Monday, 16 October 2017

From the archive: "Ida"

A wanderer returns home. Having roamed to Margate (for 2000’s Last Resort), Yorkshire (2004’s My Summer of Love) and from there to Paris (for 2011’s The Woman in the Fifth), Pawel Pawlikowski has returned to his native Poland for his latest film. Ida is a retreat, a regroup, and an acknowledgement that somewhere on the road leading out of Warsaw, this talented imagemaker got very badly lost. Now he finds himself again, quite magnificently.

Where The Woman in the Fifth looked like the work a jobbing international filmmaker feels obliged to undertake with the embarrassment of riches suddenly available to him, the new film pares back to first principles in everything from its Academy-sized frame to its monochrome colour scheme. Its modest success in US arthouses over the summer may be down to an element of novelty: just as The Artist looked (and sounded) like nothing seen on screen since the 1920s, Ida’s small square of light houses a thematic seriousness and visual rigour more commonly associated with the heyday of Robert Bresson.

We are, indeed, in the 1960s here – and Pawlikowski is simultaneously channelling a whole history of Polish cinema dealing with those traumas incurred under the Nazi occupation. A week before taking her vows, novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is granted leave to visit her only living relative. Within minutes of entering the flat of her worldly magistrate aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), Anna has learnt she’s actually Jewish by birth; furthermore, that she wasn’t originally named Anna, but Ida.

The two hit the road to uncover more about the girl’s parents, and in a film of stark contrasts, perhaps the starkest is that between this odd couple: Wanda darker and dolorous from all that she’s seen and done, striving wherever possible to drown her sorrows with jazz and vodka, Anna/Ida light-haired and open-faced, clinging to her wimple and Bible even as her eyes are widened by new, sometimes welcome, sometimes bruising experience.

The scenery the two pass through could hardly be more dramatic. Pawlikowski’s rediscovery of Margate in Last Resort, and his description of his writer hero’s grotty apartment block in The Woman in the Fifth, indicated a filmmaker drawn to atmospherically rundown backwaters. Here, the contours of rural Poland are captured on damp, wintry afternoons when one might well take to prayer or introspection; there’s one particularly striking, Béla Tarr-like tableau that notes the last dances of a big band night at the hotel the pilgrims are staying at, with balloons littering the floor and someone’s stray dog sniffing around for food.

Throughout, Pawlikowski uses the 4:3 frame dynamically, placing faces and bodies at the bottom or edges of the image, the better to emphasise how the world, and its history, seems to both weigh on and weigh down these characters. It’s a space that feels lived-in, and everything we see and they experience counts double for that: we’re heading towards a conclusion that plays like the coda of a superlative short story, as these women return to their previous lives, only to realise their experiences in the field have been such that those lives can never be the same again.

For the film’s director, at least, this trajectory is more triumph than tragedy. In recounting Ida’s story, Pawlikowski realises there is much to be gained from forsaking the centreground and instead scratching around at the margins – not least a sense of what his cinema could be, rather than what moneymen and marketplace lore insist it should be. It makes for engrossing, revivifying drama: as Anna comes to know exactly who she is, so too does Pawlikowski.

(MovieMail, September 2014)

Ida premieres on Channel 4 tonight at 2.55am.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

On DVD: "Miracle Mile"

One that originally got away - never quite making the quantum leap from VHS to DVD at that pivotal moment in home-entertainment history - 1988's Miracle Mile is another of those B-movies that manages to overcome any number of wobbly performances and gaucheries in its writing and directing because its premise is entirely gripping. Imagine a Twilight Zone episode from the final minutes of the Cold War, or an After Hours played deadly straight: Anthony Edwards, caught in those wilderness years between Top Gun and e.r., is the L.A. everynerd (job at the Natural History Museum, keen trombonist) bracing himself for the night of his life with the girl of his dreams when he picks up a ringing payphone outside the diner where the latter works, and hears a military whistleblower spilling the beans that a pre-emptive nuclear strike is set to obliterate the West Coast within the hour. 

At first, this triggers no more than a ripple of ironies - stepping inside the diner, our boy has to endure the kind of banal, everyday pleasantries you'd probably grow impatient at with fifty-nine minutes left on the clock - yet increasingly it becomes clear that writer-director Steve De Jarnatt (following up the previous year's no less cultish Cherry 2000) intends to twist the fantasy of insider knowledge inside-out. Edwards comes to appear as powerless as everybody else on screen, and - given the levels of carnage his fellow Angelenos rack up as news of potential armageddon leaks out - there's a fair bit of evidence to suggest we'd all frankly be better off not knowing when the big one drops. The phrase the panicked soldier uses over the phone, however, is "locked in", which is exactly the status of everybody on screen and looking on.

Edwards and Mare Winningham, actors who'd got used to playing second fiddle to the Rob Lowes and Demi Moores of this world, make an immediately sympathetic couple who you want to see in a new dawn together, and their movements are intertwined with a Tangerine Dream score that - as with the group's scores for The Keep and Risky Business - converts the action into a compulsive nocturne: you begin to wonder whether somebody's having a nightmare before your very eyes. De Jarnatt himself all but vaporised after this - only trace credits on e.r. and The X-Files remain - but he has a vivid, painterly eye for late 80s L.A. architecture, and fills these streets and buildings with an affecting, quietly chilling sense of mounting desperation and hopelessness: the whole film's like a Hopper canvas where you can hear the sirens and screams getting louder by the second, and there is no easy or obvious way out.

