Thursday 31 May 2012

Whisky galore: "The Angels' Share"

There are those who maintain that Ken Loach keeps making the same film, and then there is the counter-argument that the social problems Loach's work continues to address - chiefly those of crime and poverty amongst the working-classes - have never really gone away. (And are only apt to worsen in these financially straitened times.) It is true that Loach has settled into something of a groove in recent times, reliably turning out a film every year or so, with the support of regular collaborators (screenwriter Paul Laverty first among equals) and solid, long-established production and fan bases. After 2010's furious Route Irish, which threw a lot of punches without ever quite landing any, Loach's latest The Angels' Share feels like a return to the territory of 2009's Looking for Eric: this is a summery yet pointed crowdpleaser about a minibus of young Glaswegian offenders who discover renewed purpose in life while on a community restoration trip to a nearby distillery. Business as usual, perhaps: as the old maxim has it, if it's blokes on a coach, it's got to be Loach. 

Certainly, the new film's protagonist - Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a teenage father-to-be caught up in a violent family feud that has left him facing an assault charge - moves in a guarded fashion comparable to that of Liam, the hero of 2002's Loach/Laverty team-up Sweet Sixteen; there are lots of these kids out there, after all, no matter that Robbie, for his part, gradually learns to put his nose for trouble to more constructive use. Yet - as signalled by the midfilm arrival of a second bus, full of nuns - there are new notes and elements here to be savoured, alongside the familiar. Loach's production design (and location scouting) remains as rigorous as ever: as it's important the crockery and costumes in an episode of Downton are just so, to preserve the illusion of quality, so it's important to this director that his characters inhabit a space where the windows of front doors are cracked and the wallpaper hangs from the walls, the better to maintain the sense of reality. Similarly, there are the subtle directorial emphases - starting with the casting of non-professionals whose choices and rhythms are their own - that underline the point that these are meant as individuals in the real world, rather than merely characters in a movie. 

If The Angels' Share were a softer film, it would leave out the conciliation sequence in which Robbie is confronted by the victim of his assault (and omit altogether the flashback that reveals him to be unequivocally the instigator of the attack), and set us to thinking of him in terms of a loveable rogue. Loach, however, wants us to see this (terrifying credible) aggression in order for us to understand how it - and the aggression of kids like Robbie - might be better channeled. In Angels, it's through the arcane, artisan activity of whisky tasting, which here serves as a rather more refined form of the boozing these lads and lassies are wont to do, as well as a conduit for them to connect with the Scottish heritage they've hitherto been clueless to.

The director's way with performers - his ability to get them to serve a common cause, in a variety of ways - continues to impress. There are tiny, almost throwaway moments that, whether scripted or improvised, go eloquently towards character: a piqued Robbie kicking over a motorbike in the street, one of his cohorts' enraged attempts to get a remote control to work. (However rich or poor you are, we've all been there.) Of the novices, Brannigan displays that cheering mix of spikiness (the scar on the face, the gel in the hair) and rootable tenacity previously observed in Sweet Sixteen's Martin Compston; his Robbie is properly scrappy, in both the best and worst applications of that term. 

Comic duties are amply fulfilled by Gary Maitland's Albert, a spud-like presence forever one or two beats behind the action, though it's a particular joy that Loach should have crossed paths with John Henshaw (TV's Early Doors), a performer of immense warmth who stands partway between the straight acting tradition and the off-the-cuff stand-ups the filmmaker has often employed in prominent roles. It's through Henshaw - cast as the restoration scheme's general factotum - that Loach and Laverty best make their points about the importance of mentoring in lives such as these; the emotional charge of the film's final scenes resides almost entirely in the actor's very capable hands.  

So entirely of this world are these individuals that it comes as a jolt when Roger Allam - a slicker, more polished presence, whether doing classical theatre or in The Thick of It - enters the film. Here, finally, really is a character in a movie - a jowly (and perhaps not coincidentally English) representative of the well-fed elite, ripe for a takedown - and Allam's entrance is the point where The Angels' Share reveals itself as nothing really more probing than a light caper for all concerned. (Compare it to the arrival of the bailiffs in Loach's magnificent Raining Stones, and it's surprising to note just how well-behaved the director's antagonists have become over the past two decades. Gentrification in action, maybe?)

