Saturday 27 April 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of April 19-21, 2013: 

1 (new) Olympus Has Fallen (15) ***
2 (1) Oblivion (12A) *
3 (new) Evil Dead (18) ***
4 (2) The Croods (U)
5 (4) The Place Beyond the Pines (15) **
6 (3) Scary Movie V (15)
7 (new) Love Is All You Need (15) **
8 (5) G.I. Joe: Retaliation (12A)  
9 (6) Jack the Giant Slayer (12A) **
10 (7) Oz The Great and Powerful (PG) **  


My top five:

1. White Elephant
2. Scarecrow
3. In the Fog
4. Iron Man 3
5. Bernie
Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Skyfall (12) ****
2 (new) Jack Reacher (12) **
3 (3) Seven Psychopaths (15) **
4 (1) Silver Linings Playbook (15) **** 
5 (2) Taken 2 (15) *
6 (5) The Campaign (15) ***
7 (4) Anna Karenina (12) ***
8 (6) End of Watch (15) ***
9 (new) Savages (15) *
10 (7) The Watch (15)


My top five:
1. You Will Be My Son
2. What Richard Did 
3. She-Monkeys
5. Life of Pi

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
Spellbound [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 8.10am)

2. Notorious (Saturday, BBC2, 2.05pm)
3. Michael Clayton (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
4. The Aviator (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
5. Dark Water (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)   


"White Elephant" (Metro 26/04/13)

White Elephant (15) 105 mins ****

The increasingly reliable writer-director Pablo Trapero here structures a film around a real-life landmark that symbolises Argentina’s internal chaos: the Ciudad Oculta, a once-marbled, since-abandoned medical facility in Buenos Aires that’s been taken over (and stripped bare) by gangs, junkies and the similarly dispossessed. In trying to limit the bodycount, weary pastor Julián (Ricardo Darin) has himself started to crack; his protégé Nicolás (Jérémie Renier)’s adventurous, hands-on approach to soul-saving further heightens local tensions. Trapero avoids flashy, City of God-style sensationalism: the drama emerges organically from the characters and this striking, byzantine location – which makes it even more jolting when a riot suddenly breaks out or zinging bullets threaten his leads’ best intentions. The result’s an engrossing study of committed, conflicted professionals coming under fire that’ll be of particular relevance for seasoned NHS-watchers: here, but for the grace of God (or Government)…

White Elephant is in selected cinemas nationwide.

Suits: "Iron Man 3"

As one might expect from a franchise initiated by Paramount before being taken over by Disney, and centred on a billionaire ex-arms dealer with an electromagnetic core where his heart ought to be, the Iron Man series has come to seem like an ongoing battle between the human and the corporate-military-industrial-technological. In 2010's Iron Man 2, essentially a coronation for Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark after the first movie took as much money as it did, the latter forces won out: it was crammed full of expensive bits of kit that muffled or outright suppressed the assembled players' capacity for self-expression, as only a full ferrous body suit could.

As co-written and directed by 1990s shoot-'em-up maven Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout), the far livelier Iron Man 3 allows the human elements to fight back a little: for starters, it's found a way of resolving the glitch that previously obliged us to watch (and try and get involved with) largely interchangeable action figures duking it out in armour, and even its reasonably applied 3D seems as much aimed at bringing us a shade closer to the characters as it is an obvious ploy to inflate the box-office. (Though, obviously, it won't hurt any.)

The introduction among the dramatis personae of a pair of bioscientists only adds to the sense of a franchise reengaging with the organic. There's Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), introduced as an old flame of Stark's in a pre-credits New Year's Eve '99 flashback that encourages us to get nostalgic for old Lou Bega and Eiffel 65 records. That Maya is intended as a rival to Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts can be gleaned from the observation Hall has brown hair, where Paltrow's remains blonde. (On such simple oppositions are entire franchises constructed.) Potts, meanwhile, has been tempted away from her day job as Stark's gal Friday/PA/FWB with the reemergence of one Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a snivelling nerd in that flashback, who's subsequently transformed into a suave and successful sort with flowing blonde locks, where Stark's are cropped short and dark. Keeping up at the back, yes?

