Friday, 14 December 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of December 7-9, 2018:

 (1) Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)
2 (4) The Grinch (U)
3 (2) Creed II (12A)
4 (3Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A)
5 (5Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
6 (7) Nativity Rocks! (U)
7 (new) The Old Man & The Gun (12A) ***
8 (new) Sorry to Bother You (15) ***
9 (new) The Nutcracker - Royal Opera House (U)
10 (8) Robin Hood (12A)


My top five: 
1. Die Hard 

2. Roma
3. It's a Wonderful Life [above]
4. The Wild Pear Tree
5. Sorry to Bother You

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (1) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
2 (3) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12)
3 (9) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12) ***
4 (2The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (17) Hotel Transylvania 3 (U)
6 (new) The Meg (12) ***
7 (6) The Grinch (2000 version, PG) ***
8 (4) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
9 (8) Elf (PG) **
10 (7) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12) ***


My top five: 
1. Leave No Trace

2. First Reformed
3. Incredibles 2
4. Lucky
5. They Shall Not Grow Old

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Point Break (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
2. Die Hard with a Vengeance (Tuesday, BBC1, 10.45pm)
3. The Empire Strikes Back (Saturday, ITV, 6.40pm)
4. Toy Story 2 (Thursday, BBC1, 3.45pm)
5. Toy Story (Wednesday, BBC1, 4pm)

Beast: "An Elephant Sitting Still"

Here is both an introduction and a final word. An Elephant Sitting Still marks the first feature of Hu Bo, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy who, in his near-three decades on this planet, somehow also found the time to become a much-admired novelist. Yet the shift in tenses in that sentence is, tragically, no mistake: Bo took his own life in October 2017, leaving us in the unusual (so far as this viewer can recall unprecedented) situation of watching a first film we also know will be its maker's last. A patina of sentiment might have become attached to a project like this, yet the film itself presents to us as resolutely unsentimental. For starters, it runs ten minutes shy of four hours long (as Bo apparently intended); it unfolds in a harsh, metallic-grey rural China, closer to the territory traversed by the generally critical Jia Zhang-ke than the state-sponsored pageantry of a Zhang Yimou; and its characters look to have had all the warmth and compassion panel-beaten out of them by a society being reshaped towards rampant self-interest. As filmed suicide notes go, it is defiant, confrontational, more "fuck you" than "help me" - though there's equally an element of "God help us all" in evidence during its more reflective and despairing passages.

Short Cuts or Magnolia-like structure divides the four hours between four unhappy souls. Two are teenagers: a highschooler who leaves his abusive father behind and heads to a school where the teachers are as bullying as the pupils, and a female contemporary living with her lush of a mother. The third strand involves two twentysomething lovers carrying on an affair; the fourth a grandfather being put into care by a family who've determined they no longer have the time or space for him. It takes the best part of forty-five minutes to establish how these people might be linked, but by then Bo's made it very clear their future interactions are unlikely to be wholly positive. The old man has his dog set upon in a back alley and takes to walking around with a pool cue in his hand; one of the schoolkids reveals he's liberated a handgun from his dad's collection; the woman's husband comes home early one afternoon and, upon discovering he has been cuckolded, leaps to his death from a fourth-floor window. It is, shall we say, unlikely ever to be sold or seen as China's answer to Love, Actually; the film's festive release date in the UK presumably corresponds to the extra time cinemagoers are thought to have on their hands at this time of year.

Bo's literary background becomes evident in the way these stories knot up (the husband's death sets the lovers against one another, standing up to one bully improves nobody's life) and in his skilful threading of motifs: the titular creature, rumoured to exist in a small town where the residents prod and poke him like King Kong in New York, is but one poor beast in a script spilling over with bleak anecdotes about doomed cats and dogs. That script's sudden revelations are aided by a singular, fascinating camera choice that breaks with most of the conventions we associate with "epic cinema": we get four hours of close-ups on the main characters that relegate others to a fuzzy non-focus in the background, and (until the very last minutes) a steadfast refusal to provide anything that might resemble an establishing shot. It's a bold gambit that meshes with the film's themes and generally pays off: just as these shortsighted characters can't see much beyond their own lives, their own circumstances, so too we onlookers can't entirely see what's coming up around the bend for them. 

If Elephant is never as predictable in its pessimism as it might have been - we keep an eye on it, if only because we worry just how bad things are going to get - it nevertheless goes down as the season's most demanding sit. Even before we notice the intimations of suicide dotted through the film like teardrops (defenestrating hubby is but the start), Elephant asks us to enter and then inhabit at length the imagination of a creative who saw the world as utterly lacking in joy, cheer or colour. Of all the film's demands, the greyness of its palette becomes the most oppressive: it's a concrete car park of a movie, and it takes at least three hours for Bo's camera to find some way out into the wider world. There's an unyielding quality about the film of the type one sometimes observes in self-righteous adolescents, and which might seem admirable, if it weren't also unworkable and to some degree insufferable over the long run. Bo's youthful missteps include the decision to set dog on dog as an entirely too on-the-nose metaphor for capitalism; we're reminded that Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros set loose a similar trope with far greater authorial verve.

Still, no release this year will have done more to earn the double-jointed adjective "uncompromising" - and it becomes no less uncompromising upon the realisation it can never be compromised, that its maker won't go on to shoot Huawei ads or one of those all-star Chinese Odyssey pantos that emerge each New Year to distract the masses. There is unarguable storytelling promise here - it's a long, bracing haul to an unexpected punchline - but also a sadness that Bo didn't stick around long enough to discover the solaces of this universe, the fact people come together to console one another in the face of systemic misery, the existence of life's safety nets. (In Satantango - and it's a sign of Bo's mountainous achievements here that it reminded me of this film, the K2 of cinema - that enduring miserablist Béla Tarr allowed his characters to drink, screw and dance: they were doomed, as we are, but they had that, at least.) There will be those who sit down over Christmas with The Greatest Showman or the Mamma Mia! sequel, and one can only wish those viewers well with that; perhaps this crushing behemoth of a movie, brought to the surface by a canary in the coalmine of China's regeneration, is the film we finally deserve at the end of 2018.

