Wednesday, 17 July 2019

At play in the fields of the Lord: "Our Time"

Now this is some old-school counterprogramming: a film so far removed from a Disney x Beyoncé redo of The Lion King as to seem beamed in from another era, another universe entirely. Carlos Reygadas is the Mexican writer-director who emerged in that millennial moment when the movies were nudging (and, in certain cases, vigorously frotting) against the boundaries of accepted representation. In between a lot of what came to be defined as slow cinema, he gave us gerontophilic sex in 2002's Japón, unsimulated sex in 2005's Battle in Heaven, and rather joyless swinger sex in 2012's Post Tenebras Lux, an occasionally atmospheric yet often strained upper-case Art Movie in which Reygadas appeared to be working through some deeply personal hang-ups, possibly of most concern to him and his nearest and dearest. His latest film, arriving on UK screens after receiving an understandably mixed reception at last year's Venice festival, pushes further still in this direction. Our Time runs just shy of three hours, is discursive as all hell, and has at its centre a marriage between a couple of ranchers played by the director and his real-life wife Natalia López, tested when the latter takes up with an American ranchhand. You could, I'd venture, depart after the opening half-hour - mostly consisting of footage of the ranchers chasing their livestock, or bulls charging after the ranchers - and be confident about knowing the film's theme. Wild hearts run free. It's only natural.

To do so would be to miss plentiful evidence that Reygadas is a great landscape artist manqué. There are scenes in this director's earlier works that have lodged in the mind, not because of the words and actions of the characters within them - people being routinely the least interesting element in Reygadas movies, rarely more than crash-test dummies bussed in at the last minute to be stripped or otherwise humiliated - but because of the worlds they looked out onto: Japón's craggy hillsides, the flooded fields of Post Tenebras Lux. Reygadas has always done his best work as the sun is coming up or going down, when those worlds appear newly anointed or ominous; he sees the promise in our surrounds, and then the lurking existential terror. Our Time is, at root, a domestic drama - more Scenes from a Marriage - tempted outside to play under 2:35: 1 skies. As one of the lovers' texts has it, with regard to the pair's illicit couplings, "It's always more exciting outdoors", which we can see for ourselves - though those words start to ring somewhere between ironic and entirely hollow in the course of the long, generally lacklustre advert for polyamory that follows.

Much of Our Time's shortcomings as drama stem from Reygadas's self-appointed "uncompromising auteur" status. It would be possible to countenance a pithy two-hour account of consenting adults attempting to finesse and childproof the sharper points of a love triangle: Liv Ullmann achieved something in this vein with 2000's Faithless, though that was a project driven by the wracked, self-lacerating conscience of its screenwriter Ingmar Bergman, wisened enough to know that, however enthusiastically we might try, three into two doesn't easily go. Reygadas, by contrast, gives himself a lot of time and space to fill - too much, it transpires. In last year's The Wild Pear Tree, the Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan took three hours to knot together his signature landscapes with the internal growth of a brattish would-be author; the film had a credible sense of tangled life unfolding organically before us. There is so much of what Nicholas Parsons would deem deviation in Our Time - the highlights of a timpani concerto, shots taken from inside the bonnet of a moving car and on the wing of a landing plane, lessons in the finer points of ranch management - that it quickly starts to seem a ruse, an acknowledgement that what's going on at the heart of the picture really isn't all that major: a not untypically squalid breach of trust that gets shruggingly worked out over glasses of wine by characters who at all points in this affair present as far less passionate than the animals, even the trees around them.

As performers, Reygadas and López prove a modest step up from the lumpen non-professionals this director has typically stuck himself with, convinced he can fashion marble from clay: comparatively urbane bohemians, they at least appear comfortable before the camera, even when asked to lay bare souls and other body parts. Yet they never quite convince as anything more than thinly veiled sketches of whatever it is they themselves had to work through in their own relationship before the cameras started rolling (the "our" in the title appears especially significant), and so the movie only rarely appears like anything other than a thinly veiled excuse for this filmmaker to indulge his fantasies of watching and filming his other half getting off with another man. (I mean, fine, whatever works - but I've got ironing to be getting on with.) The most vivid moments in Our Time - the stuff you remember, even as you happily leave the rest to the director's personal spankbank - involve the film's younger players: the teens of the prologue, frolicking on a beach as signifiers of the innocent simplicity of youth, and the Reygadas-López children, cast as versions of themselves, whose sporadic, school-assignment narration of these events (a sort-of "Who My Parents Did On My Holidays") both lends the drama a semblance of shape while giving it the faint air of one of those Judd Apatow domestic comedies, removed of any identifiable traces of humour. In their place, an agonised narcissism, with which viewers will have to wrestle for three hours. When the wife first hooks up with her beardy, unprepossessing lover - the only scene outside some fairly lame last-reel chairthrowing where López doesn't appear impossibly wan - she does so gazing into the mirror. In its own way, it is as emblematic as all the business with bulls and horses that bookends the film - and it takes an awful long time to get from one example of animal behaviour to the next.

Our Time is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Across the universe: "Apollo 11"

In the fifty years since Man first set foot on the Moon, the movies have given us one very good and one near-definitive documentary on the achievement, namely Al Reinert's Oscar-nominated For All Mankind and David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon. The USP of Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 is to show us the nine-day Moon mission as live - instantly bridging the generation gap separating those who sat glued to the lunar landing as it unfolded on the night of July 16, 1969 and those of us born over subsequent decades, who've tended to experience galaxy-changing events via rolling-news coverage. The miracle is how much - how much detail, how much tension, how much wonder - Miller squeezes from what is essentially raw feed: footage beamed back from the cameras positioned around the rocket, the launchpad and Mission Control over those fateful days, which was then locked up in a NASA vault for the best part of half a century. We've all seen so much in recent years that has threatened to leave us numb, jaded; Apollo 11 is the first film of 2019 - the first film for a long time - to equip everyone who steps into the auditorium with a fresh pair of eyes.

