Friday, 20 July 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 6-8, 2018:

 (new) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
2 (new) Skyscraper (12A)
3 (2) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***
4 (1) The First Purge (15)
5 (3Ocean's 8 (12A)
6 (new) The Secret of Marrowbone (15)
7 (4) Sicario 2: Soldado (15)
8 (9) Sanju (15) **
9 (8) Hereditary (15) **
10 (6) Adrift (12A)


My top five: 
1. Vertigo

2. Incredibles 2
3. Summer 1993
4. Path of Blood
5. Spitfire

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
2 (new) Red Sparrow (15)
3 (2) Black Panther (12A) **
4 (4) Darkest Hour (PG) **
5 (3Fifty Shades Freed (18)
6 (8) Coco (PG) ***
7 (10) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
8 (34) The Incredibles (U) ****
9 (5) Finding Your Feet (12)
10 (7) The Shape of Water (15) ****


My top five: 
1. Sweet Country

2. Lady Bird
3. The Shape of Water
4. 120 Beats Per Minute
5. Mary Magdalene

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Pretty Woman [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 10.20pm)
2. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
3. The Bourne Ultimatum (Saturday, ITV, 9.55pm)
4. Stonehearst Asylum (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
5. The Football Factory (Tuesday, five, 11.05pm)

"Spitfire" (Guardian 20/07/18)

Spitfire ***
Dirs: David Fairhead, Ant Palmer. Documentary with the voice of Charles Dance. 99 mins. Cert: PG

Post-Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, there will surely be more of these retrospectives on the horizon, harking back to an age when Britain laid claim to ruling waves and air alike. David Fairhead and Ant Palmer’s documentary, released to mark the RAF’s centenary, bolsters its honourable core project – preserving the testimony of former Spitfire pilots – with material guaranteed to spike the pulse rate of aeronautical enthusiasts: footage of surviving Spits being wheeled out of museum storage; yards of scratchy combat film that underlines how distant these halcyon days now are; nuts-and-bolts analysis of the planes’ defensive strengths. Only belatedly does it consider whether these motorised killing machines might be as problematic as they are emblematic.

The directors enter the archive with scholarly care and craft, finding a useful early toehold in 1942’s flagwaver The First of the Few, where director-star Leslie Howard played Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell. Narrated by unofficial-voice-of-Empire Charles Dance and elegantly scored by Chris Roe, their own feature retains the contours of a stirring underdog tale, as a squadron of plucky Kens and Geoffreys recall signing up to see off the Luftwaffe, despite being outnumbered by a ratio of four-to-one. These twinkly-eyed aces apparently needed scant prompting to revisit their derring-do, generating gobbets of Spit-trivia: the planes’ elliptical wing design, we learn, was a cheeky crib from German WW1 fighters, an instance of Teutonic aggression being turned against itself.

PG-rated and matinee-bound, the film can seem a trifle coy about addressing the consequences of combat. Regular flights over rolling English countryside position these planes as no more dangerous than their Airfix replicas; the editorial broadly aligns with the serviceman who confesses “I shouldn’t say I enjoyed it when other people were being killed, but...”. For non-buffs, Spitfire will seem as curious or niche as making a film in 2018 about the Ack-Ack gun; in the week a new fleet of fighters have been commissioned to patrol our skies, there may be reasons why these narratives are being returned to circulation. Yet in and of itself, this cinematic time-capsule does its bit capably, even touchingly: the memories are here, for anybody who wishes to cling onto them.

Spitfire opens in selected cinemas from today.

Going off-track: "Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie"

For those who aren't on point with events in the world created by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, this will likely come as a shock. Having been bought up by Mattel in 2002, everyone's favourite talking tank engines have been relocated to the generic-looking island of Sodor and repurposed as the centrepieces of noisy, busy yet entirely bland digital content conceived to distract youngsters and swipe any pocket money that hasn't already gone the way of Pixar or Adam Sandler. In this respect, the franchising has been successful - Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie is the eleventh Thomas & Friends feature to speed down the tracks towards stricken parents - but it's clear that the homely, laconic charm of the Ringo Starr period is now long behind us; likewise, the objections to 2000's crudely digitised Thomas and the Magic Railroad, featuring (and this never fails to amuse me) Alec Baldwin as the voice of the Fat Controller. Modernisation is all well and good, but it may now be time for Jeremy Corbyn to put forward a plaintive call to renationalise Thomas.

The latest instalment is so busy generating motion and setpieces that it rather forgets about - sometimes whizzes past - anything so hidebound as story. Instead, we get a Thomas travelogue: our hero gets the idea of venturing off the beaten tracks from a rally car voiced by Peter Andre (!), an element clearly sketched in - with no real artistry - because the animators remembered their kids once seemed to enjoy the talking cars in a Pixar movie. (First flashing sign of mediocrity: it's cribbing from the Pixar movies nobody really likes.) Shipping Thomas off to Africa, South America and China does, granted, get the series out of its cosy wheelyard: we get blazing savannah sundowns, trains with faces less pale than Thomas's own, rolling stock with (broad) accents. Yet even this development seems as though it was arrived at after a brainstorming session on how best to tap the goodwill around Marvel's Black Panther and similar projects: our movies, even our pifflingly minor screenfillers, have learnt there is money to be made from diversity. Otherwise, no depth, emotion or subtext, just colours and shapes, which may of course be what four and five-year-olds want, but is going to leave their wearying guardians with ample time to ponder how weird it is that this Thomas should carry on jolly conversations with carriages whose faces are literally coupled to his caboose, Human Centipede-style. This isn't Awdry; it's tawdry.

Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Lock it up: "Escape Plan 2"

I refer you to McCahill's Third Law of Movie Physics: given enough time, everything - no matter how dumb or dingy - eventually gets a sequel. You may vaguely remember that back in 2013, Sly Stallone and Arnie Schwarzenegger were paired as cellmates in Escape Plan, a dimly lit runaround that played like TV's Prison Break on Sanatogen. The all-but-direct-to-DVD Escape Plan 2 does its very best to junk the one thing that non-event movie had going for it: the flexing of old-school, analogue moviestar muscle. Arnie, wisely, has made a run for it and is nowhere to be seen; Sly's security mastermind (stop sniggering) Ray Breslin has outsourced the really heavy lifting, running and fighting to a team of at best semi-recognisable faces, leaving him free to squint at spreadsheets, paw at Jaime King (just the thirty years his junior) and do a light spot of voiceover. It's a sign of the movie times that a significant proportion of this new cast should be Asian, which would appear less a bid for diversity recognition than an acknowledgement the original film took more money in the Far East - where the Planet Hollywood brand may still retain some currency - than it did back home. To that end, the sequel has several members of Breslin's outfit captured while visiting Shanghai and thrown into a top-secret, futuristically appointed chokey known as Hades; its inmates (who look like 17 in total, some indication of budgetary rescaling) are required to fight one another for benefits in an arena referred to as "the Zoo".

The futuristic correctional facility is hardly a novel development - anybody who set foot inside a videoshop in the mid-to-late Nineties would have encountered myriad ex-rental copies of the Christopher Lambert vehicle Fortress - but with a dash of wit, it might have provided for appreciable pulp. Instead, we get bash-'em-out hack Steven C. Miller (Marauders, Southern Fury), who stages very ordinary, oddly cursory fisticuffs with no particular energy or compositional flair, and with the straightest of faces: when warden Titus Welliver whispers the notionally chilling "I'm the Zookeeper!", you just stifle a giggle and hit up YouTube to see whether the line made the trailer. (It did.) Of the film's theoretical selling points, Dave Bautista - a potentially heavyweight screen presence, as his droll contributions to last year's Bushwick and the Guardians of the Galaxy series have suggested - is almost entirely wasted as a PI stalking the fringes of this plot, while Sly pokes his head round the door every ten minutes to remind us he still believes this franchise is a viable concern going forwards. (His final words intend to prompt a third instalment literally no-one, save the star's accountants and legal team, needs to exist.) It is, in the end, one of those sequels for which the phrase caveat emptor was surely coined: even if you're in the market for a dog, it's always disappointing when you pay for a boxer, and wind up being sold a shitzu.

Escape Plan 2 opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on September 17. 

Family dynamic: "Incredibles 2"

2004's The Incredibles was a tricky one. This viewer thrilled to the way it stretched and pushed the digimated form, but it was longer and busier than its Pixar predecessors, and cued a lot of discussion about both its philosophical position (which the previous year's Finding Nemo hadn't) and whether young viewers could engage with a film that addressed middle-aged spread and American exceptionalism head-on. As it happened, the film was a success without threatening to overhaul Pixar's biggest hits, and the studio's animators, then in their pomp, moved on to deliver Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up before the decade was out. In 2018, we find the studio in more or less the same kind of slump in which we found Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible) at the opening of that first movie, with allegations of workplace impropriety doing the rounds and the blazing inspiration of one-offs like Inside Out muffled by a slew of okay-to-mediocre retreads (Monsters University, Finding Dory, Cars 2 and 3). With the distress signals having been thrown up, writer-director Brad Bird has returned from live-action (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Tomorrowland) to an animated world that always did hold the possibility of further adventures within it. Miraculously, he has delivered one of this studio's strongest sequels; I'm tiptoeing towards heresy here, but you may even find yourself, as I did, being more purely dazzled by Incredibles 2 than you were at any point during the Toy Story follow-ups.

You will, granted, need to share Bird's taste for knotty, complicated scripting. As we rejoin this world, superheroes remain persona non grata in the eyes of the state, which draws the Parrs into partnership with the private sector; an early catch is that the billionaire tech developer courting them, Winston Deavor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), deems Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) too heavy-handed for PR purposes, and selects his wife Helen (a.k.a. Elastigirl, voiced once again by Holly Hunter) to become the poster girl for his operation. Around them the franchise expands, but never bloats. Deavor throws open a door to reveal an entire study's worth of under-the-radar capes and costumes. One supervillain (burrowing ne'er-do-well The Underminer) gives way to another (Screenslaver) who questions society's reliance on superheroes to save them (as well anyone tired of Marvel and DC movies might), only to be superceded in turn by a third. Every conversational interaction serves as a debate on some position, worldview, ethos. The central role-reversal is, we can assume, Bird's take on shifting gender roles: where it was the patriarch who had to shape up and lead the pushback against evil in the first film, this time - as has become common in latter-day Disney releases - it's a woman who leads the charge. Bob, meanwhile, has to face up to the challenge of 24/7 childcare, which gets even more complicated when your toddling youngest shows signs of having more powers than the rest of the clan combined - making him something like the Swiss Army knife of superheroes.

