Saturday 30 October 2010

On DVD: "Get Him to the Greek"

The joint winners of the Judd Apatow Comedy Internship for 2010 would appear to be the writer-director Nicholas Stoller and the actor-comedian-gadabout Russell Brand. It was Stoller who, in the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall two years ago, launched Brand's movie career Stateside; or, rather, it was Brand, who - simply by being himself (or a loucher version thereof) in short, pithy spurts - stole off with that rather flabby, overlong film. Brand's addled rocker Aldous Snow is revived in Get Him to the Greek's sharp prologue, witnessing the critical and commercial disaster of his vaguely poverty-themed concept album "African Child": "the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid," according to one of the kinder reviews.

Add to that the termination of his relationship with fellow starlet Jackie Q (Rose Byrne, a long way from TV's Damages, and all the funnier for it), and it's little surprise the character is going off the rails - at exactly the moment junior record executive Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) is planning the rocker's big comeback extravaganza, lining up a live gig at the Greek Theater in L.A. to promote a re-release of his earlier material. The tricky part is getting him there from his London penthouse, via New York and Vegas - a problem when your charge is guided not by any keen business acumen, but his nose and his dick; sure enough, Snow's soon drifting, distracted by alcohol, drugs, and any and every stewardess and cocktail waitress he passes.

The centrality of control to this plot marks Get Him to the Greek as absolutely a product of the modern media environment: the narrative is founded upon all those record-industry legends about unruly talent, but Stoller also wants to take us inside boardroom meetings where executives discuss how many "units" they've shifted, and the random selection of celebrity cameos (Ricky Schroeder, Paul Krugman and Draco Malfoy - together at last) serves both to embellish this tallest of tales and somehow confirm its real-world legitimacy. Put simply, if Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a treat for those underlings who'd worked hard to get Apatow's career to the point where it was producing $100m hits, Get Him to the Greek risks appearing self-congratulatory, and no more than a platform for Brand to play out all those messianic rockstar fantasies he's inhabited over the past decade.

The film, certainly, is as enamoured of the comeback myth as its leading man sometimes seems to be of himself; the redemption of Aldous Snow - the individual who somehow manages to turn his life, and live sets, around at the last minute, the conjuror who pulls success from abject failure - meshes squarely with all those interviews Brand has been giving with regard to Katy Perry. Within the Apatovian universe, Greek is nothing too radical or challenging: its depiction of rock 'n' roll excess suggests little has changed since the 70s heyday of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (the singer again jumps off a roof into a swimming pool, cueing a symbolic rebirth), and when Snow finally trashes a hotel suite, it's to the distinctly AM-radio strains of "Come On Eileen". Aldous seeks a reconciliation with first his estranged father (Colm Meaney, oddly enough), then the mother of his child; Aaron, meanwhile, tries to stay true to the nurse he's left behind back home. With its broadly traditional values and travelogue framing, we could be watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles all over again, albeit with the central roles reversed: this time, it's the chubby one who needs a shot in the arm, and the wiry one with odd hair who (almost literally) provides it.

You probably wouldn't rent Greek for profound insights into the human condition (as I think you might get in some of Apatow's truer, more reflective writing), but the back-and-forth rhythms Brand and Hill demonstrated in their brief encounters in Sarah Marshall sustain Stoller's latest sketchy construction, even through a 20-minute sequence in which Aldous coaxes Aaron into loosening up long enough to secrete a baggie of cocaine about his behind. Oddly enough, this is the film's dynamic in a nutshell - or in Jonah Hill's underpants, which may be the less appealing of the two images. On a formal level, Greek could well do with tightening up: Stoller, like his mentor, is fond of long, unbroken sequences, and accordingly the running time pushes on towards two hours. Yet on a narrative level - and, again, this is a feature of Apatow's own work - Greek is appealingly relaxed on matters of sex, race and drugs.

"Why is it so tense in here?," Aldous wonders as he interrupts Aaron's frosty reconciliation with his suspicious sweetheart (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, one of the New American Comedy's more forthright heroines) and sets in motion yet another casual threesome, but there's equally no tension in Aaron's own conversations with his boss (Sean Combs, a real surprise) over the phrase "house nigger". The film knows the danger zones, and scoots good-naturedly through and around them; "if it's funny, it's funny" seems to be Stoller's guideline, and six or seven times out of ten, Get Him to the Greek is funny, which makes it an improvement on the four- or five-ish Sarah Marshall. That said, if anybody even thinks of downloading Aldous Snow's ghastly anthems - whether "African Child" or the more populist "The Clap" - or indeed any of Jackie Q's conspicuously terrible, scantily concealed odes to anal sex, I will be forced to track you down and shoot you.

Get Him to the Greek is available on DVD from Monday.

Friday 29 October 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 22-24, 2010:

1 (new) Paranormal Activity 2 (15)
2 (1) Despicable Me (U)
3 (new) RED (12A)
4 (2) The Social Network (12A) ****
5 (new) Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (U)
6 (new) Alpha & Omega 3D (U)
7 (3) Vampires Suck (12A)
8 (new) Easy A (15) ****
9 (5) Life As We Know It (12A)
10 (4) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. It Happened One Night [above]
2. The Social Network
3. A Town Called Panic
4. Out of the Ashes
5. Involuntary

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
2 (new) Brooklyn's Finest (18) **
3 (3) The Blind Side (12) **
4 (new) Black Death (15) ***
5 (6) Shutter Island (15) ***
6 (5) Frozen (15) ****
7 (4) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
8 (7) Letters to Juliet (12) **
9 (8) The Bounty Hunter (12) *
10 (new) The Losers (12) **


My top five:
1. Collapse
2. Frozen
3. Skeletons
4. Carlos the Jackal
5. Get Him to the Greek

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Monday, C4, 4.10am)
2. Whale Rider (Saturday, BBC2, 2.05pm)
3. Thirteen (Wednesday, ITV1, 2.35am)
4. Raid on Entebbe (Saturday, five, 5.10pm)
5. Wonder Boys (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.25pm)

In peers: "Involuntary"

A young girl is brought into a classroom, and asked by her teacher to pick out the longest of two parallel lines from a series of flashcards. In the first two instances, the girl picks out what is evidently the longest, only for her classmates (operating under pre-arranged instructions) to contradict her; on the third pass, her judgement suddenly called into question, she plumps for the shorter of the two. This documentary-like episode comes a good 20 minutes into the Swedish director Ruben Östlund's second feature Involuntary, yet in some ways it's the code to cracking the meaning of this disarmingly singular film.

Here are snippets from five separate dramas that collectively serve to illustrate a particular thesis - and yes, the influence you can sense is that of Michael Haneke's earlier works. Outside of the schoolroom experiments, we're introduced to a pair of peroxide-blonde Paris Hilton clones, gearing themselves up for a fall while out on the town one night; a pack of roughhousing businessmen, egging one another on to more outlandish behaviour during a stag weekend; a middle-aged actress obliged to share an uncomfortable coach journey with civilians who won't stop pestering her about her past work; and a retired paterfamilias who, for the benefit of a family gathering, continues to smile on even after being hit in the face by a misfiring firework.

The theme (arthouse spoiler alert!) is peer pressure - the relationship between the individual and the group, those questions of personal and social responsibility drilled into us from a very early age - and Östlund's control is exemplary. Like Haneke, he watches his characters with a clinical detachment, locking off his camera, sometimes even going as far to obscure their faces and other distinguishing features altogether, as though they were literally under surveillance. Again, as with Haneke, the film has a correctional intent: we're not only shown that bad things happen whenever the good do nothing, but that it can even happen when the good do try to impose themselves. (See the ongoing difficulties of the schoolteacher faced with reporting a colleague she's observed being abusive towards a student.)

Yet Östlund's fingers are used just as often to tickle as wag. There's a playful edge to these social variations that suggests the mischievous schoolboy logic of Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions wedded to the fly-on-wall pranksterism of Ashton Kutcher's Punk'd: some of these performances and interactions, the film's choicer moments, are too good not to be true in some way. (Ten years ago, Involuntary would surely have emerged under the Dogme banner; the horrendous fireworks display in particular is very Festen.) Instructional enough to be employed as a teaching device, yet sufficiently open in form and mind to generate lively discussion afterwards, it's surprisingly sparky, distinctive and fun as ethics lessons go - though it forms part of the rules of engagement that viewers be left free to disagree.

Involuntary opens in selected cinemas today.

