Thursday, 30 June 2011

1,001 Films: "Seven Chances" (1925)

Seven Chances is hopefully still better known as the Buster Keaton comedy with the landslide and the brick-wielding army of brides than as the film remade by Chris O'Donnell as The Bachelor (which proved but one thing: that, whatever else he is, Chris O'Donnell is no Buster Keaton). This is a brilliantly economical piece of work, establishing in just three shots at the very top of the film the present state of play in the relationship between bashful broker Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) and his beloved: that of a couple slowly going nowhere together, due to his repeated inability to declare his affections. Then the news breaks that Jimmie has until 7pm that night, the night of his 27th birthday, to marry someone in order to inherit the $7m his grandfather has bequeathed him. His beloved, understandably, takes some convincing her man's proposal is driven by more than mere money, leading Buster - with his business partner and grandfather's executor in tow - to propose to "everything in skirts, including a Scotchman": playing a hyper-accelerated form of the numbers game, if you will.

Keaton the director skilfully sets up his hero's capacity for stalling and delay before sending him on a limit-testing race against the clock, coming up first with new ways to have Jimmie rejected (at no point does he use the logical chat-up line "marry me, and I'll make you an instant millionaire"), then further compounding his fear of commitment by giving him one-hundred-plus women to commit to and a thousand conflicting time pieces to work to. Against all this frantic choice and motion, some lovely early linking business with cars and telephones that don't move serves to define Jimmie's pre-existing relationship as one of unwavering (if unspoken) attachment. A couple of blackface gags momentarily spoil the elegance - especially as Keaton throws away a nice minor joke with an actual African-American - but otherwise it's a silent romantic comedy that speaks eloquently, and to some moral purpose, about cherishing the rock-solid and reliable rather than chancing it out in the field. It's here that Keaton - sprinting for his life through sand dunes, barbed wire fences and swarms of killer bees to get back to his girl by the allotted hour - really starts to put the motion in motion pictures.

Seven Chances is available on DVD from Cornerstone Media.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

From the archive: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

Try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to actively hate Michael Bay's first Transformers film, in part because it was never less than upfront about what it was - noisy teenbait, unadulterated product - and partly because it was one of 2007's few event movies to deliver exactly what its trailer promised: artless sound and fury, a triumph of the hard drive, among many other machines. Most of the original cast have returned for Revenge of the Fallen, the obligatory sequel: Shia LaBeouf ("not quite a nerd, not quite a jock," to quote Homer Simpson), packed off to college this time with what turns out to be another sliver of robo-catnip among his set texts; FHM-sponsored sex android Megan Fox, introduced straddling a motorbike in a pose reminiscent of certain top-shelf publications; even - and this is the real indicator of the money sloshing about and overcoming thespian dignity here - John Turturro, whose Homeland Security agent spent much of the first film tied to a lamppost, and being sprayed with the contents of a Transformer's sump tank.

The novelty crucial to any franchise based on a range of Hasbro toys has, however, vanished, buried under a multi-million dollar marketing campaign: what results constitutes the longest, loudest, costliest yawn of the summer. Whoever made the decision to give the robots more screen time, it was the wrong one. We get lots more Autobots and Decepticons (big robots, bug-sized robots, robots with British accents), they're given their own mythology (which requires the film to go back to ancient times, over to Egypt and out into space) and even, in the closing moments, a weird junkyard Valhalla, yet they remain all but indistinguishable as characters, and have become no more interesting to watch. Terminator II famously set a benchmark for visual effects by doing the unthinkable, and turning man into metal, and vice versa. All the effects do here is to reconfigure one set of nuts and bolts into another, an alchemy you or I could work over time with the right shed and a Phillips screwdriver.

Human interest has, consequently, shrivelled: LaBeouf, a likable if lightweight presence first time round, is obliged to perform a laboured and unfunny manic routine while under robot control, then ends up refereeing a squabble between two jive-talking kit cars. Bay, for his part, remains an exasperating filmmaker, prepared to adopt any stance for a few extra bucks; his film is mouthing adolescent anti-authoritarian sentiments one minute, the next slavering over the massed might of the U.S. Marine Corps (all right, ex-models Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, and former Corrie actor Matthew Marsden). He tosses in his usual self-homage - proudly displaying a Bad Boys II poster on the wall of LaBeouf's dorm, when others might have kept their involvement with that movie quiet, like a relative with mental illness, or an allegation of child sex abuse - and enjoys inflicting vast collateral damage on Paris in a way that may yet lead to men in berets blowing up Bay's home, just to see how he likes it.

