Thursday 24 February 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of February 18-20, 2011:

1 (new) Paul (15) **
2 (1) Gnomeo and Juliet (U) **
3 (2) The King's Speech (12A) ****
4 (4) True Grit (15) ***
5 (new) Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (PG)
6 (5) Yogi Bear (PG) **
7 (3) Tangled (PG) ***
8 (6) Just Go With It (12A) *
9 (new) Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (U) **
10 (7) Black Swan (15) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Day for Night
2. Animal Kingdom
3. Silken Skin
4. The Fighter
5. Drive Angry

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) The Social Network (12) ****
2 (4) RED (12) **
3 (10) Buried (15) ***
4 (2) Eat Pray Love (12) **
5 (3) Inception (15) ***
6 (8) Knight and Day (12) **
7 (5) Grown Ups (12) *
8 (7) Salt (12) **
9 (6) The Rebound (15)
10 (re) The Switch (12) **


My top five:
1. The Social Network
2. The Illusionist
3. Another Year
4. Involuntary
5. The Arbor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. In This World (Sunday, BBC2, 12.45am) [above]
2. The Full Monty (Monday, C4, 10pm)
3. Mission: Impossible III (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. The Heart of Me (Saturday, BBC2, 12.45am)
5. I Know Where I'm Going! (Sunday, BBC2, 1pm)

Trash: "Animal Kingdom", "Waste Land" and "Drive Angry" (ST 27/02/11)

Animal Kingdom (18) 113 mins ****
Waste Land (PG) 98 mins ***

Drive Angry (18) 104 mins ***

Every scene in the tough and surprising Australian crime picture Animal Kingdom deposits its characters at a crossroads, and then wonders – compulsively, anxiously – which direction they’re going to go in. The pattern is set from the very first image: a teenager torn between watching Deal or No Deal, or the paramedics working on the mother succumbing to a fatal overdose on the sofa next to him. Taken in by his gran (Jacki Weaver, up for Best Supporting Actress at tonight’s Oscars) and his career-criminal uncles, young Josh (James Frecheville) is soon pondering the Edmonds conundrum: whether to risk everything for the big bucks, or play safe, and walk away with his life.

There’s a familiarity (in every sense) about this material, pitching itself as it does against the themes of The Godfather and Heat, but writer-director David Michôd proves specific indeed about this particular intersection of criminality and domesticity. Weapons are stashed in mum’s ironing; a vacuum cleaner is used to conceal conversations. Aided by claustrophobic, close-miked sound, the family’s home becomes a fortress, and a prison of sorts: a place of fraternal needling and roughhousing you just know is going to result in betrayal and bloodshed. Even a dopey hophead like Josh can’t fail to spot the appeal of the respectable folks around his middle-class girlfriend’s dinner table.

Where Animal Kingdom is at its most Godfather-ish is in the clear delineation of the brothers’ personalities: the level-headed Baz (Joel Edgerton), the wired Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), the depressive Darren (Luke Ford). Michôd elicits a truly unnerving performance from Ben Mendelsohn as Andrew, the one genuine sociopath in the bunch: a bloodhound-faced weirdo who’s been pulled back into the family after too long on the lam, with few interpersonal skills, and – as his Scarface-at-a-luau wardrobe makes apparent – not much idea of how to dress while under surveillance.

Few contemporary directors have seemed this fascinated by their supporting characters, and the options, better and worse, they might provide for the leads. Representing the former, Guy Pearce gives yet another brisk, grounded turn as the detective on the family’s case; the latter, however, is where Weaver comes into her own. Underemployed in the first hour, there her Janine is, leonine and untouchable, as the net finally closes: blithely badmouthing the crookedness of a TV host’s smile, and doing something memorably hideous with kisses that linger just a beat too long – the sugar that keeps her boys coming back, when it might be healthier for them to pull away.

Lucy Walker’s Oscar-nominated doc Waste Land profiles Vik Muniz, the Brazilian artist and photographer who uses everyday items as raw materials: I liked his study of a Pollock-like painter at work, rendered in the medium of maple syrup. Muniz’s latest project centres on the Jardin Gramacho, a Rio refuse dump so vast it has its own vibrant – nay, positively humming – community of foragers and gleaners, sorting the recyclable wheat from the festering chaff. Here, millionaires’ detritus gets junked alongside cast-offs from the favelas: it’s a level playing field, or would be, if the landfill didn’t threaten to subside whenever the workers set foot upon it.

As in Walker’s previous Blindsight, we’re watching disadvantaged subjects with mountains to climb, and the footage of the pickers navigating these towering peaks makes for compelling viewing in itself – you grow concerned about the absence of health-and-safety provision, and increasingly glad the film isn’t being released in Smell-O-Vision. It’s enough to make us think about the consequences of our culture of disposability, even while Muniz’s project is encouraging the workers to leave Gramacho behind. As one forager confesses, once ensconced in the studio: “I don’t want to go back.”

The camera sticks to those selected for Muniz’s portraits – the elder statesman battling lung cancer, the young mothers who’ve left families behind them – catching what it is to be there whenever binbags rain down off the trucks and, later, the perception shift forced upon those seeing their hardscrabble life transformed into marketable art. Throughout, Walker insists on letting the artist’s subjects speak for themselves: the result is a chance to hear garbage pickers discuss the relative merits of Marat and Machiavelli, and an insight into the creation of a modern art that is at once edifying, humane, and borne of pure rubbish.

