Saturday 26 July 2014

1,001 Films: "Marketa Lazarova" (1967)

For some reason - countercultural affinity? A desire to get away from the clean lines of consumerism, and re-engage with the mud and blood of history? A satirical attempt to tie the tyrannies of the moment with what had gone before? - a new medievalism swept through the arthouse cinema of the 1950s and 60s, of which the most prominent examples remain Bergman's The Seventh Seal, the tangled Polish artefact known as The Saragossa Manuscript and the properly byzantine epic Marketa Lazarova, which somehow survived the rigours of Czech state censorship to emerge as among the country's best-loved features. 

In part, that may be down to the fact that it's borderline incomprehensible - or, at least, not easily read. Like the current TV hit Game of Thrones - which similarly clings to women's breasts as fixed reference points in a bloodily unstable, chaotic universe - it would appear to be a tale of squabbling clans in a snowy, godforsaken backwater, interrupted by verbose chapter headings that bear scant relation to what we're about to see, and narration that frequently drifts away from the images director Frantisek Vlacil deigns to put before us. 

Somewhere in the middle of it all is the attempt of a father to protect the virtue of the daughter enshrined in the title - her face the only one here unspecked by dirt or facial hair - though that virtue often appears the only thing at stake, and one suspects its survival at long odds may be the reason a film otherwise defined by grisly violence, trippy, modish nudity and a general air of grubbiness dodged the censor's scissors. Vacil at least ensures it looks like something significant, putting to work all the tricks the cinema had discovered for itself in the preceding years (handheld, distortion lenses, freeze-frames) and which might just have made this history come alive again - if you didn't badly need a scholar of said history sitting next to you to point out, at almost every juncture, just what exactly is going on.

Marketa Lazarova is available on DVD through Second Run.

Friday 25 July 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of July 18-20, 2014: 
1 (new) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
2 (2) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG) ***
3 (1) Transformers: Age of Extinction (12A)
4 (new) Monty Python: 02 London (uncertificated)
5 (new) Andre Rieu's 2014 Maastricht Concert (uncertificated)
6 (3) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *
7 (new) Pudsey the Dog: The Movie (U)
8 (7) Boyhood (15) ***
9 (4) The Fault in Our Stars (12A) **
10 (6) 22 Jump Street (15) ***


My top five:
1. Some Like It Hot  
2. The Lady from Shanghai
3. Finding Vivian Maier  
4. Norte, the End of History  
5. Branded to Kill

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Need for Speed (12)
2 (2) The Wolf of Wall Street (18) *
3 (re) Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy (U) **
4 (1) Non-Stop (12)
5 (4) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12) **
6 (3) Under the Skin (15) ****
7 (5) Robocop (12)
8 (8) Vampire Academy (12)
9 (7) Dallas Buyers Club (15) ***
10 (9) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12) 
My top five:  
1. Noah
2. Venus in Fur
3. The Lego Movie  
4. 20 Feet from Stardom  
5. Under the Skin 

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Insider [above] (Sunday, C4, 12.40am)
2. Up in the Air (Saturday, BBC2, 10.30pm)
3. Victim (Wednesday, C4, 2am)
4. Twister (Saturday, ITV1, 4.30pm)
5. The Negotiator (Sunday, C4, 10pm)

"The Purge: Anarchy" (The Guardian 25/07/14)

The Purge: Anarchy ***
Dir: James DeMonaco. With: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zack Gilford. 103 mins. Cert: 15

Last year’s hit The Purge ventured an superficially eye-catching premise – what if the US Government granted its citizens an annual mischief night, to get any crime out of their system? – before retreating indoors into indifferently staged runaround. The sequel, again overseen by James DeMonaco, finally thinks the idea through, following those left outside as the Purge kicks in. Flickers of dread creep in – care of those one-percenters co-opting the event for sicko entertainment – though again we’re mostly in second gear: if the first movie was a lacklustre Assault on Precinct 13 (the remake of which DeMonaco penned), this one’s a modest Escape from New York, with growly lone wolf Frank Grillo steering representative survivors between Gothy bikers and lip-smacking private armies. For Universal, the franchise is clearly a low-cost, low-risk work-in-progress, but DeMonaco is improving as a shotmaker: this entry just about plays, albeit on the level of a straight-to-DVD item or tentative TV pilot. 

