Tuesday 27 September 2011

Distress signals: "Melancholia"

Melancholia, Lars von Trier's latest attack upon the institution of marriage, takes a peculiar pleasure in inviting you to the lavish nuptials of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). This being a wedding conceived along Scandinavian lines, there will be lots of speeches, lots of alcohol, and - crucially - a veritable smörgåsbord of angst. The bride's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) will be observed fretting about timing, and it comes as some surprise - particularly after the same director's Antichrist - to find Charlotte Gainsbourg cast as the most normal, if somewhat uptight, member of the party.

Elsewhere, Claire's hotelier husband (Kiefer Sutherland) elects to lord it over his future sister-in-law, stressing how important it is that everyone knows he's funded this particular showcase for his hotel and golf complex. The bride's father (John Hurt) will break off from getting tipsy and trying to get into his fellow guests' knickers to deliver a speech that will be shouted down by his ex (Charlotte Rampling), who herself promptly toasts her daughter by insisting - firmly, in the insistent Rampling manner - that she doesn't set all that much stall in marriage anyway. This, we conclude, is what happens when you book Udo Kier, rather than that nice J-Lo, to plan your wedding. It may also be the single best depiction of nuptial chaos - and the pressure we bring about in undertaking the most joyous day of our lives - that this viewer has ever seen.

The bride, for her part, elects to go AWOL during dessert to look up at a solitary red star in the night sky, and we realise that she, too, is struggling to hold it together, sobbing and snoozing when she's meant to be celebrating, and patently unable to be happy at a moment when everyone around her insists she be. The star - the planet Melancholia, which we learn is set on a collision course with Earth - soon turns billiard-ball blue, threatening to snooker us all; the groom will leave at dawn alone, convinced of his new wife's faithlessness, and facing an uncertain future of his own.

We've already been briefed that the end is nigh by Melancholia's bold opening, a ten-minute prologue composed - and that is the word - of wordless premonitions of the planet's final moments. These are painterly, with a hint of Trierish kitsch: Dunst dressed in black, the energy sapping from her fingers, Claire cradling her son while leaving heavy, irreparable footsteps across the green of a 19th hole, Justine in full bridal gear on the bed of a river, like Ophelia after Millais. With the perversity we've come to expect of him, von Trier shoots these with the same hi-def, slow-motion cameras usually deployed on television to showcase an Ian Bell drive or a Serena Williams forehand, and we sense Lars may yet be making sport of the apocalypse. Is it coincidence that these characters only realise the fun and games are over once they're standing on a golf course? Could it be that, where once we went to play golf on the Moon, now a planet made lonely by our solipsism and lack of curiosity has come to play with us?

I don't doubt some viewers will be glad to see the back of this lot. For a start, there are going to be those who'll want to slap Justine about the face and tell her to stop being such a silly cow; that she has a shiny new job in PR, and the possibility of prima noche congress with the dude from True Blood, and that should be plenty for anyone to be going forward with. Yet it's precisely this expectation that seems to have left her in this state, and which explains all the heavy footsteps she and those closest to her come to leave on those otherwise immaculately tended greens and fairways: when you have the weight of the world pressing down on your shoulders, it's understandable you might well long for that world to end.

Von Trier is too often (wrongly) accused of abusing and demeaning actresses, when actually all he's doing is removing them of their usual glamour (a quality which, in the cinema as in the real world, is useful only up to a point) and allowing us to look at them in new and unexpected ways: inveigling an accoutrement-free, unperfumed Nicole Kidman into the hard theatrical graft of Dogville, turning sprightly Björk into a desperate one-hit wonder for Dancer in the Dark, encouraging us never to follow the sullen Gainsbourg into the woodshed again after Antichrist. Dunst, for her part, has evidently done the reading on depression, or experienced it at close-quarters, if not first-hand: she clocks the self-degradation and abnegation, the inability to empathise, to get beyond her own funk. Von Trier picks out her inner stillness, the dying light in her eyes - what the actress's more mainstream ventures have tended to perceive as mere Valley Girl vapidity - and uses it to give shape and gravitational pull to the character's moods. It's easily a career-best.

The supporting parts are trickier, and the source of my few remaining reservations with Melancholia. Von Trier covers a flaw in his writing with his casting, ordering in actors who are waspish fun to be around (who can resist seeing Hurt and Rampling lock acid tongues?) to play characters who are really no more than nasty fuckers, and whose sole purpose is to do the heroine down at every available moment - to further the sense the entire planet is against her. (Chief offender: Stellan Skarsgard's bullish PR tyro, a thin and rather snidely drawn caricature of privilege.)
The whole film, indeed, risks becoming entrenched in its heroine's depressive perspective - everybody's out to get me, even the universe - and appears to settle into a rut halfway through as the action retreats to the Sutherland-Gainsbourg residence, and we await the final countdown.

What happens there is that Melancholia instead turns into a truly cosmic downer, shifting from the first half's Dogme-like intimacies to a consideration of something grander and more profound in scope: it may be the work that persuades even von Trier-phobes that this is undoubtedly, now, a big-picture filmmaker, not merely a petty provocateur engaged in the cinematic equivalent of ginger-knocking. Melancholia's sense of scale is such that it bears comparison with this summer's other major Cannes event movie, to which it provides a fascinating counterpoint: Malick's The Tree of Life, the work of a head-in-the-clouds optimist, which treated the planet's origins, and its perpetuation through the family unit, as a thing of enduring, relentless wonder. von Trier, for his part, has lived in this world: here assuming the mantle of that other great Scandinavian sceptic Bergman in wrestling with the earthly and the spiritual, he offers one of his most
outré gambits yet, daring to present the end of days as a blessed release.

Melancholia opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.

State of unease: "Red, White & Blue"

I concluded my review of director Simon Rumley's previous feature, the straight-to-DVD curio The Living and the Dead, with the thought that here was a British filmmaker with many of the right ideas, and a dire need for better funding to realise them. Well, Rumley's now gone West, taking the American independent route for his uneasy psychological thriller Red White & Blue, which has at its centre the kind of drifter male writer-directors tend to make male, impose all manner of autobiographical traits upon, and then romanticise unduly. Amanda Fuller's Erica, however, is a young working-class woman who hops from one sexual tryst to the next - taking on anyone, everyone, three at a time, an old dude she picks up in one of Austin's bars, allcomers - enforcing but one golden rule: she'll never fuck the same guy twice.

