Sunday, 20 August 2017

1,001 Films: "Loulou" (1980)

After one argument too many, middle-class Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) splits with her jazz musician husband André (Guy Marchand) to take up with farmers' boy, common thief and general lad-about-town Loulou (Gérard Depardieu). Maurice Pialat's 1980 drama Loulou might initially seem the stuff of simplicity - a study in social movement, presented as a series of bust-ups and bunk-ups - but it displays a real feel for cafe and street life, and the eruptions of passion it captures are astonishingly vivid. If its interests are physical rather than intellectual, it's because Pialat evidently takes the side of Loulou's honest brute force over André's passive-aggression. As such, the film turns out to be a genuine rarity: the work of a smart director making a sincere attempt, through Depardieu's oafishly lovable moptop, to understand rather than be snide about the type of non-smart guy some girls want to spend their evenings with.

To some extent, it's Huppert's film: her Nelly is the film's emotional fulcrum, and given the gleaming, Garbo-like iceberg the actress has become these past two decades, it's a nostalgic pleasure to see her back in the days when she was still allowed to smile, laugh and have non-masochistic sex on screen. Yet there's a reason the title isn't Nelly (or Whoa, Nelly!): Depardieu clubs every scene he's in over the head and carries it off over his shoulder, a force of nature apparently acting less than being. Given his physicality, the fit he makes with Pialat's cinema comes as no surprise, but for those of us raised on the jovial gastronome Depardieu - Hollywood's idea of Frenchness - it's still a shock to witness the actor as unvarnished youth. Completing a trio of excellent lead performances, Marchand is wonderfully wormy as the increasingly pathetic saxophonist, refusing even once to ask for the audience's sympathies. A self-absorbed, deeply hypocritical figure who's more of a brute than the brute he accuses Loulou of being, it's somehow fitting that André should finally be left to blow his own horn.

(October 2006)

Loulou is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

1,001 Films: "The Big Red One" (1980)

A bona fide American film maudit, The Big Red One was snubbed by audiences who'd rather have seen its juvenile lead Mark Hamill fighting intergalactic battles, cut by its producers, and even seized by Manchester's Vice Squad when they misunderstood the threat to public decency suggested by the title. In fact, the big red one in question is the rouged badge of courage sewn to the epaulettes of the First Infantry Division serving America through World Wars I and II - the exact same division that maverick writer-director Sam Fuller himself once served with. Much of what's great about the film is in its stitching - and its suggestion that, in wartime, any outfit was as likely to be torn or ripped apart as remain intact - which is why even a slightly trimmed version might have seemed like an injustice.

It opens with unnamed grunt Lee Marvin knifing a German soldier within hours of the Armistice being signed at the end of WWI, then flashes forward to WW2 and finds Marvin - now promoted to Sergeant - heading a youthful battalion's march north from Africa through Sicily to Omaha Beach and beyond. His fresh-faced men are soldiers of fortune indeed: blessed with a preternaturally lucky streak, they make their way through a series of varyingly fortuitous events, assisting during an attack on a Belgian mental asylum, and after a woman gives birth in a tank. (There's one great linguistic gag here, as the soldiers hesitate to use the French for push - poussez - because it sounds like the American word for what these accidental midwives are looking at.)

The picaresque results are something like Candide as retold by a service veteran. We get the expected sniper hunts and beach landings, sequences which must have influenced Spielberg in the run-up to Saving Private Ryan, but Fuller's personal experience of war, and his journalist's eye, keeps manifesting in the unusual emphasis placed on haunting details like the crucifix planted on a battlefield, the watch on a dead soldier's wrist, or Marvin casually tossing an eviscerated testicle as though it were a dud grenade. A certain morality is evident, but the film seems a quieter and more nuanced statement than the fevered disgust Peckinpah displayed in Cross of Iron: this isn't necessarily war as good or bad, but war as it just might be - a competing mass of narratives, some formative and redemptive, others repetitive and destructive.

A reconstruction of the film, overseen by critic Richard Schickel and running to two hours 40 minutes (as opposed to the theatrically released two-hour cut), was finally released in the UK in April 2005, eight years after the director's passing. This version - which opens with the title card "This film is fictional life inspired by actual death" - makes a strong case for the film being Fuller's most personal and heartfelt endeavour via the reinsertion of several new and telling details. Condoms are unfolded over rifles to keep the water out of them; the battalion is put to sleep by German propaganda broadcasts; Algerians remove American ears as trophies. 

