Monday 29 October 2012

From the archive: "Silent Hill"

Silent Hill, the film of the console game, merits some consideration as a rare female-led action pic, but ultimately proves far less distinctive than the recent Aeon Flux. Determined to find out what's eating her narcoleptic young daughter, recently separated Radha Mitchell removes them both to Silent Hill, a mining community-turned-ghost town in West Virginia. Suffice to say, this isn't the best idea, not least as shortly thereafter the film starts to encounter the usual problems associated with material making the journey from monitor to multiplex. Let's call it déjà jeu: even someone who's not been near a joypad in years, and who's never played Silent Hill in their life, might find those scenes wherein the heroine negotiates a series of interlocking chambers and corridors too, too familiar.

Director Christophe Gans - taking the sideways step from comic books (Crying Freeman, Brotherhood of the Wolf) to consoles - gets away with it for a while by laying the otherworldly atmosphere on thick: ashes falling from the sky, acid-spraying shapeshifters that emerge from the shadows like Giacometti figurines, doomy passages of scripture everywhere. Mitchell, far from the bodacious babe the slavering demographic would usually insist upon, is an interesting choice of lead, but increasingly finds herself with nothing to do except react to the next wave of CGI or zombies strung across the frame like backing dancers, and to try in vain to keep the human interest from going under. It's surely not hard to make a workable screen adaptation of a computer game - i.e. to make a better film than Doom, Tomb Raider or Resident Evil - which makes one wonder why no-one's bothered to do it yet.

(April 2006)

A sequel, Silent Hill: Revelation, opens nationwide on Wednesday.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 19-21, 2012:

1 (new) Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (PG) ***
2 (new) Paranormal Activity 4 (15)
3 (1) Taken 2 (12A) *
4 (2) Hotel Transylvania (PG) **
5 (4) Looper (15) ****
6 (new) Frankenweenie (PG) ****
7 (3) Sinister (15) **** 
8 (5) The Perks of Being a Wallflower (12A) **
9 (new) Beasts of the Southern Wild (12A) ** 
10 (11) Brave (PG) **
(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Skyfall
3. Elena
4. Sister

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) The Hunger Games (12) **
3 (new) Avengers Assemble (12) **
4 (new) We Bought a Zoo (PG) **
5 (new) Safe (15) ***
6 (5) This Means War (12) * 
7 (6) Lockout (15) **
8 (7) The Descendants (15) ***
9 (3) Safe House (15)
10 (8) The Vow (12) **


My top five:

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Before Sunset (Friday, ITV1, 3am)
2. Monster House [above] (Sunday, five, 5pm)
3. No Way Out (Wednesday, BBC1, 12.10am)
4. Down Terrace (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
5. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)

Saturday 27 October 2012

"Stitches" (Metro 26/10/12)

Stitches (18) 86 mins **

The staple delights of Ross Noble’s stand-up performances arrive when the comic veers off the beaten track. Here, he does something similar career-wise, turning up in a knockabout Irish splatter pic apparently targeting adolescent males still giddy from their first lager shandy. Noble’s playing Richard “Stitches” Grindle, a down-at-heel clown who, during one especially fractious party, takes a fatal stumble onto an upturned cake knife. Years later, he’s back from the grave to have some fun at the expense of the brats responsible, now a group of horny, spotty teens planning the night of their lives. As we’re told: “Jokes are less funny the second time round.”

Getting the jump on Hollywood’s upcoming Carrie remake, co-writer/director Conor McMahon redraws the teen-vengeance cycle as a fitfully amusing cartoon. Goofy, trash-talking, not-quite-believable youngsters get ripped apart or turned into human balloon animals; the script is all knowingly crap puns and gross-out business pitched around waist height. A couple of nice performances splash about amid the ample gore – not least from Noble himself, walking in the elongated footsteps of Tim Curry’s coulrophobia-generating turn in It – but it’s already hovering over the 24-hour garage’s DVD bargain bin.

Stitches is on selected release.

On DVD: "The King of Devil's Island"

The King of Devil's Island is a handsome, absorbing Norwegian drama, based on a true story, that unfolds on the frozen island of Bastoy, site of a correctional school for maladjusted young men, during the first half of the 20th century. This was a place far beyond your liberal Scandinavian ideals: the pupils - one might say inmates - were referred to by numbers, and subject to back-breaking punishments intended to find and shape the "good Christian" within these rough-edged delinquents. They rarely did, by all accounts; more commonly, the violence inflicted upon the boys by their keepers begat violence in turn, the isolated location ensuring there was no easy way out of the cycle. Barely has the burly, robust C19, only belatedly revealed to be named Erling, arrived on Bastoy than he's eyeing up the padlocked boathouse and wondering how far he might get on his own. Yet it soon becomes clear he's to assume an even greater role - as a leader, and protector to his more vulnerable contemporaries.

Writer-director Marius Holst shoots what follows in muted, institutional greys and blues, but he doesn't stint on the generic pleasures of the prison movie: the gruff character actor drafted in to serve as warden (here, a typically authoritative Stellan Skarsgard), and - on the boys' side - the gradual accumulation of the tools and knowledge (and sheer will) required to effectuate change. One of the boys is seen with a rabbit in his shoe-cleaning box, in Alcatraz/Shawshank style; there's a dining-hall rebellion reminiscent of Scum; and eventually relations between pupils and staff get outright If...-fy. (Why is it such a thrill to see school desks thrown through third-floor windows? Is it because we never did it ourselves?)

