Monday 30 June 2014

Sad state of affairs: "Spring in a Small Town"

Fei Mu's tragic romance Spring in a Small Town, the tentpole reissue of the BFI's current China survey, would appear to occupy the same place within Chinese cinema as Douglas Sirk's melodramas do within its American equivalent. Beneath its placid, genteel surfaces, there lies a critical project; it's a film that wells up and then spills over with an irrepressible sadness at the state of things. Not surprisingly, it was largely shunned by audiences back in 1948, and earned Fei a place on the authorities' naughty list; it would be remade by the no less dissident Tian Zhuangzhuang in 2002, the same year Todd Haynes paid homage to Sirk with the Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven. It takes longer for some voices of protest to make themselves widely heard.

The film's theme is love among the rubble, and it could almost serve as neo-realism, were the material not so inherently swoony. Yuwen (Wei Wei), a stifled housewife in a remote rural community, has seen her horizons reduced to tending to her ailing husband Liyan (Shi Yu) in a home bombed out during the war years. The pair have since regrouped - with his younger sister, and their loyal house servant - to live on the outskirts of their courtyard in a cramped and makeshift facsimile of domestic bliss, but it's clear very early on that (with the possible exception of the sister, too young to know any better) nobody's really happy here: certainly not hubby, whose fragile heart is pained by the melancholy sight of the family estate gone to ruin, nor his wife, obliged to act as an especially decorous housemaid. (Her voiceover, which could have been a grating exercise in show-and-tell, seems instead like Fei's way of acknowledging - and providing some outlet for - this woman's inner life, and her mounting regrets.)

Then an acquaintance comes to visit, bringing with the change of seasons the possibility of renewal and growth: this doctor, made worldly and affluent by his wartime activities, is an old drinking buddy of the husband, and a sometime sweetheart of the wife - not that hubby knows about this, and not that anybody is likely to tell him. For everyone on screen appears paralysed by their sense of duty - a characteristic Fei regards as less admirable than abnormal, unnatural, potentially lethal, when it comes down to it. The sister's dreams of becoming a dancer are being politely stifled by her brother's insistence she hit the books; Yuwen becomes increasingly manic in her attempts to seize this second chance at happiness. Everyone keeps gravitating towards the city wall, on the lookout for a future more exciting and rewarding than the present, yet even this will prove a dead end - another boundary that cannot be breached. You can see exactly why the powers-that-be frowned upon it, for Fei's film is both a heartbreaker and a revelation: seemingly an attempt to do Madame Bovary, Double Indemnity and Brief Encounter at one and the same time.

Spring in a Small Town is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 28 June 2014

O brother: "Mistaken for Strangers"

All bands need to mix it up every once in a while, and it was at the point of their international breakthrough - with the 2010 album "High Violet" - that indie rockers The National elected to throw a spanner in their own works. That spanner was singer Matt Berninger's younger brother Tom, hired for the subsequent tour as both a roadie and an on-the-road video diarist. The two siblings could, indeed, be Mistaken for Strangers, as the resulting documentary's title has it: where the urbane, debonair Matt is the very model of a performer who finally made it in his late thirties, now able to articulate to millions something of the life he's lived and the regrets he's accrued, the portly, scruffy Tom - liberated from the basement of his parents' Cincinnati home, where he curates his low-budget horror oeuvre - is the kind of longhair who traditionally lurks behind the drumkit in metal acts, a goofy manboy who's convinced that touring ain't nothing but a good time. Conflict can only ever ensue.

