Monday 31 October 2011

On demand: "Upside Down: The Creation Records Story"

For starters, Creation wasn't Factory, no matter that it effectively came to inherit the Manchester music scene in the mid-to-late 1990s; where Factory sprang from the sleek Situationist ideals of the public school-educated Tony Wilson, Creation emerged from its Glaswegian founder Alan McGee's stout Protestant work ethic, and flourished over the course of a decade and a half as a direct consequence of this sometime gigging musician's eye and ear for other gigging musicians. Upside Down, Danny O'Connor's documentary dash through the label's highs and lows offers, among other worthwhile diversions, a corrective to the widely held notion that Creation was The House What Oasis Built (if anything, it was The House The Jesus And Mary Chain Built, hence O'Connor's borrowing of the band's breakthrough single for his title), as well as a warning that all your rock idols must eventually grow old with the rest of the mortals: The Mary Chain's Jim Reid, a memorably terrifying figure in the Smash Hits and TOTPs of my youth, now appears positively approachable - respectable, even.

Though it surfs a mounting wave of nostalgia for the Britpop era (yes, we get that clip of John Humphrys announcing the outbreak of hostilities between Oasis and Blur on the Six O'Clock News), Upside Down takes particular care to shine a spotlight on several lesser-known, still underrated bands who found themselves on the Creation roster (House of Love, Ride, Sugar, Super Furry Animals). And yet the film's pace comes to seem like a liability: O'Connor is going this fast to reflect a managerial style that always was on the fly, driven by a combination of gut instinct and class-A narcotics, but also perhaps because the legacy - like that of the New Labour PM McGee and his cohorts so enthusiastically got into bed with - doesn't stand up to prolonged scrutiny.

A key anecdote recounted here suggests McGee was only persuaded to sign My Bloody Valentine, previously considered "dodgy" and "a real anorak's band", after they went on at a gig before McGee's own group Biff Bang Pow! and - miffed at being relegated to support act status - played an angry, brutally stripped-back set. Unlike the visionary Wilson, McGee was reactive, always drawn towards postures - whatever was flapping in the breeze at that particular moment - rather than ideas: he was as keen to snaffle a hot US act like Swervedriver as he was those Britpop bands who were consciously reacting against American dominance of the native music scene, and his most considered, hands-on move was to transform Primal Scream into self-declared acid house pioneers, several months after he'd heard the sound at the Hacienda.

We can credit McGee with a degree of business acumen, and a good antenna, but this shouldn't at any point be confused with artistry. He turned down Bobby Gillespie's lavish idea for the Screamadelica LP sleeve in favour of something more cost-effective (ct. Wilson's high-minded bungle over the sleeve of "Blue Monday"); it makes sense that the label's talisman should have been the swaggering Liam Gallagher, whose stadium sounds smoothed the deal Creation eventually made with Sony, where Factory attracted personalities along the lines of the coolly intellectual Ian Curtis and the Rabelaisian Shaun William Ryder, and went heroically bust in the process.

O'Connor's film has the egos - Noel Gallagher speaks with misguided pride about "killing" the indie scene, which should come as news to Franz Ferdinand, the Arctic Monkeys, and the myriad Oasis imitators who followed in his band's wake - but it's a lesser story: no matter how the filmmakers try and trump it up, the struggles of the Valentines to record Loveless are as nothing compared to the misadventures of the Happy Mondays in the Caribbean. "A one-man Charge of the Light Brigade" is one Creation employee's assessment of his boss, and this zippy and entertaining film ends up both true to the McGee personality, and somewhat like a superior corporate video. In the end, it was Factory who were the true oppositional force, while Creation, whatever the achievements of individual acts, provided the Union Jack-flying, lighters-in-the-air, Oasis-at-Knebworth soundtrack to the Tony Blair years. Points for ending with this, though.

Upside Down: The Creation Records Story is available on demand here for the next seven days.

Fashion nightmares: "Miss Bala"

In the opening moments of the Mexican thriller Miss Bala, we watch aspirant teenage beauty queen Laura (Stephanie Sigman) as she moves about her bedroom in Baja California, putting the final touches to her clothes, hair and make-up in preparation for a night on the tiles. The camera, like a waiting suitor, grows restless, and begins to scan the girl's bedroom walls, with their collage of icons (Madonna, Cindy, Naomi), to distract itself. Briefly glimpsed are the words "FASHION VICTIM", the set-up for the grimly ironic gag that we'll observe playing out over the subsequent ninety minutes.

For, in the wake of a nightclub party that turns into all-out warfare between drug enforcement agents and local crime bosses, Laura will be betrayed by a policeman and taken prisoner by a cartel, to be used as both bait and bargaining chip. This ordeal has its odd perks. The gangsters have pull enough to get her reinstated in a beauty contest after she's thrown out for missing rehearsals, and they have cash enough to bankroll her new dress after she makes it through to this contest's final stages; in every sense, she becomes the respectable face of the organisation, offering a prettification of some otherwise distinctly ugly business.

Miss Bala is one damn thing after another, pitching us headlong into the chaos, and ascribing to its heroine a nightmarish upward mobility: it's possible that being kidnapped allows Laura to unlock hidden reserves of vulnerability and strength that make her a more attractive proposition to the beauty competition's judges. Such unlikely alliances have apparently become all too common in latter-day Mexico, but the film is propulsive rather than preachy: it puts us through the mill, only glancingly wondering what an audience might be prepared to do (if there is anything we might do) to stop kidnappings like these from occuring.

Writer-director Geraldo Naranjo's energies were rather squandered in his previous film, I'm Gonna Explode, when its tearaway protagonists holed up on a rooftop, and Miss Bala, relentless as it is, feels like a better outlet for his undeniable talents: he can afford almost to throw away such moments as a parallel between the taping of banknotes to Laura's chest and the corseting we commonly associate with beauty queens, and his camera movements are more often than not faultless. (Take the pan over a wall of photographs as the gang storms Laura's family home, a deft underlining of what's at stake.)

For all this, I wasn't entirely as convinced or as blown away by the new film as many have been, in part because that technical facility left me suspicious. Miss Bala doesn't allow itself the time to analyse the Mexican drug wars in any particular depth; the carnage it engenders is merely a colourful backdrop through which the director can pull us on his Steadicam-travelator, and not too much of the film sticks in retrospect. For much of its duration, the film plays like an exercise - a skilful exercise, granted - in wiping the smirk from Sigman's face, the smirk of a teenager rather too aware of her own beauty, and a beauty that, for all its superficial value, counts for nothing when you're being shot at from every side. (The prize in this contest is getting out alive.)

Between the guns, bullets, the whip pans and the pretty girls, Naranjo's film is a combustible mix, to be sure, and I'm entirely certain it's possible to sit back, grab hold of the armrests and enjoy the ride it offers. Yet Miss Bala's signature scene struck me as coming late on during the concluding stages of the beauty pageant, when - emerging onstage to be asked by the event's host about her plans for the future - Laura seizes up, struck with absolutely nothing to say, only for her silence to be mistaken by the judges for a show of hidden depths. Put it this way: it wouldn't surprise me if Naranjo's next move was over the border.

Miss Bala is in selected cinemas.