Characterisation throughout is nicely shaded, as much among the boys - persuasive casting enabling us to distinguish between Benjamin Helstad's combative C19, the appeasing C1 (Trond Nilssen) and their variously put-upon dormmates - as among their rulers, with Skarsgard's mantra of "discipline with compassion" set in relief by a junior master rather keener to abuse whatever power he has. If the script sometimes strays into writerly territory - such as C19 and C1's collaboration on tales of the seafaring life - Holst insistently yokes it to more muscular spectacle, like the last-reel crawl across the ice that invokes Griffith and Eisenstein (or even, possibly, James Cameron). That we care who lives and dies by this point can be attributed to the consummate patience, skill and attention to detail we've come to expect from our Scandinavian brethren in recent years.

The King of Devil's Island is available on DVD from Monday.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

From the archive: "Quantum of Solace"

In 2004's The Bourne Supremacy, a rogue intelligence operative with the initials JB, haunted by the death of a loved one played by a prominent young European actress, went after those who may have been responsible for her death. It's a sign of just how the Bourne movies have rewritten the rule book for mainstream action cinema that Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond film, should effectively replay the same set-up. This latest entry begins where 2006's Casino Royale, the franchise reboot, left off, with 007 (Daniel Craig) trying to track down the killer(s) of Vesper Lind, the atypically babelicious accountant he dallied with on his last mission. Along the way, Bond will run up against a cabal of multinational ne'er-do-wells - the QUANTUM of that vaguely silly title - who've been plotting a coup in Bolivia in order to sell off the country's oil supply to the American and British governments; taking them down doesn't do our hero any favours with representatives of the CIA or MI6.

The European influence that marked Casino Royale so is carried over: chief bad guy is a smirking Mathieu Amalric, who - in the highlight of his performance - turns up to the final confrontation blithely snacking on an apple. (Because even the nefarious rich need to get their five-a-day.) In one sense, this refitting of 007 for the corporate era has been a success: as fleshed out by Craig, Bond is now a thug in a Tom Ford suit, at least as ruthless as those he's pursuing, and almost pathologically unable to pass a plate-glass window without throwing himself and somebody else through it. The actor is at his most expressive when at his most physical: tripping up a motorcycle for the hell of it, or ripping the handle off a disabled toilet door. (That'll teach 'em, James.)

There remains a strong sense, however, that screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are still tinkering with the character of 21st-century Bond, leading to a number of inconsistencies. Getting Bond sloshed on cocktails to forget his true love is a neat twist - but he still ends up bonking a raincoated MI6 orderly (Gemma Arterton) in the very next scene, so I'm guessing his heart isn't too bruised; trying to convince us James Bond has emotions means having to convince us James Bond is a real human being, rather than an accumulation of tics and accoutrements (martinis, guns, cars) - something no recent Bond movie has managed.

The marked failing of these recent Bonds is that, despite being able to afford the very best (potentially great leads, interesting villains, unusual Bond girls, the best stunts and stuntmen in the business), they've almost all been anonymous, interchangeable, utterly lacking in character. This one has both Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah) on the credits and Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Stranger Than Fiction) behind the camera, and yet upwards of 80% appears to have been shot by the second-unit. (You'd have to have an extraordinary faith in the auteur theory to claim that, as elsewhere in Forster's filmography, morbidity is key to an understanding of Quantum of Solace: the film is littered with bodies, yes, but not one of them is mourned.)

And so, writing and thinking about a Bond film has become an exercise in bookkeeping, all credits cancelled out by debits. The mix-and-match theme tune, by Jack White and Alicia Keys (why both? Why not just one?), simply isn't very good; the bland, tanned Olga Kurylenko is no Eva Green; and some of it hints at a major failing of intelligence. Why on earth would the villains take as their secret lair a massive fuel deposit, so that as soon as one jeep crashes into it, the whole building goes up in smoke? Casino Royale looked very much to me like business as usual for this franchise; at 106 minutes, you could possibly argue that Quantum of Solace is a more time-efficient Bond, but it's typical of a frustratingly mixed entry that this, the first Bond for some time to come in under the two-hour mark, should feel as ploddy as the series ever did.

(October 2008)

 Quantum of Solace is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox.

From the archive: "Casino Royale"

The more things change, the more they stay the same. For all the talk of the James Bond franchise going back to basics with Casino Royale - returning to Ian Fleming's first 007 book, previously filmed in 1967 for a joke; casting Daniel Craig as a much tougher breed of secret agent - it was unlikely to abandon the formula that has raked in so much money over the years. What this solid, mostly uninspired entry offers is more proof that as far as the Bond movies are concerned, the man in the tuxedo is far less important than the tuxedo (or the institution of Bond) itself. 

Double-O-phobes and Bond-sceptics will be left with the usual thoughts: that a truly radical overhaul of this series would require new producers (Bond has always had Broccoli in his teeth, or perhaps it's the other way round), a serious rethink of the character, and a director with a personality to impose upon this most rigid of movie frameworks. (Or just someone capable of bringing these modern-day Bonds in under two hours and twenty minutes; much of Casino Royale is spent plodding around the globe in pursuit of people for Bond to chase.) For years now, Quentin Tarantino has been pestering MGM to let him direct a Bond movie, and - even as someone ambivalent towards Tarantino - I have to ask: how cowardly a film producer do you have to be to turn down Tarantino in favour of the man behind The Legend of Zorro?

The first thing to say about Casino Royale is that Daniel Craig is, contra all those nay-sayers, one of its strengths: his performance is the closest we get to a rethink of the character. Craig's predecessor Pierce Brosnan, a good Bond undermined by below-par material, scrubbed up rather too well for the role. Craig, by contrast, sweats. He bleeds. He has furrows in his brow, bags under his eyes and scars all over the shop; his Bond never lets you forget that international espionage, and particularly the business of killing for one's country, is dirty work. He gets a series of scenes of self-actualisation (drowning a man in a sink) or self-realisation (confronting the killer he's become) in bathrooms never afforded to Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan (who were too busy checking their lapels in the mirror), and endures a torture scene that goes even further than the one in Korea at the opening of Die Another Day.