So it is that while Matt wanders the backstage area, sucking on a thoughtful tooth, Tom continually contrives to get himself in the way: knocking back the complimentary booze, he shakes his camera in everybody's face and asks stoopid questions, failing even to meet the roadie's rudimentary job description of "showing up on time" and "being hefty enough to shift an amp from here to there". The contrast between the two Berningers is heightened to an extent we might become somewhat sceptical, if not outright suspicious of what it is we're being shown: if the band's management was entirely serious about hiring this debatably reliable character as a roadie, then surely equipping him with a camera and the additional task of official documentarist wasn't the shrewdest of ideas. And I think you'd have to be an especially credulous fan to believe Tom and Matt - a veteran, by this point, of numerous Rolling Stone and New York Times photoshoots - weren't playing up their differences in some way: this is a would-be director and a Grammy-nominated performer we're dealing with, after all.

If you're coming to Mistaken for Strangers for the music, it should be noted we barely hear a song in its entirety, and there are obvious aesthetic limitations to Tom's haphazard, wobblycam approach. As the film progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the camera in this instance is but a means to an end for Tom: the tool that might just allow him to get closer to his brother, and bridge the divide between Matt's success and his own apparent failure. The Berningers are substantially happier around cameras than those exotic wallflowers Arcade Fire, to draw one musical comparison, and the film's first half sends back some eyecatching, occasionally mindboggling snapshots of the unrealities (and, perhaps, the iniquities) of latter-day fame: Tom's footage inadvertently suggests the strangeness of seeing someone you shared a bedroom with growing up suddenly encountering Werner Herzog, or playing a Presidential address. (To quote one of The National's art-rock forefathers, Talking Heads' David Byrne: "How did I get here?" Pondering that, you might get wobbly, too.)

After Tom is relieved of his duties mid-tour and sent home, tail firmly between his legs, we sense the two brothers wrestling for control of the film - or perhaps one offering the other a helping hand. Media darling Matt dispatches his wife, sometime New Yorker editor Carin Besser, to help cut the raw material, determining to knock it into the best possible record of his band's sudden (if belated) success; Tom retreats in tears to his bedroom, uncertain - unlike his sibling - of how to convert his personal and professional setbacks into a Hot 100 charttopper or a Sundance prizewinner, and we come to feel how a boy like him could probably do with even a little of the adulation and affirmation bestowed upon his brother every night. It's ended up a collaboration of sorts, and one that might do both brothers some good, rescuing Tom from the basement even as it cements Matt's rise to prominence; though some of its situations might be questionable, the dynamic between the two rings increasingly true - and such unvarnished emotional authenticity ensures Mistaken for Strangers is unlikely to hinder The National's growing reputation as the thinking person's depressives.

Mistaken for Strangers is now showing in selected cinemas; further information can be found here.

Friday 27 June 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office     
for the weekend of June 20-22, 2014: 
1 (new) The Fault in Our Stars (12A)
2 (1) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
3 (2) Maleficent (PG) ***
4 (3) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12A) ***
5 (4) Edge of Tomorrow (12A) ***
6 (new) Jersey Boys (15) *
7 (new) 3 Days to Kill (12A) *
8 (6) Belle (12A) ***
9 (5) Oculus (15)
10 (new) Humshakals (12A)


My top five:
1. How We Used to Live      
2. Spring in a Small Town
3. The Man Whose Mind Exploded    
4. Mistaken for Strangers       
5. Camille Claudel 1915 

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy (U) **
2 (1) Robocop (12)
3 (2) 12 Years a Slave (15) ****
4 (3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12) **
5 (4) Dallas Buyers Club (15) ***
6 (5) Philomena (12A) ****
7 (7) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12)
8 (6) The Railway Man (15) ***
9 (9) Gravity (12) *****
10 (8) Cuban Fury (15) 
My top five:    
1. The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears  
2. Her  
3. The Invisible Woman    
4. The Past    
5. Lone Survivor
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:         
1. And Now For Something Completely Different [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 12.05am)
2. The King's Speech (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
3. The Black Dahlia (Sunday, C4, 1.35am)
4. We Own the Night (Thursday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
5. City Hall (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)

"Secret Sharer" (The Guardian 27/06/14)

