Friday, 21 July 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 14-16, 2017:

1 (new) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***

2 (2) Despicable Me 3 (U)
3 (1) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
4 (new) Cars 3 (U)
5 (3) Baby Driver (15) **
6 (new) The Beguiled (15) ***
7 (4Transformers: The Last Knight (12A)
8 (new) Jagga Jasoos [above] (12A)
9 (5) Wonder Woman (12A) ***
10 (6) All Eyez On Me (15)


My top five: 
1. Victim

2. David Lynch: The Art Life
3. The Tree of Wooden Clogs
4. The Beguiled
5. War for the Planet of the Apes

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (new) Sing (U) ***
3 (1) Passengers (12) **
4 (2) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
5 (4) Lion (12) ***
6 (3Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
7 (re) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12)
8 (re) Patriots Day (15)
9 (5) Assassin's Creed (15)
10 (8) Moonlight (15) ****


My top five: 
1. The Lost City of Z

2. Neruda
3. Heal the Living
4. Certain Women
5. The Other Side of Hope

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Maps to the Stars (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. Megamind (Saturday, BBC2, 8.35am)
3. Legally Blonde (Sunday, five, 3.45pm)
4. Hope Springs (Wednesday, C4, 2.20am)
5. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Saturday, BBC1, 3.30pm)

Keyboard warrior: "Scribe"

Scribe - the rather prosaic English name for what was originally titled La Mécanique de l'Ombre - arrives as another of those efficient timewasters the French cinema occasionally dispatches our way: for at least half an hour, it's essentially a man sat at a typewriter, and you may find yourself wondering if it took director Thomas Kruithof and co-writer Yann Gozlan that long to knock the idea out. In narrative terms, c'est une espèce de Conversation: François Cluzet (go-to guy for these thrillers since the international success of 2006's Tell No One) plays Duval, an alcoholic wash-up handed what he takes to be a midlife career boost transcribing a series of surveillance recordings for shadowy suit Denis Podalydès; what begins as a benign moneyspinner breaks bad once our hero twigs these chats have something to do with an upcoming election, and the murder of a prominent Arab businessman.

To its credit, the film sets out into what's now unfashionable, neo-Hitchcockian territory, landing as vaguely exotic at a moment when British crime thrillers are almost exclusively thick-eared, meat-and-potatoes affairs, lacking the GCSEs required for subterfuge. Cluzet gives it his usual rumpled gravitas, and Kruithof affixes each scene with a patina of style, seeking out crepuscular Parisian locations while shooting ominous close-ups of tape passing over recorder heads as the plot unfolds. Yet from the midpoint on, that plot doesn't thicken so much as drastically thin, the tension dissipating with the appearance of every new stern-faced figure entering shot to reveal a little bit more of the conspiracy. As a calling-card movie, it does just enough to catch the eye, but not enough to hold it: where the very best paranoid thrillers lodge in your gut and assume the weight of personal or national tragedy, Scribe passes altogether briskly through the system, dealing not so much in obsession as distraction.

Scribe opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on August 7.    

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The snapper: "Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock"

Shot!, a portrait of the legendary rock photographer Mick Rock, is everything you might expect from a Vice Films production directed by someone called Barnaby: lots of filters, cameos from Karen O and Father John Misty, and a fidgety, ADD-ish shooting and editing strategy in which any evidence of music-biz hedonism gets prioritised over compositional analysis or the finer points of its subject's creative philosophy. For a while, at least, it's lively enough. A framing device finds yer actual Rock (his real name, conveniently) watching over an actor recreating a cocaine-induced heart attack he had in the early 90s, thereby enabling a life to flash before our eyes; the snapper, it transpires, has tales to tell, usually in colourful language, about the kind of people we might still want to hear about. Cue the images: of Syd Barrett and David Bowie (an image - or rather a series of images - just waiting to be photographed); of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (marginally less curmudgeonly around Rock than he was with the rest of the world); of Freddie (whom Rock shot as though he were Dietrich), Debbie ("the Monroe of pop", and an obvious gift to any photographer) and Meat Loaf (less so).

There's value to sitting Rock down and getting his thoughts on the record: he wandered onto this scene just as rock was being revolutionised and weaponised in the late 1960s, exploding across TV screens and teenage bedroom walls in full colour. He can just about get away with describing himself as the Goebbels of this movement, one charged with overseeing the music's visual propaganda wing, because so many of the images director Barnaby Clay puts on screen back this claim up: looking again at the young Bowie fellating the neck of Mick Ronson's guitar, it's evident that something new, thrilling and/or threatening was going on at this moment on these stages. (Lock up your sons and your daughters.) Old heads will doubtless be satisfied; for non-nostalgics, however, the trouble will be that those images increasingly speak louder than anything else in Shot!. Certainly, Rock's own, blokey commentary settles into a droning monotone after a while, running through a list of names that passed before his lens on their way to immortality or obscurity; the absence of other perspectives - no musicians, no critics, no picture editors - comes to be all too keenly felt.