This foursome's circling will be interrupted first by the terror videos, then the bombs, of an individual known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who appears to be using genetically engineered supersoldiers - bio-bombs, if you will - as shrapnel-free, undetectable weapons of mass destruction. One of The Mandarin's first targets is Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard - pointedly avoiding the Disney-owned El Capitan across the road - which gets blown to high heaven for being, in its targeter's words, "a cheap American knock-off" of Orientalist architecture: he's like Osama, Jonathan Meades and Prince Charles rolled into one.

As with Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke in IM2, these newcomers to the franchise are no more, in the grand scheme of things, than minor tweaks to the formula - like whatever they put into Coke Zero or Tab Clear to differentiate the new product from what's gone before and thereby extend the brand. Yet they do add noticeable zip and tang, however short-lived, and after months of anonymous multiplex fodder - Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz the Great and Powerful, Oblivion, whose success might only be attributed to audiences' desperation for anything, however rote, that might fill the screen - it's a relief to be back in the same room as something with some degree of personality: you sense as much from the largely adoring critical notices the film has received this past week.

Again, we're reminded how this franchise lucked out the moment Downey Jr. signed on for it, in doing so guaranteeing a level of enthusiasm among cinemagoers that isn't likely to be matched by, say, the return of Chris "Not That One" Evans as Captain America. In Iron Man 3, as before, Downey Jr. stakes a claim towards being the busiest man in the movies, faced with the tricky assignment of mastering this role's myriad contradictions, in a way a monodimensional sixpack like Evans never could: letting out a tellingly sincere groan of dismay as Maya suggests she has Stark's 13-year-old lovechild sitting in her car (she hasn't), both bickering with and shrugging off the small-town urchin (Ty Simpkins) that Black has paired Stark with in an attempt to humanise him, in a manner more funny than schmaltzy.

Still, might we not take a moment, amid all the adulation, to question that personality? Stark remains a literally heartless bastard, with trace elements of those bores who'd rather spend time alone tinkering in a shed than in the arms of those girls they're lucky (very lucky) to be adored by. For much of this latest instalment, our hero is unwilling to do anything other than toss the odd glib quip in Maya and Pepper's direction, and only seems ready to commit to the latter once all other options have been exhausted. Even then, one senses it's because this smart, successful businesswoman has been brought crashing down to his trashy, junky, superficial level: admiring the accidental crop-top that shows off Paltrow's new-found abs, he wonders, as any other fanboy would: "Why don't you ever dress like this at home?"

Similarly, worldlier viewers might wince when Stark offers the kid his solution to the latter's bullying woes: a miniature explosive device. It's a set-up for a later set-piece, but not untypical of the Avengers-era phenomenon that insists the only way to defeat a bully is to become an even bigger, better-equipped bully yourself: corporate Darwinism writ large, in terms any seething nerd would be only too willing to sign up for. In Black's reliably glib fashion, the film suggests a good father or role model is one who pays for his charges to learn how to fight, then flies off in his own private jet. Suffice to say, however thrilling or entertaining it plays as, this decidedly rarefied and insulated idea of heroism doesn't entirely chime with mine own: I found it hard to cheer too rapturously for a guy who can afford to flick grand pianos at the helicopters attacking his Malibu pad, or invest too much in the tears of Stark sheds when his loved ones are threatened, because you just know nothing is going to be allowed to rust this suit, and he'll be back in it - for himself, as ever - come 2015's Iron Man 4.

What Black has given us, then, is a skilfully assembled campaign for supporting the status quo: one grasps as much from the scene in which Stark co-opts a local TV wonk - a clear analogue for the Comic-Con faithful, complete with Tony Stark tattoo on his forearm - to do his bidding for him, just as he charmed Pepper Potts into becoming his own personal Wendi Deng. The film's one stirring image of collectivity - Stark, in full bodysuit, deploying a barrel-of-monkeys formation to pluck the plummeting survivors of a plane explosion from the air - is undermined somewhat when one remembers the plane in question is Air Force One, and the stunt thus a (nifty) representation of Government powerlessness in the presence of sexy, hulking corporate will. (As the President, erstwhile screen Grim Reaper William Sadler has never seemed so greyingly ineffectual: at least Olympus Has Fallen's Aaron Eckhart got to box a little before going down.)

