Saturday 30 June 2012

From the archive: "Total Recall"

Amazing, now, to think of the start Paul Verhoeven had to his American career, with Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct - all colossal box-office successes, all pushing the boundaries of screen representation in some way or another, all of them B-movies with A-list budgets. At the centre of this trash trilogy is Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an ordinary guy with an apparently loving wife and steady job. Despite all the perks of a futuristic Earth, Doug Quaid is dissatisfied with his life; he wants to get away from it all, and has his heart set on a trip to the recently colonised Mars. Philip K. Dick's source story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", proposed that, in the future, rather than face the fuss of travel agents and long-haul flights, would-be holidaymakers could simply go to a facility that implants memories of any requested trip within the brain. During Doug's procedure, however, something goes awry: it turns out that Quaid isn't an ordinary guy being implanted with the globetrotting mental snaps of a secret agent, but a double agent who's had his memory erased to allow him to live the life of an ordinary guy. Only the erasure was incomplete - which explains Doug's easy facility with necksnapping - and there are people (most notably, the great Michael Ironside as a corporate henchman) who want our hero dead for what he knows but cannot remember.

Verhoeven here blends espionage thrills - it's essentially the same plot as North by North-West and The Bourne Identity, beamed a century into the future - with the midlife crisis fantasy of a workaday schmo who gets to kick ass and have two women fighting over him: "you're the best assignment I ever had," pants Sharon Stone as Quaid's wife. The result remains one of the wittier adaptations of Dick's work, revelling in the spectacle provided by Rob Bottin's prosthetic effects team and the best production design 1990 money could buy. It's exceptionally pacy entertainment, and Verhoeven surrounds an inspired (if only implied) central gag - that, years from now, Arnie will be the closest thing to real we'll have - with a succession of unreal sights: Arnie being beaten up by a girl (or Sharon Stone, which almost counts); Arnie in drag (this just after he leaves a video message for himself, insistent that he's been "playing for the wrong team"); Arnie being propositioned by first a woman with three breasts, then a midget in pink lingerie.

(May 2007)

Total Recall screens on ITV2 this Tuesday at 11pm, and is re-released in cinemas from Friday.

Friday 29 June 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 22-24, 2012:

1 (new) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (12A)
2 (2) Men in Black 3 (12A) **
3 (new) The Five-Year Engagement (15) **
4 (1) Prometheus (15) ****
6 (4) Rock of Ages (12A) ** 
7 (new) Chernobyl Diaries (15)
8 (7) Marvel Avengers Assemble (12A) **
9 (new) Teri Meri Kahaani (PG) **
10 (10) Top Cat: The Movie (U)
(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (2) The Woman in Black (12) ***
2 (10) The Descendants (15) ***
4 (new) Carnage (15) *
5 (4) The Muppets (U) ***
6 (3) Man on a Ledge (12)
7 (re) In Time (12) ***
9 (8) The Iron Lady (12) **

My top five:

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Wayne's World [above] (Friday, C4, 12.20am)
2. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Saturday, C4, 11.40pm)
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Saturday, BBC1, 6.30pm)
4. Scaramouche (Tuesday, C4, 12.55pm)
5. 3:10 to Yuma (Sunday, five, 10pm)

Child benefits: "Friends with Kids"

The premise of Friends with Kids is that having children brings couples together and tears friendships apart. Single Manhattanites Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt, the film's writer-director) are left looking on in disbelief as their settled contemporaries' spacious, well-appointed living spaces fall into toy-scattered, puke-spattered disarray. For these two, the matter of conceiving a child will be undertaken in the spirit of practicality, an attempt to "beat the system" and bring life into the world without incurring the stresses and strains a married couple might face upon becoming parents; even when their child arrives, they will continue to live in separate apartments, and offer up their services as babysitters for those nights when their co-creator has a date with somebody else. As experiments go, it's a novel and very contemporary one, but one that, according to Movie Law, simply cannot work. The rest of the film will throw all the poop it can at this pair to impress upon them how wrong their arrogant thesis was, for the benefit of those couples in the audience who have spawned already, or have their hearts set on spawning in the future.

What Westfeldt has spotted, and is pretty sharp on, is how one couple's lifestyle choices can come to impact upon those of others around them; how doing something even vaguely unconventional can feel like a comment on - or worse still, a criticism of - those who've done everything by the (Spock-authored) book. At a moment when the issue of gay marriage is preoccupying some hetero onlookers more than it perhaps should, this is not un-useful. (Westfeldt made her name with 2001's lipstick-lesbian comedy Kissing Jessica Stein.) There's a frankness here about the human reproductive organs that pushes beyond modern American comedy's default setting of sniggering dick jokes, and generates the kind of snappy, sinewy dialogue that has blue-chip comic actors buzzing around it. Friends with Kids is the platform for Adam Scott those of us who've spent the past year mourning the cancellation of TV's Party Down have been waiting for, and it's even savvy and generous enough to make Megan Fox - as the lissom dancer Jason picks up while out walking the kid one morning - appear clued-in and funny, which is an achievement of sorts.

