Sunday 30 March 2014

From the archive: "Rio"

In the field of animation, the Fox-affiliated Blue Sky Studios have established themselves as the upstart kid brother to Disney-Pixar and DreamWorks, those twin corporate behemoths who'd already got two Toy Storys and a Shrek on the board before the former could launch their Ice Age franchise. The 2011 effort Rio - plotting a domesticated macaw's passage from his home in a Minnesota bookseller's window to mate with the last female of his species in a Carnaval-readying Rio de Janeiro - is typical of Blue Sky's output: it's functional, colourful, funny in places - and still a film you couldn't ever imagine anybody needing to see twice. (Though evidently enough youngsters sat through it once to justify the forthcoming sequel.)

DreamWorks' formative Antz got a comic boost from plunging an insect with the voice and personality of Woody Allen into the middle of a revolution. Rio goes for something similar by casting latter-day Allen surrogate Jesse Eisenberg (To Rome with Love) as Blu, a nerd-bird ill-suited to the physical exertion (flying, seduction) imposed upon him; I liked his very Allen-ish response to the sights and sounds of a heaving nightclub: "This place is amazing - you know, apart from all the obvious health code violations." Around him, there are lively glimpses of a city forever on the brink of a colossal party, one top-drawer joke about monkey text messaging, and solid voicework from Anne Hathaway as flighty love interest Jewel, 30 Rock's Tracy Morgan as a junkyard dog, and Jemaine Clement - a new go-to guy for plummy-throated, Rickman-like villainy - as a nefarious parakeet named Nigel.

The only distinguishing aspect would be the film's swaying, site-specific rhythms, which are loose enough to get to even an uptight nebbish like Blu. Most half-term fodder plumps for visual and narrative clutter, striving to throw in one novelty after another out of a desperate need to distract attention-deficient kids or encourage post-film rushes on the merchandise stand. Rio loses points for the inclusion of professional bellend in a spurious bid for crossover cachet, but - proceeding to a selection of light guitar strums and scarcely more strenuous samba beats engineered by music producer Sergio Mendes - it's unusually relaxed and breezy: animation comfortable in its own feathers, no matter that they're rarely distinctive or layered enough to elevate the whole above the rest of the animated flock.

Rio is available on DVD through Fox Home Entertainment; a sequel, Rio 2, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday, and is reviewed here.

Saturday 29 March 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office       
for the weekend of March 21-23, 2014: 
1 (2) The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) **
2 (1) Need for Speed (12A)
3 (4) The Lego Movie (U) ****
4 (3) 300: Rise of an Empire (15) ***
5 (5) Non-Stop (12A)
6 (new) Starred Up (18) ****
7 (new) A Long Way Down (12A)
8 (new) Labor Day (12A) **
9 (6) Ride Along (12A)
10 (9) Mr. Peabody & Sherman (U)

My top five: 
1. 20 Feet from Stardom [above]
2. Starred Up
3. The Past
4. Afternoon Delight
5. My Stuff

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12) **
2 (new) Saving Mr. Banks (PG) ***
3 (2) Thor: The Dark World (12) ** 
4 (3) Captain Phillips (12) ****
5 (6) The Butler (12) ***
6 (5) Rush (15) **
7 (4) Ender's Game (12)
8 (9) Sunshine on Leith (PG)
9 (new) Diana (12) *
10 (7) Escape Plan (15) ** 
My top five:          
1. Gravity       
2. Teenage
3. Wake in Fright
4. Jeune et Jolie
5. Philomena   

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                                   
1. Point Break (Sunday, five, 11.55pm)
2. The 39 Steps (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
3. North by North-West (Saturday, BBC2, 3.20pm)
4. Coming to America (Friday, C4, 12.30am)
5. Michael Clayton (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)

"My Stuff" (The Guardian 28/03/14)

My Stuff ***
Dir: Petri Luukkainen. With: Petri Luukkainen. 83 mins. Cert: 15

The larky spirits of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Landy hover over this droll Finnish quest for happiness, a sort of Super Downsize Me. Concerned that his possessions were coming to define his existence, filmmaker Petri Luukkainen poured his flat’s contents into a self-storage locker, and set aside a year in which he could only retrieve one item a day – the idea being to find the sweet spot between running bare-arsed through the ice to bring back an overcoat (day one) and feeling suffocated by the universe’s many, gleaming tchotchkes. The dread whiff of “structured reality” hangs over several interactions, yet the game poses worthwhile questions. What’s more important – a toothbrush, or a chair? Does anyone outside Shoreditch really need a flat cap? As Luukkainen clears space for his ailing grandmother and his new girlfriend, we’re offered glimpses of something rare, and cherishable: the kind of enlightenment that arrives whenever we cut through the clutter.

