Saturday 31 March 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of March 23-25, 2012:

1 (new) The Hunger Games (12A) **
2 (2) 21 Jump Street (15) **
3 (3) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12A) **
4 (1) The Devil Inside (15)
5 (5) We Bought a Zoo (PG) **
6 (6) Contraband (15) ***
7 (4) John Carter (12A)
8 (new) Act of Valour (15)
9 (7) The Woman in Black (12A) ***
10 (9) The Muppets (U) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
2. Wild Bill
3. Ordet
4. This is Not a Film
5. Tiny Furniture

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) The Help (12) ***
2 (3) The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (PG) **
3 (2) My Week with Marilyn (15) ***
4 (4) Friends with Benefits (15) ***
5 (5) Midnight in Paris (12) ***
6 (re) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (12) ****
7 (new) Puss in Boots (U)
8 (6) The Ides of March (15) **
9 (9) We Need to Talk About Kevin (15) ****
10 (re) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) **


My top five:
1. Take Shelter
2. Four Horsemen
3. Wuthering Heights
4. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
5. Moneyball

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Hell Drivers [above] (Monday, BBC2, 11.30am)
2. The Searchers (Good Friday, C4, 12.45pm)
3. High Society (Good Friday, five, 2.50pm)
4. Michael Collins (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
5. Nurse Betty (Good Friday, C4, 1.45am)

Exposure: "The Hunger Games"

"You really want to know how to stay alive? You get people to like you."
- Haymitch Abernathy.

The advice being proferred by one of the mentors to the teenage heroes in Suzanne Collins' book The Hunger Games applies only too well to its young-adult readership's passage through high school. Yet these could equally be the watchwords of producers attempting to launch and sustain a successful franchise in a depressed movie marketplace still pining for Potter and clinging to what's left of the Twilight series. (Hey, it's not as though we're likely to see John Carter Returns any time soon.) The premise - in a decadent future world, a reality television phenomenon sends teens out to the woods to battle one another to the death - could scarcely be any more zeitgeisty, or eye-catching, or jolting, in theory: as recent dispatches from the British censor have made apparent, the film risked incurring a commercially risky 15 certificate before its distributors toned down its violence, making nice with the audience.

The mentor's final words before sending these kids out into the wilds are: "Make sure they remember you." Is The Hunger Games memorable? Well, these are early days for the franchise: I couldn't predict from their respective first instalments how disillusioned I would come to grow with the Harry Potter series, or - conversely - how I would warm to the later Twilight movies in the face of all rational judgement. Still, for all the hype and hoopla it has thus far generated, HG1 struck me as a rather humdrum, unexceptional, business-as-usual proposition, stymied by the standard first-film problem of having to set out the rules of the game before it can get round to the action, but also by a more general sense that it's been thrown together, altogether too hastily, to fill a gap in the market.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of individual films, the Potter and Twilight franchises presented their audience with unified, coherent worlds. The Hunger Games takes place in a bric-a-brac universe, throwing into the mix feudalism (Jennifer Lawrence's heroine Katniss is introduced stalking a deer with bow and arrow), Stalinist brutalism (the show's initial selection process is conducted in vast concrete pens Orwell might have relished writing about) and futurism (Situation Room-like electronic screens update players and viewers alike on who's still living and who's dead). This provides a field day for the costume and set designers, who don't necessarily have to ensure that all the pieces tesselate; it also sets the uncertain tone for the actors.

I'm sure there was a lengthy and considered audition and casting stage ahead of filming The Hunger Games. On screen, however, it does rather look as though the producers went to a fire sale on Hollywood and Vine and lugged back under their arms performers of such contrasting styles as Elizabeth Banks (all her subtle comic gifts buried under three inches of make-up from Maybelline's Amadeus range), Lenny Kravitz (rather bland in the film's Louis Walsh role), Donald Sutherland (biding time fussing with the roses in the Presidential garden) and Wes Bentley (stuck with Craig David's old facial hair, and apparently the best the franchise can come up with by way of an evil overlord).

The prevalence of big hair, outré maquillage and clip-on accessories (Kravitz plumps for boring earrings - four of 'em) can't entirely conceal the fact that, at this stage, these characters are little more than straw dolls, offering not a huge amount to engage with or care about. I'm in a small minority on this, I know, but I also found Lawrence - presumably the big casting decision, in the YA equivalent of the Scarlett role - naggingly glassy-eyed and humorless, qualities that mattered less in the ostensibly serious Winter's Bone than in a splashy mainstream attention-grabber like this: the gal scrubs up okay in a fire-red dress for her big television appearance, but it's otherwise hard to credit how Katniss would become a star, even in this depraved and desensitised a universe.

The film's U.S. box office would suggest we're all going to have to sit through two or three more of these before we get old - it got people to like it - but, in its handling of the material, The Hunger Games falls flat between two very distinct stools. It doesn't have the gleeful, subversive wit of the cult Japanese kill-your-babies favourite Battle Royale (which emerged ten years ago at the very start of the reality-TV revolution), or indeed the heart and counter-revolutionary spirit of the far more critical, Charlie Brooker-penned "15 Million Merits" episode of TV's recent Black Mirror. Both the film, and the players within it, proceed from a mute, unquestioning acceptance of the Hunger Games format: it doesn't want to turn off anybody (particularly those who actually enjoy watching Survivor or Fear Factor or I'm a Celebrity...) by daring to suggest such spectacles may just form part of the bread-and-circuses of overfed, syphilitic, decaying empires.

It strikes me as telling that the film has posted substantially bigger numbers in the States, where the likes of American Idol have become seen as a legitimate basis for a career, than it has in Europe, where a certain intellectual sniffiness about/resistance to
la télé-poubelle continues to hold sway, and Steve Brookstein, Michelle McManus et al. have become overnight laughing stocks. Katniss's success story - her "journey", in Cowellspeak - is peculiar enough to make one question what the fantasy element is here. In Harry Potter, which skewed young, the fantasy was clearly that of having special powers, and getting an entire school to do your business, reducing the place to ashes in the process. In Twilight, which skews feminine, it's being considered special enough to have two very different types of hunk fighting over you.

In The Hunger Games, the fantasy audiences are being asked to disappear into involves being special enough to be whisked off to the big city, waxed off and hosed down, and then cast out to the woods to die of exposure or at the hands of your peers. Katniss and co. may yet rise up and overthrow the regime that oppresses them, yet too much of this glumly conformist exercise appears designed to train young cinemagoers to play their part as consumers and develop exactly that hunger (and, judging by the reactions of some of the teenagers I watched the film with, that bloodlust) that the corporate, dog-eat-dog world demands of them. Any satire or dissent within the film is unintentional, and that of an industry that is now some distance beyond it; it's the product of an entertainment moment when millions tune in on a weekly basis to gawp at the nation's best and brightest being given the thumbs up or down by the likes of Amanda Holden, David Hasselhoff and The Bloke from The Script. Frankly, who are we to judge?

