Friday 26 September 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of September 19-21, 2014: 
1 (1) The Boxtrolls (PG) ***
2 (new) A Walk Among the Tombstones (15) **
3 (3) Pride (15) ***
4 (2) Lucy (15) **
5 (new) The Riot Club (15)
6 (4) Sex Tape (15)
7 (7) Guardians of the Galaxy (12A) **
8 (new) 20,000 Days on Earth (15) ****
9 (5) A Most Wanted Man (15) ****
10 (6) Before I Go To Sleep (15) **


My top five:   
1. Ida [above]
2. Maps to the Stars
3. 20,000 Days on Earth 
4. Night Will Fall
5. The Giver

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12) ***
2 (new) The Lego Movie (U) ****
3 (4) The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) **
4 (2) Pompeii (12)
5 (3) Divergent (12)
6 (5) The Book Thief (12) ** 
7 (6) Sabotage (15)
8 (7) Noah (12) ****
9 (8) Calvary (15) ***
10 (10) Lone Survivor (15) ***

My top five:  
1. Lilting
2. Norte, the End of History
3. Jimmy's Hall
4. The Wind Rises
5. A Touch of Sin

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Field of Dreams (Saturday, ITV1, 2.35pm)
2. Honeymoon in Vegas (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
3. The Terminator (Monday, five, 10.55pm)
4. Strictly Ballroom (Saturday, BBC2, 2.30pm)
5. Margin Call (Saturday, BBC2, 10.30pm)

"Honeymoon" (The Guardian 26/09/14)

Honeymoon **
Dir: Leigh Janiak. With: Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway, Ben Huber. 87 mins. Cert: 15

Or: Antichrist: The Afterschool Version. An insufferable pair of newlyweds, played with jarring American accents by Brits Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway, repair to an isolated cabin in the Canadian woods, where cracks appear in their lovey-dovey façade: his relentless horniness is one thing, her tendency to wander off at night cause for even greater concern. Co-writer/director Leigh Janiak aims for von Trier’s sustained dread, but manages only vague unease: locking us up with the leads’ drama-class tics proves more stifling than claustrophobic, while your major takehome from the final act’s various excretions and abortions is that, ugh, women are gross. 

Honeymoon opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 25 September 2014

"I Origins" (The Guardian 26/09/14)

I Origins *
Dir: Mike Cahill. With: Michael Pitt, Steven Yeun, Astrid Berges-Frisbey. 106 mins. Cert: 15

Occasionally, the critic encounters a film that resists all analysis: one that remains trapped inside its own autistic universe, communicating only in gibbering twitches of incoherence. Here’s one such: a light-headed melodrama, charting the pallid couplings of a brilliant research scientist (Michael Pitt, somewhat underqualified) with – male fantasy klaxon – a French model whose eyes apparently offer proofs of intelligent design (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey). Every Gravely Emphasised Line of Dialogue suggests writer-director Mike Cahill is reaching for profundity, but his narrative methods – roughly 95% happenstance – are unscientific, the emotions generated entirely sophomoric. One laugh, courtesy of Pitt’s intellect-signifying dicky bow; the rest is arrant po-faced nonsense. 

I Origins opens in selected cinemas from today.

Communication: "Soul Boys of the Western World"

From the quotes that open the new Spandau Ballet retrospective Soul Boys of the Western World, we gain that being in a band is "just a giggle" and comparable to playing in a football team; backing up these most casual of assertions, lead singer and bloke's bloke Tony Hadley can be heard lambasting the tendency in certain quarters to intellectualise pop music. This is the Spandau Ballet story in a nutshell. Set against the militant, radical, even cosmic aspirations of some early 1980s pop, here were a bunch of lower-middle class lads content merely to dress up for laughs, playing the upwardly mobile grafters to Duran Duran's flash Thatcherite wankers; the group's vision appeared to extend no further than the end of the Islington streets they grew up around.