Secret Sharer **
Dir: Peter Fudakowski. With: Jack Laskey, Zhu Zhu. 103 mins. Cert: 12A

The achievements of this Joseph Conrad modernisation are chiefly logistical: from modest means, writer-director Peter Fudakowski assembles a workable portrayal of a Chinese-operated commercial frigate moving through increasingly stormy waters. Dramatically, alas, it remains rather flat. Leads Jack Laskey, as our hunky captain, and Zhu Zhu, as the wanted woman he plucks from the waters, are graduates of the Triangle school of onboard emoting, and the direction of people, rather than boats, proves questionable throughout: Fudakowski reserves his greatest enthusiasm for exoticising, male-gazey images of Zhu in the altogether, or wearing one of the captain’s crisp white shirts just so off the shoulder. 

Secret Sharer opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie" (The Guardian 27/06/14)

Mrs. Brown’s Boys: D’Movie *
Dir: Ben Kellett. With: Brendan O’Carroll, Jennifer Gibney, Robert Bathurst. 97 mins. Cert: 15

Perhaps some fourth walls just aren’t made to be broken. The blowsy Irish market trader Agnes Brown first appeared on screen, played more or less straight by Anjelica Huston, in 1999’s Agnes Browne [sic], the actress’s shrug-inducing adaptation of Brendan O’Carroll’s novel The Mammy. That movie did no business whatsoever, leading writer-performer O’Carroll to reassert control over the character in much the same way Robin Williams did over his family in Mrs. Doubtfire: by dragging up. O’Carroll repositioned Agnes as the star of an old-school sitcom that didn’t even feign the vaguely progressive leanings of its primetime stablemate Citizen Khan: this really was just a man in a dress, Dick Emery-style, hitting another man repeatedly over the head with a tea tray.

You either found this funny or you didn’t, but enough viewers did around the moment of the wildly profitable Inbetweeners film for the BBC beancounters to justify the existence of this latest exercise in brand expansion, announced onscreen as Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs. Brown’s Boys: D’Movie. (Anjelica Huston can, presumably, feck off.) It would not be unfair to say only modest levels of time and money have been expended on it: unlike Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, where you sensed the presence of a huddling team of writers, striving to craft new material up until the very second the cameras rolled, D’Movie runs with a plotline – Mrs. Brown has to defend her business from multiple threats – which could equally have served any Steptoe and Son or Are You Being Served? spin-off.

That a key subplot involves Mrs. Brown trying to avoid paying an unexpectedly large tax bill suggests O’Carroll has started writing what he knows, just as George Lucas did around the point the later Star Wars movies got bogged down in committee rooms. Possibly the newly flush writer-star has spent too long negotiating with HMRC, because the comedy here is underwritten at best. Someone mistakes Placido Domingo for a holiday resort. A contrived acronym turns a MP into a PRIC. Film and TV themes (The Pink Panther, The A-Team, The Great Escape) are thrown in, apparently just so we can recognise them. The old-school mildness extends to mild racism: the idea of an Indian trader being mistaken for Jamaican, or a middle-aged Irishman impersonating a Chinese man (introducing O’Carroll’s new creation, karate instructor Mr. Wang: “Harrow!”) is meant to induce big, bronchial wheezes.

Sitcom veteran Ben Kellett directs it functionally, venturing brief, touristy exteriors of Dublin – in which sparse numbers of extras are seen congregating – before retreating to safe, obvious, cheap-looking set-bound business. Yet with the exception of an opening fire safety announcement, the sitcom’s meta-ness has been dialled back. In this rushed and cramped context, the inbuilt bloopers just look unprofessional, indistinct from the other fluffed or half-hearted material; the new notes of sentiment and whimsy only recall Agnes Brown-with-an-e. You sense O’Carroll has diluted his own show’s essence for wider consumption: while the sitcom could be broad, it was often clever with it, and never this bland.