Miracle Mile is released on DVD tomorrow through Arrow Video. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 6-8, 2017:

1 (new) Blade Runner 2049 (15)

2 (1) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
3 (2It: Chapter One (15) ***
4 (new) The Mountain Between Us (12A)
5 (3) Victoria & Abdul (PG) **
6 (4) Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG) ***
7 (new) Norma: Met Opera (12A)
8 (5) Flatliners (15)
9 (6) Home Again (12A)
10 (7) The Emoji Movie (U)


My top five: 
1. Blood Simple [above]

2. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
3. The Ornithologist
4. The Party
5. Hellraiser

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12) **
2 (2) The Boss Baby (U)
3 (3Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
4 (4) Logan (12) ***
5 (6) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
6 (8) Hidden Figures (PG) **
7 (9) Kong: Skull Island (12)
8 (7) Going in Style (12)
9 (10) Life (15) **
10 (new) Miss Sloane (15)


My top five: 
1. City of Ghosts

2. The Red Turtle
3. My Life as a Courgette
4. David Lynch: The Art Life
5. Suntan

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The 'Burbs (Sunday, five, 1.35pm)
2. Ida (Monday, C4, 2.55am)
3. Leave to Remain (Sunday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
4. Pyaasa (Tuesday, C4, 2.45am)
5. The Last Boy Scout (Saturday, ITV1, 11.40pm)

Family affair: "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)"

The new Noah Baumbach film provides further confirmation of two very old saws. Firstly, it dramatises the idea that children either learn from or get damaged by their parents' mistakes; secondly, it demonstrates once again that, in filmmaking, casting is half the battle. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) centres on a family unit that, for all its sharp points and rougher edges, tesselates as a family unit should, and one made up of performers among whom we very quickly come to feel at home. A vaguely boho clan, something like Wes Anderson's Tenenbaums with the colour contrast turned down several shades, the Meyerowitzes are presided over by bearded patriarch Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a once-noted sculptor - referred to, with Godlike certainty, as "The Dad" - who now spends his days nursing a variety of career-related gripes and resentments, and projecting his own insecurities onto his already harassed offspring. Accountant Matthew (Ben Stiller) initially seems the family's golden boy, not least for having figured out a way to support himself, but his return to the family's soon-to-be-sold property reveals a kid still desperate to impress or just satisfy his pop; with the dowdy, awkward Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) overlooked seemingly on the grounds of being a girl, we're left wondering about the fate of black sheep Danny, a gentle, divorced composer found clinging onto his outwardly mobile 18-year-old daughter, a lifebuoy recovered from the wreckage of his marriage.

Danny is played by Adam Sandler, and his presence is the first sign of the excellent work Baumbach did right from casting and rehearsals. Here is someone who appears out of place in the world of MoMA-high art Harold moves in, yet right down to the sorry slump of his sadsack moustache, Sandler is deeply convincing as a decent, even sweet man who's had much of the stuffing knocked out of him - and has the limp to prove it; he more than holds his own against a bluffly brilliant Hoffman, a thoroughly engaged Stiller, the slyly scene-stealing Marvel, and even in one or two scenes opposite Emma Thompson as Harold's hippy-dippy new spouse, observed fussing over the whereabouts of her "good wok". Much as I liked 2005's The Squid and the Whale, I'd spent the past decade growing resistant to Baumbach's tales of Manhattan privilege, yet there's a maturity and warmth about his writing here, coupled to a heightened idea of how to use his actors and camera to frame all this talk. Witness the inspired set-up that congregates the Meyerowitz offspring in a hospital doorway as they learn their father's doctor is about to depart to China on holiday, a choice that immediately reduces these grown-ups to the needy children they are; or the pained (yet very skilfully sustained) heart-to-heart between Sandler and Stiller that gains a comic undertow from going back-and-forth across the same scrap of community-college lawn; or - and you cannot fail to miss this - Baumbach's dryly funny habit of cutting elsewhere whenever one Meyerowitz or another reaches the very end of their tether.

If, on the surface, the film dramatises the myriad ways family members will rub each other up the wrong way, it wisely proceeds from the assumption its viewers will be only too aware of this phenomenon, and that there's no need to labour unduly over the subsequent fallout - it's what keeps The Meyerowitz Stories from toppling over into the over-emphatic, sentimental melodrama of The Family Stone or that one with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman in it. More than this, the new film feels like a suddenly middle-aged creative's touching, tentative contemplation of legacy, and what (and/or who) we leave behind us after we pass into eternal storage: hence Harold's tetchy harrumphing at the thought of being included in a group show rather than earning an individual retrospective, a show at which Danny is struck by the idea that if his father wasn't a great artist, "he was just a prick". The consoling movement of the film, however, is away from exceptionalism and towards togetherness, and from Harold being thought of as "The Dad" to being one dad among many, including, just perhaps, the viewer's own. Suffice to say infirmity plays its part in this process, as it often does in life, bringing about change in not just the great Harold Meyerowitz but his sons and daughters, too - and Baumbach is wise enough to note the support networks even chalk-and-cheese siblings can form at moments of crisis. This is the kind of movie American cinema had to originate, and has had to keep making, because it never had a King Lear of its own to revive - and this is a very good example of that kind of movie.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to stream on Netflix.

Between the walls: "School Life"

School Life is a bit of a charmer. It's just possible that documentarists Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane found themselves watching Être et Avoir a few years ago and wondering "why don't we have anything quite like this?" And so it was they travelled to Headfort, a boarding school deep in the Irish countryside, in order to turn their cameras upon the kind of activity that goes on in schools across the land, every day of every term. Above all, they honed in on John and Amanda Leyden, married, middle-aged teachers who live on site, presiding over a smattering of youngsters from broadly diverse backgrounds, many of whom are negotiating their first, formative weeks and months away from home. Though Mrs. Leyden's pierced eyebrow is a novelty, here are educators who - unlike, say, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers - actually look like the people who taught us way back when: John has that flyaway cape of white hair nature reserves solely for learned men and derelicts. (I wouldn't want to cross him; I can't do detention next Saturday.)