It's no surprise to learn from Georgie Hencken's doc that Gary Kemp, like seemingly everybody else in 1977, was present at one of the very first Sex Pistols gigs, whereupon he was inspired to start a band; it's very Spandau to learn that said band should have ended that Jubilee year playing street parties outside the Kemp family gaff. Nothing about the band's image or sound posed a threat to Middle England, and time and again, Hencken's film flags the group's essentially apolitical nature. For starters, that name, with its Nazi overtones, was sourced secondhand by "Bob Elms" from graffiti on the wall of a German toilet, and adopted simply because it sounded right. "The winter of discontent passed me by," confesses one Kemp; there were, apparently, concerns within the group over the Falklands invasion, but only as to how it might impact upon an upcoming single launch.

You can hear traces of early 80s electro-alienation in "To Cut a Long Story Short" and "Musclebound", certainly, but it wasn't long before the band were being whizzed off to St. Tropez and the Bahamas on the record company dime: "Gold" and "True", songs David Mellor might put on to get himself in the mood for love, weren't ever likely to upset any applecarts, and only ver Ballet could write a song about the Irish Troubles entitled "Through the Barricades" (inspired by the shooting of band associate Thomas Riley) and have it turn out so drippy. Set against their chart rivals - the crossdressing Culture Club, the supercharged Frankie Goes to Hollywood, even pin-ups du jour Wham!, whose "Wham! Rap" ("I'm a soul boy/I'm a dole boy/Take pleasure in leisure/I believe in joy") sounded a still-surprising defiant note before the drift into good-time Club Tropicalia - Spandau were an insistently cosy, whitebread proposition.

The title of Hencken's film therefore feels like something of a reach when attached to a band who were trading at a moment when Dexy's Midnight Runners, for one, were still doing business: the extent of that reach is illustrated with a clip Hencken has unearthed of the Spandaus' appearance on US TV perennial Soul Train: "These boys talk funny," notes host Don Cornelius, but their North London accents aren't anywhere near as incongruous as their glistening blonde perms and feathercuts. A truer insight into these so-called soul boys comes with later video footage of these same bemulleted balladeers clutching cans of Skol lager and running through a Cock-er-nee knees-up version of "True" aboard a boat moored in Sydney Harbour: it's a definingly naff image of boozed-up 80s Brits abroad.

Having all this footage in the same place will be an obvious boon for fans, and Hencken, a graduate of Julien Temple's recent musical mosaics, knows how to patch archive into very watchable shape. Like Temple, she's particularly alert to how widely the pop-cultural explosion of the early 1980s was recorded and felt - at ground level by the young Danny Baker, caught here in cub reporter mode, but also as high up as Newsnight, where Peter Snow can be seen trying to get his domed patrician head around the idea of the Blitz Club. Throughout, we feel the irresistible lure of the Top of the Pops studio: a shop window for both the band's early, taffeta-clad incarnation and the later exponents of smooth, tailored Top Shop soul.

That said, where Temple has always had a nose for the social turbulence underpinning the zeitgeist, Hencken has to go looking for it in charting her subjects' steady progression to the number one spot, and I felt her montage getting more than a little credulous in places. Putting "Chant No. 1" over footage of the Brixton riots and "Through the Barricades" over Tiananmen Square and shots of the Berlin Wall coming down doesn't automatically make Spandau's music part of the fabric of social revolution (and vice versa). It somehow feels - pardon the pun - truer to the Spandau narrative that they should be seen, at their apex, being interviewed on kids' TV by Timmy Mallett, and that they should have launched their eventual comeback on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross: truly, there was none more mainstream. (That comeback can be linked to a wider wave of 80s nostalgia, surfed by baby boomers whose nest eggs have been protected well enough to afford tickets to the O2.)