Approaching these events from the purely technical, rational perspective of a TV news producer - no emotive voiceovers or framing devices, a soundtrack that favours echoey tech chatter and electrical fuzz over stirring orchestral score - and as something that happened (that is happening) liberates the images: though they flow sequentially, with clear cause and effect, we often have to puzzle out the precise import of what we're seeing, and thus the mission entire. Far from some tweedy museum piece, Apollo 11 instead becomes an act of discovery (or rediscovery) in homage to the events it describes. Miller is aware that, five decades on, we might look at these images a different way to those who saw them on the nights in question. Hard, now, to watch the launch - with its searing flares of light and heat, and one remarkable close-up (perhaps frame enlargement?) of the rocket's haphazardly riveted underbelly - without being reminded of the Challenger disaster thirty years later; the journey towards the Moon would recall Apollo 13 even before the onscreen appearance of Jim Lovell (the astronaut played by Tom Hanks in the Ron Howard movie) among the NASA wonks; while a slightly trippy descent brings to mind Gravity, and perhaps even 2001. The film allows us to spot the risks, but also - as that dusty grey-white orb gets ever closer, and a whole new frontier opens up - the very great and lasting rewards.

One shift in emphasis involves the key personnel. Messrs. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins occupied pride of place in the Reinert and Sington films, but the astronauts are limited to walk-on roles here, largely indistinguishable beneath their helmets and spacesuits. (We cannot tell whether, say, Armstrong was thinking of his late daughter, as last year's First Man rather fancifully supposed.) Instead, the focus is put back on the collaborative nature of the enterprise, Miller's editorial line insisting that this is what can be achieved when a nation puts its heads together, as opposed to locking antlers. Houston is evoked very nearly as vividly as the Moon: a vast support team of brillantined chaps touting sliderules and pocketguards, some puffing away on cigarettes, most of whom look as if they could be played by either Bill Pullman or Kevin Costner, each playing a part in ensuring Armstrong and cohorts enjoyed safe intergalactic passage. Time and again, the film amazes us with some display of precision, whether in Miller's approach - painstakingly matching comms feed to images, so the technicians can talk anew - or in the astronauts' own trajectory: witness the lunar module's descent onto the Moon - the most heartstopping setpiece of summer 2019, as it would have been in the summer of '69 - complete with rapidly descending onscreen fuel gauge and an alarm going off that we sense can't be positive. (Spoiler alert: the Eagle lands with sixteen seconds' worth of fuel remaining. Don't know about you, but that strikes me as a hell of a gamble to take while travelling this far at that velocity.) If you're suggestible enough to entertain the commonly held conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked, Apollo 11 will at the very least impress upon you the copper-bottomed thoroughness of the alleged fakers' con job.

The rest of us, looking back at Earth from the stars, will find ourselves pondering the question of where Man stands today, and one of the reasons the movie hits home so hard is that the answer is very likely: not all that much further on. Though there has been progress in the emerging nations - in India, especially, making good on its vast science and engineering potential - the best the West has recently proposed in the way of out-of-this-world activity is President Trump's so-called Space Force, less a coherent policy proposal than a ready-made pitch for some naff, sub-Glen Larson mid-Seventies network-TV dross, such that it was soon seized upon by The Office's Greg Daniels and Steve Carell as the basis for a spoof comedy. (As ever with Trump, the idea was all but forgotten about the moment the words escaped his lips.) Elsewhere, space programs have been defunded and dismantled, or passed into the grasping hands of entrepreneurs keen to profit from those who literally have money to burn. Miller can refute that idea of space as business-as-usual with most of these extraordinary images, but especially with one insert of the plaque the astronauts left behind on the Moon, bearing the legend "we came in peace for all mankind". If the use of past tense seems poignant, the documentary is fuelled - as Reinert's was - by those final three words: for all mankind, not just some. Apollo 11 returns us to a time of upward gazes and open minds, and to a universe without borders, which makes it something of a UFO at a moment when it feels as though everybody's retreated indoors to squabble on Twitter. Over the past few years, mankind has started to seem grounded if not mired, stuck on a planet with dwindling resources, making the best of a perilously bad hand. Apollo 11, 93 minutes that urgently insist we don't have to settle for this, reawakens the dreamer and the scientist within us, and allows the mind and spirit to soar.

Apollo 11 is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday, 15 July 2019

1,001 Films: "The Princess Bride" (1987)

Not so very long ago, in a time before Shrek but just after Spinal Tap, the grand viziers of La-la-land decreed their subjects should be gathered together to hear a fairytale, by one of its wittiest court jesters, about a beautiful princess, her love for a humble farmboy, and the mysterious masked man who comes to her rescue after she's married to a tyrannical king and carried away by mercenaries. There would be swordplay, and giants, and "kissing parts", and a happy ending, and everyone who heard it thought it the most wonderful story they'd ever been told; even better, in fact, than the one about the Goblin King, or the one about dark crystals, or the one that the troubadour from the neighbouring republic of Kajagoogoo had claimed was never-ending. And thus did enchantment set in, and all was well in the kingdom, at least for another 94 minutes.

William Goldman's novel The Princess Bride was already wise to the ways youngsters were having their attention snatched away from them: appropriately, the film's first shot is of a very 1980s computer baseball game. Yet the whole project would counter by coming up with renewed ways of winning that attention back, most notably by appearing at once a good deal smarter than the story being told. The great joy of Rob Reiner's film is that it's never smarmy; of course, it helps that the people doing the interrupting on screen are Peter Falk, pretty much ideal casting as the narrating grandfather, and a pre-Wonder Years Fred Savage, whose puppy-fat cheeks were just aching to be pulled. The trick is that it genuinely seems to believe in the romance, virtue and magic it annotates; it deconstructs to show just how central these elements are to the art and craft of truly satisfying storytelling, and denies us an easy outlet for our cynicism with every new cut to Savage's increasingly beguiled face. Billy Crystal's latex-coated cameo as Miracle Max looks less and less funny as the years go by, but Cary Elwes (as the farmboy) and Robin Wright (as the Princess) were never to top this; if you had any sense, you'd also take Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya over the Patinkin of Yentl, and his double-act with Andre the Giant is just about perfect.