The emphasis is on the Leyden's teaching methods, and there is something of the spirit of A.S. Neill's experimental academy Summerhill in the non-prescriptive space they upon up for learning-through-experience. While Amanda has the book-learning down, furrowing her brow upon encountering a copy of The Shining hidden away in one pupils' desk, she also prompts her pre-teens into a debate on the (in Catholic Ireland, doubly controversial) issue of same-sex marriage; John, meanwhile, is most often found encouraging his charges to form bands and do their own DIY in the graffiti-covered, paint-splattered outhouse that passes for Headfort's music room. In short, there is between these walls an element of chaos - the chaos of life itself - which you probably wouldn't find inside your local Ofsted-fearing primary: John's tendency to dole out the occasional, withering "honey" to his female students might raise a non-pierced eyebrow or two, although I was reassured everybody was in safe hands the minute he kicked off an afterschool jam session by spinning Shampoo's "Trouble".

At risk of sounding like a teacher on parents' night, School Life could perhaps do with greater structure. I only gleaned the school's name from a minibus glimpsed in the background; we get a peek at what would appear a highlight of the curriculum - a school Olympics, complete with playing-field opening ceremony - but then have to scurry off to the next class. More drama wouldn't have gone amiss, either: is it that private schools like this only attract well-bred sorts with infinite respect for their elders? (Not in my experience.) Or that the presence of the cameras made these kids too self-conscious to play up? Still, the loose, ramshackle framing arguably mirrors the film's subject: few films have been this alert to the idea that learning can be a fun, collaborative process, and that the best teachers are open to the possibility their charges might teach them something, even if it's just a means to staying young at heart. At any rate, any educators looking on will surely find themselves a new hero in the dryly, affectionately dismissive John, who - after setting aside his full box of teacher's tricks, lighting up a fag, and hearing feet running down a nearby corridor - balefully confesses: "Don't like the sound of that. Sounds like children."

School Life is now playing in selected cinemas.

"The Snowman" (IndieWire 12/10/17)

We’re witnessing the last laps of the Scandinavian crime wave, that border-crossing multimedia movement that washed so much frosty-to-glacial genre fiction onto our shores and screens. The detective heroes of TV imports Wallander and The Bridge walked into the low winter sunset, while the Lisbeth Salander cycle has stalled to a point where reboots have been decreed necessary. Adapting The Snowman, one of Norwegian scribe Jo Nesbø’s bestselling Harry Hole mysteries, isn’t the studios’ worst idea of 2017. Yet it does feel a tardy one, and despite the industry heft thrown at Tomas Alfredson’s film, its execution leaves much to be desired. Beyond these stellar opening credits, there stretch two hours of icy, mostly lifeless waste.

Nesbø’s seventh Hole book provides the basis for this first movie, hence a certain frontloading of defective-detective tics. Michael Fassbender’s Harry is discovered blotto in an Oslo bus shelter, before stumbling back to a singleton’s untended apartment. “We found mould behind the walls,” shrugs the handyman spraying for dry rot, triggering a loud characterisation-through-property klaxon. It’s literary mildew that spreads elsewhere: Harry has a troubled relationship with his gallerist ex (Charlotte Gainsbourg), bathroom cupboards stocked deep with Diazepam, and a stack of unopened letters on his desk, most urgent among them being taunting missives from a serial killer leaving snowmen behind at the scene of his crimes.

Sniggers at early trailers suggest these melting markers will be but one of this notionally sombre thriller’s weak spots. As Harry and equally harassed partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) rifle through years of missing-persons reports, we’re introduced to a whole grotto’s-worth of carrot-noses. There are forlorn-looking snowmen and irked-looking snowmen; flashbacks featuring Val Kilmer as a pie-eyed detective predecessor uncover remote mountaintop snowmen; at one point, there’s even a snowman bearing the severed head of Chloe Sevigny. “She was a free spirit,” eulogises the deceased’s twin sister, played altogether bathetically by a second Sevigny – and yes, this is the kind of film that thinks nothing of casting Chloe Sevigny as identical-twin chicken farmers.

Yet these rogue Olafs – chilling on the page, laughable when made literal on screen – are just the tip of the iceberg. Plot and screen soon throng with self-evident red herrings: James d’Arcy as an uptight husband, David Dencik as an oddball therapist with fuchsia-pink toenails, an underplaying J.K. Simmons as a local grandee trying to bring something called the Winter Sports World Cup to Oslo. It is the standard drift of Scandinavian crime fiction that all murders should point up the food chain towards corrupt, abusive or otherwise wonky administrations, but one of The Snowman’s biggest letdowns is how the promising Dencik-Simmons business winds up a narrative dead-end, somewhere between timewasting feint and audience cheat.

Such non-sequiturs, coupled with three screenwriting credits, insinuate this wasn’t the smoothest adaptation process. It may have been a non-negotiable Nesbøism that the Snowman Killer is kept on hold for long spells while the leads look into one another’s pasts: novelists generally do thread-juggling better than mainstream movies. Yet there’s a pungent whiff of contrivance about the video-fingerprint technology that requires Katrine to lug ugly, heavy kit around, and inevitably yields the clue that cracks the case. That outcome conveniently resolves all Harry’s issues in one go, while leaving viewers with a dozen or more hang-on-a-minute loose ends to pick through on the grumpy trudge back to the car.

If that process were livelier, The Snowman might have provided functional distraction, but as in his plodding Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alfredson’s direction proves yawnsomely methodical, ticking off surviving plot points as though filling in some I-Spy Book of Scandinavian Crime Cliches. He permits one novelty – an unexpected revival of Hot Butter’s 1972 hit “Popcorn” – and has the advantage of screen-filling Nordic scenery, but his pacing makes the original Salander movies seem turbocharged. Mostly, he concerns himself with reproducing the atmospheric conditions of his breakthrough Let the Right One In, fogging up the viewfinder before the final reel’s choppy, unconvincing and desperately anticlimactic action.

