Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Signs and blunders: "Under the Silver Lake"

It wasn't always like this. After making Stranger than Paradise, the ramshackle, micro-budgeted roadtrip that inaugurated the modern American independent cinema, Jim Jarmusch returned with Down by Law, a movie that confined its characters to a single prison cell. Yet as money began to flood into the indie sector, and wider audiences were reached, the temptation to swing for the fences with the follow-up to a breakthrough work became too great to resist. We can see that urge in Spike Lee going from the scratchy, intimate She's Gotta Have It to the state-of-the-nation musical School Daze, though one could argue the latter film developed logically from its predecessor's Technicolor dance sequence, and paved the way for the landmark Do the Right Thing; it was central to Steven Soderbergh's haphazard progression from the cool minimalism of sex, lies & videotape to the wild Expressionism of Kafka. The process has become time-honoured, yielding as many misses as outright hits. Most would be thankful that Paul Thomas Anderson overcame his disappointments on Hard Eight to arrive at the jubilant Boogie Nights, yet Richard Kelly similarly went for bust in leaping from the whisperingly suggestive Donnie Darko to the carnivalesque Southland Tales, and look where that got him. Next up at the plate: David Robert Mitchell, who follows 2010's atmospheric coming-of-ager The Myth of the American Sleepover and 2014's bristling horror parable It Follows with his own jejune blowout Under the Silver Lake, in which shaggy-haired slacker Andrew Garfield is beset by two-and-a-half-hours' worth of conspiracies and coincidences in latter-day L.A.

Mitchell's previous, entirely self-contained films were very selective in what they ruled in and out. Silver Lake, vastly more voracious in what it sees and references, sets forth multiple mysteries for Garfield's accidental private-eye Sam to investigate. There is the disappearance of the lissom blonde neighbour (Riley Keough) Sam peeps on from his balcony; a secondary vanishing act involving a prominent businessman; and a third line of inquiry circling a figure referred to as the Dog Killer, whose existence is set up by some mumbo-jumbo about a studio-system outcast who shot himself on camera in protest at the attention afforded to a Rin Tin Tin-like pooch. It is quickly established that multiple elements are in play here. Warnings encoded in the pages of comic books, old hobo symbols, back episodes of Wheel of Fortune, details on the dollar bill, the lyrics to R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?": everything is lingered over and dwelt upon at length, and there is always some towering, nefarious subterfuge going on just out of shot or behind the reality our hero-surrogate is presented with. This means the foreground turns into a sushi-bar conveyor belt of red herrings, some of which prove tastier than others. The approach generates a whole lot of movie - shot by shot, sequence by sequence, we catch Mitchell borrowing from Lynch and Hitch and Marty and Bob (Altman), most of the good ones - and yet the film's eyes are substantially bigger than its belly, leaving a lot of its raw visual and thematic material undigested, possibly indigestible. It's not a spoiler so much as a warning to note that none of the aforementioned mysteries will be cleared up with any degree of clarity.

The sprawl is such that it might be instructive to try and pin down what connects Silver Lake to its predecessors in the Mitchell canon. From Sam's opening gawp at his topless and semi-clad neighbours, the new film appears to share It Follows' (naggingly conservative) fascination with sex, and its capacity to warp, corrupt, derange. (The Lynch comparisons write themselves.) Garfield's knight errant seemingly sets out on his cherchez la femme mission because he felt he was onto a sure thing; his obsession will carry this feckless soul from sunny L.A. poolside to the city's darker fringes, from a position of peeper-power up top to the cavernous depths of the Earth, where he will be revealed as basically powerless. An early snippet of dialogue pertaining to the male gaze suggests Mitchell isn't wholly behind the curve when it comes to recent developments in film and social studies, but he has a funny-strange way of showing it, repeatedly turning his camera onto women in states of undress. (Being a big-shot auteur means you can persuade more actresses to pop their tops.) Only one moment of voyeurism is effective enough to justify the clanging shot of minor characters lolling against a tombstone marked "HITCHCOCK", and it comes when a pal of Sam's pilots a drone towards the open window of a lingerie model who removes her shirt only to break down in thoroughly unerotic tears. Somewhere in Silver Lake, there's a cautionary tale about the dangers that follow from falling down any rabbit hole: the risk of not seeing what you want to see or, worse, seeing nothing very much at all. 

That film would surely have gone more forcefully after what Sam's pal labels "an entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes..."; it would have cleared more space for us to notice how our notional hero gets stinkier, less mobile and less likable the further he pursues whatever it is he's pursuing, and starts lashing out at anybody he feels stands between him and his ill-defined goal. The trouble with the Silver Lake we have is that, at some point, Mitchell seems to have realised that those mewling fanboys are precisely (and almost exclusively) his core audience - or not to have noticed that he's one himself, instantly squishing any distance between filmmaker and intended target. Vast stretches here depend upon the viewer sharing the utterly suggestible Sam's fascination with babbling gibberish, and you sense Mitchell, too, getting carried away with this madness - tossing in theories, piling on conjecture, panic-buying every urban legend he can - and then self-evidently struggling to cut it all back into coherent shape. The film's paranoiac, throbbing-veined mania is meant to be intriguing and alluring - "Crazy makes for good sex", says that pal, of a woman, naturally - but Under the Silver Lake's narrative designs struck this viewer as inseparable from the moment of Pizzagate, the anti-vaccination movement and Brexit: they're born of a time when supposedly mature and rational human beings have been invited to disregard anything so dull as established, linear facts in order to feel like the chosen ones. (The pictures coming in, these past few days, from Nigel Farage's "Leave Means Leave" march reveal a more banal reality.)

This monument to contemporary cuckoodom has been assembled by a creative with a legitimate big-screen sensibility for the express purpose of being deconstructed and obsessed about on certain Internet forums for months and years to come - but as with so many of the topics currently sucking time and energy online, I'm not so sure there's all that much in the way of substance to get obsessed about here; that all the film is, ultimately, is a mystery premised on the search for mystery, a clever concept that, in practice, generates only partially satisfying results, at best. Among these 139 minutes' fleeting, minor pleasures: Garfield's rabbity run and sulky teenage trudge, which are exactly those your common-or-garden incel might use to haul themselves up from their parents' basement upon reading Marvel have greenlit another female-led superhero movie, and one throwaway line of Hollywood chatter, pertaining to the youngest person ever to have written, directed and sound-designed their own sitcom ("She's twelve, but she clearly has an old soul"), which indicates Mitchell hasn't completely lost his bearings. Yet all other referents would point to the fact you'd do better tracking down the seasoned Jonathan Nossiter's far less self-consciously cult indie Signs & Wonders from 2005, a film that shaped its maddening, overblown chaos into an appreciable critique of late capitalism, rather than - as Mitchell's swing-and-a-miss proves - something wearyingly symptomatic of its indulgences.

