Tuesday 31 January 2012

Far out: "Bombay Beach"

Archive footage at the top of the new documentary Bombay Beach shows this neighborhood, in the desert region of California known as the Salton Sea, to have once been a thriving leisure resort - perhaps something of what Atlantic City was to America's eastern seaboard. Today, however, Bombay Beach is mostly depopulated and largely rundown, a dead-end of trailer parks populated by ardent fans of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. (Some indication of how low-rent the Salton Sea has generally become: it lent its name to a straight-to-video crime thriller toplined by Val Kilmer.) The director Alma Har'el has here gone about observing those left behind - and it wouldn't be an understatement to say they're an odd bunch, perhaps as would have to be to stick around in this especially unpromising environment: junkies, impoverished families, cranky old racists seeing out their final days, kids who aren't old enough to know any better. Though certain sequences are artfully edited - an evocation of a kids' birthday party, and a dance montage that unites the community's residents in movement, momentarily transforming them into music video stars - for the most part the film remains hands-off, reticent, and you sense it drifting between two very different, semi-fictional models. Is it the idealised look and feel of David Gordon Green's early work (George Washington, All the Real Girls) Har'el is going for, as suggested by recurring scenes of the neighborhood kids kicking shit around, trying to figure out what to do and who to be? Or - less felicitously - is she trying to recreate the dustblown town of Harmony Korine's Gummo, where the directorial imperative was to say "look at these freaks! Aren't they freakish!" (One blank-faced, shaven-headed, heavily sedated young boy, framed against a battered Stars and Stripes, becomes as emblematic as Jacob Reynolds in the earlier film.) The whiff of exploitation is heaviest in those scenes concerning a family who had the social workers brought in when it became apparent they were raising their young on what was effectively a live ammo dump: I began to wonder whether Har'el hadn't just come here to poke a camera around the doorways in their cramped quarters and see how the other half now live, though the footage the director has brought back does show the parents doing their best to make their current, imperfect living arrangements work. In strict documentary terms, Bombay Beach's closest equivalent may be the Ross brothers' 2009 curio 45365, a portrait of the postcode the filmmakers grew up within - but then this was an aspirational small-town community, one which had sports teams, jobs, things for people to do. Har'el, for her part, provides a memorable tour of an intriguing location, but her film proves (either weirdly, or aptly) isolated, continually catching and diverting the eye without ever quite revealing what it's about, or - indeed - quite what its maker is up to. Bombay Beach opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 30 January 2012

Shut UP already: "Carnage"

The trouble with house arrest may be not that it shuts you in, but that it shuts the rest of the world out. Roman Polanski's last film, the bafflingly overrated The Ghost, confined itself to a fortress on an indistinct shore with no particular sense of place beyond it, an abstraction - whether intentional or otherwise - that removed the project of its original satirical bite. His latest, Carnage, unfolds in the exiled director's idea of a contemporary New York apartment, where two couples have been brought together by the misbehaviour of their offspring to discuss what disciplinary steps need to be taken. One of these couples (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) are cuddly, besweatered liberal types - she's a part-time writer, he sells kitchen goods - whose son has been struck in the face by another boy. The other (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) are hard-edged corporate professionals whose son, perhaps inevitably, did the hitting.

The meeting begins with smiles, forced or otherwise, and offers of cobbler; it descends, you guessed it, into the state suggested by the title, the elders proving themselves more verbose in their abuse, but ultimately no better than their violent progeny. The source is God of Carnage, a play by the French dramatist Yasmina Reza, which I'm told was very funny in its original form, delighting theatregoers worldwide, even occasioning a Parisian production starring Isabelle Huppert, which might have been worth seeing. Yet the problem lurking in this scenario - which Reza and Polanski, in their screen adaptation, fail to address - is that it requires us to engage with (or just stay in the same room as) four fundamentally unsympathetic crash test dummies - two outright contemptuous of everyone else about them, two painfully pinched, pious and passive-aggressive - or, alternatively, to give into the kind of misanthropy fomented in those cities where the play has been a huge success, and merely sneer one's way through these eighty minutes, feeling thoroughly superior to all those assembled on the stage.

Polanski takes the latter option, because he's aware it requires less effort than trying to get us to identify with Reza's flimsy characterisations. He can still bus in the blue-chip collaborators - Dean Tavoularis's production design gives the film whatever sense of place it has - but essentially they're just here to throw scatter cushions and a veil of good middlebrow taste over the rote, gratingly one-note performances and the mechanics of Reza's plotting, which has to find reasons to keep these mutually opposed people in the same room, and then, by way of heightening and prolonging the agony, to get them all doubly spiteful with drink. The stale Polanski-Reza idea of comedy lingers in this room like an old man's fart: there's no sign the director has seen Reilly in Step Brothers - a far sharper treatise on the childishness of grown adults - where I think Lynne Ramsay, in casting the actor in a near-identical role for her darkly comic We Need to Talk About Kevin, may just have done. A running gag is that Waltz's phone keeps going off; Winslet, meanwhile, projectile vomits onto a stack of rare art catalogues. If this is what a funny and sophisticated night's entertainment is meant to look like, give me Brian Rix.

has but one moment to commend it, and it comes early, on the banks of the Hudson, where we observe from a distance the incident that sparked this contretemps: boy one takes a swing at boy two with a tree branch before - in the film's one truly inspired gesture - petulantly kicking over his opponent's bike upon his departure from the scene. This flashpoint, which requires an exterior shot, and may therefore have been handed over to an assistant director, has the dimensions of hard truth about it, and is almost enough to make one wish the film had pursued these kids rather than their parents, however restricted Polanski may have been by this. Everything that follows from moving indoors is phoniness incarnate, the hollow and hateful work of a filmmaker who's long since fled the real world, enacted by performers who've long since moved beyond their characters' tax brackets, for the benefit of audiences all too safely ensconced in their own personal purdah of smug.

