Saturday 31 July 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of July 23-25, 2010:

1 (new) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
2 (1) Inception (12A) ***
3 (3) Eclipse (12A) ***
4 (2) Shrek Forever After (U) ***
5 (new) The Rebound (15)
6 (4) Predators (15) ***
7 (new) Khatta Meetha (12A)
8 (5) Get Him to the Greek (15) ***
9 (new) Splice (15) ****
10 (9) Leaving (15) ****

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Ma Nuit chez Maud/My Night with Maud
2. Splice
3. Down Terrace
4. South of the Border
5. Separado!

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (3) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
2 (1) Invictus (12) **
3 (2) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
4 (new) The Crazies (15) ***
5 (5) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
6 (4) The Book of Eli (15) ***
7 (6) The Lovely Bones (12) **
8 (new) The Bounty Hunter (12) *
9 (7) Up in the Air (15) ****
10 (new) Remember Me (12) **


My top five:
1. La Danse: The Paris-Opera Ballet
2. Shutter Island
3. I Love You, Phillip Morris
4. Gay Sex in the 70s
5. No One Knows About Persian Cats

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Talk to Her (Sunday, C4, 12.10am)
2. Whistle Down the Wind (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.30am)
3. Insomnia (Saturday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
4. Three Kings (Saturday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
5. Factotum (Sunday, BBC2, 11.50pm)

Thicker than water: "Down Terrace"

A decade on from the initial wave of post-Guy Ritchie mockney capers, and four years from Paul Andrew Williams' revivifying London to Brighton, it's stupefying to think anyone could have found a new angle on the British gangster movie, yet Ben Wheatley's Down Terrace does precisely that with an understated, leftfield and very British humour.

After criminal charges are dropped against them, the father-son head of a South Coast drug syndicate retreat to the terrace house they share in Brighton. It becomes a retreat very nearly as evocative - and, it turns out, exactly as vulnerable - as any Shakespearian fortress: truly, the walls are closing in. While dad (Robert Hill) tries to nail down who sold his mob out in the first place, and mum (Julia Deakin) fusses over the details of her new kitchen, their unstable offspring (Wheatley's co-writer Robin Hill) appears poised on the brink of a complete meltdown - and the arrival of his suddenly pregnant girlfriend hardly alleviates his paranoia. Some indication of the latter's instability: his first instinct is to call the baby Enoch or Norbert.

Wheatley cut his teeth on the Johnny Vegas vehicle Ideal, one of BBC3's few qualitative successes, and a sitcom that strove to throw the viewer off-guard with each new knock at its slobbish anti-hero's front door: it was often as funny-strange as it was funny ha ha. A televisual background is evident in the film (backed, as Ideal was, by Steve Coogan and Henry Normal's production company Baby Cow) in the way Wheatley makes the family home - with its ripped ceiling tiles and peeling paint - the star of the show. Interrogations here take place on a sofa, over mugs of tea and mum's jam tarts; when one suspected informant locks himself behind a partition door, dad remains calmly resolute: "Don't break it down - it's Victorian".

The result is a very Ideal-like mix of domestic drudgery (incongruous build-ups of culture - piles of CDs and literature - turn out to be artefacts being fenced on eBay) and sharp, funny observation of the generally pathetic achievements and aspirations of this particular branch of disorganised crime. Special mention must go to the assassin whose fatal flaw is asthma, and the bejumpered Irish heavy (Michael Smiley) who went on holiday to Bosnia and "ended up having a go in the War". It can't quite sustain itself through to the bloody end, but there's a real surprise in encountering a first feature adorned with a workable script, pitch-perfect performances and unexpectedly winning choices in most other departments: when was the last time you saw a contemporary crime movie scored to traditional, portentous folk songs?

Down Terrace is on selected release.

Down, and to the Left: "South of the Border"

If you watched Fox News for any length of time - and I couldn't, honestly, recommend it - the impression one would get of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez would be of a crazed, thuggish tyrant, generally out of his box on coca leaves, preaching an aggressive form of anti-Americanism. As Venezuela constitutes the third largest oil provider in the world, it perhaps behoves the powers-that-be north of the border to maintain the beadiest of eyes upon the Chavez regime. Having made attempts to humanise Fidel Castro in 2003's Comandante - a profile that sometimes seemed like a pilot for a new VH1 series, to be entitled "Behind the Beard" - Oliver Stone manages, in his new doc South of the Border, to tick off Chavez and several others more in his I-Spy Book of Latin American Leaders, taking tea (and, in some cases, the aforementioned coca leaves, a useful ally against the physical strains of high altitude) with Bolivia's Evo Morales, Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, Brazil's Lula de Silva, and Ecuador's Rafael Correa.

What these leaders have in common, at first glance, is the way they've come to invert the traditional political pyramid, building towards grass-roots leaderships, rather than seeking to impose cast-iron rule from the top down; as Kirchner's hubby, the former Argentine president Nestor, phrases it, "now in South America, we have leaders who look like the people", which shouldn't be sniffed at in a region that has long been associated with dictatorships and political corruption. As Stone - one of America's savviest imagemakers - has grasped, we have entered a new age of perception politics, something equally applicable to the America of the North, where not to be with us is to be seen as to be against us (the divisiveness of shows such as Fox and Friends hardly helps), and Western leaders are prepared to overlook the flaws of those they want to get into bed with (Colombia, for example, with its terrible human rights record) but won't tolerate a democratic triumph if it doesn't represent the "right" result for their interests.

You couldn't describe Stone's line of inquiry - mixing professorial bluffness with chummy sycophancy ("I've never seen such energy!," he exclaims of Chavez) - as rigorous exactly, and this brief, 78-minute film is prone to lumping these leaders together in a popular front, rather than exploring any differences they might have between them; you could say the filmmaker's policy of cosying up to these New Bolivarians tacks closely to the established Obama line. (But then, wasn't Obama's own campaign, with its groundswell of grass-roots support looking to overcome a representative of an old, privileged regime, broadly similar to those of his Latin American counterparts?) South of the Border's optimism is nevertheless welcome at a time of ingrained political pessimism - and you even get footage of Chavez falling off a BMX. A nice £50 there for Stone from the You've Been Framed team, surely, even if the sequence does carry the implication the Venezuelan leader might have had more in common with Dubya than we thought.

South of the Border is on selected release.

Rings around the world: "Separado!"

It sounds like the sort of thing a bored rocker might invent to enliven interviews while on the publicity tour for his latest recording, but - no - apparently, it's all true. Between 1850 and 1865, there really was an exodus of Welshfolk to Brazil and Patagonia, where the pilgrims attempted to set up a "Nova Cambria" (or New Wales) on the flats and in the rainforests.

Among them was one Dafydd Jones - a distant relative of Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys - who was obliged to beat a hasty retreat from the land of his fathers after sending his cousin a cropper in a rigged horse race. In Separado!, Rhys attempts to retrace his ancestors' footsteps while touring South America, hoping to discover more about this unusual heritage (the Super Furries have previously released several albums recorded in the Welsh language) and, more specifically, to track down one of Jones's descendants, the elusive Rene Griffiths, who carved out a curious niche for himself in the 1970s as "the singing gaucho" on Welsh TV.