Another man drifts into her orbit, but this one's a bearded weirdo (Noah Taylor) whose opening gambit, in the corridor of the boarding house they've wound up sharing, is to regale her with tales of animal torture. An Iraq veteran (or so he claims), Taylor's Nate comes to protect Erica from her more abusive co-workers, inspiring a whole new emotion in her: affection, rather than lust this once, further complicated by the obvious fact this outsider would appear, to any better-adjusted onlookers, to be perhaps the last man in America who deserves it.

If nothing else, the film serves as an example of the kind of creative freedoms available to filmmakers willing to stick it out under the radar: these characters probably wouldn't even be allowed in to see a studio movie, let alone become the subjects of one. The film is full of leftfield hikes and switchbacks: just as this central relationship is taking shape, Rumley shifts focus onto a garage-band rocker with a feather in his ear and a sickly mother. Only gradually do we come to realise why it is we're now following him, and it changes the shape of everything we've seen up to this point. Along the way, Red White & Blue builds up a portrait of hard, unhappy lives, and the reflexes followed and shortcuts taken in the hope of making them easier - not to mention the complications that result.

Belatedly, Rumley takes what may just be a turn too far, into particular genre territory, and the threat of violence, previously modulated to a quiet, nagging hum in Taylor's performance, suddenly becomes deafening. This director continues to take life and death seriously, which elevates him above so many of his peers, but this derangement - of both the character and the film, which suddenly affects the stroboscopic flicker of a Gaspar Noe headfuck - damages Red White & Blue; I wouldn't blame you if you made your excuses and left after 75 minutes, and it wouldn't surprise me if some accused it not so much of jumping the shark as bounding over SeaWorld, leaving a noxious trail of excrement behind in every pool.

What kept me watching - grimly compelled, I think I ought to qualify - is that unlike Rumley's pokily eccentric predecessors, this is a properly widescreen experience, and thus a step forward of some form, however wrong-footing. DoP Milton Kam brings back vibrant frescoes of Texan mainstreets; it's edited with exceptional economy; and acted with total commitment by performers unafraid to look spotty or terrified, to have their faces creased or flecked with vomit. It is in such passages that you realise Rumley will probably never be a populist (if this is his idea of torture porn, it's altogether arch), but collectively they make for a jolting, unpredictable experience, one that establishes a chain of misery in which one abuse begets another, generally more malicious one. Those who survive it will be sure to know the stress in the title falls firmly on the final syllable.

Red White & Blue opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Love crimes: "Guilty of Romance"

The Japanese iconoclast Sion Sono concludes his self-titled "Hate trilogy" with Guilty of Romance, a baroque murder-mystery that proceeds from the discovery of a body - or rather body parts, sewn into tailor's dummies - around Tokyo's love hotel district, and comes to centre on two women obliged to lead double lives. There's a Godardian charge to early scenes, charting a bored housewife's sideways move from supermarket sausage saleswoman, stuck in a sexless marriage that requires her merely to rearrange her writer husband's slippers after he leaves for the day, to softcore pin-up sensation, swapping one form of flesh-peddling for another, more lucrative, yet psychically damaging variety. Matters get murkier yet when our heroine falls under the spell of a bisexual poetry lecturer who spends her nights as a streetwalker, and - like some hybrid of Derrida and Heidi Fleiss - insists every word be given its true meaning, while inviting her protégée down to her chosen level.

Despite its outré plotting, Sono's international breakthrough Love Exposure was relatively restrained in its content; the trilogy has moved on through February's wildly transgressive Cold Fish to arrive at this concluding instalment, which has some of the textures and reach of latter-day Almodóvar (typified by its classical score and literary references), coupled to an enfant terrible's fascination with filming naked and rotting flesh. Sono thinks nothing of staging cackling, cacophonous, wackily lit and framed scenes in which the women are coaxed into giving up their bodies, and the viewer realises we've come a long way from Naruse and Mizoguchi, even though the themes of these directors - chiefly, the oppression of women in a patriarchal society - remain much in evidence here.

The control is just such that, even when flooding his sets for greater atmosphere or fetishistically splashing shocking-pink paint around, Sono avoids the tonal and aesthetic meltdown - the aggravating mess - of his compatriot Tetsuya Nakashima's not dissimilar 2006 drama Memories of Matsuko. Instead,
he yields a fairly astonishing performance from real-life glamour model Megumi Kagurazaka, straddling the nice girl/nympho divide with a commendable lack of inhibition; re-viewing her first and final scenes, it's difficult to believe this is the same actress, and Sono is clever in engineering the character's lowest points to coincide with her most conventional acts, warping even the everyday in her gradual spiral downwards.

Granted, certain aspects are rather less successful. In the two-hour European theatrical release (cut from the 144-minute version that premiered at Cannes), the murder-mystery angle is underdeveloped, and barely appears to go anywhere, in part, one suspects, because Sono can't bring himself to consider anything as procedural and linear as a Marple or Poirot case; you may also take away from Guilty of Romance no more than a general sense that Japan is pretty fucked-up, where the more expansive Love Exposure and Cold Fish permitted comparatively complex responses.

Still, the trilogy has been completed in a tremendous burst of creative energy - we've seen all three films in the space of two years - and if nothing has quite matched the sui generis blast of its opening salvo, there's been a clear progression
of sorts, and one that leaves enough thematic room for this director not to have pigeonholed himself. What is it that Sono hates, exactly - social injustice? Or the conventions of cinema? In the end, all three films are confounding in different ways, and in our current, heterogenous movie culture, I think I mean that to stand as a compliment.

Guilty of Romance opens in selected cinemas on Friday, before being released on Blu-Ray and DVD on October 31st.

Monday 26 September 2011

Rolling with the punches: "Warrior"

When The Fighter opened earlier this year - to near-unanimous critical praise, and much love and respect from the various awards committees - it caused many to evoke the spectre of Rocky, a previous pugilistic sensation that came from nowhere to capture the popular imagination. Yet, as befitted a work from the director of I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter had its own rhythms, its own moves, which made it the film it was. Gavin O'Connor's Warrior, which bears the unpromising look of something greenlit once The Fighter hit a particular number at the box office, is actually far closer to the Rocky template, now updated to an age of mixed martial-arts and the new, equally brutal economic realities into which America is now locked. It has the rundown working-class neighborhoods, the same sense of broken homes and wasted lives, even an apparently undefeatable Russian foe. What O'Connor's film really shows, however, is how, in the right hands, the template can still produce cinema that's both as resonant as ever, and as corny and cheesy as nachos with dip. You could watch The Fighter any time, and - I believe - be impressed by what you saw there; Warrior is made specifically for Friday and Saturday night consumption, if you can afford the price of a ticket.