My Stuff is now playing in selected cinemas.

"The Legend of Hercules" (The Guardian 28/03/14)

The Legend of Hercules **
Dir: Renny Harlin. With: Kellan Lutz, Scott Adkins, Gaia Weiss. 99 mins. Cert: 12A.

Coming soon: The Rock playing Zeus’s son in un film de Brett Ratner. Now showing: this lightweight yet not unlikable spoiler from Cliffhanger’s Renny Harlin, which pitches all its mythology around the level of the average One Tree Hill episode. Buff Kellan Lutz – Twilight’s third vampire from the left, here dipped in Bisto – is exiled to Egypt for canoodling with the bodacious Hebe, Princess of Crete (Gaia Weiss); once he’s taken captive, we essentially get a teenybop Gladiator, with Kenneth Cranham an obvious Oliver Reed substitute. Harlin keeps it commendably brisk, and insists upon the primacy of flesh-and-blood performers duking it out on non-virtual sets, perhaps because his CGI is makeshift at best. Conceived for 3D, yet screening mostly in twod, no-one seems to have high hopes for it – though it might well help to pass a wet afternoon when it shows up on Netflix fifteen minutes from now.

The Legend of Hercules is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Broadway's Romeo & Juliet" (The Guardian 28/03/14)

Broadway’s Romeo & Juliet **
Dir: Don Roy King. With: Orlando Bloom, Condola Rashad, Christian Camargo. 135 mins. Cert: PG

As a film, this record of last year’s starry-eyed Shakespeare-for-kids staging at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre is inevitably limited by the proscenium. As a production, it might have been rather likable – pacy and scampering, updating the now-standard gangland setting with EDM and ebony-ivory lovers – were it not for some disastrous teenbait casting. Though Orlando Bloom displays unexpected dexterity with the verse, his constant crowd-courting lends Romeo’s every amorous declaration the sincerity of a bathroom-shot Tinder selfie. We buy that Condola Rashad’s callow Juliet might fall for this preening oik, but if he showed up under any other balcony, there wouldn’t be a vat of hot piss big enough. 

Broadway's Romeo & Juliet screens in selected cinemas on April 1.

"The Fold" (The Guardian 28/03/14)

The Fold **
Dir: John Jencks. With: Catherine McCormack, Marina Stoimenova, Dakota Blue Richards. 89 mins. Cert: 15

What curious, ill-fated hybrids lurk in our film industry’s lower reaches. This particular bungle begins as a somewhat stilted, Farage-baiting social conscience drama, as Cornish priest Catherine McCormack starts mentoring a self-harming Bulgarian daffodil picker, partly to fill the void left by her eldest daughter’s passing. Having taken what feels like several lifetimes to establish this umbilical bond, however, the film wraps it around its own neck, with a lurch into thriller territory that winds up repositioning the migrant as an entirely disruptive force. McCormack’s intelligence has been too long from our screens, but it’s wasted on a film that gets sillier and less sympathetic by the minute.

The Fold is now playing selected cinemas.

Peach perfect: "Labor Day"

After a tar-black comedy (Thank You for Smoking), a pair of acclaimed, mainstream-courting comedy-dramas (Juno, Up in the Air) and a somewhat maligned cult item (Young Adult), the writer-director Jason Reitman has with his latest, Labor Day, taken a step (sideways? backwards?) into the kind of unapologetically sincere romantic melodrama that has traditionally been sniffed at by critics in possession of a penis. Yet perhaps we shouldn't be altogether surprised by this development. However seductive Up in the Air proved, it contained recognisable elements of what we might define as Adult Oriented Cinema: a veneer of blandly corporate polish that threatened to gloss over the script's spikier points about our current economic upheaval. And there were those who, in struggling with Young Adult's unpredictable tone, came to question its sincerity of intent. Labor Day, then, forms a retort to those viewers: a full-on, three-hanky bid for respectability that could only alienate those who laughed loudest at this director's earlier work.