Thus can Bird cut his chatter with some particularly inspired action: he sets up his theses (superpowers as double-edged sword/more than one way to raise a family/quality versus convenience), then throws them around at not inconsiderable speed to see whether they hold together. If in the first film, completed less than a decade after the great leap forwards of Toy Story, the animators were stretching and pushing, seeing just how elastic these newish-fangled pixels might be, the sequel keeps testing itself, which is exactly the kind of measure against complacency most sequels leave out in the rush to capitalise on a previous success. (It can't just be coincidence that the Parr's eldest son Dash spends much of the running time prepping for a maths exam: a lot of thought and homework is going on here.) Bird comes up with a a neat conceptual joke - that Elastigirl proves a good deal more flexible than her other half when it comes to multitasking - then surrounds it with deft, throwaway gags about water features and indestructible suits. His team, meanwhile, program runaway trains, or set two sets of powers against one another (much as the script does with rhetorical positions), but they've also taken time to imagine what this universe's equivalent of a Dr. Seuss book might sound like, and what the black-and-white movies going out on TV after dark in an already notably retro-leaning world might look like.

There is an obvious delight in being greeted by an animated sequel that doesn't go in for repetition, or go down the usual quest narrative path, yet the film's invention and dynamism is such you soon twig Incredibles 2 could head in pretty much any direction it wants and hit upon material guaranteed to restore the smile to one's face. Along his travels in the decade-and-a-half that has separated original from sequel, Bird has taken on the instincts for widescreen action and spatial sense of Die Hard's John McTiernan, the playful view of the sexes most commonly associated in film circles with Howard Hawks, the eye for urban architecture of an Edward Hopper, and the family values of today's more progressive sitcoms. In our live-action superhero soaps, the excess of powers accumulated by the X-Men or Avengers over successive sequels has more often than not led to the cancelling out of drama, and the repositioning (by million-dollar marketing) of that censor-derived phrase "mild peril" as a major event. Partly because of cartoon physics, partly because it's so obviously reaching for way more than just drama, you sit before Incredibles 2 increasingly convinced that anything is possible inside this universe: it's the most complete Pixar package for years. Speaking of which, get there early for Bao, writer-director Domee Shi's real three-course-meal of a supporting feature: cute, a little weird, and finally very sweet.

Incredibles 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Video nasties: "Path of Blood"

Here's a found-footage movie of a more starkly disturbing kind. The footage from which the documentary Path of Blood is constructed was taken in this century's first years by Al-Qaeda operatives and the Saudi security forces on their tail, and by piecing it together, the filmmaker Jonathan Hacker can reveal something of the fundamentalist mindset: what drives human beings to such extremes that they would consider taking their own lives, and the lives of many others, in the name of religion. Surprisingly - yet tellingly - much of what we see is indistinguishable from any of the other content contemporary teens and twentysomethings upload to Instagram or Facebook, the handiwork of kids messing around while testing their own limits. In a pre-credits sequence, we watch one bearded youngster attempting to record a martyrdom video - those documents prerecorded by jihadists and released to the media after atrocities in the hope it will further their cause - only to collapse in mirthful hysterics upon repeatedly fluffing his lines. Footage from a training camp turns up images of blithe wheelbarrow races; a bomb test gains a farcical aspect after somebody's trousers fall down while running away from the blast. Here, perhaps, are the origins of Chris Morris's satire Four Lions - a process of self-documenting that shows not just Al-Qaeda's inner workings, but also its youthful adherents' goofing off. The point - and it's a powerful one for any public communication to raise at a moment when the aggressively othering Tommy Robinson and Steve Bannon are holding sway - is that the people at the centre of these frames aren't so very far removed from you or I; the one major difference is that they have mass murder on their mind.

Beyond that, we witness a clash of words and images. There is the footage sourced from the jihadists, pushing their case, and their sporadic victories, in these grandiose martyrdom speeches and flowery Voice of Jihad bulletins that try ever so hard to justify the bloodshed; and there is the surveillance and crime scene footage taken by Saudi security, who - as Hacker's excellent 2014 book of the same name outlined - were unusually adept when it came to countering and quashing the fundamentalist threat. (All the riches in the world does, in the end, give you greater security.) The two factions occasionally intersect in terse handycammed standoffs: there are raids and shootouts, vital, intense interrogations, and finally an outlandish assassination plot intended to blow off the head of the Saudi intelligence forces. Put back to back and watched in a cinema, such images place the viewer squarely in heady thriller territory, except that these strikes and counterstrikes resulted in actual bodies (and body parts) hitting the ground at regular intervals. Hacker, I think rightly, doesn't shy away from showing us the jihadists' methods, and the consequences of their actions, although he also has the sensitivity to cut away from one cell's vicious manhandling of one petrified American hostage at the exact point the group's brutality has become perfectly clear. It is the film's subjects who cross lines in the sand; the editorial never does. Besides, Path of Blood accumulates charge enough from its contrast between the lively and larkish jihadists we see with their guard down, and the charred or doll-like corpses some leave behind: all that would-be insurrectionary energy, gone to no good end.

