Monday, 29 August 2011

"The Skin I Live In": an exfoliation

The young Pedro Almodóvar was fascinated by the human body, as enfants terribles (even those of the Spanish variety) often are, and by its many and varied forms: early works like Pepi, Luci, Bom, Matador and Law of Desire crackled with the threat of erotic violence. Round about the point the director was anointed as an elder statesman of the European cinema in the late 1990s, he began dressing this interest up in ever more elegant fashions, perhaps most prominently in the replacement of his sometime spitfire muse Victoria Abril, variously abused and exposed in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels and Kika, with the altogether more demure and fetching L'Oreal spokeswoman Penelope Cruz in a run of films starting with 1999's All About My Mother and continuing through to 2009's Broken Embraces. With The Skin I Live In, a sinewy example of body horror, Almodóvar attempts to graft the style of New Pedro onto some of the themes and concerns of the Pedro of old: it didn't really take for me, and the results start to look as artificial and as absurd as, well, Jocelyn Wildenstein.

The set-up is pure pelicula-B: Antonio Banderas plays a transplant surgeon who, ever since his wife's death in a fire, has been working on the creation of a synthetic human flesh immune to heat, infection and insect bites. His test study is the winkingly named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), whom the doctor has kept prisoner in a flesh-toned bodysuit in a locked room in his fortress-like home on the outskirts of Toledo. From the manner in which the surgeon carefully cuts and tacks down this new skin on one of his dummies, we begin to see how Almodóvar is hellbent on transforming Mad Science into a form of haute couture. The impeccably groomed and tailored Banderas has as much Tom Ford in his DNA as he does Viktor Frankenstein, and Anaya's Vera, being made over into the image of the surgeon's late wife, has evidently become his latest muse.

Where the Pedro of yore used to slice and dice the human form, and expect us to laugh at this frantic iconoclasm, now he subjects it to bespoke tailoring, and encourages us to coo and swoon at the textures created. Along with the elder statesman tag, Almodóvar has inherited that Godardian tic of accessorising his sets with paintings, sculptures and books - a Louise Bourgeois here, a Cormac McCarthy there - so as to show what he's been looking at or reading of late, inadvertently turning certain scenes into the filmed equivalent of a Facebook page. This is progress ("maturity") of a sort, I guess, but a consequence is that The Skin I Live In soon becomes pernickety in its horrors, taking a full minute to unfold surgical scrubs and gloves other, less squeamish filmmakers would pass over in a heartbeat. (And we conclude: yes, this is a horror movie for people who don't really like horror movies.)

Certain sequences remain reliably out there, if not outright batshit. It is unmistakably the Almodóvar of Tie Me Up! who unleashes a man styled as a tiger, just as the film is settling down after half an hour, to take Vera in his jaws and maul her. (There's a perversely elegant flourish as this intruder pauses to unzip the pockets in which Vera's breasts are contained, a flash of witty decorum to which I don't think the younger Almodóvar would have been given.) Yet this hellcat proves, like much else here, purely decorative: a mere offshoot of a tangled family history involving Banderas's housekeeper (Marisa Paredes, another link to Almodóvars past) and the surgeon's traumatised daughter (Blanca Suarez); at the halfway mark, the film pussyfoots into torture-porn territory, replacing that subgenre's usual leering gender emphases with one primarily concerned with what it feels like for a girl.

The effect is odd and momentarily inelegant, as though a long-time Almodóvar fan who'd found Broken Embraces a respectable chore had taken it upon themselves to kidnap the projectionist and splice in the most contentious scenes from Kika or Matador. Sumptuously conceived scenes in which the actors sit around telling stories are thus interrupted by sudden transgressive flurries (necessitating a comically distanced attitude to rape no hetero director would be permitted to get away with) that then have to explained away by sumptuously conceived timeshifts or scenes in which the actors sit around telling stories.

What we're witnessing here is the downside of the convoluted narrative style Almodóvar first hit upon with All About My Mother (or the Ruth Rendell adaptation Live Flesh before it), and developed through Talk to Her and Volver to arrive at Broken Embraces, which again recycled certain of the director's tropes and ideas, but also worked in its filmmaker-protagonist's sincere regret for the things he had and hadn't seen. When it doesn't seem to matter - when there's no emotional investment in the characters, save as mannequins to be chopped and changed and rearranged in the film's front window - the combination of complex plotting, and Almodóvar's incessant accessorising of same, just seems overblown, overdone, overlong. Vera appears to get forgotten about in that second act, and while it later emerges she's actually been dragged off for a wardrobe change (the - surely inconclusive? - final scene will take place in a charity clothes shop), her absence muffles the impact of her belated fightback, her quest for self, in a way a (let's say straight) 90-minute genre movie simply wouldn't have the time to fumble.

It doesn't help that, in the meantime, Banderas seems to be offering a frightfully dull and restricted re-reading of the Dieter Laser role from The Human Centipede; much of the film's appeal - too much, in fact - is thus dependant on the complete pliability of Anaya, presented as a halfway house between the overtly sexual Abril and the doll-like Cruz, opening the film in a Pilates pose that demonstrates her willingness to bend any which way and closing it as the proud owner of the most sucked nipples in European cinema, a title Cruz herself once held around the time of Bigas Luna's Jamón Jamón. The film, too, proves no more than a light, flimsy, half-exercised stretch for its maker, and it struck me that the signature item in the Almodóvar catalogue this time round isn't Anaya's all-in-one body stocking, nor the case of exponentially expansive dildos the scientist presents his subject with at one point, but the spheroid yoga paraphernalia dotted around Vera's cell, either to enhance her curves or as a cruel reminder of a past existence: whether empty or stuffed, they have much in common with the film, these ever-so-stylish balls.

The Skin I Live In is on nationwide release.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

1,001 Films: "Triumph of the Will/Triumph des Willens" (1934)

The Leni Riefenstahl-directed Triumph of the Will is Hitler's breakthrough live performance movie - his Don't Look Back (the cries we hear are for "Juden" rather than "Judas", but the contempt observed in the audience's voice is much the same), his Stop Making Sense, his Never Say Never. (Must all concert documentaries have such forbidding titles, or is that an inevitable consequence of their buying into the cult of the performer?)

If there's an element of tedium about this exercise in rabble-rousing, it's partly a result of the monomania it encounters and seeks to sustain, partly because, in form, it's no more than a sophisticated record of a party political conference - a version of the kind of footage that annually goes out live on BBC2 in the middle of the afternoon and makes everybody long for the bowls or snooker to come back on.
The crucial difference is the scale of the project being recorded - thousands upon thousands in tents in the car park, people on horseback forming geometric shapes, no Bill Morris on hand to lighten the mood - along with a certain bias in presentation, and the regrettable fact the film became an enduring historical document: for the sake of those dispatched to the death camps, you'd rather the National Socialists had been routed at the next election, and no-one ever had cause to watch Triumph of the Will again, but sadly, this wasn't so.

The full horror of the Nuremberg Rally is only revealed in the film's final half-hour with Adolf's keynote address, which leaves the viewer in very little doubt as to how things in Germany were going to turn out; for the most part, the fascination resides in the Rally's trappings, which reveal not just the Nazi will to power (the film's relentless, processive motion strongly suggests Nazi rule - and everything that followed from it - was a fait accompli; there's no evidence of kampf in the picture), but also its potential for oblivious kitsch. Even back in 1934, did anyone really think installing the legend "Heil Hitler" in tiny white lightbulbs beneath Der Führer's balcony was anything other than supremely, well, theatrical? And was that not, perhaps, the point?

