Friday, 22 September 2017

All the right moves: "Our Last Tango"

The presence of Wim Wenders as executive producer presumably positions Our Last Tango as the Buena Vista Social Club of ballroom dancing documentaries. Here are a pair of Argentinian veterans of the sport - Maria Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copes, now in their eighties - reunited on stage for one last twirl, but not before they've had the occasion to pick through their photo albums, and surviving memories, in the company of the dancers enlisted to play their younger, lither selves in director German Kral's handsome, sepia-toned reconstructions. The reappearance of these performers as active rehearsal-room interrogators serves to signify just how fully Kral has embraced the theatre of the tango: key moments from the lives of her subjects are here recreated, either on elaborately appointed sets or exteriors in sequences that bear the marked influence of Wenders' 3D film on the work of Pina Bausch, not least in the crisp, striking way they describe the movement of bodies through space.

The stage is being set for what was, by all accounts, a grand, tempestuous romance. Copes and Nieves Rego first met in the dancehalls of Buenos Aires, and swiftly forged both a personal and professional bond: "I'd found my Stradivarius," shrugs Copes, a touch proprietorially. The fact the dancers are being interviewed separately, however, and that Maria generally proves far more forthcoming in her testimony than her erstwhile partner leads us to suspect some kind of rupture awaits, and so it proves. The great tragedy of this romance is that the trust that was so central to this relationship (dramatised in extracts from a remarkably fleet-footed table dance, where both participants are at every turn mere millimetres from turning an ankle) began to ebb away, life leading them in very different directions: Juan into fatherhood with another woman, Maria towards an altogether bruised attitude with regard to the opposite sex. Professionally, at least, they danced on, the former Stradivarius threatening to use her player as a mop and wipe the floor with him; it happens, in relationships.

While we wait for the reunion set up in the opening minutes - will this be a dance of love or hate? - Our Last Tango shapes up as a repository of wisdom on how to juggle one's personal life with one's other passions. For Maria, the question has always been how she could continue doing the thing she loved with or without the man she evidently feels betrayed her. (Could he be trusted to catch her, if they were to mount that table once again?) Having her shadow her onscreen doubles in the rehearsal rooms adds to the general sense of not just steps but useful life-wisdom being communicated, and if that sounds too earnest or otherwise proscriptive, the dance sequences - whether the lovingly mounted archive or the nimbly choreographed reconstructions - do much to shake that impression off. Lucidly shot and very carefully edited - forever striving to maintain a flow, rather than cutting into it - it's one of only a few dance docs that think as, and think to ask the questions, a dancer might, which possibly explains why it comes to attain such captivating grace.

Our Last Tango opens in selected cinemas from today.  

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Middleness: "In Between"

Maysaloun Hamoud's In Between begins with an illuminating if jolting contrast. A beauty-shop elder instructs a young Palestinian woman to keep her mouth shut and her body waxed if she hopes to attract and keep a man; cue opening title, then an abrupt cut to two other young Palestinian women - two flatmates, aspirant DJ Salma (Sana Jammelieh) and lawyer Leila (Mouna Hawa) - hitting the Tel Aviv bar scene as hard as they possibly can. No such strictures for them. This city, we soon grasp, is another where the old world meets the new: next morning, Salma is roused from hungover slumber by a phone call from her mother, insisting she cover up her tattoos and take out her piercings before she meets with the prospective spouse her parents have lined up for her, little knowing their daughter's sexual preferences reside on the other side of the Gaza Strip. If Salma and Leila are only too keen to break or circumnavigate the rules, their new housemate abides by them religiously. Meek and headscarved Noor (Shaden Kanboura) goes out of her way to please her deeply conservative fiance - but even she seems inclined to turn an ear to her horny housemates' doors and bust a move to their records when nobody else is watching.

Part of the freshness of Hamoud's debut - much-garlanded on the festival circuit - lies in encountering a Middle Eastern film that isn't unduly burdened by the politics of the region. It's true that Salma quits her kitchen job after she's told that her speaking Arabic alienates the clientele, and the girls' status as Arabs in the Israeli capital doubtless contributes to their sense of being neither here nor there. Yet Hamoud, upon this first glance, appears to be less the daughter of Arafat than a sister to Lena Dunham: she's chiefly interested in her heroines as romantic and sexual adventuresses, not as prisoners or casualties of war. For much of its running time, In Between presents as a study of twentysomething women meeting in the middle. Salma and Leila look upon Noor as almost an alien creature when she first shuffles across their threshold, every last inch of her body covered. Yet they will be there for her after her fiance, a zealot so uptight he won't even shake an unmarried woman's hand, crosses a red line - and it's here that what was previously a genial portrait of a generation gives rise to something as concrete and predetermined as a plot.

My feeling is that In Between loses some of its breeziness with that redirection, and its second half flirts with exactly the kind of soapy, issue-led melodrama Hamoud's savvy-hip characters sneer at in an early scene. Salma's trip to her parents' home in the suburbs is very Girls - during a slyly satiric evening meal, one buxom friend of the family boasts that her (fully grown) fiance has never once moved out of his parents' place - but this comic episode is immediately juxtaposed by the altogether sadder sight of our heroine's own guardians taking violently against the presence of their child's (female) lover. Sharp, vivid playing yanks us out of any dead spots, however, and Hamoun has an eye for images that crystallise the social and generational divides, and just where they've left her characters: consider the simple camera movement that removes us from Noor hastening to prepare supper to the carefree men sitting around in the next room, smoking and chatting among themselves, or the early set-up that places Salma at the dead centre of the screen, albeit with her overbearing father on one side of her, and a pretty useless suitor on the other - in between, yet again.

In Between opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, ahead of its DVD release on November 13.   