There's too much to be annoyed by, really: a soundtrack that holds off on the explosions for five picoseconds so we can hear an awful industrial cover version of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" (thanks, Linkin Park); the script's proposal of "camshafts" as a dirty word; the continued promotion of Fox, one of several young actresses here whose cold, dead eyes suggest they're about to shuck off their shellacking of fake tan to reveal their true, metallic colours. For pubescent males with pocket money to burn, that may be enough; for everybody else, Revenge of the Fallen is practically a free pass to go outside and play in the available sunshine.

(June 2009)

Saturday, 25 June 2011

From the archive: "Transformers"

It would be easy, this summer in particular, to mark down Transformers as the worst thing that could happen to the cinema. The latest Michael Bay opus, based on a once-popular range of toys, is very long and very noisy, and aimed squarely at the adolescent crowd who make up the multiplex audience these days. Every penny they hand over at the box-office brings us closer to the prospect of a Gobots revival. This, surely, is not good.

For anyone too old for, or not old enough for the popular culture of the late 1980s, Transformers were toys that could be changed from one form to another - trucks into rockets, or toasters, or vaguely humanoid shapes, or vice versa - and they were much beloved of myself and my fellow nine-year-olds. (Yes, you have me to blame in part for the movie.) They were sold under the slogan "More than meets the eye", a potential tagline even a film as audacious in its one-dimensionality as Bay's wouldn't dare to use. Turning toys into protagonists has consequences for humanity: watching the actors being tossed around by Transformers, or caught in a robotic paw during Bay's triumph of the machines, you might start to worry who indeed is now controlling whom.

The cause of all this to-ing and fro-ing, within the film, is a new round of hostilities in the intergalactic war between two tribes of Transformers, on hold since 1987, when the American public became distracted by Garbage Pail Kids and My Little Ponies. The evil Decepticons - evil name, evil robots - and our friends the Autobots have ended up in the backyard of well-meaning dork Sam Witwicki (Shia LaBeouf), in search of the genetic code that one or another of their robotic forefathers has hidden in the lenses of Sam's Arctic explorer grandfather's glasses. (Don't ask.)

The opening stretch is all military hardware in the desert; we then switch to frantic activity around NSA computer screens, mobile phones being used to record last wills and testaments, a Transformer busting out of an X-Box. Bay's film has machines where there might once have been human ingenuity or courage; at points, it feels like watching the contents of a Comet warehouse scrap it out for two hours. None of the soldiers killed in the Decepticons' attack on Earth is named, much less mourned, but Bay wants to move us to tears when Autobot Bumblebee has his pistons crushed. In this ultra-metallic world, even the flesh-and-blood objects of desire are defined by a stud through the nose (Rachael Taylor) or an easy facility with car engines (Megan Fox).

At the risk of taking Transformers way more seriously than it actually deserves, humanity is here relegated, subsumed, secondary. Or at least the grown-ups are: Optimus Prime has a big rallying speech before the final battle insisting - à la Whitney Houston - that children (i.e. those with disposable income) are our future, but Jon Voight, Roosevelt in Bay's Pearl Harbor, is here demoted to Secretary of Defense, where he gets to do a lot of post-West Wing walking and talking along corridors, and ends up nodding "good... right..." to ideas suggested by a Marine played by Josh Duhamel. John Turturro, as a weaselly secret service agent, gets pissed on by a robot, stripped to his underwear, and handcuffed to a lamppost. And these are just the white characters: the first half of Transformers displays notable suspicion or outright contempt towards Spanish-speaking soldiers and Asian call-centre operatives.

There's even a sense Bay doesn't trust himself, at least not around actors: he appears to have taken the hands-off approach around LaBeouf and his screen parents, and their improvisations - a reassertion of human input - form some of the lightest, and best, scenes in the film. Mostly, the director stays well within his limits, contenting himself with moving metal behemoths around. The action sequences seem almost matter-of-fact, the logical consequences of a grown man playing with his toys; it's Bay sitting in his sandbox again.

Unlike in executive producer Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, or in that pre-eminent technohead James Cameron's Terminator films, there's no real threat of apocalypse in Transformers, because the camera is never troubled by signs of human life to wipe out. The closest we get to it is a porky teenager - a keen consumer himself, by the looks of things, and yet another of the film's on-screen representatives of its target demographic - whose first response to the carnage in the skies above him is "this is a hundred times cooler than Armageddon!" To in any way appear to work, Bay's films need to be judged on the cool scale alone. "Cool, mom!," squeals a child to his mother during the finale, trying to poke us into a similar outburst. Yet Armageddon didn't need to prompt us so; nor did 2005's The Island, which even suggested Bay might be developing the sense of humour essential to any truly worthwhile blockbuster.