Who's your daddy?: "The Kids Are All Right"

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right would appear, on the surface, a film designed to allow leader writers and columnists to spout off on the subject of contemporary parenting: its central characters are a lesbian couple whose teenage offspring go in search of the sperm donor responsible for their very existence. Yet for a watercooler analysis of the family unit, it proves, in form as in content, surprisingly conventional; more so than, say, Showtime's Weeds or even network television's Modern Family. One of the recurring gags Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg give us involves the characters' acute embarrassment upon being discovered watching gay porn, and it may be a sign of the times that such material now feels no more transgressive in its context than an average bit in a American Pie or Judd Apatow comedy.

The couple in question are doctor Nic (Annette Bening) and aspirant landscape gardener Jules (Julianne Moore). The former's brittle and take-charge, quick to judge and find offence, forever performing a sort of mental triage. (We quickly gather she's the one in this household who, in all senses, pays the bills.) The latter's more open to those around her, a drifter, a giver; her catchphrase is "Is there something you want to talk about?" Together, they make rather a good pair. The long-established boundaries of the couple's relationship are, however, about to be tested: the pair's inquisitive offspring - the college-age Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and the strapping 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) - have just discovered the identity of their hitherto anonymous birth father.

This guy proves about as male as they, erm, come: he's Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a tan organic farmer with his own motorbike, restaurant business, and drawl. If the kids initially prove split on Paul's charms, so too are their moms when they find out. While Nic, predictably, resists this interloper's easy appeal, Jules - whom we've already heard giving a speech about the reasons those whose desires are largely internalised might like to check out a penis from time to time - ends up first tending his vegetable patch, and later his marrow, dirtying her hands in more ways than one. Soil, indeed, proves an essential component to a tale examining the ways in which we grow, as grown-ups and children alike: Jules ends one tiff with Nic with the priceless line "I think we should start composting", and I was struck by these partners' repeated deployment of the pejorative "grubby" (as in "grubby bitches"), particularly as all the leads are generally about as well-scrubbed as they come.

The Kids Are All Right is defined by this post-PC cleanness, or niceness. There's very little in the way of outright antagonism - these characters are too passive-aggressive for that - and we're encouraged to read Nic's controlling tendencies as admirable, in conjunction with her partner's substantially less controlled flakiness. There's only one real shock in the film, and that's when we see the family unit enthusiastically devouring barbequed hamburgers and hotdogs; given the progressive nature of this household, you'd have sworn red meat would have been well and truly off the menu. (Perhaps it was Quorn.) The question, going forwards, is whether the sheer, sunny Californian pleasantness of it all - the amenable climate of so much sitcom and soap opera - is intended to sneak something radical into the multiplexes, or aimed at helping us get past a general lack of bite.

What's unquestionable is that the film is very appealingly played, and at its most successful in its depiction of a loving (same-sex) couple. We may now expect Bening, who's become pickier with experience, to be this honed, this cherishably prickly, from her haircut on down, but she also has an appreciable effect upon her co-star: Moore's comic timing, an occasional liability, hasn't been this on point in years. If there's any appreciable conflict in Kids, it lies in the contrast between these two sharp knives and the trademark, sloth-like rhythms of Ruffalo as the kind of heterosexual male who, in all likelihood, couldn't be fussed either way. (We spot as much in the way Paul comes to neglect, and then discard his on-off fuckbuddy, played by the unutterably gorgeous African-American actress Yaya DaCosta - a piece of casting brilliance that might get even Nick Griffin to reconsider his stance on mixed-race relationships.) The bounding Hutcherson and more sensitive Wasikowska are very bright, too, characterised in terms of pure curiosity, where a cruder film would have reduced them to bags of hormones.

Sure enough, it all slips down easier than one of Paul's organic smoothies - but I did begin to wonder where the pith might have gone. Every time Cholodenko and Blumberg seem inclined to lampoon the, shall we say, hempier excesses of their characters' too-good-to-be-true lifestyle, the film regathers itself, pulling in close for another hug or impromptu Joni Mitchell rendition. Even Laser's name is taken for a progressive given. Between the emphasis on homes and gardens, the last-reel road trip to secure family ties, the somewhat quizzical approach to any domestics who happen to stumble into this (DaCosta aside) all-white milieu, this selectively accepting comedy feels no more profound a statement on human desire than It's Complicated or Spanglish. And I wonder if that poses a question worthy of a leader piece in itself: does the film feel conventional because that's what it at heart is, or does it feel conventional because these are the enlightened times we're living in?

The Kids Are All Right opens in selected cinemas today.

Saturday 23 October 2010

On DVD: "Beautiful Kate"

Beautiful Kate, the directorial debut of the actress Rachel Ward, aspires to the status of outback Tennessee Williams, dramatising a homecoming haunted by the ghosts of the past. Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), a writer who's just hit 40, returns with his bored, sexy actress girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) to the family ranch, where his manipulative father Bruce (Bryan Brown) is seeing out his days with a congenital heart disease, and his sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths) strives vainly to keep up appearances. Two absences are felt at the dinner table, both of family members lost at a formative stage: Ned's elder brother Cliff, who saw suicide as the only way out of a stifling situation, and their younger sis Kate, with whom Ned was possibly too close, and whose ultimate fate nobody seems much inclined to discuss. Starved of rain, the ranch becomes another hothouse, one in which all the old recriminations will again start to flourish.

While we wait for flashbacks to out the family's better-kept secrets, the on-screen tension relies on the extent to which Ned is his own man, and how much he's inherited from his father: practically the first thing the writer does upon returning to the fold is occupy his dad's sometime study to work on his latest, autobiographical outpouring, and the two men begin to squabble for the actress's affections. There is, admittedly, plenty of dramatic meat for the actors to chew over here: Brown gets to do monstrous indifference, Mendelsohn to suggest a soul as generally torn and crumpled as a discarded first draft. The flaw is one of design. With the civilising presences (Griffiths' matter-of-fact sister, Dermody's teasing saucepot) rather too conveniently spirited away off-screen, the focus narrows to the male leads: we're left watching two aging rams butting heads for two hours, with only scenes from Ned's adolescence to break up the monotony, some of which rather resemble ads for an incest-fragranced fabric softener. Ward establishes a langorous mood, and sets out a persuasive sense of place, but the ending is softer than Williams would surely have tolerated, letting at least one character too many off the hook.

Beautiful Kate is available on DVD from Monday.

Friday 22 October 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 15-17, 2010:

1 (new) Despicable Me (U) [above]
2 (new) The Social Network (12A) ****
3 (new) Vampires Suck (12A)
4 (1) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (12A) **
5 (2) Life As We Know It (12A)
6 (5) The Town (15) ****
7 (7) Made in Dagenham (15)
8 (4) The Other Guys (12A) ***
9 (3) The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud (12A)
10 (8) Eat Pray Love (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Social Network
2. A Town Called Panic
3. Mary and Max
4. The Arbor
5. Carlos

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) The Disappearance of Alice Creed (18)
2 (3) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
3 (2) The Blind Side (12) **
4 (1) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
5 (new) Frozen (15) ****
6 (4) Shutter Island (15) ***
7 (new) Letters to Juliet (12) **
8 (5) The Bounty Hunter (12) *
9 (new) The Back-Up Plan (12) **
10 (8) The Ghost (15) **


My top five:
1. Frozen
2. Skeletons
3. Wah Do Dem
4. Iron Man 2
5. Beautiful Kate

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Babe (Saturday, ITV1, 1.40pm)
2. Sin City (Saturday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
3. No Country for Old Men (Saturday, C4, 10.15pm)
4. Bad Santa (Sunday, five, 9pm)
5. Goldfinger (Saturday, ITV1, 3.25pm)

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Correspondence: "Mary and Max"

These are extraordinary times for animation - perhaps the strongest single year on record, across all forms of the medium. In the past few months alone, we've witnessed Toy Story 3, The Illusionist and A Town Called Panic, none of which required a 3D upgrade to be considered essential viewing. Try to think of three live-action features of a comparable wit and imagination released during that period, and I dare say you'd be stumped; perhaps we should do away with actors altogether, or at least reduce them to the standing of on-call voice artistes. To this elite sample, we can now add the Aussie claymation Mary and Max, from director Adam Elliot.