The plot is basically Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys" pumped full of steroids, and relocated to a different battleground. Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) is a lank-haired, monosyllabic underdog who's washed up in latter-day Pittsburgh, on the doorstep of his recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte). An Iraq War veteran, Tommy has nowhere to go save the local gym, where he begins to take out his rage, his regrets and his resentments on first the bag, then any unfortunate who cares to spar with him. Over on the other side of town, meanwhile, there resides Tommy's brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a squeezed middle-class educator who - unknown to both his wife and his employers - fights after hours to keep the bailiffs from his door. After he's suspended from his first job for showing up with a black eye, he's obliged to take up the second full-time, bringing about a makeshift family reunion at an MMA championship event in Nevada where the fighters are vying for a $5m purse.

Rocky was a rallying cry for the American underclass that came to sound increasingly hollow as Reaganomics came to take hold, and its star came to flip between that franchise and the bellowing Rambo franchise. Warrior, crucially, aspires to the standing of myth, which explains the 140-minute running time and the references to Theogenes, a Greek boxer who remained undefeated through 1300 contests. (Furthering the mythology, Paddy listens to a Moby Dick audiobook while accompanying Tommy on his late-night jogs.) The rhetoric and imagery throughout remain chiefly American, which may mean Warrior will play less well in, say, Yeovil than it would do in Vegas or the Mid-West. There's much talk of promises and forgiveness, yielding Methody acting bouts on beaches and front lawns; I'd wager O'Connor's primary direction to his male performers was to watch Brando's "contender" speech from On the Waterfront on YouTube.

What lifts it some distance out of the ordinary are those self-same actors, who put their hearts and body and soul into it, and know exactly the right emotional blows to land, and when. Hardy's physicality has never been much in question - particularly after Bronson - yet Tommy Conlon counts as perhaps his least immediately forthcoming role to date: a squat, punchy thing who slurs and mumbles his words, and would rather not talk at all, if possible. There are reasons for this, of course, and many of them are revealed through an approach to performance that is as much gestural as anything else: Hardy makes something especially iconic of the way Tommy enters and leaves the cage, as though carried by demons. Edgerton's Brendan, by contrast, is better placed to articulate what he's doing and why he's doing it, and yet we never quite shake off the feeling this fighter is punching well below his weight, and that someone - most likely the fearsome Russian champion Koba (Kurt Angle) - is likely to teach him a lesson sooner rather than later. By the time this pair eventually meet, Warrior really has moved into mythic territory, setting brother against brother, while retaining the feel of something greatly more intimate: these are squabbling kids rolling round the floor of a bedroom-substitute, in the absence of a mother to pull them apart.

Incidentally, O'Connor hands Nolte his most substantial role in years, inviting the veteran to fold some shaky vulnerability into that otherwise impermeably craggy face of his. It's Nolte who gets the film's one true grace note, a final, wry smile and a shake of the head that appear to communicate a sense he can't believe someone's doing this story again, and - more importantly - that they're getting away with it. Get away with it Warrior does, for this is very canny entertainment, doing a pretty decent Ron Shelton impersonation in working a heightened drama and realism into the live fights, then cutting away to those viewers - onscreen surrogates for those of us in the cheap seats - watching nervously or excitedly at home. It's a crowdpleaser in the best sense, recognising we respond instinctively to the sight of men doing whatever it takes to be a better man - and it may just do more in the short term to boost the flagging economy than any politician currently seems capable of doing.

Warrior is in cinemas nationwide.

Bodywork: "Drive"

A couple of hours before the London press screening of Drive, its Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn appeared on the BBC Breakfast sofa, alongside leading lady Carey Mulligan. Questioned about the explosive nature of his film, Refn thoughtfully (if somewhat disturbingly) ventured "Violence is a bit like fucking..." This set host Bill Turnbull into an immediate conniption fit, forcing his guest into an apology that Refn offered in the style of a sheepish schoolboy, or a Cannes-approved director faced, at nine in the morning, with a particular and enduring form of English puritanism - the kind that not only cuts away from streakers at televised football matches, but also insists that commentators note "we're not going to give this idiot the oxygen of publicity". Refn's countryman Lars von Trier experienced a similar reaction to somewhat more controversial statements at Cannes this year, and the idea words only get us into trouble receives an expression of sorts in Drive, a pared-back action movie about a man who'd rather let his driving do the talking. If this were a pop song - and the prominence Refn accords to music throughout suggests his film well aspires to being a catchy little number - then its title would be preceded by a parenthesised "Shut up and..."

Here is a hero, played in his second role of the week by Ryan Gosling, who goes under the name Driver, whose every relationship takes place in and around cars. A movie stuntman by day, a getaway driver by night, Driver only really notices Irene (Mulligan), the diner madonna-with-child who lives down the hall, when she's standing in the parking lot of their apartment block with her bonnet up, and smoke pouring from her engine. (She, of course, seems to need a man who knows his way around a fanbelt.) The setting, Los Angeles, remains the American capital of freeways, and Drive has the glossy, snappy look of a film conducted in the spirit of cinematic tourism by a director flat-out dazzled by the city's bright lights, its actors, its surfaces; it's possible Refn undertook the entire project just to shoot in the L.A. storm drain, though it's pushing it to imply this iconic channel should provide young not-quite-lovers passage to the sundappled paradise to which Driver ends up transporting Irene and her son.

When Mulligan says "he had a good time" of her child in the wake of this excursion, we're still not quite sure whether or not this dame is falling for her chauffeur, or simply measuring his lap speeds - but then her hand joins his on the gearstick, and we instantly realise these two go together like garage forecourts and charcoal briquettes. Trouble is, he's a loner, unused to having somebody in the passenger seat, and she has plenty of baggage for one so apparently young: chiefly, an errant husband (Oscar Isaac), who - released from prison - recruits Driver to help rob a pawn shop and thus pay off the protection money he owes. Our hero's first instinct is to drive away, but the girl and the kid are being threatened too, so he acquiesces, and it's at this point that the wheels come off in quite spectacular fashion.

