Saturday 29 September 2012

1,001 Films: "Giant" (1956)

"It's big, all right," mutters Rock Hudson, of all people, in the opening moments of George Stevens' epic oilfield saga Giant. Assuming the role of Texan tycoon Bick Benedict, he's talking about his home state, but the actor could equally be defining the incipient size-queenery Hollywood had set about demonstrating in the final decade before the dismantling of the studio system: a redoubling, even tripling, of screen dimension, subject matter and running times designed to stave off the threat emerging from television with a concerted, colossal Bigness. Even the titles went large. 

In this adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel, Hudson plays the cattle rancher and member of the Texan political elite who lords over his Mexican staff in a ten-gallon hat; Liz Taylor, twirling in taffeta and treating this as her own personal Gone With The Wind, is his outsider wife, whose East Coast forward-thinking initially sets her in conflict with the patriarchy; and James Dean, in his last role before prematurely buying the farm, is the self-improving ranchhand with the unlikely name of Jett Rink who inherits a plot of land from Hudson's late sis Mercedes McCambridge, strikes black gold, and goes on to become one of the mid-20th century's foremost tycoons. It's the American dream, only bigger.

Actually, there is an argument to be made that Stevens' film most closely aspires to being Shakespeare in the dust. We have the remote kingdom, the aging dynasty struggling to adjust to a new world - it's just that Giant, caught between the über-straight Fifties and the looser Sixties, doesn't quite know what to make of the latter as yet, which is why its more progressive tendencies appear so hesitant. Dean, the new face of Hollywood, is eventually stuck under bizarre old-man make-up, as his heir apparent Leonardo di Caprio would be in a run of biopics years later, and this must be the only movie in history to cast Dennis Hopper as a cast-iron square.

You sense Stevens trying to bring his usual perceptiveness to bear on the material - he gets a nicely relaxed mid-film interlude with Hudson and Taylor in bed (separate beds, obviously), sipping tea and mulling over recent events with an intimacy rarely observed in on-screen married couples up to that point - and the abiding white liberal neuroses (setting its fist-fights over anti-Mexican prejudice to "The Yellow Rose of Texas", for example) make an interesting, instructive counterpoint to what John Ford was doing in and around this very territory. 

Yet the material doesn't cut deep in the way Stevens' other Taylor collaboration A Place in the Sun did, because at heart Giant's interest resides in the structures of business rather than the doings of people. It wants us to be impressed by the hoopla that goes along with the opening of a hotel or airport, to feel sorry when Hudson hangs up on a call that could have earned him a billion dollars a year for fifty years, to give a damn either way when this patriarch destroys the presumably priceless contents of his nouveau riche rival's private wine cellar.

Truth is, Jett Rink and Bick Benedict don't linger in the mind the way the truly larger-than-life Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara do, as their methods and motives are forever dwarfed by the spaces these characters find themselves in and framed against (the skies, the oil derricks, the vast canvasses mounted on the walls of the Benedict family mansion); the bigger Giant gets, the less specific it's allowed to be, and the duller it becomes. Broad enough, at least, to serve as a digest of several other movies sprawling at the intersection of capitalism and family values, though you may just be better off with The Magnificent Ambersons (which has the advantage of pithiness, in whichever cut you see it), The Little Foxes (whose claws were sharper) or - much later - There Will Be Blood (which matched Stevens for scope, went further in its critique, and found the one performance Big enough to register on this scale).

Giant is available on DVD through Warner Bros.

Friday 28 September 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of September 21-23, 2012:

1 (2) ParaNorman (PG) ***
2 (new) Killing Them Softly (18) ***
3 (new) The House at the End of the Street (15)
4 (1) The Sweeney (15) **
5 (6) Hope Springs (12A) ***
6 (3) Anna Karenina (12A) ***
7 (7) Brave (PG) **
8 (4) Lawless (18) **
9 (5) Dredd (18) ***
10 (new) Savages (15) **
(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
2. Looper

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) The Hunger Games (12) **
3 (2) Safe House (15)
5 (7) This Means War (12) * 
6 (8) Lockout (15) **
7 (6) The Descendants (15) ***
8 (9) The Vow (12) **
9 (5) 21 Jump Street (15) **