An Elephant Sitting Still opens in selected cinemas today, and is available to stream via the BFI.

Office politics: "Sorry to Bother You"

What would the movie landscape look like if La La Land had palmed off Moonlight and held onto that Best Picture gong at last year's Oscar ceremony? Pre-existing career momentum would likely have ensured Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen got to make A Wrinkle in Time and Widows respectively, and Spike Lee would doubtless have found some way of bringing BlacKkKlansman to the screen. Jordan Peele's Get Out might not have received the sustained push for recognition it got, however, and what of those smaller, riskier projects involving comparatively untested POC talent that have emerged over the past 18 months? Some simply wouldn't exist; others would surely have found that distributors and exhibitors were unwilling to take the chances on them they have in our reality. (One suspects the market would also have been swamped with films in which vanilla-white kids trip a very light fantastic.) October's hard-to-synopsise Blindspotting, a lightning bolt loosed from the zeitgeist, was one of those projects. The hellzapoppin' Sorry to Bother You is another roll of the dice entirely, starting out as a loony-toons tale of a lowly telemarketing drone's progress through an exaggerated version of the modern American service industry, then heading to places you couldn't easily pitch and even those of us who've seen the film can't really explain or say. The first of writer-director Boots Riley's achievements here, then, was to get people who might say no to say yes; he ends up smuggling into UK multiplexes the kind of scattershot corporate satire the far better placed Mike Judge failed to with his direct-to-video Office Space twenty years ago. That's something.

That progress seems all the greater when you consider that Riley's protagonist, Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield), is black: his zigzagging career path opens up fresh angles on the theme of clockwatching drudgery. After a succession of busted sales calls, Cash improves his fortunes upon modulating his voice to sound white - the better to connect with his company's largely Caucasian clientele. This new voice is provided by David Cross, and there is something innately and consistently funny about hearing the wheedling tones of Tobias from Arrested Development coming from Stanfield's mouth. (Not even Cross would have chosen this voice.) Just as there's a voice behind Cash's voice, there's always something going on behind the film's jokes. Sometimes, yes, it's a pointed jab at the positions and stances non-white employees are forced to adopt within the unconsciously biased or institutionally racist superstructures that now loom over us all. More often than not, though, it's another joke, like the photocopier we spy malfunctioning behind Cash's workspace, or the gridiron players who appear behind his boss as he lands a carefully calculated promotion, or the TV shows that themselves provide a running commentary on the state of America today. The wacko soundtrack behind all that sounds like faulty plumbing at some moments, an accordion dropped off a fire escape at others; in one or two scenes, it's like listening to a conversation being held at the very limits of your hearing. What is this movie?

Well, on one level, Sorry to Bother You is following a familiar trajectory: it's the old Faustian tale of the naif whose fast-tracking to the top of his profession sees him jettisoning everything he once loved and stood for, then realising what's really of value. We soon twig scarf-wearing smoothie Armie Hammer, metabolising Messrs. Zuckerberg and Musk as the company's CEO, is up to no particular good, and we fear for Stanfield, who has a zonked, behind-the-beat quality even before he takes a whack on the head from a flying soda can. Yet Riley doodles right over the top of that movie, and in doing so, he obscures all its straight lines. "Stick to the script," Cash is told in his early days as a phone jockey, but a nonconformist like Riley can't and won't; he's one of those bored highschooler directors, taking felt pens to those dully yellowing texts passed down to him by the older boys. There isn't a scene that hasn't been accessorised in some way (in a just world, it would be a head-to-head between this and Black Panther for the Best Costume Oscar): everything and everyone gets dressed up, and either warped or weirded out. In the conventional, whitebread telling of these cautionary corporate tales, the love interest would be a sweet Helen Slater/Ginnifer Goodwin type waiting at home being constant and true; in the Rileyverse, the position is filled by Tessa Thompson as a Marina Abramovic-inspired performance artist, challenging her audience to throw junked cellphones and balloons filled with pig's blood at her as a comment on the West's exploitation of Africa. (Again, you chuckle, but there's a point.) That conventional telling certainly wouldn't go anywhere near the benighted creatures Cash uncovers massing in the back of the CEO's quarters, which is a sign - perhaps a warning sign - of how far out Sorry to Bother You gets.

Some may be thrown, but I felt this turn made sense within a world in which you feel anything could happen (or break loose) at any minute. For all that he follows his nose, Riley inserts a thread of story logic amid his erupting chaos: the entire second half could be the nightmare of a man suffering from a severe concussion, or an expressionist extension of a job market where employees are kept in a pen from nine to five and made subject to either the carrot or the stick. Riley is that rare thing: a filmmaker who appears to have actually spent time in the modern workplace - though he probably spent it scribbling over the health and safety guidelines. Looking back over the past two years, the significance of Moonlight winning Best Picture may be not just that it's permitted very different films by black creatives to reach wide audiences, but that it's allowed for the making of films that are radically different beasts on a scene-by-scene, half hour-by-half hour basis. Get Out and Blindspotting absolutely had that quicksilver quality, possibly born of a desire to make three or four films at once in a way minority directors have traditionally never had chance to; in that shifting and reshaping, we might see the genesis of a new identity for black-authored American cinema, at once more fluid and playful than the worthy New Black Cinema of the 1990s. Sorry to Bother You makes a lot of pertinent points about the crazy world we now inhabit, but you don't feel it was conceived as a grand statement, rather a party, a riot or a happening to which you and I happen to have been invited. Some guests may find the occasion too much; even I found myself wondering whether it was spiralling beyond Riley's control in places. Whatever else it is, though, it's alive.