The fairer sex, I'm guessing, may feel more inclined towards it. At a moment where Fifty Shades and Nymphomaniac are iterating that what women want is to be tied up and treated like the shit they apparently believe themselves to be on some level, this more amenable work - adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel by a filmmaker unlikely ever to go as far as Lars von Trier - counters by wondering whether women wouldn't actually prefer to be tied up and treated right instead. The first act marvels at what you could pick up at the supermarket back in 1987. Pre-teen Henry (Gaitlin Griffith) is accompanying his depressed single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) around the aisles one Labor Day weekend when he's cornered in the magazine section by an escaped convict, bleeding from the gut. This hunky Magwitch is Frank (Josh Brolin), who reveals that yes, that is a gun in his pocket; he promptly escorts the pair home, ties Adele up - the camera practically swooning over his firm, dextrous hands - and proceeds to do up the house, in return for the provision of shelter.

The first night, Frank rustles up a hearty steak hash for his hosts/hostages; the next day, after regrouting the front steps and changing the oil in the car, he constructs a juicy peach pie, in a drooling sequence of food porn that makes one wonder who's running the prison this guy's supposed to have escaped from: Marguerite Patten? (Possibly he picked the locks with a cakefork: those dextrous, delicate fingers...) Not long afterwards, it's inferred that Frank has started filling Adele up in other ways - this former frump starts wearing blousy, sleeveless dresses around the house, and (gulp) daisies in her hair - and despite the nervy Henry's reservations, he will prove good for the kid, too: teaching him, in that recognisably American way, how a real man handles a baseball. Gee, what a catch!

By now, it may be dawning upon you that Labor Day is nonsense (or, at least, no more than fantasy), but it's well-made and surprisingly watchable nonsense. It retains an inbuilt tension, as we wait for the cops to break up this emergent domestic bliss, and a couple of sequences find Reitman attempting to turn his limiting, telemovie-ish material to more subversive ends: one sharply observed and played diner rendezvous, called by Henry's genial yet distant birth father (Clark Gregg), finds this inchoate boy's entire identity falling under discussion. And whatever you make of that material, Reitman's way with actors hasn't entirely deserted him here. I can't make much of a case for Griffith, a prohibitingly grave and uptight presence, but Winslet is pretty moving in a flashback that reveals her secret grief, and I'm gaining a creeping respect for Brolin's willingness to undertake the trickiest acting assignments around. As if trying to top Choi Min-sik's work in the Old Boy remake wasn't enough, he's here obliged to try and reconcile twin identities: that of a suspected killer with that of the Reagan era's foremost fixer-upper. Truly, every home should have one.

Labor Day is now showing in selected cinemas.

Friday 28 March 2014

A painful discharge: "Almost Married"

At last, that STD-based romcom we've all been waiting for. Almost Married, another utterly misbegotten venture from British cinema's Poverty Row, concerns Kyle (Philip McGinley), a dead-eyed Northern chancer who, in the run-up to his nuptials, feels an itch - the result of getting his end away with a brothel worker on his stag night. With the aid of his best man Jarvis (Mark Stobbart) - an individual who, as movie best men are wont to be, succeeds in being somehow even less appealing than a man touting a genito-urinary infection - he's obliged to take ever more extreme measures to avoid giving his horny bride-to-be Lydia (yes, Lydia) his chlamydia - and with it some inkling of what he's been up to away from home.

Bizarrely detailed exam-room sequences, and the fact it arrives care of rookie distributors "Tested Films", might be enough to make one wonder whether Almost Married was conceived as part of some wider health program targeting FHM readers too busy tugging on themselves to consider the consequences of unprotected sex. That would be a noble ambition, should it be the case, yet it's how writer-director Ben Cookson targets them that's the problem: with endless, relentless references to masturbation and porn, in-your-face inserts of pissing and vomiting, a persistent background squeal of gay panic in the central male relationship, and a dubious sympathy for its protagonist, who's finally proven to be a top man because - spoiler alert, if there's anything here left to spoil - he couldn't actually get it up to perform with the sex worker, and instead contracted the infection from his cheating fiancée via an episode of experimental Sapphism recounted in the terms of the world's grimmest wank fantasy. Classic banter.