More trash. The high-slash-lowpoint of the 3D exploitation feature Drive Angry, all fast cars and hot babes and loud bangs, involves Nicolas Cage – as vengeful grandpa John Milton (yes, really) – engaging in gunfire while simultaneously tupping a cocktail waitress and sucking on a fat cigar. Patrick Lussier’s film is at its most inventive when introducing its characters – best of all, William Fichtner’s wonderfully precise Grim Reaper figure – but the whole contains more subversive energy than just about anything in the multiplexes right now, and more cherishable moments than anything in the Cage filmography since Con Air.

Animal Kingdom and Drive Angry open nationwide tomorrow; Waste Land opens in selected cinemas, and is available on pay-per-view via FilmFlex, from Friday.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Empty-headed hipsters: "Howl"

All that was once shocking and art must eventually be chewed over, broken down and spat out as commerce and mediocrity. Howl, a dry, hotchpotch Beat Generation primer from The Celluloid Closet directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman - a sort of Ginsberg for dummies, better suited to filler slots on PBS than cinemas - splits its ninety minutes three ways. A biographical interview has Ginsberg himself (James Franco) jawing through his life and working methods, how he got into poetry and homosexuality alike. Then there are enacted highlights of the obscenity trial brought against "Howl"'s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as here defended by Mad Men's Jon Hamm and prosecuted by David Strathairn, now established as the go-to actor for petty-minded squares, after The Notorious Bettie Page. Finally, we are confronted by some dreadfully kitsch animations "inspired by" Ginsberg's verse, which pre-empt the audience having to use their imaginations for themselves; while the film mocks Strathairn's character for seeking a literal interpretation of "Howl"'s imagery, it's guilty of doing much the same thing itself.

Franco dutifully lowers his voice a couple of octaves and dons thick-rimmed specs above a marker-pen beard, but he remains too pretty for Ginsberg - there's no reason for him to write, with those cheekbones - and the performance an impersonation more than it is an embodiment. (With his elongated final syllables, the actor sounds uncannily like critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins in the poetry reading sequences.) The tripartite structure, rather than offering a multiplicity of perspectives, instead moves in the direction of crude reduction: you'd never peg from the film that "Howl" was intended as a cry of protest against a conformist, consumerist America, on behalf of the disillusioned and disenfranchised. As this garbled reading has it, Ginsberg was someone who just liked to scatter obscenities to the wind.

Howl opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Slight returns: "West Is West"

This here's a late one in coming. East is East - adapted by Ayub Khan Din from his own stageplay, and directed by Damien O'Donnell - was one of the biggest homegrown hits of 1999, capping a decade of unusually buoyant British filmmaking (Brassed Off, Trainspotting, The Full Monty, Lock, Stock...) and, perhaps more pertinently, a decade in which Asian films and culture had themselves begun to edge into the UK mainstream, whether in the form of those Bollywood extravaganzas breaking the box-office Top 10 on a regular basis, or Talvin Singh's late-90s Mercury Music Prize triumph.

Twelve years on, and - perhaps inspired by the success of Slumdog Millionaire - Khan Din has attempted a sequel, West is West, which emerges into a markedly gloomier climate, both financially and socially. The opening credits suggest the producers have effectively had to flip channels in order to get this one off the ground (West is a BBC Films production, where East was backed by Film4's now-withered distribution arm), and the release date rather infelicitously coincides with the Prime Minister's recent insistence that multiculturalism - of a type both films enthusiastically embrace - has failed as a policy within the UK. I'm genuinely intrigued to see how the film will perform - more so, perhaps, than I was watching the film itself.

Khan Din here explores an obvious trajectory left open at the end of the earlier film, dispatching George Khan (Om Puri) - chip shop king of 1970s Salford, who spent much of East decrying all things English - back to his native Pakistan in search of a bride for shy eldest son Maneer (Emil Marwa). Part of the writer's project appears to be to redress any slight the first film may have aimed at its lead character, paring back the edges of Puri's petty tyrant to reveal something more rounded, affectionate, even - and thus inadvertently conforming to the unwritten sequel rule that all compelling monsters must, with repetition, become pale shadows of their former selves.

In this, at least, Khan Din is aided by a set of commendable performances. Whatever gravity West possesses derives almost entirely from Puri's ability to eke out something thoughtful and human from the modest material set in front of him. There's a find, too, in young Aqib Khan, bristling away as Sajid, the tearaway youngest George has dragged along with him to show him his roots: his "fuck off"s have the uncoachable ring of authenticity. The opening Salford act, trying to prod our memories, offers a one-scene bit for Jimi Mistry's Tony, a fixture of the first film; something more substantial from Linda Bassett as the second Mrs. Khan; and a nice turn from Robert Pugh as the headmaster who was stationed in Rawalpindi during the War, and thus feels compelled to sprinkle his speech with gobbets of condescending Urdu.