Sorry to Bother You is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

The sundown kid: "The Old Man & The Gun"

The Old Man & The Gun proceeds with a simplicity befitting that title, and the insouciant shrug of the subsequent title card that states "This, also, is a true story." That story concerns, yup, an old man with a gun, seen heading into a number of small-to-medium banks across Texas at the end of 1981, and using at least the threat of the gun to deprive them of their ready cash. The man was Forrest Tucker - the subject of local legend, written up by David Grann in a 2003 New Yorker article, and now played by Robert Redford in what has been announced as the actor's final role. Redford's Tucker is, naturally, not some grizzled old reprobate, but an inveterate charmer. He gets the telephone number of Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a woman he meets at the side of the freeway, within minutes of the film beginning, with the cops on his tail; he then makes her swoon over coffee by outlining his serene nobody-gets-hurt philosophy of heisting. In terms of careful image control, the film is right up there with the cancer-stricken John Wayne playing a fading gunfighter in 1976's The Shootist - except that Redford, poster boy of the Hollywood Left, adds a layer of romantic glamour the irascible Duke would have had no truck with: here's an old boy who devoted his final days to the redistribution of wealth. (Though the film is a shade coy about many things, including what Tucker actually did with all that folding money.)

The writer-director is the gifted David Lowery, assuming the title of modern American cinema's foremost atmospherist now that David Gordon Green has been tempted into horror remakes. (His claim was bolstered as much by 2016's Pete's Dragon - the best of Disney's recent live-action remakes, on which he first worked with Redford - as it was by last year's existential pie-eating contest A Ghost Story.) Old Man is the closest Lowery has come to repeating himself: in its basic set-up, it's not unlike a matinee version of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, his breakthrough lovers-on-the-run pic of 2013. (That film's male lead Casey Affleck recurs here as the lawman who gives Tucker and his associates - played here by Danny Glover and Tom Waits - the mocking sobriquet of "The Over-the-Hill Gang".) It's clear the director has left some of his usual art behind him in the move towards the movie centreground, but Old Man nevertheless presents as a film of appealingly brisk craft. In an age of straining auteurist statements - not least a two-and-a-half-hour remake of Suspiria - Lowery is an appreciably straightahead filmmaker: even A Ghost Story, which wound up spanning an entire millennium, clocked in at a mere 92 minutes. Judicious fades and dissolves carry us from one location to the next, connecting pursuer to pursued; Lisa Zeno Churgin's neat clipping rounds this anecdote off at ninety minutes, suggesting some affinity with Tucker's ethos - the movie gets in, gets its job done, and then gets out again.

That briskness sometimes tips into a casualness that almost certainly derives from having to organise the action around a proven master of the unruffled. Redford-as-Tucker is casual around the bank employees, casual with Spacek, casual even around the cops, which feels like a limitation after a while: there's not one memorable heist or tense getaway, and the script has nothing much to say about this character except "heh, this dude". "He's a guy who's old, who used to be young, and who loves robbing banks," Affleck tells his wife two-thirds of the way through, and that's really all the film has on Tucker. (Did Lowery even read the article?) It makes for a loving final role, because the camera has to keep coming back to Redford and the faraway gleam in his eye, the worldly wisdom Tucker gives out even as he takes away with his pistol. (On the importance of dressing well: "It makes you look like you know what you're doing, even when you don't.") Yet there's no mystery or darkness about the character (photos of the robber in his prime reveal Redford the sandy-haired pin-up), nothing standing between him and the sunset he's bound to walk smilingly towards. This Forrest Tucker is as mythically one-dimensional as the Sundance Kid or the magical pinchhitter Redford embodied in The Natural. Like those films, and many others in the Redford filmography, The Old Man & The Gun serves as genial, pleasant entertainment, a movie seemingly designed to elicit the post-screening comment of "they don't make 'em like that anymore" about both film and leading man. But they sure go easy.

The Old Man & The Gun is now playing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

On demand: "Mowgli"

True: in late 2018, another leaf through Kipling's Jungle Book feels barely necessary. In his defence, director Andy Serkis began work on his live-action/motion capture hybrid Mowgli back in 2014 in the wake of his contributions to Fox's successful Planet of the Apes revival; it reportedly took longer than imagined for Serkis's Imaginarium technicians to capture all the vital motion, and the project's cause wasn't helped when Disney rolled out their juggernaut live-action remake of the 1967 Jungle Book, to great acclaim and staggering box-office returns, at Easter 2016. As the makers of 1998's Deep Impact - the end-of-the-world movie left for dust by that year's more muscular Armageddon - could tell you, there is rarely room in the popular imagination for two films on the same subject. (And as those behind the 2018 Robin Hood might add, leaving even a ten- or twenty-five year gap between retellings is no guarantee audiences won't turn their noses up, reasoning they've seen it all before.) Studio Warner Bros. first put the project on hold - freeing Serkis to push through last year's period weepie Breathe - then sold it onto the royally flush Netflix; it now limps out, wounded and a touch bloodied, in time for pre-Christmas matinees, having picked up a marketing subtitle ("Legend of the Jungle") that never appears on screen, and serves to remind us, not that we need a reminder, where this story has sprung from.

