Tuesday, 27 March 2018
With Lars von Trier in retreat after his mildly shaming Nymphomaniac, the Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund has assumed the mantle of Scandinavia's merriest prankster. Östlund's early films (2008's Involuntary, 2011's Play) were often tremendous provocations, their Hanekean formal rigour leavened by their maker's evident amusement at the ways people rub up against one another, and often rub one another up the wrong way; part satirist, part sociologist, this director made like a Desmond Morris with firecrackers and a whoopie cushion hanging out of his back pocket. It is a delight to report that Östlund has gone up in the world without losing any of his mischievousness. The Square, which arrives on our screens almost a year after claiming the Palme d'Or at Cannes (there's apparently been a recut), has name actors, a sheeny look, and wades waist deep into a convincing recreation of the contemporary art scene, but never forgets what it came there to do - namely, skewer its scarf-tossing gatekeepers, and the kind of doubletalk, blustering and general BS Östlund has surely encountered himself on his passage through the ranks.
The concept may be lofty, but the film hinges on an everyday event. Ahead of the launch of an especially noble, civic-minded exhibition - marked by the installation of a neon-framed square in the courtyard promising "equal rights and responsibilities" to all those who enter - Stockholm museum director Christian (Claes Bang) loses his smartphone. With this essential tool's disappearance, an entire, carefully curated life comes to unravel. We first find our handsome, refined fortysomething hero napping on his office couch; thereafter, Östlund does just about everything else a director can do to catch a character with his guard down. The gallerist is put through a number of awkward positions with an American journalist (Elizabeth Moss) who tears strips off his reputation as a dashing blade; he has to scramble to contain the damage caused by a disastrously ill-judged viral video campaign; and, after attempting to retrieve his cherished iPhone from a tower block, he finds himself tailed at every turn by an angry kid who shapes up like the aggrieved paperboy stalking John Cusack through Better Off Dead.... The neon square, returned to time and again, increasingly presents as the image of a safe space; the problems begin in the messy world beyond.
I had some fears going in that The Square might just have been a snotty or snarky assault on its subject, like a chi-chi upgrade of 2009's Boogie Woogie, that poverty-row disaster that cocked (or half-cocked) a snook at the Shoreditch set. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that Östlund has far more specific ideas as to what he likes and what he wants. We get a close (and clearly informed) study of how exhibits are installed and galleries laid out (one room has been filled with small mounds of rubble - it could be a statement on the futility of existence, but it could also be evidence of Östlund's efforts to undermine the gallery foundations); we're shown what goes on behind the scenes and after hours, the type of meetings museum directors have to sit through, the crisis management they have to enter into whenever someone takes their eye off the ball. In short, this art film is fully and unmistakably engaged with art as a world (and as part of the world): its appeal, which places it not far along the cultural spectrum from a project like TV's W1A, is that of being handed the all-access laminate that might carry us beyond the "Employees Only" door to observe some generally controlled and controlling people crossing the neat and tidy lines they've drawn for themselves. (This being Sweden, those lines are aspirationally neat and tidy.)
Beyond the square, Östlund finds other, equally resonant visual motifs. Given the sheer number of narrative banana skins this director scatters around these locations for Christian to slip on, it's no surprise that naked or half-naked apes should feature so prominently. For one, the incident in which Christian loses his phone seems to trigger some primal urge in this otherwise civilised individual, setting him to fucking, fighting and doing everything shy of flinging his own poop around. Yet an actual chimp monkeys incongruously into shot in the journo's apartment, just after Christian has talked her into bed. (One curious, little-discussed effect here: Bang's accent, which gives him an air of sophisticated authority - Lord of All He Curates - whenever he's speaking in his native Swedish, but downshifts to a washed-out rocker's Estuary English in his scenes with Moss, repositioning this character as shifty in the extreme.) Consider, too, the pointedly Russian performance artist (Terry Notary) who uses an award ceremony to leap alpha-like onto the tables, beat his chest and start grabbing the trophy wives - a tremendous setpiece, with a slightly iffy punchline.
