid firm claim to being the most anally fixated movie of all time, retracing its steps from infernal gay hangout Le Rectum to a prolonged scene of sodomy-rape performed by an arch-villain named for a tapeworm. Enter the Void, Irreversible's film-sibling, tacks a different line of penetration: this is cher Gaspar's front-bottom movie, as it were. Whether engaged in conspicuous panty-sniffing, manufacturing a link between smoking and breastfeeding, or simply cueing in utero footage more common to late-night sex-education shows, all the film's characters are longing to return to the safety of the womb; the "void" of the title may just be a commercially palatable substitute for another, six-letter v-word.

We begin, however, inside the main character's head, looking out at a day-glo, neon-lit Tokyo. Woah, we're supposed to exclaim. Trippy. Alas, young American Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) has just discovered hallucinogenic drugs and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which immediately renders this POV prologue more tedious than transporting, all mumbled dialogue and narcotics-induced fractals sprouting from the ceiling - an unholy communion of Prodigy video, Bret Easton Ellis novel and Jean-Michel Jarre son-et-lumière.

Mercifully, Oscar is shot dead by the local police during an early drugs bust; the bad news is that he returns in spirit form to honour a promise made in childhood never to leave his sister Linda, now employed - in the lissom, rarely-clothed form of Paz de la Huerta - as a stripper in the city's red-light area. Whether Linda realised at the time this bond would involve Oscar drifting into the heads of the men groping her in the club's backrooms, or eventually surfing a crest of semen heading toward her own cervix (as though her brother were Dennis Quaid in some X-rated remake of InnerSpace: InHerSpace, maybe) remains unclear - although, given little sis holds dear to a teddy bear and digs days out at funfairs, who knows?

Viewed with both feet on the ground, then, Enter the Void is an eminently preposterous proposition, its only possible saving grace Noe's proven ability to generate sensation (in all its forms), his desire to sit in opposition to the passivity and numbness most commercial cinema comes to induce. Irreversible, after all, was conceived as a challenge, pushing us to see how far we'd go both within and without the cinema: whether we'd intervene upon seeing a stranger being assaulted in a subway tunnel - or whether we'd walk out on a movie when it simply got too much to bear, as many viewers, repelled by Noe's methods, understandably did. It was a hard film, a nasty film, even, at least in part because of the tough, adult choices it demanded of both its characters and the spectator alike; the performers, meanwhile, were prepared to lie down in the gutter and give their all for their Art.

This follow-up clearly isn't meant for casual consumption so much as an experience designed (often brilliantly designed, in fact) to quicken the pulse a little. In form as in content, however, it feels like a regrettable creative regression, listlessly performed by a portfolio of models past and present (possibly one of the few species capable of convincing as vacuous itinerants, but still) and revelling in a spectacle that becomes first unmoored from reality, then increasingly gratuitous. It would be reductive to describe Enter the Void as Noe's circle-of-life movie, his Lion King - psychedelic blowjobs replacing singing warthogs - and yet it is precisely that; Oscar's death liberates Noe's camera to perform a few new, unmotivated contortions, plunging into bullet wounds and toilet wounds just because it can, not because there's anything to be said or grasped in doing so.

The way Noe films an ashtray or cooker hob from above is not the same way Lynch (himself no stranger to the Book of the Dead) films a hole in a ceiling tile, or Godard films a coffee cup, as interrogations targeted to draw out the uncanny fascination in everyday items. Rather, they're mere layovers, temporary fixed points within a framework of extreme attention deficient disorder, stylistic stepping stones paving the way to the now-expected mise en abime, in this case a stop-off at a pulsing Tokyo love hotel, where a variety of voids are observed being entered. Despite its preoccupation with birth and death, the film is scarcely human and not once moving, because the camera - forsaking stillness or reflection in search of its next available high or low - does all the moving for us; it is at the same time an exceptionally fluid piece of cinema, and a meaningless bore - and Noe knows as much, having to film head-on car crashes and gynaecological examinations (à la Breillat) in order to get any response whatsoever.