Shot! is very Vice Films in its underlying insistence that experience is everything, and context for pussies: Clay's interview technique appears to have been simply to goad Rock into giving up one tale of excess after another, up until the point where the narrative arc demands he address the sorry toll coke took on his subject's output, a precipitous descent into paranoia, debt, ill health and - at what was surely his lowest point - directing promos for the likes of Ace Frehley and Mötley Crüe. As we rejoin him today, Rock cuts a lean if lived-in figure, inhabiting a healthier if necessarily circumscribed and far less decadent place in the universe: he's a survivor, which makes him of interest, but Clay often seems far too much in his thrall to spot the absurdity Rock is capable of, and thus the absurdity he threatens to tip the whole project into. Watching the photographer spinning about and performing headstands in his studio before a shoot, or making loftily serious pronouncements about the mind-body connection, you begin to realise just how musicians rub off on their chroniclers, and how close Simon Day and Rhys Thomas's Brian Pern spoofs got to la-la rock reality.

Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock tours selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Man about the house: "The Beguiled"

On paper, or on the Internet, or wherever it was you first encountered it, this would have presented as at the very least an intriguing idea: Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) bringing her delicate sensibility to bear on The Beguiled, the pulpy Thomas Cullinan novel published in 1966 and filmed by Don Siegel as a Clint Eastwood vehicle in 1971. Though that earlier adaptation still holds up as a rollicking, close-to-the-knuckle entertainment, it really is a raw steak of a movie, lusty, gory and gaudy, off-colour even when it isn't being openly incorrect - very much the work of a male actor-director pairing seeing just what they might be allowed to get away with in an era of newly relaxed censorship and incipient women's lib. (Further context: Eastwood filmed it the same year he made Dirty Harry and Play Misty for Me. The guy was on a roll back then, and nothing was going to stop him.) The welcome surprise is the extent to which Coppola succeeds in shaping her own distinct film from this material: lighter, ironised, unarguably tidier and more PC, but equally striking and involving, and affecting in a way its predecessor wasn't.

The set-up is exactly the same. In Virginia in the year 1864, with the Civil War raging within earshot but just beyond the frame, a wounded Yankee soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell, in the Eastwood role), is pulled out of the woods by a pupil of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a sanctuary of sorts, left untouched by the surrounding conflict and populated by a small coterie of easily flustered Southern belles. It's within the Seminary that the two films' emphases begin to deviate. As their mutually braided hair establishes, Coppola's young ladies are as much of a girl gang as, say, the sisters in The Virgin Suicides or Marie-Antoinette and her attendants, and this telling is naturally a little more interested in their individual personalities - bored, curious, dreamy, uptight - than were Don and Clint. Their narrative developed along the lines of a ripe joke, a cackling cautionary tale about a pussyhound tripping over his own dick, such as might be burped across a table to a drinking buddy in some smoky watering hole: the girls were to some degree interchangeable, and secondary.

Coppola, for her part, approaches this story as though it were a teachable moment - a lesson in the games the sexes play, and continue to play. (Its ideal partner in any future double-bill wouldn't necessarily be the Siegel film, rather Catherine Breillat's take on the Bluebeard legend.) When McBurney rouses from his injuries, he realises he's on easy street so long as he presents different sides of his character to - or plays different roles for - those young ladies who are of an age to respond: showing a tantalising glimpse of flank, while dropping hints he might usefully be kept around as a gardener and companion, to the practically inclined Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, nicely eerie); recasting himself as a romantic adventurer for the schoolmarmy Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); offering a bit of rough to restless teen Alicia (Elle Fanning). Soon enough, everyone's competing to give him an extra dollop of cream on his apple pie and a song at his bedside, the tension - narrative, erotic - building until the point these girls themselves wake up to the fact this sharp-tongued charmer (and the casting of the ever-more-assured Farrell as the ultimate fuckboy counts as a minor stroke of genius) is, in fact, a snake in some very long and untended grass.

That gets Coppola's film two-thirds of the way towards where it's going; only in its final act does it start to feel a little like pale imitation. This director is au fait with the sex and sensuality written into this narrative - witness the tremendous moment when Farrell scatters the buttons of Dunst's dress in a climactic eruption of lust - but she gets squeamish around the violence the author intended as its equal and opposite effect. Coppola doesn't so much blanch as avert her eyes altogether in the run-up to the book (and the first film)'s key scene: let's just say a cut stands in for a cut, as though the filmmaker had been charged with composing her own inflight variation of these images. Much else about the concluding thirty minutes feels a touch hesitant or choppy: for all their blunt force, it's Siegel and Eastwood who seemed more inclined to linger over these final few pages, savouring every last bite of Cullinan's decidedly chewy punchline. Still, by then, Coppola has drawn enough elegant parallels and landed enough points for The Beguiled not to feel entirely self-sealed and cut off from the rest of the world, as many of this director's films have.

Granted, with the assistance of blue-chip collaborators (regular production designer Anne Ross, The Grandmaster cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, electroheads Phoenix), Coppola cultivates a hothouse atmosphere within the Farnsworth Seminary dorms, but it's especially amusing to watch The Beguiled in the wake of the debate the film has sparked in the corridors of Film Twitter - for here, surely, is that forum's perfect mirror image: boys trying to impress (or impress themselves upon) girls, girls ganging up to shut boys down, everybody winding up somewhere between 75-80% more overheated than they need to be, or than might be good for anybody's health. It's hard not to think Siegel and Eastwood took on Cullinan as a dare, egging each other on to do or say or show something nasty; Coppola is on to something else in this book, holding the Civil War at bay some distance beyond the Seminary's gates - which, for better or worse, takes the issue of race off the table - and instead reframing Cullinan's tale as a continuation of a longer-running battle, one still raging on paper, on the Internet, elsewhere. As the 2017 Beguiled's magnificently melancholy closing image makes palpable, this is a battle nobody can ever really win.