Monday, 18 September 2017

From the archive: "Kingsman: The Secret Service"

Market forces being as unsparing as they are, it was perhaps inevitable we would end up with a director as cynical as Matthew Vaughn. A producer on Guy Ritchie’s first films, Vaughn occupied the director’s chair for 2004’s Layer Cake, a rote gangland outing that sought our sympathy for a drug dealer who represented the kind of supply-and-demand-savvy middleman Vaughn doubtless fancied himself as. More lowest-denominator fare followed: 2007’s Stardust, which channelled the snickering violence, chauvinism and homophobia of Ritchieland into a dismayingly profitable family film; 2010’s Kick-Ass, that feature-length recruitment video for sociopaths; and, having obtained the keys to the studio kingdom, 2011’s X-Men: First Class, where the concentration-camp scenes gained a crudely effective charge from Vaughn’s apparently close understanding of abuses of power.

Kingsman, his latest exercise in loud, tasteless thrills, is simultaneously a spoiler for Ritchie’s long-gestating Man from U.N.C.L.E, a flagrant Bond-gig audition, and – not coincidentally – masturbation fodder for public schoolboys who weren’t bright enough to get the call from MI5. Vaughn and regular partner-in-crime Jane Goldman, adapting another Mark Millar screed, offer us an alternative security force, modelled on Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer. Besuited and bespectacled, its agents – headed by Colin Firth’s Galahad – operate out of a Savile Row tailor’s overseen by Caine himself; the film’s so in thrall to hollow, GQ-approved ideas of style that their passwords include “Oxfords, not brogues”.

For Vaughn, style and class are inseparable. Grateful plebs that we are, we’re meant to take something heartening from the social-mobility narrative that sees Taron Egerton’s rough diamond Eggsy plucked from his lowly surrounds, suited and booted, and placed on his Majesty’s secret service; in a film this gratingly self-reflexive, it may also be possible to see something of wannabe wideboy Matthew de Vere Vaughn reflecting upon the expensive toys bestowed upon him by the movie establishment.

Nowadays, he has the resources to follow his characters as they skydive out of planes, and to build set-pieces around a legless female assassin (Sofia Boutella) who sports razor-sharp Pistorius blades on her stumps – the kind of sexy homage to a convicted wifekiller only a filmmaker of Vaughn’s tact and diplomacy would attempt. He still knows how to produce and package, and to give his audience the sensation they crave: bits with cute puppies and characters tied to the railway tracks, hyperstylised violence set to throbbing pop tunes, and a (flatly horrible) anal sex “gag” as a topper.

Yet you’d have to be soft-headed to fall for a fantasy that proves so flimsy around both ends of the social spectrum: on one side, treacherous poshos named Hugo, Digby and Amelia, on the other, a vision of working-class life that extends to cramming Sam Janus in a council flat overrun by sixteen people’s unwashed laundry, Geoff Bell at his most scrofulous, and blasts of the one Dizzee Rascal track Vaughn heard while his Range Rover was parked up at traffic lights.

That this director is squarely on side with the 1% can be discerned from the film’s opening (Dire Straits) and closing (Bryan Ferry) soundtrack choices, and that his plot has been annotated with cutaways to Sky News – for this is a Fox production, after all, and Vaughn is nothing if not a company man. (Firth’s office is lined with Sun cover stories, in another none-too-classy instance of brown-nosing.)

The prevailing tabloid mentality becomes doubly questionable if we consider just who the Kingsmen’s massed brute force has been deployed against here: Samuel L. Jackson as a lisping Internet tycoon whose utter classlessness is revealed when – gadzooks! – he deigns to serve Firth a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries from a silver platter. Vaughn, of course, thinks nothing of taking the product-placement shilling: here’s one aspirant fat cat determined to have his Happy Meal and eat it.

The Sun good, but Apple, Microsoft and McDonald’s bad? In the week of another controversy over Page Three, perhaps Matthew might like to go away and have a quiet think about that one. Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t. Kingsmen, mindlessly celebrating the triumph of resolutely heterosexual white men over an effeminate-sounding African-American, arrives as proof you can put a dodgy geezer in a sharp suit, but also that, sometimes, clothes maketh not the man.

(MovieMail, January 2015)

Kingsman: The Secret Service is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; a sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, opens in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

1,001 Films: "An American Werewolf in London" (1981)

Three-and-a-half decades on from its first release, John Landis's An American Werewolf in London remains good for both a giggle and a scream. Two backpacking buddies are roaming the Yorkshire moors when they're set about by a lycanthrope: one (Griffin Dunne) is savaged and killed, while the other (David Naughton), rescued by locals after being bitten on the cheek, is flown to London for treatment. While in hospital, he's plagued by violent dreams and understandably stunned when his chum, face ripped to shreds, reappears at his bedside, warning of worse things to come, but not before asking "Can I have a piece of your toast?" 

The best - and most touching - joke in the whole movie is that these friends resume their conversations where they left off, but it's typical of a film where affection trumps cynicism every time. Although clearly spawned by a fondness for American (more specifically, Universal) horror - there's an early reference to The Wolf Man - the film is finally a broadminded American's love letter to the British landscape, weather, odd hospitality (witness The Slaughtered Lamb, home to Brian Glover, David Bradley and a young Rik Mayall), habits (hence multiple tea jokes), television and women: they don't come much more English than Jenny Agutter in nurses' whites, even if Landis shows his hand by having her fall instantly for his hero's transatlantic charms. 

It is, ultimately, as British as any film of this period: the Trafalgar Square sequence alone offers Alan Ford as a cab driver and Chief Superintendent Brownlow from The Bill in an early role as a humble constable, plus one of the most mysterious pieces of background graffiti ever filmed (seen on the wall of the phone box Naughton uses to call home) in "GARFATH DOES PARTIES" - what the hell did that ever mean? All the same, you can tell it was directed by an American from the way this werewolf doesn't seem to give two figs about class - his victims include a haut-bourgeois couple, three tramps and a banker - and from the way Landis succeeds in converting Piccadilly Circus into the venue for a demolition derby.