Around Craig - and breaking a run of American and Asian guest stars (Teri Hatcher, Michelle Yeoh, Halle Berry, even Denise Richards, for heaven's sake) designed to bump up this most British of franchises' international box-office - we have a Eurocentric Bond, which is no bad thing for those of us who consider From Russia with Love (Connery, Lotte Lenya, Daniela Bianchi) the best 007 of all time. Casino Royale's key spots are filled by less familiar, more interesting faces and varyingly impenetrable accents, even as it jets off to Nassau, Miami and Madagascar. 

Alongside Giancarlo Giannini as Bond's contact in Montenegro and Isaach de Bankolé, fresh from Lars von Trier's Manderlay, in the post-PC role of a machine-wielding Ugandan general, the weirdly beautiful Eva Green - part Swedish, part French, part head girl, part vamp - is a very unconventional choice of Bond girl. The always terrific Mads Mikkelsen is chief villain Le Chiffre, a lacquered gambler defined as much by his weaknesses (asthma, an eye that drips blood) as by his tyrannic strength, attempting to fix the global stock markets. (Another example of how Bond always boils down to money. Green's Vesper Lind, an incongruously foxy accountant, puts its best when she remarks "even accountants have imagination", but this is an accountant's wet dream.)

The formula is established well enough by now not to forget its usual quota of pleasures. Daniel Kleinman's opening credit sequences are increasingly more imaginative than the films themselves (the Bond theme, by Chris Cornell, late of grunge rockers Soundgarden, isn't bad), and the Broccolis have the money to recruit the best stunt team in the business, which is why the CGI action in Die Another Day was such a travesty of the Bond ethos. They've learnt from those virtual mistakes, and the opening and closing set-pieces (parkour in Africa, and collapsible townhouse in Venice, respectively) are first-class examples of hands-on action cinema. 

Still, director Martin Campbell (who made Goldeneye, the 90s Bond "relaunch", before the Zorro movies) hasn't quite got the best out of these promising elements; everyone here is constrained by the idea of what a modern Bond movie ought to be (rather than what it could be), as though they're wearing dinner jackets two sizes too small. Between its action tentpoles, the stuntmen and women have nothing very much to do while Campbell fails to mine any significant tension from games of high-stakes poker. You'd think, given the explosion of online poker rooms and the popularity of televised games on shows like C4's Late Night Poker, Campbell might have done his homework; but no, this Casino is just people sitting around a table pushing piles of chips into the middle. 
The character of Bond, written as a middle-aged man's fantasy and still today a hero for middle-management saddos everywhere, continues to have it too easy: he'd be more fun, and certainly more likable, if he didn't know champagnes by name, had no luck with cards and women alike, and didn't drive - even when giving somebody a lift home - as though he were already involved in a high-speed pursuit. But that's the character, and no-one's likely to change that until we get Rob Schneider as 007 in James Bond: International Gigolo. Though far from the disaster some feared, the arrival of Daniel Craig as Bond finally generates all the excitement and controversy one might experience upon learning the head of a corporate trading house is to be replaced by a new man. In every sense, it's business as usual.

(November 2006)

Casino Royale is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Deeper and down: "Hello Quo!"

Hello Quo!, Alan G. Parker's profile of Status Quo, runs for a shade over two-and-a-half hours, according the denim-clad avatars of dadrock a significance greater than that documentarists have previously assigned to the Khmer Rouge (S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine, a mere 101 minutes) or the man who defended Klaus Barbie (Terror's Advocate, closer at 135 mins). In strictly rock 'n' roll terms, Hello Quo! reasons ver Quo are five-eights of a George Harrison (Living in the Material World, 208 minutes long) and around 50% more notable than Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young combined (CSNY: Deja Vu, 96 minutes). 

Eyebrows might, understandably, be raised at this: for the best part of fifty years, this band has projected the image of ordinary blokes playing to an audience chiefly composed of ordinary blokes. True, there have been variations on the basic formula - a formative spell as beat group The Spectres, Rick Parfitt's early years as a Butlins' entertainer, a brief Swinging Sixties flirtation with psychedelia - yet this is a group who openly admit to borrowing their entire sound from The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues", and to wearing ripped jeans because they noticed that's what everyone else was wearing at the time. Even the phasing haziness of Quo's breakthrough single, "Pictures of Matchstick Men", was mostly the work of its producers.

Along the way, there have been no major creative tiffs, no drug-related deaths, and - as much as you and I and Peel and the Cuban Boys might thrill to "Down Down" - no enduring classics, save perhaps the band itself, who've simply got on with it. It has always been the great joy and genius of Quo that they just put their heads down and rock out, and it's telling that Parker's film should foreground Spanish album covers and German TV appearances: this is music that requires no translation whatsoever, and perhaps no analysis with that. 

Angling for that Friday night BBC4 slot, Parker has dutifully secured access to all the principals: cheeky-chappie frontman Francis Rossi, smooth-faced second-in-command Parfitt (close your eyes, and he sounds exactly like Jimmy Greaves), plus original Quosters Alan Lancaster (a cross between Danny La Rue and Les from The League of Gentlemen's Crème Brulee, who somewhat unexpectedly turns out to have been the hardman of the group) and sticksman John Coghlan (still a little miffed at having been dropped along the way, but happy to show up for the reunion).

Between them, there is much talk of "Bob Hope" (dope) and "Niki Lauda" (powder); even the supporting cast of interviewees - Brian May, Jeff Lynne, Jim Davidson, Sir Cliff - speaks to a certain hoariness of thought. (The "modern" "music" "scene" is represented by Paul Weller and Joe Elliott of Def Leppard.) No-one's claiming Quo as groundbreakers, and absolutely nothing can make them hip. Most contemporary muso docs are required by law to include at least one clip drawn from the vaults of The Old Grey Whistle Test; here, instead, we get Parfitt and Rossi being interviewed by Cheryl Baker, and pics of them larking around during a Radio One roadshow with Simon Bates and "Ooh" Gary Davies.