Under the Silver Lake is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via MUBI.

Monday, 18 March 2019

From the archive: "Sharkwater"

A big-screen refutation of all those "Shark Weekends" that have suddenly proliferated on certain cable channels, the documentary Sharkwater opens with a montage of movie shark attacks sourced from Jaws, Deep Blue Sea and elsewhere, then redresses the balance by stressing the shark's importance as the big fish in our ecosystem. Our host is the boyish Rob Stewart, a buff Frankie Muniz lookalike who has as obvious a bond with his subjects as Steve Irwin has with crocodiles and Grizzly Man's Timothy Treadwell had with the bears of Alaska. (It's only natural that, at several points in the film, you do rather fear for his existence.) Stewart tours the globe, swimming with hammerheads in the Galapagos, before hitching a ride with environmental activist Paul Watson, who drives his boat - customised with Boadicea-like spikes on its side - into any whaling vessels he encounters; when Watson states "our objective is to rock the boat", it's clear he speaks metaphorically and literally. En route, all manner of pertinent info gets dispensed: despite the fact more people are killed by elephants and tigers each year than by sharks - more people, in fact, are killed by vending machines - the world's shark population has been reduced by ninety percent in recent times.

You could therefore call Sharkwater a PR job, intended to reframe the shark as less aggressor than victim: of (illegal) long-line fishing, the boom in shark-fin products in certain Asian markets, the pollution man has pumped into the ocean, and the widespread indifference of a world prepared to bring in legislation against whaling, but - perhaps wary of the shark's reputation - no comparable laws against shark poaching. Those sharp, sharp teeth, and the primal fear of the monster rising from the deep, so skilfully evoked by Jaws, ensure it's a tough task. Yet Stewart trained as an underwater photographer, and he knows how to put on screen the vast array of beauty in the ocean: with its footage of whales, turtles and tunnel-like shoals of fish, the film frequently reminds us where Finding Nemo found its inspiration. It's a nature doc that goes beyond the call of duty - as much Donal MacIntyre as David Attenborough, Stewart is arrested at one point, contracts a flesh-eating disease elsewhere, and risks the wrath of the "shark fin Mafia" in several secret filming sorties - and which may even change your mind about creatures presented here as a good deal more intelligent and peaceable, and much less venal, than the hunter's hunters. Thinking back to Deep Blue Sea: is it not possible Samuel L. Jackson got chomped because the sharks sensed all those soulless ad campaigns for which the actor was about to sign up?

(June 2008)

Sharkwater is available on DVD through Showbox Media; a sequel, Sharkwater: Extinction, opens this Friday, and will be reviewed here in the days ahead.

Friday, 15 March 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of March 8-10, 2019:

1 (new) Captain Marvel (12A) ***
2 (1) Fighting with My Family (12A)
3 (2) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***
4 (3) Instant Family (12A) ***
5 (4) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
6 (5) Green Book (12A) **
7 (6) The Aftermath (15)
8 (8) The Kid Who Would Be King (PG) ***
9 (new) The Sleeping Beauty - Bolshoi Ballet (U)
10 (7) Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. Benjamin
2. The Kindergarten Teacher
3. Alien
4. Sauvage
5. The Hole in the Ground

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

1 (1) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
2 (2) A Star is Born (15) ***
3 (5) The Grinch (U)
4 (7) Venom (15)
5 (4) Hunter Killer (15) **
6 (6) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
7 (3) Halloween (18)
8 (10) The Greatest Showman (PG)
9 (17) Widows (15) ****
10 (13) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Widows
2. Wildlife
3. The Wild Pear Tree
4. The Guilty
5. RBG

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Die Hard with a Vengeance (Thursday, five, 11pm)
2. American Hustle (Sunday, C4, 1.05am)
3. A Knight's Tale [above] (Saturday, five, 10.25am)
4. The Ones Below (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Behind the Candelabra (Saturday, BBC2, 10.45pm)

From the archive: "American Hustle"

American Hustle, the latest of David O. Russell’s experiments in interpersonal chemistry, throws together twin pairs of actor-atoms who’ve previously fizzed under the observance of this director: Christian Bale and Amy Adams from 2010’s volatile The Fighter, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from last year’s no less effervescent Silver Linings Playbook.

Those crowdpleasers described several wild mood swings, but the new film is wildly unstable in form from the off: it shapes up as a love triangle that becomes a quadrangle, then a pentangle, then just a tangle, but only after assimilating the look of a gritty, Serpico-like period crime drama, and then the slick momentum of an Ocean’s 11-style caper.

Russell decks out this expanding test area in expensively gaudy design – not since Boogie Nights has there been this much polyester and hairspray visible on screen, so much static in the air – to embellish his apparently true story: that of two medium-level New York con artists (Bale and Adams) who, in the late 1970s, found themselves recruited by an ambitious Fed (Cooper) to take down the corrupt mayor of Atlantic City.

All is never quite as it appears in a Russell movie, however, and American Hustle acknowledges as much by casting the soft, sincere-seeming Jeremy Renner as said Mayor, a boyish gladhander caught trying to make his small corner of the world a better place. That we can’t really trust any of these guys is apparent the instant Russell cuts away from Bale and Adams’ growing bond to show the former already has a girl waiting at home for him: a single mother (Lawrence) he’s been attempting to provide for.

The film, written by Russell with Eric Singer, takes great glee in besmirching the generally uneventful Jimmy Carter years, by suggesting that such graft – represented here by fake sheikhs touting suitcases full of cash – was as prevalent in the America of the late 70s as it was in the Nixon era, and as it is today; it suggests that these characters’ “empty deals” would only proliferate during the 80s and 90s, and come back to haunt us during the present banking crisis. Like it or not, everybody gets corrupted somewhere along the line.

What redeems American Hustle from its own cynicism is an inspired underlying gag. While everyone on screen has their eye on the prize, no-one has the merest semblance of control – and Russell and Singer make not just palatable but winning entertainment from the sight of characters who, skeezy as they may be, come to realise they’re actually just too nice to be sullying their hands with this kind of lowdown dirty work.