So you can cheer if you want at Stark and Killian's last-reel destruction of a shipyard - like we really need to see more of that right now - or you can spot how this franchise continues to rest, more persuasively and less uneasily here than it did in previous instalments, on a very specific control fantasy that male executives and sexless fanboys alike can share: that of surrounding yourself with gadgets and girls and guys (and audiences, and even critics) that'll get you what you want, and do just about anything else to keep you happy. In ways both better and worse, Iron Man 3 - a vision of the 1% that looks likely to scoop 99% of this weekend's box-office - is where the Western world and its movies are at right now.

Iron Man 3 is in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 25 April 2013

1,001 Films: "Hud" (1963)

Adapted from a Larry McMurtry novel, Hud must have seemed a strikingly modern Western for 1963. Paul Newman's rowdy ranchhand Hud Patterson - "an unprincipled man", as the screenplay has it - is recalled from his carousing to help out at the family ranch, where foot-and-mouth has broken out. With the property quarantined, Hud butts heads with his ultra-principled father (Melvyn Douglas) over what to do with the cattle, swaps outrageously suggestive badinage with housekeeper Patricia Neal, the only woman in town he hasn't already slept with, and starts leading teenage nephew Brandon de Wilde off the path of righteousness.

The theme of one generation pushing up against their forefathers - the theme that so preoccupied the New American Cinema a few more years down the track - is very much in evidence, but as in the other films displaying McMurtry's penhand (The Last Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain), we also get a real feel for the small town - or human cattle-pen - its residents are kicking out at: a distinct place where the only entertainment after dark comes from watching men trying to wrestle pigs in rodeos, or one another in bars. 

Beautifully photographed by the great James Wong Howe, with an eye for big skies and hothouses alike, it makes for a fascinating companion piece with Shane - seen in this light, very much Old Hollywood - where the young de Wilde came to look up to the title character as a hero. Even if Hud winds up consigned to his fate, Newman's magnetism here is Brando-like, devilish: watching him break the locks to Neal's room in a wife-beater vest, you might be forgiven for thinking it's a pity the actor gave into benign twinkling as his career went on.

Hud is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

From the archive: "Iron Man 2"

Iron Man 2 adopts the Spider-Man 3 line of insisting that once a superhero has gone public (and the franchise has passed a set figure at the box office), he deserves - nay, demands - the full celebrity treatment. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark here gets his own troupe of dancing girls, a theme park in Flushing Meadow dedicated to his every whim, imitators in North Korea and Iran, and an entourage that runs the full gamut, from Mickey Rourke at one end of the spectrum to Bill O'Reilly at the other. Rourke is present as Stark's latest nemesis, a grungy nogoodnik from the Moscow slums known as Ivan Vanko, who'd only require an extra "a" on that Christian name to graduate to an Austin Powers movie; "You look like you have friends in low places," Stark quips of his opponent, when the two have finally shrugged off their armour in a police interrogation room.

Stark, for his part, clearly has admirers in high Hollywood places. During this sequel, he will get to crash racecars in Monaco; he has loads of those flashy, scrolly CSI/iPhone-style touchscreens to do all the film's exposition; he has a sexy new legal intern, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), whose duties extend to asking her employer whether his Martini is dirty enough; and continuing the alcoholic theme, he has a new party trick, clay pigeon shooting with bottles of Cristal, which might seem more than faintly decadent in any economic climate. Still, Stark continues to listen to The Clash in his research-and-development lab, lest we start to think he might be anything other than a heroic punk outsider. You can tell what a cold, hard, expensive bit of kit Iron Man 2 is from the characters' surnames alone: Stark is here matched against a calculating defence-industry lobbyist called Justin Hammer (a pitch-perfect Sam Rockwell) and - in a comeback of his own - Garry Shandling as a Senator called Stern. (I longed for someone called Lamb, or Sunshine, or a Captain Candyfloss to skip across the screen, but perhaps they're being held back for future instalments.)

For all the film's additional bling, I found myself taking practically the same notes during Iron Man 2 as I did watching 2008's not unenjoyable original: that the electromagnetic coil at Tony Stark's centre is a perfect analogue for the mechanical and heartless nature of the movie (in a typical second-film twist, Stark finds his body is absorbing the coil's resources faster than he can source them); that the experience is not unlike being trapped inside a two-hour trade fair for the military-industrial complex; and that the saving grace, the franchise's one true marvel, is Downey Jr.'s innate sense of showmanship (a little tarnished after Sherlock Holmes, but functional nonetheless). Yet even the star shows signs of being upstaged by the depth and breadth of gadgetry assembled second time out: take the scene late on where Stark finds himself having to negotiate his way out from behind a windmilling executive toy poised on the desk of the newly promoted Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) - a device that proves more compelling to the eye than anything the actors are required to do.