Everybody here is shot to look handsome or pretty, as fits, but - even in the poo-and-puke scenes - the world of the film is somehow a little too pristine to fully connect, and it's faintly smug with it: Westfeldt can't resist getting a laugh at the expense of a nanny who voted for Bush in '04, and the crux of the film is a dinner table fracas where the supporting couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm, all more or less underused) line up to tell Jason and Julie what terrible, irresponsible non-parents they're being, prompting Jason into taking the stand that sets the happy ending firmly in place. When the alternative is What to Expect When You're Expecting, a romcom that doesn't even think of exploring other options, you can forgive Westfeldt's film its superiority up to a point - but it could have done with more of the blithe looseness Wiig and Rudolph fostered in Bridesmaids. (One executive producer here is Mike Nichols, the godfather of this kind of sophisticat-comedy.) In the end, Friends with Kids sits on or about a par with something like last year's Crazy, Stupid, Love.: it has the good cast, the decent script, and passes the time acceptably without ever threatening to overturn any applecarts. Having children, we learn, is supposed to ruin your carpets and cockblock you in the bedroom, and it makes you a better person for that. For all the subversive gestures Westfeldt makes elsewhere, both we and the film are stuck with that conclusion.

Friends with Kids is in cinemas nationwide.

"The Fairy" (The Guardian 29/06/12)

The Fairy (PG) 93 mins ***

As in their 2008 oddity Rumba, Francophone clowns Abel, Gordon and Romy here mix Tati-esque sight gags, physical theatre and divisive, Boosh-like whimsy: it’s the kind of film that delights in sending its principals – Abel’s loser hotel receptionist and Gordon’s eponymous barefooted kook – to the seabed to cavort with carrier-bag jellyfish. Juggling random motifs (scooters, lost dogs, the number 57), this threesome are content with sustained dottiness, where Tati shaped his skits into a far grander vision. Still, it’s meticulously slight: every set-up – whether life-threatening ketchup bottles or sausage-snatching migrants – yields its own minor rewards. 

The Fairy opens in selected cinemas from today.

Word up: "We Are Poets"

The British doc We Are Poets fits snugly within a certain template - it's one from the Spellbound school, employing some very familiar tactics to get us to cheer for its designated underdogs - but, in its incidental moments, it offers valuable glimpses of an emergent, vocal counterculture. Its subjects are six black, Muslim and mixed-race teens from Leeds, heading to the "Brave New Voices" poetry slam in Washington, D.C.. Slam poetry, for the uninitiated, is meant to be performed; it's less genteel than what its practitioners call "page poetry". You may be reminded of the rap battles seen in the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile and elsewhere, though the specifically Northern brogues and rhythms being showcased here also can't help but recall our own John Cooper Clarke. (Marc Levin's 1998 drama Slam was an indie take on the American scene; that film's star Saul Williams is observed mentoring these teenagers at one point.)

The young women of the team, hardened by the struggle to make themselves heard, are fierce and smart-mouthed - you fear for any boys who might cross them on this minibus trip - while their male counterparts, though outwardly more passive, themselves have something interesting going on. Saju, who turned to slam poetry as a way of making sense of his delinquent past, gleefully raps in Bangladeshi for the benefit of the cameras; Joseph, a happy-go-lucky SF aficionado, smiles his way through a description of the abuse he received from black contemporaries for not being black enough. Common themes emerge: operating under no apparent constraints or censorship, the teenagers are encouraged to write about race and sex and violence, their own bruising personal experience. Young Azalia filters adolescent sex through the framework of well-known biscuits, in a manner very nearly as frank as her almost-namesake Ms. Banks; in a controversial piece titled "America", Maryam, a Muslim poet, compares a lover to an occupying force. We hear in their words a fear of being plundered or exploited for who they are and where they come from; writing this stuff down, and then spitting it out, gives them an element of control.

The film dips in its second act, once these personalities have been set up, as the kids retreat into rehearsals or seminars, and we wait for them to enter the crucible of the competition arena; the novice directors, Alex Ramseyer-Bache and Daniel Lucchesi, also paint a rather simplistic, awestruck contrast between grim, forbidding inner-city Britain and a vibrant, jumping America where there appears to be a party on every streetcorner. (This will doubtless play better over there than it will back home.) Still, the contest itself, with its impromptu Maori hakas, dancing in the aisles and major 'froage, makes for a wilder experience than the sedate academic circles Spellbound spun in, and if We Are Poets doesn't quite achieve the narrative tension of its predecessor - final titles float the notion the directors may just have gone to Washington in the wrong year - you could argue the slam's result doesn't matter as much as the raising of consciousness, the finding of a voice. At the very least, it's good to know there are words coming out of Leeds more resonant, relevant and carefully chosen than those selected by, for example, Chris Moyles.