Elliot first came to prominence on these shores with the half-hour Harvie Krumpet, a truly touching work that won the short animation Oscar in 2004 before being released as part of the touring Model Behaviour programme. Though his creations are typically far less skeletal than Tim Burton's experiments in stopmotion (wide-eyed and only just on the cuddly side of grotesque, they instead resemble the offspring of Aardman's Rex the Runt and the Crazy Frog), Elliot shares with Burton a boy-in-his-bedroom's fascination with misfits and outsider figures - often lonely and hard done-by, who've known suffering and yet remain compelled by some force (whether their own will, or the animator's hand) to keep muddling through, to a usually bittersweet end.

For his first full-length feature, Elliot tells the tale of two such outsiders, and a 25-year friendship conducted entirely through the postal system. For Mary Daisy Dinkle, a bored, bullied eight-year-old living with an alcoholic mother and an ineffectual father in the drab, brown Australia of the 1970s, this correspondence marks the beginnings of a growing curiosity about what may be over the horizon. For Max Jerry Horowitz, the overweight, fortysomething New Yorker whose address Mary cribs from a post office phonebook one eventful afternoon, these letters are a way of communicating with an outside world he's always found disordered and terrifying - and Elliot duly renders Max's environs as a monochrome film noir set, all shadowy street corners, gunshots, and devouring dames (such as the lusty BBW in Max's Overeaters Anonymous meetings) whose appetites know no bounds.

To Max's Asperger's, the film adds agoraphobia, alienation, depression of various hues, shock therapy, low self-esteem and dismemberment, plus the spectacular demise of several goldfish - yet the clay makes all this business malleable, manageable; it never just sits there as a lump, and Elliot knows how to remove the hard edges from these themes without compromising the essential truth of who Mary Dinkle and Max Horowitz are. It's not an issue movie, but a vivid character study, and it's the details that get you. Where his stopmotion contemporary Nick Park has an obvious fondness for grand Heath Robinson designs, Elliot has a fetish for fixtures, those altogether tinier touches that bind the world together, and seem to signify a sort of making-do particular to these characters: crocodile clips employed to clamp the trouser-ends of an amputee, the pegs used to secure Mary's coat in the absence of any remaining buttons, the twin swinging drawstrings on Max's tracksuit bottoms. (In a film of outré professions, Mary's dad has the joyless task of attaching the strings on tea bags.)

It's self-evidently a work borne out of real love: as Park has ventured in interviews, you wouldn't spend your time working in claymation if you didn't absolutely care for these characters, their homes and preoccupations, and didn't want to nudge them forward, frame by frame, in the hope they might find happiness in their lives, or some kind of enlightenment. (You'd go into computer animation instead, which is so often careless and dashed-off, not to mention a good deal more financially profitable.) There's a real invention in the storytelling, too. When Max's numbers come up in the New York lottery, it makes perfect sense he should
use the money to fill a lock-up garage with a lifetime's supply of cooking chocolate, so as not to disrupt the carefully maintained order of his life; a clever touch, too, that Mary should find herself devastated when the childhood sweetheart she marries takes up with a penpal of his own, not realising for a moment the hobby that has provided her with a liberation of sorts might also do the same for somebody else.

Elliot is alert to the deadening quality of political correctness - one of the tomes on Asperger's Mary comes to read, in the hope of understanding Max's condition, has the title Curing Mental Spasticity - and the pitfalls of unearned sentimentality. In a live-action movie on this subject - perhaps even a well-meaning American animation - the two outsiders would eventually meet and be united by their difference; in Elliot's vision, they encounter one another only belatedly, after finding they may just be too different for their communication to be entirely painless. (Believing Mary to have betrayed his confidences, Max rips the "M" key from his manual typewriter - another of the fixtures to have connected them over the years - and mails it to her in a box, like Gwyneth Paltrow's head in Seven.) A plasticine 84 Charing Cross Road, the film blends hurt and humanity in equal measure, never more so than in Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman's voicing of the title characters, and in Barry Humphries' beautifully weighted narration: nice one, chook.

Mary and Max opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

"Carlos": an almost full day of The Jackal

For some time now, in films such as Les Destinees Sentimentales, Demonlover and Summer Hours, the critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas has been concerned with dramatising the ways the world has come to turn in our globalised era. Carlos, Assayas's new study of the Venezuelan terrorist and international playboy Ilich Ramirez Sanchez - a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal - boasts a full supporting cast of German revolutionaries, Middle Eastern dignitaries, KGB bigwigs and Red Army footsoldiers, and in doing so, proposes terrorism as a prototypical form of globalisation - a series of secret backroom deals, hostile takeovers, short-lived mergers between secretive groups with vaguely tesselating interests. (Implicit in this, of course, is the critique that globalisation is simply a more respectable, far-reaching form of terrorism.)

Carlos was initially conceived as three full-length films for the French broadcaster ARTE; an abridged two-and-a-half-hour version has been made available to international distributors along with an unexpurgated 338-minute cut, and it may be that the richness of the project's detail only fully emerges in this latter version. A opening title card suggests much of what we're about to see is to be understood as no more than speculative inquiry - Carlos was such a slippery character he would only be charged with some of these atrocities, and this being relatively recent history, not all of the relevant documents have yet been declassified - yet it's clear the film is some kind of return to Assayas's journalistic roots: brilliantly researched by the director with his co-scenarist Dan Franck, it's a rigorous feature in the longer form, where I'm guessing the abridgement will have been heavily subbed.

The first section documents how Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) first hitched his wagons to those pro-Palestine forces seeking to counter increased (and increasingly bloody) Zionist activity in Europe during the 1970s, a move interspersed with scenes in which the soon-to-be-Jackal sets out his personal philosophy during assignations in cafés with a selection of sexy señoritas. This commitment to the cause comes to a halt on the Rue Toullier in Paris in June 1975, in the living room of a group of self-described "internationalist militants". "Non-violent," one of the group adds, shortly before Carlos pulls out a revolver and shoots the three cops and the Arab informant who've come to meet him there - a pretty definitive break from the political mainstream, I'd say. The remaining two parts - dealing with the siege on the OPEC conference in December 1975, an event that marked the Jackal's arrival on the world stage; and then with the betrayals that led to his eventual capture and arrest - chart Carlos's decline into celebrity freelance hellraising, exporting a brand of terror so indiscriminate in its allegiances that each new act served only to betray his original ethos: that "behind every bullet, there will be an idea".

Comparisons with Soderbergh's Che diptych are inevitable, and revealing. It's clear from Assayas's film that Carlos bought wholesale into the Che myth: he got the beret, grew the beard, even smoked the same cigars. Yet the Jackal came to grow cocky and (perhaps due to the cover he received from certain authorities) complacent, not to mention sloppy; what awaited him wasn't the heroic martyrdom he expected, but a prison cell much like any other. Assayas makes Carlos's activities involving and cinematic, but whole stretches of this story could be taught in a How Not To Be An International Terrorist class: comically inept rocket attacks on departing El-Al jetliners (very Four Lions, this), a ransom demand in the wake of the OPEC siege that sticks the Jackal with the wrong aircraft for a clean getaway. So hyped is the central figure with revolutionary fervour that he seems to overlook the basics of planning (where Che, as Soderbergh showed, marched meticulously to his doom), and the film prompts waves of amazement that he got away with it for as long as he did. (Carlos was only arrested in 1994, and convicted three years later.)

Recent works such as Mesrine and The Baader-Meinhof Complex - characters from which you could well imagine making crossover appearances here - have plunged us into the charged, polyglot political milieu of the 1970s and 80s, although commercial demands meant these films often had to dash through the finer dialectical detail, or omit it altogether. It seems perverse to write this of a five-and-a-half-hour film, but - despite Assayas's usual fascination with deal-cutting and negotiation, the language of doing business - Carlos is no less pacy, and it keeps its wits about it, too. Certainly the filmmaker made a shrewd casting choice in the hitherto unknown Ramirez, who encapsulates the Jackal's potent dramatic cocktail of moviestar looks, slick ambition and empty boasts; his sudden rages and (dare one say typically Latinate?) chauvinist impulses.

Here is a character playing at being a revolutionary, without being willing to make the personal sacrifices of a Che; who kept on bigging and beefing himself up, until he became just too great a target for the authorities to resist going after. As one of the Jackal's Palestinian contacts observes, "Celebrities are not used to taking orders" - and this ego, along with a growing sense of entitlement and invincibility (two decades as a terrorist - and still they cannot stop me!), may finally have been Carlos's downfall. You may emerge from Carlos (as I did) feeling as though you've had your fill of 70s revolutionary discourse for the time being, but Assayas's film is sharp enough to spot that the most immediate, and most telling, difference between Carlos and Che wasn't, in fact, one of rhetoric or actions, but a tiny choice of wardrobe: Carlos wore sunglasses in photographs, so we couldn't see into his soul.