It's not the only place in this 150-minute push for greatness where you can feel Östlund pushing too far, and undermining nothing but his own credibility. I get that someone with Tourette's might attend an artist's Q&A, but they'd surely have the wherewithal to excuse themselves once their yelps reach the pitch they do here; it's a pretty cheap laugh. Perhaps, like von Trier, Östlund will himself cross a line in the attempt to push our buttons, and we'll have to recant or walk back a few of our earlier enthusiasms. Equally, though, he seems far more alert to the social implications of his own work: you see it in his scrupulously mixed casting - a feature that dates back to Play, with its needling interracial conflict - and in the way he succeeds in very precisely describing the privilege around Christian (good choice of name, that) without ever seeming to succumb to its gleaming artifice. Here, The Square exudes that responsibility von Trier's The Idiots wilfully shucked off with its undergarments. For now, let's agree that Östlund is a wildly talented disruptor, deftly placing one detail in every scene - a crying baby in the boardroom, a beggar in a 7-Eleven, a mechanical clatter muffling a terse lovers' chat - specifically to nag at his characters, then sitting back and waiting for someone to snap. The humans are this gallery's real exhibits: cloistered in such luxury and comfort it's a shock whenever they warp, chip or crack.
The Square is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream here.
Saturday, 24 March 2018
Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of March 16-18, 2018:
1 (new) Peter Rabbit (PG)
2 (new) Tomb Raider (12A)
3 (1) Black Panther (12A) **
4 (2) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (3) Red Sparrow (15)
6 (4) Game Night (15) ***
7 (5) Lady Bird (15) ****
8 (7) The Shape of Water (15) ****
9 (6) Finding Your Feet (12A)
10 (new) My Generation (12A)
My top five:
1. The Square
2. The Magic Flute
3. Sweet Country
4. Sajjan Singh Rangroot
5. Mary Magdalene
Top Ten DVD sales:
1 (new) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
2 (1) Murder on the Orient Express (12) ***
3 (2) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
4 (new) Paddington: Double Pack (PG) ****
5 (new) Only the Brave (12)
6 (6) Moana (PG) ****
7 (10) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
8 (3) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
9 (21) Paddington (PG) ****
10 (14) Cars 3 (U)
My top five:
1. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
2. Paddington 2
3. The Florida Project
4. Battle of the Sexes
5. The Final Year
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Bringing Up Baby [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 1.20pm)
2. The Searchers (Good Friday, five, 3.15pm)
3. Gunga Din (Tuesday, BBC2, 1.50pm)
4. The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists! (Saturday, BBC1, 12.45pm)
5. A Late Quartet (Saturday, BBC2, 10pm)
Sajjan Singh Rangroot ***
Dir: Pankaj Batra. With: Diljit Dosanjh, Yograj Singh, Sunanda Sharma, Caroline Wilde. 139 mins. Cert: 12A
Pankaj Batra’s Punjabi melodrama combines a new angle on the Great War with an old-fashioned appeal: a broadly fictionalised commemoration of those hardy Sikh fighters who served in the British Indian Army, it flits between the usual barrack-room bonding and memories of girls back home before launching into final-reel shows of heroism and sacrifice. Musical-megastar-turned-actor Diljit Dosanjh – in a move we might now call “doing a Styles” – plays the eponymous Singh, a free thinker schooled to fight the cause of independence, but forced to do his bit by his father, a grovelling lackey of Empire, in the hope of achieving greater career progression.
Rachid Bouchareb’s WW2-set Days of Glory may have been an inspiration: our heroes must navigate the xenophobia and condescension of those who would have them march at the back of the battalion, and thereby prove themselves first among equals. The script floats one intriguing historical supposition – that men such as Singh signed up because they thought the Brits were more likely to grant them freedom if they fought together – but Batra generally prefers working with tried-and-tested war movie tropes: the trench dance number is a novelty, but when one recruit speaks longingly of future plans, we instantly know he’s done for.
It’s aiming for undemanding, foursquare matinee viewing rather than anything probing or lasting, and stumbles persistently into one pitfall: several overdubbed Brits display the speech rhythms of people more fluent in Mandarin than the mother tongue. (Oddly, these UK-shot sequences seem to have had no trouble sourcing credible Germans.) Still, Dosanjh does the uniform proud, there’s a nicely lived-in supporting turn from Yograj Singh as the Sikhs’ commander, and Batra hits most of his big emotional beats, rightly sensing there might be something stirring and striking in the sight of beturbaned warriors charging across a field in Belgium.
