Friday 30 August 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office          
for the weekend of August 23-25, 2013: 
1 (new) Elysium (15) ***
2 (new) We're the Millers (15)
3 (2) Planes (U)
4 (new) The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (12A) **
5 (4) Grown Ups 2 (12A)
6 (3) 2 Guns (15) **
7 (1) Kick-Ass 2 (15)
8 (6) Monsters University (U) **
9 (10) Despicable Me 2 (U) ***
10 (8) The Smurfs 2 (U) **

My top five:                              
1. You're Next
2. Plein Soleil
3. Pain & Gain
4. Upstream Color
5. Bonjour Tristesse

Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (1) Lincoln (12) ****    
2 (new) This is 40 (15) ***
3 (2) A Good Day to Die Hard (15)  
4 (4) Zero Dark Thirty (15) ***
5 (new) Olympus Has Fallen (15) ***
6 (3) The Place Beyond the Pines (15) **
7 (5) Side Effects (15) ***
8 (7) Life of Pi (12) ***
9 (6) Hitchcock (12) **
10 (8) Gangster Squad (15) ** 
My top five:                                    
1. A Hijacking  
2. Gimme the Loot
3. Blackfish  
4. Something in the Air  
5. The Gatekeepers        

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                               
1. 10 Things I Hate About You [above] (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)
2. The Four Feathers (Monday, C4, 12.55pm)
3. Fallen (Friday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
4. Carry On Screaming (Saturday, ITV1, 12.35pm)
5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Saturday, C4, 9.20pm)

Sellouts: "One Direction: This is Us" and "Pain & Gain" (ST 01/09/13)

One Direction: This is Us (PG) 95 mins *
Pain & Gain (15) 129 mins ***

There was some surprise when Morgan Spurlock was chosen to helm the One Direction documentary. Spurlock, you’ll recall, was the filmmaker whose McDonalds-drubbing 2004 hit Super Size Me railed against the unthinking consumption of corporate product. Might This Is Us feature a graphic sequence in which the director vomits upon repeated exposure to “What Makes You Beautiful”? Would we witness his cerebellum turning to mush after revisiting old X Factors? Alas, no: Spurlock remains off-camera throughout, his participation negated the instant Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment logo appears. This is, resolutely, a producer’s film.

Boybands remain profitable yet unsustainable business models – looks fade, as surely as tastes mature – and 1D’s moment may perhaps be nearing its end. All the pocket money in the land couldn’t get the hubris-laden “Best Song Ever” higher than no.2; young Louis Tomlinson has hedged career bets by signing with Doncaster Rovers. The film leaves the boys sitting round a campfire, pondering – like moptopped Alexander the Greats – what remains to be achieved now they’ve conquered the planet. Issued in the summer’s dog days, This is Us might be approached as one final pump of the fanbase before it returns to school and wises up.

As a music doc, Spurlock’s film is even less sincere than 2011’s Justin Bieber: Never SayNever; its candid moments are comprised of what TV execs refer to as “constructed reality” and the rest of us know as untruths. (Why would One Direction be in the woods?) It is, nevertheless, instructive of how pop culture now regards the construction of a narrative as more important than the product; hook the punters on the journey, and the music becomes secondary. In the concert footage, the energy spikes with a cover of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag”, which displays a craft and feeling lacking from everything else emitted on the band’s behalf.

The biography is one-note: these boys are forever “normal lads”. Harry, sightseeing in sunglasses, resembles a Poundland Dylan; brooding Zayn retreats with his felt-tips in a moment of purest Spinal Tap. A giddy hanger-on, Spurlock swallows this rags-to-riches narrative whole, recruiting doctors to claim 1D’s music makes you happier (how reassuring to learn Simon Cowell has scientists on his payroll), and a cameoing Martin Scorsese in a bid for cross-cultural cred. Yet the triumph This is Us commemorates isn’t creative, but banally commercial: that these talent show runners-up should have achieved a greater market share than, say, The Wanted.

Of course, this teenbeat tale dates back to the Beatles. But its allowance-grabbing reach has never appeared more aggressive than here in 3D, and I’d argue there’s a world of difference between the innocent pleasures of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and the sinister mindlabbery of “Little Things” (“You’ve never loved your stomach or your thighs/But I’ll love them endlessly”), with its laser-honed methods of monetising low self-esteem. Cowell has become very rich by being very shrewd about such matters; while there’s no need to lock up your daughters, I see no harm in teaching them to be a shade more discerning.