The Princess Bride is available to stream on Netflix, and on DVD through Lionsgate.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

1,001 Films: "Housekeeping" (1987)

Adapted from a novel by Marilynne Robinson, Bill Forsyth's American studio debut Housekeeping is a lesson in how to do what would come to be known (rightly or wrongly) as a chick flick with intelligence and integrity. We're at the end of the 1950s, the decade of the teenager, but our young heroines - forthright, upfront Lucille (Andrea Burchill) and the mousier, awkward Ruthie (Sara Walker), who in the eyes of her sis spends "too much time looking out of windows" - find themselves being raised in the remote and deeply conservative community of Fingerbone, Idaho by an eccentric aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti). With her tacit approval of the girls' truancy, and a tendency to keep fish in her coat pockets, Sylvie is nobody in Fingerbone's idea of a responsible guardian - certainly not Lucille's - and her idiosyncratic, instinctive parenting techniques split the sisters, seemingly forever more. A film of a more mainstream sensibility - a Mermaids, say - would let Lahti off the leash, and illustrate Sylvie's dottiness via relentlessly upbeat, pop-scored montages, as all the women on screen settled down for true love with the right, patient man. Yet in the absence of those men - save an antagonistically prying sheriff - Forsyth holds tight focus on the girls, their shifting perceptions of the woman who came to replace a mother they never really knew, and of the sometimes despondent places they inhabit.

It's all narrated by Ruthie the elder, which might have been a detrimental instance of a film telling us rather than showing, were it not for Forsyth's love of (Robinson's?) language: witness the description of a train derailing "like a weasel sliding off a rock". In fact, the film wears its literary origins, its writerly smarts, with great pride: the central unit of individuals choosing (rather than being forced by blood ties) to stick together has something of later Paul Auster novels about it, or you could approach the movie as a female-centred equivalent to Stand by Me. (Both films make memorable use of train tracks.) This is a beat or two slower in pace than the Reiner movie, and Forsyth's wit isn't much called for in an essentially gentle matinee piece, but the storytelling remains quietly radical (events are directed towards "an end to housekeeping", which entails burning down the house), and Walker and Burchill (who all but disappeared after this) create a very credible sisterly relationship hinting at long-standing rivalries and resentments, as well as obvious love and support.

Housekeeping is available on dual format DVD/Blu-Ray through Powerhouse Films. 

Saturday, 13 July 2019

1,001 Films: "Broadcast News" (1987)

Was Broadcast News the last hurrah for truly grown-up, sophisticated movie comedy in Hollywood? One of the ten best American screenplays of the 1980s establishes a love triangle between a trio of misfits charged with bringing the news to us each night: brilliant but neurotic, pathologically unhappy producer Holly Hunter (terrific: operating at 200mph, and the closest the movies had had to a Hepburn for decades), and her two favourite reporters, slick but intellectually insecure William Hurt and funny but schlubby Albert Brooks. In 1987 - the year of Wall Street - it must have been radical to see high-flying professionals with real doubts, yuppies with humanity, passionate believers doing what they do for love, not money. Writer-director James L. Brooks gave us a rare, entirely unpredictable romance - every corner of this triangle has their attractions and flaws; even Hurt's significant other is characterised with some sympathy - eyefuls of the behind-the-scenes wrangling that goes into live news, and dialogue that probably should be quoted more than it is. 

Brilliantly, Hunter's personal decision is made for her by a colleague's professional lapse: underpinning Brooks's writing here is a genuine distaste for the way news was already being turned into an entertainment, a theme that was to sustain several seasons of The Daily Show going into the current century. After this, Brooks was to venture into movies only occasionally, with more failure (I'll Do Anything, Spanglish) than success (As Good As It Gets), becoming more significant as the producer who helped Matt Groening bring The Simpsons to the screen. Hurt and Hunter were bound for more dramatic material, and while Brooks, A. took up the torch for this particular type of comedy (in 1996's Mother and 2005's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World), as would others (Ron Howard with 1994's The Paper, Ron Underwood with the same year's Speechless), everybody was soon to find that the Farrellys, and less talented jackasses, had run off with their audience; only Aaron Sorkin would pick up the thread, and then on TV (The West Wing, Studio 60, The Newsroom).

Broadcast News is available on DVD through Fox.

Friday, 12 July 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 28-30, 2019:

1 (new) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12A) ***

2 (1) Toy Story 4 (U) ***
3 (2) Yesterday (12A) **
4 (new) Westlife - The Twenty Tour Live (12A)
5 (new) Midsommar (18)
6 (new) The Queen's Corgi (PG) **
7 (3Aladdin (PG)
8 (5) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
9 (new) Anna (15)
10 (7) Rocketman (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Don't Look Now

2. Apollo 11
3. Article 15
4. Mari
5. The Matrix [above]

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

1 (new) Captain Marvel (12) ***

2 (1) Fighting with My Family (12)
3 (4) Toy Story (U) *****
4 (3) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
5 (9) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
6 (5) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
7 (2) Cold Pursuit (15) **
8 (6) Toy Story 2 (U) *****
9 (8) Aquaman (12)
10 (13) Bohemian Rhapsody (15)


My top five: 
1. Ash is Purest White

2. Birds of Passage
3. The Hole in the Ground
4. The Kindergarten Teacher
5. Captain Marvel

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Lethal Weapon (Friday, ITV, 11.10pm)
2. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Sunday, ITV, 1.30pm)
3. McFarland, USA (Saturday, BBC2, 3.30pm)
4. Tomorrow Never Dies (Saturday, ITV, 9.50pm)
5. The Quiet Ones (Thursday, C4, 1am)