Carnage opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 29 January 2012

1,001 Films: "The Battle of San Pietro" (1945)

The U.S. Army-commissioned half-hour documentary short The Battle of San Pietro displays the punchy storytelling its director John Huston would become known for in his fiction features (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but also an emotionality mostly absent from the rest of the Huston filmography. Its remit was no more than to document a particular battle fought over the closing months of 1943 around an Italian valley crucial to the Allied advance, but Huston gives us a sense of the region's geography and climate, so we know what it's like to be marching through the valley's howling rain and wind, being shot at from both sides: as with the opening of Saving Private Ryan, we get as close as any viewer conceivably can to the experience of having lived through it.

It helps that the battle itself, in this retelling, adhered to a classical three-act structure: the Allies' initial attack was repelled - incurring heavy casualties, many of whom we see being carted away in body bags - and only when troop numbers were reinforced with the deployment of aerial, tank and parachute divisions (the film's never-more-valuable supporting players) could a fightback begin. In the meantime, the flares continue to explode, the bullets to ricochet, entire hillsides go up in smoke, and bodies come to fall in the corner of the eye, the merest hint of the vast sacrifices being made; it ends not with the mission-accomplished triumphalism one might expect of state-approved propaganda, but rather a dignified and moving reminder of the ordinary lives at stake in such conflicts, and of the hard gruntwork that would be essential, over the coming months, if victory was to be assured.

This is a fragment that has assumed more importance than Huston and his crew perhaps knew at the time. In movie terms, if this battle hadn't been fought and won, there would have been no Rome, Open City, that text so crucial to Italian neo-realism, so beloved of the French New Wave, so essential to the cinema's second half-century - a film whose images seem almost to be predicted here in its concluding shots of children and nursing mothers, rubble and restoration. Looked back on from the first decades of the 21st century, it's also fascinating to encounter a wartime documentary devoid of the neuroses inherent to, say, a Restrepo or Armadillo - but that may just be an indicator of the differences between pre-Vietnam photojournalism and post-Vietnam photojournalism, and between images that see just enough and those that have seen far too much. However you look at it, history was being made here.

The Battle of San Pietro is available to rent through lovefilm.com.

From the archive: "All That Heaven Allows"

Along with that other key Douglas Sirk text Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows was the most obvious inspiration for Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven. Widower Jane Wyman turns her back on the captains of industry at the country club, and those consolations (a sexless male "companion", a life-support television set) urged upon her by friends and family, in favour of pursuing a relationship with younger gardener and all-round nature boy Rock Hudson. His Ron Kirby has a thing about trees - without sniggering, he invites Wyman back to his place to check out his silver-top spruce - and can't pass up an opportunity to make fire with his bare hands, from which we can derive he's as good with wood as The Fountainhead's Howard Roark was with a large pneumatic drill; he even has friends who rather carelessly leave copies of Walden lying about the house. Her ultra-conservative entourage, on the other hand, see her fling as a flagrant attack on the family home. Given her sudden, miserable headaches, it's clear there are going to be tears before bedtime; the surprise is the manner in which they arrive.

There's an undeniable frosting of kitsch to dust off: you have only to observe Hudson feeding deer in the snow to see that. Yet Sirk is very knowing and modern in what he omits, and what he chooses to leave in: clock the ingenious way he cuts around Wyman's daughter attempting to explain "the sex attraction" to a suitor, or the drinks party from hell, in which the central couple are subject to the same scrutiny and bitching as reality-television contestants - a sequence that plays as cruel today as it ever did. Performed and dressed with acute sensitivity, yet at least as bold in its staging as it is radical in its ideas, the biggest compliment one might pay the film fifty years on is that it didn't really need Haynes' (excellent) film to tap its underlying reserves of irony and tragedy - they were there all along, and closer to the surface than might perhaps have been expected.

(August 2009)

All That Heaven Allows screens on Channel 4 this Wednesday at 1.25pm.

Saturday 28 January 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of January 20-22, 2012:

1 (1) War Horse (12A) **
2 (new) Haywire (15) ***
3 (new) Underworld: Awakening (18)
4 (3) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (12A) *
5 (2) The Iron Lady (12A)
6 (new) The Sitter (15) **
7 (4) Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (12A) ***
8 (7) The Artist (PG) ****
9 (8) Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (U)
10 (9) Puss in Boots (U)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Chronicle
2. The Nine Muses
3. J. Edgar
4. Tatsumi
5. Margin Call

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (10) The Guard (15) ***
2 (2) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (12) ****
3 (1) The Hangover Part II (15) *
4 (4) Horrible Bosses (15) **
5 (new) Killer Elite (15) **
6 (3) Cowboys and Aliens (12) **
7 (5) Super 8 (12) ***
8 (7) Columbiana (12) ***
9 (6) The Inbetweeners (15) **
10 (8) Bad Teacher (15) **

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Post Mortem
2. Melancholia
3. Life, Above All
4. The Troll Hunter
5. Win Win

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Galaxy Quest [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 4.35pm)
2. Man on the Moon (Wednesday, BBC1, 12.10am)
3. Falling Down (Wednesday, ITV1, 2.35am)
4. All That Heaven Allows (Wednesday, C4, 1.25pm)
5. The Rock (Saturday, BBC1, 9.50pm)

For rent: "House of Tolerance"

Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance is, on a fairly basic level, pretty French girls in various states of déshabillée, and that, I suspect, will be enough for some. This is a study of day-to-day life in a high-class French brothel, either side of the year 1900. The high-class bit is crucial. "This is not a knocking-shop," insists the establishment's madam (Noémie Lvovsky, one of a number of directors appearing before the camera here), and we see how her girls work to attract a higher calibre of gentleman - the type who might marry them (and, in doing so, pay off their debts), yet equally those so privileged, and so accustomed to getting what they want from life, that they might believe they can possess these girls in other ways. It's a knife-edge relationship, literalised when one john (jean?) takes a blade to the corners of one prostitute's mouth, leaving her with a ghastly scar-smile.