To their eternal credit, the band themselves prove refreshingly candid (and often very funny) in discussing who and what they are; one of the reasons for their longevity would appear to be a lack of ego, vanity or pomposity that is rare among musicians. Parfitt reveals "Rockin' All Over The World", Quo's signature anthem and their most enduring commercial success, was a cover of a John Fogarty track (as Rossi frames it, "Everything I've done is a nick"); Rossi creases up upon a recalling a Two Ronnies skit that featured Ronnie Corbett as "the best-looking Rick I've ever seen".

It is as close as anyone might attempt to definitive, easily the most comprehensive thing you would ever want to see about Quo, extending even to a discussion of the group's on-tour wanking habits that you'll either find excruciating or peculiarly revealing (put simply: the band that pulls together stays together). And yet the heart does sink upon realising there are still 45 minutes to go after "In the Army Now" and the band's mid-80s renaissance: after that point, Quo are just there, going on and on and on, with nothing very much more to be said for them. You could almost file it under Too Much Information: in fact, everything you need to know about Quo can be gleaned from a two-second shot some two minutes and 54 seconds into Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" video (not included in Parker's film), where - amid the Geldof-led chariddy po-facedness - Rossi is caught on camera describing to Parfitt with his hands the precise curvature of Jody Watley's arse.

Hello Quo! screens in cinemas for one night only tomorrow, ahead of its DVD release next Monday.

On TV: "You've Been Trumped"

You've Been Trumped, a very canny documentary by self-billed "freelancer" Anthony Baxter, sets out the kind of anti-capitalist resistance it's hard not to get caught up in. Some time around the turn of the millennium, Donald Trump vowed to develop "the greatest golf course in the world" on a previously unspoilt stretch of the Aberdeenshire coast. Planning permission was initially denied by the local council, who had serious sustainability and environmental concerns, but the plans were called in by the newly independent Scottish parliament, who - with an eye to job and wealth creation - overruled the decision.

What Team Trump hadn't counted on up to that point was the appalled reaction of those local residents whose homes fell prone to CPOs (compulsory purchase orders) when the deal went through, and were - understandably - less than delighted at the prospect of having to give up parts of their land so that a bunch of zillionaires could fly in to play a few holes and go back again. Anyway, into this stand-off trumps Trump in his own private jet, his "hair" indistinguishable from the long reeds blowing in the wind, first tossing promises of employment and riches to these paupers, and then going on the offensive, bawling out anyone who dared to stand their ground, and labelling their homes "slums" and "pigsties", trumpety-Trump.

Part of Baxter's project here is to take the viewer into these homes, and show you what a warped idea of filth and poverty Trump has. Sure, these cosy farmhouses are hardly Trump Towers, but they're the bedrocks of good, hard-working, genuine people, with history and roots that are evidently worth more to them than any number of billionaire's cheques. The farm of Michael Forbes - the most vocal of the holdouts, dismissed by Trump as living in "disgusting conditions" - becomes as much a site of resistance as the steps of St. Paul's during the Occupy protests, with one barn converted into a makeshift gallery to showcase the anti-Trump works of a local artist. (His crazy golf-inspired installation, where visitors are invited to putt balls into Trump's looming, all-devouring maw, proves especially popular.)

Baxter's methods are simple, sometimes obvious, yet almost always effective: footage of the locals - who extend not just to farmers, but a former manager of The Clash and the ferocious academic David Kennedy - is set to stirring Celtic music and interposed with scenes from Bill Forsyth's enduring movie touchstone Local Hero, filmed up the road, which serves as a reminder of a better class of trans-Atlantic collaboration. By contrast, it's clearly not hard to make Trump appear like some swaggering Noo Jersey thug, not when he sets his minions to switching off the holdouts' water and electricity supplies, sends the local police round to rough the filmmaker up, and is caught sleazing over Miss Scotland; the tragedy is that he almost doesn't have to worry, given the number of friends he has in high places, impressed by his wealth, seeking his patronage. (Worse may be to come: Trump's son and heir, of whom I hadn't previously been aware, would seem to be an even bigger shit, one who doesn't even have the comedy hairpiece to mitigate against the inherited peacocking and contempt for those less well off than himself.)

What follows is an object lesson in bad planning: as the diggers move in and the dunes are ripped up, we begin to see the effects this astonishing arrogance has on the landscape, with householders receiving invoices for work the Trump contractors have carried out. (In what's surely the biggest slap in the face to the area and its politicians, those contractors are Irish, not Scottish: as Trump himself barks in one of his countless, godawful reality shows: "Get it done, and don't spend a lot.") What keeps you buoyed, and gripped, is that everything the businessman does - each glib public appearance and huffy-puffy TV interview, every covert landgrab - has a galvanising effect on the opposition; we gather that resistance, like a golf course, can be built and sustained and fortified. You've Been Trumped would make an excellent rallying tool: it makes you sad, then angry, and then determined, if not to overthrow your chosen oppressor, then to at least pull that fucking rug off his head.