Segments of Dylan Goch's film feel a little rushed and underdeveloped - an issue perhaps with trying to combine tour and shooting schedules - and as the images scroll across the screen in an (aptly) eastward direction, Separado! proves prone to traveloguey padding: artsy shots of steering wheels and the insides of hostels, rolling, passenger-side footage that succeeds in conveying less about the bizarre nature of the Patagonian landscape than isolated images from Pablo Trapero's Born and Bred. Still, as with the White Stripes' leftfield tour feature Under Great White Northern Lights, this is a case of a musician going off the beaten track and seeking to engage with something wider than their usual circles, and on that level, it's an enjoyable and edifying watch.

Rhys remains good company throughout, and some of his findings - an Argentinian phone book replete with columns of Williamses; communities with names like Dolavon, stocked with tea rooms and daffodils; the brothers Leonardo and Alejandro Jones, straight outta Betws y Coed - are as unexpected and beguilingly odd as anything to be found on your standard SFA album. Goch doesn't stray too far from the remit of a record company-approved promo - Rhys's latest, eminently melodic compositions are carefully showcased - but Separado! might also be usefully approached as a trippy, shambling episode of Who Do You Think You Are? "I was chased by an armadillo," our tourguide confesses at one point, "and I didn't know whether or not it was dangerous."

Separado! is on selected release.

Friday 30 July 2010

The A to Zzzzz of the 80s: "The A-Team" and "The Karate Kid"

If you're planning on enjoying The A-Team in cinemas this Saturday teatime, may I suggest you travel to your nearest Odeon aboard a Raleigh Chopper, ideally while high on Spangles and taking care to avoid some prefabricated white dog poo? Because, even if you're such a bore you require your culture to come with some element of nostalgia and brand recognition built in, you're going to need all the help you can get. Nobody seriously expected an A-Team movie to be anything other than lame - at best, perhaps, as enjoyably tatty as the 1980s TV series was - but Joe Carnahan's film can only aspire to mediocrity. It's irksome claptrap made a few degrees worse by its pretence to topicality.

The script is part-origin story, part straight update; granted access to that title, no-one involved really seems to have cared which. During the American withdrawal from Iraq, Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson) and his crew - ladies' man Templeton "Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper), bad-ass brawler BA Baracus (incorrectly nicknamed mixed martial artist Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), loony-tune "Howlin' Mad" Murdock (District 9's Sharlto Copley) - are recruited to retrieve an armored car containing millions of counterfeit dollar bills run off by Saddam loyalists attempting to sink the U.S. economy. (They need scarcely have bothered, of course, although this plot point rather aptly converts the whole film into an extended, noisy argument over a licence to print money.)

When the mission backfires in their faces, the Team are obliged to go on the run to prove their worth to the authorities, crossing paths along the way with the full, post-Bourne roster of black ops, shady CIA men and private security firms. As someone present in the room at the marketing confab at which the film's future was sealed must, surely, have said: "Cool". The problem is that spirit of self-congratulation has trickled into The A-Team itself, precisely an hour of which appears to consist of gurgling, throaty chuckles, the lighting of cigars, and manly slaps on the back.

Carnahan, who made the no less insincere Smokin' Aces, and his producer Tony Scott, who may well have provided the cigars for smoking, use the remaining hour as an excuse for blowing stuff up. These guys use gunpowder to cook hamburgers; when the Team's iconic van approaches a security checkpoint at high speed, its driver elects not to smash through the security barrier, but to drive all over the adjacent booth, presumably crushing to death the poor, underpaid flunky paying his dues therein. The excess might have been a coherent, even enjoyable strategy if Carnahan weren't quite so hellbent on deconstructing it as he went along, chiefly through a disastrous editing schema that seeks to explain the Team's plans as they're in progress.

During the last-reel's firefight in a (predominantly virtual) shipping yard - a shoo-in for 2010's dullest set-piece - the relentless pursuit of new angles comes to seem more than ever a diversion tactic, designed to distract us from the flimsiness of what we're supposed to be enjoying. The suspicion grows that Carnahan is a director of trailers who got lucky; his choices continually draw attention to how little actual acting is required here - and how much money the performers are presumably receiving for the privilege. It's one of those summer movies where the supporting players - Patrick Wilson's shifty operative Lynch, Jessica Biel's unlikely military police - elect to wear reflective sunglasses, so we can't see the sorry state of their souls.

For the unknown Jackson, the up-and-coming Copley, and the unctuous Cooper (whose shit-eating grin leaves him, in every sense, the Face of this particular A-Team) - each at an early stage in their screen career - participation is understandable, if not excusable. For Neeson, though, The A-Team is an inexplicable decision - or, at least, it would be if the similarly brainless Taken hadn't just provided him with his biggest hit in years. In any event, Oskar Schindler to Hannibal Smith looks like a pretty precipitous (and entirely self-induced) decline for one of the modern cinema's more thoughtful presences. Don't get me wrong: I love it when a Hollywood plan comes together. But the wheels come off this one at a very early stage.

It was perhaps only a matter of time before someone got round to remaking The Karate Kid, given the popularity among teen audiences of the low-cost, high-return likes of Fighting and Never Back Down, and that young viewers of 1984's original are now all grown up with kids of their own - Hollywood never missing a chance to double its money wherever possible. With the recent death of Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (an Oscar nominee for his role as Mr. Miyagi first time around), Ralph Macchio having vanished into obscurity, and Hilary Swank (star of 1994's last-gasp franchise renewal The Next Karate Kid) threatening to do likewise, it's almost as though this material has gone out of copyright - allowing studio Sony to effectively start from scratch.

The USP of this remake is that it's set in China rather than white suburbia, which accords some traveloguey tourism - trips to Imperial palaces and shadow-puppet theatres - and windchime spiritualism involving life forces, mystic fonts and women communing with cobras (not a euphemism). More striking is what this means for America, glimpsed briefly and tellingly during the opening credits in the form of a grey and boarded-up Detroit, symbolic of a nation foreclosed upon. (The shift in location is justified narratively by the outsourcing of the hero's mother's job.) The message is clear: go East, young Kid, and seek a box-office fortune.

The update doesn't always pay off: Justin Bieber is no Peter Cetera, and thus his end-title number "Never Say Never" inevitably lacks the sincerity of "Glory of Love". There is, too, a lot of flab: it's an hour before Jaden Smith's ill-disciplined hero twigs his apartment block's shabby, noodle-chowing maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) was once a kung-fu master - and even then it's another hour of the Kid repeatedly picking up his jacket (this version's equivalent of the car-waxing) and trudging around hillsides before he faces off in the Tournament of Champions, itself now grander than a mere community-centre smackdown. Smith cites the old Chinese proverb about having too much of a good thing, and as a criticism of the 2010 Kid, it more or less stands.