Bonello has two intents here - or three, if you count the baser one of getting up-and-coming actresses to disrobe for him. On one level, House of Tolerance is meant as a celebration of sisterhood: all equal in the eyes of their female employer, these girls curl up together on chaises longues, swap beauty and lovemaking tips, and on quiet Monday evenings, bust out the opium pipe. I'd be hesitant to claim the film as a wholly feminist text - too easy to read it as an ageing French director's expression of nostalgia for a time when ladies had a certain rondeur around the hips - but Bonello achieves a jolting mini-coup in the closing moments in cutting from this maison close to footage of those skinny, sad-eyed women walking latter-day Parisian peripheries in search of clients; the film comes out in favour of better organised, even outright legalised, prostitution.

The film's second intent is perhaps more critical yet: Bonello wants to show us how in the first years of the twentieth century, the ruling classes started to set down the links between sex and money that would eventually come to deface (if you will, fuck up) almost everything beautiful about human intimacy. The brothel's beauty regime is precisely that: a regime, as oppressive as any other in its insistence its subjects buy perfume to cover up their own scent, and remain in peak physical (and gynaecological) fitness, the better to be put on sale. The bottom line of this particular workplace: look nice, smell nice, shake your moneymaker, coin it in. If Bonello's nostalgia seems strangely reticent and indistinct, it may be because these specific conditions haven't changed so very much over the intervening years.

Making a movie from the prostitute's point-of-view at the very least provides a challenging corrective to the masculine BS of Shame, which tried to get us to feel something, anything for a guy who could afford to hire any woman he wanted. Bonello is not the first French director to explore the commercialisation of sex, though, and he does tend to privilege the static: take his 2001 film The Pornographer, which plunged us rather too successfully into the mind-numbing, soul-destroying repetition of a skinflick shoot, or 2003's Tiresia, effectively a hostage movie with an arty confusion of genders attached to it. Bonello still films tableaux, of the kind the once similarly unyielding Catherine Breillat has progressed beyond. His sets here are as well-dressed as his performers are under-dressed - there's even a recurring cameo for a live black panther, finally unleashed on one client in an act of catty, feminine vengeance - and all this furniture gets in the way of any narrative drive.

In the director's favour this time, he is at least aware of this: he uses split-screen effects to break up some of the stasis, giving certain passages the look of the rummest ever episode of 24 (hey, these girls stay up all night, too), or - perhaps more intentionally - the choice of viewing options in a sex-shop porno booth. And some of the tableaux are fascinating in their own way, populated by spirited performers whom you can well imagine having fun off-camera underarm hair-growing contests: Adèle Haenel (from Water Lilies) has a truly weird bit playing the kind of hollowed-out marionette her clients want; the insouciant Hafzia Herzi goes further than her Couscous bellydancing routine as the brothel's resident exotic pearl; and Alice Barnole is a haunting presence as the scarred prostitute referred to as The Woman Who Laughs.

It builds towards a wake for a smallpox victim, set to the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" - a farty music cue that should misfire in the middle of this period piece as much as "Pretty Vacant" does in the middle of W.E., yet which in fact fits the film's precise, hothouse mood more or less perfectly. Only once leaving the confines of its location - for a Renoiresque sequence of bathing in a lake - House of Tolerance is almost stiflingly atmospheric: "It smells of sperm and champagne in here," notes Lvovsky's madam, and one dreads to think what those cinemas playing it are going to pong of by the end of the run. Two hours of it, however, may just be enough: by the time one of the girls is given cause to rue "fucking is a fuck-awful job", one gets the impression Bonello may just be thrashing over old ground with new boobs.

House of Tolerance is in selected cinemas.

The long walk: "Patience (After Sebald)"

To simplify, first of all: Patience (After Sebald) is a film about a book about a man going for a walk. The book is The Rings of Saturn, written by the German author W.G. "Max" Sebald, whose narrator, a writer searching for new projects in the wake of completing his most recent work, sets off on a stroll through the East Anglian countryside, each new location sparking a flurry of free associations. As the reputation of Sebald's book grew among a small yet devoted cult, Saturn aficionados came to map the route the narrator took, and to make their own pilgrimages across this particular landscape; the latest to do so is Grant Gee, the documentarist whose earlier Joy Division had been at least as interested in the metaphysics of that band as it was in any of their records.

Off Gee toddles with his camera, through Lowestoft (where your correspondent spent many happy holidays as a boy) and Southwold, along the River Blyth into Rendlesham Forest, and then on through Yoxford to Ditchingham Church outside Norwich, the images he sends back overlaid with musings from fellow Sebaldites: writers Rick Moody and Marina Warner, theatre director Katie Mitchell, psychologist Adam Phillips et al. Some of these talking heads are more expected than others: seems you can't float the word "psychogeography" without Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit, those Candymen of high-concept cartography, appearing.

As a meander down memory lane, both Sebald's book and Gee's film are hardly sunny. Saturn was published in the mid-1990s, and its peregrinations take in ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; other reference points include the Holocaust and Tarkovsky's film Stalker (subject of a new and not entirely dissimilar literary project by the writer Geoff Dyer, oddly enough), plus the cliff off which poet laureate Andrew Motion's grandmother threw herself. Shot in a grainily evocative monochrome under grey, wide-open skies, the film reclaims this region as a place of sadness - of rubble and ruins, abandoned homes, factories and caravans, of sand and ash only moistened by tears from above; the idea, in both Sebald's writing and Gee's direction, is that we might turn a corner, or a page, and find ourselves in Belsen-Bergen, or the death camps of the Congo.

As such, Patience (After Sebald) probably isn't one for an Orange Wednesday. (Given Gee's track record, I'd suggest a Blue Monday would be more appropriate - though one sorely misses the warming Manc humour of his earlier film.) In every sense, the writer and the filmmaker are covering a lot of ground here, yet while certain anecdotes stick in the mind and reverberate - one contributor comes up with a spot of near-supernatural alchemy to bring this journey to a close - so too there are a lot of flat passages dependant on highly individualised readings of the text. It remains an adventurous film, both physically and mentally, but in the interests of the public health, I feel I should point out that sitting in a cinema to be told these things and shown these sights is a poor substitute for reading the book and taking the long walk for yourself.

