Friday 24 January 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office       
for the weekend of January 17-19, 2013: 
1 (new) The Wolf of Wall Street (18) **
2 (1) 12 Years a Slave (15) ****
3 (2) American Hustle (15) **** 

4 (4) Frozen (PG)
5 (new) Devil's Due (15) **
6 (3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12A) **
7 (5) Last Vegas (12A) **
8 (6) The Railway Man (15) ***
9 (7) Delivery Man (12A)
10 (re) Gravity (12A) ***** 

My top five:
1. Inside Llewyn Davis [above]
2. Teenage
3. Tim's Vermeer  
4. The Night of the Hunter  
5. 12 Years a Slave        

Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (new) The Great Gatsby (12) ***
2 (new) The Wolverine (12)
3 (new) Pacific Rim (12) **
4 (new) Riddick (12) *
5 (new) The Internship (12)
6 (new) The Frozen Ground (15) **
7 (3) The Lone Ranger (12) **
8 (new) Elysium (12) ***
9 (2) 2 Guns (15) **
10 (new) What Maisie Knew (12) **
My top five:                      
1. The Epic of Everest  
2. The Great Beauty    
3. Museum Hours    
4. Kelly + Victor    
5. The Call
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                        
1. Outbreak (Sunday, five, 6.35pm)
2. Hue and Cry (Sunday, BBC2, 6am)
3. Air Force One (Saturday, BBC1, 10.50pm)
4. Legally Blonde (Saturday, five, 1.15pm)
5. 30 Days of Night (Saturday, C4, 11.45pm)

Friday 17 January 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office     
for the weekend of January 10-12, 2013: 
1 (new) 12 Years a Slave (15) [above] ****
2 (1) American Hustle (15) ****
3 (2) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12A) **
4 (3) Frozen (PG)
5 (4) Last Vegas (12A) **
6 (new) The Railway Man (15) ***
7 (new) Delivery Man (12A)
8 (6) Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (12A) **
9 (5) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (15) **
10 (7) Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (15) 
(source: Rentrak UK & Ireland)

My top five:
1. Tim's Vermeer
2. The Night of the Hunter
3. 12 Years a Slave  
4. 1  
5. Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus and 2012

Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (2) Oblivion (12) *   
2 (new) 2 Guns (15) **  
3 (new) The Lone Ranger (12) **   
4 (1) Now You See Me (12)  
5 (new) Grown-Ups 2 (12)  
6 (new) The Purge (15) **  
7 (new) Pain & Gain (15) ***  
8 (new) RED 2 (12)  
9 (4) Monsters University (U) **  
10 (new) Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (15) ***       
My top five:                    
1. The Epic of Everest
2. The Great Beauty  
3. Museum Hours  
4. Kelly + Victor  
5. Wadjda
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                      
1. Thirst (Friday, C4, 1.35am)
2. Shifty (Sunday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
3. Panic Room (Saturday, C4, 12.20am)
4. Best in Show (Friday, ITV1, 3am)
5. Legally Blonde (Sunday, five, 7pm)

"Crystal Fairy" (The Guardian 17/01/14)

Crystal Fairy (18) 98 mins ***

Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva here follows 2009’s sly social satire The Maid with this gently subversive road trip, a younger, scruffier sibling to Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. A newly dopey Michael Cera is the chauvinist partyhound whose plans of doing mescaline in the Atacama desert with his travelling companions are hijacked by hippychick Gaby Hoffmann; she’s soon confounding everyone with her advocacy of karmic cleansing and female body hair. Crucially, the gag isn’t that she’s some aberrant freak, but that these little boys don’t know how to react to her – and Hoffmann’s nudity is so self-assuredly confrontational it’s scant surprise she’s since been tapped to appear on TV’s Girls. Stretches of improv with passers-by means the film can resemble one of those What the Director Did on His Holidays doodles, yet its breeziness is oddly warming: Silva’s open to the elements in ways his blinkered protagonist only claims to be. 

Crystal Fairy opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on January 27.

"Devil's Due" (The Guardian 17/01/14)

Devil’s Due (15) 89 mins **

The collective of horror tinkerers known as Radio Silence (V/H/S) deploy the found-footage gimmick better than anyone, but the trouble with their wobblycam Rosemary’s Baby isn’t how but what we’re watching. Until all hell breaks loose, we’re left to observe the sort of gushy Everycouple whose posts you hasten past on Facebook, and the ominous deviations from this norm – the priest coughing up blood with his scripture, the crib sourced from Boden’s Baby Beelzebub line – prove silly indeed. It’s as substantial as seeing The Exorcist redone on Snapchat – and let’s not even consider the implication of casting black and Latino performers as Satan’s minions, because clearly its makers haven’t. 