Still, that's to acknowledge this Karate Kid is not entirely a bad thing, and certainly fresher and more charming than we had any right to expect. The enjoyment derives chiefly from these performances. Smith (the Fresh Prince's kid) manages to appear spontaneous without seeming forced or precocious, and - more pertinent to the role - to suggest basically good instincts lacking only in the proper schooling. Taraji P. Henson makes fierce and funny the largely thankless role of the Kid's mother, and there's an appealing debut from young Wenwen Han as the violin prodigy with whom our hero enters into a very cute cross-cultural relationship.

Crucially, though saddled with character business (involving a prized car) that's only just less preposterous than his moustache, Chan finds himself at the exact right moment to inhabit the role of a slowing warrior striving to pass on his ideas to a new generation: simply put, this is a more heartening use of his skills and iconic status than cheap rubbish such as The Spy Next Door. None of us really needs a new Karate Kid, but - devoid of conspicuous digital effects - the remake retains a certain, cheering innocence: it's a throwback to the days when a summer movie could try to impress us with no more than a training montage set on the steps of a prominent landmark, then finish on a cheesy freeze-frame. Wax on, wax off, peace out.

The A-Team and The Karate Kid are on general release.

Saturday 24 July 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of July 16-18, 2010:

1 (new) Inception (12A) *** [above]
2 (2) Shrek Forever After (U) ***
3 (1) Eclipse (12A) ***
4 (3) Predators (15) ***
5 (4) Get Him to the Greek (15) ***
6 (5) Killers (12A) **
7 (7) Heartbreaker (PG) **
8 (6) Sex and the City 2 (15) **
9 (12) Leaving (15) ****
10 (new) The Concert (15) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Went the Day Well?
2. Breathless
3. Ma Nuit chez Maud/My Night with Maud
4. Splice
5. Toy Story 3

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (10) Invictus (12) **
2 (2) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
3 (new) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
4 (5) The Book of Eli (15) ***
5 (4) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
6 (1) The Lovely Bones (12) **
7 (7) Up in the Air (15) ****
8 (new) Youth in Revolt (15) ***
9 (6) Brothers (15) **
10 (8) Avatar (12) ***


My top five:
1. La Danse: The Paris-Opera Ballet
2. Gay Sex in the 70s
3. No One Knows About Persian Cats
4. Hierro
5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Incredibles (Saturday, BBC1, 5.10pm)
2. Lovely & Amazing (Friday, BBC2, 12.35am)
3. Lethal Weapon (Thursday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
4. Catch Me If You Can (Saturday, BBC1, 10.45pm)
5. O (Saturday, BBC2, 11.45pm)

Big mouth strikes again: "Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night With Maud"

In 1969's Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night With Maud - the third of Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales", re-released in cinemas this week by the BFI - a devout, buttoned-down, solicitudinous engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant), described as "the quintessential Jesuit" by his closest friends, finds all his hypotheses on life, love and "mathematical hope" tested by proximity to two very different women: first, the striking blonde student he locks eyes with at Mass - in what would surely count among the cinema's most daring pick-ups, had their relationship gone any further - then, having been snowed in at her apartment one Christmas Eve, by the spiky brunette of the title, a divorced single mother who becomes our hero's conversational and philosophical sparring partner, and eventually, against the odds, his lover.

The shock, 40 years on from Maud's first release, comes from encountering a film this frontloaded with lengthy, unexpurgated, sleepover chat. The picture is primed with talk, much as Michael Bay's movies are primed with explosions - and, like Bay's movies, Maud might be an equal turn-off for those who aren't really in the mood. (All Trintignant's fussing about Jansenism is Rohmer's version of that unfathomable technobabble Bay has the rocket scientists in his films speak.) There's an especially exasperating (not to mention emblematic) scene early on chez Maud when - having been invited to stay for at least dinner - Trintignant sits with the remains of his cheesecake poised upon his fork, and proceeds to talk, and talk, and talk. Rohmer's characters like to chew things over; you may well prefer them to swallow.

Indeed, without Nestor Almendros' atmospheric photography of Clermont-Ferrand in the snow and after dark - the regional equivalent of what Godard and Varda were trying to pin down in their Paris films - it would be easy to write Maud off as anti-cinematic: to conclude that its lengthy stretches of jawing would play just as well, if indeed not better, on the page, or on the stage, particularly if we could retain Rohmer's superlative ensemble. Only by listening closely, however, do we grasp that talk is actually the film's subject of study - the manner through which these characters stave off action, justify themselves or seek to absolve their guilt. In these lives, talk has become a weapon in an ongoing battle against insecurity, which is why the film's fundamentals feel oddly timeless: these are young adults striving to articulate a path for themselves between the unnameable forces in the universe.

Talk is also Rohmer's own way of seducing the viewer (and, more precisely, the viewer's good intelligence: these are conversations we might actually like to have), just as Maud has to talk her reluctant suitor under the covers with her. As with that onscreen process of seduction, it takes a while, but it happens sooner or later, and it's why these individuals - Françoise Fabian's eponymous heroine, in particular - come to seem like real, flesh-and-blood people, rather than the hepcat signifiers and autobiographical avatars we observe in other French New Wave projects. In this bold directorial statement - a film that's effortlessly good with words, and which ranks among Rohmer's clearest and crispest pronouncements - the characters talk, therefore they are.

Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night with Maud is on selected release.

Thursday 22 July 2010

A new "Species"?: "Splice"

With his first two features, the Canadian writer-director Vincenzo Natali set out his stall as a purveyor of ideas-driven, low-budget genre fare. 1998's Cube was a taut, clever slice of existentialist sci-fi, forcing its characters to ask "what are we doing here?" on several levels; 2003's Cypher a coolly intricate corporate intrigue that hinged on the fluid, shifting identities of its leads. With his latest, Splice, Natali attempts to put the science back at the heart of science fiction, simultaneously overseeing both a battle of the species and a battle of the sexes.

Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody play Elsa and Clive, the Posh and Becks or (more appropriately, given the coming destruction) Kurt and Courtney of gene research: rock 'n' roll scientists and lovers who've successfully managed to splice together odds and sods of animal DNA to produce a new lifeform, rich in proteins, for use in agricultural feeding applications; in the process, they've landed themselves on the cover of Wired magazine. With typical movie-scientist hubris, their next project is to try fusing human and animal genes, with the intention of curing cancer, and boosting their profiles even further. Yet when their funding goes south, the pair decide to go rogue - as does their eventual creation, an amphibious nymph named Dren, who arrives blessed with rapid growth, exceptional intelligence, and a nasty mean streak.

