Saturday 26 April 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office               
for the weekend of April 18-20, 2014: 
1 (new) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (12A)
2 (3) Rio 2 (U) **
3 (2) Noah (12A) ****
4 (1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12A) ***
5 (new) The Love Punch (12A) **
6 (4) Divergent (12A)
7 (7) Calvary (15) ***
8 (6) Muppets Most Wanted (U)
9 (new) Locke (15) *** 
10 (new) 2 States (PG) ***   

My top five:
1. Rebel Without a Cause  
2. The Raid 2   
3. An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker
4. You & Me Forever
5. Tracks 

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Frozen (PG) **      
2 (2) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12) **    
3 (4) Saving Mr. Banks (PG) *** 
4 (5) Captain Phillips (12) ****
5 (7) Ender's Game (12)
6 (9) Turbo (U)
7 (6) The Butler (12) ***
8 (8) Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (U) ***
9 (re) About Time (12) **
10 (new) Blue Jasmine (12) ** 

My top five:                  
1. American Hustle
2. All is Lost
3. Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II
4. A Story of Children and Film
5. Like Father Like Son
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:                                           
1. The Artist [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 9pm)
2. A Bronx Tale (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
3. Withnail and I (Friday, C4, 12.30am)
4. Avatar (Saturday, C4, 8.15pm)
5. All That Heaven Allows (Wednesday, C4, 3.15am) 

"The Informant" (The Guardian 25/04/14)

The Informant **
Dir: Julien Leclercq. With: Gilles Lellouche, Tahar Rahim, Riccardo Scamarcio. 116 mins. Cert: 15

France’s Julien Leclercq specialises in meat-and-potatoes thrillers based on true events: 2010’s hijack saga The Assault was broadly functional, but this tale of shady dealings in late 1980s Gibraltar feels underpowered. The script, by A Prophet’s Abdel Raoul Dafri, smartly outlines how debt-laden publican Gilles Lellouche removes himself from one hole by snitching for French customs, only to face another dug by Italian traffickers. Nothing much distinguishes the twitchy confabs that follow, however: Tahar Rahim is wasted in a dull desk-jockey role, while Lellouche looks more concerned than we ever become. Some shonky British accents among the smugglers won’t help its chances in these waters. 

The Informant is now showing in selected cinemas.

Places of the heart: "2 States"

The minor Bollywood hit 2 States is a yoof romance adapted from a bestselling novel that suggests someone's worked out how to give One Day a happier ending by crossing it with Meet the Parents. At the heart of Abhishek Varman's film, drawn from Chetan Bhagat's partly autobiographical 2 States: The Story of My Marriage, are two young lovers who meet at university, where they're shielded from the realities of the world: college spitfire Ananya (Alia Bhatt) and Krish (Arjun Kapoor), the doughty MBA student she belatedly rescues from the friend zone. We know the path of true love won't run entirely smooth from the fact a lovelorn Krish is recounting this romance in flashback from the therapist's couch, and trouble duly begins on graduation day, when the two families are first brought face-to-face: his arriving from Delhi in the North, and speaking Hindi; hers from Chennai in the South, and speaking Tamil.

Even a cursory glance would suggest the two clans have markedly more in common than they're prepared to concede - chiefly distant fathers, and status-obsessed mothers doing their very best to scupper any lasting union - and that Bhagat and Varman are merely rehashing a theme that's been around just about forever: the jokes about Punjabis being cultureless snobs and Tamils being backwards hicks are presumably about as old (and as accurate) as those about, say, Scotsmen being tight or men from Alabama who marry their cousins. Varman injects a few more contemporary notes, shooting on actual locations (the university looks like a place one might actually go to study, rather than a fashion-shoot location); he shows Krish and Ananya lying in a post-coital haze at one point, which seems vaguely daring in the context, and eventually works in some editorial sniping about the dowry system, with its outdated insistence that families from different castes see eye-to-eye before their offspring can marry. (Tell that to the Montagues and Capulets.)

Generally, 2 States isn't thinking outside the box so much as shuffling around within it, but the choices it makes while it's there, though familiar in many ways, are likable ones - which isn't always the case with these young-skewing Bollywood ventures: Varman and his performers at least avoid the rote idiocy of last year's Deepika vehicle Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, for one. If the initial suspicion is that the bestubbled, broad-shouldered, furrow-browed Kapoor could easily be switched with any other of the Abhishek Bachchan lookalikes presently skulking around Mumbai, he comes unexpectedly alive when busting funky chicken moves in the song sequences, and his dutiful sincerity gets you, just as it gets Ananya: the film recognises as much in making a big deal of the pre-intermission scene in which Krish proposes (and offers rings to) every last member of his beloved's family.