Clearly, there were those in the jihadists' ranks who got a kick out of their thuggery, and the opportunity this moment afforded to build their own private army of followers. Yet careful study of this footage reveals that extremism is, more often than not, a pose, a performance of varying sincerity pleading for an audience of some description. At best, it is a phase to be grown out of, as countless stories attest: the film's subjects are not untypically young, marginalised, disaffected males who've adopted the nihilist credo that if the world doesn't work for them, it shouldn't be allowed to work for anybody else. Build up the theatre around them, however - as Hitler did from Nuremberg onwards, as the Al-Qaeda leadership did to a lesser extent in the Middle East, as the Barron-Farage cabal is attempting to today in the West - and you risk giving the performance far greater credibility: enough to lure in the credulous, the gullible and the simply unthinking, even as they themselves remain unsure as to what ultimately lies in store for them. It is, as Hacker's prologue establishes, all fun and games until people - perhaps even you yourself - get hurt. Path of Blood therefore arrives at the highest and most visible bodycount of any commercially released feature so far in 2018: it earns its 18 certificate, and a wince every five minutes on average. Yet at a moment in which the very idea of enlightened civilisation finds itself under attack not just from religious nuts but snivelling, sexless palefaces, Hacker's thoroughly considered and responsible assemblage makes for urgent, serious, instructive viewing.

Path of Blood is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

1,001 Films: "The Natural" (1984)

The Natural, Barry Levinson's step-up to the Hollywood big leagues after Diner, is a handsome, languorous, slightly-too-good-to-be-true wartime drama that aims to multiply America's love affair with baseball via the camera's love affair with Robert Redford. Given that it opens with the junior version of Redford's sporting superhero Roy Hobbs carving a magic bat out of a tree struck by lightning, it's doubtful we should have been looking out for psychological realism in the first place, but what follows is mesmerising in its simplicity: it's a film where the forces of goodness are framed in perpetual magic-hour sunlight, while the shadowy forces who fix matches sit in actual shadow (and get long speeches underlining the fact) and nefarious bookmaker Darren McGavin operates with a dodgy eye. (Glenn Hoddle, you sense, would love it.) The early disappearance of Barbara Hershey (as a black widow) and Michael Madsen (egotist teammate) from the plot serves further notice of a film unwilling to support anything in the way of complexity. In their place, there unfolds a conventional sports narrative in which Redford tries to fashion a comeback in middle age while tangling with two very 1984 women: Kim Basinger (gleaming, accursed status symbol) and Glenn Close (miscast as Hobbs's smalltown sweetheart; even back in 84, she never seemed the type who'd have to climb out of a window in the middle of the night).

Hobbs himself appears to have been conceived along the lines of a comic-book character, a Midwestern Roy of the Rovers or Billy from Billy's Boots, although for an underdog, the odds seem stacked rather too heavily in his favour: somehow it's not enough that he should be Redford-handsome, and possessed of an ability to hit the ball at full pelt into the standing features of any baseball stadium, he's able to pitch the perfect game, too. Depending on your point of view, the leading man either gives an impossibly earnest response to this at least semi-preposterous material, or earns his fee by planting doubts and hesitancy - struggling physically to get through a turnstile at one point - where there really ought to be none. Levinson assembles the montages, spinning headlines and period detail with a slick competency, but even to this viewer, a sucker for the cornballs tossed up in the course of Field of Dreams and A League of Their Own, this 140-minute film felt overstretched. Never more so than when outlining a philosophical treatise on the significance of chance within the sporting arena: this script (by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, adapting a 1952 novel by the American writer Bernard Malamud) hasn't the honesty to admit that its hero has just been blessed, and yet can't do anything clever with the theme of dumb luck.

The Natural is available on DVD through Sony Pictures.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

From the archive: "Mamma Mia!"

Mamma Mia! is this summer's second film to be not just critic-proof, but quality-proof. Just as Sex and the City didn't even have to pretend to be a film to send a million stiletto heels clacking towards the multiplex, so this filming of the ABBA musical is bound to have the coachloads who saw the stage show pulling up outside the Odeon. Given that no effort has had to be made (nor has been made) to convert theatrical extravaganza into summer hit, the question is: just how bad is Mamma Mia!? As bad as Sex and the City? Amazingly so, yes (and it's shorter). The worst film of the year? Maybe so, because its badness is so much louder than everything else around. It is offensively awful, howlingly woeful, naff beyond belief. This is a film so bad that when Pierce Brosnan launches into his rendition of "S.O.S." - I use rendition in the same sense as the Bush administration - it is, in context, no worse than any other element thereabouts. It's The Da Vinci Code with songs. It's that bad.

The story, for those who really need it, unfolds around a sundappled Greek island. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman on the eve of her wedding, is determined to track down her real father to accompany her down the aisle. To this end, she invites three of the best placed candidates to the hotel she shares with her mother (Meryl Streep). From Sweden, there is roguish sailor Stellan Skarsgård (!); from the US, hunky architect (zzzzz...) Pierce Brosnan; and from the UK, there is the very Colin Firth-like Colin Firth (St. Trinian's and this in the same 12 months: someone needs a new agent). Each gets an opportunity to plead their case for paternity, that is when they're not being drowned out by one of their fellow cast members caterwauling "Money Money Money", "Gimme Gimme Gimme" or "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do".

One cinematic precedent here would be last year's film of the stage musical Hairspray, which turned something from John Waters' self-described vulgar imagination into winning pop. Mamma Mia!, however, goes the other way, using winning pop music as a pretext for the worst kind of vulgarity: blocked toilets, fake tans, divorce-flaunting, randy bartenders, Julie Fucking Walters, TV commercials for Maltesers that are secret trailers for the film (a particularly insidious development), and the singing of a key line in the title number as "just how much I missed ya" rather than "you" - even native Swedish speakers Anni-Frid and Agnetha managed better than that. This vulgarity feeds into (but doesn't excuse) the shoddy filmmaking: the endless clumsy close-ups, the cheap blue-screen backdrops surrounding the villa. And did director Phyllida Lloyd not consider hiring performers who could actually hold a tune?