The Purge: Anarchy opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Northwest" (The Guardian 25/07/14)

Northwest **
Dir: Michael Noer. With: Casper Dyekjaer Giese, Oscar Dyekjaer Giese, Lena Maria Christensen. 91 mins. Cert: 15

The latest item carried over on the Scandie crime wave forsakes chunky-knit sweaters for a notional harder edge, offering a shruggingly naturalistic study of a teenage catburglar caught between rival factions on the Copenhagen periphery. Much of Michael Noer’s film feels anaemic: the switchback plotting that sees bullet-headed antihero Casper (Casper Dyekjaer Giese) become a figure of empathy was put over with greater force and visual flair by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher films. Some site-specific design porn persists – notably in Casper’s quest for a PH Artichoke lamp – but it chiefly resembles that scrappy posturing by which our own film industry habitually bids for street cred. 

Northwest opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Believe" (The Guardian 25/07/14)

Believe **
Dir: David Scheinmann. With: Brian Cox, Natascha McElhone, Toby Stephens. 96 mins. Cert: PG

Just when we thought Man United’s stock couldn’t fall any lower, here’s an often cringeworthy “inspired by true events” supposition that sees the retired Matt Busby (Brian Cox) coaching the blond moppet who stole his wallet to Under-12s glory. Early 80s pointers (Musical Youth, the miners’ strike) are trowelled onto an insistently formulaic plot: the schools cup final coincides with not just a major exam but Busby’s birthday to boot. Cox’s guardedly avuncular turn might have sustained a more rigorous endeavour, but the attempt to evoke the trauma of the Munich air disaster is rendered wholly insupportable by the trifling hooey around it. 

Believe opens in selected cinemas, and is available on demand, from today.

Scrap metal: "Earth to Echo"

The balance between live-action and animated family features has shifted heavily towards the latter in recent years; so heavily, in fact, that it would be easy to overrate the modestly winning Earth to Echo, a low-cost, digital-era refit of that old matinee trope about kids who stumble across a wounded creature and seek to hide it away from uncomprehending grown-ups. The kids here aren't the moppets of yore, but cellphone-wielding nice guys, compiling a video diary on life at the suburban fringes of the Nevada desert; as their treatment at the hands of school bullies suggests, they're born pushovers, whose families face imminent relocation as part of a highway construction project. 

The need to create lasting memories of their time together is thus pressing - and a close encounter of the third kind will provide plenty for everyone. Director Dave Green displays a lot of love for all things Spielberg in his debut outing, not least through his attentive, suspenseful pacing: a fair bit of character detail and a workable sense of place - of nondescript stripmalls breaking up nondescript homesteads overseen by understandably distracted parents - gets sketched in before the discovery of the eponymous Echo: a glowing robotic owl thing who beeps, squeaks and levitates while our humanoid heroes try to figure out the purpose of his visit to our galaxy.

Green is savvy about integrating Google Earth, YouTube and instant messaging - all the elements Spielberg didn't have to concern himself with around the time of E.T., and which the modern multiplex director is now expected to kowtow towards - though there are stylistic limitations, almost inevitably tied to the tired found-footage format: occasional POV confusion (apparently Echo "sees" the world through his finders' mobile phones), much artlessly wobbly camerawork. (Imagine how much less soaring the climax of E.T. would be if Spielberg had clipped his camera, and not the alien, to the handlebars of Elliot's bike.)

Clearly, it's traditional only up to a point, and some of it just feels underdone, a straight-to-DVD item elevated to the standing of a summer-holiday event in the absence of any bigger or better ideas: you feel it most in the absence of familiar faces, and hear it on the anonymous, ten-songs-for-a-dollar soundtrack. (A brief snatch of Michael Kamen's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves score as the boys make plans to go out into the night is about as good as it gets.) The crash site from which Echo is salvaged is visibly a junkyard staffed by men in high-visibility tabards; Echo himself no more than a small, carefully curated amalgamation of pixels, rather than anything you'd especially want to take home as merchandise.

