Saturday, 30 April 2011

Risk versus reward: "Cedar Rapids"

Miguel Arteta's new comedy Cedar Rapids fits squarely into the bracket of Midwest comedies - that droll terrain previously mapped out in the films of Alexander Payne (a producer here) or, indeed, the U.S. version of The Office, on which its leading man Ed Helms served an apprenticeship. While no-one's idea of a major work, it's yet another demonstration of the rich repository of acting talent the New American Comedy has to select from: one of those films where just the introduction of characters played by familiar, underused and underrated performers can yield a warm, affectionate chuckle.

Helms - promoted to leading man status off the back of The Hangover - plays Tim Lippe, a fortysomething Wisconsin naif with a fondness for bumbags and sweater vests, carrying on a fling with his sometime high-school teacher (a typically withering bit for Sigourney Weaver). When one of his colleagues at the small-town insurance firm at which he works dies in an unexpected self-pleasuring episode, Lippe is dispatched to take the deceased's place at a weekend conference in the quiet Iowa berg of the title. Outwardly, the conference is a drab, lame affair, with entertainments based on reality TV shows and delegates assembling at a bar called Horizons at the end of the day, but Tim finds himself caught in the middle of a power struggle between insurance nabob Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith) and his own, unfailingly repulsive roommate Dean "Deanzie" Ziegler (John C. Reilly).

The comedy is founded on a lie, or at least an exaggeration: it's simply unfeasible that anyone should have reached 40 and held down a responsible job with as little knowledge of the outside world as Tim Lippe demonstrates. Still, go along with it, and Cedar Rapids makes for a cute liberation fable, at all points shying away from the sneering of which the smarter-than-thou Payne is occasionally guilty. It's not easy to nail this kind of workplace cameraderie: the film won me over around the time Ziegler elected to crash a lesbian wedding in the same hotel, what could easily have given cause for crass lo-jinks becoming instead a valuable team-bonding exercise, as well as an excuse for a bloody good knees-up. After that, the scene in which Reilly offers Helms a lecture in self-actualisation while clad in nothing more than his boxers (and sipping a Bloody Mary from a plastic cup) is all bonus.

To mitigate against the maleness of this universe, Arteta casts carefully in the supporting parts. Anne Heche is somehow both of this world and floating blithely above it as Lippe's fellow delegate (and eventual seducer) Joan "J-Fox" Ostrowski, a woman who believes that what happens in Cedar Rapids should stay in Cedar Rapids, and refuses to apologise for her more forthright behaviour; most welcome of all, there's a bumped-up role for Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat as the hooker Lippe accidentally comes to do crack with - again, Phil Johnston's remains pleasingly non-judgemental on the matter. A little inconclusive, too, mind: the film limps towards a nothingy ending - Tim standing up against his corrupt bosses at an awards ceremony - and knows it, stocking the end credits with skits as a reward for having made it this far. Yet if there's nothing quite as sharp in the writing as The Office manages on a weekly basis, it's funny and well-played: in the present dead zone for new releases, the kind of smaller-scale offering worth taking a punt on.

Cedar Rapids is on nationwide release.

Friday, 29 April 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of April 22-24, 2011:

1 (new) Fast Five (12A) ***
2 (2) Rio (U)
3 (new) Arthur (12A) *
4 (1) Scream 4 (15)
5 (new) Beastly (12A)
6 (5) Hop (U)
7 (4) Red Riding Hood (12A)
8 (6) Source Code (12A) ***
9 (new) TT3D: Closer to the Edge (15)
10 (7) Limitless (15) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Last Picture Show
2. Battleship Potemkin
3. How I Ended This Summer
4. Winnie the Pooh
5. Cedar Rapids


Top Ten DVD rentals
:

1 (1) Meet the Parents: Little Fockers (12)
2 (7) Tron Legacy (PG) *
3 (new) The Tourist (12) **
4 (4) The Social Network (12) ****
5 (5) Due Date (15)
6 (2) The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (15) **
7 (6) RED (12) **
8 (8) Megamind (PG) ***
9 (9) The Town (15) ****
10 (10) Made in Dagenham (15) ***

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Monsters
2. Of Gods and Men
3. The Green Hornet
4. Abel
5. Two in the Wave


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Before Sunrise (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15am) [above]
2. Citizen Kane (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15pm)
3. The Magnificent Ambersons (Saturday, BBC2, 2.15pm)
4. Dirty Harry (Saturday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
5. Ben-Hur (Saturday, five, 3.10pm)

House of fun: "Insidious"

After the success of the ingeniously gruesome Saw back in 2004, the writer-director team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell took a back seat as subsequent instalments in the horror series ladelled on the gore and moral hypocrisy. The Wan-Whannell project in the years since looks to have been to explore new ways of making retro horror: first with 2006's ventriloquism creepout Dead Silence, beholden as it was in some way to Ealing's Dead of Night portmanteau, and now with Insidious, a contemporary variant on the old haunted-house movie. This is a rollercoaster ride that starts quietly and shifts up to full-on loopy, in ways that are perhaps more entertaining than truly scary; I'm not sure the horror purists are going to go wild for it, but it'll be a scream with the right crowd on a Saturday night.

We open on a portrait of an upwardly mobile couple - a teacher (Patrick Wilson) and his songwriter wife (Rose Byrne) - and their three children: two young boys, and an infant daughter. From the way Mom's thrown when one of the kids tells her she's "really old - maybe even 21", or the sight of Dad in the bathroom, plucking out his grey hairs and applying moisturising eye cream, it's clear these two have fears enough even before their eldest son comes down out of the attic in a sudden and inexplicable comatose state, and somebody - whether human or otherwise, it isn't immediately clear - begins knocking at their door in the midnight hour.

Insidious shares a production team with the low-budget, high-impact Paranormal Activity movies, and - here as there - one might initially question why the couple at the film's centre don't just relocate to a hotel when things start going bump in the night, but the new film addresses that criticism by adding one element (a sick child) that might well make loving parents decide to stay put for as long as possible, and anyway goes on to pull the popcorn-scattered, cola-soaked rug out from under its audience's feet by suggesting it's perhaps not the house that's the issue.

It's almost a pity the second half goes over the top and off the rails as it does, because the first offers consistently good scares and shrieks: the spectral figure poised over the baby's cot; a burglar alarm that cuts right through you; a cheeky phantom-urchin who turns up (in a flat cap!) to the sounds of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips". The "dog-and-pony-show" that follows - involving a couple of bickering ghostbusters (Whannell and Angus Sampson) and a medium in a gas mask (Lin Shaye) - is a ridiculous, but not unenjoyable misdirection, as surely the real boogeyman of Insidious isn't the Darth Maul lookalike who materialises at moments of high crisis (Whannell writes himself a nerdy Starfleet gag, so the resemblance may be deliberate), but - as per the title - someone or something that creeps up on us all in the end. And all the while, the grandfather clock in the hall ticks on...

Insidious opens nationwide today.

Dismythed: "Thor"

I couldn't tell you why exactly, but - even after spotting the poster credit "with Anthony Hopkins as Odin" - my expectations going into Thor were low to non-existent, and they dimmed only further on being handed a pair of 3D spectacles at the cinema doors. Once again, a major studio invites us into a (here, especially) murky world engineered specifically to extort money from cinemagoers already struggling to make the price of tickets and popcorn. Still, if there's any good news here, it's that the film gets its weakest material out of the way in the opening half-hour - the time traditionally alloted to the directors and screenwriters of comic-book movies to squeeze several dozen issues' worth of backstory into an appreciable shape.

