Sunday 31 August 2014

Net loss: "The Internet's Own Boy"

The Internet's Own Boy serves as an example of documentary-as-shrine: a series of warm, glowing tributes organised in haste around an altogether flattering picture of its subject that may only have real meaning to the inner circle responsible for putting it together. That subject is Aaron Swartz, creator of Reddit and foremost proponent of open access Net content who committed suicide last year, aged just 26, after attracting the attentions of the US Government over his plans to circumvent private paywalls and make hundreds of thousands of research documents freely available to the public. Like some of the content he championed, the kid came and went in the blink of an eye; Brian Knappenberger's film attempts to give this life some permanency and context.

The first half accordingly sets forth some biography. One of those prodigies the home computer age keeps throwing up (the "boy" of the title is not accidental), Swartz established the Info Network - a forerunner of Wikipedia - when he was 12, spent his teenage years coming up with the concept of RSS feeds (nope, me neither), and was bought out by Conde Nast, in a deal that made him a millionaire, before he reached the age of twenty. Knappenberger has unearthed some funny, telling footage of this cocky, self-assured upstart sharing an industry platform with bearded greyhairs, looking both out of place and way ahead of his time - for this is another of those narratives that describes just how the world has begun to skew young.

Anybody hoping for a multifaceted portrait of a new media pioneer such as Aaron Sorkin gave us of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network will, however, likely be disappointed. Swartz's family, friends, colleagues and lawyers offer a steady stream of testimony as to what a bright, curious, generous soul their boy was, each new gush extending both viewer monotony and suspicions. Maybe Swartz really was a latter-day Jesus - or, more likely, that he didn't live long enough to incur any real enemies - but the narrative as presented here doesn't lack for incidents that might have been interpreted either way: Swartz's getting himself fired from Conde Nast for not showing up in the office is taken as a laudable show of anti-authoritarian dissent, where my dad (and surely not just my dad) might disagree.

Alex Gibney, in his superior We Steal Secrets, found checks and balances for similar claims, and in doing so, compiled an exceptionally nuanced psychological profile of these latter-day cyberpunks; here, Knappenberger's failure to initiate any wider or deeper inquiry around Swartz's demise manifests itself most keenly in the final hour, which proves so insistently pro-nerd and anti-The Man as to risk sending casual viewers fleeing to Reddit in the hope of finding out what other people are having for their tea. The individualism that thrives online, that entrenched wilfulness born of logged-on solitude which got Julian Assange into such trouble, could surely have been read into Swartz's eventual self-sacrifice, leaving behind as it does a father, mother and brother still visibly struggling to process Aaron's departure.

Instead, we have to sit and wait to discover just where Knappenberger's film takes its title from - one supporter's final-reel summary that "[Swartz] was the internet's own boy, and the old world killed him", a simplification that speaks unintended multitudes about the denial of personal responsibility fostered in certain dark and lousy corners of the Net. I understand the compulsion to make martyrs from such tragic, needless losses, but this determinedly soft-focus and respectful film feels heavily redacted in the manner it goes about doing so; it would surely have been truer to Aaron Swartz's personal and professional ethos, and the legacy he leaves encoded in a string of ones and zeroes, to put it all very much out there.

The Internet's Own Boy is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 29 August 2014

On DVD: "Blue Ruin"

The filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier's debut Murder Party was a larky horror-comedy that had its moments - I retain a fondness for one insert of an artist's diary, which read "NIHILISM" on one page and "don't forget to tape CSI: Miami" on the other - but was chiefly another of those glib post-Tarantino indulgences, hellbent on treating its violence as slaphappy, anything-goes sport. Saulnier has gone away for a few years, had a think about the kind of filmmaker he wants to be, doubtless grown up a little, and now returns with the Sundance SensationBlue Ruin: a pared-back thriller that revolves around a man who's had everything taken away from him, and chosen violence as a project with which to fill the emptiness.

Those of us sitting in the dark watching will be aware this may not be the most considered path, yet from the very off, it's clear the man in question is in a state of extreme physical and emotional dishevelment. Dwight (Macon Blair) is a bearded bum who, after some initially undisclosed trauma, has taken to living out of his rustbucket Pontiac, permanently parked in the dunes of a beach somewhere in the Midwest. Upon learning that the individual responsible for his plight is being released from prison in Virginia, Dwight exacts an extreme form of revenge - and if this action proves or reveals anything in particular, it's that our protagonist has been holding in his rage like air: as soon as he lets it out, his trajectory becomes as unpredictable, as erratic, as a suddenly untethered balloon.