Carlos opens, in both abridged and extended versions, in selected cinemas from Friday; the DVD is available from November 1.

Monday 18 October 2010

An apology...

With my usual pristine sense of timing - the London Film Festival stepping up a gear, and new Emma Stone and Mary-Louise Parker movies all set to open - I've managed to contract an eye infection: nothing life- or sight-threatening, thankfully, but painful all the same, and requiring me to stay put and take care of it in the coming days. (My eyes are the tools of my trade, after all. I knew something was wrong when I went to see Vampires Suck, and found it the laugh-riot of the season.) This will, naturally, mean running somewhat fewer LFF picks and reviews than first anticipated, for which I apologise - but I hope to resume normal service by next weekend, and catch any gems remaining from the Festival's final stretch. In the meantime, I shall be mainlining Lucozade into my eyeball, and subjecting myself to as much bland, optician-prescribed spectacle as the rest of my body can take: the collected works of Amanda Seyfried, for starters. Because if there's one filmic phenomenon from recent years that begs for reassessment during a period of optic incapacitation, it's Mamma Mia!. My eyes, my eyes!, etc.

At the LFF: "It's Kind of a Funny Story"

Easy to have It's Kind of a Funny Story pegged as the Half Nelson team (namely writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) go mainsteam - and indeed, compared to that partnership's quietly observational lead-off projects, it is kind of a funny story, based on pre-existing material (a 2006 novel by Ned Vizzini), eminently marketable as a teen movie, and with the beardy dude from The Hangover in a prominent role. Admirers of Half Nelson and Sugar should, however, be reassured by the sight of the filmmakers bringing their usual subtlety and sure formal and narrative touch to bear on their source.

Their latest hero Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is a nervy, pallid high schooler, cursed with a whirring mind and a churning stomach - his occasional bouts of projectile vomiting either the first indication of the directors' unexpected move into gross-out comedy (the beardy dude from The Hangover hasn't even shown up yet), or an authentic symptom of this particular malady. It's to Boden and Fleck's credit that these early scenes give us a sense of what's eating their protagonist (as well as what he's eaten) without overselling his predicament. In a mainstream teenpic, there'd be a major flip-out around the corner, but IKOAFS offers a gradual build-up of commonplace, below-the-radar concerns: the pressure to get into a particular summer school, a lack of self-confidence, something about the girl of Craig's dreams, who naturally turns out to be nothing of the sort.

After causing an incident on the Brooklyn Bridge - or thoughts about causing an incident on the Brooklyn Bridge; Boden and Fleck don't even want to make a big deal out of this - our boy checks himself into a psychiatric facility. There are a few early bumps: an unsettling midnight-hour encounter with a doctor who turns out to be a fellow patient (Zach Galifianakis, the beardy dude from The Hangover), being assigned to the same room as - in Craig's words - "a depressed, middle-aged Egyptian dude", finding out the traditionally twitchy Jeremy Davies is only on the staff. Nevertheless, it's here that Craig starts to equip himself with a support network, and comes in turn to provide support to others who, it turns out, need it a good deal more than he himself does.

If there's a connection with the directors' past work, it lies in this emphasis on personal growth, and the way Boden and Fleck observe closely and sympathetically as the protagonist adapts to cope with the changing environment around him. Gilchrist's central performance is, in its own way, very nearly as impressive as the slow, calibrated adjustments imposed upon Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson or Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar, sharply attuned to the gradual, hard-gained progress his character is making. He's nudged along nicely by Galifianakis, doing wacko and washed-out in a rather more realistic key than he's hitherto been permitted; by the increasingly noteworthy Emma Roberts, as a self-harmer who opens new doors for our hero; and by Viola Davis as the patient therapist we'd all like to visit on a weekly basis.

The funny bits in Funny Story are chiefly cutaways to Craig's gloomy mental projections - legitimate visions to him, amusingly off-kilter to better-balanced observers: the exception is a glam-rock fantasia, set to Queen/Bowie's "Under Pressure", which marks a crucial breakthrough in the patient's self-belief. Beneath the blithe breeziness, however, sits a serious, socially committed film, its beady eye set on an issue that has been spiralling out of control these past few decades. Boden and Fleck display not just a deep understanding of the mounting pressures facing our young, but a touching commitment - made most evident in the concluding photo-montage - to finding ways to put their characters back on something like the right track; and actually the filmmakers' chosen aesthetic makes their call for America's youth to live in the moment doubly sincere and heartfelt. Plenty of teen movies over the years have served as a pick-me-up: the cinematic equivalent of scoffing an entire bag of Haribo in one sitting. This very likable work is one of the few that might legitimately be described as therapeutic.

It's Kind of a Funny Story screens at the Vue West End on Tue 19, Wed 20 and Thu 21.

At the LFF: "Another Year"

There had been idle speculation, at various points in the recent past, that all was not well aboard the good ship Mike Leigh, particularly with the death of Simon Channing-Williams, the director's long-time producer and keenest sponsor. Yet if there's one recurring theme in the Leigh filmography - upon which he continues to play subtle, skilful variations - it's how we come to deal with the vicissitudes of existence. Think of David Thewlis's Johnny in Naked, ferociously raging against the dying of the light; or Sally Hawkins' Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, a fervent collector of silver linings. Those Marmite-movies mark the twin extremes of the director's work, of course: as many came to love them as found they couldn't bear to watch. The characters in Leigh's latest, Another Year, cleave steadfastly to the middle ground: they're muddling through as best they can.

These are 12 months in the lives of geological engineer Tom (Jim Broadbent), his counsellor wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and their various passing friends, most of which are introduced bounding up the stairs in the couple's comfortably appointed semi to take a pee and a place in the spare bedroom. Foremost amongst these houseguests is Gerri's scatty, unmarried colleague Mary (Lesley Manville). Mary likes Gerri and Tom, but their every shared look and laugh - their every loving reunion with grown son Joe (Oliver Maltman) - is a painful reminder of what she herself lacks: it's the reason she drinks ("I'm a glass half-full kind of gal," she joshes, only half-correct), and when she drinks, she gets troublesome. Other visitors prove even more tragic: take Ken (Peter Wight), a bluff, burly sort in a "Less Thinking, More Drinking" T-shirt, who himself is apt to overdoing the red wine and tears before bedtime. In a world where nobody appears happy, Leigh reasons, perhaps getting by like Gerri and Tom is all we can hope to achieve.

In everything from its cast to its look to Gary Yershon's simple, plaintive score, Another Year is very clearly a return to Leigh's Film on Four days, observing the tensions that arise quietly in kitchens and living rooms - this time, thankfully, without the knock-down, drag-out melodramatics of a Secrets & Lies. (There's no Blethyn, for a start.) Revisiting these homes, themes and characters allows Leigh to invest already strong, thought-through material with a further two decades' life experience - and his actors to reach another level entirely, building on what's gone before. Manville, for starters, is both exquisitely and excruciatingly good - the logical successor to Poppy as a character you can't watch without having your hands ready to cover your eyes, a whirlwind of gauche flirting, conversational hairpin turns and pitiful self-recrimination.

The two hours contain some of Leigh's best work with even walk-on members of his ensemble, from a scarily despondent Imelda Staunton (as one of Gerri's patients, setting the low bar for the other character's troubles) to a brisk Phil Davis (showing up for a round of golf and a barbeque, fretting about the wife) and the typically terse David Bradley (as eloquent sipping from a mug of tea as certain Hawks heroes were lighting cigarettes). Maltman, previously known for wacky small-screen comedy (Star Stories) is a subtle revelation as a character who comes to seem less of a prat the more one finds out about him, and I was reassured to see Mary Jo Randle - a mainstay of early 90s kitchen-sink dramas - back in a small role as a mourner.

As for Broadbent and Sheen, both restating their bids for national-treasure status: well, Tom and Gerri could have been no more than a bewoollened sounding board signifying aspirational ordinariness, a two-person expression of constancy in an unsettled, at worst indifferent universe. ("Bread and cheese," the two chirp in unison, when asked what it is they have for lunch.) Yet there's real depth and subtlety here: see Broadbent's remarkably expressive double-act with a cafetiere, or Sheen's guarded seething after Mary has taken exception to the new girlfriend Tom has brought home.