Next to him, the up-and-coming Bhatt displays an appealing directness that suggests a young woman very much of the same world you and I inhabit, rather than the cloud most Bollywood actresses appear to have floated down from. Ordinariness is the film's keyword, all told, which is why the story still feels personal in this telling, and not entirely processed: Varman grants that this boy might be a little dour and stiff, and that this girl might rise no higher than a job in the offices of Sunsilk - the haircare brand here receiving its most prominent push since a 1974 edition of the Woman's Weekly - but that this doesn't mean they're not right for each other, and that a movie shouldn't set out to tell their tale with a degree of honesty and an absence of condescension. It feels odd to write this about a 169-minute movie, but there's a modesty about 2 States that finally proves rather winning.

2 States is in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Girls: "You & Me Forever"

The Danish coming-of-age drama You & Me Forever may or may not take its title from a Wannadies lyric (despite expectations, the song in question never appears, and the words appear onscreen only as a graffiti tag), but it shares certain characteristics with that genre of Scandie pop in which the peppiness of a rhyme can't entirely conceal the melancholy emotions welling up behind it. It's one more play for the highs and lows of teenage friendship and romance, weighing the exhilaration that comes from running carefree into the night with the hurt that follows whenever vulnerable young hearts get broken.

At its centre are a pair of sweet sixteen-year-olds: the slightly reticent, self-effacing Christine (Emilie Kruse) and the wide-eyed, more adventurous Laura (Julie Andersen): friends since childhood, these two are almost inseparable, sitting in class together and going to gigs together, and collectively fretting about the sex that is surely looming over the horizon for them. Everything changes with the arrival in town of Maria (Frederikke Dahl Hansen), a worldly, open-faced blonde whose father's business endeavours have previously taken her to New York and Berlin, and who therefore knows something about guys and girls alike. To Christine and Laura, ensconced in their quiet, sheltered middle-class lives, Maria practically is sex - and Hansen's steady gaze suggests both someone who's seen something of the world and the latent neuroses of one who's perhaps seen too much, too soon.

The fallouts and break-ups that follow are very much the stuff of the playground, but writer-director Kaspar Munk finds ways of getting them to fill the frame, taking his handheld camera in close to a young cast who've found fresh-seeming ways of working through this angst - perhaps in part because they're still working through it offscreen. (The distance between camera and characters comes to feel as small as that between the characters and the actresses playing them.) We could maybe accuse Munk of a certain prettification: these girls are as zit-free as the cast of any US teen drama, and the Copenhagen sunlight catches their hair just so; the harder edges flaunted by Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love (a.k.a. Fucking Åmål) or Eliza Hittman's recent It Felt Like Love, to name but two examples, are absent.

Yet Munk's clearly more behaviouralist than sensationalist, and the psychology underpinning his fragile tissue of plot struck me as sound. He clocks the middling-to-low self-esteem of these girls, the way they eye one another up, looking for validation, and just as quickly become rivals as friends; boys, mostly an irrelevance here, nevertheless serve as catalysts with the power to change the way a young woman enters into adulthood. You & Me Forever is a thin slip of a film, but these 82 minutes are delicately handled and undoubtedly well-observed, never quite toppling over into the lingering over-emphases of the arguably prurient Blue is the Warmest Colour, for one. Munk affords his characters' actions a certain gravity and consequence, and every swoon and strop recorded here does, in the end, make sense.

You & Me Forever opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Backroads: "Tracks"

In 1977, Robyn Davidson - the blonde-haired, fair-skinned daughter of explorer parents - embarked upon a six-month, 1700-mile trek across the Australian outback, heading from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, via what was then known as Ayres Rock. The general reaction was that the girl was crazy; that such a thin slip of a thing would only shrivel - if not perish - beneath the relentless sun. Yet for Davidson, this trek would be a means not just to proving her (mostly male) naysayers wrong, but of striking a blow against a more general chauvinism that insisted women could only perform certain tasks, usually on their knees. (If you think the world was a chauvinist place back in '75, imagine what a macho culture like Australia's, in particular, would have been like to live in.) John Curran's big-screen retelling of this story, Tracks, takes a while before getting anywhere: never before will you have experienced a movie so attentively and painstakingly devoted to the finer points of camel-training. 