That he's still prepared to pursue such extremes only underlines Noe's status as among the most singular and uncompromising talents in world cinema - even Breillat has backed away from these shock tactics in recent years - but the director is 47 now, and you wonder for how much longer he can get away with ploughing these particular furrows. His partner and long-term collaborator, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, may have had the right idea: her 2004 oddity Innocence, set within a girls' boarding school within a remote forest, demonstrated it was possible to film a comparatively conventional, fable-like narrative without jettisoning one's darker, more adult sensibilities or any directorial edge. By contrast, the wonder and dread evoked by Enter the Void are, finally, childish: that of a Gap year student gawking at a live sex show, or an infant discovering their own genitalia for the first time. Required viewing for Freudians, it's a pretty bad trip for everybody else: a somnambulant midnight movie, a mindfuck that falls asleep on the job.

Enter the Void is on selected release from Friday.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

On DVD: "Eyes Wide Open"

Haim Tabakman's moody gay romance Eyes Wide Open turns in circles familiar in one respect: it's the tale of a conflicted young man who arrives in the city to find himself, and in doing so ends up rocking the whole scene to its foundations. The novelty is that this young man should do all his brooding under black hats and ringlets, for the characters in Tabakman's film are ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem. Visiting scholar Ezri (Ram Danker) is openly out - indeed, one of his first appointments in the city is with an ex who, under pressure from his peers, snubs him anew - but the object of his affections, the older Aaron (Zohar Strauss), is a married pillar of the community: a butcher with a tableful of kids to support. The latter takes Ezri under his wing, and into his storeroom, and thus faces exile, or - worse - a roughing-up by the Hasidic heavy mob in which he had formerly been a key participant.

Compared to Brokeback Mountain - which flaunted a scandalous 15 certificate - the watchword of this 12-rated film is restraint: for the most part, we're watching two men who feel obliged to hold themselves back. In the love scenes, the beards keep getting in the way; and when Ezri and Aaron finally look like consummating their relationship physically in a meat locker (insert your own joke here), Tabakman cuts away to the pair of them enjoying a post-coital cigarette in the street outside, as though this were a 1940s studio movie.

Eyes Wide Open
is rather po-faced in this manner: for all their urgency (that which follows from the fear of being caught), the secret lovers' encounters contain little sense of joy or escape; when Aaron, mid-thrusting, wonders aloud "How did I come to this?", we perhaps note the evolution of a higher strain of Judaism, one which actually fosters guilt during sex. Still, the drama is persuasively performed - Strauss, in particular, appears to have etched into his face an acknowledgement of how much his Aaron has to lose - and shrewd, judicious mise-en-scène allows us to peer into what's effectively a whole other world: it makes an item of (untranslated) fascination out of those official screeds plastered onto this neighborhood's walls, with their stern lists of dos and don'ts. Apt that the butcher should be named Fleischmann, too: here are characters struggling to reconcile their flesh with their faith, torn between kosher society, and that decreed off-the-menu.

Eyes Wide Open is available on DVD from tomorrow.

Friday, 17 September 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of September 10-12, 2010:

1 (new) Resident Evil: Afterlife (15) ** [above]
2 (3) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
3 (4) Grown Ups (12A)
4 (1) The Last Exorcism (15) ***
5 (new) Tamara Drewe (15)
6 (5) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12A) **
7 (new) Going the Distance (15)
8 (new) Cyrus (15) **
9 (2) Dinner for Schmucks (12A) **
10 (7) The Expendables (15) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Metropolis [above]
2. The Illusionist
3. The Leopard
4. Avatar: Special Edition
5. The Hole


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) The Blind Side (12) **
2 (1) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
3 (2) Shutter Island (15) ***
4 (6) The Bounty Hunter (12) *
5 (3) Cemetery Junction (15) ****
6 (new) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
7 (5) From Paris with Love (15)
8 (9) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
9 (7) Clash of the Titans (12) **
10 (10) Valentine's Day (12) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. City of Life and Death
2. Vincere
3. Eyes Wide Open
4. [REC]2
5. Rapt


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Groundhog Day (Sunday, five, 5.15pm)
2. The Breakfast Club (Monday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
3. The Year of Living Dangerously (Sunday, BBC1, 11.10pm)
4. Hud (Monday, C4, 12.15pm)
5. Hitch (Sunday, five, 9pm)