My top five:
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Point Blank (Saturday, BBC1, 12.50am)
2. Speed (Monday, five, 9pm)
3. Maverick (Saturday, five, 2.50pm)
4. Spider-Man 2 (Sunday, five, 7.40pm)
5. 10 Things I Hate About You [above] (Sunday, C4, 2.55pm)


"Looper" (Moviemail 28/09/12)

Looper unfolds in a future that hasn’t quite worked out as we’d hoped. Sure, we get hoverbikes, but they’re slow and difficult to start; those with superpowers haven’t got much past making coins levitate; the masses huddle in cramped and filthy streets. Time travel was made possible, only to be seized upon by criminals and immediately outlawed by the authorities. Now timecops – “loopers”, in this update – dispense shotgun blasts to those shuttling through the ether, with nothing much more to expect, at the end of their 30-year career cycle, than to be similarly blown away by their younger selves, the state’s way of cleaning up this particular mess.

Our hero Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, his boyish looks obscured by make-up for reasons that eventually become clear) is as efficient a looper as there is, but his sadness sits closer to the surface. He spends his blood money on numbing drugs – taken optically, as though to wash out everything he’s seen – and clings romantically to a French dictionary, in the hope of someday getting to Paris. Then, on the outskirts of a Kansas cornfield, Joe is confronted not with another disposable ne’er-do-well, but his older self, who refuses to lay down in the anticipated manner. See, Joe’s more of a fighter than he realises – so much so that his older self is played by that warhorse Bruce Willis.

Looper proceeds in constantly surprising directions, introducing its leads in unexpected places, and then choosing to spend quality time with its characters instead of setting them to running about. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s debut was the noiry, too-cool-for-school Brick; here, the complications lurk in the emotions, not the science. At the film’s heart is a diner scene in which Willis, still reeling from his wife’s death, refuses to lay out the technicalities of time travel, and instead tells his younger self “I can remember what you do after you do it, and it hurts.” The result turns out to be less like The Matrix than what James Cameron aimed for on The Terminator, with elements of Twelve Monkeys, the recent The Adjustment Bureau and Ashton Kutcher’s weirdly affecting The Butterfly Effect.

Brick was cast for its faces; Looper goes for gut feelings, a decision that pays off handsomely. The career progression of Gordon-Levitt – one of current Hollywood’s few young male leads to be capable of transmitting sustained sentient thought – remains clear and thrilling: if The Dark Knight Rises suggested his destiny was to assume the mantle of action hero, here he actually gets to impersonate one. Yet pitting him against Willis points up how much Young Joe is still a callow, self-absorbed kid: after being taken in by a stressed single mother (Emily Blunt, tougher than TheAdjustment Bureau allowed her), with concerns more immediate than working out her future, he’s even shown sucking on a baby’s bottle.

It’s rare to see a mainstream American film that dares to point out its target audience might still have much to learn, but this critical stance goes towards making Looper an oddly profound, even moving fantasia about parenting and ageing, and the advantage movies have over real life: that one’s older and younger selves can be linked with a cut, or a look, or prosthetic make-up, and set in dialogue with one another. (The fantasy isn’t limited to self-improving young directors: see also the Alec Baldwin-Jesse Eisenberg business in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love.) That Looper also counts as the year’s smartest popcorn flick, with chases, explosions and men in supercool coats pointing big guns at Bruce Willis, is almost secondary.

Looper opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Husbands" (Moviemail 28/09/12)

Billed as “a comedy about life, death and freedom”, John Cassavetes’ third major work Husbands – originally released in 1970, to generally indifferent reviews – opens with snapshots of a pool party at which the women mind the children, while their other halves flex their muscles, goofing around for the cameras. Cut to: the funeral of an acquaintance, at which these same men suddenly seem at a loss. The grave, it seems, is calling. Their elected response – which is that of men throughout the ages – is to get wholly blotto and sack off work, with the intention of swinging around New York and recapturing their former glories. They play sports, only to tire themselves out; at a lock-in, they sing the songs of their youth, before getting sore-headed and abusive.

In their deathly black overcoats, these three carousers (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself) form the inverse of the boyish sailors in On the Town: that film’s post-War optimism has here been replaced by sourness and regret, a sense these guys’ better days are long gone. Cassavetes boxes in his characters in dense, concentrated blocks of capital-A Acting. We’re watching men pretending to be that which they’re not (young, carefree, studlike), and seeing the first stirrings of that recurring 70s theme of male entrapment. Yet unlike Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest or de Niro in Raging Bull, this trio lack the self-awareness to realise the state they’re in: even after fleeing to London, they end up in a rain-lashed hotel suite, signally failing to connect with their would-be conquests.