This is Saulnier's most daring and effective gambit second time around: to track the passage of a character who is defined almost entirely by his actions (as Dwight himself mumbles, "I don't talk much these days"), yet thinks nothing of the consequences. After taking his vengeance, Dwight ricochets onto the well-tended front lawn of his well-to-do sister (Amy Hargreaves), and a tentative process of reassimilation begins. Yet no sooner has he shown up than she leaves, and somehow putting a roof over Dwight's head makes him even twitchier and more compelling to watch - not least as he's sane enough to realise he's left a thick trail of blood and vapour behind him.

Such a determinedly lean venture needs a substantial leading man to bulk it out, and this Blue Ruin has in the schlubby, sad-faced Blair, a midpoint between Kevin Corrigan and Peter Lorre. No-one working out of Hollywood would allow such an unprepossessing type to topline a film even half this tense, but Saulnier takes the risk, and is rewarded for so doing: Blair's responses are still sufficiently raw to convince as both a guy trying to clean up his mess, and one might well have got into such a mess in the first place. There are plot points that don't quite play: within the gated community the Hargreaves character calls home, I think the sudden appearance of marauding men toting crossbows and shotguns would attract rather more attention than it does here, and given the extent of Dwight's carnage, it feels something of a (possibly budget-related) cheat to keep the cops out of the picture altogether.

Yet it could well be argued that Saulnier is doing much of the investigative legwork himself. Blue Ruin is newly assured around this violence: it's a film on violence as a legacy, a panicky first response, a desperate last resort, and a signifier of something innately American (key line of dialogue: "He who holds the gun gets to tell the truth"), even as it leaves some vomiting at the roadside and others with half their faces blown to smithereens. After the one-sided Murder Party, action is here wedded to consequence, misguided cause to bloody effect. As one of Dwight's brothers-in-arms puts it, in a line as blunt and as truthful as anything else here, "That's what bullets do."

Blue Ruin is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Channel 4 from September 8th.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of August 22-24, 2014: 
1 (new) Lucy (15) **
2 (1) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (2) Guardians of the Galaxy (12A) **
4 (new) Into the Storm (12A) **
5 (new) Deliver Us from Evil (15) ** 
6 (new) What If (15)
7 (4) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
8 (new) Doctor Who: Deep Breath (PG)
9 (6) Secret Cinema: Back to the Future (PG)
10 (3) The Expendables 3 (12A)


My top five:   
1. Lilting
2. Night Moves [above]
3. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
4. Two Days, One Night
5. The Rover

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12) ***
2 (2) Divergent (12)
3 (3) Noah (12) ****
4 (5) The Wolf of Wall Street (18) *
5 (6) Calvary (15) ***
6 (4) The Raid 2 (18) *****
7 (7) The Love Punch (12) **
8 (new) Transcendence (12) **
9 (10) The Monuments Men (12) **
10 (8) Muppets Most Wanted (U)

My top five:  
1. The Raid 2
2. Next Goal Wins
3. Ilo Ilo
4. Starred Up
5. Locke

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. American Beauty (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
2. The Ladykillers (Wednesday, C4, 2.30am)
3. Parenthood (Saturday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
4. Paradise: Love/Faith/Hope (Sunday/Monday/Wednesday, C4, 12.50/1/12.55am)
5. Monster House (Sunday, five, 4.05pm)

"Obvious Child" (The Guardian 29/08/14)

Obvious Child ***
Dir: Gillian Robespierre. With: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann. 84 mins. Cert: 15

Of all the messy-women comedies engendered by the success of Bridesmaids, Gillian Robespierre’s low-key charmer might be the slyest. It’s a thoughtful treatise on female choice couched as a raucous character study, landing no-holds-barred Brooklyn stand-up Donna (Jenny Slate) with an accidental pregnancy, and thereby forcing her to get serious with the very body she’s been stripmining for laughs. That Donna keeps bumping into her inseminator is a contrivance that only makes her decision trickier: Jake Lacy’s Max is no deadbeat dad, but a chivalrous prospect who just happens to have fumbled the condom. Some of this material still sounds like a straightened-out routine, but its stronger stretches approach the personal, defiantly unemphatic territory of TV’s Louie: Robespierre and Slate deserve credit for nudging the abortion narrative away from scaremongering horror and back towards, if not an entirely happy ending, then at least something a girl might get a joke or two out of. 