It holds up because Landis gets the simple stuff right: he makes the horror resonant and startling - credit make-up whizz Rick Baker for a hairy transformation that remains striking even in these days of CGI modifications and 200 cuts per minute - while the comedy, such as Naughton waking up in the nud, or the dubbed-English porn, remains genuinely funny. Spin-offs include a run of far limper VHS rentals (Vamp, The Monster Squad, Teen Wolf), a tardy sequel that had Julie Delpy to recommend it and not much else, and a renewal of interest in a Warren Zevon recording from 1978 - but, despite the prominence afforded to "Bad Moon Rising" on the soundtrack, no Creedence Clearwater Revival revival.  

An American Werewolf in London is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

From the archive: "Renoir"

What you notice first about Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir is the quality of its light: how it strikes – and, in doing so, differentiates between – the red in the leading lady’s hair, the orange of her coat, and the peachy flesh tones she will eventually reveal. Unfailingly shimmering and summery, the compositions of ace Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love) will, in themselves, comprise a worthy tribute to the legendary painter.

In strictly biopic terms, however, we’re back in Lincoln territory, again invited to extrapolate from a few months of activity something illustrative or emblematic of the life entire. It’s 1915, and with war raging just outside the frame, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret) has cycled to the Cote d’Azur home of the great Pierre-Auguste, by then an arthritis-gnarled 74 years old. She’s an actress and aspiring model – they did things the other way around back then – employed by the artist’s late wife almost as a parting gift.

Relations within the household begin somewhat frosty: after it’s revealed at Andrée’s first sitting that Renoir would rather paint lemons, she wonders whether she’s only there because this widower wanted a pretty girl in the room. Yet as the pair talk over long hours in the studio, she – or, perhaps, the vigour she represents – becomes his focus, then his subject, and eventually a cornerstone of the Renoir legacy.

Bourdos has made a less rigorously conceptual film about painting than, say, La Belle Noiseuse or The Quince Tree Sun; what he does instead is show us how, in turbulent times, the beauty that Andrée represented and Pierre-Auguste painted can serve as a balm, a way of soothing troubled minds and bodies. Measured tracking shots gradually reveal the rhythms of the painter’s home, offering a sense of slow but steady progress; Renoir’s statement that “I don’t paint tragedy or misery – others do that so much better than me” is used to justify the pretty-pretty approach.

As in Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, the emphasis is placed on sensual experience, and that which one generation passes onto the next. Renoir’s relationship with the model runs in parallel with his relationship with his three sons, in which the hands-on dad worries (needlessly, as we know) that his offspring might be frittering their time away: eldest Pierre (Laurent Poitrenaux) in the theatre, sulky youngest Coco (Thomas Doret, the Dardennes’ Kid with a Bike) wandering in the fields, middle son Jean (Vincent Rottiers, nicely thoughtful) in the services.

There’s a lot of looking – and everything from the lighting on down is designed to make us want to keep on looking – but it’s always anchored in two notable and effective presences: the veteran Bouquet, whose voice makes every utterance (“Flesh! That’s all that matters!”) sound as though it should be engraved in stone, and the undeniably beautiful Theret, perfectly cast as the kind of girl who would indeed make even the oldest and most arthritic of souls scrabble to squeeze the last drops of creativity from the tube.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Renoir screens on BBC2 tonight at 1.50am.

Friday, 15 September 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 8-10, 2017:

1 (new) It: Chapter One (15) ***

2 (1) American Made (15) ***
3 (2) Dunkirk (12A) ***
4 (4) The Emoji Movie (U)
5 (3) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **
6 (new) Wind River (15)
7 (7) Despicable Me 3 (U)
8 (5Logan Lucky (12A) ****
9 (9) The Limehouse Golem (15) ***
10 (8) Detroit (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

2. Belle de Jour 
3. The Villainess
4. Centre of My World
5. Journey Through French Cinema

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
2 (2) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
3 (3Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
4 (4) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
5 (5) Kong: Skull Island (12)
6 (7) Sing (U) ***
7 (8) Their Finest (12) ***
8 (6) Life (15) **
9 (9) Logan (12) ***
10 (10The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***


My top five: 
1. My Life as a Courgette

2. David Lynch: The Art Life
3. Suntan
4. Chicken
5. Whitney: "Can I Be Me?"

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Renoir (Saturday, BBC2, 1.50am)
2. Drive Angry [above] (Monday, five, 11.05pm)
3. The Nutty Professor (Saturday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
4. Super 8 (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. The Uninvited (Saturday, BBC1, 12.25am)

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (Guardian 15/09/17)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind *****
Dir: Steven Spielberg. With: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon. 137 mins. Cert: PG

The lights in the sky have never appeared brighter. Beaming back into cinemas Monday to mark the film’s 40th anniversary, this digital restoration of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi touchstone reintroduces a genuine UFO: a bona-fide blockbuster that nevertheless operates with hushed stealth, expanding its sense of momentous events approaching from distant galaxies exponentially. No bolt-shooting pre-credits sequence here; for score, a carefully sequenced five-note motif; instead of screen-hogging CGI, a glimpse of something through a rear windscreen, then effects sculpted, more tangibly, from moulding clay and mashed potato. For some while, its noisiest locale is the Muncie, Indiana home of Richard Dreyfuss’s everyman Roy Neary, so convincingly overrun with kids, toys and media that it might drive anybody’s eyes heavenwards, or in search of escape.

That backdrop remains a significant part of Close Encounters’ genius: the depiction of Earth is so credible that we readily take the same extra-terrestrial leaps of faith as its protagonist. In a featurette playing before the rerelease, Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve argues it’s all deeply self-reflexive, a film about filmmaking (hence, perhaps, the presence of Truffaut) and the pressures of generating out-of-this-world spectacle – a line that holds if we approach Close Encounters as the tale of an obsessive struggling to preserve sanity and marriage while rallying others to share his unifying vision. Either way, the view from the mountaintop remains quite remarkable: grand celestial theatre, in which the greatest storyteller in modern movies invites us to set aside any scepticism, look up, and very simply believe

Close Encounters of the Third Kind returns to cinemas nationwide this Monday.