Devil's Due is in cinemas nationwide.

1,001 Films: "Hombre" (1967)

Directed by Martin Ritt and based on the Elmore Leonard novel, Hombre formed a decent updating of Stagecoach for the America of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Paul Newman is the Apache who inherits a boarding house after the death of the white man who raised him, and with it, "a chance to be on the winning side for a change". His first instinct is to sell up, and on the way back to his reservation after concluding negotiations, he finds himself sharing the last stagecoach out of town with passengers who represent differing (mostly antagonistic, sometimes patronising) viewpoints towards Native Americans. When they find out his heritage, they demand the Apache ride on top with driver Martin Balsam, but his skills become invaluable to the group when the stage is held up - not by Injuns, but an all-American combination of muscle, big business and the law - and its passengers are left for dead in the desert.

Newman gives what now looks like one of his typical 60s performances, positioned in the sides or back of the frame, barely speaking and coolly calculating the odds, though here that marginalisation assumes a different meaning: those odds are forever stacked against a character of even his light skin tone, and it's clear this "hombre" (real name: John Russell) is unlikely to end up among the winners. Ritt juggles his narrative and themes with skill for the most part, although the sitting around debating about what to do - the emphasis on talk rather than action, unusual for this genre - starts to pall towards the end. Society has moved on such that the reminder any remake would provide might no longer be needed, but it could easily be recast with Wentworth Miller in the Newman role, Embeth Davidtz as the uptight businesswoman who ends up tied to the railway tracks, and Mickey Rourke as leering bully Cicero Grimes.

Hombre is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox.

Saturday 11 January 2014

From the archive: "House of Flying Daggers"

Both companion piece and corrective, Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers pares back some of the narrative and scenic obfuscation of the director's previous martial-arts epic Hero and instead cranks up the emotions. On some level, the plot is pure soap: two cops in ninth-century China (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) fall for the same blind assassin (Zhang Ziyi, an actress of such delicate charms they should have put her in a museum, not the movies) while investigating the underground resistance movement to which she apparently belongs. Yet it serves Zhang's purpose here in ways the earlier film's brutalities couldn't. Hero was a repressive film, in everything from its underlying imperialist message to the lavish dressing it was cloaked in; its characters appeared so cosseted by their costumes, or awestruck in front of the scenery, that they were never quite allowed to move in ways you'd like folks in a martial-arts movie to move. The great, liberating joy of House of Flying Daggers, then, is the way those costumes and decorations are forever being ripped up or off; beneath them, we find beating hearts rather than the strings of puppets.

The casting helps. Instead of grumpy old Jet Li - who's always looked as though he'd find oppressive Government business as something akin to light relief - we have Kaneshiro, an actor in possession of the jawline and bluff amiability of a rugby-club captain. (His character's referred to as "The Wind", which - though it has nothing to do with the lighting of farts - goes some way to establishing a generally breezy personality.) Lau, too, finds a good match for an occasionally hard-to-read screen persona in a role with useful echoes of his Infernal Affairs work. The action is, if anything, even more choreographed and balletic than Hero's, yet it's ritualistic in the sense of a blood-letting, rather than the earlier film's trooping of some state-sanctioned colour: you're certain somebody's going to get hurt, emotionally if not physically. Cut with surer hands, and shot with lethal precision, the fight scenes here clearly benefit from the experience Zhang gained in the making of the earlier film. A lush bamboo forest is whittled into whooshing projectiles; women are led to take up arms against patriarchal oppression; a dance becomes a show of force.

Encoded in this narrative is an understanding of what an ambiguous quality beauty can be: how, even as it beguiles, it can fool the eye into overlooking the blade to the throat and the jackboot to the groin. The immensely beautiful Hero was the work of a filmmaker who'd grown complacent to such sights, so it's a pleasing progression that the female lead here should be blind, thus unaware of the landscapes she's situated within, and more likely than anyone else around to stumble face-first into a pool of muddy water. House has to feel its way around its universe, and in doing so one senses Zhang coming to see the world, and its inhabitants, with an appreciably greater clarity. Perhaps most telling of the difference between these two films is the moment, just after she's stumbled, when the assassin is handed a change of clothes by one of the policemen. Her response, upon changing, is not "wow, I must look terrific in this outfit put together by an internationally renowned costume designer", as it might well have been on the set of Hero. This time, it's altogether more humbled, more relatable, and more affecting: "Do I look awful?" Been there, girl.