The Hunger Games is in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 30 March 2012

1,001 Films: "Winchester 73" (1950)

Winchester 73 is a rare Western in which the guns aren't regarded so much as tools of the trade as they are accursed killing machines. Civil War veteran James Stewart rides into Dodge for a shooting contest, and duels with rival Stephen McNally over the top prize: a limited-edition Winchester rifle. Stewart wins the contest, but McNally later jumps him in his hotel room and makes off with the weapon. As the former tracks his quarry through the old country, the gun passes between characters entirely out for themselves: to an arms dealer prepared to sell his stock only for the right (inflated) price; to Indians who aren't the peaceful, put-upon sages of Western lore, but bloodthirsty warriors who've picked up everything they know about killing from the white man; to a groom prepared to leave new bride Shelley Winters behind him (a cynic might add: with good cause); to Dan Duryea as a giggling psychopath who uses his cohorts as human shields while making his escape; and finally - as we come full circle - back to Stewart as a sorrier man than before.

Innovative in its structure - Stewart, the nominal star, is off-screen following cold trails for long stretches - the film isn't shy about dropping names to remind us this venal West is the same world inhabited by such "heroes" as Wyatt Earp and General Custer. The director, Anthony Mann, keeps up the action to offset any preachiness, and to help us overlook how from the opening contest onwards - actually a tie that only properly gets resolved in an unusually protracted last-reel shootout - the film is constructed as a series of stalemates. Characters keep on firing until there are no bullets left in the chamber; stand-offs prevail until there are no men left standing. Even Stewart (whom Winters greets at one point with the immortal "hello, nice people") finally succumbs to this murderous madness, turning against his own brother, driven to pursue a long-standing grudge to the ends of the earth and back.

Winchester 73 is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

The return of Jafar: "This Is Not a Film"

Outside, perhaps, Roman Polanski, no director in world cinema has better dramatised - or been given greater cause to dramatise - the processes of entrapment than the Iranian Jafar Panahi, working under the eyes and nose of one of the world's most oppressive regimes: consider the circumscribed lives of the women he depicted in his 2000 film The Circle, or the sorry fate of the pizza courier-turned-hapless robber in 2003's Crimson Gold. At the time of his international breakthrough with these tremendous works, Panahi surely couldn't have anticipated that he would eventually become his own subject - or that he wouldn't legally be permitted to shoot a single frame of the resultant film. This is Not a Film, reportedly smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake, finds the filmmaker under house arrest while waiting to hear the results of his appeal against a six-year prison sentence conferred upon him for "assembly of propaganda against the Islamic Republic", and the twenty-year ban on him writing, directing or leaving the country. (Western viewers might well wonder whether the Iranian authorities couldn't find directors more deserving of their cells - Michael Bay, perhaps, or McG.)

Billed as "an effort" by Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, this 74-minute document feels like a throwback to the self-reflexive cinema with which the Iranian cinema came to prominence in the early 1990s, in films such as Close-Up and The Apple: an attempt to conjure up drama from the bare bones of reality. Yet it's also approachable as an account of how a prominent director living under house arrest might spend his days - in this case, looking after his neighbour's comically outsized iguana, watering his plants, fielding calls from his lawyer, and trying to get online, only to find certain websites have been filtered or blocked outright. Part of the film pays tribute to the enduring descriptive and imaginative powers of the director himself: as filmed by Mirtahmasb pottering around his well-appointed home (fans of Through the Keyhole will note the director's sizeable DVD collection), Panahi begins blocking and enacting scenes from an unfinished project about a young woman prevented from enrolling at university by ultra-conservative parents. (Again, director and subject converge.)

This behind-closed-doors shoot may be the most guerrilla form of filmmaking currently possible within Iran. Musing over his past projects, and how they landed him here, Panahi highlights earlier exemplars of independence: the child actress we see in a clip from his 1997 film The Mirror, who - in the middle of a take - threw off the plaster cast her character was wearing, and announced she didn't want to act any more, or conversely the lead in Crimson Gold, who for one scene came up with a particular gesture Panahi himself couldn't have directed him towards. Such moments suggest a treatise on the many ways a film can be directed and authored, while also highlighting the individual choices Panahi is no longer free to make. We get a sense of just how limited his existence has become from the scene where the arm of a crane swings tantalisingly close to the balcony of his apartment: if this were a fantasy or action film, our hero would surely vault the railings and be away, but - among the many films this is not - this is not a fantasy or action film.

Instead, Panahi has had to find smaller forms of transgression. Picking up a smartphone, he records himself in conversation with his co-director, in the process contriving the one truly complex camera set-up here, along with unexpected company and an escape of sorts for himself, not to mention this non-film's awesomely resonant final image. That old criticism - that a filmmaker has effectively done nothing more than turn in a home video - stands, in This is Not a Film, as an endorsement; as a statement of defiance, that it exists is enough. (As Mirtahmasb insists, "what matters is that it [the process] is documented.") Yet there's also plenty of evidence that Panahi's gifts for constructing an argument about what it is to live and work in modern Iran, and for furnishing such an argument with the appropriate visuals, haven't been diminished by his time in captivity: rarely can the sight of a grown man rolling around his dining room carpet, or taking the bins out, have assumed such a vast political charge.

This is Not a Film opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Cries and whispers: "Babycall"

The baby monitor has become such a commonplace in the homes of new and nervy parents that it's a surprise horror filmmakers haven't got around to deploying them as a plot device sooner. Babycall, a slowburner from Norwegian director Pål Sletaune (who made 1997's cult arthouse hit Junk Mail), kits out The Original Lisbeth Salander™ Noomi Rapace with said device, not to mention lighter hair - and a markedly softer voice - as a jumpy, psychologically fragile woman attempting to make a fresh start after an abusive relationship by moving into a council flat with her school-age son. Terrified at the thought of leaving the boy by himself, she places a monitor in his room overnight, only for it to pick up screams, shouts and sounds of a struggle coming through on some none-too-distant frequency.

Sletaune reins in the supernatural implications of the set-up to instead pursue his own form of realism, shooting in a muted colour palette and forcing everyone into interiors that presumably pass for cramped in Scandinavia. The film's closest predecessor, it turns out, isn't The Sixth Sense, but those films that followed in its wake: either of the two versions of Dark Water, or the adaptation of Armistead Maupin's The Night Listener (which could almost serve as an alternate title). These characters have things on their mind (the proximity of social services; a dying mother) even before they're given pause to consider what's going on behind their neighbours' walls.