The gods in Thor live in an Asgard made up of remaindered Star Trek sets that collectively manage to be only around 14% more convincing than the locations of last year's Clash of the Titans remake. In a palace that looks uncannily like a set of organ pipes acquired at a church charity sale, the arrogant and headstrong pretender to the throne Thor (Chris Hemsworth; nope, me neither) crosses his father (Hopkins) by entering enthusiastically into the kind of pitched combat summer movies like this have to whip up on a regular basis just to survive in the marketplace. Odin banishes Thor to the realm of mortals, then - heartbroken - keels over, clutching his chest.

Spotting a power vacuum emerging, Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) - black of hair, deceptively sensitive of demeanour - assumes the throne, but he's been touched by the cold, dead hands of the Frost Giants, malevolent forces who sweep in like the what-d'ya-ma-call-'em from the Harry Potter movies andzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. In fairness, Thor starts to warm up a little once the title character winds up in New Mexico, where he's adopted by a scientific research team headed up by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). These scenes, at least, can toss us some of the fish-out-of-water comedy rehearsed in such films as Crocodile Dundee and California Man, a pair of works the genial midsection comes indirectly to channel: setting out to retrieve the hammer he's been separated from on his journey to Earth, our burly hero swaggers into a small-town pet store and bellows, to the bemusement of the humble clerk working therein, "I need a horse!"

The film has been conceived to tesselate with existing and future franchises across the Marvel range, so non-nerds shouldn't be surprised if some of the references pass them by. Clark Gregg offers a good-natured reprise of his security agent Coulson, from the Iron Man films; there's a cameo for The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner as a character referred to as Archer, who'll presumably feature in a spin-off of his own at some point in the near-future; and, as in Iron Man, there's a set-up scene at the very end of the end credits featuring Samuel L. Jackson in an eyepatch, and you wonder whether the actor is happy that his most prominent filmwork in years is playing out long after everybody's made their way out to the car park.

What Thor lacks is an anchoring central performance. Iron Man had Downey Jr., whose hybrid of charm and corporate calculation was crucial to what those movies were; Hemsworth, by contrast, is a rugby club captain angling for Heath Ledger replacement duties, so it's perhaps apt he should end up brawling in the mud with one foe, like a common-or-garden prop forward. Elsewhere, the acting isn't bad. Kenneth Branagh was a surprise pick to direct this material, yet - given his long-standing interest in myths of the Frankenstein variety - not an inexplicable one: he stages the business of the gods as repertory Shakespeare, with a lot of very formal declaiming in stiff tableaux, but Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings make a tight, well-rehearsed unit as the scientists, and Hiddleston (Unrelated, Archipelago) makes for interesting, leftfield casting, showing an admirable willingness to underplay Loki's villainy, even if the subtlety of the actor's choices was always likely to get dwarfed by this scale of production.

It's far from a disaster, then, but hardly distinctive in its field; devoid of Iron Man's unpredictable pop energy, the film assumes some altogether square proportions, displaying no real or novel idea how to get the kids in, save to make a $150m effects movie based on a comic book. At one crucial point, Dennings' Darcy - here chiefly to facilitate the now-obligatory Facebook namedrop - has her iPod seized by Coulson's security forces, and if the script had told us what was on the device ("I can't believe the Pentagon is jonesing for My Chemical Romance," say), I'd have had more time for Thor as a proposition; as it is, the reference to the brand name is assumed in itself to be enough.

What's left behind is more bullshit propaganda for the alpha-male cause, positing that every grunting, long-haired aggromonger is just waiting for the right girl to school them in the appropriate etiquette. Sure enough, after a night spent around the campfire with Portman's scientist, Thor is observed putting down the hammer in favour of picking up the whisk, whipping up some scrambled eggs with a boyish smile: me Thor, you Jane. The delicacy and sensitivity with which Sam Raimi handled Peter Parker's transformation into Spider-Man is nowhere to be seen; in a film dealing in blunt, brute opening-weekend force, Hemsworth is granted a two-minute display of shirtlessness that causes even the generally sensible Darcy to swoon "for a crazy homeless person, he's really cut". Our heroes once had journeys to go on before they could consider laying siege to a fair maiden's heart; now they drop from the sky looking for all the world like seven-times champions of the mixed martial arts.

Thor is on nationwide release.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Otherwise engaged: "Taxi zum Klo"

Thirty years ago, writer-director-star Frank Ripploh broke new ground and won plaudits and brickbats alike for Taxi zum Klo, his semi-autobiographical, thoroughly deromanticised portrait of a gay lifestyle. From its introductory shots of Vaseline on a nightstand and the slovenly protagonist's hairy arse to the endless cruising on and around drizzly, freezing-looking streets, Ripploh's film makes a concerted effort to get at the drab realities of what it was to be gay in a Berlin far removed from Christopher Isherwood's time: contemporary audiences will have to get over their giggles at the prominence accorded to dungarees, bulky 80s cash dispensers, drag queens who sashay round for tea and cakes, and the characters' facial hair. Here, hearts are drawn with piss in the snow - an act that in context assumes a kind of sweetness, and appears positively swooning by the time we get to the film's various rectal examinations.

Ripploh's most provocative touch lay in making his lead a schoolteacher - a former of tiny minds! - who's shown as just as capable as anybody else of separating their work from their sometimes chaotic personal life; that said, one early cut whisking Herr Ripploh directly from the classroom to the cubicle now appears to have been left in specifically to cause Fox News viewers and Daily Mail readers alike to explode in fury. (As it is, even when their teacher enters the room hungover and dressed as an Arabian princess, the kids seem to intuit exactly where he's coming from - they're perhaps representative of a new generation, the class of a soon-to-be-united Berlin, who'll turn out more accepting than their forefathers.)

What follows is a tragicomedy with porno inserts. Herr Ripploh tries to get some marking done in the loo when somebody rudely shoves their erect penis through an adjacent gloryhole, a situation I don't believe is covered in the current set of Ofsted guidelines. After a bout of unprotected sex, our man is obliged to enter into a gruesomely matter-of-fact conversation with a prostitute in the waiting room of an STD clinic. Flashframes of early erotica during a staff meeting suggest a hero with his mind very firmly on other things. The film's period tattiness occasionally gets in the way, yet it's just about possible to make out a very modern study (and critique) of the media; how its images come to change, and in certain cases, corrupt the way we come to look at ourselves and others.

These characters are enthusiastic consumers of television, radio and the press, bolstering their insecurities and whipping up their anxieties: the drag queen brings round an educational film warning of the dangers of pederasts, and Herr Ripploh takes up with a cinema manager, who has his own, rigidly framed set of ideas as to how their relationship should proceed. Taxi zum Klo's own images, rough-hewn and close to, well, the bone, offer a sort of corrective to what had previously been the norm: those deodorised, made up love stories that proceeded blithely unaware of their own sexual health. The film stood alone for a long while - that other gay German Fassbinder was too poetic, where Taxi is unapologetically all prose; Ripploh's other work (including a 1987 sequel, Taxi nach Cairo) never travelled outside of Germany - and only 25 years later did it find its perfect double-bill partner, in John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus: another polysexual romp worrying away, in its own genial fashion, at the subject of intimacy, and how we get over the hang-ups we have to get to where we want to be in the bedroom - or, indeed, in the bathroom.

Taxi zum Klo is on selected release.