Triumph is the film that suggests Mel Brooks was very much onto something in The Producers in (re)framing Nazism as one vast floorshow, featuring a cast of well-rehearsed millions high-kicking and screaming their way across the stage: you're reminded of this every time a group of workers, spear carriers or juvenile leads are shown gathering before The Great Director, mouthing pre-scripted lines with a desperate need for affirmation in their eyes. (As reaches go, it's a large and somewhat dubious one, but I think you could spot a link between the upwardly raised arms Adolf uses to salute these auditionees, and the thumbs up or down offered by emperors in gladiatorial arenas, not to mention by the judges on the TV talent shows that dictate today's cultural discourse: brutal circuses, each and every one.)

It's not especially difficult to see how the spectacle was being used to seduce and distract. Riefenstahl gives her well-fed supporting players (Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich) a nice soundbite and a standing ovation, when a less wholeheartedly enthusiastic director might cut away to shots of delegates snoozing in the back rows of a half-empty auditorium after a heavy session on the complimentary glühwein and wienerschnitzel. More compelling is what's going on outside, and the use of Nuremberg as a backdrop, which may very well form the most conspicuous example of a political leader playing to his base.

This Hitler, portrayed from the outset as a celestial figure, descends into an old town of quaint houses, cathedrals and waterways, reduced by the event to the standing of a grand proscenium arch - every flag hung upon it further evidence of the extent to which the German nation had been suckered. Noting the banners lining the hall in his opening address, one senior Nazi insists "When their cloth rots, only then will people understand the greatness of our time." They were rotten all along, of course, but it would have required a perspective missing from Riefenstahl's film to see it; a failure by most objective standards, Triumph nevertheless remains a warning from history, not least on what there is to be feared from large crowds: it started to happen here.

Triumph of the Will is available on DVD from Simply Media.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

For what it's worth...


Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office

for the weekend of August 19-21, 2011:

1 (new) The Inbetweeners (15) **
2 (1) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ****
3 (new) Cowboys & Aliens (12A) **
4 (2) The Smurfs in 3D (U) **
5 (3) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (12A) **
6 (new) Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World (PG) *
7 (4) Super 8 (12A) ***
8 (5) Mr. Popper's Penguins (PG) ***
9 (new) Glee: The 3D Concert Movie (PG) ****
10 (7) Cars 2 (U)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Kind Hearts and Coronets
2. Glee: The 3D Concert Movie
3. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
5. French Cancan


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (2) Source Code (12) ***
2 (1) Limitless (15) ***
3 (3) Unknown (15) **
4 (4) Black Swan (15) **
5 (5) No Strings Attached (15)
6 (6) 127 Hours (12) ****
7 (7) Never Let Me Go (12) **
8 (9) True Grit (15) ***
9 (new) The Lincoln Lawyer (15)
10 (10) Hall Pass (15) **

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Winnie the Pooh
2. Meek's Cutoff
3. Submarine
4. Outside the Law
5. Mammuth


"The" top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Fugitive [above] (Sunday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
2. The Incredibles (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC1, 3.25pm)
3. The Bourne Supremacy (Saturday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
4. The Hours (Sunday, BBC2, 10.40pm)
5. The Queen (Sunday, ITV1, 4.35pm)

1,001 Films: "It's a Gift" (1934)

The W.C. Fields vehicle It's a Gift dates from a period when the movies were still trying to figure out how best to assimilate the nation's favourite comic talents. Fields was a veteran by this stage, and though there's something in the background here about orange groves that vaguely resembles a plot, the film remains, in the main, a record of long-established routines. A sequence in which Fields' henpecked Harold Bissonette ("pronounced Biss-on-ay") blusters around his grocery store does as much as anything anywhere to restore the word "kumquat" to comic circulation; the fabled porch bit, played out on one of the more notable and elaborate movie sets of the period, sets the lead squarely in the middle of things, leaving him at risk of attack from all angles - though it's perhaps inevitable that Harold should finally bring about his own downfall.

I must confess to finding the whole a little too lackadaisical for my own tastes; the idea of a hero who just wants some time and space of his own seems to derive chiefly from the whims of an intransigent performer who'd rather drag his heels than have to interact with anybody else on screen, or put too much effort into finding a narrative throughline to work with. Still, the better gags - the world's messiest picnic, the store closed owing to molasses - remain worthy of anybody's laughter, and it earns extra points for bucking a then-emerging trend, by making every animal and child that crosses the frame eminently kickable.

It's a Gift is available on DVD as part of Universal's W.C. Fields Collection boxset.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

1,001 Films: "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933)

Frank Capra had made his mark on the early sound cinema a couple of years before with American Madness, but his follow-up, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, proves to be heavy on exotic chinoiserie that feels like a hangover from the silent period - Griffith's Broken Blossoms, especially - and was to find more extravagant expression yet in the same year's Shanghai Express. A brunette Barbara Stanwyck turns up amidst the chaos of a Shanghai being ransacked by the Nationalists, where she's expected to wed an American doctor and submit willingly to high society. Instead, she gets klonked on the head at the train station and taken prisoner by the titular General (Nils Asther), a bandit capable of both extreme generosity and extreme boorishness.

Presumably Capra had to tread lightly around any suggestion of miscegenation - a still-striking dream sequence, with Yen as a Nosferatu figure sinking his claws into the heroine, remains close to the knuckle - so the story's been dressed up, quite lavishly, as a palatable fable of liberation, with Stanwyck's missionary spirit and talk of selfless love coming to touch all those around her. Prone to preachiness and creakiness, with a strange, downbeat ending, it's more of a curio than a key film in the Capra filmography. Still, individual scenes offer an early demonstration of the leading lady's tenacity, and you can always admire Asther's skilful, subtle tightrope-walking in a role that could so easily have slipped into stereotype.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is available on DVD as part of UCA's Icons: Barbara Stanwyck boxset.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

1,001 Films: "Queen Christina" (1933)

It ends up as tragedy, but for much of its duration, Rouben Mamoulian's Queen Christina plays as a comedy in which seduction becomes a form of diplomacy; and - in the form of Greta Garbo - diplomacy has rarely appeared so seductive. Her Christina is the free-thinking Swedish monarch who, in the middle of a war against Philip's Spain, does the unthinkable in falling for the visiting Spanish envoy (John Gilbert), enraging her admirers and supporters on the home front, and forcing her to choose between fulfilling her duty and following her heart.

Much to enjoy, not least Garbo and Gilbert engaging in all manner of pre-Hays Code fruitiness in a long bedroom scene: they feed one another grapes, and Greta literally rubs herself up against the furniture. The downside of all this worldly sophistication is a strong whiff of elitism: the film doesn't have all that much faith in Christina (and thus Garbo)'s subjects, portraying the masses as tittle-tattling sheep who sup ale and molest serving wenches when they're not stumbling blindly into wars and insurrections. Garbo's big speech on refusing to let her heart be dictated to by the tyranny of the mob is probably going to be best appreciated by Prince Charles on his next trip to Klosters.

Queen Christina is available on DVD as part of Warner's Greta Garbo Collection boxset.