We Are Poets is touring selected cinemas: further details can be found here.  

Once more, Kapoor: "Teri Meri Kahaani"

Teri Meri Kahaani, Bollywood's first major overseas hit of the summer, is a cutesy, messy tale of star-crossed lovers in three different time periods who repeatedly find themselves confronted with problems of communication - problems this somewhat garbled film knows all too well. It opens in 1960, where upstart guitar man Govind (Shahid Kapoor) happens to board the same train as Ruksar (Priyanka Chopra), a haughty actress on her way to Mumbai, or sets that constitute a stylised version of same, to shoot her latest movie. Though their courtship is set out in alarmingly perky fashion, involving a lot of sped-up, Benny Hill-style bum-pinching and girl-following, the vision underlying these early scenes is broadly (and, at a time when every other Bollywood release wants to be a Brett Ratner action spectacular, reassuringly) traditionalist. The period styling and 60s guitar licks reach their apex in "Jabse Mere Dil Ko Uff", the moment when everything - boy, girl, music, lyrics - come together, and a very strong contender for the title of 2012's best filmed musical number.

Alas, this moment is fleeting. Just as Govind and Ruksar's relationship is building, it's put on narrative hold, at which point we flash ahead to Stratford-upon-Avon in the present day. Here, student Krish (Kapoor again, this time with shaggy, Shah Rukh hair) bumps into visiting Nottingham lass Radha (Chopra, in a "Music is Good" T-shirt), shortly after the latter has seen the bench on which, it's claimed, the Bard wrote parts of Romeo and Juliet. You get where we're going by now, and this middle third suffers from being the most conventionally formulated of the lot: Midlands-based viewers may get a region-specific kick from watching the leads sing and dance outside the Barclays on Stratford High Street, but their romance proves wanly uninspiring, and its keynote song, "That's All I Really Wanna Do", manages to be very nearly as bland as its title. (In this instance, music is not so good.) 

There's less bum-pinching, but this strand has tics of its own: the thrust is that the couple come to conduct the bulk of their relationship long(ish) distance via social networks, which cues rather too much onscreen Twittering to be truly involving and anything other than flagrant zeitgeist-chasing. Somewhat amusingly, the worst thing Radha can think to do upon the pair's eventual break-up is to post online a pic of Krish with the smallest imaginable amount of his arsecrack showing - pixellated, of course, so as not to offend any grandmothers in the audience. At which point, anticipating the interval, we're whisked backwards in time once more, to Lahore in 1910, where Kapoor is reinvented as Javed, a buff, poetry-quoting womaniser (apparently ten-a-penny in the pre-Partition era) whom Chopra's Aradhana offers first sanctuary, when the former is fleeing troops sent after him after he's discovered seducing the Governor's daughter, and then guides towards political enlightenment, or at least tripping a British officer up into a pile of manure, which is the closest this PG-rated entry gets to examining the messiness of indigenous resistance movements.

Taken as a whole, the film has an ambition and scope you want to encourage, and the stars - who are, I'm assuming, the reason for the film's box-office success - are appealing: Chopra, in particular, is just a doll in the period segments, whether heading elegantly to the piano in rehearsals for a lavish movie number we don't actually get to see performed, or installed on the cinema's least practical - least safe - swing over the banks of the Ravi River. Yet the film is naive and vague around its own better ideas: for all the script's handwringing about connection, director Kunal Kohli and writer Robin Bhatt haven't much of a clue how to link up their constituent parts, which leads to credibility issues, come the notionally happy ending, when they start crosscutting between the experiences of a political prisoner who's emerged from jail to find his beloved is being married off and those of an undergraduate playa who's just been unfriended on Facebook.

What we're left to watch are wild sweeps at three stories that might appeal to three different demographics, rather than one story (or theme) developed with any depth, and though the direction gets more expansive with each successive interlude, the film shrinks in interest: it pains me to say the Stratford segment is a dead loss, and Kohli-Bhatt's Lahore is full of framebreaking modernisms (characters who say "okay" and "smartass") that mark it down as flimsy pastiche. Teri Meri Kahaani is at its most comfortable and confident in Sixties movieland, in part because it's the work of filmmakers who've sourced the majority of their ideas from other films. Something magical happened on these sets at the time of filming "...Dil Ko Uff" (go on, take another look; even in this cut-down, promo version, it's quite something); the rest, exposed to the bright lights of the real world, begins to look altogether clumsily choreographed.