The critical reputation of Michael Bay – the Transformers movies’ leerer-in-chief – may now be beyond all repair, but he’s attempting something original with Pain & Gain, the kind of tonally batty one-off only someone who’s made the studios a lot of money might get away with. This is the confounding true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a dim-bulb gym bunny who, in the mid-1990s, unwittingly initiated a bloody trail of chaos that began with a get-rich-quick scheme and ended in multiple homicides. The zigzag plotting is partly attributable to steroidal jags, but events get so incredible that, shortly after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is observed tossing severed human hands on a barbeque, an on-screen addendum seeks to remind us “this is still a true story”.

Bay’s early action movies displayed a cocksure humour, but his new film is more subversive, routinely undermining its alpha males, and presenting all-American beefcake as ultimately good for naught. One caveat: Bay’s blunderbuss comic touch, which tends to blast any subtler satire into brash, cartoonish caricature. For once, though, the camera’s obsession with hardbodies, and its grossed-out responses to unwaxed crotches, are absolutely descriptive of the story’s screwy milieu, and not just of one director’s warped worldview. Dumbly enjoyable on some level, indefensible on many others, Pain & Gain remains a guilty pleasure, but I’ll say this for it: unlike the slouchy Spring Breakers, it at least commits to its tackiness, going toe-to-toe with its own characters in debatable judgement and devil-may-care taste.

One Direction: This is Us and Pain & Gain are in cinemas nationwide.

"Hammer of the Gods" (Metro 30/08/13)

Hammer of the Gods (18) **

Nowt to do with Led Zep, but a very silly attempt to recreate the Viking invasion on a stretched budget around Tenby. Director Farren Blackburn (who did 2011’s festive Doctor Who) aims low and lairy, introducing his warriors in Lock, Stock-like freeze-frames, then establishing their conquest as an early stag weekend: there’s ample drinking, chauvinism and homophobia, and more swearing than you’d hear from a hungover Frank Harper. Cinematographer Stephan Pehrsson has Snowdonia on his side, at least, but the battles are sub-Sealed Knot, and with the exception of ailing King James Cosmo, everybody on screen looks less like actual Vikings than they do recent RADA grads, growing out their stubble and keeping fingers crossed for that elusive Game of Thrones callback. 

Hammer of the Gods opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 29 August 2013

Bloodlines: "You're Next"

The writer-director partnership of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett first came to this viewer's attention with the 2010 DTV release A Horrible Way To Die, a strikingly fresh take on the serial killer movie that proved more moody character study than grabby exploitationer, and - crucially - was at least as interested in the victims as it was in the murderer. Their follow-up You're Next preserves that mumblecore-derived interest in character, even as its central family reunion is revealed as the premise for a home invasion movie that, among other minor triumphs, shows up the recent hit The Purge for the generic, ideas-free screenfiller it surely was. 

The isolated woodland mansion at the new film's centre pointedly belongs to a defence contractor, at a stroke establishing both possible motives for the assault, and a seam of social satire at the expense of a landed clan who haven't quite got their heads around the notion of trickledown economics. And you can get a sense of Wingard's slice-and-dice approach to genre by scanning the cast list: Barbara Crampton, the busty heroine of the schlock classic Re-Animator, is returned to (if not wholly reanimated) as the clan matriarch, numbed on depression medication; mumblecore lynchpin Joe Swanberg is eldest son Drake, a vulgarian who lets slip over the dinner table that he prefers TV adverts to actual shows (now, of all times); Ti West (who did the pleasingly retro House of the Devil and The Innkeepers) cameos as the plus-one who first notices the masked gang outside wielding machetes, crossbows and hatchets.

A Horrible Way to Die - as much road movie or smalltown drama as it was a conventional horror flick - made much of its flat, nondescript middle-American exteriors, but You're Next closes in after its initial set-up, retreating within and mining the mansion's well-appointed drawing rooms for thrills and spills, to such an extent that you come to hear the three-man electronic score throbbing in your ears and stomach. It feels more like a budget-straitened debut film than its predecessor - albeit a debut film made by someone who's already logged multiple manhours, and therefore knows how to shoot and cut the hell out of a horror movie. (A UK equivalent might be Paul Andrew Williams' London to Brighton follow-up The Cottage, although Wingard replaces that film's larky splatter with serious squelch.) 