If you can bring yourself to imagine a remake of Sex Lives of the Potato Men as written and directed by the Will Mellor character from Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps (and not want to do yourself extreme physical harm immediately after), then this would be something like it: its abiding bleakness extends to a supposedly jolly family barbeque staged on what looks like the coldest, wettest day of last year, and a final-reel tour of Newcastle's massage parlours that inverts and perverts Cinderella ("She fits! She fits!") while serving chiefly to parade a selection of unfortunate Eastern European extras before the camera's numbed and listless gaze. The safe-sex message is upheld, if only by making the viewer want to tear off their own genitalia, pluck out their straying eyes, and subject their brain to a full chemical wash, in the hope of forgetting one was ever subjected to the experience. Sample line: "We go back to the brothel, and make her take an AIDS test." I mean, really: ugh.

Almost Married afflicts selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD emission on April 7.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Desire unbound: "Afternoon Delight"

The curious indie dramedy Afternoon Delight may be another on that increasingly long list of films that owe their existence to Bridesmaids' unapologetic embrace of raunchy women, but on a scene-by-scene basis, it bears a more pronounced cable-TV influence: writer-director Jill Soloway has credits on several episodes of Six Feet Under, and its subject matter - a fortysomething woman's attempts to spice up her life - has already provided the backbone or throughline of such shows as Weeds, Nurse Jackie and The Big C. (At one point, Soloway even replicates the underwater swim that provides a symbolic rebirth in the latter show's opening credits.)

The desperate housewife here is Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), a writer who's found her bedroom time with overworked hubby Jeff (Josh Radnor) has never really recovered from childbirth. A catalyst for change of a sort soon presents itself in the lithe form of McKenna (Juno Temple), a lapdancer Rachel befriends after she's thrown out on the streets by her no-good beau - and the two women's relationship comes to be presented as not that much more unlikely than middle-aged women signing up to poledancing lessons for the cardio. The editorial position throughout is broadly openminded: if we must have sexworkers, the film states, better to dialogue with than disavow them - and the script bears plentiful traces of noble, non-judgemental research on why girls like McKenna do what they do, and what they really think about their clients.

This underlying seriousness of purpose slightly shortsells Hahn, a very funny lady (see her voracious saleswoman in 2009's The Goods for evidence) squeezed not entirely comfortably into what may be a Soloway surrogate role - a literal straightwoman who, for all her hang-ups, is still meant to be admirable or relatable on some level. This actress can nail squirming bourgeois embarrassment in the scene where Rachel sees a bit too much of McKenna's handiwork, but here, as elsewhere, you catch the film having a snarky sort of fun at its central character's expense. (In this respect, it isn't so far removed from Weeds, in which the narrative sometimes seemed to be playing out a near-sadomasochistic relationship between creator-punisher Jenji Kohan and Mary-Louise Parker's increasingly guilt-ridden heroine.)

If it's straightforward laughs with sexworkers you want, you may be better off with 2012's For a Good Time, Call...: a film to make you snort popcorn, where Soloway clearly intends it to catch in your craw. This much is apparent from the slurry, blurry, quasi-Cassavetian final half-hour, which charts a collision course as McKenna gets trashed on vodka at Jeff's poker night while Rachel gets sloshed on red wine with her gal pals and starts gossiping about date rape. It's a wrenching turn, and the Bridesmaids crowd seem unlikely to follow, yet it's only as daring as anything Six Feet Under attempted before it: by the time Hahn is confessing to flicking herself off to the rape scene in The Accused - and McKenna is facing a similar threat on the poker table - the viewer will have to decide for themselves whether Afternoon Delight is trading in remarkable levels of honesty (regarding, say, how female desire is too messy to be neatly contained), or simply giving up too much information.

Afternoon Delight opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Saturday 22 March 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office     
for the weekend of March 14-16, 2014: 
1 (new) Need for Speed (12A)
2 (3) The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) **
3 (1) 300: Rise of an Empire (15) ***
4 (2) The Lego Movie (U) ****
5 (4) Non-Stop (12A)
6 (5) Ride Along (12A)
7 (6) The Book Thief (12A) **
8 (7) Escape from Planet Earth (PG) ***
9 (8) Mr. Peabody & Sherman (U)
10 (new) Under the Skin (15) ****  


My top five: 
1. Starred Up
2. Under the Skin  
3. Wake in Fright    
4. BAFTA Shorts 2014   
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12) **
2 (1) Thor: The Dark World (12) **
3 (2) Captain Phillips (12) ****
4 (3) Ender's Game (12)
5 (4) Rush (15) **
6 (5) The Butler (12) ***
7 (new) Escape Plan (15) **
8 (new) Blue is the Warmest Colour (18) *** 
9 (6) Sunshine on Leith (PG)
10 (7) Man of Steel (12) ***
My top five:        
1. Gravity     
2. Journal de France  
3. Metro Manila    
4. Plot for Peace
5. Fill the Void