Patience (After Sebald) is in selected cinemas.

Night terrors: "Intruders"

With M. Night Shyamalan having blown his King of Suspense rep with recent films, here comes what looks like a showreel tentatively positioning Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto, 28 Weeks Later) as a potential replacement: a hybrid horror-thriller, Intruders seeks to shout "boo!" and its Spanish equivalent simultaneously. Somewhere in Spain, Pilar Lopez de Ayala - a sometime Most Beautiful Woman in the World contender, dowdied down in a variety of inventive, if not always convincing ways - is a struggling single mother struggling to deal with a restless young son; over in London, meanwhile, international co-production couple Clive Owen and Carice van Houten are having similar struggles with their 12-year-old daughter (Ella Purnell). Both kids are being kept awake a-night by faceless monsters that arise from stories they've written - monsters that come to haunt the grown-ups the more their children tell them about it.

Fresnadillo gives the set-up the full things-that-go-bump-in-the-night treatment: creaking doors and floorboards, screeching violins, shifty priests (Daniel Brühl, Hector Alterio), and Kerry Fox (of course "and Kerry Fox"!) in a one-scene bit as a psychologist tossing further red herrings into the stew. Vertiginous paralleling is the order of the day elsewhere: Owen's (unlikely) day job as a welder high above the City mirrors the kid's scramble across the rain-soaked scaffolding outside his house. Still, you'll need a whole lot of patience for it: for the longest time, Intruders appears to be telling the same story in two locations, with only slight differences between the strands, such as the number of parents on hand. (Where butch handyman Owen somewhat preposterously indulges the idea of monsters in the closet, van Houten - as the cinema's most improbable "Sue" - proves rather harder to convince.)

Determindely underlit, and further weighted by that very Spanish need to take such hokum seriously, the whole is simply not as much fun as, say, last year's rattling Insidious, but it nevertheless managed to suck me into its world, enough that I understood why Purnell is left speechless after one of her monsters apparently "rips off" her mouth. It scrapes a passmark for some well-orchestrated jumps, and one belated fairytale image of which Guillermo del Toro (if not Lars von Trier) would have been proud, even if it feels as though there must be a punchier, more energised handling of the same material somewhere: Monsters, Inc., maybe?

Intruders is in cinemas nationwide.

Mimickry: "A Monster in Paris"

A Monster in Paris, functional Euro animation from the director of Shark Tale, is pitched at that audience who lapped up Monsters vs. Aliens a few years ago - and anybody else too young to have encountered Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera or Guillermo del Toro's Mimic, from which it cribs some of its best moves. Producer Luc Besson's already mish-mashy live-action comeback Adèle Blanc-Sec may be another influence: Bibo Bergeron's film is set in a turn-of-the-1900s French capital where everyone (even Vanessa Paradis as the chanteuse love interest) speaks English and sings Americanised pop songs, and two friends messing about in a professor's lab can accidentally unleash a ten-foot trilling flea who takes to the rooftops wearing a hat and cape.

Unlike the synthetic Shark Tale, which was rather like observing a fish tank filled to the brim with Sunny Delight, A Monster in Paris is at least attractively designed and lit, unfolding in a pop-up Paris of music halls, funiculars and picture palaces overseen by lovelorn projectionists, but its characters and narrative lack that extra something that would make paying the 3D surcharge entirely essential. The Danny Huston-voiced villain, and Adam Goldberg and Jay Harrington's comic double-act do what they're supposed to, but they're unlikely to be turned into action figures, or encourage multiple repeat viewings on DVD. On the plus side, the Eiffel Tower finale gives root to a pleasingly surreal image involving an outsized sunflower, and the pay-off's sweeter than it really needed to be. It'll do if you've dragged the kids (or the kids have dragged you) to everything else in the multiplex, but basically it's just holding down a screen while everybody waits for The Muppets.

A Monster in Paris is in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 27 January 2012

1,001 Films: "Ossessione" (1943)

Ossessione begins (and will end) on the road - a long, dusty, wearying road viewed from the cab of a truck, a road it keeps returning to, a road that would eventually fork and lead the Italian cinema to Fellini and escapism on one side, and Rossellini and neo-realism on the other. Luchino Visconti's unofficial adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice reveals all that was groundbreaking (and scandalous) about James M. Cain's novel, chiefly by centralising three characters who, in their own right, are almost completely unsympathetic: the porky blowhard restauranteur, his clingy bitch of a wife, and the alpha-male cocksmith who drifts in between them, pumping the second even as he claims to be fixing a water pump for the first.

This trio will be redeemed, and damned, by their interactions with one another, but also by the work one has to perform to make a life for oneself - and it's funny that it should have took an Italian aristocrat, of all directors, to realise this. In the later 1946 adaptation with John Garfield and Lana Turner, Hollywood would prove rather too hung up on the sex and death - the more sensational, saleable aspects of Cain's potboiler - to give much consideration to its characters' relations outside the sack. Visconti, in contrast, gives the book the full, 140-minute epic treatment, shifting between locations (roadside, town, exile), and in doing so allowing figures sculpted from pure literary pulp to grow before our very eyes.

These characters are defined by money: the restauranteur's get-rich-quick strategies set against the umbrella salesman Lo Spagnola's laissez-faire, what-goes-around-comes-around philosophy. (The ending will prove him right.) The bored wife, meanwhile, seethes at the thought she's become a mere possession or slave - only to find that her liberation doesn't make her any happier. The sex, consequently, becomes an escape from drudgery or poverty; you could well imagine a modern adaptation set on or around a housing estate. Yet however many times the characters hit the road, try to branch out, make a fresh start, there really is no escape, which explains why they come to turn on one another instead. (In the film's presentation of social immobility, there reside the seeds of de Sica's Bicycle Thieves.)