The Beguiled is now showing in selected cinemas. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

From the archive: "Victim"

Although it's hardly Bruce LaBruce, Victim was considered shocking back in 1961 for its treatment of (the then-illegal matter of) homosexuality; today, it looks both groundbreaking and fascinatingly awkward, obliging its audience to insinuate and extrapolate that which the film's network of well-spoken gays can only hint at. Dirk Bogarde is the high-flying lawyer whose wings are clipped when his past - and, more specifically, ties to a dead (rent?) boy - embroils him in a plot to blackmail London's queer community. Shot mostly on location by Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp), this has the gritty, noirish feel of late 50s British urban cinema, but also a strain of drawing-room debate in which Bogarde's "outsider", assuming the role of detective, adopts a more aggressive and antagonistic line of questioning than your average copper, provoked by the social mores of the time. The script - by Janet Green and John McCormick - can feel a little too hung up on notions of "normal" and "abnormal" (Bogarde's wife Sylvia Syms runs a clinic for delinquents) for it to entirely convince nowadays, but you keep spying flickers of all those issues later queer cinema would find itself working through: a strain of virulent self-hatred that Bogarde pushes to the max ("Nature played me a dirty trick") and a genuinely edgy, uncomfortable response to women. Syms has a slightly more complex characterisation than one might expect, but the turncoat's a bitter harridan with a neurotic disgust of pretty much everyone, especially the sad, lonely men classed as criminals at the centre of the piece. 

(April 2000)

Victim returns to selected cinemas this Friday.

Monday, 17 July 2017

1,001 Films: "The Muppet Movie" (1979)

Muppets assemble. The Muppet Movie constitutes one of the most purely fun and touching origin stories the movies have ever given us, and you can get a feel for the essential Kermit-esque sweetness of Jim Henson and collaborators from the juxtaposition of the first reel's rowdy framebreaking business - the chaos that attends a screening of a film we ourselves are about to see - with the entirely unmediated sweetness of a song like "The Rainbow Connection": there's a loyal and true heart beating behind these frantically reconfiguring jazz hands. As Kermie heads from his swamp home to Hollywood - driven less by the prospect of becoming rich and famous than by a desire to "make millions happy", as he and Henson surely have over the years - he turns not just one into many, but the fragile hopes and dreams expressed in that opening number into tangible big-screen reality.

It's hard not to see the carnival that follows as Henson's attempt, through writers Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl and director James Frawley, to dramatise his own struggles for artistic independence: the malevolent interventions of fast-food maven Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), obsessed with getting his mitts on Kermit's legs, are recognisably those of a system keen to eat unwary creatives up. Other elements have worn a little less well. That writing can feel as episodic as latter-day kids' films; the novelty of its celebrity cameos has lessened over time as its human faces have faded or died off; and Paul Williams' songs aren't as consistently hummable as they were in the later The Muppet Christmas Carol. The freewheeling irreverence of some of its pageantry does, however, make it very much a Muppet movie for the decade of Nashville (Elliott Gould is on hand, to seal the comparison), while the full-body Muppets - Kermit on bicycle, Gonzo pulled away by balloons - remain somehow indefinably funny.

The Muppet Movie is available on DVD through Disney.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

1,001 Films: "The Jerk" (1979)

Remember when Steve Martin movies were properly funny, rather than withering tests of endurance; when he appeared to be fully engaged with the business of making grown-ups laugh, rather than simply trying to steal off with nine-year-olds' pocket money in order to fund his private art collection? The comedian's later movies would take the American dream several times more seriously than anyone but the least discerning of pre-teens could tolerate. The Jerk, on the other hand, holds up as Candide rewritten by the staff of MAD magazine, charting the rise and fall (and rise again) of Navin Johnson, "born a poor black child" after his actual parents abandon him on the front porch of a Mississippi shack. The quintessential American naif, Johnson becomes a millionaire after he invents a device that makes it easier to remove one's spectacles, but is destined to be brought low by his own director - this being Carl Reiner, cast in the once-in-a-lifetime role of "Carl Reiner The Celebrity".

Despite trace evidence of a tattiness that suggests a film rushed into production to exploit the popularity of its hot-potato star, it's less sketchy than you might remember, operating chiefly on the same zingy, how-did-we-get-here? logic that subsequently underpinned many of the best Simpsons episodes. A typically inspired stretch starts with Navin's delight at being included in the phone book ("I'm somebody!"), builds with the arrival of mad sniper M. Emmet Walsh, and concludes with Navin being pursued by the latter into a fairground where he will be deflowered by a trick motorcyclist. Throughout, Martin tempers his wild-and-crazy-guy stage persona - which could well have grown wearisome over the longer haul - with an optimism and sweetness (strumming a banjo along a beach to woo cosmetologist Bernadette Peters) which seems doubly touching in the face of a world perpetually indifferent to the fortunes of a Navin Johnson. Forrest Gump would later play similar material straight, without much in the way of satire or absurdity; The Jerk manages all that, plus elements of tragedy and social comment, and as fondly remembered Seventies studio comedies go, it's far sharper in the points it raises about race and privilege in America than the altogether scattershot Blazing Saddles. The bonus is that it's frequently hilarious: "Hey mister, don't call that dog Lifesaver. Call him... Shithead."