The best of The Angels' Share - and there is a lot to enjoy here - happens in and around that minibus. Going against the current wave of cynically stabby urban dramas that give their underprivileged characters limited aspirations, because - hey - That's How It Is, Man (nothing to do with the lazy get-rich-quickery of their youthful, well-placed creatives), Loach and Laverty credit their misfits and delinquents with curiosity, instincts, a yen for experiences previously denied to them, while never denying their poorer decisions and wrong moves. This, ultimately, is how The Angels' Share dodges those yawn-inducing accusations of didacticism that have traditionally attached themselves to the director's work. Loach thinks the best of his characters, but he remains honest enough to know you don't lose anything - and, if anything, have only authenticity to gain - from giving these angels filthy mouths and dirty faces.

The Angels' Share opens nationwide tomorrow.

Fairest-to-middling of them all: "Snow White and the Huntsman"

At a loss for original ideas, Hollywood again finds itself with two rival studios scrapping over the same old story. Snow White and the Huntsman is very much the po-faced Deep Impact to April's flip and joshing Mirror Mirror's Armageddon. A serious and sombre "re-envisioning" of the fairytale myth, this is Snow White as it might be told in the wake of Batman Begins, with something of the heavily armored TV hit Game of Thrones in the mix. The eponymous heroine's lips will come to be bloodied by a power struggle between those who've been hurt by love and those young enough not yet to know of this hurt - though, this being a product of the 21st-century American entertainment industry, it's no real surprise which faction will eventually be crowned the victor.

A prologue has a warrior king falling for the fair maiden he's rescued from the back of a stolen carriage; as our growly narrator informs us, "he married her the next day", only to have his heart physically ripped out on his wedding night, which only goes to show you shouldn't rush into these things. The ripper in question is Ravenna (Charlize Theron), a vain sort allotted the rationale of the jilted lover: she does to men what men have done to her - figuratively, if not literally - in the past. Still, she proves somewhat discriminate in her retribution: her first moves, once installed in a position of power, are to imprison the King's beautiful daughter Snow White (Raffey Cassidy as a girl, Kristen Stewart as a teenager) and to suck the life out of another pretty serf, played by Lily Cole, at which point the audience collectively comes to the conclusion that, whoa, this is one wicked stepmama.

If we've learnt anything from this double-dip of Snow White adaptations, it's that this legend presents a particular field day for cinematographers and costume designers. SWATH (for it is thus) never looks less than terrific: gorgeous enough that it should feel confident to remove Lily Cole from the action after barely a minute of screen time, gorgeous enough that it's being released without the image-sullying 3D with which the major Hollywood studios now routinely adorn their prestige family offerings. In a week when it was announced that the forthcoming G.I. Joe 2 was, at the very last of very last minutes, being sent back to the kitchen to be retrofitted in this manner, this last is not to be taken lightly: in a landscape dominated by clanky, titanium superhero movies, SWATH arrives as a breath of comparatively fresh air, returning us to the lush forestry of the Lord of the Rings movies after Snow White escapes her captors, first tailed, then aided by a notionally hunky huntsman (Thor's Chris Hemsworth).

The director, Rupert Sanders, hails from the ad world, and knows when to reach for the picturebook imagery - as when his camera finds Snow White lying supine in a tangle of tree branches - but his specialty is gooey or otherwise liquid textures. The mirror this time round melts and advances across the floor in a shiny pool, recalling the metallurgy of The Abyss and Terminator 2; Theron's similarly shapeshifting Ravenna emerges from a roadkill of squashed ravens, and bathes in a tub filled to the brim with asses' milk as thick as white Dulux. Other marvels include the dwarves, played by (for some counter-intuitive reason, eight) full-size actors - Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Johnny Harris and Brian Gleeson - who've been digitally shrunk more or less to scale. (Memorise their names, as they're bound to come up in a pub quiz some time.)

The rest, however, is one of those half-and-half jobs Hollywood hopes to get away with every now and again. There's a sense the filmmakers are trying to open up and do something novel within this world, heightened by the casting of actresses who might very well bring an additional savvy and intelligence to this material, but both Stewart and Theron increasingly find themselves with nothing much to do, except to move forwards or stay put as required. Cast for a scream so defiant it might stop a troll in its tracks, Stewart makes an offbeat, attitudinous Snow White - it'd be easy to imagine Anne Hathaway, say, offering a rather more Disneyfied reading of the role - but all the running around prevents any real character from coming through.