Succession: "Spider-Man: Far from Home"

Turns out they spun themselves a safety web. Marvel's fallback plan, after the supposedly ne plus ultra activity of Avengers: Endgame, is to set out the continuing adventures of Peter Parker, whose existence had been called into question by the events of Avengers: Infinity War before being reaffirmed by its follow-up. For franchise fans, then, here is a new hope. For the rest of us, Spider-Man: Far from Home might resemble standard corporate practice: the replacement of an ageing, infirm figurehead (in this case, Robert Downey Jr.'s fallen Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it launched in 2008) with a fresher face, and - here - a performer who's logged relatively few hours in latex going through the same superhero motions, and thus has no qualms about taking on the extra responsibility. After two self-consciously "dramatic" films wrapping up the Avengers arc, Far from Home is also clearly kickback, Marvel's European Vacation: shrugging off the passing of key Avengers via a highschooler's YouTube video - on reflection, all the reflection those developments truly merited - it pitches Parker (Tom Holland) and pals towards Venice, Prague, London and a bizarre idea of the Netherlands before finally returning him to swing unburdened by baggage through the streets of New York. Tony Stark died, it transpires, so that Peter Parker could live.

The fresh air and change of locations that follow ensure Far from Home is broadly likable, if ramshackle in places (evidently the result of many script drafts) and no more essential than anything that's come before it - it is, bottom line, just another film in a series. If it's an improvement on 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming, that's in part because it doesn't have to slog through an origin story we've already sat through twice since the turn of the millennium: it can drop us amid the action, then crack on with distracting us for two hours, before arriving at an idea that might just get us and the key creative personnel through another one yet. Returning director Jon Watts - fast-tracked into the Marvel millionaires club off the back of 2015's Cop Car - looks far more assured in his marshalling of that personnel: he's worked out what works in these movies, what might be usefully dwelt upon, and what can be dashed through. Holland is endearingly precise in those scenes that don't convert Parker into a computerised avatar, and there really is something heartening in Zendaya's reinvention of Mary Jane: not the apple-pie all-American sweetheart the character was conceived as during the LBJ administration, but a squinty, scowly 21st century beanpole some measure smarter and cooler than any of the boys around her. These kids are building a winning partnership - more winning, at least, than Stark's wooing of his own secretary, or the sketchy pairing of Stark's chauffeur Hap (Jon Favreau) with Parker's widowed Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), which at this precarious moment within the MCU seems more consolidation of power than sincere love match.

The latter subplot again flags up New Spider-Man's regrettable tendency towards thespwaste, following Homecoming's flat squandering of such talents as Donald Glover and Michael Keaton. In her four minutes of screen time, Tomei has only to present as a lovely snack for a hungry-looking Favreau (she could be replaced by almost anything on the catering table), and while the excellent Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys) ekes out a few nice moments from a secondary classmate role, Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove appear stranded as unlikely chaperones, comedians abandoned by a script full of lines that have the form of jokes, but not the content that might coax actual laughter. We're also noticeably closer to the movie centreground than the MCU has previously brought us (which presumably explains why the suits thought Far from Home a safe bet to get mourning or sceptical viewers back in the multiplex). The artful string theory and speculation of last December's placeholding Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has been abandoned for now; in its place, we're offered yet another teen coming-of-age picture, albeit one with the budget to go places, and one that has to stop occasionally for the crashes, bangs and general citysmashing that are an obligatory part of this universe. The consolation is that, wherever he finds himself within this world, Watts locates and hits most of his story beats, and thus the film hits its own target: it does the job the executives were expecting it to do, and you and I get the experience we were surely hoping for when we handed over our cash at the box office.

Far from Home even smuggles in one new-ish element, in that at least some of those crashes and bangs - those brought about by Mysterio (a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal, doing a thoroughly professional job of concealing an obvious twist) - are pure fakery, a screen set in place to conceal all manner of nefarious activity. (Nefarious corporate activity, furthermore: once again, Marvel draws a clear line between "good business" - as represented by the redeemed martyr Stark and his spider-suited young protege - and bad.) If the cash-rich escapism of Far from Home had anything remotely to do with the real world, we might read this as the MCU's comment on Trumpism: indeed, a closing-credit sequel set-up reveals the Daily Bugle has reinvented itself as an Info Wars-style online portal, with J. Jonah Jameson (a welcome return for J.K. Simmons) appointing himself as its blustering Alex Jones. Within the MCU, however, it returns us to something like the self-referentiality of 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, offering some acknowledgement of how flimsy all this make-believe really is. Far from Home is aptly fresh-faced in its admission that what we're watching is just a movie, no more, no less; it's an improvement on the wannabe gamechanger Endgame, which - with its turn-back-the-clock plotting - struck me as fundamentally dishonest. It would require a creative as singular as Taika Waititi to make that self-referentiality pop as it did in Ragnarok; Watts, still at the beginning of his career, isn't prepared to be too cheeky or self-critical just yet. And I left Far from Home with a concern that the Stark legacy is about to stick our sweet-kid hero with cumbersome gadgetry that will overwrite what made him unique in the first place. (Spidey's suit is already looking ominously ferric.) Still, I'd be happy enough if this second phase of Marvel contented to be no more than light entertainment like this - some of the best smoke and mirrors money can buy.