There's something vaguely commendable about the film's downplaying of its own commercial potential - it's not in 3D, and unlike Transformers: Age of Extinction or even The Lego Movie, it finally has nothing to flog but itself - but Earth to Echo finally sells itself most short on a narrative level: you can't help but think the restless barrage of camera perspectives is simply being used to jolt us out of our familiarity with this material (as Cloverfield did) rather than digging a little deeper into this world and its characters (as the similar-looking Chronicle did). By its final act, E.T. was tapping some primal wellspring of emotions; Green can boot and reboot the app as much as he likes, but Google Earth hasn't found a way of mapping those yet.

Earth to Echo opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Evolutionary road: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

On the timeline of the Apes, matters are intriguingly poised. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to 2011's successful prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes, nudges us a little closer towards the point where the Earth will be reclaimed by simians; presumably, if we keep showing up for these carefully gradated movies - Light Breakfast on the Planet of the Apes, Morning Constitutional of the Planet of the Apes, Elevenses of the Planet of the Apes - we'll eventually reach sundown, and the moment when a new Charlton Heston (Channing Tatum, anyone?) can raise his fists and curse the day those damn, dirty apes first got ideas above their evolutionary station.

As the new film opens, chimp flu has wiped out much of homo sapiens, establishing those monkeys who were unleashed from captivity in the first film's finale as the new kings of the jungle. A bold prologue - possibly indebted to Kubrick's 2001 - flips Rise's premise by dropping us into the midst of the simian community established on the verdant fringes of San Francisco by their leader Caesar: now we humans are the interlopers. The apes have developed their own complex vocabulary of looks, grunts and gestures, among other humanoid traits; they work together and play together, and have gone one better than Michael Gove in establishing an egalitarian, properly functioning education system, overseen by a friendly-faced creature with the somewhat unlikely name of Maurice. (Perhaps he's a gibbon. As in Maurice Gibb-on. Oh, stuff you, then.)

From the off, it's clear that hearts and minds are at stake, and Dawn has at its core one very workable idea: to set out and then explore a world that isn't yet the Planet of the Apes, and yet not quite the world we inhabit. As its CG visions of a newly shaggy, wilded-over San Fran make abundantly clear, everything here is in the balance, up for negotiation - and you get that as much from what's gone on behind the camera as what's going on before it. With the notable exception of Andy Serkis (technically unseen, yet doing more remarkably expressive mo-cap work as Caesar), not a single cast member returns from Rise, and the new faces aren't starry enough to guarantee their survival until the end credits.

Our human hero is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), an engineer who stumbles across the monkey outpost and resolves to build a peace between the species; his greatest opposition will come not from the apes, but from Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a cranky firebrand determined to wipe out all trace of the hairy, disease-spreading knuckledraggers. The film is alert to the way the two communities mirror one another: the wise and stately Caesar has, in the downtime between films, become a father once again, giving him even greater reason to seek stability, while his underling Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose patchy fur speaks of grim spells in animal testing labs, displays a growing resentment with the peacemakers. If you like, Dreyfus and Koba are the Farages to Malcolm and Caesar's cuddly Cleggs; the suggestion is that every community has one of these cage-rattlers, and that our collective future may come down to how many choose to listen to such types.

Some issues are raised by this choice between patriarchies. Koba's appearance hints that Hollywood still hasn't evolved beyond the old saw that equates virtue with physical beauty: say what you like about Farage, he doesn't have a manky eye to offset the appearance of being a thoroughly reasonable, middle-of-the-road chap. (That's Nick Griffin's thing. Burn.) Neither has there been much development of the franchise's female characters. The 1968 Apes deployed Kim Hunter, an actress who'd gone toe-to-toe with Brando, in a dramatically substantial part as the chimpanzee psychologist and veterinarian Zira; here, Keri Russell takes the dismayingly thin role of Malcolm's tagalong girlfriend, presumably because it was a paycheque between seasons of The Americans, presumably because several bigger names passed.