Friday 28 October 2011

From the archive: "Halloween"

Easy to forget - now they've entered regular TV rotation, and their director has seemingly given in to terminal hackdom - just how taut and accomplished John Carpenter's early films were. Take the exemplary slasher pic Halloween: anyone attempting to make a horror movie in this day and age should be required by law to sit down and study its beautifully timed and judged build-up before calling "action!" for the first time. The abandoned car; the desecrated grave; a robbery at a hardware store. Long shots - still long shots - that elicit chills from nothing more than a bloke in a boiler suit stepping out (briefly) from behind a hedge. In broad daylight, to boot.

And how about that killer - escaped mental patient Michael Myers - and his personality, split along the horizontal: funny-strange (the way he observes his victims by tilting his head to one side) and funny-ha ha (dressing up as a ghost to spook PJ Soles, arranging his corpses to be found in a funfair-like room of horrors). Everything else is either as good as you recall, or as good as you've heard: the best organised use of screen space in any non-studio horror picture (there's a reason it was shot in Panavision); Donald Pleasance, giving a masterclass in exposition with dignity; the score to end all horror scores, like cold fingers running up and down your spine; Jamie Lee Curtis, appealingly square and even weirdly sexy in the tight green sweater she wears to class; and Blue Oyster Cult singing "Don't Fear the Reaper". Three decades of sequels and remakes may have taken some of the lustre off the blade, but Halloween is still as sharp as ever.

(October 2008)

Halloween screens on BBC2 tomorrow at 12.25am.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 21-23, 2011:

1 (new) Paranormal Activity 3 (15) [above]
2 (1) Johnny English Reborn (PG) **
3 (new) Contagion (12A) ***
4 (2) The Lion King 3D (U) ****
5 (4) Real Steel (12A)
6 (3) The Three Musketeers (12A)
7 (new) We Need to Talk About Kevin (15) ****
8 (5) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) **
9 (7) Dolphin Tale (U)
10 (6) Footloose (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. An American in Paris
2. Ghost Busters
3. We Need to Talk About Kevin
4. Tyrannosaur
5. Machine Gun Preacher

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) Thor (12) **
2 (3) Limitless (15) ***
3 (2) Source Code (12) ***
4 (4) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12) *
5 (5) Water for Elephants (12)
6 (re) The Lincoln Lawyer (12)
7 (new) Last Night (12) *
8 (8) Something Borrowed (12)
9 (7) Attack the Block (15) **
10 (re) Never Let Me Go (12) **


My top five:
1. The Tree of Life
2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
3. The Gleaners and I
4. The Messenger
5. Winnie the Pooh

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. A Fistful of Dollars (Saturday, five, 8pm)
2. Bye Bye Birdie (Saturday, BBC2, 1.40pm)
3. Animal Farm (Wednesday, C4, 3.20am)
4. Halloween (Saturday, BBC2, 12.25am)
5. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Tuesday, C4, 1.10pm)

Filling in the blanks: "Tintin" and "Anonymous" (ST 30/10/11)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (PG) 117 mins **
Anonymous (12A) 130 mins **

As a youngster, one turns to Tintin to deduce something of the world and one’s own place within it; as many a Hergé scholar has noted, the blankness of the hero’s features makes these books ideal for projecting onto. By deploying motion-capture animation to bring The Secret of the Unicorn to the screen, however, Steven Spielberg has replaced blankness with specifics: this Tintin has Jamie Bell’s fizzog, photoshopped into a waxy charmlessness by a thousand top-of-the-line processors. And don’t ask about Spielberg’s hatchet-faced Snowy: I’m still grieving.

Unicorn’s storytelling feels scarcely less inorganic, having constantly to interrupt itself so the filmmakers can justify the 3D surcharge. The attempt to create and inhabit a world is secondary to the need to yank us through it – down stairs, along ropelines, across pirate ships here intended to evoke sense-memories of other mega-franchises. The pleasure of scanning words and images at leisure has been superceded by Xbox-ready design and the helter-skelter pace of the modern multiplex: everything is impermanent. Even the denouement, with the arrogance of bigshots, assumes sequels.

Yet as in the last Indiana Jones, there’s a sense Spielberg is tapping our collective cultural memories without offering anything that might replenish them; in the ongoing conversation between this director and his audience, Tintin holds all the substance of a text message with an optimistic smiley face at the end of it. That technical expertise can be admired, if you like your films to arrive with the smell of formaldehyde and silica, and there are lovely 2D opening credits, but the positives end there. The books – hard-covered and enduring – stopped time; the film – a relentless torrent of binary code – merely washes it down the plughole.

On the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, meanwhile, who can we trust – centuries of academic research, or Roland Independence Day Emmerich and Rhys Last-Seen-Emerging-From-The-Groucho-at-Four-A.M. Ifans? It’s curious this pair should, with Anonymous, be reiterating the snobby Oxfordian line, insisting only someone of a Duke’s education and experience could have written Hamlet. Emmerich ladles production value like gravy over the mock-Tudor history and lumpy performances: it’s a dog’s dinner, albeit served with a certain batty flair, and you’d hope Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance and Vanessa Redgrave signed on knowing it’d do as much to debunk this theory as it would to perpetuate it.

Tintin and Anonymous are in cinemas nationwide.

From the archive: "Ghost Busters"

Ghost Busters was a major blockbuster distinguished above all else by its casting: contrary to the 1980s' general movement towards chiselled, monosyllabic-laconic action heroes (from Stallone and Schwarzenegger to Willis), it pushed centre stage a cast of talky, nerdy, somewhat doughy comics (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis) who wrote or, in Murray's case, simply made up their own material. You can tell the casting directors were onto something from the way they went for Sigourney Weaver, no kind of bimbo whatsoever, as the heroine who has something nasty at the back of her fridge that may bring about the end of the world as we know it.

The effects continue to hold up particularly well - particularly Slimer, the translucent poltergeist who leaves Murray in such a state in that hotel corridor - though more of the film than you remember is in analogue: the ground opening up outside Weaver's haunted apartment block is a nice sight gag achieved without the aid of computers. It's as hip and savvy a studio production as Men in Black was to seem a decade or so later, acknowledging its New York location as both a melting pot and city under siege, and that horror - a genre then going like gangbusters on the nascent home-video format - could be repositioned as a viable mainstream phenomenon if done with the right spirit(s). But the film's innocence, its sense of fun, is what you warm to: somehow it seems entirely appropriate that the action should come down to the toasting of marshmallows on a massive scale.

(December 2007)

Ghost Busters is reissued in selected cinemas from today.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Not to be sniffled at: "Contagion"

Just as there are those who like snow for the manner in which it makes the world look as absurd to others as it does to them on a daily basis, so there must be germophobes who actively relish the biological thriller - think Outbreak, or Panic in the Streets, if you're of a particular vintage - that makes its audience think anew about covering their mouths the next time they have reason to cough on public transport. Steven Soderbergh's Contagion charts the epidemic that spreads across America, and eventually the world, after a businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from Kowloon with a little extra in her carry-on. What she thinks is just a bad case of jet lag ends with her being rushed to hospital with a suspected case of encephalitis; next thing you know, she's a goner, laid out on the mortician's slab with her scalp pulled back over her own face. "Should I call anyone?," asks the mortician's assistant of his boss, observing brains that have well and truly gone to goo. "Call everyone," comes the somewhat spooked response.