One extraordinary sequence sees Marvin putting an abrupt end to what was presumably his first gay screen kiss ("You've got bad breath, Fritz"), and a love scene, between Hamill and Stéphane Audran at the Belgian asylum, serves a similar purpose to that between Martin Sheen and Aurore Clément in Apocalypse Now Redux: a note of tenderness with which to break up the carnage. An extended coda in Central Europe as the Armistice approaches gets a bit samey, but better connects ending to opening. Generally, this version benefits from greater density of incident, and helps flesh out what was already a pretty fascinating skeleton. A couple of dialogue additions also point up what a balanced piece of frontline storytelling this is: if it has Candide on one shoulder, it almost certainly has Robert Capa on the other.

(March 2003/April 2005)

The Big Red One - The Reconstruction is available on DVD through Warner Home Video. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 11-13, 2017:

1 (1) Dunkirk (12A) ***

2 (new) Annabelle: Creation (15)
3 (new) Atomic Blonde (15)
4 (2) The Emoji Movie (U)
5 (4) Despicable Me 3 (U)
6 (5) Girls Trip (15) ***
7 (6) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
8 (3) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (12A)
9 (7) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
10 (new) The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature (U) **


My top five: 
1. Howards End

2. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
3. "Prick Up Your Ears"
4. The Untamed
5. A Ghost Story

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (5) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
3 (3) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
4 (8) Sing (U) ***
5 (4) The Great Wall (12)
6 (6) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
7 (7) Power Rangers (12) **
8 (2) Split (15) ***
9 (10) Patriots Day (15)
10 (new) Williams (15) ****


My top five: 
1. I Am Not Your Negro

2. Lady Macbeth
3. Williams
4. Raw
5. Their Finest

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Toy Story (Saturday, BBC1, 5.15pm)
2. Forbidden Planet [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 1.45pm)
3. Up in the Air (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
4. The Pirates! In An Adventures with Scientists! (Monday, BBC2, 1.30pm)
5. Flushed Away (Wednesday, BBC2, 1.35pm)

"An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power" (Guardian 18/08/17)

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power ****
Dirs: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk. Documentary with: Al Gore, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Donald Trump. 98 mins. Cert: PG

Ten record-breaking summers on from An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore doubles down. Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s galvanising doc accompanies the former VP through 2015-16, by which point he’d pivoted from touring pro-bono slideshows to addressing the Climate Leadership program initiated by the first movie’s success. Cohen and Shenk don’t deviate radically from that film’s formula. Again, excerpts of Gore’s orations – manna for bar-chart aficionados – are bolstered with visits to natural disaster sites (as Irwin Allen foresaw, extreme weather is inherently cinematic), while behind-the-scenes diversions find our host battling to discuss temperature hikes with an election-crazed media and an expert-intolerant public.

Other climates have changed, then, and the sequel benefits dramatically from its expanded sense of the challenges facing Gore – everything from the needs of developing nations to the Bataclan terrorists. (One underdiscussed by-product of climate change: an increasingly hot-headed world.) Candidate Trump looms, dismissing science as a wussy liberal fetish: an updated coda sees Gore abandoning his conciliatory rhetoric to swing for an individual currently undoing much of the hard diplomatic work observed herein. Railing against rising tides, he emerges as a cannier performer and a more compelling subject than he was in 2006; a message that sounded critical then has become no less urgent with time. 

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power opens in selected cinemas from today.

"The Hitman's Bodyguard" (Guardian 18/08/17)

The Hitman’s Bodyguard **
Dir: Patrick Hughes. With: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek. 118 mins. Cert: 15

This fumbled buddy-movie throwback touts here-for-the-money stars as compensation for leaden pacing and a futzing, bum-obsessed script. Any remaining life in its tired set-up – security operative Ryan Reynolds drags assassin Samuel L. Jackson to The Hague to testify against a Belarussian war criminal (Gary Oldman, inevitably) – soon gets stifled by pointless flashbacks and detours and a suicidally phlegmy palette. It earns the distinction of being the first shoot-‘em-up to reroute its leads via (an unrepresentative recreation of) Coventry city centre, but that’s the problem: only belatedly, with its medium-octane chases around Amsterdam, does this dopey endeavour become the freewheeling romp the trailers promised. For an action-comedy, its timing is lousy.

The Hitman's Bodyguard opens in cinemas nationwide today. 

"Napping Princess" (Guardian 18/08/17)

Napping Princess **
Dir: Kenji Kamiyama. Animation with the voices of: Mitsuki Takahata, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Tomoya Maeno, Arata Furuta. 111 mins. Cert: PG

A fake-out opening establishes the twinned realms through which Kenji Kamiyama’s midlist anime meanders: patriarchal kingdom Heartland is revealed as the recurring dreamscape of somnolent schoolgirl Kokone, trapped at home with a grief-stricken mechanic father in a town some distance from Tokyo. Toggling between the two, Kamiyama demonstrates a pleasing, Kore-eda-like eye for suburban specifics, but the charm diminishes upon the segue into corporate conspiracy involving missing tablets and giant robots. Some fun satiric footnotes early on – Heartland’s compulsory auto industry employment leaves it gridlocked for days – but it starts feeling fairly mechanised itself, every clank of those boysy Transformer knock-offs further drowning out its wistful heroine. 