For all this, Husbands really is grimly funny, as the sight of men being pathetic often is: the leads nail their casual camaraderie to the screen, bickering and roughhousing like a shabbier Three Stooges. At two hours plus, it remains equal parts bracing and exhausting – a film seemingly designed to drive viewers to teetotalism and back into the missus’s arms – but it’s assumed an added poignancy, now that all three of its leads have succumbed to the grave themselves. From Gazzara’s very real and very adult explosions of rage – during which not even the camera operator knows how to react – you can see what the American cinema has lost over the past four decades: it feels an awful long way down from this to, say, The Hangover, which presented its bacchanalia as mindless entertainment, and expected us to cheer for its losers.

Husbands opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Barbara" (Moviemail 28/09/12)

Germany continues to pick away at its own past, though Christian Petzold’s new drama Barbara does so in a markedly hushed and subcutaneous manner. We’re returned here to the 1980s: Nina Hoss’s frosty doctor has been relocated from Berlin to a leafy spot on the East German coast, and placed under state surveillance. Diagnosed as “separate” by her clubbable colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld), she pedals her bicycle, her one remaining source of freedom, through the countryside. Yet we sense this independence cannot last long. For Barbara isn’t separate, but increasingly connected – with patients, colleagues, loved ones. Those summery bike jaunts, for example, reunite her with a lover smuggled in from the West.

Petzold pulls his narrative together subtly and persuasively. The suspicious, quasi-romantic dance the two doctors perform, each wondering how far they might trust the other, feeds into a wider medical drama, where the fates of their patients – a pregnant runaway threatened with the workhouse, an attempted suicide seemingly betrayed by his friends – seem to map out what might lie in wait for these professionals. Borders here take numerous forms, all equally permeable. Barbara trysts with her lover in a hotel with paper-thin walls, where she will have her professional identity called into question; twice in the film we see her being probed by someone else wearing latex gloves.

In resisting melodrama, Petzold’s film may be too clinical to rival The Lives of Others’ crossover success. Though Barbara is stalked by men in cars, the conflicts here are mostly internalised: what we see is how hard it was for these doctors to look out for their charges, when they had to keep one eye out for themselves. As Hoss’s skilfully self-contained performance warms up, so too does the film, but Barbara intends us to feel the chill of that quiet tyranny exercised by the state, which forced its citizens to scuttle around, conscious of their every word and move. The quietness of Petzold’s film is both deliberate, and as pointed as a syringe: its tension derives from an understanding any noise, at any moment, could give these individuals away. 

Barbara opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Holy Motors" (Moviemail 28/09/12)

Holy Motors is perhaps the biggest wild card the movies will have to play in 2012, which – at a time of corporate safe bets – is almost a recommendation in itself. Yet it may be better to let cinéma du look alumnus Leos Carax’s return to our screens ambush you, as it did the critics in Cannes this summer, than have anybody attempt to analyse or synopsise it beforehand – because this is patently a film beyond analysis and synopses, in ways both good and bad. If you ran across it at a party, you’d walk away regarding it as a bit of a character. More precisely, it’s bits of several characters, and that’s really about it.

After waving au revoir to his family one morning, Denis Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar repairs to a limousine, where his chauffeur (Edith Scob) informs him he has nine “appointments” for the day. The limo proves to be a roving prop box, in which Lavant/Oscar will make himself up to play nine roles: among them, a Russian peasant woman, a motion capture artist, a green-suited goblin (the Monsieur Merde character road-tested in Carax’s third of the portmanteau film Tokyo!), and both a bullet-headed gangster and his doppelganger victim, which presumably counts as a double shift. Quite why he’s shifting shapes goes unexplained: as night falls, the limos we’ve seen circling the city’s streets are returned to the garage of the title and left, like the audience, to talk among themselves.

That essential emptiness – where narrative development or thematic substance would conventionally go – has left some early reviewers to fill Holy Motors with grand claims. Is it really a mobile history of the cinema, stopping off at Muybridge, Cocteau and Godard en route? Maybe. It’s unquestionably a strong vehicle for its leading man, shuttling between identities like a subtitled Mr. Benn. (Another cartoonish touch: characters die, only to pick themselves off the floor and get on to the next gig.) Taking a childish delight in dressing up and messing around, this is no Serious Art Film; any profundity here has been assigned to it, rather than driven at.