"Centre of My World" (Guardian 15/09/17)

Centre of My World ***
Dir: Jakob M. Erwa. With: Louis Hofmann, Sabine Timoteo, Jannik Schumann, Ada Philine Stappenbeck. 115 mins. Cert: 15

This delicate German coming-of-ager – adapted by director Jakob Erwa from an Andreas Steinhöfel novel – wobbles between genuinely cute and aggravatingly twee before finding its feet alongside its protagonist. Sensitive late-teen Phil (Louis Hofmann) returns from camp one summer to find the small town he’d previously thought a paradise irrevocably altered, if not altogether lost: a storm has rearranged his usual reference points, distancing beloved sister Dianne (Ada Philine Stappenbeck) and leaving free-spirit mother Glass (Sabine Timoteo) even more emotionally fragile than when he left. One ray of light presents in sporty new kid Nicholas (Jannik Schümann), enthusiastically leading our boy into the locker-room showers, but we’re set to wondering whether Phil’s tangled history will darken even this glimmer of promise.

Flashbacks to Phil and Dianne’s days as Teutonically blonde toddlers are proofs of baggage but feel like baggage, and Erwa is prone to occasional visual clichés, like the overhead shot of semi-clad bodies atop a jetty that seems to recur in every Mitteleuropan drama about first fumbling love. Yet he does right by Steinhöfel’s throughline, establishing an intriguing, complicated and capably performed relationship between a mother who’s known only hurt from the opposite sex, and a son palpably longing for male affection and affirmation. A vaguely educative, afterschool-special vibe may mean the certificate reflects its optimal viewer age – it’s partly couched as a primer in handling heartbreak – but Erwa’s emotional candour ensures it’ll likely strike resonant chords with anybody who spent their formative years extricating themselves from strangulating family ties.

Centre of My World opens in selected cinemas from today.

"American Assassin" (Guardian 15/09/17)

American Assassin *
Dir: Michael Cuesta. With: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, David Suchet. 111 mins. Cert: 18

The malfunctioning studio system has foisted many subprime ideas upon us recently, but this opportunistic, Trump-age hybrid of war-on-terror drama and YA fantasy numbers among the junkiest. Ex-Maze Runner Dylan O’Brien plays Mitch Rapp, an emotionally volatile sort picked up by the CIA after pursuing the sleeper cell who gunned down his holidaying fiancée in one early breach of basic cinematic decency. Thereafter he’s assigned Aviator-sporting ex-Navy SEAL mentor Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, bent once more towards career self-sabotage), passed through whizzy VR training exercises, and dispatched to Europe alongside a babelicious colleague to recover a stray nuke while generally kicking ass for the US of A. As Hurley growls it: “Some bad people plan on doing some bad things, and it’s our job to stop ‘em.”

Director Michael Cuesta, formerly known for filigreed indies (L.I.E., Kill the Messenger), has perhaps concluded there’s more money in becoming a back-up Michael Bay, but his chosen moves here are blunt from overuse. Everything about American Assassin – Hurley’s jurisdictional squabbles, the actress roped in to bare breasts before perishing, unmourned, amid a hail of bullets – looks to have been copy-pasted from some Commie-bashing Chuck Norris opus of 1983, while the risible bomb-on-a-boat finale dates back beyond even Keaton to Adam West-era Batman. O’Brien demonstrates admirable deltoids and an ability to grow stubble as the character arc requires, but the attempt to rebrand counterterrorism manoeuvres as a heady extension of the Hunger Games falls somewhere between dim-witted and deeply cynical. Recruitment numbers can’t be this low, surely? 

American Assassin opens in cinemas nationwide today.

She's bad: "The Villainess"

For some while now, it's appeared as though Korean directors have been engaged in a game of bloody one-upmanship, as if fees were directly linked to body counts. The wholly brazen opening sequence of this week's The Villainess finds writer-director Byung-gil Jung topping his compatriot Chan-wook Park's much-celebrated/dissected corridor fight in 2003's OldBoy by shooting all his action in the first-person perspective. Once our fighter-in-chief has felled enough foes with gun, knife and handaxe to reach the end of the corridor, they're followed up to the next floor and a second corridor bristling with bodies; having taken all these out, the camera passes through a door into a gym stocked deep with even more ne'er-do-wells standing round just waiting to be eviscerated. But wait! By way of what we must now call a "Smack My Bitch Up" twist, our warrior passes before a wall-length mirror amid the brouhaha, whereupon it is revealed to us - ta-da! - that the individual responsible for this thunderously thrilling carnage is no hulking he-man, rather a tiny yet determined lady (Ok-bin Kim, the Thérèse Raquin of Park's 2009 film Thirst) in vengeful search of those responsible for her father's death. Hell hath no fury, and all that. 

The obvious peril would be that what follows fails to live up to such an electrifying first movement, but it transpires that Jung has many other tricks up his sleeve. For one thing, our heroine Sook-hee turns out to be an alumna of an elite finishing school - a Hogwarts with heavy artillery - where aspirant assassins are schooled not just in shooting and stabbing, but also the finer arts (acting, cooking) that might heighten reflexes, judgement, camouflage capabilities. As she passes into the wider world to continue her murderous quest, it becomes clear Jung intends to use his heavily storyboarded kill scenes as kinetic doodles, repositories of big, bold, unarguably cinematic, invariably winning ideas: strapping the camera to a blade during a swordfight (and doing so in such a way as not to obscure the physical geography of the sequence), setting motorbikes to duel with one another through traffic at high speed in seemingly unbroken takes, everything building towards a frankly insane final dust-up aboard a coach flying along the highway with its doors agape.

This exceptional fluidity of movement applies to the storytelling, too: Jung is loose and flexible about his exposition, running scenes from different timelines back to back without onscreen prompts in a manner that alerts us to a) the impact of the heroine's past on her present-day thoughts and deeds, and b) the possibility that these thoughts and deeds will themselves have an impact on future narrative events. Sook-hee finds one hit complicated when her target's young daughter walks into the room; this in turn sparks a flashback that reveals the details of her own childhood trauma. With the stakes of this game established, Jung can even turn his hand to something a shade calmer and more romantic in his middle act, as our heroine draws closer to the friendly neighbour (Jun Sung) who - unbeknownst to her - is actually the handler assigned to keep an eye on her. Thus does The Villainess broach that very contemporary concern, the double life. Our would-be lovers engage in at least one conversation about the matter of trust - probably a wise move, given that their shared alma mater offers classes in disguising one's accent to fit in when on assignment.