Spider-Man: Far from Home is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Agatha Christie's Porno: "Knife+Heart"

Lots of cult and cultish stuff around right now: faced with the dominance of Marvel product that millions around the world would at best describe as being "all right", our filmmakers and distributors appear to have been drawn towards the margins, in search of the material that will generate what four, maybe five sheltered oddballs in the audience will persuade themselves is the single greatest work of cinema they've ever seen. With Knife+Heart, Yann Gonzalez - the ultra-cine-literate young French writer-director beloved of the Cahiers crowd - furnishes us with a polysexual period murder-mystery set in the world of gay porno that immediately recalls early Almodóvar as remade under the influence of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn. If that's not cult enough for you, it also invites Vanessa Paradis to go full vamp beneath a bobbed blonde wig as a recently jilted porn director attempting to win back the ex she peeps on through a hole in the studio wall. From its opening sequence, juxtaposing frames from a skinflick - two men humping in the woods, observed by a tree-licking third party - with a kill scene in which a masked ne'er-do-well takes a dildo concealing a sharp blade to the first of La Paradis' cast and crew, the movie serves as a solicitation to the kinky and suggestible souls in the audience: you like to watch, don't you?

I did, for a bit. Most of Gonzalez's imagination has gone on recreating the kind of porn movies that might credibly have circulated within the Parisian demimonde circa 1979, paralleling what Paul Thomas Anderson was up to in the L.A. of Boogie Nights. We get a flash of Anal Fury, a fairly standard production-line job elevated by the outré scene in which an inflamed stud in police uniform begins literally banging away at a typewriter, but Gonzalez's thesis is that a combination of heartbreak and grief allows Paradis' Anne to find her authorial voice: her later reverie Homocidal - featuring men licking mirrors, and inspired to some degree by the murder investigation playing out around her - falls all too clearly in the tradition of Genet, Cocteau and Fassbinder's Querelle. Knife+Heart is at its most piquant in its juxtaposition of sex and death, lending a queer eye to the mucky business of a Hitchcock or Brian De Palma film, and in doing so revising an equation that has long been central to exploitation cinema. Sexual pleasure here doesn't automatically entail a bloody demise (though there are a few of those); Gonzalez instead floats the intriguing idea that porn (standing in for any other kind of movie, indeed any other kind of art) could equally serve as a means of processing trauma, and furthermore a means of unmasking the killer - a vehicle for expression and revelation, rather than submission and degradation. For all the teary-eyed conviction Paradis lends to her first scenes, Anne has evidently been conceived as a survivor, not the victim a more punitive creative might have made of her.

Scene-by-scene, the film has enough to catch the eye. Gonzalez arranges his jolie-laide faces and out-of-the-way places into striking tableaux: Anne's increasingly florid set-ups are interrupted by a picnicking sequence that would have done for either Renoir, and the closing credits play out over a marvellously dreamy commingling of bodies, as opposed to corpses. The problems arise when Gonzalez attempts to couple up these artfully attended frames into anything more substantial. With the layered heft of Peter Strickland's In Fabric, the season's foremost fetish-item, beyond it, we soon feel Knife+Heart leaking transgressive energy. It's a good-looking hook-up that runs out of puff. Gonzalez is still working his way up from shorts (MUBI UK is currently streaming one, 2017's eminently wacko Islands, to supplement Knife+Heart's release), and you feel as much during a midsection, pure padding, that finds Paradis roaming a forest for no especially compelling reason. We might also do well to remember that early Almodóvar was itself ragged and threadbare: only when the Spaniard began writing from life experience rather than passing fancy - around 1995's The Flower of My Secret - did he become the filmmaker who's now so revered. Gonzalez provides a few promising flickers of stimulation and titillation, certainly, but it's a rum old do - an act of perversity the cineaste may not have intended - when a porno film-within-a-film exhibits more plot, more grounding cause-and-effect, than the film itself.

Knife+Heart is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via MUBI UK.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Help!: "Yesterday"

As the memes that have proliferated on Twitter in the week since its release indicate, Yesterday is far more interesting and resonant as a conceit than it is as a movie. You can understand why Danny Boyle, seven years on from orchestrating an Olympic opening ceremony that unified a sceptical Britain through pop culture, might have been attracted to a project inviting daydreamers everywhere to join its protagonist in wondering "where did that go?"; the film is very much a retreat into the gentle, generally harmonious England of screenwriter Richard Curtis, a creative we might think of as decidedly pre-Brexit. The problem is that Boyle's films are at their best whenever they're inhabiting the moment, hotwired into the present tense, rather than sidestepping gingerly around it: it's why Trainspotting, hammering down Princes Street to the strains of "Lust for Life", was a thousand times more compelling than its 2017 sequel, guardedly looking over its own shoulder. That plugged-in Boyle can be witnessed at points in Yesterday: in the first act's Beatles-erasing global power outage - blacking out the Tube, a baseball game and a Korean news broadcast - which plunges us into some bewildering communal experience, and changes the way the whole world turns; and in a few shots late on, apparently grabbed on the hoof at what looks like an actual Ed Sheeran gig. What falls in between, however, only demands that Boyle meekly spins the wheels of plot: learning of the Fab Four's non-existence from pals who prove such prototypically Curtisian dimbulbs you wonder whether they'd have heard of the Beatles in any event, struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) ransacks the canon and becomes an overnight superstar, bigger than John, Paul, George and Ringo combined. Like I said, it's a great idea.