Obvious Child opens in selected cinemas from today.

"The Guvnors" (The Guardian 29/08/14)

The Guvnors **
Dir: Gabe Turner. With: Doug Allen, Harley Sylvester, David Essex. 95 mins. Cert: 15

Gabe Turner’s mixed urban drama pursues a workable dramatic idea with a laughable bias, pitting the feral scrotes of a South London estate – led by Rizzle Kick Harley Sylvester – against erstwhile football hooligans who’ve moved out into suburbia. The latter group are as romanticised as King Arthur’s knights, nobly pulling their shivs out of retirement; it’s no shock to see ex-hoolie Cass Pennant listed among the producers. Pleasant surprises include a twinkly-eyed David Essex cameo, but nuance it knows not: every other scene veers towards the usual rucking, and Sylvester does so much aggressive sniffing you just want to hand him a hankie. 

The Guvnors opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Million Dollar Arm" (The Guardian 29/08/14)

Million Dollar Arm **
Dir: Craig Gillespie. With: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin. 124 mins. Cert: PG

A cold hard business story, reshaped by Disney into a warm, fuzzy hug. Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a true-life sports management nabob facing an eroding client base; his solution lay East, in staging a talent contest designed to recruit young Indian cricketers as Major League pitchers. Hamm and Alan Arkin’s grouchy scout conclude these deals with unarguable professionalism, but two hours allows us to spot the manoeuvres required to magic neo-colonialist playbook into heartwarming fairytale: the SuBo clips, the subplot elevating vapid Bernstein from model-boffing (boo!) to tenant-boffing (erm, yay?), the fondly indulgent regard for white guys plundering developing nations’ resources. Viewed this way: not so feelgood.

Million Dollar Arm opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"If I Stay" (The Guardian 29/08/14)

If I Stay **
Dir: R.J. Cutler. With: Chloe Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Jamie Blackley. 106 mins. Cert: 12A

The great Young Adult Allowance Grab continues. This entry comes on like a shrugging Ghost: sensitive cellist Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is facing make-or-break with rocker squeeze Adam (Jamie Blackley) when her dad totals the family car, leaving her in spiritual limbo. Weirdly, nothing much develops from there: spectral Mia has no agency over her corporeal self, so she merely sits around the ICU eavesdropping on pre-emptive eulogies, and awaiting Prince Charming’s return. The smart cast occupy themselves with the dog-eared emotions scattered around these waiting rooms, but their Mumfordised singalong to the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” sorely necessitates a plug somewhere being pulled. 

If I Stay opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"As Above So Below" (DT 29/08/14)

As Above So Below (15 cert, 93 min) **

Along with the selfie, the found-footage movie may yet provide the lasting measure of early 21st century Western civilisation: nobody added much to the world, but hey, we photographed it all ourselves – badly, in poor light conditions, and with nausea-inducing levels of wobble. As Above So Below – the Dowdle brothers’ follow-up to 2010’s Devil – plunges us into the Parisian catacombs, and operates under a belief, as shaky as the image, that The Da Vinci Code would be improved if three quarters of it were shot underground by idiot kids wearing pin cameras that reliably capture extreme close-ups of somebody’s bum or nostrils.

We’re following improbably winsome “urban archaeologist” Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) in the search for Flamel’s Stone, an artefact purported to grant eternal life. Unsubtle rumblings suggest Marlowe Sr. went doolally on the same quest, so dial back any expectations, and then do so again upon meeting Scarlett’s support team: characters who ask “Is it bad?” when rifts appear in the stone ceiling, and “Are you hurt?” of someone flattened by rockfall. Scarlett and ex-squeeze George (Ben Feldman) hardly raise the collective IQ, unpicking the script’s cod-Copernican riddles in the manner of a stumped couple on Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1.

Throughout, there are flickers of a scarier movie: one prepared to map this boneyard, with its wrong turns and false floors, altogether more rigorously. For precisely thirty seconds, as the camera fixes on the agonised face of a character trying to pass through a narrow crevice, the Dowdles evoke a comparable claustrophobia to 2005’s The Descent. Elsewhere, what space there is fills with laughable nonsense: kohl-eyed spectres, a topless choral group, perfectly preserved Knights Templar, a burning Renault Clio. What next, we wonder: sometime World Snooker Championship finalist Doug Mountjoy? The band Pilot, performing their hit “January”?