You've Been Trumped screens on BBC2 tonight at 10pm, and tomorrow at 12.20am.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 12-14, 2012:

1 (1) Taken 2 (12A) * 
2 (new) Hotel Transylvania (PG) **
3 (3) Sinister (15) ****
4 (2) Looper (15) **** 
5 (4) The Perks of Being a Wallflower (12A) ** 
6 (new) Ruby Sparks (15) ****
7 (new) On the Road (15) **
8 (5ParaNorman (PG) *** 
9 (6) The Campaign (15) *** 
10 (9) Untouchable (12A) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) The Hunger Games (12) **
3 (new) Avengers Assemble (12) **
4 (new) We Bought a Zoo (PG) **
5 (new) Safe (15) ***
6 (5) This Means War (12) * 
7 (6) Lockout (15) **
8 (7) The Descendants (15) ***
9 (3) Safe House (15)
10 (8) The Vow (12) **


My top five:
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. El Dorado (Saturday, five, 5.15pm)
2. Sleepless in Seattle [above] (Sunday, five, 3.20pm)
3. Dumbo (Sunday, five, 5.20pm)
4. Ghost (Sunday, C4, 10.30pm)
5. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Monday, five, 9pm)


"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (Metro 19/10/12)

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (PG) 93 mins ***

Two decent digimations in the same week? Sorry, parents: you may just have to give the kids an advance on their pocket money. After 2008’s sluggish Escape 2 Africa, the Madagascar series here receives a revitalising dart of action and spectacle. Still trying to return to Manhattan, the pixelated menagerie is now pursued across Western Europe by relentless, Piaf-trilling animal control official Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). A travelling circus provides shelter, while giving the animators the chance to pull off trapeze-swinging and Cirque du Soleil-style colour – all in unusually considered, dynamic 3D.

If they can’t sustain the first act’s exceptional explosion of creative energy, the script and visuals keep generating smart, funny business, from a Dali-inspired dream sequence to Alex’s appreciation of his leonine forefathers’ record at the Coliseum (“they killed”). Those monkeys and penguins are waiting in the wings whenever the big-top schtick flags, as indeed is Sacha Baron Cohen’s lemur Julian, pausing his revival of justly forgotten 1990s pop hits to begin an oddly cute liaison with a mute bear. Functional, where Frankenweenie is fantastic, but detailed enough to make youngsters want the DVD nevertheless. Again: sorry, parents.

Madagascar 3 is in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 18 October 2012

1,001 Films: "The Wrong Man" (1956)

The Wrong Man is one of Hitchcock's more intriguing second-rank efforts. Jazz musician Hank Fonda returns home from a day of errands only to find the cops waiting for him on the doorstep; dragged off to New York's 110th precinct, he's identified as (which is to say, mistaken for) a career stick-up man, and railroaded on an assault-robbery charge. As a rather defensive pre-film announcement from Hitch himself (effectively, "it's all true, honest") suggests, the suspense being generated here is of a different kind to that audiences had been used to from this director, founded on the presumption of innocence, rather than guilt. How long, we wonder, until everyone on screen finds out the protagonist didn't do it? (And how far through the wringer can a film put a man whose conscience is entirely clean?)

The real villain here, plainly, is the American legal system, and in the age of CSI, the evidence assembled against Fonda looks circumstantial at best; being a pre-Miranda film, the suspect is denied his one phone call - adding a further note of tension as wife Vera Miles worries away at home - and it takes forever to take his fingerprints, which end up proving nothing one way or the other. (In this respect - unlike many other of Hitchcock's peak-era features - it's almost impossible to imagine a straight remake.) And these aren't the only tenuous elements here. Perhaps only Hitch could make his hero the victim of an officeful of hysterical women, letting their emotions gang up on good sense: the moral of the story may be that female intuition isn't all that, and there's something at least questionable in the way the second and third acts ask Miles merely to express physical and psychological weakness - lashing out at Hank with a hairbrush, that most feminine of accoutrements, rather than standing by her man. (As it is, we get a "happy" ending, seeking with a couple of lines of on-screen text the marital devastation of the preceding scenes, that could scarcely be less convincing.) Even in this whiff of misogyny, it remains of note as as close to its director ever came to conventional noir, trapping its utterly passive hero somewhere between DoP Robert Burks' expressionist shadowplay - pinning Fonda to the walls - and another terrific, subtly insinuating Bernard Herrmann score.

The Wrong Man is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

"Frankenweenie" (Moviemail 19/10/12)

Frankenweenie is both a ghoulish pre-Halloween treat and something more notable yet: Tim Burton, at a moment when (James Cameron aside) he might be the world’s most bankable director, trying to get his head round why he got into this business. Burton began Frankenweenie as a stop-motion short in his early days as a Disney animator; in its completed state, it’s become a recapitulation of this director’s most enduring concerns – suburban strangeness, the hypocrisy of adults set against the curiosity of young minds – and of those films in his back catalogue that really matter: the Edward Scissorhands, the Batmans, the Ed Woods. You get some hint of what Burton is getting at from the fact the female lead is voiced by Winona Ryder.

In this quasi-autobiographical vein, it seems telling that its young hero Victor’s moment of greatest triumph – hitting a home run in a school baseball match, equating to all those $500m-plus hits Burton has knocked out of the park for the studios – should also spell disaster. While attempting to retrieve the ball, Victor’s faithful terrier Sparky is run over by a car. A creative mind, Victor soon brings what he loves back to life with a few nuts and bolts and the odd lightning bolt of inspiration – only to find that this small, personal, if you will pet project is considered altogether too strange by the squarish townsfolk, who’d rather their offspring stuck to reading Alice in Wonderland and watching harmless old TV shows.

Burton gets this on some level, which is possibly why Frankenweenie seeks to preserve its weirdness, rather than cartoon it up, as in his recent live-action work. Victor’s science mentor Mr. Rzykruski has the look of Vincent Price about him, and gets a bound-to-be-misunderstood speech at a PTA meeting, marvellously voiced in cracked English by Martin Landau (“I try to crack open children’s heads, and get at their BRAINS”). And our hero’s classmates are unapologetic freaks, from cackling sidekick Edgar to the skeletal blonde – DNA of a Corpse Bride – who reads signs into what she finds in her cat’s litter tray.