The source is a book by James Sallis, but Drive's real model is cinematic: a run of minimalist L.A. thrillers running back from Michael Mann's similarly glistening Heat to Walter Hill's The Driver, an early neo-noir from which Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini deduct four letters and to which they add the shamelessness of the console game Grand Theft Auto: credits in a gaudy pink font, an 80s-infused synthesiser soundtrack, a bit - actually, make that a lot - of the old ultra-violence.

In previous outings (Bronson, the Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising), Refn wrestled, with varying degrees of success, with the age-old question of man's inhumanity to his fellow man, and whether or not that violence isn't in fact central to who we are. From these investigations, he's developed an appreciable form of clutch control: Drive's first half throbs like a finely-tuned engine with ominous, hold-and-release tensions, whether the ticking of the watch Driver uses to calibrate his getaways, or the taut coiling of his patent leather driving gloves. (Like a BP catalogue, the film is stocked full of these fetish items - a case full of carving knives, a padded silver jacket with a scorpion design stitched into the back - as though to suggest this is what you, too, can get, if you spend enough on gas.)

Yet when this tension finally erupts, like so many of the supporting characters' heads, Drive gets messy; if it retains the sheen and percussiveness of Heat - something of its internal motor, its metabolic purr - it simply hasn't the heart, nor the soul. In Mann's meticulous universe, every bullet could be heard, counted and (most importantly) felt. The violence in Drive, by contrast, means nothing outside the milieu of these characters; it's just another element of notional "cool" designed (and Refn, with his keen visual sense, has done more than most to conceptualise violence) to elicit a response from those jaded palates who routinely reduce hookers and Hare Krishnas alike to a smear on the pavements of Vice City. Within the film, it results in such showoffy business as a scene in which the previously restrained Driver marches into a titty bar - a location Refn adjourns to with rather too much lipsmacking relish - in order to take a clawhammer to a man's fingers in full view of a row of topless, passive dancing girls.

Well, I suppose if you want restraint, there's always Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which has restraint up its anally retentive wazoo; for Refn, such moments, revelling as they do in senseless gore, is all of a part with the glossy spectacle he's here fostering. The result is trash with just enough hint of an out-there directorial sensibility to lend our Saturday-night multiplex consumption of it a certain cultural heft, but also a film that has to keep moving to prevent us from scrutinising the blood on its upholstery - that desecration of surfaces a flashy eyecatcher like Drive can't really bring itself, and won't allow itself the time, to contemplate.

Drive is in cinemas nationwide.

Assholes and idiots: "Crazy, Stupid, Love."

In their push for the middle ground, the filmmaking team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa might just be losing their edge. After Bad Santa, a scabrous shredding of Tinseltown's usual holiday platitudes, and last year's I Love You, Phillip Morris, a bold yet ultimately rather sweet Jim Carrey vehicle that had its US release delayed by distributors nervy around its handling of gay themes, the pair's Crazy, Stupid, Love. lends a relatively conventional treatment to a script by Dan Fogelman (Fred Claus, Tangled). This is a starry romantic comedy, tailored for mainstream acceptance, yet lent some distinction by its focus on the relationship between two demonstrably heterosexual men.

First, there is Cal Weaver (Steve Carell), whose wife of some twentysomething years, Emily (Julianne Moore), has just announced she's been sleeping with a colleague, and wants a divorce. In the middle of his misery, Cal walks into a bar and catches the eye of Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a seasoned pick-up artist who takes pity on the poor chump and begins, over several lessons, to pass on the choice tricks, lines and moves that have made him such a wow with the opposite sex. The film thus opens as an exclusively masculine Pygmalion rejig: Jacob installs Cal with a new wardrobe, and a new-found sense of self-confidence, in what's perhaps the cinema's first all-male makeover montage; from this, Cal gains a suede sports jacket that frankly, to these eyes, looks terrible on him, but this doesn't stop him from getting to bang his son's high-school teacher (Marisa Tomei).

Gradually, Fogelman comes to sketch in several meandering, unruly subplots. There's one concerning that same, somewhat squat son (Jonah Bobo), who denounces the plot of The Scarlet Letter in class as about "a bunch of assholes who fell in love like assholes and made assholes out of everybody else", which I think falls close to the John Sutherland line; he's developing an obsessive crush on the family babysitter (Analeigh Tipton). There's another about Hannah (Emma Stone), a workaholic law student seen rejecting Jacob's advances in the opening scene, and who clearly - so the film believes - needs nothing more than to get laid. The form aspires to the Crash or Short Cuts (or, perhaps closer, Love, Actually) template, but the content proves increasingly familiar; it's another recent romantic comedy - see also the recent pair of fuckbuddy epics (No Strings Attached, Friends with Benefits) - dressed up in such a way as for us not to believe it's a romantic comedy, with all the negative connotations that genre now retains.

Flashes of the directors' transgressive style make themselves apparent - when Cal takes the teacher back to his place, he can't help blurting out "I'm a little worried you have AIDS", not quite believing his luck - yet this is still a film where it rains when somebody's emotions get hurt, and where Jacob finally has to prove himself a sensitive soul in demonstrating a close knowledge of Patrick Swayze's Dirty Dancing pick-ups. Cal's renewed self-confidence goes not specifically toward racking up notches on an otherwise pristine bedpost, but breaking into his family's home in the middle of the night - to Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place" - to ensure the flowers are being watered. And while everyone insists they need a Jacob in their lives to make their PG-13 lives a tad more R-rated, the film itself remains resolutely PG-13: Gosling gets to whip his shirt off ("My God, it's as though you've been Photoshopped," Stone gasps, marvelling at his six-pack), but his conquests remain covered by the exact length of duvet in the morning. (The contrast with the rather less sparing depiction of man-love in Phillip Morris could scarcely be greater.)

Still, within these limitations, Crazy, Stupid, Love. remains watchable enough, and it'll do no harm whatsoever to Ficarra and Requa's growing rep as actor's directors. Carell, a comedian promoted very rapidly to leading man status off the back of his normalcy and relatability, at least finds more to test him than he did in Dan in Real Life: if the bar scenes rely on him displaying some very familiar, Michael Scott-like maladroit tendencies, he's encouraged elsewhere to display an appreciable mix of decency, befuddlement and hurt. Gosling's peacocking is nicely pitched, and Tomei and Stone enjoy sparky cameos; the only inevitability on this front is how little there is for Moore, whose talents traditionally go to waste in entertainments such as these.