Barrett's contribution is to give his director enough characters - representing a variety of perspectives - to allow the film to develop (and keep surprising us) once the first wave of attack has subsided: there's an underlying tension between the family's newest sweethearts, not least because they're something of a mismatch, as played by the tubby AJ Bowen (the killer in Horrible Way) and perky Step Up alumna Sharni Vinson. Do Wingard and Barrett have a great deal to say with their honed and polished technique? Not really, save the insinuation that power corrupts, and that there are some funny fuckers out there. But big jolts, mad chills, clever narrative switchbacks and horrible, needless, spectacular deaths? Yeah, You're Next has those for days.

You're Next opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

On demand: "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert"

At a certain point in the counterculture, comedians went from being martyrs, outsiders and supper-club jesters to assuming the status of rockstars, and having entire concert movies constructed around their routines. As in other fields of entertainment, black performers showed everybody else the way: first Cosby, then Richard Pryor, and then Eddie Murphy, a flow of electric schtick that jolted America out of the conservative 50s and 60s and into the mildly less conservative 80s. In Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, we find Pryor walking on after surprising warm-up act Patti Labelle to perform a 75-minute set to a mixed crowd in Long Beach, Florida (lots of white faces, but also Black Panther supreme Huey P. Newton), after twelve months in which he'd suffered a near-fatal heart attack and been arrested for shooting up his own car - incidents shrugged off early on, as mere commonplaces in a life that would prove eventful, to say the least.

Indeed, the whole film offers an example of a performer making something that would be testing for most of us look sublimely easy. Pryor is casual in knowing when to integrate and when to shut down his hecklers; he's altogether blithe about one rape joke, in a way no post-feminist comedian could be; and he's effortless in his progression from cosy observational stuff (his animal impersonations are quasi-legendary: rarely can a moustachioed black guy have so precisely caught the essence of a spooked deer) to the trickier business of stripmining his own past traumas for laughs. Which is to note there's a degree of wincingly painful biography mixed in with the comedy: few of today's white middle-class performers could legitimately venture routines about being beaten by their pa and grandma, and even a funny physical bit evoking the boxing ring suggests this was a performer who'd experienced more than his fair share of ass-whuppings.

In an era when our corporate-circuit comics have a shiny new DVD ready for release each Christmas, the film's rough-and-ready vibe may come as a shock for comedy neophytes - the first five minutes mostly serve to document the tardiness of an audience shambling back from a mid-concert toilet break - but there are conspicuously fewer of those cuts hiding lulls or dips in quality than one might observe on, say, the latest Jack Whitehall DVD, and the reward for those staying the course is a closer routine that remains very sharp (not to mention pretty filthy) on male and female sexual mores. No frills, then, but this was as good as it got back in the day, one senses: a film that can't in itself be considered great, but which caught enough of the energy of this particular night to bring us closer to something like greatness.

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is available to view online here until Monday.

Friday 23 August 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office        
for the weekend of August 16-18, 2013: 
1 (new) Kick-Ass 2 (15)
2 (new) Planes (U)
3 (new) 2 Guns (15) **
4 (3) Grown Ups 2 (12A)
5 (4) The Conjuring (15) **
6 (6) Monsters University (U) **
7 (1) Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (15) ***
8 (7) The Smurfs 2 (U) **
9 (2) Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (PG) ***
10 (re) Despicable Me 2 (U) *** 


My top five:                              
1. Heaven's Gate     
2. Foxfire    
3. Blackfish       
4. Lovelace  
5. The Kings of Summer

Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (1) Lincoln (12) ****  
2 (2) A Good Day to Die Hard (15)  
3 (7) The Place Beyond the Pines (15) **
4 (5) Zero Dark Thirty (15) ***
5 (3) Side Effects (15) ***
6 (new) Hitchcock (12) **
7 (6) Life of Pi (12) ***
8 (4) Gangster Squad (15) **
9 (8) Stolen (12) 
10 (9) Dark Skies (15)
My top five:                                  
1. A Hijacking
2. Blackfish
3. Something in the Air
4. The Gatekeepers    
5. Blancanieves    

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                             
1. In Which We Serve [above] (Friday, BBC2, 1.45pm)
2. Erin Brockovich (Sunday, five, 10pm)
3. Stand By Me (Sunday, five, 3.55pm)
4. Ben-Hur (Monday, C4, 11.05am)
5. Syriana (Thursday, ITV1, 10.35pm)

"The Kings of Summer" (The Guardian 23/08/13)

The Kings of Summer (15) 94 mins ***

If David Gordon Green had made Son of Rambow, it might have looked something like this: a sunny and pretty funny coming-of-ager from Sundance-ratified debutant Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Three high-school boys elect to evade their overbearing families by constructing a new home in nearby woods, hoping the task will make men of them; instead, inevitably, they grow bumfluffed, painfully hungry, and terrified of the wildlife. Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta spread their sympathies wide, subverting the fratcom’s tendency to portray girls as snakes in the grass, while handing the parents – Parks & Recreation’s peerlessly brusque Nick Offerman in particular – many of the best moments. The director’s background in online shorts manifests itself in an occasional, montage-heavy scattiness, and the broadly conventional closing act can’t quite maintain the laugh rate, but there’s a lot of warm-hearted and commendably daft business along the way. 