I wrote with regard to last week's Inception that sometimes an unlimited budget can actually get in the way of a film's big ideas, rather than aid bringing them to fruition. Splice makes for a workable test study: for much of the running time here, we're simply watching two actors in a lab or a disused barn - despite limited means, Natali's films are always carefully designed - interacting with a part-human, part-CG creation (a splice of the film's own), the relative lack of spectacle all the better to spot what's really going on here. That Natali is attempting to channel the spirit of the great Universal/RKO horror movies is one idea we pick up all too quickly: let's face it, you can't name your leads Elsa and Clive without outing yourself as a major James Whale buff.

Still, it's apt that Elsa and Dren (Delphine Chanéac) should first begin to clash over possession of a cat the latter has picked up in the fields surrounding the scientists' rural retreat: it's a horror film that, like the Cat People movies, turns entirely on the proper use and possession of a pussy. The gene-splicing project is Elsa and Clive's baby, in every sense: we see Elsa hand-rearing the creature, and racing to turn the basement of their lab into a makeshift nursery. What's noteworthy is how the screenplay (by Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor) seeks to reverse traditional movie gender roles. Here, it's the man who's desperate to fill the womb-shaped void in the couple's personal life; Brody's big-softy demeanour is more obviously at home here than it was in Predators, a film that sought to splice the actor's DNA with that of Vin Diesel.

Conversely, it's Elsa's ambition - signalled by her desire to upgrade to a swankier loftspace, and her flat refusal to conceive by conventional methods - that drives the pair forward; it's her way of pushing the boundaries without ruining her figure. On some level, the film expresses a fear of female sexuality: the creature does, after all, develop into a she (and a daddy's-girl at that, which gives us the year's freakiest sex scene), and one of the unexpected consequences of this scientific triumph is a frenzied rebooting of Elsa's sex drive. It's a tricky role for the thoughtful, independently minded Polley to have taken on, and testament to her skill as a performer that - after a somewhat shaky start - she begins to make clear the fine line both she and the film are treading.

On one side, then, Splice could be considered no more than Species with a college degree, or at least its own Facebook page: Natali's disdain for trashy thrills discernible from the manner in which the two supporting characters most likely to be picked off by the rampaging Dren are only dispatched late on, off-screen, and within a minute of one another. (Again, it's possible there might have been budgetary constraints at play here.) Yet there's equally something compelling in the scenario's hybridisation of gynocentric horror and practical parenting manual: to give Natali his due, he is writing about about some of the issues that follow from growing older as a human, whether you happen to be wearing a lab coat or not.

Splice opens nationwide from tomorrow.

Heads above water: "Hierro" and "No One Knows About Persian Cats" on DVD

The Spanish are making the boldest genre films in the world right now, and Hierro - "from the producers of Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage", as the cover art will doubtless have it - is at the very least boldly derivative. Gabe Ibáñez's feature debut, written by Javier Gullón, begins as Flightplan al mar, then tosses in elements of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, de Palma-like voyeurism, several recent, high-profile cases involving children, and a yet-unseen trash remake of L'Avventura. If it seems reluctant to let on exactly what kind of film it really is until very late, that feels less a deliberate tactic than a side effect of magpie filmmakers hungrily casting around for other people's ideas.

Single mum Elena Anaya awakens on the ferry carrying her to the island retreat of the title, only to find her little boy has vanished, feared overboard. With no body to hand and the search ongoing, she elects to make the best of her remaining downtime, and so - with her sister - checks into a coastal hotel (proprietor: one Senor Muy Shifty) where her mental state begins to erode like the shoreline under the influence of the tides; sure enough, she finds herself both attracted to and repulsed by the water in which her boy is generally believed to have drowned, which leads to a surprising amount of bathroom-related and sub-aquatic nudity for a 12A-rated feature.

In the very watchable Anaya - whose nubile babysitter was by some considerable distance the sexiest thing about Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia, her eyes dark pools into which this viewer would happily dive - Ibáñez has a willing accomplice, and the money's all up there on the screen, evident in Alejandro Martinez's adept lensing on the craggy, alien landscape of Hierro itself (Europe's most southernly point, geographical trivia-fans), and the cerulean blues the costume department conspire to deck the leading lady in, on those occasions when she does indeed choose to wear clothes.

The best features in this current Iberian renaissance ([REC], Timecrimes, Fermat's Room) did, however, rein themselves in up to a point, and only belatedly spiralled outwards. Hierro is baroque from the get-go, a super slo-mo car crash accompanied by the opening thunderclaps of a generally grandiose score by Zacarias M. de la Riva, a composer whose very name is OTT. The supremacy of style over substance here is such that a pronounced gap swiftly opens up between music, framing, and the prosaic and/or minimal action going on in front of us.

In truth, the film rarely allows itself the time to insinuate itself - as Nakata's similarly aquaphobic chiller most certainly did - and the themes in Gullón's script (principally grief, and animal adaptation to loss) are consequently rendered as somewhat dilute, if not entirely washed away. The work of a director plunging feet first in at the deep end, Hierro has a visual confidence that bodes well for Ibáñez's future projects - but next time round he'd do well to accommodate the slow drip of terror, rather than turning all the taps on at full blast.

No One Knows About Persian Cats, the new film from Bahman Ghobadi, is as much a let's-form-a-band musical as, say, School of Rock or the recent British entry 1,2,3,4 - only it takes place in latter-day Iran, where the issues facing up-and-coming musicians are far greater than arriving at a name that will satisfy the cool police. Our heroes are Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), two young indie kids - influences: Joy Division, Arctic Monkeys, Kafka - trying to finalise their group's line-up for a couple of gigs at festivals in London and Nice. Their immediate (and undoubtedly Kafkaesque) challenge is obtaining the visas that might allow them to travel; the Iranian authorities, it appears, treat their young creatives as unofficial ambassadors, and insist the music they export must in some way be cheerful - as though a nation's youth should be turning out radio jingles for their country.

Negar and Ashkan find their Jack Black figure in Nader (a very funny performance from Hamed Behdad), a bearded DVD pirate with a budgie named for Monica Bellucci, whose decidedly cosmopolitan catalogue of dodgy discs runs the gamut from the latest action movies to Bergman's Autumn Sonata. Nader becomes the duo's fixer-manager-promoter: he duplicates their CDs for them, and provides the connections they need to obtain the right documents; he provides wit and cheek when they need it, and - in his own unique, rather slovenly way - serves as the film's own beacon, or ambassador, of cultural enlightenment.

It's through Nader that we get our tour of what is Tehran's (literally) underground scene: much of the film unfolds in basements or down back alleys, on a vengeful location scout's roster of out-of-the-way places, beyond the ken of the authorities. One thrash-metal outfit the leads encounter have been driven to rehearse on an outlying farm, where they've set about driving the farmer (and his cows) to distraction; another band has taken to playing on the rooftop of their building, with cloth over the instruments so as to mute the sound, a state of play that entails climbing several flights of stairs with a drumkit in tow.