If I retain a sneaking admiration for Transformers, it's for three clear reasons. The film preserves a certain novelty analogous to the toys, which gives it an edge in the current workplace. (It's not a sequel in the strict sense of the word; the cartoon, on which this is a vast improvement, doesn't count.) My expectations may have been low going in. And it's a rarity among 2007's event movies, in that it delivers exactly on the promise of the trailer, which may be the most important selling-point of all for its audience. That preview promised artless sound and fury, signifying nothing very much at all, and that's precisely what you get.

Unlike the Decepticons, Bay's film is wholly upfront about what it is: a big, dumb movie about some fairly rubbish, long-defunct merchandise, and a logical commercial proposition, making perfect business sense from the decision to revive near-obsolete ephemera from our collective cultural scrapyard. The one line of dialogue that sticks is given to Sam Witwicki in his very first scene, intended to define our hero (and perhaps our director, too) as an amiable entrepreneur - rather than, say, a huckster with no sense of heritage whatsoever - who's simultaneously hawking his late grandfather's belongings on eBay and in class: "It's all for sale."

(August 2007)

Transformers screens on Channel 4 this Sunday (July 3rd) at 7.20pm.

Friday, 24 June 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of June 17-19, 2011:

1 (new) Green Lantern (12A) **
2 (1) Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG) ***
3 (new) Bad Teacher (15) **
4 (2) The Hangover Part II (15) *
5 (3) X-Men: First Class (12A) ***
6 (4) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12A) *
7 (7) Senna (12A) ****
8 (6) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (U)
9 (new) Potiche (15) ***
10 (5) Honey 2 (PG) **

(source: guardian.co.uk)

My top five:
1. Apocalypse Now
2. The Messenger
3. Senna
4. Life, Above All
5. Bridesmaids


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (2) True Grit (15) ***
2 (6) Black Swan (15) **
3 (1) The Mechanic (15) ***
4 (3) The King's Speech (12) ****
5 (new) The Fighter (15) ****
6 (new) Gulliver's Travels (PG)
7 (4) Gnomeo & Juliet (U) **
8 (7) Meet the Parents: Little Fockers (12) **
9 (5) The Tourist (12) **
10 (8) Due Date (15) ***

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. The Fighter
2. Inside Job
3. 127 Hours
4. Dancing Dreams
5. Rabbit Hole


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Paths of Glory [above] (Friday, C4, 1.30pm)
2. American Splendor (Saturday, C4, 1.55am)
3. Trading Places (Monday, C4, 11.05pm)
4. Gone Baby Gone (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.15pm)
5. Brassed Off (Saturday, C4, 10.05pm)

From the archive: "American Splendor"

Harvey Pekar is the comic-book writer best known for the leftfield autobiography American Splendor, a collection of skits and extended riffs on his essentially unheroic life. Played in the big-screen adaptation by Paul Giamatti as eternally pissed-off and put-upon - even when talking to his adopted daughter - we first meet Pekar in the mid-70s, on the occasion of his losing his voice, and the rest of the film, though far too savvy for character arcs and other movie business, goes some way to describing how exactly he refound it. A full-time hospital filing clerk, forever pulling the documents of people who were born and died in his native Cleveland and never seemed to go anywhere in between, Pekar sits around bus stops with his illustrator friend Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), grumbling and bitching about the world, waiting for buses that never show up, and blind to the irony they're parked right outside a travel agency.

Amazingly, Pekar is terrific company: the little guy capable of transforming the accumulation of petty gripes and grudges into some vast and never-ending artistic endeavour. The bulk of the film, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, concerns Harvey's relationship with his wife Joyce (Hope Davis). "I have many redeeming features," Pekar insists during the pair's initial conversations, and - crucially - he's clipping his toenails as he does so. His opening line to her in person is no less anti-climactic: "I want you to know, right off the bat, that I've had a vasectomy." They're a match made in heaven, seemingly: she's a "self-diagnosed anaemic" with "intestinal distress" who "finds most American cities depressing in the same way."