Up until the closing moments, with footage from one of those first comeback sallies, the boys as they are today are heard but never seen, deployed as voiceover, though this in-their-own-words tactic is undermined by a sense some band members are audibly reading from a script: even now, even describing the betrayal they felt as their early 90s royalties battle entered the High Court, their contributions strike the ear as slightly too polished to truly stir the heart or loins. Hencken can give their rise, fall and rise again zip: the times these social chameleons passed through, Zelig-like, are both colourfully and energetically described. Yet what Spandau Ballet themselves stood for - now, as then - remains a matter very much open to question.

Soul Boys of the Western World screens, with a live Spandau gig, in cinemas next Tuesday, for one night only.

Monday 22 September 2014

Ghostwatch: "A Walk Among the Tombstones"

Where once Liam Neeson proclaimed authoritatively on history, now he shambles through the listless business of countless airport novels. A Walk Among the Tombstones is Out of Sight screenwriter Scott Frank's attempt to keep his hand in by adapting one of Lawrence Block's private-eye thrillers, but it counts as a pallid alternative to his leading man's recent thick-ear entertainments: it takes in just enough action to be marketed as another punch-'em-up, but is 75-80% shots of Big Liam exiting buildings while doing up his big brown coat, so as to keep out the chill of whichever Canadian tax haven is passing for New York. Frank presumably spied a chance to deliver a classic writer's movie: his script spills over with lengthy passages of exposition dressed up as storytelling, and riffs - like the period-establishing obsession with the Y2K bug - that never pay off. The gifted cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master) works up a muted, 1970s naturalism-inspired palette, distinguishing the film from the chaotic, camera-rattling sensation of the Taken franchise, but the character work it frames is thin, to say the least. 

Neeson, who would surely have been a shoo-in to play Lee Child's towering tough Jack Reacher before Tom Cruise's star power rendered all other claims moot, approaches the role of kindly PI Matt Scudder rather dolefully, like a diabetic handed a tin of sweets as a consolation prize. A recovering alcoholic whose dominant characteristic is a gently ruffled decency, Scudder inspires the following (not inaccurate) assessment from the sickly homeless kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) to whom he provides shelter and a steady stream of afterschool-special homilies: "Amish got more flavour than you." This mildness is a problem for the film, as Scudder's quarry - a pair of sociopaths busy kidnapping women, pocketing the ransom fee and then chopping up their bodies anyway - are played by central casting no-marks, and described by witnesses thus: "You wouldn't notice them unless they spoke to you." Again, it's not inaccurate, but it leaves us watching a ghost of a hero chasing after two nothings: at least the evil Arabs and Eastern Europeans Neeson was pursuing in the Takens had the heft and colour of robust stereotypes. 

You come away from A Walk Among the Tombstones disappointed, and mulling over the possibility that the Frank sensibility may just be too refined for the lipsmacking demands of pulp. Time and again, the camera retreats from anything that might be accused of being mindless, gratuitous or trashy, holding the action, often observed from the other side of the street, at arm's length; the final act is a long-seeming negotiation that resembles Ransom as replayed by a filmmaker more milquetoast than Ron Howard. If Frank hoped to initiate a Scudder franchise, his film is far too tentative, more reminiscent of pre-cable TV pilots than anything contemporary audiences ought really be paying to see on the big screen, and further evidence of Hollywood's sudden, summer loss of commercial confidence: unlike Luc Besson, they couldn't even get a Liam Neeson action movie to work. Eventually, Frank permits Scudder to get down-and-dirty with the bad guys in a nondescript suburban basement, but overlaying all this knuckle-dusting with the sounds of someone in Scudder's AA group reciting the twelve steps closes the book on a film altogether too sober for its own good.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Resistance: "Pride"

Time heals, and with time - in the UK at least - everything gets turned into genial light comedy-drama. The miners' strike, that conflict that so divided the nation back in 1984, this month bequeathes to cinemas Billy Elliot: The Musical, "beamed live from London's West End" with songs by Elton John, and Pride, another would-be uplifter telling of the unlikely but true alliance that formed between a group of London-based gay activists and a coal-hardened Welsh mining community at the epicentre of the conflict. This BBC-BFI collaboration, written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, does feel like a broadening out of a TV scenario - what would happen, say, if you took that Little Britain sketch, kept the village, and suddenly flooded it with gays, or as many gays as a mid-range British feature can reasonably squeeze into the back of a clapped-out minibus.