The long way round: "Winter's Bone"

The Sundance Grand Jury prizewinner for 2010, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, marks a return to territory the American indie sector has traditionally mined rather well, staking out its patch within a region that will be unfamiliar to most viewers; in this case, the desolate Ozark mountains of south-west Missouri, a place of crystal meth and handguns, frontyards of junk enclosed by rusting barbed-wire fences. Heroine Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, above) is busy caring for her mute, incapacitated mother and schooling her younger siblings when a patrolman shows up on the front porch with the news her estranged meth-head father has gone AWOL while out on bail, awaiting possession charges.

There is, we gather, nothing new about this, except this time, there will be consequences: if Ree cannot bring pa in to appear before the court, the family will lose the home that's been put up as part of the bond agreement. Ree's subsequent quest will become a sore spot among her neighbours, most of whom elect to turn their backs whenever she approaches in search of help or information, some of whom prove actively obstructive, plagued as they are by the native suspicion that insists "talking only causes witnesses". Ree wants answers; what she gets are evasions or, worse, threats. She's out on her own, in other words, a mere babe in some wild, wild woods.

So too is Lawrence, one of the more memorable pieces in Guillermo Arriaga's mosaic-movie The Burning Plain last year, and positioned front and centre here in a role that dovetails Ree's position within her community with the actress's standing in her career: the fierce, unblinking gaze she demonstrates is unmistakably that of a young woman obliged to take on huge responsibilities at a perilously early stage in her own development. In an early sequence in Winter's Bone, we watch Ree wandering unchecked around her siblings' school, peering in through windows and doors at the classes she couldn't afford (or never got the chance) to complete; it's this curiosity, this desire for self-improvement, that draws us towards an otherwise tough, flinty character.

As, indeed, does the self-awareness Ree displays in the face of her neighbours' increasingly unnerving indifference. Training the youngsters in firing rifles and gutting squirrels, she's asked by a passing friend what the deal is with all the guns and knives, and her response - "Just teaching them a bit of survival" - seems to stem partly from the knowledge she is herself unlikely to be around for much longer, one way or another. This hierarchy of knowledge - a girl with much to learn in search of a man who, it transpires, knows too much - gives Winter's Bone a curious air of backwoods noir, as though Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini (adapting Daniel Woodrell's novel) were seriously proposing the film as a stew of Deliverance and Chinatown, and their heroine a composite of Heidi, JJ Gittes and Nancy Drew.

The film even has its offbeat heavy in the form of Teardrop, Ree's uncle, though you'd hardly think to describe him as avuncular: instead, he's a twitchy dopefiend played with young Sam Shepard/Harry Dean Stanton-like intensity by Deadwood's John Hawkes. It's either a pointer through the woods or something of a red herring that the only other recognisable face in the cast should be Lynch's Laura Palmer: Sheryl Lee, prematurely aged and tired-seeming as one of pop's sometime lovers. In truth, Winter's Bone is too slow-burn and foursquare to much resemble Twin Peaks; we're supposed to admire its quiet craft rather than be struck by any leftfield artistry, and in this respect, it is at least a logical successor to 2008's Frozen River, a previous Sundance winner notable for its strong female lead and rooted sense of place. Granik, for her part, demonstrates a sure feel for texture and character, less so for narrative momentum - but the sequences that stay with you pinpoint the beauty and spirit of the forest, and also its latent, timeless sense of menace.

Winter's Bone is on selected release.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Back up: "The Other Guys"

Just as all singers want to be actors, and all actors want to be rock stars, all comedians want to be action heroes, and all action heroes want to be comedians. Adam McKay's The Other Guys, a throwback to the buddy comedies of the 1980s from the director of Anchorman, opens with superstar detectives Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson) piloting their car into the side of a Manhattan tour bus whilst in hot pursuit of some unnamed ne'er-do-wells, then propelling said tour bus - and the villains' own chosen vehicle - into the atrium of a corporate HQ, somehow emerging from the resultant fireball intact, and to even greater acclaim than they were used to going in. When the pair's invincibility runs out in unexpected (and very amusing) fashion, the NYPD is obliged to turn to their colleagues, hardened desk jockeys more commonly to be found ploughing though paperwork than traffic.