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                                 
1. Spellbound (Saturday, BBC2, 1.35pm)
2. Election [above] (Saturday, C4, 12.40am)
3. The Great Escape (Sunday, five, 5.40pm)
4. Thirteen Days (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Notorious (Saturday, BBC2, 4pm)

Insiders: "Starred Up" and "The Unknown Known" (ST 23/03/14)

Starred Up (18) 106 mins ****
The Unknown Known (12A) 103 mins ***

David Mackenzie’s electric new drama Starred Up follows a very British tradition of films about prison life dating back to 1977’s Scum. Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe, Spread) has often appeared one of those cinematic gadabouts, too busy paying the bills – keeping one eye on this project, the other on financing the next – to make much in the way of a serious, affecting or otherwise noteworthy stand. Here, placed on lockdown, he finally commits himself to a place: to its bruised and fraying inhabitants, and the threat of violence that comes off them like the pungent smell of discarded socks and unwashed latrines.

Certain elements in former prison worker Jonathan Asser’s script suggest the influence of 2009’s widely admired French film A Prophet. Again, we have the cocky newcomer (Jack O’Connell) who arrives expecting trouble, from the guards, his fellow inmates, himself. Again, he crosses paths with an old lag, although here there’s a twist – for the inmate in question is the kid’s shambling father (Ben Mendelsohn, ending up where 2010’s Animal Kingdom suggested), which turns what’s intended as a mentoring relationship into a more Oedipal struggle still. How do you establish yourself as the daddy when your actual dad’s knocking about?

The potentially spoiling term “breakout role” may be off-limits when discussing prison movies, but Mackenzie’s film remains an initiation of sorts, and O’Connell – a graduate of TV’s Skins – emerges as every bit as essential to its world as, say, Ray Winstone was to Scum. From the very first scene, he’s stripped and prodded, poked and provoked by director and co-stars alike; and while the character’s explosive flare-ups register as natural and instinctive, increasingly we get glimpses of the scared little boy cowering behind the front, who realises he’s now lost in the system, and in desperate need of guidance.

What’s around him is alert indeed to the ragged and unpredictable textures of prison life. Scenes are hurled at the viewer, coiled, twitchy and sketchy; they could kick off in any direction at any point. If Starred Up does have a centre, it’s the protagonist’s group therapy sessions, which Mackenzie allows to play out almost like an actors’ workshop: here, the staff – led by Rupert Friend’s glowering shrink – are revealed as just as highly strung as the inmates, and we sense everybody in the room trying to figure out a future not just for themselves, but for the film entire.

I won’t spoil anything about the second half, which walks a sharpened knife-edge between life and death, holding out the possibility of both redemption and annihilation, but where A Prophet rather cheered its hero’s eventual outmuscling of the criminal old guard, Mackenzie and Asser instead dig deeper, assiduously removing their narrative of any questionable glamour or triumph. Their film presents us with an everyday scrap for survival at the very bottom of the food chain – and it’s all the more compelling for it.

In 2003, with the Bush administration becoming entrenched in the Middle East, documentarist Errol Morris sat down with former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and came up with The Fog of War, one of the best films ever made about the idiosyncrasies of American foreign policy. A decade on, Morris has made a film that serves as both sequel and footnote: The Unknown Known, a genial chinwag with Donald Rumsfeld about the thousands of memos the subject dictated over the course of his 40-year Washington career.

Rumsfeld, we’re reminded, was a Nixon protégé, and you might be tempted to interpret Morris’s film as a lesson in what US politics inherited from the Watergate era: chiefly, a dormant paranoia gene, reawakened on September 11, 2001. (You’d be paranoid too, if somebody attempted to fly a commercial jetliner into your workspace.) What’s notable is how Rumsfeld promulgates that paranoia, in language that twists around on itself, denying any and all surety. “All generalisations are false, including this one.” “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Say what?

While Morris never pushes his interviewee too hard – if Rumsfeld walks, he takes the film with him – he has at least recognised there might be a certain fascination in watching this semantics whizz talk his way around, say, any acceptance of responsibility for the treatment of Guantanamo internees. What ends up being documented here is the verbal obfuscation that formed an essential component of this particular war’s fog – even as it allows Rumsfeld, emerging from these 100 minutes both known and yet strangely unknown, to get away with it all over again.