We sense it may be exhausting and exasperating enough to get any band together in the first place, even before the power cuts and state intervention that leave rehearsal time at a premium; that Negar and Ashkan need the energy of a Nader just to keep their heads above water. (The film would sit nicely on a double-bill with 2008's documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which demonstrated how the situation is no easier over the border; both should be required viewing for those pallid wastrels currently making a show of suffering for their art in Camden bedsits.) Somewhere in the course of No One Knows, we twig this is only partly a work of fiction, and closer in fact to a sort of samizdat concert film, complete with video inserts designed to show off the very best of Tehran's rock and rap combos.

Ghobadi's films aren't as rigorously formalised as, say, Kiarostami's or Makhmalbaf's are, but they possess great spirit; he likes people, and not even during his most ostensibly political feature, 2004's Turtles Can Fly, did he feel compelled to wag his finger at his audience. No One Knows, far from despairing at these youngsters' plight, is a film of great levity: clock the black-market document providers messing around and bursting into a song of their own as our heroes await their phoney passports, or Nader's irrepressible laughter when a doctor informs the thrash metallers they have to be tested for hepatitis. (If they were touring in the West, one suspects Hep would be the least of their worries.)

It's a shame Ghobadi plumps for what we might call the festival ending - the conclusion most likely to play to the ingrained pessimism of seasoned critics - even as this denouement asserts the director's own independence in the face of those apparatchniks who'd seek to make all Iranian cultural artefacts cheery enough for export. For most of its duration, this is his most youthful-seeming picture to date: a funny, sunny, unusual teen movie that will probably play just as well to kids raised on Glee as it would to Iranian cinema buffs - oh, and the music, diverse and surprising, isn't half bad, either.

Hierro and No One Knows About Persian Cats are available on DVD from Monday.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Care: "Toy Story 3"

The first Toy Stories - released in 1996 and 2000 respectively - weren't merely landmarks in the technological development of the cinema; they were rare features to get a handle on the holy grail of popular culture previously attained only by The Simpsons (and not yet by, say, the Harry Potter or Twilight movies): the near-total satisfaction of every conceivable demographic quadrant, whether young, old, male or female. (Frankly, if you don't like the Toy Stories, you're a joyless dolt who deserves to be rained upon every day for the rest of your life.)

These originals have been reissued in 3D over the past year, and the extra dimension - retained for this third instalment - has allowed for a heightened appreciation of the changing nature of the toys' owner Andy's bedroom, the series' (play)ground zero: where once there was nothing but board games and picture books, now there are posters for something called Urban Tour, electric guitars and too-cool-for-school flystickers; the toys, we soon gather, don't stand a chance. "C'mon," concedes Mr. Potato Head, throwing a consoling arm around his missus, "Let's see how much we're going for on eBay."

The jokes in Toy Story 3 are marked by a renewed awareness of age and the effects of the passing of time; like Pixar's previous Up, it's an animation shot through with intimations of mortality, which makes it an unusual summer-holiday release, to say the least. As we watch the overweight Puss in Boots in Shrek Forever After, we're reassured this is a temporary blip - the product of an alternative universe, and not to be taken too seriously. In TS3, though, we see how Andy's dog Buster, a tiny, yappy thing in previous instalments, has grown old and slow and tired, an especially funny, poignant development.

The toys, too, are facing up to retirement of a sort, dispatched into care when Andy's mum unwittingly diverts a bag meant for the attic to the Sunnyside children's home. There are signs of renewal here - principally in the romance between Barbie and Ken ("When I look at you, I feel like we were made for one another!") - for the most part, Woody and chums are left wondering what the point might be of going on, an apt question for the third entry in any franchise to have on its mind.

For the Pixar animators, part three is clearly an opportunity for further fine palette-tuning, and they've busied themselves magicking up textures that might have been unthinkable ten years ago, when the company was perfecting the basics of grass, fur and water; the opening credit sequence alone strives to reproduce the grainy fuzz of VHS camcorder footage, and the faded sheen of pre-digital home photographs - yet more pixels going towards a memorialisation of how we once saw the world.

Elsewhere, the film is the now brand-standard mix of physical action, judicious storytelling and (this time nice, rather than great) gags. The crazed, toy-pummelling behaviour of the daycare kids is made to seem even crueller by the respite momentarily granted to Buzz in the form of a box-window view of an adjacent classroom in which the youngsters treat their playthings with the utmost respect. And there are details to cherish, too: the mushroom cloud of monkeys-in-a-barrel detonated in the course of the opening pursuit, and the sudden appearance, among the Weebles and Fisher-Price telephones, of one of Hayao Miyazaki's Totoro figures.

If TS3 feels less fresh than its predecessors, that can partly be attributed to familiarity: Buzz Lightyear's fluid identity has become a series standby, although here it results in a joke that's going to get very complicated when the film plays in Barcelona and Madrid. Partly, though, it's a generic issue. The first two Stories were flat-out, rubber-burning action-adventures, of a sort that opening pursuit recalls. Maybe it's the sudden downshift to Buster pace, but Toy Story 3 is conceived as a slow-burn prison break, replete with a Southern gang boss (Ned Beatty's strawberry-scented teddybear Lotso Huggins) running a Deer Hunter-style gambling den with the aid of a The Farmer Says game from the inside of a rec-room vending machine.

As digital animation goes, the whole seems a mite, well... penned in, and ironically, it may be that the 2D Toy Stories were possessed of a greater sense of space: consider the excitement generated from the toys' attempts to cross a road - or to navigate a supermarket's aisles - in Toy Story 2, and then contrast it with the one comparable sequence here, Woody's exquisitely timed (but necessarily constrained) slapstick jaunt around a toilet cubicle. Sunnyside, perhaps deliberately, isn't as fun an environment for these characters to inhabit: the final-reel stand-off between Woody and Lotso takes place at the exit of a rubbish chute, which is very Shawshank, and thematically thought-through (these are, after all, toys on the brink of obsolescence), but seems a less than salubrious stage for a U-rated entertainment.

Still, that may all just be another side-effect of growing up: you have to get your hands dirty sooner or later. If it's not quite the obvious masterpiece the first two were, Toy Story 3 made me smile - fondly, sometimes wistfully - more than almost any other animation this year, and the final transition from one playmate, and one generation, to the next, is as perfect in its emotional calibration as anything achieved by Up, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Get there early for the accompanying short, the Teddy Newton-directed Day & Night, in which two blimpy Magoo-like figures representing the states of the title - or, for the spiritually inclined among us, yin and yang - learn to work together: it's one of the formally boldest things Pixar have ever done.

Toy Story 3 opens nationwide from Monday.