Of course, we're not meant to be thinking about such things (or thinking about anything), rather sharing in the tremendous fun this cast had being paid to spend two months in the Med. Depending on personal taste, the film will mark either the apex or the nadir of Streep's recent loosening-up: not only does she get to smile and laugh (as she wasn't allowed to between 1978 and 2002), this time, she's given the opportunity to belt out a couple of numbers while wearing dungarees - enough, I'm afraid, to leave me hankering for the old Streep whose daughter was eaten by dingoes. Seyfried, a quirkily appealing presence in films both good (Mean Girls) and bad (Alpha Dog), submits to the general air of wide-eyed, sunkissed blandness; and surely the producers could have done better, in hiring a young male lead to meet the demands of the teenage-girl demographic, than The Escapist inmate Dominic Cooper, whose shifty demeanour and vulpine features suggest his character may well have several body parts in the boot of his Fiat Punto. As for Walters' climactic performance of "Take a Chance on Me": well, celibacy has never seemed more appealing.

The biggest crime Lloyd's film commits - bigger than those it commits against the cinema, good taste, and the paying public - is that it commits against the music that inspired it all. ABBA have always enjoyed a following conscious of the campy-kitschy aspects of their output, but these singles could equally be reclaimed as perfectly crafted three-minute bulletins on the human condition, conveying therein a real sense of joy, loss, heartbreak and abandonment, only a shallow idea of which Mamma Mia! appears to be interested in. (Dare one suggest "The Winner Takes It All" gains not very much in profundity by having Streep wail it at Brosnan in front of a Greek sunset?) Musically, the film comes in somewhere between Moulin Rouge! - which similarly trashed half-a-dozen great pop songs - and the state-sanctioned Great Democratisation of Pop overseen by Chairman Cowell, persuading us that anyone can have a bash, no matter their talents, and so long as someone somewhere stands to make a great deal of money from it. These arrangements smack of those Top of the Pops compilation albums from the 1970s, where the hits were sung (quite poorly) by session singers; camp means never having to admit something's no good.

This is, one suspects, part of the Mamma Mia! experience's appeal: that it should have the recognisable ring of hen-party karaoke, or of something sung into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. On the big screen, however, it just looks like the latest gross reduction of our already falling cultural standards: something intolerably sloppy, hastily repackaged as the feelgood film of the summer. The sad sight of the four ABBA bandmates reuniting for the non-event of the film's Stockholm premiere is topped only by the sight of Benny and Bjorn's cameos in the film itself. To them, I offer my congratulations: in return for a handful of gold coins, they have ensured their music can never again be encountered without the attendant dual whiffs of ordure and fromage. To everyone else, I can only provide the following stark warning: every penny you hand over at the box office for Mamma Mia! will only bring us closer to the movie version of Our House starring Danny Dyer, or of the Queen musical We Will Rock You, starring Russell Brand and Justin Hawkins from The Darkness.

(June 2008)

Mamma Mia! is available on DVD through Universal Pictures; a sing-along version screens on ITV2 today at 4.20pm, ahead of the sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday. God help us all.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 6-8, 2018:

1 (new) The First Purge (15)

2 (1) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***
3 (2) Ocean's 8 (12A)
4 (3) Sicario 2: Soldado (15)
5 (4) Tag (15)
6 (7) Adrift (12A)
7 (8) Patrick (PG)
8 (6) Hereditary (15) **
9 (5) Sanju (15) **
10 (re) Yellow Submarine (U)


My top five: 
1. Vertigo [above]

2. The Piano
3. Incredibles 2
4. Summer 1993
5. Path of Blood

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
2 (4) Black Panther (12A) **
3 (3) Fifty Shades Freed (18)
4 (6) Darkest Hour (PG) **
5 (2) Finding Your Feet (12)
6 (new) Game Night (15) ***
7 (5) The Shape of Water (15) ****
8 (8) Coco (PG) ***
9 (new) Lady Bird (15) ****
10 (9) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)


My top five: 
1. Sweet Country

2. Lady Bird
3. The Shape of Water
4. 120 Beats Per Minute
5. Jeune Femme

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Bourne Supremacy (Saturday, ITV, 9.55pm)
2. Crank (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
3. Hell or High Water (Sunday, C4, 10.15pm)
4. Wuthering Heights (Sunday, C4, 1.35am)
5. An Ideal Husband (Saturday, BBC2, 2.45pm)

Prickly things: "Pin Cushion"

The contemporary British fairytale Pin Cushion has the look of a particular kind of movie. It has the quirky title; it could engender its own tie-in knitwear line; it features a lot of art direction; and one early shot of kittens in a pet shop window plays as flagrant pandering to that audience that traditionally turns out for that type of movie. What's interesting about it is that the characters from that type of movie are here seen to run up against the unyielding brick wall that is the real world, which gives rise to something more dramatic and affecting - something that doesn't merely come off as cosmetic or cutesy. Writer-director Deborah Haywood shows us exactly why her main characters, a mother-daughter pairing, have wrapped a protective bubble or shawl around themselves, before tempting them to throw it off, for better and worse. In the nondescript provincial town to which the pair have moved - thoughtful location work here - they present as hopeless outsiders: ma Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) a sadsack with a hunched back, her offspring Iona (Lily Newmark) pale and redheaded, prone to spinning tales that suggest she was rescued from a forest in a bid to impress her new school's meaner girls. Iona subsequently turns crueller in her effort to assimilate; it's a development that leaves them both even more vulnerable than they were before.

