Friday 30 November 2012

For what it's worth...

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

1 (1) Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (12A) **
2 (2) Skyfall (12A) ****
3 (new) Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (U)
4 (new) Silver Linings Playbook (15) ****
5 (new) Gambit (12A) **
6 (3) Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (PG) ***
7 (new) End of Watch (15) ***
8 (5) Argo (15) ***
9 (6) The Master (15) ****
10 (4) Jab Tak Hai Jaan (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

1. Lawrence of Arabia

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (U) **
5 (2) The Dictator (15)
6 (4) Avengers Assemble (12) ** 
7 (6) The Lucky One (12)
8 (7) Contraband (15) ***
9 (9) Man on a Ledge (12) ***
10 (8) The Cabin in the Woods (15) *** 


My top five:
1. Lawrence of Arabia

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Westworld [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 12.45am)
2. The Gay Divorcee (Saturday, BBC2, 1.05pm)
3. Inside Man (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
4. Mother (Wednesday, C4, 1.10am)
5. Miracle on 34th Street (Sunday, C4, 5.10pm)


On DVD: "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax"

The American humorist Theodor Seuss is one of those writers not terribly well served by the cinema, perhaps because his verse is so formally perfect as is, and thus unlikely to survive the intervention of meddling producers and screenwriters. That hasn't stopped Hollywood from attempting to cash in on awareness of the Seuss brand, though the financial success of 2000's live-action The Grinch should be set against the colossal flop of 2004's notably gaudy The Cat in the Hat, and the marked creative indifference of numerous animated Seusses up to and including 2008's Horton Hears a Who!

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, which hit DVD last week in time for Christmas, is not untypical of the studios' mishandling of Seuss: it permits exactly thirty seconds of authentic Seussian rhymes before setting about the books' environmentally sound message - don't go cutting down trees to make your money - with the latter-day animated sector's usual mix of so-so songs, busy slapstick, and whatever celebrity voices there were left to hand once 2012's other fifty holiday-season titles had been cast. (If he were still around, Seuss would have a good legal case for taking that possessive credit off the title.)

To compensate for the near total absence of charm, director Chris Renaud - who directed the superior Despicable Me - dials up the energy and colour, but rather than driving the book's point home with characters and scenarios we might care about, he defaults altogether too willingly to the business of providing cutesy critters making quasi-funny high-pitched noises for the distraction of pre-teens with severely foreshortened attention spans. This type of product would be the number one movie in any real-life equivalent of Seuss's fake plastic berg Thneedville for months, if not years - the empty popcorn containers littering the cola-sodden carpets of its multiplexes standing as testimony to how little the film means what little it has to say.

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is available on DVD now.

"Rise of the Guardians" (Metro 30/11/12)

Rise of the Guardians (PG) 97 mins **

We presumably have the baffling success of last year’s Russell Brand-voices-the-Easter Bunny confection Hop to thank for this decidedly calculated seasonal digimation, with its Avengers-style assembly of multiple imaginary friends. Here, an Aussie Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman), a Slavic Santa (Alec Baldwin, bizarrely) and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) are teamed up with a deathly dull Jack Frost (voice by Chris Pine, hair by Union J) to combat Pitch Black (Jude Law), a Voldemort-ish ne’er-do-well intent on shattering our kids’ illusions. It’s a pretty disillusioning experience itself, stuck with frenetically charmless animation and a drippy script that cribs key plot points from Monsters, Inc. while viewing baby teeth as “holding our most important memories of childhood” – rather than, say, lumps of calcium, better out than in. 3D sleigh rides and snowball fights hardly justify the inflated ticket price.

Rise of the Guardians is in cinemas nationwide.

From the archive: "The Counterfeiters"

And still they come: another story from the concentration camps worth telling, and told well. The tense and intriguingly murky The Counterfeiters, an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film, even manages something new (not to mention contentious), presenting Jewish inmates as not a unified front working towards a common cause – survival or collective martyrdom - but fractured, divided, prone to infighting.

Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky has chanced upon the true story of Operation Bernhard, the Nazis' attempt to sink Allied economies with inflation-boosting counterfeit banknotes. To this end, certain prisoners were employed as skilled labour: given soft beds and warm showers in their own enclosure away from the horrors of Sachsenhausen, these inmates were gently prodded to produce millions of phoney pounds and dollars.