Unlike Guest House Paradiso or Kevin and Perry Go Large or Keith Lemon, then, D’Movie is never aggressively, in-your-face bad, more a flatly indifferent cash-in – and the devoted fanbase this character has accrued over the past decade may yet rally to ensure it does indeed become another Inbetweeners-style box-office bonanza: comedy is subjective, after all. Yet poking through the thin stew served up here in vain search of the one belly laugh or handful of chuckles that might justify handing over that hard-earned tenner this weekend, one is led to the conclusion comedy has never been quite as subjective as this.

Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

1,001 Films: "The Red and the White/Csillagosok, Katonak" (1967)

Impenetrable as I find the Czech filmmaker František Vláčil's 1967 epic Marketa Lazarova, that film was supposed to have made sense on a narrative level - and perhaps might have done, if you'd already read the book. Released the very same year, the conceptual war drama The Red and the White, made by the Hungarian Miklós Jancsó, pushes Lazarova's representation of conflict even further into abstraction and (vaguely comic) absurdity. The title sounds deliberately arbitrary, and could equally have been Shirts and Skins or Masculine Feminine or The Power and the Glory: any two interchangeable forces will do.

We're in 1919, at the arse-end of the Russian Revolution, when any stray Bolsheviks (the Reds) were being rounded up by counterrevolutionary Cossacks (the Whites). The latter are on top as we join the action, taking a large number of Reds prisoner in a holding pen somewhere in the countryside - but the film's primary theme is the instability of history, so we watch as the Reds (now stripped shirtless) hatch an escape plan; after liberating themselves, they're pursued through surrounding streets and fields that look very much as though they weren't supposed to be shot on, weren't expecting this sudden cacophony.

Jancso has a scientist's eye for chaos breaking out: the chase will envelop both a family of war widows living a peaceful life in a neighboring village and a hospital staffed solely by nurses, bringing with it that particular threat that follows whenever desperate men arrive among women. Yet the recurring idea here - you could very nearly call it a gag - is that just when each faction thinks it's gained supremacy, it falters: someone's always riding in to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (or vice versa), and however broad the parameters, the battlefield keeps expanding, creating only more misery and mayhem.

The result cues another of Eastern European cinema's investigations into how war might be photographed - though in a departure from the tight formalism of Jancso's previous The Round-Up, The Red and the White opts for a heightened depth of field, so the combatants can tear off any which way, and the camera is liberated to follow them through every battle charge, an apparent last stand, and a final victory that can only ever be provisional. In doing so, the film covers an unusual amount of ground: you might well be led to the conclusion this particular uprising is meant to stand for all uprisings. 

Half an hour in, I realised there was something eerily familiar about these fields and forests on the banks of the Volga: they're not so far removed - both geographically and topographically, in their eternal stillness and sun-shaded atrocities - from those on which Claude Lanzmann was to mark out the perimeters of the Holocaust some twenty years later in his landmark documentary Shoah. History keeps on circling round, refusing us the upper hand, finding new victims for itself. 

The Red and the White is available on DVD through Second Run.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

1,001 Films: "Cool Hand Luke" (1967)

Arriving as further evidence of the new ways of thinking sweeping through Hollywood in the late 1960s, Cool Hand Luke is every institutional movie - every prison drama, every high-school pic - ever made, but done almost as a road movie, playing out under bright blue skies that rhyme with its leading man's eyes. Though it's constructed around a product of the studio system - Paul Newman as Lucas "Luke" Jackson, sentenced to five years clearing highways for snapping the heads off parking meters - Stuart Rosenberg's film boasts enough significant faces of the New Hollywood (Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, the latter still paying dues in the year of Easy Rider) to give notice of what was about to emerge in its wake. Hot on Cool Hand Luke's heels would come the globetrotting Papillon, Escape from Alcatraz and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (directed by a Czech émigré): films more than ever committed to the sight of lifers seeking liberty from oppressive regimes in the pursuit of happiness.