Outbreak, to take the film's immediate precedent, was couched in the terms of the studio action-thriller, full of med-evac helicopters and men in protective suits chasing after rogue monkeys. (Frankly, it couldn't lose.) In Contagion, it's more a matter of dumb luck who lives and dies (tellingly, it opens in a Kowloon casino, and ends with a lottery for antiviral vaccines), and Soderbergh and his regular writer Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) incline towards a procedural approach to epidemiology: in a film of particularly shrewd casting, CSI graduate Laurence Fishburne is exactly the kind of calm, unflappable figurehead we might want heading up the official response to any such outbreak.

As in that TV juggernaut, the script is a mix of heavy jargon with the odd line that cuts through any obfuscation and makes it all make sense in layman's terms: Jennifer Ehle's biochemist is close to the money as to the outbreak's source when she posits that "somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat". What's thrilling here isn't the outbreak per se, but the way the disease is chased up, nailed down, cornered and quarantined - it's a manhunt with germs, and while Contagion maybe lacks the vicarious thrills of watching chaos play out (part of Outbreak's remit, no doubt), the tale it spins is greatly more human because of it, throwing the focus back on those individuals doing their darnedest to raise mankind's odds of survival.

Soderbergh is smart enough to get his stars to downplay their usual high-wattage glamour, so that it seems credible that Marion Cotillard should be working for the World Health Organisation and that Kate Winslet should be employed as a doctor - and, more importantly to the narrative, that the latter should herself fall sick with the bug, and end up quarantined in the same ice-hockey arena she'd sourced as a holding venue for the afflicted not days before. Everyone on screen - and there's appreciable wit in Soderbergh's casting of Demetri Martin as a biolab wonk and Elliott Gould as a virologist - seems mortal, rather than one of the movie gods: in Paltrow's case, it's another instance of how the actress has come to liven up her star persona no end over the past decade, and in the Winslet instance, a wryly ironic case of physician, heal thyself.

Shooting under his cinematographer pseudonym Peter Andrews, Soderbergh gives the whole a suitably sickly, yellow-green pallor - even the Warner Bros. logo at the start looks somewhat peaky - and makes us more than usually aware of the contact we have with such material objects as doorknobs, glasses and handrails. All this is fun, yet the attempt to develop this theme of transmission is where Contagion is at its least convincing. Jude Law has been crowbarred in, under a pretext of topicality, as an Australian blogger with crummy teeth, a crummy name and a crummy reputation, who sparks rioting by publishing unconfirmed rumours of a possible cure - both a character reflective of Hollywood's own fears about the digital media, and an assertion that only those with the proper dental care should be allowed into positions of social responsibility.

There's also something more than a little dubious in the way Burns's Patient Zero should be a faithless wife; the plague drama has been a conservative form ever since the Old Testament, but sometimes Contagion's moral really does appear to be don't cheat on a decent, all-American sort like Matt Damon if you don't want to bring God's vengeance crashing down on you. Still, Soderbergh has appeared drained in recent years, either by the demands of big-budget franchise-spinning (the Ocean's series) or by hollow exercises in indie style (The Girlfriend Experience), and it's good to have some of his rigour and cool intelligence back on our screens: Contagion is smart, insinuating mainstream entertainment, perfectly timed to mark the onset of those seasonal, we've-just-turned-the-heating-back-on sniffles.

Contagion is in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 23 October 2011

From the archive: "Black God White Devil"

A raggedy sort of masterpiece, Glauber Rocha's Black God White Devil, the flagbearer for the Brazilian New Wave, centres on a cattle farmer who murders his boss during a civil uprising, and flees with his wife. The pair come to fall in with a religious pilgrimage making its way up to a mountaintop retreat; as the farmer slowly slips into homicidal fanaticism, the authorities - in the form of the Catholic church, who fear being undermined by these new prophets, and a corrupt politician - hire the legendary gunman Antonio das Mortes (Mauricio do Valle) to pick the pilgrims off.

I suspect it's one of those works that requires a degree of religious and historical context to make complete sense of, anyway, but the most instantly confounding element is the apparent absence of an easy identification point. Though the farmer starts out as a class warrior of sorts, he does rather lose our goodwill in sacrificing an infant child (the bandits he falls in with recognise as such, in renaming him Satan), and everybody else looks to be busy drifting between the influences of the title, usually ending up with blood on their hands. The film's thesis appears to concern the corrupting influence of power in all its forms (social, spiritual, political): the true hero may, in fact, be the philosopher-assassin Antonio, the star of a sequel five years later, who at least abides by his own code, and thus stands alone.

The film, too, falls into no obvious category: given Rocha's fondness for non-professional faces, you might be inclined to bracket Black God White Devil as neo-realism, were it not that its wilder, more fantastical moments suggest an especially parched spaghetti Western - except that a) its massacres owe less to Leone than they do to Eisenstein in their composition and the dynamism of their editing, b) individual episodes are linked by popular folk songs (!), and c) the symbolism is highfalutin in the extreme: these figures have been stranded in the desert like characters in a Biblical parable.

You're immediately struck by how fresh this melange must have seemed to audiences at the onset of the 1960s, how unfamiliar and exciting, possibly exasperating; yet it still works today as a revealing historical allegory, the performers possessed of just the right amount of portent, while the central conceit - Brazil as a paradise lost, prone to such bouts of lawlessness - has endured rather too well. (I saw the film in late November 2010, on the day drug dealers began rioting about what they saw as the gentrification of the favelas they once lorded over; a line given to the chief bandido in Rocha's film - "A man is a man when he uses a gun to change his fate" - could equally have been spoken in any of the post-City of God bulletins to have emerged from the country in recent years.) By no means an easy film for the uninitiated, its raw cinematic power nevertheless seeps through whatever gaps arise in your comprehension.

(November 2010)

Black God White Devil screens on Film4 tomorrow night at 10.50pm, as part of the Story of Film season.

At the LFF: "Last Winter"

The agricultural drama Last Winter - a debut from the American-born, French-based writer-director John Shank - is the kind of patient, unflashy, unfashionable work perhaps only our Gallic cousins would consider backing, building as it seems to on Raymond Depardon's documentary portraits of rural life: a series that has left us in little doubt that being a farmer in the modern industrialised world isn't easy, if indeed it ever has been. Johann (Vincent Rottiers) has inherited his late father's farm at a youngish age, and has been muddling along these past few years as part of a co-op. The co-op, recognising times are hard, are weighing up whether to sell up their livestock to an Italian buyer, and move on. Johann stubbornly holds out, however, insisting "I won't change the way I work", but - as with print journalists, or phone-box repairmen - there's a sense the decision really isn't his to make.

What Shank has given us, in yet another French film dealing with the ways of the working world, is an insight into the precarious existence of the contemporary farmer: Johann has holes in his roof, red figures on his balance sheet, and a mentally troubled sister (Florence Loiret Caille) to care for, and we come to wonder for how much longer he can possibly hold out. (As it is, he will be ruined not by any of the above, but another, entirely unexpected turn of events.) The few missteps Shank makes are obvious commercial concessions: Anaïs Demoustier, one of the new French cinema's interchangeable waiflings, makes an unlikely farmer's daughter, suggesting as the actress does someone who wouldn't last ten minutes away from a Pinkberry, especially when she insists (as her character does) on sleeping nude under the covers when it appears to be minus ten and plummeting outside.