While composing dynamic, big-picture setpieces in his head, Jung doesn't overlook his performers, nor does he reduce them to crash-test dummies. Instead, he works closely with both Kim and Sung to shape and detail characters tentatively letting down the guards put up during those first bouts of carnage. Kim, all pinched cheeks and pursed lips, gives a notable performance-within-a-performance, evidently holding in some secret wrong that needs righting, yet the shock is no less explosive when it all comes out. (That opening eruption of violence assumes a deeper meaning when revisited through the prism of the following two hours: like almost all the action here, it's not as senseless as it might first seem.) If it's finally all manoeuvres - never quite matching the melancholy emotional charge Park wrung out of the vengeance of OldBoy - they're very skilfully executed: this, perhaps, is what the Kingsmen movies would look like if they had more than a couple of brain cells to rub together, and weren't exclusively interested in strongarming disposable income from gullible teenage boys.

The Villainess opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on October 30. 

At the Cinémathèque: "Journey Through French Cinema"

Way back in the mists of time, back when cinema was celebrating its centenary and UK terrestrial channels actively bothered themselves with arts programming, Channel 4 commissioned a series of films in which noteworthy creatives were invited to hold forth on the history of their respective national film industries. The most prominent and enduring of these projects was Martin Scorsese's A Personal Journey Through American Movies, but there were equally entries on British cinema from Stephen Frears, and on Antipodean cinema from Sam Neill. The French entry was assigned to Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, who co-signed a not untypically inscrutable hour that played somewhat like a footnote to the former's expansive Histoire(s) du cinéma (and may well have required footnotes itself). It almost goes without saying that Bertrand Tavernier's new three-hour doc Journey Through French Cinema, which opens, as perhaps it must, with a Godard quote, is an altogether more accessible endeavour: here is the avuncular writer-director, talking us through extensive clips of the movies that have meant to most to him in life.

Born in 1941, Tavernier emerged into that golden age when French cinema was redefining itself as both a local and international force, and a young cinephile could sit for hours in grand picture palaces watching the same film on a loop, so as to memorise lines, gestures, faces; he is absolutely of that generation who fell into first criticism, then moviemaking, as if these were the most natural pursuits for anyone to devote themselves to. We should note that old auteurists die hard, trailing comfortingly familiar characteristics in their wake: Tavernier's history is primarily organised by director, starting with Jacques Becker (who made 1942's Dernier Atout, the first film our host remembers seeing), before moving through those stalwarts Renoir, Carné and Vigo to post-War touchstones like Edmond Gréville ("the prince of fringe directors") and Jean-Pierre Melville. There are, however, sidebars on such indispensable contributors as screenwriter Jacques Prévert (Le Jour se lève), composer Maurice Jaubert (L'Atalante) and New Wave godfather Georges de Beauregard. In passing, Tavernier does a fine job of explaining the appeal of Jean Gabin, claiming him as an auteur, too: a heavyweight star who used his bulk and savvy to organise his films around a vision of France French cinemagoers couldn't get enough of.

As with any history, there are ebbs and flows. I felt myself growing a shade restless during Tavernier's aside on the use of music in films he's already discussed, and starting to long for the Nouvelle Vague to sweep in. It's also very canon, offering nothing beyond the millennium: the elegant classicist Claude Sautet is as modern as Tavernier gets, although the end credits do promise a sequel. It is, however, a hell of a canon, and our curator isn't blind to the flaws of individual films or filmmakers - Renoir's apparent anti-Semitism, Melville's rote dialogue, stubbornness and onset bullying (documented in an entertainingly gossipy audioclip in which we hear Jean-Paul Belmondo pushing back) - which serves to throw Tavernier's evident affection for those works he cherishes in even sharper relief. Mostly, this Journey does exactly what you want a ready-made film studies module like this to do: it sends you running to track down those titles you haven't seen (if anybody wants to program a retrospective of Eddie Constantine's pre-Alphaville crime films, that'd be a help, ta) and to rewatch those you already have. One warning: I also suspect it's liable to set a certain percentage of its audience to craving a cigarette - a situation never explicitly addressed in these three hours, but alighted upon so often in the gathered extracts as to make one realise anew how the French have elevated even smoking to an artform.

Journey Through French Cinema opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Rollin': "Kills on Wheels"

The offbeat Hungarian feature Kills on Wheels earns high marks for representation: of its three main roles, two are occupied by performers in wheelchairs, one by a performer with cerebral palsy. Full marks, too, to writer-director Attila Till for refusing to attach any undue sentimentality to his characters' movements: Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba Papa (Ádám Fekete) are bored, horny, resentful teenagers wasting away in a care home and desperately seeking an outlet for their yahoo energies, while Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy), the older man whose wing they fall under, turns out to be a pissheaded ex-fireman who supplements his disability benefits by carrying out hits around parts of Budapest even Béla Tarr might have trudged away from on the grounds of being too grim. It is both amusing and amazing that the film ended up becoming Hungary's official submission for last year's Foreign Language Film Oscar longlist (and no surprise that it eventually failed to place among the final nominees): the brakes are, in a very real sense, off.

What ensues is a wild and occasionally bumpy ride, intended at least in part to shake off any squeamishness or preconceptions concerning what might be "done" on screen with disabled characters or performers. If Till isn't quite the devil-may-care Lars von Trier of The Idiots - his film's a 15, not an 18 - he and his cast are still mischievous enough to make a bleakly comic setpiece out of the palsied Barba Papa's hitting the wrong button on a rec-centre vending machine, or the grumpy Rupaszov upending both his charges into a boating lake after he grows weary of their wittering. The assassination sequences, amusing in their own way, are premised on the idea polite society wouldn't think to suspect someone wheeling slowly away from the scene of a crime, because they surely wouldn't be up to such a physically demanding task, yet Till also takes care to include scenes that stress the energy and effort required of his protagonists to make an escape up a steep drive and through a locked gate. They can get away with a lot, these guys, but it isn't always plain sailing.