Monday, 22 August 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of August 12-14, 2011:

1 (new) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ****
2 (new) The Smurfs in 3D (U) **
3 (1) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (12A) **
4 (2) Super 8 (12A) ***
5 (3) Mr. Popper's Penguins (PG) ***
6 (6) Horrible Bosses (15) **
7 (5) Cars 2 (U)
8 (4) Captain America: The First Avenger (12A) *
9 (7) Horrid Henry: The Movie (U) *
10 (8) Bridesmaids (15) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Kind Hearts and Coronets [above]
2. Glee: The 3D Concert Movie
3. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
5. French Cancan


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) Limitless (15) ***
2 (new) Source Code (12) ***
3 (2) Unknown (15) **
4 (3) Black Swan (15) **
5 (5) No Strings Attached (15)
6 (4) 127 Hours (12) ****
7 (7) Never Let Me Go (12) **
8 (10) Rango (PG) **
9 (8) True Grit (15) ***
10 (6) Hall Pass (15) **

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Winnie the Pooh
2. Meek's Cutoff
3. Submarine
4. Mammuth
5. Little White Lies


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Die Hard (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
2. To Be or Not To Be (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.40am)
3. The Thing (Monday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
4. Stuck on You (Sunday, five, 11pm)
5. Hidden (Monday, C4, 12.50am)

On DVD: "Little White Lies"

Indulgent and relentlessly purposeless as Little White Lies is, it nevertheless remains some distance preferable to its direct US equivalent Grown-Ups. Guillaume Canet's follow-up to his wildly successful Harlan Coben adaptation Tell No One again bears a marked American influence that leaves it ripe for export: it's a Gallic variant of those Big Chill-like reunion movies, in which a bunch of well-to-do thirtysomethings retreat in the wake of something terrible happening to one of their own (here, a motorcycle accident that hospitalises jaded bon vivant Jean Dujardin) and attempt to work out what to do with the rest of their time on this planet.

The party in Canet's film is led by stressed hotelier
François Cluzet, for whom his close friend Benoît Magimel has gone totally gay; also present is free spirit Marion Cotillard, who similarly can't decide whether she prefers women or men, and seems unwilling to commit to anyone anyway. Behind them - and thick and fast, they come at last: a womanising actor, a lovestruck hang-up, various wives and children. About a quarter of the 150-minute running time is taken up by these characters greeting one another with a kiss on both cheeks, and half of the remainder has to find activities (football, jet-skiing, sailing) for them all to be getting on with - it's the rare instance of a movie director doubling up as a holiday camp director.

Other than that, Little White Lies proves to be one of those films that simply is what it is, with no pretensions or aspirations to be (or to be interpreted as) anything more besides: a nice working vacation for cast and crew, a vicarious pleasure for anybody looking on, with plentiful old songs to help the whole thing along. The script effectively functions as a sunny crisis-generation machine, some of these obvious - Cluzet's frustration with his unkempt back lawn and the weasels using his holiday home as their own personal playground, Cotillard's ongoing commitment issues - others slightly less so. What's crucial is that everyone eventually gets something to grumble about: it's only around the halfway point we learn that Magimel's wife has taken to Internet chatroom porn as compensation for the absence of actual bedroom activity in their marriage.

It could go on for four hours, it could go on for seven; it could become a Rivette-like experiment in filmed time without ever once getting out of third gear or working up any rigour or tension. That I felt inclined to give it a pass is partly because it didn't annoy me as much as, say, Peter's Friends did, and mostly down to Canet's genial way with his performers, Cluzet in particular, who makes something funny out of the sight of a man heading inexorably towards a stroke; Cotillard somehow keeps real and grounded a character who might elsewhere have come over as an insufferable kook, and Lellouche achieves the tricky feat of getting us to empathise with a Law- or Brand-style love rat. You should, however, be warned the approach towards performance is such you're expected to be moved, rather than irritated or dismayed, whenever anyone pulls out a guitar to trill a self-penned song, or when Canet invites his characters to sit round watching their old holiday videos. Every bit as commercially savvy as the director's debut, it appears less inclined to épater the bourgeois than to pat them, altogether squarely, on the back. Group hug!

Little White Lies is available on DVD from today.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Different playgrounds: "In a Better World"

For In a Better World, the Danish director Susanne Bier took home both the Golden Globe and the Best Foreign Film Oscar earlier this year, in part, no doubt, because she was a known entity, having provided Hollywood with a decade's worth of eminently remakeable drama, and directed Halle Berry in 2007's Things We Lost in the Fire. At her best (as in 2001's Open Hearts), Bier and her regular collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen make dramatic hay with conflicting human emotions, displaying both a firm authorial belief in character and plot, and a sharp eye for actors. Her weakness has always been her fidgety, filter-heavy direction - as though she were determined to put distance between herself and the Dogme milieu out of which she first emerged - and her scripts' fondness for narrative contrivances that threaten to bounce the viewer out of the drama at a point where it ought to be sucking one in.

Her latest is a typically knotty yet naggingly simplistic parable about schoolyard squabbles that come to drag in the parents of the boys involved; there are echoes of Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage, itself currently being filmed by Roman Polanski as possible Oscar bait - though the Biblical names of In a Better World are all Bier and Jensen's own. Gap-toothed victim Elias (Markus Rygaard), sick of having his bike tyres deflated by his middle school's resident big man, accepts the brutal protection of new boy Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), a fellow Swede in exile. Key is how this payback impacts upon Elias's separated parents, in particular good liberal doctor Mikael Persbrandt, who's himself witnessed vicious bullying at close quarters during his stint in Africa, where a warlord known as Big Man has taken to slitting the bellies of pregnant women to settle bets on gender his cronies have made. Back home, the bullies get bigger still: there's a welcome screen return for Pusher's burly, no-nonsense Kim Bodnia as his quiet coastal town's aggressor-in-chief.

The original title ("Vengeance" in English) suggests violence - retributive or otherwise - is on the cards; what's somewhat disappointing is how profligate and heavy-handed the foreshadowing is. "What are you going to be making for Project Week?," the school's headmistress asks of Elias's tormentor. "We're making muskets," comes the response. Elsewhere, the camera peers, teasingly, winkingly, over the edge of a towering silo to which the bullied and his protector steal away to plot their revenge. (A sign on the silo's side - "Danish Agro" - could almost serve as an alternative title for the whole film.) When we later see one of the boys flying a kite, it comes as something of a surprise he isn't doing so in the vicinity of an electricity pylon, in the manner of those 1980s public information broadcasts, so plugged in is Bier to the prospect of forthcoming nasty shocks.

Everyone on screen remains just a little too much at the mercy of screenwriters playing God (there's a Skype connection that cuts out just as one character is trying desperately to make himself heard) or some finger-wagging editorial (with the narrative strands tied up within 90 minutes, I spent most of the last half-hour wondering why we were all still there), and yet the performers, unfailingly human and vulnerable with it, kept me watching. Persbrandt makes intriguing and less than insufferably righteous a character determined to turn the other cheek and fulfil his Hippocratic oath at all points, and young Nielsen is outstanding as a smart kid poised, for reasons good and bad, on the very brink of delinquency - then reverting to the status of scared little boy when the seemingly inevitable comes to pass. If I were an Academy voter, these last two might have persuaded me to place In a Better World second on my ballot, in a fairly uncompetitive category - even if the film in its entirety does feel finally more like an accomplished afterschool special than anything adult enough to merit troubling the trophy cabinet.

In a Better World is on selected release.

Mild, mild west: "Cowboys & Aliens"

The problem with the expensive bricolage Cowboys & Aliens is evident as early as the opening scene, which might only be considered striking if this were your first movie summer season, and you hadn't seen a Bourne movie before it. A stranger with the face of James Bond wakes up in the New Mexico desert with no memory of how he got there, or how he got the gaping wound on his side, or how he got the hi-tech tracking device strapped to his wrist. Jon Favreau's film establishes itself as at once a mishmash of semi-familiar elements, the product of an industry trying on different hats and boots for size, and seeing what might fit: it could just as easily have been Robots and Aliens, or Cowboys versus Sever, or Eh versus Meh. Nobody really wins.