The story itself is much the same as it ever was - that of the forest foundling (played here by Rohan Chand) literally raised by wolves, then pursued by a tiger and protected by a bear - yet given a different shading and rhythms. (For one thing, there are no songs.) "Darkness has come to these parts," hisses the snake Kaa (voiced by Cate Blanchett) during a scenesetting montage, and this is very much the straightfaced, post-Nolan reading of Kipling, as if Mowgli were a superhero desperately crying out for his own origin story. (The original shooting title was the not terribly original Jungle Book: Origins.) After the death of the boy's mother (dashed through in the opening seconds, in a manner that instantly flags executive indecision), we're offered a succession of sweeping setpieces, interspersed with shallow pools of subtext about a boy caught between two cultures, everything pointing to a final battle royale in which our boy leads an army of disparate animal factions against a growling Big Bad (the tiger Shere Khan, as voiced by a never-plummier Benedict Cumberbatch). The final shot, which locates Mowgli on a cliff overlooking the jungle he apparently now lords over, explicitly evokes the imagery of a film like The Dark Knight.

It's relative indeed, but this reframing allows Serkis to attain a smidgen more dramatic heft than its synthetic, charmless 2016 predecessor, a confounding hit that succeeded only in underlining how little mass audiences now expect from their blockbusters. (Anything that reminds us of childhood will apparently do.) He had far more time in which to arrive at them, but Serkis makes better choices than Jon Favreau did there, starting with the wide-eyed Chand as a more androgynous and persuasively feral Mowgli than the lab-reared brat Disney thrust into the jungle. It makes sense to cast Freida Pinto as this film's equivalent of the village girl who caused so much heartache at the end of the '67 animation: who wouldn't want to return to civilisation with someone like her waiting for you? And Serkis's experience in the field has resulted in far more sensitive and nuanced voice casting than the celeb-chasing Favreau went in for two years ago. The filmmaker himself makes for a bullish Cockney Baloo, closer to Burt Young in Rocky than Bill Murray's reading, gruffly training up his lightweight charge; Cumberbatch gives a half-decent George Sanders impersonation; and it's a nice touch that Peter Mullan should do all the barking as the leader of the wolfpack. (Though you'll obviously have to make peace with the fact a creature native to the wilds of India is speaking in English with a broad Glaswegian growl.)

If Mowgli still feels underwhelming, that's again down to how 21st century filmmakers have habitually cut Kipling's tale from its roots and retooled it for meaningless action and spectacle over and above all else. This script, credited to Christa Kloves, devotes almost its entire first hour to finding excuses for the hero to run through the jungle, first for fun, then in competition, then for his life. The VFX artists try to vary these setpieces, but there was never that much variation to be achieved. This may be a problem for Imaginarium to address in the years hence: Mowgli is so specifically engineered to showcase technical wizardry that the human element rather gets left behind; it's so hellbent on canonising its protagonist as a vine-swinging, foe-besting superhero that it forgets, as Kipling and Walt Disney never did, that he is also just a boy. The emphasis placed on movement rather than growth - the wheeling out of green screens, the constant, not unskilful wrangling of pixels - means that nothing about Serkis's telling has a chance to stick in your head: at the end of its breathless ninety minutes, you don't even come away with a tune to whistle on the walk back to the car park. There's fitful distraction here - and a melancholy sense that, had it not been pipped so comprehensively to the post, there might have been more besides - but my line remains the same as it was back in 2016. If you do need a film of The Jungle Book, dial up the '67 version, and if you need a back-up, go seek out Sabu.

Mowgli is now streaming on Netflix.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Stealing home: "Shoplifters"

For close to two decades now, the Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda has brought a new film to Cannes every year, working subtle, skilful variations on his signature theme of lopsided families. In most of these years, Kore-eda has had to be content with critical acclaim, a healthy smattering of sales to international distributors eyeing classy matinee fare, and perhaps the occasional consolation prize; in 2018, amid a reportedly competitive field, he went and won the Palme d'Or. So what's changed? For one, the family unit at the centre of Shoplifters is stragglier (and thus more relatable?) than the serenely elegant salarymen and women who've come before. The Shibatas are a loose-knit working-class collective who supplement their daily labours with a variety of side hustles, including - as that title flatly notes - claiming five-finger discounts from the food and toy stores of their quiet Tokyo neighbourhood. As we join them, roguish middle-aged patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) has finessed this dubious skill into a properly Dickensian operation, running son Shota (Jyo Kairi) through drills to improve efficiency. The clan soon has a new acquisition, however, in Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a grubby preschooler father and son find hiding behind some bins, having ducked out of another of her parents' arguments. She, too, becomes a willing apprentice, only for news to break that those parents are being investigated over her disappearance. Slowly, Kore-eda circles back to one recurring concern (how families are composed) while opening a file on another: whether taking something that isn't yours, be that a child or a bag of crisps, can ever be fully justified.

In terms of direction, nothing much has altered: again, Kore-eda proceeds with that reflective, self-effacing style that unfailingly puts story and character first. True, the living quarters we peer in at through Ozu-esque screen doors are rather more cluttered with the spoils of the Shibatas' swiping; and the family's proximity to the poverty line ensures Shoplifters rubs up against some unusually adult material. (One character turns towards sex work to help make ends meet, and it's the first Kore-eda I can recall to feature male and female nudity, thus arguably more in line with European tastes.) Yet even when positioning this clan as a ragbag of oddballs and outcasts, the direction never extends beyond a very familiar naturalism: it's just Kore-eda happens to be observing some especially vivid personalities, that's all. It has long been established that Kore-eda is one of the great directors of children: here, he casts entirely adorable creatures in young Kairi and Sasaki, then allows them the creative freedom to play something close to themselves, rather than forcing them into the brattishly precocious poses we'd be stuck watching in any American remake. Yet he also sketches brisk portraits of everybody else under this roof: the loping, giggling father figure, both amused and surprised by his own prowess, the fact he's been allowed to get away with this lifestyle so long; his lusty, sweaty partner-in-crime Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), in whom the new arrival stirs previously unfelt maternal feelings; the eccentric grandmother (Kirin Kiki, in one of her final roles before her death this September) insistently screwing up her features and trailing nail clippings in her wake.