The Jerk is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

The leftovers: "It Comes at Night"

With studio eyes locked almost exclusively on the flag-waving, stock-boosting business of superhero movies, it behoves us to look into the shadows for that original work being carried out under cover of darkness. In Split, Get Out and now It Comes at NightUniversal - a studio without a superhero franchise (the Fast & Furiouses don't count) but with links to the restless, inventive Blumhouse production shingle - have provided multiplex audiences with three of the year's best rollercoaster nights out, creating a mini-cycle notable for its lack of concessions to genre norms and market demands, and for its willingness to strike out into contentious, provocative territory. In each of these cases, you get a strong sense of creatives being left alone to make exactly the film they first intended to make - which is why Split plays around twenty minutes too long, and Get Out got to push the buttons it did. Peril manifests itself on both sides of the camera: just about the only certainty within these very differently pitched works is that the Avengers won't be coming along to save anybody's skin.

It Comes at Night, for its part, is the handiwork of one Trey Edward Shults, the writer-director who first served notice of his talents with 2015's Krisha, a rough-edged indie endeavour (barely released in the UK) that recruited members of the filmmaker's own family to enact a bristling Thanksgiving reunion. His follow-up dramatises another family get together - an event with its own suffocating tensions - albeit this time somewhere close to the end of the world. Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) inhabit a (never commented upon) mixed-race household that might be held up as a liberal ideal were it not for their circumstances, which prove greatly more redolent of the Michigan militia: the family's shack in the woods has been heavily fortified in the wake of an unspecified, America-wide toxic incident that has left survivors recycling their water and wearing gas masks whenever they venture beyond locked doors. (The suffocation, in other words, has become literal.) One night, this stasis is interrupted by an outsider, Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims to be seeking help for his own wife and child. Paul at first regards this younger man as yet another threat to his homestead; though, given that he himself is observed shooting two men dead without thinking on a recce to retrieve the new arrival's loved ones (wife Riley Keough, son Griffin Robert Faulkner), we're led to consider just who poses the greater risk to anybody's continued existence.

In doing so, It Comes at Night shapes up as another of those apocalyptic fictions that strives to pass comment on national character. Just as Shaun of the Dead proposed popping to the pub as the most apposite response to any societal breakdown, and the recent Aussie drama These Final Hours saw its doomed characters fire up the barbie ahead of an obliterating meteor strike, so there seems something emblematic here about Paul's decision to bring out the big guns and enter so readily into lockdown. What's notable, however, is how often Shults defaults to the perspective of Travis, the teenager growing up unsexed in a home apparently designed to at some point become a tomb. There is a battle for the future of America going on around this small patch of land: it's like a red state that has succumbed to a flurry of more progressive activity. Certainly, Abbott's Will and Keough's Kim - gentle, optimistic, cupcake-craving sensualists whose lovemaking keeps their hosts awake at night - form a marked contrast to the terse Paul and the cowed Sarah; there's an unlikely echo of the recent Brexit-themed Wife Swap in the way Shults forces different personalities into the same small, pressurised space. While these two physically symmetrical families first form an easy bond, their constituent members glad for the renewed company, from an ideological viewpoint, they remain diametrically opposed; it's not long before those underlying differences become apparent, and everything badly unravels.

Though dramatically persuasive, that unravelling proves a gradual process, and I suspect those expecting the usual quiet-quiet-loud mechanics will at the very least be thrown - as evidenced by the steady stream of teenagers who began exiting the public screening I attended from the halfway mark, either expecting a few more bumps in the night or seeking less oppressive forms of entertainment. (In essence, Shults has taken Krisha's fraught interpersonal dynamics and shifted them sideways into a notionally more commercial realm.) The film remains as tightly, hermetically sealed as the house itself, purged of the release valves of humour or those easy wind-up jolts that serve to let an audience off the hook in mainstream horror movies; it may be one of those films less impressive for what it is - which is, after all, a modestly budgeted single-location calling card - than for what it steadfastly refuses to become. At any rate, it gains an additional dimension from the performances of quietly simmering intensity Shults fosters: Edgerton, now established as one of the movies' very best readers of genre scripts (Warrior, The Gift), has a late close-up that registers as among the deftest acting we'll likely witness inside a Cineworld all summer. With performers like these, a director doesn't need much in the way of money, flashy helicopter shots or city-trashing VFX; they also ensure the monsters in It Comes at Night walk, talk and act just like us, and there is something more legitimately chilling about that than there would be in a half-dozen Conjurings, Annabelles and Paranormal Activitys.

It Comes at Night is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

Friday, 14 July 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 7-9, 2017:

1 (new) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **

2 (1) Despicable Me 3 (U)
3 (2) Baby Driver (15) **
4 (3) Transformers: The Last Knight (12A)
5 (5) Wonder Woman (12A) ***
6 (4) All Eyez On Me (15)
7 (new) It Comes at Night (15) ***
8 (6) The House (15)
9 (new) Mom (15)
10 (7) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12A) **


My top five: 
David Lynch: The Art Life
2. The Tree of Wooden Clogs
3. The Beguiled
4. War for the Planet of the Apes
5. It Comes at Night

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (4) Passengers (12) **
2 (1) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
3 (2Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
4 (5) Lion (12) ***
5 (new) Assassin's Creed (15)
6 (9) La La Land (12) ***
7 (new) Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (15)
8 (re) Moonlight (15) ****
9 (7) Underworld: Blood Wars (15)
10 (new) Why Him? (15)