Terry Holtz (Mark Wahlberg) was demoted to a desk job after shooting baseball star Derek Jeter in the leg, and has been itching to get back to active duty; Allen Gamble, another of Will Ferrell's weirdly-haired middle-aged misfits, is a transfer from forensic accounting with a investigative preference for minor scaffolding violations. The case that falls to them involves Sir David Ershon (Steve Coogan), a British businessman in town to speak to the American Society of Capitalists - and you instantly suspect this organisation is going to be providing Hollywood movies with stock villainy for the next five years. (The Other Guys' one overtly satirical jibe finds Ferrell assuring the head of the SEC he believes is "the best at this kind of investigation", before going on to mention a few exceptions: Enron, Lehman Brothers, Bernie Madoff...)

The subsequent affair encompasses many of the staples of the modern cop drama: the formative traumatic flashback (here, how Allen Gamble accidentally became a pimp during his college days), the Irish bar that also serves as a warriors' retreat (here, the patrons sing comically anti-English ditties), the obligatory handing over of gun and badge, the good-cop-bad-cop routine that here cues another of Ferrell's large-scale freakouts. None of these tropes urgently needed debunking, you have to say, and even if they did, there's no great urgency in the direction, McKay and Ferrell using the narrative framework as another opportunity - after their 2006 collaboration Talladega Nights - to film male one-upmanship and spectacular car crashes.

Certainly, The Other Guys does little to address the essential boysiness of the New American Comedy, although the roughhousing at least throws up the odd funny idea, like a brawl at a funeral conducted in whispers out of respect for the deceased, and it has one great, self-aware riff on the way schlubby guys tend up to end up with smoking-hot broads in these kinds of comedies, McKay simply training the camera on Wahlberg's incredulous face upon the revelation Ferrell is shacked up with none other than Eva Mendes. It's yet another sign of renewed confidence within mainstream comedy that everyone from The Rock on down (or up) wants to get on the bus: it's good to see Michael Keaton back to something like his quirky best as the department's beleaguered captain, and one casual cutaway cues the best unexpected, blink-and-you'll-miss-it Rosie Perez cameo since that Little Jackie video.

Ferrell remains an acquired taste - there was, one concludes, some basis for that recent survey that suggested the actor provided the least value-for-money of any major A-list performer, not least as his high-strung mania proves most effective in small, carefully prescribed doses - but his pairing with Wahlberg, effectively stretching his cherishable grumpy-cop routine from The Departed to feature length, generates more sparks and felicities than his previous, rather noisy and self-cancelling duels with John C. Reilly. As is the manner of these things, having spent an hour having fun at the expense of genre conventions, The Other Guys eventually turns into a medium-octane exploding-helicopter movie in the broadest quotation marks, with jokes looped in as afterthoughts, and a closing voiceover that doesn't even attempt to resolve the glaring plotholes left behind (and appears to let the chief villainess - played by an actress who really should know better - off the hook entirely), but it's done with just enough brio to put the silliness over.

The Other Guys opens nationwide from Friday.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

On DVD: "Dogtooth"

A genuinely weird item from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth introduces us to a middle-aged couple who - fearful either of bad influences or domestic unrest - have managed to prevent their twentysomething sons and daughters from ever setting foot in the world outside, to the extent these offspring now skip and gambol around like pliant seven-year-olds on the very first day of the summer hols. This process has naturally required going to extremes. A female security guard from dad's workplace has been shipped in to (rather clinically) take care of the clueless son's burgeoning libido, and phoney language tapes have been recorded to narrow down the children's expectations of what lies beyond the garden fence.

In these tapes, "sea" becomes a comfy chair, "motorway" a strong wind, while you don't want to know - or perhaps you do? - what will be prosaically redefined as "a big light". A visit to the nearby kennels suggests this may just be an over-extended behavioural experiment, yet it's increasingly apparent that, despite father's best efforts, this seclusion can't last forever: the youngsters' games are getting deadlier, while the security guard - who has needs of her own to satisfy - is scattering the seeds of revolution, sexual and otherwise, by insisting you can do more in the bedroom than just the missionary position.

