Sunday 31 July 2011

1,001 Films: "Vampyr" (1932)

Vampyr is interesting for at least two reasons: as a more rooted form of the German expressionism that had risen out of the darkness of Caligari and Nosferatu a decade before (if anything, it owes more to its American commercial contemporaries, Browning's Dracula and Whale's Frankenstein); and as yet another example of the play between light and shade in its director Carl Dreyer's work, even in such a relatively generic piece as this. Brilliantly photographed by the same Rudolph Maté who went onto such success in American noir, it's perhaps less convincing on a narrative level - its hero (named as David Grey in the intertitles, Allan Grey in the subtitle) appears to fall asleep in a hostel, then "wakes up" to explore a community/dreamscape over which the threat of vampirism lingers - than as a ghostly procession of weird or otherwise striking images. A POV shot from inside a coffin; a Van Helsing figure apparently modelled on Albert Einstein; and a finale that's part-Sunrise (lyrical lovers on the lake), part-Metropolis (the crushing cogs and wheels of a deadly flourmill). I first saw the film on a DVD issued by Salvation Films, almost certainly not the best-looking nor (at 62 minutes) longest print in existence, but even there, among those flickering, sticking, disjointed images, it was clear I was in the presence of something remarkable. 

A restored, 72-minute version of the film is available on DVD from Eureka Entertainment.

Saturday 30 July 2011

From the archive: "Summer"

After a couple of notable TV movies (Gas Attack, Yasmin), director Kenny Glenaan finally lands a theatrical release with Summer, a sharp, thoughtful and touching drama about two lifelong friends - the quiet, introspective Shaun (Robert Carlyle) and mouthy, reckless Daz (Steve Evets) - who now share an antagonistic relationship as caregiver and wheelchair-bound cirrhosis sufferer. When Daz is given a couple of months to live, Shaun sets about tracking down the third member of their teenage gang: his former love Katy (Rachael Blake), now working for a solicitors in Chesterfield.

That last plot point suggests a certain limitation of scope, but Glenaan here attempts to go beyond the nitty-gritty of social realism (terminal illness, learning difficulties) towards something more langorous, indeed haunting: there are becalmed flashbacks to the trio's idyllic summer days as teenagers on a nearby lake, and Glenaan and writer Hugh Ellis find a novel and striking location in Daz's council house, already cramped and slowly filling up with ghosts.

It's also funny: at its best, the film approaches the salty humour of Raining Stones (producer Rebecca O'Brien is a long-time Ken Loach collaborator, while Evets apparently has the lead in Loach's next production [Looking for Eric]) or A Room for Romeo Brass. Some of the details get away from the filmmaker - a physical mismatch between the older and younger Katies threatens, momentarily, to break the spell - but Glenaan is developing nicely, forever attentive to the essentials of character and place. Good, too, to see Carlyle, who's done a lot of work for hire lately (Eragon, anyone?), back in a project on which he can bring all his passion and intelligence to bear.

(December 2008)

Summer screens on BBC2 tonight at 2.20am.

Friday 29 July 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of July 22-24, 2011:

1 (1) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (12A) **
2 (new) Cars 2 [above] (U)
3 (new) Horrible Bosses (15) **
4 (3) Bridesmaids (15) ***
5 (2) Transformers: Dark of the Moon (12A)
6 (4) Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG) ***
7 (5) The Guard (15)
8 (new) Beginners (15) **
9 (7) Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (U)
10 (6) The Tree of Life (12A) ****

(source: UK Film Council. Note: The Guard is presently on release in Ireland only.)

My top five:
1. The Lavender Hill Mob
2. A Better Life
3. The Light Thief
4. Our Day Will Come
5. Whisky Galore!

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Unknown (15) **
2 (1) 127 Hours (12) ****
3 (2) Just Go With It (12) *
4 (4) Black Swan (15) **
5 (3) No Strings Attached (15)
6 (6) True Grit (15) ***
7 (5) The Fighter (15) ****
8 (new) Animal Kingdom (18) ****
9 (7) I Am Number Four (12)
10 (8) Love and Other Drugs (15) **


My top five:
1. The Kingdom I and II
2. Submarine
3. Animal Kingdom
4. Limitless
5. Love Like Poison

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Monday, C4, 1.05pm)
2. Whistle Down the Wind (Monday, BBC2, 11.35am)
3. Juno (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
4. Summer (Saturday, BBC2, 2.20am)
5. Trees Lounge (Sunday, BBC2, 12.35am)