My top five: 
1. Neruda

2. Heal the Living
3. Certain Women
4. The Levelling
5. Beauty and the Beast

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Die Hard with a Vengeance [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 10.10pm)
2. Forbidden Planet (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
3. Young Adult (Friday, C4, 1.20am)
4. Legally Blonde (Friday, five, 7.55pm)
5. Inception (Saturday, ITV1, 9.45pm)

Thursday, 13 July 2017

1,001 Films: "The Tin Drum/Die Blechtrommel" (1979)

A deeply, richly strange adaptation of Günter Grass's allegorical novel, Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum observes the gathering Nazi storm through the eyes of Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), a young boy of uncertain parentage from the hotly disputed port of Danzig, who - on his third birthday - vows never to grow another inch. As the army moves in, Oskar continues to express a desire to return to his mother's womb, thus escaping an increasingly cruel world; his stubbornness manifests in a bloodcurdling, glass-smashing shriek deployed whenever anybody threatens to take his beloved tin drum away from him. The symbolism is laid on thick, and it might be an idea to keep a historian close to hand: for the "bread and circuses" of Hitlerian rhetoric, an actual big top springs up, inhabited by tumbling midgets who naturally empathise with Oskar's condition, but can later be seen lining up in SS uniform, while there's an obvious parallel between the toy Oskar pounds away on and the military beat to which his country is seen to dance.

After that, you're on your own, though - with its cavalcade of dwarfs and tin soldiers, and Schlöndorff's clever use of the colour red - it may equally be possible to read these events as the darkest of fairytales, a Grimm fable from (in 1979, still recent) German history. Bennent, an old head on young shoulders, is very carefully directed through one of the most disconcerting performances in all cinema, asked to act not his age (which is to say, not cute, as so many child actors are) but years and decades older than he actually was, which gives a real creepy charge to those scenes wherein the actor - playing the teenage Oskar, still in a childlike body - has his libido awakened by the young woman who comes to work in the family shop. The sight of Bennent nursing his "son" - the result of Oskar's soursweet sex games with sherbet - would be disturbing enough in itself to power a film on the Nazi era, but Schlöndorff keeps coming up with arresting setpieces that both illustrate and dramatise the sickness and stunted growth that plagued German society of the time.

The Tin Drum is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Arrow Academy.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Monkey magic: "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The three recent Planet of the Apes prequels - an admirable mini-cycle initiated by the Brit Rupert Wyatt with 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and sustained by Cloverfield's Statue of Liberty toppler Matt Reeves through 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to this week's War for the Planet of the Apes - have come to describe a gradual shift in the balance of power between man and monkey. Rise unfolded around a recognisable latter-day San Francisco, a location possessed of human interest enough to generate an unusually substantial subplot charting John Lithgow's retreat into the furthest reaches of Alzheimer's. Dawn, pressing onwards into a world run newly ragged by the aftereffects of an apocalyptic "simian flu" outbreak, was founded on the uneasy tension between the epidemic's survivors and newly emboldened apes with radically different visions for the future: one path through the jungle led towards peaceful co-existence, the other to a bloody assertion of tribal dominance. 

That fork in the road is now long behind us. War, drawing us deeper into the wilds and further away still from the civilisation of that first prequel, opens with a platoon of soldiers (whose helmets bear chalked-on slogans like "Endangered Species" and "Bedtime for Bonzo") fighting a doomed rearguard mission against a supremely well-organised, Vietcong-like troop of primate insurgents led by the returning rebel leader Caesar (mocap master Andy Serkis). If this defeat doesn't quite signal game over for the old humanoid order, it's soon clear we are likely watching its final, desperate throes; that we're not far from where Charlton Heston first entered this story some fifty years ago now becomes apparent back at monkey basecamp, where there's a walk-on - perhaps better: scamper-on - part for a cheeky young tyke named Cornelius.

Although a few, generally ill-fated human interlopers show their faces, we will spend practically the entire two-hour, twenty-minute duration of War embedded among the ape community, witnessing revisionist history unfolding from a distinctly simian point of view: it's possible that upwards of 90% of the key players passing across these frames are to all intents and purposes virtual creations, the evolutionary endpoints of a series that began in broadly analogue territory (remember James Franco, in his labcoat?) and has since passed decisively into the realms of the digital. For some while here, there is wonder - or as close to wonder as modern multiplex cinema can bring us to the wonders of nature itself. 

Motion capture has demonstrably developed in leaps and bounds even in just the five years since Wyatt's film, transporting its programmers and their eventual audience far beyond the jagged troughs and peaks of uncanny valley: these apes not only have intensely expressive extremities (snouts, fur, whiskers; faces that go quiet with thought and come alive again with rage), they've also been configured in such a way as to suggest vividly shifting interior states. It gives the series one especially striking new addition in Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), an oldtimer - bearing a marked resemblance to a simian Robert Duvall - liberated from a zoo to go a touch doolally in isolation; it also allows Reeves to set up and develop an unexpectedly tender relationship between kindly orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and the mute foundling Caesar's band pick up on their travels - a sentimental touch, converted into a strength by careful handling.