Presumably, at some long-distant stage, this was somebody's idea of a BOGOF movie: you buy a ticket for a Western, and you get a summer sci-fi extravaganza thrown in for nothing. The Stranger (Daniel Craig) is dragged into the nearest town, where the local populace is ruled over by grumpy cattle boss Harrison Ford; Ford and Craig, who seem more like a craggy father-son act than antagonists, begin circling one another, and seem poised to embark upon one almighty growl-off when aliens sweep into town; at which point, the special effects guys start blowing up everything in sight, while our surviving heroes saddle up and go after the loved ones the invaders have beamed back up with them.

The six credited writers (seven, if you count Scott Michael Rosenberg, who penned the original comic book) have between them come up with a checklist of tropes, inserted into scenes that could play in almost any order. These include: flashbacks to Craig's past, horse riding (always stirring on some level, even in stone-dead mediocrities like this), ambushes, mystic mumbo-jumbo among the native Americans (Craig's visions are uncannily close to Jim Morrison's acid trips in The Doors), a bit in some abandoned mines, and a corseted love interest in pre-assembled FHM cover-girl Olivia Wilde, this summer's idea of the new Megan Fox, but sadly as drippy on screen as the wet blouses the film contrives to put her in at regular intervals. Wit and cohesion don't seem to figure high on the movie's list of priorities, and you struggle to shake off the sense there's a cheap, straight-to-DVD item somewhere doing all this without the waste of the premise, that title, this much money, or the stellar personnel.

Sam Rockwell (as a tagalong doctor) and Paul Dano (as Ford's bratty son) have less of note to do than the supporting players in Favreau's Iron Man movies, and while Keith Carradine certainly looks the part puffing on a pipe on the porch of a saloon, the film badly needed another oldtimer in the cast to give the Western business any gravitas: Ford is his now-usual, disinterested self, as well he might be, given this piffling, second-fiddle role. As for Craig, handed material no less forgettable than the last Bond movie, well, he gets to kill some more time before working with David Fincher on the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo remake, but the actor's pumped-up physicality comes to count against whatever sense of threat or peril this terminally PG-13 movie was aiming for in the first place: it's quite hard to cheer for a hero who's perfectly capable of handing out regular, brutal smackdowns even before he discovers the planets have aligned to equip him with a wrist-mounted ballistic missile launcher.

Cowboys & Aliens is on nationwide release.

Stinkville: "Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World"

The day of Spy Kids 4's release was the day 3D finally died, after its brief renaissance, and it's particularly saddening to see the generally lively and dynamic Robert Rodriguez reduced to churning out crappy, opportunist rubbish like this in the vain hope of reviving a franchise everybody else had long since given up on. Including, it seems, its own stars: with only 50% of the original leads returning (first-wave Spy Kids Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, now fully-grown, and obliged to serve as glorified tour guides for their young replacements), we here get Jessica Alba as an agent struggling to juggle raising a family with her day job trying to stop an arch-villain named Tick Tock from speeding up the world's clocks - thus threatening whatever quality time she has left with her offspring.

It's a betrayal of whatever those earlier films stood for: where the first instalments insisted that the gadgets available to these kids were less vital than their own common sense, this one takes place in a weird, day-glo futurescape where endless zappy weapons and effects are thrown on to prevent us having to think about anything. (Like, say, how Spy Kids 4 makes Rodriguez's ill-fated The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl seem an underrated gem - and that had 3D to make your eyes bleed.) In the absence of wit, the family values embedded in the script get hectoring, and the cast are - to a man (or kid) - utterly useless: Alba her usual albane self, the new juvenile leads (one of whom labours under the name Cecil, FFS) almost unimaginably charmless, while Ricky Gervais craps all over that legacy he's always banging on about, audibly disinterested as the voice of a robot dog who namechecks YouTube and pisses oil whenever the occasion calls for it. (It might have been funnier with Karl Pilkington at the mic.)

The novelty - though Polyester and one of the Rugrats sequels actually got there first - is the use of 4D, so-called scratch-and-sniff technology. Having participated in this gimmickry with rapidly diminishing enthusiasm, I can report that the bacon Alba's on-screen husband rustles up smelt like Pez sweets; that a baby's spew smelt like Pez sweets; that some sweets smelt a little less like Pez sweets; and that the dog's farts smelt wholly, and unmistakably, like Pez sweets. At the latter, I did double-check to see if the samples had been printed on Pez sweets, but - no - it was a piece of cardboard that'll doubtless be left to litter the multiplex, and thus the most apt souvenir of Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World itself.

Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World is in cinemas nationwide.

Friday, 19 August 2011

As seen on TV: "The Inbetweeners Movie" and "Glee 3D" (ST 21/08/11)

The Inbetweeners Movie (15) 96 mins **
Glee: The 3D Concert Movie (PG) 84 mins ****

The cinema is dead; all hail synergy, the spin-off and the tie-in. This summer has already owed much to comic books and children’s toys: there now follow the TV derivatives. Iain Morris and Damon Beesley’s E4 series The Inbetweeners savvily transposed American Pie-style teen humiliations onto Middle England, eventually crossing over to become one of C4’s few recent comedy successes. As a reward, The Inbetweeners Movie duly dispatches its leads – dim, dimmer, dimmest and their nerdy narrator pal – to the Mediterranean, in the process upholding those clichés about pasty-faced Englishmen abroad, and about cheap-and-cheerful Britcom cash-ins that insist on sending their characters overseas. Comedically, we’re only just downwind from the Costa Plonka of the Are You Being Served? film.

You can guess the jokes: a little gay panic, many bodily fluids (and solids), and a, let’s say, varyingly gallant approach to the female form. A certain scruffy sincerity – the vaguest glimmer of hard-gained wisdom about adolescent confusions and obsessions – elevates the writing above grim memories of Harry Enfield’s Kevin and Perry Go Large, and the likable cast maintain some well-honed comic rhythms. Would that the whole did likewise, though: under Ben Palmer’s direction, it instead staggers its way between seasons, never quite doing enough to disabuse the casual viewer of the notion they’re watching a feature-length special, not a movie – one whose ideal delivery system isn’t the multiplex, but the set-top box.


The Glee movie, meanwhile, reprises that show’s greatest hits as a live stage act, mercifully without the Autotuned vocals, but with ample evidence these are now the hardest working kids in the business: talented performers making hours of choreography look like immense, infectious fun. The 3D’s wholly unnecessary: fans will feel close enough to these characters already. Pop is the point here: as interspersed testimony from real-life Gleeks suggests, the series’ four-minute wonders have become protective bubbles within which labels cease to matter, folk in wheelchairs enact “The Safety Dance”, and “River Deep, Mountain High” can be reclaimed as the Billboard chart-topper it always should have been. An effervescent expression of joy through song, it may just be the happiest experience this particular grouch has had in a cinema all year.

The Inbetweeners Movie and Glee: The 3D Concert Movie are in cinemas nationwide.

Live and Let Live - Live!: Thoughts on "Glee"

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie opens with footage of concertgoers naming their favourite characters from the hit TV show. Some plump for Rachel "because she's just like Barbra Streisand" (though the actress Lea Michele, interviewed backstage, appears genuinely to believe she is Rachel Berry). Others go for Puck "because he's so sassy, and so into himself". A fair few side with the talismanic Kurt. No-one mentions the divine Miss Tina Cohen-Chang, which would appear a grave lapse of taste on the part of the general public; also unmentioned is just how strange it is to be watching a concert tour derived from a television series, or - weirder still - a 3D movie based on a concert tour derived from a television series.