These catacombs are just an echo chamber into which any rubbish can be pumped, and while this affords carte blanche to production designer Louise Marzaroli, the relentless flow of subterranean non-sequitur becomes at least as trying as the whirling, jerky non-cinematography. The Dowdles’ one wise move is that title, either an ancient warning along “abandon all hope” lines, or a spiritual aside on the need to balance our inner and outer selves. Whatever your interpretation, the phrase has been heeded: the film appears silly up top, in daylight, and gets only more so, late on, in the dark. 

As Above So Below opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"The Grand Seduction" (The Daily Telegraph 29/08/14)

The Grand Seduction (12A cert, 113 min) **

2003’s Seducing Doctor Lewis – small-fry Quebecois whimsy, describing one fishing community’s efforts to hold onto a visiting city doctor, and thereby bait further investment – somehow earned a Sundance Audience Award, a Cannes berth and six French-Canadian Genies. In 2006, it washed up on these shores, long after we’d seen Local Hero, and witnessed medics from Doc Hollywood to Doc Martin succumbing to bucolic small-town ways. That this story has taken nine further years to putter into Newfoundland for its English-language remake suggests no urgent need to retell it, and Don McKellar’s The Grand Seduction mostly bears that assertion out.

A pressing real-world concern – the dereliction facing certain working-class outposts – is again smothered under layers of movieland contrivance, resulting in perhaps the cinema’s cosiest ever kidnap thriller. When slick physician Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) gives no indication of sticking around Tickle Head after his 30-day secondment, the locals – coached by increasingly desperate Mayor Murray (Brendan Gleeson) – begin a prolonged charm offensive. Discerning that the doctor’s a cricket fan, they strive to fathom the LBW rule. Upon learning Lewis likes curry, his meals gain added spice. Soon everyone’s even feigning interest in the doctor’s beloved jazz fusion.

It’s nice of them, and it’s a nice film, but never an especially interesting one. Frank Capra – another influence – realised decency might be better defined against venality and self-interest, and thus reaffirmed as both a rallying flag and a weapon. Here, you wouldn’t necessarily have to be a grouch to find the unrelenting pleasantry rather twee and monotonous – nor to spot how the reliance on the community’s stock personalities (the crotchety recluse, the nervy accountant, the dotty old dears staffing the telephone exchange) precludes the need for anything so vulgar or ambitious as jokes.

Gleeson, typically, resolves to have some fun with this material – he earns a chuckle from Murray’s sly offer of cocaine to his visitor (“We’re down with it”) – but he, too, becomes a prisoner of this plot, forced to incarnate hale-and-hearty blue-collar man rather than allowed to attempt anything more distinctive; once we learn Dr. Lewis never really had a father, the endgame is never in doubt. First time round, this yarn made for a negligible timewaster; the McKellar variation is brighter, starrier, possibly more genial – bending over backwards, like its characters, to charm allcomers – yet still it seems unimprovably piffling. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, eh.

The Grand Seduction opens in selected cinemas from today.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Boys in blue: "Let's Be Cops"

When the definitive history of film is written, Let's Be Cops won't go down as much, save perhaps an example of the importance of timing in comedy. Upon its US release a fortnight ago, Luke Greenfield's film was hammered down by critics keeping a concerned eye on events unfolding on the streets of St. Louis. For these commentators, it was an at best unfortunate, at worst heinous moment for Fox to be promoting a goofy knockabout in which the police are presented as lovable underdogs. In fairness to them, I should say that even if the officers of Ferguson had spent the past month passing out doughnuts and kissing newborn babies, there would be no pressing reason to race to the multiplex: this is one of those amiably duff ventures that was never developed after the initial pitch meeting, out of a conviction everyone involved needed simply to show up on set for it to swiftly film itself.

Plainly, it didn't, but even so, I think my American colleagues were harder on the film than it really deserves: its essentially juvenile delinquency doesn't merit a stern sentence and locking away so much as sporadic kicks up the bottom and clips round the ear. What it proves, beyond any doubt, is that the average standard of material now being offered to performers in TV is vastly superior to that being offered to the same performers heading onto the big screen. (Compare also: Jon Hamm in this week's Million Dollar Arm versus the Jon Hamm of Mad Men.) This is, among other things, a pretty shoddy vehicle for the freewheeling New Girl partnership of Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr., here cast as thirtysomething L.A. losers who've long seen their dream careers disappear over the Hollywood Hills.