Sajjan Singh Rangroot is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
Nurse, the screens: patient Soderbergh has relapsed again. Last summer's Logan Lucky suggested that Steven Soderbergh, that most hyperactive of movie imaginations, had returned from his so-called retirement refreshed, relaxed and possessed of a new-found willingness to spend a little extra time feeling out his characters, the better to push himself and the heist movie into cheering new territory. Since then, however, there have been worrying signs. First, Soderbergh signed off on a weirdly unengaging pilot for the HBO series Mosaic, a would-be puzzle piece that sought to draw in viewers with endless, glacial conversations about Park City property prices; then, in a Tweet posted earlier this month, he boasted about completing the first cut of his next-but-one project High Flying Bird a mere three hours after wrapping principal photography - as if a rush job were something to be flaunted and celebrated. (Perhaps only on Twitter, where speed is eternally of the essence, and nothing is built to last.)
Somewhere in the six months or so that sped by between comeback and self-congratulation, Soderbergh oversaw Unsane, an asylum movie shot in a week on an iPhone 7 Plus. Nothing in that last sentence - or, indeed, in the completed feature - contradicts the thought that, after briefly pausing to recharge his batteries, Soderbergh has returned to bashing these projects out, a pattern of behaviour that first emerged over the run of half-finished doodles the director began to trail behind him from the Noughties onwards (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, dare I say even Magic Mike). Unsane is almost an object lesson in a filmmaker taking a workable premise - call-centre Everywoman (Claire Foy) reports to a mental health care facility to discuss fears about her stalker, only to wind up being detained herself, against her will - and then not only failing to develop it, but entirely bypassing whatever point it might have to make in his haste to play it out and get onto the next damn thing.
Soderbergh offers a whirlwind Girl, Interrupted-like sketch of this (oddly underpopulated) asylum's inhabitants - unisex dorms, for some reason; Juno Temple on hand in the Jolie role of hair-teasing jailbait; a sympathetic African-American patient (Jay Pharoah) suggesting our heroine's plight may have something to do with an insurance scam - before it's revealed, with no great elegance, that the doctor in charge (Joshua Leonard, survivor of The Blair Witch Project) is either our gal's stalker, or a dead ringer for same. The ground, in other words, has been laid for an especially subjective thriller, one that asks its audience to weigh how much of what we see is simply going on inside its fragile protagonist's head, and how much is happening for quote-unquote real. The iPhone's technical specs help to render everything in sight even more off-the-wall: the camera sits too close to people's noses, or ends up where conventional recording equipment couldn't go, and consequently opens up the background space in such a way as to expand the threat Foy appears to face.
The minute we clock this, however, the minute Unsane stands exposed as at best an experiment, at worst nothing more than a gimmick-movie, another instance where the material (a familiar scenario, provided by one of the five authors of 2006's Lindsay Lohan classic Just My Luck: yes, there's a sequence where a patient feigns swallowing her prescribed daily medication only to be seen regurgitating it at a later point) has become secondary to the desperate need of a restless director to film something, anything, and to impose himself upon it any which way he can. (Thus does any old crap get mistaken for auteurism.) The result displays that weird disconnect familiar from so many recent Soderbergh movies - that of seeing a compulsive imagemaker wilfully going against the grain of the screenplay he's taken on, and filming it as a technical-intellectual exercise, when it might have been better embraced as the pulp it clearly wants to be. What's the point of a padded Shock Corridor?
Instead, we get pulp with the edges artfully removed. The detached amusement on display extends to the casting of The Crown's Queen Liz (although the forceful Foy is by far the film's strongest suit, willing us to buy into the character's delusions - or reality), as it does to the drafting-in of Matt Damon to gabble some exposition as a passing expert in stalkerology, as it does to the holding-cell confrontation scene that's blocked like fringe theatre and subject to the lousiest sound recording of any studio release this season. Blame the equipment if you will, but Soderbergh's the one wielding it like a tourist, dashing through this location before the bus departs to carry him onto the next, a considered charge that might have proved perversely fascinating if the film weren't so forgettable at the end of its 100 minutes, raising questions forever more pertinent to him than they are to his characters or us. Some may argue that at this stage of his career, edging his way back in from the fringes, Soderbergh owes us nothing in particular - but he surely owes it to himself, and his legacy, to take a little more time between and during projects. Hustle on a little further down this path, and he risks becoming the Woody Allen only Film Twitter can abide.
Unsane is now playing in selected cinemas.