As a film we're paying to see, however, Yesterday has major issues. Foremost among these is musical: having prised the songs from Apple for a king's ransom, Boyle doesn't appear to have the budget left to do anything much with them, save to use them to cue lame gags ("It's the guitar - it has to gently weep more") and scene after scene of Curtis-formula sappiness. For a while, I was happy to play along, admiring how Yesterday had alighted upon the one group this premise would truly work with: it wouldn't with the Stones, who were always the end of something rather than a beginning, and the disappearance of any lesser group would only yield varyingly indifferent shrugs (or cheers, if it were Kasabian). The limitations become clear with each cosy interlude, trivial sidebar and televisual set-up. Arriving on the heels of May's Rocketman, which likewise failed to match its inspiration's imagination, Yesterday made me wonder whether a decade of austerity has finally crippled the British film industry, as it has almost everyone else. The film's visual poverty bottoms out with a recreation of the Beatles' fabled rooftop gig of 1969 in which Jack emerges onto the roof of... a hotel in Gorleston, attended by a smattering of extras who may as easily have been queuing for ice cream. There may be another culprit, again a decade old: 2008's Mamma Mia!, not just a piece of crap, but a piece of crap that fouled up the movies' longstanding relationship with music. That desperate pro-am karaoke sesh posed the question "will this do?", and the gathered masses, giddied by the prosecco cinemas had started to sell with an eye to making bad movies seem tolerable, hollered resoundingly in the affirmative. Thus: the B-sides of Mamma Mia! 2, the artless lipsynch of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, and now Yesterday's limp covers. Facing renewed threat from rival media, the movies give in to a glorified fan service comparable to Netflix's algorithms, routinely doling out what we know and love, without anything extravagant in the way of repackaging. It'll do. It'll have to do.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest Yesterday has so far done just fine for less demanding crowds, and there are elements that function here. Boyle retains the wisdom to deploy Sheeran (playing himself) as a sight gag from the minute he turns up on Jack's doorstep resembling a squashed gonk - living proof this world is so random and chaotic that just about anyone can become the world's biggest pop star. Patel has a nice variety of bemused and baffled expressions, in accord with someone who wakes up one day to find themselves sitting on a goldmine. (There's the hint of subversion in the fact these songs should have been appropriated by a British-Asian lad, but the script never backs it up: it's an idea raised in casting, then forgotten about.) He also sings the songs, albeit in that bland troubadour style that is very 2019 and not terribly Beatles; having inherited the original idea, most of the movie's creative energy has been expended on imagining what would happen if some of the world's greatest tunes were converted into the kind of MOR fodder trotted out by hack musicians to accompany corporate ad campaigns. It takes the sad songs, and makes them worse. Nothing in James Corden's cameo explains how Frank Harper's wastrel son in TwentyFourSeven wound up becoming a US primetime sensation - there may be a Curtis script in that - and Yesterday is consistently awful around its women: Simperin' Lily James as the manager-pal who only realises she loves Jack after he becomes successful (much as we realise, if we hadn't already, that Curtis has some pretty fucked-up ideas about women and fame), and a miscast, mirthless Kate McKinnon as a representative of all those dead-eyed suits who made the deals that brought Yesterday into something like existence. Given the context, couldn't Curtis have paired his hero with a Yoko or Linda Mac, someone with some kind of inner life, who could have pointed up how the Beatles were as much influenced as influential?

That would, of course, require more of the complication one key character talks about late on in Yesterday - that the movie be about more than just a bloke remembering Beatles songs for the benefit of that sizeable demographic of baby-boomers who also remember Beatles songs and have considerable money to burn. The rest of us can at least count our blessings that an idle fantasy as flimsy and (ironically) as forgettable as this overwrites nothing: in our reality, we still have A Hard Day's Night, Yellow Submarine, The Hours and Times, Backbeat and countless other cinematic reminders of why the Beatles mattered (and still matter). Anyone who had the misfortune to sit through The Boat That Rocked and About Time should know Curtis is no longer to be trusted around music and high concepts. The real disappointment here comes from watching Boyle, a filmmaker who once served as a standard bearer for the unconventional, exhilarating and new, succumbing to the conventional, excruciating and naff: in a film bound up in string theory and besieged by butterfly effects, Yesterday's final montage, set to (gulp) "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", suggests what would have resulted if Boyle had made a complete horlicks of that Olympics opener - or if he'd revealed himself to be the less-than-mastermind behind the notoriously toecurling 2012 closing ceremony, that cavalcade of faux pas during which we should, perhaps, have started to feel the tectonic plates of the United Kingdom shifting uneasily. Signing on for Bond, now this: I do hope one of our erstwhile young gunslingers isn't about to draw out his career by becoming British cinema's foremost embarrassing dad. We've got one Stephen Frears already; that feels quite enough.

Yesterday is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

The old curiosity shop: "In Fabric"

To observe that Peter Strickland's is a cinema of fetishes is to understate the extent to which all cinema is a cinema of fetishes. Still, few working filmmakers have been so brazen in centring those fetishes so: think back to the obsessively curated sounds of 2012's Berberian Sound Studio or the butterflies and role-playing of 2014's The Duke of Burgundy. To these, Strickland's latest In Fabric will add a killer red dress, plus several more elements dredged up from the darkest, dustiest recesses of this filmmaker's imagination. The characters here talk as we talk in 2019, yet they inhabit a space that appears inexorably tied to a formative moment in the 46-year-old Strickland's life. We see, in no particular order, a landline telephone (which prompts a further Proustian jolt as its owner answers a call by reciting the full eleven-digit number); green flock wallpaper; personal ads directing interested parties to P.O. box numbers; and foursquare television sets carrying trippy ads for a local department store. As has been noted elsewhere, Strickland's work has a close kinship with hauntology, that very modern science in which discarded artefacts and recordings are scoured for proofs of how we used to live; before a single drop of blood is shed, In Fabric is possessed of that spookiness that follows from stumbling across the long lost or abandoned. The characters - lonely divorcee Marianne Jean-Baptiste, young newlyweds Hayley Squires and Leo Bill - come and go. The dress - crimson-red, with an invocation in Latin stitched into the hem - will be all that survives of them.