Certain aspects are less well thought-through. We're headed towards rehabilitation of a sort, but the narrative flow carrying everybody there can be a bit stop-start. Bridging scenes - like the boys' boozy after-hours tryst with three female physical therapists - sputter out before anything has been achieved or revealed; plot points (such as a feud between two rival siblings in the Budapest underworld, or Rupaszov's strained relationship with his ex) are scattered to the wind; while a framing device, suggesting the more murderous activity is but nihilist teen fantasy, doesn't really come off, and thereby undermines the compellingly skeezy reality Till cultivates elsewhere. You could argue that this lurching quality is deliberate, however: a show of solidarity with marginalised antiheroes who themselves don't move as we might anticipate. Either way, Till's mix-and-match soundtrack, leftfield characterisations (I liked Peter Lorre-alike Dusán Vitanovics' crimeboss, briefly seen shopping at Tesco) and unexpected tonal shifts imbue the film with a rude and not unenjoyable energy: in its own way, it's as jaggedly and defiantly punk as Ian Dury belting out "Spasticus Autisticus".

Kills on Wheels opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.  

Spring awakening: "God's Own Country"

First The Levelling, now God's Own Country: thus do our indie filmmakers reconnect with the soil. Farmland at the very least presents as a marked change of terrain from the country estates that have come to dominate recent British TV and cinema, both in terms of what it offers the eye and in what it signifies. Here are places where there isn't much money, and what little there is has to be worked bloody hard for. Truly and unmistakably, we find ourselves at the margins. (No wonder independent producers and directors feel so at home in the vicinity.) Francis Lee's assured first feature, charting the uphill-down dale relationship between two Yorkshire farmhands, has been dubbed "the British Brokeback" in certain quarters, understandable marketing shorthand that nevertheless feels a shade lazy and inaccurate. For one thing, it ignores the fact that this Lee film is entirely contemporary in its concerns, very much engaged with the hardscrabble realities of austerity Britain; for another, the phrase comprehensively overwrites the film's regional specificity.

Protagonist Johnny (Josh O'Connor) is, after all, a picture of that gruff self-sufficiency sometimes observed in certain Northern men: a twentysomething left behind to fix up his ailing father's farm while his contemporaries fled to college and upward mobility, he pisses away what little leisure time he's granted drinking to eruptive excess, engaging in what looks like fairly joyless casual sex, and generally cursing his position in life. He could be a 21st century update of the Angry Young Man archetype, if he were inclined to put more than two mardy-arsed words together, and didn't have to get up at four in the morning to stick a hand up a pregnant cow's backside. (The old Christopher Timothy manoeuvre, deployed by filmmakers keen to demonstrate they're not just here as tourists.) He looks to have resigned himself to his fate when there arrives a hired hand from Romania, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). Any illusions the newcomer may have about arriving in the promised land are soon shattered: Johnny labels him "Gypsy" and his ramshackle caravan digs a "shitehole". Still, at least he's talking. Gheorghe gives Johnny somebody to share his burdens and Pot Noodles with, and - eventually - a warm body to wake up alongside. Lonely goatherd, no more.

In turning one into two, Lee is consciously going against that strain of rural miserablism earlier indie kids like Duane Hopkins pursued into a critical and commercial dead end. The director evidently adores this landscape - his inserts of birds and beetles at large are collector's items - and while he's mindful of the gruelling labour that so frustrates Johnny (and has all but crippled his father), he's equally alert to the light and space that open up whenever we emerge from the darkened barns and take a few steps back. It won't hurt his cause that the bulk of the film's activity coincides with lambing season, allowing a small menagerie of cute fluffy creatures to inhabit the frame beyond the sometimes rough and bristly manlove. (This may be one reason why the film expanded into the multiplexes upon its second weekend on release, where Hopkins is currently pondering his future.) What's most notable, though, is how Lee frames his men. When Johnny and Gheorghe first go at one another, in the first light of dawn, it's redolent less of a roll in the hay - or, indeed, Theresa May running through golden wheatfields - than of pigs in muck: high on a hillside overlooking a town slowly waking up, it's a secret love, yes, but also filthily transcendent, placing them and us midway between the mire and the firmament. From somewhere in those heavens, you can hear Wilde and D.H. Lawrence applauding.

What follows could be described as a spring awakening of sorts - Johnny finally opening up to the idea of keeping somebody around to care for him as he does for his animals - yet even here the romantic in Lee is modulated by Lee the realist, nudging the affair along via the simplest of gestures. It's deeply touching, for example, when Johnny returns home from his daily labours to find the farmhouse table laid with a clutch of daffodils and two cans of economy lager: the look on O'Connor's face is enough to suggest this is the first time anybody has gone out of their way so for Johnny, no matter that the deviation in question probably involved no more than popping up to the Lidl by the roundabout. At this particular moment, it's obviously pointed that it should be a foreigner (and not just some common-or-garden labourer) who expands Johnny's horizons, yet Gheorghe's presence is crucial to how Lee proceeds from penning his protagonist in to giving him the run of the country. By the final reel, it feels as though these two could go anywhere and do anything - which may, ultimately, be the strength that finding a soulmate bestows upon us.

Throughout, Lee works as hard with his small cast as his characters are seen to do upon the land. He spots, for one, how Secareanu presents as by far the older and worldlier of his two leads, which makes Gheorghe seem wise enough to know when he's needed, and likewise to walk away when he's not. Set beside him, O'Connor appears vaguely calf-like, which is useful for a character so obviously struggling to stand on his own two feet, yet our hearts go out to Johnny precisely because of this dependency: no hugs look to be forthcoming from his pa (Ian Hart) or grandma (Gemma Jones), avatars of no-nonsense, keep-it-all-in Yorkshire common sense. Lee refuses to make the older generations simple tyrants, instead spreading his affections as Johnny does muck, and seeing what grows from it: a late, tentative rapprochement between stroke-afflicted father and son is all the more moving for Hart's typically skilful sketch of a man who's always found it hard to express himself at the best of times. Such sincerity elevates God's Own Country some distance over the majority of British films released this year: if at first its title appears nothing but ironic - shitehole, indeed - it comes by the closing credits to seem an apt description for a place of miracles and wonders, love selfless and true being foremost among them.