Such portraiture takes time, and again you may be confounded by the way a Kore-eda film creeps up on you. Shoplifters refuses to push through the missing-kid plot in the way a commercial drama or thriller would - the police are barely to be seen - and it remains oddly blithe about the shoplifting: it's just something these folk do to get by, though dad comes up with a noble-sounding philosophy in pointing out it's better to steal from stores (when these items are nobody's property) than when they've been bought and paid for. For an hour at the movie's centre, there is next to no narrative development to report: we simply hang out chez Shibata, note the floating of certain motifs (hugging, which takes; fishing, which doesn't really), watch the youngsters grow up a little, and overhear an unexpectedly charming birds-and-bees talk. Only in the final half-hour is the situation advanced, with a sudden flurry of revelations that usher us into a very different film and a very different understanding of the main characters. Here, I sensed Kore-eda relying heavily on the skill of his performers (Ando especially) and our affection for these people to smooth the film's progress from slightly under-complicated to vaguely over-complicated; he's not wrong to do that, but overall I think I preferred Our Little Sister's slow and steady drip of information. Such risky scripting strategies may be what ultimately differentiates Shoplifters from the back catalogue, though I wondered whether that Palme wasn't the result of the same kind of accumulation we witness going on within this director's work - that just as Kore-eda has habitually provided us with small, quiet gestures that somehow add up to cinema, he's now made enough small, quiet films founded on those gestures to tip a jury in his favour. Reservations aside, no-one else in the upper echelons of world cinema is making these kinds of movies - and certainly no-one else is making them this well.

Shoplifters is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 30-December 2, 2018:

 (new) Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)
2 (new) Creed II (12A)
3 (1) Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A)
4 (2) The Grinch (U)
5 (3Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
6 (new) 2.0 (12A)
7 (5) Nativity Rocks! (U)
8 (4) Robin Hood (12A)
9 (7) Widows (15) ****
10 (8) A Star is Born (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Die Hard [above]

2. Roma
3. It's a Wonderful Life
4. The Wild Pear Tree
5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (7) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
2 (2) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (new) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12)
4 (1) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
5 (new) Mamma Mia! Double Pack (PG)
6 (8) The Grinch (2000 version, PG) ***
7 (5) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12) ***
8 (15) Elf (PG) **
9 (3) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12) ***
10 (4) Skyscraper (12)


My top five: 
1. Leave No Trace

2. First Reformed
3. Incredibles 2
4. Lucky
5. They Shall Not Grow Old

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Flushed Away (Saturday, BBC2, 8.40am)
2. Apollo 13 (Saturday, ITV, 1.20pm)
3. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Saturday, ITV, 5.55pm)
4. Edge of Tomorrow (Sunday, five, 9pm and Thursday, five, 10pm)
5. Tropic Thunder (Friday, BBC1, 12.10am)

"Merry Men: The Real Yoruba Demons" (Guardian 07/12/18)

Merry Men: The Real Yoruba Demons **
Dir: Toka McBaror. With: Ramsey Nouah, Jim Iyke, Falz the Bad Guy, AY Makun. 106 mins. Cert: 15

Compared to our French friends, we see nothing like enough African cinema on our screens, and certainly very little African popular cinema – so the arrival of this cheerfully duff caper, newly minted as Nigeria’s biggest box-office hit of 2018, might seem a forward step. In and of itself, however, it’s not a vast improvement on those Nollywood timekillers one chances across on satellite TV’s outer reaches, serving up 100 minutes of slapdash plotting, variable acting, mid-scene lighting shifts and consistently muffed jokes. Some of Merry Men has evidently been lost in translation, hence the businessman cursed for having “chewed every piece of sliced national cake”. Professionalism was shrugged away long before that, as in the dialogue scene that proceeds with a car alarm going off down the street.

Ironically, its emergence here may be down to perceived slickness: there’s visible money behind it. Our heroes – four bantering Abujans styled after The Hangover’s Wolfpack (or possibly Leo DiCaprio’s erstwhile Pussy Posse) – pull up in sports cars and set about manhandling the local women on gleaming, well-dressed sets; their sole redeeming feature is that they use their access and smooth tongues to rob the rich and give back to slum-bound relatives. Yet as one merry man is an industrialist, and another a gigolo, you can’t help wondering why they don’t just write nearest and dearest a cheque, rather than put themselves through this torturous non-plot, muddling its way around hacked sex tapes with scant trace of narrative connecting tissue.

Well, perhaps the home crowd wasn’t going for watertight storytelling. Some of the supporting performances are so broad they can only raise chuckles; and it belatedly earns the novelty of being the first Nigerian film opening in the UK to cite Kurt Vonnegut among its reference points. Yet throughout director Toka McBaror appears far less interested in organising these disparate elements into anything coherent than ensuring the various hotel chains and hire-car providers who put up some of the collateral get the desired placement. We’re left with glimpses and glimmers of a cinema growing in confidence – one that’s learning how to put its resources up on screen in ways that might appeal to audiences at home and abroad. But it’s still very early days. 

Merry Men: The Real Yoruba Demons is now playing in selected cinemas.