Again, we're being asked to hand over our hard-earned and cheer the victory of a (this time, physically corrupt) capitalist a-hole, and - in so doing - either sanction or applaud the film's fetishisation of high-grade (not to mention entirely phallic; this is Iron Man, after all) weaponry; the camera demonstrates little interest in anything other than boys and their toys. Paltrow, after this token promotion, has only to bicker with and whine at Stark between mouthing corporate platitudes into telephones. Johansson, who appears under the influence of weapons-grade tranquilisers throughout, is squeezed into a latex suit that plasticises her curves and essentially turns her into a malleable action figure. The most effective female element comes in the form of a poison pen that, Rockwell insists, is "capable of reducing the population of any standing structure to zero". Its nickname? "The Ex-Wife".

In retrospect, it now seems telling this franchise should have been turned over to Jon Favreau, director and star of those blokey Vince Vaughn comedies; casting himself as Stark's chauffeur, he gets to leer at Johansson changing in the rear-view mirror, the sort of regrettable, retrograde moment you could well imagine Michael Bay engineering for his Transformers inamorata Megan Fox. Iron Man 2 is nothing if not totally pimped out; jetting between Manhattan, Russia and the South of France, it moves in all the right circles, at optimum blockbuster speed. But that's all this franchise is doing right now: circling, like a vulture over the world's popcorn-munchers, or a rocket running out of gas.

(April 2010)

Iron Man 2 is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a further instalment, Iron Man 3, opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, and is reviewed here.

From the archive: "Iron Man"

The first blockbuster of 2008's interesting-looking, largely sequel-less summer, Iron Man, casts Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark: a genius of mechanics, international playboy and billionaire arms manufacturer who goes under the unfortunate nickname "The Merchant of Death". Stark is breezing through life, paying scant regard to those to whom he flogs his own-brand WMDs, until he pays a trip to Afghanistan to negotiate another sale, whereupon the convoy he's travelling in comes under attack from the forces of dramatic irony.

Stark is captured, and wakes up - in a scene more reminiscent of the Saw films than any mainstream summer event movie - to discover the Afghans have sewn an electromagnetic device into his chest. His captors want him to build a missile for them, but he rebels and - MacGyver-like - instead uses the kit available to fashion for himself a combination of a suit of armour and the ultimate smart bomb: and lo, another movie superhero, and another superhero franchise is born. The Iron Man cometh.

Marvel's comic book series has here been entrusted to Jon Favreau, an actor (most notably in 1996's Swingers) turned competent director (Made, Zathura) who takes a cameo here as Stark's chauffeur. His biggest contribution behind the camera has been to ensure the film is stocked with fellow performers capable of finding grace notes in the middle of what often resembles a trade fair for the military-industrial complex.

For starters, Downey Jr. more than confirms the general feeling this was the most inspired pick to play a superhero since Michael Keaton in the first Batman movie. Few other performers could make Stark's fiddling around with technology, testing the limits of his own equipment, messing about with a screwdriver ("Yep, I can fly") so engaging. Gwyneth Paltrow brings a welcome softness to proceedings as housekeeper Pepper Potts (what were her parents smoking?), while Stark's business partner Obadiah Stane is played by Jeff Bridges with a grumpy Michael Eavis look: bald, bearded, plotting - if you couldn't tell from the way he wields a cigar, the Dickensian villainy lurking in his name, or the manner in which he lurks behind Stark throughout, he's up to no good.

Within its comic-book universe, Iron Man functions as witty, well-paced, above-average entertainment that does an efficient job in sketching out the parameters of a potentially enduring and profitable franchise. Nothing here matches the effect of the first Spider-Man movie, but it's less obnoxious than Transformers, and there are signs that a sequel might yet let rip and have real fun with these characters. (Stay tuned through the end credits for a taste of attractions to come.)