It isn’t enough now to say that Russell, once thought of as something of a pop Cassavetes, is an actor’s director: he’s a one-man Large-Hadron collider, smashing stars together to tremendous effect. These actors were surely held in isolation between takes, and then pressured to make every moment their own personal awards clip. It’s nice when they click – and they do, often, and in unpredictable ways – but collision and conflict comes to seem unavoidable.

Even the more relaxed stretches yield pleasing effects: a nice bit for comedian Louis CK as Cooper’s deskbound superior, trying desperately to impart some wisdom in the form of a story about icefishing that crystallises the film’s love of slippery, hard-to-read narratives, a marshalling of choice period soundtrack items that borders on the Scorsese-ish, and not incidentally establishes Steely Dan as cool once again.

And when the film amps up the heat – as by having Adams hold out on Cooper (doing his best impression of a man who hasn’t been laid for a really long while), or introducing the Mob in the form of a surprise element from Russell’s recent back catalogue – it starts pinging and sparking at another level entirely. Some films don’t require a star rating, but a Geiger counter – and American Hustle registers as mostly off-the-scale.

(MovieMail, December 2013)

American Hustle screens on Channel 4 this Sunday at 1.05am.

From the archive: "Behind the Candelabra"

It could almost be the result of a random movie project generator. Your subject is “the life of Liberace”. Your director? “Steven Soderbergh”. Next around on the wheel: “Todd Haynes” (who has some form with tragic showbiz stories and 70s kitsch) and “Michael Bay” (who might have taken a decidedly heteronormative approach to all the spectacle and boom-bang-a-bang hot-tub action).

Which is to note that Behind the Candelabra could have gone any which way, whether descending into terminal TV-movie worthiness (Soderbergh’s backers were the cable channel HBO, after all) or overdoing the swishing comedy and campy excess. The surprise, even among Soderbergh devotees, may be how restrained the film is: rooted in character, yet shot at arm’s length, with – one scene-setting burst of Giorgio Moroder aside – no music other than Liberace’s own to let us know where and how to feel.

For most of the film, we’re stranded on another planet, in the furthest outreaches of the showbiz galaxy – the tactics only helping to flag up the peculiarity and singularity of the world our entry point, Liberace’s all-American boytoy Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, repositioned somewhere between glowing farmhand and porno-Adonis), first strutted into circa 1977.

Part Saddam’s palace, part Paris Hilton pied-à-terre, the Casa de Liberace – a truly fabulous feat of production design by Howard Cummings – is a vast self-pleasuring splurge of homoerotic frescos and glittering trinkets, sandwiched by matching keyboard-themed canopies and floor tiles, and serviced by condescending houseboys in glute-hugging slacks.

Somewhere in there lurks its presiding intelligence, regarding the universe entire as something to be remodelled in his own image. When “Lee” Liberace (Michael Douglas, uncanny) baldly states “I was the first person on TV to look directly into the camera” (surely disregarding the contributions of countless newscasters?), we twig it’s highly likely he did so not so much for the connection with the audience as to catch his own reflection in the lens.

Soderbergh’s manner here is only slightly more relaxed. Wry amusement, drafting in a Rob Lowe or Dan Aykroyd to pep up individual scenes, gives way – as in a couple of graphic surgery interludes, stitched together to comprise the recent cinema’s grisliest makeover montage – to something more scientific. He’s compelled to ask how someone would go about getting a facelift or chin implant to look more like their younger self, or someone else. And, more crucially: why?

Naturally, it boils down to need and control, showbusiness’s twin engines since the year dot. Scott’s foster parents, a picture of normality, wonder why one grown man would want to adopt another, and such questions linger; there are dom-sub relationships, and then there’s the plain weird, and Soderbergh makes this one appear more unfathomable yet by framing it as glimpses through doors and in mirrors. Not even he attempts to get between these two, and whatever it was they had.

Shrewdly, Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese realise you can’t use this relationship to bang the drum for gay marriage, because a) Lee and Scott’s coupling couldn’t be tied in a neat knot, and b) it’s every bit as likely to alienate as it is to enthral. What the film can do, however, is put forward a case for Liberace as a true one-of-a-kind, a distinction even the pianist’s detractors might just nod through.

The appreciation of Liberace’s musical talents remains surprisingly unironic right from his introduction, performing a boogie-woogie routine that has the adoring greyhairs that made up his core crowd eating out of his hand – the kind of effortless showmanship that an up-down auteur like Soderbergh can only concede is difficult to maintain. Yet it’s balanced by an understanding of the off-stage torments that resulted from Lee’s desperate desire for image-control: if the film absolutely has to be taken up as a campaigning text, it might just work as a call to greater honesty among our entertainers.

You may be tickled, you may well be moved by the final moments, in which something like emotion (transcendent kitsch, maybe) bleeds into Soderbergh’s traditionally clinical worldview. Yet I suspect you can’t fail to notice the distinct chill of horror that lurks behind this candelabra, and which Soderbergh points up with his every detached camera angle.

Between the bodily transformations, the displays of human weakness, and the lawyers circulating within a world it proves very easy to get sucked into, and mortally difficult to escape from, the Soderbergh film Behind the Candelabra has most in common with isn’t the glitzy Ocean’s 11, nor last year’s whooping, hollering Magic Mike.

It’s 1991’s infamously unloved Kafka, from the stumbling beginnings of this director’s ever-confounding and varied career – and if Soderbergh can finally turn the raw materials of that flop into a lamé-covered, diamond-studded hit while effectuating his own escape from the entertainment business, it’ll be a remarkable note to go out on.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Behind the Candelabra screens on BBC2 tomorrow night at 10.45pm.

"I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts" (Guardian 15/03/19)

I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts ***
Dir: Yusuf Zine. Documentary with: Jaber Mohammed, Mohammed Rafiqu, Rasel Mohammed, Parvin Aktar. 90 mins. No cert.

The levels of displacement in today’s world are such it has become possible to make a film about the plight of Burma’s indigenous Rohingya people without travelling beyond a few snowy blocks in Toronto. Yusuf Zine’s documentary provides a platform for those younger migrants whose parents fled persecution by the Burmese government to tell their stories twice over – first on camera to the director, who’s spent the past few years assisting the Canadian social services, then on stage in a college-theatre production workshopped from their experiences. The resulting film forms another of this century’s lessons in how profound trauma can be worked through and converted into art, applause, affirmation, acknowledgement.