The couple's homestead, a repository of simple pleasures (with an allotment out the back, where the pair tend the soil and feel the sun on their faces), is where Leigh demonstrates the utmost sincerity: "Life's not always kind," Gerri suggests to Mary during a garden party, and the ruefulness the camera catches in Sheen's eyes is in itself enough to stave off the now-expected accusations this director is dealing in little more than petit-bourgeois caricature. It's typical of how an extraordinarily truthful film transcends what first appear narrow and cosy confines to range far and wide, engaging with, among other matters, the comforts and consolations of marriage, the human need to find somebody to settle down with, and the way we come with time and the passing of the seasons to accumulate people and regrets alike.

The improv looseness associated with this director is still evident - we draw towards a conclusion with a heart-to-heart between two characters who've never previously met - but Another Year displays a keener interest in structure than Leigh ever has: not just in the seasonal chaptering, but in the way dialogue and plot developments come to echo one another. (An entire subplot is devoted to Mary's ill-fated car.) We end with the characters mired in winter, with the pronounced chill of mortality in the air: the closing shot, in a film of masterly camera and editing decisions, aligns youthful optimism (and the promise of fresh starts to come) with its mirror image, embittered, hard-gained experience, over the kitchen table. All are welcome at Tom and Gerri's, but both the film and its director know at least a couple of them - and more than a few of us, in fact - will be going home alone.

Another Year screens as the Centrepiece Gala tonight (7pm, Odeon Leicester Square), and at the Vue West End on Wed 20 and Thu 21, before opening nationwide on November 5.

At the LFF: "The Nine Muses"

The filmmaker John Akomfrah's work typically centres on notions of place, from the nocturnal manoeuvrings of Handsworth Songs, his 1986 documentary (commissioned for the Black Audio Film Collective) about a Thatcher-era riot in Birmingham, to his recent installation piece Mnemosyne, which set foot into the snowy wildernesses of Alaska. Snow also proves a crucial element in Akomfrah's latest The Nine Muses, and it's a fascinating development that a director so concerned with the idea of what it is to be black should suddenly find himself preoccupied with whiteness - as a look, an idea, an organising principle; not least as these chilly landscapes must surely have been doubly cold for a child of Africa to work within.

A film-poem of sorts, The Nine Muses sets off archive footage of the black and migrant experience in Britain against stunningly mounted Alaskan tableaux (let's, in passing, say hats off to cinematographer Dewald Aukema, even if I'd advise everybody to keep their earmuffs on at the present time), in which figures in coloured kagoules assume places at the very edge of the frame. What joins these locations is that, in both, people came to live and work; and in both cases, it came to constitute a form of exile. The narration, along with occasional title cards, tell the tale of the Nine Muses, the children Mnemosyne gave birth to in Greek mythology after sleeping with Zeus over nine nights. (Beat that, Octomum.)

In backing the project, the UK Film Council may have had the crossover success of Terence Davies' Of Time and the City in mind, but that would seem unlikely here: Akomfrah's film - and this isn't necessarily a criticism - lacks a unifying perspective, that one voice as strong as Davies's coming through. This filmmaker's cinema has always been one of many voices; it deals in contrast and juxtaposition. Keening tabla music plays out over footage of boats bobbing in an icy harbour far from Mumbai; Akomfrah cuts freely and joltingly between two actors' separate renditions of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech. This patchwork, collagist approach isn't wholly removed from the aesthetic Akomfrah developed in his BAFC days, only now he has access to a greater selection of archive material - all of history's recent trends and turds - and can quote from epic verse and Emily Dickinson.

The politics may, perhaps, have become less fervent, eloquent art coming to replace ragged urgency; a work like The Nine Muses is, after all, made to be projected in galleries and mezzanines, not town halls and community centres. At times, it even drifts into abstraction, as though the director's concern was no longer plotting the progress of a civil-rights movement, but movement itself. (His imagery - horses, cars, kayaks in motion - seems to back up this semantic smudge.) Yet all the usual issues of identity, race and memory are still very much present, codified beneath the new film's crisply beautiful top layer: very moving in places, it's a gentle reminder of just how far we've come as a society, and - by way of evidence of a truly English sensibility behind the camera - a cautionary glance at what the weather's up to now we're here. Has the climate for migrants really changed all that much over time?

The Nine Muses screens for the final time tonight at the ICA.

Comment, Like, Share?: "The Social Network"

Until someone takes the inevitable step of greenlighting the Twitter movie, nothing is likely to trend more than Facebook, that online resource we modern information junkies feel compelled to check once (if not more times) a day; as subject matter for what we might call brand cinema - the study of those trademarked phenomena that have come to shape our day-to-day lives - it makes the Transformers and The A-Team seem like the relics of a pre-digital age they always were. A film about the origins of social networking need not, then, have been about anything more than rubbish kids at keyboards: imagine Channing Tatum beating away at a Commodore with his ham fists, a spectacle for which a certain audience would still, I'd wager, have been willing to turn out. All the more reason, then, to admire the intelligence and integrity with which The Social Network has been assembled; after the drearily platitudinous The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - for which someone badly needed a poke, ideally in their mushy brain with a sharp stick - we can all, at last, refriend its director David Fincher.

Adapted by The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich's non-fiction tome The Accidental Billionaires, the film envisions the birth of Facebook as an American dream countermyth; a kick-bollock scramble of cease-and-desist letters, hollered accusation and non-stop legal activity, resulting from an attempt to superimpose a business model upon the conventions of friendship. (In a typical Fincher spike, only after a certain while does it become apparent these still-recent events are being viewed in flashback, from the perspective of yet another deposition.) At the centre of this maelstrom sits Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the brilliant, borderline-autistic Harvard sophomore whose programming nous converted local dating site Facemash into, and eventually Facebook itself; identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, doubled up with computers), Olympic rowers and representatives of the Harvard elite, who claimed the idea as their own; and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg's best - some might say only - friend, who stumped up the cash, and ended up purged from Facebook history.

Between them, there exists a dense, complex mesh of claims and betrayals, put across in this screenwriter's trademark zingy dialogue. Even Sorkin can't fully fathom out who was responsible for what in this matter of virtual paternity - much of the film takes place behind insistently closed doors, or firewalls - but it may just boil down to something like this: that where the alpha-male Winklevosses - or "Winklevi", as Zuckerberg dubbed them - gave the Facebook project its brash, toothy entrepreneurial veneer, its appealing facade, it was the just-dumped Zuckerberg whose code gave the site its inner workings, its heart; that only the latter truly understood what made its users tick, why we seek a closer connection to others, and why Facebook might be a success because of it. The beginnings of this argument are set out in the film's brilliant opening sequence, briskly and distinctively delineating Harvard's haves and have-nots: while the university elite bus girls in from neighboring colleges in customised "fuck trucks", Zuckerberg sits in his dorm lovelorn and drunk-blogging, and inadvertently changing the Face of the world as we know it.

Neither Fincher nor Sorkin has a Facebook page - no time for it, presumably - and The Social Network does rather propose the site in question as, in its own bright and user-friendly fashion, an alternative to or substitute for actual lived experience: it's one of the reasons why photos of parties posted on Facebook often seem more vivid than the parties themselves, where the camera-touting guests are too busy thinking of posterity (of presenting an image of themselves to the world) to live in the moment, to be in the room. (We are all control freaks now, even as we give up the details of our private lives to the gaze of strangers, colleagues and the vaguest of acquaintances.) The details of the case will be familiar to some, yet the film derives its knife-edge tensions, its dramatic ironies, from the ambiguous stance it adopts towards both its popular subject matter and a still-extant protagonist who, as The Social Network amply demonstrates, has amassed resources enough to fight several expensive legal actions simultaneously.

The real Zuckerberg reportedly saw Fincher's film upon its opening weekend, and commented he "liked the bits that were true" - a back-handed compliment perhaps even Sorkin himself would have struggled to come up with. In the role, Eisenberg - a performer who, like his close contemporary Michael Cera, looked to have settled into a rut of familiar, dweeby tics - is little short of a revelation. Cera, in the recent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, went overboard trying to get us to like a character whose head was similarly full of bitmaps, and failed miserably. Ditching his puppyish mannerisms, Eisenberg here goes to the exact opposite extreme, and it's by making Zuckerberg utterly uningratiating - pallid, snarky, passive-aggressive; distractible and calculating - that he somehow gets us to root for him, or at least his expertise, his tenacity, his vision. Like Josh Harris, the Web 2.0 pioneer deconstructed in Ondi Timoner's excellent documentary We Live in Public, Zuckerberg is a figure at once hopeless, hateful and heartbreaking; he is a funny little character, which doesn't preclude us taking to him as an underdog - particularly when set against the buff superiority of the Winklevi - and which is why the casting of a young actor previously known for his comic roles is as apt as it is.