The film presents us with the conflict between two of the counterfeiters. Adolf Burger (August Diehl) is keen to delay or sabotage anything which might fund the Nazi war effort, even if it means the loss of Jewish lives in the process. Conversely, Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), once a flamboyant master criminal in Weimar Berlin, is keen to get himself (and perhaps only himself) through this by following his orders to the letter.

Burger's memoir ‘The Devil's Workshop’ provides the source material, but Ruzowitzky has switched perspectives to make Sorowitsch his sort-of hero, perhaps aware that the latter’s moral flexibility would make for more bracing drama than Burger's dogged resistance. Through the sullen, barely sympathetic Sally – a marvellously internalised performance from Markovics – the film can even dare to suggest there were dislikeable Jews in the camps.

That’s not the only radical reframing here. Most Holocaust films are dependent for their impact on terrible sights, but Ruzowitzky pushes his soundtrack to the forefront, stressing what could be heard coming over those protective fences. Instead of sudden visual assaults, there’s an ever-present aural threat, lending an even greater punch to those rare atrocities we, like the sheltered forgers, do witness firsthand. It's another intelligent decision in a film full of them.

(October 2007)

The Counterfeiters screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.55am.

Thursday 29 November 2012

1,001 Films: "The Cranes Are Flying" (1957)

Other countries had their war stories too, of course. In narrative terms, The Cranes Are Flying, a Mosfilm venture from 1957, plays almost exactly like the kind of flagwaver the British cinema was rolling out between 1940 and 1945, or the kind of potboiler our American cousins released over the same period - only its young lovers are named Boris and Veronika, the latter affectionately referred to as Squirrel. (Is this where Rocky and Bullwinkle got the idea from?) These two are separated when Boris signs up to go off to the front; in the absence of any news, Veronika takes up with Boris's brother Mark, and - while working in an overstretched military hospital - has to face the vilification of those who believe she's cheated on a comrade. Around this love triangle, there's a borscht-y, This Happy Brood-like portrait of a close-knit family knitting together and pulling through: the obvious focal point is Boris's bearish Uncle Fedya, rarely seen out of uniform, who - when reminded that not all the young men dashing off to sign up will return - foresees the construction of "magnificent monuments" with "lettering in gold". 

What raises the film above propaganda is the direction: Mikhail Kalatozov, the kino-eye who would go on to make I Am Cuba, uses all the tools available to a filmmaker in post-Revolutionary Russia to build on the cinema of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, stocking each scene with new reveals, effects and angles: an Expressionist declaration of love during an air raid, Veronika emerging from the mist like a latter-day Karenina, the woozy POV of a soldier shot and falling to earth. If some of these techniques have dated in the half-century since, the film remains a mighty, Scarlett O'Hara-level showcase for lead actress Tatyana Samojlova, an actress with the face of Audrey Hepburn and the body of a battleship - as well she might have needed here, having to scurry between tanks and through burning buildings in pursuit of the man she loves.

The Cranes Are Flying is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

From the archive: "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"

All good teams need good players on the bench. Given that Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn - founder members of American comedy's Frat Pack - have all fumbled the ball recently (with the likes of Kicking & Screaming and Wedding Crashers), perhaps it's best they now send on a fresh pair of legs: enter Steve Carell, previously best known as the boss in the underrated U.S. version of The Office, and as The Daily Show's inept grocery expert Produce Pete. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, his first starring role, Carell plays Andy, a middle-aged loner whose nights are spent watching reality television and painting his action figures. When his colleagues at the electronics showroom at which he works discover a particular lack in what passes for his life, they resolve to find him some serious loving; trouble is, Andy's already smitten with Trish (Catherine Keener), the woman across the way in the shop that doesn't sell anything.

It seems we now have to accept that sketchy is the default setting for American comedy - it's no surprise its most prominent practitioners have emerged from stints on Saturday Night Live. Increasingly, these films' success depends on what binds those sketches together, or the laughs that help us overlook the fact. Written and directed by TV comedy veteran Judd Apatow (The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show), The 40-Year-Old Virgin shares the underlying, connecting conceit of the later American Pie films, throwing different ideas of masculinity up against one another; particularly, in this instance, men who've been screwed up in some way by either the absence or presence of relationships in a world where "everything is about sex". The surface is certainly sketchy, but then these are better-than-average sketches: Andy and his colleagues smashing fluorescent tubing for no reason other than it's there; masturbation scored to Lionel Richie's "Hello"; Paul Rudd's David threatening to blow his brains out if the Michael McDonald DVD isn't taken off the in-store TVs ("I'm all Ya Mo B There'd out"). 