Teri Meri Kahaani is in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Put a ring on it: "The Five-Year Engagement"

The overriding problem with The Five-Year Engagement is that it takes place over five years, and very nearly feels like it. There's no urgency in the set-up of Nicholas Stoller's new comedy, which sees an upwardly mobile couple - researcher Violet (Emily Blunt) and aspirant chef Tom (Jason Segel) - using their professional commitments as first a reason, then an excuse, to postpone their nuptials. What we end up watching is a pair of procrastinators stringing out the inevitable, and being enabled to do so by the New American Comedy's tendency to drag its heels in pursuit of something funnier and more revealing. One of Violet's psych-lab case studies involves leaving a box of stale doughnuts out for her subjects, and seeing whether or not they have the will to hold out for the fresh ones she promises to bring them; that stick-or-twist temptation sits close to the experience of watching the film, which goes on for such time as to kill off all its lovers' grandparents, allow Tom's father to get through not one, not two, but three Asian brides, and cue numerous montages scored to a Damien Rice song (or similar). You could pop out and get doughnuts and not miss anything of major consequence; hell, you could get up and bake your own doughnuts before the big day arrives. The film's presiding spirit is part Judd Apatow, and seemingly part Jacques Rivette.

The issue isn't the time itself, but how Stoller and Segel, co-writers here, have chosen to fill it. These comedies remain good for pop-cultural riffs, but - as amusingly incongruous as Engagement's callbacks to Ratatouille and (again) The Notebook may be - they're no substitute for actual, crafted gags, and in this instance actually come to work against the film. Violet's mum (Jacki Weaver from Animal Kingdom, funnily enough) gets an engagement-party speech setting out the film's thesis that if relationships were Tom Hanks movies, they wouldn't be the romcoms, but Private Ryan and Philadelphia: battlegrounds, in so many words. Engagement nevertheless hews closer to the former rather than latter model. Yes, Violet receives a crossbow bolt to the leg, and yes, Tom will have a toe amputated in the course of proceedings, but these are superficial wounds within the context of the film, temporary setbacks that will be shrugged off by the time the scene-after-next has shambled along. The moral is that love hurts, but we get on (and go on) with it all the same, which doesn't feel too great a revelation.

Particularly not as set out here: in lengthy, chatty, visually undistinguished scenes that probe away insistently at the exact same things. We get that Tom's decision to quit his job to support her career threatens to emasculate him; the sequences that set him to knitting, cake-testing and growing mutton-chop sideburns in a misguided attempt to pass as a woodsman are thus so much (only mildly funny) padding, and actually not a million miles away from the "Dad's Club" scenes in the decidedly unhip non-com What to Expect When You're Expecting. Segel, who's grown into a likable screen presence in recent years, ends up seeming as flabby as the film, labouring through the same comic beats over and over again, or huffing and puffing after punchlines that remain just out of reach. We, on the other hand, are allowed ample time to spot plot developments coming from a distance of several reels; the one twist you don't see coming is that Tom's career will enjoy a midfilm renaissance of sorts, allowing the second hour to replay the first with the boot on the other foot.
The minute Rhys Ifans appears on screen, shooting jets of fire from his sleeves as Violet's charismatic study-supervisor, we gather his student is going to be tempted enough to delay her wedding for another half-hour or so; though Blunt is well-placed to make something vaguely sympathetic of a fundamentally infuriating character, a ditz who forgets to bring the funny is doomed to become an annoyance, particularly with the added distraction of Ms. Blunt's gleamingly prominent (newly capped?) upper front teeth. (You have time to notice, and become irritated by, these things.) Putting enough funny people in front of a camera, and filming them for two hours, is bound to generate the odd snort and chuckle, and it remains heartening to see a school of comedy still prepared to float the odd idea - about comedy, about life - even if more sink than swim: the dealbreaker (or clincher) may be the row between Violet and her sister conducted in the voices of prominent Sesame Street characters, which would be funny if it wasn't allowed to go on just about all afternoon. The majority of Stoller's manoeuvres, though - right through to the last-reel drive to the airport - are as that box of stale doughnuts. I'd hold out for fresher ones, if I were you.

The Five-Year Engagement is in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Trailer trash: "Killer Joe"

Killer Joe illustrates something of what I meant when I proposed it might now be better to be among those 1970s moviebrats whose fortunes have fluctuated over the decades: it leaves these directors free to do anything they choose, however far beyond Brand Spielberg or Brand Scorsese the resulting films may venture. After his heroically uncommercial filming of Tracy Letts' play Bug - a pulpy psychodrama with Michael Shannon serving early notice of his talents as a paranoiac becoming convinced the world entire, from microscopic insects to Big Government, was crawling under his skin - William Friedkin here delivers a devil-may-care adaptation of another Letts work, a thick slice of trailer-park Gothic that finds the directorial sensibility behind The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration looking at the mainstream likes of Meet the Parents and Little Miss Sunshine and openly cackling. Hell, if you want a dysfunctional family, Friedkin seems to be saying here, I'll give you one.

Stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon) bids us welcome to this world by throwing open the trailer door, naked from the waist down; once inside (the trailer, that is), we meet her fairly useless hubby Ansel (Thomas Haden Smith) who, along with his - for this neighborhood - wildly ambitious son Chris (Emile Hirsch), has come up with the less-than-foolproof plan to have his first wife offed in order to put her appetising life-insurance payout into his new clan's empty coffers. Cometh, at this point, the not-so-nice-man of the title, a detective-turned-hired gun (Matthew McConaughey), who - noting the family haven't two pennies to rub together - seeks alternative means of payment. This will be youngest daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), a girl so miraculously pure of heart she believes her true love may be a chubby classmate who's not so much as spoken to her.

It strikes you, around the time Dottie is disrobing for the first time in the midst of one of her brother's nightmares, that Letts may be the closest the theatre has produced to an exploitation merchant like a Corman or a Lloyd Kaufman, which may be why his work adapts so effectively as cinema (of a sort): if Bug was his freakout opus, then Killer Joe marks a gleeful plunge into the realms of sex and death. Friedkin, as ever, can barely restrain himself: the movie is composed of spitting, cussing, overhead shots peeping into girls' changing rooms, angry bikers, ugly dogs, lightning strikes, inventive uses for fried chicken and canned pumpkin, and a final bloodbath that would set anybody's grandmother and priest hastening for the exits, if they hadn't already got up and left at that first bush shot.

Needless to say, it's a livelier film than War Horse, for one - though, crucially, it does feel like a film, and never a filmed play, lifted above the prosaically ordinary by some very capable and committed performers. It's likely that, in its original incarnation, this piece became catnip for fringe actors prepared to flaunt their everything, but Friedkin fine-tunes these performances to the extent the material retains its kick and grip: it's certainly the first Haden Church outing for some time to feel, from some patchy facial hair on down, like a unified character rather than a series of sporadically inspired, honey-dipped riffs, and the film's early stages offer a welcome (and long overdue) reminder of the particular tartness of Gina Gershon, and just how the movies have delighted in mistreating this actress.

Just as Bug was unsettling rather than jump-from-your-seat scary, Killer Joe is consistently amusing without being hilariously funny. The plot feels less than the sum of its vivid characters, and Letts doesn't appear to be saying much of anything with it, save possibly making some vague gesture towards the damaging nature of greed. (It's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with T&A.) Nevertheless, as an exercise in playing with the audience - having us snigger one moment, disturbing us the next, turning us on, then grossing us out - Killer Joe remains an effective piece of work, with all the connotations of that phrase, and Friedkin manages the near-unthinkable in getting an awesomely precise and chilling performance out of an emaciated McConaughey, as a stonecold psychopath who conducts his business in the manner of a true Texas gentleman, until his patience runs out. For the longest of whiles, Friedkin seems to be taking a particular pleasure in ensuring McConaughey is just about the only actor on screen not taking his top off. That, ladies and gentlemen, really is perverse.

Killer Joe opens nationwide from Friday.

Monday 25 June 2012

Late bloomer: "Dark Horse"

It may well be that with 2009's Life During Wartime, his apologia for Happiness, Todd Solondz felt as though he'd concluded a particular chapter in his filmmaking career, and that he could move on accordingly. His latest, Dark Horse, initially appears more emollient yet, as though the filmmaker had plans to make something with broad audience appeal: it even begins at a wedding, to the accompaniment of upbeat pop music, although it transpires that the writer-director's interest resides, as usual, with those at the margins at this particular event, busy as they are having themselves no fun whatsoever.

A shattering of the man-boy psyche so revered elsewhere in contemporary American comedy, Dark Horse comes to feel something like an indie remake of 2006's Failure to Launch, albeit with a protagonist who doesn't have Matthew McConaughey's charisma and confidence, and might therefore be more credibly left behind by his contemporaries. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a doughy, deluded thirtysomething still living at home with his overbearing parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken), working a spreadsheet-shuffling job for his pa, and spending much of his income on action figures and replica toys; even his preferred mode of transportation - a canary-yellow jeep - looks like something Hasbro might have manufactured.

He ploughs on regardless, perking himself up with inanely inspirational pop, hiding his frustration behind a facade of boyish bluster, and insisting - despite his early rejection by Miranda (Selma Blair), who had the misfortune to be seated next to Abe at the wedding, and is the recipient-victim of his latest schoolboy crush - that he remains "the frontrunner type, with certain qualities of the dark horse". It remains unclear whether Miranda, herself a stay-at-home type, has considered these in deciding to (in her own words) abandon her literary career, her hopes and ambitions, her independence and self-respect, in order to pledge her troth to Abe, in the absence of any better options; nor whether an older colleague of Abe's (Donna Murphy) has these qualities in mind in deciding to make our hero the latest target of her cougaring.