Thus does the film set out to explore the mother-daughter axis, that long-term site of feminist inquiry, and one that has enabled distaff filmmakers to try and counter the now more than faintly tired father-son tropes of so much Western cinema. The central relationship Haywood draws here reminded me a little of the Saoirse Ronan-Laurie Metcalf scenes in January's Lady Bird: beneath its chunky cable-knits, Pin Cushion is another heartfelt drama describing the process whereby one generation rebels against (yet ultimately has to make some kind of peace with) what's come before, put together by someone who was once a teenage girl but is now a fully-fledged woman, with the perspicacity and distance to see both sides of the coin. (Proposed season: From Greer to Gerwig, in which young female creatives come to terms with the possibility their former role models may some day give into naff, cranky or deeply conservative positions.) I think I should point out - especially given the understandably enthusiastic reviews Pin Cushion has so far accumulated - that this is an odder and bumpier film than its predecessor(s), its eccentricity extending to a tendency to cut away from scenes at the point their internal conflicts could be heightened or deepened.

The whole thing, indeed, runs to just 82 minutes, which is useful if you've got chores to be getting on with, but in an age when Michael Bay can extend individual Transformers movies to a willy-waggling 160 minutes, Pin Cushion well might have supported another ten or twenty, if the budget had allowed for it. As it is, Haywood's ending - a sidestep into another genre, raising more questions than it answers - felt to me a little blunt and underfinessed. What's clear already, however, is that this filmmaker has an eye for a detailed, cinematic image, an acute ear for sound (one lingering impression: the malevolent whispering behind these characters' backs) and a feel for those themes that might engage younger audiences: Iona's blossoming touches upon peer pressure, bullying, low self-esteem, and many of those other things you and I may be relieved to have left behind in our youth. Haywood also displays a sure hand with actors: the newbie Newmark - possessed of that translucent skin the cinema and its DoPs have long venerated, in part as it registers as a window within a screen - capable of projecting a muted sensitivity even when Iona is acting at her most thoughtlessly adolescent, while Scanlan - so good on TV (The Thick of It, Getting On), and an actress apparently possessed of zero vanity whatsoever - makes an indelible figure as she potters and limps around on her lonesome. Unarguably promising.

Pin Cushion is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Another country: "Summer 1993"

Summer 1993 is a film in the illustrious lineage of Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive and Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos, bringing us closer to the present, while demonstrating that Spanish directors haven't lost their near-singular ability to coax great, natural yet remarkably precise performances from very young children; nor their facility for showing us the universe through a child's eyes, and thereby making it seem newly strange and complicated. For practically its entire 97 minutes, Carla Simón's feature debut intends for us to interpret the world as its six-year-old heroine sees and passes through it: we're walking a mile or so of bumpy ground in adorably tiny shoes. That heroine is Frida (Laia Artigas), introduced having a suitcase packed for her and being driven away from her Barcelona home to stay with her aunt and uncle in the Catalan countryside. Why this is happening isn't immediately clear, and we're equally on unfamiliar ground once we arrive at the new place, having to feel our way into this semi-idyllic rural environment much as Frida has to herself. What is certain is that this girl is no longer the #1 priority, for her guardians have their own smaller bundle of joy to oversee; and that the attention she does receive is of the panicky and overprotective variety. As the band 4 Non Blondes were heard to sing around this particular historical moment: what's going on?

We will find out in the course of a film that feels simultaneously highly controlled and yet wholly spontaneous from scene to scene. There are, it turns out, narrative reasons for setting the film in 1993, and Simón has taken care to get the details right, some (Dogtanian on the TV, Cobi - mascot for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics - on a T-shirt) more universal and recognisable than others (a Catalan dinner ritual that involves the passing of napkins, some distinctly localised pop hits). For the most part, however, we're left to watch the farmhouse's junior residents interacting and exploring the house, its gardens and wider surrounds. What Simón has inherited from Erice and Saura is an understanding that untrained youngsters can be tremendous allies when it comes to storytelling: they naturally have the viewer's sympathies, yet when it comes to setting something up or letting slip the clues that will assist in forming and filling in any bigger picture, the right child performers will most often do so in a way that appears guileless, truthful, the very opposite of clunky exposition. Putting little tykes in the foreground also opens up another plane of activity, namely what's going on behind or around them, and in this, Summer 1993 is not so very far removed from the methods of last year's standout American release The Florida Project, another drama of dislocation with an excellent sequence of ice cream-eating.