The incessant riffing and joshing Apatow fosters yields some very funny lines (on being asked about sexual protection, Andy's response is a shrugging "I don't have guns"), while the sparkling ensemble cast, who've possibly been assembled against the risk of a dud leading man - Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen as Andy's colleagues, indie princesses Keener, Jane Lynch and Elizabeth Banks as very different kinds of women - turns out to be all bonus. It's as tender as it is crude, and Carell does indelible character work, as heartbreaking in his own way as he is funny. Putting a vulnerable boy-man at the centre of the film, rather than an incorrigible adolescent or inveterate party monster like Vaughn or Wilson (who never seem to change much) allows the Frat Pack to venture into uncharted territory: for the first time, we witness one of their comic creations becoming a little wiser by the end credits, in a film that insists it's never too late to learn.

(September 2005)

The 40-Year-Old Virgin screens on ITV1 tonight at 10.35pm.

On demand: "Crossfire Hurricane"

Crossfire Hurricane, the latest documentary to focus its gaze on the most over-documented band in rock history, is to the Rolling Stones what the Anthology project was to The Beatles or The Kids Are Alright was to The Who: both an official history, and a self-produced attempt to reclaim their image from all those variably reputable auteurs (Godard, Maysles/Zwerin, Robert Frank, Peter Whitehead) who sought to filter or distort it in order to show us something of consumerism or youth culture. So it is we hear the band's surviving members sharing their memories, and printing the legend wherever possible: they were embarrassed by the attentions of groupies, angry at the way they were turned into a commodity (just think how angry they must be at having to perform stadium tours at £150 a ticket), hounded out of Britain by the tax man, intruded upon by the press.

Those anecdotes offered up between the gripes and score-settling have been so long rehearsed in Stones biographies that Keef's admission he didn't go to Brian Jones's funeral, for the same reason he didn't go to his own parents' funerals, no longer shocks as it might once have done - but then the Stones have seen and done so much between them that very little about them now remains truly shocking. The music just about sustains the whole show, as it always has done, though the highlighting of the deathless "Midnight Rambler" only points up how much we have the Stones to blame for the likes of Kasabian; elsewhere, while director Brett Morgen's scrapbooking of newsreel and the other documentaries whips up appreciable textures - suggestive of the whirlwind that followed this band around, at least in their early years - it has no new insights to offer: the early 60s are all screaming girls, and Altamont is exactly as you saw it in Gimme Shelter, although deprived of the Maysles' critical, pointed framing, and used instead to set up yet another gag about Keef's drug intake.

A more inquisitive overview might have spotted how this band's entire post-'69 career proceeded as a reaction to that tragedy. Reflecting on Altamont, latter-day Mick is heard to say "if you were in an arena or theatre, you could leave - but out there we were very vulnerable": hence, perhaps, the retreat into air-conditioned, hi-vissed safety, and the attempt to price out the hippies and the troublemakers. The film's final quarter has to offset the onstage pyrotechnics with endless dreary and unrevealing footage of these still-travelling salesmen proceeding through hotel rooms and airport lounges, interrupted by the odd bust for possession of the kind of narcotics that might help to make life on the road seem marginally more tolerable or vaguely hedonistic.

Gone, however, is the early, intriguing line of inquiry about the Stones as performers, and how much they might be prepared to let on. We've seen the young Mick rebuffing one interviewer's questions about his sense of rhythm and timing ("you're talking to me as though I was an actor"); and how after even only a few years of playing the fame game, he'd changed his tune more or less entirely ("all of it's acting"). If Mick Taylor and Charlie Watts emerge from Crossfire Hurricane as the band's true virtuosos (and Bill Wyman and Ronnie Wood as larky bit-players), Jagger (who turned up in Performance, lest we forget) and Richards (who ended up shambling through Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean sequels) appear almost as jobbing actors, going through the same moves and riffs gig after gig. Put 'em together, and you undoubtedly get a hell of a show - but here, as there, it's one that tells us very little about themselves or ourselves, save our desire to cling onto some dated notion of an addled, brawling, carousing rock 'n' roll ideal.