But there's only so long West can rest upon its acting laurels, and the midsection betrays the fact there was no pressing reason to bring these characters back, save that they struck a chord once upon a time, and that Khan Din has Valuable Life Lessons to teach them all. Once returned to Pakistan, George has to learn to do right by his neglected first wife (Ila Arun): this he does by building a house in her backyard that forms the BBC Films idea of the Taj Mahal, and stands, come the end credits, as a waste of everybody's time and effort. Sajid, meanwhile, learns to respect his roots and elders, rather undermining the message of the first film, where it was precisely these elements that were seen as holding the younger generation back. (Where East was a very New Labour project, West is in every sense conservative.)

By the time Bassett and her comedy sidekick have themselves arrived in the village ("I told you crimplene was a bad choice to travel in"), the film's become mired in sitcom territory - a man caught between two wives - a feeling hardly dispelled by TV veteran Andy De Emmony's unassuming presence behind the camera. Khan Din's default mode of writing remains broad, below-the-waist comedy (there's much consternation over shitting in a field, and a mix-up over the word "bullocks") interspersed with jolting instances in which characters at loggerheads go at one another in small, scarcely cinematic rooms.

Sometimes, the tactic works: though it feels convenient indeed to have the two Mrs. Khans thrown together in the one mud hut by a sandstorm, the actresses transcend the tweeness of Khan Din's conceit (with neither able to understand the other, they come to communicate through gestures of the heart) to arrive at something at least touching, if not fully moving. More often, it just comes over as crude, as with the supporting Pakistani characters, whose English is dotted with "bloody" every other word. At any rate, the element of surprise - the immediacy that might still have been there in a sequel two, three, even five years on from the original - has long since gone. The film is good-natured but unadventurous: maybe audiences will be more forgiving.

West is West opens nationwide from Friday.

Saturday 19 February 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of February 11-13, 2011:

1 (new) Gnomeo and Juliet (U) **
2 (2) The King's Speech (12A) ****
3 (1) Tangled (PG) ***
4 (new) True Grit (15) ***
5 (new) Yogi Bear (PG) **
6 (new) Just Go With It (12A) *
7 (4) Black Swan (15) **
8 (3) The Fighter (15) ****
9 (new) Never Let Me Go (12A) **
10 (5) James Cameron's Sanctum (12A)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Day for Night [above]
2. Silken Skin
3. The Fighter
4. True Grit
5. Two in the Wave

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (2) The Social Network (12) ****
2 (4) Eat Pray Love (12) **
3 (1) Inception (15) ***
4 (new) RED (12) **
5 (5) Grown Ups (12) *
6 (new) The Rebound (15)
7 (3) Salt (12) **
8 (7) Knight and Day (12) **
9 (6) The Other Guys (12) ***
10 (new) Buried (15) ***


My top five:
1. The Social Network
2. The Illusionist
3. The Arbor
4. Buried
5. Police, Adjective

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Demolition Man (Tuesday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
2. The Age of Innocence (Saturday, five, 2.40pm)
3. As Good As It Gets (Sunday, C4, 11.50pm)
4. 25th Hour (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.20pm)
5. The League of Gentlemen (Thursday, C4, 12.05pm)

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Low-grade fever: "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never"

What were you expecting, Cocksucker Blues? The most useful service the 3D Bieberganza Never Say Never provides will be in explaining to nonplussed post-adolescents where the twenty-first century's own Little Jimmy Osmond emerged from exactly: not some distant cosmos, as perhaps assumed, but via small-town Canadian talent competitions and the instant, hyper-accelerated fame only the Internet can presently bestow. (Dude's the first truly viral pop phenomenon.) The backstage footage is so bland it can only be true: lots of Justin blowdrying his fringe, hanging with friends and collaborators (Usher seems nice), and struggling to shake off a poorly throat in advance of his biggest gig to date at Madison Square Garden.

The British censors' certification guideline - "Contains no material likely to harm or offend" - is both an apt summation of the Bieber oeuvre to date, and some indication we're not dealing with a new Captain Beefheart here; though one record company boss describes Bieber as "the Macauley Culkin of pop", the comparison other contributors repeatedly make is with Michael Jackson, which suggests someone's advisors have spotted a nice gap in the market, and that we should all start worrying if ever Justin starts Tweeting about investing his gazillions in primates and theme parks.

In the kid's defence: as affectless corporo-pop peddling synthetic emotion to consumers in training bras goes, Bieber's music isn't wholly unredeemable; certainly, there are fully grown, allegedly sentient adults - I'm looking at you, Black Eyed Peas - putting out far worse at the moment. The movie is at pains to prove its subject isn't all Autotune: look, it says, here's footage of Justin at the piano or plucking a guitar, between archive of him busking for coins and - at the tender age of eight - giving a public display of syncopated jazz drumming that's well up to the standards of, say, Finn from Glee, if not yet Gene Krupa. As phenomenons go, Bieber is at least open to interesting career choices: his mad bomber role in a recent episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - a crossover bid sadly not covered here - was, in its own way, more outré than any number of GaGa wardrobe decisions.