Justin (Wayans) is a flunky at a videogame company seeing his best ideas snapped up by fairer-skinned colleagues, Ryan (Johnson) an erstwhile college football star whose most prominent public appearance in recent years has been in a TV health spot on the topic of genital herpes. The two get a whiff of power one Halloween night upon donning LAPD uniforms to a costume party, and - after some prevarication - decide to keep them on for the foreseeable, teaching themselves Policing 101 thanks to those ever-handy YouTube videos. (Nothing about the movie is hard work.) At no point is there any suggestion this might be a powertrip: unlike the protagonist of 1993's Canadian curio I Love a Man in Uniform, a TV actor who owned his prop stripes the Bad Lieutenant way, Justin and Ryan are only ever big kids playing dress-up, impotent enough for their shows of force to be formative rather than threatening.

The uniform gives them identity, visibility, the respect of women who wouldn't otherwise approach them, some semblance of self-esteem; when the time comes, it also affords them the opportunity to take down the Eastern European gangsters who previously humiliated the pair outside a swanky nightclub - and it's a sign of the production's overall half-assery that it should have been considered sufficient to stick our own James d'Arcy, with a spider neck tattoo and Slavic accent, in the kingpin role. The film is no less sketchy about getting us from A to B, and there is a strong sense viewers could pop out for a pee during the boys' misadventures at hen party and sorority house and not miss anything unduly significant; these scenarios also underline the general feeling Let's Be Cops adheres to the standard bromance template that regards women as creatures from another planet. (Justin's reaction to seeing Nina Dobrev topless is to run in the exact opposite direction.)

From the early shot of the heroes' patrol car filling up with bong smoke, Greenfield's film seems poised on the brink of becoming a down-and-dirty skitfest suitable only for stoners, but evidently the Fox higher-ups, sensing a possible summer hit, intervened at a critical juncture: despite the nymphomaniac sitting in on the pair's stakeout, despite the scene in which Ryan ends up with a fat man's scrotum on his face, the finished product - if that's the right phrase - is too good-natured to go entirely in that direction. That's in part down to the leads, operating at maybe 40-50% of their small-screen rhythms: it's possible to enjoy their company without finding the film hilarious, although I'll confess I let slip a chuckle at their choice of suspect-board names ("Diabetes", "Rogaine", "King Dickhead") and the pair's attempt to intimidate one arrestee using an empty takeaway bag. Once the initial glee inherent in the pitch and the title wears off, the scenarios get far less promising, but the sustained brutality that's been ascribed to it simply isn't in the film's lazy, shambling make-up: the worst I could charge it with, witnessing its sloppy spitballing, its erratic grabs for punchlines, shape, emotion, would be a mild case of harassment.

Let's Be Cops opens in cinemas nationwide today.

From the archive: "Seducing Doctor Lewis"

As if it weren't regrettable enough that the British film industry can't find its way towards funding anything other than gentle nonsense of the Kinky Boots school, now UK distributors have started to import foreign variations on this most formulaic and predictable of themes. Seducing Doctor Lewis is the Quebecois variant: a big city doctor is sent to serve a month's probation in a remote fishing community where the locals are jobless, short on spirits, and desperately in need of the factory that's been mooted to open in the area. To get the factory, however, the residents must keep the doctor around long-term - and so the town's mayor initiates a full-on charm offensive. And so it pootles along. Someone confuses cricket (the sport) with cricket (the insect). Beef stroganoff gets translated into beef struggle-off. There's even a sad-eyed town lovely for the good doctor to fall for.

In French-speaking Canada (where the film swept the board at the national film awards) and even perhaps Sundance (where it won the Audience Award in 2004), Seducing Doctor Lewis may still count as a charming retro novelty. UK audiences, though, will surely have seen this yarn spun so many times before - with either Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure), Michael J. Fox (Doc Hollywood) or Martin Clunes (Doc Martin) in the title role - for it to register as anything other than the most careworn and calculated of diversions. Another whimsy-heavy evocation of small-town life foisted upon us by individuals who live in luxury apartment blocks in major metropolitan areas, it finally feels just a bit too much like hard quirk.

(April 2006)

Seducing Doctor Lewis is available on DVD through Dogwoof; an English-language remake, The Grand Seduction, opens in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow.