There is, nevertheless, some mileage in watching loyalties shift between this quartet of alpha males: I saw Dawn in 2D, which may have been a contributing factor, but it struck me as far less interested in those set-pieces that bombard and overwhelm an audience than it was in its nervy, tentative, lower-level interactions between man and ape, through which some fragile allegiances can be tried and tested. That suits Matt Reeves, an at best second-rank action director (Cloverfield, Let Me In): there's a glimpse of big-ticket vision in one 360-degree panning shot as the rotating turret of a tank scans the extent of the chaos Koba has wrought on his way to City Hall, but for the most part, Dawn - as Rise did before it - plays like a neat, self-contained B-movie, the kind of endeavour that hits most of its narrative and emotional beats without insulting the viewer's intelligence. Rare to encounter a summer blockbuster of any scale - let alone a sequel to a prequel - that doesn't entirely feel like a done deal: may there be many more such banana skins on the road to the Statue of Liberty.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Back to the streets: "Begin Again"

The title of John Carney's new film Begin Again suggests a refrain of some sort, which proves apt on a number of levels. This is the writer-director's follow-up to 2006's Once, that glistening, Oscar-approved paean to music's ability to heal the heart and bring people together, and thus it might be considered the cinematic equivalent of the difficult second album: what's an artist to do after they've poured their soul into their breakthrough work, and had pretty much the whole world hear it, first in Dolby surround, then as a Broadway and West End sensation? Yet that title also describes Begin Again's faintly tricky narrative approach: how it loops back around on itself like a melody, each time accruing an extra resonance.

It begins with an English girl, Gretta (Keira Knightley), regaling the patrons of a New York bar with a sad song on the subject of what it is to be alone in the big city. The performance is, to her eyes and ears, a disaster, the song a self-fulfilling prophecy - nobody's listening - and so she resumes her place among the masses, only more convinced of her own worthlessness. A shift of perspective reveals she was, in fact, noticed: by Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a sometime music industry bigwig who shambles out of the shadows, brandishing a business card and more than half cut. Dan, it turns out, is having an even worse time of it, as his own personal flashback illustrates: usurped from the company he founded by his far steadier partner (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def), he's found himself embroiled in arguments with both his ex (Catherine Keener) and a teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) who's taken her father's absence as an opportunity to veer off the rails. 

Gretta returns home, understandably sceptical at Dan's offer of representation, whereupon another flashback reveals why she's clinging to sad songs: her relationship with a smoothly ambitious songwriter has just broken down, though as the latter is played by Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, whose ineffable dead-eyed creepiness has only been accentuated by the addition of Peter Sutcliffe-like facial hair, you would be right in thinking our girl will be better off alone. The rest of the film will comprise a fresh start, much as Once was for the lovelorn busker and yearning migrant it paired up: Dan eventually wins Gretta round to his idea of making a record independently on the avenues and backstreets of modern Manhattan, and the pair start to put the pieces, those of their hearts and those of a fragmented recording industry, back together.

For all that Begin Again constitutes an upgrade on Once - star names, American locations, more money sloshing round for wardrobe - Carney remains appreciably romantic about such endeavours. Part of this director's project with these two films is to remind us that, in an age where we can download any song ever recorded for next to nothing, there are still flesh-and-blood performers out there busting a gut, whose words and music are equally worthy of our ears and time; while this sentiment would suggest Carney has clearly never listened to, say, Kasabian or Pitbull, he's nevertheless sincere in his desire to take music out of the boardrooms and set it back down on the streets - to make poetry out of the experience of playing, and people coming together, as distinct from the market-driven connection of consumer to metadata.

It's therefore regrettable that Carney's script should be so on-the-nose in places on the matter of authenticity, not least as it immediately sets one to wondering just how authentic Begin Again really is: the fact it entails James Corden wiring up Ruffalo's Jaguar so it might function as a mobile recording studio suggests possibly not all that much. Still, though they never approach the blissful heights of Once's "Falling Slowly", the songs, penned by erstwhile New Radical Gregg Alexander, are persuasive in describing the arc whereby Gretta regains her self-belief and finds her voice, and - lest that sound overly pre-ordained - Carney is nicely relaxed about introducing them to his narrative: some hard work has gone into making them sound like the kind of thing you or I would strike up, if we had a guitar and the musical ambitions to go with it.