Yet there's something naggingly promising in the dogged manner with which Shank pursues his own somewhat miserablist path: worth noting that the livestock appear healthier than their keepers, who are dying either literally or figuratively. It's vividly shot, however, cinematographer Hichame Alaouie displaying a particular yen for evoking fading light and frostbite - the final fugue is so elemental you can practically see the screen shivering - and very credibly performed in the main. Rottiers - who was the little kid in Les Diables not so very long ago - is shaping up as a tough, interesting presence, with his face like non-porous rock; you suspect the Dardennes or Bruno Dumont might get around to employing him one of these days, or that he'll grow into exactly the kind of craggy outcast Depardon excels in tracking down. I'd have settled for a little less mud-under-the-fingernails verisimilitude and a mite more narrative heft over the closing stretch in particular, but Last Winter does feel hard-worked, and more honestly compelling than a film about a farmer leading his cattle out to pasture and back again probably ought to be.

Last Winter screens at the Vue West End tonight (Sun 23) at 9pm, and again tomorrow at 3.15pm.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 14-16, 2011:

1 (1) Johnny English Reborn (PG) **
2 (2) The Lion King 3D (U)
3 (new) The Three Musketeers (12A) [above]
4 (new) Real Steel (12A)
5 (3) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) **
6 (new) Footloose (12A) **
7 (new) Dolphin Tale (U)
8 (6) Midnight in Paris (12A) ***
9 (5) Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (15)
10 (8) Drive (18) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin
2. Amelie
3. Hell and Back Again
4. Tyrannosaur
5. Contagion

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (4) Thor (12) **
2 (5) Source Code (12) ***
3 (1) Limitless (15) ***
4 (2) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12) *
5 (3) Water for Elephants (12)
6 (7) Unknown (15) **
7 (6) Attack the Block (15) **
8 (10) Something Borrowed (12)
9 (8) Chalet Girl (12) ***
10 (re) Blitz (18) **


My top five:
1. The Gleaners and I
2. The Messenger
3. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
4. Winnie the Pooh
5. Senna

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Babe (Saturday, ITV1, 1.45pm)
2. Toy Story 2 (Sunday, five, 6.05pm)
3. The Day of the Jackal (Friday, ITV1, 2.35am)
4. In Which We Serve (Sunday, BBC2, 2.30pm)
5. Brief Encounter (Wednesday, C4, 1.30pm)

On DVD: "The Gleaners and I"

Agnès Varda's turn-of-the-century video essay/film diary The Gleaners and I, released on UK DVD for the first time this week, squirrels out multiple meanings from the phrase "picking things up". At its centre is the unfashionable pursuit of gleaning: the practice once undertaken by workers in agricultural communities, who roamed the fields after a harvest, appropriating the food left behind for their own use. (In Britain, of course, we had The Wombles, "making good use of the things that [they] find/Things that the everyday folks leave behind".) Varda's treatise is that there remains a certain noblesse and humanity in stooping to reclaim the fruits of the earth, and she finds the tradition alive and well in latter-day France - indeed, it's become more than ever radicalised, an act of defiance against the forces of industrialisation and globalisation. (The fruit and veg snaffled have slipped through some of the cracks Naomi Klein writes about.)

The Gleaners and I was ahead of the curve, in some respects, pipping to the post all those Noughties docs on the racket that is food production, and illustrating the sizeable amount of waste that goes on at both the point of picking (where potatoes and apples that don't fit a standardised description are tossed aside, however edible they might still be) and at the point of sale (with overly cautious best-before dates). That the farmers and companies involved don't want to sell these out- or under-sized comestibles is one ethical failing; that they'd rather leave them to moulder than allow them to be picked up and eaten by those earning considerably less than the average wage is quite another.

As such, the film forms an extension of Varda's interest in outcasts, whether those fruits and veg deemed unseemly or not up to snuff (she shoots the most loving close-ups of abandoned heartshaped potatoes) or the travelling communities trying to feed themselves by gleaning. We arrive at a very different sort of gleaning in the film's final section, however, as Varda encounters a young man living in sheltered accommodation who spends his mornings gleaning from bins and marketstalls, and his afternoons as a teacher giving immigrants the opportunity to pick up their first words of spoken French.

Behind the camera, Varda is aware that she herself is picking something up here: the new, lightweight digital technology, as roadtested in the Dogme films, yet here used as a tool to get closer to the people, the soil and, most crucially, herself: memorably, she shoots an extreme close-up of her own fingers, "one hand filming the other", a phrase in her narration that somehow ties in with the idea we should be better using our discarded products, our off-cuts, our spare time, to help our fellow man. For all the film's diverse lines of inquiry - and this may very well be your only chance to see a lawyer in full courtroom garb standing in a cabbage patch - it has an extraordinary thematic continuity. Both a wander and a wonder, The Gleaners and I may not be Varda's most rigorous work - she leaves in thirty seconds of unintentional lens-cap action, as if to demonstrate how human she is - but it sure counts among her loveliest: it's cinema that feels good for the soul.

The Gleaners and I is available through Artificial Eye from tomorrow.

Saturday 22 October 2011

At the LFF: "The Awakening"

Brought to you in association with BBC Films, The Awakening is a period ghost story given the kind of deluxe treatment only those TV companies not having to shell out for a dozen episodes of Downton each year can afford. In 1920s London, author and professional sceptic Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) specialises in unmasking phony mediums, partly for profit, partly as a way of holding onto the memory of her late soldier husband. One afternoon, she receives a visit from Robert Mallory (Dominic West), Latin master at a boarding school in Cumbria where one of the boys has, to all outward appearances, been scared to death. Heading north to investigate, Florence encounters a teaching staff variously hurting, brutish and indifferent, and particularly resistant to taking instruction from the fairer sex.

The script, by Stephen Volk and director Nick Murphy, fuses two institutions - the school movie (one shot of a steam train traversing the Cumbrian countryside sparks memories of the trip to Hogwarts) and the haunted-house movie - while leaving itself three separate lines of inquiry. First, there's the staff room intrigue, with teachers who, shambling and damaged from the Great War, form a kind of walking dead in themselves. (The most hardline of the educators justifies his use of the cane by insisting "These boys must be stronger - stronger than us!") One underdeveloped theme involves difference: as well as Florence's forthright suffragettisms, there's a literal red herring in a coppertopped kid suspected of having a hand in the supposed haunting, and hear the deceased was a bedwetter, and mercilessly teased for it.

And as distinct from 2001's The Others - which had Nicole Kidman very definitely on her lonesome - The Awakening also proposes a thwarted romance: Hall and West are convincing as individuals trying to get over their shared guilt and give themselves reasons to live in what an opening title card, quoting from one of Florence's bestsellers, defines as "an age of ghosts". Murphy surrounds them with creepy business - replica dollshouses and period photography - but the film as a whole is maybe too handsome, too cosy, to be properly chilling, as maybe happens when a production can afford to bring in Imelda Staunton as the school nurse and the cinematographer (Eduard Grau) who shot A Single Man for Tom Ford, and here takes great care to calibrate each and every shadow.

It manages one genuine coup de cinéma at the moment of revelation, when Florence discovers the same formative scene of trauma playing out in several rooms at once, yet too often Murphy directs in a way that defeats the film's primary purpose: you end up cooing at the design, rather than jumping out of your seat. The conservatism traditionally associated with the period movie comes to stifle the subversive instincts of the scary movie: you spot it in the way the plot seeks out respectability, to tidy up and return everybody to their rightful place. What's frightening about the ghosts and monsters in this skilful yet ultimately muffled exercise is that they're ugly or damaged in some other way; they have to be banished, because they just don't fit in with the decor.