The level of craft and detail on show goes far beyond that of churned-out multiplex filler like Hotel Transylvania. It turns out that monochrome photography and state-of-the-art stereoscopy make excellent bedfellows: the film’s gorgeous approximation of the flat light of 1960s suburbia puts the energy-sapping murkiness of most contemporary 3D productions to shame. It also helps that everyone’s working from a taut, funny John August script, full of curlicued set-ups and pay-offs that keep us smiling on the way to the rousing, kill-the-monsters finale.

Frankenweenie may, ultimately, contain nothing so challenging as a Coraline; often it seems as though it should arrive prefaced by a deep voice (a Price, perhaps, or a Christopher Lee) intoning the words “Previously, on Tim Burton…” in the manner of our favourite serials. But if – as a wise soul once ventured – a director’s career is an ongoing conversation with the audience, this is the moment when an old friend who’s spent far too long quietly counting his money in the corner pipes up with the one thing that reminds you why you always loved or liked, felt worried about or protective towards them. It’s good to have Burton back in the land of the living dead.

Frankenweenie opens nationwide today.

Monday 15 October 2012

"BB King: The Life of Riley" (Moviemail 12/10/12)

The life of BB King, singer and blues guitarist, is one of the flagstone stories of black America, progressing from a sharecropper’s cottage in impoverished Mississippi – where one Riley B. King was born in 1925 – to request appearances at the White House. Along the way, King spanned religion (having a formative moment singing gospel at the local Baptist church), brushes with the Ku Klux Klan, the emergence of new broadcast media (becoming a DJ on all-black radio station WDIA, where he earned the nickname “Blues Boy”) and consumerism (he wrote jingles for the blood thickener Pep-Ti-Kon).

In the Sixties alone, he saw in social activism – touring alongside his namesake Dr. King, which made for an uncomfortable night’s sleep when an assassin tried to snuff out the latter in their shared Alabama lodgings – and the blues revival that turned upstart white boys like the Beatles and Stones into megastars for doing what he’d been doing all along. The one constant, amid all this change, was the music, and King’s enduring ability to convey through it a sense of where he’d come from, and what he’d seen en route. Bono notes that King “sits down when he’s playing, but he’s moving – moving through air”, which is partly right: he’s striding through history, too, like an R’n’B colossus.

Jon Brewer’s documentary portrait The Life of Riley lays this story out in a broadly conventional fashion: Morgan Freeman – multiple winner of the International Voice of Gravitas competition – narrates, while Brewer assembles his archive footage in strict chronological order. Perhaps aware some of this terrain has already been skilfully covered in the Martin Scorsese-authored series The Blues, Brewer hones in on the personality and the story, relegating the music to sporadic soundtrack filler; he’s also prone to seeking celebrity validation, calling upon John Mayer and Bruce Willis to sing King’s praises, when it’d be better simply to hear King sing.

The Life of Riley is at its most effective when its subject is addressing the camera directly, and telling us some tale or other: describing the circumstances by which he first ended up jamming with Mick ‘n’ Keef, incurred significant tax problems, played in Zaire before the Ali-Foreman fight (itself covered in 2008’s fine concert movie Soul Power) and came to find a whole new audience in collaboration with U2. Throughout, we get a sense of a musician seizing those opportunities denied to his forefathers, some of which have subsequently opened up to a new generation.

Despite its early missteps, it’s a documentary where you gradually come to feel some of the weight of experience King has accumulated over the years, experience which explains why this music has continued to resonate so. You hear it on the spinning 45s Brewer’s camera comes to pan across, in the booming voice and the guitar that sounds like a travelling companion, if not the singer’s only friend in the world, collectively picking over what might and could and possibly should have been. It makes for a very decent record of an extraordinary life.

BB King: The Life of Riley opens in selected cinemas from today.

Sunday 14 October 2012

From the archive: "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa"

It's been three years since the first Madagascar - a middling but enjoyable entry in the recent wave of computer animation - and tardy-seeming sequel Escape 2 Africa struggles to get going. A clumsily handled prologue - set before the events of the first film, though it's not immediately apparent - depicts the circumstances whereby young Alex, the theatrical lion voiced by Ben Stiller, arrived in the Manhattan zoo, and for a terrible moment, it looks like the film will be following the Muppet Babies route, replacing the characters established in the course of the original with younger versions better placed to appeal to the target demographic. Fear not: soon we're back with the grown-ups, as they attempt to fly back to New York from the island on which they washed up in film one, only to make a crash-landing (a zippy set-piece, the visual highlight of the film) in Africa.

"It's like Roots!," exclaims Marty, the streetwise zebra voiced, again, by Chris Rock. Actually, Escape 2 Africa is more like a postmodern Lion King - a story template studio DreamWorks had already borrowed from Disney for their now long-forgotten, unloved and sequelless Barnyard - with Alex trying to defend his father from a pompidoured rival (Alec Baldwin, growling anonymously) who's trying to assume control of the pack. The others are rather sidelined, where the original had a funky ensemble vibe. Marty raises a zebra army who look and sound alike (with the vocal cast extended to Cedric the Entertainer and the late Bernie Mac, the film can afford to be savvier about attributing such characteristics as race to its animals); nervy giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) becomes a witch doctor (a perfunctory conceit that goes nowhere); while single hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) goes Sex and the City with all the grace of a hippo in Manolos, ensconcing herself at a nearby watering hole and finding her own Mr. Big.

While the storytelling has fragmented, the referencing has become even more profligate, with nods to West Side Story and the Twilight Zone movie that I refuse to believe anyone in the target audience is going to get. Familiarity also hasn't helped the main characters: for all their angularity of design, and the alt-comedy cred Stiller, Rock and the returning Sacha Baron Cohen bring to their voiceroles, Melman, Marty and co. turn out to be not so very far from those talking plush toys evident in Disney's two-dimensional animation. Again, the biggest laughs come as throwaway flourishes: a meerkat singing "Private Dancer", or the penguins - this franchise's funniest joke, and a sign of how Aardman has come to influence American animation - who prove funnier still relocated to the African plains, and forced to negotiate with monkeys. If Escape 2 Africa puts money enough in the bank to justify a Madagascar 3 - and in a year where even the deeply mediocre Igor coined a decent booty, that's almost a given - they should ditch the livestock, and give the little guys their own film.