Theron - in what's proving to be a real banner year for her, with Young Adult and this week's Prometheus - is as imperious in places as she's been allowed to be on screen for some time, working wonders with a slight incline of the head or flaring of the nostrils; the pity is that - in sending others to do all her dirty work for her - she should be stuck on the sidelines for much of the film, without so much as a poisoned apple to play with. Instead, the focus shifts onto an underheated love triangle between Thor, SW and the latter's childhood sweetheart (Sam Claflin, as forgettable here as he was in the last Pirates of the Caribbean), and as we sense the film chasing after the Twilight dollar, interest slips away. This Snow's heart, perhaps yearning for sequels, remains unresolved at the end of these two hours, but it doesn't exactly feel like a progression she should have to share equal billing with a huntsman, or that the audience should come away from a notionally revisionist version of this legend remembering only the look of the thing.

Snow White and the Huntsman is in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 27 May 2012

On track: "Personal Best"

I don't know whether you've spotted this already, but apparently there's an Olympiad this year, at a venue close to home. Personal Best, Sam Blair's revealing, atmospherically lensed profile of several of the young British athletes hoping to be there or thereabouts come July and August impresses from the gun with the extent of its access. It's there at the track on those days when the generally peppy sprinter Jeanette Kwakye doesn't much feel like completing her circuits, and there again at the bedside of hurdler Richard Alleyne as he goes in for one of those cartilage operations you always hear sportspeople are set to undergo; it's there again as Alleyne returns to the gym, and starts to wonder whether he has a career left, much less a shot at Olympic glory.

No small part of the film's compulsive hold is that these are British athletes: not the swaggering superhuman likes of Usain Bolt or Asafa Powell, but individuals prone to doubt and self-deprecation. By any normal standards, the likes of Kwakye and her male counterpart James Ellington are world-class - and have competed at that level - but they may only place fourth, fifth or sixth come the day of the final; given the exertion and sacrifice it takes getting there, that in itself rarely feels good enough. Many of these athletes have grown up in the inner cities, and have been lucky to some degree, in that their natural talent was caught early, and then fostered into a way out, a way of life. Yet even then, we're made aware, the decision to pursue a full-time athletics career remains a gamble: sure, focus on sport - to the possible detriment of one's studies, and any hope of a back-up plan - with an eye to the grand payday of the Golden League, but what if, as Ellington found, the sponsorship runs dry, and you find yourself having to sell yourself on eBay to support your training, your family? As the mother of one teenage aspirant puts it: "So much to gain, so much to lose".

Mind-body, risk-reward: Personal Best never lacks for dramatic conflict, and seasoned sports viewers will be gripped by the sight of individuals attempting to achieve the world in the blink of an eye - whether the ten or so seconds it takes to run the 100 metres, or the ten to fifteen years of the average track career (if you're lucky enough to avoid injury). We even get a passing illustration of what a cruel mistress the track can be: stumbling in eighth in one early indoor race is Mark Lewis-Francis, once the great young hope of British sprinting, now perhaps destined to go down as yet another of the sport's countless nearlymen. There's still a certain scepticism and cynicism surrounding London 2012, much of it - it has to be said - emanating from within the M25. Perhaps this was to be expected; it's become part of our national character to fear the worst and duck the limelight. Yet Blair's film offers another, more encouraging angle on the Games, highlighting the hard work and genuine human achievement waiting to be discovered and properly celebrated, once all of the hoopla and flagwaving has subsided. The clock, meanwhile, keeps on ticking.

Personal Best is in selected cinemas.

Back in the arena: "Barbaric Genius"

Barbaric Genius forms a brisk profile of John Healy, the Irish author of The Grass Arena - a major literary success at the turn of the 1990s, chronicling the author's time on the streets of London as a vagrant and alcoholic, his time in prison, and his subsequent rehabilitation, sparked by a growing interest in chess. There is evidence enough that Healy has lived the life: though the director, Paul Duane, meets up with the author just as The Grass Arena is set for reprint as a Penguin Modern Classic, the more telling material comes in the downtime, away from the promotional circuit. Here we find Healy either poring over manuscripts in his poky flat (proof that publication doesn't automatically guarantee you a place in the Hampstead hills) or pounding the streets of North London in the snow and drizzle, pointing out where he'd make his shelter for the night if he found himself homeless today. Clearly, the precariousness of the writer's former existence has stayed with him: the chess, yoga and meditation with which Healy now fills his days seem like a quest for stillness after all those years of vagrancy and throwing punches.