Where it doesn't deliver on the trailer, however, is that it's nowhere near as savvy about real-world politics as we might have been led to hope. At best, the four-man screenplay is confused about what we're supposed to be cheering; at worst, it's outright evasive. Lip service is paid to the debate on whether weapons uphold or preclude peace, before the film forks out for the shiniest technology and noisiest whizz-crash-bangs the dollar can currently buy. Favreau has gone on the record in saying he didn't want to use the film as a political platform - a shrewd position for a director trying to build a career in a town where opening weekends matter, and especially so, given the box-office underperformance of recent anti-war movies.

Instead, he and the film hedge their bets, and in doing so, Iron Man lets slip the opportunity to make what would have likely been the loudest and most widely heard pacifist statement of the year. Had it squeezed in even a few more subversive elements, it would have been the riot that trailer promised; as it is, Iron Man shares with its hero a glowing electromagnetic coil at its core: it's machine-tooled, eminently serviceable, and - for the time being, at least - a franchise operating in the absence of anything like a heart.

(May 2008)

Iron Man is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

Saturday 20 April 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office  
for the weekend of April 12-14, 2013: 

1 (new) Oblivion (12A) *
2 (1) The Croods (U)
3 (new) Scary Movie V (15)
4 (new) The Place Beyond the Pines (15) **
5 (2) G.I. Joe: Retaliation (12A)
6 (5) Jack the Giant Slayer (12A) **  
7 (6) Oz The Great and Powerful (PG) **
8 (4) Trance (15) ***
9 (3) Dark Skies (15)
10 (7) The Host (12A) 

My top five:  
1. Finding Nemo      
2. Point Blank      
3. The Gatekeepers  
4. A Late Quartet    
5In the House   

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (1) Silver Linings Playbook (15) ****
2 (2) Taken 2 (15) *
3 (new) Seven Psychopaths (15) **
4 (3) Anna Karenina (12) ***
5 (5) The Campaign (15) ***
6 (7) End of Watch (15) ***
7 (10) The Watch (15)
8 (6) The Bourne Legacy (12) ***
9 (4) Sightseers (15) ***
10 (re) Ted (15) ***  

My top five:          
1. What Richard Did  
2. She-Monkeys
5. The Spirit of '45

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Parenthood [above] (Saturday, ITV1, 10.45pm)

2. Jurassic Park (Sunday, ITV1, 3.55pm)
3. Munich (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
4. Air Force One (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
5. The Karate Kid (Sunday, C4, 7.30pm)    


Thursday 18 April 2013

1,001 Films: "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962)

"That summer, I was six years old." A venerable adaptation of Harper Lee's novel, Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird stands as one of the totemic works of the "holiday that changed my life" subgenre, as well as a lasting document of a period of rapid social change - and several landmark civil-rights cases - in the States. We're in the American South, some time in the 1930s. Lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is defending a black farmworker accused of raping his boss's daughter, while Finch's children mill around just, well, looking at stuff for the most part. Compared to the other key movie rape case of the era - 1959's groundbreaking Anatomy of a Murder - To Kill a Mockingbird is indeed kids' stuff, but that child's-eye perspective results in the film forming a curious companion piece to The Night of the Hunter, now considered the most "adult" studio picture of the 1950s. 

Yet again, we're in the American heartlands; yet again, we end up with babes in the woods; and yet again, crisp monochrome photography serves to point up the relationship between the colours black and white, and the inference of good and evil attached to them. The inverse of his Cape Fear co-star Robert Mitchum in Hunter, Peck's the very image of decency here, but it's not much of an assignment: he's asked, as though by a teacher, to do no more than be good. The real centre of the movie, it transpires, is not his Atticus - the great liberal comfort blanket: a man so upstanding he lacks depth or dimension, with not a crease or wrinkle to be observed in his personality, nor his suit - but the character's offspring, and their friends. Mulligan allows his juvenile leads to treat Lee's world as one giant playground, a place for adventure and discovery, which they're forever seen pushing their way into, jamming their bodies inside tyres, under porches, between railings.

Horton Foote's screenplay, on the other hand, keeps imposing its own authority, so much of the film alternates between wagging its finger sternly and patting you on the head. Perhaps that's why the second half gets entrenched in the courtroom, where the judge looks as though he's about to nod off during some of the more "emotive" testimony, and the earnest waffle of Finch's summation only restates conciliatory material expressed more succinctly and touchingly earlier in the film - like the scene where the lawyer pulls up outside his client's shack, and the two men's boys, struck by the kind of curiosity that informs all the kid scenes, offer tentative waves to one another. Moments like these ensure it remains a lovely world to spend two hours in; for better and worse, no film in the Hollywood canon before or since has been this determined to recreate the experience of being of impressionable school age.