The Merde episode best displays the film’s strengths and limitations: it has funny ideas to run with, like the graveyard full of tombstones promoting websites, but gets into trouble when it starts equating men who prefer their women in burqas to dirty, gibbering cavedwellers. After this sudden burst of rude energy – in which Eva Mendes is as much of a stooge as the passers-by in Dom Joly skits – Holy Motors begins to run out of gas: the accordion interlude is stirring, but otherwise we’re stuck with rather more prosaic transformations (a stressed father, a dying old man), and Kylie in Jean Seberg clothing singing an unusually forgettable Neil Hannon song.

Less visually striking than Carax’s cinéma du look output, its tactics remain broadly the same: to divert and seduce the eye with novelties, without having much to say once the eye has alighted upon them. It’s enjoyably eccentric, often amusing, even reassuring, in providing ample proof the cinema can still, even now, throw up this kind of curveball. Yet Carax is only ever working on the same level as the fashion photographer the Merde segment seeks to satirise, gushing “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!”, then “Weird! So weird! Weird!” Holy Motors has a little of both, granted, but possibly not as much as those who first saw it saw in it.

Holy Motors opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Cross of Honour" (Metro 28/09/12)

Cross of Honour (15) 105 mins **

Of last year’s Hogwarts graduates, we might now get a little worried for Rupert Grint. Where Daniel Radcliffe enjoyed a sizeable hit with February’s The Woman in Black, and Emma Watson’s upcoming The Perks of Being a Wallflower is earning respectable reviews, Grint has been cast out to Norway for this pretty ordinary WWII tale, crashlanding on DVD Monday. Worse still: landed with an over-emphatic Scouse accent and “Chubby” Brown’s unflattering helmet-and-goggles combo, Grint’s playing fifth fiddle behind three Germans and fellow Brit Lachlan Niebold, as grounded airmen obliged to seek collective shelter in a snowbound cabin.

Inspired by events more “actual” than “exciting”, Petter Naess’s film proves stubbornly resistant to all but the most obvious wartime conflicts. As the weather worsens, the flyboys divide their quarters, and argue over the washing-up; so close are these mundane tensions to those of the Big Brother house you half-expect voting lines to start appearing on screen. Instead, we’re left waiting for a rescue party to show or for the food to run out, and not learning anything revelatory in the meantime. “Without the unexpected, people get bored,” observes Niebold at one point. He’s not wrong.

Cross of Honour opens in selected cinemas today ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

Thursday 27 September 2012

On TV: "Paprika"

Paprika, the Japanese animator Satoshi Kon's final film, is a fusion of many of the best ideas of millennial sci-fi - from Strange Days to The Matrix - that clearly worked its way deep inside Christopher Nolan's subconscious in the run-up to making Inception. Once again, the subject is dreams: how they might be explored on celluloid, their relationship to our waking life. The heroine is an executive trying to retrieve a prototype that's been stolen from company headquarters; this device, the DC (presumably short for DreamCatcher) Mini, allows users' dreams to be recorded electronically. Developed as a boon for the psychiatric profession, permitting its practitioners clearer analysis of their patients' neuroses, the device becomes a weapon in the hands of a sociopath, who's been using it to get into his victims' heads and thence to fry their brains.

The advantage Kon understands, and enjoys, here is that - unlike all those films he's building upon - he's working in animation, which allows him to do things live-action directors would struggle to pull off. Paprika keeps up an often astonishing flow of ideas and images, from the big-top opening that cues a vertiginous plummet through several layers of reality: a lift will grant the characters more detailed access to these layers and levels of the subconscious, including a personal screening room (where matters get perilously meta, as everyone starts to project themselves into the movies) and a wobbly hotel corridor that Nolan all too evidently lifted and made concrete. It's not just the walls here that prove permeable; as in Kon's mid-90s masterwork Perfect Blue, identity starts to become fluid, too. The film's title refers to the heroine's other, fantasy self: the kind of doe-eyed waif traditional of Japanese animation, seen in the prologue as an undercover agent testing the device and thereafter glimpsed in mirrors and other reflections as an impossibly sexy ideal - a literal "dream woman" the heroine finds it almost impossible keep up with, and has eventually to defeat. 