Crossfire Hurricane (Parts One and Two) are available to watch here for the next three days, and is released on DVD from January 7.

Monday 26 November 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of November 16-18, 2012:

1 (new) Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (12A) **
2 (1) Skyfall (12A) ****
3 (2) Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (PG) ***
4 (new) Jab Tak Hai Jaan (12A) [above]
5 (3) Argo (15) ***
6 (new) The Master (15) ****
7 (6) Hotel Transylvania (PG) ** 
8 (new) Son of Sardaar (12A) ***
9 (5) Taken 2 (12A) *
10 (new) Thuppakki (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Lawrence of Arabia

Top Ten DVD rentals:
2 (2) The Dictator (15)
4 (1) Avengers Assemble (12) ** 
6 (6) The Lucky One (12)
7 (8) Contraband (15) ***
8 (5) The Cabin in the Woods (15) *** 
9 (10) Man on a Ledge (12) ***


My top five:
1. Lawrence of Arabia

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Dirty Harry (Sunday, five, 9pm)
2. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
3. The English Patient (Monday, BBC1, 11.20pm)
4. The Counterfeiters (Friday, BBC2, 12.55am)
5. Dawn of the Dead (Saturday, BBC2, 12.30am)


Saturday 24 November 2012

Frothy latte: "Starbuck"

Soon to be subjected to a Vince Vaughn remake (shudder), Starbuck feels like a lighter, French-Canadian spin on the kind of material certain recession-era US TV hits have made their own. David Wozniak (Patrick Huard, agreeably lined and lived-in) is a cash-strapped delivery driver for a butcher' shop: already being pursued by myriad creditors, he receives a further shock when he discovers the deposits he made for cash at a nearby sperm bank in his younger days have all passed into general circulation - now 142 of the 533 children he's unwittingly fathered are launching a class-action lawsuit, demanding to know his identity.

For a long while, the film's MO is almost identical to that of My Name is Earl, as David anonymously visits selected claimants and tries to make amends for his absent parenting by performing good deeds: allowing an aspirant actor to take the afternoon off from his gig waiting tables, so he can go audition for his dream role, nudging a troubled young woman towards gainful employment. The skittishness would presumably translate easily to a New American Comedy, but holding Starbuck together is a very clever idea that deserves to be brought to a wider audience: the 142 kids will confront our slobbish layabout hero with all of the possibilities of fatherhood, much as Bill Murray's immortal weatherman Phil Connors was forced to endure the myriad possibilities of one day in Groundhog Day, much as George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge were confronted with the best and worst of this world before him.

David's encounters will include seeing one of his sportier sons score the winning goal in a pro football match, and having to sit in awkward silence with a severely handicapped boy confined to a wheelchair in a children's home. (Somehow, you can't imagine the Vaughn version being this inclusive - though there might be some wheelchair-down-stairs comedy.) The highpoint is a comic nightmare that finds David stuck in a conference hall with all 142 claimants, and forced to make an impromptu speech in the guise of a supporter of their cause, which comes close to Groundhog Day's existential terror; after that, there's a lot of conventional family business and much bonding-through-montage, broken up by the odd funny joke and genuine note of poignancy. It has a heart - you just hope Vaughn and his entourage don't trample all over it.

Starbuck is in selected cinemas.

"Cinema Komunisto" (Guardian 23/11/12)

Cinema Komunisto (no cert) 100 mins ***

Mila Turajlic’s brash and diverting – if slightly disorganised – documentary illustrates how closely Yugoslavian cinema was tied to the Tito regime. Funded by workers, starring soldiers who lent them whatever authenticity they had, these films were often script-approved by Tito himself, an acutely image-aware movie buff. Extracts suggest endless partisan dust-ups and labour-camp singalongs (“Carrying rocks is so much fun!”) sustaining the co-productions that brought Orson Welles, among others, to the country, though one wishes Turajlic had labelled them more diligently: if all this dead ideology really merits further study – as lessons from history, like those Soviet tractor musicals – we needed to have their titles close by. Her interviews are revealing, though: as industry survivors kick around the FYR’s rusting, dusty infrastructure, what emerges is a region-specific form of ostalgie – for a time when the Balkan states played on the very same soundstage. 