Friday, 23 March 2018
By 1975, the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was thinking and working outside the cinema as regularly as he was inside it. His made-for-TV adaptation of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, now rightly being returned to our attentions care of the BFI, has the look and feel of a very specific creative dream: to see whether something that worked in one medium for one crowd might be brought in from the cold to work in another for an appreciably different viewing public, namely those who can't so easily afford fancy boxes, dinner jackets and cummerbunds. (Presumably Kenneth Branagh felt much the same urge when orchestrating his 2006 film of the opera, but we don't seem to talk about it any more: the BFI may have to reissue that in three-to-four decades.) That interest in audience - and the humanism informing it - is immediately apparent from Bergman's use of the overture, played out over transfixing, fast-cut close-ups of a crowd of all ages, moods and colours, waiting (as we were, mere moments before) for the show to come on. As one great artist outlines his methods, so too does another: these close-ups - the great, penetrating weapon of the Bergman canon - are key to how the director converts filmed theatre, and theatre filmed for television at that, into the kind of cinema we might also gaze up in wonder at.
The story is, as it always was, an epic quest: one of spells and monsters, hot air balloons and trials by fire, and - in this retelling at least - a man in a furry walrus outfit. Yet Bergman's trick, or rather his considerable skill, is to convince us that the events the material describes are taking place in a small, intimate, well-furnished space - right before our very eyes! - that is ultimately not so far removed or distinct from those within which his earlier chamber pieces played out. It helps that the more emotive songs are sung directly to us, an attempt to connect only strengthened by the onscreen lyrics printed for our benefit on visibly corrugated cardboard, and by the intermission sequence that finds cast members lounging around backstage, some smoking, others reading Donald Duck comics. No filmmaker has done more to put down the drawbridge that separates opera from those onlookers who might approach feeling scared, sceptical or suspicious of it: a magic flute here gets transformed, via the simplest and most touching of gestures, into an olive branch.
Any reservations this particular opera sceptic had remained solely with the source, which - talk about a #latereview - doesn't go anywhere for ages at the start of its second act, and for all its clever rhymes and gliding melodies, still seems a bit of a nonsense, the kind of larky panto a genius like Wolfie could presumably knock out in a weekend after sweating over the "Requiem". (The Masonic element provided a nice hook for that great Morse episode, but I'm not sure it makes the narrative any more intrinsically comprehensible.) It's Bergman who grants it heft, first by acknowledging that somewhere in its guts, there sits a familiarly messy divorce, the squabblings of sundered parents over the fate of their daughter, and that this trope might eventually open up a view on that eternal trade-off between innocence and experience. What's the point of possessing an enchanting instrument, if nobody else is around to enjoy its benefits? Maybe that's a little crude - and probably why I'm barred from the ENO - but the film is a quest for love before the grave, a gentle reframing that makes even Papageno's potentially irritating panpipe-blowing funny and touching.
By the time the curtain descends once more, what that onscreen audience - and what the real audience - have soaked up and warmed themselves by, like sunflowers turning their faces to the sun, is a hale and hearty entertainment that succeeds in repositioning a work originally conceived and performed in Vienna as somehow entirely and edifyingly Scandinavian. Watching Bergman's all-female chorus reconfigure themselves before the camera in the manner of Anni-Frid and Agnetha in one of ABBA's more operatic promos, you find yourself wondering whether Benny and Björn were exposed to it on Swedish TV at a formative creative moment, and thus drawing a mental line (albeit a sharply descending mental line) between Bergman and Mamma Mia!, a film that kept the drawbridge lowered long enough for its audience to bed in with Bacardi Breezers. My bratty teenage self wouldn't have permitted such a statement for a moment, but four seasons of Gael García Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle have done much to convert me: this movie has by far the better soundtrack.
The Magic Flute is now available to stream via the BFI website.
Wednesday, 21 March 2018
Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of March 9-11, 2018:
1 (1) Black Panther (12A) **
2 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (2) Red Sparrow (15)
4 (4) Game Night (15) ***
5 (5) Lady Bird (15) ****
6 (9) Finding Your Feet (12A)
7 (10) The Shape of Water (15) ****
8 (7) Coco (PG) ***
9 (8) I, Tonya (15)
10 (12) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
My top five:
1. Sweet Country
2. Erase and Forget
3. Mary Magdalene
4. Game Night
5. A Fantastic Woman
Top Ten DVD sales:
1 (new) Murder on the Orient Express (12) ***
2 (1) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
3 (new) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
4 (new) Outlander: Season 3 (15)
5 (8) Victoria and Abdul (12A) **
6 (47) Moana (PG) ****
7 (new) Call Me By Your Name (15)
8 (2) Jigsaw (18)
9 (4) Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG) ***
10 (re) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
My top five:
1. The Death of Stalin
2. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
3. Paddington 2
4. The Florida Project
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Brooklyn (Sunday, BBC1, 8.30pm)
2. Catch Me If You Can [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 5.45pm)
3. The Ones Below (Friday, BBC2, 12.10am)
4. Short Term 12 (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
5. Defiance (Saturday, BBC1, 11.10pm)
Tuesday, 13 March 2018
For fourteen years, the heathens of Hollywood have struggled to build on the lightning-strike success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, with its bizarre combo of torturous piety and throat-grabbing showmanship. Gibson infamously became persona non grata shortly after submitting his softer 2005 recut; the studios’ initial response – 2006’s The Nativity Story, overseen by a pre-Twilight Catherine Hardwicke – sunk without much trace; and the gap in the market came to be flooded, and eventually saturated, by those evangelically funded and minded indies (of which 2014’s God’s Not Dead remains the most prominent) preaching wholeheartedly, if not always so elegantly or competently, to the converted.