This perhaps gives some idea of how American television has come to raise its game, as well as its voice, over the past two decades (no-one ever thought of a Who's the Boss? stadium tour, or a 3D Tony Danza), not to mention of the concomitant devaluing of the cinema as a stand-alone experience, free from synergies or 3D specs. You couldn't really imagine a Glee movie existing even after the runaway global success of the show's tonally awkward first season, which hadn't worked out whether to love its characters, or pour another Slushee over their heads. Only with the centralising of the newly-uncloseted Kurt's travails in Season Two did Glee, too, come out, emerging from behind the residual snarkiness of creator Ryan Murphy's previous Nip/Tuck to state, yes, it adored these characters, and everything that made them idiosyncratic, special, fabulous - what made them all stars both within and without the musical numbers that provided the series' USP.

What the film makes clear is that these performers are no mere poseurs or wannabes, but gifted singers and dancers (yes, even Finn), capable of making what are presumably torturous hours of rehearsal and choreography look like immense, infectious fun. It remains a source of wonder - and no doubt inspiration to some - that Kevin McHale gets Artie's wheelchair to function as every bit an extension of his body as Astaire's top hat and cane; Heather Morris, a dancer-choreographer before taking up her role as the series' resident airhead Brittney S. Pierce, gets more self-awareness into her rendition of "I'm A Slave 4 U" than the real Britney has into her last two albums.

Kevin Tancharoen's film is essentially a Greatest Hits package - building from "Don't Stop Believin'" to "A Loser Like Me" - mercifully stripped of the Autotuned vocals that make the show's musical achievements sound unnecessarily synthetic. At least one of my theories about the show gets confirmed in passing: that the best vocal performances - cf. Michele's storm through "Don't Rain on My Parade", Amber Riley's Mercedes doing "Ain't No Way", both reprised here - form some of the least interesting stretches, since they don't quite have the sense of frenzied youth letting rip that mark the uppermost pop artefacts of our time. All Riley's quavering fades into indifference when merged with the intro to Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl", which probably isn't even Rick Springfield's idea of a great song, but has an upfront energy this kind of experience thrives upon.

Still, the show operates under an insistently egalitarian banner, and everyone gets their own moment in the spotlight. That this is one for the fans can be deduced from the scene-changers: interviews with real-life Gleeks (forcibly outed gay teenagers, cheerleaders of less than average stature, an adorable pre-teen of Asian extract who knows every word the Dalton County Warblers have ever sung, and will make couples of any orientation want to ADOPT) who both represent the assumed demographic and serve as factual justification for the series' more outré plotlines. As directed by A Small Act's Jennifer Arnold, these inserts come in just north of MTV reality shows, handled as they are with the dorky sincerity that has become the Glee stock-in-trade. Elsewhere, the 3D proves pointless - we were already close to these characters - and haters may well be struck by the disposability of it all, not to mention the weird streak of conservatism that sees kids being whipped up into a frenzy by a crop of prep-school pupils doing acapella versions of old Wings songs.

Yet with the exception of the Black Eyed Peas - Satan's opening act - there's no reason why pop music can't be anything you like, and Glee's disposability, its impermanence, is precisely (and poignantly) the point. Within the show's three-minute wonders, and only within the show's three-minute wonders, anything is possible: you can be straight or gay, and either way receive nothing but applause; folk in wheelchairs can do "The Safety Dance" (and, in this reading, make of it a funny, uplifting old-school showbiz set-piece); anyone above a size-14 can pour their heart out, make themselves heard, and become as much an object of desire as any sylph-like cheerleader; and "River Deep, Mountain High" can finally be reclaimed as the Billboard chart-topper it always should have been. In the Glee universe, sparkly and utopian as it is, we can all be stars, and not even the intervention of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp minions - who recently negotiated to remove the series to the realms of pay-per-view - can take that away from us entirely. An effervescent expression of joy through song, the movie stands as one of the happiest experiences this particular grouch has had in a cinema all year.

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie is in cinemas nationwide. An edited version of this review will run in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph.

On demand: "Starsuckers"

The documentarist Chris Atkins first came to prominence with 2007's Taking Liberties, his take on the erosion of civil liberties under the Blair government. For his next trick, Atkins has elected to address another very contemporary concern. Starsuckers is an urgent and quietly chilling deconstruction of the modern fame game, setting out a comprehensive list of the tools used to get us hooked, and keep us hooked, on all things celebrity. Aspiration, Atkins reckons, has given way to addiction, those afflicted - as made clear by certain reality-TV contestants - now prepared to do anything for their next fix. The pushers, meanwhile, have realised they have in their means a new way of exploiting the poor and maintaining the status quo: this is celebrity as the well-groomed face of consumerism, and there's something undeniably thrilling in the way Atkins exposes what might previously have seemed attractive as ugly indeed in its methods and motives.

The obvious comparison to make would be that between Atkins and Michael Moore: both filmmakers share an ease with pop culture, their handling of archive footage is similar, as is their fondness for telling stunts. Atkins' crew sets up in a shopping centre, and gets parents to blithely, unthinkingly waive their youngsters' rights to appear in such (non-existant) shows as "Baby Boozers", in which tots drink shots, and "Take Your Daughters To The Slaughterhouse". Neither Atkins nor Moore is ashamed to use brash entertainment to make their point; Atkins, however, has a greater faith in expert testimony, approaching his subject from a social and psychological perspective, as well as a satirical one. There's even an experiment with monkeys, if you like that sort of thing.

Still, there's no denying Starsuckers is an angry film. It's the erosion of ethics and standards that gets Atkins' goat, the breakdown of proper communication that threatens to turn the information age into an age of what Nick Davies here defines as "information chaos". (You have only to watch the documentarist's team planting false stories about Amy Winehouse in the tabloids, or the covertly recorded footage of Max Clifford in full pomp, to spot it.) There's real rage at the manner in which the Make Poverty History campaign was hijacked by the celebrities of Live 8, to no greater end than their own self-promotion, as a way of claiming back whatever price they might have paid to get to the top. (Given Peaches and Pixie's contributions to the world thus far, I doubt the DVD is going to be high on the Geldof family's Christmas list.) Smuggled into UK cinemas by a hitherto unknown distributor [and onto British TV screens long after midnight], rich with damning hidden-camera footage, unafraid to point fingers and name names, it's both a rallying cry - a film for anyone who's ever had cause to shudder upon learning the name of Simon Cowell's production company (SyCo, since you're asking) - and a revolutionary act: no-one has better skewered our present global epidemic of narcissism.

Starsuckers is available via 4OD until mid-September.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

1,001 Films: "Zéro de Conduite" (1933)

Among many other things, the vivid memories (or are they dreams?) of anarchic schooldays recalled by Jean Vigo in Zéro de Conduite serve as an antidote to the plodding, literal-minded order and dull good manners of the Harry Potter franchise. Rather than marginalising and tut-tutting at its instances of bad behaviour, the film centralises, even celebrates, messing around, sleeping in, ganging up, piling on, sneaking or running away, mouthing off, and - eventually - rising up and fighting back. The most celebrated sequence has become the slow-motion pillow fight that contains poignant hints of the real-world war these kids would later be obliged to participate in, but mostly the film is a love letter to the idea of the bunk and the skive that foster unrestrained creativity: Vigo finds something oppositional and cheering in the image of the pupil merrily smoking at his desk while his form tutor turns handstands.