The idiosyncratic performers might have boosted it, yet where Fassbender brought new, uncanny qualities to bear during his recent Alien androidry, here he’s stuck playing Composite Scandie Detective. Standing amid wide open spaces in woollens and parka, his Harry stares frequently into the middle distance, sporadically smoking for added notes of disquiet. Watching him wheel around one scene atop a library cart, we’re struck chiefly by the actor’s own boredom, and it’s a sticking point when your leading man appears bored an hour into a possible franchise-starter. After two hours of The Snowman, we know precisely why Harry Hole takes to drinking in bus shelters. We may even be tempted to join him there.

An after-the-goldrush project like this shortsells everyone eventually. Blink and you’ll miss Toby Jones, playing one more gobbet of exposition; Kilmer’s now ferociously lived-in presence seizes the attention during his five minutes of screen time, but he appears the victim of either dubbing or indifferent ADR; putting Gainsbourg in an LBD is the film’s thin idea of style. Any hope Ferguson might produce some consolatory warmth or heat with her co-star gets extinguished early on, and while it’s almost a relief when the film abandons its limp attempts to make Katrine interesting and instead generates another damsel-in-distress, it’s also an admission of defeat, marking the point at which Alfredson abandons any pretension to serious drama.

It’s a pity, as recent box-office charts have framed this as a boomtime for R-rated entertainments, but you can’t see a perfunctory, much-tinkered-with chore like this sticking round in multiplexes for long. Lacking the pulpy kick and verve of 2011’s native Nesbø adaptations Headhunters and Jackpot, The Snowman is too ponderous to quicken the pulse, and too drably, insistently grey to provide an accidental campfest for would-be snowmen-spotters. For all the considerable nous assembled either side of the camera, no-one can rescue it from its own mediocrity: if this were the opening tranche of a TV miniseries, you’d be exploring other channels some time between the second and third ad breaks.

Rating: C-

The Snowman is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Between the wars: "Goodbye Christopher Robin"

The period hits keep on coming. Although given to a gentleness that sometimes borders on tweeness, Goodbye Christopher Robin, directed by Simon Curtis from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, differentiates itself by attempting to generate something other than the now-standard nostalgia for Empire - not least an ambivalence around the idea of nostalgia full-stop. This is an author biopic, very much in the vein of Finding Neverland, 2004's hanky-dampener on the tragic personal life of J.M. Barrie, but it also intends to be a continuation of its subject's commitment to pacifism, knowing full well the casualties that generally follow when flags start flying and our youngsters are sent off to the battlefield. That gentleness, for all that it might at times appear cosy or underdramatic, is in itself a political stance. 

The author is A.A. Milne, played here by the generally upright and Poohstick-thin Domhnall Gleeson as a man very much of his time. Returning from the frontlines of "the war to end all wars", he's newly traumatised by Roaring Twenties champagne corks that go off like rockets and West End spotlights that resemble searchlights. Marriage (to Margot Robbie's society belle Daphne), fatherhood and a measure of success as a playwright and wit-for-hire all follow, yet as the film has it, it was only with the family's relocation to the open spaces and fresh air of Ashdown Forest in leafy Sussex that Milne found both peace-of-mind and his most enduring success, taking off into the woods by afternoon in the company of his cute-as-a-button son Christopher Robin Milne (played by Will Tilston as a boy, and Alex Lawther as an adolescent), a.k.a. "Billy Moon", to build new worlds with the aid of the lad's ragbag teddy bear.

Cottrell Boyce and Vaughan ensure these woodland manoeuvres go a little deeper than the usual movie Eureka moments: their Pooh Corner becomes a haven, a Brigadoon-like safe space that opened up before the author for a few brief summers, only to disappear again as events elsewhere in Europe, and the Milnes' own relationship, began to darken. The best scenes in the film are those that isolate Gleeson and Tilston in the middle of nowhere, when a combination of time, nature and Billy Moon's bright-eyed purity comes to heal some of the author's scars. When Milne - commonly nicknamed Blue, with all the melancholia that infers - hears a buzzing, his mind immediately scrambles back to the flies descending upon the corpses littering the trenches; it's down to the boy to reassure him it's only bees, busy making honey (or hunny). "This is paradise," coos visiting illustrator Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), looking out over the rolling, sundappled hills, and it's hard not to agree - but the filmmakers keep a close eye on the issues Milne had to work through out here so that his books might later be claimed as philosophical primers.

This, admittedly, leaves little for the women of the piece to do: after mother!, Goodbye Christopher Robin is the second autumn release to draw bleak conclusions about the place of the fairer sex in big country houses. One might generously say that Robbie was miscast, except that her presence on the roster presumably unlocked some funding during the preproduction process: clenched and blinking and working frightfully hard on her cutglass accent, she's entirely unable to overturn the script's unflattering conception of Daphne as a party girl who grew cold and brittle the moment another, dependent human being was sprung from her loins. By way of consolation, Kelly Macdonald offers up her usual warmth as the Milnes' beloved nanny Olive, but I can't be the only viewer who feels he's seen Macdonald cringing her way through nanny roles in eight out of her last ten features; you do wish the British film industry would get round to finishing its Boardwalk Empire boxsets and push more adventurous and substantial material her way. It becomes increasingly apparent the film needs its women to be there solely for them to go away, for the heart of this tale is an all-male double-act: the troubled, solitary man, and the boy who, by way of his very Christopher Robin-like sensitivity (nicely caught in the bowl-headed Tilston), teaches him how to be a father - and a father not just to this kid, but all kids.

Gleeson has that stiff ex-Army reserve ("old soldier, you know; I'll see to myself") down pat, but in his quieter moments, he lets us in on a latent anger at the state of things: it's all this Milne can do to pull himself together and write, in defiance of the cruelties and iniquities of a world that would paralyse us and stifle the imagination. (Dude should have stuck around for 2017.) It is cosy for stretches - such that it's something of a culture-shock to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag herself, show up in twin set and pearls as a Times reporter - but Cottrell Boyce and Vaughan withhold their most complex material until the closing stretch, as we learn the extent to which young Billy Moon was himself marked and traumatised by this formative moment. Curtis's adoption of a child's-eye view, which had earlier done so much to usher us between Ashdown and the fictional reality of the Hundred Acre Wood, suddenly looks like a poignant reminder of that innocence that gets knocked out of us with age. What starts out seeming to be a film about a boy whose worst fear is to be abandoned by the adults around him finally resolves itself into a quandary Milne knew all too well: is it not every bit as heartbreaking when a parent comes to be abandoned by their child?