Berman and Pulcini find time for very funny sidebars on such topics as jellybeans, men who share the same name, and the false promise of the Revenge of the Nerds franchise: as they cut between frames from the original comic books, dramatisations with Giamatti-as-Pekar, and an interview with Pekar himself (whose presence here only serves to confirm the faith the directors had in Giamatti), what builds up is an amusing treatise on the obsessive collection of available data. It's there in Harvey's substantial record and comic-book collection; there, too, in the way the filmmakers shuffle back and forth between alternate versions of the same life story: Giamatti and Davis even attend an off-Broadway play drawn from their characters' lives.

But it's never a case of too much information; you always want to know more about the very real-seeming people at the heart of the story. What Berman and Pulcini have done is to prune back a little of the obsession to which men like Pekar have always been susceptible, and found a little more space for its subject's humanity: that's important in the section of the film set during the 1980s, when Pekar and his buddy Toby (Judah Friedlander) were brought out from the margins and dragged, blinking, into the harsh lights of cultural primetime, there to act as fodder, fall guys, patsies, to be mocked for their schlubbiness. By way of compensation, the film grants its heroes a terrific scene in which Toby and Harvey share a car and, to the accompaniment of Rupert Holmes' "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" declare "I AM A NERD!" - an assertion that everybody involved in the making of the film really wanted to make good on the promise the meek will inherit the earth.

Most biopics are toploaded with extraordinary or superhuman feats, but American Splendor is unusual in going the exact opposite way, taking the banality of everyday life - of our lives - as its subject, and then turning that ordinariness around to its considerable comic and dramatic advantage. Throughout, the film manages to retain its source and subject's acid-drop honesty. The final shot is of the most recent edition of the comic book, presumably inspired by the filming of the movie, on the cover of which we can clearly see Joyce bemoaning "the actors look better than we do". The truth is, in whatever form Harvey Pekar takes here - whether 2D, 3D, real or fictional, the Harvey of the past, or the Harvey of the present - the scowl remains, triumphantly, the same.

(December 2003)

American Splendor screens on Channel 4 tomorrow at 1.55am.

From the archive: "Gone Baby Gone"

The wheels of the movie business being lubed with cold, hard, unfeeling cash, it takes something truly tragic to keep a film back from the marketplace. It was just over a decade ago that the Macaulay Culkin vehicle The Good Son had its UK video release held up by perceived similarities between its storyline and the James Bulger murder; and here, finally, is Gone Baby Gone, the directorial debut of actor Ben Affleck, which was playing on cinema screens around the rest of the world six months ago, but was delayed in Britain owing to sensitivity around the Madeleine McCann case. It's been a victim of bad luck on several fronts: not only does the missing girl in the film physically resemble the missing Madeleine, but the young actress playing her happens to go under the name of (you guessed it) Madeline herself. At any event, the film is no less impressive for having been delayed; if anything, it's assumed an extra forcefulness through this quirk of real-world fate, and proves absolutely worth the wait.

Affleck has returned to his old Boston stomping ground to film a novel by Dennis Lehane, the East Coast James Ellroy whose writings previously inspired Mystic River. It's here we find Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, the director's younger brother) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan), a pair of lovebird private investigators hired by the family of missing four-year-old Amanda McCready, specifically for their local knowledge and contacts. The idea is that while the cops, as represented by Morgan Freeman's captain, trawl the city's surface for leads with which to assuage the hysterical news media covering the case, the investigators - in conjunction with a pair of hardened detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton) - can focus on the underbelly of the case, arranging meetings with various lowlifes, pederasts and drugrunners who might have crucial beans to spill, but wouldn't dream of going to the authorities.

One twist is that the girl's mother Helene (Amy Ryan) could hardly, herself, be any less of a saint. Her house a mess of half-eaten food and unwashed plates, she sits on her sofa watching Wife Swap and Springer, while the investigators uncover sorry stories of parental neglect - how Helene took her daughter to a bar while she was dealing drugs, for example - that don't, ultimately, make Amanda's disappearance any less regrettable or haunting. It's in this way that Gone Baby Gone evokes a working-class locale in a fashion that goes beyond Good Will Hunting and Mystic River both. The dialogue Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard have inherited from Lehane has a genuine, credible saltiness, their material shading over into genuinely disturbing territory in the depiction of a paedophile ring known as "The Addams Family". Throughout, we see how a lack of money can very easily equate to a lack of protection and proper care for our children; the view is altogether chilling.