Our house: "Roma"

Whatever it does and doesn't win in the months ahead, Roma will surely be taught in future years as a textbook example of how camera choices can lend amplitude and resonance to a small, in-every-sense familiar story. That story is autobiographical, by all accounts, comprising writer-director Alfonso Cuarón's reminiscences of growing up in the early Seventies in a Mexico City household with the resources to employ its own live-in domestic staff. The camera, however, is much the same as that Cuarón brought to 2013's Gravity. True, it's been slowed a little, the better to observe earthly drama rather than out-of-this-world spectacle, but still it roves, rotates, roams, pushing deep into cluttered rooms and backstreets that present as overflowing repositories of social history to note the television shows and tunes played out at this time in this place, the fashions of the clothes the maids are obliged to pick up from the youngsters' bedroom floors. Once more, the cinema of Cuarón is a matter of space, and a demonstration that the best cinema is most often a matter of who fills and films that space best.

For some while, we gaze upon this household frontally, as if it were a cutaway of a doll's house, not unlike the boarding house in Jerry Lewis's The Ladies Man or one of those vast Jacques Tati constructions. The framing can yield very funny episodes: the ongoing struggle to dock the family's wide-winged Galaxy in the house's narrow garage (and to do so while avoiding the turds parked thereabouts by the family's troublesome dog), a would-be martial artist attempting to impress maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) by demonstrating his stick-fighting skills while naked. (Unexpectedly, he completes this posturing foreplay without smashing everything in sight.) Yet Cuarón, serving as his own cinematographer, is more often to be found operating in a broadly realist mode: the film's first act is at pains to impress upon us how the upstairs and downstairs areas of this home are linked, and how the house in total connects to a shared courtyard, the garage, and the streets beyond the family's front door, on which we see the city's residents beginning to stir, mass and protest. (Later on, we will even gain a sense of the tectonic plates shifting beneath everybody's feet: the focus goes that deep.)

What's immediately striking is the uncommon precision of the approach. A opening title card flags a distinction between subtitles for dialogue in Spanish and those for dialogue in the Mixtec dialect spoken by the maids; subsequent sounds and images appear to snap together - assembling memories like Meccano - into a bigger picture besides. (For starters, we're given the info to know exactly how much the steering wheel of that Galaxy needs to be turned to get car into garage without incurring lasting structural damage.) Roma shapes up as one of those very rare films where every corner of every frame - the clutter in the youngsters' bedrooms, the fraying posters tacked to the walls of the neighbourhood cinema, both the turds on the garage floor and the stuffed dogs' heads on the walls of a family friend's holiday home - has apparently been made subject to a remarkable level of directorial oversight. We keep catching stuff out of the corner of the eye - the incidental details of childhood that stay with us, as they surely have with Cuarón: Cleo wiping down the receiver before replacing the handset on the family's phone, the kids sliding down the banisters on the way out of the house. It's the kind of filigreed worldbuilding traditionally associated with fantastical genres and filmmakers (del Toro, Peter Jackson, the Harry Potter movies to which this director contributed); Cuarón shows us it is possible to construct (or reconstruct) such a world realistically, and in doing so, leaves us wondering why more films don't make this much effort, or take this much care.

What makes Roma more than just a logistical-technical marvel is a quality that was evident in Gravity, and as far back as Cuarón's 2001 success Y Tu Mamá También, which quietly noted the gap between Mexico's rich and poor: this filmmaker's acute awareness of the space between people. This is a matter of perspective, and it's crucial to Roma's emotional effects that the film approaches this generally happy household from the POV of the overburdened maid, which makes us instantly aware of the split-level privileges at work - who has someone to look after their children and who doesn't; what a holiday means to some, and what it means to others - and ensures there are secrets and mysteries (and just general family knowledge) to which we're not immediately privy. It will take that roving camera time to alight on these, but there's always plenty to take in. For forty minutes, the film concentrates on outlining this household's standard operating procedure, its daily rhythms and rituals: packing the kids off to school and picking them up; the opening shot is of a floor being mopped. (The movie puts up on screen more of the menial and emotional labour that keeps households running than just about any film this side of Jeanne Dielman...) Only gradually do we get a feel for the faultlines threatening to break up this merry picture: the maid's unhappy lovelife, the father's lengthy absences. What starts as a portrait of a particular moment in time develops into a more specific picture yet: one of women left in the lurch. The significance of this house, the reason Cuarón dwells on it from roof to floor, is that its low-level hurly-burly is all the shelter these women have.

That we come to feel this so profoundly is due to the fact these people - Aparicio's mutely accepting Cleo, the warring young brothers, the professor of martial arts who shows up for training in superhero latex - are as vividly etched as the places the camera locates them in: they're worlds within worlds, pools of mystery that deserve exploration and explanation - and in the case of the fellow who shows up in costume at a forest fire and breaks into keening lament, who maybe can't be fully explained. (By keeping him in shot, Cuarón insists he was there, all the same.) The main narrative business, it transpires, is the revelation and foregrounding of a quiet, everyday tragedy the young Alfonso couldn't have known about, but which Cuarón the elder, drawing on much the same empathy Greta Gerwig tapped for her cine-memoir Lady Bird, now sees full well and knows how to give dramatic weight to. Roma takes in more life than the average movie, moving us from the relative plenitude of the suburbs the director was raised in to the poverty of the slums from which Cleo emerged. Yet it also gets in closer to it, finding moments to treasure forever in the reflections of a polished table or scrubbed floor, while seeing both the unpredictable chaos of the universe and those flickers of human kindness and generosity that carry us through it. It remains paramount among 2018's many absurdities that the year's most comprehensive and arguably complete work of cinema will likely end up - thanks to its imminent Netflix appearance - being watched by more people at home on TV than it will be in theatres. But there's no dwarfing Roma's many extraordinary achievements.