(January 2005)

House of Flying Daggers screens on C4 tonight at midnight.

From the archive: "Miami Vice"

To fully appreciate Michael Mann's 21st-century overhaul of Miami Vice, the 80s cop series on which he formerly served as executive producer, you will need a high tolerance for what is commonly referred to as macho bullshit. The ideal viewer will be male, for this is very much a boys' film: seemingly every sequence opens on a speedboat or helicopter loaded with guys in sharp suits or flak jackets, dashing off to have wild times with beautiful women or automatic weapons. This viewer would have to have a heightened appreciation of style, perhaps to think that CSI: Miami would be improved if there were actually more shots of David Caruso fiddling with his bloody sunglasses. In short, Miami Vice, like certain Miami nightclubs, operates a highly selective door policy: it's the definition of velvet-rope cinema.

Detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs are now played by Colin Farrell (hitting the right note, for a change, between machismo and soulfulness, the way he should have played the John Smith role in Malick's The New World) and Jamie Foxx (whose no-nonsense, bad-ass cool fits Mann's vision to a tee; if only someone could persuade him to abandon his R'n'B career). Crockett and Tubbs spend most of their nights framed just so against the horizon, or swaggering across industrial wastegrounds. There are one or two, or possibly seven shots too many of Farrell's semi-regrettable hair blowing out in the breeze. All of these might be considered remnants of the days when Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas were playing these roles.

What Mann is really concerned with here, though, is updating the milieu of his particular underworld. In this director's seminal crime saga Heat, masterthief Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro) worked obsessively alone, both distancing himself and making himself something of an easy target in the cold light of day. In Miami Vice, the crimelords Crockett and Tubbs are tailing have used their ill-gotten gains to insulate themselves from the world; getting to them requires traversing so many levels and encountering so many middlemen that it's somewhat like going through a major corporation's switchboard to talk to the CEO. These detectives are therefore obliged to go undercover, literally so in the case of Crockett, who woos and beds Isabella (Gong Li), mistress of the kingpin they've been targeting. Tough gig.

Utterly resistant to any updating, the film's sex scenes are all stuck very firmly in the high-gloss 1980s, and it's a surprise that they conclude without a promotional banner for a brand of shampoo or Campari appearing at the bottom of the screen. Jamie and comely colleague Naomie Harris (and sometimes Naomie's body double) get it on in the shower. Colin and Gong have it off in the back of a limo. "Hola chica," he growls. "Hola chico," she purrs. It would only be slightly more naff if she really was bonking Chico. Still, Mann has always been a better director of work than he is a director of love. A few clunky gear changes aside, Miami Vice proceeds, following its own instinctive and idiosyncratic path: it may be the most expressionist film Mann has made since Manhunter, each stylistic flourish corresponding to the disorder this world is beset by, and the undercover detective's fear of submitting too deeply to it.

Uncompromising audience-deflectors include dialogue that's mostly jargon, spoken in a variety of heavy accents; more of that hi-def digital camerawork, previously deployed in Collateral, which renders night scenes in blurs, so that we can never quite trust what we see, and remain uncertain as to what might leap from the shadows; and a refusal of opening credits, which throws you, me and anybody else who's strolled into the wrong screen very much in at the deep end, and forces us to figure shit out as we go. Less fun than the queasy rollercoaster ride of Collateral - a film which now looks more than ever like an example of Mann giving up some of his trademark control in order to goof off a little - Miami Vice comprises this director's return to hard work, and a genuine rarity: a summer movie in possession of some usable intelligence.

(August 2006)

Miami Vice screens on ITV1 tonight at 11pm.