What's especially subversive about Rosenberg's film is that its prison is - knowingly - archetypally American: a haven for shirtless jocks and outsiders, putting in a full day's work beneath the hot sun under the noses of faceless bosses, the mind-numbing repetition of manual labour only broken by such distractions as the buxom young blonde who helpfully elects to soap down her car in front of the boys (oh, look: she's only gone and squidged the suds down the front of her flimsy dress!) or the bet that involves swallowing fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour, which provided an instant classic scene, and the inspiration for several seasons' worth of Man vs. Food. (The resort to unbridled consumption: what could possibly be more American than that?) The fact all this unfolds around the Bible Belt - with Luke picking up a banjo and trilling a song about a plastic Jesus figurine as a tribute to his late mother (and subsequently obliged to don white robes as punishment for such flagrant self-expression) - pretty much seals the deal on any metaphorical reading you might wish to bestow upon it.

For, unlike Easy Rider, which enthralled longhairs while sending their folks off to write long, concerned missives to the Christian Science Monitor, it's possible Cool Hand Luke was one of those films both generations would have taken different (positive) things from upon the moment of its first release. While broadly conventional in its storytelling, it may just be the most leftist American film of its period, a tribute to the solidarity of the prisoners, doomed as it might be. In any other feature, good-ol'-boy Arthur Kennedy (one of those actors who looked sixty when he was in his thirties) would become Luke's nemesis; instead, he becomes his closest disciple - at least until the rupture in a surrogate Gethsemane that seals the pair's fates for good. (The studio tacks a Band-Aid of starry close-ups over this rift, but the outcome is somehow even more despairing than that of Cuckoo's Nest: here, no-one breaks free, and everyone is expected to show up for work the next day, in a sorrier state than before.) If Newman initially seems a shade too poised and groomed to convince as the survivor of a broken home - one of those production-line problems the dream factory has never quite ironed out - there's something effective in the way this scenario makes him sweat alongside everybody else, gradually corroding his lustre. The moral of this reliably entertaining, still-resonant endeavour is that - whether or not you rely on parking meters for your fortune - in a system such as this, this could happen to you, too.

(April 2013)

Cool Hand Luke is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Thursday 19 June 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of June 13-15, 2014: 
1 (1) 22 Jump Street (15) ***  
2 (2) Maleficent (PG) ***  
3 (3) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12A) ***  
4 (4) Edge of Tomorrow (12A) ***
5 (new) Oculus (15)
6 (new) Belle (12A) ***
7 (6) Godzilla (12A)
8 (5) A Million Ways to Die in the West (15) **
9 (new) Devil's Knot (15) **
10 (re) Rio 2 (U) **


My top five:
1. How We Used to Live    
2. The Man Whose Mind Exploded  
3. Cheap Thrills    
4. The Dirties  
5. Camille Claudel 1915
Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Robocop (12)  
2 (2) 12 Years a Slave (15) ****     
3 (3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12) **  
4 (4) Dallas Buyers Club (15) ***
5 (7) Philomena (12A) ****
6 (5) The Railway Man (15) ***
7 (6) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12)
8 (10) Cuban Fury (15) 
9 (8) Gravity (12) *****
10 (new) Delivery Man (12)

My top five:  
1. The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears
2. Her
3. The Invisible Woman  
4. The Past  
5. Lone Survivor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:       
1. The Social Network (Sunday, C4, 10.20pm)
2. While You Were Sleeping [above] (Sunday, five, 3.10pm)
3. Hitch (Saturday, five, 1.15pm)
4. Mr. Popper's Penguins (Sunday, C4, 6.15pm)
5. Hollywoodland (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)

"Leave to Remain" (The Guardian 20/06/14)

Leave to Remain ***
Dir: Bruce Goodison. With: Noof Ousellam, Zarrien Masieh, Yasmin Mwanza, Toby Jones. 89 mins. Cert: 15