Napping Princess is now playing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

All the feels: "The Untamed"

The 2013 Mexican feature Heli was such a brutal and bruising depiction of the collateral damage incurred in the war on drugs that you wondered how writer-director Amat Escalante was going to top it. Well, wonder no more. Escalante's follow-up The Untamed takes a subject that is just as potent and equally close to home (and the bone), and pursues it in a striking new direction: here is a dreamy, fairytale-like vision of sexuality run amok, unleashing its terrors on a whole different set of bodies. Right from the off, indeed: there probably won't be a grabbier opening image in cinema this year, that of a naked young woman in a dingy basement expelling - whether in pleasure or pain - a sizeable, slimy tentacle from between her legs.

For a while, this sequence is allowed to seem like the nightmare or fantasy of another woman, married to a macho good-for-nothing whose interest in her extends no further than taking her indifferently from behind every now and again. Yet it soon transpires that the younger woman exists in the same reality, and indeed the same social sphere: we see her being treated for a puncture wound by a doctor who turns out to be the other woman's nephew, and furthermore the man who's having it away on the DL with her AC/DC husband. It is, how you say, tangled. Not least visually: if the plot strands might be described as vaguely tentacular, that's as nothing compared to the way Escalante sets his camera to snaking around.

One shot, as virtuosic as anything in Heli, follows a car up a dirt road to an isolated scrap of countryside, briefly registering the presence of a corpse in the extreme bottom-right of the frame, before pulling back to find the police and ambulance crews arriving at what has now been established as a crime scene. The tentacle motif is everywhere one looks: in tree roots, the branches we see pounding a window during a storm, the tendrils of a river as viewed from above. What do all these visual clues amount to? Something about nature, possibly, and its refusal to run entirely straight; and almost certainly towards an idea of the body as a site of ongoing conflict. The hubby puts his bulk to no greater ends to fighting and fucking; time and again, though, he's rushed to the hospital to attend a young son beset by allergies.

The latter delights in colouring in garish faces with felt tips and crayons, but the whole film seems to be filled with erratic, lopsided, crudely drawn human forms. Escalante can be blunt about this: he piles up the naked flesh like a chophouse worker, and there are scenes here that play right into the sticky mitts of Japanese comic-book enthusiasts, among other fetishists. Yet just as Heli seemed to be getting at the sickness of Mexican society - the sort of sickness that might well drive anybody to drugs - so The Untamed appears, on some level, to be offering a critique of a particular strain of Latin machismo via the figure of the useless, closeted husband, who dismisses anyone who displays the slightest sensitivity as a faggot while enthusiastically pursuing the cock: the kind of comically blundering meathead who thrusts a pistol into his pocket only to shoot himself in the thigh. (And all the while, the women lie with creatures who fill their every hole, apparently emerging satisfied from the experience.)

There's a deliberate contrast between behaviour that could be deemed primal and that which is more civilised (nursing, child-rearing), though you'll have to accept it's an extreme one: one among many post-film discussion points will be the frankly astonishing mid-film orgy that replaces the ageing swingers of Ulrich Seidl or Gaspar Noe provocations with computer-generated animals, and winds up looking like a David Attenborough wet(land) dream, or something one might stray on in the darker recesses of the Internet. (Let's just say that, at last year's London Film Festival, the German entry Wild - in which a meek secretary fell in love and set about cohabiting with a wolf - had some competition for the prize of Best Animal Handling.)

The mystery that goes unresolved is surely that of life, what starts it and what sustains it: Escalante is drawn between his leading lady's thighs for reasons that seem at least as questioning as they might be prurient (what have you got up in there?), though the presence of the two elders who run the cabin in the woods where our heroine submits to those tentacles remains unclear to the end. Are they a couple of rogue scientists? Representatives of the fates? Or just doggers who get off on some really weird shit? Because The Untamed is allusive and elliptical, because it keeps sliding out of your grasp just when you think you have it, the blunt-force impact of Heli may be beyond its reach - yet it's full of adhesive ideas and images no North American filmmaker would approach with a bargepole, and which may yet slither down the insides of your eyelids once you've turned the lights out for the evening. Sleep tight.

The Untamed opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on September 25. 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

From the archive: "An Inconvenient Truth"

Had An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary record of Al Gore's lecture tour on climate change, been released in the UK back in July, when the country was sweltering in the midst of another of our now frequent heatwaves, it might have broken all prior box-office records for a documentary, chiefly by attracting audiences seeking relief from melting pavements inside air-conditioned cinemas. It is a testament to Mr. Gore's considerable skill as an orator, and to the power of the statistics gathered herein, that his argument appears no less persuasive for being disseminated during an overcast September, at which point Brits traditionally start bemoaning the end of summer and holding out for one more day of sun. Most politicians use the time freed up at the end of electoral campaigns to pen memoirs or take up golf; Davis Guggenheim's film reveals how Gore - introducing himself here as "the former next President of the United States" - took up a new hobby, namely touring the globe and collating as much information on global warming as one man might uncover.

An Inconvenient Truth is a simple film, and all the more effective for that: what we watch - almost all we have to watch - is Gore giving his lecture to a number of crowds in the U.S. and abroad. It's a little bit like one of those Royal Institute Christmas Lectures, only with even more bar charts and graphics, and better maintained hair, though Gore's footage of melting ice caps, time-lapse photography and map projections of cities being submerged by water also recall Koyaanisqatsi as translated from the Hopi Indian for the non-hippies among us. To break up what could become monotonous, we're offered interludes in which Gore shows his working - beavering away on his Apple Mac (apparently the most energy efficient of all personal computers) in hotel rooms and airport departure lounges - and biographical material that is the most contentious aspect of the film, a conflation of the personal and the political that's either a flagrant play for voter sympathies or true to the film's abiding theme: how human beings tend to react only to sudden, unexpected wake-up calls.

One argument against Guggenheim's film is that it contains too much information - or, rather, too much data that is overwhelming, either too bleak (if Gore's right, it'll soon be bye-bye to polar bears, Amsterdam and parts of lower Manhattan) or too concentrated to process in one trip to the multiplex. This is, admittedly, mitigated by the statement of intent right there in the title: these are meant to be inconvenient truths, and this an argument inclined towards onerous, incontestable weight. Still, Guggenheim and Gore have clearly studied and learnt from such recent activist documentaries as The Corporation: their film is similarly structured so as to plumb the depths of a dire situation before returning us to the surface on a buoyant note of honest-to-goodness optimism. Gore is not without humour, as some of his critics have claimed; anyone deemed funny enough to make a recurring cameo in Matt Groening's Futurama should be funny enough for you and I. Yet he seems driven by righteous anger when discussing the priorities of the current administration, making one ponder anew how different the past six years might have unfolded with Mr. Gore, rather than Mr. Bush, in charge. (At the very least, the Kyoto treaty would have been signed, less an act of political expediency than simple common sense.)

I can think of one area in which Guggenheim's film might have been more boldly staged: simply by cutting out the crowds Gore speaks to, and leaving us with the potent image of one man standing alone in the dark with only his hard-won stats and graphs to support him. Not only would this reduce the slight air of narcissism An Inconvenient Truth generates whenever one of Gore's points elicits whoops and applause from his on-screen audience, it would also tie in with the film's other recurring theme: Gore as a 21st century Cassandra, returning to a theme he's repeatedly addressed to indifference if not disdain from House Republicans. Something about that filmed audience inspires complacency: they're there as an editorial safety net, to assure us Gore is already being heard. We don't need them; this is one of those docs that does its job by putting all the available facts out there, communicating an idea with force and clarity and uniting an audience in the cinema. Even as I write this, I can imagine someone within the White House is preparing a scene-by-scene rebuttal of Gore's arguments, but the truth is - even as those wonks quibble with the labelling of the x and y axes, the oratorial equivalent of fiddling while Rome floods or burns - the general trends Gore describes are surely beyond dispute.

In my more altruistic moments, I like to believe the majority of people in this world want to do the right thing - certainly they do if the packed public screening of An Inconvenient Truth I was in is anything to go by - but one half-suspects it's really down to those in positions of power (who don't, generally, have the time or inclination to go to the cinema) to do likewise. Mr. Gore once did Mr. Bush the courtesy of stepping down to allow the latter the Presidency; one can only hope the current incumbent might be Texan gentleman enough to concede the floor for an hour and a half and allow a White House screening of Guggenheim's film. Let us speculate that, while he might skip the reel that details the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush might otherwise find the radar footage of tornadoes whizzy and very exciting; although I fear Gore's commentary, which insists "all tornado records have been broken in the U.S." might be applauded with one of those foam hands so beloved of sports fans and a chant of "We're number one! We're number one!" At which point, I would like to think one of Mr. Bush's more enlightened advisers might lean over and murmur a quiet but forceful "Yes, Mr. President, and we have to be first to do something about it."