Friday, 22 April 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of April 15-17, 2011:

1 (new) Scream 4 (15) [above]
2 (1) Rio (U)
3 (new) Your Highness (15) ***
4 (new) Red Riding Hood (12A)
5 (4) Hop (U)
6 (2) Source Code (12A) ***
7 (3) Limitless (15) ***
8 (new) Winnie the Pooh (U) ****
9 (5) Sucker Punch (12A)
10 (new) Little White Lies (15)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Last Picture Show
2. Winnie the Pooh
3. Taxi zum Klo
4. Pina
5. Fast Five


Top Ten DVD rentals
:

1 (new) Meet the Parents: Little Fockers (12)
2 (6) The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (15) **
3 (5) Monsters (12) ****
4 (1) The Social Network (12) ****
5 (3) Due Date (15)
6 (4) RED (12) **
7 (new) Tron Legacy (PG) *
8 (2) Megamind (PG) ***
9 (7) The Town (15) ****
10 (9) Made in Dagenham (15) ***

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Monsters
2. Of Gods and Men
3. Abel
4. In Our Name
5. Two in the Wave


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Spellbound (Holiday Friday, BBC2, 8.30am)
2. Duel in the Sun (Holiday Friday, BBC2, 10.20am)
3. Mary Poppins (Easter Sunday, BBC1, 1.30pm)
4. Spirited Away (Saturday, BBC2, 12noon)
5. The Ten Commandments (Easter Monday, C4, 10.35am)

On DVD: "Abel"

Abel, the directorial debut of the actor Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Rudo y Cursi) takes a while to find its comic groove, then delivers a run of chucklesome scenarios that, collectively, offer a light sending-up of stern Latin patriarchal values. Abel (played to straight-laced perfection by Christopher Ruiz Esparza) is an uptight nine-year-old who returns home after a spell of mental health supervision to a single seamstress mum who seems to have enough on her hands already with her remaining children. After careful study of the family photos, Abel works out what this unruly unit really needs: a dad - a role he assumes wholeheartedly, criticising his sister's report cards, and seeing off any suitors deemed unworthy of his girl.

Luna and his co-writer Augusto Mendoza have great fun with the idea, teasing us as to whether Abel's assumption of parental responsibility is merely childish role-playing or something more psychologically significant, possibly a way of correcting the imbalance within this household; certainly, the rest of the kid's clan appear all too willing to fall into line with his worldview, and he perhaps inevitably proves a more attentive father than the one who eventually sneaks back in, touting expensive gifts from the north by way of compensation for those long months of absent or withheld affection. (One especially nice touch here: Abel rejects the GameBoy he's offered in favour of a sensible gold bracelet.)

It's a little cosy overall, closer in tone to something like Malcolm in the Middle (self-assured youngster becomes voice of familial wisdom) than the uncanny item a Pasolini or Buñuel might have fashioned from such an ostensibly bourgeois-baiting set-up: Luna goes this way only once, with the jarring image of Abel and his mother in bed together, sharing what look disconcertingly like post-coital cigarettes ("Last night, mother and I wrote a letter to the stork"). By the denouement - a frightening encounter with the wider world that confirms the protagonist is, after all, still just a child, and thus still likely to venture out of his depth - normal service has been resumed; the consolation is that what's gone before has displayed some of the infectious mischief of Luna's work before the camera.

Abel is available on DVD from Monday.

On DVD: "In Our Name"

In Our Name, an intense and quietly impressive debut from National Film and Television School graduate Brian Welsh, centres on Suzy (Joanne Froggatt), a professional soldier who's returned to her native Newcastle following a tour of duty in Iraq. Despite a warm welcome from family and friends, she soon finds herself subject to sleepless nights and flashbacks; not only this, but she's obliged to make such an effort to reconnect with her young daughter that she starts to drifts apart from her husband (Mel Raido), himself an ex-squaddie, whose growing sexual frustration warps into a festering suspicion of what exactly went on over there. Before long, Suzy's fitting their once-happy home with new locks and razor wire, plunging herself back into the state of siege to which she's become all too regrettably accustomed.

Welsh follows in the humanist tradition of Paul Greengrass's Film on Four breakthrough Resurrected, which dramatised the trauma suffered by a soldier (David Thewlis) both during and on his return from the Falklands conflict. Both of In Our Name's central characters are damaged at some level: Raido's jealous rages appear a symptom of the same insecurity that compels Suzy to keep a machete within easy reach. Froggatt - a graduate of the Coronation Street academy, raised in the bootcamps of prime-time drama - convincingly inhabits the role of a woman drilled to be forever on the defensive, turning every task (picking up and dropping off her daughter, answering the door, fleeing her hubby) into a mission of sorts. (Welsh acknowledges as much by pumping up the noise of passing helicopters in the sound mix; we soon grasp Suzy's brought not only a certain skillset, but a certain set of concerns back with her.)

From an abortive presentation Suzy gives to her sister's primary school class - she breaks down at the memory of a dead Iraqi girl her own daughter's age - one can't help but arrive at the conclusion that however rigorously we train or equip our troops, many of them simply don't have the language - the mental tools - to satisfactorily process what they've been through; and from the sister's pat and rather callous reaction, that we civilians struggle to comprehend what it is these soldiers do for us, the precise nature of the hits they take for the team. Familiar TV faces and the close, contained focus - the attempt, at one point, to literally squeeze some editorial into the back of a cab - gives it the air of a superior telefilm, but the limited means presently available to Welsh are at least being used to tackle something pertinent, as one tour of duty shades into the next: the climate of unarticulated (some might say unspeakable) fear in which our circumstances and commanding officers have obliged us to live.

In Our Name is available on DVD from Monday.

Mysteries of motion: "Pina"

The performers in the late German choreographer Pina Bausch's fusions of dance and theatre - energetic, breast-beating, deliberate in their knicker-flashing - form such complex, striking patterns it makes sense a director should seek to preserve them on screen using the new 3D format. Wim Wenders' tribute doc Pina - like his Buena Vista Social Club, a record of its subject's greatest hits, with a few biographical sleeve notes thrown in - achieves its best effects transplanting Bausch's pieces from the stage to the sundappled forests, traffic islands and industrial zones of her native Wuppertal, in the process opening up some hugely controlled and mysterious gestures to the wider world, and testing the thesis that the emotions these movements convey are in fact more universal than perhaps first assumed.

Yet that pure feeling/sensation in Bausch's work - which Pedro Almodovar tapped in folding a snippet of the choreographer's best-known piece "Café Müller" into his 2002 film Talk to Her - only gets Wenders' film so far, the dancers' airy appraisals of their mentor failing to contribute to any deeper understanding of the spectacle. Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal remains a closed shop, accessible to but a select few. Though Wenders' own filming of "Müller" employs clever shifts in perspective - cutting from the original stage plans to a latter-day performance, and intercutting this with archive footage of Pina herself dancing the part - I couldn't begin to tell you what it's actually about, save the possible health-and-safety risks in establishments with disproportionately high ratios of chairs to tables or clients.

For the rehearsal-room piece "Kontakthof", Wenders cheats - cutting freely between young, old and middle-aged couples - to create a sequence that is undeniably more dramatic, yet which muddies his subject's original choreography: the piece couldn't ever be staged this way in the real world, and so we end up wondering whether these were all Bausch dancers, or actors, mere stand-ins, Wenders had employed for the purpose. As for the bit with two men spitting water at one another, or the sequence that finds one woman shovelling heaps of dirt onto another: well, I'm sorry, but WTF?

Set against Werner Herzog's roaming Cave of Forgotten Dreams - the other recent example of a German arthouse veteran venturing into the realms of the stereoscopic - Pina starts to seem monomaniacal. The pieces selected come to blur into one, and for all the added value 3D offers Wenders' depiction of planes of theatrical space, I started to long for the contextualising corridors and backrooms of Frederick Wiseman's 2D documentary La Danse - those elements that broke up the scenery and set the dancers' extraordinary movements more effectively against the rigid ordinariness of daily routine and rehearsal. Pina, by contrast, has next to nothing on its subject's life away from the footlights, and no-one among the entourage of this surely-demanding figure can bring themselves to utter a bad word against her. It's a nice try, and an undeniably pretty, polished example of blue-riband arthouse cinema, but I left the cinema unconverted, my feet welded firmly to the ground.