The Awakening screens on Tue 25 at 6.15pm at the Vue West End, and again on Wed 26 at 3pm.

Kill your babies: "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

It begins with tomato juice, progresses through red paint and strawberry jam, and arrives finally at blood. Somewhere along the way, these four substances merge into one, and the mystery of Lynne Ramsay's comeback film We Need to Talk About Kevin is where one ends and the next begins: how did Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) go from a life of Spanish holidays and giddy hedonism among strangers to getting punched in the face on the street by a vicious, spitting old dear? How did she end up downshifting from a vast modernist castle to a clapboard hut? And how did this once-lauded author end up a mute, marked woman?

Those who've read Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel will already have some clue; everyone else is playing catch-up. Yet even Shriver's readers may be surprised by Ramsay's take on the material. This isn't the book as they know it - rather fragments of same, a series of visual rhymes it sets, to an idiosyncratic soundtrack, in the Cubist, slice-and-dice patterns of Gus van Sant's Elephant, albeit without that project's fey determinism. Ramsay and her co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear have preserved the outline of Shriver's demon-seed narrative - Eva's fraught relationship with her son - but the film forms a conscious move away from words towards sound and image; one surprise, given the title, is how little dialogue there is, but then - given the stark facts the film comes to present us with - perhaps there's nothing anybody can say.

All you need to know about the unhappy central relationship can be gleaned from the look on Swinton's face, willing herself to appear compassionate, as Eva picks up her wailing infant son and wheels his pram within earshot of a pneumatic drill just to drown out the noise. You can see from her pandering husband Franklyn (John C. Reilly)'s way of picking up the boy and airplaning him around the room that a schism in this marriage was always going to be likely; that the child, intended to bring the pair of them together, was surely only ever going to tear them apart. And you intuit from the smirk on young Kevin's face as he has his diaper changed, knowing full well he's going to fill the new one just to spite mom, where the kid's coming from.

The book, an epistolary outpouring, flowed; the film is jagged, angular, divisive. If you do know what's coming, those scenes in which the parents read the boy Robin Hood tales and buy him his first archery set will jab at you with an extra force; we twig this is a boy in training, and not in the happy-sunny way familiar from triumph-over-adversity movies. Yet even if you don't, you may find yourself chilled by the sudden flashforward in which Eva visits the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) in prison. Not a word passes between them; instead, the boy noisily gnaws off his fingernails and presents them on the table before his mother, like a cat dragging a dead bird in from the garden as a show for his owners - the gesture's meaning either "here's a present for you", or "don't fuck with me, bitch". The image of the severed fingernails will be rhymed, later on, when Eva chooses to whip up an omelette with broken eggs, and has to remove fragments of shell from between her teeth. This relationship is no longer - never was - maternal, or filial: it's pure sado-masochism.

Given the nature of the material, you might wonder why the book has been the success it has, particularly among mothers and aspirant mothers: could it be read as consoling, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God fantasy, a perversely thrilling what-if? (What if your two weeks of post-partum depression escalated into the Hundred Years' War?) We should, however, be thankful it fell to such a bold filmmaker to bring it to the screen, and that Ramsay should have gone to the States to film it, as though to counter those incessant waves of family-values platitudes that have travelled in the opposite direction over the years. (A new dream double-bill of mine: Kevin and I Don't Know How She Does It.)

There is a sense in which Kevin is taking a fight about the kinds of themes the cinema might represent, and how it might represent them, to the Americas, and one hopes it'll find an audience over there accordingly, although I fear those viewers who want a conventional adaptation of the bestsellers - who want every word and sentence and paragraph nailed down rather than left to float, who want a regurgitation allowing them to see what they've already read and understood - will be fleeing for the exit (and, quite possibly, the safety of The Help, every last, literal hour of it) long before the first reel change.

There were points where even I wondered whether this Kevin wasn't too much, where the comedy in the black comedy as conceived begins to outweigh the blackness, the horror of it all: an over-egged Halloween phantasmagoria, an episode with a hamster and a waste-disposal unit that results only in the death of another critter and the superfluous suggestion that Kevin is an equal opportunity sadist. Perhaps in response to the way The Lovely Bones was swiped out from underneath her, Ramsay's fingers are all over this project, in ways both good and bad. You hear her, as the only director whose paedophobia might give Lars von Trier a run for his money, at the casting call for young Kevins, screaming "No, more Satanic, more!", and you spot her punching up the ironies of the final act (a banner proclaiming "Expect Great Things" in a school hallway) so that precisely nobody in the States can miss them.

The film is brilliantly subtle in some ways, wholly unsubtle - blatant, even - in others, and I wondered if a director who'd got to make more than just the two films in the past decade would have been better placed to restrain themselves at key moments: having a brace of lawn sprinklers spurt forth over the final grim revelation is Busby Berkeley showmanship - ta-dah! - where Kevin's own idea of infamy is closer to the tawdry imaginings of Charlie Manson. Similarly, Ramsay's casting is interesting without being entirely watertight. The presence of Reilly underlines the shift towards a more comic-satiric perspective on these events; Ramsay leaves Swinton her usual compelling stillness, but the actress's poise has been removed, like the red from her hair, the better to highlight everything thrown her way.

Every time the film deposits Eva on a comfortable surface, a sure footing, the script slashes through it. "You can be rather harsh sometimes," Kevin sneers at his mother, as they promenade through a funfair. "You're one to talk," she snaps back. "I know; where do you think I got it?," comes the topper. (The film may be less sympathetic to Eva than the book, where she got to speak for herself.) I was far from sold on Miller, edgy and intriguing in 2009's Afterschool, yet here no more than a mocking, malicious, one-dimensional psycho, the Curzon Mayfair equivalent of Alan Rickman in Die Hard. The magnetism in Miller's sneer, which apparently worked wonders on Ramsay and the film's early reviewers, was lost on me; if the movie has been stuck with the dismaying tagline "Mummy's little monster" - reducing the film, at a stroke, to chortling camp - then Miller's performance must be at least in part to blame.

What Ramsay misses, in fragmenting the text, is any coherent sense of why Eva doesn't kick this freeloading twerp out, or why she doesn't just kick his ass, beyond the vague underpinning notion that "she can't - she's his mom", an assertion reinforcing a bond that - for all the film's giggly scepticism - Ramsay is nevertheless entirely credulous about. If one keeps stubbing toes on We Need to Talk About Kevin, that may be down to the way that, while owning the material for herself, Ramsay has preserved a prickliness central to Shriver's worldview: it is a film to see and talk about, even if you do end up coming to blows with your companions, your fellow cinemagoers, hell, even the fruits of your own loins. The film's shards and fragments pointed me to one conclusion, and in the cold light of the screening-room foyer, I couldn't be certain it was the right one: she should have smothered the brat, and not with affection, but a pillow. I doubt there'll be a viewer in the land who'd convict her.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 16 October 2011

At the LFF: "Curling King"

The droll Norwegian comedy Curling King brings to a sport oft referred to as "chess on ice" a sensibility immediately recognisable from Dodgeball and certain Wes Anderson ventures. Just as chess has had its fair share of lunatic geniuses, Curling King presents us with one Truls Paulsen (Atle Antonsen), an erstwhile champion of the rink institutionalised after his obsession with getting his stones in the exact right spot began to get the better of him. Returned to the custody of a generally disapproving wife, he's soon obliged to reunite the rest of his crew - an incorrigible tailchaser, an insomniac grouch and a seasoned birdwatcher - in order to win the prize money that'll send their ailing coach to the States for a lifesaving operation.