To Kill a Mockingbird is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Murders at 1600: "Olympus Has Fallen"

The Hollywood action movies isn't just recycling its old warhorses - Sly, Bruce, Arnie and the other Expendables - but its battle-hardened plots. Olympus Has Fallen is the kind of thick-eared, tubthumping flagwaver that might have easily emerged back in the late 1990s around the time of Air Force One, the last big-screen assault on the American presidency. Its USP is a new foe, which makes it, mostly unintentionally, the season's timeliest release. Just as the recent Red Dawn switched villains to make North Korea its chosen bad guy, so we here see Kim Jong-un's boys and girls staging a sneaky aerial assault on the Washington Monument - imagery that would have been unacceptable a decade ago, in the wake of the Twin Towers' falling - and thereafter swarming like ants into the White House, where they proceed to hold Clinton-esque President Aaron Eckhart, and the rest of the Western world, to ransom. The only man who can save him, and us, is L'Orealled chancer Gerard - sorry, GERARD BUTLER as the bodyguard and erstwhile Presidential sparring pal who's been relegated to working the low-stakes night shift at the Treasury after presiding over the detail that saw the First Lady's car plummet off a bridge in icy conditions. 

Essentially, it's The West Wing with all that walking and talking replaced by running, punching and shooting, and part of the not inconsiderable fun to be had with it is the incongruous classiness of its supporting cast. The Pres gets chained up in a bunker alongside Defense Secretary Melissa Leo, who gets punched in the face and stripped to her underwear as the Koreans go after the country's nuke codes, and still has the tenacity to make this role seem less demeaning than her virtual appearance in Oblivion. Over at the command centre, meanwhile, Secret Service director Angela Bassett swears in the House Speaker as acting President, thus restoring Morgan Freeman to the top job he last held in 1998's Deep Impact; together with General Robert Forster, they knit their brows at screens (yes, there's a big red clock counting down to nuclear armageddon) while Gerard grunts around doing all the dirty work.

The model isn't quite Jerry Bruckheimer's late-90s output: as a recession-era actioner from sometime DTV specialists Millennium Films, Olympus doesn't have the budget to go big, hence the conspicuous cruddiness of some of its visual effects work. If anything, it's closer to one of Roland Emmerich's "what-ifs", thinking as long and as hard as it can manage about the ways any disgruntled outsiders might stage an attack on the White House in the modern age. (For the record: aerial distraction, suicide bombers on the ground, and the presence of an insider among the President's men, no matter that he'll stick out to seasoned character actor-watchers like a very sore and questionably threatening thumb.) All its thinking is to no great end, yet if Olympus Has Fallen is trash, it's remarkably revealing and illuminating trash; while the script labours away at its dumb-lunk set-ups and pay-offs, some of its imagery has the vivid, jolting kick of a collective consciousness nightmare, and you can see exactly why the film has been the solid hit it has in a country still (this week, understandably) terrified such scenes as these might come to pass for real.

Supremely organised armies of pinch-faced immigrants overwhelming the system; endless shots of tattered and fluttering Stars and Stripes; the crazed conviction that one lone individual, gifted the right arsenal and a significantly reduced Government, might repel any pressing threat to the status quo. It's wittier about it, but Olympus brings the Taken films' protectionist/flatly racist foreign policy back into the domestic realm: every gook Gerard takes out is another step along the way to restoring even that emasculated America of male moisturising products and throwaway romcoms our hero represents - to sustaining business as usual. From this, it's hard not to take a sense that an enfeebled America is desperate for such foes to better define itself; that a cowboy cannot ride in isolation - or indeed sit behind a Treasury desk - for too long. January's Zero Dark Thirty effectively put the nation's last public enemy to bed; what Olympus Has Fallen inadvertently reveals to us is America's need to find a new boogeyman against which to demonstrate its strength. Kim Jong-un can rattle all the sabres he owns, but as Gerard - sorry, GERARD, that master of close-quarters combat, knows all too well, it takes two to tangle.