If, at first glance, Solondz looks to have shucked off some of the ambiguity of his earlier works - their ability to provoke heated debate about authorial tone, and just who they were getting at, exactly - his comedy's becoming more deft: he knows he can get a laugh just from the framing of his mismatched lovers, or from blurring out the logo of a toy-store behemoth who clearly decided it wasn't a good idea to associate themselves too closely with the Solondz brand. He looks, too, to be growing softer with age: we notice the tenderness directed into Miranda and Abe's first kiss, even if it's immediately undercut by the former's sparing appraisal of same ("Oh my God, that wasn't terrible... it could have been so much worse.")

One might nevertheless have cause to question whether the move into the middle ground is entirely beneficial for this director, or indeed for Solondz newcomers. Dark Horse apes the bright, appealing colours of the modern romcom, but without the mocking flamboyance of, say, a John Waters; audiences expecting a laugh riot are going to be confronted with a lot of character business in which the only truly funny line is something like "you're such a post-Marxist
cliché". I can't be sure how these newbies are going to handle the mental and physical disintegrations of the film's second half, wherein characters begin to flit in and out of Abe's unravelling life like imaginary friends, or spectres; the unintiated may be better sticking with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a not dissimilar delayed coming-of-age tale that clung to good, honest dick jokes.

Still - given the borderline-autistic nature of some of his past work - it's encouraging that Solondz is making the effort to reach out, and he's getting demonstrably better around people, including the cast of actors who here appear to mesh seamlessly with his own once singular sensibilities: Blair's sad eyes are like a whole Solondz boxset in themselves, and Murphy's transformation from meek secretary to seducer once she's "off the payroll", is a mini-tour de force akin to Heather Matarazzo's Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Charlotte Rampling's venomous pick-up in Life During Wartime. Maybe the nail-bomb sharpness of the director's more incendiary films has gone, but Solondz remains an acute social observer, and on this evidence, may yet have a career ahead of him as a psychodramatist of some repute - an Ibsen of the American suburbs. 

Dark Horse opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 24 June 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of June 15-17, 2012:

1 (1) Prometheus (15) ****
2 (2) Men in Black 3 (12A) **
4 (new) Rock of Ages (12A) **
5 (4) The Pact (15) *** 
6 (new) Red Lights (15) ***
7 (5) Marvel Avengers Assemble (12A) **
8 (new) Fast Girls (12A)
10 (6) Top Cat: The Movie (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Hobson's Choice [above]
2. The Apartment

Top Ten DVD rentals:
2 (new) The Woman in Black (12) ***
3 (9) Man on a Ledge (12)
4 (new) The Muppets (U) ***
5 (3) The Grey (15) ****
8 (2) The Iron Lady (12) **
9 (4) The Artist (PG) ****
10 (new) The Descendants (15) ***

My top five:

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Psycho (Friday, ITV1, 3.05am)
2. JFK (Saturday, C4, 12midnight)
3. Up in the Air (Sunday, BBC2, 9pm)
4. Good Night, and Good Luck. (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
5. Calamity Jane (Saturday, five, 12noon)

Wednesday 20 June 2012

On DVD: "The Grey"

Joe Carnahan's wilderness thriller The Grey might be regarded as nothing more than proof that, if Liam Neeson signs up for enough parboiled genre projects - as seems to have become the actor's career plan - he's bound to get lucky every now and again. I can't say my hopes are too high for the forthcoming Taken 2, but Neeson deserves this one: he's freezing his bollocks off here as a suicidal hunter, reduced to doing an oil company's bidding in the Alaskan wilds after the death of his wife, and finding renewed reason to live after his plane goes down, stranding him - and seven colleagues who equally survived the crash - in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of some very hungry wolves. What follows, as the group attempt to hold firm, only to find themselves being picked off one-by-one, plays like Jaws with paws, or a subzero Zulu, although one Internet wag's rechristening of the project as Liam Neeson: Wolf Puncher comes to work rather well, too.

For, after a decade of post-Phantom Menace tripe, The Grey offers something of a rediscovery of Liam Neeson: Actor. Even if Neeson's entering the sellout hack phase of his career, Carnahan's film suggests he can still be a more compelling, unironised presence than, say, Nicolas Cage now can: the star carries a weight of experience (inevitably accentuated by offscreen tragedies) on his broad, stooped shoulders, and - unlike the outfit he was obliged to don as Zeus in that Titans trash, which left him looking like the most reluctant member of the Glitter Band - the unfussy woollen-cap-and-stubble combo of the hunter Ottway fits him well. In short, Neeson looks like the sort of no-nonsense guy it would, indeed, be handy to have around during a fight to the death in the woods, and as he sits around the campfire, swapping tales of love and war with his credibly grizzled or cowered supporting performers (Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie et al.), you sense him warming to the idea of the kind of screen presence he might still be, if the right scripts came his way.