Initially, the handling might appear a shade too light and bright for the subject matter, like an episode of Glee shifted several degrees north. Yet it proves a considered editorial tactic: Zine wants us to see his charges as peppy, upbeat individuals – kids who’ve wholeheartedly embraced the chance they’ve been handed for a better life, including the prospect of a creative career – before he reframes them as victims and survivors. When we learn what exactly these ingenues have been through – and the dramaturgy reveals a distressing litany of mutilations, rapes and bereavements – their optimism seems not just admirable, but an act of defiance, a counterblast against the limited future their oppressors had in mind for them.

Though the rehearsal footage is as sketchy as rehearsal footage tends to be, Zine has the sense to fold his cast-sourced anecdotes into the strongest potted history the movies have so far provided of this situation. Confounding ironies are flagged up, not least that it should be Burma’s notionally peaceable Buddhist majority who’ve carried out the attacks, with the apparent blessing of the Nobel Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi. (Luc Besson’s fawning 2011 biopic The Lady recedes even further in the memory.) Should you need further proof of the ways Trumpism has oozed into the political water table, clock the robed Canadian monk Zine films blithely belittling the Rohingya’s claims as “fake news”. Its status as a grassroots endeavour is evident in some modest production values, but it succeeds in conveying a good deal of pertinent info while simultaneously putting on a half-decent show.

I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts is now playing in selected cinemas. 

"90 Minutes" (Guardian 15/03/19)

90 Minutes **
Dir: Simon Baker. With: Robert Ristic, Peyvand Sadeghian, Leon Sua, Anton Saunders. 86 mins. Cert: 18.

A decade on from teaming Danny Dyer, 50 Cent and Brenda Blethyn for 2009’s bargain-bin circler Dead Man Running, Rio Ferdinand re-enters the world of lowish-budget film production with a quasi-real time drama centred on those lads and lasses (mostly lads) drawn to the rough-and-tumble of the Hackney Marshes’ weekend leagues. Yet despite the title’s ticking clock, writer-director Simon Baker’s mudbound mosaic exhibits a shambling quality that suggests a slacker Slacker, passing the ball from character to character without ever quite doing anything interesting with it. An hour in, two spectators – in an echo of those epochal McCain’s ads – start pondering whether it’s chips for tea; play is rather shruggingly abandoned at the 86-minute mark. One way or another, you emerge shortchanged. 

Baker deserves some credit for wrongfooting us. A prevalence of lairy geezers in the opening scenes establishes expectations of another casual crime story, yet what follows operates in an insistently minor, observational key. These blokes are all talk in short trousers, scrapping it out only on the pitch while communing in that musky banter (“Shave your fuckin’ balls, lads, Magaluf ‘ere we come!”) which doubtless goes over like gangbusters in the back row of the minibus. The DVD, when it emerges in the coming weeks, could conceivably be repackaged with the Lynx Africa giftset. Still, viewers drawn here by the footballing connection will likely be those most disappointed by the lack of straightforward action: Baker cuts all this dialogue with negligible non-highlight packages of skied crosses and shinned chances.

Ferdinand nabs himself a funny cameo, seen shooting the breeze with Jody Morris during one of several lulls in play, and Anton Saunders is a credibly grizzled presence as the coach incurring major aggro on the touchlines, but the squad’s younger talent have to make do with showreel-bound snippets that don’t add up to a movie. It remains oddly likable, with attractive aerial photography of the Marshes themselves, and its mazy narrative dribbles bring it within touching distance of a better film: with Chelsea money and a few more drafts, Baker might have arrived at a matchday fresco that merited the Altman comparisons he surely set out looking for. As it stands, it just feels underdeveloped, too rooted in humdrum, hungover Sunday-morning reality to justify even this fleeting theatrical runout. 

90 Minutes opens in selected cinemas from Tuesday, ahead of its DVD release on April 1.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

On DVD: "Wildlife"

Wildlife, the supremely assured directorial debut of the actor Paul Dano, returns us to the mid-20th century middle America of Richard Ford, the author whose work previously inspired Sam Mendes' 2008 drama Revolutionary Road. (Dano's partner and co-writer Zoe Kazan had a supporting role in that film: you sense she must have read around, which brings us here.) Ford's America is a place of rigid squareness and muted pastels; where any attempt to move away from the established centre ground leaves the individual at risk of becoming a pariah. Dano's film opens with a father and son tossing a pigskin around in their front yard, and being called in to dinner - almost a stock image of the period, preserving a status quo you feel could last forever - and then watches, gripped, as this display of family unity is exposed as if not false, exactly, then certainly fragile in the extreme. Dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his nothingy job as a golf pro, sulkily retreats from the world and the marital bed, and then - to prove something, either to himself or his loved ones - volunteers to help fight the wildfires blazing beyond this small Montana town's horizons. Mum Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is forced out to find paying work to keep a roof over what remains of the family's heads, and - as a vivacious young mother - inevitably catches the eye of men who aren't Jerry. These changes to the domestic set-up are observed by 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), a rather doleful soul whose innocence is about to be shattered forever. Somewhere on the outskirts of town, those wildfires are raging, setting us to fear that somebody's going to get badly burned, if not entirely burnt up.

We don't see a single lick of flame for the first 45 minutes, but it's a testament to the completeness of the film's vision that we feel its dramatic heat closing in on these characters. A tactic of sorts is established in that first dinner scene, as Jerry and Jeanette walk beyond the stationary camera into areas of this home we cannot see: right from the off, Dano asserts there will be parts of these lives that will be off-limits to young Joe - and therefore to us. (David Lang's score also cues us to the fact there are mysteries in play here, those of overlooked lives.) We nevertheless hope that Joe - who has a Saturday job as a photographer's assistant - will be able to get at a fuller, more truthful picture, and Oxenbould, who looks to have both grown up and majorly calmed down since his godawful turn as the rapping brat in Shyamalan's The Visit, has a newfound watchfulness about him that reassures us that this narrative isn't a glum done deal. Ford knew there was a young life, and a future set of relationships, at stake in this household; Dano shows us the traumas of a breaking-to-broken home imprinting themselves on Joe's memory as vividly as colours on Kodachrome. The film's own hazy look is very deliberate: it's not residual nostalgia, an attempt to dress this period up in any way - the writing is clear-eyed about the fact this might be a formative moment for a world order that persists even today - but presumably the result of the smoke drifting in off the hills, threatening to obscure these lives all the more. Wherever you look in Wildlife, the characters appear penned in, pinned down; you worry their only recourse will be to explode, or crumble under the pressure.