Bruce Goodison’s evidently well-researched drama picks up where last year’s huge-hearted I Am Nasrine left off, considering the fate of teenage refugees stuck in an East London limbo, waiting to hear from the Home Office. With opening stats – pointing out that only one in ten young migrants is granted permanent UK residency – casting an ominous shadow over proceedings, Goodison’s interest resides in how these kids fill the downtime: he runs processes of the state (day trips, hearings, medical once-overs) parallel to these individuals’ attempts to put past traumas (tribal warfare, rape, FGM) behind them – a far rockier process of adaptation. It’s a small, everyday story – so grounded in experiences of the system that the ending looks a half-shade too optimistic – yet it never feels like a tract, or TV: Goodison displays a sure, Shane Meadows-like touch with his lively unknown leads, and finds eloquent, cinematic ways of describing their hopes, dreams and fears. 

Leave to Remain opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

"3 Days to Kill" (The Guardian 20/06/14)

3 Days to Kill *
Dir: McG. With: Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen. 117 mins. Cert: 12A

Imagine restyling Ken Barlow after Jack Bauer. The latest slapdash pulp-dollop off the Luc Besson production line seeks to reposition Kevin Costner as a Neesony Bad-Ass Dad by casting him as a growly CIA type, using a Parisian layover to juggle terrorist-offing with teaching daughter Hailee Steinfeld how to ride a bike. Director McG, a refugee from Hollywood’s pre-Crunch more-is-more moment, realises the rating allows limited sadism, and pads it with irksome character business: Amber Heard brings scant nuance to the role of Cleavage With Integral Handgun, while Besson’s staggeringly insensitive handling of other cultures persists around the populous Malian clan swarming Costner’s appartement. Merde

3 Days to Kill opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

Saturday 14 June 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 6-8, 2014: 

1 (new) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
2 (1) Maleficent (PG) ***
3 (2) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12A) ***
4 (3) Edge of Tomorrow (12A) ***
5 (4) A Million Ways to Die in the West (15) **
6 (5) Godzilla (12A)
7 (new) D-Day: 70 Years On (uncertificated)
8 (7) Postman Pat: the Movie (U) **
9 (new) Grace of Monaco (PG)
10 (6) Bad Neighbours (15)

My top five:

1. How We Used to Live  
2. The Man Whose Mind Exploded
3. Cheap Thrills  
4. The Dirties
5. Of Horses and Men
Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (new) Robocop (12)
2 (1) 12 Years a Slave (15) ****   
3 (new) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12) **
4 (2) Dallas Buyers Club (15) ***
5 (4) The Railway Man (15) ***
6 (3) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12)  
7 (5) Philomena (12A) ****
8 (8) Gravity (12) *****
9 (6) American Hustle (15) ****  
10 (new) Cuban Fury (15)

My top five:
1. The Invisible Woman
2. The Past
3. Lone Survivor
4. Dallas Buyers Club
5. The Rocket
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:     

1. Citizen Kane [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2pm)
2. Play Misty for Me (Saturday, ITV1, 11.30pm)
3. Gosford Park (Sunday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
4. Forrest Gump (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. Ghost Busters (Sunday, five, 3.05pm) 

Friday 13 June 2014

"The Man Whose Mind Exploded" (The Guardian 13/06/14)

The Man Whose Mind Exploded ****
Dir: Toby Amies. With: Drako Zarhazar, Toby Amies. 77 mins. Cert: 15

Toby Amies’ documentary offers a complex, oddly moving portrait of Drako Zarhazar, a wheezing amnesiac who, in his 75 years, danced at the Palladium, dealt drugs to the Stones, and survived two near-fatal accidents with scant memory of it all. Just as extraordinary is Drako’s Brighton home: a hoarder’s paradise festooned with forget-me-nots and wallpapered with gay porn – itself a memento, perhaps, of a youth long supplanted by browning toenails. Amies doesn’t shy from venturing into uncomfortable areas: he finds a niche amid this clutter, and – prompted by the vintage members looming into shot – heads off issues of exploitation, framing Drako honestly as a spiky, singular sort, stubbornly resistant to the change he’s being nudged towards. As in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, the laying bare of one man’s fetishes proves pungently compelling – Amies’ up-close-and-personal approach is such one can practically smell Drako’s bedsheets – but so much else about this story, about this life, also lingers. 