Pina opens in selected cinemas from today. A version of this review ran in today's Metro, and can be read here.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

In memoriam: "Arthur" (1981-2011)

One of the reasons I was resistant to the (generally astute) stand-up of Russell Brand: that flouncy delivery, which always seemed to me that of a personality keener to be noticed, to be famous, to attract his own adoring cult, than it was to be funny. (When Brand took over presenting duties on a Big Brother spin-off show, it was a perfect fit.) After a couple of warm-up movie vehicles (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek) and a Hollywood power marriage, that moment has now come to pass, and even with the momentary pause granted by Sachsgate - an incident in which Brand's neo-celebrity heartlessness, his covert desire to get one (leg) over everybody on his way up, was first brought to our attention - the impression remains of a stratospheric rise to international prominence. You might call him the Justin Bieber of winky jokes.

Can it really have only been four years since Brand turned up, cap in hand, for shooting on that dreadful St. Trinian's remake? Well, yes: the rise has been that quick, although - with the big brass ring (or Katy Perry's boobs) in sight - more calculation than thought appears to have gone into Brand's global takeover plans. Consider, for starters, Arthur, a remake of the once-popular Dudley Moore vehicle about a bibulous billionaire forced into a society wedding to preserve his fortune. Yes, the title offered a certain degree of (pardon the pun) brand recognition, albeit for cinemagoers some way beyond the 18-30 demographic, but the original, a Reaganite romp comprehensively lampooned by Trading Places and Brewster's Millions, was fairly thin and tatty to begin with - a remake could only ever result in a marginal improvement, or a complete stinker.

As it happens, Arthur 2011 is awful. Precisely nothing about it works, and I doubt we'll see a worse performance by a leading man this year. Brand was by some distance the best thing about Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and weirdly winning in the unofficial sequel that was Greek. This one makes its first terrible creative decision - a decision that illustrates exactly the infantilisation of so much modern American cinema, where executives are obsessed with the buzzwords "young" and "hip" - in turning the main character into an attention-deficient naif who watches Road Runner cartoons in the bathtub and treats the real object of his affections to a candlelit meal of Pez sweets, removed from the dispenser. This is the manchild of the New American Comedy taken to an almost pathological degree, and Brand plays him as though he's received a serious blow to the head. He could be downing vodka; he could just be hyped up on Ribena and morphine.

At all points, Russell is 12A-bland, skittering away from any of those dark, bastardly, unashamedly adult notes of misanthropy and self-loathing Adam Sandler dragged up for his unrepentant billionaire in Funny People. We could be watching a spoiled toddler, which may be what being a Hollywood star is all about these days, but it feels like a fundamental betrayal of everything Russell Brand once stood for, if indeed Russell Brand ever really stood for anything. Perhaps toning his act down for a family-friendly certificate - a move that certainly hasn't made Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin any poorer in recent years - is a deliberate bid to attract the highest possible number of impressionable acolytes and devotees; see also, on this point, Brand's voicing of the Easter bunny in Hop. I've heard of brand dominance, but this is getting creepy - and aren't we entitled to a couple of decades of wild-and-crazy Russell Brand before he cashes in in this particular fashion?

What's particularly regrettable about Arthur is the knock-on effect this wholesale watering-down has on Brand's co-stars. As the Manhattan tour guide Arthur loses his heart to, the spiky, idiosyncratic mumblecore heroine Greta Gerwig suffers more than most, fitted with a mainstream-movie makeover (haircut, spray tan, lipstick) that looks all kinds of wrong on her, and is typical of the misguided packaging at work here. Jennifer Garner is just too nice to play a rich bitch without depth, and utterly undeserving of the sequence that asks her to impersonate a cat while wearing a low-cut corset; and there's a truly weird appearance from Nick Nolte, who really does appear plastered (and plastinated), as Arthur's putative father-in-law. As for Helen Mirren - drafted in to add a little class, in what was John Gielgud's forthright butler role - this, more so than RED or The Tempest, proves a severe test of her Teflon reputation. I guess once you've got Caligula on your CV, nothing else is likely to get your honours revoked, but Mirren doesn't even get Gielgud's "humorous swearing" schtick to play with; she merely withers, in all the wrong ways.

Given that the film is such a flagrant exercise in positioning - executive-produced by Brand and his agent Nik Linnen - it's almost a moot point as to whether it's funny or not. As it is, Arthur manages to be colossally unamusing, despite the presence of various funny people. Director Jason Winer, as responsible as anyone for making TV's Modern Family the triumph it has been, is but a mere pawn in Brand's power games, limited to the minor subversion of sneaking a billboard for his own small-screen series into the background of one set-up. The writer Peter Baynham, one of Sacha Baron Cohen's collaborators on Borat, keeps coming up with scenes you just can't believe a scribe of his calibre would care to write (perhaps he didn't): tooth-rotting romance, some witless farce with Garner stuck under a magnetic piano (?!), lots of last-reel moralising to send us away confident Arthur's drinking is A Bad Thing. (Frankly, even Peter, Baynham's sad-sack persona from Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun, wouldn't stoop to rescue such ropey shit from a Balham garage's bargain bin.)

Thus it is that the whole enterprise pursues a lazy, notionally feelgood vibe - nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to alarm the horses, or offend Andrew Sachs - that necessitates the taking of a full two hours to get Arthur into rehab. (Yes, rehab: Brand's personality is such that it even feels obliged to stamp itself over his character's happy ending.) Like most comedies that cleave this close to cold, hard cash, the film has no heart or soul, but it also has no atmosphere to speak of - you end up not wanting to laugh, because you cannot be sure there'll be any more air coming along to replenish your lungs - and no brain from the word go: only the dimmest Warner Bros. executive could have been persuaded this is the right time to try and get audiences to cheer for a billionaire who ends up getting exactly what he wants from life - no matter that he's being played by the hip young Russell Brand.

Arthur opens nationwide tomorrow.

Bear necessities: "Winnie the Pooh"

Compared to the way Disney have trashed some of their other legacies (The Second Jungle Book, anyone?), the company's animators have treated Winnie the Pooh rather well: sure, you could carp at the Americanisation of AA Milne, but the features produced over the past decade or so have the dozy, hyperglycemic gentleness of the title character down to a tee. Following starring vehicles for Tigger and Piglet (still nothing with Eeyore's name above the title, which'll only give him more to grumble about), the latest entry, Winnie the Pooh, looks in everything from its title on down like a return to first principles - literally so, in that we see the denizens of Hundred Acre Wood interacting with the words and illustrations on the pages that originally gave them to the world.

Their quests to pin the tail on the donkey, rescue Christopher Robin from the feared Baksun, and (in the case of Pooh) replenish their reserves of hunny (or huny, in its alternative spelling) are further sweetened here by a series of gags about letters, paragraphs and the authorial voice; a whole team of writers is credited, but the hero remains the one who spun a whole Abbott and Costello routine out of the phonic similarities of "not", "knot" and "naught". As teaching devices go, Winnie the Pooh is right out of the old school: were it not for the Zooey Deschanel-trilled songs, and John Cleese's narration, you'd swear you'd have seen this before, most likely on an episode of Disney Time circa 1984. Yet if the company's animation department is going to insist on looking backwards to past glories, better the clean lines and defiant 2D of this than the cluttered compromise of Tangled and The Princess and the Frog.

Winnie the Pooh is on nationwide release.