Cinema Komunisto is in selected cinemas ahead of its DVD release on December 3.

"First" (Guardian 23/11/12)

First (12A) 109 mins ***

The official film of the 2012 London Olympics is a mixed bag, inevitably compromised by the task of having to condense two weeks of extraordinary activity into less than two hours. If Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia was so 1936, First is very 2012, reducing specific events to filler in extended montages that seek to describe – usually in slo-mo, to the accompaniment of pseudo-inspirational pop – the next steps in what Cowell-speak dictates we call the “journeys” of its highlighted competitors. Director Caroline Rowland fares best whenever she forsakes vague uplift for detail: the look on swimmer Chad Le Clos’s face as he realises he’s beaten his hero Michael Phelps, the awestruck Laura Trott’s unlikely omnium victory [above]. Such moments seem to crystallise whole days of spectacle and achievement – and offer a stirring reminder, now the summer seems a distant dream, that yes, folks, this actually happened here. 

First is on release in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release this Monday.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Sikh sanctuary: "Son of Sardaar"

Son of Sardaar's title would suggest a sequel, but in fact this is the Indian film industry eating itself by other means: a remake of 2010's Telugu hit Maryada Ramanna, itself based on the cast-iron premise of Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality. Producer-star Ajay Devgn (who appears to have dropped an "a" from his surname somewhere along the line) plays Jaswinder, a.k.a. "Jassi", a jovial bruiser in a CG turban that unravels to snap at his foes like a wet towel in the opening scene, a rumble in a distinctly homoerotic London biker bar where the moustaches are worn long and the cigarettes are pixellated out. (The establishment in question appears to be called "SOS", but it really ought to be "Pipes" or "Sump".)

Recalled home to tie up a property claim, Jassi finds himself caught unknowingly in a blood feud between his clan, the Randhawas, and their deadly rivals the Sandhus, whose glowering chief Billoo (Sanjay Dutt) has vowed to put every last Randhawa - including our hero - to the sword. By the kind of contrivance that sustains this sort of thing, however, Jassi is soon installed in Billoo's ancestral home, where his host's endlessly patient fiancee Pammi (Juhi Chawla) insists "guests are our Gods" - and here's where the Keaton movie comes in, as Jassi realises nothing bad can happen to him so long as he keeps finding reasons to stay exactly where he is.

It's possible the Telugu film was a serious condemnation of internecine violence, powerful enough to have sorted out the situation in Gaza once and for all, but this version (scripted by the prolific Robin Bhatt with the director, Ashwni Dhir) goes for knockabout action comedy that strives wherever possible to make its tough guys look very silly indeed: Billoo's fearsome associates have a particular thirst for vengeance, having been prohibited from consuming pop and ice lollies until Jassi is slain. For once, though, a Bollywood movie has good reason to outstay its welcome: it's precisely that dragging of heels that's keeping the protagonist alive, as signalled in a cleverly extended pre-intermission scene where Billoo discovers Jassi's family ties and resolves to get his houseguest out the door by any means, including blowing him over the threshold, and selling the house so his obligations are rendered moot.

Dhir fosters a hyped-up visual style, mashing up Tarsem Singh-like tableaux, video game imagery, old Queen videos and the Wacky Races (there's a priceless sight gag involving a coconut), but preserves enough classical elements (romance, fields, fistfights; a final assertion of faith, tying the film to the Diwali celebrations) to hook older viewers and prevent the whole package from seeming rootless: the songs are no more than functional, but at least we're spared one of those nightclub numbers featuring the Vocodered contributions of Ne-Yo. The cast play it generally broad, but keep it sweet: Devgn and Dutt remain great physical presences, nicely matched, and Sonakshi Sinha is spirited and funny as Billoo's sister, whose pre-arranged marriage ceremony is the one event Jassi is prepared to step out to try and stop. It's goofy nonsense, but sincere with it, and sometimes sincerely goofy nonsense works.

Son of Sardaar is in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

1,001 Films: "Aparajito" (1957)

The midpoint in Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy - following Pather Panchali, yet ahead of The World of Apu - Aparajito, a.k.a. The Unvanquished, deals with a particularly tricky period in its young protagonist's development. After his father dies, Apu (played as a boy by Pinaki Sengupta, and as an adolescent by Smaran Ghosal) is forced to retreat with his mother from the city to the countryside, where they take menial jobs to get by. As ever a bright and independent spirit, Apu has an eye on going to school and making a man of himself - at the risk of severing the last remaining bonds that tie in to the woman who brought him into this world.