Olympus Has Fallen is in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 14 April 2013

1,001 Films: "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962)

An Autumn Afternoon provides a variant on Ozu's adopted theme of fathers and daughters, shot in bright primary colours, possessed of a couple of novel ideas, and let down by sitcom-flat staging and a plodding pace. It starts with two characters very familiar from this director's work - a respectable salaryman widower (Chishu Ryu) and his straight-laced, unmarried offspring (Shima Iwashita) - though, here, the scenario is skewed towards light, bittersweet comedy. Ozu sees laughs rather than tears in the figure of a daughter so domesticated she's all but taken on the role of a wife, nagging dad to get back home in time for tea; in what was to be his final film, the director enjoys the reversal of saddling the young with responsibilities (keeping house, paying bills) while their elders get tipsy. (There's quite a funny gag in the way the camera keeps having to return to the signs and logos outside the bars the father frequents, though equally this might be understood as a critique of men who'd rather stay out carousing than be at home with their loved ones.)

Through the widower's naval past, the film can also, briefly and gently, touch upon the fate of a generation who fought (unsuccessfully) for their country; interestingly, there's far less agonising or handwringing than there is in an equivalent post-War American drama like The Best Years of Our Lives, and when Ryu meets up with a fellow sailor who served under him, the occasion cues jokes about the military defeat and a jaunty dance. The skittishness overwhelms any real insight, though, and you still sense Ozu is that much more interested in the salarymen boozing their way across town or testing their new golfclubs than he is in the passive, pinny-sporting women pottering about behind them. Cosily funny - with much nudging humour about old boys who require special pills to satisfy their young brides - and finally even rather touching in its awkward and formal sort of way, but again the suspicion (as with all too many of Ozu's so-called timeless works) is that it won't mean a thing to anybody under the age of fifty.

An Autumn Afternoon is available on DVD through the BFI.

Friday 12 April 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office  
for the weekend of April 5-7, 2013: 
1 (1) The Croods (U)    
2 (2) G.I. Joe: Retaliation (12A)
3 (new) Dark Skies (15)
4 (3) Trance (15) ***
5 (4) Jack the Giant Slayer (12A) **
6 (6Oz The Great and Powerful (PG) ** 
7 (5) The Host (12A)
8 (7) Identity Thief (15) *
9 (new) Spring Breakers (18) **
10 (new) The Odd Life of Timothy Green (U) 

My top five:  

1. Finding Nemo    
2. Point Blank    
3. The Gatekeepers
4. A Late Quartet  
5In the House   

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (1) Silver Linings Playbook (15) ****

2 (new) Taken 2 (15) *
3 (new) Anna Karenina (12) ***
4 (2) Sightseers (15) ***
5 (6) The Campaign (15) ***
6 (5) The Bourne Legacy (12) ***
7 (4) End of Watch (15) ***
8 (3) Rise of the Guardians (PG) *
9 (10) Killing Them Softly (18) *** 
10 (8) The Watch (15)
My top five:        
1. What Richard Did
2. She-Monkeys

5. The Spirit of '45


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Juno [above] (Sunday, C4, 10pm)
2. The Addams Family (Sunday, C4, 1.40pm)
3. The Secret Garden (Sunday, five, 2.55pm)
4. The Black Dahlia (Saturday, C4, 12.40am)
5. Get Him to the Greek (Saturday, C4, 9.30pm)  


On DVD: "She-Monkeys" (Metro 12/04/13)

She-Monkeys (12, DVD only)

Almost certainly the only Swedish drama to evoke the spectre of Tonya Harding, Lisa Aschan’s distinctive coming-of-age saga charts the friendship and rivalry that develops between two sporty girls: Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), sensible new recruit to an afterschool gymkhana, and the club’s glacial, imperious front rider Cassandra (Linda Molin). These two first bond while getting their teeth into the local boys, but really only have eyes for one another – which gets tricky, when it turns out there are but limited places on the team. Aschan renders these girls’ giggly pleasures and growing pains as part of a loose sequence of funny, weird, forever vivid formative moments, coaxing terrific performances from her limber young leads: while marvelling at Paradeiser and Molin’s mad vaulting skills, we spy the mistakes Emma and Cassandra are likely to make in later life, if they don’t or cannot correct themselves. A small gem, all too keenly informed by painful memories of what it takes to be best in show.

She-Monkeys is available on DVD through Peccadillo from Monday.