If the leads sometimes seem too youthful for their roles, that's not unlike Revolutionary Road (which mitigated against the essential depressiveness of its fable by offering a potentially crowdpleasing reunion of the lovers from Titanic), and not unsymptomatic of a moment where our best and brightest performers rarely seem as lived-in as the hard-drinking, combat-seeing stars of the past. (Hard to convincingly pass as prematurely aged folk slumping into a dreadful rut when you're mainlining wheatgrass and doing Bikram yoga three times a week.) This, too, appears partly deliberate, however. Jerry and Jeanette are written as a young couple ("I'm 34," the latter declares to the teen sitting across from her. "Does that sound wrong to you? Should I say 50?"), straitjacketed by the domesticity that was the norm in the post-War, pre-Beatles era, kids who married early, procreated, and then found themselves asking the biggest of all questions: well, now what? Repent at leisure, possibly: one look at Warren, the limping, unprepossessing, fiftysomething war veteran Jeanette takes up with - a man capable of offering her the financial security, but otherwise promises all the excitement of the average bucket of sand - and you immediately grasp the limited options available to women of this time in non-metropolitan areas. (He's played by the great Bill Camp, who does his usual bang-up job of characterisation, while remaining perhaps the biggest sport in the acting business.)

The narrative spirits Gyllenhaal offscreen with a haunted look in his eye - that of a man petrified of the failure he fears he may be heading towards - then returns him late on, at which point it becomes terrifyingly clear that something far more toxic and harmful than ash got into Jerry out there, on the fringes of civilisation. His absence, however, clears the screen for Mulligan to triumph in the kind of role actresses under studio contract at the time the film is set would quite possibly have killed for - that of the extraordinarily desperate housewife. We've seen this actress do the sweetness and light Jeanette affects while trying to find a place in a world that, as of 1960, has no real place for her - a striving that touches us, but which the adolescent Joe naturally finds a little naff. What's new is the fierce sourness the camera finds in Mulligan's face at moments of repose, an expression that suggests this woman would rather be anywhere but here. You can imagine this character descending into alcoholism on a dull and drizzly Thursday afternoon in her future - and again you realise just how far the film has extended itself beyond the confines of these frames, the extent to which it's taken up residence in your imagination. In and of itself, it's a restrained piece, truer to Ford's mundane lives lived in quiet backwaters than the lavish, studio-backed Mendes film, yet its closing moments, reassembling this family unit in something like harmony for the first time since that opening sequence, achieve an almost staggeringly perfect balance between hope and despair. The camera never lies. Except when it does.

Wildlife is available on DVD through Icon from Monday.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Skin trade: "Sauvage"

Sauvage presents as absolutely The Kind of Film Only The French Could Make (and Make This Well): an uninhibited study of male sex work, and the toll it takes, that manages to be funny, frank and pretty fearless without seeming to make a single jot of fuss about it. Boundaries are pushed and crossed, indoors and out, internally and externally, from the confounding opening scene, which begins as one thing, develops into another, and is finally revealed as something else entirely. With those very fluid red lines established, writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet relocates her protagonist, an altogether mucky-looking bit of rough named Leo (Félix Maritaud, from 120 BPM) to the unprepossessing scrap of wasteland on the outskirts of Strasbourg where he plies his trade. It's here that, one nondescript afternoon, Leo locks eyes with Ahd (Éric Bernard), a burly older hustler working the other side of the road - and the framing is not just striking but telling, for while some attraction develops between this pair, they remain opposites. Where the boyish, vulnerable Leo kisses his clients on the mouth and throws himself into each new opportunity with a similar openness, Ahd is wary and self-disciplined, keen to get out of the game while he still can. The relationship is, we quickly gather, the closest Leo has had to stability in his time on the streets, so when Ahd lands himself a degree of security as the live-in lover of a sugar daddy, his junior partner is understandably bereft, and sent spiralling anew.

As this tortured love story establishes, the film is not without a strain of melodrama. It may be the first French artefact since certain 19th century novels to invoke TB as a narrative device; Leo's universe encompasses both a wicked villain (a cruising sadist glimpsed in shadow and referred to as The Pianist: "He's into blood and torture") and a dashing silver fox who may just rescue our ingenue from the void he spends much of the film circling. Yet it's possessed of a convincing idea of drift, which grounds it. The film Sauvage most recalls isn't Stranger by the Lake or anything by Jacques Nolot (though there are encounters here that wouldn't look out of place thereabouts), but Agnes Varda's Vagabonde. It's never apparent that Leo has anything even approaching a fixed address: twice, he's seen washing his face in puddles, and when one of his clients remarks he's "fucking filthy", he's not talking about Leo's performance in the sack. Mostly, Vidal-Naquet shows him shambling from assignation to assignation, eternally at the mercy of the marketplace, with long stretches spent back at that wasteland-limbo waiting for someone, anyone to pull up to the kerb. No surprise that our boy should have developed a pretty prodigious and varied drug habit; when a health professional offers him help to get clean, Leo wonders "To do what?"

That aimless short-termism might have provided a problem for a 90-minute feature, but Maritaud's vital performance insists there is still a soul at stake here - that this kid isn't that far gone - and Vidal-Naquet instils even scenes of timekilling with some thematic purpose: what might have made for grim viewing instead becomes illuminating. At one point, we see the hustlers gathered in the scrub outside an airport and watching the planes taking off. The anecdote points up their own lack of mobility, yes, but there's also childlike awe in their gaze; they look upon the planes as if they'd never seen such wonders. A subplot about the influx of Eastern European hustlers offering cutprice blowjobs speaks to the diligence of the filmmaker's research: we get a sense of how the market operates and regulates itself, and who the winners and losers are in this process. Throughout, Vidal-Naquet keeps a close eye on Leo, hence the recurrence of physical examinations as a motif: she wants her protagonist to stay healthy, even as she shows us the behaviour that puts him at risk. The surgery scenes actually yield Sauvage's most moving gesture, as Leo leans in to give the female doctor examining him a hug, as if she were the mother he's been missing all along.