The wizardry matters - some might say it's essential to War's cause - because (as in the recent run of Alien prequels) we're getting one of those in transit plots, conceived chiefly to shift interested parties from one point in an established universe to another we will already broadly have been aware of (monkey supremacy; the advent of Chuck). Throughout the film's equally diverting and meandering first half, you can feel Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback riding alongside their apes on horseback, rather looking for the one good purpose or battle that might nudge this timeline on; it helps that the effects team have handed them characters that demand to be marvelled at at length, because those characters really aren't headed anywhere fast. (There is an urge to shout: just knock that Statue over already.)

Eventually, there is an endpoint: a concentration camp-cum-slave plantation cut off from the world beyond by a vast mountain range and presided over by War's one overtly recognisable humanoid - Woody Harrelson as the bulletheaded Colonel. Here is a rogue martinet lording over a private army of grunting, screeching followers; the blurring of distinctions between man and ape is presumably wholly deliberate. Although this less-than-gilded cage provides a welcome narrowing of focus, and brings the alpha-versus-alpha conflict that has been simmering throughout this cycle to a head, the film gets a little bogged down on this spot, waiting for the epochal eruption of hostilities that will spell the end of the world as you and I know it; a monkey prison break, complete with coordinated poop-slinging, provides a welcome pebbledash of humour, but everyone's basically prowling the perimeters until such time as Caesar and the Colonel stop snarling at one another and go directly for the jugular.

In this evolutionary process, then, there have been gains and losses. You can cheer how the 21st century Apes movies have improved upon their occasionally clunky predecessors, in terms of their dramatic and visual sophistication; then again, you might lament how what (even on Wyatt's watch) were brisk, thematically limber B-movies have, under the Reeves regime, swollen into sombrely attenuated post-Nolan statements on man's inhumanity to his fellow species. (Incidentally, Nolan's latest Dunkirk runs to a mere 106 minutes: even he may have had enough of this trend.) War consistently delivers on the spectacle front: the finale involves both a petrochemical explosion and an avalanche, fire and ice, Reeves allowing his VFX wonks - previously caught up in the digital equivalent of grooming their characters for gnats - a belated opportunity to cut loose. Yet the second of these seat-shakers is a wow that serves no narrative purpose; like the Apocalypse Now reference graffitied on the tunnel wall beneath the Kurtzian Harrelson's bolthole, it's more overstatement, whereas at its best the film - and this franchise - has communicated multitudes with small gestures and tiny, insinuating shifts in perspective. No monkeying around.

War for the Planet of the Apes is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The fires within: "David Lynch: The Art Life"

With the Twin Peaks continuation currently laying claim to being the audiovisual event of the year, its main creative force receives a welcome retrospective. The stimulating documentary David Lynch: The Art Life - a collaboration between the directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm - concentrates on Lynch the mixed-media artist, joining this now white-haired figure at his studio high in the Hollywood Hills and inviting him, when he's not busy slapping gouache onto canvasses and tending to his toddling daughter Lula, to regale us with stories of his past and all those who've influenced him over the years. Between Lynch's paintings and video art, the screen soon fills with vivid textures. The filmmakers square the boy who revelled in playing with mud beneath the shadow of a tree in his native Missoula, Montana with the man we see moulding latex and pasting lube on croissants in his tool-lined workshop today; you wouldn't be surprised if Lynch personally turned the Log Lady's log or the key in Mulholland Dr on a lathe. (You also also wonder how much pleasure he derives from the non-tactile business of making television and cinema - unless he's one of those creatives who sees actors as modelling clay.)

Above all else, though, The Art Life is framed as a personal account of the creation of the Lynchian universe - hence the foregrounding of that voice, with its capacity to spin a yarn that automatically sets you to lean in. These ninety minutes are stuffed with the kind of offbeam stories that recur in the later films. One anecdote, about seeing a naked and bloodied woman staggering across suburban lawns, clearly anticipates Isabella Rossellini's Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet; an episode where Lynch confesses to falling asleep while driving seems likely to have fed into the white line fever of Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and others. Is this CV just a way of processing personal trauma, Lynch's attempt at straightening out his own story? (If so, then why are the movies still so eminently crooked and warped?) Clearly, the filmmaker is a product of his circumstances, and we're offered much here on the reconstruction of smalltown America in the years immediately following World War II - a process that seems to have involved many new buildings going up, and a lot of hands-on fun even before young David discovered the opposite sex - but our narrator and guide also has a way of making even the fondest of childhood memories sound like a campfire ghost story. 

While the filmmakers very nearly equal their subject for craft, matching the Lynch-generated visuals with uncanny audio - birdsong, mechanical drone noise, ambient loops - of the kind that twangs the nerves in the features proper, not everything works: some of the footage of Lynch at the easel has been tinted to resemble that Super-8 footage that always shows up in docs showing Dali or Jackson Pollock in the studio, a hackneyed choice that distances us from material that should be inherently fascinating even to those who can't draw for toffee. And no-one behind the camera seems especially keen to press Lynch on what sound like pivotal life moments - like the divorce that fed into Eraserhead, brushed off here in the course of a single sentence. (It may be that, in this instance, the fathomless existential dread of the film speaks for itself.) Plenty of surprises, though - not least the emergence of an unexpected link between Lynch and the J. Geils Band - and the softly-softly interview approach does at least ensure that certain mysteries remain intact. At one point, Lynch breaks off from an anecdote he's telling about his childhood neighbour Mr. Smith with a rueful "I can't tell that story." A tale too much even for David Lynch? The mind truly boggles.

David Lynch: The Art Life opens in selected cinemas from Friday.   

