Sunday 26 October 2014

1,001 Films: "David Holzman's Diary" (1968)

David Holzman's Diary is one of those micro-budgeted nano-films that nevertheless captured its specific moment - and, within it, something universal - so brilliantly that it endures several decades on. Jim McBride's pseudo-documentary purports to be the cine-journal of twentysomething Upper West Side film buff Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson), shot over one week using a portable Éclair camera and Nagra tape deck - the tools of the cinéma vérité movement - with the goal of "exposing himself" for art. David compiles then-topical sights (recording, for example, everything he watches on television one night, from Batman to Star Trek), sounds (the pop-radio soundtrack is interrupted by news reports of inner-city unrest, and votes being taken at the UN) and interviews with authentic late-60s NYC heads and faces, such as the sexually liberated transsexual neighbour whose philosophy is "A cock or two a day never hurt anyone... I take 'em like vitamins."

The narrative throughline is David's attempt to win back the model girlfriend who'd walked out on him after he started filming her naked in bed, but the gist of the film can be derived from a long monologue given to David's best pal, who invokes the uncertainty principle in warning that the David Holzman our budding auteur hero puts on screen may not be a David Holzman he (or anybody else) particularly likes. At the time of its release, audiences may well have identified with David as a voice of his generation, an increasingly confused, angry and impotent Warholian wannabe. Nowadays, however, he can't help but resemble a precursor of the Big Brother generation, both exhibitionist (chattily extolling the virtues of masturbation on camera) and voyeur (spying on his female neighbours) and unravelling in front of our very eyes: following women off subway trains, crank-calling single neighbours, and eventually ending up alone in his room, confessing "This isn't going how I intended it to be." McBride, who went on to work with Richard Gere on the remake of Breathless and direct the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire, has a particular genius for skewering male narcissism: what starts out as a hip pop-cultural item becomes the cautionary tale of a man whose only real relationship is with his machines, those inanimate objects that take, take, take while giving nothing back in return.

David Holzman's Diary is available on DVD through Second Run.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 17-19, 2014: 
1 (new) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (12A) **
2 (1) Gone Girl (18) **
3 (3) Annabelle (15) **
4 (2) The Maze Runner (12A)
5 (new) The Best of Me (12A)
6 (7) The Boxtrolls (PG) ***
7 (5) Dracula Untold (15) **
8 (6) The Equalizer (15)
9 (new) The Judge (15)
10 (new) Northern Soul (15) *** 


My top five:   
1. Ghost Busters
2. The Babadook [above]
3. Zabriskie Point
4. Serena
5. Nas: Time is Illmatic

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Maleficent (PG) *** 
2 (1) The Lego Movie (U) ****
3 (new) Seve (PG)
4 (3) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (12)
5 (new) Road (PG) *** 
6 (new) Walking on Sunshine (12)
7 (new) 20,000 Days on Earth (15) **** 
8 (new) 3 Days to Kill (12) *
9 (7) Rio 2 (U) **
10 (5) The Book Thief (12) **

My top five:  
1. Two Days, One Night
2. 20,000 Days on Earth
3. Moebius
4. The Dirties
5. Omar

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. That's Entertainment (Saturday, BBC2, 12.30pm)
2. The Beguiled (Saturday, ITV1, 11.30pm)
3. Witchfinder General (Friday, BBC2, 12.05am)
4. Changing Lanes (Friday, C4, 12.50am)
5. Friends with Benefits (Saturday, C4, 11pm)

Friday 24 October 2014

"The Book of Life" (The Guardian 24/10/14)

The Book of Life ***
Dir: Jorge R. Gutierrez. With the voices of: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum. 95 mins. Cert: U

This animated compendium of legends attached to the Mexican Day of the Dead, produced by Guillermo del Toro for rookie director Jorge Gutierrez, sports gorgeous, marionette-inspired character design – mucho love has gone into the matadors’ bespoke jackets – and a palette so warm you feel yourself developing tanlines around your 3D specs. Elsewhere, its enthusiasm proves double-edged. So much diversion is crammed into these 95 minutes – charging bulls, cute piglets, stereoscopic mazerunning, Latin-tinged covers of Radiohead and Clan Mumford – that the central love triangle can scarcely take grip: it’s chasing emotion, which is welcome, but at processor speed, which means it often runs straight past or through it. The air of breathless romanticism is far from unappealing, but it still generates something of a data dump: you sense mainstream animation will only emerge from its rut when it calms down long enough to appreciate the wonders it’s engineering for itself. 