The Kings of Summer is in cinemas nationwide.

"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" (Metro 23/08/13)

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (12A) 130 mins **

Still they come, trying to fill that Potter/Twilight shaped gap in the market. This unashamedly derivative adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s YA series-launcher wants to be the dark, “sexy” replacement franchise, immediately pitching itself at the 12A crowd, where Harry P. and Percy J. warmed us up with a few PGs. So it is that our rune-doodling heroine (Lily Collins) first clocks she’s been born into a secret society of high-cheekboned, dullard demonslayers while visiting the kind of Gothy nightspot once showcased in Placebo promos. Between laborious exposition and the inevitable low-watt love triangle, the violence gets cranked up to misjudged levels: its slice-and-dice fight scenes will likely petrify the young, while anyone beyond 14 may feel themselves growing out of this daft material as it drones into its third hour. Couldn’t we have had another Spiderwick Chronicle or Lemony Snicket instead?

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Into the sunset: some thoughts on the failure of "The Lone Ranger"

It's a rare sound: that of a major summer event movie landing with a clunk on these shores, having already been dismissed as a stone-cold flop in the US. (It's why most major releases now come out day-and-date across the globe, in a bid to limit not just piracy, but the spread of any negative noise.) Even if Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger cleans up overseas and breaks even on its reported $250m budget - as these saturation releases tend to - it's clear we're in what one might call Howard the Duck territory here: a film pushing a formerly popular schlockbuster aesthetic to such a degree that it's left its intended audience behind. I caught The Lone Ranger at a matinee screening one week after it opened at the height of the summer holidays, and counted only seven other patrons in the 300-seat auditorium, a situation that almost certainly wouldn't have been the case had I paid to see one of Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean sequels seven days after its release.

For starters, one might note that it's hardly surprising the film didn't strike much of a chord with the Pirates crowd. Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, drunk on their earlier successes, are here essentially trying to revive a property from their youth that the ten-to-seventeen year old kids who skulk round the modern multiplex wouldn't have the faintest clue about. And where the Pirates films proferred a clean, bloodless, family-friendly kind of pantomime - epitomised in Johnny Depp's terminally fey Jack Sparrow - this is a Western (hardly a banker genre nowadays), with mud, blood and prostitutes: if not the full Deadwood, then still destined to cue some delicate conversations on the way home. (These things are tested up the wazoo to avoid crossing that danger line that separates the 12A from the less commercial 15 rating - but in the scenes involving Helena Bonham Carter's one-legged brothel madam, I was reminded of Howard the Duck's incongruous titty shots.)

And that's before you factor in the blockbuster bloat: who has time to pack the kids into the car and drive out to watch these things any more? Back in the 90s, old-timey revivals made like Maverick or Wild Wild West, and packed whatever thrills and spills they had into two hours; yet the Pirates and Transformers movies, compiled by dick-measuring Hollywood alphas, proved that you could toss flabby, near-three hour cuts of these films into cinemas - in theory limiting them to three shows a day - and somehow rake in more money yet. Nowadays, these movies are routinely constructed on the scale of theme parks - The Lone Ranger even opens in one, establishing a needless wraparound story with Depp's aging Tonto - no matter that they risk closing within a week. Despite the dollars these blockbusters have made over the past decade, it's not the soundest of business models, and the studios' persistence with this format takes no notice of the changing entertainment landscape: if I were a 16-year-old being offered a lumbering 150-minute resuscitation of a property I hadn't heard of, I might stay at home flashing my genitals to strangers on Chatroulette, too.