Roma is now showing in selected cinemas, and streams on Netflix from Friday 14.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

1,001 Films: "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters" (1985)

After a run of negligible releases (TouchThe Walker, the ones that went straight-to-DVD, if they were released at all), we may have lost sight of just what a vivid and rigorous filmmaker Paul Schrader can be. Which makes the reissue of Mishima, his singular 1985 biopic of the Japanese writer, poet and provocateur Yukio Mishima even timelier. From the off, this is a film governed by a profound understanding of ritual: Mishima dressing for breakfast, his collection of countless awards, his final act of despair. Its four chapters are structured around the writer's 1970 attempt to take over an army base with a squadron of loyal followers - an action it's hard to imagine, say, Sebastian Faulks taking today, and which at the time only added to Mishima's growing sense of impotency - but rarely can the boundaries between art and life have been so fluidly rendered. Monochrome flashbacks cluing us in to the writer's early years benefit from Schrader's evident knowledge and love of the Japanese cinema, featuring performers who wouldn't have looked out of place in the Ozu movies of the Fifties and Sixties; these are interleaved with full-colour dramatisations of Mishima's compellingly weird prose - nihilist, nakedly autobiographical, defiantly modern, and tantalising enough to make one want to go and raid Foyles for the books.

Driven forward by Philip Glass's insistent, unifying and itself no less ritualised score - where even the cues that haven't subsequently been pilfered for car adverts strike the ear as perfectly uncanny configurations of notes, sending shivers down the spine - what these memories and fantasias suggest is that Mishima was set on the path of self-destruction all along (consider the prevalence of sharp blades in his work). You see it in the virginal stutterer who burns down the titular edifice in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion; the bodybuilder who enters into a sadomasochistic pact with his landlady in Kyoto's House, and suffers death by a thousand cuts; and the assassins in Runaway Horses, prepared to sacrifice their lives in an act that may ultimately mean nothing, and who become so hooked on the idea of purity they're prepared to turn their lives into "a line of poetry written with a splash of blood". Schrader manages a tremendous joke here - a belly laugh, you might say - switching from one of the assassins' attempts at seppuku (ritual disembowelment) to Mishima shouting "cut!" (boom boom) on the set of one of the films he came to be involved with.

This is a study of a man who, despite the trappings of celebrity he took on, came to see writing as a doomed enterprise, an attempt to ascribe order and beauty to a world that simply wasn't set up for it; who, at some point, came to the conclusion that to be a poet, you have to be prepared to die. Don't go expecting a happy ending: despite the neatness of that chaptering - Schrader's effort to ascribe order and beauty to this life - the film's main business is the messy, internal wrestling match this Mishima conducts between words and deeds, the word and the world, the Left and Right, masculine and feminine. His eventual suicide looks like an attempt to merge art with action, an author with his characters, even as the contradictions pile up around this illustrious corpse: a plea for peace that terminated in bloody violence, the Mishima coup was both the writer's most public statement, and a desperately solitary act. (Schrader concludes that his subject could only attain peace by slicing himself in two.) Formally adventurous, delving headfirst into the neuroses of both a truly complex figure and a society caught between ancient traditions and the modern desires documented in Mishima's work, this remains one of the boldest American films of the 1980s.

(July 2009)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is available on Blu-Ray via Criterion.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

2018: The Poll of Polls

Top 10 (as of December 13, 2018):

1. Phantom Thread [above], 27pts
2. Burning, 24
3. Roma, 23
4= First Reformed, 14
4= Mission Impossible: Fallout, 14
4= You Were Never Really Here, 14
7. Zama, 12
8. Cold War, 11
9= Avengers: Infinity War, 10
9= Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, 10
9= Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 10
9= The Wild Boys, 10

Empire: 1. Avengers: Infinity War 2. Mission Impossible: Fallout 3. A Quiet Place 4. Three Billboards... 5. Black Panther 6. First Man 7. Lady Bird 8. A Star is Born 9. Phantom Thread 10. BlacKkKlansman

John Waters (Artforum): 1. Jeannette 2. American Animals 3. Nico 1988 4. Mom and Dad 5. Blindspotting 6. The Green Fog 7. Custody 8. Sollers Point 9. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 10. Permanent Green Light

Cahiers du Cinéma: 1. The Wild Boys 2. Coincoin and the Extra-Humans 3. Phantom Thread 4. Burning 5. Paul Sanchez est revenu! 6. The Post 7. On the Beach at Night Alone 8. The House That Jack Built 9. Leto 10. Treasure Island

Sight & Sound: 1. Roma 2. Phantom Thread 3. Burning 4. Cold War 5. First Reformed 6. Leave No Trace 7= The Favourite 7=You Were Never Really Here 9= Happy as Lazzaro 9= Zama 

Time Out: 1. You Were Never Really Here 2. Widows 3. Phantom Thread 4. Hereditary 5. Roma 6. Mission Impossible: Fallout 7. Cold War 8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 9. Loveless 10. Lady Bird

Film Comment: 1. Zama 2. Burning 3. First Reformed 4. Roma 5. Western 6. Shoplifters 7. Let the Sunshine In 8. The Other Side of the Wind 9. Happy as Lazzaro 10. Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Monday, 3 December 2018

From the archive: "Twilight"

Twilight forms a two-hour advert for all things pale and interesting. Pale, interesting teenager Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) moves to the small town of Forks, Washington to live with her father. She's looking for stability; instead, she catches the eye of the tall, pale and awkward Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) across the school canteen. He's a strange one, this lad, coming across as badly constipated when they're paired up in a biology lesson, and unable to get his words out when he attempts to apologise for his erratic behaviour shortly thereafter. Yet when he saves Bella from being crushed by an out-of-control vehicle in the school car park, she too becomes convinced he's a special one, or at least one with special powers. For Edward Cullen derives from a family of vampires; and while some part of Bella wants to give herself to him, he loves her for what she is, not what's running through her veins, leading him to keep his distance. Boys, eh? Pain in the neck.