Pride's foremost achievement is to portray gay and lesbian activism in such a way as not to scare off those greyhairs who happened across the trailer when it screened before The Hundred-Foot Journey; in this respect, it's a marked progression from the climax of Mamma Mia!, with its farcically token and arbitrary coming out. The fundraising group known as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners are here represented by a mix of fresh faces (Ben Schnetzer as megaphone-wielding leader Mark Ashton, George MacKay as the closeted Joe, a sparky Faye Marsay as a lone lesbian presence) who prove no more militant than, say, Rylan Clark was on X Factor, and reliable older hands (This is England's Joe Gilgun, Dominic West in a blonde perm as a John Barrowman-like life-and-soul-of-the-party figure) who shore up the dramatic sequences: as Gethin, the deracinated Welsh owner of the bookshop where this movement begins, Andrew Scott reprises his semi-miraculous work in March's The Stag by locating subtly affecting notes within the broadest of writing.

Theatre veteran Warchus, whose sole previous screen credit came with 1999's tepid Sam Shepard adaptation Simpatico, has fun with his relatively large ensemble cast. Upon the group's arrival in the valleys, the LGSM minibus will be met by a quiet Bill Nighy - standing bolt upright in the kitchens of the local working man's club, clutching a tiny half-pint glass in the film's single funniest image - and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Imelda Staunton as (no surprises) a blowsy, no-nonsense matriarch who seems to have been waiting her whole life to brandish a sex toy for general amusement. She will of course get her chance - it's that kind of movie - and as the two factions eye one another up nervously, laughs will be had, and songs, and dance numbers, of the kind that can knit large audiences together, just as they surely did these diverse hetero/homo worlds in real life as the strike played itself out.

But the blood, the anger and the tears that marked this lamentable moment in British social and political history have been all but filtered out in the journey through the modern Britfilm cookiecutter. Beresford's police are a largely faceless presence, sneering from the sidelines; any homophobia in the film is observed in passing, or reported secondhand; whenever a window is put through out of ignorance or hatred, Warchus has the option of cutting over to a troupe of fierce Welsh housewives rallying themselves to fight back. It may be indicative of the conservatism of the moment, but Margaret Thatcher is kept out of the picture almost altogether, whether out of a reluctance to speak ill of the dead, or lest it put off exactly those Middle Englanders the film is seeking to pull in, or because this essentially good-natured film simply can't even begin to countenance the cruelty she wrought upon these communities.

Whatever the reason, Pride is rigged towards triumph rather than defeat, and while its tactics have apparently proved effective - reports claim some screenings have climaxed with the audience clapping it off the screen - I found them an obstacle to complete enjoyment. For, despite the enthusiastic support of groups such as the LGSM, the miners were brutally defeated, the beginning of a widespread dismantling of traditional industry that has crippled large parts of the country. In these cases, pride - a sorely wounded pride - was often all the communities involved had left to cling to, and there's a degree of desperation in the way Beresford attempts to jolly every other scene up with a joke or dance number, and thereby turn these rags and tatters into some kind of a technicolor dreamcoat.

In the absence of any flesh-and-blood antagonist (as a jolting Russell Tovey cameo suggests, AIDS is the closest the film has to a villain), the whole film is premised on an opposition - gay activists versus straight miners - which is not only false, but far too easily resolved: you'd have to be a bit of a sucker to keep falling for the endless rousing climaxes this opposition generates. Pride forsakes the major conflict of this moment - establishment versus workers - in favour of amplifying a minor conflict between two groups who, as portrayed here, were almost always on the same page, and as they work their minor differences out, we're meant to leap to our feet and cheer unreservedly, even as an unseen third party beats them both down into the ground. (In twenty years' time, someone will make a romcom about Scottish independence with MacKay and Freya Mavor as rival Yes/No campaigners who, after various humdrum niggles, achieve a union of their own. Again, David Cameron will be seen only briefly, in old TV clips, and the real lesson will be missed.)

