Thursday, 5 August 2021

Proustian bust: "Bye Bye Morons"

The French tragicomedy
Bye Bye Morons arrives here both preceded and overshadowed by its reputation. That it was a sizeable box-office hit in its homeland is the less surprising aspect, given some of the would-be comedies that have performed well on the Continent. That it swept the board at this year's César awards - winning Best Film, Director and Original Screenplay among its seven gongs - is, however, truly bewildering, suggesting either a serious post-lockdown dearth of alternatives or a disproportionate, heavily localised fondness for all those involved in its making. This is a lovers-on-the-lam movie where the fugitives start out dead or dying on the inside, and bond in a doomed pursuit of lost time. (Ho ho.) Virginie Efira - so good in In Bed with Victoria and An Impossible Love, soon to be seen in Paul Verhoeven's already notorious Benedetta - plays Suze, a hairdresser with a terminal illness who's elected to spend her final days tracking down the son who was snatched from her as a teenager. Albert Dupontel - acting and directing, and retaining his familiar air of harassed dishevelment - is JB, a mediocre administrative drone who reacts to a demotion by bringing a shotgun into the office, threatening to commit suicide, and instead injuring the colleague who happens to be handling Suze's case. That she and he would flee the scene together and amalgamate their remaining resources is a contrivance we might only buy if it led the movie anywhere worthwhile; instead, everyone scurries into territory that falls somewhere between tonally haphazard and suicidal in its own right. That Césars sweep looks increasingly like the judges rewarding a high level of difficulty, oblivious to the corpse lying face-down in the pool.

With the usual caveat that comedy is the most subjective artform, Bye Bye Morons just isn't funny enough when it's trying to be, and it's almost impossible to puzzle out what Dupontel is going for when he's not simply trying to be funny. A bad case of the cringes sets in early on, with the launch of the not-quite-amusing running gag that sees everybody fail to pronounce Suze's surname ("Trappet") properly; the laugh rate hardly picks up with the introduction of a blind archivist (Nicolas Marié, César-winner, bof), who proves exactly the kind of supporting character you'd expect to show up in a popular French comedy; and whatever's meant to be going on between Suze and JB gets gradually dissipated by cutaways to the travails of the film's minor players, reduced to one inconsequence among many. One potential selling point: thanks to cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine, it's a rare screen comedy to foster a considered, glowing aesthetic. (It looks like a project that merits awards consideration, which may have counted for something.) The attempt to throw light on the darkness of this plot occasions one genuinely clever, poignant sight gag, as Suze drives the archivist through his hometown, and reflections in the passenger-side window reveal all the old man's memories as having been bulldozed over and rendered obsolete. Even this, though, speaks to how closely the comedy leans into things-ain't-what-they-used-to-be glumness. Perhaps only the French commercial cinema would afford this much space to a middle-aged white man lamenting the way the world now turns, a subtext only underlined by a cameo from Terry Gilliam, a filmmaker who seems to be working through his own issues in this field. For her part, Efira benefits from having straight drama to play, although it's apparently been ripped from some Victorian melodrama, and it turns silly late on as a master computer is produced to hack an office block and bring about the mother-and-child reunion. (Seven Césars, remember.) Safely ignorable for the time being, but I have a terrible feeling the whole is bound for an American remake that would be as unnecessary a second chance for an indifferent French commercial success as 2017's The Upside was for 2011's Untouchable.

Bye Bye Morons is now available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

On demand: "Snowpiercer"

In the wake of The Host's global success and before Parasite's international triumph, Bong Joon Ho was courted and eventually signed up by Harvey Weinstein to make his English-language debut. 2013's Snowpiercer was an unhappy project to assemble, by all accounts: after intervening several times in post-production - and being carefully batted away by his director - Weinstein afforded the finished work only a belated, begrudging release, and no release whatsoever in the UK. Perhaps both parties knew what they had on their hands: an openly Marxist fable, drawn from a French graphic novel and depicting the class struggle aboard a train bulleting around a world in the grip of a second Ice Age, Snowpiercer seems to fold the ongoing, offscreen tension between management and labour into its own front-and-centre storytelling. Guided by an extra-wisened John Hurt, Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer are among the would-be revolutionaries seeking to overturn the train's repressive social order; Bong's lucky charm Song Kang-ho is the drug-addled safecracker they entrust with getting them from steerage to first class; Tilda Swinton the resident queen bee, apparently styled after Margaret Thatcher, yet with an overbite, spectacles and broad Yorkshire accent that's pure Victoria Wood (or Aardman). For all the behind-the-scenes turbulence, the production they find themselves in runs on rails; narratively, there may be no straighter line in 21st century cinema. Our heroes begin the film at the very back of the train, in gloom and grime, and scene by scene they fight or think their way through to the front engine and a final confrontation with the mysterious "Wilford". (I'm sure some blogosphere nabob will have already nailed down the echoes of The Wizard of Oz - no bad influence - with Wilford as the Wiz, the Swinton character as the Wicked Witch, and an elevated level of gatekeeping in between.)