It's infused by Ray's usual detail of character and place: practically the entire opening half-hour is devoted (and that is the word here) to one household's routine, and to dramatising what happens when a family member dies. Yet even in the presence of death, these scenes - with their frequent interruptions from upstairs neighbours and passing neighbours - have a rare sense of life; these are the three films that, whether taken together or separately, best show up Ozu's much-lauded humanism as stiff and starchy. Where the latter gets hung up on frames and (patriarchal) structure, Ray here makes a film that is all about the ways Apu comes to fill such spaces (a developing mind, a suddenly empty courtyard), and how his own absence leaves a vast void in the lives of others.

It's always a dangerous game to try and discern national characteristics from an individual work - and I'm well aware there are those who insist Ray was merely showing the rest of the world what it maybe wanted to see. (There were, perhaps, ulterior commercial motives in packing Apu off to learn English, of all subjects.) Yet Apu's progress appears to speak to the desire for self-improvement so central to the Indian character: it would be unfair to blame Ray for all of them, but many of the derogatory jokes about Asian students being nerds in contemporary sitcoms and college comedies can be sourced back to this exceptional trilogy.

The Apu Trilogy is available as a boxset through Artificial Eye.


Monday 19 November 2012

From the archive: "Nativity!"

The exclamation mark - on leave from Mamma Mia! - may be the giveaway. The best new British sitcom of the year, BBC2's Home Time, came straight out of Coventry, and so it is that, providing the witless yang to the amusing yin, that phoenix-like city should also give rise to Nativity!, one of 2009's direst movie experiences. Your heart goes out to Martin Freeman, doing his level best to salvage anything worthwhile as a primary school teacher pressganged into overseeing another Christmas play with a new, childish classroom assistant (Marc Wootten, terrible) and finding himself in a double-bind, having promised the young stars that his producer ex (Ashley Jensen) will be returning from L.A. to see it. "Hollywood is coming to Coventry!," Debbie Isitt's film shrieks at regular intervals; erm, no, sorry guys, it really isn't. 

I had some time for Isitt's previous Nasty Neighbours (rough-edged social comedy in the Mike Leigh mode) and Confetti (a Brit stab at Christopher Guest), but the cast gathered here set up comic expectations the U certificate cannot deliver on, heavy-handed editing cuts around any improvisational freshness, and the whole comes in regrettably close to prime-time ITV for comfort. A bauble like this needs the high-gloss treatment - if not the full Minnelli, than the tinsel and spray-on snow Richard Curtis bought in bulk for Love, Actually; with the budget blown on the final nativity sequence, Isitt's first hour and twenty minutes are allowed to proceed in depressingly threadbare fashion, as Christmassy as the display in Poundland's window.

The young performers look as though they'd rather get back to the funny business of double maths, and their (dubbed?) musical turns bring back terrible memories of the Mini Pops, while the cameos are a decidedly mixed bag. Ricky Tomlinson momentarily lifts the spirit as an unlikely Mayor, but Alan Carr - forever gazing upwards in reaction shots - is the least convincing Coventry Evening Telegraph journalist in history, there's an unfortunate appearance from recently jailed news reporter Ashley Blaker that might have been better left on the cutting-room floor (if good taste had ever been a concern here), and it gets unfathomably surreal when Lester Freamon from The Wire turns up as the world's most accommodating studio executive. The manic, forced jollity proves exhausting: it's the multiplex equivalent of the man at the office party wearing the novelty Santa hat, only here you have to spend a full two hours in the room with it.