Goodbye Christopher Robin is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A bit of a do: "The Party"

The Party, Sally Potter's return to fiction filmmaking, is a short, sharp chamber piece (71 minutes, including credits) which gestures - wildly, often amusingly - in the direction of the state-of-the-nation address some of us have spent the best part of the last year looking for. It's organised around - yes - a dinner party, a scenario that satirically inclined filmmakers from Luis Buñuel to Mike Leigh have deployed as a potential festival of embarrassments and humiliations, and it's very quickly and economically established that this one will go off with a louder than usual bang. For one thing, hostess Kristin Scott Thomas, an MP newly selected as Shadow Health Secretary, is going manic in the kitchen, burning the vol-au-vents while fielding calls from a secret lover; her hubby Timothy Spall, meanwhile, lurks gloomily in the lounge, nursing the red wine and a secret of his own. Other arrivals (Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz) appear convivial enough in the main, the one possible exception being "wanker banker" Cillian Murphy, who turns up drenched in coke sweat, and with a gun concealed in his jacket pocket. Suffice to say nobody is going to get fed, and one of The Party's comic and dramatic strengths is how it permits us to feel the collective blood sugar plummeting and irritation rising.

It may, granted, sound as if April's The Sense of an Ending has a rival for the title of Liberal Elite: The Movie, and indeed the entirety of this caprice takes place in Scott Thomas's well-appointed North London bolthole, shuffling the first-world concerns of characters who've never had to scrape to make rent. Yet Potter reveals a sharp eye and ear for her characters' cluelessness. Ganz's holistic cuckoo, burbling beatifically about the superiority of aromatherapy over the "voodoo" of Western medicine, is the obvious comic relief, but even the more grounded Jones lets slip she once did a degree in "gender differentialism and American utopianism", subjects which the director rightly senses might prompt anyone to make their excuses and leave, perhaps even vote Leave. In one front parlour, here is the frippery of the well-to-do, a jostling collection of niche concerns and special interests; set against the essentials of love, sex, birth and death, everything else is what Clarkson, the film's repository of waspish common sense, dismisses as mere dogma, that curse of the modern age. Still, they bang on and on at one another until the tenuous air of civility is shattered along with the hosts' patio door, at which point any solidarity falls apart; you lose track of the number of relationships that get smashed against these walls, or fly out the window.

Potter could just have written enough betrayals for her blue-chip cast to enact, wound these players up, and watched 'em go - it would surely have brought the house down at the Hampstead Theatre, if nothing else. That The Party feels so much richer than the hour-long, single-location doodle it presents as is down to the way she and her performers navigate a succession of electric tonal shifts. They pivot from wry comedy of manners to life-or-death tragedy, pinball via Ray Cooney farce and piquant social commentary: we're encouraged to consider just where the MP's desire to have her vol-au-vents and eat them has left her, alongside Murphy's twitchy portrait of toxic masculinity, a manchild brought up to so keenly believe he's a winner that he simply doesn't know how to react upon learning he's become a cuckold. (Inevitably, he reacts badly.) For Potter, all the isms and other certainties her generation were raised with - the capitalism and socialism, the collectivism and individualism - are now, more than ever, in a state of flux if not outright crisis. As Clarkson barks at Spall during the home stretch: "I seem to remember you called yourself a feminist in the old days." As the punch-drunk latter replies: "Everything's changed."

It's not hard to see what about the sight of once-comfortable, possibly complacent Brits falling into terminal infighting might ring a bell among UK audiences in 2017. (Potter reportedly completed her script during the 2015 general election, but she has a feel for divisions to come.) Among a spread of vividly recognisable archetypes - the helpless, self-defeating opposition figurehead, the smug guru who proves zero help when things start going south - it's Spall, half his previous physical presence but somehow twice the actor, who proves the most compelling invitee: stricken, haggard, compromised, the bruised conscience of Leigh's Secrets & Lies recast and revealed over the course of a single evening as a sorry wreck of a man, left wondering - as we surely all are - "How has it come to this?" Those words would be a better epitaph for this Party than the punchline the film eventually dashes towards, which slightly undermines the seriousness of Potter's project - suggesting that this was never meant as more than a tart, well-sustained joke. Yet in its hectic movement and wild mood swings, The Party goes some considerable way towards capturing the madness and the sickness that has consumed this country over the past eighteen months, and does so far better than any of our pretty-pretty post-Downton exercises in dressing-up.

The Party opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Pinterest: "Hellraiser"

Reissued in cinemas to mark its 30th anniversary (and, not coincidentally, another Friday the 13th), Hellraiser, being the directorial debut of horror novelist Clive Barker, adds both ghoulish and human dimensions to a standard haunted-house scenario. A married couple with all sorts of baggage (Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins) move into a spacious property that can never be a home for reasons that soon become clear: among them is the presence of the husband's brother (and the wife's sometime lover), a latter-day libertine who's literally been to hell and back, having had the misfortune of being dragged off to a shadow universe after a ritual involving a shiny, Rubik's Cube-like spirit box (a nice piece of production design) went horribly wrong. With an eye to international box-office returns, Barker gives this British-filmed production a curious mid-Atlantic feel, with a lot of actors and accents striving to pass for American - in one especially comical instance, this involving sticking a day player with a baseball cap - though it could just as easily play out as grisly domestic farce, with a wife taking in other men to feed the secret lurking in her closet.