Friday 16 July 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of July 9-11, 2010:

1 (new) Eclipse (12A) ***
2 (1) Shrek Forever After (U) *** [above]
3 (new) Predators (15) ***
4 (2) Get Him to the Greek (15) ***
5 (3) Killers (12A) **
6 (4) Sex and the City 2 (15) **
7 (6) Heartbreaker (PG) **
8 (5) I Hate Luv Storys (12A)
9 (7) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12A) **
10 (new) Milenge Milenge (PG)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Went the Day Well?
2. Breathless
3. Toy Story 3
4. Leaving
5. White Material

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (2) The Lovely Bones (12) **
2 (re) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
3 (new) Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (PG)
4 (re) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
5 (re) The Book of Eli (15) ***
6 (re) Brothers (15) **
7 (re) Up in the Air (15) ****
8 (re) Avatar (12) ***
9 (re) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
10 (new) Invictus (12) **


My top five:
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
2. Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang
3. The Crazies
4. Life During Wartime
5. Lourdes

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Finding Nemo (Sunday, five, 4.55pm)
2. Toy Story 2 (Saturday, BBC1, 5.35pm)
3. Grease (Sunday, C4, 5.25pm)
4. Crimson Tide (Friday, BBC1, 11.15pm)
5. Crank (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.35pm)

Meshes of the multiplex: "Inception"

Here's a challenge for you: go see Christopher Nolan's Inception - and you really should, as it's liable to stand as the smartest of this summer's major releases - and try and make head or tail of the opening thirty minutes. Okay, so we ascertain that Leonardo diCaprio's hero is in the middle of conning a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) by entering into his elaborately designed headspace and stripmining his dreams for the relevant info - but it turns out everybody's dreaming here, and that we're as likely to wake up on a bullet train speeding through downtown Tokyo as we are in a cityscape that merges elements of New York and Paris. Not for the first time in a frenetically edited contemporary blockbuster, we know not where we are; in Inception, however, that sense of spatial bewilderment appears a deliberate tactic.

Still, one might ask, what kind of directorial sensibility spends this much of a studio's money on something as wilfully avant-garde as Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon? The same who gave the world Memento, perhaps - the American cinema's first movie-in-reverse - or indeed who dares to call a summer event picture Inception, with its absence of reassuring been-there-done-that suffix. As signalled by the lack of plot spoilers emerging this once from the Hollywood dream factory, Nolan's film is intended as one giant leap into the unknown: by the end of the film, we find ourselves up a mountain in China, although such is Inception's ambiguity, its fragile layering of realities, we may also just be climbing the walls of somebody's cranium.

It's my intention here not to explain that paradox, or give too much of anything else away, but it may help viewers struggling through that opening salvo to consider Inception as a post-post-modern reboot of The Matrix - another summer event that invited us to question how much of our lives, our dreams, our thoughts are our own - after a decade in which issues of identity and copyright theft have become paramount. In a near-future, diCaprio's fugitive scientist Dom Cobb raids dreams in a form of nocturnal industrial espionage, and in this - as it seems in all endeavours - the Japanese are at the forefront. Having himself been duped in the prologue, Watanabe's Saito has hired Cobb's crew to turn deception into inception, not removing but implanting a single thought ("I will split up my father's empire") inside the head of a rival mogul's weak-minded heir (Cillian Murphy).

The methodology is conveyed simply and effectively by Cobb's right-hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt): "When I say to you 'Don't think about elephants', what's the first thing you think of?" Well, pachyderms, quite possibly. The ultra-cineliterate Nolan takes the opportunity to implant (or draw out) movie memories of his own: Inception begins, like the Spanish mnemo-thriller Novo, with its hero awakening on a beach with no knowledge of how he got there; the use of Edith Piaf's "Je Ne Regrette Rien" as a wake-up call seems to connect with the casting of Marion Cotillard as Cobb's estranged wife; and indeed the whole subplot involving diCaprio attempting to process his wife's disappearance feels like psychic slippage from the recent Shutter Island, a film delayed so long in transit Nolan couldn't possibly have seen it - unless he himself had entered Martin Scorsese's dreams.

The set-up is also the excuse for much digitally-enhanced peacocking. While entering the dream of a gifted Sorbonne student (Ellen Page, nicely grounded in an otherwise thankless, tagalong role), Cobb proceeds to flip the top half of Paris up and over onto its lower boulevards, as though Montmartre were no more than the retractable roof on a convertible. One of the few elements I admired about the laborious and pedantic The Dark Knight was this director's bold use of architectural space, a facility granted fuller rein here: Page is recruited as a mental software engineer, to construct the mazes that provide each dream's underlying structure, there are doll's houses that rhyme with actual houses built in a city of the mind, and a pleasing wrinkle during a chase scene, as Cobb diverts into an alleyway only to see it narrow to the point where he risks getting stuck.

The suspicion remains that Nolan is better with concrete and concepts than he is with flesh and blood, however. Inception is an undoubted improvement on the Batman movies, lacking in humanity as they were: thanks to diCaprio's most convincing performance in some while, we sense that Cobb has pursued his profession to hold onto fading memories of his loved ones, and that he accepts the Japan gig in a bid to be reunited with his two young children. Still, there's not too much else in the way of tenderness evident here. Cotillard, all wild eyes, is cast as the crazy Frenchie getting her nails into our hero; she could be the teenage Nolan's abiding memory of Betty Blue, 25 years on. (We know the couple's relationship isn't likely to end well when her Mal - geddit? - starts holding dear to sharp knives.)

Even when Inception maps out Paris, the immortal city of love, the dreams Nolan weaves concern buildings exploding and crashing down around the dreamers; elsewhere, they involve characters being hit by speeding juggernauts. Who has these kinds of dreams, we might wonder, save stressed filmmakers rushing to hit their deadlines for a studio's summer release strategy? (And wouldn't it be cheaper to prescribe them Xanax, rather than a $200million budget?) I can't help but think that, as an ideas man, Nolan might have been better served by the more modest means typically accorded to the likes of Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) or Vincenzo Natali (whose 2002 thriller Cypher this sometimes resembles) - but then the colossal success of The Dark Knight appears to have inflated everything that has followed in its wake.

There's little doubt that Inception is overworked pulp at 149 minutes; a B-movie like 1990's Brain Dead - the Bill Pullman/Bill Paxton one, not the Peter Jackson one - romped through many of these mental-appropriation ideas with a similar cleverness, but at half the length. By the final 40 minutes of Inception, with its myriad corridors beginning to spin like tumble dryers, a spectacular incoherence - the kind that, in faithful symmetry with the opening, again leaves us unable to tell up from down - has set in, and we spot that while Nolan is good with individual spaces, he's less certain bringing them all together. (Consider the stand-off on the passenger ferry towards the end of The Dark Knight: a technical masterclass, granted, yet a sequence utterly apart from the rest of the film.)

It would be churlish to carp at an event movie that speaks in terms of "specificity", "catharsis" and "animosity"; that seeks to turn on a particular turn of phrase ("I was disappointed that you tried"); it is, at the very least, a polysyllabic blockbuster, and in the summer of the grunting The Losers, we might well be happy for that. Yet too often Inception feels as though it's being held back by a tendency to blow all its dazzling original ideas up - to render them projectile, in the audience's face! - rather than nailing them down, or exploring them in any real depth. (As he did during the IMAX-ready The Dark Knight, Nolan can appear more concerned with height, or breadth.) All we're left with are fragments of greatness, echoes of brilliance, a dream within a dream within the biggest marketing budget of the season.