Starred Up is in cinemas nationwide; The Unknown Known is in selected cinemas.

"Peter Gabriel: Back to Front" (The Guardian 21/03/14)

Peter Gabriel: Back to Front **
Dir: Hamish Hamilton. With: Peter Gabriel. 97 mins. Cert: PG

As “Sledgehammer” illustrates, Peter Gabriel’s album “So” stands as a repository of irresistibly lively, alert mid-Eighties pop, but this record of the singer’s current retrospective tour sees its songs stuffed and mounted in disappointingly drab surrounds. For most of its duration, we’re watching baldy men dressed in black against a black backdrop, being stalked by revolving light rigs that resemble crap Transformers. Song-by-song, you’d almost always take the videos that entered into MTV perma-rotation over anything attempted here – and lovely though “In Your Eyes” remains, Gabriel and guitarists’ synchronised dad-dancing to it isn’t likely to supplant John Cusack’s last stand in Say Anything… in the cinematic memory. 

Peter Gabriel: Back to Front is now playing in selected cinemas.

"Svengali" (The Guardian 21/03/14)

Svengali **
Dir: John Hardwick. With: Jonny Owen, Martin Freeman, Vicky McClure. 93 mins. Cert: 15

This music-biz romp – concerning a Welsh chancer’s attempts to push Libertines-like ladrockers The Premature Congratulations around Soho – hopes bushy-tailed enthusiasm can usher us past a shortfall of actual jokes, and displays an abiding cluelessness about developing its source (writer-star Jonny Owen’s well-regarded web series) beyond middling sitcom territory. Cameos from TV faces and a summery visual sheen provide further distractions from the script’s fundamental issues of cred: you just don’t believe Owen’s hapless protagonist would get as far as he does. Hard to dislike entirely, but that initial pep wears off – and it’s sad that any project should now be wasting Vicky McClure in the tagalong girlfriend role.

Svengali is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday 20 March 2014

The player: "Plot for Peace"

Jean-Yves Ollivier is a French businessman with a story to tell: how he came to be personally involved in securing Nelson Mandela's release from prison. When we first see Ollivier in Carlos Agulló and Mandy Jacobson's impressively detailed documentary Plot for Peace, he's playing solitaire in a shaded backroom filling up with his own cigar smoke, and professing his own skill at making order from the chaos of the world. Clearly, this is one of life's cannier, savvier players, his rotund belly and ruddied cheeks speaking to a level of personal success; he proceeds to recount the circumstances of the greatest hand he claims to have ever laid down.

Ollivier moved to South Africa in 1981, and found it to be a nation on the verge of a grave and terrible schism: as some particularly choice, occasionally vicious archive footage makes apparent, this was a country determined to do just about anything to keep its poor black citizens from disrupting the high life its white elite were enjoying elsewhere. The status quo could only hold for so long, Ollivier sensed, and any destabilisation would prove damaging indeed to the West's considerable business interests in the region - his own among them. As the violence stepped up, he hit upon the idea of mining his own gilded contacts book, with the aim of enlisting key figures from both sides to sit around the same table and thrash out a deal for peace.

There followed a torturously complex process of negotiation, which went on for several years before the ANC leader's name came up: the talk had first to pass through events in neighbouring Namibia, and hit a major stumbling block in the form of Angola, beset as that country then was by both Cuban and South African forces, with the US, almost inevitably, starting to poke its nose in over the issue of the continent's vast mineral reserves. In the midst of all this talk, it is possible as a viewer to start getting lost, although the tangled web of allegiances Ollivier's narration sets out seems to prove beyond all doubt the enduring diplomatic theory that everything everywhere is connected - while also suggesting there was more of interest going on behind the scenes than the recent Mandela biopic pushed front and centre.

Ollivier's claim is that his profile is such that it can open doors others cannot, while still allowing him to fly under the radar (in the case of one anecdote here, literally), if needs be; that all governments need guys like him to take the steps and carry the baggage state-accredited diplomats cannot. Needless to say, this leaves him a figure at least as controversial as he might be heroic. You could well come out of the film arguing that Ollivier's actions were governed more by self-interest than any more humanitarian or philanthropic impulse, although he's the first to insist the economic sanctions imposed on South Africa at the time of his arrival weren't helping anybody. Perhaps the ends do, sometimes, justify the means.