What's particularly persuasive is the film's all-pervasive sense of decay: blackened fingernails, mouldering food, a homeless man with bugs in his beard, organic malevolence festering under the floorboards and in the walls with the rats. All that timelapse footage of carcasses mulching and decomposing in Peter Greenaway's Eighties features Barker here reverses, with creatures emerging out of primordial soup, thanks to some still impressive model work. The computer effects (and, if we're being honest, the bouffant hairstyles) have dated less well, but otherwise it remains an appreciably serious horror remnant from a decade not exactly spilling over with them: sequels inevitably followed, more expensive yet still relatively cheap in the grand scheme of things, not always approved by Barker, and often less concerned with clever plotting than the mythos of the monstrous Cenobites. Doug Bradley's implacable Pinhead became the series' poster boy, its Freddy or Jason, but he's a late arrival here, only announcing his presence during a third-act diversion in a hospital that has nothing very much to do with the main narrative thrust.

Hellraiser returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday, 6 October 2017

At the LFF: "Life Guidance"

It risks giving into lazy national stereotypes, but one could argue Life Guidance was a very Austrian sci-fi movie: all clean, straight lines and antiseptic spaces, unified by an underlying unease about the direction society is pointed in. The logical endpoint, according to writer-director Ruth Mader, is an Austria governed by the (very corporate) idea of optimalisation: her film, accordingly, evokes a nation-state where citizens are pressured to make the most money and own the nicest homes, housing the priciest things, with no time or space whatsoever permitted for frailty, jollity or indeed anything else in the realms of human feeling. As in all workable sci-fi speculations, we are invited to ponder the extent to which the future may be here already.

Such emotional austerity measures have left Mader's protagonist, family man Alexander (Fritz Karl), depressed beyond tables, and most often crying on the couch in his beautifully appointed property in the suburbs. One afternoon, however, there arrives on his doorstep an oddball advisor from the state's Life Guidance division, there to passively-aggressively turn Alex's frown upside down and generally steer him back onto what's been deemed the right course. Instead, in a film that doesn't lack for shots of its lead behind the wheel of a sleek company car, this intervention succeeds only in driving our man further astray: soon, he's bunking off work altogether to stalk his would-be counsellor, hang around suboptimal housing estates, and initiate some kind of relationship with an equally depressive divorcee. Life, so the film has it, is a messy business, and we owe it to ourselves and future selves to mitigate for that.

What the film describes is a carefully controlled rebellion: in his buttoned-down suit and tie, Karl projects a variation of that fragile self-containment widely associated with Colin Firth, and Mader keeps framing/trapping him within Austria's most striking modernist and postmodern properties. The deeper he's ensnared in this narrative, the more he starts to resemble Kafka's Josef K after another century of bureaucratic capitalism: entirely uncertain how to react, and whether there's anywhere left for him to run. The great pleasure of Life Guidance is how organically this story develops and flows: each scene opens a different window onto a brave new world that seems only a few miles or minutes down the road from our own. There are, perhaps inevitably, traces of Michael Haneke to be glimpsed: Alexander reacts with blank panic upon learning an agency has recorded his white-saviour dreams of escaping to Africa, as we note with alarm that one of his fellow travellers is played by Arno Frisch, one of the original Funny Games' home invaders. (You should see this guy's nightmares.)

Yet Mader tempers any severity with a sly, dry sense of humour. Such are the conditions imposed by the authorities that a kickaround in the back garden, usually a gentle gesture towards father-son bonding, here involves dad walloping the ball as hard as he can at his lad; meanwhile, businessmen are reeducated at afternoon arts-and-crafts sessions, experiencing self-improvement through macrame; and when, at his lowest ebb, Alexander finds himself among the sorry singletons at a down-at-heel noodle bar, the possibility is raised that Mader and co-writer Martin Leidenfrost may just be dramatising, even satirising, the kind of midlife crisis - a futile kicking against the pricks - which men will still be having decades from now. Between the surge in sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the rediscovery of Philip K. Dick by television and the new Blade Runner, philosophical sci-fi looks to be having a renaissance, perhaps as we look for guidance on how to navigate our present dystopias: Mader's scarcely less compelling fable offers high style and no little sociological food for thought.

Life Guidance screens tomorrow (8.45pm) at the ICA, then on Monday 9 (12.45pm) at BFI Southbank, and again on Saturday 14 (2.30pm) at the Vue Leicester Square.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 29-October 1, 2017:

1 (1) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **

2 (2It: Chapter One (15) ***
3 (3) Victoria & Abdul (PG) **
4 (new) Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG) ***
5 (new) Flatliners (15)
6 (new) Home Again (12A)
7 (5) The Emoji Movie (U)
8 (6) The Jungle Bunch (U)
9 (8) Despicable Me 3 (U)
10 (4) mother! (18) *****


My top five: 
1. Blood Simple

2. The Ornithologist
3. Goodbye Christopher Robin
4. The Road to Mandalay
5. Zoology

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12) **
2 (1) The Boss Baby (U)
3 (2Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
4 (4) Logan (12) ***
5 (3John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
6 (5Fifty Shades Darker (18)
7 (7) Going in Style (12)
8 (10) Hidden Figures (PG) **
9 (8) Kong: Skull Island (12)
10 (9) Life (15) **


My top five: 
1. City of Ghosts

2. The Red Turtle
3. My Life as a Courgette
4. David Lynch: The Art Life
5. Suntan

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Bajirao Mastani [above] (Monday, C4, 1.50am)
2. Splice (Wednesday, C4, 1.25am)
3. American Pie: The Wedding (Saturday, ITV1, 11.05pm)
4. Safe (Sunday, five, 11.05pm)
5. Dial M for Murder (Sunday, BBC2, 1.15pm)

They drive by night: "On the Road"

Given that he was previously responsible for one of the best scored films in recent memory (1999's Wonderland) and an especially vivid snapshot of the Manchester scene (2002's 24 Hour Party People), any Michael Winterbottom film on the subject of music merits our attention; the only fear is that he might, at any point, retreat once again into the vogueish arsehole-and-navel-gazing of 2004's 9 Songs. Shot in the course of the band Wolf Alice's breakthrough UK tour of 2016, On the Road presents as one of Winterbottom's hybrid works. Some substantial part of it intends to be a document of life on the road, complete with all the rehearsal and gig footage the band's fans might want, but Winterbottom also introduces a note or two of fiction in establishing a tentative relationship between a representative of the band's management (Leah Harvey) and a member of the technical crew (James McArdle). The experiment that results, though it has its moments, is only halfway successful.