The characterisation is refreshingly minimal: these are briskly sketched movers-and-shakers, burdened by precious little of the baggage the movies have recently started to pile onto their Batmen and Batwomen. Bong's focus looks to have been on keeping the scenery changing around them. To give Weinstein some due, he evidently forked out a fair old sum on workspaces for his employees, which makes his reluctance to recoup the expense theatrically seem more perverse yet: we pass at breathless speed through onboard kitchens, nursaries (where we find a chilling Alison Pill in the role of Stepford schoolmarm), aquariums, solariums and nightclubs, stopping only to note how this society has inculcated a certain, self-sustaining set of values in its populace. We go up in the world as the movie goes on, yet for once, this isn't just passing spectacle; rather, everything this camera witnesses accumulates into a vision of a world converted into a grinding machine so as to preserve the status quo. (I watched the film for the first time in the middle of the pandemic, and it helped me better understand just why things felt so eerily quiet at the beginning of lockdown.) That mobility - the search for bypasses and backchannels, for ways around and ways out - is by now a recognisable directorial trait. For all his facility with pausable, individual frames, rendered as striking in their simplicity (and yet as loaded with meaning) as the best comic-book panels, Bong is one of the few contemporary filmmakers with any kind of a feel for how to keep a motion picture moving. The pre-pandemic progression of Parasite - which set similar themes and ideas circulating around an entirely static location - would provide further proof of this polite radical's own ability to outrun, outthink and overthrow any order Hollywood (and its Weinsteins) might still seek to impose on its subjects.

Snowpiercer is available to rent via Prime Video.

On demand: "Crawl"

Right through to an unimprovable closing image and end-credits song, Crawl represents one of the stronger recent examples of that minimal-actors-one-location cycle the studios engineered in the wake of the 2008 market crash and the budget cuts it occasioned. (The blueprint was laid down by Rodrigo Cortés's Buried from 2010, which entombed Ryan Reynolds in a coffin; it was built upon by Jaume Collet-Serra's 2016 entry The Shallows, which stranded Blake Lively - Mrs. Reynolds, coincidentally enough - on a rock surrounded by sharks.) This time round, in a film produced by Sam Raimi for the French genre specialist Alexandre Aja to direct, we get a post-Katrina variant: British TV graduate Kaya Scoledario is the promising college swimmer who finds herself trapped in the crawlspace beneath her family home as a hurricane blows into Florida and a family of giant, hungry CG alligators are tempted out of the sewers. Ridiculous, of course, and you'll do well to suppress a snort as the first of the film's cold-blooded antagonists lazily ambles into shot, having just called his agent to establish why it is he hasn't got higher billing than either Scoledario or Barry Pepper as the hapless dad our heroine finds unconscious while scrabbling around on her hands and knees in the dark. Yet the whole has points in its favour besides.

For one thing, Aja - like Collet-Serra - grew up far enough away from Hollywood not to get into the modern multiplex movie's bad habits around onscreen space, carefully and economically described in the course of Crawl's patient first act. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen add an extra element of tension in that this basement is slowly filling up with stormwater, each droplet tipping the odds in favour of those damn reptiles. And crucially Aja - who first seized arthouse audiences' attention with 2003's merciless slasher Switchblade Romance before launching his American career with his surprisingly effective 2006 update of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes - isn't afraid of threat or grue: he's pitching for an R rating rather than the commercial copout of a PG-13, and when the snappers attack, they do so hard, fast and nasty. In retrospect, you might wonder how little the American mainstream has moved on since Jaws, whether its foremost creatives have merely been paid vast sums just to tread water for the best part of 40 years. On a scene-by-scene basis, however, Crawl has been assembled with skill and force enough to make for excellent, properly cathartic Friday or Saturday night entertainment. The character business - of an estranged father and daughter swimming towards reconciliation - is sappy until it's affecting; and those early, derisory snorts should turn to chuckles and cheers as Pepper attempts to brain an alligator with a housebrick and split the fucker's jaw with a shovel.