Rapace remains a compelling presence: where Lisbeth often felt like the fantasy of male writers and directors with a very specific checklist of fetishes, here she has the less glamorous but far more testing assignment of playing a vulnerable young woman with actual problems. In the final ten minutes, we get a flicker of how Babycall would struggle without her, as the focus shifts onto a supporting character who puts the pieces together in a curious, not entirely satisfying fashion. (All I'll venture is that this involves a level of supernatural detection that can't help but feel like a cheat, given what's gone before.) It's certainly intriguing while it's playing out, but you may be better off waiting for the DVD, where a commentary might explain what Sletaune was getting at exactly.

Babycall opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

A doll's house: "Tiny Furniture"

In the U.S., the writer-director-performer Lena Dunham has been lauded as a leading light at the tail end of the so-called mumblecore movement that emerged in the mid-Noughties; her star has risen to the point she's presently working on her own HBO series, to be produced by current comedy nabob Judd Apatow. In her feature debut Tiny Furniture, however, Dunham casts herself as a woman languishing near the bottom end of the social food chain: her Aura is a film theory graduate spending the first summer after graduation trying to obtain a foothold on the world (a guy; a gig; a reason to exist) from the base camp of her photographer mother's New York apartment.

According to her champions, what Dunham proposes is both a slightly more polished variation on the defiant (and quite often tedious) lo-fi of mumblecore, and - at the risk of sounding like one of Aura's term papers - a new aesthetic of femininity, ushering forth an ensemble of young women who are allowed to be curvy, lanky, blotchy, sweaty, or prone to snoring. Tiny Furniture was the indie feature most likely to be rounded up with last year's Bridesmaids in editorials about the new wave of funny women, so maybe it's no surprise Dunham caught Apatow's eye: both directors encourage the absolute absence of vanity in their performers, and - in Dunham's case - this extends to her own onscreen appearance.

More immediately apparent is how Dunham has taken the intimacy that always was one of mumblecore's more attractive aspects - that sense of movies made by and with (and often for) close family and friends - and used it to shape and describe, Woody Allen or Whit Stillman-style, a particular (privileged) social milieu. Aura and chums are girls who wear thriftstore or flea market fashions over their homemade tattoos, but still have access to daddy's credit cards when they need them; altogether too smart and East Coast to be a Hilton or Kardashian, they're nevertheless possessed of exhibitionist tendencies enough to post YouTube videos of themselves stripping to their underwear and cavorting in fountains, like NPR-listening Anita Ekbergs.

Aura spends a fair proportion of the film lounging around mom's apartment in a nightshirt and panties, in part because that's what she's most comfortable in, in part because she's yet to find a pressing reason to get dressed. Crucially, though, Dunham's girls are never merely decorative: she gives them funny, creative things to be getting on with, on a circumscribed scale that runs from the photographing of dollhouse furniture (hence the title) to the enthusiastic sampling of jellybeans in such a way as to create new, hybrid flavours. As shot by Jody Lee Lipes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Tiny Furniture also proves rather more framed and focused than the majority of mumblecore happenings, favouring scenes that find their way to a punchline or point, and visual flourishes like the gag with an airbed that speaks to its heroine's suddenly deflated ambitions.

The performers, too, seem attuned to what Dunham's getting at, in certain cases doubtless because they've actually had to live with it. We get an idiosyncratic double-act in the director's own, somewhat patrician mother (Laurie Simmons, a real-life photographer) and her droll sister Grace (a hybrid herself, of Roseanne's Darlene and Cybill's Zoey, if those comparisons are worth anything), supplemented by the wry haughtiness of Jemima Kirke as Aura's English rose friend Charlotte, a girl whose idea of a good time is to take some Ambien and watch Picnic at Hanging Rock. (Something about this relationship recalls that between Edie Falco's Jackie and Eve Best's Dr. O'Hara on Showtime's Nurse Jackie: as that very show's Merritt Wever has a minor role as Aura's erstwhile college roommate, evidently there's some creative osmosis going on.)

I don't believe Tiny Furniture to be as piercing or critical a breakthrough as Aaron Katz's Cold Weather, as mentioned in my Top 20 list from last year: it's still a micro-movie, its big climax a snuggle session between mother and daughter that serves as Dunham's duvet-day idea of rapprochement, and all its self-expression - this generation's need to share, at the risk of sharing too much information - may well prove too much for anyone who's long since abandoned updating their Facebook status. Nevertheless, it's an appealing, bright-eyed debut, and Aura's long, slow slouch towards figuring out whom she doesn't want to be may offer room for further growth and improvement yet: you could see Dunham's character(s) becoming as much a vehicle or vessel for the filmmaker's own concerns as, say, Antoine Doinel was for Truffaut from The 400 Blows onwards.

Tiny Furniture opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

On the move: "Switch"

The super-slick opening twenty minutes of the French-language thriller Switch describe the circumstances whereby a meek freelance illustrator (Karine Vanasse) swaps her hand-to-mouth existence in Montreal for a month's vacation in Paris, via a website allowing young professionals to switch apartments in major cities. Naturally, the apartment (stylish, spacious, with a close-up view of le tour Eiffel) and Paris (photographed at its sunniest and airiest) prove too good to be true, as our heroine discovers one morning when she wakes up feeling the worse for wear, with the local constabulary - led by detective Eric Cantona - bashing down her front door, on account of the decapitated corpse laid out on the bed in the guest room. There follows one of those vaguely Hitchcocky identity-theft plots, updated to a racially mixed milieu where a gal might run into an Iranian or Malian in her foremost hour of need.

Whether or not it ultimately makes sense is almost a moot point; the director, Frédéric Schœndœrffer (who's done episodes of the cop drama Braquo), does a decent job in keeping all the parts moving, whether charting Vanasse's credibility-pushing transformation from put-upon patsy to guntoting freedom fighter, or sending a typically no-nonsense Cantona barrelling after her - literally so during one foot pursuit through a housing estate in which the camera is strapped to the actor's chest, offering the viewer the peculiar sensation of watching ze seagull following ze trailer in double-quick time. The latter set-piece, with its run-into-traffic pay-off, is where the film finally reveals its considerable debt to Guillaume Canet's Tell No One; if Switch isn't quite as classy, it holds up surprisingly well, only hitting the wall once the Prince and the Pauper plot has to be explained (over cigarettes, natch) in advance of the blunt, rushed-through steel foundry finale. Silly, but sorta effective.