From Anderson, director Ole Endresen cribs the rigidly head-on framing and obsessive production design: in his signature yellow sweater and socks, Truls is at once at odds with the pastel-pink dollhouse look his wife has cultivated for their home. From Dodgeball, the film serves up the bouffanted rival, the flowery commentary team (seen putting on their coats and locking up the studio before Truls attempts his final, seemingly impossible shot) and a mildly smirky attitude to its chosen minority pursuit: the film's best joke involves a curling administrator who refuses to answer any question from reporters that includes the diminutive term "niche".

No prior knowledge is assumed, or needed: the mechanics of the sport are actually less important than the progress of these middle-aged men in getting over their individual issues with father figures (the insomniac's dad is a Rod Stewart impersonator, to his shame) and coming to pull or push and sweep as a unit. Like the American comedies it apes, it offers very little for the women on the sidelines to do: Truls's wife is an emasculating shrew turned traitorous harpie, leading him to take up with a kooky, paint-slinging free spirit; its chief concern is with men being men - the script doesn't lack for dick jokes - as they would had they retreated to a cabin to go ice fishing. At 75 minutes, it's slight and ever so slightly sitcommy, but amusing all the same.

King Curling screens at the Vue West End on Sat 22 at 8.45pm, and again on Sun 23 at 12.45pm.

At the LFF: "Oslo, August 31st"

There is another Scandinavian filmmaker whose name is Trier, and his refusal to adopt the grandiose, mock-aristocratic "von" assumed by his Danish namesake Lars seems, in this instance, telling. The Norwegian Joachim Trier evidently goes about his business in an altogether more modest fashion: his debut Reprise snuck into UK cinemas in 2007, and its follow-up, Oslo, August 31st, is a film that considers depression, mortality and the end of things in a calmer manner than the operatic Melancholia. Low-key naturalism is this Trier's bag. The scenario of his latest - inspired by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle's novel Le Feu Follet, previously filmed by Louis Malle in 1963 - introduces us to Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a 34-year-old sometime writer and drug addict who, a day after making an unseen and unsuccessful attempt to drown himself, is granted 24-hour release from rehab to attend a job interview intended to get him back into society.

The interview will, it turns out, be brief, and not a notable success, so Anders uses the remaining hours available to him to conduct other business: tying up loose ends, reaching out. On a visit to an old acquaintance - himself a former party animal, now happily settled with a wife and child - a series of conversations see the two men kick over their regrets, their shared memories, and what-might-have-beens. Such encounters have the easy intimacy of many other cinematic walk-and-talks, but it's the leavetakings that prove backloaded with emotion: neither these old friends, nor really the audience, can be sure they're going to see a self-destructive drifter like Anders again.

Trier keeps subtly altering the film's tactics, which both keeps us on edge and better describes a character with no evident structure to his life: Anders is notionally free to go anywhere and do anything, yet he seems trapped within his head and body by a heavy-weighing despair. Around the halfway point, with afternoon turning to dusk, the film simply sits down alongside him in a cafe, and as Anders observes the passing foot-traffic - seeking out fellow travellers: not, perhaps, the students making optimistic plans for the future, more likely the mopey old souls heading into the night outside - so too Trier follows these characters with his camera, in the process swerving past those accusations of solipsism that dogged Melancholia, and sketching a deft portrait of life going on with or without the presence of his lead character.

And as the light begins to fade, so too the film becomes more episodic and scattered, individual scenes dissipating like shoppers from the city centre at closing time, here tuning into Anders' internal monologues, there leaving him entirely alone with his thoughts. In Danielsen Lie's perfectly pitched performance, this young man becomes a spectral figure - barely present, drifting mostly unseen through his contemporaries' parties - albeit one sharp enough to have gained some insight into his own condition. This is someone attempting both a reintegration with society and, one soon gathers, a reintegration of the self, gathering up the pieces of his life and seeing if there's anything there he might work with, that might provide him with a second chance, some reprieve.

Trier exercises cool control of the material, leavening this long, dark night of the soul with flashes of black wit and nocturnal beauty (Anders and his buddies take to their bikes at one stage, letting off fire extinguishers, and steam; they're freewheeling, much as the film is at this point); the final scenes inject a note of suspense, providing the protagonist with his best hope of happiness as dawn breaks, yet we've been left in little doubt that Anders has something deadly in his pocket, and indeed in his heart. After the Wagnerian sturm-und-drang of Melancholia, the younger Trier's film is destined to be found quieter - quietly optimistic, and quietly saddening - yet it gets to you no less. In its unshowy way, Oslo, August 31st is attempting a radical overhaul of recent cinema history, a project made clear by its own lump-in-throat coda: what if you remade Before Sunrise, only with a character who - in whatever company - is unshakably, inescapably alone?

Oslo, August 31st screens at the Vue West End on Wed 19 at 8.30pm, and again on Thu 20 at 12.45pm, before opening in selected cinemas from November 4.

At the LFF: "Nobody Else But You/Poupoupidou"

Trace elements of Twin Peaks (not to mention certain other 50s-infused fictions) dot the tragicomic murder-mystery Nobody Else But You (a.k.a. Poupoupidou), about a writer (Jean-Paul Rouve) who pulls into a small town on the Franco-Swiss border just as the body of a local celebrity is discovered frozen in the snow. Stuck for book ideas, he begins an investigation of his own, uncovering a deskful of diaries that collectively tell the sad and sorry tale of a provincial girl (Sophie Quinton, in flashbacks) hooked on a dream of stardom, yet destined to know only unhappiness in her personal life - watching over the writer as he tenderly inspects her corpse, the girl's spirit is moved to remark: "Typical I should meet a nice guy only after I'm dead."

Where Lynch knew how to make similar material cut deep, any latent tragedy in Gerald Hustache-Mathieu's film is undercut, at least initially, by the sheer range of surface kooks and quirks we encounter (the writer has hyper-sensitive hearing, and the plot stops so that everyone can go bowling), such that it often has the look of a post-Midsomer Sunday night television pilot. Yet there are vivid moments and details - a desk toy modelled on Courbet's The Origin of the World, a pen name (Magnus Hørn) seemingly inspired by the current interest in Scandinavian crime fiction - and something subtly clever in the way the men in the doomed blonde heroine's life (the sportsman, the older man of culture, the man of power) come to mirror those in Marilyn Monroe's life. As fan fiction goes, it can only summon up a limited amount of the emotional devastation contained within the pages of Kathryn Hyatt's graphic novel Marilyn for Beginners, but Quinton is such a bombshell filming cheese commercials and weather reports, and so tragic everywhere else she appears on screen, that Nobody Else But You comes finally to serve as its own modest kind of tribute.

Nobody Else But You screens at the Vue West End tomorrow (Mon 17) at 9pm, and again on Thu 20 at 1pm.