Not much to Marvel about: "Captain America", "The Lavender Hill Mob", "Whisky Galore" and "Horrid Henry" (ST 31/07/11)

Captain America (12A) 125 mins *
The Lavender Hill Mob (U) 81 mins ****
Whisky Galore! (U) 82 mins ***
Horrid Henry: The Movie (PG) 90 mins *

Regular cinemagoers will emerge from 2011 with tinnitus (from the Transformers sequel), a squint (from slipshod 3D) and, more likely than not, a bad case of superhero fatigue. It was possible to enjoy X-Men: First Class’s stylish counter-history; Thor, too, had flickers of interest; January’s joshing The Green Hornet, pointing up how absurd these myths-for-nerds are, looks better all the time. Collectively, however, they blur into one, and Captain America, the least distinctive of the lot, is just a chore. Next summer, we should insist on movies about risk-averse middle-managers who keep well clear of laboratories.

The new film is another origin story, that narrative form that exists solely to inform a select group of odd-smelling men-children where their favourite action figure got his helmet from. It also means we have to go back – to WW2 – before the film can get anywhere. It’s here we find Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a ten-stone weakling, being recruited as part of a U.S. plot to parachute genetically engineered supersoldiers behind enemy lines. With the push of a single button, Rogers emerges with newly rippling anatomy, the sight of which cues the loudest movie fanfare since Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea.

For where Marvel’s savvy Iron Man movies dealt in bet-hedging ambivalence, Captain America – like G.I. Joe before it – hesitates not to endorse muscle, might, the military machine. Yet it evokes a lazy nostalgia for a time when the bad guys were easily identified, and dramatic inertia sets in quickly. There is a reason none of the events in Captain America matter, and it’s secreted in the end credits: a teaser for a future crossover movie uniting the Captain with other Marvel heroes. This time, a film really is its own trailer, intended to generate awareness for another product entirely. Permission to feel ripped off granted.

The actors, at least, have mouthwatering cheques to show for it; such a percentage of the cast are observed phoning it in the production must have had a switchboard the size of Wyoming. Toby Jones is a glorified lab-tech; Hayley Atwell’s love interest registers as a smudge of period lipstick; Tommy Lee Jones couldn’t have appeared to care any less if he’d loped into shot parsing the Men in Black 3 script. Hugo Weaving gets to have a modicum of fun (and to tear off his own face) as arch-villain Schmidt, but Nazi occultism was explored with greater imagination in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films.

Effects specialist Joe Johnston gives this non-event movie a browning, over-processed look, and the dimming properties of 3D specs don’t help: much of the film is experienced as though through a paper bag. The fanboy’s usual cry will doubtless go up – these things aren’t meant for your kind – yet surely our teenagers aren’t as dull-minded and conformist as Captain America assumes; it closes on the image of Uncle Sam, recruiting us for the next battle in the Marvel movie universe, and frankly, I’ve never felt more like becoming a conscientious objector.

Resistance arrives with the reissue of two Ealing favourites, wryly charting the reactions of austerity-age Britons to sudden riches: bullion in the case of 1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob, 50,000 washed-up crates of grog in 1949’s Whisky Galore! The latter, one of the gentler entries in the filmography of the great Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, Sweet Smell of Success), champions the unquenchable thirst of a Scottish community over the Home Guard’s prohibitive urges; in its most explicitly satirical touch, the sinking ship that deposits the whisky on the community’s beaches is the SS Cabinet Minister.

Timelier still is The Lavender Hill Mob, Ealing’s retort to the brashness of American heist movies. Like many of the studio’s best, it thinks small, treating crime as a cottage industry: bank clerk Alec Guinness and fence Stanley Holloway spin stolen gold into novelty giftshop tat, employing not armoured cars, but Sid James on a bike. It’s a fine antidote to summer-season superheroics, marrying modest form to slyly subversive content: as Guinness’s minion demonstrates, giving police the slip by merging with a crowd of commuters, sometimes ordinariness allows one to get away with more than anybody expects.