Crawl is now streaming on Netflix.

Friday, 30 July 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 23-25, 2021):

1 (1) Black Widow (12A) ***
2 (2) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
3 (4) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
4 (new) Old (15)
5 (3) The Forever Purge (15)
6 (5Fast & Furious 9 (12A)
7 (6) Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (15)
8 (8) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
9 (7) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
10 (new) Off the Rails (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
2 (new) Peter Rabbit Double Pack (U)
3 (3) Space Jam (U) ***
4 (new) True Romance (18) [above] ****
5 (1) Mortal Kombat (15)
6 (2Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
7 (4) The Croods (U)
8 (5Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
9 (7) Promising Young Woman (15)
10 (8) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)

My top five: 
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
2. Aviva
3. Minari

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Pride & Prejudice (Saturday, BBC2, 6.30pm)
2. 2 Fast 2 Furious (Saturday, ITV, 10.50pm)
3. Grandma (Wednesday, C4, 1.25am)
4. The Deer Hunter (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Dirty Dancing (Saturday, five, 6.30pm)

Thursday, 29 July 2021

From the archive: "Suicide Squad"

Suicide Squad was DC's reactionary response to Marvel's inclusive, wipe-clean, family-friendly universe: bust a rogues' gallery of antiheroes out of the back catalogue, then splatter them across the screen in a film that casually badmouths North Korea and Iran, leers at its one lissom blonde character, and just loves its knives and gunplay. (Trump right-hand man Steven Mnuchin served as an executive producer, as he has on several DC projects.) It's an origin story, so Viola Davis - as the Government employee handed the fool's errand of rounding this Squad up and putting them to work - gets to deliver seven comicbooks' worth of exposition and a collectors-card briefing on each of the main players, before pitching them forward into urban action sequences, patched together in the edit with variable skill, relentless soundtrack cues, and a lot of gaffer tape. The film has been framed as a notable flop (albeit one of those very modern flops that succeeds in taking $746m at the international box office), but a postmortem reveals there were elements here you'd perhaps have paid to see, and which suffered in the attempt to squeeze a baker's dozen of protagonists (and putative franchises) into the same two hours. Will Smith demonstrates a measure of his long-AWOL star power in the role of no-nonsense assassin Deadshot, although it's a sign of his reduced circumstances that he has to share screen time and space with a talking crocodile-man-thing no-one on this production quite knew what to do with; a sparky Margot Robbie makes the mocking Harley Quinn - beloved, I'm told, of fanboys and girls alike - more than the walking Halloween costume she first presents as.

Other elements, however, got exactly what they deserved. You can tell Jared Leto's emo Joker, all preening pose, was meant to be the breakout character/franchise banker from the way in which the first hour points towards some climactic confrontation between him and the Squad, but he's so annoying to watch you can hardly blame the producers for effectively grounding him and thereafter bringing in Joaquin Phoenix to have a go in the forthcoming standalone Joker. (It'll be your turn next week.) Really the only performer who doesn't appear to be at the mercy of postproduction is Ike Barinholtz as the skeezy prison guard making flailing attempts to keep everybody here under lock and key, but that's because he's an accomplished second banana who's realised he doesn't have to angle for a spin-off or meet frothing fan expectations, and is therefore free to do his own reasonably funny thing. It remains a critically underacknowledged fact that, with select exceptions (Logan and Thor: Ragnarok spring to mind), these new-wave superhero movies are almost all working from the same narrative playbook, so Suicide Squad didn't feel any less of a timesuck to me than, say, the first Avengers movie; its second half is visibly more assured than its first, thrown together as that seems in blind panic at the thought of having to get a multi-million dollar franchise on the road, although it still winds up with two vast conglomerations of pixels bashing seven bells out of one another. Whenever it stops to concentrate on anything even vaguely human, it's just ugly people, with especially ugly tattoos, doing mostly ugly things: hardly super, only fleetingly heroic.

(October 2018)

Suicide Squad is available on DVD through Warner Home Video; a reboot, The Suicide Squad, opens tomorrow, and will be reviewed here next week.

Saturday, 24 July 2021

From the archive: "Marguerite"

Do we blame the strenuous warblers of TV's The Voice and The X Factor? Either way, it would appear that lousy singers are set to enjoy a cinematic moment, all their duff notes fired at us in Dolby surround. In a few months, we'll see Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears' tale of the tonedeaf socialite who tormented early 20th century eardrums, with Meryl Streep building on the, ahem, success of Mamma Mia! in the lead role. By way of an opening act, we have the recent French hit Marguerite, with Catherine Frot as a fictionalised Gallic variant of the wayward chanteuse. 