In the gap between these personae - and the worlds they inhabit - there is inserted some editorial on asserting responsibility for the gadgets we wield. The film's recurring nightmare is an ever-swelling carnival procession of playthings and consumer goods, operating a reign of terror beneath the illusion of offering rolling fun and games. The risk - as Nolan was to discover, and play with - is that the viewer, like our heroine's morbidly obese male colleague, gets stuck in the lift doors and struggles to keep up with the nimble imagination on display. Precision character and background design, giving everything on screen a weight and physicality specific to itself, helps in this respect; and Kon maintains a tighter grip on his material than Nolan, bringing it in at ninety rather than 150 minutes. Still, there's so much remarkable, dazzling dreamweaving on display that you may simply not care whether these rabbits lead you down a narrative black hole. Key line: "The pain is real."

Paprika screens on Film4 tonight at 12.35am.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Will to power: "The Campaign"

It would be hard to maintain a straight face while attributing a growing political consciousness to the comedian Will Ferrell, but The Campaign follows Ferrell's one-man Broadway show You're Welcome America (in which he played the departing George W. Bush) and 2010's superior The Other Guys in slipping in the odd hard fact and genuine note of satire among the usual gurning, arm-waving and set-wrecking. Here, Ferrell's Cam Brady is a philandering good-ol'-boy Democrat - John Edwards, by any other name - running unopposed for his fifth term in Congress when a pair of rich Republican brothers (an underused Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), with their eyes set on selling off North Carolina to China, bus in their own rival candidate. This is Zach Galifianakis as Marty Huggins, a fey, cardigan-clad tour guide who feels like a live-action equivalent of the "oh no" guy in TV's Family Guy. Thereafter, the tricks get dirtier and dirtier: wife-shagging, baby-punching and hunting "accidents" are all on the agenda.

Anyone expecting the filigreed satire of The Thick of It (or its Stateside spin-off Veep) should look elsewhere, but the leads are plenty predisposed to the kind of rabble-rousing certain American political figures are prone to: they bring a welcome boost of energy to the film's rallies and town-hall meetings, and it's possible Ferrell and Galifianakis got it greenlit just to keep on turning out the kind of mock TV spots that crop up on the former's Funny or Die webhub. (Among the highlights is Bryan's ad casting doubts on his moustachioed opponent: "Is he a Taliban? Is he an Al-Qaeda?") Not all of it is fanciful. The desperate point-scoring rings true, as does the digging-up of a (very) early Brady text (entitled "Rainbowland", and scrawled in nursery-issue wax crayon) to insinuate latent socialist tendencies; Marty Huggins' final apology to the nation even chimes with that of a certain senior Liberal Democrat

As marshalled by Jay Roach - a safe-handed pro from a pre-Apatow age (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents), who enjoyed an Obama-era bounce with the Palin-spoofing, Emmy-winning HBO feature Game Change - The Campaign prefers plot to improv, working somewhat dutifully through character arcs that tend to limit the laughs in the run-in as everybody makes nice. Still, it manages a lot of swearing (which gets amusingly transgressive when Brady messes with the snakes in a Baptist revival church), the obligatory 1980s pop revival (Heart's "These Dreams", briefly heard blaring from the Brady campaign vehicle), and the now-standard leftfield celebrity cameo, this time of the canine variety. Not first-choice material, by any means, but worth your consideration in a second round of voting - or on DVD, as befits.

The Campaign opens nationwide from Friday.

Sunday 23 September 2012

1,001 Films: "The Burmese Harp" (1956)

Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp is a Japanese World War II story, filmed not long after the fact, which initially seems to be framed as a musical, as though only through song might the nation's wounds be addressed, and maybe healed. A harp-clutching prisoner of war being held in Burma is dispatched to help the English talk down a Japanese platoon who've holed up in the mountains after the official surrender. The negotiations go badly, and everyone winds up dead save the POW, who's merely injured, and taken in at a nearby monastery. Back at prison camp, our hero's comrades wonder if they've seen the last of him - but then they notice a monk who appears outside the prison gates every day to hear their choral practice.

To be Buddhist about it (and, as one of the monks points out, "Burma is the country of Buddha"), it's no surprise that the POW and the monk turn out to be the same man - what's important, as a mid-film flashback illustrates, is the journey he took to get there. Our hero steals a monk's robes to ensure his own safe passage, but encounters such suffering en route (piles of corpses scattered on hillsides, washed up on beaches) that the garments come to confer a spirituality upon this previously boyish harpist: too alienated by all he's witnessed to return to his troop, he instead feels compelled to bury the dead, single-handedly.