The Book of Life opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Love, Rosie" (The Guardian 24/10/14)

Love, Rosie *
Dir: Christian Ditter. With: Lily Collins, Sam Claflin, Art Parkinson. 102 mins. Cert: 15

An excruciatingly soft-focus, retrograde romcom, insistently Instagramming all reality out of the frame, and generally carrying on as though possessed of nothing more than frozen yoghurt between its ears. It’s basically One Day for dummies: Bridget-ish Lily Collins and nice-but-dull Sam Claflin are the childhood besties navigating their twenties – he carefree, she left with child after “comedy” condom mishap. Relentless montaging ushers everyone past the abortion option, and onto a less-than-convincing attempt to pass off our ever-dewy lead as a life-hardened single mum. It’s one of those puppy-movies, so wet-nosed and keen to please one takes scant joy in kicking it. But the damn thing keeps crapping everywhere.

Love, Rosie opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Kickstarter Film Fest 2014 report (The Guardian 20/10/14)

As its supporters have it, Kickstarter is an initiative just made for our austere moment: at last, they cry, a brand that makes spreadsheets sexy, panhandling productive. As anyone who’s ever thrown in a fiver for a pal’s ill-fated Bobby Davro biopic will know, the company’s model has at the very least been shrewdly formulated. Cash-strapped creatives pitch projects online with an eye to raising public backing; we chip in, and get the feature, short or video game anticipated, or – if the minimum target isn’t raised – our money back. It’s a no-win-no-fee way of crowdfunding, hive-minding and exit-polling all at once.

The Kickstarter Film Fest, which concluded its first UK run this past weekend, fell at the end of a tricky year for the company. Blogger Ken Hoinsky’s hands-on seduction treatise “Above the Game: A Guide to Getting Awesome with Women” and multi-millionaire Zach Braff’s autobiographical drama Wish I Was Here – general response: I wish I weren’t – hinted the company’s anything-goes model had become open to exploitation. Some, too, have equated the fiscal prudence of this methodology with a wider artistic conservatism. Shouldn’t art be about more than mere book-balancing? Aren’t Kickstarter’s greenlit projects, by definition, safe bets?

Saturday night’s showcase event at London’s Prince Charles Cinema suggested possibly not, and that the company still has plenty to be proud about. Take the support it generated for Gillian Robespierre’s quietly radical comedy Obvious Child, whose IMDb keywords (“abortion”, “reproductive rights”, “peeing in street”) presumably precluded even the modest studio backing afforded to the comparatively timid Juno. The company’s logo similarly adorns this year’s Sundance documentary prize-winner, the sincere poverty study Rich Hill, and the short films of Planet Money, an NPR spin-off that rigorously and ingeniously illustrate how the world works.

In such cases, Kickstarter functions as a virtual sibling to such progressively minded mini-studios as Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media or Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures. It’s enabled both neophytes like Mike Flanagan (whose unsettling Kickstarted debut Absentia prefigured this year’s effective multiplex horror Oculus) and indie veteran Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup), whose crowdsourced comeback Little Feet suggests what a Jim Jarmusch kids’ film might be like. (While pushing a stuffed mallard round, our pint-sized magician hero turns to his pal, a tubby sort in a sailor’s cap, and remarks “Best thing is you don’t have to feed him.”)

Sometimes its users are clearly just taking a punt. 846 optimists chipped in for Andrew Harmer’s The Fitzroy, a British variant on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s early, grubby fantasias. Shown back-to-back, the trailer for David Sandberg’s VHS-influenced Kung Fury, about an 80s cop sent back in time to defeat Hitler (a.k.a. the Kung Führer), and the project video for Kyle Rankin’s Night of the Living Deb demonstrated how even sales pitches have become more inventive under the company’s aegis: the former offers far richer visual and comedic pickings than 2012’s crowdfunded Nazis-on-the-moon saga Iron Sky, while the latter sees Rankin’s read-through with star Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) interrupted by a zombie apocalypse.

Doubtless hundreds more splatterfests await a greenlight, but relatively few organisations can also claim to have facilitated documentaries on Indian puppeteers (Tomorrow We Disappear) and Finnish cowboys (Aatsinki), Michael Snow-like experimenta (Jeff Frost’s Circle of Abstract Ritual) and a stopmotion co-directed by an 11-year-old (Trinity and Barry Andersson’s Me & Ewe). Amid this deluge of digital diversity, there were glimpses of somebody literally sticking their neck on the line – as in First to Fall, Rachel Beth Anderson and Tim Gruca’s close-range report on Libyan freedom fighters. (Truly, the recoil from rocket launchers is something to behold.)