The schools have broken up, which gives parents six weeks of fidgeting or dozing through cheap and charmless fiascos like Horrid Henry, a frenetic, synthetic spot of audience-chasing derived from Francesca Simon’s books. Grim notions of celebrity lurk at its centre: Henry’s progress through a Cowell-like talent competition is charted in brash, insincere, Dick-and-Dom-endorsed fashion, requiring numerous C-listers to take buckets of goo to the face. The calculation involved precludes any sense of harmless fun: kids, this is what marketing men want you to like.
Captain America and Horrid Henry are on nationwide release; The Lavender Hill Mob and Whisky Galore! are in selected cinemas before their DVD reissue on August 1st (Lavender) and August 8th (Whisky).

"A Better Life" (The Scotsman 29/07/11)

Film of the week: A Better Life (12A) ***
Directed by:
Chris Weitz
Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, Chelsea Rendon

It used to be that African-Americans were the only minority the chiefly Caucasian executives of Tinseltown noticed, not the Hispanics tending their homes and gardens. For every Mi Vida Loca, there’d be ten Menace II Society wannabes depicting the struggles of urban America’s disenfranchised black youth. Yet over the past two decades, migration from Latin America has risen sharply. In 2008, the U.S. Census listed the country’s Latino population as 47.7%, not including undocumented migrants: a minority had, almost overnight, become a silent quasi-majority, and a demographic just too vast for Hollywood to ignore.

Changes were afoot in the media landscape. Supported by fervent fanbases, Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas and Shakira became international megastars; HBO grew from delivering telenovelas to inner-city Hispanic subscribers to become one of TV’s most recognisable brands. Meanwhile, the debate about the nation’s borders raged on the rolling news channels, often couched in rabid right-wing rhetoric: illegal immigrants weren’t classed as people but “aliens”, with all the threat to Main Street America’s survival the paranoid terminology implied.

It’s precisely this rhetoric that A Better Life seeks to counter. Chris Weitz’s drama centres on Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir), a loving father, and one among many hard-working illegals dedicating themselves to the upkeep of L.A.’s parched lawns. His particular specialty is the shearing of leaves from the city’s palm trees, a task that requires him to shimmy vertically up tree trunks – a nimble metaphor, this, for the social ladder, although Carlos probably wouldn’t see it as such: his simple goal is to “keep quiet and stay invisible”, and especially to avoid la Migra, the immigration authorities waiting to ship him back home to Mexico.

His fate will turn on a betrayal dismayingly common to the socio-economic food chain’s lower reaches. One afternoon, while Carlos is busy shearing, another of his fellow migrants steals away with the truck vital to his business. Unable to report the theft – due to his outsider status – he sets off after the culprit, anguished and desperate, accompanied only by Luis (Jose Julian), his combative teenage son. A surprise influence gradually reveals itself: 1948’s Bicycle Thieves, that neo-realist landmark about a man robbed of his tools and thus mobility. In the theft’s immediate aftermath, Carlos fails to flag down a speeding sports car driven by one of the city’s landed white denizens, and must continue his pursuit by bus or on foot.

It’s perhaps equally surprising that A Better Life should bear the name of Weitz, who himself once appeared one of Hollywood’s chosen few. After early success with the American Pie films, Weitz oversaw the disastrous The Golden Compass, and was turfed off the Twilight series after 2009’s New Moon. In a sense, this director, too, has become disenfranchised, and the abasement becomes him: the noble aim here seems to be to shuck off the prevailing blockbuster mindset, and set out a 98-minute narrative uncluttered by prior expectations or trailer-friendly effects.

True, Weitz still has all the advantages of a film produced by Summit, the mini-studio behind the Twilights: top-drawer collaborators here include cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others), keenly exploring the variously harsh and diffuse qualities of California sunlight. Yet the film insistently allows itself time and space to observe the Latino community’s faces and customs; the search for the truck is halted for a trip to the charro, a ritualised equestrian spectacle, because Weitz loves the colour and bustle there – but also because he recognises the event once formed an integral part of his characters’ lives.

Compared to the compromised The Golden Compass in particular, A Better Life feels all round better managed. Eric Eason’s three-act screenplay is pleasingly classical, and Weitz has movie intelligence enough to make his set-pieces count: a sequence in which father and son try to liberate the truck from a garage is as suspenseful as anything now showing. More encouraging yet is the director’s apparent rediscovery of actors: Bichir, so imposing as Castro in Soderbergh’s Che, huddles under his baseball cap, making himself as nondescript as Carlos needs to be, and Julian nails Luis’s ghetto-headedness, a combustible mix of frustration and flat-out tiredness at the grunt work he’s obliged to put in to survive.