Once its Robyn sets out with her animal entourage, however, the film boils down to its essentials: one girl and/against the desert, much as, say, Gravity was one woman and/against outer space. The girl in question is the perpetually curious and increasingly vital Mia Wasikowska, Burton's Alice, less ethereal than she's yet appeared on screen, earthy in everything from her hirsute underarms to her silica-roughened feet, and suggesting first a desire for disconnection - she shrugs off the sporadic appearances of the garrulous National Geographic photographer (Adam Driver) who's been assigned to document her progress - and then an urgent need to reconnect. There's a sense that Robyn - a bright if still somewhat naive girl, alert to her own position in history, if not always so certain about her position on the map - was taking the backroutes to get at her homeland's hidden past: isolated Aboriginal communities, women determined to go their own way, stampeding camels, no less determined to assert their own independence. (Told you there were a lot of camels.)

Jane Campion might have made something extraordinary with this story; in the hands of the generally capable journeyman Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) Davidson's venture is given a conventional, if broadly satisfying, treatment. Each episode the heroine arrives at does no more than stretch this small, straight story - a girl, her dog and some camels, and later not even the dog - a little further across a wide canvas. Curran has a thousand and one tricks at his disposal to conjure the desert ambience - shots of sheets flapping in the breeze, red dogs appearing on baking sands - and has a major ally in Garth Stevenson's endlessly evocative score. Yet most of the film's images - dotted with solar flares, underlined with heat haze - are the predictable ones, and they rarely distract us from the sensation of a narrative dutifully trekking from A to B: it's more Incredible Journey than Walkabout, following in Robyn's footsteps, rather than matching her in breaking new ground. It works whenever it invites us to pull up a seat around the campfire, and lend our ears to a story that is competently if stolidly set out - and so warming is the glow coming off the screen that you could probably get a tan just from sitting there.

Tracks opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Nocturnal habits: "After the Night"

After the Night is one of those occasions where a filmmaker has had the noble idea to transport us to a place we're unlikely to have seen ourselves, only to default on any worthwhile agenda once we're there: instead of a grand tour, we end up stranded, desperately hoping for something exciting or engaging to pass. The location is a Creole-speaking suburb in Lisbon, with streets and sidestreets that look too impoverished to form part of a modern European capital: home to shacks and rubble, in the middle of which there is apparently nothing to do save to sit around, drink beer, and - in the absence of much in the way of gainful employment - wonder where the next dollar is coming from. Sombra (Pedro Ferreira) is a low-level hood whose only real friend is a pet iguana: unable to meet his vig payments, we join him as he begins his next session of begging, borrowing and stealing, and we're stuck following him after he's shot in the robbery he drifts into, and is cast out of even this lowly scene.

Director Basil da Cunha dwells on the appearance of Sombra's fellow hoodlums, eyeing up their sports jackets, tattoos and piercings, and in the case of one hulk, a battery-powered artificial limb. Yet as the narrative drifts into inertia, it's hard to banish the thought this young filmmaker, a sometime bouncer, has taken to fetishising these brutes, rather than revealing anything specific to their lives. Mostly, After the Light operates on or about the same sluggish and shambling level as its protagonist: what tension there is here involves da Cunha stirring his non-professional supporting players into picking fights with one another, and you soon realise this doesn't really require all that much effort. It's staked out its own piece of turf, certainly, yet still feels wholly inchoate: a rough draft of a movie, laying down the groundwork for a directorial project that might only truly merit paying for another two or three films down the line.

After the Night opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Friday 18 April 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office             
for the weekend of April 11-13, 2014: 
1 (2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12A) ***
2 (3) Noah (12A) ****
3 (1) Rio 2 (U) **
4 (4) Divergent (12A)
5 (new) The Quiet Ones (15) ***
6 (5) Muppets Most Wanted (U)
7 (new) Calvary (15) ***
8 (new) The Raid 2 (18) **** 
9 (6) The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) **
10 (9) The Lego Movie (U) **** 

My top five:
1. Rebel Without a Cause [above]
2. The Raid 2 
3. Wrinkles
4. Locke
5. We Are the Best!
Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Frozen (PG) **    
2 (2) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12) **  
3 (3) Thor: The Dark World (12) **  
4 (4) Saving Mr. Banks (PG) ***  
5 (5) Captain Phillips (12) ****  
6 (8) The Butler (12) ***
7 (7) Ender's Game (12)
8 (6) Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (U) ***
9 (10) Turbo (U)
10 (new) The Harry Hill Movie (PG)     