Monday 25 August 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of August 15-17, 2014: 
1 (1) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
2 (2) Guardians of the Galaxy (12A) **
3 (new) The Expendables 3 (12A)
4 (3) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
5 (5) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG) ***
6 (6) Secret Cinema: Back to the Future (PG)
7 (4) Planes 2: Fire & Rescue (U) ***
8 (7) The Nut Job (U) ** 
9 (new) Hector and the Search for Happiness (15) **
10 (8) Hercules (12A)


My top five:   
1. Lilting
2. Two Days, One Night
3. The Rover
4. Moebius
5. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12) ***
2 (1) Divergent (12)
3 (2) Noah (12) ****
4 (3) The Raid 2 (18) *****
5 (4) The Wolf of Wall Street (18) *
6 (5) Calvary (15) ***
7 (new) The Love Punch (12) **
8 (6) Muppets Most Wanted (U)
9 (7) Need for Speed (12)
10 (8) The Monuments Men (12) **

My top five:  
1. The Raid 2
2. Ilo Ilo
3. Starred Up
4. Locke
5. When I Saw You

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Wizard of Oz (Saturday, five, 3pm)
2. Point Break (Sunday, five, 11.55pm)
3. Northwest Frontier (Monday, BBC2, 2.05pm)
4. In Which We Serve [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 12.40pm)
5. Insomnia (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)

Friday 22 August 2014

"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" (The Guardian 22/08/14)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For ***
Dirs: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez. With: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin. 102 mins. Cert: 18

Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s noir-inflected portmanteau Sin City offered a storehouse of lustrous CG imagery to global ad agencies, so it’s surprising how much of this follow-up – technically a prologue, reviving several characters who met their makers in 2005 – still looks fresh, each frame now adorned with Rodriguez’s typically playful 3D. The weakness is in the material: these are second-string Miller yarns, populated in a couple of instances – Josh Brolin for Clive Owen, Jamie Chung for Devon Aoki – by second-choice faces. Two out of its three tales prove snappy enough: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is nicely spry as a gambler crossing the wrong guy, while a pay-off finally rescues Jessica Alba from bland gyration. Only with the centrepiece, a torturous quadruple indemnity with the reliably bosomy Eva Green luring middle-aged masochists to their doom, does the pulp become punitive and hard to swallow. The vision remains uncompromising, however, and it dazzles far more than any sequel should.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For opens in London's West End today, then in cinemas nationwide from Monday.

"Lucy" (The Guardian 22/08/14)

Lucy **
Dir: Luc Besson. With: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik. 89 mins. Cert: 15

Luc Besson’s new product rehashes 2011’s Limitless with guns, cleavage and Malick-y pretensions, casting Scarlett Johansson as a moll-turned-mule transformed by her wonderdrug cargo into a high-functioning badass capable of taking down every last gangster in Asia. Struggling to metabolise concept into playable character, this Scarlett makes an oddly dull and glassy-eyed subject, as you’d be after regular doses of Morgan Freeman exposition; “exciting” shots of nature are therefore spliced in, so artlessly as to suggest projection error. Its sputtering eccentricity is preferable to the flatly insistent chauvinism of those shoot-‘em-ups its maker has been subcontracting to others, at least: it’s Besson’s most enjoyable bad movie in ages.

Lucy opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Deliver Us From Evil" (The Guardian 22/08/14)

Deliver Us From Evil **
Dir: Scott Derrickson. With: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn. 118 mins. Cert: 15

Scott Derrickson folded demonic possession into courtroom drama with 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose; here he attempts the same with the police procedural, and winds up battling two clichés for every one. Derrickson approaches his task seriously – countless rain-snuffed lightbulbs enable the gloomiest horror since Seven – and casts smartly: ever-dependable Eric Bana is the Bronx cop tailing Scariest Living Actor Sean Harris. Yet the material soon betrays its thinness: Edgar Ramirez’s priest preaches High Exposition, while Bana’s family await third-act imperilment. My faith, tested by use of The Doors as a Satanic conduit, vanished forever the instant a possessed piano bashed out “Pop Goes the Weasel”. 