(November 2009)

A sequel, Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Friday 16 November 2012

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of November 9-11, 2012:

1 (1) Skyfall (12A) ****
2 (2) Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (PG) ***
3 (new) Argo (15) ***
4 (new) Here Comes the Boom (12A) **
5 (5) Taken 2 (12A) *
6 (4) Hotel Transylvania (PG) ** 
7 (new) The Sapphires (PG) **
8 (3) Silent Hill: Revelation (15)
9 (8) Rust and Bone (15) **
10 (7) Paranormal Activity 4 (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
5. Amour

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (3) Avengers Assemble (12) ** 
2 (new) The Dictator (15)
5 (new) The Cabin in the Woods (15) ***
6 (new) The Lucky One (12)
7 (new) The Five-Year Engagement (15) **
8 (new) Contraband (15) ***
10 (re) Man on a Ledge (12) ***

My top five:
1. Lawrence of Arabia

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [above] (Saturday, C4, 12.50am)
2. A Few Good Men (Monday, five, 11.05pm)
3. Unforgiven (Sunday, five, 9pm)
4. Night of the Living Dead (Saturday, BBC2, 2.25am)
5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Saturday, ITV1, 3.10pm)


"Happy, Happy" (Guardian 16/11/12)

Happy, Happy (15) 85 mins ***

A prizewinner at last year’s Sundance, this offbeam relationship comedy sets out in territory that suggests a Scandinavian variant of TV’s Suburgatory, as an ultra-liberal, somewhat superior Danish couple move with their adopted African child to a snowy Norwegian backwater, piquing the interest of perky neighbours whose interests include hunting and homophobia. Nightly board games reveal differences not just between, but within, the couples; several guarded and complicated rounds of partner-swapping ensue. Its quirks – such as the blues harmony quartet deployed as on-screen musical punctuation – could easily have been omitted, but they’re typical of how director Anne Sewitsky keeps her mind open, and her performers get us caring about these characters, whichever way, and however clumsily, they happen to swing. Like Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), the wide-eyed Madame Bovary at its heart, Happy, Happy starts out cartoonish and winds up oddly endearing. 

Happy, Happy opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Breaking Dawn Part 2" (Scotsman 16/11/12)

Breaking Dawn Part 2 (12A) **
Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner

A year’s a long time in the franchise biz. Twelve long months have passed since vampire Edward Cullen gave human paramour Bella Swan the emergency love transfusion that turned her head forever, and Twihards could be forgiven for switching their attentions to The Hunger Games, or R-Pattz and K-Stew’s real-life dramas, or real life itself… For those still caring, the vampires remain at one another’s throats, while baby Renesmee (Renesmee!) has grown into a creepily docile CG creation, the pre-eminent example of this series’ consistently, contemptuously ropey effects work.

Elsewhere, grinding obligation holds sway: everyone’s tying up loose ends, and demonstrating no particular enthusiasm about doing so. As the leads skulk towards a final stand against befanged oppressor Michael Sheen, the plot entangles further vampires, Amazonians, even a senator – who must have better things to be doing – before resolving in one almighty fudge. Stewart and Pattinson grit pretty pointed teeth and see out their contracts, but after the threeways and bedhopping of On the Road and Bel Ami, it now seems rather silly to see them going sparkly in the sun. They’ve grown out of this; so should we all.

Breaking Dawn Part 2 opens nationwide today.

"Up There" (Metro 16/11/12)

Up There (15) 80 mins **

This low-budget supernatural bromance – about a pair of mismatched celestial functionaries (Burn Gorman and Aymen Hamdouchi) who’ve been grounded somewhere in Scotland until they can make the numbers in heaven add up – comes to inhabit its own purgatory: it’s aiming for funny, charming and poignant, but ends up grey, laboured and nondescript. Writer-director Zam Salim developed it from his short Laid Off, and it shows. Eight minutes might have been enough for Salim to get his best material together; at eighty, Up There feels stretched indeed, with only crisp, widescreen-filling images from cinematographer Ole Birkeland (The Arbor) and the odd funny-faced supporting player to compensate for its yawning stretches of dead time.

Up There opens in selected cinemas from today.

In the key of life: "Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet"

In the week of Amour, the real-life story of Jason Becker assumes a greater poignancy - and proves more welcome yet. For those of you whose hair doesn't extend below the collar, Becker was a minor rock god of the late 1980s, a poodly, noodly guitar prodigy who came to prominence with the aptly named thrash collective Cacophony, and was then headhunted (if you will, hairhunted) by none other than Dave Lee Roth himself as a replacement for the guitarist's guitarist Steve Vai, when the latter set out from the Roth band in the direction of a solo career. The testimonials assembled in Jesse Vile's intimate and affecting profile Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet paint a picture of Becker as a naturally quiet young man, one who didn't start talking until late in his infancy, and would more commonly be encountered backstage calling his parents than indulging in the excess of the 80s rock scene. Becker preferred to turn up his amps and let his instrument do the talking.