(September 2006)

An Inconvenient Truth is available on DVD through Paramount; a follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, opens this Friday. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 4-6, 2017:

1 (1) Dunkirk (12A) ***

2 (new) The Emoji Movie (U)
3 (new) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (12A)
4 (3) Despicable Me 3 (U)
5 (6) Girls Trip (15) ***
6 (5) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
7 (4) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
8 (2) Captain Underpants (U)
9 (7) Cars 3 (U)
10 (new) Jab Harry Met Sejal (12A) ***


My top five: 
1. Howards End

2. Williams
3. "Prick Up Your Ears"
4. A Ghost Story
5. Le Doulos

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (new) Split (15) ***
3 (3) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
4 (new) The Great Wall (12)
5 (new) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
6 (4) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
7 (6) Power Rangers (12) **
8 (5) Sing (U) ***
9 (10) The Founder (15) ***
10 (7) Patriots Day (15)


My top five: 
1. I Am Not Your Negro

2. Williams
3. Raw
4. Their Finest
5. The Handmaiden

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Philadelphia Story [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2.20pm)
2. Volcano (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)
3. The Way (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15am)
4. Tomorrow Never Dies (Saturday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
5. In Our Name (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)

"A Ghost Story" (Catholic Herald 11/08/17)

A Ghost Story (***, 12A, 92 mins) could well lay claim to being the most quietly transcendental film ever made about the benefits of moving on, but it has a funny way of showing them. That writer-director David Lavery is up to something extraordinary becomes apparent from his hushed prologue, juxtaposing visions of the cosmos with intimate tableaux of devoted young homesteaders: a beardy musician (Casey Affleck) and his more practically minded wife (Rooney Mara). That devotion will endure even after death parts them one foggy morn – removing the male partner from the picture in a high-speed car collision – but in an unusual form: an Affleck revived as a white sheet with baleful eyeholes.

It sounds like a joke – and might be taken as such. It’s mordantly amusing to watch Affleck sit up in the morgue, refuse to go towards the light, and instead shuffle back to his own kitchen. Remove that sheet, and he’s Patrick Swayze in Ghost; with it, and the burden it implies, he’s closer to the undead of TV’s The Returned, not so much hungry as homesick, clinging rather pitifully to pre-existing routine. What good this does him remains open to question: unable to intervene unduly in the lives of the living, his fate is to watch his beloved grieve, recover, repaint, kiss another man and eventually move out, leaving him behind with new, Spanish-speaking housemates.

What elevates A Ghost Story is Lavery’s gift for atmosphere, already evident in his Mara/Affleck-pairing 2013 breakthrough Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Long takes – of the lovers in bed, or the widow choking back her loss with mouthfuls of pie – bear witness to bonds being forged and mourned, time pressing on; the twilight mood Lavery conjures with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo is so beguiling you may overlook the spectral characterisation. Ghost Affleck is a terrific sight gag, source of the film’s many indelible images, but he’s also a literal sadsack, the poster ghoul for a generation who’ve spent long, lonely nights checking their exes’ social media for the one sign they might be missed.

Much is conveyed without words: the Ghost’s hope that his love will be returned to him, his despair and fury once it becomes clear she won’t. The prominence Lavery affords to music – having folkie Will Oldham declaim on Beethoven’s Ninth, a score nodding towards “Stairway to Heaven” – suggests he may be proposing a hipster update of those slender yet lingering requiems (“There’s a Ghost in My House”, “She’s Not There”) that once haunted the charts. Either way, this director’s humdrum vision of the afterlife remains drolly diverting: no sexy pottery here, just endless pottering, coupled to a general sense of being ignored. There will be living souls who identify with that.

A Ghost Story opens in selected cinemas from today.

"The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature" (Guardian 11/08/17)

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature **
Dir: Cal Brunker. Animation with the voices of: Will Arnett, Maya Rudolph, Jackie Chan, Katherine Heigl. 91 mins. Cert: U

The summer of inessential animation continues with this very middling sequel to 2014’s semi-forgotten squirrel-based timekiller. Displaying admirable chutzpah, replacement director Cal Brunker barrels into the franchise, reintroducing Will Arnett’s smartmouthed Surly as if the first movie had become some billion-dollar landmark in popular culture. Restless, detailed design aids his cause, but there’s only so far anybody can sustain the kind of rote narrative – involving the redevelopment of Surly’s parkland terrain – which needs to be hustled through before accompanying adults investigate the availability of refunds. Their younger charges shouldn’t object, though future generations may look unfavourably upon us for enabling sequels to The Nut Job, and not Ratatouille or Over the Hedge.