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. Heat (Easter Sunday, C4, 10.30pm)
2. Duel in the Sun (Thursday, BBC2, 10.55am)
3. Trainspotting (Saturday, C4, 12.50am)
4. The Bourne Ultimatum (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
5. The Savages (Wednesday, C4, 12.35am)

Away from home: "The Love Punch" and "Locke" (ST 20/04/14)

The Love Punch (12A) 94 mins **
Locke (15) 85 mins ***

As the dodgy knees and greying temples flaunted by its cast of National Treasures would imply, The Love Punch is aimed squarely at that ill-served over-50s demographic: it’s essentially Ocean’s 11 for oldsters, forsaking lounge jazz for the staples of dadrock. While reaching for that sophisticated Riviera touch, Joel Hopkins’ slapdash runaround puts its back out, and has to settle for more humdrum dreams of escapism. Glossed over is the one speck of post-crunch reality in its set-up: a divorced couple faced with the realisation they have nothing left but each other.

These are Kate and Richard (Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan) who, shortly after waving off their daughter to uni, learn their pension fund has been snaffled by a French financier. A plot is hatched: the squabbling pair, along with neighbours Penelope and Jerry (Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall), will jet to Cannes and, in retribution, swipe a $10m diamond belonging to the banker’s fiancée – a goal couched as a victory for sound life experience over cruel beauty and heartless commerce. As Brosnan winks, “We’re the older generation – we’re enlightened.”

Maybe so, but the victory would count for more if it were harder won. Instead, Hopkins’ film capers naffly around a cartoonish universe, relying on the cast’s chemistry to bolster a project that rarely appears more substantial than a jolly holiday-enabler. They’re not elevating the material so much as working, at lengthening odds, to dignify it: some graft, given the reliance on hectic hotel-suite farce. Lining everyone up in slo-mo, Reservoir Dogs-style, is an especially tired-seeming image, but one not untypical of a visually banal endeavour that imbues Cannes with a glamour broadly redolent of Dunstable in October.

Almost forgotten amid the gold rush for grey pounds is that the film credited with “discovering” older audiences – 2010’s The King’s Speech – formed a serious unpicking of personal and national traumas. Since then, countless Werther’s Unoriginals have targeted mature viewers with flimsier stuff and nonsense: the same lame plots and jokes by which the movies have long courted teens. Perversely, The Love Punch finds itself pursuing the one crowd who might just remember the various Charades and To Catch a Thiefs it draws so heavily upon. It’s a problem, as such class endures. Cheese like this merely goes off.

Locke is as pared-down as its title: it’s Tom Hardy in a Range Rover haring down the M1 for 85 minutes, the time it might take one to drive from Birmingham to London on a good night. This is, however, a very bad night for Hardy’s Ivan Locke, a Welsh construction manager who’s just learnt his mistress has gone into labour – before he’s had the chance to break news of the affair to his wife. There follows a series of fraught hands-free exchanges – with said wife and mistress, plus his rudderless boys and colleagues – each call-waiting notification chipping away at the once-concrete certainties of this man’s existence.

It’s a test of nerve not just for the character, but for writer-director Steven Knight, attempting something more contained after TV’s expansive Peaky Blinders. Having previously developed Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Knight knows how to sell us on his higher-concept ideas, and he’s grounded this particular game of phone-a-friend in everyday screw-ups, credibly casual wrong turns. Locke’s left a crucial work binder on his passenger seat. He’s also feeling fluey. Swigs of Night Nurse don’t help his equilibrium: he’s communing with his late father even before he passes Coventry.

Despite its speed, the film steadfastly bypasses thriller methods: no wild overtaking is required, and the protagonist may be the closest it has to a bad guy. It’s more a compact, nocturnal character study, using Locke’s car as a vehicle to cruise through an itinerary of competing male preoccupations: work, women, football, paternity, control. Hardy – The Dark Knight Rises’ burly Bane – is here unmasked as a performer of considerable skill: initially steady, even wry, yet increasingly unhinged, justifying with every call the sustained, through-the-windscreen scrutiny. 

Gimmick-movies stand or fall on where we’re headed; many a wheel has come off going into a third act. Personally, I found Knight soft-pedalling a little upon the approach to the capital, in ways one shouldn’t spoil. But maybe it’s the journey and not the destination that’s important. As it heads into the night, mapping its hero’s progress towards a new-found responsibility, Locke again reaffirms cinema’s ability to make something diverting from a mere glove compartment’s worth of faces and voices. And it’ll make for great arguments on the drive home.