As Sean Baker did there, Simón allows us, as sentient adults, to intuit a situation while preserving the blithe innocence of the youngsters corralled centre frame; she lets you and I hear just enough of certain conversations while placing warm, protective palms over her juvenile leads' ears. That level of caretaking enabled the Florida movie's astonishing tightrope walk, and though she attempts it in a quieter, less showy fashion - replacing its predecessor's eyepopping colours with the mellow sunshine beneficial for repair and growth - Simón pulls off something not incomparable. Much of the hardest work had to have been done at the casting stage: finding not just these utterly unaffected youngsters, but the trained professionals prepared to go with the flow and interact with the kids on their own terms, while giving the merest hint of the grown-ups' own concerns. There's a terrific performance, viewed mostly in passing, from Bruna Cusi as the aunt: without once overshadowing her younger costars, she subtly conveys how this woman seems to tire with twice the number of charges to watch over, then regains her maternal strength - an arc we catch out of the corner of the eye. Just as the film captures a young life being held in suspension - a transition period, to be remembered forever - so entire scenes hold us in a striking balance: between documentary observation and something more narratively propulsive, between cinema and real life, childish skylarking and harsh experience, and - at the very last - between laughter and tears. The world we enter into is more complex than the bulk of our movies credit; here's one of the few that does that absolutely.

Summer 1993 opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

From the archive: "The Incredibles"

Fifteen years on from his superheroic heyday, Bob Parr - another of Pixar's inspired creations - has become an insurance schlub. His muscle has long since turned to fat; he can barely squeeze into his office partition; what once was a skintight outfit has become a croptop peering over a belly gone slack. A functionary by day - his job a mocking, sedentary reminder of the risks he himself used to take - Bob (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) spends his nights sneaking out to rescue folk from burning buildings using the last vestiges of his special powers, longing for a return to his glory days. Inevitably - the magic of the movies, and all that - something like this comes to pass with the emergence of one Buddy Pine, a.k.a. Syndrome (Jason Lee), a spurned Parr fan threatening to disrupt the status quo. The world's fate soon lies in the hands of Bob and his equally gifted family: Mrs. Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl (superhuman stretchiness), voiced by Holly Hunter; son Dash (superhuman speed), voiced by Spencer Fox; and daughter Violet (superhuman shrinking, perfect for a self-conscious teen who spends her downtime hiding behind her fringe), voiced by Sarah Vowell.

At two hours, The Incredibles is the busiest and longest Pixar production to date, and it's not pushing things to say the company spends much of that time showing off. Director Brad Bird here mixes large-scale, blockbuster-worthy setpieces with wonderful little trompe l'oeil effects and marvellous locations like Mr. and Mrs. Incredible's bedroom, where the attention to even the tiniest CG detail extends to a full-length mirror and the reflective surface of a television set. Ever since the furry animals of Fox's Ice Age, hair has been touted as one of the toughest textures to accurately render with pixels; so, too, water, no matter that Pixar spent almost all of 2003's Finding Nemo beneath the waves. Here, no fuss, we get both together, in a sequence in which Elastigirl, Dash and Violet, having plummeted into the ocean, bob around with wet locks. This is an Elastimovie, forever finding new ways to stretch itself. The humans in the Toy Story movies were perhaps the least convincing - perhaps only unconvincing - aspect of those films. Bird and his team wisely plump for characters governed less by strict photorealism than a caricature form not dissimilar to the every-bit-as-pummelled Weebles of MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch.

The magical transformation that occurs - partly attributable to the design, partly to typically good screenwriting - is that these exaggerated clumps of binary code come to convince as flesh-and-blood creations. Even the minor ones: Parr's boss, a barking, ashen corporate mite, looks as though he'd be played in a live-action remake by William H. Macy impersonating Noah Taylor's Hitler in Max. In some ways, it must be an easier task coming up with human characters than with such leaps of imagination as a fairytale ogre (Shrek, say) or the playthings in the Toy Storys. Yet for The Incredibles to work, an even greater leap has to be made: we have to believe these characters would bleed and hurt if they cut themselves. Amazingly, we do. I wonder if Pixar's approach to non-visual storytelling and characterisation is along the lines of how the company's wireframe boffins go about building these worlds: a layering up, an accretion of detail that permits one creative process to mimic another. 

At its heart, however, The Incredibles is a continuation of the themes of 2003's Finding Nemo, a film about the lengths we go to protect ourselves and our loved ones - and what, in doing so, we prevent ourselves from experiencing. Dash's teacher records his lessons on videotape, as a safety measure; one of the reasons the giant leaps of the kind formerly associated with the Parrs appear to be dying out is that the lawyers are keeping a close eye out for any collateral damage incurred in the process of besting villains and saving lives. You could, if you so choose, read this as a satire on the American way of checks and balances, or as a counterblast to the Homeland Security Act: a parable of responsibility, offering an animated restating that - if they'd only step up to the plate every once in a while - American citizens would be perfectly capable of looking after themselves, without interference from the Government. 

With its heroics unfolding around a sleek Fifties cityscape (special mention: the Parrs' Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home), The Incredibles may also count as the first Pixar movie since Monsters, Inc. that Ayn Rand might have clutched to her chilly bosom. Truly successful fables have the rare knack of being truly universal, offering something for everyone. That's certainly the case with Bird's film, which provides as many thrills as any of the year's live-action movies, alongside cherishable smaller beats - Bob cricking his back into shape during a tussle with an apparently unkillable robot, a fashion queen (styled after Edith Head) who points out the design flaw with capes and keeps a fireplace full of flame-red goldfish - and so much incidental detail you know within five minutes that you're going to buy the DVD to get a better look at it. To want to watch a movie again from scratch within moments of it beginning; a two-hour film that leaves you wanting even more. In this day and age, that's truly incredible.