Inception is on general release from today.

On DVD: "Lourdes"

Christine (Sylvie Testud), the heroine of director Jessica Hausner's striking drama Lourdes, arrives in the Pyrenean resort of the title in a wheelchair, without the use of her arms or legs. Less obviously devout than some, it's not clear - as she's ferried from her auberge to take her daily cures - whether she's looking for a miracle, or just a sign that, contrary to all appearances, she's not alone in the world. As it happens, she gets both, and one of the questions Hausner is asking - both of her protagonist, and her audience - in this, her third feature, is this: how are you supposed to react to extraordinary events?

Christine is Hausner's entry point, her wheelchair a dramatic Trojan horse; the filmmaker's real interest - as signalled by its preeminence in the title - is the place of Lourdes itself, or rather the thriving support industry that has come to grow up around it: the sceptics and true believers passing through, those looking to make a quick buck and those who come in hope, the head nurse (former Hal Hartley muse Elina Löwensohn, as spookily pallid as ever) with reasons of her own for being there, the young volunteer (Léa Seydoux), who takes time out from pushing Christine around to seek a laying-on of hands with a hunky security guard; if nothing else, the film proposes the novel idea that people might go to Lourdes as they do to Sandals or Ayia Napa, to get laid.

Hausner has shot several documentaries, and Lourdes has the feel of an observance of some kind, quietly, patiently watching the wheelchairs parade across the screen. It's clear from all the smoke and pageantry (not to mention the teeming, undirectable crowds of extras) that some of the rituals and ceremonies Christine attends are very real, yet the camera's detachment is neither amused nor frowning. This may be a rare film to remain entirely ambivalent on the subject of faith: for all the florid organ music, tacky neon halos and prizes for Best Pilgrim the film encompasses, Hausner seems just as aware there might just be something in the way Lourdes brings people together, offering what Löwensohn's nurse calls "a cure for loneliness" rather than the physical ailments that have left these visitors isolated.

At a time of cinematic fundamentalism - represented by The Passion of the Christ at one extreme, and the wise-ass rationalism of Bill Maher and Larry Charles' Religulous at the other - Lourdes' becalmed neutrality, its compunction to wait and see, comes as a welcome respite, allowing us to make our minds up for ourselves. (One of the conclusions I arrived at was that Lourdes may just be playing a very shrewd numbers game: if enough people are encouraged to visit the resort, then at some point, somebody's got to be healed or make a recovery, in such a way as to further propagate the myth of the miraculous; that it might be the spiritual equivalent of that old saw about monkeys and typewriters making Shakespeare.)

I couldn't bring myself to believe everything about Lourdes. Testud - winsome, pale to the point of opacity, self-consciously clenched, as though determined to squeeze a full body's worth of performance into her upper torso - remains a taste this writer hasn't as yet acquired. Neither the actress, nor her director, feels compelled to suggest anything of Christine's life before she Lourdes, making this a difficult character to get a fix on. And Hausner's ambivalence - the absence of both God and editorialising from her scenario - can manifest itself as a frustrating evasiveness; don't be surprised if fisticuffs break out on the sofa between rationalist and religiose onlookers over what exactly it is they've just witnessed. Yet the film remains intriguing from first frame to last: the work of a director who moves in some very mysterious ways.

Lourdes is available on DVD from Monday.

Thursday 15 July 2010

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (Moviemail July 2010)

This first in a trilogy of films inspired by Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium novels sets out an investigation on two fronts that eventually converge. Micke (Michael Nyqvist) is a
journalist shamed by a libel action a wealthy industrialist brings against one of his articles; summoned by mysterious phone call to a remote island, he’s employed by a retired shipping magnate to track down his niece, who went missing, presumed dead, four decades earlier.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a Gothy computer hacker paid to work against the journo during his trial, attempts to stay connected to Micke’s laptop - this, while fending off the brutal ministrations of her new, sexually abusive guardian. The film’s original title translates as “Men Who Hate Women” (not exactly good box-office, one suspects), and a few of those are encountered along the way, yet there’s something refreshing in the way the Lisbeth strand comes to dodge and subvert all our expectations.

Instead, we get a satisfyingly twisty pulp plot: something like The Big Sleep, updated with piercings and modems. Director Niels Arden Oplev seeks out locations that very nearly rival Wallander for atmospheric parkiness, and he’s recruited tremendous faces in the lead roles, at least as vivid as those that may have leapt out from the page. Rapace - sulky and astoundingly cheekboned, doing her bit to raise the share value of clompy boots, black lippy and fingernails bitten down to the quick - may be the first great movie heroine of the decade.

At 152 minutes, the film risks the literalism that’s dogged the Harry Potter adaptations - translation: you certainly get your money’s worth - and sensitive viewers should be warned Oplev doesn’t shy away from Larsson’s darker lines of inquiry: it’s a rare film that earns its 18 certificate, while remaining on just the right side of exploitation. Consider it the Volvo of franchise thrillers: a little boxy, but very reliable, and a good deal more mindful of its audience’s intelligence than those Dan Brown-derived howlers. Bring on parts two and three.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is released on DVD Monday.

Friday 9 July 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of July 2-4, 2010:

1 (new) Shrek Forever After (U) ***
2 (1) Get Him to the Greek (15) ***
3 (2) Killers (12A) **
4 (3) Sex and the City 2 (15) **
5 (new) I Hate Luv Storys (12A)
6 (new) Heartbreaker (PG) **
7 (4) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12A) **
8 (6) Death at a Funeral (15) **
9 (7) The Collector (18) **
10 (13) Whatever Works (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Went the Day Well? [above]
2. Breathless
3. Leaving
4. White Material
5. Skeletons

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Everybody's Fine (12) **
2 (new) The Lovely Bones (12) **
3 (new) My Name is Khan (12)
4 (new) Extraordinary Measures (PG) **
5 (new) The Last Station (15) ***
6 (new) Micmacs (12) **
7 (new) The Princess and the Frog (U) **
8 (10) Crazy Heart (15) ****
9 (3) Edge of Darkness (15) **
10 (new) Ninja Assassin (18) **


My top five:
1. Father of My Children
2. Double Take
3. Samson & Delilah
4. Crazy Heart
5. Ponyo

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Thing (Monday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
2. Sleepless in Seattle (Sunday, five, 6.55pm)
3. Catch Me If You Can (Sunday, BBC1, 10.25pm)
4. Munich (Saturday, BBC2, 10.40pm)
5. The Rainmaker (Friday, BBC1, 11.45pm)

Last shot at happiness (ST 11/07/10)

Leaving (15) 85 mins ****
London River (12A) 87 mins **
Eclipse (12A) 124 mins ***

A banner week, this, for British actresses working under the eyes of French filmmakers, with the release of two dramas on the theme of women and violence. Both open with a bang. In Catherine Corsini’s Leaving, an erotic thriller that develops into romantic tragedy, Kristin Scott Thomas’s insomniac Suzanne arises from bed one night to fire a rifleshot into the snoozing form of we-know-not-whom. Flashback to six months earlier, when Suzanne was embarking upon a physiotherapy career, and we observe she had a very different rapport with the male body.