This preference became a necessity when, in 1989, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease, a potentially fatal neurodegeneration that robbed him of his speech and confined him to a wheelchair; the film's emotional stakes are set in one early, lowering cut from the lithe axeman tearing shit up on stage to the wordless, sedentary figure of Becker as he is today, wide, imploring eyes peering up from over a trach tube, a motionless rocker for whom the phrase "spinal tap" is no laughing matter, but a painful medical reality. Over twenty years on from the initial diagnosis, everyone on screen is mature enough to be able to reflect upon the tragedy that befell the film's subject, robbed of his dreams at a moment he appeared set to realise every last one of them. Vile - who, contra the name, turns out to be a total sweetheart - has some fun with degraded VHS footage of the young Jason posing for album covers with his erstwhile bandmate Marty Friedman ("Is my guitar straight?"), but he realises these are also memories Becker might reasonably want to cling to, and need to be handled as such.

That overriding compassion, and the hope Vile begins to massage into the film from the halfway point, is what distinguishes Not Dead Yet from Haneke's cramped and limiting vision of human frailty. As the documentary's title suggests, ALS didn't entirely put paid to Becker's creative endeavours: if the fingers that once gave rise to colossal, face-melting licks have withered, the mind pulling the strings has remained alert, and the second half documents how Becker has harnessed new forms of technology to compose even more complex musical works. The quiet lad has found alternative means of communication: the intricate, fascinating system of "mental telepathy" he's worked out with his loving father-turned-amanuensis Ken aligns this story with that of Jean-Dominique Bauby (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), allowing Becker to narrate, toss out knob gags, and eventually claim for himself the title of the sexiest man alive. (Once a rock god, always a rock god.) Sensitively handled, without sacrificing its subject's clearly formidable spark, it's also - as it should be - very effectively scored by Becker and Michael Lee Firkins, each riff we hear striking the exact right chords of melancholy, regret and defiance. Rock on.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on December 3. 

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Round the twist: "Mental"

The assumption may have been that last week's The Sapphires would soften our hearts and minds. My Best Friend Wedding director PJ Hogan's return to his native Australia, the broad, frenetic comedy Mental, opens with Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), unstable matriarch of the Moochmore clan, belting out the title song to The Sound of Music to bemused and horrified neighbours, while her many daughters - left rudderless by the continuing absence of their philandering politician father Barry (Anthony LaPaglia) - fret about what genetics is about to hand down for them to inherit. What transpires from here is a case study set out in the loudest colours and the wackiest production design: as everyone discovers the cause of the girls' mental and emotional dishevelment, barely a scene goes by without a car ploughing into something, a dog leaping between somebody's legs, or a cuckoo clock going off. 

The idea is that Australia isn't so much a penal colony as an outsized loony bin, in which there can be "no normal, but different shades of mental". "I hear voices," one of Shirley's brood admits, and Hogan takes his characters' side absolutely by setting all 200 of them to sticking their faces and their tongues out at his tilted camera and getting them to shout la-la-nee-nee-noo-noo, or variants thereof, at the very top of their voices. The storytelling underpinning such wackiness itself falls prone to sudden jolts, the narrative equivalent of ECT. An instant after Shirley disappears after going doolally with her hubby's credit card, Barry deposits a heavily eye-shadowed hitchhiker (Toni Collette) in the family's living room, who will turn out to be an expert in a very unorthodox and hands-on branch of psychology - a development Hogan has to hurry and harry us past, lest we notice how ridiculous it is.

Mental has a good cast of actresses espousing a positive message, equal parts R.D. Laing and kd lang; it also has a wily, enjoyable supporting role for Liev Schreiber as a Steve Irwin-ish alpha who speaks almost exclusively in aquatic metaphors ("Life is sharks"). Yet any subtlety or nuance is quickly drowned out by the looney-tunes cacophony Hogan fosters, and for all the diversion or amusement this approach leads to, the film may ultimately stand or fall on your preferred course of treatment. Talking about mental illness is a healthy thing, and to be encouraged, but this determinedly high-frequency comedy insists on farting flames for smoke signals, and then shrieking about it in your ear for the full 116 minutes.

Mental opens in selected cinemas from Friday.