Universal’s Mary Magdalene might, then, be counted as the first serious mainstream reckoning with faith for almost a generation. Toplined by the ever-committed, never-smiling pair of Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix, helmed by Lion’s emergent Garth Davis and produced by the team behind the laurelled The King’s Speech, it would presumably have been pitched into the 2018 awards mix itself had key distribution partner Harvey Weinstein not been kicked out of the temple at a critical moment in its genesis. Rescheduled for a not inapt Easter release, what emerges is the definition of a mixed blessing: a film of (often literal) peaks and troughs, scattering occasional moments of grace.
Davis approaches his task with the same unimpeachable sincerity he brought to Lion, aiming for a very specific patch of centreground: to draw out those elements of this story that might be considered human and enduringly relevant, and to do so without incurring the wrath some brought down on Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. His film, accordingly, is Sunday-school tasteful, deeply politically correct, and informed by an evident level of scholarship – much ritual, sporadic speaking in tongue – even if it doesn’t always easily translate into compelling action or credible behaviour. These characters move in mysterious, even mystifying ways; as with a lot of faith-based dramas, you may feel as if you need to have The Book to hand.
The script, by the British pair of Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, strives to reposition Mary Magdalene – slandered in early Church texts as a prostitute, a slur that stuck for centuries – as something akin to a radical free spirit. First seen engaging in impromptu yet improbably successful midwifery, she rejects the love match made for her by an overbearing father (Denis Menochet), and flees home altogether after pa attempts to flush out the demon he perceives to have got into her. Here, Edmundson and Goslett suggest, are the roots of that slander: that Mary was a young woman who resisted patriarchal control to travel her own path, and came to be roundly denounced by her elders for doing so.
A question mark lingers, however, over the extent to which this early A.D. creation can convincingly be converted into a feminist icon. Her limpid eyes front and centre, Mara plays the part as a quivering reservoir of empathy waiting to be channelled in the right directions; after some shaky introductory scenes, it’s a performance that grows on you, yielding a more thoughtful and touchingly relatable Mary than, for one, Gibson’s altogether idealised, two-dimensional, none-more-Catholic Madonna (Monica Bellucci). Yet in this incarnation, Mary remains a gal longing for a saviour – it’s just he happens to be the Saviour, that’s all.
A further problem: we start to doubt whether he’s all that. The unpredictable JP as JC sounds promising, and the actor undeniably looks shroud-ready, Biblical mane, prophetic mien and mystic gaze all very much in place. (In a film of prodigious facefuzz, his beard would give Homeland’s Saul a run for his shekels.) Phoenix scarcely radiates warmth, however, and his big oratorical moments are undermined by some affected speech patterns a more experienced director might have stepped in and shut down. Instead, he appears smug and superior, a holier-than-thou hippy tutting through a first-wave toga party – the first Jesus outside the blasphemies of Family Guy to seem a little bit of a dick.
Granted, Davis is going for youthful idealism – floating the notion that these kids were revolutionaries seeking to topple an oppressive regime – with Mary consolidating the disciples’ impeccable intersectionality. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings his usual gravity to bear as an identifiably African Peter, a choice that might seem risky were we in less sensitive hands, while Tahar Rahim, as Judas, seizes upon the closest thing here to a character arc, boyish enthusiasm shading into sad-eyed betrayal. For much of the film, though, they’re left looking like backpacking students, set to endless trudging up hillsides where someone or other starts proclaiming dialogue apparently sourced directly from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
As Godly spectacle, the film is too introverted to be overwhelming: in place of miracles and wonders, we get pauses and shuffles. Everything Lion made transporting and otherwise moving – the sense of youth finding its chosen place in the world – turns repetitious and uninvolving in the draggy second act. Only when we get to Jerusalem does Mary Magdalene snap into focus as narrative, chiefly because it gives these kids something to physically rail against – moneylenders, Judas kisses, Romans and all. It’s a little on the late side, though: where Gibson made you feel the agonies of his Christ for what seemed like weeks, we’re whizzed through this Calvary in less than five minutes.