Late on, one character hands another a badge carrying the legend "I am discretely gay", clearly something of a badge of honour for a film that never dares to show its characters going beyond first base. There is, unarguably, much to cheer in the way Pride busses a half-dozen gay, lesbian and working-class stories into the multiplex, but it's finally just too discreet on any number of issues - and while I'd love to agree with my cheerleading colleagues, for whom Warchus's film may well have served as a reminder of the decent, liberal-minded Britain waiting for them at the end of their Cannes jollies, I think I'm more inclined to side with the public, who've so far proved wary of turning the film into the next Full Monty, and may have seen this trick pulled too many times before with far less deserving stories. It remains a positive thing to hear that - whether miner or Village Person - we're all the same beneath our hard hats, but I sometimes think we've never looked more alike, more indistinguishable, than we do when we see ourselves in certain light British comedy-dramas.

Pride is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Pride: The Musical - Live! is imminent.

Sunday 21 September 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of September 12-14, 2014: 
1 (new) The Boxtrolls (PG) ***
2 (2) Lucy (15) **
3 (new) Pride (15) ***
4 (1) Sex Tape (15)
5 (new) A Most Wanted Man (15) ****
6 (3) Before I Go To Sleep (15) **
7 (5) Guardians of the Galaxy (12A) **
8 (6) Let's Be Cops (15) **
9 (4) The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG) ***
10 (7) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***


My top five:   
1. 20,000 Days on Earth [above]
2. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
3. A Most Wanted Man
4. Night Moves
5. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12) ***
2 (new) Pompeii (12)
3 (2) Divergent (12)
4 (4) The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) **
5 (5) The Book Thief (12) ** 
6 (new) Sabotage (15)
7 (6) Noah (12) ****
8 (7) Calvary (15) ***
9 (10) The Monuments Men (12) **
10 (8) Lone Survivor (15) ***

My top five:  
1. A Touch of Sin
2. Frank
3. The Two Faces of January
4. Next Goal Wins
5. Of Horses and Men

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Shawshank Redemption (Saturday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
2. Sexy Beast (Saturday, C4, 11.20pm)
3. Into the Wild (Friday, C4, 12.10am)
4. The Great Escape (Saturday, five, 4.35pm)
5. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sunday, five, 5.35pm)

Friday 19 September 2014

"Wilde Salomé" (The Guardian 19/09/14)

Wilde Salomé ***
Dir: Al Pacino. With: Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain, Kevin Anderson. 95 mins. Cert: 15.

The documentary accompanying Salomé sets about its task with a recognisably protean energy we might call Pacinoid. Historical biography is peppered with snapshots of the inherent craziness of simultaneously staging a play, filming the play, and then making a making-of of the filming; dramatisations of Wilde’s final days of freedom, featuring Jack Huston as Bosie and Pacino in a dead-badger wig as Oscar, jostle with literary powwows (Stoppard on Bosie: “He was a shit”) and – Bono warning – the thoughts of Bono. Too much chaos ultimately prevails, but the rehearsal sequences at least forsake vapid luvvieisms for close, instructive study of how to pull the best out of actors and text alike. As in 1996’s Looking for Richard, Pacino makes a funny, inquisitive, self-mocking guide, whether dragging camels through the desert or pointing finger guns at Scarface-quoting students: we may now be able to forgive him those godawful broadband adverts. 

Wilde Salomé screens with Salomé, and a Pacino-Stephen Fry Q&A, in selected cinemas this Sunday.