It's a good thing we have a good guy for a hero. Affleck Jr., the best thing about the otherwise long-winded The Assassination of Jesse James..., is a flinty, scrappy presence in an Irish-green tracksuit top, and the film gets some mileage from the fact the man assigned with tracking this little girl down rather resembles a pipsqueak barely out of short pants himself. ("He just looks young," Angie insists, as her partner attempts to talk tough in a bar.) Films directed by actors tend to be more generous than most towards their performers, but this is one of those rare occasions where everyone from the top-billed players to the kids on bikes who shout one line of abuse at the passing Affleck's car ("Go fuck your mother") feels absolutely right for their part.

Ryan got the Oscar nomination, I suspect in part for keeping a character who otherwise might have come to resemble My Name is Earl's Joy from becoming a total joke, but also for convincing us, in certain scenes, that Helene deserves a second chance. There's yet more outstanding work from Harris - here fiercely, hilariously sardonic - and his real-life wife Amy Madigan, blanched and drawn and tutting memorably away on the sidelines as the missing girl's grandmother. Affleck allows us to rediscover some actors (it's good to see Beverly Hills Cop's doughty John Ashton back as Harris's partner) and offers others the possibility of a renewal. He's the first director in a while to get anything beyond nobility out of Freeman, and first ever to get more from Monaghan than pretty simpering: the actress turns a putative eye-candy role into the tough, smart cookie Angie needed to be, and only breaks down in tears at a point in the narrative when anyone with any semblance of maternal instinct - with any hope of being a good parent - would.

These actors remind us this is a thriller about people first of all, and what happens when circumstances lead us to fear the worst. As Angie puts it: "I don't want to find a little kid in the dumpster... I don't want to find a little kid after she's been abused for three days." (Events will spare her, if not us.) Affleck, an at best variable actor, has displayed commendable sensitivity in delaying the film, but its release reveals him to be a director of immense skill. The delay confers upon Gone Baby Gone true distinction: for when was the last time a dark, intelligent, involving picture such as this was released in British cinemas during the summer months? Or indeed a film that appears motivated by a deep wellcore of human sadness, by a weary acknowledgement - one you wouldn't necessarily have to be a McCann to share - that this world isn't quite as perfect as we might want it to be?

(June 2008)

Gone Baby Gone screens on BBC1 this Wednesday at 11.15pm.

"Incendies" (Metro 24/06/11)

Incendies (15) 131 mins **

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s drama landed an Oscar nomination earlier this year in what was widely regarded as the weakest Best Foreign Film category for some while. It’s not hard to see why Incendies caught the Academy’s eye – Villeneuve tackles big historical themes in an unrelentingly serious fashion – but it packages up the unresolved woes of the family at its centre as a plodding genealogical scavenger hunt.

After the death of their Palestinian immigrant mother, a pair of Quebecois twins enter their lawyer’s office for the reading of the will. The surprises contained therein inspire the deceased’s daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) to journey back to the Middle East to find out precisely who her mother was, cueing flashbacks charting the latter’s progress from student to political assassin. Meanwhile, son Simon (Maxim Gaudette) ventures forth in search of the brother he never knew he had.

While his film isn’t quite as simple-minded as Julian Schnabel’s Miral, Villeneuve nevertheless goes after the Arab-Israeli conflict like a kid at the pick ‘n’ mix counter, grabbing fistfuls of atrocities – the rape and abuse of prisoners, children being shot in the head – to get an effect the wan performances and wildly coincidental plotting can’t even begin to get near. Imagine an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? bulked out with added maths and carnage, and set to a soundtrack of Radiohead at their most, shall we say, challenging. Yup, it’s about that much fun.

Incendies opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

1,001 Films: "Sherlock, Jr." (1924)

Sherlock, Jr. is Keaton at the very peak of his powers, resulting in one of the most fluid, relentlessly inventive screen comedies. Even when his projectionist-turned-amateur detective, tired of questing for recognition of his talents, falls asleep, his other/dream/imagined self remains restless, emerging from the earthly Keaton's dozing form to clamber inside a star vehicle all his own in the still-dazzling, how-did-they-do-that? film-within-a-film centrepiece.

The Surrealists (possibly up to and including David Lynch) were bound to love it - the answer to a case comes to the detective in his dreams - but Sherlock, Jr. also plays like a rumination on what we might glean from paying close attention to the movies: consider the final moments, in which the projectionist is schooled in wooing his beloved by the images unfolding on the screen in front of him. (The very last image is eloquent indeed on the general cluelessness of the male.)

It's a mix of subtleties easily missed first time round (the mirror gag later appropriated by the Zuckers for Airplane!) and set-pieces that display consummate skill, craft and flair, such as the exploding pool ball sequence, which treats comedy as sport, and is all the funnier for the sense of threat invoked - and for Keaton's deadpan excellence when faced with such a threat. All this, and a premium-grade banana-skin gag.