For all that the character's work might be deemed adult - and the film never once shies away from the particulars of what consenting adults with purchasing power might get up to in their parlours and bedrooms; with a prominent supporting role for a buttplug roughly the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Giza, it earns its 18 certificate - the tousle-haired Maritaud gives the impression of a child abandoned at the side of the road, wearing the same clothes for days on end, puffing disconsolately on his asthma inhaler, falling in with the wrong crowd. (It is almost certain that part of his preparation for the role involved swerving fruit and vegetables for several months.) There's a word missing from that title, one that proves key to the poignancy of this character study, and which makes sense of the film's final image - and that word is l'enfant. Towards the end, Vidal-Naquet's camera finds Leo shifting on a designer yellow sofa in a well-furnished apartment, looking bored and antsy: he's meant to be comfortable at this point, but still we fear he might return to old habits. Here as elsewhere, and in the absence of anybody else caring to do likewise, the filmmaker watches over this bruised yet defiantly unbroken boy with an uncommon tenderness.

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

Monday, 11 March 2019

Girl chewing gum: "Captain Marvel"

Those of us who've merely been keeping tabs on the cultural behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe might well require a briefing before going into Captain Marvel. Ms. Marvel, born Carol Danvers but commonly known as Vers, was the individual to whom Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury sent out an intergalactic SOS after the perhaps reversible mass slaughter at the end of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, a development that extended the Universe's broadly progressive arc: the suggestion was that a woman would come in and kick ass where all Fury's boys had failed. God forbid we should cut to that chase - recent movie history points to the fact money can be made from stringing out this kind of cinematic chewing gum, obliging us to attend next month's Avengers: Endgame for resolution - so we now find ourselves faced with an illustrated sidebar on how Carol (played by Room's Brie Larson) wound up in Nick Fury's Rolodex in the first place. An event-movie mountain can thus be formed from the molehill of a character passing on a calling card, inflating what might have been one or two expositionary lines or scenes at the start of Endgame into a much-trumpeted two-hour feature. That feature offers the usual fleeting distraction to offset the low stakes that follow from knowing the star is destined to return to us in six weeks' time; rarely can a heroine's indomitability have seemed so contractual.

The success of the Marvel movies - made all the more apparent by rivals DC's generally leaden trudges - lies in their ability to make superficial distinctions between their satellite projects, which is to say those second-rank blockbusters that exist solely to feed into the main Avengers throughline. We're essentially being sold the same crashes and bangs over and over again, but some shrewd cloaking technology has been put in place between them and the audience, so that Thor: Ragnarok can be floated and claimed as "the comedy one" and Black Panther as "the Afrofuturist one". Captain Marvel, which has sparked heated online dispute as "the feminist one", starts out looking more like straight science fiction, immediately setting up an unfavourable comparison with the at least patchily funny Guardians of the Galaxy ("the goofy sci-fi one"). There are several scenes in which the Captain can be seen charging around dingy spaceship corridors encountering men in rubber masks who gabble lines about oddly named constellations as if their very lives depended on it; you may feel more predisposed to this material if you survived a single episode of Babylon 5. It is not, in total, the most promising introduction: also tossed in are altogether clunky flashbacks to Carol's days as a plucky child and a plucky fighter pilot, in which men repeatedly tell her, in no uncertain terms, not to let her emotions get the better of her.

It is with some relief, then, that this supergirl falls to Earth, or to be more specific, Los Angeles as it was in the mid-1990s, at which point Captain Marvel reveals itself to be "the nostalgic one". After Carol crashlands in a Blockbuster Video - immediately asserting her dominance by taking out a promotional standee for Arnie's True Lies - there isn't a wall free from Bush and Smashing Pumpkins flyposters, there isn't a soundtrack cue that wasn't initially roadtested on Steve Lamacq's Evening Session, and there isn't a wrinkle to be seen on Sam Jackson's face, because his Fury has been airbrushed, in a feat of digital cosmetic surgery, to resemble the younger actor who might have graced that Blockbuster's copies of Pulp Fiction and Amos & Andrew. We can only wonder what will happen when pop culture finally digests the grunge and Britpop eras and moves on to expressing renewed appetite for the Noughties, a decade chiefly defined in the popular imagination by the fall of the Twin Towers and a bloodily protracted ground war. (This century has not, so far, been good to many of us.) In the meantime, we can amuse ourselves by attempting to pin down Captain Marvel's most clangily inserted Nineties callback. The AltaVista pages Carol consults at one point? The Nine Inch Nails tee she rather improbably sports while travelling cross-country? The Nerf gun someone pulls amid the climactic shootout?

It isn't just the production design; much of the action feels recycled in some way. When Carol blasts through the door Fury has spent several seconds trying to open manually, it gets a laugh, but it's the whip/gun gag from Raiders of the Lost Ark repurposed for indoor use. The record room that door opens onto itself looks a little Raiders-y, with a hint of the period-appropriate X-Files, too. An aerial dogfight through the California canyons is Star Wars brought low. Even the Captain's suit looks like knock-off Iron Man. Amid the briskly confident staging, one spies glimpses of an emergent crisis: with the proliferation of event movies - at least one a month, every year for a decade now - Hollywood is running out of authentically fresh, dazzling or jawdropping images, organic or otherwise. Calling in thrusting young talent - Ryan Coogler there, the Fleck/Boden pairing here - feels increasingly like a creative hail mary, and it's not doing that much to address the issue: all Fleck and Boden, a very capable pairing elsewhere, accomplish on these soundstages is to be a little more knowing about their recycling. That said, nothing could sell me on the idea that Annette Bening, as some form of supreme intelligence, would find herself frugging to Nirvana's "Come As You Are", the reach for a certain grrl-power attitude (Elastica, Garbage, Hole) is at once undermined by a fight set to the thoroughly corporate No Doubt, and Carol's rather nebulous route to self-affirmation requires several hackneyed, Screenwriting-101 betrayals to trick out this pen-portrait to feature length.

There are handfuls of fun, which would be the least anybody might ask of it. Larson, a skilful performer making a foursquare play for megastardom, gives good sceptical glare, and she demonstrates a forcefulness that may serve her well against Thanos: within the first half-hour, we've seen her crash into (and then beat up) a supposedly sweet old lady. She plays well off Jackson, who's spent this first wave of Marvel movies looking for someone to play against. (Hard to get much of a rhythm going in those post-credit stings.) There's one well-engineered crash landing, and one of the recent cinema's more memorable cats, which was almost enough in itself to convince the crowd I saw Captain Marvel with that their disposable income hadn't been entirely squandered. Of gamechanging narrative detail, however, there is but one thing - we learn how Nick Fury lost his eye - and one thing alone. It speaks volumes about the paucity of ideas and heft in American mainstream cinema that sentient adults should have been persuaded to take essentially flimsy, placeholding runarounds such as this seriously, whether as drama, feminism, or anything else. Climaxing with the only moderately stirring sight of the now-eyepatched Fury typing up a memo summarising the preceding assignment, Captain Marvel is, as is so often the case within this Universe, reasonable business, and that's really the best that needs saying for it.