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature opens today in cinemas nationwide. 

On demand: "Tower"

Just before midday on August 1, 1966, sniper Charles Whitman took up position in the clocktower of the University of Texas' Austin campus and, for the next ninety-six minutes, opened fire at anybody who happened to fall between his crosshairs, killing 15 people and leaving a further 33 injured. Tower, the director Keith Maitland's evocation of this early entry in modern America's long line of mass shooting incidents, deploys a mix of archive footage, interviews and filmed reconstruction alongside the same style of rotoscope animation that Austin native Richard Linklater deployed in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly; throughout, we sense we're getting a gloss on these events - animation allows Maitland to punch up the decade's tie-dye colours, while fading to stark black-and-white when these heads and hippies hear the first shots - but the prevailing photorealism is enough to suggest it's not much. That Whitman's targets are vulnerable human beings rather than cartoon characters becomes doubly evident from the halfway mark, when Maitland begins to cut back to his interviewees' lined, flesh-and-blood faces - some guilt-wracked, others more forgiving - which his animators must have studied as reference points.

The approach places us, usefully, in that no-man's-land between drama and documentary: many facts are conveyed, but they're bolstered by a heightened sense of the panic, confusion and terror that broke out that mundane Monday afternoon in August. Maitland's primary achievement is just how much resonant, moving or otherwise stirring testimony he wrings just from the transcripts of those who found themselves in the firing line - an Altmanesque fresco of radio news reporters, young mothers-to-be, rubbernecking students, aghast onlookers, and untested cops striving where possible to contain the situation. As their stories intersect - alliances formed, support provided - Tower is transformed into a snapshot of America as it was by the mid-1960s, either frozen to the spot or ducking for cover between the assassinations of the Kennedy boys. One (white) cop, approaching the scene with no advance knowledge of the sniper's identity, confesses his fear that there might have been "thousands of Black Panthers out there" plotting insurrection; that scene becomes altogether more Texan when a group of concerned citizens clutching deer rifles report for duty, turning a one-shooter situation into a pitched lunch-hour battle.

Maitland takes a particular care to temper the narrative excitement of the police entering and ascending the clock tower to neutralise the shooter, layering the eventual takedown with Debussy's melancholic "Clair de Lune" and positioning it roughly two-thirds into his 80-minute running time. The film's final third is set aside to understanding the trauma this episode left behind - if not the obvious bullet wounds and scars, then the ifs, buts and what-might-have-beens haunting the actions taken that day. With the current Presidential incumbent rattling his sabre (and threatening far worse) in multiple arenas, one suspects the film's implicit call for tighter gun control legislation is fated to vanish like pistol smoke in the wind, but Maitland's handling of this tragedy proves a good deal more involving than, say, Gus van Sant's chilly, impersonal Columbine evocation Elephant. We are appalled, moved and disturbed here, not least - as Tower's slightly (deliberately?) jarring coda makes all too clear - by a realisation that the conversations that sprang up around this relatively distant event are exactly those we've been forced to have in the wake of the 21st century's myriad acts of barbarism. Fifty years have passed, and not a damn thing has changed, save the means of reporting, the way we share these stories with others.

Tower is now streaming on Amazon Prime.  

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Sightseers: "Jab Harry Met Sejal"

In as much as your humble correspondent feels he has power to effectuate any change whatsoever in this big and blasted universe, this one may be my fault. At the end of November 2015, I wrote a mixed review in The Guardian of Imtiaz Ali's Tamasha, a tricksy, self-reflexive New Bollywood exercise in which stars Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor toured the globe playing a variety of roles, including those, it seemed, of hot young Bollywood stars touring the globe playing a variety of roles. Sustained to some degree by its gamely adventurous leads, it was a bold experiment - and could be admired as such - but a tough film to embrace or fall in love with. It's just possible that Ali read that review, and others like it, and elected to attempt something far more conventional (and commercial) with his next project. If Tamasha unfolded like Bollywood Resnais or Rivette, then Jab Harry Met Sejal - as signalled by its boilerplate title - is a film operating under the signs of Rob Reiner and Meg Ryan: one or two minor deviations aside, it's a straightforward romcom, with stars playing variants of roles they've played, and roles we've seen, countless times before.