Here is a costume drama with a tongue that's never too far removed from its cheek. The tenor (as it were) is set during the opening setpiece, a lavish 1920s soiree raising funds for war orphans. After soaring performances of pieces by Handel and Delibes, Frot's Mme. Marguerite Dumont steps up to the mic to stun a captive audience with her unique take on Mozart's "Queen of the Night" - within seconds demonstrating that not only can she not handle a tune, she barely sounds capable of picking it up. (The character's name, with its echoes of the Marx Brothers, may not be entirely coincidental: here's another screwball wreaking havoc on high society.)

The gag is that Marguerite's yelping, as with Jenkins's, should be met with amused tolerance and polite applause; somewhere in this story, there lurks a parable of undue deference. Very quickly, our heroine's house floods with white lilies from admirers and euphemistic newspaper reviews she seizes upon as proof of her genius. As a character, Marguerite could have been no more than a joke herself: a cossetted, self-deluded mediocrity possessed of the money to have bought Puccini's handwritten score for Tosca, but not the talent to do it justice. Yet the writer-director Xavier Giannoli - who pulled off a similar feat with Gérard Depardieu's contemporary lounge lizard in 2006's The Singer - works hard with Frot to humanise his heroine.

While noting her absurdities (posing for publicity shots as a Wagnerian Valkyrie), the script positions Marguerite as a woman using music as an escape from a husband (André Marcon) who's plainly embarrassed by her exhibitionism. Their Marguerite is a champion of free speech, partly because only in a truly free France would anyone be allowed to caterwaul as she does; her self-expression is regarded, perhaps a shade too fondly, as a positive rather than a grotesque indulgence or waste of everybody's time. Frot, tucking into this oblivious diva's all-white diet, even succeeds in suggesting how the Marguerites of this world might be dottily eccentric fun to be around, for a bit.

In this process, you can spy the softening that has traditionally guaranteed solid box-office returns. The chandeliers in the Dumonts' palatial estate are lit and gently rocked rather than brought crashing down, which sets Marguerite in opposition to the revolutionary urge in French cinema. (It remains to be seen whether the generally iconoclastic Frears will make more mischief with this set-up.) As it is, the incongruous jolt provided in Giannoli's film by one of Michael Nyman's Draughtman's Contract cues only points up how cosy the surrounding material is.

Siding with the performer over the rest of the world means framing those bad reviews kept from Marguerite by her faithful manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) as acts of cruelty rather than, say, public service or an encouragement to do better, and you can't help but think Giannoli is relying upon the broadly uncritical dynamic of reality show and reality-show consumer. Ultimately, the film wants us to give the old girl a big hand for trying - to politely defer, as audiences of the time did. (Once again, a costume drama reminds us of the conservatism of the era.)

For all that, Marguerite is handsomely turned out within its monochrome palette - production designer Martin Kurel and cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert displaying a discernment absent in Marguerite Dumont's closest admirers - and the performance setpieces are reliably amusing, Frot belting something out like a sham-dram Liza or Barbra while Marcon tersely clutches his hunting rifle in the wings, primed to put either the poor woman or the assembled crowd out of their respective miseries. Those actors, intuiting the proximity of a much tougher film about the power of truth to wound or crush the sensitive soul, elevate the material and really do merit our applause - though I still wouldn't go near the soundtrack album, if I were you.

(MovieMail, March 2016)

Marguerite screens on BBC2 at 12.55am tonight.

Friday, 23 July 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 16-18, 2021):

1 (1) Black Widow (12A) ***
2 (new) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
3 (new) The Forever Purge (15)
4 (new) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
5 (1) Fast & Furious 9 (12A)
6 (new) Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (15)
7 (4) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
8 (3Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
9 (5In the Heights (PG) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Mortal Kombat (15)
2 (2Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
3 (4) Space Jam (U) ***
4 (6) The Croods (U)
5 (3) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
6 (9) Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
7 (new) Promising Young Woman (15)
8 (5) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
9 (new) Snatch (18) **
10 (7) Nomadland (12) ****

My top five: 
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
2. Aviva
3. Minari

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Die Hard with a Vengeance [above] (Friday, ITV, 11.05pm)
2. This is England (Sunday, C4, 12midnight)
3. Lady Bird (Saturday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
4. The Fast and the Furious (Saturday, ITV, 11.15pm)
5. Marguerite (Saturday, BBC2, 12.55am)