But let's play nice for a while, and acknowledge that The Lone Ranger is, at least, a well-crafted failure. Bruckheimer, who was caught hedging his bets three years ago with the mid-range one-two of Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, has gone all in here, sparing no horses in his expensive widescreen recreations of Western outposts and the railroads that were starting to connect them. In Verbinski, whose best work (Mouse Hunt, Rango) has always leant towards the cartoonish, he's stayed loyal to a director who realises that all the really fun stuff in blockbusters - the scenes and moments you come away buzzing about - are most often live-action sight gags, bodies or objects hurtling through the air at tremendous, physics-defying speeds. And you get some of that here: in the early train derailment that ends up scattering railroad workers and popping the lines off a row of telegraph poles - the heroes are saved from certain death by a fortuitously placed spigot - and then again in the closer set-piece that does it all over again, on an even bigger scale, some two-and-a-bit hours later.

I wanted to praise The Lone Ranger for such old-school dynamism - not least as many of my nearest and dearest are currently pitched up in the revisionist camp - yet, while it's overall far less egregiously soul-sapping than the Pirates sequels, I found the momentum and invention slipping out of it disappointingly early on. By the time Hans Zimmer's score burst into its forty-seventh round of Morriconisms, approximately an hour in, I was longing to watch a proper Western, with ideas and conviction, and not this apologetic postmodern pastiche, which defaults on all the basic pleasures of story and character, and has to keep reframing itself just to fill up the swollen running time. Bruckheimer used to have access to the best script doctors in America, who were capable of patching and repackaging even the sketchiest and most defective of product; here, alas, almost all the gags fall terribly flat, and its wisps of subtext are blown away, rather than developed, by the next gust of on-screen activity.

It didn't help that I was left time to mentally recast the leading man three times over. We got two Armie Hammers in 2010's The Social Network, of course, where he acted opposite himself as the Winklevoss twins, and his WASPiness made sense. Here, however, he is very much alone, possessed of the square jaw that presumably wowed in pre-production costume tests, yet not as yet the comic chops, or the ability to pitch a performance to match this production's overwhelming scale. His Lone Ranger is more of a non-entity than the script's one mildly subversive notion required him to be: I wanted Brendan Fraser, circa those silly Mummy films, or perhaps Nathan Fillion, were his particular gifts not being squandered in Joss Whedon's home movies, or - and this is the surest sign of how little my rapidly backtracking mind was engaged - Gabriel Macht, had The Spirit not sunk his leading-man career. The Lone Ranger is the movie that made me remember The Spirit.

Sets without soul, then, sunsets without significance. In the end, what we're confronted with here is a lavish shell: a theme park no-one much wanted to visit, every bit as much a ghost town as those cinemas now showing it. Sure, you get a handful of funny diversions rattling round inside it - Depp's increasingly lifeless pantomiming is shown up by the wild energy of Harry Treadaway (Harry Treadaway!) as the kind of snaggletoothed goon who, when faced with a door, would rather throw himself headfirst out of the window - but it does rattle, in the manner of any other malfunctioning consumer product, and it's a long, mostly unedifying, increasingly deathly rattle. Set it next to Speed Racer on that list of semi-interesting yet understandably doomed event movies you won't necessarily feel the need to revisit in any great hurry, and be thankful for this: at least this way we won't have to suffer through any sequels.

The Lone Ranger is - still, just about - in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 16 August 2013

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office      
for the weekend of August 9-11, 2013: 
1 (new) Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (15) [above] ***
2 (new) Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (PG) ***
3 (new) Grown Ups 2 (12A)
4 (3) The Conjuring (15) **
5 (new) The Lone Ranger (12A) **
6 (5) Monsters University (U) **
7 (1) The Smurfs 2 (U) **
8 (2) The Heat (15) ***
9 (4) The Wolverine (12A) 
10 (new) Chennai Express (12A) *** 

My top five:                              
1. Heaven's Gate   
2. Foxfire  
3. Blackfish     
4. Elysium
5. The Big City/Mahanagar


Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (new) Lincoln (12) ****
2 (new) A Good Day to Die Hard (15)
3 (1) Side Effects (15) ***
4 (2) Gangster Squad (15) **
5 (new) Zero Dark Thirty (15) ***
6 (3) Life of Pi (12) ***
7 (new) The Place Beyond the Pines (15) **
8 (new) Stolen (12)
9 (new) Dark Skies (15)
10 (4) Les Miserables (12) * 
My top five:                                
1. The Gatekeepers  
2. Blancanieves    
3. Bernie
4. Evil Dead  
5. Good Vibrations     

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                           
1. Mission: Impossible (Saturday, C4, 7pm)
2. The Lavender Hill Mob (Tuesday, C4, 1.35pm)
3. The Imposter (Thursday, C4, 9pm)
4. 2 Days in Paris (Saturday, BBC2, 12.25am)
5. The Queen (Sunday, ITV1, 4.30pm)