Its second half, signalled by a narrative ellipsis that leaves all sorts of questions trailing in its wake, necessitates some detective work, as both the police and a priest (the most obvious sop to Catholic mores) attempt to figure out what went on one fateful night, but it also gives rise to a rare sense of history repeating itself, as the lover replaces the husband behind the restaurant's bar, and finds responsibility not just less fun than his previous, itinerant lifestyle, but quite possibly a punishment for the sins he's adjudged to have committed. Without glamorising them, Visconti makes these miseries rich and resonant - which is why, for all the liberties his film takes with its source, and no matter that it comes no closer to resolving the issue of whom we're meant to be rooting for, this continues to stand as the most complete and enthralling treatment of this material.

Ossessione is available on DVD through the BFI.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Middle-of-the-road: "The Descendants"

Is Alexander Payne growing milder with age? The iconoclast writer-director behind Citizen Ruth and Election is hardly to be seen in The Descendants, a workmanlike adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel about an extended family living out in Hawaii; the film feels almost exactly like a film of a chunky book - soft around the middle - or a concept album Jack Johnson might turn out on the subject of fatherhood. There's nothing to dislike about it, but there's not much to really get anybody's juices flowing either. The protagonist, Matt King (George Clooney), is a father of two struggling to raise his daughters after his wife lapses into a coma in the wake of a powerboating accident. The trauma brings an outpouring of home truths: Matt's tearaway eldest (Shailene Woodley, nicely poised), mad at dad for packing her off to private school, blurts out that mom had spent the months preceding the accident having an affair with a real-estate agent. Matt regathers himself, and his loved ones, and collectively they hit the road to track down the guy in question, keen for some fresh air and non-hospital food - and, in Matt's case, the possibility of payback.

The film's breeziness is pleasant enough, and it soon becomes clear that Hawaii is not just The Descendants' location, but its organising principle. In his opening voiceover, Matt is keen to point out that this isn't just a holiday paradise, but a place where real people live real lives with real dramas and crises; in a later aside, he'll point out that, as in any archipelago, these scattered individuals sometimes come together to arrange themselves into something greater still. It's a small world, after all. This philosophy works its way into the film's very acting styles, setting up an initial clash between Clooney, who still acts as though he's in some snappy metropolitan screwball, and the newcomers around him - his laidback neighbours, the daughter's Keanu-like boyfriend (Nick Krause) - who are basically playing rubes, with the slow, occasionally amusing response times of rubes.

Not for the first time, Payne risks accusations of condescension, yet for a long time, this tactic provides the only real dramatic friction in a film content to potter along in first gear; just as it's been scientifically proven that comedies rarely work in exotic locales (to take three recent examples: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat, Just Go With It), so to it must be hard to make drama cut deep when its only audio accompaniment are the sounds of waves lapping on the shore and a lightly strummed ukelele. Clooney, you feel, could anchor this sort of thing in his sleep: he has some moderate stretching to do in those scenes where Matt attempts to make sense of his wife's infidelity and to work out what to do with his anger, and he's undeniably good with the actresses playing his daughters, yet there are equally moments here where - clad in Matt's signature Hawaiian shirts - he resembles no more than a sitcom dad trying to resolve his family's issues before the next wrap-up. This move into the creative middleground - suggested by the London Film Festival one-two of this and The Ides of March, and perhaps a response to the failure of 2010's The American - suddenly leaves Clooney looking a far less interesting and vital movie star than he was at the time of Up in the Air even two years ago.

We sense Payne, too, is coasting here, although - to be fair - his writing hits more of a groove once the family get out on the road, where alternative approaches to bringing up our babies can be mooted and contrasted: Matt's gulping fear that his youngest might have been exposed to pornography during a sleepover at a friend's place is immediately superceded by the eldest's calling-out of said friend as, and I quote, "a hornbag slut". Yet in the end, the best Payne's film can offer on this front is a gentle shrug and a whatever-works, preferring to remain easy viewing to the last. Wheeling on an ensemble of welcome small-screen faces (Beau Bridges from My Name is Earl, Judy Greer from Two and a Half Men, even Sheriff Truman from Twin Peaks in an incongruously jolting, wordless bitpart), The Descendants resembles exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road mock-indie where film is being comprehensively trumped by cable-TV serials (Six Feet Under, Weeds) handling these themes with far greater pith, purpose and profundity.

The Descendants opens nationwide tomorrow.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Transatlanticism: "Like Crazy"

Ah, young love. Drake Doremus's emo-ish drama Like Crazy, source of a minor sensation at last year's Sundance festival, would appear to constitute a breakthrough film for Felicity Jones, some distance after the event: frankly, last March's Chalet Girl was good enough for me. As Miss Jones is new to an American audience, however, Doremus's film permits her to play altogether less mature than she was there, or in the recent Albatross, or indeed even way back in 2010's Cemetery Junction: her character in Like Crazy, aspirant journalist Anna, instead comes to mope and sob her way through the first real relationship of her life.

A Brit in L.A. on a student visa, Anna falls for classmate Jacob (Anton Yelchin), only for tempus to fugit and the visa to run out, bouncing her back to the UK at a moment when the pair's skylarking was beginning to look like something more promising yet. They try the long-distance thing for a while, only to find the time difference works against them, and that it turns every moment they get together into a kind of leavetaking: one of the film's more unintentionally amusing aspects is its insistence we need to get this immigration thing sorted out so that cutesy white college kids can bump uglies with greater regularity.

Suffice to say, the film will be more effective the less life experience you've collated: it aspires to tender realism, but is budgeted and pitched in such a way as to count as escapism, allowing us to marvel at what it is to be young, and have a career handed to you on a plate, and to have money enough to shuttle back and forth across the Atlantic, and to book yourself and your lover into plush hotel rooms for those nights when you're not at home in your trendy studio apartment. (Anna apparently comes from a posh family, but her dad's said to be a baker, which does not compute, unless he bakes gold bread - the film's a victim of that American blind spot when it comes to class.)