The thesis would appear to be that the best grown-ups, the best teachers - the ones we like, and remember - are those who've retained some memory of what it is to be a child; the worst, being slow, desiccated and humourless, were never less (and never more) than wholly adult, preparing steaming vats of green beans deemed "good for you", when they'd much rather be wolfing down the same chocolate beloved of their charges. Vigo is militantly French in taking the side of the dormitory's mini-community against these joyless authority figures: in a pointedly Surrealist touch, he casts a dwarf in a patently false beard as the headmaster, diminishing his power from the outset. Like much else about Vigo's career, it's brief, but it had massive repercussions, not just for the French cinema - where there would be a direct correspondence between these pupils, Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows and the questioning, take-no-shit students in Laurent Cantet's The Class - but for the cinema in general: it's the film that explains why Lindsay Anderson's If... was all the better for being so intrinsically un-English.

Zero de Conduite is available to rent as part of Artificial Eye's The Jean Vigo Collection boxset from lovefilm.com.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

On demand: "Fish Tank"

With the new British drama Fish Tank, we move from kitchens to the kitchen-sink. The first time we see Mia (Katie Jarvis), the 15-year-old heroine of Andrea Arnold's follow-up to 2006's startling Red Road, she's headbutting a girl who's looked at her funny, and trying to liberate a horse from a traveller camp: all in a day's work when you're the dancing queen of your Essex housing estate. Where her teenage rivals hunt in packs, Mia is a lone wolf, a ragbag of curse words, contrarian impulses and hormones whose life changes - for the better, and for the worse - when her mum brings home a new boyfriend one night.

Conor (Michael Fassbender) is a garrulous Irishman with money in his wallet - the first thing Mia checks - and his own car. Where mum - a study in casual, white-stilettoed indifference from Kierston Wareing - finds ever new ways to put her girl down, Conor takes an interest in both Mia herself and her terpsichorean aspirations. He scoops her up and puts her to bed after she's had too much to drink; he stoops to tend to her injured foot. Is he a true Prince Charming, we wonder - or is this outwardly tough yet crucially naive girl simply misreading all the signs?

It seems hardly surprising our heroine should be so pressured and confused: wisely shooting in the narrowest, most claustrophobic aspect ratio available, Arnold evokes a world of constant, aggressive sniping and backchat, pneumatic drills and sirens, passing traffic - somewhere you can barely hear yourself think. In Wareing's cramped flat, the TV appears tuned permanently to the music channels, blaring R'n'B videos from which Mia cribs her best moves, aspirational documentary shows (Cribs, My Super Sweet 16) that offer a false escape into other, better lives, and - in one extreme example - Dirty Sanchez, the sort of show only a clan this dysfunctional might consider regular family viewing.

Fish Tank leaves you in no doubt these sink estates are hard places in every sense: a location where "you prick" and "you cunt" are bandied about as terms of affection, and "I like you; I'll kill you last" can be employed as a friendly leavetaking. While Arnold, here confirming herself as one of our most observant filmmakers, isn't blind to the bad choices that lead to broken homes, she nevertheless refuses to judge her characters, and finds humour and even beauty - those qualities that might make living hereabouts marginally more bearable - amid the squalor. "I don't like her smile," Mia's foul-mouthed younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) proclaims, watching a televised prom-queen makeover between swigs of lager and drags on a ciggie. "She's got yellow teeth." As a show of spirit in the face of adversity, you could scarcely ask for more from the debutant Jarvis: spiky, her body forever on the defensive - braced against the possibility of attack - even as the scowl on her face yields to a default setting of troubled innocence.

Arnold previously made the shorts Dog and Wasp, and though there's no obvious sign of the titular aquarium - an underwater sound effect whenever Mia dons her headphones has to suffice - there's nonetheless quite the menagerie gathered here: that ill-fated horse ("she was sixteen; it was her time"), a canine named Tennant's, a hamster wheeling round in a cage that possibly hasn't been cleaned for several weeks, a rabbit observed on the fly in an altogether better-tended middle-class garden. As the kitty stickers and tiger murals viewed in passing in the girls' bedrooms might suggest, Mia's the wildcat in Arnold's human zoo, longing for release, her dance moves a form of pacing the cage. It's with an act of supreme directorial generosity and virtuosity that Fish Tank finally, and in a manner that seems unthinkable three-quarters of the way through its duration, sets her free.

Fish Tank is available on the BBC iPlayer until next Sunday evening.

Friday, 12 August 2011

From the archive: "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over"

The cleverest plot point in the slightly disappointing Spy Kids 2 was that the franchise's two teenage leads (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) eventually had to junk their many malfunctioning gadgets to overcome their opponents with simple common sense. Spy Kids 3D, which maintains Robert Rodriguez's exceptional strike rate of one Spy Kids film a year for the past three years (even as we await the arrival of his long-delayed Once Upon a Time in Mexico), doesn't entirely throw common sense to the wind, but certainly ups the reliance on gadgetry: here, young Chuni (Sabara)'s quest to rescue his sister Carmen (Vega) from the clutches of an all-consuming computer game programmed by the shadowy Toymaster (Sylvester Stallone) is shot, and intended to be seen, in the long-defunct 3D format. Buy a ticket for the movie, and you should be handed a pair of red-blue spectacles with whatever change you're lucky to get back these days.

3D was originally introduced by the American film industry back in the 1950s as a way of luring people away from their exciting new television sets and back into the cinema. Spy Kids 3D correctly identifies the increasingly photorealistic (and time-consuming) third-generation console game as the movies' latest enemy, and it's easy to see why they might be considered such a threat. Over the last few years, with lucrative synergies on the rise, event movies have started - implicitly or otherwise - to ape the narratives of their tie-in computer games, reaching their nadir in the conveyor-belt plotting of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, whole sections of which felt like watching a Playstation over somebody's shoulder, rather than a big-screen spectacle directed by a grown-up male.

Rodriguez and his effects team here do an excellent job of pursuing the console aesthetic to its logical extreme, taking sideswipes at the irritating, pre-programmed repetition of computer game monsters and the flat way these entertainments tend to render crowds of human beings, while also working in plenty of geeky tech jokes: one character is called Rez, allowing for the groan-inducing greeting "Hi, Rez", and Sabara mourns the loss of a fellow on-line player with "I never even got her e-mail address".

As an opponent to the zombifying joypad, 3D proves to have some merit as an endearingly tatty format; the end credits thank Texas Instruments, which presumably means this is the first summer blockbuster to have been brought to the screen using Speak & Spell technology. Perhaps owing to the (not inconsiderable) cost of issuing millions of viewers worldwide with 3D glasses, the technology doesn't seem to have moved on much since the 50s: the audience still has to wear a pair of scratchy cardboard specs that dig into your nose and are prone to breaking. (Indeed, the elastic on mine snapped even before the first scene was over.) Though the format does wonders with space, 3D continues to have real difficulty rendering colour as anything other than a blur of uncertain shades and half-perceived tones; it also necessitates too much self-conscious pointing, or objects being thrust at the camera, to work. At times, Rodriguez appears to be shooting nothing more than an Army recruitment poster: Hollywood wants YOU to buy their product.