Several series of TV's The Trip - by some distance Winterbottom's most committed project - have brought this gadfly director's primary theme into sharper focus: the artist as romantic (even Romantic) figure, wandering this Earth, either unable or unwilling to put down anything in the way of roots, becoming increasingly aware of their own mortality. Unlike a lot of NME-endorsed chancers over the years, Wolf Alice bound onto this stage as a supremely photogenic proposition. Naturally, Winterbottom's camera becomes transfixed before lead singer Ellie Rowsell, with her capacity to appear elfin in repose while generating thunderous noise come showtime, yet drummer Joel Amey, too, sports lustrously Byronic locks, and even bassist Theo Ellis, who looks as bassists are wont to look, makes the effort of applying a glittery eye shadow before communing with his public. (It's the old Dave Hill tactic.)

Winterbottom is largely successful in his attempts to evoke the modest milieux that an emergent indie-rock band with some industry clout behind them might pass through: the curious intimacy of the tourbus by day and after dark, the varyingly self-conscious interviews given by bands just stepping into the limelight, the sight of student union bars after a gig, their now-empty dancefloors scattered with standard-issue plastic cups, the cumulative feeling we get of twentysomething travellers slowly running out of clean socks. (One nice, resonant ad hoc line, picked up in passing backstage: "Are you going for a curry after this?") Winterbottom is still to some degree the same realist who knocked out Butterfly Kiss, Welcome to Sarajevo and In This World in the first flush of his career, and it's a tribute to his embedded performers that the unbriefed viewer might well mistake them for real-life hangers-on.

The dramatic strand - which takes in our boy's fraught relationship with his alcoholic mother (Shirley Henderson, typically striking in the minute or so she appears on screen) - suffers from being underdeveloped and imprecisely miked: these snatches of conversation, overheard from afar, reflect only how Winterbottom and crew were evidently at the mercy of somebody else's schedule, obliged to capture what they could when they could. The straightahead emotion of the gigs - the band striking up a tune, the young crowd singing it back to them, or otherwise going wild - registers rather stronger. More exasperatingly, given the overextended two-hour duration, is the sheer amount of downtime On the Road obliges us to navigate: we're left in very little doubt that each day on tour may generate ninety minutes of stonking rock 'n' roll, but it also involves ten to fifteen hours of travelling, unpacking, setting up, and then moving on from one place to the next, as Winterbottom himself has from project to project.

For a while, the director finds ways to keep boredom at arm's length - Harvey's way with a song and a smile should be enough to secure her own future within the entertainment industry - but increasingly all the repetition of touring does is generate the same kinds of scenes, familiar editing strategies (as in 9 Songs, love scenes and live scenes go intertwined) and an overall diffuseness of effect. The idea - to debunk all those hoary Cocksucker Blues-era myths of life on the road - isn't an unworthy one: like many other college-educated, career-conscious mainstays of the 6Music playlist, ver Alice shy away from sex and drugs on camera, and can instead be observed discussing Harry Potter and cleaning their teeth (even, for the love of Lemmy, moisturising) before turning in for the night. Yet this isn't really the basis of compelling cinema, and there's only so many minutes of roadies wheeling equipment around you can watch before the eyes cloud over, the heart sinks, and you find yourself pestering the coach driver to drop you off at the nearest service station.

On the Road opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

At the LFF: "The Hungry"

The passion of Indian filmmakers for Shakespeare continues unabated: with Vishal Bhardwaj hoovering up the Bard's prestige plays - updating Macbeth as 2003's Maqbool, Othello as 2006's Omkara and Hamlet as 2014's Haider - it's been left to newcomer Bornila Chatterjee to take a freehand approach to adapting the eternally problematic Titus Andronicus for the screen. Not for Chatterjee the gleeful theatrical excess that elevated Julie Taymor's pre-millennial adaptation Titus; The Hungry, in striking contrast, unfolds as a coolly restrained, quietly gripping slowburn, detailing the skulduggery that accompanies a transfer of power within a family-owned and operated agribusiness in latter-day New Delhi. (One touchstone looks to have been Michael Almereyda's corporate Hamlet from 2000.) After a prologue that sets out the staged suicide of corporate seedling Ankur (Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma), the bulk of the action is compressed into a coked-up wedding party, overseen by icy patriarch Tathagat (Naseeruddin Shah), in which the planned union - a sealing of deals, on several levels - unravels into bloody chaos. An element of Hitchcockian tease gets built in here: the minute we clock one of the guests offering a gift of a ceremonial duelling pistol, we can be fairly sure the reception will go off with a bang, and it hardly settles the nerves that so much of the food is being served up on skewers.

Yet faced with the play's ever-growing pile-up of cadavers, Chatterjee elects to hold back on the lipsmacking relish. Her deaths are a grim business, and taking her time allows her to invest even her source's pulpier aspects with greater depth. Losses are mourned; the seeds of revenge are carefully planted; and - with the assistance of emergent cinematographer Nick Cooke - some very crisp images are composed. This Titus isn't just a parade of horrors, sick joke or some other assault on the audience's notions of taste, but a labyrinthine plot with especially dark corners, and fleshed-out characters whose wanton appetites point them inexorably towards death, rather than the growth their company would represent: the final act, indeed, squares capitalism and consumption with a cruel kick Peter Greenaway would likely appreciate. I couldn't entirely puzzle out whether Arjun Gupta's posturing, US-educated groom Sunny was meant to be quite so annoying, or whether that was just a side-effect of a ticky performance, but everyone else fits their role like hand in murderous glove: I don't believe I've ever seen Shah play this cold-blooded on screen before. In taking some of the heat out of her material, Chatterjee has given us a film that arguably builds upon its source - and, just perhaps, reflects the cutthroat realities of Modi's business-first India more starkly and dramatically than the PM's supporters would find comfortable.