The Man Whose Mind Exploded opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Devil's Knot" (The Guardian 13/06/14)

Devil’s Knot **
Dir: Atom Egoyan. With: Reece Witherspoon, Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan. 114 mins. Cert: 15

Atom Egoyan’s tricky transition to the mainstream continues: this Weinstein-produced assignment slogs dutifully through the least ambiguous take yet on the miscarriage-of-justice that provoked Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, among other documentaries. Reece Witherspoon is given a feathercut and scattered Oscar-reel moments as a blowsy bereaved mother, Colin Firth a permanently furrowed brow as the investigator defending three teenage Satanists. Largely an afterthought, it’s too grim for multiplex consumption, but semi-interesting as an auteurist test case: so full of identifiable Egoyanisms (video, lost children, Elias Koteas) as to resemble 1994’s risky, unsettling Exotica recut into the perfunctory shape of the afternoon TV movie. 

Devil's Knot opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"The Hooligan Factory" (The Guardian 13/06/14)

The Hooligan Factory **
Dir: Nick Nevern. With: Jason Maza, Nick Nevern, Tom Burke. 90 mins. Cert: 15

This slaphappy ladsploitation spoof opens with a low-end sort of coup, killing off yer actual Danny Dyer while revisiting the overworked Rettendon Range Rover murders, but thereafter offers comedy mostly indistinguishable from the limp business passed off seriously elsewhere: writer-director-star Nick Nevern is playing to the home crowd, and regular visits to the Massive Tits Strip Club underline how the jokes only replay the usual chauvinism. I snickered from sheer recognition at the first overpopulated ruckus on a tiny footbridge, and there’s a Reg Hollis cameo, but that probably isn’t enough to merit rescuing it from the 24-hour garage bargain bin. 

The Hooligan Factory opens today in selected cinemas.

On yer bike: "Road"

2011's 3D documentary Closer to the Edge demonstrated it was possible for the movies to do something surprisingly compulsive, even thrilling with the sport of motorcycle roadracing; now we have Diarmuid Lavery and Michael Hewitt's Road, a pendant that fleshes out a saga the earlier film sped past, involving two sets of brothers: Robert and Joey Dunlop, who dominated the sport from the late 1970s onwards, and Robert's sons William and Michael, two of today's leading riders. Ah, Dunlop: it is a name as synonymous with this sport as Senna or Schumacher is with Formula 1, and yet over the years these boys have proven every bit as perishable as their rubber equivalents.

Road opens with a Milan Kundera quote extolling the great freedoms that follow from speed, yet the subsequent film proves attuned to the great pressures facing all riders (chiefly, how to get round the circuit in the fastest time without splatting oneself into a lamppost or brick wall) and those facing the Dunlops in particular: for Robert and Joey, how to keep proving themselves as age crept up on them; for William and Michael, how to uphold and possibly even surpass their father's considerable legacy. Tension builds as we're left to watch archive footage of the Dunlops gliding speedily and serenely around corners, knowing full well the spectacular carnage that ensues whenever someone comes off their bike; put simply, for much of the running time, we're waiting for the worst to happen.