God's Own Country is now showing in selected cinemas. 

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Noblesse oblige: "Victoria & Abdul"

Back in the 1980s, the last time the country found itself so divided, Stephen Frears busied himself making films that in some way reflected those divisions. This run of groundbreakers and boundary-pushers bequeathed us the likes of My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid; even the director's late-decade ventures into period drama, Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters, played out like sly comments on the grasping, venal times. Since then, Frears has worked steadily in the US and UK, settling into a rhythm not unlike that of his contemporary Woody Allen - roughly one film a year, released into the awards corridor to better showcase his close work with actors - if not quite a pattern. The success of 2013's Philomena came to be followed by the failure of 2015's contemporary conte moral The Program, sending Frears back towards readily fundable/exportable costume fare: first last year's agreeable Florence Foster Jenkins, and now the jolly colonial episode Victoria & Abdul, about the connection said to have developed between the British monarch and the Indian clerk she employed as her personal footman during the Jubilee celebrations of 1887. The obvious conclusion would be that Frears, like many of his countrymen, has entered into nostalgic retreat, and started dealing in Downtonisms at the behest of an industry that has apparently pledged to be 90% bonnets by 2019.

Of course, for a certain cross-section of the new film's audience, the trajectory of its maker will matter far less than the sight of Judi Dench playing Queen Victoria once again - and playing her, yet again, as an essentially decent old cove who longs to be loosened up, a characterisation possibly grounded more in the desires of the target demographic than in any documented historical reality. When I say loosened up, I here mean literally so: as we join her Maj, a diet of stodgy banqueting fare has led to the Royal colon being somewhat overburdened - which seems as much a source of the Queen's irascibility as her post-Albert, post-John Brown solitude. Relief of a kind arrives in the form of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a lowly prison-service employee shipped over from Agra to pass on a ceremonial coin as part of the Jubilee shindig. Monarch locks eyes with humble servant during the presentation, and vows to keep him on to provide a measure of companionship and spiritual guidance, adding mango and spice to her itinerary; soon afterwards, she's trilling Gilbert and Sullivan in public, developing her Urdu, and lecturing her paler courtiers about the fate of the colonies. Of course, Abdul is the one feeding her, and of course, this is unpaid work, but nobody on screen seems inclined to make too great a fuss. Customs have to be observed, and motions gone through, after all.

What Frears has shed in punkishness over the decades, he's gained in reassuring professionalism: Victoria & Abdul fair purrs, like the engine of a Rolls, with a sense budgets are being kept to, and marks hit. The films now have sweep enough to carry off even the Cromwells among us: V&A transports us to Balmoral and Florence, the costume and production design doing its utmost to persuade us everybody is actually spending time on royal turf. Among the character actors recruited to huff and puff their way along these corridors, there is entertaining ham from Eddie Izzard as a glowering Bertie, resentful at years of mollycoddling; from Paul Higgins as the hyperventilating royal surgeon; and from Simon Callow as a passing Puccini. Lee Hall's script occasionally angles towards contemporary concerns: conniptions break out among Victoria's entourage after it's discovered the language Abdul has been teaching her Maj isn't what they dub "Hindu", rather "Urdu - the Muslim version". Yet it's all terribly mild; you wouldn't know from watching the film that its country of origin is up in arms, which may be the point, and possibly the means of its triumph. Almost every scene serves to cement rather than challenge Victoria's sovereignty: any criticism of the elite is channelled through Abdul's travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), and he's reduced to whiny-wheezy comic relief the minute he succumbs to a cold on contact with the Scottish climate. The implication is that those of us not fortunate to be born a Victoria should be more like the upstanding Abdul: fully aware of (and satisfied with) his place at the feet and mercy of his superiors.

I've spent Frears' last few projects quietly admiring his wiliness: his way of tickling us under the chin with one hand even as he lays down a broadly conservative narrative with the other, either via the interjection of scenes that can't fail to raise a smile (Florence Foster Jenkins' caterwauling, say), or by the simple attention paid to minor and supporting characters, an approach that usually pays off with a chuckle or two somewhere down the line. The apex of this process remains Philomena, nudging us smoothly from tragedy to triumph via the interplay between the irrepressible Dench and the lugubrious Coogan; here, however, everybody's headed towards an oddly rushed - if historically verifiable - conclusion that Frears, for once, doesn't really seem to know what to do with. (It's neither heartwarming, nor heartbreaking; it's a moderate shrug that mostly conveys "How the hell do we end this one post-Brexit?" and, eventually, "Will this do?") Victoria & Abdul almost - almost - won me over deep into its second half, but it ends in a muddle that seems regrettably representative of where we are at this moment in 2017: trying to square its underlying message of tolerance and unity with the chilly realisation that, for a damnably high percentage of its target audience, the happiest of all endings would be to send the foreigners who've served us right back where they came from.  

Victoria & Abdul opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

1,001 Films: "Reds" (1981)

Even at the moment of its release - with the Reagan administration settling in, and Communist Russia being set up as the bad guy all over again - Reds was going against the cultural grain some. Producer-director-writer-star Warren Beatty and co-scenarist Trevor Griffiths here managed to persuade Paramount, shortly to become primary sponsors of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, to back a three-and-a-half-hour biopic of the (generally underknown) lefty journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, opening in the 1910s, when the latter was married to a dependable, well-regarded Portland dentist, then following the pair as they ran off for a series of adventures - romantic, sexual and political - in Paris, Russia and New York. "Marriage was not important in Greenwich Village," asserts one of the film's scenesetters, which I think counts as cocking a snook at the family values being touted elsewhere in the America of the 1980s - and underlines how central the Beatty legend was to the project.