Monday, 10 July 2017

From the archive: "Cars"

It's a sign of how spoilt we've become for computer animation - the plummeting cost of software packages swamping us with such titles as Over the Hedge, The Ant Bully and Monster House - that reviews for Pixar's latest Cars have been so muted. To recap, if you haven't been following: Cars is no Toy Story, nor The Incredibles. It's all right, but that's all that it is. On a narrative level, this is the story of Lightning McQueen, a cocky young racing car (voiced by Owen Wilson) who, on his way to a big meet in California, crashes in the small town of Radiator Springs. According to the locals - who include a gap-toothed towtruck (Larry the Cable Guy), a flirty coupé (Bonnie Hunt) and garage elder Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) - Radiator Springs is a well-kept paradise, unfortunately bypassed by the nearby interstate. According to Lightning McQueen, this is "hillbilly hell". He'll soon pull a U-turn, in ways that suggest someone among the eight-strong writing team must have an unusual fondness for the old Michael J. Fox vehicle Doc Hollywood, which again insisted its hero stay in town as part of a court-mandated civic works program: where Fox's snooty surgeon had to repair the damage he did to a fence, McQueen has to relay an entire thoroughfare. 

Even if you haven't seen Doc Hollywood - and, trust me, there's no pressing reason for you to do so - then Cars' story may strike you as somewhat familiar, for it pulls up alongside us as further proof that creatives who have enough success bestowed upon them will eventually take that very success (in the form of fame) as their subject. The film's opening sequence could only have been produced by a studio in their pomp: all light, noise and speed, swarming crowds of (admittedly digitised) extras and an anonymous MOR song on the soundtrack. Lightning McQueen is clearly suffering from that very modern disease, celebrity, for which the only cure can be a move back to the sticks and a corrective lesson in teamwork and community. Why, just consider the heavy immigration out of L.A. by all those renouncing chicks and glitter for small, quiet, homelier bergs such as Radiator Springs. (No, I didn't think so, either.) Even as studio as attentive in their storytelling as Pixar has no real luck selling us on this, the least convincing of all contemporary Hollywood plots.

Cars also suffers to some degree from bad timing: emerging into not just a summer swarming with pixels, but also a season where an increased awareness of global warming has made the internal combustion engine something like public enemy number one, and at a time where Formula One (at least as it is in Europe) has become little more than a means for vapid playboys to support a bling lifestyle. (In fact, Cars is very much a film for the NASCAR crowds - Mario Andretti has a cameo as the car version of himself - which may further limit its appeal to European audiences.) Throughout, the action is driven, if you'll excuse the pun, by a nostalgia for the golden age of motoring; as one of Randy Newman's songs puts it, "Long ago/Not so long ago/The world was different/Oh yes it was". This retro feel runs counter to Pixar's previous philosophy: films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo were surely all about embracing change and growth, however fraught and painful that process may be.

Still, if Cars lacks the magic of those great Pixar endeavours, it nevertheless offers residual compensation. The palette of Fifties pinks and peppermints is immensely appealing, as is the design work, which strives to find automotive equivalents for everything, right down to the tyre tracks that take the place of vapour trails in the sky and the "Braking News" updates rolling along the bottom of TV screens. (A continued - if minor - niggle: the trend of having minor characters redubbed by indigenous personalities. After the landmark work of Kate Thornton in Shrek 2 and Fiona GMTV Phillips in Shark Tale, Cars offers us Jeremy Clarkson phoning in his performance as Lightning McQueen's agent. As the role was voiced by the great Jeremy Piven in the original US dub, it's a double sacrilege - and for all the comic timing Clarkson demonstrates, Disney could have got Jeremy Spake from Airport to dub it.) I wasn't as sold on A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. as some of my colleagues - I'd take Antz and Monster House over them - so Cars never seemed quite as big a disappointment or betrayal to me as it has apparently been for some. It's the first Pixar film to be merely serviceable, and that's okay; it's all right, and that's all right, too.

(August 2006)

Cars is available on DVD through Walt Disney Home Entertainment; a sequel, Cars 3, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Passing clouds: "A Change in the Weather"

While other British filmmakers have had to scrimp, save and generally make do with whatever the funding bodies have left after the latest round of cuts, the industrious writer-director Jon Sanders has quietly gone about extending his CV with a run of privately financed, largely improvised late-life dramas - 2008's Low Tide, 2012's Late September and the following year's Back to the Garden - shot close to home, with his nearest and dearest in front of the camera. Some blurring of life and art can be witnessed in these films: the characters are, in the main, as comfortably appointed as Sanders and his actress-wife-muse Anna Mottram presumably are, heading onwards into their twilight years yet still eminently capable of holding lively, refined, provocative conversations and to sojourn in attractive country outposts lined with books and other bohemians. A Change in the Weather lands as the most self-reflexive (and trickiest) entry in this filmography, perhaps channelling everything Sanders has learnt and experienced over these past few projects through the plight - if that's the right word - of a theatre director (Bob Goody), holed up with his wife (Mottram) and regular players in a workshop somewhere in the French countryside.