One of the reliable pleasures of this series has been its unusual casting of grown-ups to support the kids. This third feature somewhat disappointingly reduces the majority of them to walk-ons and cameos, although Ricardo Montalban ("Boss! Boss! De game! De game!") is given an extended - and unexpectedly touching - run-out as Chuni's wheelchair-supported grandfather, given legs by the computer game's new technology. Mom and Pop (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) don't appear until the very end, and even Vega takes a lesser role this time around, perhaps busy pursuing the singing career she launched at the end of the second instalment. (Several of her songs adorn the soundtrack.)

Stallone gets more to do in the antagonist role than Steve Buscemi did in Spy Kids 2, playing four roles for the same paycheque, but it's a moot point as to whether this much Stallone is an entirely good thing. That said, he's involved in the film's standout gag, paired with another actor who (maybe surprisingly) looks and sounds like him. The threedophilia may be a one-off revival or gimmick, but in a summer where there's been very little else leaping off the screen in our event movies, at least it has a gimmick to begin with. Certainly SK3 is more fun than its predecessor; for more, why not take a bottle of red food colouring into the cinema with you, place a few drops either side of your glasses, and emerge from the screen screaming something like "My eyes! My eyes! Disney, I'm gonna sue your collective Mouse ass!"

(August 2003)

From the archive: "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams"

More so than Quentin Tarantino, with whom he's collaborated on two features to date, Robert Rodriguez has made a very profitable and mostly enjoyable directorial career out of repeating himself, remaking his own El Mariachi as Desperado and producing several sequels to his own From Dusk Till Dawn. Spy Kids 2 arrives in cinemas only just over a year after Rodriguez's first film did spectacular box-office business, now with a trademark in the title that seems to have been substituted for many of the original's delights. Though The Island of Lost Dreams contains a certain number of incidental pleasures, it can't ever quite shake off a slight air of exploitation that holds on grimly through an end credits pop video in which the film's teenage lead Alexa Vega launches a spin-off recording career through a microphone designed to turn her into "the new Britney Lopez", as if the world had need of another pre-pubescent pop sensation.

Some sort of character development has occurred between original and sequel: teens Vega and brother Daryl Sabara are looking for greater independence from their parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino), who've been showing signs of becoming civil service office drones, until the mission comes along that will throw them all back together. The pre-credits sequence has Bill Paxton as the owner of a theme park from which the president's daughter needs rescuing by not one but two sets of spy kids (including Emily Osment, sister of Haley Joel - and the family resemblance in looks, if not quite acting style, is really quite something).

When the characters arrive at the island of the title - and it takes Rodriguez an awful long while to get them all there - it's a disinhabited Azteca affair populated by rogue scientist Steve Buscemi and his Harryhausen-inspired menagerie of genetically modified zoo creatures; and it's a second theme park, one in which the connecting tracks of narrative are less important than endless, often nonsensical spectacle. (The sudden lurches in plot logic, with the kids zipping about from one point on the island to another without so much as a throwaway explanation, get wearying after a while.)

The central premise - that these kids have been recruited to do the work of adults - still delivers a fair amount of fun: the teenagers sulk on learning that key assignments have been handed to their rivals, and - upon being suspended from active service - the youthful Sabara looks forward, with an old man's sigh, to "catching up on all those dreams and plans I had to put to one side". And there's still something of a cleverness in what little plotting there is here: on arriving at the island, the kids find the gadgets they've previously been comparing like brand-new sneakers in the schoolyard no longer work, forcing them to use whatever's in their heads that hasn't been rotted away by text messaging, Limp Bizkit records and Sunny Delight.

One of the pleasures of the first film lay in its casting of unexpected faces in stock kid-pic roles. The follow-up more or less wastes Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Alan Cumming and Tony Shalhoub in one- or two-scene reprisals of their roles from the original, and it's a sign of how low the sequel's ambitions are that where the first film delighted child-accompanying mums everywhere by casting Banderas alongside George Clooney as the head of the surveillance operation, Spy Kids 2 has to make do with Christopher McDonald as the President of the United States. New additions include Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban in the cursory roles of Gugino's parents, and Buscemi does what he can in a rushed-through sad professor skit, but the lack of an identifiable villain counts against any excitement or tension this sequel might generate. Mostly unobjectionable, and you're bound to know at least one eight-year-old who'll place it alongside the original in their list of the greatest films ever made, but this material plays just that little bit flatter second time around.

(July 2002)

From the archive: "Spy Kids"

If you're likely to remember anything about the notorious 1995 flop Four Rooms, it would be the segment directed by Robert Rodriguez in which two small children, left to their own devices by absent patriarch Antonio Banderas, went about wrecking a hotel suite. The latest Rodriguez project, Spy Kids, might have been pitched along the lines of what could happen if those same children had been let out to wreak havoc in the wider world, in order to bring their problems to the attention of the parents who have to go out on them every night.

Banderas is cast again, this time in the role of an ex-spy settling down to domesticity with wife Carla Gugino and their two pre-teen offspring. Both Banderas and Gugino were on active service - tailing each other - until they fell in love; Banderas used to have a rakish moustache, but now wears a cardigan and spectacles. The kids are bedwetters and truants with no real friends to speak of, but they get the chance to play hero when Mom and Pop are captured by nefarious kids' TV presenter Floop (Alan Cumming), whose scientist Minion (Tony Shalhoub) has plans on taking over the world through franchised rubber dolls and a whole generation of brainwashed tweenies.

Shot in Latin America - which makes a change - the story is a playful spin on exploitation and globalisation. The action is a mix of zippy gadgets and fart gags, all the things eleven-year-olds love, but there's regular funny business, too (the kids have been raised to apologise to the adults they take out with their jet-packs). With all the running around - Floop's palace is a lavishly designed fairground playhouse - the film naturally tires itself out towards the end in pursuit of more or less familiar spy-thriller gambits, but Spy Kids nevertheless offers many more pleasures than those other half-term entertainments around at the moment.

Like Steven Soderbergh, Rodriguez is now so well-connected in the movie business that he can get away with casting major movie stars in very minor roles, and his supporting cast really do come through for him here: Cheech Marin as the world's least likely babysitter, Robert Patrick as an underwritten corporate boss with an unpronounceable name, plus Teri Hatcher in an obvious bald cap and - a special treat, this, for fans of grizzled character actors - Danny Trejo as Banderas's best man, cut off from the family after being accused of selling arms to Floop.

With the Bond franchise on its last legs because its lead character simply looks silly growing old but refusing to settle down, and with Spy Kids' impressive box-office success on both sides of the Atlantic, this could be the first of many escapades; Rodriguez, who turned El Mariachi into Desperado and oversaw the production of (to date) three From Dusk Till Dawn movies, has a way with spin-offs, and Banderas and Gugino, though effectively playing second-fiddle to two actors who've yet to reach puberty, work up the possibility of future, Thin Man-like pairings. It could still come to pass that Minion, with his tight white suit and ever-expanding name, becomes the Dr. Evil of choice for the under-12 brigade.

(February 2001)

Spy Kids screens on 5* tomorrow at 4.20pm, and at 1pm on Sunday.

For what it's worth...


Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office

for the weekend of August 5-7, 2011:

1 (1) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (12A) **
2 (new) Super 8 (12A) ***
3 (new) Mr. Popper's Penguins (PG) ***
4 (2) Captain America: The First Avenger (12A) *
5 (3) Cars 2 (U)
6 (4) Horrible Bosses (15) **
7 (5) Horrid Henry: The Movie (U) *
8 (7) Bridesmaids (15) ***
9 (6) Zookeeper (PG) *
10 (9) The Guard (15)

(source: UK Film Council. Note: The Guard is presently on release in Ireland only.)