So enter Shah Rukh Khan as Harinder "Harry" Singh, a Canadian tour guide in Holland and something of a tourist in life: boozing, womanising, introduced literally tilting at windmills, he carries round a silly-looking midlife tattoo on his scapula while giving no great thought to the people - friends, lovers, holidaymakers - he picks up and sets down at regular intervals. Romcom convention demands he be stopped in his tracks, however, by the one funseeker who refuses to go away, and who comes to teach him a thing or two about himself. This is Sejal (Anushka Sharma), self-described "modern woman", who recruits our Harry to help trace the engagement ring that rolled off her finger somewhere on her travels. A trans-European goose chase ensues; a workable but very basic set-up. We all know the drill: on one side of the screen/narrative/poster, the commitment-phobic male, prone to regarding the fairer sex like ports in a storm; on the other, a gal so open to that commitment she's actively seeking a big ol' symbol of same. It's both familiar and familiarly contrived, requiring us to swallow a lot of disbelief the moment Sejal refuses to email customer services about her missing band and instead insists on dragging Khan's proven cad along with her to find it. When Harry declares "this is too silly" around the midpoint of the pair's quest, it is a moment of movie self-awareness on a par with anything in Tamasha.

Jab Harry comes to fall back on old-fashioned star power, and in this, it proves erratic but more persuasive. Khan comes into this project off the back of a run of selfless career choices: his wry cameo in Sharma's Ae Dil Hai MushkilDear Zindagi, where his shrink helped Alia Bhatt reach her full potential; Fan, with its unflattering autocritique(s). There's rather more in it for him here, not least the opportunity to swank around with younger women on his arm, and Ali doesn't linger unduly on Harry's anger (he literally foams at the mouth threatening to spit at his boss) and creepiness (attempting to pick someone up by inserting a finger in her navel: do not try this at home, kids). At the back of the film's meanderings, just behind the dirty laundry, is a broken man's fantasy of being saved; plentiful time is offered to consider the extent to which Harry's plight mirrors that of a creative who's spent the past half-decade directing others around Europe and may now want to go home to the love of a good woman. The good news is that Sharma - grounded, even gawky - isn't quite the usual manic pixie dreamgirl deployed to rescue a hero from self-pity. Her most charming moments here come when her inner geek comes out, seemingly spontaneously: pulling gauche shapes in a nightclub, revealing a background in classical singing on a terrace overlooking Prague, offering a nerdy thumbs-up in the wake of a passionate kiss. Ali's fascination with roleplaying licenses Sejal to teach Harry how to be a better boyfriend, and entails her assuming the part of his girlfriend after he's confronted by a scornful German conquest; it also gives rise to a second half in which both parties have to stop playing and confront who they really are.

This progression does, I think, hook us: the performances are such that both lovers appear to grow and mature before the final credits, and in "Radha", their duet high on that Prague hillside, you can see Ali building on the bare-bones framework he was testing in Tamasha: now we feel not just the fun shared by actors paid to dance around Europe, but also that shared by two characters coming to realise it might be a lark to spend a little more time in one another's company. That the film still feels thin is down to the fact not much life is exhibited or recorded beyond the two leads: the Yash Raj budget has evidently been blown on flights and hotels, and the musical numbers are almost exclusively between Shah Rukh and Anushka - on that terrace, in a karaoke bar, without hundreds of thousands of costumed extras in attendance. (Sejal's fiance, notionally a major player in the love triangle, doesn't feature at all until the closing minutes, and only then via Skype.) At its best, this leaves Jab Harry a diverting waltz, a fling of a film that picks us up and carries us along for a good couple of hours: I'll confess to having had a reasonable time in the leads' company. Yet you could fit the world it describes into one of the two stars' suitcases. As spectacle, Ali's latest feels oddly restricted and altogether limited in its ambitions - forever running round in circles, bound by the dimensions of that damn ring - where Tamasha, much as I might have shrugged at it, was at least trying to open a horizon or two up.

Jab Harry Met Sejal is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday, 7 August 2017

From the archive: "Le Doulos"

One of Jean-Pierre Melville's trickier propositions, 1962's Le Doulos centres on a gang of jewel thieves made jittery by the implicit understanding that one among their number is working for the police. We're pointed early on towards Jean-Paul Belmondo's Silien as the most likely informant, before the film turns into a study of a man having the squeeze put upon him from all angles, and rather warming to it. Placed first at the mercy of the cops, who treat him like a yo-yo after his alleged contact is shot dead, Silien comes to realise his importance in the chain of intelligence, and starts to play detective himself. The familiar Melvillian universe - a self-sealed, hermetic underworld from which no-one can easily escape - is here pushed to the nth degree: this densely plotted film leaves not much room for anyone - characters, director, least of all the audience - to breathe. If you like your noir pitch-black, it's possible to admire the uncompromising purity of the exercise, yet long stretches are as tersely uncommunicative as the Belmondo character inside the interrogation room; precisely the least convincing aspect of the film are those scenes where Silien starts to explain his masterplan in a sit-down with the two people in the film who would seem unlikely to take his words at face value. Still, it remains a cinephile's delight: the credits list Volker Schlöndorff as an assistant director and Bertrand Tavernier as the film's press officer, and note an early screen appearance from Philippe Nahon, later to re-emerge as the corpulent butcher of Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone.