For aiding in this transformation, we should co-credit writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, author of the short story ("Ghost Walker") on which The Grey is based; we should also - however much it pains us - give Carnahan his due. As The A-Team (and Smokin' Aces, and even his indie-scaled breakthrough Narc before that) made clear, Carnahan is predisposed to mercilessness; here, that mercilessness is newly focused. Threat in The Grey - whether snow, wind or wolf - tears in from every side of the screen, but working with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior), Carnahan reduces the palette to an elemental darkness or whiteness that provides the ideal cover for these men's foes, and results in the best-looking action movie for some time. He's crafty about his set-up, too: often it's enough to fill the soundtrack with vulpine howls and whimpers to let us know what's waiting out there for these characters.

When it comes to the crunch, Carnahan even proves atypically sparing in the carnage he shows: the film is tempered by a degree of humanity and compassion absent from his earlier, noisome action movies, where it didn't matter whether seven people died or 700. The Grey's survivors, when it comes down to it, are men trying to do the best they can with whatever short span remains of their life, and in the tender, respectful death scenes, the director and screenwriter are compelled by what it is they take with them as they pass from this world to the next. It's a film of unusual, muscular characterisation, manly rather than boyish, and true to its own (itself unusually bleak) vision: if we weren't watching it with our feet rooted to the sugarcoated floor of the Odeon, we could be looking on at a Viking rite of passage, or the last, desperate staggers of the Scott expedition.

The Grey is out now on DVD.                                                   

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Accustomed as we are: "Silent Souls"

A film set firmly in the Russian poetic tradition, Silent Souls takes an offbeat road-trip premise - a photographer is asked by his friend to help transport the body of his dead wife to her final resting place - and adorns it with all manner of (initially odd-seeming) customs apparently specific to the Mirjan people of the country's midwest. Our narrator-hero Aist (Igor Sergeyev) spends the opening ten minutes making a fuss about a pair of buntings he's keeping in a cage, but there are also drinks containing something called "shedberry" and choral works calling out "dried swamp vibernum", "cadweed" and "knotgrass". Unless distributors Artificial Eye have got some Mirjan linguistics geniuses locked up in a backroom somewhere, I'm guessing this was one of the toughest films to subtitle in some while.

There is also, most bizarrely, bunting of another kind: one of the last tasks the friends perform before wrapping the dead woman's naked form in a rug and loading her in the back of their car is to attach tiny, multicoloured streamers to the corpse's pubic hair, by way of an olde-worlde vajazzle. The precise nature and purpose of what these men are doing, and their eventual destination, is withheld from us, but the images begin to rhyme, making a certain sense of this world. We see the paper strands being attached to a bride on the eve of her wedding night, and then again, trailing from the branches of a tree the car comes to pass. People and landscape start to intertwine: rivers and roads become visual metaphors for life, bridges a means of passing from this world to the next. As this makeshift funeral cortege moves through dead, dying and decaying towns, we sense we are very much à la recherche du temps perdu: only a stop-off at a shopping mall, where the guys pick joylessly at a plate of sushi, reminds us we're anywhere close to the New Russia.

We might raise an eyebrow at the film's maleness: the justification (or excuse) is that this is a supremely bodily film, but even a laddish romp of the Due Date variety might blanch at having one of its leads blurt "All Tanya's holes were working; it was me who unstopped them", which sounds like a boast Vladimir Putin might have made to Silvio Berlusconi over cigars at a G12 summit. Though the narrative hinges on the secret one of the men has been keeping from the other, it's the women who are the real silent souls here, from the factory workers Aist is seen photographing in an early sequence to the mute corpse in the back seat, who doesn't even speak in the flashbacks to her extant days, where she's stripped and washed down, or set to masturbating. There's something almost autoptic about one travelling shot over the naked forms of two prostitutes the guys pick up en route, particularly when they start being poked out of shot - but it's mollified by the suggestion these women (and, indeed, all women) are as great lakes, bodies of water in which men have come to drown their sorrows. (In this, the Russian poetic tradition doesn't seem so very far removed from the Western pop tradition: see "She's a River", "Rain Over Me" or even "Splish Splash".) 

What the film is getting at, I think, is an idea of tradition as largely a male thing, handed down from father to son, and doomed to disappear if there are no children to pass it onto: the photographer recalls the time when, as a child, he watched his eccentric poet dad burying his typewriter in the ice, a prop that returns to the surface in a finale that, somehow, manages to tie up all this imagery very satisfyingly. Silent Souls may, at the last, be about the way certain men love, which is shown to be every bit as funny and just as strange as any of the other customs it observes: adoringly, sometimes crudely, yes, but unconditionally, even mournfully, until death do us part - and as the invocation of those words would suggest, you don't have to be Merjan or Russian, or even really a man, to be moved or touched by that.