Suzanne’s dismissive businessman husband Samuel (Yvan Attal) has invited a burly builder (Sergi López) into their home to oversee an extension. When the builder - good with his hands, attentive to a woman’s needs - breaks his foot trying to spare Suzanne’s car from a forgotten-handbrake disaster, the fledgling physio ends up overseeing his rehabilitation, and eventually massaging more than just his metatarsal. By which point, worldly viewers might well be thinking: oh, come on - all this needs is a cheesy organ soundtrack, and we could be watching any 1970s skinflick.

Yet Corsini emerges from the French tradition of explicitly feminist directors striving to subvert the framework of pornography, and do something constructive with desire. The physicality of Leaving is double-edged: it encompasses both the lovers’ bedroom romps and Samuel roughing up his wife. Since we know the ending, the affair assumes the look of another form of entrapment. Scott Thomas plays the opposite arc to Tilda Swinton in I Am Love: cheeks that once were tanned and rosy turn gaunt and haunted as Suzanne confesses her deeds to a spouse who grows ever more possessive.

And possession is key here: there is, in this love triangle, an implied critique of the unhealthy links society forges between love and money, and how much capital is required to sustain a relationship. It’s galling that a heartless swine such as Samuel should be able to provide Suzanne with greater protection than her jobbing paramour; though not as galling as seeing Suzanne begging at a petrol station for the freedom to move on with her life. The gunshot, when the film returns to it, is a full stop of sorts, but also the only way Suzanne can see out of a dire financial and emotional situation.

This layer of social comment staves off any suspicions of conservatism: yes, Suzanne is punished for her actions, but in a manner Corsini demonstrates is plainly unjust. A less comforting proposition than 2008’s Kristin-starring success I’ve Loved You So Long, Leaving is nonetheless punchier and more provocative, directed and performed with exceptional economy. We need take but one look at Scott Thomas’s face as she first crosses her lover’s threshold to know this affair isn’t likely to conclude well - but that Suzanne feels obliged to proceed all the same, as a presumed last shot at happiness.

Released to mark the fifth anniversary of 7/7, Rachid Bouchareb’s oddly unconvincing London River finds Brenda Blethyn’s Elisabeth living in isolation on Guernsey when news of the terrorist attacks first breaks. Unable to reach her daughter via telephone, she heads to the mainland to track her down in person, only to find London - in her words - “crawling with Muslims”. Also making his way into town - again, magically avoiding any of the travel chaos the bombs triggered - is Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté), a French-African Muslim whose son has similarly disappeared without a trace.

The actors are the film’s strongest suit: the late Kouyaté strikingly dolorous, Blethyn gamely trying something away from the foghorn-broad end of her range. Elsewhere, Bouchareb betrays signs he’s operating in a second language. Themes are spelt out almost phonetically, the plotting both schematic and curious: could Elisabeth really have this little awareness of other cultures, and - as a loving mother - zero grasp of where her own offspring lived? The occasion demanded substantial emotional truths; it gets merely good-to-woolly intentions.

Finally, a Twilight Saga update: Eclipse is the one where Bella Swan graduates, and there’s a sense the series has started to grow up - and out. Director David Slade has raised the action ante with the arrival of “new bloods”, a passing, naggingly irrelevant sideshow of debutante vampires. The mythology, meanwhile, gets ever more floridly self-involved: it sometimes seems as though every minor character is getting their own expositional flashback.

Yet whenever it threatens to crush the delicate rhythms that sustained the first Twilight, Eclipse can pull back to show Bella and her bloodsucking beau Edward tentatively testing out the parameters of their relationship; it’s a franchise of restraint, through and through. Again, it’ll be a swoony nonsense if you’re not, or have never been, a 14-year-old girl. But if you are 14 years old, and a boy has just refused to hold your hand, I could see how it might mean the world to you.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Into the woods (redux): "Predators"

Unlikely places to find one-time Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody: as a growly "stone-cold mercenary" traipsing through a hostile jungle environment in pursuit of that most intangible and elusive of beasts - a copper-bottomed hit. The name-recognition sequel Predators has Brody's Royce heading up a team of what the script describes as "heavy hitters" - a Yakuza (Louis Ozama Changchien), a former member of the Sierra Leone death squads (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), the FBI's most wanted (Walton Goggins), a sexy sniper chick (Alice Braga) and Danny Trejo - tossed unknowingly out of a plane into woodland that proves doubly deadly. Not just the natural habitat of the all-devouring, lesser-spotted Predator (we're assured the species has evolved, although its MO appears much the same), it's also been boobytrapped by all those who've tried to hunt the creature in the past. Look sharp for the Bill Oddie cameo.

Best to get the cynicism out of the way early doors: yes, Predators is a cash-strapped major studio's way of renewing their dwindling revenue streams by rebooting one of their most enduring franchises - but, as produced by Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimród Antal, it displays, in itself, just about the right level of genre smarts to pass muster. The opening 45 minutes, certainly, are an improvement on 2008's utterly disposable Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, currently languishing in a DVD bargain bin near you. Screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch have shrewdly recycled elements from Lost (the motley crew trying to work each other and their predicament out), Cube (all the while engaged against the ultimate killing machine), the Jurassic Park movies (with the Predators as T-Rexs; there's other, no less threatening indigenous wildlife to duck and dodge first) and that hardy genre perennial The Most Dangerous Game (man as both hunter and hunted, at the mercy of presumably very rich off-screen forces).

Jobbing Hungarian émigré Antal is an unusual choice for this gig, given that his work - pulpy and generic as it has been in spots - has mostly been concerned with interiors: think the Budapest subway system in his international breakthrough Kontroll, the interlocking motel rooms in 2007's Vacancy, or the locked security van holed up inside the disused industrial premises in last year's thoroughly boxy Armored. In fact, while events take a left turn around the halfway mark with the introduction of Laurence Fishburne (an Armored veteran) as a deranged survivor of earlier carnage, interest takes a pronounced dip during a second act in which he lures Royce's crew back to his place - and effectively shuts out any threat the Predators pose.

Briefly, the film turns into Aliens - the production design, all caves and pipework, acknowledges as much - and becomes a good deal stuffier and more familiar for it, although as the final act suggests Predators also wants to be considered as a samurai movie, and as a Vin Diesel opus starring Adrien Brody (holding up his end of the bargain adequately, enhanced abs and all), we might, perhaps, give the filmmakers marks for eclecticism, if not originality; the ending, blatantly setting up a potential Predator3, nevertheless has the authentically downbeat tenor of pulp. In the end, it is just more product - product that, like its target audience, probably needs to get out more - but it's product that pretty much fulfills its lowly remit, and in a summer of major American squibs and duds, we might be grudgingly grateful for that.

Predators opens in cinemas nationwide today.