Friday 10 January 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 3-5, 2013: 
1 (new) American Hustle (15) ****
2 (1) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12A) **
3 (2) Frozen (PG)
4 (new) Last Vegas (12A) **
5 (3) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (15) **
6 (new) Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (12A) **
7 (new) Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (15)
8 (4) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG) ***
9 (6) Walking with Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie (PG)
10 (7) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12A) **
(source: Rentrak UK & Ireland)

My top five:
1. 12 Years a Slave
2. 1
3. The Railway Man
4The Missing Picture
5. La Belle et la Bête

Top Ten DVD rentals: 
1 (2) Oblivion (12) * 
2 (new) 2 Guns (15) **
3 (new) The Lone Ranger (12) ** 
4 (1) Now You See Me (12)
5 (new) Grown-Ups 2 (12)
6 (new) The Purge (15) **
7 (new) Pain & Gain (15) ***
8 (new) RED 2 (12)
9 (4) Monsters University (U) **
10 (new) Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (15) ***       

My top five:                  
1. The Great Beauty
2. Museum Hours
3. Kelly + Victor
4. Any Day Now
5. Winter of Discontent
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                    
1. Chinatown (Friday, C4, 1.15am)
2. House of Flying Daggers [above] (Saturday, C4, 12midnight)
3. Cemetery Junction (Sunday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
4. Fast Five (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
5. Miami Vice (Saturday, ITV1, 11pm)

"1" (The Guardian 10/01/14)

1: Life on the Limit (12A) 111 mins ****

Any moto-documentary that sets its down-the-nosecone footage of the Monaco GP to Focus’s “Hocus Pocus” can be fairly confident of shifting DVDs as Father’s Day approaches, but Paul Crowder’s often surprisingly critical F1 history identifies its true narrative drive in the trade-off between crowdpleasing speed and concern for driver survival. Smartly marshalled archive finds the sweet spot between gawping at carnage and contextualising it within the sport’s painful evolution; the thrills of well-timed overtaking manoeuvres are set against the horror of men being roasted alive. Eventually, 1 must arrive at Senna, San Marino, and the moment when, after decades of (crucially, untelevised) destruction, racing was forced to lift its visor and take a hard look at itself – yet Crowder’s film is now equally haunted by Michael Schumacher’s presence, in a way that furthers its thesis: as F1 tightens up on safety, might the real speedfreaks be driven towards potentially deadlier pursuits?

1 opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 9 January 2014

On DVD: "After Earth"

After Earth will apparently stand as one of 2013's biggest flops (not that anything this big ever truly flops any more): a film that seemed to further confirm that its co-writer/director M. Night Shyamalan - after 2008's The Happening and 2010's The Last Airbender - had run out of resonant fables to share with us, and that its star Will Smith, after a very public flirtation with Scientology, had lost his grip on the popular imagination. Arrived at tardily on DVD, long after the crash-and-burn of its theatrical release, the film struck this viewer as both semi-watchable - good-looking, possessed of some appreciably physical action sequences, unlikely to follow this director's previous projects into the Bad Film Club - and yet more proof of the extent to which the majority of our summer event movies are now B-movies reliant for their heft on A-level effects and production design.

This one's no more than a pipsqueaky coming-of-age story, set in outer space, with the distinction of offering up its futuristic jumpsuits to characters of colour - which might already have sounded a risky bet in a summer season where cinemagoers had blown their dough on a more expansive (not to mention more whitebread) Star Trek sequel boasting characters we'd all known and liked, if not loved, for lightyears. It begins joltingly, in such a way as to suggest that an entire opening act has been cut (though welcome, a total running time of 98 minutes is brief for this kind of thing these days), leaving its crucial info to be reshaped into subsequent dream sequences and flashbacks. 

A crash leaves Smith's amusingly named space ranger Cypher Raige with two broken legs, and his bolshy teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith, a.k.a. Smith junior) as the only survivor capable of retrieving the distress beacon that has fallen off on the far side of a long-abandoned Earth where there now be monsters. Off the boy sets to find it, armed with a backpack-mounted camera that allows pop, watching on from the wreckage of his craft, to alert his son to anything creeping up on him: the sense is of some makeshift hybrid of TV's Knightmare, The Jungle Book and the original Star Treks, designed for divorcee dads looking for a cheap weekend bonding ritual with their estranged offspring. (The female Raiges - mum Sophie Okonedo and sis Zoe Kravitz - are the most obvious casualties of the decision to cut to the chase.) 