You can see exactly why it struck a chord: the POW is a potent symbol of everything 50s Japan was still trying to do, chiefly settle its debts and move on. A Western film in this vein - the notable The Best Years of Our Lives, say - would surely have been tempted by the easy sentiment inherent in the set-up, but Ichikawa instead pursues a pared-back approach closer to the period's Mizoguchi films (the mute monk may as well be a ghost), which makes tremendously moving even the potentially absurd business of the soldiers communicating through parrots: these are men who, faced with the unspeakable, retreat into silence, unable to talk to one another directly.

Solace is instead located in the landscape - ageless and enduring, in Minoru Yokoyama's outstanding cinematography - and from ritual and ceremony: it's one of the great films about statues, and what they stand for. To Western eyes, The Burmese Harp continues to be nothing less than revelatory: the Japanese equivalent of our ongoing band-of-brothers projects, it suggests that these men not only fought together but sang together, surrendered together, died together and were buried together, and that something consoling, even ennobling, could be found in this.

The Burmese Harp is available on dual-edition DVD and Blu-Ray through Eureka.

Friday 21 September 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 14-16, 2012:

1 (new) The Sweeney (15) **
2 (new) ParaNorman (PG) ***
3 (3) Anna Karenina (12A) ***
4 (2) Lawless (18) **
5 (1) Dredd (18) ***
6 (new) Hope Springs (12A) ***
7 (5) Brave (PG) **
8 (4) Total Recall (12) **
9 (6) The Possession (15)
10 (7) Ted (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark [IMAX re-release, above]

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) The Hunger Games (12) **
3 (2) Safe House (15)
5 (7) This Means War (12) * 
6 (8) Lockout (15) **
7 (6) The Descendants (15) ***
8 (9) The Vow (12) **
9 (5) 21 Jump Street (15) **


My top five:
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Groundhog Day (Sunday, five, 3.05pm)
2. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Sunday, five, 1.05pm)
3. Lakeview Terrace (Wednesday, five, 11pm)
4. Maverick (Saturday, five, 7.40pm)
5. A Clockwork Orange (Friday, ITV1, 2.40am)


"Santa Sangre" (Moviemail 21/09/12)

The psychedelic cinema of the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky has proved weirdly enduring. From 1970’s El Topo and 1973’s The Holy Mountain onwards, the struggles of these films’ outsider-heroes have resonated across time: first with those turning on, tuning in and dropping out, then with the marginally more sober Midnight Movie crowd, then again with viewers of 1990s TV clipshows, which used this oeuvre to illustrate what was missing from our increasingly corporate cinemascape. 1989’s Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky’s Freudian circus movie – the missing link between Tod Browning’s Freaks and the HBO series Carnivàle – which, for all its perversity, clings keenly, even touchingly, to a notion of innocence.

It’s a film of two halves, in every respect. In the first, our young hero Fenix (Adan Jodorowsky, the director’s youngest) has a maddeningly macho idea of what it is to be a man driven into him by his father, a knifethrower who – unbeknownst to his devout wife – has been pointing all his weapons at the Circo de Gringo’s resident tattooed lady; the consequences of this affair will see Fenix removed to an asylum, and separated from the one girl who really loves him. The second half sees Fenix (now played by older son Axel) rise again, only to swing too far the other way in attaching himself to his (newly armless) mother’s apron strings.

You can instantly spot why it’s become such a fixture in the cinematic counterculture: consider it Philip Larkin’s ageless warning of what your parents do, expressed in more colourful terms yet. As an experience, Santa Sangre is still thrillingly wild, if not unhinged; like its protagonist, it lurches between feminine tenderness and something more fervidly male. The early jawdropper is the once-seen-never-forgotten sequence depicting an elephant’s death: after belching blood from its trunk, the poor creature receives a solemnly lavish burial before the locals descend en masse to carve up the carcass.

It’s wildly long at two hours, yet Jodorowsky keeps generating extraordinary moments and memories, ideas and images. You gawp as armed police, sent in to crush a protest, are momentarily repelled by bandoleros; you gulp down the pre-von Trier transgressive thrill of seeing a director letting loose actors with Down’s syndrome on cocaine and hookers, ahead of the rather more traditional delights of a main-street musical number; you goggle at the women whose hips and glutes put Shakira to shame.