What's it all about? A parable of the nanny state, possibly, or - given that video tapes become a key tool in this power struggle - of the infantilising effects of technology and pop culture in particular (and in a film this fascinated by language, it's perhaps the case that "pop" is intended to mean "father" as well as the zeitgeist) - those phenomena that can so easily blind us to what is healthy or challenging. Lanthimos's execution is, I have to say, a little strained; the set-up occasions self-consciously childish thesping from the young (adult) performers.

It's also a bit too much the arthouse attention-grabber that all these characters (not just the children) should be defined primarily by a perverse sexuality - the sort of thing designed to send Dr. Freud into a flap, but at which a seasoned master of domestic satire such as Buñuel wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. (Last year's Swiss oddity Home handled the implosion of a family unit in altogether cooler, less sensational fashion.) Dogtooth is certainly bold and formally confident, though, and Lanthimos even sneaks something genuinely subversive into the mix from time to time: the sight of a grown man climbing into bed between his parents, say, or the sounds of "Fly Me To The Moon" being reinterpreted as an ode to staying resolutely at home.

Dogtooth is available on DVD from tomorrow.

Things to come: an Autumn preview

Winter’s Bone
Debra Granik’s none-more-indie drama, centring on a fracturing homestead in the remote Ozark Mountains, arrives on the back of rapturous U.S. notices. (Opens September 17)

Eat Pray Love/Enter the Void
Something for everyone here: Eat Pray Love, Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s
take on Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling lifestyle guide, has Julia Roberts as a disillusioned fortysomething saying ready, steady, Goa to life (and Javier Bardem) while passing through India; meanwhile with Enter the Void, a very different account of Far Eastern tourism, French enfant terrible Gaspar Noe follows up the crushing Irreversible with a psychedelic plunge into the fleshpots of Tokyo – less eat, pray, love, perhaps, than tune in, turn on, drop out. (Both September 24)

The Town
Ben Affleck’s second directorial outing – casting himself as a bank robber burdened with regrets – should prove whether 2007’s Gone Baby Gone was merely beginner’s luck. (September 24)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Über-yuppie Gordon Gekko returns in Oliver Stone’s high-finance sequel. Will greed be as dramatically profitable as it was in 1987? (October 6)

The Social Network

Hollywood’s latest attempt to draw our attention away from our consoles and laptops is – curiously enough – an apparently straight-faced account of the rise of Facebook, with Zombieland nerd du jour Jesse Eisenberg as the company’s youthful frontman Mark Zuckerberg and, er, Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster. David Fincher – whose Zodiac suggested a tremendous facility with meshes of information – directs, The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin scripts; onlookers remain uncertain whether to throw sheep or rotten tomatoes. (October 15)

Carlos
Olivier Assayas’ biopic of Venezuelan revolutionary/terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, stormed Cannes in May. This year’s Che? (October 22)

The Kids Are All Right
Artificial insemination comedies rarely offer much cause for cheer, but
this U.S. sleeper hit – with Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as flustered civil partners – reportedly bucks the trend. (October 29)

Another Year
Mike Leigh’s latest charts twelve months of muddling through from Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen’s suburbanites; Cannes chatter indicates it’s Leigh on peak observational form. (November 5)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Part One, of course, with Part Two to follow (and conclude a truly wizard decade of box-office spell-casting) in July 2011. For those twelve of us who haven’t read the books, everything remains up for grabs: will Harry finally defeat Voldemort? Will David Yates’ sure touch continue behind the camera? And are there any Equity members who haven’t signed up for a bit-part? Team Hermione may now seem a quaint proposition set against the yearnings of Team Bella, but we can expect a cliffhanger or two to tide us over for winter. (November 19)

Machete [above]
The Rodriguez/Tarantino Grindhouse project didn’t offer much, all
told, but this mocksploitation feature derived from one of its phony trailers – about a vengeance-seeking Mexican mobster – may just redeem it. (November 26)

(First published in The Sunday Telegraph, September 12, 2010)