Fifth gear: "Fast Five"

Despite their multi-million dollar pricetags, previous instalments in the Fast and Furious franchise retained a pleasing B-movie vibe. Fast Five, the unofficial opening of 2011's sequel-heavy summer season, instead appears to take its inspiration from the bloated later series of its producer Neal H. Moritz's TV hit Prison Break, dispatching a crew of varyingly bulletheaded individuals armed with unexpected skillsets (wait, so Paul Walker now has the Ethan Hunt-ish ability to palm swipe cards and surf trains? Jordana Brewster speaks fluent Portuguese?) to an idea of Latin America that's been hot in every sense since the one-two of City of God and Amores Perros at the turn of the century. Everybody gets a free ride to Rio, and - as the current UK box-office chart suggests - even our kids and animators want a bit of that these days.

The new film faces, but never quite resolves, the franchise's usual problem of how to convince as badass within the limitations of a 12A certificate. This, after all, is a universe where the early, spectacular turning-over of a prison van momentarily containing Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto results in - on-screen news reporters helpfully reassure us - "miraculously, no fatalities"; where a whole squad of trained SWAT marksmen will fail to hit the fugitive Diesel (who is, let's face it, a big enough target) from a distance of approximately twenty yards; and where the cars have to be parked up for ninety minutes in the middle of the film, so the characters can hunch over maps and laptops in anticipation of a final-reel heist.

Muscles are flexed in Fast Five, but only rarely put to use; nevertheless, the whole film, growling and inflated to Michelin Man proportions, is very definitely on the 'roids. At times, it resembles nothing more than a stroke flick for nightclub bouncers. As the FBI agent charged with bringing Toretto and cohort Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) back from their Brazilian vacation, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has renewed the gym membership that lapsed during his soft kiddie-pic period, and effectively turned himself into a walking Tom of Finland cartoon, complete with persistently comical facial hair.

The new film is interested in Rio as a location about as much as Fast Three (as we're probably now supposed to refer to it) was in Tokyo: i.e. principally to make itself more saleable in a particular market. The Latino characters in Fast Five are either crooks, jokes, crooks and jokes, or chicks in micro-bikinis: the franchise badly misses Michelle Rodriguez (from Fasts One and Four), and the veteran actor Joaquin de Almeida must, surely, be bored of having to play crime bosses called Señor Reyes (of course Señor Reyes!) who can think of nothing more original to do with their enemies than stringing 'em up in disused meat lockers. You go to Fast Five to watch American kids in American cars totally owning non-American turf. (As I first mooted around the time of 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious - sorry, Fast Two - we may still be in Afghanistan merely to fuel the tanks of franchises such as these.)

So here they are then. In car one, there's Diesel, doing his very best to conceal the sad look of a performer who'd hoped he'd be doing more important work at this point in his career; in car two, Walker, whom you'd still struggle to pick out of a line-up, which may make him perfect for this sort of thing; and back at dispatch, there's Brewster, here debuting a lovely, shy smile, and apparently maturing into Julia Ormond. Whenever the film is roaring along behind the wheel, or elsewhere tagging along with these three - two brothers of a sort, and the sister one of them has got pregnant - Fast Five exerts a certain dopey charm: it's certainly an improvement on the third and fourth instalments (director Justin Lin has done all three, and is learning on the job about balancing action and character), if still a way short of regaining the freshness of the first two movies.

It just gets draggy whenever it moves away from the streets into garages, where barely remembered characters from the earlier films emerge from the shadows and are handed frankly unnecessary recalls: I wasn't much sold on Tyrese first time around (Fast Two), and his cause isn't helped by having to speak such trailer-ready lines as "This mission just went from mission impossible to mission-fricking-insanity." At such moments, Fast Five, or Fast and Furious Five, or whatever you want to call it, is fixed firmly with a large "L"-plate - not for learner, but lame, loser, lightweight. Still, I can offer you this, as both a recommendation and a warning: we will see far less entertaining sequels this summer. Stay tuned through the end credits for the surprisingly tasty set-up for (yes, you guessed it) Fast Six.

Fast Five opens nationwide today.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

From the archive: "Fast & Furious"

Rob Cohen's original - I use the term loosely - The Fast and the Furious (2001) was a souped-up hot rod flick that arrived at the end of one of the worst summers for event movies in living memory (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, anyone? The Mummy Returns?); it nevertheless quickly distinguished itself with its B-movie savvy, an understanding of what made these types of pictures rev in the days before they became multi-million dollar publicity campaigns with two hours of celluloid attached. The 2003 sequel, directed by John Singleton, followed a now-standard sequel line, throwing money after established success and resulting in something bigger but not necessary better; the defining image of its (not unpleasurable) decadence was the close-up Singleton afforded to Eva Mendes's lips as her bikini-clad FBI agent swallowed a grape.

By the time of 2006's Tokyo Drift, the wheels had come off comprehensively: the stars had vanished, and the producers had clearly decided to go, hub cap-in-hand, after the growing Asian market; it was straight-to-DVD product in everything but its elevated place in the release schedule. Its director Justin Lin has been retained for this fourth instalment, for which - as the comical tagline "new model, original parts" (original prats, more like) flags - the first film's players have returned. This is nobody's idea of a coup: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel and Jordana Brewster have all seen their bids for the A-list come to naught - could it be that, when it comes to this franchise, the car's the star? - while Michelle Rodriguez, who's at least managed to keep her profile high through TV's Lost, clearly has a fair few DUI fines to pay.

Since the events of the second film, Walker's Brian O'Connor has, we're told, returned to (in every sense) pedestrian FBI duty; now, though, he's on the tail of a Colombian drug cartel running their product through Southern California's street racing gangs. His old adversary/partner-in-crime Dominic "Dom" Toretto (Vin Diesel), meanwhile, is after the rotters who drove his girlfriend (Rodriguez) off the road for good, in the process depriving the film of the one performer who might have given it some spark.

Back in 2001, Walker and Diesel were fresh faces, their careers an open highway stretching in front of them. Since then, they've become hardened Hollywood hitchhikers, and are now probably just glad to be picked up after years of rejection. Walker has grown handsomely dull; the none-more-lunkish Diesel - who here actually gets the yawn the line "we're all just along for the ride" - has been overtaken by the cannily self-aware Jason Statham in the action stakes. (Anyone with half a brain and a nose for popcorn fun will surely be saving themselves for next week's Crank II: High Voltage.)

Maybe this won't matter to an audience in a franchise where the guys are glorified Stigs or chauffeurs, the girls rarely more than passenger-side eye candy. Still, I had the sense that Cohen, and to a lesser degree Singleton, knew how to make this B-movie material appeal beyond adolescent petrolheads. Lin appears more interested in framing chase sequences so virtual, in the main, that they might as well be for the tie-in console game, punctuated by episodes of incidental Sapphism that suggest a director fueling his own personal spank tank.

The dialogue scenes are flat, and populated by the first actors that came through the door: Vin's flirtation with a lissom brunette speed racer (foreign model, gleaming bodywork) has all the levity and simmering sexual tension there is to be found in spending the weekend under the bonnet of an Austin Ambassador in the car park of Leicester Forest East services. It's certainly brazen - the third line of dialogue is "let's make some money!" - and, after the flat-tyre third entry, there may be some relief among devotees that the franchise still functions at all; that there's a film that turns over when the projectionist sticks their key in the ignition. It nonetheless feels faintly regrettable that, in 2009, a movie should devote itself this uncritically to the acquisition and burning of gas.

(May 2009)

I promise to find a new opening, and to make fewer car-based puns, when Fast Five opens this weekend.

From the archive: "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift"

The first two Fast and Furious films were canny refits of 1950s hot-rod movies for the Pimp My Ride crowd. Until its final moments, this third - and hopefully last - instalment doesn't even feign continuity, replacing Paul Walker with the usually reliable Lucas Black, and dispatching his delinquent petrolhead Sean to the Japanese capital after one write-off too many. There, he goes about fitting in by making friends with an African-American rapper (Bow Wow) and falling for the only girl in school who isn't remotely Asian (Peru-born Nathalie Kelley). Oh yes, and racing noisy cars through public spaces.