More so than Fight Club or Zodiac, indeed, The Social Network is the film that reveals Fincher as a director turned on by concepts and actors alike: everybody raises their game in this company. The erratic Garfield - so promising on television (Kid A, Red Riding), so resistable on film (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) - brings appreciable warmth to a story otherwise told through the rather clinical prisms of bright young men and their modems: his Saverin, a Brazilian in snowy Massachusetts, is the real outsider here. (Away from the digitised Winklevosses, Fincher reserves his most prominent effect for the character's breath condensing in the cold wintry air.) And Justin Timberlake - as the sometime Napster boss Sean Parker, who gave Zuckerberg his final leg up the digital ladder - is note-perfect as the kind of slick superstar programmer a couple of terminal geeks might well be taken in by.

Fincher, for his part, is back on his favoured thematic stomping grounds, networks of information and communication - the nuts and bolts of human connectivity that so helped to dramatise the formation of an underground resistance movement in Fight Club, or highlighted where the pieces and players of the mystery in Zodiac both did, and didn't, come together. This, possibly, was one more reason why Benjamin Button felt so disappointingly flabby: it had nothing to say except the obvious, had nowhere to go save up and down the one linear timeline. Here, Sorkin's fluent script provides the vehicle for the director to further move between worlds: if the film is ultimately critical of the Winklevoss's privilege, it also can't fail to spot the incontrovertible lameness of a Jewish fraternity's Caribbean theme night. The new film is hungry, leaner, as whippet-thin and excitable as its characters: whenever Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's RAM-heavy score strikes up, it's as though a server (or some other mega-brain somewhere) has started processing data at top speed, and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall excel themselves, underlining the rhythms of Sorkin's dialogue while meeting the needs of its attention-deficient consumers. (I saw the film with a young, paying crowd who appeared genuinely gripped by the drama unfolding before them; enough, at least, not to feel obliged to renew their status updates every five minutes.)

In short, then, The Social Network is as plugged-in and switched-on as mainstream cinema gets in 2010; a rare instance of Hollywood chasing the zeitgeist and catching it. Indeed, what may be so satisfying about the Facebook story is that everybody does, sort of, get what they deserve. The Winklevi cash another large cheque, and bow (or row) gracefully out of history, like the gentlemen scholars they are; Savelin has his supporting credit restored to the Facebook masthead; we get to throw endless sheep at one another; Parker gets busted on a drugs charge, emptying his pockets at the scene to reveal an asthma inhaler and an epi pen. (At moments of stress, the nerd will always out.) As for Zuckerberg, we leave him caught in a loop of his own making, the youngest billionaire in history repeatedly hitting refresh on his ex-girlfriend's own profile page in the hope she might, belatedly, have friended him. At this moment, the creative impulse that lies behind this great technological leap forwards is revealed to be exactly that behind every other eureka moment since time immemorial; and we see that what began for Zuckerberg as a cutting-edge fuck-you, a way of getting even, has instead mutated into a platform for getting girls - in this instance, just one girl - to like him more.

The Social Network is on nationwide release.

Saturday 16 October 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 8-10, 2010:

1 (new) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (12A) **
2 (new) Life As We Know It (12A) [above]
3 (new) The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud (12A)
4 (1) The Other Guys (12A) ***
5 (2) The Town (15) ****
6 (5) The Hole (12A) ***
7 (6) Made in Dagenham (15)
8 (4) Eat Pray Love (12A) **
9 (3) Buried (15) ***
10 (8) Toy Story 3 (U) ****

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. A Town Called Panic
2. Back to the Future
3. From Here to Eternity
4. The Social Network
5. Collapse

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) The Disappearance of Alice Creed (18)
2 (3) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***
3 (2) The Blind Side (12) **
4 (1) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
5 (new) Frozen (15) ****
6 (4) Shutter Island (15) ***
7 (new) Letters to Juliet (12) **
8 (5) The Bounty Hunter (12) *
9 (new) The Back-Up Plan (12) **
10 (8) The Ghost (15) **


My top five:
1. Frozen
2. Skeletons
3. Black Death
4. The Time That Remains
5. 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Sweet Smell of Success (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
2. From Russia with Love (Saturday, ITV1, 3.15pm)
3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Saturday, C4, 6.30pm)
4. A Mighty Wind (Friday, ITV1, 2.55am)
5. The Dam Busters (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30pm)

Tuesday 12 October 2010

At the LFF: "Amigo"

"Get these people up out of the dirt - we're supposed to be winning their hearts and minds," barks Chris Cooper's Colonel Hardacre at the beginning of John Sayles' Amigo, riding into the small village his troops have just invaded and occupied. The backdrop is an uprising during the Philippine-American War in 1900, but it's clear from this line of dialogue alone that the writer-director has more contemporary matters on his agenda. Amigo's theme is the community under attack, a line you could argue Sayles first set out in his script for 1978's Piranha (reworked to far less pointed ends earlier this year) and politically finessed in the likes of Matewan and Limbo. Here, the natives of Luzon are busy repairing their roofs, tilling the fields and making their own moonshine out of bark when the yanquis ride in, spitting and syphilitic, and on the hunt for a notorious bandit - who just so happens to be hiding out in those self-same fields.

Monsoon conditions replace those of the desert, but the similarities to events in the Gulf are otherwise plentiful. The young American troops don't speak the lingo, and suffer for it - professionally, romantically; proposed democratic elections don't go as planned (or as the occupying forces want); civilian women and children take hits when battle eventually breaks out. Even the torture methods - pouring water down a prisoner's throat down a long tube, with the aim of literally flushing the bandit's whereabouts out - come to look awfully familiar. Yet one of the leftist subtexts is that communities where individuals are regarded as equals are better suited in their innate flexibility and adaptability to outwit systems where order is imposed from the top down. (Which, as the recent World Cup amply demonstrated, is applicable beyond warfare: it may be the reason Spain and Holland made the final, and the likes of England didn't.)

It's been five years since a Sayles movie reached UK screens - the comparatively starry Silver City - and Amigo is a noticeably sparer, rougher-hewn production, an enforced move back in the direction of grass-roots filmmaking that aligns the director closer to his artisan subjects. His use of actors is unexpected, resembling a cut-price Malick: with Cooper having scarcely more screen time than he did in The Town, and the (long-awaited?) re-emergence of DJ Qualls postponed until the halfway mark, it's down to non-professionals and only semi-recognisable faces - chiefly Garret Dillahunt's clenched Lt. Compton - to hold the fort. Without the dramatic finish of, say, Men With Guns, Sayles's previous excursion into jungle warfare, its earnestness threatens to become monotonous - how many indigenous weaving interludes does one film need? - yet Amigo grows in weight over its two hours, helped by the sparky performances of the film's non-English speakers. Sayles remains a keen, attentive student of the lessons to be gleaned from history - keener, you might say, than many at the top level of his government - and this latest restates his already considerable claim to being America's cinematic conscience.

Amigo screens on Friday 15 at 9pm and Saturday 16 at 1pm at the Vue West End, and on Sunday 17 at 3.30pm in NFT2.

At the LFF: "The Arbor"

If the writer Andrea Dunbar is known at all today outside her native Bradford, it's for the play that provided the basis for Alan Clarke's Rita Sue and Bob Too, a piece of tatty 80s arcana from a once-serious director that bequeathed Black Lace's atrocious "Gang Bang" to the world. The artist Clio Barnard's Dunbar biopic The Arbor employs the device of having actors lipsynch to the recorded memories of the writer's nearest and dearest, an unnerving sight I seem to remember from a couple of old ad campaigns (in its form, what the film resembles most, if anything, is a live-action episode of Aardman's Creature Comforts), but which I think must be unprecedented on the big screen, with the possible exception of certain songs in musicals.