The night’s crowdpleaser, however, came from closer to home: snippets of Aardman’s All New Adventures of Morph, still winding up the hapless Chas, yet now getting down with the kids – turning his clay hands to DJing and stand-up – without the naff Cowell-courting of, say, Postman Pat: The Movie. Though these, too, raised economic questions – should Aardman, lately attached to Sony and StudioCanal, really be soliciting public coin to finance its webisodes? – the throwback chuckles they sparked reminded us a safe bet can itself be a thing of joy. Kickstarter may just have found a posterboy less whitebread than Zach Braff: crafty, creative, adaptable Morph.

Absentia and Oculus are now available on DVD.

Jungle survivor: "Nas: Time is Illmatic"

Nas: Time is Illmatic plays like the US equivalent of one of those upmarket Friday night music-biz docs on BBC4: a track-by-track retrospective of a defining album, topped and tailed by some analysis of where its subject came from and whereabouts they were headed. Its subject is one Nasir "Nas" Jones, the Brooklyn-born rapper who occupies an intriguing place in the contemporary American music scene, being the son of noted jazz musician Olu Dara; the album, his 1994 debut "Illmatic", positioned here as a bridge between the laid-back hip-hop immortalised by the movie Wild Style a decade before it and the superstar MCs who found more forceful ways to break through in Nas's wake. Before "Illmatic", the film's thesis goes, there was Run DMC, KRS-One and De La Soul, representing good times and collectivity; afterwards, Tupac and Biggie, Jay-Z and Eminem, and - sorry, everyone - Kanye, tragic figures or lone survivors, attempting something more self-involved, possibly neurotic.

It doubtless helped that the album dropped in that post-Do the Right Thing/Boyz N The Hood moment when corporate America's eyes and ears had been newly opened to black stories, yet the film recognises "Illmatic" as a deeply personal statement, worthy of closer textual analysis. For all the adolescent desire to shock and awe flaunted in its lyrics, "Illmatic" is here revealed to contain a wealth of sincerely felt stories - first-hand observations of drug dealers and working girls, unhappy families and a dozen other institutional failures, a generation of squandered promise. The title, indeed, enshrined Nas's friend and collaborator "Ill Will" Graham, shot dead in a housing project squabble over a girl; and even the LP's one ostensibly mellow party anthem went out under the singalonga title "Life's a Bitch". Somewhere in there, you can hear an entire genre getting tougher, punchier, battle-hardened.

Despite its slender 74-minute running time, Time is Illmatic squeezes in a good deal of varied interview and archive footage that positions Nas within a lineage and context: among other virtues, it lets us see exactly where he was coming from. (There's some very touching footage of the rapper walking the Crown Heights projects that he once called home, interacting - fondly - with the locals.) In doing so, what could have merely been a lazy, label-engineered pendant to some 20th anniversary repackaging of the original CD or a series of comeback concerts instead extends its reach into other fields of American history and culture: the interviewees include Cornel West as well as Pharrell, Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar. It probably still won't convert my dad to rap, but it takes both the music, and the struggle behind it, as seriously as it always demanded to be.

Nas: Time is Illmatic opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Friday 17 October 2014

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 10-12, 2014: 
1 (1) Gone Girl (18) **
2 (new) The Maze Runner (12A)
3 (new) Annabelle (15) **
4 (new) One Direction: Where We Are - The Concert Film (U)
5 (2) Dracula Untold (15) **
6 (3) The Equalizer (15)
7 (4) The Boxtrolls (PG) ***
8 (5) What We Did On Our Holiday (12A)
9 (new) The Rewrite (12A)
10 (7) Dolphin Tale 2 (U) **  


My top five:   
1. Le Jour se lève
2. Withnail & I
3. Björk: Biophilia Live
4. Palo Alto
5. Still the Enemy Within

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) The Lego Movie (U) ****
2 (3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12) ***
3 (2) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (12)
4 (4) The Grand Budapest Hotel (15) **
5 (7) The Book Thief (12) **
6 (8) The Wind Rises (PG) **** 
7 (9) Rio 2 (U) **
8 (6) Pompeii (12)
9 (10) Postman Pat: The Movie (U) **
10 (re) Sabotage (15)  

My top five:  
1. Two Days, One Night
2. 20,000 Days on Earth
3. Moebius
4. The Dirties
5. Omar

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Guys and Dolls [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2.15pm)
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Sunday, five, 9pm)
3. Fast & Furious 5 (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Saturday, ITV1, 3.35pm)
5. Cast Away (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

"Northern Soul" (The Guardian 17/10/14)