Along the route, Davis arguably reclaims this story from the religious right, rerouting it away from lacerated, victimised flesh and back towards tolerant souls: he’s aided by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s typically searching final score, and cinematographer Greig Fraser, who – while not on Bright Star form – stages the odd fresco of bodies at prayer that might have made even a syphilitic Old Master offer thanks to the heavens. What’s missing is anything much of Gibson’s passion, which – however wayward or inflammatory – might just have pepped up those stretches of Mary Magdalene that become indistinguishable from sermons or unleavened bread: manna for believers, perilously dry for everyone else.
Mary Magdalene opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.
Saturday, 10 March 2018
Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of March 2-4, 2018:
1 (1) Black Panther (12A) **
2 (new) Red Sparrow (15)
3 (2) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (new) Game Night (15) ***
5 (3) Lady Bird (15) ****
6 (new) Kobiety Mafii (18)
7 (8) Coco (PG) ***
8 (5) I, Tonya (15)
9 (6) Finding Your Feet (12A)
10 (7) The Shape of Water (15) ****
My top five:
1. Sweet Country
2. Erase and Forget
3. The Ice King
4. Lady Bird
5. The Shape of Water
Top Ten DVD sales:
1 (new) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
2 (new) Jigsaw (18)
3 (new) The Death of Stalin (15) *****
4 (new) Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG) ***
5 (1) Geostorm (12)
6 (3) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
7 (5) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
8 (8) Victoria and Abdul (12A) **
9 (new) Thor Triple Pack (12) **
10 (new) Breathe (12)
My top five:
1. The Death of Stalin
2. Paddington 2
3. The Florida Project
5. Hotel Salvation
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Lady Vanishes [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 12.55am)
2. The Artist (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
3. 45 Years (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. Dial M for Murder (Saturday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. 2 Fast 2 Furious (Saturday, ITV1, 11.05pm)
Retrofitted 3D entertainments are ten-a-penny these days, but Dial M for Murder takes us back, way back – to a moment when Hitchcock was growing restless in America, and casting around for new twists and gimmicks to inflict upon the paying public. That’s right: it’s a revival of a film old enough to have been in 3D first time around. One could argue a certain snobbishness is at play in addending digital whistles and bells to an auteurist touchstone like this, and not, say, Bwana Devil or House of Wax: the implication – read: bald-faced lie – is that 3D has always been the connoisseur’s choice, rather than the studios’ way of grubbing a few extra bucks off us at the box-office. (Hardly a buttock-tester at 105 minutes, Dial M also came complete with an intermission, by way of boosting popcorn sales.)
Even Hitch, in his career-spanning interview with Truffaut, was prepared to admit he was “playing it safe”, using 3D to lend an extra dimension to a penny-dreadful scenario every bit as stage-bound as 1948’s similarly experimental Rope. This is a much straighter proposition in every sense, though, with Mayfair belle Grace Kelly, in brazen scarlet dresses, carrying on an affair with her smooth American lover (Robert Cummings), while her suavely patrician hubby (Ray Milland, so reminiscent of Fifties-era Jimmy Stewart as to seem a placeholder) plots to have her offed.
In the background lurks a disquisition on the inner workings of a marriage, and how – once two become one – everyone’s obliged to live a double life, the latter an inchoate form of what would become one of this director’s major themes. Mostly, though, Dial M for Murder is a showcase for Hitchcock the technician. Witness the glee he takes in deploying stereoscopy to punch up what would otherwise be conventional insert business: the horizon-filling “M” on every telephone dial, the close-ups of the scissors Kelly grabs while fighting back, the persistent emphasis on keys being trousered or palmed. There is still something novel and thrilling in Hitchcock's use of the new format to unlock the medium’s spatial possibilities: in the overhead shot tracking Milland’s attempts to rehearse the murder, one senses an early rendering of the CG-reliant forensic examination shows like CSI would later make commonplace.