(November 2004)

The Incredibles is available on DVD through Disney; a sequel, The Incredibles 2, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday, and will be reviewed here in due course.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Winging it: "The Butterfly Tree"

Somewhere inside The Butterfly Tree, an exasperating debut from the Australian writer-director Priscilla Cameron, there's a sensitive, literary study of grief, love and lust readying itself to take flight, but it's been cocooned within a tacky carapace of magic realism that will at best be an acquired taste, and at worst splats the eye with images of excruciating naffness. Cameron's film is set within a household left lopsided by the recent death of its matriarch. College lecturer Al (Ewen Leslie) has attempted to evade his emotional loss via a fling with the most forward of his students, while son Fin (Ed Oxenbould, the rapping child from Shyamalan's The Visit) has built up a shrine to ma in the backyard and a serious insect fetish. Both will fall under the spell of Evelyn (Melissa George), a burlesque artist with an unplaceable, non-Aussie accent and an ever-present set of rollerskates (for it is one of those movies): while pa eyes her up as another putative lay, the lad gets invited inside Evelyn's hothouse to take photos of her boobs, neither party being aware of the other's affections. It's the Bateman-Cera-Isla Fisher farce of recent Arrested Developments, only with even fewer laughs.

While you wait for man and boy to find out and come to blows amid Cameron's tsunami of sixth-form art direction, your responses will be most strongly guided by the film's more outré flourishes: the visions Oxenbould has of computer-generated butterflies sipping water from his belly button, a conversation Al has with his student squeeze (Sophie Lowe) about cock rings, a fantasy in which Evelyn is seen to coax beetles onto her nipples. I'm afraid the film lost this viewer early on, didn't win me back with pillow talk of the calibre of "You can be the baby spider, and you can suckle me", and left me all but swallowing my fist once it turned out Evelyn's fate was to offer the kid his first fondle before succumbing to cancer, the kind of hoarily conservative trope any male writer-director would be nailed to a cross for resorting to in The Year of Our Lord 2018. These ninety-odd minutes retain precisely one moment of recognisable human truth, in describing Al's mounting annoyance with the local council's voice-activated phone system; the rest can be filed under "away with the fairies", with no especially pressing need to chase after it, however big your net.

The Butterfly Tree opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Sunday, 8 July 2018

From the archive: "The Box"

A stranger shows up on your doorstep, scarred from a lightning strike yet otherwise respectable in appearance. He hands you a box with a button on top, instructing that two things will happen should said button be pushed: one, someone somewhere in the world - someone you don't know - will die, and two, you will receive a million dollars in cash for your troubles. ("Tax free," the stranger adds, with a flourish.) Would you push it? Such is the quandary facing married couple Cameron Diaz and James Marsden in Richard Kelly's new thriller The Box, adapted from Richard Matheson's short story Button, Button. It's 1976 when the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives on their doorstep, on the very day Diaz's Sartre-teaching schoolmarm learns her contract is being terminated, and Marsden's NASA engineer has his application to join the astronaut pool turned down. More precise yet, it's Christmas, which means we could read the couple's new toy as the ultimate test of goodwill to all men: initially prepared to push the button if it comes to it, they have second thoughts upon learning that, once deployed, the box will be removed from them and passed onto someone they do not know - thus putting themselves at risk.

We could equally read The Box as a way of bringing the distant horrors of overseas warfare, whether Vietnam, Iraq or even the Cold War, with its own weapons of mutually assured destruction, squarely back home: push a button, soldier, and somebody you've never met perishes. (It makes perfect sense that Langella should come to this from playing Nixon - his character's name doubly significant in this militaristic context - and that Marsden should be so riled by a waiter sending a peace sign his way.) Certainly the world Matheson and Kelly set out is one showing significant signs of trauma even before the box shows up. Diaz has lost several toes in a childhood accident; Marsden fails the astronaut exam on his psych evaluation; there's a sudden onrush of nose bleeds. Even those who aren't dying here are hurting in some way. After 2006's sprawling, uncontrollable Southland Tales - which squandered some of the goodwill this filmmaker had earned with Donnie Darko - it's clear Kelly intends this as a more focused and considered piece of storytelling; he's working his way through that phase of self-indulgence M. Night Shyamalan is still labouring in. (Certain scenes in The Box, involving a motel swimming pool with supernatural properties, recall Shyamalan's mystical misfire Lady in the Water.)

Still, there's no denying the film remains a somewhat erratic experience. Kelly badly fumbles his material after an intriguing first hour, stumbling into an interlude in a celestial library that shifts the narrative onto a higher plain when it might have done better to keep at least one foot on the ground. Where the best material here (the loving recreation of a busy 1970s household, the shadowy presence of National Security agents) apes Spielberg, the least convincing aspires towards Kubrick: Marsden, we discover, has been working on a Mars exploration project with none other than Arthur C. Clarke, and 2001 looks to be the inspiration for the library's multiple-choice stargates. I'd still be tempted to see The Box for the unified ominousness of its first hour - that hard-to-achieve sense that every scene, no matter how throwaway it seems, is somehow key to the whole; that sense that transforms even a humdrum conversation about turning off the Christmas tree lights at night into a matter of life and death. If the middle act drops the ball - and the box, come to think of it - then the tough choices Matheson and Kelly leave their characters with really do stay with you: the film doesn't all work, but it offers few easy ways out of its central conundrum.

(December 2009)

The Box screens on BBC2 tonight at 10.55pm.