Rather like a night with Jacob, I suspect it's possible to emerge having enjoyed the experience, but nevertheless feeling as though you've spent the best part of two hours being sold a line - the line that love makes assholes of us all. If nothing else, Crazy, Stupid, Love. demonstrates that romcoms written by men about men, and possibly even aimed at drawing in the kind of husbands and boyfriends who would only go near a romcom if it had a title something like Crazy, Stupid, Love., can be every bit as simplistic, confused and cynical as anything torn from the pages of a chicklit bestseller.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. is in cinemas nationwide.

Hand of God: "Soul Surfer"

The cinema's fixation with young girls in bikinis continues unabated, though rarely can it have been framed as weirdly as it is in Sean McNamara's teen drama Soul Surfer. This is the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a promising surfer who, on the verge of a lucrative pro career, had her arm bitten clean off in a shark attack. A further twist of sorts is that Hamilton was a devout Christian, with a "Pray for Surf" poster hanging in her bedroom; lapsing into shock in the immediate wake of the attack, she apparently had a vision of the afterlife as the light at the end of a ripcurl.

Soul Surfer
's seven-man screenplay isn't shy about presenting this aspect of its heroine's character. We see Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) at study classes where Jeremiah is invoked as a lesson in seeing the bigger picture; her father (Dennis Quaid) pours over a Bible at his daughter's bedside; and a final clip shows the real-life Bethany at the Teen Choice awards, thanking Jesus for her courage and perseverance. By which point, we've come to suspect Disney have their eye on the same churchy demographic The Blind Side (and, to a lesser extent, their own Secretariat) was aiming at, and we may have cause to wonder when wholesome family entertainment became synonymous with holier-than-thou entertainment.

That said, the film itself remains a sweet and - who knows? - possibly even inspirational tale about a teenage girl with more body issues than is usual to wrestle with: as Bethany's parents, Quaid and Helen Hunt are warmer and more engaged than they really need to be, and Robb gives a credibly tough and winning reading, never begging for our sympathies unduly. Yes, it's a 12A Disney movie, which means it goes easy on the despair (having questioned how the accident could be considered "part of God's plan", Bethany is observed smiling and suntanned in the very next scene), the sooner to get its heroine back on the water, yet the entire second act moves in unexpected, if not quite mysterious, ways.

Here, Bethany hands over her boards to her fans and sets out to Thailand to assist in the clean-up following the Asian Tsunami, in effect swapping one exhilarating set of waves for another, more destructive kind. In this stretch, the initial deluge of Christian imagery, its relentless message of compassion and tolerance, comes to make a sincere, if simplistic, sort of sense: this was, after all, a story about somebody who came to practice what had been repeatedly preached to them. If aspects of Bethany's final triumph remain predictable (such as the emergence of a hunky male best friend who sees her for the remarkable young woman she is, whether one-armed or two) the whole stands as entirely acceptable sleepover fare - though any secular humanists in your pyjama party may prefer 2002's Blue Crush, which hit the beach in a far less whitebread fashion, and wasn't so insistent on hanging ten with Jesus.

Soul Surfer is in cinemas nationwide.

"Killer Elite" (Scotsman 23/09/11)

Killer Elite
(15) **
Directed by:
Gary McKendry
Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro

Rather unsympathetically thrown out against the Cannes-certified Drive is this ploddingly retrograde Jason Statham headsmasher: nothing to do with Sam Peckinpah’s 1975 film, but a cobbling together of Ranulph Fiennes’ 1980s-set tome “The Feather Men” with countless Andy McNabisms. From what can be discerned from ex-P.E. teacher Matt Sherring’s gibberish screenplay, gun-for-hire Statham must spring his kidnapped mentor (De Niro, coasting) by undertaking a series of hits in locations ranging from Oman to the Brecon Beacons. Tailing him is one-eyed ne’er-do-well Owen, whose banker bosses sit in darkened suites sipping tea, just so we can tell they’re evil.

Presumably the pitch was something Bourne-like, but it becomes apparent no-one – not debutant director McKendry, not even the over-qualified cast, clinging grimly to ill-fitting accents and facial hair – really knew what they were doing here. Statham proves reliably terse, whether moonlighting as a doctor or, ahem, a military historian, yet with plausibility off the agenda, everybody else lowers their game. The dialogue’s awful, the action – think dual carriageways and Triumph Dolomites – frankly clapped out, and the whole so drab-looking as to make Tinker Tailor… resemble the average episode of ZingZillas. Less killer, more filler.

Killer Elite is in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 18 September 2011

1,001 Films: "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936)

Certain studio directors were always remaking themselves one way or another, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town now looks more than ever like Frank Capra's warm-up for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Gary Cooper is the hayseed lured away from his beloved tuba and orange layer cake by a cabal of lawyers keen to get their mitts on the fortune Deeds's late uncle has bequeathed to him. Relocated to New York, the good Deeds is pitted against the condescension, conniving and sheer bad manners of the metropolitan elite; his rustic charm - manifesting itself in straight-talking and a fast recourse to fisticuffs - does, however, win him one new admirer, in the form of previously cynical journo Jean Arthur.

This version misses the complicating politics. Even at the squawking, floppy-haired stage of his career, James Stewart was able to convey the lived experience of a senator having to negotiate his way between vested interests; Cooper, conversely, is just a little bit weird as the kind of thirtysomething naif who delights in sliding down banisters and discovering his front hall functions as an echo chamber - there really does seem to be something wrong with him in the head. The whole scenario turns on Deeds's poetry, which starts out conspicuously ghastly before - at a certain point - Capra comes to insist it should break your heart.

The whole remains moderately charming, nonetheless, with some fun contributions further down the supporting cast, though arguably not as many as Sturges would have found room for - and Sturges would almost certainly have made a tougher, wittier, livelier film out of this or similar material. (Hail the Conquering Hero, for example, which - despite its title - was less concerned with proving its lead character was, after all, a jolly good fellow.) Later earmarked by Adam Sandler for a remake - in this instance, evidence not of the arrogance and creative bankruptcy of today's Hollywood, but of a certain easily understood simplemindedness in the original.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is available on DVD through UCA.