(June 2007)

Le Doulos returns to selected cinemas this Friday. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

1,001 Films: "The Shining" (1980)

The first time I saw The Shining, as a teenager looking for late-night chills on TV, it struck me as surprisingly dull: who in their right mind makes a horror movie that runs for over two hours? The second time, as a student with a cursory knowledge of Kubrick’s other work, I was a little more impressed, at least by its technical brio – but then this was the 115-minute version circulating on DVD, which cut from set-up to pay-off in a way the younger me had been expecting. Now the film has returned to the big screen in its original 144-minute US release cut, the week after the nitpickery of Room 237, a documentary that featured fans so hung up on the film’s details they lost track of the bigger picture.

Something often forgotten in the course of the film’s TV rotation is that this is a big picture. Kubrick evidently didn’t intend his films to be watched on TV or DVD; as their ceaseless Steadicam exploration of space – usually tied to a moving tricycle or a screaming madman – set out, the Overlook Hotel murders were always intended as a major movie construction project, overseen by Kubrick from blueprints by Stephen King. From the moment when the opening helicopter shot stops following Jack Torrance’s car as it winds its way through the mountains and veers off into the wilderness, The Shining is all about deviation: King, famously, was so narked by the results that he rebuilt the Overlook in his own image for TV.

The plot, for first-time visitors, remains the same. Jack Nicholson’s writer drags his family to the isolated Overlook for the winter months so he can start work on his latest tome. While the script parcels out exposition that has passed into cliché through repetition – the Hotel’s on an Indian burial ground, there’s a snowstorm blowing in, the phones stop working – Torrance retreats further into himself, drinking and having conversations with fictional characters, generally oblivious to his loved ones’ welfare. The cat-and-mouse game that follows becomes a strut on which Kubrick can hang his theses on the tyranny of the typewriter, and why it might be healthier for kids to have imaginary friends than it is for grown-ups.

Between the longueurs and auteur pretensions, it remains only patchily effective as straight horror, particularly one emerging in the wake of Halloween. Its gotcha moments – the naked woman in Room 237, the revelation of what Jack’s been typing – are generally outnumbered by arcane puns (Torrance’s “Caretaker” tries to chop his son into bits) and baroque flourishes of art direction. It’s one of the few horror movies to major in interior design: the carpets are more memorable than the killscenes. The Shining dates from a moment when even a highbrow like Kubrick was trying to get in on this once-reviled genre; it stands as the blue-chip alternative to those scuzzy video nasties flooding the market in multiple versions.

The vision is so of a piece that perhaps only Shining obsessives might spot the newly added scenes and moments. This cut feels a mite more generous towards Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance – a casualty of earlier cuts, where she was reduced to shrieking hysteria rather too early – though a post-Exorcist moment with young Danny (Danny Lloyd, in one of the all-time great kid performances) and a doctor holds the film up with a rational, psychological grounding it perhaps didn’t really need. What’s newly spine-tingling is the sense that these scenes were there all along, waiting for a receptive audience. Like the ghosts of the Overlook, they never went away.

(MovieMail, October 2012)

The Shining is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Warner Home Video.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 28-30, 2017:

1 (1) Dunkirk (12A) ***

2 (new) Captain Underpants (U)
3 (2) Despicable Me 3 (U)
4 (3) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
5 (4Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
6 (new) Girls Trip (15) ***
7 (5) Cars 3 (U)
8 (new) 47 Metres Down (15)
9 (7) Baby Driver (15) **
10 (new) The Big Sick (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Howards End

2. Williams
3. "Prick Up Your Ears"
4. Jab Harry Met Sejal
5. The Ghoul

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (3) Passengers (12) **
3 (new) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
4 (4) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
5 (2) Sing (U) ***
6 (new) Power Rangers (12) **
7 (6) Patriots Day (15)
8 (7) Assassin's Creed (15)
9 (9) The Lost City of Z (15) *****
10 (8) The Founder (15) ***


My top five: 
1. The Lost City of Z

2. Neruda
3. Heal the Living
4. Get Out
5. Certain Women

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Point Break (Sunday, five, 11.05pm)
2. Strictly Ballroom [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
3. In the House (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)
4. The King's Speech (Sunday, C4, 9.50pm)
5. Contraband (Friday, C4, 12midnight)