All this miming raises the question of interpretation - when Barnard comes to addressing Dunbar's theatrical career, we're offered the sight of actors lipsynching to the words of other actors - and blurs the line between fiction and reality in much the same way the subject's own plays did. The Arbor is both a document about Dunbar's life and a feature inspired by her accomplishments, although I use that last word guardedly, because her legacies were ambiguous, to say the least. Barnard is wholly honest about the writer's being a product of her environment - Dunbar ended up dead (of a brain haemorrhage, aged 29) in a pub toilet, after all. As a playwright, she conjured tangy, salty dialogue drawn from a close attention to the world around her; but as a mother, Dunbar's gifts were, shall we say, less obvious, as the mournful, depressive testimony of her mixed-race daughter Lorraine only goes to show.

Among the producers of The Arbor are Artangel, the collective whose projects typically centre on issues of place: it was they who commissioned Rachel Whiteread's "House", her plaster cast of the inside of an empty townhouse, and more recently Roger Hiorns' extraordinary "Seizure", which applied copper sulphate crystals to a disused council flat in Elephant and Castle, and arrived at something magical in one of South London's grimmer corners. Barnard's film, as with its inspiration, attempts no such alchemy: it plays out on scrappy estates where dogs, horses and single mothers roam free, and - like Dunbar's characters - is too busy searching for flickers of hope, reasons to live, to pin down much in the way of beauty.

Dunbar's most personal work, 1980's The Arbor - concerning a scrappy teenager (a forerunner to Mia in last year's Fish Tank) trying to cope with an alcoholic father, unexpected pregnancy, and having a Pakistani boyfriend in prime BNP territory - took its title from the road on which the young writer (then 15) lived. Barnard gives this play another airing by staging key scenes in the middle of the (now relatively gentrified) Braffington Arbor on Bradford's Buttershaw estate, a reminder - not least to the locals, who look on from the fringes - of the miserable lives that once played out here, just as the film is constructed as a monument of sorts to the writer who sprang from these parts.

Barnard's choices are bold - challenging, even. For a start, how do we discuss the lipsynchers' participation - as performers, or mere pose-throwers? If Danny Webb strikes one as too slight to embody Royal Court boss Max Stafford-Clark (one of Dunbar's champions) - the actor is better speaking his own lines as the bibulous pa in the restaged Arbor, where Natalie Gavin is a punchy standout as the heroine - it would be hard to imagine how Manjinder Virk could be any more expressive as the sorry-eyed Lorraine. She, perhaps, comes across as a more vivid presence than her own mother: a young woman who didn't get off the estate (where Andrea - through her words - did in a way), and ended up spiralling into crime, drugs, prostitution and repeated sexual abuse. (One of the film's grimmer conclusions is that Andrea may have been lucky to get out when she did - even if it was in the back of a mortician's van.)

And presence is the key word here, after all: we're dealing with spectres, half-humans, ghouls, developments arrested at a formative stage. Dead babies and abortions litter the biographical narrative; fruitless, squandered, wasted labours. Ole Birkeland's crisp photography - as it did in last year's art-cinema crossover Helen - lends a further uncanny edge to the kind of cramped and squashed domestic arrangements such have been an essential part of the British cinema, and of British theatre, over the past half-century. If the tale The Arbor tells is pure kitchen-sink (and thus slightly removed from the livelier idiom of Dunbar's own writing), it's a sink stained with blood, and with several vital components missing; one that has its own heavy, toxic psychic energy, sucking everyone around down the plughole.

No easy watch, then: with its disembodied voices, its inbuilt sense of channeling, this is a ghost story that appears to haunt each successive generation, not to mention all those it passes through, whether that means the actors Barnard has employed, or the audience looking on. Part of me thinks we really ought to look, however. Whether she herself grasped it or not, Dunbar was a fiercely oppositional writer, and her plays were as reflective and descriptive of the broken homes of Thatcher's Britain as Barnard's film is relevant to the child-welfare cuts that have come with Dave "Dave" Cameron's purportedly kinder Conservatism. It's a jolting experience, but it prompts you to remember that while our arbors and alleyways may look a good deal nicer these days, there is still much to be addressed behind closed doors.

The Arbor screens in NFT1 on Friday at 8.45pm, and on Monday at 1.15pm, before opening in selected cinemas from October 22.

Saturday 9 October 2010

50 Un(der)seen Gems (ST FilmLife 10/10/10)

50. The Gigolos (2006, below)

It took two years to reach UK cinemas, two more to reach DVD, but Richard Bracewell’s comedy-drama has slowly emerged as among the most assured recent British debuts. An unexpectedly funny and touching tale of a Mayfair escort and his clueless pimp, it boasts a superlative cast of veteran actresses (Susannah York, Sian Phillips, Anna Massey), and an inspired deployment of Ian Dury’s “Clever Trever”.

49. Resurrected (1989)

Where it all began for Bourne supremo Paul Greengrass: a punchy Film on Four drama marking traumatised soldier David Thewlis’s less-than-triumphant return from the Falklands.

48. Meet the Applegates (1990)

Bugs fleeing the destruction of their rainforest habitat seek sanctuary in suburbia in this witty, green-tinged satire from writer-director Michael Lehmann, a specialist in zippy cult items (Heathers, Hudson Hawk).

47. Adam and Paul (2004)

Few films could live up to the billing “Trainspotting meets Beckett”, but this deadpan gem from promising Irish director Lenny Abrahamson – about two addicts shambling towards their next fix – does exactly that.

46. Innocent Moves (1993)

Producer Scott Rudin (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men) has named this taut, unsentimental drama about a chess prodigy as the one film of his he wished had found a wider audience.

45. The Dead Girl (2006)

This clever moodpiece links the experiences of several women leading up to a murder – a tough sell, and accordingly direct-to-DVD in the UK, but writer-director Karen Moncrieff is developing as a sharp dramatist of female trouble.

44. P.S. (2004)

Laura Linney has been terrific in almost everything up to new TV drama The Big C, but she’s never been more radiant than as the admissions officer enjoying a fling with a student in Dylan Kidd’s commendably mature romance.

43. Signs and Wonders (2000)

Director Jonathan Nossiter is best known for 2004’s wine doc Mondovino, yet this earlier globalisation fable – with Stellan Skarsgard as a paranoid commodities trader – is as much a “modern” film as Antonioni’s must have seemed in the mid-Sixties.

42. The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)

Even Philip Ridley’s better films – see this year’s Heartless – tend to slip through the cracks; Darkly Noon’s typically atmospheric American Gothic, featuring a pre-Mummy Brendan Fraser, underlines the talents of this gifted fabulist.

41. Osmosis Jones (2001)

Zookeeper Bill Murray scoffs a germ-covered egg; Chris Rock cracks wise as the white blood cell keeping infection at bay. A rare animation to both entertain and educate: young viewers may even start washing their hands.

40. Les Revenants/They Came Back (2004)

A zombie movie that prioritises conscience over carnage. The undead here suffer not from bloodlust, but homesickness; Robin Campillo’s unsettling debut wonders what we’d do faced with the sudden population increase.

39. Max (2002)

Menno Meyjes’ admirably chancy and provocative portrait of Hitler as a young artist has John Cusack as the Jewish dealer giving Noah Taylor’s Führer his first break. Sample dialogue: “You’re an awfully hard man to like, Hitler.”

38. Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)

Taiwanese maestro Tsai Ming-Liang’s mosaic drama charts the final hours of a faded picture palace in what feels like real (or reel) time: it’s an engrossing evocation of the cinema as living, breathing organism.

37. Alferd Packer: The Musical [sic]/Cannibal! The Musical (1993)

Most first-time filmmakers with ideas above their budgets make generic horror movies (heavy on the ketchup), so give South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone credit for electing to make a musical Western about cannibalism. With some interpretative dance in the middle. Part-Troma, part-Python, entirely good-hearted, Alferd Packer sustains its momentum and invention past the point at which most micro-budgeted pastiches give out.

36. The Mighty (1998)

Brit director Peter Chelsom has multiple cult faves on his CV (Hear My Song, Funny Bones), but this stirring family film boasts the unlikeliest ensemble, including Meat Loaf and Gillian Anderson – together at last.

35. Judge Priest (1934)

Much of John Ford’s prolific early output has gone unheralded: this lyrical adaptation of Irvin S. Cobb’s short stories about a good-natured lawman (played on screen by Will Rogers) urgently needs rediscovering.

34. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Riotous spoof of 1980s summer-camp movies showcases several key Apatow players, Janeane Garofalo flirting ineptly with astrophysicist David Hyde Pierce, plus the cancellation of a potentially redemptive last-reel softball game upon the grounds of triteness.