Elsewhere, some of the greatest knife business since Psycho – itself, of course, a warning of the dangers posed by mother’s boys – is only topped by the final-reel sight of our hero literally pulling a python from his pants. Jodorowsky was drunk on the symbolic possibilities of cinema, but he was alert to the pleasures that can follow from taking such frenzied swings and stabs in the dark. Santa Sangre probably isn’t something you’d choose to show in the church hall – unless your vicar was especially broadminded – but it is absolutely a vision, and one that remains every bit as far-out as it ever was.

Santa Sangre opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD re-release on November 5.

"The Prophet" (Moviemail 21/09/12)

In 2005, filmmaker Gary Tarn gave us the remarkable Black Sun, which used street footage and idiosyncratic animation to visualise the experiences, memories and dreams of a New York artist blinded in an acid attack. It had one-off written all over it, yet after some time in the wilderness Tarn has returned with what would appear an equally challenging project to realise: a film that seeks to put up on screen something of Khalil Gibran’s international bestseller The Prophet – favourite of New Agers for almost a century – and which tries to make the book’s themes of peace and reconciliation newly relevant to our ultra-commercialised, snark-addled world.

As Thandie Newton reads passages from the original tome, we watch the vérité footage Tarn has compiled on his travels to illustrate Gibran’s themes. The “riders of the tides” here become ferry passengers; “those leaving the fields and hastening towards the city gates” are commuters at knocking-off time. In this version, we are all wanderers, all seekers. The Prophet’s chief limitation is inherent, and soon becomes clear: Gibran’s religiose prose style (since refined, and made more commercial yet, by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho), which uses a lot of words to tell us all we need is love.

What redeems the film is its maker’s restless, inquisitive, compassionate eye. Tarn retains an ability to match abstract concepts to bold, vivid images. A passage of Gibran’s about “the season of giving” sparks a tribute to the selflessness of the late anti-War protestor Brian Haw, but often Tarn’s choices are more matter-of-fact in their interpretation: the prophet’s warnings about “baking bread with indifference” cues footage of men in a bakery, doing their best to avoid precisely that, while the pick-uppish line “your clothes conceal much of your beauty” sets Tarn to the most lyrical filming yet of the annual World Naked Bike Ride.

This is ultimately a respectful adaptation of the source, which means – as with the book – that the half of the audience who don’t find it profound and touching are doomed to find it impenetrable, if not outright naïve. An entirely satisfying film of The Prophet may be beyond any director, but for now, it’s possible to admire Tarn’s attempt: his version would sit very neatly on the same shelf as Michael Almereyda’s recent Paradise, another variably hazy parade of home-movie footage one might sift for its fragments of truth, wonder and beauty.

The Prophet opens in selected London cinemas from today.

"Killing Them Softly" (Moviemail 21/09/12)

“You take what you can get.” That’s the refrain of Andrew Dominik’s grungy crime thriller Killing Them Softly, which puts on screen a whole lotta making-do and scraping-by; each frame is squeezed for maximum desperation. It’s 2008, and with America’s finances teetering and candidates Obama and McCain offering promises of change, we’re returned to the mire: a nameless anywheresville of boarded-up properties and empty lots. Low-level hood Frankie (Scoot McNairy) has picked sweaty Aussie sociopath Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to help turn over a Mob-controlled card game. This isn’t anybody’s best idea. Still, you take what you can.

The first thing you notice – other than the all-pervasive poverty – is that after the faux-Malickisms of 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James…, Dominik appears to have moved back in the direction of his 2000 breakthrough Chopper. These gangsters are soon spinning tall tales, chewing over past glories: practically every actor on screen gets a monologue for their troubles, often two. When the Mob sends in Brad Pitt’s Cogan to tidy up this mess, the pulse is briefly allowed to quicken, though even this angel of death proves prone to editorialising: seeing what everybody’s been reduced to, his response is a curt “Jeez, this country is f**ked”.