As directed by Step Up's Jon Chu and produced by half the star's payroll, the movie's tone is generally affectionate: even the 3D intends to bring us closer to someone presented as a little sweetheart. There are fun anecdotes from Bieber's high-school teacher and the girl who once beat him in a talent show, Justin trills one number over a wall of fan tribute videos, which is a cute touch, and it ends with several Bieber baby videos, presumably taken last week. That the whole is bitty and half-formed may just be reflective of the performer, the lack of truly compelling material he has thus far amassed, and indeed of the target audience's attention span - no doubt there's a whole new wave of Biebers in the pipeline as we speak. In even two years' time, the swooning tweenies on screen and in the audience will have come to feel embarrassed indeed about their reactions; anyone else going should take ear plugs for the shrieky bits.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never opens nationwide today. A shorter version of this review ran in today's Scotsman, and online here.

Saturday 12 February 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of February 4-6, 2011:

1 (1) Tangled (PG) ***
2 (2) The King's Speech (12A) ****
3 (new) The Fighter (15) ****
4 (3) Black Swan (15) **
5 (new) James Cameron's Sanctum (12A)
6 (4) The Mechanic (15) ***
7 (new) A Little Bit of Heaven (12A) **
8 (8) Gulliver's Travels (PG)
9 (new) Brighton Rock (15) **
10 (6) The Green Hornet (12A) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Clink of Ice
2. Silken Skin
3. The Fighter
4. True Grit
5. Two in the Wave

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) Inception (15) ***
2 (new) The Social Network (12) ****
3 (3) Salt (12) **
4 (new) Eat Pray Love (12) **
5 (4) Grown Ups (12) *
6 (2) The Other Guys (12) ***
7 (6) Knight and Day (12) **
8 (5) The Girl Who Played With Fire (15) **
9 (10) Winter's Bone (15) ***
10 (new) Mr. Nice (18) **


My top five:
1. The Social Network
2. The Illusionist
3. The Arbor
4. Buried
5. Police, Adjective

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. North by North-West [above] (Saturday, five, 4.20pm)
2. L.A. Confidential (Sunday, C4, 11.55pm)
3. Rear Window (Saturday, five, 2.10pm)
4. Funny Face (Thursday, C4, 12.10pm)
5. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Saturday, ITV1, 3.35pm)

Friday 11 February 2011

On DVD: "Police, Adjective"

At Cannes 2009, the methods and motives of the police procedural came under interrogation from two young directors convinced not everything in this world could be tied up as neatly as the genre has traditionally suggested. From the Philippines came Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay, which followed a rookie cop seeking to prove himself on his first mission - a process that just so happened to involve the real-time kidnap, rape and dismemberment of a prostitute. From Romania, meanwhile, there was Police, Adjective, Corneliu Porumboiu's follow-up to 12:08 East of Bucharest, which dispatched its own forces on what was conversely the least thrilling assignment imaginable: to tail a teenage boy who's been accused of smoking - shock, horror - marijuana.

Our protagonist, Dragos Bucur's good cop Cristi, is reluctant to pursue the case too far, not least as it involves such adrenalin-free non-excitements as a) plodding along at a discreet distance behind the suspected hophead as he ventures to and from school, and b) going through the soil for any discarded dogends. At one point, the camera follows Cristi as he nips home for lunch, whereupon he has some lovely warming soup. (I think it was chicken, but I couldn't be sure.) We are reminded of how, in dramatising the absurd lengths to which the bureaucratic regime of old (and, apparently, its modern equivalent) would go, the Romanian New Wave has sometimes lapsed into pointscoring pedantry itself: I was all right with the soup, but checked out a little mentally when Porumboiu obliged us to watch Cristi having his tea, from which the only thing there is to be gained is an appreciation of the cop's rather functional table manners.

"Life goes forward," shrieks a love song Cristi's girlfriend is listening to in the very same scene, but Police, Adjective keeps shifting sideways, into the realm of nitpicky conversations where solutions are floated and hairs are split, but nothing ever really gets resolved - a metaphor for the country's lingering political stasis, perhaps. Where the livelier films in this movement - 12:08, Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin', segments of the Tales of the Golden Age portmanteau - had the breezy air of Ealing comedies, this takes its anti-authoritarianism from mid-period Godard, attempting first to nail down meaning with images, and when all else fails, training the camera on the reports Cristi has written, shot in such a way as to underline in black ink just how little forward progress is being made in the film's case.

With that, there arises a tricky strain of didacticism: it may be key that the cop's girlfriend is a teacher, his targets of high-school age, his chief informant apt to dash off to do his homework, and that the whole thing concludes with a (in the circumstances, reasonably amusing) half-hour dialectics lesson, complete with chalk and blackboard, given in the police chief's office-turned-classroom on the subject of the individual's needs versus those of the state. It's less an intrigue than an exercise: if not a punishment, exactly - "I WILL NOT PLAY TO THE CHEAP SEATS", written out once every minute for 110 minutes - then a project undertaken by a nation still struggling to define itself, with its cinema as with any other language.

Police, Adjective is available on DVD from Monday.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Spare parts: "Never Let Me Go"

A digest of a modern literary masterpiece. Sort-of sci-fi, in which the clones appear more human than the real thing. An early awards-season pacesetter that ended up with precious little to show for itself. Never Let Me Go really is an odd one, a misfit: you can feel it constantly pushing, striving to get at something profound about lived experience, yet in the end, the tearducts are barely troubled. It's a pretty washout.

Screenwriter Alex Garland has taken the decision to strip Kazuo Ishiguro's novel down to three spare acts: the result gains cinematic shape, but loses a lot of the detail. The opening fast-forward through the Hailsham School years gives only a brief flavour of the environment the three leads - caring Kathy, her sporadically bitchy friend Ruth, and Tommy, the dim yet decent lug who comes between them - grew up in. Charlotte Rampling is on animatronic form, overplaying the creepiness, as the school's headmistress; Sally Hawkins is just a bit too liberal-flouncy as the nice drama teacher who reveals the hideous truth to her charges: that they're being raised in seclusion to provide organ donations for the sick.

Of the child actors, Isobel Meikle-Small is the standout as the young Kathy, ensuring not just a physical but an emotional continuity with Carey Mulligan as her older self. Yet the film is in a hurry to get onto the sixth-form/college years, when it can replace these unknowns with the names and faces on the poster. As the teenage Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, the up-and-coming trio of Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield form a cohesive unit, a love triangle, a gang with their own secrets and histories; it's pleasing, too, that directors have started to explore, rather than merely prostrate themselves before, the gnarly oddness of Knightley's facial contours.

Yet we don't seem to have enough of these characters on screen; individually, they exist as pallid blanks. Garfield's most notable intervention is to make explicit the kids' suggestibility: we see them imitating moves from US sitcoms, and parrot the restaurant orders of their peers, and for a moment, we grasp just how much these three want to be part of the rest of the world, or at least the in-crowd. The director is Mark Romanek, formerly of pop promos, and he crafts a nice moment with Mulligan alone in her dorm room that underlines the importance of pop music - the title derives from a keening soul number - to young adult lives.

Elsewhere, though, the film raised to the surface a question that nagged at me throughout the novel: what this tale is ultimately about, beyond the vaguest sense of innocence lost. Human connectivity, perhaps - in which case, the movie might be understood as a riposte to The Social Network, with the latter's delineation of the distance between us. Yet if Never Let Me Go wants to be about the pain of seeing your playground crush holding hands with somebody else, that isn't enough in itself to support a whole feature; and if it's trying to be about life, death and the whole damn thing, the handling is just too genteel for its own good. As the characters are in limbo, so too the film seems to be: another middling adaptation of a great book.

Ishiguro, with typical eye for detail and texture, drew you into this reality absolutely, and made these characters' resistance to and resigned acceptance of their situation make complete sense; the film, conversely, is so fussy about structure that its emotional content remains in the realm of the speculative - there's a sense of, well, let's try and adapt the book, and see where it gets us. Romanek did nothing if not impose himself on his 2002 debut One Hour Photo; here, he attempts the kind of directorial self-effacement Fincher managed with The Social Network, and the narrative backs away with him.

You could say he's turned in a very British film, in fact - one that doesn't want to kick up a fuss, even about so emotive a subject as the exploitation of the young - yet its timidity seems more limiting than affecting in any way: all the film achieves is to make something pretty and lulling of forced organ donation, to turn the horror implicit in Ishiguro's novel into the stuff of Sunday afternoon matinees rather than the midnight movie. (Even the big plot revelation takes place in a sleepy Eastbourne sitting room.) In awards terms, it's this year's The Road, an honourable attempt to illuminate words and images that somehow resist filming. But something's missing: an internal motor, any sense of a raging against the dying of the light. Characters who lived - briefly, yet vividly - on the page succumb all too meekly to their destinies on screen.

Never Let Me Go opens nationwide tomorrow.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Bande à part: "Two in the Wave"

For fullest appreciation of Emmanuel Laurent's scholarly new documentary Two in the Wave, I suspect you'll need a pre-existing interest in the films of critics-turned-directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. The film probably counts among the least dynamic documentaries of recent times - there's something a little regrettable in the way it throws up its hands and concedes nothing it can do itself will ever match the formal ingenuities of the New Wave project. Between clips from key films and interviews from the period, there resides nothing so much as a Ken Morse wet dream: endless rostrum camera pans over newspapers and magazines representing the Nouvelle Vague's achievements - in effect, stressing the importance of words and writing in its subjects' creative pursuits - framed by the curious device of having actress-turned-filmmaker Isild Le Besco (here, presumably, to represent the latest generation of French auteurs) mutely turning the pages.

There are, granted, treasures to be derived from this wealth of archive material. Grainy vox pops reveal the French public's initial reaction to Godard's À Bout De Souffle, from wholehearted endorsements to a granny fretting "it sets a bad example" to a cinephile's more damning (and arguably, in the light of the director's subsequent enterprises, more accurate) "[Godard] despises the public. It's not serious." Elsewhere, we see Godard interviewing a wary Fritz Lang around the time of Le Mépris, and the film proves strong on the influences that were to prove doubly important on these most cinephilic of directors, who as young men used to sleep in doorways outside the Cinémathèque Française (in the manner of shoppers outside the Harrods sales, or Tim Henman fans at the gates of Wimbledon) in order to watch the whole of the following day's programming.

The contrasting personalities central to the documentary have been raked over before, in a range of biographies: Godard from aristocratic Swiss stock, Truffaut the delinquent Doinel-type "rescued" by le cinéma. What's notable is the extent to which the footage contradicts this, Truffaut appearing composed, even professorial in interview, while Godard (who, pointedly, Spielberg never thought to cast at any point) hides, awkward and scruffy, behind dark glasses and an alien accent very different from that of the gruff, twenty-a-day narrator of Histoire(s) du Cinéma. It's Truffaut who emerges as the warmer and more human in his evaluations - on Godard, he once wrote "he makes film like others breathe, only he breathes the best" - heading towards a cinema devoted to the foibles of the flesh and blood, while his contemporary, shattered by the failure of May 1968, takes refuge in radical politics and ideals, is consumed by his own disillusion, overheats and cools. Bref: Truffaut eventually came to put the pen down, but Godard, a ferocious scribbler, could never quite.

While the narration of Laurent's film - written and spoken by Antoine de Baeque, taking time off from Strictly Come Dancing - is prone to the odd flowery pronouncement ("Cinephilia is a passionate game of time"), it manages the odd observation worthy of its inspirations. "Images of May '68 seem to be images from Nouvelle Vague films," the film ventures at one point - and the cobbles Belmondo expired on at the end of À Bout De Souffle were indeed those being prised up by students to volley at the riot police. Two in the Wave is at its most evocative in describing a time when compatriots could be ripped asunder by matters of politics and aesthetics - and it finds a novel angle in presenting the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, an avatar for both filmmakers in their time (The 400 Blows, Masculin Feminin), as a child caught between two fathers, as though in a cinematic custody battle.

Léaud would, after the fallout, never be the same again - witness his own incarnation of a jaded cineaste, obliged to turn out grot in 2001's The Pornographer - but the film serves as a reminder of a moment when a performer so sprightly and charismatic could become the figurehead for a certain kind of French filmmaking. (Nowadays - hélas - we're stuck with the perma-sulk of Louis Garrel.) The fact is, whatever their similarities and differences, between them, Godard and Truffaut signed off on The 400 Blows, À Bout De Souffle, Pierrot le Fou, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Week-End and Day for Night; and however dry or formless Two in the Wave threatens to become, however much it exists in the realm of Cahiers watercooler conversation, it preserves a feel for what this actually is: a story important enough to need retelling for future generations, so that the cinema can continue to reinvent, renew, revolt.

Two in the Wave opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 7 February 2011

Gravelly: "True Grit"

If the Coens' shaky reputation for remakes rests solely on a single film - 2004's middling The Ladykillers - it should also be pointed out their heightened reputation for adaptation (within a recognisably Western idiom) stems chiefly from a single work, too: 2007's all-conquering No Country for Old Men, from Cormac McCarthy. In the meantime, the brothers keep working, never threatening to develop any degree of consistency (or, as their champions would doubtless say, eschewing predictability): who else would think to follow their existential Oscar success with an all-star screwball farce (2008's Burn After Reading) and a vast question mark of a movie (2009's A Serious Man), generally unintelligible to anyone who hadn't spent any time at Torah school?

True Grit, to its advantage, is in fact less a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1969 film - famous for giving John Wayne one of his signature roles as the ornery, one-eyed bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn - than a scholarly return to Charles Portis's source novel: it finds the filmmakers exercising their literary rather than larky, post-modern side, and it's all the more satisfying and characterful for that. Its notional centre is plaintalking 14-year-old Matty Ross (Hallie Steinfeld), who's arrived in town to seek out justice for the man responsible for killing her father: Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who's since gone on the run in the surrounding territories. The opening half-hour tracks her negotiations with the various men she hopes will aid her cause, chief among them Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), generally fearsome but prone to spending his days in a stupor or grump that renders four out of his every five words incomprehensible, and LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a cocky Texas Ranger drawn by the prestige that comes with taking down a man such as Chaney.

In its gestures towards symmetricality - signalled first by the recreation of an old-time Western town that stretches into the distance, and later by the restoration of a coda (omitted by Hathaway's film) that mirrors the opening in its mourning of a father figure - True Grit 2011 is as classical an item of filmmaking as there's perhaps been since Costner's Open Range; there's evidently something in the Western as a genre that encourages filmmakers to leave their boxes of tricks back at the ranch. Yes, there are idiosyncrasies: the deployment of grizzled or otherwise interesting-looking supporting players (who remind you the Coens were once considered rightful heirs to Preston Sturges in their love of eccentric repertory), some bureaucratic-jurisdictional horsetrading comedy not a million miles removed from Burn After Reading.

Much of the film, however, unfolds in lengthy, unhurried takes showcasing Portis's original dialogue. "There ain't much sugar in your pronouncements," says LaBeouf to Matty at one point, but there surely is in the Coens' script - which is why it's both amusingly (and somewhat exasperatingly) perverse that the directors keep finding ways to obscure their zinger lines. Bridges is handed a beard and wads of tobacco to chew through; Damon bites through his tongue in the course of one shootout, obliging him to lisp thereafter; by the time Brolin turns up, giving his impression of someone who suffers from severe learning difficulties (the wanted bills describe Chaney as "a slowtalker"), you're all set to pronounce 2011 the Year of the Speech Impediment, and send out for Lionel Logue.

That's a tic, and your enjoyment of the film may suffer for it; yet if there's one major deviation from the classical norm, it lies in how decentred this version is. The 1969 film was conceived as a star vehicle, and everything in it revolved around Wayne's Cogburn. Operating within the post-star system world of 2011, the Coens - as they did in No Country for Old Men - employ a rotation system that makes their take on the material less predictable, but also renders it slightly hard to read in the manner of so many of the directors' films before it. Anyone looking for the sincere, straight-ahead, conventional heroics of James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma remake should move on; Joel and Ethan don't appear to have much time for that.

You could, at a pinch, read True Grit as the Coens' parable of fatherhood - a darker spin on Ford's Three Godfathers, perhaps. Bridges' Cogburn is bluffly effusive around the campfire - Matty's best hope, for both vengeance and nurturing - yet unreliable: the distance he travels in pursuit of Chaney comes to be measured out in the empty bottles of grog he discards. LaBeouf is upstanding and do-right, but finally too much his own man - he keeps wandering off under his own steam, before disappearing from the plot altogether, as though Damon had been called away to film elsewhere. It's Cogburn who eventually wins the girl's affection, not by anything so sappy as kissing her, but alternatively by cutting a small "x" into the back of her hand in order out to suck out rattlesnake venom.

In a way, Damon, Brolin, even the newly Oscar-minted Bridges are themselves supporting players, and it may be the Coens' slyest, most subversive joke that the real star of the film in this version doesn't even make it onto the poster, or before the title come the end credits. Steinfeld is exactly the kind of straight-talking, unaffected youngster who might have auditioned for Kim Darby's role in the earlier movie: a girl who would indeed seem more at home chopping wood than, say, cruising Facebook, and who lends real, rosy-cheeked heart to what otherwise might have appeared just another of its makers' hyper-conceptualised exercises. If there's a degree of repetition in the Coens' return to a land that is still, as it ever was, no place for old men, it's encouraging to find them making room in their round-up for the hopes and methods of a bold young woman.

True Grit opens nationwide on Friday.

Attention nerdlings: "Paul"

Paul is all of the following: Working Title's idea of a reward to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for their sterling work on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz; a film that could only have come out of (and might only play to) the convention circuit; a convention all its own, of the Stateside branch of the Simon Pegg fan club; an effects comedy, a bromance, a putative stoner flick. The paradox is that it should be several movies at once, and still disappointingly slight rather than seeming ambitious in any way. In form, at least, it resembles a road movie. Sci-fi writer Clive (Frost) and best bud/illustrator Graeme (Pegg) have decided to their annual pilgrimage to the Comic-Con convention in southern California as an excuse to explore America's UFO heartland. They're heading to the fabled Area 51 when their rented motorhome attracts the attention of another tourist: the walking, talking, computer generated extra terrestrial of the title - essentially a hipper Jar Jar Binks, voiced by none other than Seth Rogen.

From this point on, the trio are pursued across the American South by what appears half the roster of the New American Comedy: Bill Hader and Jason Bateman as FBI agents, Jane Lynch as a truckstop waitress, David Koechner as a trucker Graeme and Clive succeed in irking en route. Though the laugh aggregate (the gaggregate?) is marginally higher, Paul's MO isn't too far removed from that of Ricky Gervais's The Invention of Lying, in which - again - a hit English comedian signed up performer after performer, admirer after admirer, without stopping to think whether either party had material worthy of their participation. Upon reflection, neither clearly did.

With the relocation of the Pegg-Frost brand, we might have been hoping for some satire on modern American values comparable to that highly detailed form on English attitudes in which both Shaun and Hot Fuzz dealt. Yet Paul continually forsakes the specific for the broad: when our heroes kidnap a seasoned Bible-basher (Kristen Wiig), she's converted to foul-mouthed secularism in a flash, a process that yields but one throwaway laugh from her T-shirt (adorned with an image of Christ shooting Darwin in the head) and not much else besides.

The film reverts to the default mode of a Kick-Ass or Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, all nods and winks that'll doubtless go over big with nerds, and don't add up to anything much for the rest of us. There are flickers of tangible, winning ideas: the flashback that suggests Paul gave notes to Spielberg during the making of E.T., a roadhouse where they play the Cantina Theme from Star Wars, and the presence of white-uniformed sailors on shoreleave leads to an archetypal bar brawl. Yet too many of these homages don't do anywhere near a laugh: the FBI agents, for example, whose characterisation derives entirely (and mirthlessly) from the bantering cops in something like Men in Black.

It's a closed-loop of a film: all it tells us is that its makers have seen a lot of movies, and the only ending it can contrive for itself involves the characters receiving their own standing ovation before the assembled masses of Comic-Con. If you spot all the references, you may be able to send off for a girlfriend. Otherwise, as hinted by Paul's quest to return a teddy bear to its owner, the prevailing tone is childish, at best adolescent, director Greg Mottola reverting to the anything-goes knockabout of Superbad after the nuanced Adventureland. Amiable rather than funny, mild verging on the anodyne, there is one glaringly obvious audience for Paul beyond the convention circuit: extract the Tourettish swearing - which, in this context, really does come across as compensation for comedic deficiencies elsewhere - and I'm willing to bet nine-year-olds would love it.

Paul opens nationwide on February 14.

Friday 4 February 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of January 28-30, 2011:

1 (new) Tangled (PG) [above] ***
2 (1) The King's Speech (12A) ****
3 (2) Black Swan (15) **
4 (new) The Mechanic (15) ***
5 (4) The Dilemma (12A) *
6 (3) The Green Hornet (12A) ***
7 (new) Hereafter (12A) *
8 (5) Gulliver's Travels (PG)
9 (6) 127 Hours (15) ****
10 (new) How Do You Know (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Clink of Ice
2. Silken Skin
3. The Fighter
4. Rabbit Hole
5. Nenette

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (new) The Girl Who Played With Fire (15) **
2 (new) Resident Evil: Afterlife (15) **
3 (new) The Other Guys (12) ***
4 (2) The A-Team (12) *
5 (4) The Last Airbender (12) *
6 (3) Devil (15)
7 (1) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (12) **
8 (new) Buried (15) ***
9 (8) Knight and Day (12) **
10 (6) Grown-Ups (12)


My top five:
1. Ajami
2. The Town
3. Mary and Max
4. Shed Your Tears and Walk Away
5. Into Eternity

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Thing (Wednesday, ITV1, 2.35am)
2. Corpse Bride (Saturday, ITV1, 2.20pm)
3. Hot Fuzz (Saturday, ITV1, 10.55pm)
4. Right at Your Door (Friday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
5. Dogville (Thursday, C4, 1.10am)

Thursday 3 February 2011

"Rabbit Hole" (ST 06/02/11)

Rabbit Hole (12A) 91 mins ***

John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole is an example of a film so sensitive around ideas of absence that, for some time, it appears reluctant to describe what it’s actually about. Its elected tactic is to leave us, like its characters, circling a void, wondering what caused it, and what may yet emerge from it. Something’s amiss in the superficially perfect parlours and kitchens of square-jawed Aaron Eckhart and dutiful Nicole Kidman. Only gradually – as Kidman begins purging cupboards (more voids) and makes reluctant appearances at initially unspecified support groups – does the film reveal what that is: that these are bereaved parents, and it’s been almost a year since their young son was killed in a road accident.

David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting from his own stageplay, speaks the language of loss with sober fluency: he grasps how even a friendly inquiry of “How’s the family?” can send the bereaved reeling, and makes you understand why Kidman’s mother (the ever-welcome Dianne Wiest) now answers her daughter’s telephone calls with a panicky “What’s wrong?” Mitchell keeps Rabbit Hole similarly guarded: theatrical in many places, it’s vaguely televisual in others. Only when the direction loosens up does the drama begin to take on the dimensions of real life: during Kidman’s park-bench encounters with the teenager responsible for the accident (the excellent Miles Teller), we feel the wind drying the tears on these characters’ cheeks.

As a couple seeking answers from outside parties rather than solace in one another, the leads are never less than believable, together and apart. Yet the material is underpinned by neat, stage-bound symmetries – we’re spared the messiness of grief – and by some very American notions of healing: one key visual motif is a comic book panel intended to illustrate how we’re all reaching out across the ether. “It reminded me of Eurydice and Orpheus,” Kidman notes, reminding us the film is the work of a Pulitzer-winning playwright. For those who’ve lost loved ones, I don’t rule out the possibility Rabbit Hole might serve as a properly cathartic experience – but then so might a dozen other, far less rigidly uptight ventures.

Rabbit Hole opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

"A Little Bit of Heaven" (Metro 04/02/11)

A Little Bit of Heaven (12A) 108 mins **

You can just about see what attracted Nicole Kassell, director of 2004’s acclaimed paedophile drama The Woodsman, to this peculiar carcinogenic romance. It does something unusual in putting centre stage an independent heroine – Kate Hudson’s advertising whizz Marley – who displays no particular interest in settling down. The problem’s that she should be rewarded for her pleasure-seeking lifestyle with advanced-stage bowel cancer, which seems a bum deal, to say the least.

The kicker (or is it consolation?) is that only when Marley goes in for a colonoscopy does she meet her ideal man: Gael Garcia Bernal as the movies’ least likely Dr. Goldstein. That the remainder casts Whoopi Goldberg as God gives some indication of the goofiness that proves diverting in the short term, then confounding: Kassell and stand-up turned screenwriter Gren Wells try to jolly matters along between bouts of chemo and soul-searching with urinating primates, fun-sized male escorts and Bernal’s extensive yo-yo collection.

No-one’s quite decided how serious Marley’s (or the film’s) prognosis really is – Hudson has that strain of cancer, exclusive to the movies, that leaves her looking drained only one scene out of two – although there’s a chick-flick first in the mid-film shopping montage paid for out of the heroine’s life insurance. Kassell finds atmospheric New Orleans locations, and a decent cast strain to make the bizarre premise work, but like the proctologists it calls in to play Cupid, it’s caught between any number of stools.

A Little Bit of Heaven opens nationwide tomorrow.