Switch opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 26 March 2012

From the archive: "StreetDance"

The energetic Britpic StreetDance displays almost exemplary cheek in hitching its wagons to not one but two passing fads: the current urban dance craze (as perpetuated by such U.S. teen movies as Step Up and How She Move, and - closer to home - talent-show breakout acts George Sampson and Diversity, guest stars here) and the new digital 3D format. Put simply, this is a shameless cash-in: it might as well have been titled Breakin' 3: Electric Boogalee. Tousle-haired Carly (Nichola Burley) is obliged to retrain her motley crew of dancers after her male lead - and boyfriend - elects to put their personal and professional relationships on hiatus by joining a rival outfit known as The Surge (oo-er missus).

To offset the sensation of watching cultural ambulance-chasing (those American dance pictures were cheap and profitable, after all), the script offers a certain amount of parochialism appropriate to screenwriter Jane English's surname: there's the rain and Health and Safety to contend with, and the youngsters get the day off at the Notting Hill Carnival; "Everyone in Top Shop is watching us!," exclaims Carly's BFF after the crew are busted for busting moves in a Wandsworth shopping centre. As Carly's caff-owning dad, the great Frank Harper - yes, it's Frank Harper in 3D! - spends his handful of scenes moaning about the number of KitKats his daughter's mates are getting through. (Ideally, producers Vertigo Films would give Harper his own spin-off 3D vehicle, working title Jog On.)

Where StreetDance cribs most heavily from its American predecessors is in its absurdly reductive contrast between classical and street dance, proceeding as though The Nutcracker and N-Dubz couldn't possibly exist in the same universe. When Carly rents rehearsal space in a ballet academy run by two grandes dames - Charlotte Rampling in 3D! Eleanor Bron in 3D! - the kidz turn their nosez up at the salad on offer in the refectory, instead ordering out for chicken and ribs; when Carly's mob premiere their latest piece - set to Prokofiev (or "The Theme From The Apprentice", as the target audience will doubtless recognise it) - it's greeted as though someone's tried to restage The Rite of Spring in a Brixton ragga club.

Giggles at such inherent silliness give way to amused tolerance during the dance sequences, which at least showcase some skill and sense of directionality. The attempt to keep it real - signalled by a proper grimy [sic] soundtrack (the usual offenders: Chipmunk, Tinie Tempah, the new, lo-cal, entirely synthetic Sugababes, who should by rights be rechristened the Splendababes) - is, however, fatally undermined by a worldview that would only appear credible if you were twelve years of age, and even then, only if you'd been raised on fluff and nonsense like this.

(May 2010)

StreetDance is available on DVD through EOne; StreetDance 2 opens nationwide from Friday.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office

for the weekend of March 16-18, 2012:

1 (new) The Devil Inside [above] (15)
2 (new) 21 Jump Street (15) **
3 (2) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12A) **
4 (1) John Carter (12A)
5 (new) We Bought a Zoo (PG) **
6 (new) Contraband (15) ***
7 (3) The Woman in Black (12A) ***
8 (4) This Means War (12A) *
9 (6) The Muppets (U) ***
10 (5) Safe House (15)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
2. Wild Bill
3. Ordet
4. The Kid with a Bike
5. Bill Cunningham: New York

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (3) The Help (12) ***
2 (10) My Week with Marilyn (15) ***
3 (new) The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (PG) **
4 (2) Friends with Benefits (15) ***
5 (4) Midnight in Paris (12) ***
6 (1) The Ides of March (15) **
7 (5) Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (12) ***
8 (8) The Rum Diary (15) ***
9 (7) We Need to Talk About Kevin (15) ****
10 (6) Crazy, Stupid, Love. (12) ***


My top five:
1. Take Shelter
2. Wuthering Heights
3. Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
4. Moneyball
5. Weekend

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The 'Burbs (Saturday, ITV1, 1.55pm)
2. The Shootist (Sunday, five, 1.25pm)
3. The Day of the Jackal (Wednesday, ITV1, 2.30am)
4. The Year of Living Dangerously (Friday, BBC2, 11.50pm)
5. Bright Star (Saturday, BBC2, 9.20pm)

Thursday 22 March 2012

From the archive: "Napoleon Dynamite"

The eponymous hero of co-writer/director Jared Hess's breakthrough film Napoleon Dynamite may just be the dork's dork. This ultra-gawky individual - myopic, oddly haired, even more oddly dressed - lives out his adolescence in rural Idaho; while his grandmother, his only apparent guardian, is off dating, and his sleazy uncle is schooling his chatroom-addicted brother in the ways of selling Tupperware - primarily as a way of entering the homes of middle-aged divorcees - Napoleon (Jon Heder) busies himself helping his school's new boy Pedro (Efren Ramirez), in his attempts to woo a blonde cheerleader and become class president. Napoleon himself only has eyes for the odd girl from the local beauty salon: this is Tina Majorino, the young actress from Andre, now with lopsided ponytail.

Among Napoleon Dynamite's many pleasures is its portrayal of the kind of high school, and the kind of high schoolers, rarely seen on screen: a collection of freaks and geeks, squashed together in small classrooms; a place where people walk, or talk, or dress funny, where even the jocks have haircuts you might elect to make sport of, and nobody really seems sure of themselves, least of all the teachers. The style is a little Wes Anderson: the straight-ahead camera, the love of visual symmetries, the desire to create (and thus control) an entire world, right down to the smallest detail (posters, advertising campaigns; the opening credits are presented in the form of home-made platters, with the cast and crew's names spelt out in either mayonnaise or tomato sauce).

Yet the characters, thankfully, couldn't be any less like the mummified museum pieces and mannequins Anderson poses and points at. Take Heder's Napoleon, as the most prominent example of a complete comic creation: more than just an overbite, he's prone to endless boasts about his romantic and combative abilities (a fictional girlfriend from Oklahoma, non-existent skill with nunchuks); a way of speaking that makes everything - especially the exhortation to his pet llama to "come get some ham" - sound like too much effort; sudden explosions of petulance, signs he hasn't grown out of childhood just yet; and feeble high-kicks in response to the bullies who routinely push him into the school lockers. (Given the levels of playfighting here, it was a logical progression for Hess to set his follow-up Nacho Libre in the world of Mexican wrestling.)

The signs are that Hess is something of a softie himself, pairing all his characters - even the sleazeballs and Internet daters - up with somebody suitable, like an indie Cupid, and rather sweetly keeping at least Napoleon's first attempts at disco-dancing (an easy laugh) behind bedroom doors, so as to spare the character some dignity. It's very much of the fitful new wave of American comedy, reliant less, perhaps, on jokes than it is on quirks in sketches - I'd wager this is one of those films where even those viewers who find it hilarious would be hard-pushed to describe to the unconverted why they do - but there's a heart beating under its perm and big specs, and a sense of a distinctive directorial sensibility waiting to be discovered. Stay tuned through the end credits, not just for the bonus scene, but to hear When in Rome's "The Promise" reclaimed for the keening ballad it always was.