At the LFF: "Snowtown"

And you thought Animal Kingdom was hard yakka. Snowtown, Justin Kurzel's dramatisation of what came to be known as the "Bodies In The Barrels" case, opens as a deceptively low-key, naturalistic study of life in a working-class neighborhood in South Australia, some time in the late 1990s. A single mother, painfully skinny in the manner of someone who's known either the needle or the damage done, and with more kids than space to put them in, recruits a middle-aged male neighbour - an outwardly respectable type, previously seen helping the family with their weekly shop, and crafting clay pots with the mother in her poky kitchen - to look after her boys for the night. He will spend the evening taking naked Polaroids of his charges. The jaunty lilt of Tony Hatch's best-known television theme suddenly feels a very long time ago.

And Snowtown, for its part, begins to seem like a vaguely self-conscious attempt to subvert every last sunkissed image or happy-go-lucky sound we've ever come to associate with Australia as a nation. Returned to their rightful bedroom in the wake of this abuse, one of the teenagers, the sensitive Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), wakes to find his mum's new boyfriend John (Daniel Henshall) chopping the heads and tails off kangaroos, then putting their entrails in buckets; these will end up all over the pederast's front porch and lawn, once he's been released on bail. We sense the film striking out in the direction of bloody retribution, but real-life is rarely that predictable, and their target is soon observed moving out of the area, quietly, ordinarily.

Instead, the film shifts its focus onto the vacuum left behind, the void in which this family unit exists. Oldest son Troy (Anthony Groves) challenges Jamie to a living-room wrestle, that familiar test of sibling masculinity, only for their roughhousing to go - in the most literal of ways - to buggery. In the background, the television pumps out the comforting sounds of a David Boon-era cricket commentary. Jeez, what next, we might wonder - the sight of somebody getting brained with a party barrel of Castlemaine XXXX? A gang rape involving Dame Edna Everage and the group Men at Work, using Vegemite as a lubricant?

I jest, but Snowtown retains a seriousness of purpose that keeps you in its grip for a good while - the kind of seriousness that seems beyond many a British underworld thriller, for one. Jamie falls under the malign influence of John when the latter vows to make a man out of the younger party. Heads are shaved. The drug use ratchets up. Unexplained blood is spotted on bedsheets and the inside of grimy bathtubs. In brief, we begin to fear things will turn out somewhat less than bonzer. Parts of Kurzel's film are, to this end, wilfully scuzzy. Answerphone messages crucial to the plot are so poorly recorded and replayed that we struggle to make them out; one scene finds John taking in the sight of an acquaintance's plump wife whilst getting stuck into a sandwich, clumps of Mighty White hanging from his beard.

I'm not sure if blessed is the word, exactly, but Snowtown is certainly well-stocked with actors sporting the kind of grimy authenticity one might only get from holding casting calls in a skip, or by looking under a rock: the most grizzled transvestite in screen history, say, or a man whose cheeks aren't sunken so much as subsided altogether, perhaps out of a sense of disappointment that no good can ever come of himself. Kurzel gets a buzzy turn out of Henshall, who has the same still intensity one sees watching De Niro or Joe Pesci in prime-era Scorsese films: his John is a man who gives the viewer that terrible sensation that he's capable of doing anything, and at any minute.

More troubling, perhaps, is Kurzel's deployment of real-life Snowtown locals, recruited for recurring kitchen-table sequences where they've been encouraged - either pushed by Henshall in character, or by someone behind the camera - to say the foulest things they can think of in response to the idea there might be a paedophile in their midst. This seems to me a fairly high-and-mighty (not to mention hugely exploitative) way of going about illustrating and denouncing the mob mentality, and indeed too often one catches the film jabbing at our disgust buttons; it's been tooled up for a particular kind of shock value, notionally throwing up its hands at violence even as it cuts to a lingering shot of a nail being ripped from a toe.

The crux of the film is a sequence where John invites the reluctant Jamie to watch him strangling some unfortunate who's crossed the pair of them: the throttling goes on and on, sparking the walkouts of those who've managed to sit through the callous (off-screen) murder of a dog, until Jamie finally screams "just fucking do it" and rushes to himself put the victim out of his misery. I think he's supposed to be a surrogate for the viewer, who may well want the dirty work over with, and the scene intended to make some point about just how easy it is to cross a line and get sucked in, but that point is very sub-Haneke or John McNaughton, whose landmark Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a good two decades old now.

Snowtown has a good forty minutes left to go at this stage, and from then on, you really do come to feel it bashing you over the head: most viewers, even hardened critics, have emerged feeling traumatised by it, and you'll have to decide for yourself whether or not that feeling does justice to the nature of this specific case. What I will say is that the comparison
with Animal Kingdom is actually a false one, for all sorts of reasons: in the earlier film, the characters were pushed towards crossroads without you seeming to notice, where Kurzel is so blunt in hammering home his themes and ideas he actually places Jamie and a friend at a literal four-ways just ahead of the final mise en abyme. The rest, compelling and problematic in equal measure, makes for a worthier successor to the likes of Romper Stomper and Chopper, two films equally beholden to the traditions of Ozploitation - and Snowtown's closest, uneasy bedfellows in that category of Films That Make You Go Strewth.

Snowtown screens at the Vue West End tomorrow (Mon 17) at 8.15, and again on Tue 18 at 12.15pm, before opening in selected cinemas from November 18.

At the LFF: "Coriolanus"

Now that Kenneth Branagh looks to have abandoned the Bard for comic books, who will bring Shakespeare kicking and screaming into the multiplexes? Branagh always was a cuddly, approachable crowdpleaser - part Olivier, yes, but also part Noel Edmonds, casting Dickie Briers and Brian Blessed in much the same way Cheggers and Tony Blackburn would always show up on old episodes of Noel's House Party. The star persona of Ralph Fiennes - erstwhile Amon Goeth and Francis Dolarhyde - is, however, a very different construct, which may be why the actor has taken as his directorial debut Coriolanus, Shakespeare's eel-like musing on war, politics and the people. In the lead, Fiennes appears scarified and bald-pated, covered in blood and gore from more or less the word go, both man of war and a thrusting, threatening meathead. To pursue the comparison using a current literary sensation, where Branagh's always been a bit of a Gilderoy Lockhart, Fiennes still unshakably has something of the Voldemort about him.

The action in Fiennes' version, adapted for the screen by Gladiator scribe John Logan, unfolds in and around Rome, though it was shot in Serbia and Montenegro, giving the city a distinctly mitteleuropan feel; inserts apparently sourced from actual Balkan uprisings lend additional dramatic spice. (In a further bold, incongruous touch, our very own Jon Snow is still to be observed reading the nightly news in iambic pentameter, which will doubtless come as a relief, comic or otherwise, to some.) Fiennes' Caius Martius rises to prominence in post-Hurt Locker urban warfare sequences that allow the director-star to run about with an automatic rifle and brawl with Gerard Butler's Aufidius; it's only when he inherits the name Coriolanus - and the social responsibility that comes with it - that he reveals himself as greatly more at home in uniform than he is in a politician's suit. These latter scenes bear the influence of later seasons of The West Wing, as a born leader of men has to be talked into leading, only to then struggle to talk the electorate round, lacking both the emollient words and the general inclination to do so.