Northern Soul ***
Dir: Elaine Constantine. With: Steve Coogan, Antonia Thomas, Elliot James Langridge. 102 mins. Cert: 15

That site-specific 70s youthquake that saw disaffected Lancastrian teenagers spinning to underheralded American floorfillers has been dramatised once before, in 2010’s likable low-budgeter SoulBoy. Photographer-turned-director Elaine Constantine here offers a more expansive, detailed study: she spies how this scene didn’t just shelter misfits like her protagonist John (the smartly cast Elliot James Langridge, resembling an unstable Richard Beckinsale), but expanded the horizons of anybody feeling oppressed by lingering patrician values. The search for tunes less twee than Melanie’s ever-present “Brand New Key” transforms them all into dreamers and voyagers; each cut around this dour Wilson-era landscape only allows us to feel America’s pull all the more. Those deathlessly crafted songs retain greater momentum than John’s somewhat anecdotal trudge from innocence to experience, but every other scene happens across a Northern treasure (Coogan, Thomson, Tomlinson, Stansfield) and looks, feels and – crucially – sounds true to its sweaty-hazy, slightly cramped corner of history. 

Northern Soul opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release this Monday.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (The Guardian 17/10/14)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles **
Dir: Jonathan Liebesman. With: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner. 101 mins. Cert: 12A

This many reboots usually signifies catastrophic system error. Here’s producer Michael Bay’s live-action take on the recurring reptiles, which means more sheen than the amiably clunky 90s film, buff CG heroes who resemble pistachio-hued variants of Pain & Gain’s meatheads, and Megan Fox doing squats in a halter top as reporter April O’Neil. Its over-rehearsed origin story proves as insubstantial as any other Turtle spin, yet Bay’s CV arguably lists worse crimes. In-your-face 3D tie-ins – the pizza’s branded, and the finale frenetically pushes pixels around Times Square’s billboards – foreground its primary intent: the repackaging of gleaming, empty, allowance-snaffling product. Were these Turtles ever anything else? 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Sunday 12 October 2014

At the LFF: "The Man in the Orange Jacket"

Aik Karapetian's pointedly brisk Latvian slasher The Man in the Orange Jacket deserves credit for many things, not least for succeeding in turning the workaday high-visibility tabard into an item of terror comparable to Freddy Krueger's matted jumper and Jason Vorhees' hockey mask. Between ominous, Haneke-like fadeouts, the briefest of expository snatches let us know we've entered its world just after a series of lay-offs at a port in some grey, grim nowhere. Thereafter, the fun and games - and funny games - begin: one of the fired workers (Maksim Lazarev, who rather resembles a more robust, Slavic Pete Doherty) breaks off from the group, breaks into the port boss's well-appointed retreat, and enacts a deadly form of payback. The first surprise of Karapetian's film is that all this comes to be dealt with before the opening credits; the writer-director's chief concern lies with what the killer does next. 

As our nameless antagonist installs himself in his victim's mansion, trying on suits, picking out a tune or two on the piano, and ignoring a phone that keeps ringing, we start to sense that the emptiness that follows such a crime might be as horrifying, or at least as disconcerting, as the crime itself, and perhaps, just perhaps, its own punishment. (Out of the corner of the eye, you can see the ghosts of Dostoyevsky hovering into vision.) This killer becomes only more vulnerable after making his killing, betraying himself and his motives both at a fancy restaurant (where he makes a working-class hash of the cutlery) and in his interactions with two prostitutes he hires (which reveal fantasies of humiliation and degradation: he's all too clearly getting off on the power money can buy).

His visitors are hardly a reassuring bunch, all told: first a representative of the kind of sharks Latvian businessmen presumably have to swim with, then that tabarded figure - his high visibility making him an unusual, effective phantom, popping out from this especially overcast part of the countryside - who might represent our killer's earlier, revolutionary self, dispatched here to teach this brute a lesson or two about selling out. The Lazarev character begins the film unleashing his anger on others; he will end it wrestling with himself. Anyone in the market for cheap thrills might be referred elsewhere: Karapetian plays Delibes' "Flower Duet" over scenes of a girl being chased through the woods, which speaks to a certain high-mindedness, and positions him closer to Gaspar Noe than Eli Roth on the horror spectrum. Yet such formal elegance masks a spiky, bloodily-won political message, possibly close to the heart of a filmmaker operating in a former Soviet state: what use is it to overthrow an unfair system, if you wind up being seduced and compromised by all its gleaming tchotchkes?

The Man in the Orange Jacket screens on Tue 14 at 8.45pm in NFT2, and again on Sun 19 at 9pm at the Curzon Soho.