Tokyo Drift cruises in as by far the least engaging Fast and Furious yet. Those first films may have been dizzy on gasoline fumes, but they proposed an appealing cultural melting-pot, in their own empty-headed way proposing we were all the same, under the bonnet. Despite the presence of Taiwanese-born director Justin Lin, this one characterises the Japanese as posturing Yakuza-in-waiting, Sumo wrestlers or otherwise faceless crowds for our brave white hero to motor through.

Gone is the positive multi-cultural message; in its place, we get occasional lectures (speed kills, learn responsibility) liable to pass over the heads of those viewers already itching to try out their handbrake turns in the nearest out-of-town retail park. As usual, the cars prove the real stars, even if Lin's chases all start to blur into one after a while. The performers, however, will only really be of interest to those with a yen to see TV child stars all grown up: Black was more compelling as the young boy in American Gothic, while his jock rival Zachary Bryan was one of Tim Allen's sons in Home Improvement. ASBOs to the pair of them, please.

(June 2006)

From the archive: "2 Fast 2 Furious"

The first The Fast and the Furious arrived late in a disappointing summer for Hollywood event movies, and so couldn't help but shine. Inevitable follow-up 2 Fast 2 Furious, which pulls a CSI in relocating the action (more illicit speed-racing) from the West Coast to a never-hotter Miami, has been promoted to the status of major blockbuster, souped-up to take on the Matrix and X-Men sequels, but original director Rob Cohen has bailed to make way for a John Singleton going for a similar kind of watchable mediocrity to that peddled in his Shaft remake.

The Skulls 2 and Dragonheart: A New Beginning, the last two sequels taken from Cohen originals, ditched their franchises' original stars to take the straight-to-video route; 2 Fast 2 Furious pulls up without the first movie's breakout star Vin Diesel, but sticks with Paul Walker in the lead role as undercover-cop-turned-rogue-petrolhead Brian O'Connor. Walker projected a magnificent, Keanu-like blankness first time round; here, he's equipped of the world's most effective deodorant, never seeming to break sweat in races conducted under the Florida sun at speeds of upwards of 100mph, but blonde hair and blue eyes alone scarcely justify a cinema release.

New additions to the cast include charmless ex-model Tyrese, who - in a film of such conspicuous consumption - spends most of his screen time making lewd comments aimed at the bikini-clad females around him, and eating wherever possible on the grounds that the food awaiting him in prison is so awful he has to eat "what [he] can, when [he] can". (That's the American way, I guess: so much oil is burned off in the making of 2 Fast 2 Furious that it's possible Gulf War II, the year's first overhyped sequel, was fought at the behest of the film's producers.)

It makes something of a concession to the Asian-American audiences who might have been offended by the first film's Chinese punks in casting another sometime model, Devon Aoki, alongside the boys and cars. This is a breeze of a role for a former star of the catwalk: in an early race, she's allowed precisely two lines of dialogue - a "grrr" when she misses her gear change (not dissimilar to the noise a model might make when her assistant has forgotten to bring her her latte), and a triumphant "yeah!" upon crossing the line, the sort of exclamation Miss Aoki might make on landing yet another cosmetics contract. To establish her cultured, sensitive side, her character is given some colouring-in to do ("Dat is some artistic shit!"), but she gets sidelined in the second half as Walker and Tyrese assume the bulk of the action.

Singleton pads out the rest of this juvenile cast with rappers looking for a lucrative crossover career: more than once, the camera pans to an American recording star who hasn't quite made it big enough over here to be considered recognisable. In a summer of predominantly whitebread sequels (Matrix, X2, Charlie's Angels 2) and a - F. Gary Gray aside - very much white Italian Job remake (whose box-office is bound to suffer in 2 Fast's wake), this particular follow-up, like its original, is commercially shrewd enough to market itself as ethnically diverse: even Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids trilogy hasn't ventured much past the experiences of one Latino family.

But, really, urban schmurban. Filmgoing has never seemed more like - and just as fulfilling as - a spell playing Grand Theft Auto; all you're likely to take away from 2 Fast is a bad case of tinnitus. The major problem with this new model lies in the suspension (of disbelief) required: as if the impossibly carless and congestion-free roads of Miami weren't enough, we're asked to buy a Special Agent (Eva Mendes) with lips that disappear into blind spots at the corners, who wears clothes designed for no other reason than to show off her cleavage, and gets a close-up just to demonstrate how she eats a grape; a villain (Cole Hauser) who takes a live rat and an oxyacetylene blowtorch into a nightclub for the purposes of needlessly elaborate torture; and a hero who, after crashing his car into a speedboat, nurses his forehead for what seems like an age only to sit up and reveal not a scratch.

(June 2003)

From the archive: "The Fast and the Furious"

Though it arrives too late to rev up a stalled summer blockbuster season, The Fast and the Furious, Rob Cohen's tale of souped-up street car racing among underground L.A. gangs, is dutifully loud and fast - should the script call from a cut from day to night, Cohen'll just speed up the sunset - but with the faintest hint it has something extra under its bonnet. The title, of course, tells you what to expect, owing as it does more to 1950s B-pictures (The Cool and the Crazy, et al.) than to the recent trend for movies greenlit only when they have a number after the title of a box-office hit. It would be easy to write off something like this - a 21st century studio flick in thrall to the cheapjack supporting pictures of the past - even backhandedly, as nothing more than an entertainingly stupid gas, but The Fast and the Furious is an astute proposition, hiding itself modestly beneath a layer of Limp Bizkit on the soundtrack.

On most levels, the film is deceptive: it's a B-movie posing as a blockbuster, just as the film's lead (Paul Walker), an undercover cop, will pose as an ace driver to infiltrate the gang led by Toretto (Vin Diesel) suspected of knocking off trucks. There are no stars listed above the title, as if to suggest that the cars - their stunts, and their anonymous stunt drivers - will be the main attractions here. But we get actors of a sort, too: in a film borrowing heavily from both Point Break and Speed, the handsome Walker is a brilliantly blank hero, as nasal as Keanu, yet with the sunkissed hair and blue eyes that would lead nobody to suspect this boy racer is really a cop. From the darkness of the mining planet charted in Pitch Black, Vin Diesel has emerged as a major screen presence, and he dominates the screen here: imagine Al Pacino if Pacino were thirty years younger, built like the proverbial, and coming at you in a really fast car, and you have some sense of the man.

If the perennially orange Jordana Brewster can't do a great deal more with her love interest role than look pretty in the passenger seat, she is going up against Lori Petty's interpretation of a similar role in the Kathryn Bigelow film, and besides, this is mostly a film about men and their motors - although Michelle Rodriguez is a knockout as Diesel's permanently pissed-off girlfriend, peeved, perhaps, at the skanks and petrolheads preventing her from spending more time with her man; suffice to say that all the supporting players, many of whom were recruited from real-life street gangs, look the part to a tee. The undercover cop hero is here infiltrating a multicultural urban environment much more complex (and tetchier) than Point Break's surf-dude communities - and more relevant to today's youthful cinema audiences, one suspects.

While none of Cohen's racial ties are as spectacular in their complexity as the driving sequences - though we might ask why, for example, the black, white and Latino racers have teamed up against the Chinese - the relationships are stronger in their allegiances and betrayals than one finds in the average teen-oriented film. The recent Save the Last Dance, throwing a white spanner into the works of a mostly ethnic environment, tried similar hip-to-the-beat moves, with limited success; The Fast and the Furious, conversely, moves so fast that it's tough to make out too much emphasis on colour. Sure, once the smoke clears, you can make out the holes in the film's bodywork. And yes, it has car chases - truck hijacks, and nitrous oxide explosions, too - but also an understanding of what adolescents of all ages want from a good night at the movies, and more of a clue than almost any other Hollywood film released in the three months preceding it.