Captain Marvel is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Extracurricular activity: "The Kindergarten Teacher"

The Kindergarten Teacher, as befits an English-language remake of an Israeli original, hinges upon questions of authorship. We join its eponymous heroine Lisa inside the classroom, guiding bright-eyed preschoolers in forming their consonants, and hinting that teaching these kids to write offers some consolation for the way in which her own ambitions have been thwarted. She shapes up as an initially sympathetic figure, more so for being played by the generally sympathetic Maggie Gyllenhaal; what follows will push and stretch those sympathies to the limit. One of Lisa's charges is Jimmy (Parker Sevak), a five-year-old prone to spouting impromptu word salads that, when committed to paper, assume the look of poetry. Where the boy gets these words from - he speaks them absentmindedly, as though in a trance - is a matter of some mystery. What's crucial is what Lisa does with them: scooping them up, she carries them along to the night class she takes in creative writing, and passes them off as her own. A scribbler whose own work has previously been dismissed as derivative soon shoots to the top of the class, catching the eye of her teacher Simon (Gael García Bernal), but you and I are left wondering how much longer Lisa can keep going back to her five-year-old well. Very early on, the film imprints upon us the mental image of a grown woman holding a preschooler upside down by the ankles and shaking him to see what comes out - not an especially good look for any teacher.

What's distinctive about Sara Colangelo's film, reworked from Nadav Lapid's 2014 feature, is that it exists at the intersection of several genres simultaneously. Most sane listings guides will pin The Kindergarten Teacher down as drama, and they wouldn't be incorrect in doing that. Yet a sly element of black comedy becomes apparent as Lisa hares around looking for a pen, grows annoyed when Jimmy refuses to repeat key phrases, and starts leaning on the boy's nearest and dearest in a bid to maintain creative control. The movie's drollest, funniest joke is that the boy appears, at all times, utterly unfussed by any of the attention being turned his way: Sevak, very carefully directed, somehow suggests Jimmy would just as shruggingly run off after the ice cream man were he to be promised extra sprinkles. He's not the Messiah Lisa seems to believe he is, just an unusually advanced boy. And yet with only a slight tonal shift, you feel the film could easily tilt in the direction of horror, premised on this woman's mounting obsession with a child who isn't her own. Colangelo never allows us to relax. She gets the classroom atmosphere just right, as Lisa dutifully passes out the snacks and grape juice and hangs up the fingerpaintings, but then she shows us the same woman whispering in her quarry's ear at naptime before whisking him away to the bathroom; the film establishes the proverbial safe space, then gradually introduces more disquieting notes. We're left with a strong sense that this story can only end badly, but also that it could end badly in any number of ways.

It is, then, more of a creeper than a thriller, calmly, quietly sneaking up on the viewer, then leading him or her by the hand into the middle of its everyday, torn-from-the-headlines weirdness. That brilliantly maintained lower key grants this script's subtle cruelties and complexities a walloping quality. You can almost hear the dreams being crushed as Lisa has her labours smacked down by her own teenage-ingrate kids, then by Simon, then - perhaps most deflatingly of all - by the five-year-old; and we have the time to mull over the fact that it's a nice, well-intentioned white liberal who's running off with the Indian-American Jimmy. (Lisa takes cultural appropriation to another level.) By far the most forceful aspect, however, is Gyllenhaal, entirely persuasive as a woman who abandons the core curriculum on a whim in the first scene to drift further and further away from anything like education. The more time her Lisa spends on Project Jimmy, the more the other kids fade into the background; the "The" of the title could easily be substituted for the now-standard notation "Bad". What she and Colangelo have accomplished is never so clear-cut as simple character study, in part because it keeps teasing us with competing psychological explanations for this woman's behaviour. (If it's not plain plagiarism, could this be Lisa's last-gasp shot at becoming a showbiz mum? A manifestation of some desire to start parenting from scratch? Just common-or-garden loopiness?) It is, though, fascinating to watch such a persistent misapplication of energies. I can't say you'll cheer a single thing the title character does over the course of these 100 minutes, but it's one of those roles that allows a terrific actress to outline a genuinely messy, complicated woman.

The Kindergarten Teacher is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

From the archive: "Kon-Tiki"

Christmas at the movies has traditionally been a time for adventure and escape. The Norwegian seafarer Kon-Tiki has taken its sweet while to arrive in the UK – it was an Oscar nominee back in early 2013, when it lost out to Michael Haneke’s Amour – but this ship finally comes in at a welcome moment indeed: the very sight of it proves more stirring than all the hours of pixelated hobbitry and museum-going on offer at your nearest megaplex.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg here plot a course for latter-day Nordic myth, as any film that opens with a young boy named Thor tentatively stepping out onto the ice perhaps must. This Thor is Thor Heyerdahl, the real-life explorer who in 1947 resolved to sail from Peru to Polynesia on a raft made of balsa wood in a bid to prove a theory he’d long been floating figuratively – that, for early civilisations, the oceans were considered pathways, not obstacles.

Part of what follows is a straightforward account of how Heyerdahl did it: assembling the crew, designing the raft, taking meetings with those dignitaries who might fund such an expedition. (Naturally, the one who gives the greenlight is the one he mistakes for a waiter.) There’s a parrot, a conspicuous peg leg and, once afloat, a chronicle of mounting maritime danger. The men get browner, beardier, skinnier; as the raft drifts off-course towards the Galapagos isles – which is to say, too close to Darwin’s field study to make much difference – their reserves, of food and courage, will be sorely tested.

What makes the film more than just a nuts-and-bolts account is the lush, handsome sincerity it exudes in examining what making this particular connection meant to Heyerdahl. Pål Sverre Hagen is a tremendously upright and watchful presence in the role; he’s like a sunflower forever seeking out the light, just as his ancestors once did the sun-god Tiki.