(August 2007)

Napoleon Dynamite screens on C4 tomorrow night at 12.35am.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

From the archive: "The Visitor"

In an age where our movie screens have been given over to faces made creaseless one way or another, those performers with the look of having been lived in assume an even greater worth. Richard Jenkins could pass for Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall's craggier younger brother, and like them, he's paid his dues in innumerable self-effacing supporting roles. Typically, he's best known for playing a man who isn't really there - the ghostly dad in TV's Six Feet Under. All hail Tom McCarthy's The Visitor, then, in which Jenkins finally assumes top billing. His Walter Vale is a resolutely solitary college professor, who, while at a conference in New York, discovers a pair of squatters - a Syrian immigrant (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira) - in his city digs. Perhaps unexpectedly, the loner lets them stay, warms to their food, even makes a fair fist of playing the African djembe drum.

As set-ups for a grouch's redemption go, it's engaging enough, but there's a downbeat turn ahead. McCarthy's first feature, 2004's delightful The Station Agent, made it clear just how much this film-maker believed in people, and their ability to work out their differences; it's just a pity, his latest concludes, that the authorities should be putting further barriers between us. Sold as feel-good fare, but more obviously informed by America's recent mood of gloomy self-interrogation, The Visitor emerges as an altogether sombre piece, assuming a dark blue hue after its sunny beginning, and leaving one with question marks rather than goofy grins. See it for Jenkins, though - utterly sure-footed in his ability to suggest, without sentiment, a core of neglected decency in Walter - and be safe in the knowledge that none of the money handed over at the box office will go on to be spent on Botox.

(The Sunday Telegraph, 4 July 2008)

The Visitor screens on BBC2 this Friday at midnight.

On DVD: "Friends with Benefits"

Friends with Benefits is one of those po-mo romcoms that wants to instruct us how romcoms should be watched, and made; it should be annoying as all get out. Good news: the director is Will Gluck, whose Easy A deconstructed the high-school movie so entertainingly. Gluck is developing a sure and identifiable touch: he turns the picture into, if not one for the ages, then an enjoyable one night stand - and one preferable to that offered by the similarly themed No Strings Attached. It begins with two couples splitting - Justin Timberlake from Emma Stone in L.A., Mila Kunis from Andy Samberg in New York. (Already, Gluck seems to be anticipating the alternative romcom reality - in which Stone's character, who likes John Mayer songs, and Samberg, who seems needy, get together - that would provide the basis for 30 Rock's "Martin Luther King Day" skit.)

After Kunis's corporate headhunter recruits Timberlake's marketing maven for a job at GQ, the pair begin hanging out, first on the couch (in front of dumb romcoms, which allow the writers to editorialise at some length), and then - in the absence of anything more serious on the horizon - in the bedroom, reasoning there's no reason sex shouldn't, in the modern age, be like Wii tennis: a fun burst of mutual physical activity, followed by a brisk sporting handshake, and a parting of the ways. The trouble, of course, comes when our lovers-but-not-lovers go those ways, with the aim of hooking up with other people, at which point they realise they really really like one another, and have to talk themselves into admitting as such.

I've seen less predictable romcoms, and it's true Friends with Benefits doesn't stretch itself to granting either of its lead characters anything like a serious love rival: Timberlake has a fling with a gal who has a thing for his underarm hair (and can thus be easily dismissed as a freak), while Kunis briefly pairs off with a bland doctor who, whatever his other charms, almost certainly wasn't in *N-SYNC. That said, Gluck knows how to make a good-looking, nice-sounding movie, which not every director working in this field with this much studio money at their disposal does - and, more impressively, he knows how to keep at least that surface semi-spontaneous, even as the plot mechanics clunk into place beneath it.

There are, it has to be said, worse ways to spend one's leisure time than watching Timberlake and Kunis using one another's bodies: their couplings have the snap and tang of the bubblegum one or other of them is oft-observed jawing mid-coitus, even if the shooting style clings to that very American prudery that prevents the camera showing precisely what (or who) is going down. (To summarise, for our celebrity nudity fans: that may be JT's butt, but Kunis is all double, all the way.) Gluck wisely retains Patricia Clarkson from his earlier film as another broad-minded mom, and drafts in Jenna Elfman (who should give all sports-intolerant women something to mutter while their men go on about the game) as Timberlake's sister, alongside - of all people - Woody Harrelson as a butch picture editor.

Friends with Benefits sometimes has problems maintaining its hipness boner: all the au courant references written into the script back in 2010 (flashmobs, Captain Sully, Shaun White) run the risk of having disappeared into the zeitgeist's recycle bin but twelve months later. (Easy A may have had it easier riffing on The Scarlet Letter and the Demi Moore movie that sprang from it, texts now ancient enough to have become, in their own ways, canonical.) And it struggles to get over the hump of having to get serious, at which point - with its leads left staring into Manhattan's twinkling night lights while a slow song swirls around them - it begins to resemble exactly those films it wants to lampoon. Stone had the dramatic chops, in Easy A, to convincingly and involvingly play hurt; the altogether sheenier, Teflon-coated Timberlake and Kunis - of "Sexyback" and Family Guy respectively - don't quite.

I think it's fair to say Gluck probably isn't going to be the most original voice in American movies; like his characters here, you catch him struggling to reject outright the crutches and cliches that have been thrown up around the romcom in its dotage. But he's open to the right influences, at least: the better stretches in these first two films take characters and scenarios that have grown tired from countless mainstream outings and imbue them with the honesty - and, to some extent, the frankness - one finds in the New American Comedy of Judd Apatow et al. (One of the spoof romcoms the FWBs watch happens to star Jason Segel and Rashida Jones, and you could well imagine another alternate, albeit less shiny version of the movie with these two in the leads.)

Even the subplot involving Timberlake's Alzheimer's-impaired father (Richard Jenkins, often trouserless, not quite fully integrated, which may be the point) has echoes of what the early, funny Cameron Crowe was trying to do with John Mahoney's tax-dodging in Say Anything...: an attempt to get these kids to learn something from the actions (or inaction) of their elders and supposedly betters. (See also: the quietly heartbreaking Lisa Kudrow/Thomas Haden Church business in Easy A.) We can but hope there are more Singles and Almost Famouses in Gluck's future than there are Elizabethtowns and Vanilla Skys - but the signs are promising. Just as Easy A did something entirely unexpected with Natasha Bedingfield's long-forgotten "Pocketful of Sunshine", Friends with Benefits earns bonus points for its wholly enthusiastic revival of Semisonic's "Closing Time": the kind of dumbly sincere recording that always did deserve better than hipster sneering.