Rarely do you catch Begin Again straining for effect: Carney gives Knightley and Corden free rein to mess around together, thereby establishing an unforced, jamming rapport, and there's a lovely sequence that ushers the leads into Times Square with an iPod, and - without any apparent attempt to block out curious passers-by - simply sees what comes up on shuffle. The approach gives the performers space between the notes Carney wants them to hit, allowing them to better express some personality, and to nudge the film away from the more obviously formulaic areas. Ruffalo, reliably shambling, may come to define the term "hot mess" for certain viewers, yet he knows when to cede the stage to Knightley's very strong, pivotal performance: open and vulnerable whenever Gretta steps up to the mic, forthright and independent of mind away from it. Carney's second album may sound less than difficult, but it's not easy being this breezy - once, let alone twice.

Begin Again is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 19 July 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 11-13, 2014: 

1 (new) Transformers: Age of Extinction (12A)
2 (4) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG) ***
3 (1) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *
4 (2) The Fault in Our Stars (12A) **
5 (new) Begin Again (15) ***
6 (3) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
7 (new) Boyhood (15) ***
8 (6) Maleficent (PG) ***
9 (5) Tammy (15)
10 (7) Chef (15)


My top five:

1. Some Like It Hot [above]
2. Finding Vivian Maier
3. Norte, the End of History
4. I Am Divine
5. Jealousy

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Non-Stop (12)  
2 (new) The Wolf of Wall Street (18) *
3 (new) Under the Skin (15) ****
4 (3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12) **
5 (5) Robocop (12)
6 (6) Philomena (12A) ****
7 (7) Dallas Buyers Club (15) ***
8 (new) Vampire Academy (12)
9 (8) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12)
10 (new) 47 Ronin (12) *  


My top five:
1. The Lego Movie
2. 20 Feet from Stardom
3. Under the Skin
4. The Square  
5. In Bloom 

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week: 
1. Zodiac (Saturday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. Lady Chatterley (Sunday, C4, 1.05am)
3. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (Saturday, ITV1, 3.15pm)
4. The Quiet American (Sunday, BBC2, 11pm)
5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Saturday, C4, 9pm)

"I Am Divine" (The Guardian 19/07/14)

I Am Divine ***
Dir: Jeffrey Schwarz. With: Divine, John Waters, Mink Stole. 90 mins. Cert: 15

Among its achievements, this tribute to the 300-pound transvestite who became the muse of the midnight-movie scene moves us beyond one hard-to-shake image: that of its subject devouring dog poop at the close of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. Director Jeffrey Schwarz instead pursues the man behind the mascara, uncovering one Glenn Milstead: a chunky kid, bullied into the fringes, who came to channel any resentment into cheeringly confrontational spectacle. Whether barracking clubbers or being raped by giant plastic lobsters, Divine had colour enough for fifty films, yet Schwarz weights the camp against a sincere appreciation of both the obvious, larger-than-life personality and this performer’s oft-overlooked skill: he makes moving Milstead’s reconciliation with his family, and something suitably crowning from 1988’s Hairspray. The interviewees (including the Waters mob, frothing with funny, salty anecdotes) express a whole lot of love for Divine – but then, as this entertaining biog eternally illustrates, Divine was a whole lotta woman. 

I Am Divine is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Guru love: "SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon"

One emergent strain in the ongoing documentary renaissance relates to the highs and lows of well-connected showbusiness types: think of 2002's The Kid Stays in the Picture, on the producer Robert Evans, or 2003's The Mayor of Sunset Strip, about the DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, both of which expressed a nostalgia for that supposedly wild, carefree time before faceless, risk-averse suits moved in to turn Hollywood into a fully corporate entity. The breathless SuperMensch, which very much fits the template, opens with manager and fixer Shep Gordon preparing to make his latest deal in his Upper East Side apartment while a plethora of Carter/Reagan-era celebrities, from Sly Stallone to Tom Arnold, pay testimony to the man's general grooviness; faded photos of this balding Jew - physically, a brother to Larry David or Breaking Bad's Mark Margolis - surrounded by beach bunnies suggest certain women also found him irresistible, and that maybe power really is the most potent aphrodisiac. When self-confessed sex addict Michael Douglas shows up to jovially accuse Gordon of thinking with his dick, we know we're in the presence of a serious player.