Saturday 17 September 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of September 9-11, 2011:

1 (1) The Inbetweeners (15) **
2 (new) Friends with Benefits [above] (15)
3 (new) Jane Eyre (PG)
4 (4) The Smurfs in 3D (U) **
5 (2) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ****
6 (3) One Day (12A)
7 (new) Columbiana (12A)
8 (6) Final Destination 5 (15)
9 (7) Fright Night (15)
10 (9) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Post Mortem
2. Days of Heaven
3. Kind Hearts and Coronets
4. Tomboy
5. West Side Story

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) Source Code (12) ***
2 (2) Limitless (15) ***
3 (3) Unknown (15) **
4 (4) Black Swan (15) **
5 (6) 127 Hours (12) ****
6 (9) The Lincoln Lawyer (15)
7 (7) Never Let Me Go (12) **
8 (5) No Strings Attached (15)
9 (8) True Grit (15) ***
10 (re) Just Go With It (12) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. How I Ended This Summer
2. Bobby Fischer Against the World
3. Cedar Rapids
4. Trust
5. Insidious

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Ripley's Game (Monday, C4, 1.40am)
2. Strictly Ballroom (Saturday, BBC2, 5pm)
3. Gridlock'd (Sunday, BBC2, 11.50pm)
4. The Departed (Saturday, C4, 10.20pm)
5. Amistad (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.35pm)

From the archive: "Ripley's Game"

Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, from the Patricia Highsmith novel, turns out to be a real blast, and that's at least halfway due to John Malkovich in the title role. For fans, this is primo Malko, full-grade Malkovich, Malkovich central; thanks to the dictionary definition of perfect casting, you realise the actor's unrivalled gift for expressing elegant disdain hasn't been this unfettered, this much on display since Dangerous Liaisons (or, at least, Con Air). After the interpretations of buff Alain Delon and preppy Matt Damon in previous Highsmith adaptations, it's a breath of fresh air to see Malkovich attempting Ripley-as-Victor Meldrew; sociopaths just seem that much more believable when they're pissed off at everyone, and the actor here seems to be turning his nose up at everything.

You grasp exactly why this Ripley sneers so often at the outside world as Cavani's camera pans around the character's Italian countryside retreat: with its meticulous canvasses, restored harpsichords, perfectly manicured gardens and virtuoso girlfriend (Chiara Caselli), it's a shrine to carefully cultivated taste. No way is this Ripley going to get his hands dirtied by the "squalid turf war" brought to his doorstep by the slobbish Englishman Reeves (Ray Winstone); this Ripley takes good care of his hands, and the sight of Malkovich sporting oven gloves and tending to his souffle is very nearly worth the ticket price alone. (Winstone, for his part, is on marvellously greasy form in a too-tight leather coat, wolfing down fried eggs smothered in HP sauce; the clash between him and his co-star is a memorable one.) Eventually, Ripley decides to farm out the gun-for-hire work to a weak-willed picture restorer (Dougray Scott), looking to provide for his wife (Lena Headey) after the leukaemia in his system has taken him from her.

Unlike the high (camp) seriousness of Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cavani's film is played - right from the start, and up to a certain point - for ironic, smirking fun; sometimes it resembles Strangers on a Train with laughs. On one level, it can be understood as a film about telephones, and the way people answer them: how Malkovich's fey "hey-lo" comes across as somehow more becoming than Scott's incongruous, wallyish "pronto". Reeves interrupts a classical orchestra's recording session when his mobile bleeps into life; Ripley, sat cross-legged on a yoga mat, simply hangs up when the caller doubts he can come up with $50,000.

The weight of the film exists in Malkovich's head and Winstone's belly; when the plotting has to rely on Scott's jaw and Headey's eyebrows, it does so with much less success. Cavani constructs a couple of decent suspense sequences around Scott's sickly features as he ponders what it is to take a life, but these are trumped by one look Malkovich gives in a train's bathroom mirror shortly before he prepares to "go to work" on the gangsters who have been tailing him. The Talented Mr. Ripley, with its youthful protagonists and glamorous cast, was about nothing if not how beautiful murder could be, the aesthetics of killing. The Malkovich/Cavani version, based on one of Highsmith's later books, is no sucker for beauty - the Berlin scenes are overcast and drizzly, the Italian countryside nondescript - but theirs is nonetheless a very seductive film about what it means to get away with murder: more telling than anything is the fact we find Ripley heading into the male menopause while living la dolce vita and not rotting in prison. The conniving conviction of the character's logic is best expressed in a speech where he tells the picture-framer the only reason he'd get caught at school is that he never thought of killing his teachers; for a moment, this seems like the most logical idea in the world.

If the sense is of a film about getting away with murder which is itself getting away with murder, yes, Ripley's Game has its faults, but more often than not it compensates with an abundance of mordant wit, the performances of its two leading men, and the way it manages to preserve on celluloid some idea of what was on the page in the first place. Ripley knows what it is to be alone, truly alone, in the world, and the picture-framer comes to understand that his new-found friend has used him purely for the purposes of making another man know the true meaning of solitude; both book and film turn on an act of self-sacrifice, one death Ripley knows he won't be able to forget in a hurry - the final shot tilts slinkily, suggestively past the Italian girlfriend, to the tombs behind her, and then up to high-heaven itself. This is a film about knowing death, rather than just looking at it, and that's finally what makes Ripley's Game a smarter proposition than the Minghella Ripley, lifting it into the realms of a mainstream thriller a connoisseur like its hero - or Malkovich, one supposes - might rightfully savour.

(May 2003)

Ripley's Game screens on Channel 4 this Monday night at 1.40am.

Suspicion: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

Now that Harry Potter has cast his final spell, what's to become of the massed ranks of Equity? A new and determinedly shabby adaptation of John le Carré's spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may provide the answer: there's no pressing reason for it to exist, save to provide temporary shelter for a roster of jobbing thesps. (Times are hard in the British film industry, even after The King's Speech.) Audiences are permitted a two-hour pass to this gentleman's club, providing they turn a blind eye to its dusty irrelevance, its essential, built-in lifelessness: never mind the intrigue, the film's producers Working Title beseech us, look at that poster, and feel the quality. Misdirection is its tactic.