That said, Closer to the Edge was geared rather more towards cinematic sensation: the thrill of hearing an engine rev up in Dolby surround, or seeing the particular topography of the Isle of Man laid out before us in three dimensions. Road pulls up to the kerb in prosaic 2D, as measured in its storytelling as Liam Neeson's ten-words-a-minute narration, and slightly one-sided with it: the sons are left to do laps while we wait for the filmmakers to park the Joey-Robert story and get round to them. Still, for all that, it is well told, and more than a little stirring towards the end: Lavery and Hewitt allow us to feel the Dunlops' need for speed, the compulsion to get back on the bike and prove Death wrong, even as the evidence - the mangled bodies and shattered bikes - piles up to suggest it might not be entirely healthy for them, or indeed anyone.

Road is now showing in selected cinemas.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Sophomores: "22 Jump Street"

A (perhaps unpopular) confession: I didn't much care for 21 Jump Street, a rowdy bromance that sent fully grown cops Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum back to high school and came back with something every bit as throwaway as the semi-forgotten pop-cultural nothing that inspired it. Clearly, however, its randomness struck a chord with the world's yoof - shruggingly improvised, it was a comedy with downtime enough for texting or making out - and so we have the sequel 22 Jump Street, which almost inevitably sends the leads on to college in the hope of catching a drug dealer, and more or less does the same thing all over again. Only better.

The conjunction of 22 Jump Street and Edge of Tomorrow in multiplexes suggests that the studios have, at long last, wised up to the fact they've begun to repeat themselves, and started to seek out smarter ways of going about it. Almost 50% of the scenes and set-ups in 22 Jump Street are there to winkingly remind us we are watching a sequel: whole characters - Nick Offerman's Deputy Chief Hardy, Ice Cube's Captain Dickson - are recalled just to comment on the fact that a good deal more money has been spent on what's effectively the same old plot. (Cube, suddenly finding himself surrounded by needless gadgets and gizmos, points out he's wearing $800 shoes that nobody can see behind his desk.)

There's an appreciable degree of I-can't-believe-we're-getting-away-with-this glee in this stance, and the heightened self-reflexivity serves to mitigate against the rowdiness of the original, made when directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were presumably thought of by their Sony bosses as hired hands entrusted to deliver 'plex-ready comedy product, rather than as the idiosyncratic curators of The Lego Movie. Opening with a lecture on the yin/yang divide, this is a film of constructive, corrective partnerships, and whenever its instincts take it towards the brawny and noisy - default settings of so much contemporary comedy - its creative side intervenes: a thumping defensive tackle inspires the priceless ADR "Fuck you, you little walk-on fuck", while a diversion to an open-mic poetry night establishes a relevant ongoing riff on the difference between improv and writing shit down.

The trick the new film pulls off is to accommodate all this wise-assery and still play on some emotionally satisfying level as a conventional buddy-cop movie. It wouldn't fly as it does without Hill and Tatum, who - through sheer hard work - have matured immeasurably as performers since the last film, and here prove funnier together than they've ever been individually. Their mutual dependency is so persuasive that, when convention dictates the two must part ways at the end of the second act, Lord and Miller almost don't need to layer John Waite's "Missing You" over the subsequent estrangement montage to get us eagerly awaiting the eventual reunion. I wouldn't have considered writing this after the first movie, but these guys really are made for one another.

The approach is both anything-goes and generally open-minded, a liberation not just for the performers but also the filmmakers, who can fold genre-specific tensions back into the plot (Tatum's signed up to a Human Sexuality course, and gets pissed when one of the bad guys uses a homophobic slur) and frame a final-act instance of male-on-female violence in a way that's not just very smart in how it circumvents offence, but exceptionally funny to watch. Possibly Lord and Miller are merely reinventing one of those wheels that have always made the box-office go round, but in its more consistent stretches, 22 Jump Street takes on the shape and feel of the second season of a potentially great sitcom: the cast have gelled, the rhythms have been found, and the directors now know how to make even the more arcane business work. My colleagues have expressed collective adoration for the Cate Blanchett joke; I'll confess I found the tossed-off Benny Hill reference even more cherishable.

22 Jump Street is in cinemas nationwide.