His contact book has, at the very least, helped the filmmakers to secure access to most of the key diplomatic and political figureheads of this particular moment, including Winnie Mandela and representatives from Congo and Mozambique, further complicating the notion this whole tale might merely be one ageing white man's prideful reappropriation of a defining moment in recent black African history. A reliance on talking heads to corroborate or redirect elements of the subject's narration may prove a little wearying for the layperson - though enough of Ollivier's reference points actually come to pass to leave one mulling over the idea there's more fascinating truth in here than not.

Plot for Peace is touring selected cinemas nationwide ahead of its DVD release this Monday.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

She might: "The Machine"

The title of Welsh director Caradog James' ambitious, promisingly framed sci-fi thriller The Machine presumably has a double meaning. It could refer to those supersoldiers being engineered by scientists like Toby Stephens' Vincent in a remote military base, for use in some speculative future war against the Chinese; yet in a wider sense, it also conjures up images of the whole military-industrial complex, whose might is most often used to crush any individual who dares to break ranks. James' film begins with the arrival of young American tech whizz Ava (Caity Lotz) as Vincent's new assistant; an inquisitive soul, she's soon observed poking her nose around the base's many well-kept secrets. After she's shot one night in what appears an obvious act of war, her body is recovered by Vincent and reinvented, Frankenstein-like, as a formidable mix of brains, beauty and brute force. 

At first content to take orders from the men around her, this fembot appears as pliable as, say, Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science - Tom Raybould's pulsingly electronic score further underlining the film's debt to 1980s sci-fi - but much as her logic boards might debate it, she has been programmed to kill, and rather more brutally and efficiently than anybody else around. Only belatedly does The Machine revert to conventional action mode, however: for the most part, James favours a spare, quasi-theatrical staging, using a small handful of sets with few exteriors. Keeping the lights low clearly remains a viable means by which novice directors can conceal the modest resources available to them, and the slightly too self-contained, even airless feel of one or two early scenes might generously be looked upon as deliberate.

Some of the ideas being picked over in this dark are familiar: the film may suffer from opening around the same moment as Under the Skin, a more visually daring exploration of similar themes, although it's clear James has thought about the degree to which intelligent machines might become humanised or weaponised, and he does something unusual in establishing a romantic, mutually beneficial relationship between the single father scientist and his increasingly protective creation. The thought extends to good, committed work from the leads. Stephens makes sense of his character's seesawing allegiances, shifting between friendly workplace badinage and something more sinister yet, while Lotz, who made an impression as the no-nonsense heroine of 2012's The Pact, mixes physical toughness with intriguing notes of grace: it's some sign of the film's unpredictable nature that it can find time for her to play out a strange ballet with the pools of water on the floor of her holding pen.

The Machine opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on March 31.

Friday 14 March 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of March 7-9, 2014: 
1 (new) 300: Rise of an Empire (15) [above] ***
2 (1) The Lego Movie (U) ****
3 (new) The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) **
4 (2) Non-Stop (12A)
5 (3) Ride Along (12A)
6 (4) The Book Thief (12A) **
7 (new) Escape from Planet Earth (PG) ***
8 (5) Mr. Peabody & Sherman (U)
9 (9) 12 Years a Slave (15) ****
10 (6) Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy (U) **

My top five: 
1. Under the Skin
2. Wake in Fright  
3. BAFTA Shorts 2014  
4. Funny Face    
5. The Stag
Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Thor: The Dark World (12) **
2 (re) Captain Phillips (12) ****
3 (new) Ender's Game (12)
4 (3) Rush (15) ** 
5 (new) The Butler (12) ***
6 (new) Sunshine on Leith (PG)
7 (7) Man of Steel (12) ***
8 (re) Despicable Me 2 (U) ***
9 (new) Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (15)
10 (re) The Croods (U)

My top five:      
1. Gravity   
2. Journal de France
3. Metro Manila  
4. Fill the Void
5. Blue is the Warmest Colour

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                               
1. Brokeback Mountain (Wednesday, C4, 12.05am)
2. Rear Window (Sunday, BBC2, 2.10pm)
3. Memento (Sunday, C4, 12.15am)
4. Rope (Saturday, BBC2, 1.35pm)
5. Minority Report (Sunday, BBC1, 11.25pm)