Wednesday 30 November 2011

1,001 Films: "The Bank Dick" (1940)

The Bank Dick opens with fifteen minutes so chockful of non-sequiturs that it may well comprise the most fluid (or random) opening of any movie of the studio period. W.C. Fields' perennial drunk Egbert Souse leaves his truly horrid family behind him for the day, just resisting the urge to brain his bratty youngest daughter with a rock; he assumes his usual position at the bar of the Black Pussycat Lounge, then stumbles onto and off a film set. The Bank Dick then shifts gears to become a heist movie, bestowing upon Egbert accidental-hero status, and the uniform befitting the figure of the title. (And we note that no-one in the 20th century's latter half could have got away with that title, or indeed with having characters refer with such obvious relish to "the Black Pussy".)

With Preston Sturges regular Franklyn Pangborn in a key supporting part, there are similarities to Hail the Conquering Hero in the film's vision of American success as an entirely arbitrary concept: in this world, a drunk can become a director can become a cop-for-hire, and as Souse's experiments in the stock market (tip: beefsteak mines) only go to demonstrate, your value is just as likely to go up as it is down with baffling regularity. Fields remains Fields throughout, however, muttering punchline-substitutes, chewing up (and thus getting past the censors) some fairly close-to-the-knuckle material ("I like children - girl children - between eighteen and twenty years of age"), and refusing to grant us the reassurance of conventional jokes or narrative structure: just about the only thing we can be sure of is that the names (which extend from "Filthy McNasty" to "J. Pinkerton Snoopington") will be funny.

I was left ambivalent upon first encountering Fields (in It's a Gift); second time around, I became convinced his is an utterly unique comic aesthetic, albeit one so cussedly eccentric in its ways and means that it'll take a while for modern audiences (or maybe just me) to get a hang on it - unlike the immediately comparable and comprehensible Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton. (Presumably 1940s audiences - better schooled in Fields' radio and variety work - must have had far greater chance to acclimatise themselves to the comic's flights of fancy and shambling, unrehearsed-seeming delivery.)

Groucho, to cite another of Fields' contemporaries, sold the viewer his gags, so we knew exactly what was being offered up to laugh at. With the exception of the peerless action-comedy finale (Souse to the bank robber holding him hostage in a speeding getaway car: "Shall I point out some places of interest?"), everything here is tossed out in parentheses and dispatches, to be happened upon and tucked away in your back pocket, or left unexplained altogether. (The very last gag is as unfathomable as anything David Lynch ever came up with, a closer that spits "that's all, folks?" before heading off down the saloon once more.) That it is real comic termite art, to borrow Manny Farber's coinage, can be gleaned from the following brisk exchange of scene-setting, which just so happens to contain the funniest line in the whole darn thing:

Souse: "How's it going, Doc?"
Doctor: "Oh, fair, fair... I don't suppose we'll get another whooping cough epidemic any time soon."

The Bank Dick is available on DVD through Metrodome Distribution.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Comfort foods: "Romantics Anonymous"

Romantics Anonymous is one of those slight confections we wouldn't be going anywhere near if it didn't have the inferred quality that comes with subtitles. The French have only now decided there were bits from Chocolat and Amelie worth imitating; the new film's central romance, between two highly-strung chocolate fanciers, tries in vain to justify behaviour that ranges from the unlikely to the infuriating. By mistake, long-time singleton Isabelle Carré lands a saleswoman job at a failing chocolate firm run by uptight Benoît Poelvoorde. Rather than admit she's actually a prize-winning chocolatier - thus clearing up any misunderstanding - she instead carries on regardless, eventually posing as the interlocutor for a hermit chef, a deception that inevitably piques the boss's interest.

These are good performers, but they're stuck playing non-characters, selection boxes of tics and quirks from a dozen other romcoms. Carré just about makes do with the post-Amelie wardrobe, heel-clicking and chanson-singing, but it's a particular waste to have Poelvoorde playing repressed rather than full-blown pompous or insane, his strongest comic suits. And of course this pair should get to the hotel at which a chocolate convention is being held to find a booking error has left them with one double room, rather than two singles. If you like chocolate, there's gallons of the stuff sloshing around within these 75 minutes - the idea is that Carré and Poelvoorde are only ever comfortable when they're eating it, or making it, or talking about it - but even as somebody with a pronounced sweet tooth, I found it all more than a bit... well, sugary.

Romantics Anonymous opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 28 November 2011

From the archive: "Happy Feet"

Happy Feet is just too weird. Last year's documentary March of the Penguins was nice enough, and the penguins were by far the best characters in Madagascar, but did we really need a full-length pixellated musical centred around the exploits of aptenodytes forsteri? It's as though the filmmakers had fed a computer with instructions to churn out The Cutest Film Ever Made, its workings revealed thus: What could be cuter than ickle baby penguins? Ickle baby penguins SINGING! What could be cuter than that? Ickle baby penguins that sing AND TAP DANCE! The script of Happy Feet would appear to be written in pink felt-tip pen, with lots of OMG!!!s in the margins and spangly stars dotting all the "i"s.

The director, George Miller, turned a similarly bizarre concept into a copper-bottomed hit a decade ago while producing the talking-pig movie Babe, its mix of animatronics and live actors possessed of enough old-fashioned charm to bring audiences wholeheartedly into its world. Second time around, the charm is kept in check by logic as fuzzy as the ickle baby penguins themselves. If you are going - as certain critics felt compelled - to quibble with the udders on the male cows in the recent Barnyard, you might want to take a moment to ponder how these penguins have gained access to a repertoire of 70s and 80s hits. (Can you pick up AM radio in the Antarctic? Do they have waterproof iPods? iCods?)

Something has to have gone amiss in character development meetings when your penguins don't know what a mechanical digger is, but have the lyrics to Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" down pat. Similarly, can anyone say why this penguin community has been drawn up along such prominent racial lines, with Mexican birds operating their own chilly barrio, the only black actor in the voice cast installed in the role of a devouring leopard seal, and a Scottish penguin elder - the John Reid of penguins - blaming these dancing nancies for a shortfall in fish? The answer, perhaps, is that Happy Feet subscribes to the same brand of brash, anything-goes Antipodean kitsch as was peddled in Moulin Rouge! (Nicole Kidman gives us another song); as musicals go, it's as many parts Ben Elton as Busby Berkeley, setting the splendour of the Aurora Australis to Queen's "Somebody to Love".

And for all the artistry evident in both the film's visual design and direction - someone's been watching the meteorological conditions described in March of the Penguins very closely, a facet that ultimately distinguishes this from its computer-generated predecessors - Happy Feet is still overly reliant on the big, noisy, non-narrative set-pieces (avalanches, chases) that powered The Ant Bully, The Wild and Hoodwinked!. It arrives belatedly, and not altogether convincingly, at its eco-friendly storyline, and the penguins, who mostly appear alike, look suspiciously easy to replicate with the appropriate processing chip. Pingu can sleep easy in his igloo tonight.

(December 2006)

On DVD: "George Harrison: Living in the Material World"

Having covered the life of Dylan in No Direction Home, and given us a cursory glimpse of the Stones' legacy in the live concert movie Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese now turns his attention to the quiet man of the Beatles with George Harrison: Living in the Material World. I question the degree of input and involvement Scorsese has in these documentaries: in Shine a Light, we at least got to see him call action and cut, but it's plainly not him doing the interviews in this new entry, and one wonders whether he limited himself to making music and editing choices and subcontracted much of the legwork, safe in the knowledge of the access his name will have opened up to pertinent interviewees. Of Scorsese's personal engagement with Harrison's music, there is none.

That said, some of his directorial decisions are faultless. Very sensibly, the project divides itself into two parts. Part One gives itself ninety minutes to tell one of the biggest stories in pop history, a story Harrison has to share with three other noted Liverpudlians, and Brian Epstein, and George Martin, and Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, and Sgt. Pepper, not to mention the Eggman. Part Two, crucially approaching the two-hour mark, tells of Harrison's post-Beatles activity, and you can get a feel for the renaissance man he became from the roster of interviewees alone: Terry Gilliam, Jane Birkin, Phil Spector (pre-prison), Jackie Stewart.

To get the Beatles out of the way first, as Scorsese must, the film locks into place an idea of the Fab Four as the first truly modern pop group - the sense of which one best infers not necessarily from the assembled live performances, electrifying as they may be, nor perhaps from the recordings, which now can't be evaluated by anyone who wasn't there at the time as anything other than the Shakespearian-sacred texts they've become. It's from the band's interviews and press conferences, where one observes four chippy kids trying to out-do one another, to appear the smartest person in the room. (Run a cursory mental comparison with Westlife or One Direction, whose nodding inarticulacy in interviews - precisely that of recording artists with nothing to say - outs them as the pop puppets they are: those boys need their strings pulling to speak.)

From the interview footage the documentary collates, we get a glimpse of how the Beatles were paving the way for the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show, and against the sarky, sometimes abrasive John, the goofy Ringo, and the crowdpleasing Paul, George appears ever more the calm at the centre of this storm, and all the funnier for not trying to be funny. Harrison was the youngest of the lot, and yet maturity was conferred upon him early: this is what happens when you start gigging on the Reeperbahn before you've emerged from your teens, seen one of your bandmates (the unfortunate Sutcliffe, whose story was told in Iain Softley's nimble bio Backbeat) die well before his time, and had the status of a latter-day god bestowed on you. Pop stars grew up quicker back then: by way of a comparison, it took 25 years for Harrison to come up with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and 31 for Peter Andre to arrive at "Insania".

Yet, as Eric Clapton suggests, there would be a downside to being part of a band that, once it had ascended beyond a certain peak of celebrity, faced the indignity of having all their hard work and best tunes screamed down by adoring fans who just wanted to look at you - and, for Harrison in particular, a frustration at having to play creative second fiddle to one of the 20th century's greatest songwriting partnerships. His solution would be to devote the rest of his career to making music that people would take trouble to listen to, while setting out in search of the inner peace that material wealth both allows an individual to pursue and can hold them back from attaining. If that sounds overly spiritual, well, the guy did name his son Dhani.

Towards the end of Part One, with the Beatles going through their transitional late-60s period, the film begins to concern itself with a mind opening up to previously unexplored possibilities: there are the meetings with Maharishis and Ravi Shankar, and George and John's suddenly humorless appearances on TV chatshows, Frost in attendance, where they're invited to justify their beliefs before an audience of balding men in suits, representatives of the kind of old-world, Empire thinking the rock 'n' roll revolution hadn't entirely blown away. In retrospect, we may mourn the way the music of the 1970s lost the carefree swing of its 60s equivalent, but then, as the documentary shows, the four lads who shook the world were now grown men in search of an exit strategy; and so out went the clean lines and melodies beloved of producer Martin, in came auras and distortion enough to drown out the teenyboppers. The Beatles canon had grown so all-encompassing - in just ten years! - that it could predict both the occasionally pompous self-involvement of prog and the dissonance of those young punks rising up against it.

Stronger on archive and anecdote than analysis, Living in the Material World at first seems tooled for entertainment over genuine enlightenment, but its second half - beginning with the break-up of, variously, the biggest band in the world, a gang of childhood friends, and Harrison's marriage to Pattie Boyd - becomes more vital. It's here we see Harrison coming to compose a whole new landscape for himself - physically, with a new home in the Henley countryside, emotionally, with his second wife Olivia, and professionally, with his seeking out of other collaborators and fellow travellers. The archive footage here shows a man in the process of rediscovering himself, and what this music lark (more specifically: his music, suddenly pushed centre-stage) could be: a way of opening hearts and minds as well as ears and wallets. Harrison's 70s output possibly stands up better than his former bandmates: Paul never had a Life of Brian to his name, and if George's music tended here and there towards the hippy and the dippy, at least there's nothing quite as teeth-grindingly fatuous as "Imagine" in his back catalogue.

It's a shame Scorsese should pass over "Got My Mind Set On You", Harrison's tentpole 80s hit (and perhaps the closest he ever came to a Lennon-McCartney moment), which is like doing a Paul film and not mentioning the Frog Chorus, or a Ringo movie without Thomas the Tank Engine. Still, he has a good stab at repositioning the Traveling Wilburys - previously understood as a rolling rock retirement home, their music the equivalent of a nice cup of tea and a biscuit - as a last bastion of comfort, the place a musician might well go to enjoy hanging out with his mates and doing the thing that he loves, without the pressure from label bosses or the screaming of schoolgirls. Harrison always was one of life's seekers: someone who - after the headache-inducing mania of life as a Beatle - went looking for serenity and tranquillity, and eventually found it. His friends - from many and diverse worlds: music, film, fashion, sport - continue to miss him, and many shed fond tears speaking about him. But - as the film realises, as its subject realised - all things must pass.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World is available on DVD through Lionsgate.

Saturday 26 November 2011

From the archive: "London to Brighton"

It should be pointed out that London to Brighton, though eventually living up to the reputation it garnered on the festival circuit as one of the standout British films of the year, begins less than auspiciously. Unknowns in tracksuits mouth the word "toerag" at one another - and all of a sudden we're back in the year 2000 again, when every other home-made feature was a profane crime story made by Guy Ritchie-inspired chancers. Already, though, you're struck by the unshowy realism of Paul Andrew Williams' film, and the fact these seem like people who might actually wear these clothes and use this language, not Jude Law, Sean Pertwee and mates slumming it for a laugh.

What unfolds is an urgent, quietly gripping thriller following a prostitute and her 14-year-old charge on the run from a paedophile crimeboss and the apparently inescapable reach of his organisation. Battered and bruised to a painful extreme not seen witnessed on screen since Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) and Joanne (Georgia Groome) embark upon the journey of the title, and as the story of how they came to be beaten up so unfolds in flashback, the net surrounding them starts to close in. Williams' own closeness to his performers yields a terrifically vivid turn from Johnny Harris as Kelly's pimp and middleman, just smart enough to figure out the terrible position he's in; it's a turn summarised by a shattering moue of of the actor's lips as he tempts Joanne with the offer "go play with him, and I'll give you £100", choosing his words as though to suggest the business he's caught up in was just child's play, rather than kiddy-fiddling.

Harris's pimp is typical of the forceful characterisation running throughout; while there's some sparse humour here, and a bleary, early-hours-of-the-morning poetry, too, Kelly and Joanne are very definitely at the mercy of the cold hearts of bad men. These low-lifes aren't joky rogues, or stand-ins for a director who wants us to think he's far tougher than he actually is: Williams remains resolutely unimpressed by his antagonists' violence, and stays on the right side of those doorways separating us from a bloodbath. He knows the film already has enough of a sense of horror in its scenario to power itself along, and to garner those sympathies not already engaged by Stanley and Groome's fine, committed performances. This is a very impressive debut.

(November 2006)

London to Brighton screens on BBC2 tomorrow at midnight.

On demand: "Page One: Inside the New York Times"

Things change. When I first started writing for the Sunday Telegraph seven years ago, we had a whole page on which to review the week's six or seven new film releases. After the crash of 2008, the newspaper found itself so short on available space, and so desperate for all the advertising it could get, that we were left with a half- or even quarter-page between the two of us to do justice to the ten or more releases routinely thrust each weekend into a marketplace that seemed more competitive than ever. Well, we sucked it up, dropped words and sentences and paragraphs, and got on with it the best we could, although a growing frustration at my inability to discuss films, or pursue a particular point, at any length led me to cross the great divide between the analogue and digital realms and start the blog you're reading now, where I could round up my published work alongside more discursive (and arguably unpublishable) pieces.

It was in 2008 that the New York Times recruited David Carr, the hero of Andrew Rossi's fine documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, to serve as their media columnist. Initially, Carr's remit was unclear: nobody seems sure whether he was hired to describe the newspaper industry's transition from one realm to another, or simply to write the obituary for print journalism, using its own ink. Described by one of his colleagues as "the most human of humans" and by his editor as "the most fair-minded individual I know", Carr is a pugnacious figure, a former crack addict who - like The Wire creator and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, another seasoned media observer - brings to the page a rare weight of life experience: in marked contrast to the scattered data and often juvenile invective one often finds on the Internet, he's become a master of context and perspective, possessed of a particular gift for putting events (and people) in their proper place. (He describes Twitter as "a cacophony of short-burst information", before - fair-minded as ever - giving it a go, and succumbing to its charms.)

Carr's line, pursued in his columns, is that the medium (i.e. newspapers like the Times) is no longer the message, the message itself is; that, in the interests of efficiency, and for better and worse, we've cut out the middle men, leading to the cutbacks most major newspapers have recently witnessed in both space and personnel. Essentially, we've left ourselves room and time for but 140 characters per person. This is not an entirely healthy and progressive step, it seems to me, and Rossi's film puts centre stage the final throes of a battle between old, apparently dying ways (the typesetting shown in an Alistair Cooke Omnibus report from the 60s, a Citizen Kane poster in the current Times editor's office, reporters pounding a particular beat, retracing their steps, checking facts) and the newer, more immediate and impactful delivery systems, like blogs, Twitter, and Julian Assange's Wikileaks website, that have come through in the last decade to challenge behemoths like the Times.

Rossi plays his access to the newsroom floor off against a more critical overview of the newspaper business. There's no hiding the fact the Times was badly wounded by reporter Judith Miller's White House-approved cheerleading for the second Gulf War, and some evidently believe the newspaper, like many of its rivals, has become a reactionary dinosaur that deserves to die out. Yet Carr remains a staunch defender of the Times's other 60-odd pages, and of its proud legacy of reporting and analysis. No matter how the news eventually comes to arrive on our doorsteps and desktops - via paperboys on bicycles or fibre-optic cables - it surely needs compelling and, more importantly, conscientious voices such as his.

Is he fighting a losing battle, in clutching to these old-media values? That remains to be seen: one solution Rossi's film proposes is a hybrid of the two realms, as tested (tentatively) in the recent collaboration between Wikileaks, the New York Times, the Guardian in the UK and Der Spiegel in Germany on the issue of diplomatic cables. Katharine Hepburn once said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers "he gives her class, she gives him sex", and a similar principle would appear to be at work in these partnerships: the newspapers gave the website's revelations credibility, while the digital link bestowed upon the broadsheets a certain hipness, a new-found awareness of where the cutting edge might now lie. The documentary medium, for its part, continues to flourish: in walking the Times beat, and hitting upon his own form of assiduous, balanced, intelligent journalism, Rossi shows us there may just be something here worth saving, or - to put it another way - something we'd badly miss if it were to vanish completely, and be replaced by conjecture and snark.

Page One: Inside the New York Times is available to view on demand here for the next two weeks, and on DVD through Dogwoof.

Friday 25 November 2011

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (12A) ***
2 (2) Arthur Christmas (U) ***
3 (3) The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (PG) **
4 (1) Immortals (15) ****
5 (4) In Time (12A)
6 (5) Tower Heist (12A)
7 (new) Justice (15) **
8 (7) Johnny English Reborn (PG) **
9 (6) The Rum Diary (15) ***
10 (10) The Ides of March (15) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Take Shelter
2. Moneyball
3. We Were Here
4. My Week with Marilyn
5. An African Election

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (7) Green Lantern (12) *
2 (5) Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG) ***
3 (1) Thor (12) **
4 (6) Larry Crowne (12) ***
5 (4) Water for Elephants (12)
6 (2) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12) *
7 (3) Source Code (12) ***
8 (8) Unknown (12) **
9 (9) Limitless (15) ***
10 (re) Blitz (18) **


My top five:
1. TT: Closer to the Edge
2. A Separation
3. Page One: Inside the New York Times
4. French Cancan
5. George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. A Matter of Life and Death [above] (Tuesday, C4, 1.10pm)
2. The Searchers (Saturday, five, 1.20pm)
3. The 'Burbs (Sunday, ITV1, 12.45pm)
4. London to Brighton (Sunday, BBC2, 12midnight)
5. Right at Your Door (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.55pm)

On DVD: "TT: Closer to the Edge"

Note: the following is what we might call a retrofitted review, written in response to a 3D screening of a film now emerging on DVD in 2D.

If there's been one theme running through the year's highest profile documentaries, it's been that of directors finding new ways to better describe movement and space. Wim Wenders' Pina used 3D to plot the precision moves of its choreographer subject; Asif Kapadia's Senna knitted together decades' worth of archive footage to give a sense of a speedfreak dashing towards his early grave - in 2D, this time. TT: Closer to the Edge felt, upon its cinema release, like a combination of these two methods: it used the new digital 3D format to show, in a thrilling, near-mythic fashion, movement through space at unthinkable speeds.

The remit was to make a record of the Isle of Man TT races, as experienced through the eyes and scraped knees of the motorcyclists involved. These personalities are many and varied. There is the veteran John McGuinness, with fifteen TT races under his belt; the softly spoken Ian Hutchinson, the sport's new star; the local contender Conor Cummins; and the tenacious Dunlop boys, striving to emerge from the long shadow cast by their father Robert and legendary uncle Joey. The people's favourite - a maverick crowdpleaser in the way Jimmy White or "Hurricane" Higgins were to snooker - is Lincolnshire's Guy Martin, a garrulous, mutton-chopped tinkerer and unapologetic wanking enthusiast, who walks like something out of Camberwick Green and talks like someone Shane Meadows might write.

It is impossible not to warm to Martin - a true English eccentric who just happens to be a superbly talented rider, with a mechanic's innate understanding of his bike - even as you spend much of the documentary fearing for his life. Over the years, speeds around the course have increased from a sedate 30mph to upwards of 150; there have, we learn, been 200-plus deaths during the TT races - "one for every five miles of track," as Jared Leto's narration puts it, a bizarrely tactless calculation that nevertheless suggests something of the fanboy's inability to get outside of this loop - while the presence of variously limbless fans, drivers and mechanics tells its own story.

There is a deathwish of sorts at play here: the riders speak, without evident fear, of the likelihood their bikes may suffer life-threatening mechanical failure; they seem entirely unfazed by the prospect their wheels could come out from beneath them at any point. (If you were, the reasoning goes, you wouldn't get on the bike in the first place.) One of the reasons Martin appears so keen on masturbation is that he declares himself unwilling to commit to any long-term relationship, for fear he should perish suddenly en route. How far these riders are prepared to go for sporting glory is made abundantly clear by the deaths of first one rider, then another, and by the serious injuries suffered by two of the leading contenders.

The film recruits other perspectives on this morbid need for speed: the wives and girlfriends, widows in waiting, who huddle nervously together in the stands, or the American motorcycling nuts who speak in relentlessly cheery life metaphors ("You only get one lap, why not make it the best one you can?"). The director, Richard de Aragues, has twigged the excitement one might generate from strapping the camera to the front of a bike proceeding at full pelt, but he also knows the advantages to be gained from a helicopter shot watching over the riders on their solitary pursuit. You come away with a renewed knowledge of the Isle of Man itself, its terrain, its streets, its people, its flora and fauna. (Who'd have thunk the IoM would become the real world equivalent of Avatar's Pandora?)

Throughout, indeed, the use of 3D is clinical and precise, describing the curve of the track, the bends in each road, in much the same way Werner Herzog allowed us to better grasp the contours of the cave paintings in his Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The third dimension here adds distance to speed, and gives us velocity: it changes our perception of those elements so crucial to the event, allows us to spot for ourselves just how easy it would be to come off at a particular corner. The Grim Reaper takes a prominent unbilled cameo, his scythe popping out from time to time to tap the viewer on the shoulder, or to send another rider flying head over heels into the abyss.

Yet there's also a real compositional beauty in such tableaux as that which finds Martin relaxing by a lake between practice sessions, or parked up in his van on the banks of a rocky shore; an entirely static shot permits us a heightened appreciation of the peace and quiet around a church, interrupted by a trio of chargers roaring past; another, of paint on a cat's eye, left behind in the wake of an earlier prang, retains an uncanny fascination. Closer to the Edge deserves the success and acclaim it's had because it's one of those films that throws the failings of its more expensive stereoscopic rivals into even sharper relief: how can a film assembled by enthusiasts on the Isle of Man manage to do something more elegant and dynamic with its framing than the likes of Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland or Green Lantern?

TT: Closer to the Edge is released on DVD from Monday.

American madness: "Take Shelter" and "Moneyball" (ST 27/11/11)

Take Shelter (15) 120 mins *****
Moneyball (12A) 133 mins ****

The tall, wiry, reliably compelling actor Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) lands a breakthrough role in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter as Curtis LaForche, an Ohioan construction worker suddenly plagued by apocalyptic visions. A practical man, Curtis’s instinct is not to reach out – his loving wife (Jessica Chastain) remains a helpless onlooker – but to retreat, first into himself, then into an abandoned storm shelter. Crucially, Curtis is no loon: even as he obsessively refashions the shelter, we gather he’s still well-adjusted enough to question why he’s been led to these extremes. Latent schizophrenia? Or is it out of some vague primal duty, as his family’s protector?

Part CGI-enhanced horror pic, part American art movie, the film displays fascinatingly diverse influences. Nichols, a graduate of the Terrence Malick school, gives stupendous sky, but he’s also spotted those niggling quotidian concerns – reddening budget sheets, layoffs – presently driving many on the ground to derangement. There’s a clear metaphorical value in Curtis’s predicament, and the film hardly reassures us in forecasting worse weather to come. Nichols and Shannon burrow further into the darkness, leading us to wonder how we’re ever going to emerge; that Take Shelter eventually finds an exit without shortchanging its scenario or its audience makes it one of the year’s foremost cinematic achievements.

Moneyball’s subject is – no ducking it – baseball, but its real drama lies beyond the outfield, in corridors and backrooms: it may be the most engrossing movie yet made about sports management. In a spot of casting cannily intended to halt those female viewers already fleeing for the hills, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland As, a team that slashed its budget in 2002, and promptly went on baseball’s longest ever winning streak. The gamechanger? Analyst Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), bringing mathematics to bear on player selection.

Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin provided the smart script, but it’s Capote director Bennett Miller who grants the film its resonant breathing space, allowing himself time to explore Oakland minutiae, and the rhythms of a long, up-down season. He’s aided by one of the best performances of Pitt’s career, the actor demonstrating major-league charisma amid a repertory of tough, funny, often expectorating co-stars. Teamwork is everything here: Moneyball takes a hefty swing at material that might have been arcane or formulaic, and knocks it right out of the park.

Take Shelter opens in selected cinemas from today; Moneyball opens nationwide.

Thursday 24 November 2011

The gathering storm: "Take Shelter"

Shotgun Stories, the writer-director Jeff Nichols' visually striking yet narratively slight first feature, was big on brooding, ominous skies. In Nichols' follow-up Take Shelter, the rains finally come, threatening to wash everything and everyone away; it's a watershed moment for this particular filmmaker, in more ways than one. The new film's protagonist Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a construction worker in a small Ohio town who suddenly finds himself subject to apocalyptic visions and choking dreams in which his safety, and the safety of his loved ones, is threatened by extraordinary events.

Lightning storms break out overhead. Flocks of birds gather and swoop. A car crash leaves Curtis trapped with his deaf daughter inside a vehicle surrounded by shadowy figures. As one often finds with a certain species of men in pain or turmoil, Curtis's instinct is not to reach out - to his loving wife (Jessica Chastain) or his colleagues, or to the shrink eventually assigned to him - but to retreat, first inside himself, as the nightmares get ever worse, and then into an abandoned tornado shelter on his property. It's unclear how much the latter is a necessity in hurricane country, and how much Curtis has come to regard this structure as his own personal panic room.

It strikes me that, after Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia (and even before we've seen Cronenberg's Freud pic A Dangerous Method), 2011 will go down as the year the movies, and screen acting, finally came to understand mental illness as both more complex, and more cinematic, than babbling Hoffman-Crowe Rain Man-John Nashisms. Shannon, best known for a run of wild-eyed sociopaths (Bug, Revolutionary Road), quite brilliantly pins down the normal in the not-so-normal, and vice versa: his Curtis is a practical man, already under pressure at work (something to do with a drill bit, cracking), who's struggling to make sense of what's happening to him; even while he obsessively goes about refashioning the storm shelter, we sense he's still well-adjusted enough to wonder why he's been led to these extremes, save possibly that he's following some vague primal instinct as his family's provider and protector, that this is a project that must be undertaken for them, at least.

Nichols gives us clues and red herrings alike - a chlorine leak; a numbed Kathy Baker as Curtis's mother, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was her son's age; sign language that, as in Michael Haneke's masterly Code Unknown, suggests what we have here is a deranging failure to communicate - yet his film is rooted, as though in the soil, by its portrait of ordinary madness: it's about the terror of waking up next to someone you love at four in the morning and seeing them shaking, and sweating, and bleeding, and knowing that you are powerless to do anything to help them.

In its very form, Take Shelter is prone to a kind of schizophrenia, poised as it is between mainstream horror and the modern American art movie. The effects, by the whizzkid Strause brothers (Skyline), grant Nichols' vision its levitating furniture and spectral strangers, its deafening lightning strikes. Yet the director's lineage - a protégé of David Gordon Green (George Washington), protégé of Terrence Malick before him - keeps coming through on screen, not just in the casting of the increasingly vital Chastain, The Tree of Life's floaty mom, but also in the way Take Shelter comes to gaze at nature, both in awe and in fear. As I mentioned earlier, Nichols gives stupendous, screen-filling sky: he's one of the few indie directors presently working who can bring themselves to look up from their own navels.

This time, though, he has the script to substantiate such visions, dramatising - in a resolutely unshowy fashion - those niggling quotidian horrors that might well drive a man on the ground into a state of derangement: the price of medication, a budget sheet slipping into the red, having to walk into your kitchen to tell a wife who possibly no longer cares that you no longer have a job to speak of. There is obvious metaphorical value in the sight of everyday Americans having to seek shelter from the storm, and the film's forecast is for worse weather to come. At all points, though, Nichols resists the temptation to promote Curtis, a hard-hatted canary in the economic coalmine, to the status of a soapboxing prophet, preaching to the downtrodden masses: he's just a guy, confused, disorientated, stressed, possibly sick with it.

Driving his daughter back from class one evening, Curtis pulls his car to the kerbside to observe a particularly violent squall playing out on the horizon, mumbling to himself "Is anyone seeing this?" We are, of course, and Take Shelter refuses any comfortable distinction between the character and those of us looking on; instead, it burrows onwards and inwards, taking us further into its protagonist's dark place and causing the viewer to worry how on earth we're all going to get out. That Nichols eventually finds an exit without shortchanging either his characters or the audience has to go down as one of the miracles of the cinemagoing year, yet the moral of this stark and utterly gripping film, flipping a Hollywood commonplace on its head, is terrifying: it could happen to you.

Take Shelter opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. A shorter version of this review will be published in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph.

The seven-day glitch: "My Week with Marilyn"

My Week with Marilyn intends to be or Day for Night as enacted by the 49% of the British film industry who weren't in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: it stocks a particular idea of quality in depth - even the bar staff here are played by someone or other from Downton Abbey - and stages an all-out assault on, if not the awards season, then certainly the 9pm Sunday night slot on ITV3. Its source is a memoir by Colin Clark (played in the film by Eddie Redmayne), a film-mad Home Counties lad who, in the summer of 1956, landed the position of third assistant director on the set of director-producer-star Larry Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl; a gig that would bring him into the circle of none other than Marilyn Monroe at the height of her success.

There would perhaps be no greater contrast of screen personalities and acting styles than that between the Shakespearian knight (Kenneth Branagh here) and the blonde bombshell (Michelle Williams), and Simon Curtis's film has an intriguing culture clash at its centre: Marilyn brought sex and magic to the stuffy, parochial confines of Pinewood Studios, and a London that still wasn't quite swinging. She was also deeply insecure, of course, followed around by an entourage designed to protect her, and to keep the world from glimpsing what she saw as flaws. This entourage would include her husband, the writer Arthur Miller (er, Dougray Scott), the acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), whose Methody prompts were entirely out of place on the set of fluff like Olivier's film, and eventually Clark himself, whom the memoir has us believe was personally recruited by Marilyn to serve as her confidant.

As a film about a film, My Week with Marilyn hits a peculiarly mid-Atlantic tenor: the Weinsteins signed the cheques, which accounts for the talent assembled here, but that talent brings with it a very British self-consciousness at the prospect of being around cinema myths and legends. (One comparison point would be with Richard Linklater's underrated, far less fussy Me and Orson Welles, which cast its Welles against the kid from High School Musical, and got on with the show.) It takes some while for the ear to adjust to the level of impersonation being attempted: Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper ape tough-talking US production chiefs, while Judi Dench mimicks Sybil Thorndike, and a desiccated Julia Ormond plays Olivier's then-wife Vivien Leigh; Scott's Miller has the unmistakable rasp of Sean Connery.

As Olivier, Branagh accepts the limitations of this type of production, and hams his way through the role of an ageing ham: there's a degree of skill involved - you have to know where the scenery is to chew it this thoroughly - though he's lucky that Adrian Hodges' script affords his exasperated Larry the lion's share of the funny lines ("Teaching Marilyn to act is like teaching Urdu to a badger"). As Marilyn, Williams is dazzlingly pretty, and - in her better moments - conveys a sharp, poignant sense of the the lost little girl who just wanted to be loved, but Curtis keeps forcing her into notionally cute Marilynisms (a wiggle of the hips, a finger to shushed lips) that again draws one of his performers into the realms of self-consciousness, and sometimes outright naffness.

It almost goes without saying that Williams cannot occupy the screen in the same way Monroe did, and in part that's deliberate: the film wants to show us a Marilyn removed of her glamour, and backing away from the spotlights into a dark psychological corner. Yet more critically, this being a British film tailored to a Masterpiece Theatre audience, sex - the very sex that Marilyn oozed - has to be stifled at every opportunity. Clark's fling with a costume girl (Emma Watson, hardly tested in her first two post-Potter scenes) is halted with a deeply square "wait a while, crocodile" when he goes for the second button on her blouse; his banter with Marilyn is sub-Hawtrey innuendo ("large packages", "tied up"), until she takes him skinnydipping and he emerges from the lake in a state of embarrassed tumescence. "Oh Colin, and you an Old Etonian and all," Marilyn purrs, in the script's falsest line: even the boners here have to be weighed down with the suggestion of class and good breeding, as though Clark were flying school colours from his bellend.

The film, indeed, turns on an instance of chivalry that is again self-aware, and somewhat difficult to buy whole: as this version has it, Clark was the only guy who slept with Marilyn while fully clothed. There are less conservative developments elsewhere, and the narrative allows the possibility of change for at least one of its characters: Olivier is last seen going off to work with John Osborne on The Entertainer, having taken Miller's advice on new, more radical forms of theatre. Marilyn, alas, simply has to be cast out, because no-one in the country - egads, not even Sir Olivier! - could handle her. Curtis's film is diverting, and often amusing - it'll fit that Sunday night schedule to a T - but it's also oddly throwaway, a reminder only that there's a particular type of British film that, unlike Monroe, will always be antithetical to a broader, more resonant idea of cinema. In its own haphazard manner, My Week with Marilyn goes to explain why nobody remembers The Prince and the Showgirl in the way they do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Misfits and Some Like It Hot.

My Week with Marilyn opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

Monday 21 November 2011

Speaking out: "We Were Here"

David Weissman's talking-heads doc We Were Here - comprised of a series of interviews with survivors of the AIDS pandemic in Southern California - essentially picks up where last year's Gay Sex in the 70s left off. Its chosen period of investigation is that moment when the 1970s ceded to the 80s, and the party appeared to be winding down, if not decisively over, beginning with the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1979, and going on to chronicle the concurrent emergence of the (at that time, still mysterious) disease spreading like wildfire through the gay communities of West Hollywood and San Francisco.

Weissman has taken care in his selection of witnesses: of the five main interviewees, there are those who were at the very heart of this scene, and those who found themselves at a loss on Castro Street; some of them are HIV+, while others dodged the bullet, only to have to mourn the passing of others; there are also nurses and counsellors who saw the whole thing from their own perspective. Anyone possessed of any degree of empathy will be struck by the horror they describe: bodies breaking down in rapid and unpredictable ways, or disappearing off the map altogether in a matter of days, weeks, months. (Without setting out to be, the film forms a pretty formidable advert for safe sex.)

We hear distressing stories of mothers losing all three of their offspring to AIDS, of a father reacting with disgust upon only discovering his son was gay after being summoned to the hospital. The speakers give us a vivid sense of a community getting picked off, both from within and without: as the death toll racks up, the authorities sweep in to seal off once-thriving bathhouses as health hazards, while hospitals do all they can to avoid landing the AIDS tag. Mainstream society, at this point under the sway of Reaganite family values (if not the wholly Biblical rhetoric of fundamentalist hacks like Jerry Falwell), retreats ever further into the distance. San Francisco assumes the look and feel of an isolation ward, drained of all colour.

Yet gradually a secondary narrative emerges, one which finds the gay community coming together in the midst of the fear and prejudice - sharing information, reaching out to one another, drawing a collective strength from their plight. We Were Here leaves you in no doubt that AIDS was (and is) a debilitating force, but it also shows you how it unified a diverse and sometimes fractious subculture - inspiring lesbians to run blood drives for gay men, for example - and became a mobilising phenomenon: something that made people sit up and take notice, even if in just a panicked way, at first.

What we see is how AIDS got owned by the community it had terrorised, being transformed into a locus for art, protest, and finally hope; so it was that a disease that left so many sightless would come to open many more eyes besides - including, ironically, those of the straight society which had initially turned its back on its gay brethren, and which itself needed protection and education when the virus began to spread. The documentary is modest in its means, sober in its framing, yet it's all the better to refocus our attentions on a story that sits close to the counterculture, and why it has endured to this day: it's both a fine memorial to the fallen, and a powerful, moving illustration of the idea that that which doesn't kill you somehow makes you stronger.

We Were Here opens at the ICA in London from Friday before a DVD release on December 5th.

Ballots, not bullets: "An African Election"

An African Election's title implies generality - one election standing (as a model?) for the whole - yet the events of Jarreth Merz's access-all-areas documentary are specific to Ghana, where - in December 2008 - two politicians vied to replace outgoing president John Rufuor: Atta Mills of the progressive NDC, and the more Westernised Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling NPP. The hope was that an African nation as modern as Ghana could lead the way in democratic elections, yet once the candidates are out on the road campaigning, we get a sense of a country so poor, whose needs are so basic, that rival politicians can effectively offer the populace the same things: free secondary education, a modernising of agriculture, jobs for all, the latter a particularly contentious issue in areas where one needs the right party affiliations to be eligible for well-paying positions. As we see, that there is practically nothing to choose between the two camps will become the source of some conflict.

It may or may not be African politics' own fault - it may, alternatively, be indicative of our own prejudices - that we spend much of Merz's film waiting for something to go wrong: anything from an allegation of corruption to an assassination, the latter a fear only heightened by the low levels of organisation apparent at the candidates' public rallies. Initially, at least, any problems are limited to the banal ones of electoral infrastructure: not enough polling stations, leading to long queues building up outside those that are open. Then: drama. The day after the elections, it's still not clear who's won, and - as the two parties are reduced to spinning the provisional results - we think back to Florida 2000, and another flawed two-party political system. (One of the film's strengths is an ambivalence about the democratic model the West is often accused of exporting to other nations.) The spin we now accept as part of the political game, a luxury, is here shown up as potentially lethal in traditionally far less stable outposts. Violent claims and counter-claims are made; large crowds, pumped-up and restless, begin to gather outside the parties' respective headquarters, awaiting instruction. The loss of control becomes most keenly felt at the run-off in late December, when heavies appear on the streets and bodies are seen lying in the road. A winner eventually emerges, but then the figures start changing once again.