Healy probably wouldn't describe himself as such, but he's a prickly, obsessive, innately compelling personality, one who prefers not to be filmed in cabs, because he reckons it sends out the wrong image, and more generally treats being in front of the camera as an experience akin to being interrogated, because he still can't entirely be sure he isn't being fitted up. Duane adopts an understandably respectful line of inquiry: an early montage of outtakes and off-camera remarks reveals just how unwilling Healy was to go into certain aspects of his life. Yet the light, playful sparring between filmmaker and subject generates sudden flurries of information, gobbets of interest: on the appeal of chess among old lags (that it's a formalised variant of breaking-and-entering, and you have all the time you have left to serve in which to master it), the deleterious effects of alcoholism, and - most fascinatingly - on the clash of personalities that ended Healy's relationship with his first publishers Faber & Faber. Barbaric Genius gets to this material late in the day, but it goes to the snobbishness and social prejudice that still exists at the heart of the London literary scene; the film is a piquant reminder of a figure first cheered by the establishment for who he was, then cursed and cast out for the very same thing.

Barbaric Genius is on selected release.

Saturday 26 May 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of May 18-20, 2012:

1 (new) The Dictator (15)
2 (1) Marvel Avengers Assemble (12A) **
3 (3) Dark Shadows (12A) *** 
4 (2) American Pie: Reunion (15) **
5 (new) The Raid (18) ****
6 (5) Beauty and the Beast 3D (U)
7 (4) The Lucky One (12A)
9 (11) The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists! (U) ****
10 (6) Safe (15) ***
(source: BFI)
My top five:
1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Top Ten DVD rentals:
2 (1) War Horse (12) ** 
4 (new) Underworld: Awakening (18)
5 (new) The Grey (15)
6 (7) Contagion (12) ***
7 (4) In Time (12) ***
8 (3) The Help (12) ***
9 (5) Crazy, Stupid, Love. (12) ***
10 (new) Shame (18) ***

My top five:

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
 1. The Edukators [above] (Saturday, C4, 2am)
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Saturday, C4, 6.30pm)
3. Unforgiven (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
4. Little Fish (Wednesday, C4, 2.35am)
5. Empire Records (Monday, C4, 1.55am)

Tweehouses: "Moonrise Kingdom"

I should declare a bias, first of all: Wes Anderson is one of those filmmakers who've come to drive me squarely up the pastel-coloured wall. Even those films of Anderson's I'd file under diverting - the Bottle Rockets, the Rushmores, the Tenenbaums - have bordered on the static and airless, and I've long wished for a Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell to tear through these precisely ordered sets, to carve up their meticulous symmetries, to knock off the hats angled on these characters' heads with one hand while ruffling their hair with the other. Anderson's pernickety aesthetic is the result of a refinement bordering on pedantry that kills each joke stone dead. All his energies go towards crafting gags, characters and plots for museum cabinets: this is material not to be touched, let alone laughed at. Precious isn't the word for it.

Still, Anderson has admirers enough to be encouraged yet. Moonrise Kingdom, the director's Sixties-set tale of two teenage runaways garnering the attention of their quiet New England community, may be the most Anderson-ish production to date, for all that that recommendation is worth. It is endlessly, relentlessly Wes, from its colour-coordinated opening credits to its offbeam, scarcely human characters (tiny piles of propbox signifiers, animated more from without than within) to the miscellany of etchings and doodles and tchotchkes and geegaws that surround them, which nowadays apparently constitutes a credible and involving - some have even invoked the adjective "touching" - movie universe.

The teenagers' journey - from scout camp and other forms of bourgeois hell to the watershed that serves as some form of liberation - cues more of the same, only more so. There's the declamatory acting style, straight to camera, which suggests the actors are less important, in the overall design, than how their names might look on the poster and publicity material. (No-one has ever given an emotionally complex performance in a Wes Anderson film, and Anderson only needs Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and Ed Norton to get these dollshouses out of his bedroom and into the multiplex; drawstringed, talking Willis, Murray and Norton action figures could generate the same deadpan effects as their flesh-and-blood equivalents, which reminds you just how easily the filmmaker made the transition to stopmotion animation for 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox.)

Only compounding the archness of tone that makes Damsels in Distress look and sound like Dumb & Dumber is the infuriating, anti-cinematic absence of movement, whether physical or emotional, between frames - a flaw that continues to suggest Anderson would be better suited to illustrating the drier entries in The New Yorker's Children's Book of the Month competition. At all points, I remained astonished only by the level of indulgence demanded by this vision: that a filmmaker with the intelligence, the taste and the budget to stage an unbelievably lavish church production of Noye's Fludde (and don't get me started on the unconscionable wankiness of choosing that production above all others) should be labouring over these cute exercises in juvenilia that obsess over form to mask the absence of content or passion from their remit, and which bear not the slightest relation to the world as you or I know it. (It's telling Anderson should be making films about boy scouts in 1965 - in historical terms, a nothing year - rather than, say, boy soldiers in '68.)