Gordon's achievements are perhaps less notable than his anecdotes, most of which are grounded in the kind of personal and professional failure today's Harvard-schooled, Sun Tzu-oriented executives simply wouldn't countenance. Within the opening fifteen minutes of SuperMensch, we've learnt how Gordon's first day in L.A. began with him getting socked by Janis Joplin (for interrupting her poolside tryst with Hendrix), and gained a sense of his early mishaps on the road with his favourite, most loyal client Alice Cooper: fleeing one irate promoter who - unable to match the name to the heavily mascara'd face - believed Gordon was bringing him a female folk singer in the Joan Baez mode, seeing an attempt to drum up controversy (and thereby free publicity) by having Cooper and band play in transparent clothing go to naught when the heat being generated by their performance fogged up the most controversial areas of study.

Hanging upon his subject's every word, director Mike Myers brings from his comedy work a splurgy energy and an eye for a telling pop-culture reference, manipulating his archive footage so as to have the young Gordon chased by the baseball bat-wielding gang from The Warriors, or played by Stallone in a biopic that never was; he tosses in the odd cheeky joke, usually at the expense of his fellow Canadians, such as when attributing demure songstress Anne Murray's international hit "Snowbird" to her discovery of cocaine at Gordon's Malibu pad. Every now and again, the film will touch fleetingly on some more or less significant aspect of pop history. It's useful on the development of Cooper's stage persona - so memorably and affectionately sent up by Myers in the first Wayne's World - via a series of stunts more sophisticated than the one mentioned above, and how these briefly turned this golf-playing family man into Public Enemy Number One. (Myers gives the singer's chicken-sacrificing antics at a 1969 peace festival a tremendous punchline in John Lennon's apparently horrified face.) And Gordon's attempt to turn Teddy Pendergrass into "the black Elvis" implicitly points up just how segregated the music business was even in the mid-70s.

Mostly, SuperMensch operates on the level of entertaining tittle-tattle. The abiding memory isn't of Gordon's would-be heartening sponsorship of an ex's children by another father, or of his recent move into the food networks, which is exactly the kind of boringly profitable afterthought a born moneyman might negotiate; no, it's of the frankly unreal story of an early 90s Cannes jaunt that saw Gordon, Douglas, Mick Jagger and Roman Polanski - a more-than-working definition of a sausagefest - staying in a castle Napoleon built for Josephine, during which our main mensch met the Dalai Lama and apparently seduced Sharon Stone. (Sadly, Ms. Stone is not present to confirm or deny these rumours, or indeed anything else of Gordon's all-round splendiferousness.) A frequent criticism of this subgenre - usually ventured by those who've lived to see the counterculture come and go, and grown resigned to the status quo - is that you really had to be there; Myers' film at least gets us in the same room as one of the era's liveliest survivors, no matter that its director once again spends most of the encounter on his knees, declaiming "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!"

SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Pursuit of happiness: "The Golden Dream"

Along with superhero movies, migration tales will go down as the growth industry of early 21st century cinema, and in the conjunction of the two you might see a sign, damning or otherwise, of the direction the Western world is heading in. Diego Quemada-Diez's The Golden Dream follows in the footsteps of Cary Joji Fukunaga's Sin Nombre in plotting a quest for what is, both literally and figuratively, upward mobility: that of a quartet of teenagers heading from their Guatemalan home to what they hope will be a bright new dawn in the North. I hardly need brief you that their progress will not exactly be smooth, a fact reflected in the high drop-out rate; the attentions of grafting local police, the whims of gangs controlling the territories the four pass through, and the last-act arrival of the migra (border patrol) will all, eventually, exert the heaviest of tolls.

One of Quemada-Diez's aims here appears to be explicitly political: to dramatise how the war currently being waged in some quarters on economic migrants has become as pointless (and, in some cases, as deadly) as the war long waged on drugs. If we are going to treat people as downtrodden serfs - getting them to sew our shirts and stitch our trainers, and then expecting them to sift through our discarded packaging for any recompense - we shouldn't be surprised if they and their children make a run for it, or attempt to pull themselves up onto the same trains that carry this cargo from one territory to another, or if, upon arrival, they then rise up out of the sewers and try to grab themselves a piece of the real action. Since turbo-capitalism is apparently determined to deprive all but a select few of their homes, it may, in fact, be more humane - and almost certainly beneficial for the economy - for our leaders to secure these pilgrims' safe passage, rather than seeking to impede their progress.

Quemada-Diez served his apprenticeship under Ken Loach, and the latter's influence can be felt not just in the politics and the desire to roam widely while treading lightly, but in the film's remarkable economy of gesture. One shot of a sprawling Guatemalan rubbish dump is enough to suggest what these kids are escaping from; long stretches are reliant on faces rather than dialogue to convey character and mood. Heading up this expedition is Juan (Brandon López), whose fierce countenance, leavened with passing half-smiles, comes to stick with you, suggestive as it is of a single-minded determination to get from here to there; we're left to wonder whether his self-serving tendencies - pointed up in an early deviation to furnish himself with a pair of cowboy boots - are a liability or an asset on journeys such as these. (You could argue the marketplace now demands them.)

Juan makes an obvious yet appreciable contrast with the open-faced "Osvaldo" - actually, Juan's girlfriend Sara (Karen Martinez), introduced taping down her breasts and cutting off her hair so as to pass as a boy, for a girl in a dirt-poor country is, we learn (if we didn't already know), an easy target. Then there is Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), whose darker skin and non-existent Spanish mark him as an escapee from the rainforest - an outsider even within this band of outsiders, who tags doggedly along behind his contemporaries, seemingly in the hope of making new friends as much as anything. The facetime tactic has a devastating effect in an early moment of wordless despair when one of their party realises they don't have the courage or energy required to go any further, and must resign themselves to a shitty life picking through the cast-offs of never-more-distant rich folk - a small, slow-dawning moment that nevertheless has huge impact.

That's much the way of the film entire, as it happens. Where Sin Nombre had a sweep that showed exactly where Fukunaga was heading - to the crane shots of HBO's True Detective - the Quemada-Diez approach is intimate and hand-held: it seeks to get among these kids rather than merely observing their suffering, guided less by any grand romantic sense of trajectory than a simple desire to show what its subjects might actually do over the long-haul plod to the North. Juan steals a chicken from a farm out of abject hunger, only to falter when he realises he doesn't have it in him to kill the creature (a weakness, in this socio-economic context, and one that will come back to mock him come the finale); there's a lot of semi-purposeful wandering and drifting, as the leads scuff their shoes and hit things with sticks.

Quemada-Diez has a honed eye for such textures - the flaking metal of a rusting railcar door, a tangle of vines around a tree, how alien snow might look to anybody raised in heat and dust - and a critical attention to place may be another of the qualities he's inherited from Señor Loach: I'm thinking of one especially eloquent composition late on in which the fence separating a Mexican shantytown from the all-American scrublands adjacent to it dissects the frame with geometrical neatness, vividly dividing the world into haves and have-nots. It will be a rocky ride getting over it, and there may well be only cold comfort on the other side, yet this wholly compelling film permits us to feel every bump and chill alongside its subjects. Over this exceptional hour and forty minutes, Quemada-Diez redraws the map of the world, giving those at the very bottom every bit as much visibility as those of us lucky enough to have come out on top.

The Golden Dream is now showing in selected cinemas.

Dying young: "The Fault in Our Stars"

The Fault in Our Stars, a.k.a. the 21st century's very own Love Story, is a tragic romance between a pretty yet pretty normal girl and a cocky yet virginal boy. There's a morbid twist: young Gus (Ansel Elgort) has already lost a leg to a cancer now in remission, while his opposite number Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is terminal, and obliged to cart an oxygen tank around with her wherever she goes. Josh Boone's film - adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from John Green's YA bestseller, and a significant commercial success either side of the Atlantic in a summer hardly heaving with them - is at its strongest early on, watching these two get close, when it displays a fond attentiveness to adolescent courtship rituals: it gets the awkwardness of sensitive teenagers around parents - their own, and other people's - and what it might feel like when someone you're really into texts you back after an ominous spell of radio silence. (The feeling is surely only intensified in the case of Hazel Grace, acutely conscious of how she might be running out of time to reply.)