Placed centre stage, right from the opening bout of "hot seating" (an exercise in which performers take questions from their fellow thesps in the guise of their character), is the actor's process; in essence, Sanders has elected to film that which usually gets internalised the minute a director calls action. Alarm bells may be ringing, and - in truth - A Change in the Weather generates at least a couple of sequences that, if approached with anything less than a completely open mind, may strike viewers as falling somewhere between precious and indulgent: certainly, I felt the extended dance routine with a life-size puppet was being approached with possibly a shade too much reverence, while the attempt to make kitchen utensils enter into conversation with one another was only partly redeemed upon the revelation this show was being put on for the entertainment of a small child. Something in the film's combination of thespy introspection and wide-open hillsides, however, kept reminding me of Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria: Sanders is clearly picking up that rarefied strain of art cinema that strikes the onlooker as all the more curious for being pursued in the English language, and therefore without recourse to the expected subtitles.

You wonder whether, after last year's EU referendum result, the director felt he had to travel abroad to nurture this fragile material, to seek safe space of some kind; that, certainly, would tie in with a poignant key theme here - that these eternally circumlocuting Brits are using their art to float those hopes and fears they feel they cannot express in life. It remains a touch arcane, very much a film (and production) inhabiting its own small world, which may explain why the final confrontation between husband and wife never quite generates the same impact as that of, say, 45 Years. Yet the whole is very sharply and atmospherically shot by David Scott, more ghost story than bacchanalia in its look, forever turning the camera on interesting, underfilmed, melancholy personalities: you can see why Sanders keeps returning to Goody as an onscreen surrogate, suggesting as the actor does some singular hybrid of scarecrow, Paul McCartney and Old English sheepdog. In the interests of full disclosure, I should declare this is one of those films whose near-critical mass of Subjects I Don't Give Two Figs About (actors being actors! The sale of a family property!) would generally send me running screaming from the room. That A Change in the Weather never did - that I was always at the very least intrigued by its cosy Cassavetisms - might be taken as its own mild form of commendation.

A Change in the Weather is now playing in selected cinemas.   

From the archive: "Foxcatcher"

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher arrives on UK screens bearing two distinct advantages: a heightened level of post-Cannes, pre-Oscar buzz, and an unsettling true story of which few viewers will have been aware. Like several current cinematic talking points (The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash), it’s about men, and the smart and dumb things we choose to do with our bodies, but this is the first of the crop to really dig its elbows and fingernails in, and properly grapple with the violence at its core.

The subject is competitive wrestling of the Greco-Roman variety, but Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye’s script is as focused on those powerplays that go on beyond the mat – much as Miller’s terrific Moneyball used baseball to dramatise something bigger about the ways of the world. In 1987, three years after his gold-medal triumph at the L.A. Olympics, wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) was contacted by John du Pont (Steve Carell), with a big money offer to install himself and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in the textile heir’s remote Foxcatcher ranch and help mould the next generation of wrestling talent.

As you can’t miss from Tatum’s Neolithic jawline, Mark was rather an unshaped hunk of beef himself. Sitting cross-legged in front of a TV pumping out du Pont family propaganda, he’s a picture of spongey innocence; there’s even something Rebecca-like in the way he’s loomed over in his new quarters by forbidding portraits of du Pont’s aged mama (Vanessa Redgrave, very effective), who regards wrestling as “a low sport” and whose mounting frailty seems to be the thing her son fears most.

At any rate, he submits altogether dumbly to this very corporate form of control – unlike his more independently minded brother, who actively steps back from du Pont’s offers of megabucks in order to coach the national team and raise a family. Here are three men locked in what would prove a clammy, and eventually deadly conflict; Miller has taken the father-son, mentor-protégé dynamic central to so much American cinema, overthrown all its certainties, and forced it into submission. Whatever this story shows or tells us, it ain’t healthy.

Miller’s interest lies not in the obvious muscle, but the underlying tissue of detail, right from the opening’s boldly quiet assertion of what it might be like for an athlete to have to descend from Mount Olympus. We spot why Mark might have been seduced by du Pont’s largesse, but also that du Pont was deeply weird, a man whose eccentricities – his rants at mommy dearest, his gun fetish, his desire to be referred to as “Golden Eagle” – were only heightened in seclusion. (Such shelter – the creation of a world within which all manner of fucked-up behaviour can be normalised – may be the ultimate privilege.)

In du Pont’s first meeting with Mark, naturally held in the host’s glittering trophy room, Miller leaves in every last awkward pause: the dead air allows us to study just how uncomfortable these two emotionally stunted men are around one another, as well as Carell’s jolting physiognomy, radically altered by the most prominent prosthetic proboscis since Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

Though Ruffalo and Tatum effectuate laudable transformations, Carell’s may be the most impressive, a work of total immersion comparable to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Truman Capote in this director’s breakthrough feature. No more Mr. Nice, no more Mr. Normal: Carell’s du Pont is a sickly, bloodless blank who regards the Schultzes as he would any other investment, yet keeps his true agenda hidden behind the psychological equivalent of a confidentiality clause, at least until the closing minutes.

In its wintry denouement, Foxcatcher begins to feel more like an informed supposition along In Cold Blood lines – an attempt to tessellate the jagged and senseless pieces of the official record – but one senses this is a film that will only increase in pertinence as more abuses of power come to light. On these shores, Miller’s piercingly acute film will assume an additional chill from a simple (and almost certainly coincidental) costume choice: in du Pont’s gaudy, golden Team Foxcatcher leisurewear, might we not catch a glimmer of Jimmy Savile’s wardrobe, and the dread secrets fixed within it?

(MovieMail, January 2015)

Foxcatcher screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.