That might have served a purpose if After Earth were more enjoyable, but there's something hobbling in how it literally removes the legs from under the once-lively Smith senior, who's left (somewhat like the viewer) looking increasingly glazed in front of his monitor, in favour of Smith junior, who - only a few years on from his not unappealing turn in the Karate Kid remake - is entering into what even loving parents have to euphemistically term that difficult age: bumfluff moustaches don't get any less laughable or embarrassing when projected on a twelve-foot screen. And on some level, the film - with its conspicuous story credit for the former Fresh Prince - appears to know what that difficult age is: with its (very American) mantra of "take a knee, cadet", it's evidently intended as one of those parenting manuals by which Hollywood creatives strive to work out their own (and everybody else's) intergenerational issues.

Only here, father knows best at every step: the narrative thrust is the pretty humdrum and altogether anti-spectacular one of getting an unruly child to knuckle down, and you can't help but think the film has gone a long way at considerable expense to dramatise a scene that will be oddly familiar from households everywhere in the weeks leading up to the GCSE mocks. For once with a 3D-ready mainstream entertainment, I'm almost 100% certain you could get that at home, and I dare say with far more humour than the typically unsmiling Shyamalan is willing to summon up here. The film's rejection by perma-Tweeting, screen-sassing teenagers might therefore be regarded as rather cheering - one of the few recent outbreaks of authentic rage against (or, at least, indifference towards) the studio marketing machine.

After Earth is currently available on DVD.

Friday 3 January 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of December 27-29, 2013: 

1 (1) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12A) **
2 (3) Frozen (PG)
3 (2) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (15) **
4 (new) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG) ***
5 (new) 47 Ronin (12A) **
6 (4) Walking with Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie (PG)
7 (6) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12A) **
8 (5) Dhoom 3 (12A) ***
9 (7) The Harry Hill Movie (PG)
10 (9) Gravity (12A) *****


My top five:

1. All is Lost 
2. American Hustle
3. The Innocents
4. Cinema Paradiso
5. The Missing Picture

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) Now You See Me (12A)    
2 (1) Oblivion (12) *      
3 (3) World War Z (12) **    
4 (new) Monsters University (U) **     
5 (2) Behind the Candelabra (15) ***    
6 (new) Snitch (12) **    
7 (5) Cloud Atlas (15) ****    
8 (10) Hummingbird (15) **    
9 (7) Trance (15) ***    
10 (9) After Earth (12) **        

My top five:                
1. Wolf Children
2. Leviathan
3. Frances Ha
4. Upstream Colour
5. Pain & Gain

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                  
1. The Class [above] (Monday, C4, 1am)
2. Edward Scissorhands (Sunday, C4, 3.30pm)
3. Insomnia (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.15pm)
4. Catch Me If You Can (Sunday, BBC2, 5.45pm)
5. The Bad and the Beautiful (Wednesday, C4, 2.45am)

"The Missing Picture" (Metro 03/01/14)

The Missing Picture (12A) ***

Arriving on the tail of The Act of Killing, here’s another documentary that uses strikingly unconventional methods to bring its audience closer to the everyday horrors of genocide. Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has here deployed stubby, hand-turned clay figurines to illustrate scenes from the personal testimonies of those sent to work in labour camps under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Anyone anticipating an Aardmanisation of history should think again, though: these variously fragile, weary and haunted-looking avatars seem more likely to suffer cut throats than close shaves.

Panh scarcely develops his argument, and perhaps doesn’t need to: that the KR were murderous brutes engaged in a rigid form of social moulding becomes apparent very early on. Instead, each bleak tableau either underlines the thesis, or stands as witness to some long-obscured atrocities. Granted, this is hardly the jolliest way to see in the New Year, but it functions as a considerable educational tool: providing a sharp analysis of the gap between KR PR and Cambodian reality, while literally remodelling the past – the better to represent all those Pot and his ilk tried to grind into the soil from which Panh’s golems have sprung.

The Missing Picture opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Last Vegas" (The Guardian 03/01/14)

Last Vegas (12A) 105 mins **

This greyer Hangover throws up images that fall somewhere between the emblematic and the mildly depressing: Michael Douglas squiring a woman three decades his junior, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman prowling the Strip to the sounds of Rizzle Kicks, Robert de Niro in Crocs. While these four are guying each other, Jon Turteltaub’s comedy proves genial enough, even gentlemanly in its circling of local chanteuse Mary Steenburgen. It’s when Last Vegas attempts something more raucous that it takes a tumble: as onscreen noses are wrinkled at the one bikini-clad partygoer approaching the leads’ advanced years, one starts to feel the toes curl, or possibly empathetic rigor mortis setting in.
Last Vegas opens today in cinemas nationwide.