The script gives Heyerdahl a lovely moment of uxoriousness on the night before setting sail: after he catches the eye of a local spitfire in a bar, an instant flashback shows the explorer on an earlier Polynesian venture, carrying his injured wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) through the jungle in order that the couple might make their ship home. When we emerge in the present, Heyerdahl’s in the bar’s telephone booth, reassuring Liv that he still loves her, and an almost inexplicably affecting cut shows her back in Norway, looking out through a window at their young children playing.

Clearly, some distances are greater than others, and far harder to bridge. The ocean – alluring yet unpredictable – is the real third party here, and the one that will exert the greatest influence on these men’s relationship with dry land. (Freudians, take note: whenever one of these sailors is pulled from the brine, they invariably wind up clinging to the mast.)

It’s not always plain sailing: there are choppier stretches out on the waters, when you become aware this Harvey Weinstein-approved cut is one of several crossings this vessel has made. (The film is being released in English-language and subtitled versions, shot simultaneously.) Yet the set-pieces that have survived really do grab you: a bloody rescue from sharks that attracts only more attention, a convoluted attempt to surf an especially treacherous set of waves.

At one point, the directors somehow tear themselves away from cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen’s sweeping seascapes, and pull up and up until we’re left contemplating this tiny raft’s relation to first the planet, then the galaxy entire. Kon-Tiki never loses sight of how, in the cosmic scale of things, Heyerdahl’s jaunt from A to B was only just more of a diversion than your heading to your in-laws’ for Christmas lunch; yet it also registers exactly how much getting there, and getting back, meant to those on board. The result is adventurous and romantic in a way very few modern films are.

(MovieMail, December 2014)

Kon-Tiki screens on BBC2 at 2.30pm tomorrow.

From the archive: "The Martian"

The Martian, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Andy Weir bestseller, would have been an easy pitch: it’s Cast Away in space, or – if you were dealing with an especially parsimonious suit – Gravity with one A-lister instead of two. Were the committee still wavering, Sir Ridley might have dug out some appropriate clips: from 2002’s Gerry, perhaps, where his star Matt Damon handled a comparable situation on Earth with unexpected good humour, or the not unrelated sequence from Chris Nolan’s blockbusting Interstellar.

And in the unlikely event that anybody should still be having doubts, perhaps related to adorning this project in expensive 3D, Scott could always point to his immersive work around the hostile alien landscape of 2012’s Prometheus, itself no box-office slouch. Like many of Scott’s recent films, his latest displays nothing less than a canny business sense. The good news is this one comprises a good investment for producers and punters alike.

Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA research scientist left for dead on Mars after being skewered by a satellite during a duststorm; with his colleagues retreating to the safety of Earth, he regains consciousness as the last astronaut standing in deadly territory lightyears from home. Where you and I might abandon hope, Watney literally pulls himself together in a grisly scene of self-surgery and cracks on, terraforming his new backyard and measuring out his days in potatoes while striving to find ways to reconnect with his employers, and waiting for the planet to revolve such that he might catch the next shuttle back.

Very quickly, The Martian differentiates itself from Gravity by refusing to allow its protagonist to get in a tizz about his predicament: the sun to that film’s moon, it could just as easily be called Levity. Gone is the despair, the dead child, the existential panic; in its place, a kind of hardy, jovial professionalism. (If Howard Hawks had made a space movie, this is what it might have looked and sounded like.)

Scott, a broadly unsentimental soul, has found an unlikely ally in screenwriter Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods), one of those California fanboys who probably wouldn’t recognise an emotion if it showed up on a Comic Con panel. Watney, rolling up his sleeves and cracking wise, just gets on with things – and the film is prepared to trade almost entirely on the pleasure of watching someone do that; it’s a victory for rational male practicality over the indifference and irrationality of the wider universe.

There’s the additional pleasure of watching a total pro such as Damon, still as boyish, and somehow as essential to a national sense of optimism, as he was circa Saving Private Ryan. As in the Bournes, he’s been cast to suggest an identity in flux, made subject here to more immediate extremes of temperature and atmosphere; we’re uncertain what effect this isolation experiment will have on such a solidly composed figure, but the actor’s capacity to convey a young American’s wide-eyed wonder at his newfound circumstances makes him an easy lab rat to root for.

This isn’t the entire picture, however. Back home, the Scott/Goddard conception of NASA – covering all bases: Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean (personifying the no-nonsense Northern sensibility at play here) – makes Interstellar’s VIP hideyhole look like amateur hour, and keeps the Earth scenes lively and engaging through to a final-act twist that reflects developments within the non-fictional business world. (Even George Osborne will be purring.)

In the most satisfying of manners, Weir, Goddard and Scott set up an engineering puzzle of a kind not dissimilar to that dramatised in Apollo 13 – how to bridge the x million miles separating one point from another – before casting around for solutions and working overtime to resolve it, at every stage grounding the prevailing fantasy of life extension in nuts-and-bolts, math(s)-on-the-blackboard reality.

The Martian is the film that confirms Scott as one of the contemporary cinema’s great facilitators and logisticians, those numbercrunchers the movies surely need as much as they do their wayward visionaries. Here’s two hours and twenty minutes in the company of people who know exactly what they’re doing – and in the context of the modern multiplex, that’s a precious commodity indeed.

(MovieMail, September 2015)

The Martian screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Friday, 8 March 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of March 1-3, 2019:

1 (new) Fighting with My Family (12A)

2 (1) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***
3 (2Instant Family (12A) ***
4 (3) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
5 (7) Green Book (12A) **
6 (new) The Aftermath (15)
7 (4) Alita: Battle Angel (12A)
8 (5) The Kid Who Would Be King (PG) ***
9 (6) Cold Pursuit (15) **
10 (new) Kobiety Mafii 2 (18)

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
The Kindergarten Teacher
2. Alien
3. Sauvage
4. The Hole in the Ground
5. Heat and Dust [above]

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

1 (1) 
Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
2 (3) A Star is Born (15) ***
3 (12) Halloween (18)
4 (8) Hunter Killer (15) **
5 (new) The Grinch (U)
6 (2) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
7 (5) Venom (15)
8 (new) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (PG)
9 (4) First Man (12) **
10 (9) The Greatest Showman (PG)

(source: officialcharts.com)

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Lost City of Z (Saturday, BBC2, 9pm)
2. Die Hard with a Vengeance (Friday, five, 9pm)
3. Noah (Saturday, BBC2, 11.10pm)
4. The Martian (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. Kon-Tiki (Sunday, BBC2, 2.30pm)