(September 2001)

Friday, 15 April 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of April 8-10, 2011:

1 (new) Rio (U) [above]
2 (2) Source Code (12A) ***
3 (3) Limitless (15) ***
4 (1) Hop (U)
5 (4) Sucker Punch (12A)
6 (5) The Eagle (12A) **
7 (new) Thank You (PG)
8 (8) Unknown (12A) **
9 (new) The Roommate (15)
10 (new) Mars Needs Moms (PG)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Last Picture Show
2. Les Diaboliques
3. Winnie the Pooh
4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
5. Submarine


Top Ten DVD rentals
:

1 (1) The Social Network (12) ****
2 (9) Megamind (PG) ***
3 (2) Due Date (15)
4 (4) RED (12) **
5 (new) Monsters (12) ****
6 (new) The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (15) **
7 (5) The Town (15) ****
8 (8) Grown Ups (12) *
9 (3) Made in Dagenham (15) ***
10 (re) Let Me In (15) **

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Monsters
2. Of Gods and Men
3. Two in the Wave
4. Somewhere
5. Megamind


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Spider-Man (Sunday, five, 7.40pm)
2. The Color of Money (Thursday, BBC1, 11.25pm)
3. A Mighty Wind (Sunday, ITV1, 2am)
4. Thirteen (Wednesday, ITV1, 2.45am)
5. The Day After Tomorrow (Saturday, C4, 8pm)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

From the archive: "The Last Picture Show"

Peter Bogdanovich's second film - the work that would make his name, and overshadow the rest of his career - takes place in the early 1950s, in a small, dusty Texan town where here appears nothing for the resident teenagers to do except catch a movie and wait to die. In the early '70s, young moviegoers couldn't help but empathise: these kids are peaceniks who would rather make out with one another than fight their elders' battles; one running gag has the older townsfolk repeatedly bemoan the school football team's tackling ability. "You're rich and miserable," local sweetheart Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) tells her faded mother (Ellen Burstyn), "I don't want to be like you." In the final scene, some kind of reconciliation is offered, but this intergenerational détente is likely to count for naught as the lasting legacy of the '50s - teenage rebellion, and American involvement in South East Asia - blows in.

The Last Picture Show remains one of the quieter, more ruminative films made by the Seventies movie brats, with ballads on the jukebox and Bogdanovich's broad-canvas style tempered by writer Larry McMurtry's precision eye for small-town poetry. The cast forms a melancholy parade: former stars (Ben Johnson), stars-to-be (Shepherd, Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid), actors who never quite made it (the Bottoms boys, Timothy and Sam) and actresses who should have been bigger (Burstyn, Cloris Leachman). Outside on Main Street, winds rustle the leaves, buses head off into the unknown, and we're left to witness a moment passing, gone forever.

(first published in The DVD Stack 2, 2007)


A restored print of The Last Picture Show opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Swordsmen: "Your Highness"

David Gordon Green used to make ethereal, attentive small-town dramas with semi-professional casts (George Washington, All the Real Girls); now he makes busy, starry stoner comedies - like 2008's Pineapple Express - pitched squarely at the multiplexes. Unlike Steven Soderbergh, the last indie figure to vacillate between populist and more abstruse projects, Green's trajectory would appear irreversible - his next film is set to star Jonah Hill - and, were these later films not half as much fun as they are, somewhat regrettable. If the director's been led astray at all, our chief suspect would have to be Danny McBride, who had a supporting part as a yahoo in All the Real Girls and has since gone on to forge a raucous career of his own - first with the low-budget The Foot Fist Way, then on TV's Eastbound and Down - at the precise moment his tubby rabblerouser predecessor Jack Black (with whom McBride co-starred in 2008's Tropic Thunder) looks to have fallen from grace with a mighty, Gulliver-sized bump.

For Your Highness - a medieval fantasy romp we might rename The Princess and McBride - the actor writes and takes top billing over the newly Academy-dubbed James Franco and Natalie Portman, and there's possibly something touching, nay honorable, in the way Green has fashioned a star vehicle for his long-time friend. It has to be said this is about the only touching thing about the movie, which otherwise proceeds on the understanding there is no line of Olde Worlde dialogue that cannot be improved by dropping the F-bomb (or a "buttfuck", or a "cocksucker") in the very middle of it. Chaucer, for one, would love this shit. McBride's Prince Thadeous (the names are weirdly adjectival) is a pothead under-achiever living in the shadow of his dashing, square-jawed, first-born sibling Fabious (Franco). A repeated disgrace to his kingly father (Charles Dance), Thadeous is nevertheless called into battle when his brother's virgin bride (Zooey Deschanel) is snatched away by Justin Theroux's evil warlock Lazar, a stroppy virgin who has some plan or other to impregnate this fair maiden with dragon seed.

As a production, Your Highness is scrappy. Fabious is accompanied on his quest by a crap mechanical companion, and the brothers are obliged to visit a soothsayer played by the kind of rubbish puppet who turned up in Dragonslayer, Willow and Krull. (Worst. Lawyers. Ever.) The best effects are saved for a minotaur's erection. Female leads Deschanel and Portman, as a sorcerer-archer who's very nearly the pisstake of Keira-in-King Arthur that Keira-in-King Arthur deserved, adopt ridiculous English accents. It's predominantly shot in DVD-ready close-ups, and we're left in little doubt Green and every last one of his collaborators (save, possibly, McBride) are dialling down their talents: the staggeringly talented cinematographer Tim Orr, who framed entire moods and emotions with single images in Green's debut films, has here only to paint the Irish locations a stock emerald-green.

Yet the film's laziness, not wholly inappropriate for a stoner comedy, proves funny more often than not. When Lazar throws a banquet on the eve of what he terms The Fuckening, what we see is a mountain of fish fingers, mash and peas everybody on screen starts to grumble about: this is very much convenience comedy, and those of a refined palette may well baulk. Sometimes, the sloppiness is deceptive. There is, in truth, more narrative - more cause-and-effect - in McBride and Ben Best's script than there was in Green's first two movies put together; what the director has renounced in subtlety and atmospherics, he has gained as a storyteller of sorts. And as a McBride vehicle, Your Highness is a marked improvement on Foot Fist, which gave no indication of a controlling intelligence, comic or otherwise. At its best, the new film achieves that Pythonish trifecta of being silly, clever and incorrigible at the self-same time. When our heroes stumble into a boobytrap in the forest, it is - ahem - quite literally that: a community of topless Nuts and Zoo models luring warriors into mortal combat. Bawdy, yes, but I laughed - or rather, I snorted - most frequently.

Your Highness is on nationwide release.

That sinking feeling: "Submarine"

As über-geek Moss in the C4 sitcom The IT Crowd, the actor Richard Ayoade has demonstrated some of the most idiosyncratic comic rhythms in the business. Having cut his teeth as a director on promos for such bands as the Arctic Monkeys, Ayoade brings much the same leftfield sensibility to bear on Submarine, his adaptation of a Joe Dunthorne novel: this is teenage love, viewed somewhat askance. The setting is Swansea in the not-too-distant past. Young Oliver Tait (Craig Roberts) is a precocious paleface in a Paddington Bear duffle coat, detached from the majority of his classmates, yet yearning for Jordana (Yasmin Paige), an enthusiastic arsonist in a bright red ensemble. Their fumblings are complicated by the strained relations between Oliver's parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor), caused by mum's dalliance with a local self-help nabob who operates under the unlikely name Graham T. Purvis (Paddy Considine). "None of this will matter when I'm 38," our hero tells himself - yet the audience, who may well be some distance ahead of him, will surely be aware that, in love, you often encounter the same damn problems over and over again, no matter your age, however smart you think you are.