My top five:
1. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
3. French Cancan
4. The Lavender Hill Mob
5. Project Nim


Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Limitless (15) ***
2 (1) Unknown (15) **
3 (4) Black Swan (15) **
4 (2) 127 Hours (12) ****
5 (5) No Strings Attached (15)
6 (new) Hall Pass (15) **
7 (new) Never Let Me Go (12) **
8 (6) True Grit (15) ***
9 (re) The King's Speech (12) ****
10 (new) Rango (PG)

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Meek's Cutoff
2. Submarine
3. Source Code
4. Kaboom
5. Your Highness


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. From Russia with Love [above] (Saturday, ITV1, 3.45pm)
2. The Idiots (Saturday, C4, 2.25am)
3. Farewell My Lovely (Friday, BBC2, 11.45am)
4. The Secret Garden (Sunday, five, 1.15pm)
5. Jaws (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

True grit: "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" and "The Salt of Life" (ST 14/08/11)

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (18) 115 mins ****
The Salt of Life (12A) 85 mins ***

A strong week for sequels with subtitles. José Padilha’s Elite Squad won the Berlin Golden Bear in 2008 amid heated debate over whether its punchy portrait of Brazil’s anti-corruption unit formed a critique or celebration of policing methods commonly denounced as fascist. In follow-up The Enemy Within, the Squad’s malign influence spreads further still: despite presiding over a deadly prison riot, hardline Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) gains a promotion to a Government post that proves just as corruptible as the Rio slums. “Let the cops handle it,” someone insists. “The problem is the cops,” comes the response.

Padilha, like Paul Greengrass, is a sometime documentarist who brings to his fiction work both verisimilitude and a real fascination with the way individuals are connected: newly mature and ambitious, his latest only enhances the original’s decidedly complex socioeconomic perspective. That Nascimento himself gets to narrate remains a provocation to liberal sensibilities, though Moura tempers this reactionary’s blunter outbursts with a growing institutionalised weariness, and it’s typical of how Padilha strives to give everyone their voice, whether the self-justifying politico or the killer quoting Hamlet over his victims’ charred remains. A wipe-clean board might help with joining some of its dots – but, collectively, these films are right up with The Wire for engaged, timely and thought-provoking drama.


Writer-director-performer Gianni di Gregorio enjoyed arthouse matinee success in 2009 with Mid-August Lunch, his tale of a fiftysomething bachelor looking after a parlourful of ageing mothers. I found it slight and sitcommy, but I can see why it struck a chord: it was a film for anyone who felt the cinema had overlooked them in its obsessive pursuit of youth. That invisibility is central to the sort-of sequel The Salt of Life: Gianni remains devoted to mamma (Valeria de Franciscis Bendoni, no less formidable), but now sets out to find the one woman who doesn’t take his presence for granted.

Again, this is an essentially kindly, gentle vision – these gentlemen get up when a lady leaves the table, even if it’s just to pine wistfully after what they know they cannot have – and one that elicits sly chuckles: di Gregorio films himself performing yoga moves, only to get stuck doing so. The film, too, runs out of puff after an hour, but physiognomic pleasures supplement its good cinematic etiquette: here is a parade of unapologetically wizened faces, carrying bags and baggage from which all manner of rich and varied life experience can be unpacked.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within and The Salt of Life open in selected cinemas from today.

...to Chimpanzee: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Apparently the Hollywood sequence of evolution lasts ten years. It's been that long since Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes marked the beginning of that once idiosyncratic filmmaker's descent into brand-recognisable pap, and the audience that turned out for that remake have since grown up, forgotten about it and moved on, leaving demographic room for a franchise reboot or rethink. The first encouraging sign about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that this is not some wayward auteur's overblown "vision" or "reimagining" - the kind of thing on which katrillions of dollars get routinely blown at this time of year - but a smaller scale, approachable When Science Goes Wrong B-movie, wrestling with issues of human hubris, frailty and responsibility. The director, perhaps surprisingly, is the Brit Rupert Wyatt, who came out of nowhere in 2008 with the impressive prison movie The Escapist, and who - despite the temptations of a bigger budget - retains a similarly tight focus in his studio debut. Rise is a summer movie of some intelligence that gets the job done within 100 minutes - frankly, what's not to cheer?

Granted, it's a prequel - an origin (of the species) story, if we must. In contemporary San Francisco, research scientist James Franco is raising chimps in a lab as part of a program investigating gene therapy as a possible cure for Alzheimer's - his work inspired in part by the mental deterioration of a former music teacher father (John Lithgow) in danger of forgetting all his notes. When the program is shut down, Franco brings his work - in the form of pre-eminent test ape Caesar - home with him, and things are good for a while. Caesar displays heightened, humanoid responses, picking up sign language and allowing his keeper to do much the same with foxy vet Freida Pinto.

Yet we're never in much doubt that this is a kept monkey, and a monkey who keeps being kept: first peaceably enough by Franco and Pinto, in an environment of picnics and good liberal cheekbones, then in a state department lock-up, a simian prison run by the reliably Machiavellian Brian Cox and his young helper Tom Felton. (If Project Nim tells us not to leave our chimps in the hands of 1970s scientists, Rise of the Planet of the Apes insists nothing good can come from entrusting monkeys to Hannibal Lecktor and Draco Malfoy.) The oppressed faction here don't want cookies and slop doled out to them, they want to grab it for themselves. Under Caesar's leadership, they organise. They break out. They fight back. Sound familiar?

At the centre of this putative blockbuster, there exists a vast and staggering visual effect - Caesar himself, another collaboration between the actor Andy Serkis and the mocap experts at WETA (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) - but the effect itself isn't key: it's how Wyatt chooses to integrate it. Caesar swings through the treetops in a manner helpful to the Fox trailer-cutters, it's true; and the prison yard sequences (where the Serkis-gorilla from King Kong gets pulled from mothballs) serve as a virtual playground for the WETA technicians. Yet the latter serve an important narrative function: they're where the film really begins to develop its arguments about the conditions we keep others in. (Startling it should happen to open in this of all weeks.)

Secondary - almost overshadowed by the prevailing apeness - but no less startling is how the film centralises Alzheimer's, with its altogether more deleterious effects. Lithgow's vacillations between sparkiness and remoteness put enough across for them to convince as a sincere portrait of the condition without killing the buzz around a notionally crowdpleasing popcorn flick, but it's an unexpectedly human touch - a glimpse of a world beyond high concepts and development meetings - that elevates Rise only further. (We may also remember that The Escapist combined external action with internal states, centring as it did on an old lag - Cox again - facing up to a slow death behind bars.)

Wyatt shows a remarkable gift for smuggling these subtle, thought-out flourishes into a tentpole studio project: he only allows us chimpanese subtitles when humans and apes have reached the same cognitive level, and proves particularly attentive to his minor characters, like the tremendously expressive circus orangutan who doesn't actually exist, save in a hard drive somewhere, or the human neighbour who probably wishes he'd chosen to live anywhere other than next door to Lithgow. The second act gets a little diffuse - Franco-Lithgow on one side, incarcerated apes on the other - but the third act pulls it all together with a series of chest-thumping scenes in zoos, corporate headquarters, leafy suburban thoroughfares and on the Golden Gate Bridge, as a single word ("NO!") becomes a cry of resistance to be heard through, if not the years, then whatever remains of the summer. The drama playing out on UK streets is its own kind of sequel - but they shouldn't (and probably won't) wait another decade to make another one of these.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is on nationwide release.