Deliver Us from Evil opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Into the Storm" (The Guardian 22/08/14)

Into the Storm **
Dir: Steven Quale. With: Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh. 89 mins. Cert: 12A

Another unfortunate consequence of global warming: the return of the cheesy disaster movie. This very mild example resembles countless Channel Five afternoon premieres: for Greg Evigan and Suzanne Somers, we have Veep’s Matt Walsh and Prison Break’s Sarah Wayne Callies as “stormchasers” (i.e. jock meteorologists) pursuing hurricanes through Michigan, while Richard Armitage essays the Dean Cain role as the vice-principal charged with rescuing his son from “the old papermill”. Its destructive setpieces may loose the odd popcorn kernel onto the Screen 7 carpet, but it’s really just an effects reel: the weather – cloudy wisps turning to massive, fiery hellblasts – is considerably better developed than its quarry. Stick with Twister

Into the Storm opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Sunday 17 August 2014

From the archive: "Sin City"

Funny things, release dates. Funny in that they often throw up connections and comparisons one might not otherwise have made between wildly disparate films. In the US, Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, a wild digitised adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels, opened - to somewhat sniffy reviews, dwelling on the film's sadism and sexual politics - at the start of the year, several months before Revenge of the Sith. Here, however, it opens a couple of weeks after that no-less-digitised Star Wars instalment. The contrast between the two works is striking and instructive. Sith served only to prove that visual effects are nothing without characters of substance and a storyline one might wrestle with; that, if a film's hard drive is wiped, it has to have a back-up - something of its essence has to remain on screen. Sin City proves the same thing by doing exactly the opposite: its substantial effects are well and truly bolstered by analogue features. It is Toy Story with nudity, fast cars and very big guns. And it is every bit as ridiculously enjoyable as that description would suggest.

Set in the rainy, corrupt Basin City (in the same state, one presumes, as Nolan's Gotham City), Rodriguez's portmanteau comprises three stories, with a couple of straggly bits to tie them together and any loose ends up. Bruce Willis, with angina and a never-explained scar on his forehead, is an ageing cop trying to track down the pederast son of a powerful Senator (Powers Boothe). Mickey Rourke, under a half-ton of disfiguring latex, is the lunk who's just smart enough to know how dumb he is, trying to track down the man who killed his prostitute lover and framed him for the crime. The final section has Clive Owen, with his collar up, trying to protect waitress Brittany Murphy and a gang of hookers from the unwanted attentions of brutish detective Benicio del Toro. 

All the men give out - and take - extraordinary levels of stylised violence, and thus talk like coffee grinders; the women are more or less tarnished hearts, and dress like Christina Aguilera's backing dancers or, worse, Christina Aguilera herself. It could have been no more than a movie in colourful quotation marks, cinema sin corazon, and at times Sin City does indeed feel like a showcase for the type of effects work that will seen in commercials for executive saloon cars from here to the end of the next decade. Yet unlike George Lucas, who took the writer-director credit on Sith and couldn't fulfil either task with much enthusiasm, Rodriguez has never lacked for passion, and for the time being, Sin City looks and feels fantastic, fresh, new.

That's partly down to Rodriguez's technical restraint. As far as I can gather, the film has been produced using the same blue/green screen processes as Sith, yet here one's eyes never grow complacent to the effects. Rather, each effect registers with the delicacy of tiny, light-reflecting raindrops, like the sudden change of colour briefly observed in a dying woman's eyes. In every aspect, Sin City displays the duality of the best noir films; it's perhaps what Rodriguez was heading towards in his earlier work - the director as both cowboy and poet, gunslinger and mariachi. His latest is both computerised and entirely his own; both true to Miller's literary source and to what might constitute the cinematic; it finds a balance between human desires and the otherworldly that is a perfect match for the business of Miller's storylines.

These characters aren't really to be understood as men and women, but exaggerated versions thereof, blessed and cursed with comic-book capabilities: they leap through the air, withstand colossal beatings, fly, kill and live by night. Yet, unlike in Sith, the actors retain their own distinct personalities. The men, inevitably, come off better, mainly as the leads fall squarely into the tradition of down-on-their-luck noir heroes. Willis offers more to mitigate his restoration to the A-list than we witnessed in the recent, throwaway Hostage. Rourke - even surrounded by technology and buried from the neck up, conditions that left so many of the performances in the new Star Wars stone dead - continues the comeback sparked by his fine character work in Animal Factory and Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico. And Owen is nicely sardonic as an avenger in red sneakers. 