(December 2008)

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a sequel, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, opens this Friday.

From the archive: "Madagascar"

It's been a decade since the success of Toy Story sparked a boom in computer animation. Achievements we were supposed to marvel at in a film as recent as 2002's Ice Age - the pixellated realism of such elements as fur and water, for example - are now taken for granted. Computer animated features are now churned out, one per school holiday; even we Brits got in on the action with the patchy Valiant. Now we're on sequels: Toy Story spawned Toy Story 2, just as Shrek was later to result in Shrek 2. These films are, in short, no longer the unique creations they might once have been; the rapid development of technology and the concurrent acceleration of commercial interests means it's not overstating the case by much [except it is - Ed.] to say the gap between watching Toy Story upon its first run in 1996 and the new release Madagascar is comparable to the difference between seeing The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and being at the first public screening of Weekend at Bernie's II 78 years later.

Which is not necessarily to do down Madagascar, in many ways a superior film to its DreamWorks predecessor Shark Tale; it is, instead, to acknowledge just how fast this particular process has become industrialised in a relatively short space of time. What we have here is the tale of a group of animals in the Central Park Zoo who end up lost in the wilderness with a desperate need to find their way back. Marty, an inquisitive zebra with the voice of Chris Rock, along with best friend Alex, a prideful lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), sassy hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) and hypochondriac Jewish giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) break out of their enclosures and soon find themselves on what is perhaps the island of the title. (The script doesn't appear to mention it; Melman, for one, thinks they've landed in San Diego.)

It's an appealingly zingy, if slim, half-term entertainment, paring back some of the clutter of Shark Tale - clutter that served, in the end, to half-mask a thin storyline - in favour of visuals that frequently pop out at the camera. The pastiches of other movies that irked some viewers of the earlier film remain, signalled rather lazily by leading music cues ("Born Free", Vangelis's score for Chariots of Fire, Thomas Newman's American Beauty theme). But they're backed up by artistry beyond Shark Tale's conceit of putting Angelina Jolie's lips on a fish: the computer-generated recreation of Manhattan, with a cop on horseback wondering whether he should shoot the zebra who's just wandered into Times Square, is especially fun.

Characterisation is unspectacular but solid; even Schwimmer, whose neurotic schtick was no more than PG- or 12-rated on Friends, has to tone down his act, but the voice artists generally cope well with the jokes, as you'd expect from sometime stand-ups Stiller and Rock. (Having endured it the first time round, I could have done without Sacha Baron Cohen's rendition of "I Like To Move It (Move It)" by Reel 2 Real featuring the Mad Stuntman, but the kids in the screening seemed to enjoy it.) As is increasingly the case in this type of holiday-filler, it's the throwaway gags (such as a giraffe having an MRI scan) and minor characters you come away remembering, but that's the experience of the zoo, where you're supposed to marvel at such lords of the jungle as the lion or giraffe, but instead gravitate towards the monkeys and penguins, creatures chiefly notable for flinging poop and falling over. And not that the kids will get it, Madagascar also has a very funny Tom Wolfe joke.

(August 2005)

Madagascar is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

Saturday 13 October 2012

At the LFF: "Good Vibrations"

After their glibly commercial debut Cherrybomb, the directorial partnership of Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D'Sa have arrived, with Good Vibrations, at an altogether more arresting (and apparently true) story: one of teenage rebellion as fostered by a middle-aged Hank Williams fan with a glass eye and a beard. This would be Terri Hooley, a revered figure in Irish pop culture, who - ever since he was blinded in one eye during a childhood contretemps - set himself to finding an alternative to the violence of the Troubles, and found it by opening a record store amid the bomb-blackened storefronts of Belfast's Great Victoria Street in the mid 1970s.

Good Vibrations trundles along in a lowish gear for some while, as we watch Hooley (Richard Dormer) struggling to raise the finance required to get the business up and running, and coming to pay off some rather cartoonishly drawn Provos (represented by Adrian Dunbar in a silly wig) with a choice selection of long players. Yet it hits its groove the minute its reggae-loving protagonist ventures to a punk gig that gets rudely interrupted by the RUC. Hooley finds himself drawn to the anti-authoritarian fervour of the moshpit, where he ends up pogoing and gobbing with the best of them - a moment presented as roughly as epochal as Tony Wilson's presence at the Sex Pistols' Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in 24 Hour Party People.

As its title suggests, the film's subject is energy, and what might be done with it, and its thrust is a figure like Hooley was badly needed to energise an industry that had previously limited itself to recording whistle-and-drum bands and jingles for cheese and onion crisps. Hooley took punk into the provinces, came back with a dashboard full of demos made by the frustrated kids he found there; in the face of near-universal indifference from the Mr. Bigs of the mainland recording labels, he persisted with a bunch of chancers from Derry called The Undertones, indirectly providing John Peel with his favourite record of all time.

Cherrybomb, too, had energy to burn, but frittered it away, and Good Vibrations doesn't lack for sophomoric fumbles, particularly around the creation of "Teenage Kicks", that two-minute-twenty-six-second masterpiece of spontaneous simplicity. (And even to call it that is to intellectualise it needlessly; it's a record you feel, somewhere between a throbbing erection and a broken heart.) At first, we're denied hearing the track - making us tense up, fearing the film doesn't have the necessary clearance rights for the song so crucial to Hooley's life and work - and then Leyburn and Barros D'Sa usher on the world's worst Peel impersonator to talk it up. If nothing else, Good Vibrations is the film that proves the DJ was - unlike so many of his Radio One contemporaries - inimitable.