The drama will depend on hubby losing control of this crime scene, first to the inspector who insists on picking over its every detail (John Williams, the definition of scene-stealer), then to the lover, who proposes another version of events entirely, and in doing so comes to save Kelly’s life. It’s theatrical in more than just its origins (a Broadway hit for writer Frederick Knott): these characters serve as both directors, blocking out and guiding the flow of movement through this space, and actors, shifting the props around and constantly questioning the motives they’ve been given.
Hitchcock, in need of a hit, perhaps valued the (entertaining) chicanery more than he did character or any metatextual interpretation, which is why Dial M remains a diversion rather than a landmark in his filmography, an occasionally dynamic blueprint that would be set aside in the wake of a run of fully-realised masterworks. Over the next decade – in Rear Window (a 3D plot, no less effective for being filmed in 2D), Vertigo and Psycho – this director would find other, more enduring ways of getting into his characters’ (and audience’s) headspace. Hitchcock was big enough to walk away from this technology and make better films: Dial M for Murder may not be the week’s best release, but it stands as the most instructive.
(MovieMail, July 2013)
Dial M for Murder screens (in 2D) on BBC2 tonight at 11.15pm.
In the Paul Auster-scripted 1995 film Smoke, William Hurt recounts an anecdote about a mountaineer who, while ascending the peak on which his father perished decades before, discovers the body preserved in the ice – the old man now younger than the son in outward appearance. It’s a potent aside: one that speaks to the way we measure ourselves against our predecessors, and to the different ways in which man and nature measure time. The corpse forms a physical manifestation of a distant memory, and the punchline to one of the chilliest and most unsettling of modern ghost stories.
45 Years – Weekend writer-director Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of David Constantine’s short story In Another Country – begins with a similar discovery. A week before he’s due to celebrate the anniversary of the title with wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling), Geoff (Tom Courtenay) learns his previous girlfriend’s body has been found, after a half-century, in a glacier in the Swiss Alps. Kate, recoiling at her husband’s tendency to refer to the deceased, with detectable wistfulness, as “my Katya”, becomes increasingly perturbed by Geoff’s reaction – at first distracted, then consumed by unprocessed emotions. For her own part, everything from a snatch of Gary Puckett on the radio to a recorded history of the nearby Norfolk Broads will serve as a too-painful reminder of what’s been excavated, and her own place in this landscape.
The attention to detail throughout is exquisite. As in Weekend, whose lovers had merely to figure out whether to stay or go, Haigh puts us right in the middle of a tricky, complex moment for his characters: the flat calm of the Norfolk countryside provides a graph of their relationship up to this point, and an isolation entirely appropriate to a very English ghost story. (For Rebecca, read Katya.) Time and again, the camera begins at some remove, only to nudge us closer to the leads, whom we find operating in such a low-key, naturalistic mode that every flinch and twinge registers with the force of a controlled explosion, and every lingering, half-finished sentence (a single “still…” from Rampling, say) serves as a declaration of hostilities.
It’s crucial that Haigh casts Courtenay, one of British cinema’s beautiful dreamers, as Geoff – but this filmmaker is even more sympathetic towards the woman trying to get inside his head. (Almost literally so: the use of the couple’s attic space is an act of cinematic trepanning as inspired as anything in Inside Out.) Rampling, oft cast as arch, has rarely seemed more alive than she is here: more practical and active than her partner, as women in long-term relationships often are, and trying to snap her somnolent hubby, lost in dreams of what might have been, back into the present.
Unlike many films in the recent Silver Screen revolution, Haigh gives Kate and Geoff histories and softspots. We discover their musical and political leanings, and where they go in the middle of the day; their unforced intimacies trump all the innuendo at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. These are flesh-and-blood human beings, not flimsy avatars for the target audience: Haigh crafts a fully-dimensional relationship in order to show exactly what’s under threat, and every subsequent scene of quiet, careful observation further raises the stakes: an hour in, you’re aware how much this pair have to lose, and you’re gripped.
In doing so, Haigh – who’s been away in America of late, overseeing the HBO series Looking – reasserts himself as a major British director: if the talkiness doesn’t sound obviously cinematic, he finds, with his performers, remarkably compelling ways of approaching and shaping it. Here is some astonishing acting, the kind of deep-frozen emotion that has sustained many of the great British features, a scenario that still, after all these years, haunts the imagination, and an ending that should keep couples of every vintage talking until their heads hit the pillow. Awards have been handed out for far less.