Rodriguez also casts against type, often effectively: pretty boys Nick Stahl and Elijah Wood - little Frodo! - are posited as the vilest, most vicious creatures in a universe already given to such extremes. The women, on the other hand, are mostly here to demonstrate they can look incredibly sexy with the right light source and styling, although Rosario Dawson suffers under a 1980s haircut and an outfit rescued from the Ann Summers bargain bin. Perhaps not the best date movie, then, but then I suspect Sin City is pitched precisely towards those hetero males who've always found women easier to admire than to communicate with. It nevertheless remains the best comic-book movie since last year's Hellboy, and the least compromised Hollywood noir since L.A. Confidential, doing in one film what guest director Quentin Tarantino aspired (and failed) to do with Kill Bill in two. Its lack of restraint may indeed turn sensitive stomachs, but Rodriguez's film offers conclusive proof that when it gets it right and goes (is allowed to go?) hell-for-leather, there is very little more exciting in this world than the sex and violence that make up the American cinema.

(May 2005)

The older me has slightly more qualms and reservations, enjoyable and eye-popping as the film remains, and wonders whether holding any film up against Revenge of the Sith could be considered critically wise. Sin City returns to cinemas next Sunday (the 24th) for one night only, and is available on DVD through Buena Vista; a sequel, Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, opens nationwide from Friday.

Saturday 16 August 2014

From the archive: "Absentia"

This has been a good year for women in horror, with notable performances from Caity Lotz in The Pact, Sara Paxton in The Innkeepers and Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace in Prometheus all helping to nudge the genre a little further away from the leering depths of the Noughties' torture-porn cycle. Absentia, a Kickstarter-originated DTV offering from writer-director Mike Flanagan, continues this welcome trend, providing substantial lead roles for Katie Parker and Courtney Bell as sisters reunited in a house in the L.A. suburbs, trailing their pasts behind them. Callie (Parker) is a former drug addict who's recently reemerged from rehab; the heavily pregnant Tricia (Bell), on the other hand, has been on her own ever since her husband went missing seven years ago. Signing the death in absentia papers is meant to lay hubby's ghost to rest for good, but for a variety of unnerving reasons, this closure keeps being postponed: Tricia is having persistent visions of a shadowy male figure coming back to claim her baby, while Callie becomes obsessed with the underpass across the street.

The latter subplot is key to the suburban naturalism Flanagan fosters: Absentia largely resists the sudden jolts that have become a multiplex horror staple in favour of quiet materialisations that are all the more disconcerting for being so matter-of-fact. We're lulled into believing Tricia's spectres are just the projections of a troubled mind - until, on the night of her first date with the cop who's been pursuing her, one turns up that plainly isn't, and suddenly the sisters find themselves dealing with a presence, not an absence. Flanagan goes even further than The Pact's examination of sisterhood: both Callie and Tricia appear as real women dealing with unreal (but not unthinkable) events, and their anguish at the mistakes they've made, when it surfaces, is palpable. The film has evidently been assembled on a shoestring, yet every element, from Ryan David Leack's spare, atmospheric score to Flanagan's own sharp, instinctive editing, does its darnedest to hold your interest in what's already a compelling story. The ending holds to the kind of ambiguity forever floating around missing-persons cases, which may be an issue for some, but much of what's gone before is very promisingly concrete: it does the most of any movie since Irreversible to establish the underpass as a site of depthless modern menace.

(December 2012)

Absentia premieres on Film4 this Monday night at 10.45pm.

Friday 15 August 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of August 8-10, 2014: 
1 (new) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
2 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy (12A) **
3 (2) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
4 (new) Planes 2: Fire & Rescue (U) ***
5 (3) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG) ***
6 (7) Secret Cinema: Back to the Future (PG)
7 (6) The Nut Job (U) ** 
8 (4) Hercules (12A)
9 (5) The Purge: Anarchy (15) ***
10 (8Transformers: Age of Extinction (12A)


My top five:   
1. Lilting
2. The Rover [above]
3. Moebius
4. Dinosaur 13
5. The Congress

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Divergent (12)
2 (1) Noah (12) ****
3 (new) The Raid 2 (18) *****
4 (2) The Wolf of Wall Street (18) *
5 (new) Calvary (15) ***
6 (new) Muppets Most Wanted (U)
7 (3) Need for Speed (12)
8 (4) The Monuments Men (12) **
9 (5) Non-Stop (12)
10 (7) Lone Survivor (15) *** 

My top five:  
1. The Raid 2
2. Starred Up
3. Tracks
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
5. The Unknown Known

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Precious (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
2. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Saturday, ITV1, 9.45pm)
3. The Prestige (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
4. Iron Man (Saturday, C4, 8pm)
5. The Taking of Pelham 123 (Sunday, C4, 10pm)