33. Haze (2005)

Tetsuo creator Shinya Tsukamoto’s abstract nightmare tops The Vanishing for claustrophobia by sealing its hero within a concrete chamber for its entire length. It runs to 47 minutes – breathtaking as it is, few viewers can endure much more.

32. Better Off Dead... (1985)

One of Hollywood’s darkest, funniest teenpics: John Cusack’s troubled high-schooler is distracted from thoughts of self-sacrifice by demonic paperboys and obsessive Howard Cosell impersonators, to cite but two of cartoonist-turned-director “Savage” Steve Holland’s myriad comic doodlings.

31. Comfort and Joy (1984)

Everybody recalls Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, but Bill Forsyth’s no-less-wonderful follow-up - with Bill Paterson’s DJ embroiled in Glasgow’s ice-cream wars – has apparently vanished with little trace from our collective cinematic memory.

30. Brain Dead (1990)

Neurological researcher Bill Pullman is hired by corporate bigwig Bill Paxton to extract crucial data from the mind of a sectioned accountant in a sparky, unpredictable B-movie that predates Inception by two decades.

29. waydowntown (2000)

Gary Burns’ wry take on modern hermitism finds young professionals on Day 28 of a bet to see if they can survive one month without setting foot outside their combination apartment-office-shopping block. Who needs Big Brother?

28. Session 9 (2001)

Director Brad Anderson is widest known for 2005’s The Machinist; far better is this creepy latter-day haunted-house movie, in which David Caruso’s clean-up crew finds the asbestos in an old mental institution easier to process than the lingering psychic detritus.

27. Perfect Blue (1998)

The socially attuned Japanese animator Satoshi Kon died in August: among his legacies was this affecting, Hitchcock-influenced psychodrama that probed the entertainment industry’s darker recesses and foresaw the crash-and-burn fate of certain contemporary starlets.

26. Handsworth Songs (1986)

The Black Audio Film Collective’s rarely-screened documentary stitches together exceptionally evocative images from the previous year’s Handsworth riots. Police scuttle past Visionhire under cover of night in both a warning from history and genuine film noir.

25. L'Effrontée/An Impudent Girl (1985)

A sulky Charlotte Gainsbourg steals the show in loose adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding; Ricchi e Poveri’s happy-making Euro hit “Sara Perche Ti Amo” provides the icing on the cake.

24. Kafka (1991)

This loopy literary homage almost killed Steven Soderbergh’s career stone dead: Jeremy Irons’ grim-faced insurance man Franz K. stalks the streets of Prague, wondering who - or what - is making his colleagues vanish.

23. Stir of Echoes (1999)

Buried as another post-Sixth Sense chiller, this is the richer film, writer-director David Koepp delineating a blue-collar community in which the apparitions everyman Kevin Bacon sees are as much projections of frustrated ambition.

22. River's Edge (1986)

A young girl lies dead on a riverbed, and her mixed-up contemporaries can’t quite comprehend the sight. Tim Hunter’s anti-Stand By Me offered a compellingly grungy portrait of screwed-up Americana; Dennis Hopper provides the enfeebled voice of parental wisdom.

21. Fearless (1993)

Jeff Bridges only won the Oscar this year, but he was equally rock-solid as the plane crash survivor who believes himself immortal in Peter Weir’s haunting metaphysical drama.

20. Heartlands (2002)

This adorably modest latter-day folktale – in which Michael Sheen’s natural born doormat Colin ventures to Blackpool in pursuit of his true love – opened to a sniffy reception; it’s certainly a parochial film, but in the best possible sense, and Sheen envisions his ordinary-bloke-in-the-pub with the same keen eye he would later bring to more public figures. The best film ever made about darts, right down to its surprise last-reel cameo.

19. The City of Lost Children (1995)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s post-Amélie output suggests he’s badly missing the creative rigour of Marc Caro, his co-director on Delicatessen and this genuine one-of-a-kind about a mad, Santa-impersonating scientist kidnapping youngsters to harvest their dreams.

18. Suddenly (1954)

Not so much unseen as long-suppressed: following events in Dallas nine years later, Frank Sinatra attempted to buy up all extant prints of this gripping B-movie in which he plays an assassin plotting to kill the President.

17. Lagaan (2001)

If you only watch one three-hour Bollywood extravaganza, make it this one, dotted with many of composer A.R. Rahman’s finest songs: peasant farmers challenge their British governors to a nail-biting cricket match over a controversial land tax.

16. Body Snatchers (1993)

For a third screen adaptation of Jack Finney’s science-fiction touchstone, skip the Nicole Kidman plod The Invasion and pick up Abel Ferrara’s pulsating variant, located on a military base where the conformism Finney was critiquing is the norm.

15. Ace in the Hole (1951)

Even admirers of The Apartment and Some Like It Hot bow before Billy Wilder’s still-savage satire of modern media mores – yet rights issues have kept it from wider UK circulation.

14. Kagaaz Ke Phool (1959)

The mercurial, pipe-smoking Guru Dutt was the Hindi cinema’s Orson Welles, and this strikingly expressionist drama was his Citizen Kane, charting the downfall of a prominent director – played by Dutt himself, natch.

13. Last Night (1998)

What if the last night on earth was the same as any other? Just reissued on DVD, this droll pre-millennial supposition finds criss-crossing Canadians – including David Cronenberg – tying up loose ends ahead of the final countdown.

12. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

Not for the very young, this weirdly devastating stopmotion rendition of a familiar tale – creeping out of Bristol’s bolexbrothers studio during the region’s animation boom – stands as Wallace and Gromit’s begrimed secret sibling.

11. What's Up Doc? (1972)

Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal bicker in another act of cinematic homage from The Last Picture Show’s Peter Bogdanovich; one of the few screwball comedies made outside the studio era to fully deserve the term.

10. Cube (1997)

Astounding sci-fi, plotting six characters’ attempts to escape from a killer Rubik’s Cube. Writer-director Vincenzo Natali continued with 2002’s similarly underrated Cypher and this year’s enjoyable Splice.

9. Simple Men (1992)

Few directors’ stocks have fallen faster than Hal Hartley, once a frontrunner in the American independent movement: time to reassess this wryly funny account of two brothers searching for their missing anarchist father.

8. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are re-released every other year; we need a new print of Scorsese’s heartrending road movie, in which the director proves as attentive to Ellen Burstyn’s heroine as he usually is to bad fellas.

7. Xala (1975)

Too much African cinema has been allowed to pass British audiences by; this ripsnorting comedy from Senegalese master Ousmane Sembene, concerning a bureaucrat struck down by impotence, is the best place to start catching up.

6. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Isao Takahari’s exceptionally moving anti-War fable remains one of the few Studio Ghibli animations to tackle historical, rather than fantastical, forces: the collapse of Japanese society towards the end of World War II, observed through the eyes of a young brother and sister. A spiritual sibling to Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows, it’s a deeply committed work of art – tender, humane and distressing in exactly the right way.

5. Clean, Shaven (1994)

Indie director Lodge Kerrigan specialises in studies of the mentally troubled: his astonishingly accomplished debut does more than any other film to put us inside the head of a paranoid schizophrenic.

4. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Granted a nervy theatrical release in anticipation of awards that never followed, octogenarian Sidney Lumet’s perfectly realised, magnificently acted thriller gave the heist movie a contemporary white-collar twist.

3. Satantango (1994)

There’s a reason this has largely gone unseen: Hungarian miserablist Béla Tarr’s eight-hour mystical-agricultural drama might qualify as the least commercial film ever made. It’s also one of the most immersive narrative experiences you’ll have outside of a great novel.

2. Open Your Eyes (1997)

The template for the botched Vanilla Sky, Alejandro Amenábar’s dreamy futurescape remains one for head and heart alike; and the Spanish Penélope Cruz remains approximately a dozen times cuter than the American Penelope Cruz.

1. The Fountainhead (1949)

Ayn Rand’s doorstopping tract on architecture and morality was a fairly rum proposition already; the movie - with Gary Cooper as master builder Howard Roark and Patricia Neal in her finest role as a whipcracking heiress - is a masterpiece of modernist design, and its eccentricity feels entirely right: oddly true to Rand’s no-compromise ethos in its rejection of studio-era conformity, it’s a film hellbent on going its own way.

An edited version of this list can be found here, and in the FilmLife supplement, free with tomorrow's Sunday Telegraph.