Moon blanding: "Oblivion"

Joseph Kosinski is the former ad-world whizz who did his level best to sink Disney's film division back in 2010 with his impressive-looking but interminably inane franchise reboot Tron: Legacy. It may be indicative of the dysfunctionality of those large multimedia conglomerates currently passing for movie studios that Kosinski has now been hired again, this time by Universal, after pitching an adaptation of a "graphic novel" (comic book) he must have written and coloured in himself back when he was eleven or twelve, at a moment when its core ideas might have seemed fresh and exciting. The result, Oblivion, is almost identical: a film that looks good - particularly on the IMAX screen, Hollywood's new preferred means of overcompensating - but is, if anything, even more brain-sappingly inert than its predecessor.

The set-up is WALL-E meets Solaris meets Total Recall - so there, immediately, are three films you might prefer to be watching; five if you liked the latter films' remakes. In the year 2077, after the desolation of Earth, mankind is obliged to live an altogether sterile existence (lots of showers, no off-planet flowers) on the moons of Saturn. Our hero Jack (Tom Cruise) lives a well-drilled, well-regulated life in the astral commuter belt, locating and repairing surveillance beacons on the Earth's abandoned surface under the command of his current squeeze Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). You might have thought a society so devoted to health and efficiency would have strictures in place against any worker skinnydipping after hours with Mission Control, but - hey - she presses his buttons. Then one morning, while - yes - taking a shower, Major Tom has a flash of another, earlier, perhaps better life: a memory of bustling Manhattan streets from before the Fall, this stirring vision only being marred by the appearance among these crowds of pouty model-turned-[sic] Olga Kurylenko, whose screen presence has rapidly (To The Wonder, The Expatriate, now this) come to serve as a reliable indicator the next two hours of your life are about to spiral into the void. Jack's heart soars; 'most everybody else's, I'd venture, will sink.

One of the reasons Cruise's Mission: Impossible movies have consistently outgrossed his recent non-franchise entries (Knight & Day, Jack Reacher) may be that the former are essentially ensemble pieces, showcasing between mega-stunts supporting players who represent those elements (humour, sex appeal, relatability) the leading man has only occasionally brought to the table of late. (I bet there are Simon Pegg fans who wouldn't normally go near a Tom Cruise movie.) Oblivion, in stark contrast, establishes itself as weirdly, disconcertingly sparse, like the worst kind of control-freak fantasy: for a while, it's nothing but white people in white jumpsuits moving through the clean, clear spaces of Jack and Victoria's modernist home in the clouds, a location that makes de Niro's beachfront pad in Heat look like something off Hoarders. The film's syntax and performers are themselves limited: it turns out Kosinski has only a finite number of tricks in what one hesitates to describe as his storytelling arsenal, and most of those are burned up within ninety seconds.

There are lots of shots of Tom strapped into his cockpit doing his patented Intense Face (cf. Top Gun) while the effects team doodle around him. Yet there's absolutely nothing else, physical or emotional, going on here. Riseborough glows more keenly than she has elsewhere, but that luminescence seems in part a reflection from the touchscreens she's always prodding away at; when Kurylenko shows up in person as "Julia Rusakova" - of course Julia Rusakova -  you despair on multiple levels: Kosinski has achieved the scientifically impossible, and squeezed a vacuum inside a vacuum. (As an example of this species of blockbuster's sudden, reckless and ultimately damaging disregard for real actors - as set against, say, its growing fondness for glassy babes in vests - consider the sorry fate of recent Oscar-winner Melissa Leo: she's the hologram Riseborough is seen prodding away at.)

It takes an hour for the film to suggest any life beyond this inert love triangle, and then some part of you might wish it hadn't. Enter Morgan Freeman, stuck behind those silly round sci-fi sunglasses, and his army of Earthling blackshirts, somehow presented as hostile to the white world above; enter the uninhibited digital spectacle these movies almost always wind up descending into; exit, with great haste, any remaining traces of logic or coherence, accompanied by any viewer who came looking for passable escapism now that the weekend's here. One semi-intriguing subtext presents itself - Oblivion might just operate as a user's guide for any man looking for pointers on how to get out of marriage to a chilly redhead and put himself into the arms of a more pliant brunette, while remaining on some level heroic (hi Tom!) - but the bigger picture is fundamentally airless and joyless, and just dull enough for Tom and Olga's heartsong to be A Whiter Shade of Fucking Pale.

Oblivion is in cinemas nationwide.