The source is “Cogan’s Trade”, George V. Higgins’ 1970-era dimestore novel, and it’s an indictment of forty years of non-leadership that its murderous scrabblings adapt this easily to the present economic situation. Even the music (Johnny Cash, the Velvets) remains the same; indeed, by the time Dominik wheels out “Paper Moon” for the finale, we appear to be backpedalling towards the Depression. Retained from that 1930s gangster cycle is the idea that the Mob’s infrastructure mirrors that of legit society. When Pitt reveals a preference for killing his victims softly, “from a distance”, he could be any executive officer plotting his next round of lay-offs.

Yet the champagne and furs Edward G. Robinson once provided for his molls have vanished: the idea’s that no-one’s getting remotely rich here, and even Pitt’s wisest of wiseguys struggles to claim the bonus he’s negotiated. This poses a credibility problem for the film, which spends a lot of Weinstein Company money making you notice how low-rent it’s being. Dominik, for his part, remains fond of a preening kind of style, with occasional good reason: the show-offy assassinations, casting the corpses in secondhand Edward Hopper light, have to mitigate against the film’s latent talkiness.

David Thomson recently accused Hollywood of snuffing out the can-do optimism that sustained cinemagoers through the first Depression. Dominik’s film, practically Exhibit A for the prosecution, is watchable and clever-ish, but increasingly comes to trade on our cynicism. Beneath its black-comic pleasures, the plotting gets sloppy, and hardly requires the actors to surprise us: yes, James Gandolfini plays a mobster, although he goes AWOL after just two scenes. There’s craft and some substance here, certainly; I just question whether Dominik does anything truly revelatory or constructive with the mood he catches. Like the man says: take what you can.

Killing Them Softly opens nationwide today.

"Untouchable" (Moviemail 21/09/12)

There’s a kind of formula cinema that tends to attract the eyes of awards committees as the year draws to its close. The formula will generally involve the following: opposites attracting or worlds colliding, the differences between the two expressed in appreciably simple terms, usually pop culture-related; hardships that are allowed to register, but in some dialled-down way a less cosily middlebrow film wouldn’t allow for; multiple montages, further smoothing everything down; a smattering of recognisable tourist landmarks, so nobody gets lost. Ideally, it would also involve a true story, so that those being grumpy about the movie can be accused of stomping all over the experiences of those involved – making the dissenting viewer the bad guy, not the filmmakers clumsily celebrating the indomitability of the human spirit.

Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s Untouchable ticks most of these boxes. Based on the true story of paraplegic Philippe Pozzo di Bergo, this comedy-drama centres on the relationship between Philippe (François Cluzet), a rich Parisian paralysed from the neck down, and Driss (Omar Sy), the son of African immigrants from the projects, whom Philippe hires as his PA. The two clash over music – Berlioz in the older man’s case, disco for Driss – but soon form a bond: Philippe opens his carer’s mind to a world of wealth and luxury, while Driss gives Philippe an earstud and a degree of excitement hitherto absent from his life.

Occasionally, the formula works. At its best, Untouchable is gently funny: Cluzet (Tell No One, Little White Lies) is a sly enough performer to sell you on most things, though the film has life made easy for itself by the fact Philippe can afford to skid around in Ferraris. Elsewhere, Nakache and Toledano have to hope audiences are having too good a time dancing in their seats to “Boogie Wonderland” not to notice, or to care, how thoroughly ungainly their film is on the issue of race. (Once the formula is in place, nothing else matters.)

Sy’s charisma gets the film some way, but Driss is conceived as an uneducated savage who chomps M&Ms in art galleries, is prepared to throttle anyone who crosses him, sexually harasses Philippe’s secretary, and helps perpetuate an art fraud – and we’re meant to respond favourably to all this, because he’s doing things namby-pamby, touchy-feely carers wouldn’t. The film has compassion mixed up with brute force; in doing so, it veers dangerously close to the suggestion the role of this black man was simply to lend his white charge some backbone.

The real story couldn’t have been this simple, this easy, this black-and-white – and it turns out it wasn’t: di Bergo’s carer Abdel Sellou was of Arab descent, further muddying the film’s already dubious racial politics. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter if this repackaging doesn’t export well: the story is now being sent down the Hollywood conveyor belt in a new, improved (now subtitle-free!) formula, with Colin Firth in the Cluzet role. As cinema, Untouchable is indistinguishable from baked beans in tomato-flavoured sauce: comfort food intended to warm you up, it may yet give more sensitive consumers a regrettable case of indigestion.

Untouchable opens in London today, and in cinemas nationwide from next Friday.