The source was given a (to some eyes) definitive filming for British TV in the mid-1970s, back when the Cold War was an ongoing concern. The new version has been conceived as another period drama - only greyer, and without Judi Dench. (You'll find her in Jane Eyre, in the screen next door.) Its most radical and effective choice - apparently deliberate - is to give us the backstory in the opening minutes as telling, vivid fragments: perspiring waiters, failing eyesight, musty, fusty rooms. It's clear that this cast - and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, previously responsible for another sickly 70s period piece, 2009's Let the Right One In - have been recruited to breathe whatever life they can into an unhealthy, if not outright dying milieu.

This prelude begins with one MI6 agent (Mark Strong) being shot in an incident summarised by a lovely, mellifluous phrase ("that bloody mess in Budapest"), and it ends with the death in hospital of the unit's leader Control (John Hurt), haunted by the suspicion there is a mole at the highest level of British intelligence. Here is where the RADA hordes come in, lined up like suspects in a Marple murder-mystery: who killed Control, as it were, and in doing so brought about the passing of the last vestiges of empire? Well, take your pick. Is it the squat Scotsman (Toby Jones)? The pipe-smoking Hungarian (David Dencik)? How about the withering Oscar-winner (Colin Firth, probably the pick of the bunch, getting a lot of meaning from a flick of his spectacles or a ring of a bicycle's bell)? Our super-sleuth is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a watchful, just-retired operative - it's him we see at the optician's in that opening sequence - with a detective's messy personal life (his wife is cheating on him with one or another of his colleagues) who winds up quietly, dutifully raking over old history, in the absence of much of a future to look ahead to.

Alfredson, an odd choice despite his past form with adaptations, possibly empathised with this outsider position: he, too, is peering in at a particular form of Englishness, setting up his camera outside the window of a Wimpy restaurant or an adulteress's chamber and observing the trysts going on inside, a spy in the house of love. This director has a certain facility with chilly, deadening, morgue-like atmosphere - very different to the nuanced melancholy of the Wallander adaptations or The Killing, it needs to be said - but brings from his first feature an approach to narrative that is frustrating and obfuscating, when it's not outright anaemic. As with most fanboys, he makes an enthusiastic voyeur, but he breathes too heavily: the pane steams up.

The film gets increasingly cluttered, and not just with grey hair dye and BAFTA-friendly talent. The screenplay, by Bridget O'Connor and the absurdly over-employed Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, The Men Who Stare at Goats), presents us with stories within stories, piles fabrication atop fabrication, then tosses a baffling in-joke or two ("Arabs - you can rent them, but you can't buy them!") on top of that. What might have worked on the page, written down like the case studies these operatives file, or in serial form, at greater length, comes to play on screen like an Arabian Nights stripped of its exotic pleasures, the latter replaced by the stuffiness that comes as standard with the more superfluous period movies.

Whether or not this stuffiness is intentional - both the cinematography and the production design would suggest that it is - it chokes: about an hour into this ill-considered murk, I found myself longing for the clean, thrilling lines of a Bourne movie, and wondering whether we couldn't just Google the damn mole, already. Alfredson allows himself a small handful of flourishes: an owl emerging from a classroom fireplace, a gag with a beekeeper (Roger Lloyd Pack) who brings his work along with him. Yet these digitised creatures only serve to point up how wilting and analogue the humans swatting them are: almost every scene here is like walking into a hospice for befuddled thesps set to bore you with some anecdotal non-sequitur before they let slip a flash of salient info. (And Alfredson finally has no way of connecting this info up, save to slap a Julio Iglesias cover of "La Mer" over the concluding images: more misdirection, this time silly, bordering on the kitsch.)

At his best here, Oldman reminds you just how the angry young man of the early 1980s has become a more tempered and circumspect screen presence - an old lion - but he's hamstrung by the demands of playing a character a good ten years older than the actor himself is; you catch him straining. Oldman's Smiley is more often comic than he is pathetic or pitiable, and I don't believe this was the idea: between the actor's lowered voice and his relentless pursing of the lips and mouth, he looks like Graham Fellows' immortal creation John Shuttleworth (another example of a fiftysomething performer playing sixtysomething) and sounds like one of the wizened professors from Newman and Baddiel's History Today sketches. (When the mole is finally uprooted, I half-expected Oldman-Smiley to declare "It's you, it is".) In a cast this well-stocked - look at that poster! - it shouldn't matter, but it's Oldman who sets the tone and pace of this Tinker Tailor. The film shuffles when it should move: this isn't cinema, but paperwork.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 16 September 2011

"I Don't Know How She Does It" (Scotsman 16/09/11)

I Don’t Know How She Does It (12A) *
Directed by:
Douglas McGrath
Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear

The heroine of Allison Pearson’s bestseller is here forcibly relocated to a USA of bake sales, playdates and dismally conventional mainstream entertainments. Über-mother Kate (Parker) juggles childcare and career with the bizarre pursuit of mom-ranking. She surpasses single mum Christina Hendricks, because she has both hubby Kinnear and alpha-male banker Brosnan hot for her; she obviously has her childless careerist colleagues beat; and she outdoes any gym-toned “momster”, because she looks naturally fabulous, and isn’t, allegedly, a total bee-yotch. To the age-old question of what women want, the film bluntly responds: a medal, dammit.

Insistently slick direction establishes the now-standard overlit universe in which a heroine might contrive to send risqué IMs to unintended recipients, or have to postpone building her daughter a snowman just to imbue a project bereft of drama with another phony crisis. Any of Pearson’s nuances have long been processed out; the remaining propagation propaganda is continually undermined by the fact Parker, struggling to recapture her pre-Carrie warmth, holds her onscreen offspring as though expecting somebody to switch in a Prada clutch at any second. Even with mother-and-baby screenings, I don’t know why you’d bother.

I Don't Know How She Does It is on nationwide release.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Ham-and-pineapple express: "30 Minutes or Less"

30 Minutes or Less, director Ruben Fleischer's follow-up to Zombieland, operates under two different impulses. Part of it is a delayed coming-of-age picture in which lowly pizza delivery boy Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) struggles to hang on to the relationships that matter to him: with the girl he loves (Dilshad Vadsaria), who's leaving their hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan to start a hotel management course in Atlanta, and with his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), who himself has started climbing the career ladder, away from minimum-wage minions like Nick. Increasingly, all these latter two have in common are the action movies they rent and watch together, and their friendship will be unexpectedly sustained when they find themselves bang in the middle of an action-movie scenario: think Danny Glover straining over a toilet full of explosives.