Twilight has been ushered forward to fill the hole in the Christmas release schedules left by the delayed Harry Potter, but the first thing that strikes you is that this is a more immediately sophisticated proposition than any of the previous Potters. As directed by Catherine Hardwicke, of the teens-gone-wild drama Thirteen, the setting is a leafy, rainy Washington ("the wettest place in America", hence the ideal spot for creatures afraid of the sun) that takes us back in the direction of Twin Peaks. Twilight is only a 12A in comparison, but it doesn't talk down to its core audience, and allows its on-screen teenagers to be gangly, pallid and uncoordinated, recognising how their emotions (and hormones) are liable to be unruly at best. "Your mood swings are kind of giving me whiplash," Bella tells Edward, and there's something so perfect in the interjection of that "kind of" there: it could be a beautiful line, but the character's instincts won't let it be so. 

The effects are TV level, the stuff of Smallville and Supernatural - in this respect, the Potter producers have nothing much to fear - and the script could do with a meatier second act: once Edward's secret is out, we get somewhat too much of his and Bella's drippy mooning (sitting up treetops, or at the piano), not enough of their potentially deadly spooning (Edward pulls away from one encounter, insisting "I can't ever lose control with you"; once more, vampirism becomes a metaphor for sex). Pattinson, a future cover star of Unthreatening Boys Weekly, is clearly going to stir up all sorts of previously unknown passions in the breast of the average 13-year-old girl, and there's a lovely, career-making performance from Stewart as a girl unsure of herself, her feelings, her own feet, even. (Jena Malone must be kicking herself that no-one got round to filming these books five years ago.) The beginnings of a fresh, likable franchise, then, with a distinctive, light-gloomy mood (these vampires hold a baseball game during a thunder storm) and pleasing traces of Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark in its vampire family mythology. Short of selling snakebite at the concession stand, Hollywood has come up with no better way of getting Goths into the multiplex.

(December 2008)

Twilight returns to cinemas nationwide tonight.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Under the eyes of God: "Disobedience"

First Reformed, Apostasy, now Disobedience: we really did figure out what to do with religion at the movies this year. The improbable financial success of the first God's Not Dead suggested there was an audience who'd been praying for a faith-movie revival, but maybe we needed to get past this born-again genre's fundamentalist true-believer stage - the unimpeachable protagonists, the divine narrative intervention - to re-engage with properly conflicted, flesh-and-blood human beings, circling one another beneath the eye of their particular, not-always-kindly Gods. Sebastián Lelio's adaptation of Naomi Alderman's book offers three eminent examples of the form. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is a photographer recalled from boho New York to her devoutly Jewish North London home turf after news breaks of her rabbi father's death; offering to put her up for the duration of the commemorations are Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the rabbi's protégé, and his meek-seeming schoolmarm wife Esti (Rachel McAdams). Alderman's novel unfolded as a book of revelations, and so it goes here: Ronit makes an early faux pas in failing to spot which of the female mourners her old pal Dovid has married, but there's an even bigger revelation ahead, born of the relationship between the two women, which likely explains why we first found Ronit in exile.

In the meantime, the viewer bears witness to the detailed reconstruction of a world with its own customs, secrets and boundaries. It quickly becomes apparent that an unorthodox free-thinker like Roni - with her cigarettes and foul mouth, her untroubled womb - has no truck with these restrictions, and that this world has no obvious place for her in turn: it's hurtful enough that she should be glossed over in the rabbi's obit, let alone to learn she's been cut out of dad's will. (So much for forgiveness and charity.) Geographically, we're not far from the stomping ground of TV comedy hit Friday Night Dinner - the supporting cast is well-stocked with performers who might well cameo chez Goodman - but this suburb appears a newly sombre and serious place, occupied from its very first scene (the rabbi collapsing mid-sermon while on the brink of some revelation of his own regarding free will) with matters of life and death. Nevertheless, Lelio - a surprisingly effective choice, arriving off the back of March's rainbow-hued Oscar-winner A Fantastic Woman - works small miracles of variation within the film's carefully limited visual styling. The wigs that lent razzle-dazzle to the earlier film's Marina in her guise as a nightclub chanteuse are here just another way for the characters to conceal their true selves, and - working capably with local cinematographer Danny Cohen (This is England, Room) - Lelio displays a sure feel for cold, damp commuter-belt exteriors: we possibly needed a Latin American filmmaker to highlight just how central layering up is to English emotional repression.

The intelligently structured script, credited to Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida), sets us waiting for these coats, mantles and other fronts to be cast off - as they are in a mid-film hotel hook-up infused with such wild melodrama as to seem a real liberation. Yet we're also left fearing what will become of these three once certain truths are made public, and they risk incurring the wrath of - if not God - then of the thunderously controlling men of this parish. Throughout, these characters seem fascinatingly vulnerable, mortal. Nivola's Dovid appears lost in his faith, muttering his daily prayers like a man whose existence is unravelling; as Roni, Weisz - quietly becoming one of our most interesting actresses - has a wounded quality that undercuts the character's fierceness, continually putting up brittle defences against a community that hurt her badly in the past. Both find a notable foil in McAdams' alertness: those ocular flickers that mark Esti as very much open to the possibilities Roni has brought back from the New World, but also reveal the conscience of someone harbouring secrets she desperately wants to guard. For something shot on the drizzly outskirts of Hendon, it's an unexpectedly sexy watch - perhaps the closest the British film industry has come to a movie like Witness, populated by people who would be totally DTF were it not for the all-seeing eyes around and about them - but it's quietly stirring in other grown-up ways, too, not least in the final reel, as these wanderers reorient themselves towards truth and love, in ways that feel less sappy than genuinely hard-earned.

Disobedience is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon.