Friday 25 March 2011

Goin' south...

Hoping it's altogether more a) than b).

Just a heads-up - I'm now off to the Caribbean for my first proper holiday in nine years, which means there won't be any updates here for the next two weeks. Bear with me, and something like a normal service should be resumed by the weekend of April 9-10th. Unless I've decided to stay on the beach for good...

For what it's worth...

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

1 (2) Rango (PG)
2 (1) Battle Los Angeles (12A) **
3 (3) Unknown (12A) **
4 (new) Chalet Girl (12A) ***
5 (new) The Lincoln Lawyer (15)
6 (5) Hall Pass (15) **
7 (new) Anuvahood (15)
8 (4) The Adjustment Bureau (12A) ***
9 (6) The King's Speech (12A) ****
10 (8) Gnomeo and Juliet (U) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Les Diaboliques
2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
3. Limitless
4. Benda Bilili!
5. Ballast

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) The Social Network (12) ****
2 (2) The Town (15) ****
3 (3) RED (12) **
4 (new) Let Me In (15) **
5 (4) Inception (15) ***
6 (new) Jackass 3 (18) **
7 (8) Eat Pray Love (12) **
8 (7) Knight and Day (12) **
9 (9) Grown Ups (12) *
10 (10) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (12) **


My top five:
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2. The Arbor
3. Dream Home
4. Made in Dagenham
5. Unstoppable

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Rope (Monday, C4, 12.30pm) [above]
2. Anatomy of a Murder (Saturday, BBC2, 1pm)
3. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Sunday, BBC2, 5.15pm)
4. While You Were Sleeping (Saturday, five, 12noon)
5. Halloween: H20 (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)

Early works: "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and "The Eagle" (ST 27/03/11)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (U) 90 mins ****
The Eagle (12A) 114 mins **

Roll up, roll up. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s latest documentary-exploration, qualifies as both a journey to the centre of the earth and a voyage back to the dawn of mankind – in digital 3D, no less. Its subject, the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, was discovered in 1994, having been sealed for aeons by a rockfall that preserved the treasures lying within: evidence of several long-extinct species, and Man’s earliest recorded cave paintings. An understandably snooty gallery, the Cave operates certain restrictions. You or I probably wouldn’t get in; those that do are confined to an hour’s tour along a steel walkway, so as not to disturb the immediate environment. There doesn’t appear to be a gift shop.

The paintings are a remarkable spectacle in themselves, notable not just for being the first of their kind, but for their relative sophistication. Much of the fascination stems from the relation they bear to their surrounds, with their trompe l’oeil effects suggesting movement: that of individual frames of celluloid, or – with equines especially prominent – Muybridge’s experiments in recording motion. “Proto-cinema,” Herzog describes it, and the paintings display an evident fluidity of form. The female body is spliced with that of the wide-hipped bison, a link to such Stone Age carvings as the Venus of Hohle Fels – herself an obvious inspiration for the dancing chickens in Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video.

As ever, Werner strays as much as he wanders. The second half ventures in search of varyingly engaging eccentrics (mock Inuits, albino crocodiles, a master perfumer perpetually sniffing at holes), while ear-splitting choral music occasionally inhibits the images from speaking for themselves. Yet what Cave loses in focus, it gains in dimensionality. Herzog’s cinema – the upriver sequences in Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo’s boat-vs.-mountain business – has long strived for a strong, atmospheric you-are-here sensation. 3D allows him to better define the contours and cascades of the rockface under scrutiny – to allow us a heightened feel for the canvas involved.

For this director, 3D specs aren’t blinkers fostering an escape from the world, but goggles, eyepieces – vital kit with which to peer in the direction of our dim and distant ancestors, and contemplate the mysteries that loom out at us. Within the cave, an eight-year-old’s footprints are found next to those of a wolf. Was the latter a tribal pet, or tailing the child as prey? In framing such questions, Herzog invites us to visualise what our planet was like 28,000 years ago, to hang flesh and detail on the bare bones and markings of the Chauvet floor and walls. The result may be the most overtly philosophical application of 3D yet – which is to say, you just don’t get this with Gnomeo and Juliet.

Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle adapts Rosemary Sutcliff’s revered novel The Eagle of the Ninth with the same dour whiff of Sealed Knottiness that sank Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. It’s fine if you need to know what Romans ate for supper or the approximate consistency of mud in second-century Scotland, but as an action piece, it doesn’t move so much as retreat to a dusty library corner with a scholar in Celtic tongues.

As Marcus Aquila, the young centurion trying to restore the honour taken from his family when his pa disappeared – along with the titular standard – behind Hadrian’s Wall, Channing Tatum boasts impressively Roman physiognomy countered by Victor Mature-like thespian limitations. Poor Jamie Bell, as sidekick Esca, has only to huddle morosely around a series of campfires before a limp homoerotic squabble over his co-star’s sword that constitutes the film’s one shot at the camp of TV’s Spartacus.

Indeed, The Eagle is all men, no women, and one longs for a lissom dancing girl or conniving empress to break up the visual monotony of earnestly furrowed brows and overly scissored battle scenes. One advantage even the dreariest old Roman epic had over Macdonald’s film is that nobody gets to die properly in the movies any more: instead of the lingering throes of a Caesar, the warriors so drably memorialised here have their limbs severed and throats slit with indiscriminate stabs at edit-suite buttons.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens in selected cinemas from today; The Eagle opens nationwide.

"Faster" (Metro 25/03/11)

Faster (15) 98 mins **

A peculiar vehicle for ex-wrestler Dwayne Johnson – reduced to taking what look suspiciously like Jason Statham’s leftovers – this revenge thriller sports a few workable, albeit second-hand, ideas that might have sustained a taut, grungy B-movie, but end up rattling around inside a medium-budget studio production aimed at the Saturday night crowd. The opening, at least, has punch: Johnson’s jailbird Driver emerging from prison gates like a rodeo steer and jogging full-pelt into the nearest town to blow a gaping hole in a telemarketeer’s forehead. Thereafter, it’s the theoretically fun, actually rather yawnsome business of The Rock charging into stripclub toilets and operating theatres to do away with the men who offed his brother. On his tail: Billy Bob Thornton’s drug-addled detective.

Much of it has been half-inched from superior, decade-old cult films: Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s assassin-with-issues cribs directly from Grosse Pointe Blank, the knowing use of Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In” from The Big Lebowski. Its own ideas are laughable – a supporting character named Hovis Nixon, anyone? – and plain disorganised: over-qualified performers drift in for a scene or two, while preening Hollyoaks graduate Jackson-Cohen, the Londis Jake Gyllenhaal, eats up vast swathes of screen time. The finale’s just preachy, as Driver arrives at a revivalist’s tent down by the river, and everybody lays their demons to rest. With fewer zeroes on the budget, it might have served as a worthwhile straight-to-DVD discovery. As it is, it’s empty and oddly pretentious: not Crank, just cranky.

Faster opens nationwide today.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Neither rhyme nor reason: "Country Strong"

Your cynicism kicks in early with Country Strong. Some enterprising indie type makes a sincere character drama about the life of a washed-up country singer that hits big with critics, audiences and award committees alike (Crazy Heart), and the studios scurry to semi-remake it as an inflated, Star is Born-ish melodrama in the hope of tapping the same market. Instead of one singer, Shana Feste's film offers a whole stable of 'em, each one conveniently at a different stage in their careers. There's Kelly, a major star struggling with alcohol dependency and a failing marriage, yet still looking as apple-pie wholesome as Gwyneth Paltrow usually does; there's the up-and-coming male contender (Garrett Hedlund, mostly stubble under a stetson), who's something of a flyweight when set against the Colin Farrell role in the earlier movie; and, finally, there's a bright-eyed ingenue (Leighton Meester) working her way up from the very bottom of the ladder.

What distinguished Crazy Heart - aside from Bridges' performance, which was presumably all the studio chiefs noticed going from awards bash to awards bash - was its acute sense of place, and of the sidelines in particular: the nondescript lay-bys and motel parking lots inhabited by a guy who's been on the road too long to no great end. Country Strong, by contrast, unfolds around a series of anonymous, well-lit Nashville venues, where there's always a screaming-swaying crowd on hand in attendance, and it instantly becomes much less interesting for making its lead a glossy-glamorous success story whose only real problem is that she has too much of everything: a hunky manager-husband (actual country star Tim McGraw, his glowering presence slightly undermined by the suspicion he's here - as he was in The Blind Side - to draw in a particular crowd), a hunky beau so hunky he's actually called Beau, enough money to have easy access to pharmaceuticals whenever life gets tough.

Paltrow's best moments come while playing the star: charming autograph hunters, giving one of those ad hoc speeches performers often make onstage when trying to reconnect with their audience in the wake of a PR disaster, communing with a sick kid as part of a Make-a-Wish engagement. The final half-hour, a record of Kelly's live act that features no less than sixteen potential climaxes, is shameless star-pandering, its eyes, claws and teeth set insistently on securing Best Actress nominations. Everybody does their own singing, which would feel more of a plus point if the songs were any more enduring than an own-brand whisky buzz. (As it is, one of the most prominent numbers, the Meester-Hedlund composition "Give In To Me", sounds very much like a plea entered by the filmmakers on behalf of their flimsy material.)

Or, indeed, if there seemed to be any credible progression going on within or around them. Beau goes from rehab nurse to pocket-sized Keith Urban within the space of two tracks. After drying up before a small bar crowd, Meester's Chiles is next observed filling a triumphant support slot in front of a good 10,000. (The flouncy, oh-my-Lawding Meester appears to be going for a young Vivien Leigh, when she might be better off settling for being the next Rachel Bilson; her stage presence, certainly, is less Dolly or Tammy than it is Miley Cyrus, with a touch of the Fearne Cottons.) When Kelly and Beau mark a day off touring by hoboing their way onto a speeding cargo train, there's no sense of how they'd have escaped their management (who'd presumably have insurance issues), how they got on there, or indeed how they'd get back from wherever the train is heading. Such tactics make for a pretty - and, to a strange extent, even pretty watchable - picture, but at two hours, there's a lot of it, and much of that far too slick and smooth to be true. There are records by the Swedish band Rednex that are more authentically country. My mum's line dancing class is more authentically country.

Country Strong opens nationwide tomorrow.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

On DVD: "Dream Home"

Pang Ho-Cheung's Marxist home-invasion thriller Dream Home - "based on a true story", the credits inform us, though you take that description with a large pinch of salt - lards a strong central idea with a cleverish structure and a debatable excess of splatter; some will love it, some will most likely be repulsed. What we watch is a young woman (Josie Ho) going on a manic, kill-crazy rampage through the residents of a Hong Kong apartment block, slaughtering adulterers, drug dealers and pregnant women alike.

Utterly reprehensible behaviour, in other words, perhaps mitigated against by the intermittent flashbacks that reveal the killer as a previously meek, put-upon girl working two jobs just to get by. She's never quite forgiven the Government for colluding with Triad gangsters to evict her childhood sweetheart so they could knock his building down and throw up a more expensive one in its place; her current line of attack is - as signalled by an opening title card pointing out how house prices have soared 27% in recent time, while average wages have merely crept up 1% - a reaction to being priced out of the market.

The film's roots lie firmly in exploitation cinema. Someone has his eyeball put out only for another character to stomp on it; a topless, semi-conscious woman has her head put through a lavatory bowl; there's an unspeakable climax to one sex scene. It is, at least, exploitation with a point, its gleeful, generally unchecked malice (that commonly displayed by Takashi Miike before he disappeared off the radar) tempered by a degree of compassion for those of us obliged to listen to reports of mega-companies posting record annual profits while we struggle to maintain a roof above our heads.

We should mention in passing the unexpectedly classy contribution of cinematographer Yu Lik Wai, regular collaborator with Jia Zhang-ke; if he might seem an unlikely choice for this sort of thing, his study of the former colony's remorselessly expanding horizons exerts a certain compulsion in itself. He's wasted whenever the film turns into an episode of Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation, and we don't entirely buy Ho's within-the-hour transformation from wallflower to ruthless avenger, although her slightly clumsy MO allows Ho-Cheung to ratch up a variety of novel ways to puncture his characters' flesh. Messy in most senses, it's nevertheless never backward in setting out its thesis: that for many of us these days, the only way to secure a place of your own is to, one way or another, make a killing.

Dream Home is available on DVD from Monday.

On DVD: "Made in Dagenham" (Moviemail March 2011)

This skilfully assembled primer in British labour relations history – somewhat undervalued on its theatrical run – unfolds over the landmark summer of 1968. Having seen another request for a pay upgrade rejected, the female employees at Ford’s Dagenham plant – happy housewife Sally Hawkins, stressed Geraldine James, flirty novices Jaime Winstone and Andrea Riseborough – elect to walk out on strike. Coached by sympathetic shop steward Bob Hoskins, Hawkins’ Rita takes up the hammer as a crusader for equal rights. The men don’t know what’s hit ‘em.

From the outside, Made in Dagenham may resemble every other cheery Britflick that’s come along in the wake of its director Nigel Cole’s runaway 2003 hit Calendar Girls, yet the force and relevance of its true-life story emerge from this telling wholly undiminished. The film retains an underlying seriousness of purpose comparable to something like The Full Monty: you have to have a sneaking admiration for any populist work that smuggles a pointed discussion of Marxist ethics between its lively ensemble playing and reassuringly familiar period soundtrack.

Where the film might simply have lapsed into formula, screenwriter William Ivory (TV’s Common as Muck) comes up with a run of dramatically rich, rewardingly acted scenes, as Hawkins’ flinty likability is pitched against Rosamund Pike’s overlooked trophy wife, the wounded pride of her blue-collar husband (the ever-excellent Daniel Mays), and finally an entire trade union conference. The supporting cast is nothing less than A-grade, with Miranda Richardson and John Sessions playing out a funny Westminster double-act as Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson.

Asked whether our heroine’s a member of the Socialist Workers’ or Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Richard Schiff’s urbane Ford negotiator Tooley shrugs “We don’t think she’s with anyone… she just has a beef.” If the struggle has here been depoliticised slightly – the tag Rita and Barbara bond over isn’t “Socialist” or “Marxist” but C&A – it plays out no less accessibly and enjoyably for that: you could, at the very least, watch Made in Dagenham back-to-back with Tout va Bien for an instructive lesson in the genetic differences between British and French cinema.

Made in Dagenham is available on DVD from Monday.

On DVD: "Unstoppable"

Tony Scott's got his train set out once more. Hard to think Scott's bombastic Pelham 123 remake could have been a warm-up for anything, save perhaps nuclear armageddon, but many of the elements exploding out of the screen there recur in the director's latest, Unstoppable: flashing LEDs, yelping bulletins from dispatch, the business with throttles and switches and signals, Denzel Washington's teeth. The deal here is that a train has got out of control in northern Pennsylvania, which'll teach them for having put Randy from My Name is Earl in charge of it. Also out on the tracks this particular morning are a wagonful of young schoolchildren receiving a lesson in rail safety (of course), and a cargo train staffed by old hand Washington and rookie Chris Pine; Scott gets his best effects early on cross-cutting between the latter pair pootling out of various yards as they make their daily pick-ups, and the driverless express - number 777, but lucky for no-one - steaming around the bends under its own propulsion.

What follows is a 90-minute technical exercise, combining old-school stunts with high-speed shunts. The authorities put another train in front of the runaway to slow it, only for it to be nudged out of the way without so much as a by-your-leave; armed troops are sent to fire at a fuel-release valve that happens to be situated right next to the speeding train's fuel tank; there is much excited chatter about flanges and the relative merits of counterthrust versus tractor force; and the rail industry takes the opportunity to announce a hike in ticket prices in order to provide essential investment in network infrastructure. (One of these may only be true in the real world.) Mark Bomback's script sketches in a degree of conflict between the railroad executives seen in boardrooms and on golf courses and the working men and women left to sort this mess out, but it's mostly terse guy talk between Washington and Pine, doing what they can in roles that chiefly involve pulling levers, and svelte controller Rosario Dawson, practically the only woman in the film our heroes aren't estranged from, mainly because she knows her way around the local sidings.

Unstoppable doesn't have the humour or crisp structure of Speed; nor does it aspire to the pulp existentialism of Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, the grandaddy of this particular form (if we're not counting Keaton's The General). Scott's forte is kit, not wit, and it's his film's near-total absence of nuance or subtlety, that willingness to put foot to the floor and charge on through, that makes it pre-eminent Saturday night entertainment. Scott is now incapable of filming a big action set-piece without a police escort of the size usually reserved for the state visit of the Pope, a dozen or so helicopters buzzing around the focal point, and a three-ring media circus on hand to provide a (not very) knowing commentary on events. When Pine's ex, a single mom living with two children in functional rust-belt accommodation, learns the news of her man's heroics, she does so on a flat-screen television the size of Arkansas. Bigger is forever better here: in the downtime between derailments, Denzel checks in with his daughters, who just so happen to be working shifts at a branch of Hooters - a workplace presented as the positive-image of the dim, frazzled railway command centre, with its bright lights and screens flashing up sunny images of blondes with enormous tits. It's all buffers and front bumpers, and no less briskly enjoyable for that.

Unstoppable is available on DVD from Monday.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

My drug buddy: "Limitless"

Neil Burger's tricksy thriller Limitless opens with professional smirk merchant Bradley Cooper perched on the ledge of his penthouse apartment, looking down at a Manhattan sidewalk some hundred or so floors below him. Once the audience's clamorous cries of "Do it! Jump, man!" have died down, we settle into the tale of a loser scribe (Cooper) and his troubled relationship with the experimental drug that has brought him to this brink. The mind-expander in question - "NZT-48", as pushed by a shady brother-in-law - has the immediate benefit of clearing our hero's writer's block, bestowing money, women and success upon him, even restoring relations with his ex Abbie Cornish. Nobody's told him about the side-effects, though: paranoia, a shortened attention span, and a tendency to find oneself pursued around the city's streets by narky Russian loansharks.