The heroes of the piece turn out to be the Ghanaian people - demonstrating vast reserves of pride, passion and (crucially) patience - who demonstrate everybody's desire to resolve these issues for themselves, without bloodshed. It seems somehow key that the independent scrutineer appointed by the UN is limited to no more than a cameo in the film, while the most encouraging sequence finds the crowd outside one polling station sticking around after the polls have shut to observe the count, each ballot paper having to be lifted into the air by the electoral officer - ensuring the kind of transparency and accountability we in the West have rather come to take for granted. "Africa has always been looked upon as a basket case," rues one of Atta Mills' advisors, but that's not quite the case in An African Election, where we see one of the continent's member states desperately trying to hold itself together, and beginning to fray and unravel at the edges, only to emerge into a stronger place more or less unscathed for it. There's hope here.

An African Election opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Play misty for me: "The Deep Blue Sea"

Even as someone who'd previously considered himself a Terence Davies agnostic, I was knocked out by 2008's Of Time and the City, which evoked multiple histories (of Liverpool, its buildings, and its people) while refusing easy nostalgia through the director's own wilful, witty, defiant voice. Perhaps this was a mere fluke, a one-off from a filmmaker whose fiction work has always been guided by - to appropriate an earlier Davies title - distant voices, still lives. The Deep Blue Sea, Davies's new adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play, opens with a long, slow tracking shot along a bombed-out East End street, then up the side of one of its few surviving tenement buildings, and the seasoned Davies viewer will doubtless be reassured this is business as usual; such measured tracking shots were an essential part of those earlier works.

Yet this is as linear as The Deep Blue Sea gets for some time, as Davies adopts a fractured approach to his source material that risks alienating the casual viewer before the story has had chance to pull them in. Here we see Rachel Weisz scrabbling to find the coins needed to put into the meter in order to gas herself, to a soundtrack of incessant Samuel Barber violins. And here: the limbs of two lovers merging in a manner that makes us think of another film (the framing's a direct lift from a sex scene in Almodovar's Live Flesh) before The Deep Blue Sea has really established its own distinct identity. We're meant, I think, to be moved or stirred by these individuals' plight, yet already a gap has opened up between what Davies wants us to feel, and what we actually do. These grand shows of all-consuming passion feel unmoored: they float, scenes from the middle or the end of the film drifting into a demonstrably incorrect order.

What then follows we interpret as this woman's recovery from her attempts at self-sacrifice - or is it just the prelude? Weisz's Hester is stuck in a loveless marriage - witnessed by a shot of twin beds in the matrimonial suite, never the twain to meet - with an older judge (Simon Russell Beale). Her eye, however, has been caught by a young, handsome, brillantined ex-RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Her quandary is instantly apparent: she has security and companionship with the older man, with the younger, chemistry and physical attraction. The first is not quite love, the second not much more than lust. You see where the title comes from, even as you struggle (and, apparently, Davies struggles) to put the rest of the film together.

Painterly compositions and vast plumes of cigarette smoke bear witness to the effort Davies has put into finding images that might match or surpass the eloquence of Rattigan's words - something not nearly enough period filmmakers do - yet I think I'd rather have had those words the right way round, for all the good these strategies come to do the film. The Deep Blue Sea succumbs to an inbuilt mistiness that is at once literal - as though not only the camera, but the set and everyone upon it had been smeared with Vaseline - and symptomatic. Davies seems to be crying at this tragedy before we've had the chance to: the film feels predetermined, insistent in its snuffling out of anything even remotely spontaneous, the emotion Weisz, Hiddleston and Beale are trying to generate between them getting buried beneath a thick top-layer of director-approved Period Acting. In having to make room for these old airs, graces and gestures, the film has to compress everything else: Hester finally walks out on the judge, only to encounter him again in the very next scene, which we're told takes place ten months later. Any emotional resonance in their parting, and in their reunion, is squashed stone dead.

It would be churlish to deny the film is possessed of a certain muted elegance. The casting has an eye for period beauty and handsomeness, even if we might quibble with Davies's decision to pickle these actors in aspic once they've arrived on set. That audience which still appreciates red phone boxes and communal East End singalongs - of which there are a near-parodic amount - will doubtless go home happy. Yet the sorry truth is, after its disastrous opening gambit, The Deep Blue Sea doesn't do nearly enough to win you back, and only in their final scenes together do the actors start to seem like human beings. One gesture - the closing of a suitcase - generates more power than there is in the film's previous 97 minutes combined; the pay-off - as that initial tracking-shot is put into reverse - is properly haunting in its suggestion of reconstruction, and of dark corners still to be explored. For the most part, the film is only tragic because Terence Davies says it is - and, in this instance, I found his words, and indeed these images, simply just weren't enough.

The Deep Blue Sea opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday 18 November 2011

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Immortals (15) ****
2 (new) Arthur Christmas (U) ***
3 (1) The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (PG) **
4 (2) In Time (12A)
5 (3) Tower Heist (12A)
6 (new) The Rum Diary (15) ***
7 (4) Johnny English Reborn (PG) **
8 (6) The Help (12A)
9 (5) Paranormal Activity 3 (15)
10 (8) The Ides of March (15) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Les Enfants du Paradis
2. An American in Paris
3. Wuthering Heights
4. Immortals
5. Oslo, August 31st

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) Thor (12) **
2 (3) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (12) *
3 (2) Source Code (12) ***
4 (4) Water for Elephants (12)
5 (new) Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG) ***
6 (new) Larry Crowne (12) ***
7 (new) Green Lantern (12) *
8 (7) Unknown (12) **
9 (6) Limitless (15) ***
10 (new) Beautiful Lies (12) **


My top five:
1. A Separation
2. French Cancan
3. Love Live Long
4. Bridesmaids
5. Kung Fu Panda 2

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Searchers [above] (Saturday, five, 5.50pm)
2. Grease (Sunday, C4, 5.20pm)
3. Donnie Darko (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
4. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (Saturday, ITV1, 12.45pm)
5. The Station Agent (Saturday, BBC2, 12.05am)