The performers, at least, have down pat the dorky gestures of two kids in love: she gives him a handwritten Book of Love, chronicling the various stages of their relationship, which is a very sweet thing for anybody to do, while Jacob - starting out on a carpentry career, and making one question what he was doing in a journalism class to begin with - makes Anna a writing chair with his bare hands, positioning a notionally indie production not too far from the mainstream romanticism (and sappiness) of Kevin Costner sanding down his boat in Message in a Bottle. (We know Anna's mooted replacement boyfriend is no good when he replaces this item with generic, shop-built furniture.)

Finally, though, Like Crazy is a Death Cab for Cutie record stretched from five minutes to ninety, and as such, it requires significant viewer indulgence: the endless continent-hopping, which these characters accomplish without noticeable jet lag, will get terribly repetitious if you can't quite bring yourself to invest in a relationship which the film itself finally comes to admit is perilously thin-seeming. I can't say I didn't let slip a guilty sniffle in places - hey, it was one of those afternoons, all right? - but I spent much of it wondering why filmmakers don't make more movies about unrequited love. The rest, surely, takes care of itself.

Like Crazy opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Monday 23 January 2012

On DVD: "Bluebeard"

One of Catherine Breillat's occasional doodle-projects (see also: 2001's Brief Crossing), Bluebeard tells two stories in parallel. First, we get the Bluebeard legend itself, à la Breillat: how two sisters - one redheaded and dreamy, the other brunette and headstrong - come to fall under the influence of the titular landowner (and suspected wifekiller) after the death of their own father leaves them in penury. The other strand provides a latter-day interpretation of the text, as another, younger pair of siblings discover the Bluebeard storybook in an attic, dust it down, and act it out for themselves.

The director's second period piece in a row - following 2008's excellent The Last Mistress - it's characterised, once again, by a determined austerity. Breillat makes period movies as though she hasn't even got the resources to cobble together a contemporary piece, a stance that somehow works in her favour: the paring-back of conventional fripperies - literally so, in the early scene where the removal men divest the first sisters' home of its furniture - benefits the storytelling, and allows us to read more into the dialogue. Upon marrying Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), the headstrong sister (Lola Créton) demands a room with a smaller door. "I won't be able to get in," complains her hubby. "Then my husband will always be too big for me," is the response. Who says size doesn't matter in a relationship?

The main business, however, is a return to Breillat's recurring theme of sisterhood, in all its forms (the director herself has a sister, Marie-Hélène, with whom she acted in Last Tango in Paris), though here we're presented not so much with the sibling rivalry that took centre stage in 2001's À ma sœur!, but a rather sketchy comparison of sisterhood across the ages; at a stretch, Bluebeard could be bracketed in with the new wave of Hollywood women's pictures - The Hours, Julie & Julia, even this week's theatrical release W.E. - that seek to contrast one set of societal conditions with another. Again, it's telling that the present-day business is much less resonant than the historical narrative: the two youngsters offer footnotes rather than especially perceptive commentary, and while this contemporary strand allows Breillat one of her trademark, arbitrary shock endings, it does rather recall those inserts Jane Campion placed, somewhat awkwardly, in her adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady, showing schoolgirls giggling over their set text.

The two younger performers (Daphné Baïwir and Marilou Lopes-Benites) do, however, share a tremendous, infectious sense of play and spontaneity; there is something very encouraging in the way Breillat has started to open her films up, rather than closing them off from the pleasures of performance, song and dance. Ideas that once might have been barked directly at the viewer are now allowed to roam freely; so too, now, do Breillat's characters. When a time slippage/imaginative fugue results in the very youngest of the four girls coming to skip through the bloodsoaked chamber where Bluebeard's dead wives hang from the ceiling, her mantra ("I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid") could, conceivably, be understood as speaking for an entire generation of newly liberated women.

Bluebeard is available on DVD from today.

Sunday 22 January 2012

A night on the town: "The Sitter"

The Sitter looks, to all intents and purposes, like the New American Comedy's attempt to scuzz up and thus reclaim the PG-rated unsuitable-guardian template, recognising that even such VHS timewasters as Adventures in Babysitting or Kindergarten Cop were more entertaining (and often more interesting) than the kind of limp half-term product Vin Diesel, The Rock and Jackie Chan have laboured joylessly through in recent years. A pre-diet Jonah Hill is the doughy putz who unwisely elects to take his rich neighbours' three varyingly bratty offspring - a Paris Hilton wannabe, an anxiety-ridden nerveball, and an adopted Latino sociopath-in-training - on a run to score some coke for him and his girlfriend; inevitably, he spends the remainder of the evening having to deal with the consequences.

It's been slapped together - again, we're given cause to mourn the loss of the care director David Gordon Green and cinematographer Tim Orr took on their first collaborations - yet The Sitter still has a way of pushing even its crassest material one or two beats past the obvious. In the city, Hill encounters a lisping, rollerskating drugslinger who would appear the most antiquated of stereotypes, but it transpires he's merely the gatekeeper for an underground muscle gym, the most expensive part of the whole production, where men in posing pouches sledgehammer down brick walls to the accompaniment of "The Pina Colada Song". And for all the other things it's missing, it does have a heart: a deftly acted scene - not so very far away from the director's work with young performers in George Washington - in which Hill coaxes the eldest of his charges (Max Records, the kid from Where the Wild Things Are) into admitting his suppressed feelings.