The role is practically tailored to the experiences of an actor whose wildest dreams must have come true after years in the wilderness. Cast because he's hot (and, presumably, still relatively cheap with it) Cooper proves generally more convincing as a self-deluded no-hoper than as the megabrain spouting forth on algorithms and "Aunt Helen's tumour", at which moments he starts to radiate the glib insincerity that has made his recent rise to prominence so problematic. Add to this another variably interested Robert DeNiro performance ("I'm moving out of the energy business," his powerbroker declares at one point, inadvertently summing up the last fifteen years of the actor's career), and some dull business about deal restructuring that appears to have been added at the behest of Richard Branson's relaunched production company Virgin Films, and Limitless really ought not to work.

What keeps it on just the right side of watchable is the very capable direction. After the genteel period trappings of 2006's The Illusionist, Burger here strains with every frame to make cinematic the highs and lows of drug abuse, culminating in a remarkable effect that turns one of Cooper's wilder nights on the town into a single, uninterrupted stream of visual data. The script demurs and gets messy on the matter, but the director, at least, never quite loses sight of the consequences of all this consumption. However flashy the thriller structure, a fascinated attention is paid throughout to such details as the leads' skin tones; these junkies actually look like junkies when their situation calls for it. The film isn't remotely in the same league, but it may be the most dynamic job of directing under the influence since Danny Boyle tackled Trainspotting.

Limitless opens nationwide tomorrow.

From the archive: "My Neighbour Totoro"

One of the first films to bring Spirited Away director Hayao Miyazaki to international prominence, My Neighbour Totoro also counts as one of the few films that genuinely merit the term "wonderful", in that it has something of wonder in every scene. The storyline is fairy-tale simple: two young girls move, along with their father, into what they're certain is a haunted house in the woods while waiting for their sick mother to come out of hospital. And the opening sequence, with its engagingly minute attention to domestic chores, marks the film as very definitely the product of a Japanese imagination, though perhaps only Miyazaki could have come up with those soot sprites.

Yet the film's key influences are recognisably Western, notably Alice in Wonderland (the heroines enter another world upon falling down a rabbit hole) and The Wizard of Oz (sleepy forest spirit Totoro is surely too close to Toto not to be a deliberate homage, and the message is again that there's no place like home). Conservatism is seen off with the implicit understanding that home is a place of growth and regeneration rather than stasis, and through the immense charm in the characterisation. Younger viewers will almost certainly identify with the struggles of the wonderfully wide-eyed Mei, keen to prove herself in the shadow of her older sister; adults, whether they want children or not, will want to adopt every cell frame in which Mei appears. Joe Hisaishi's score is perfect, and Miyazaki's artistry, not to mention his great love of nature, is evident in the care and attention lavished upon every butterfly that flutters, and each toad that crawls, across this particular screen.

(August 2006)

My Neighbour Totoro screens on Channel 4 this Friday at 2.55am.

Sunday 20 March 2011

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Battle Los Angeles (12A) **
2 (1) Rango (PG)
3 (3) Unknown (12A) **
4 (2) The Adjustment Bureau (12A) ***
5 (new) Hall Pass (15) **
6 (5) The King's Speech (12A) ****
7 (4) Paul (15) **
8 (6) Gnomeo and Juliet (U) **
9 (new) Fair Game (12A) ***
10 (9) West is West (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Les Diaboliques [above]
2. The African Queen
3. Animal Kingdom
4. Limitless
5. Benda Bilili!

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) The Social Network (12) ****
2 (2) The Town (15) ****
3 (3) RED (12) **
4 (5) Inception (15) ***
5 (6) Easy A (15) ****
6 (4) Another Year (12) ****
7 (7) Knight and Day (12) **
8 (8) Eat Pray Love (12) **
9 (10) Grown Ups (12) *
10 (new) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (12) **


My top five:
1. The Arbor
2. We Are What We Are
3. The Kids Are All Right
4. Skyline
5. Songs From The Second Floor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Sunday, BBC2, 12.45pm)
2. A Bronx Tale (Monday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
3. While You Were Sleeping (Saturday, five, 5.05pm)
4. High Plains Drifter (Thursday, five, 9pm)
5. My Neighbour Totoro (Friday, C4, 2.55am)