Sherlock, Jr. is available to rent from lovefilm.com.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

1,001 Films: "Our Hospitality" (1923)

With Our Hospitality, Buster Keaton broached - perhaps better, straddled - a still-extant real world political schism with a good degree of agility and courage, offering in the process a corrective to the polarising racism of The Birth of a Nation. The film nonetheless opens with a prologue of a melodramatic sort Griffith himself would have appreciated, as a father is shot down (and shoots down his assailant in turn) in front of his own infant child as a door-banging rainstorm plays out, the slaughter only perpetuating a long-running feud between two neighboring families. It gets its first big laugh from its depiction of Broadway circa 1812 (a furrow in a field), its second from the sight of Buster's bookish yet plucky Willie McKay aboard his customised bicycle (two wheels, joined by nothing so much as the rider himself), its third from the most rickety-assed railway in screen history, and from then on, it's more or less freewheeling.

McKay, the baby in that prologue, has ventured south into the country to inherit what he remembers as the grandiose and gleaming estate of his youth, only to find himself standing in front of a literally tumbledown shack and harassed across town by the McKays' longtime rivals, the Canfield clan. Almost the entire second half is an extended gag about boundaries. Invited to dinner by young Miss Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), and thus into the very heart of the dragons' lair ("He'll never forget our hospitality!"), McKay learns the menfolk's code of honour prevents his enemies from shooting him within their own four walls; the hero is thus beholden to finding ways to delay his departure, among them dog tricks and crossdressing. (And, later, the crossdressing of a horse.) The final round of stunts is technically impressive, but more a trapeze act than anything truly funny - a suggestion that Keaton was hung up on hanging around, just as Chaplin was on tugging on his audience's heartstrings. In Willie McKay, though, Keaton found an analogue for the new medium: a plucky contender capable of great civilities. The result's an eminently genial entertainment, and a reminder the movies were - once upon a time - almost entirely innocent.

Our Hospitality is available on DVD from Cornerstone Media.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

1,001 Films: "Haxan" (1922)

The Danish director Benjamin Christensen's film Haxan, one of the silent cinema's genuine oddities, forms in essence an illustrated lecture on the origins and practice of witchcraft through the ages. Jolly woodcarvings featuring cannibalism and blasphemy are spliced with facts both bewildering ("After a meeting, [witches] might sneak into a barn and bewitch a cow") and jaw-dropping (it's claimed some eight million were killed by authorities across Europe on suspicion of practising black magic); these, in turn, are interwoven with fictional recreations of devilry. There's some crossover with early peephole material: Satan (played by a bald, portly middle-aged man with stick-on ears and claws) lures several nude wives and their lissom daughters out of their beds.

More generally, Christensen appears to have intended the film as a rational reframing of primitive beliefs; the irony being that, with its flickering, tinted and wordless images, and its hysterical conclusions (that well-known actors and handsome doctors are the new devils keeping women up all night, that female aviators can be compared to witches on broomsticks), that framing now looks fairly primitive in itself. Still, the mix of approaches - arriving at then-modern melodrama only after its early flirtations with early stop-motion photography and graphic horror tableaux - reveals that, back in the early 1920s, European filmmakers were both formally and thematically more audacious than their American contemporaries. A cinema of spirits, angels and demons - this was a universe Carl Dreyer, and later Ingmar Bergman, would find it very easy to operate within.

Haxan is available on DVD from Tartan.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Great receptions: On "Bridesmaids" and the return of funny women

The following piece was commissioned by the Sunday Telegraph news desk a month ago, and bumped for two editions running, before missing out on yesterday's edition, which in its place ran such Great Moments in Journalism as a quiz on famous quotes and a lengthy article on Pete Doherty. Maybe it simply wasn't fit for publication; maybe, after a week in which every British newspaper ran at least one puff piece for the same film, it ran the risk of repetition. Either way, the fact it wasn't published did little to dispel my current dissatisfaction with print journalism, my usual reluctance to write features (whether or not it pays to do so), or to quash my growing suspicion even broadsheet newspapers, faced with a dip in advertising revenue and an increase of space to be filled, now seek to employ disposable content providers, who don't mind having their sentences scrambled by untrained sub-editors, rather than fostering and developing the voice and skills of individual writers. I run it here as an exclusive - and can only hope it's not exclusive in the same way, say, certain Wesley Snipes films are "exclusive to DVD", or Al Murray's Compete for the Meat is "exclusive to Dave".