My problem with the Fault phenomenon may have nothing to do with Boone or his screenwriters; it may well have been inscribed at the point of authorship. Rather than maintain its touching faith in this inchoate relationship, loaded as it is with joys and pitfalls enough, the narrative instead contrives to send these kids on a romantic adventure to Amsterdam, where Gus and Hazel Grace are to search for a reclusive author whom the latter claims is "the only person who knows what it is to be dying without actually dying", even though his so-called masterpiece includes a character referred to, without apparent irony, as "Sisyphus the hamster". I mean, it sounds terrible, but then that's kids these days, so brainwashed by marketing men they've been set to claiming the utterly conformist likes of The Hunger Games as a new Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In the film, this last-gasp hiatus manifests itself as a patently false turn: "We don't have the money," claims Hazel Grace's mom (Laura Dern), whose bright, spacious home - the kind only a studio adaptation of a bestselling novel might furnish its characters with - suggests she could probably buy Amsterdam and have it flown over express. In the end, it's down to Gus's folks - barely defined here, except as a makeshift Make-a-Wish Foundation - to stump up the funds, and after some debate over the level of oedema in Hazel Grace's lungs, away we go: into hotels and restaurants passing viscounts are possibly shooed away from, wearing clothes you and I most likely couldn't afford even if we sold Hazel Grace's house and pooled our resources. 

The consoling fantasy that follows wouldn't stick in the craw quite so much if The Fault in Our Stars hadn't pointedly opened with Hazel Grace railing against the tendency of glossy Hollywood movies to dress up the grim experience of death; as it is, this all-expenses-paid excursion just looks like a betrayal of everything this story briefly stood for. Its narcissism peaks in a sequence where our leads follow the Justin Bieber trail in visiting Anne Frank's house: rather than using this stopover to set the characters' suffering in some wider historical context, Boone insists on making it all about the wheezing Hazel Grace's attempt to climb the house's many stairs (damn you Otto Frank: why no Stannah?), and rewards her with a round of applause from the unexpectedly beaming tourists gathered in the attic when she and Gus start snogging. (The Bieber connection is weirdly underlined in a later sequence that sees the lovers joining forces with a just-dumped pal (Nat Wolff) to egg the house of the latter's ex: an instance of criminal damage we're meant to find stirring.)

The film has a major ally in Woodley's big eyes, and Boone recognises as such by opening and closing with them framed in screenfilling close-up. Through them, we get glimpses of the young woman excited at the new possibilities Gus puts before her, and terrified that it cannot last; she makes the final round of speechmaking moving in spite of the sickly candyfloss forced down our throats elsewhere. Still, that same sensitivity was far better deployed in last year's The Spectacular Now (again written by Neustadter and Weber), a more personal teen romance that - some ten months after its US release, and nine after playing the London Film Festival to deservedly glowing reviews - is still, inexplicably, sitting on a shelf at Disney's UK HQ and awaiting a theatrical release. The Fault in Our Stars deserves some of its success - it is a story about humans, rather than robots, vampires or werewolves, which makes it something of a rarity in the current marketplace - but it should pain us to know there's a truer story out there, and if Boone's film has any long-term value, it will be in bringing this promising performer's previous triumph to the wider audience it merits.

The Fault in Our Stars is in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 11 July 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office         
for the weekend of July 4-6, 2014: 
1 (1) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *  
2 (2) The Fault in Our Stars (12A) **  
3 (3) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
4 (6) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG) ***
5 (new) Tammy (15)
6 (4) Maleficent (PG) ***
7 (5) Chef (15)
8 (7) Walking on Sunshine (12A)
9 (8) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12A) ***
10 (9) Edge of Tomorrow (12A) *** 

My top five:
1. A Hard Day's Night 
2. The Golden Dream
3. Goltzius and the Pelican Company [above]
4. Boyhood
5. How to Train Your Dragon 2

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Non-Stop (12)  
2 (2) Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy (U) **  
3 (4) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12) **
4 (5) 12 Years a Slave (15) ****
5 (3) Robocop (12)
6 (7) Philomena (12A) ****
7 (6) Dallas Buyers Club (15) ***
8 (9) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12)
9 (10) Her (15) ***
10 (new) Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (12) **

My top five:        
1. Under the Skin
2. The Square
3. In Bloom
4. Starred Up
5. An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:             
1. North West Frontier (Wednesday, BBC2, 1.10pm)
2. Stand by Me (Sunday, five, 2.45pm)
3. Catch Me If You Can (Saturday, BBC2, 6.15pm)
4. Alfie (Wednesday, C4, 1.20am)
5. Step Brothers (Sunday, five, 10.50pm)