The perversity in this redesign of the heritage (or, if you prefer, costume) drama stems from the much-travelled Strickland's ability to mesh the very English with the somehow most un-English. (In Fabric is the only film in existence to bear the closing credit "Shot in Croydon, Reading, Budapest and Visegrad"; Strickland's passport alone would make him an interesting filmmaker to have around at a moment where loud questions are being raised about our national identity.) As for the former, look to the film's fond evocation of a 1970s-era department store, which - with its bespoke wrapping papers, pneumatic tube system to carry change and overly attentive staff - would surely have seemed the height of high-street sophistication around the time of Are You Being Served?. (It's a film that recognises you and I are witnessing the fall of the House of Fraser, and that we just don't get the same experience walking into a Primark or TK Maxx.) There's something uniquely parochial about the bug-strewn restaurant Jean-Baptiste visits on dates, the passive-aggressive meetings she's corralled into by her work superiors (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt, with especially unnerving teeth), and a sequence of lads-night-out awfulness that can only end in a big pool of carroty vomit. Most directors are stuck in adolescence or some other version of the past, dreamers who haven't ventured all that far from the bedrooms in which they first plotted how to remodel the world. Strickland's Thames Valley-on-Thames creeps into view before us as a shitty Brigadoon, left untouched by either the cold, hard collateral of the Thatcher years or the cheerier gentrification of New Labour: a land that time appears to have forgotten, it is, in every sense, another country.

More exotic are those collaborators this director has picked up on the travels around Europe that began with 2009's Katalin Varga. First among equals here: the Romanian actress Fatma Mohamed, playing the role of shop clerk-cum-sorceress, who would appear to find it impossible to say or do anything with any degree of normality, and may as a result be the most fascinating figure in any film presently on release. (Like a distaff equivalent of the similarly maquillaged Robert Blake in Lost Highway, you cannot take your eyes off of her, and worry what would happen if you did.) Yet there's also a small army of behind-the-camera tech whizzes, again sourced from Eastern Europe, who work overtime to ensure nothing about In Fabric looks or sounds quite as it would in, say, a Working Title production set in the 1970s. These outsiders, doubtless less familiar with Mollie Sugden and Wendy Richard than they would be with Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness, help Strickland to equip the film with unexpected flourishes in production design and cinematography, and there again on the soundtrack. Why is it that the outgoing message on the Jean-Baptiste answerphone has been recorded by a woman in evident distress? Why does the department store's emergency broadcast feature somebody cackling malevolently? How can the thoroughly rational British film industry have spawned a creative whose choices are so persistently, deliriously irrational? (This may have been the question asked of Michael Powell around the moment he unveiled his Red Shoes.)

Strickland still presents as a bit of a knobtwiddler himself, which may explain why his has become a cinema especially beloved of blokes: it's full of those arcane concerns men habitually mothball away in that headspace where their emotional intelligence ought to go. Too much of this beardy squirrelling can seem unhealthy: I found The Duke of Burgundy rather like being cornered in an attic by an uncle keen to expound upon his collection of vintage lesbian erotica, and thus spent much of it longing for fresh air and cleansing sunlight. Here, however, he does a far better job of turning the dial and locking onto that frequency where the funny-strange becomes indistinguishable from the funny-ha ha. The casting keeps it lively: it's amusing that the diminutive Jean-Baptiste should find her home invaded by her son's Amazonian life-model girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie, from Game of Thrones), and seasoned comedy players Oram and Barratt have their oddball schtick down to a wonky tee. Yet they're drawing on a filigreed script that invents its own language - florid in places, gnomic in others; the contrast alone draws a laugh or two - and appears capable of a wry autocritique, recognising the limits of the cataloguing approach. The line "what I'd give to know what goes on in the male mind" cues only a droning monologue on the workings of washing machines that sends anyone in the vicinity to sleep. We've all known men like that; hell, we may even have been that man at some point.

Somewhere in the back of In Fabric's mental warehouse, there lurks the idea that material goods (possibly capitalism en tout) can be a deadly business - lethal, when not plain boring. It's visible in the shot of excitable consumers lining up outside the store's doors in the early hours to be greeted by the satanically wild-eyed manager we've just seen sexually pleasuring himself over one of his mannequins; there again in the vicious fistfight that breaks out between two women of a certain age over a particular sale item. (Here, Strickland seems to realise that Black Friday would chime favourably with the works of Mario Bava.) Yet that may be too lend too much sociopolitical import to what is, ultimately, another solidly tongue-in-cheek addition to a determinedly cult filmography. I remain in that minority who maintain Strickland lost something after Katalin Varga, which operated in a more sincere mode, when the nature of the domestic film business required he come indoors, work on sets, and watch the go-for-the-throat wildness that made his debut so arresting tail off into cultivated eccentricity. Still, he's never abandoned his craft, nor his attention to detail; there's both consolation and pleasure to be derived from In Fabric's lovingly tailored pastiche. Strickland knows how to dress these fetishes up, and how to air them out when necessary, and there are moments - usually involving that dangerous red chiffon billowing in the night - when In Fabric strikes the eye as an uncannily fetching object.

In Fabric is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Monday, 8 July 2019

1,001 Films: "Au Revoir les Enfants" (1987)

After a run of American films that included the now-canonical Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre – followed, in turn, by the less successful Crackers and Alamo Bay – Louis Malle returned to his native France in the mid-1980s, where he set about producing his most autobiographical work. An account of the writer-director’s experiences during 1943-44 at a Catholic boarding school in Fontainebleau, 1987’s Au Revoir les Enfants would be Malle’s attempt to reconnect with his own heritage, and his country’s troubled past.

Reissued this week to mark the global Holocaust commemorations, the film retains the look of a highly personal confession: a careful outpouring of emotions that – as the debate surrounding the release of Lanzmann’s Shoah two years earlier had suggested – were still, four decades on from the war’s conclusion, being processed. It remains one of those rare occasions when a filmmaker could truly lay claim to being the voice of their generation.

That it became Malle’s biggest success worldwide is doubtless attributable to school’s status as a universal rite-of-passage: it should still strike chords with anybody whose little face lit up at the sight of a dog on the loose in the playground. Malle depicts the beatings and bullying that went on between the bombing raids that forced him and his contemporaries into the school’s basement, but also a good deal of boyish bonhomie; his interest resides in the shelter the school provided young minds and bodies, and how – like the rations the pupils shared between them – it could ultimately stretch only so far.