The Love Punch and Locke are in cinemas nationwise from today.

"The Sea" (The Guardian 18/04/14)

The Sea **
Dir: Stephen Brown. With: Ciaran Hinds, Sinead Cusack, Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell. 87 mins. Cert: 12A

More proof writers should be kept from adapting their own work comes with Stephen Brown’s glumly listing psychodrama, in which John Banville reduces his Booker Prize-winner to jumbled pound-shop Proustisms. Grieving scribe Ciaran Hinds’ return to the coastal getaway of his youth strands us amid oddly artificial, advert-coloured flashbacks; there, we’re left waiting for some formative trauma to reveal itself, while rent-a-rake Rufus Sewell struggles to pull off an Adge Cutler-like hat-and-neckerchief combo. Hinds is a strong, wounded presence, but the laboured structure cuts insistently around him to get at a psychology mostly scrambled in translation. This Sea’s just too choppy. 

The Sea opens in selected cinemas from today.

"God's Not Dead" (The Guardian 18/04/14)

God’s Not Dead *
Dir: Harold Cronk. With: Shane Harper, Kevin Sorbo, David A. R. White. 113 mins. Cert: PG

Rush-released for Easter, this warped evangelist item – a perturbing US sleeper hit – proceeds from a semi-credible dramatic framework in initiating a debate between a pious student (Shane Harper) and his atheist professor (erstwhile Hercules Kevin Sorbo, an unlikely proponent of Bertrand Russell). The multi-stranded content lurking beneath its soft rock and sundappled telemovie sheen, however, veers from the suspect (see the would-be Christian beaten by her Muslim father!) to the outright hateful: by the jawdropping climax, wherein a preacher is effectively granted divine right to mow down non-believers, “doing God’s work” has become indistinguishable from Grand Theft Auto. Ban this sick filth. 

God's Not Dead opens in selected cinemas from today.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office           
for the weekend of April 4-6, 2014: 
1 (new) Rio 2 (U) **
2 (1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12A) ***
3 (new) Noah (12A) ****
4 (new) Divergent (12A)
5 (2) Muppets Most Wanted (U)
6 (3) The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) **
7 (new) La Bohème: National Opera (U)
8 (new) The Double (15) ***
9 (6) The Lego Movie (U) ****
10 (4) Non-Stop (12A) 

My top five:

1. The Raid 2 [above]
2. The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears
3. The Lunchbox
4. The Quiet Ones
5. Calvary

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Frozen (PG) **  
2 (2) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12) **
3 (4) Thor: The Dark World (12) **
4 (3) Saving Mr. Banks (PG) ***
5 (5) Captain Phillips (12) ****
6 (9) Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (U) ***
7 (7) Ender's Game (12)
8 (6) The Butler (12) ***
9 (8) Homefront (15) ***   
10 (re) Turbo (U)  
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. Rebecca (Saturday, BBC2, 2.35pm)
2. The King of Comedy (Good Friday, C4, 12.15am)
3. Bye Bye Birdie (Monday, BBC2, 12.25pm)
4. The Dirty Dozen (Good Friday, five, 2.15pm)
5. The Westerner (Sunday, BBC2, 6.25am)

Sunday 13 April 2014

"The Lunchbox" (The Guardian 11/04/14)

The Lunchbox ***
Dir: Ritesh Batra. With: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. 104 mins. Cert: PG

Beyond Bollywood, something notable is happening in Indian cinema, much of it organised around the prolific Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur): he’s produced this quietist, Mumbai-set tale for debutant writer-director Ritesh Batra, but his nuanced approach to plot and character is evident throughout. A widowed office clerk (Lifeof Pi’s Irrfan Khan) enters into written correspondence with the bored housewife who’s been readying his hot lunches (Nimrat Kaur); as these two lonely souls try to nudge one another out of their individual ruts, the skilfully self-contained leads scatter just enough titbits of mutual understanding to set us rooting for some future dinner date. It remains resolutely undemonstrative, Batra’s camera mirroring the characters’ cautious restraint. Yet by its final act, pressing home the most un-Bollywood message that life’s often more complicated than the movies, it’s assumed the feel and weight of a well-observed short story. Rabindranath Tagore, for one, would be proud.

The Lunchbox is now playing in selected cinemas.