Ayoade brings an element of carefully cultivated homage to proceedings. Many hip young filmmakers have sought to replicate the ways and modes of the French New Wave, but few have actively sought out the exact same font Godard used to denote his films' chapter headings over his first decade behind the camera, as Submarine does. The headlong dive Ayoade's own camera takes into a bowl of custard at one point is a direct crib from Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and when Oliver seeks to escape from it all by running along the coastline, we're surely meant to be reminded of The 400 Blows - although putting Jordana and her doppelgängers in a red overcoat also summons up the ghost of Don't Look Now. (If Ayoade is as nerdily encyclopaedic as his screen persona suggests, we might also see Jordana's bob as a nod of the head in the direction of the similarly coiffed Agnès Varda.)

Younger viewers may be reminded of Wes Anderson, and - given the middle-school setting - Rushmore in particular. Characters are defined by wardrobe choices: the youngsters by those insulating coats, the elders by what we might call Signifying Hair. If Hawkins is rather trapped by her period 'do - there's little room under that harsh Selina Scott fringe for the actress to demonstrate her usual charm - then Taylor's beard is precisely that one might have witnessed on an Open University presenter circa 1981, and Considine makes his Limahl-like fin mullet an integral part of Graham's bellendedness. There's an element of Anderson's self-conscious dress-up to all this - these are teenagers who act and speak as though they know they're in a book, or a movie (sample extract from Oliver's narration: "Her tongue was stained blue with blackcurrent squash; it smouldered in the cold") - yet here it all somehow funnels back into a sort-of true picture of the adolescent experience.

Perhaps that's because Ayoade locates an emotional core in his material thus far absent from Submarine's American equivalents (Juno excepted) - indeed, it's what keeps this vessel on an even keel when set against, say, the quirky listing of Miguel Arteta's recent Youth in Revolt, itself stocked with teenage Serge Gainsbourg aficionados. The cancer scare Jordana's mother faces, and the terror Oliver displays faced with his parents' possible separation, are the places where this comes through clearest - newcomers Paige and Roberts more than holding their own against their experienced co-stars - although Andrew Hewitt's score also matches its obvious inspiration (the New Wave work of Georges Delerue) for sudden swells of feeling. As we'd maybe expect from someone central to the detail-perfect pastiche of TV's Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, Ayoade demonstrates a keen visual sense: director of photography Erik Alexander Wilson's compositions have the watery light and colour of faded 70s photographs, proving greatly more evocative - not least of drizzly coastal holidays - than Anderson's more polished, fussy aesthetic.

This, coupled with the protagonists' acute sense of being off-the-radar, may be where Submarine gets its title from, though there's water, water everywhere in Ayoade's film. From the stagnant duckpond in which hapless bullying victims are submerged to the gaudy fish tank prominently positioned in the Taits' kitchen, these characters are never too far away from that sinking feeling - the coats almost become lifejackets, constants to cling to - and desperately trying to raise their heads above an ever-mounting tide. It's apt the film should conclude with Oliver and Jordana staring at the sea, to paraphrase that old Cure album beloved of adolescent mopes: a moment of rare calm, leaving us wondering where the next wave - of hormones, of crises - will carry them.

Submarine is playing in selected cinemas.

Backtracking: "Source Code"

And you thought you had a lousy commute. In Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up on a train bound for Chicago with no idea of how he got here or who his fellow passengers might be, save that they're variously tetchy or klutzy, abusing railway employees and spilling coffee on our hero's loafers without deigning to offer so much as a single word in apology. Retreating to the bathroom in order to compose his fevered thoughts, he finds the face of a complete stranger looking back at him from the mirror; and just as the pretty girl he's travelling with utters the supposedly reassuring words "everything is going to be all right", a bomb tears through the carriage, killing everyone on board. What's more, Gyllenhaal will relive this experience a further six or seven times in the course of the movie, expiring each time. It's better than going by First Capital Connect, but perhaps not by much.

Director Duncan Jones' 2008 debut Moon was a two-man show, a showcase for both a newbie filmmaker and his leading man Sam Rockwell. This follow-up is equally contained - for two-thirds of Source Code's duration, we're stuck on the train alongside Gyllenhaal - yet somehow more expansive. It could certainly be described as a post-Matrix (or post-Avatar) movie, in that the hero is caught in a kind of limbo for much of it, present only as a series of thought impulses: Jake's Captain Colter Stevens is, in fact, wired up inside a hub as part of a military program that allows combatants to be beamed into the bodies of the deceased in an attempt to to prevent certain atrocities. He has exactly eight minutes (a technological limitation) to figure out who planted the bomb on the train.

On his first pass, he has no idea what's about to happen; on the second, he locates the explosive device, but can't disarm it; on the third, which plays like a romantic interlude of sorts, he tries to get the pretty girl (Michelle Monaghan) off the train, only to himself end up back on the tracks. At once, Source Code appears to be channeling Groundhog Day, Quantum Leap (Jones recognises as much, by casting that show's leading man Scott Bakula on the other end of a telephone as the hero's father) and Before Sunrise. It is, also, an opportunity for an upwardly mobile director to refine their craft. Each eight-minute sequence becomes, in effect, a separate take; like his hero, Jones has to work out how to get the best from the limited time available to him. As with Bill Murray's weatherman in Groundhog Day (or the players of any console game), the process of rebirth gives Stevens the chance to learn from his mistakes - and it's sort of telling the Captain should have been beamed into the body of an American history teacher: the bombs in Source Code arguably wouldn't have the impact they do outside of our present climate of fear.

Yet, for all this, the film isn't quite as satisfying as its admitted sources. The narrative is meant to excuse the degree of repetition that sets in, but the casting doesn't really help Jones's cause. Not one supporting character is as vividly etched as Groundhog Day's Ned Ryerson, or even Alan Ruck's worrywort from Speed, still the pre-eminent high-velocity, high-concept transportation thriller of this kind. Gyllenhaal, granted, improves upon his Prince of Persia action man by a) putting a shirt on and b) tapping into a vein of goofy humour that gets us past the schlockier developments in Ben Ripley's script, but it's a pity his nemesis should be a lone milquetoast with not much motive and nothing to do with the real world. Vera Farmiga holds up her end as the Captain's commanding officer, but Jeffrey Wright is pretty ropey as the source code's originator and twitchy, limping red herring badass, and Monaghan seems, as so often, a second- or third-choice romantic lead; Liv Tyler's return to acting can't come soon enough, as far as this viewer is concerned.

After his largely interior debut, Jones busts out with helicopter shots of Chicago's intersecting streets and railroads, corresponding as they do to a line of inquiry in Ripley's writing about the forks in paths we arrive at in life. It's a committed bid for the Hollywood action big leagues presently topped by fellow Brit Christopher Nolan after Inception, and Jones does well by the widescreen stuff while retaining the sharp eye for detail Moon relied upon: as it was there, Chesney Hawkes' one-hit wonder "The One and Only" becomes a shorthand signifier of how truly hard it is to retain your individuality in the postmodern worlds these films describe. Source Code's middle ground, though, is just OK - indifferently directed filler, scarcely indistinguishable from a half-dozen other action movies - where Nolan, at his best, has managed some distance better than that. Confident, efficient Saturday-night entertainment, then, but - for all Ripley's believe-it-or-not references to parabolic calculus - not greatly more profound, mysterious or affecting than Tony Scott's Unstoppable.

Source Code is on nationwide release.