Yet the film is agreeably focused in its description of the context such punk faves passed into, and shook up like a joybomb: carefully inserted archive footage reminds us just what an inflamed and divided state Ireland was in when Hooley began cultivating this particular scene. Furthermore, Leyburn and Barros D'Sa know to temper the narrative's more idealistic undertones with a degree of music-biz pragmatism. You see it in the rapid progress of Hooley's coke-dealing best friend within the boardrooms of London, or indeed in its subject's sincere and apparently unshakeable belief that Rudi and The Outcasts - who'll get as much of a bounce from the film as 24 Hour Party People gave The Durutti Column and Crispy Ambulance - would be bigger than The Undertones ever were. What's crucial isn't that he was right or wrong; it's that he took the chance in the first place.

Maybe it's a little too inclined towards the feelgood to generate the down-and-dirty spirit of punk: again, you sense these directors have one eye on the box-office in the closing third, as the teenage kicks of neo-Nazis (a regrettable offshoot of this movement) come to be set against adult security, and the wife and child Hooley had waiting for him back home, but Good Vibrations never quite sells out its subject, or his energies, in the search for mainstream acceptance. Buoyed by Dormer's ingratiating central performance, which manages to put a twinkle in even Hooley's glass eye, this breezy celebration of music's ability to hurdle all barriers and roadblocks more than justifies its own beaming title.

Good Vibrations screens on Fri 19 at 9pm at the Odeon West End, on Sat 20 at 3pm at the Vue West End, and on Sun 21 at 6.30pm at the Ritzy. It opens in the UK early next year.

Friday 12 October 2012

At the LFF: "Beware of Mr. Baker"

The title of this particular music doc isn't for nothing. Beware of Mr. Baker opens with the sight of the former Cream drummer Ginger Baker smashing director Jay Bulger across the nose with a metal cane. Baker always was something of a demon with the sticks, but Bulger had found him living in exile in South Africa, and a sense of the sheer doesn't-give-a-fuckness of the film's subject can be taken from the very fact an individual referred to as Ginger should have chosen to see out his days living under the blazing African sun. Here Baker holds court, his silver eyebrows bristling over the top of dark glasses, surrounded by dogs and polo horses (with which he gets on better than he apparently does with any human creature), blighted by a degenerative form of arthritis, and throughout remaining wholly unimpressed by his American interviewer's boyish enthusiasm. (Hence the cane incident.)

Reluctantly, then, he gives up the details of his life. Baker was the product of an unusually percussive childhood: in the syncopated fall of bombs on wartime London, and the slap of the strap his widowed mother used to take to the back of his legs, he heard rhythms and time schemes. Already, Baker was gritting his teeth, preparing himself for the long fight ahead. The breakthrough came at the age of fourteen, when he opened the letter his late soldier father had written to him before going off to Europe, urging his son to make allies of his fists. Baker would become handy forever after, whether drumming up a storm on such tracks as "The White Room" and "The Sunshine of Your Love", engaging in punch-ups with Cream co-founder Jack Bruce, or shooting up the heroin he claimed made him fearless.

A further sign of this decidedly combative personality can be gleaned from the names of those subsequent projects Baker imposed himself on (Ginger Baker's Airforce, the Baker Gurvitz Army); Cream's third point Eric Clapton - settling very nicely into the role of rock elder statesman - is being diplomatic when he describes his former bandmate as "seriously antisocial", though he concedes Baker had that "gift", the creative spark that separates rock's innovators from its journeymen. A hurricane dressed as Catweazle, Baker did his very best to snuff this gift out, blowing through groupies, wives, bands, bandmates, countries (turning up in Nigeria at the height of its 1970s unrest, cruising for a bruising he could only take on the bearded chin), while scattering his various children to the wind.

What makes Bulger's film so compelling is that it refuses to lionise or make excuses for its subject (hence the cane incident): it clocks that Baker was - is? - difficult and brilliant at the same time, and asks us how much we'd forgive the former for the benefits of the latter. Baker's late 70s/80s comedown is particularly pronounced and depressing - the inevitable taxbills, asking for money he'd long since metabolised, the poor health, the tabloid-baiting flings with friends of his teenage daughter; the dignity-sapping supporting role in 1990's long-forgotten TV show Nasty Boys ("featuring Ginger Baker as Ginger"), the floated (in the most excremental sense) comeback with crusty rock dinosaurs Masters of Reality at the moment grunge was rising up - and you can see why, after that flurry of body blows, even the most hardened of fighters might want to retreat into their own corner.

Crucially, this is a proper film and no mere fanpiece, full of revealing, illuminating archive footage: there's an electric clip of Baker facing off against the great Art Blakey in a "Battle of the Drummers" competition. (Even in his downtime, Baker was looking to test himself.) Animated flourishes do the impossible, getting us into the Baker headspace the first time he was introduced to heroin in the basement of a Soho blues bar: you'd be this pissed-off, if you had African watusi drums pounding in your cranium 24/7. Bulger knows that what ultimately counts, though, is the music and the personality: he senses (correctly) that his subject's dismissals of Jagger, Bonham and Keith Moon make for box-office, but he also allows Baker time to express a more substantial resentment at being written out of Cream's royalty arrangements, one that perhaps explains why he's been scrapping for every penny ever since. The arthritis confines the hurricane to an armchair for much of the duration, and the drumkit sits poignantly untouched in the spare room - but one of rock's most troubled and troubling characters remains as defiant and as furious as ever. Hence, of course, the cane incident.

Beware of Mr. Baker screens at the NFT tomorrow at 9pm, and again on Monday at 1pm.