From its opening moments, the current U.S. box-office hit Bridesmaids, which arrives here later this month, establishes itself as firmly, and unapologetically, a woman’s work. For aeons, male writer-directors have been persuading actresses to shed their clothing for the benefit of their surrogates in the film and in the audience. In Bridesmaids, comedienne Kristen Wiig, the film’s co-writer, has provided her heroine with the opportunity to straddle Mad Men hunk du jour Jon Hamm – a task Wiig, as leading lady, elects to perform, with not inconsiderable enthusiasm, for herself. I believe it’s called taking one for the team.

The tale of Annie, an out-of-work thirtysomething undergoing a meltdown in the run-up to her oldest friend’s wedding, Bridesmaids contains many of the ingredients for a raucous girls’ night out. On the surface, it’s canny, female-oriented counterprogramming in the middle of a movie summer that has thus far brought the combined muscle of Thor, Fast Five and more X-Men. The film’s surprise success – a $90m take to date, off the back of a $30m budget – suggests something else, however: that Bridesmaids has crossed the aisle, playing to male and female viewers alike. It has become, in Hollywood parlance, a game-changer.

Hollywood always used to make “women’s pictures”, of course: zesty, expansive studio movies like Stage Door and The Women, offering a multiplicity of perspectives on women at different points in their lives and careers. By contrast, the latter-day chick flick has become a by-word for something simplified, easy to consume, flickable, indeed – and as the films shrivelled, so too did their female protagonists. The past decade oversaw the Rise of the Aspirational Masochist: those waxed and solitary unfortunates prepared to endure any humiliation to get ahead in life and love. Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones, a collapsible soft touch, became emblematic.

The Bridget effect was observed in ten years of scripts torn from the pages of Grazia magazine; these lifestyle films, with titles like The Switch and The Rebound and The Back-Up Plan, were generally profitable, and they supported the careers of many A-list personalities between better-paying conditioner commercials. But they did odd, cruel, disempowering things to their protagonists. As an unnamed female screenwriter admitted to the New Yorker recently, to make a heroine adorable, “You have to defeat her at the beginning. It’s a conscious thing I do – abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity… then she gets to live out her fantasies and have fun.”

Many fine actresses, seeking characters rather than glossy composites, ditched movies for TV: Laura Linney for The Big C, Mary-Louise Parker for Weeds, Kate Winslet for Mildred Pierce – the latter reviving the spirit of the woman’s picture, with the added depth of serial television. Dominated by rowdy franchises, mainstream cinema had increasingly become the domain of men and boys: in 2007, Warner Bros. President of Production Jeff Robinov flatly declared “we are no longer doing movies with women in the lead.” That studio’s 2009 megahit The Hangover presented women as nags, shrews and whores; its recent, Bangkok-set sequel addressed the issue by replacing almost all those characters with ladyboys.

Elsewhere, however, there was a revolution going on in American screen comedy. Men would be at the forefront of this, too, but funny women were making their voices heard alongside them: Tina Fey with Mean Girls and 30 Rock, Diablo Cody with Juno. The new King of Comedy would be Judd Apatow, the TV veteran behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People. These films were shaggy, sometimes flawed – Knocked Up skewed problematically male in its perspective on pregnancy – but they were marked by an appealing looseness, in both their performance style and morality; they were inclusive, honest about their characters, and – if they didn’t quite know what to do with them, often defaulting to the rhythms of guyspeak – they had an eye for idiosyncratic actresses: Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Banks and a pre-Glee Jane Lynch in Virgin, Aubrey Plaza and Leslie Mann in Funny People.

A recurring theme in these films was how men measure and define themselves against other men. Bridesmaids, which Apatow produced, is particularly acute on the way women grade themselves against other women – a starting point that liberates Wiig and fellow scribe Annie Mumolo to write as many funny women, and as many different types of funny women, into the one film. The porcelain beauty of Rose Byrne, as Annie’s nemesis, is as conventional as it gets here. The bride is spacey Saturday Night Live alumna Maya Rudolph; her bridesmaids include the bulky, garrulous Melissa McCarthy, schooled in the 200mph chat of superior soap Gilmore Girls, and Reno 911!’s Wendi McLendon-Covey, an actress who resembles no less than Marilyn Monroe hiding out as a soccer mom.