Friends with Benefits is now available on DVD. The author of this piece does not endorse the chewing of gum in the bedroom.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Fatherhood: "Wild Bill"

Different generations will have different relationships to Dexter Fletcher. To my lot, he'll forever be remembered - fondly - as the maverick American reporter Spike on the superior, Steven Moffat-created children's drama Press Gang, which set many of my contemporaries to wondering whether or not the actor was, in fact, American. Younger audiences may recall him in his role as "Dex", the motormouthed, air-punching host of TV's Gamesmaster; latecomers may be able to place him as one of the lairy geezers up to their necks in strife in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock... and Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass. Wild Bill showcases Fletcher's latest, and in many ways surprising, incarnation: writer-director of a hugely entertaining character piece that suggests what might happen if Ritchie or Vaughn ever decided to grow up and tear themselves away from the Hollywood teat. The story of a once notorious hardman (Charlie Creed-Miles) returning to his Hackney manor after eight years in chokey in a bid to keep his two estranged lads out of trouble, Wild Bill has a secondary function as a snapshot of London's East End as it was in 2010-11: a location in the process of a reconstruction (one son has an apprenticeship with the firm building the Olympic velodrome) which comes to mirror the central character's attempts to build a new and better life for himself. 

Fletcher seemingly knows this patch well: he has a strong eye for its minimalls, its thriving branches of Greggs, its boozers on the verge of closure. For its interiors, too: cramped council housing where every resident's movements rub somebody else up the wrong way, unadorned corridors along which the characters shuttle back-and-forth, having to work doubly hard to get anywhere in particular. The above possibly makes Wild Bill sound like grim social realism, yet there's life on these streets, and - on an another level - the film appears to have been conceived as a celebration of the kind of character actor into which Fletcher has himself matured: performers capable of lifting any given scene with an idiosyncratic choice, look or turn of phrase. You couldn't describe any of Fletcher's performers as "stars" in the commercial sense, but they bring their own value to a plucky underdog project such as this, and putting enough of them in the same postcode gives the material an additional energy. On the side of the angels: Will Poulter, previously comic relief (Son of Rambow, the last Narnia), but here pulling off a tricky dramatic U-turn as Bill's eldest, a trainee brickie trying to assert his independence from a dad who, after an extended absence from the family home, now just wants a cuddle; and Charlotte Spencer as his single-mother sweetheart, one of a number of women very skilfully deployed to undercut or otherwise critique the maleness of the milieu. Indeed, it's inferred the absence of the fairer sex may have resulted in the instability of this household. "I ain't gonna forget this," snarls Poulter at the younger sibling who may just have blown his chances of happiness, or at least a shag. "Nobody ever does," retorts Liz White as the sardonic brass who's wound up on the family sofa while running from the local heavy. 

On the side of the devils (and there are, inevitably, more of these): Leo Gregory, making an atypically savvy career move as that self-same heavy; Kill List's Neil Maskell, tossing out "mugs" and "soppy bollocks"es and slowly growing into Frank Harper (a good thing); and Andy Serkis, resembling a malevolent Jeremy Beadle (all right, a more malevolent Beadle), while playing the neighbourhood crimelord in the most surprising and low-key fashion imaginable. On the cast list stretches: to Olivia Williams as a parole officer, Jaime Winstone and Jason Flemyng as social services, Sean Pertwee as a passing policeman. At the very least, Wild Bill deserves to be embraced for giving homegrown actors too often squandered in posturing urban flicks, and unlikely ever to turn up in genteel costume dramas, a worthwhile project with which to occupy themselves. A case in point is Creed-Miles himself, a likable performer who - from young punk to diamond geezer - has followed a career trajectory not dissimilar to his director's own. Now greying around the temples, he's terrific here as a man almost a decade behind the beat, and struggling to get back up to the frantic speed of the world around him. 

Between Bill's interactions with his sons, nemeses and the authorities, Fletcher affords his lead small, revealing moments of solitude - folding a solicitor's letter into a paper plane, having him insistently confronted by a starkly unwashed bog (liable to remain 2012's most evocative spot of production design) - that work towards a better understanding of the character's good-natured yet scrambled state-of-mind. This is one of those instances where having an actor-director directing an actor pays off beautifully: we know Bill must eventually take the long, lonely walk to face his demons, but the route by which he winds up there is fresh and unpredictable. Fletcher is willing to turn Bill into a sight gag, kitting him out in a hi-vis jacket under one of those "GOLF SALE" pointers that dot our cityscapes more in hope than anticipation; the collaboration even renders the scene where Bill unthinkingly hires a hooker for his embarrassed boy sweet and funny rather than creepy. Yet Creed-Miles is also credibly tough and battle-hardened when Fletcher needs him to be, nailing down what could have been windily didactic in the scene where Bill informs his delinquent youngest that prison is no cakewalk. On reflection, perhaps the ending - with its vague suggestion that violence can solve, if not everything, then maybe certain things - needed a little finessing, but the rest is nothing short of smashing. Nice one, Dex. 

Wild Bill opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Monday 19 March 2012

Into the woods: "The Kid with a Bike"

After 2008's tricky The Silence of Lorna, with its heroine who was possibly too spiky for the film's own good, the Dardennes return with a work of ostensibly simpler ways and means. The Kid with a Bike is almost fable-like in its realism, but it reminds you that Lorna, too, ended up in the woods, and you wonder if this is a direction - latter-day Grimm tales - the filmmaking brothers are now actively pursuing. Escaping from the children's home he's been raised in, tough little tyke Cyril (Thomas Doret) sets out to track down his father, only to be traced in turn by his carers and chased into a doctor's waiting room. Trapped therein, Cyril throws himself around the neck of one of the patients waiting there, the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France), in what appears a desperate clinging to normality; she's touched enough by the gesture to become the boy's weekend guardian, and to return his much-cherished bicycle, but the bike - a present from Cyril's dad, back when papa still had feelings for him - keeps getting stolen: clinging to that, and everything attached to it, proves considerably harder work.

The Dardennes clearly know Bicycle Thieves, where the loss of a velocipede equated to an absence of social mobility, but that neo-realist landmark is here filtered through a more contemporary sensibility: if the Dardennes are the closest the Continent has to Ken Loach, then The Kid with a Bike could be said to be their Kes. Tearing around the kids' home car park after the bike's return, Cyril evidently regards these two wheels as as much a playmate, as much an ally, as the kestrel was for Billy Casper in Loach's film; it's also a rare element over which this disadvantaged soul can exert some kind of control. Yet these alley-oops and bunny-hops are the kind of simple, uncomplicated pleasures that cannot last long in a complicated world: the bike, which has its own character arc, starts out as a toy, becomes a getaway vehicle, and is only belatedly observed being pedalled towards redemption. Like Cyril, it too falls in with the wrong crowd, and we fear for its future health, that it may end up on the scrapheap.