Silent Souls opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

The lucky ones: "Planet of Snail"

Planet of Snail offers further proof that the key to any successful relationship is communication, however it is you go about it. This Korean documentary focuses on one of life's odd couples who somehow complement one another perfectly. Young-Chan is a man in his forties who lost his sight and hearing at an early age; his great love, muse and amanuensis of sorts, Soon-Ho, has a growth disorder that's left her half his size. Nevertheless, these two go together better than most couples you or I know. She guides his hands and movements, tapping out words and phrases onto his fingers, as though they were a keyboard; he's tall enough to lift her onto his shoulders whenever a lightbulb in their home needs changing. It would be surprising to find a review of Seung-Jin Yi's film that doesn't reach for the term "touching", because that's what this most tactile of relationships is really all about. Young-Chan and Soon-Ho have pushed and poked and prodded each other back into the real world, refusing to retreat into the state of isolation suggested by the title, and the documentary strives to show us some of the challenges the pair have collectively accomplished: hosting meals, taking a Hebrew exam (and passing with flying colours, by all accounts), and creating and overseeing a play performed by the differently abled on the experiences of the deaf and blind. (In an amazing demonstration of the heightened sensitivity of his fingertips, Young-Chan comes to recognise cast members by their hands alone.)

Yi's film is quietly observant, recognising that what these two people have is rare and remarkable enough not to require any formal trickery or dressing-up, though the soundtrack is annotated with extracts from Young-Chan's writing, which is eloquent indeed on the way he's come to see the world. (The subtitling, accordingly, is pure poetry, and Young-Chan's biographical statement - available to download here - is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read in the usually prosaic context of a press kit.) It's true that Soon-Ho's character comes through much less strongly - devotion is all we ever see or hear from her, where surely her own condition merits an equal care and attention - but Yi is content to make his points obliquely, as during the couple's visit to a single friend who's been taken to hospital after slipping on ice. (And we twig: if he'd found someone to steady him, he wouldn't now be in so much pain.) In doing so, the film refuses our pity, never allowing us to dwell on how unlucky its subjects have been as individuals by framing them together - at work, at play, in love. Calmly yet forcefully, Planet of Snail nudges us toward the realisation that Young-Chan and Soon-Ho are really the lucky ones, in that, when they most needed it, they found somebody to hold them.

Planet of Snail opens in selected cinemas - and will be available on demand here - from Friday. A Q&A with Seung-Jin Yi takes place at London's ICA this Saturday - details here.

Monday 18 June 2012

Reel histories: "The Last Projectionist"

As anyone who's tried to pick up 6Music on a train passing through the Chilterns or attempted to watch absolutely anything at all on the ITV Player will be aware, the digital age isn't all it's cracked up to be: where analogue waves were always present in some form, however faint, digital - being chiefly a matter of ones and zeros - is either there (and coming through loud, clear and devoid of interference, which is great) or it isn't (which is just plain annoying). The slightly mistitled documentary The Last Projectionist, a spot of extracurricular tinkering from director Tom Lawes, strives to tell something of this story, while also recounting the history of British cinema exhibition, from combustible nitrates to pristine digital, through that of the cinema Lawes himself owns: the chameleonic Electric (formerly the Select, the Tatler, and then the Jacey) on Station Street, Birmingham.

As one might expect from a work that approaches cinemas themselves with the reverence usually reserved for cathedrals in BBC4 documentaries, there's an element of preaching to the converted cinephile about Lawes's film. Its target audience would appear to be the patrons and managers of those provincial arthouses who are understandably concerned about the demise of conventional, bespoke projection, and the costs attached to the digital upgrade currently demanded of them. The historical narrative the film ventures - addressing the post-War boom years in exhibition, the lows of the Eady levy and Eskimo Nell, and the double-edged sword of the subsequent multiplex revolution (where, as one erstwhile projectionist puts it, "you put the film on to sell the sweets") - has been so well-rehearsed in textbooks that Lawes has no qualms about framing it through the reminiscences of five men of a certain age, ex-projectionists all, sipping beer in a pub; the outlook is so parochial that indie cinemas can be compared to Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range, on the assumption its audience will be wholly familiar with the concept.

Using one cinema as representative of the whole - particularly when the director making these choices owns that cinema - can be a little problematic: the final sequence falls somewhere between hymn to and advert for the new Electric, and the occasional filler scene of Lawes and his employees pottering around the cinema's backrooms and upper floors will, I suspect, be of more interest the closer you are to the Bull Ring. The irony, of course, is that The Last Projectionist is the kind of project that could only have its moment in British cinemas thanks to digital's reduction of production and distribution costs, and Lawes is perhaps aware of this. His film is an affectionate watch, blessed with the traditional appeal of watching and listening to individuals who love and care about what it is they do; whatever its limitations elsewhere, it strikes just about the right balance between fogeyish lament for a bygone age, and an inquisitive, good-natured peer ahead to forthcoming digital attractions.

The Last Projectionist opens in selected cinemas from Friday.