Add to this formidable roster Wiig herself – a specialist in lanky, passive-aggressive oddballs – and the film constitutes another pointed retort to all those reactionary firebrands (from Garry Bushell at the dawn of alternative comedy to Christopher Hitchens, the thinking man’s Bushell, in a 2007 edition of Vanity Fair) who’ve insisted funny and feminine is a contradiction in terms. That old canard stemmed perhaps from the gag’s inherent power structure: I’m talking, you’re listening. Women, in movies and elsewhere, were supposed to be mute and secondary: babymakers, not joketellers. Even in Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl’s Alison was little more than a straightwoman, a receptive audience for the quips and semen of the roistering, roguishly irresponsible leads.

Like her sometime SNL cohort Fey, Wiig forbids any such decorousness in herself and her on-screen collaborators. Her bridesmaids suffer from “boob sweat”. They get chocolate on their teeth. They drive crappy cars, have prickly legs, and don’t seem entirely at home in high heels. In the film’s coarsest scene – a vulgar subversion of makeover-montage norms – they develop digestive issues while trying on their gowns. Actresses we traditionally associate with poise and beauty, but Bridesmaids has little truck with fantasies, pedestals or poster girls. The most sincerely funny line in the movie is Rudolph’s glowing assessment of her entourage: “This is such a stone-cold pack of weirdoes, and I am so proud.”

In such moments, Bridesmaids fulfils the remit of the old-school woman’s picture – depicting a variety of women dealing with the crisis in their midst – while simultaneously taking a step beyond it. You don’t have to be female to share Annie’s belief weddings are getting ridiculously expensive, or her fears her contemporaries are leaving her behind. What the New American Comedy, an essentially egalitarian construct, privileges above any social, romantic or professional hierarchy is friendship: those plus-ones who know all our filthy secrets, and remain at our side nevertheless. Steadfastly refusing to shill for designer dresses and shoes, this convivial austerity-age event movie invites along anybody muddling through, holding on – no matter how much you’ve drunk at the reception, and whether or not you sit down to pee.

Bridesmaids opens nationwide on Friday.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of June 10-12, 2011:

1 (new) Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG) ***
2 (2) The Hangover Part II (15) *
3 (1) X-Men: First Class (12A) ***
4 (3) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12A) *
5 (new) Honey 2 (PG) [above] **
6 (4) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (U)
7 (6) Senna (12A) ****
8 (7) Ready (12A)
9 (new) Mother's Day (18) *
10 (8) Rio (U)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Apocalypse Now
2. The Messenger
3. Senna
4. Life, Above All
5. Stake Land


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) The Mechanic (15) ***
2 (new) True Grit (15) ***
3 (1) The King's Speech (12) ****
4 (new) Gnomeo & Juliet (U) **
5 (5) The Tourist (12) **
6 (new) Black Swan (15) **
7 (7) Meet the Parents: Little Fockers (12)
8 (6) Due Date (15) ***
9 (re) Tron: Legacy (PG) *
10 (3) The Next Three Days (12) **

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. The Fighter
2. Inside Job
3. 127 Hours
4. Rabbit Hole
5. True Grit


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Terminator [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
2. Bonnie and Clyde (Sunday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
3. Notting Hill (Saturday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
4. Lakeview Terrace (Monday, five, 10pm)
5. The Four Feathers (Tuesday, C4, 12.55pm)

"The Messenger" (Metro 17/06/11)

The Messenger (15) 112 mins ****

Oren Moverman’s subtle Iraq drama centres on men involved in an unusually emotive mission: those soldiers trained to inform next-of-kin their loved ones have been killed in combat. Firebrand Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is assigned to the U.S. Army’s casualty notification division after an overseas tour of duty that almost cost him his sight. His new partner is Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a thrice-divorced veteran with strict on-the-job rules (no hugs, no doorbells, no asking for directions) to mitigate against the fact that, in his line of work, “there’s no such thing as a satisfied customer”.

Though bearers of bleak tidings, the two men’s interplay is disarmingly funny: an Oscar-nominated Harrelson visibly relishes the opportunity to update Robert Duvall’s Apocalypse Now yee-haw Kilgore. It’s the notifications that grip you, however: tense doorstep-bound set-pieces, rooted in character, which could go any which way. Like the best Vietnam-era movies, The Messenger adopts a low-key – Foster and Samantha Morton, as the widow with whom Montgomery becomes fascinated, share quiet, masterfully acted heart-to-hearts – but it absolutely brings home the troops’ sacrifice, and has an acute feel for individuals attempting to move on with life after death comes a-calling.


The Messenger is on selected release.