I'm about as far from an expert in this field as it's possible to be, but in an age where even Roland Emmerich is making movies about this playwright (Anonymous screens at the LFF next Tuesday), maybe there's no real harm in venturing an opinion: this strikes me as one of Shakespeare's least populist plays, and Fiennes and Logan have preserved an ambivalence about "the rank-scented many" that chimes with the actor's aloof demeanour, while immediately setting this version in conflict with anyone showing up to Screen One with hotdogs and nachos. Yet if the tenor throughout is coolly cerebral, Coriolanus is none the worse for it. Fiennes' relatively sparse, unflashy staging returns us to the text without ever seeming to shrink the screen to a stage: the audience I saw the film with sat in an unusually rapt silence, as we collectively attempted to decipher the language, its nuances and subtleties, beyond the clues and prompts the director and his actors offer us.

Still, there are points where Coriolanus doesn't seem nearly smart enough, and these can mostly be put down to the vagaries of enforced modernisation. It was a stroke of genius that Michael Almereyda should, in his 2000 Hamlet, have had his slacker prince recite the "To Be or Not To Be" speech in the Action section of a Blockbuster Video: here, everything seemed not just plausible, but newly modern and resonant. By contrast, Fiennes needed to know that if you're going to restage a senate debate as a TV show, you're going to need a host - to respect the format - and not just rely on a pair of scheming tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) whipping the studio audience into a frenzy. (Was Jeremy Kyle not available?) Similarly, I didn't quite buy Coriolanus's decision to exile himself, turning his back on his plush upper-class existence to hobo his way around Europe with a rucksack on his back. Again, I'm no scholar, but this feels like a play of sudden, almost arbitrary alliances and ruptures, and the filmmakers needed to be just a little more careful about selling us on each one.

Yet patches of it, vivid scenes and runs of scenes, are powerful indeed, lent force and weight by an exceptional cast. If Fiennes' natural tendency towards restraint isn't doing himself or the film any favours - clenched and coiled, this Coriolanus isn't someone any of us can cheer for automatically - it is peculiarly right for the role, and he deserves our respect for transforming the downfall of an individual who might otherwise have resembled Ross Kemp into a complex and mostly compelling spectacle. Brian Cox really does know how to make this text come alive, as the spindoctor-kingmaker Menenius, and there's a thoughtful, noteworthy performance from Butler, who suddenly seems an actor rather than just a brickie who got lucky. Not all the casting comes off - Jessica Chastain and John Kani appear here simply to lend colour of different kinds to a generally sombre palette - but it's revivifying to have the Vanessa Redgrave of old back on screen, her Volumnia tall and imposing, rather than the dotty dears the cinema too often encourages her to play these days, and speaking the text like a mother tongue. Her scenes together with Fiennes are properly chilling; for better and worse, so too is the film.

Coriolanus screens at the Odeon West End tonight at 7.30pm, and again at the Vue West End tomorrow (Mon 17) at 12.30pm, before opening nationwide in January 2012.

Saturday 15 October 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 7-9, 2011:

1 (new) Johnny English Reborn (PG) **
2 (new) The Lion King 3D (U)
3 (1) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) **
4 (2) Abduction (12A)
5 (new) Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (15)
6 (new) Midnight in Paris (12A) ***
7 (4) Crazy, Stupid, Love. (15) ***
8 (8) Drive (18) ***
9 (7) The Inbetweeners (15) **
10 (5) The Debt (15)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Amelie [above]
2. Hell and Back Again
3. Tyrannosaur
4. Sleeping Beauty
5. Retreat

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (4) Limitless (15) ***
2 (2) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12) *
3 (new) Water for Elephants (12)
4 (1) Thor (12) **
5 (3) Source Code (12) ***
6 (5) Attack the Block (15) **
7 (8) Unknown (15) **
8 (new) Chalet Girl (12) ***
9 (re) The Lincoln Lawyer (12)
10 (new) Something Borrowed (12)


My top five:
1. The Messenger
2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
3. Winnie the Pooh
4. Senna
5. Le Quattro Volte

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Dances with Wolves (Sunday, BBC2, 5.25pm)
2. Toy Story (Sunday, five, 4.35pm)
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Director's Cut (Sunday, five, 6.20pm)
4. Morvern Callar (Wednesday, BBC1, 12midnight)
5. Fallen (Friday, BBC1, 11.30pm)

Homecoming: "Hell and Back Again"

After the heavy-duty bombardments of Restrepo and Armadillo, you could be forgiven for suffering from Gulf War Documentary Fatigue (GWDF), or at least a feeling of over-exposure to scenes of men in fatigues standing about fields hearing complaints from men in robes about the brusque treatment meted out to their crops and livestock: such petty border disputes have been the abiding images of the conflict in Afghanistan, as observed by our documentarists. This year's Sundance documentary prize-winner, Danfung Dennis's Hell and Back Again, features its fair share of this, certainly, but actually appears to proceed as an investigation of one of the most striking images in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker: that of a military man on leave, finding himself ill-at-ease in the aisles of a well-stocked supermarket.

The film charts the homecoming of one Sergeant Nathan Harris, on indefinite leave at his North Carolina abode after being shot in the hip during an ambush in southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2009. A garrulous, engaging character, Harris enters said supermarket on a mobility scooter, flashing his stitches (and, as he phrases it, his "buttcrack") to the elderly female greeter as he passes. Thereafter, Dennis crosscuts between the grunt work Harris completed on the frontlines before his injury - very sharply and eloquently recorded, the photojournalism on display several clicks north of the point-and-shoot functionality of its documentary predecessors - and his life back in the States, as he adapts to a newly challenging set of routines (shopping, physio, medical appointments), and we notice the contrast between the sharp, focused warrior Harris and the doped-up walking wounded he's become.

Occasionally, Dennis insists, a form of slippage occurs between these two states. A round of Call of Duty blurs with footage of Harris in the midst of non-virtual carnage. The chaos of a drive-thru order sparks flashbacks to an incident when Harris's troop first came under fire. And during a conversation between Harris and his physician, the sound mix drops out from beneath them both, as though shellshock were setting in all over again. These are the film's most contentious choices: we're well aware that Harris, woozy on painkillers, might drift off like this, but how can we be sure he drifted off during this specific conversation? He appears lucid enough, to look at him, and doesn't subsequently communicate any issue to Dennis - is this mere edit-suite sophistry on the director's part?

Again, as in Armadillo, we're faced with sequences that bear the distinct imprint of reality television, as though key confrontations (those on the homefront, in particular) were being restaged before Dennis's camera: in the modern, battle-scarred world, it seems everyone is acting up, including those who've served on active duty. The film's successes are less objective than impressionistic: Hell and Back Again evokes confusion, trauma, uncertainty, the Afghan scenes stumbling onward to the moment of Harris's injury even as the soldier's recovery in Carolina is measured out in agonisingly small steps. This latter strand deals in dull aches and pains, anaesthetised sadness, benumbed poignancy: an Army memorial service, presided over by a sobbing chaplain, is another in the constant parade of reminders that America isn't going to be healed anytime soon.

There are points where Dennis's film itself appears concussed or disoriented, unable quite to comprehend what it is it is looking at, only for some bold, vivid detail to cut through the haze, or apparent artifice: the vast transparent bag of painkillers Harris is now obliged to lug around wherever he goes, the gradual revelation he's become closer to his guns than he is to his pretty, endlessly patient wife, as though to compensate for the temporary loss of power in his legs. In the figure of Sergeant Nathan Harris, who - for all the obstacles he faces - remains from first to last committed to getting back out to the front, we are presented with one of the starkest portraits the cinema has yet given us of how the expected march to victory over the Taliban has been slowed to a painful, limping shuffle.

Hell and Back Again is in selected cinemas.