While making a delivery one night, Nick is kidnapped by a pair of local drongos (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who strap a bomb to our hero's chest and encourage him, in the strongest possible terms, to rob a bank for them. At which point, the film's more commercial instinct kicks in, and 30 Minutes or Less turns into a slacker action flick, necessitating the haphazard waving around of guns, much pedal-to-the-metal business (usually interrupted by stop-offs at certain fast-food outlets), and not uninspired use of Glenn Frey's Beverly Hills Cop anthem "The Heat is On". As the less Caucasian half of the central duo, Ansari even gets his own, Glover-esque catchphrase: "I just want this goddamn day to be over."

The precedent here is David Gordon Green's Pineapple Express, which blew in on a cloud of dope smoke and, though very funny in places, favoured the big and the loud, partly just to register with its chosen stoner demographic, partly to distinguish from the quietist aesthetic of the director's previous work. Fleischer, rightly not feeling himself ready for a Jerry Bruckheimer budget just yet, keeps 30 Minutes small-seeming and manageable - the key is the Datsun the leads steal as their getaway car - inviting his performers to maintain the improvisatory looseness of the post-Apatovian comedy universe from which they've been drawn. Eisenberg and Ansari do a workable re-run of bromance dynamics familiar from TV's Psych and Scrubs, there are nice riffs - frantically Googling for defusal tips, Chet despairs "there's no consensus in the bomb-making community" - and nice scenes: Grand Rapids turns out to be ironically named, a town so small that two money drops might be arranged for the same place at the same time, only prolonging the chaos.

Still, as becomes increasingly clear, nobody here is really cut out for action movie business, which is both the joke, and a limitation of the film going into its second and third acts. Not even the livewire Ansari, the very definition of a high-energy performer, can match the blazing sharpness of Eddie Murphy at his peak; the villains, meanwhile, are manchildren with daddy issues - introduced watching Friday the 13th Part 3-D, most commonly heard discussing blowjobs - so there's little real sense of threat, or indeed of the clock ticking. (Though the rowdy McBride, an acquired comic taste whose preferred way of exiting any given scene is suddenly announcing "I gotta take a shit, dude", is becoming more adept at selling his stock-in-trade bluntness.)

Fleischer has a certain fun getting these characters into their John McClane-ish pickle, but not much of an idea of what to do with them once they're there, save to pay off an earlier "That's what she said" set-up, and cobble together a few reshoots in lieu of a properly satisfying conclusion: the fate of one character, last seen bleeding out, is completely forgotten in the rush to get to the wrap party. In the end, it's probably not a case of too much action, not enough comedy (which was the Green film's biggest flaw), but too much slacker, not enough action-comedy - a reminder, albeit a halfway enjoyable one, of the sheer hard work and commitment required to make these scenes and tropes truly fly.

30 Minutes or Less opens nationwide tomorrow.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

A confusion of genders: "Tomboy"

The French director Céline Sciamma appears to have made it her business to scrutinise that no-man's-land between childhood and womanhood, a life-moment when everything is, one way or another, up for grabs. Sciamma's debut, 2007's Water Lilies, charted the rivalries and jealousies floating around within a teenage girls' synchronised swimming squad; her follow-up Tomboy centres on a pre-pubescent sprite who's moved to a new home and school at the precise moment they've grown to be unsure of their own body. Wiry and flat-chested, the youngster is introduced as Mikael, whose athleticism wins the admiration of teammates in impromptu kickabouts, and the renewed affection of a younger sister, who takes to referring to Mikael as her big brother; Mikael also wins the adoration of the girl next door, who senses he's something special. Special, indeed, for Mikael (Zoé Héran) has a secret: her real name is Laure.

As Water Lilies suggested, Sciamma falls into a long tradition of directors-as-anthropologists: while the grown-ups who play mum and dad are clearly acting, it's possible the child performers have just been instructed to play before the camera, to respond to the environment into which they've been set. Time and time again, Tomboy returns to the sight of these youngsters testing out their own bodies, in rough-and-tumble fieldsports, or testing the limitations of others, in games of truth-or-dare where the participants merrily confess to tasting their own excretions. There's also something of a documentarist like Nicolas Philibert in the way Sciamma patiently observes these kids, an approach that felicitously happens to mesh with the description of adolescence as a time when you feel everybody's watching you, to see which way you're going to go, how you're going to turn out.

Sciamma takes rather bolder risks, for all that. Despite the U certificate, the manner in which Mikael is revealed to be, beyond all doubt, a Laure may well have given the censor (and may well give the perhaps overly sensitive viewer) pause for concern. (To set it in a cinematic context, it's the scene that went towards The Crying Game's 18 certificate, albeit in the rather more wholesome context of the family bathtub.) Either way, it would be difficult to imagine a male director being allowed to submit a young female actress to this level of scrutiny, or indeed being so sensitive and perceptive in the process of making such observations: Sciamma spots the restlessness in her heroine, the traces of incipient self-loathing, the puzzlement of someone not as yet old enough to figure themselves out.

Yet the director remains young enough to remember the undoubted pleasures of being young: the tearing through the woods on afternoons that stretch out like the centuries, the scent and texture of Play-Doh. It's a perfect tying together of deep-rooted anxiety and childhood ingenuity that Laure should use the popular plasticine product to fashion herself a mock-penis, to slip in her swimming trunks when her friends invite her to a lake; and one scene of dancing to pop music in Laure's bedroom is unutterably lovely. Sciamma is turning out to
be as much a screen sensualist as Claire Denis, equally in thrall as she is to the possibilities of the (here inchoate) human form.

My only slight reservation with Tomboy is the altogether safe, slightly bland environment the filmmaker conducts her studies within: able to confide in a loving father and nurturing mother, Laure has at least one advantage over the crossdressing pre-teen of 1997's Ma Vie en Rose, which offered a somewhat more credibly shaded and harassed backdrop for the protagonist to have to define themselves against. All in all, though, Tomboy is another small step forward for one of France's brightest emergent talents: a film that engages with all manner of complex gender issues even as it renders sweet and enjoyable homage to the joys and confusions of youth.

Tomboy opens in selected cinemas from Friday.