Relations between humans are no less fraught in this universe. Cyril will track his father (Jérémie Renier) down to a restaurant, where he first makes the boy empty promises and then bluntly announces he cannot see him anymore. Samantha, for all her kindliness, is another authority figure whose thumb Cyril comes to see as something to be got out from under. It's hardly surprising the boy should fall under the influence of a local drug dealer, who trains him in the ways of petty larceny - a development that suggests that the filmmakers have also been brushing up on their Oliver Twist. Throughout The Kid with a Bike, one senses the Dardennes are keen to explain their protagonist's mindset and actions through other, well-known texts, perhaps to avoid the criticism the slightly opaque Lorna attracted.

This sets the film apart from these directors' best works - 1999's Rosetta, 2005's The Child - which simply got on with observing their characters, and didn't feel the need to interpolate such footnotes, or indeed the sudden swells of Beethoven used here, to let us know how to respond. The new film functions, all the same, as a kind of Dardennes digest: an entry-level work, laid out in the reds and blues of a nursery-school primer, that you can well imagine playing to both arthouse stalwarts and teenage ethics classes alike. The compassion and formal economy we've come to expect from the directors is never in question, and still impressive, up to a point - and in Doret, they showcase a young performer who's very nearly the equal, in his defiance and resilience, of his British namesake Thomas Turgoose. For all the film's many referents and nods backwards, this is Belgium 2012.

The Kid with a Bike opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 18 March 2012

1,001 Films: "The Reckless Moment" (1949)

The Reckless Moment is an atypically sunny thriller, shot on bright, bland L.A. locations in the run-up to Christmas, about housewife Joan Bennett's attempt to cover up the (accidental) death of her daughter's sleazeball lover, and her subsequent blackmail at the hands of silver-tongued Irish Machiavelli James Mason. Thematically, Max Ophuls' last American picture before returning to Europe is something like The Desperate Hours - a film about dark forces insinuating themselves into an all-American household. (Mason simply shows up unannounced one afternoon in Bennett's parlour.) Yet in the hands of this director, more commonly associated with melodrama than noir, greater emphasis is placed on the workings of that household (the source was a short story published in the pages of Ladies' Home Journal, and it shows) than on making any kind of sense of its male antagonist. The run-up to the festive period, with its own stresses and strains, adds a further dimension to the heroine's predicament, and Ophuls appears more interested in eliciting sympathy for Bennett than suspense from a sequence describing her descent into the poverty-row of loan sharks and pawnbrokers.

The mismatch between director and material, so striking at first, becomes somewhat less noticeable as the story plays out: Ophuls effectively turns the drama into another of his lopsided, infelicitous love triangles, with Bennett having to choose between a husband who's too busy to come home for the holidays, and a hood who'd happily kill for her. (From the final shot of the housewife "trapped" between the banisters of a staircase, it's possible to read this as not much of a choice at all.) Intriguing rather than particularly involving, a film about reckless moments and impulses that remains controlled and detached to the very last frame, it's no surprise The Reckless Moment piqued the interest of the clever-clever directorial double-act David Siegel and Scott McGehee, who updated the premise in their The Deep End, from 2001: Tilda Swinton replaced Bennett, a gay son took the place of the headstrong daughter, and the character of the morally ambivalent blackmailer remained as open to question and interpretation as it ever had been.

The Reckless Moment is available on DVD via Second Sight.

Saturday 17 March 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office

for the weekend of March 9-11, 2012:

1 (new) John Carter (12A)
2 (1) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12A) **
3 (2) The Woman in Black (12A) ***
4 (3) This Means War (12A) *
5 (4) Safe House (15)
6 (5) The Muppets (U) ***
7 (6) Project X (18)
8 (new) The Raven (15) ***
9 (new) Bel Ami (15) **
10 (8) The Artist (PG) ****

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
2. Four Horsemen
3. Ordet
4. Bill Cunningham: New York
5. In Darkness

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (4) The Ides of March (15) **
2 (6) Friends with Benefits (15) ***
3 (new) The Help (12) ***
4 (new) Midnight in Paris (12) ***
5 (new) Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (12) ***
6 (2) Crazy, Stupid, Love. (12) ***
7 (1) We Need to Talk About Kevin (15) ****
8 (10) The Rum Diary (15) ***
9 (3) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) **
10 (new) My Week with Marilyn (15) ***


My top five:
1. Take Shelter
2. Moneyball
3. Weekend
4. Dreams of a Life
5. Oslo, August 31st

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Napoleon Dynamite [above] (Friday, C4, 12.35am)
2. Jaws (Friday, ITV1, 2.40am)
3. Climates (Friday, BBC2, 1.35am)
4. Executive Decision (Monday, five, 9pm)
5. The Visitor (Friday, BBC2, 12midnight)

On DVD: "Weekend"

Early on in the clued-up, affecting romance Weekend, one of its two skylarking lovers, an openly gay artist, wonders aloud whether the only punters likely to show up for his latest show, an installation inspired by his sex life, would themselves be gay men, and then only because there might be a cock or two on display; straights wouldn't bother, he reasons, because they'd surely reckon this art had nothing at all to do with their world. It's hard, upon hearing this monologue, not to assume it's writer-director Andrew Haigh's way of expressing his own fears about his work being confined to a gay ghetto, kept separate from all those heteronormative Gerard Butler-Jennifer Aniston romcoms doing the rounds in the modern multiplex.

It would be a shame if Weekend encountered such a form of cinematic homophobia: in its own small, defiantly low-key way, it feels like a breakthrough of sorts for everybody from its lead character outwards. This is Russell (Tom Cullen), a quiet, rather shy young man, not entirely at home in the straight world he finds himself inhabiting; a lifeguard at a Notts swimming baths by day, his natural inclination is to play everything safe, which means no diving, not much bombing, and (above all else) no heavy petting. One Saturday morning, however, he wakes up next to Glen (Chris New), the aforementioned artist: one of life's provocateurs, seemingly at ease with the world and his own place within it, he lounges around Russell's flat naked, where his host clings somewhat primly to his T-shirt and pants.

Glen pushes Russell, putting his tongue in his lover's derriere and his tape recorder in his face to ask him what he's feeling the morning after; they part, after breakfast, on a slightly sour note, but upon reflection Russell finds he likes being pushed, and gets Glen to bring him an energy drink - that modern elixir of love, for it gives you wings - once he finishes work that afternoon, whereupon the pair remain more or less inseparable for the next 24 hours. The time begins ebbing, flowing, ticking away: returned to Russell's flat, we see the pair waiting for the kettle to boil, later riding the tram to and from town, then later still engaged in those long, early-hours conversations in which, after stretches of aimless, intoxicated jawing, one party or the other suddenly brushes up against a nerve - and the camera, in fostering this unusual intimacy with these characters, is right there to capture the fallout.