The film makes a clumsily likable show of dismantling stock comedy homophobia and racism (from its soundtrack to its supporting cast, The Sitter is conspicuously less white than its predecessors), although its latent misogyny may be a sticking point: this time it's Ari Graynor who lands the token bitch role these comedies keep throwing up, a recipient of unreciprocated oral sex, dumped in favour of a nice black girl (newcomer Kylie Bunbury, all kinds of wonderful), whom the end credits assert is far less squeamish about such things. In the end, if it's the usual business of lessons being learnt and responsibility assumed - precisely nothing to send you racing to the Odeon, when you could stick it on your lovefilm list and wait four months for it to be sent to you - The Sitter is nevertheless further proof of the New American Comedy's peculiar alchemy: even screenfiller like this has the lines, music cues, and unexpected bits of business to raise it well above the low bar set by The Pacifier, The Tooth Fairy or The Spy Next Door.

The Sitter is in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 21 January 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of January 13-15, 2012:

1 (new) War Horse (12A) **
2 (3) The Iron Lady (12A)
3 (2) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (12A) *
4 (1) Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (12A) ***
5 (4) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) **
6 (new) The Darkest Hour (12A)
7 (8) The Artist (PG) ****
8 (5) Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (U)
9 (6) Puss in Boots (U)
10 (new) Shame (18) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Nine Muses
2. J. Edgar
3. Tatsumi
4. Margin Call
5. Coriolanus

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) The Hangover Part II (15) *
2 (9) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (12) ****
3 (2) Cowboys and Aliens (12) **
4 (5) Horrible Bosses (15) **
5 (3) Super 8 (12) ***
6 (4) The Inbetweeners (15) **
7 (new) Columbiana (12)
8 (6) Bad Teacher (15) **
9 (7) X-Men: First Class (12) ***
10 (new) The Guard (15) ***

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. Post Mortem
2. Melancholia
3. Life, Above All
4. The Troll Hunter
5. Bluebeard

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Third Man [above] (Thursday, C4, 1.10pm)
2. Whale Rider (Saturday, BBC2, 12noon)
3. Spider-Man (Sunday, five, 6.40pm)
4. Passport to Pimlico (Monday, C4, 1.30pm)
5. The Notorious Bettie Page (Friday, BBC2, 11.50pm)

Every which way but loose: "J. Edgar"

J.Edgar is a film about a man who couldn't change his spots, from a filmmaker proving he can. Clint Eastwood's biopic of the FBI head spans a full five decades, from the late 1910s (when Hoover, as an eager-beaver boy detective, raced to the scene of an anarchist bomb attack on his bike) to the early 70s (when he first began to dictate the memoirs that cue the film's multiple flashbacks, the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black preserving a structuring device that worked for him in 2008's Milk). As played, both as a young man and an oldtimer, by Leonardo diCaprio, Hoover becomes a continuation of The Aviator's Howard Hughes: another in the actor's growing repertory of unworldly cranks and shut-ins, and a germophobe to boot, paranoically wiping his palms with a Kleenex whenever custom dictated he shook hands.

A formative sequence, unfolding at some point in the 1920s, has the upstart Hoover going against the advice of his mother (Judi Dench) and taking Bureau secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) on their first date to view the vast archive of filing cards he's accrued, each one holding the details of a suspect in the anarchists' bombing campaign. When she responds politely to his enthusiasms, he drops down on one knee, and proposes; wisely, she turns him down - and he promptly hires her as his personal assistant (or next best thing to a wife) for life, partly as a way of hiding his total embarrassment: the first of myriad cover-ups he would come to be involved in, and the last risk, heterosexual or professional, he would come to take.

The film observes Hoover becoming every bit as entrenched politically: by the late 50s, he's haranguing Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) - part of the new wave sweeping through Washington - about the (non-existent) threat posed by Communist agents embedded in American suburbia, and we grasp that he represents that jumpy, easily riled sector of the U.S. Establishment (a long tradition of infamy, leading from Hoover to Don Rumsfeld and Glenn Beck) who will forever be looking out for Reds, and other boogeymen, under the nation's beds. Hoover's worldview was constructed in his teens, when his Bureau mentor Mitchell Palmer's home was among those rocked by the anarchist bombings, and would harden only further in the wake of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping: after Luc Besson's recent The Lady, it's the second biopic in a moment to posit that our politics are almost always forged on the homefront. At all points, he appears as much a zealot as those he was pursuing: when G-men finally kick down the doors of an anarchist hideout, they discover... yes, filing cabinets, filled with the details of potential targets.

Eastwood stages the drama in handsome, muted browns, blacks and whites, which seems about apt for a man who largely saw the world without colour - and was thus likely to perceive anything so bold as red as an even greater threat to stability. (Between diCaprio here and Viggo Mortensen in the upcoming A Dangerous Method, the season's must-have accessory for leading men are clearly light-repelling contact lenses.) What colour there is comes in an intriguing romantic subplot, suggesting once again how opposites might attract: spurned by Gandy, the squat, largely sexless Hoover would eventually grow enamoured with bright young thing Clyde Tolson, who - in an early flourish - provides his boss with a whole new wardrobe after one of his lines of credit runs dry on a shopping expedition.

The witty, self-aware Tolson is the kind of guy a man might well shop, dine and gossip with; nicely played by Armie Hammer, he brings a lightness to Hoover's mostly monochromatic universe. When J. Edgar ventures that having a hand-carved wooden sign installed outside the Bureau's newly installed fingerprinting division will prove something to his superiors, Tolson retorts: "What, our decorating skills?" The source of conflict between these two is that Hoover, beholden to secrecy, cannot publicly admit his love: in this particular field, he wasn't so much a shut-in as outright closeted. This is unlikely territory for a Clint Eastwood film, to say the least, and we have the openly gay Black to thank for it; from the collaboration, Eastwood appears newly energised, avoiding the archaisms that have marred his past decade's work.