At its best, Reds succeeds in bringing about an unusual synthesis of historical drama and screwball comedy. Upon first arrival in Revolutionary Russia, our estranged lovers are confronted first by the sight of soldiers having limbs amputated, and then, back at their lodgings, by the one single bed they have to share between the two of them, establishing Reed (Beatty) and Bryant (Diane Keaton) as fellow travellers of Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night. The film is as interested in their union as it is in the unions; there was a reason Beatty recruited Annie Hall to play alongside him, and why his next engagement with politics would be 1998's outwardly comic Bulworth. Reds nevertheless establishes its utilitarian credentials by cutting away from the dramatised action to a chorus of what the credits describe as "witnesses": those real-life individuals who knew the protagonists, their testimony hereby preserved on celluloid for the ages. The sensation is of a film displaying its footnotes alongside the main text, and wearing its heart next to the red star on its sleeve.

Although perhaps not as much as the typical Redford project (The Way We Were, say), Reds is unarguably romanticised in its view of bloody historical events, shot by Vittorio Storaro as a less chocolate-boxy version of a Lean epic, with an emphasis on figures who talk and think rather than swoon, and with "The Internationale" assuming the place of a Maurice Jarre score. A fair amount of capital has been expended upon it, and the disillusion that sets into the characters during the second half is, perhaps inevitably, less intoxicating than the stirring passions of the first. The film is at least socialist in the sense of a true collaboration, and the workers - just about - keep the flag aloft; characters who could have made for dim, dusty, distant figures - mere observers, at that - instead fizz and come alive. Beatty and Keaton - their faces endlessly animated, as though being struck by a thousand ideas simultaneously - share a very particular chemistry, one composed of equal parts mind and body.

On their first date, this Reed and Bryant keep themselves up all night with talk of the revolution to come; on their second, she lures him away from a stuffy dinner party with the line "I'd like to see you with your pants off, Mr. Reed." From here on out, we watch a couple attempting to live up to their own high ideas and standards, perpetually testing their own internal rhetoric against that of everybody else around them. As is usually the case in radical politics, it's the man who tacks to a harder line, marching towards dogmatism, while the woman looks on, aghast, and is obliged to suffer the consequences. As the revolutionary movement loses momentum, Reds becomes a study of individuals falling out of synch - in their language, their movements, their heartbeats, and then with the rest of the world: Reed finds his words appropriated by jihadists, a startlingly modern development that suggests history - or at least American interventionalist do-goodery - keeps finding ways to repeat itself.

Behind the leads, we get an intriguingly chilly and creepy turn from Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill (Bryant sure knew how to pick 'em); it may, too, be the only film in existence in which Emma Goldman plays Cupid, and is rewarded in turn with all the best lines. (Reed to Maureen Stapleton's Goldman: "It's late, I'll walk you home." Goldman to Reed: "Why? I'm not going to hurt anybody.") You wouldn't have to ponder too long to arrive at the conclusion America has entered into political retrograde over the three decades since the film's release: today, after the rise of the Tea Parties and Trump, with "Communist" having become, in public and political discourse, a more potent slur than that other C-word, and with the Jack Reed most familiar to Americans being the cop played by doughty character actor Brian Dennehy in a series of procedural TV movies, you probably couldn't get a meeting to raise even the possibility of getting a film like this made.

Reds is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

From the archive: "X+Y"

The big blue eyes of the actor Asa Butterfield have often been used to simplify complex matters for younger audiences. In both 2008’s The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and 2011’s Hugo, those peepers became a recurring focal point for the camera, allowing us to see reflected in them first the horrors of the Holocaust, then the wonders of silent cinema. In X+Y, a winning and impressive feature debut from erstwhile documentarist Morgan Matthews, the subject is autism: Butterfield’s playing Nathan, a Sheffield lad headed to Taiwan, site of a maths training camp ahead of the International Maths Olympiad. Among these numbercrunchers – of which The Imitation Game’s Alex Lawther is the most assured, and Jake Davies’ Luke a poignantly stiff standout – Nathan is, as a fellow traveller notes, “neither the weirdest, nor the best mathematician”, but “painfully average”. This once, the outcast fits in. 

In truth, plot is only half the story here; more striking is how Matthews’ camera comes out in absolute sympathy with its protagonist. Staying close to Nathan where possible – maintaining a documentarist’s instincts, perhaps – allows X+Y to suggest how those with autism approach the world, in ways that succeed in being both free from condescension and quietly, appreciably cinematic. Quartered slices of toast and an exam room set up with perfectly aligned desks get us caught up in Nathan’s quest for order, before such easy symmetries start to be tested with the move eastwards into less squarely predictable territory.

At every stage, the actors approach this venture in exactly the right spirit: in meshing, they form the support network the film (and its lead character) needs. Butterfield, in his most impressive screen appearance yet, has clearly done his homework, while Rafe Spall deftly conjures something cherishable – and often hilarious – out of a characterisation with several possible pitfalls: the shambling mentor juggling a brilliant mind with a MS-stricken body. Eddie Marsan does his usual swell job with a handful of scenes as the mathletes’ beardy, chivvying manager, but it’s fellow Mike Leigh graduate Sally Hawkins, as Nathan’s mum, who makes the biggest impression here. Two moments, in particular, stay with you: one at the airport, where she anticipates a farewell hug her haphephobic son can’t think to deliver – Matthews gets knockout effects from his hero’s emotional reticence – and another in the final reel, attempting to explain the concept of love in terms her boy might understand. 

This dream team assembled, Matthews knows he doesn’t have to force anything; instead, he finds ways to move both film and Nathan forward without recourse to the usual lazy, careworn mechanisms. He hones in on formative moments, learning experiences: Nathan’s tentative first steps to the blackboard, say, or his growing friendship with one of his hosts’ daughters (debutant Jo Yang, smashing), one of a number of little arithmetics that add up to a surprisingly potent and affecting whole. Rare is the British feature that champions intelligence in any form; rarer still the crowdpleaser with heart and a brain.

(MovieMail, March 2015)

X+Y screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.