The generous budget would appear to preclude the harder edges of a Sin Nombre or Maria Full of Grace, rather more visceral, independent takes on the migrant experience; a coda, finding Carlos on the move again, is hardly triumphant, but suggests someone along the line was pressing for a redemption to go with their family-friendly certificate. Yet the whole is unusually, commendably sincere about its characters, and the tale it tells. Modest as A Better Life may be in scope, it commits wholeheartedly to achieving the goal of the socially conscious cinema: to make visible the previously unseen.

A Better Life is on selected release.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" (The Scotsman 29/07/11)

Captain America: The First Avenger (12A) * Directed by: Joe Johnston Starring: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones

Hard to think it possible, but Green Lantern has competition as 2011’s dreariest blockbuster. If you can make out anything through the usual 3D murk, this gassy origin story will fill you in on how GI Steve Rogers (the non-ginger Chris Evans, digitally tweaked, unalterably bland) went into an army lab a plucky pushover and emerged as the ripped embodiment of American military muscle. Those untroubled by the lack of any non-nerdy dramatic intrigue may even witness some sub-Hellboy action as Rogers parachutes behind enemy lines to do battle with devilish Nazi Hugo Weaving.

Machines once again triumph over human interest, aided by a string of thespian quislings all too visibly keeping an eye out for the arrival of studio accountants with sizeable paycheques: medals of dishonour go to Tommy Lee Jones, utterly disengaged as a grumpy colonel, and Dominic Cooper, sporting a lame moustache as Iron Man’s dad. It’s all exposition, finishing with a teaser for the forthcoming Avengers movie, which promises to unite the Captain with other Marvel icons: by then, you’d need to be in possession of indefatigable buttocks, or the biggest anorak in Christendom, to care.

Captain America: The First Avenger is on nationwide release.

"Horrid Henry: The Movie" (The Scotsman 29/07/11)

Horrid Henry: The Movie (U) *
Directed by:
Nick Moore
Theo Stevenson, Richard E. Grant, Parminder Nagra

After success with last summer’s StreetDance 3D, the commercially canny folk at Vertigo Films have clearly developed a taste for pocket money. This live-action adaptation of Francesca Simon’s books is a minor-celebrity pantomime along St. Trinian’s lines, right down to the school-threatened-by-closure plot and the cameo from the ex-Girl Aloud (here, the bubbly one) casting around for post-pop acting work. Henry himself (newcomer Stevenson) rather gets forgotten in the producers’ rush to chuck in talent contests and more streetdancing – the results of a PR brainstorming inquiry into What Kids Like, rather than a coherent story.

Director Moore, already responsible for one St. Trinian’s rip-off in 2008’s Wild Child, aims for snappy and colourful, but gets something scattershot and synthetic, stuck with the aesthetic of cheap children’s television. The nadir is 20 minutes of mirthless eye-rolling from Dick and Dom as quiz show hosts, but then much of it is reliant on C-listers (Noel Fielding, Mathew Horne, Richard E. Grant, finally landing a credit to rival Spiceworld for naffness) gurning at the 3D camera and getting water or paint deposited on them for their troubles. Come back Dennis the Menace, all is forgiven.

Horrid Henry: The Movie is on nationwide release.

"Zookeeper" (The Scotsman 29/07/11)

Zookeeper (PG) *
Directed by:
Frank Coraci
Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb

The inexplicable progress of Kevin James – from star of sitcoms nobody over here watched (King of Queens) to lead in movies nobody anywhere ought to have watched (Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Grown-Ups) – continues unabated. As produced by Adam Sandler, this lame kids’ pic is essentially Paul Blart In A Zoo, with elements of director Coraci’s The Wedding Singer and Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle movies: James’s just-dumped zookeeper Griffin turns to his suddenly chatty animal charges – including, wholly randomly, Cher and Sly Stallone voicing married lions – for advice in wooing his colleague (Dawson, better than this).

The premise cues first painful slapstick, then a number of discover-your-inner-beast gags pursued with greater energy in the Sandler-produced Rob Schneider vehicle The Animal ten years ago. To its credit, Zookeeper waits 40 minutes before venturing its first pee or poop joke, but its set-pieces (James and a gorilla dancing to Flo-Rida’s “Low”) will seem weak indeed to the over-10s, and even the very young will get bored when the talking animals disappear so Griffin can sort out his love life. If this is what the holidays are going to bring about, the kids may be better off back in school.

Zookeeper is on nationwide release.