These fleeting seconds, minutes, hours matter, we learn, because Glen has a train to catch on the Sunday, one which will carry him away to the U.S. for the next two years on an art scholarship, and the quandary these boys face proves to be a universal one, expressed with greater sensitivity than one generally finds in today's romantic cinema: how do you turn something ephemeral - that first spark of attraction - into something that might last? The film knows the obstacles well, yet Haigh deploys them disarmingly: he sets up what looks like a very familiar queer-bashing sequence in a crowded bar, where a burly straight takes objection to Glen's cackling tales of sexual misadventure, only to cut away to the two in the middle of a verbose, yet entirely civil argument - was it the content this Hetero Harry objected to, or the volume? (Crucially, any homophobic abuse Glen and Russell encounter comes from offscreen, heard but never seen - it simply isn't worth the camera's, or these characters', time, and Haigh evidently has no interest in making an issue movie.)

Similarly, though the film is set among the tower blocks - Russell's granny flat, with its four-bar heater, tatty sofa and bric-à-brac mugs, has the potential to be as grim a location as anywhere else in social realism - Haigh overturns viewer expectations in making Nottingham appear as romantic a destination as Vienna or Paris were in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Sunset diptych: this is a place with its own funfairs and sunsets. The talk getting us from A to B rings true, which is key, and Haigh surely couldn't have wished for better performances. New has the showier role, mouthing off on topics from "the dominance of the straight narrative" to Rupert Graves' penis, but Cullen, nervily offering himself up to his partner's gaze, and the gaze of the camera, is very sweet, his Russell all too conscious that every word and kiss may be the last he gets to share with this guy. If they gave out prizes for Movie Chemistry of the Year, these two would be odds-on winners.

Weekend is available on DVD, and on demand, from Monday.

Friday 16 March 2012

The way things roll: "Once Upon a Time In Anatolia", "In Darkness", "We Bought a Zoo" (ST 18/03/12)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (15) 150 mins ***** 
In Darkness (15) 145 mins ***
We Bought a Zoo (PG) 124 mins **

Both the title and running time of the Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia establish certain expectations: of something epic, ruminative, serious-minded. These it will prove, yet the latest masterwork from director Nuri Bilge Ceylan initially confounds expectations, simply by being funny, in a way Ceylan’s earlier works – like the solemn Uzak and Climates – rarely allowed for. This philosophic procedural starts from a droll joke about habeas corpus, or the absence thereof, dispatching us on a dusk-till-dawn drive through the remote Anatolian countryside alongside several individuals caught up in a murder investigation.

The investigation, like the film, is going nowhere fast. No-one can find the body for starters, even with the alleged killer in the car. One recurring hitch is that – for all Ceylan’s unrivalled expertise at photographing landscapes – one hillock looks much the same as another in the dark. Stumbling over possible burial grounds, the searchers revert to the kind of tangential conversation reserved for wild goose chases, riffing on the availability of yoghurt and the mounting possibility of overtime: “The money’s good when it’s a corpse,” notes one rookie, enthusiastically.

We begin to compare and contrast: the mute permanence of the countryside with the triviality of the chat, the life-and-death importance of the assignment with the essential cluelessness of those undertaking it. Several coppers wet their socks in streams; names are repeatedly mispronounced. Having exhausted all biscuit supplies, the patrolmen are reduced to shaking trees for sustenance, and the grace note that results suggests – as did a similar sequence in Climates involving a macadamia nut – that Ceylan is a filmmaker uniquely interested in the way things roll, however long it takes, wherever it takes us.

As the cortege progresses, these topographic twists and turns come to be matched by those in the stories told by the variously lined, wistful or shattered men: for the first time in a Ceylan film, the characters come to feel approachable, rather than mere figures in grand designs. As police captain Naci, Yilmaz Erdogan is the standout performer, displaying a toughened, lived-in humanity reminiscent of Bob Hoskins. Yet even here, the film sets up appreciable contrasts: between the cops’ brute-force incompetence, the suspect’s silence, the medical examiner’s calm rationality, and the prosecutor’s openness to the uncanny.

These players draw us into not just a complete universe, but its specific time scheme: we’re left feeling as though we’ve also been up all night, witnessing something of what it is to be mortal or alone, and at the mercy of others. If the final act risks appearing too literal an autopsy of the human condition, that’s only down to the exceptionally high dramatic and pictorial standards Ceylan has maintained elsewhere. In Anatolia, even the mid-film drinks break – a pause at a rural encampment, where the chief’s beautiful daughter brings these journeymen light and succour – is mysterious, somehow profound, and the very essence of cinema.

In Darkness, a Foreign Film Oscar nominee from Poland, sploshes in the footsteps of that country’s great director Andrzej Wajda, by exploring how civilisation retreated to the sewers under the German occupation. Agnieszka Holland’s drama foregrounds those vile surface-level humiliations – denuded Jewish women being chased through forests into waiting graves, rabbis having their beards ripped out – that led many to consider the dank, stinking tunnels below Lvov welcome refuge. The focus, however, is on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), the (non-Jewish) fixer who, for a fee, provided guidance for a fractious group underground.

While not entirely inappropriate, Holland’s filmmaking can feel cramped itself. A dozen main characters’ squabbles are packed between narrow escapes and snatched lovemaking, rendering the storytelling anecdotal, even predictable in places: any flicker of cheer is routinely doused by a bobbing corpse, and you don’t have to know Schindler’s List to suspect Socha will realise there’s more to his task than making money. If In Darkness finally emerges as rather oppressive viewing, it retains a potent way with generalities, evoking terrible events unfolding above its characters’ heads, the thickening of already musty air with suspicion.

The insistent uplift of We Bought a Zoo, by contrast, only suggests writer-director Cameron Crowe ran out of things to say after 2000’s Almost Famous: misty-eyed and flabby, his latest has the tranquilising effect of watching three episodes of Wild at Heart back-to-back. The creaky movie template that sees a ramshackle property parallel a protagonist’s fixer-upper heart gets another airing; the novelty is widower Matt Damon acquires a menagerie of porcupines and ostriches to hustle him from his inertia into zookeeper Scarlett Johansson’s arms. There are nice lines and sweet spots, but a lot of manure, both literal and figurative, has to be shovelled before we get to them.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and In Darkness are on selected release; We Bought a Zoo is in cinemas nationwide.