The Hungry screens this Saturday (6.15pm) at Picturehouse Central, and again on Sunday (8.45pm) at Rich Mix.  

Corporate spies: "Kingsman: The Golden Circle"

2014's Kingsman: The Secret Service was a cartoonishly violent fantasy of social mobility in which the unholy trinity behind the Kick-Ass series - comic book guy Mark Miller, nerd-enabling screenwriter Jane Goldman and producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn - gave the distractible, snickering, hormonal teenagers who nowadays stalk the shopping-mall multiplex exactly what they wanted: loud, bloody carnage, anal sex jokes cribbed from pub toilet walls, a passing sense there might be a place for them in this big and blasted world. Like almost all of Vaughn's undertakings, it was packaged well enough to become a sizeable hit, and so, while we wait for global nuclear annihilation or the universe to right itself in some other way, here comes Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a.k.a. The Further Adventures of Eggsy, a full 141 minutes of them, not just giving the crowd what they want, but a whole lot more of what they want. My reaction proved much the same as my reaction to the Sex and the City diptych: the thin dose of smallpox that was the first movie rather inoculated me against the terribleness of the second. When your expectations are this low, there's very little chance a movie can disappoint, depress or outrage.

There are signs, however, that the first film's success caught even the calculating Vaughn off-guard. The Golden Circle proceeds with one of those sequel plots, initiated and sustained by loose ends we'd all thought the original had tied off, no matter that this approach risks implausibility in bringing the dead back to life. Sequel bloat, as evidenced by that running time, is also very much on the menu. It takes a full hour for Goldman and Vaughn to lay out the precise threat facing the Kingsmen, time the director spends ripping off/auditioning for the Fast & Furious series (it's both what the kids want, and what the habitual franchise-chaser Vaughn wants to do), setting up the domestic bliss Eggsy (Taron Egerton) now inhabits with the Swedish princess he took up the wrong 'un at the end of film one, getting Colin Firth to remember who he is and what he's still doing here (paycheques generally help, in these cases) and ushering on at least a dozen characters too many for any efficient blockbuster to deal with, foremost among them Sir Elton John, playing himself in a wilfully mismanaged cameo that most often contrives to leave him sitting around the set like an abandoned armchair or care home resident. (By complete chance, I found myself listening to "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" the very morning I set out for The Golden Circle: we seem further away than ever from that moment in popular culture.) 

In part, this is down to the new, highly considered, transatlantic direction the series takes here. In a twist literally discovered at the bottom of a whisky bottle, it turns out the Kingsmen have an American equivalent, the Statesmen, a bunch of lasso-wielding, liquor-swilling, boot-stomping rowdies introduced to the strains of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads". (The recurrence of that song here, after its recent deployment in Logan Lucky, makes me wonder how much this Denver mini-revival is down to the singer's timeless sincerity, and how much is down to a wider artistic conservatism: filmmakers giving the public the recognisable things they want.) Goldman and Vaughn's lumpen inability to do anything with dialogue that isn't the F-word (and not much more of note with that) leaves their otherwise sparky guest stars - Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Julianne Moore - looking very ordinary, like any other of the jobbing thesps the director recruits; they, too, are surely here for easy money, safe in the knowledge they'll be away working on more challenging and stimulating projects by the time The Golden Circle has lumbered into its third act.

Crucially, at no point do we feel the film has actually set foot on American soil: Vaughn is one of those low-cost, high-reward facilitators happy to plonk his stars down in front of a blue or green screen and patch in the bulk of his action during post, which is why his evocations of Savile Row and Hyde Park Corner look and feel as virtual and non-atmospheric as his idea of rural Kentucky, or a pharmaceutical repository deep in the Alps. (The casting of Emily Watson as a White House advisor is one clue that this production didn't venture too far beyond Leavesden; the complete absence of humidity in its Cambodia scenes, such that Firth and Egerton can be seen to engage in multiple gunfights in buttoned-down three-piece suits and not break into even a light sweat, would be another. So long as it looks cool, right?) A certain elegance can be observed in the tailoring: I might have been tempted to give editor Eddie Hamilton praise for the dissolve that carries us through a tainted bag of weed to the forest where it was harvested, were the movie he's cut not, you know, 141 minutes longYet the material everyone's working with is so flimsy, and when it's awful, it's properly awful.

It's become clear with these films that Vaughn is cut from squarer cloth than he reckons: the company-man plugs for Fox News and The Sun - it's what they want - recur here, and there's a lot of dwelling upon a range of Kingsman toiletries that will presumably be in the shops come Christmas, for that berk in your life who dreams of touting a whiff of Eggsy. Equally, though, there are moments when Vaughn's yuppified veneer cracks and we get glimpses of the wannabe wideboy who helped muscle Lock Stock and Snatch onto our screens. I still haven't quite figured out whether the Kingsmans reflect his own fantasies of working-class life (yellowing reference points: England beating Germany in the footie, the Royal Wedding) or just what he thinks the working classes will pay to fantasise about. Sometimes the films get caught between the two, as in the gurgling sequence here where queen-and-country compels Eggsy to finger a pliable blonde named Clara in a yurt at Glastonbury. Still, second time around, Vaughn can't work up the snotty energy to be properly obnoxious or shocking - the film's just congested, a build-up of that same product this filmmaker has been dealing in and profiting from ever since Layer Cake, one whose short-lived highs never remotely compensate for the toll exerted on wallet and soul. The more the Golden Circle logo appears on screen, the more it appears to fit the Kingsman brand to a tee: a big, gilded nothing, whether or not that's what we want or aspire towards.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is now playing in cinemas nationwide.