At the film’s centre is the rapport rich kid Julien (Gaspard Manesse) – the Malle surrogate; he has his homework marked as “intelligent, but a bit pretentious”, which sounds exactly the sort of evaluation a budding filmmaker would receive – strikes up with curly-haired newcomer Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö). The two boys bond over a shared love of reading, “The Three Musketeers” their preferred text, only to find Vichy France isn’t entirely receptive to Dumas’s one-for-all, all-for-one credo, after Julien discovers his pal was actually born Jean Kippelstein, and that le jeune Bonnet has been keeping something under his hat.

Shot by Renato Berta in sombre tones that do much to evoke the years of austerity, the film treats Kippelstein’s Jewishness as a rather more contentious form of the contraband the boys squirrel away from their keepers in the school’s mouldering brick walls. Malle never labours his points – the film remains more coming-of-age pic than historical tract – and even when Julien sees Jean playing the piano (for a young Irène Jacob, as the school’s music teacher) and apparently drawing upon a deep well of sadness, our hero can’t quite put the pieces together. (“Arse licker” is his considered response.)

We do, however, gain a palpable sense of the encroachment this period entailed: personal space comes to be broached, secrets dragged into the cold light of day. Joshing German soldiers populate the local bathhouse; Vichy officers storm an upmarket restaurant; by the final act, the Gestapo are storming the classroom, and rearranging the map of Europe. Much of it has the feel of vivid, formative lived experience. The scenes depicting Julien’s fear upon being abandoned in the woods during a treasure hunt, and his joy upon discovering Chaplin, are composed of sights and sounds Malle clearly couldn’t forget easily.

Though the school often appears like a microcosm of the wider country – notably during the last-reel betrayals (“C’est de la guerre, mon vieux”) – the perspective throughout is that of an uncommonly mature schoolboy: Julien and classmates have opinions on everything from the pin-ups they’ve swiped from their brothers to whether Laval has sold France down river, and even the smokers behind the bike sheds are discussing Bergson. Malle knew what wartime does to innocence, and Au Revoir les Enfants stands as his own, powerful testament of youth: an acknowledgement one was forced to grow up regrettably quick back then.

(MovieMail, January 2015)

Au Revoir les Enfants is available to rent via Amazon Prime.

Friday, 5 July 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 28-30, 2019:

1 (1) Toy Story 4 (U) ***

2 (new) Yesterday (12A) **
3 (2Aladdin (PG)
4 (3) Men in Black International (12A)
5 (7) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
6 (re) Avengers: Endgame (12A) **
7 (4Rocketman (15) ***
8 (new) Apollo 11 (U)
9 (6) The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)
10 (8) X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Don't Look Now [above]

2. Article 15
3. Mari
4. Spider-Man: Far from Home
5. In Fabric

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

1 (new) Fighting with My Family (12)

2 (2) Cold Pursuit (15) **
3 (1) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
4 (6) Toy Story (U) *****
5 (9) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
6 (13) Toy Story 2 (U) *****
7 (20) The Kid Who Would Be King (PG) ***
8 (7) Aquaman (12)
9 (15) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
10 (11) BumbleBee (PG) ***


My top five: 
1. Ash is Purest White

2. The Hole in the Ground
3. The Kindergarten Teacher
4. Loro
5. If Beale Street Could Talk

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Memento (Saturday, BBC1, 12midnight)
2. The Emperor's New Groove (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)
3. The Master (Thursday, C4, 1am)
4. Ruby Sparks (Friday, C4, 1.05am)
5. Wanted (Friday, ITV, 11.05pm)

"The Queen's Corgi" (Guardian 05/07/19)

The Queen’s Corgi **
Dirs: Vincent Kesteloot, Ben Stassen. Animation with the voices of: Jack Whitehall, Julie Walters, Tom Courtenay, Sheridan Smith. 85 mins. Cert: U

Is this a sign of things to come? The premise of this animated screenfiller has been locally sourced: these are indeed the misadventures of one of Her Majesty’s pluckier and more resilient canine companions. Much of the action thus takes place in and around a functionally rendered Buckingham Palace, complete with photorealistic Liz-and-Phil (in Union Jack slippers). And yet a cursory glimpse at the credits reveal that most of the key creative personnel – headed by directors Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen – are unmistakably… Belgian. At risk of drifting towards protectionism, is there no-one on this side of the North Sea who could digitise a few poop gags for tuppence-ha’penny? Or would that bring the animators responsible perilously close to charges of treason?

Since 2008’s Fly Me to the Moon, Stassen’s Brussels-based nWave studio has generated cheap and cheerful product for harassed parents to make do with if the Pixar’s sold out. Corgi’s script, by Gnomeo & Juliet scribes Rob Sprackling and Johnny Smith, affords this team a handful of goofy ideas to play with. Protagonist Rex (voice: Jack Whitehall) is exiled after disgracing himself while resisting the aggressive advances of President Trump’s female corgi; on Poverty Row, he falls into an underground fight club overseen by a hulking mastiff inevitably called Tyson, and lent Ray Winstone’s booming tones. Upon the latest mirthless rehash of the rules of a now 20-year-old David Fincher film, you realise this is something like if the first Toy Story had referenced The Conversation or Harold and Maude.

That both developments raise the spectre of assault reflects the absence of that safety testing present in more sophisticated animations. Kesteloot and Stassen are too busy scrabbling for content – basically fine, largely indifferent, sometimes misjudged – to fill the gaps between frenetic setpieces. Any semi-original flourishes are outnumbered by secondhand bits of business: while a passing trans character strikes the eye as progressive, the accompanying “queen” joke dates from roughly 1973. Everything cancels itself out. The voice cast at least ensure the whole falls at the livelier end of tat: Winstone seems to be having fun in the recording booth, and there’s a certain novelty in hearing Prince Philip talk like Tom Courtenay. If they bother with a sequel, they should stick him in a Range Rover.

The Queen's Corgi opens in cinemas nationwide today.