For all Anderson's indie credentials, he's really doing no more than the American mainstream at its worst: taking the side of a coupla kids over the variously uptight, dried-out or past-it adults fussing around them. In some ways, this is only to be expected: the director has always come across as something of a big kid himself, one who's never had to struggle to fund or make his movies. He stages Moonrise's visual gags - like the treehouse perched precariously in the upper branches of a giant willow tree - like a prep-school scholar seeking affirmation from his parents: I did that, mommy! Compared to the termite-y business of the New American Comedy, scratching towards human truths through jokes, Moonrise Kingdom is a white elephant resprayed yellow with pink stripes, and its unrelenting precocity soon gets the better of it: it's impossible to make out whether Anderson has anything to say, when every other element of his film is busily hollering "look at me, look at me, look at me". Many have lined up to pat Moonrise on the head; I'm not so sure I won't be the only one who comes away wanting to throttle the brat.

Moonrise Kingdom is in cinemas nationwide.  

Friday 25 May 2012

"Tales of the Night" (The Guardian 25/05/12)

Tales of the Night (PG) ***

With his Kirikou films and Azur & Asmar, France’s Michel Ocelot made a striking case for the revival of traditional animation techniques. His latest is a technological leap of sorts, using the notorious darkening properties of digital 3D to make its silhouetted characters – an old man and two youngsters, enacting global legends on the stage of an abandoned cinema – pop out even further from boldly drawn, vividly shaded backgrounds. The tales themselves, variously sad, strange and funky, are a riot of wandering accents, nipples (no Disney coyness here), morals and monsters, underpinned by a palpable love of storytelling and pretty things, whether melancholy princesses or illustrations ripped straight from art history books. The pick-and-mix approach proves somewhat limiting, but there’s no denying these are gorgeous amuse-bouches, likely to be devoured by older, more discerning children and dyed-in-the-wool stoners alike. 
Tales of the Night opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Men in Black 3" (The Scotsman 25/05/12)

Men in Black 3 (12A) **
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Emma Thompson

The first Men in Black, a fresh, smart pulping of alien-invasion clichés, opened at the height of summer 1997. Fifteen years (and one underwhelming sequel) later, it may be telling that MIB3 shuffles out altogether timidly at May’s end, into a marketplace blitzed by The Avengers. With original ideas apparently at a premium, this quasi-prequel takes the Marty McFly route, invoking a “temporal fracture” that sends Will Smith’s Agent J back to 1969 to help his partner K (Tommy Lee Jones now, a livelier Josh Brolin then) close the one case that continues to bug him.

The monster-mash business – Smith wrestling with an outsized fish-creature, an alien’s head deployed as a bowling ball – retains its charms, but the counterculture schtick is too rarely funny, and for all the whizzy 3D thrown at us, it still ends up clanking round on the same gantry flooring as a dozen other recent superhero movies. Taken with the similarly fitful Dark Shadows and American Pie: Reunion, it’s enough to make you wonder whether mainstream Hollywood’s nostalgia has become a sickness. Haven’t we moved on from this? And if we have, why can’t they?

Men in Black 3 opens nationwide today.

"What to Expect When You're Expecting" (The Guardian 25/05/12)

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (12A) **
Someday, Hollywood will start thinking of women as more than fallopian tubes in heels; until then, we’re stuck with this kind of project, based on a self-help bestseller – of course – and set out in that bitty, crap-estry format Valentine’s Day made regrettably profitable. The labour pains here extend from whitebread reality celebs Cameron Diaz and Matthew Morrison’s disproportionate squabbling about infant circumcision, to an unpersuasively penniless J-Lo’s attempts to adopt from Ethiopia. Brit director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned) keeps it on the sunnier, dopier side of offensive, but it’s still the sort of insight-deficient fluff that thinks the misery of a miscarriage lasts only so long as a sad song, and assumes what women want – beyond babies – are reality show callbacks, a Cheryl Cole cameo and various male telly stars with their tops off. Ladies, you are better than this. 
What to Expect When You're Expecting opens nationwide today.