The old, dourly conservative Clint would most likely have perceived Hoover as someone who got the job done, despite the revulsion and contempt he was widely held in - the lawmaker who would set down the parameters within which a Coogan or Harry Callahan might work. Yet J. Edgar, while acknowledging the vast advances in forensic investigation its subject contributed to, isn't afraid of portraying Hoover as a stuck-in-his-ways laughing stock, fuddy-duddy even before he reached the age of 40. A newsreel showing him lambasting the gangsters "Bugs" Moran and Al Capone is booed off the screen by cinemagoers who cheer the antics of James Cagney in the notionally cautionary The Public Enemy; later, he endures public humiliation at a Senate hearing when it's pointed out this firmly desk-bound individual has painted himself as a tommy gun-wielding hero in a series of Bureau-produced comics. diCaprio gives Hoover a toothy delight upon learning he's made the cover of a cereal box: even shut-ins long to be celebrated in some way, no matter that they may not have the disposition for it. (Black has unearthed a nice anecdote that sees J. Edgar getting in a terrible fluster when Ginger Rogers' mother asks him to dance: men this stiff do not tango.)

J. Edgar is far from a flawless film. It's stuck from the word go with especially duff latex ageing make-up - the kind of thing the movies almost never get right, especially when applied to such prime slabs of American manhood as diCaprio and Hammer. (It looks especially risible on the latter, last seen as the buff rower(s) in The Social Network - but then it would be a stretch for anyone to go from Winklevi to Wilford Brimley, from Olympic-standard stroke rates to, well, simply having a stroke.) diCaprio, who's learnt over the past decade how to hold the screen with tiny, subliminal flickers of intelligence, nails certain key moments - the hate in Hoover's eyes as he watches Martin Luther King collecting his Nobel Peace Prize on TV, a should-be-absurd scene where he dresses in his mother's clothing (this was the era of Norman Bates and Psycho, after all) - yet overall strikes you as somehow not quite right for the role: too boyish, still, which mattered less when he was playing Hughes (and perhaps explains why the latex department were obliged to work overtime), and too mainstream a presence for the oddball the film insists Hoover was. (Imagine a J. Edgar played by Michael Shannon, particularly after Boardwalk Empire.)

The core, however, is rock solid. As everything from his turn-of-the-century crime thrillers (True Crime, Blood Work, Mystic River: all warm-up work) to 2008's Changeling demonstrated, Eastwood - a veteran of the studio system - knows how to assemble a supporting cast, and J. Edgar's lower ranks spill over with deft, termite-y, enjoyable descriptions of men in suits: Josh Lucas as Lindbergh, Dermot Mulroney as a tough-talking detective who wants none of Hoover's B.S., even a remotely convincing Nixon, within the pantomime parameters of the role. The history - from Emma Goldman to the JFK assassination - is sincere, fascinating and, whether macro or micro, remains pertinent to the America of today: Black even gives Hoover a disastrous coming-out scene, which ends with Ma Hoover saying she'd "rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son".

The shock there lies in hearing Dench, the star of countless genteel period dramas, spitting these words out. A corrective to The Iron Lady, and Eastwood's most radical venture for some four decades, J. Edgar is unexpectedly attuned to the dangers of conservatism, of not keeping an open heart and mind at moments of immense social change. I should issue a spoiler alert for what follows, but Black writes two endings, and each is telling. A belated reconciliation between Hoover and Tolson, capped by a septuagenarian gay kiss, is Clint demonstrating - in an age when our cowboys find their freedom on Brokeback Mountain - that anything is possible (and, to these eyes, more convincing than Christopher Plummer's late-life liberation in Beginners); cynics and sceptics will have to make do with Hoover alone in his office stronghold, seeing in the reign of Nixon, perhaps the only 20th century U.S. figure more paranoid than himself. Both a call for openness and a warning from history, this is a rare biopic to use its subject as an object lesson in how not to live your life.

J. Edgar is in cinemas nationwide.

In cold blood: "Coriolanus" and "Haywire" (ST 22/01/12)

Coriolanus (15) 122 mins ****
Haywire (15) 93 mins ***

Now Kenneth Branagh has abandoned the Bard for comic books, who will drag Shakespeare kicking and screaming into the multiplex? Branagh always was a cuddly crowdpleaser – part Olivier, part Noel Edmonds. The star persona of Ralph Fiennes is a very different construct, hence his choice of directorial debut: Coriolanus, that eel-like musing on war, politics and public image. In the lead, Fiennes appears gore-blasted, scarified and bald-pated – at once man of war and threatening meathead. To co-opt another literary phenomenon, this is Shakespeare with something of the Voldemort about it.

From hardly populist source material, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan preserve an ambivalence about "the rank-scented many" that immediately sets their adaptation in conflict with anyone showing up to Screen 1 carrying nachos. The tenor is coolly cerebral, with Balkan locations giving this Rome an abstract, mitteleuropan feel, yet Fiennes’ sparse, unflashy visualising returns us to the text without serving to shrink the screen to a stage. Not all the stabs at modernisation land – having Caius’s reluctant political candidacy tested in a Jeremy Kyle-like bearpit jars – but whole runs of scenes remain powerful indeed.

For this, we have an exceptional cast to thank. We can’t cheer Caius Martius automatically, but Fiennes’ natural restraint is peculiarly apposite, transforming the downfall of a figure who sometimes resembles Ross Kemp into a complex and mostly compelling spectacle. Brian Cox (as Menenius) and Gerard Butler (a thoughtful Aufidius) offer fine support, but the director’s secret weapon here is Vanessa Redgrave’s Volumnia, newly tall and imposing, and speaking the verse with extraordinary fluency. Her scenes with Fiennes are properly chilling; for better and worse, so too is the film.

Haywire, Steven Soderbergh’s latest, is modish, somewhat monotonous popcorn feminism that packs betrayed CIA operative Gina Carano around the globe to kick her starrier male betrayers (Banderas, McGregor, the ubiquitous Fassbender) firmly in the behind. Soderbergh makes complex acrobatic and logistical manoeuvres look easy, which is a problem: the film diverts, but its stakes often seem as low as its pulse rate. In swapping Zen cool for Bourne-esque grit, Haywire makes spywork and filmmaking alike appear no more cardiovascular an activity than popping out for milk.

Coriolanus is in selected cinemas; Haywire is on nationwide release.