(MovieMail, August 2015)
45 Years screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.
It's long been a reassuring pleasure to watch Sam Neill at work on screen, and the filmmaker Warwick Thornton knows this - which may be why his bracing new Western Sweet Country makes such sparing use of the actor. Neill is there in the opening minutes, certainly: his Fred Smith is, if not a preacher, then very definitely a Godly man, perhaps a little complacent with it, prone to nodding off on the porch of his farmhouse, Bible in hand, a dozy sentinel in the borderlands between light and dark. One afternoon, Smith is woken from his slumbers by Harry (Ewen Leslie), a new neighbour assigned some kind of official status after returning from the front, seeking to borrow the services of Fred's Indigenous right-hand man Sam (Hamilton Morris). Where Fred insists that all men are equals in God's eyes, Harry regards Sam no better than a slave, snarling at him, assigning him punishing work, and leering at the wife and young niece his new recruit has brought along with him; when he finally lays his hands on the former, it's with a grunted "I wanted the other one, but you'll do." Fifteen minutes into Sweet Country, and already we're missing Neill, with his aura of gentle decency; when he returns, it's as part of a posse riding out from so-called civilisation, from which Sam has fled after putting a bullet through Harry's neck.
It's been almost ten years since Thornton's debut feature Samson & Delilah came along like a winding punch to the gut - too long, by anyone's reckoning, although one suspects his absence from our screens has something to do with the kinds of stories he wants to tell, which aren't entirely flattering about certain aspects of his country's history. (He would presumably feel some kinship with those British filmmakers presently suffering because they don't want to make Downtonesque period dramas dressing up the uglinesses of Empire.) His new film is a bleak and violent tale, but it ultimately has far more to communicate about that violence - how it gets wielded, who it's wielded upon, and its immediate and lasting effects - than, as an example, this weekend's other major arthouse release. Sweet Country opens with an extended overhead shot of a pot of coffee on the boil: as a scuffle takes place off-camera, you fear it might come to be tossed in some poor sod's face, as screen gangsters used to, but instead it serves to set up one major theme - Australia as melting pot, heated, volatile - and the manner in which this narrative seems to simmer, threatening to boil over, and occasionally erupting before our alarmed and horrified eyes.
The posse, after all, are riding out into territory their people have technically claimed as their own, but which, as more than one character points out, they simply do not know. It's scant surprise, then, when they find themselves up against the tribesmen thereabouts, as red as the rocks, who don't wear the hats and boots the gentrified Sam does; nor indeed that they should be up against Sam himself, exerting a vaguely mystical control over this environment: how else to explain how the scorpion we see him trapping in one scene winds up inside one of his pursuers' boots in the next? Thornton and co-cinematographer Dylan River ensure this Outback gets harsher and harsher with each extraordinary frame that passes: the initial snapshot of humdrum station life gives way to the scant vegetation of the bush, then a vast, screen-filling salt flat that might have set the von Stroheim of Greed to salivating. Venturing way beyond their usual, comfortable jurisdiction, the party dwindles to one: Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who seems to take this blackfella's escape as both a personal slight, and a test of his own manhood. That movement might suggest a straightforward revenge trajectory, but Sweet Country never quite moves in the directions you expect it to; there are reasons you feel it coming to cover such a lot of ground.
Having effectively hung Fletcher out to dry as a walking/staggering grudge, the second half reels him back, tail between his legs, for a kangaroo-court finale composed of remarkably attentive close-ups: here, we're shown with stark clarity the divisions running through Australian society, and the deep scars these divisions have left behind. This final act is set up by an image that subverts the oft-quoted doorway shot from The Searchers in a way I've never seen before: for the white man striding out into uncertain territory, Thornton subs in two chastened natives, sitting in the dust, looking in at us. Like Dee Rees's recent Mudbound, this is a Western of new angles and perspectives, most apparent in the curious editing choice to sporadically drop in a flash or flicker of a later scene. This formal tic seems jarring at first, but over the course of the movie, it makes sense: it's a little Nic Roeg circa Walkabout, especially when a dehydrated Fletcher visualises the barmaid waiting for him back home, but it feels more specifically aboriginal in this application - an inkling or intuition of things, good and terrible, to come. We end up watching a much smaller, sorrier story than it first appears - a tale preordained, with only one possible outcome - but every last one of its frames sends consequences and repercussions rippling outwards, to be felt as fully and as devastatingly in 2018 as they would have been a century ago.
Sweet Country is now playing in selected cinemas.