Friday 27 February 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of February 20-22, 2015: 
1 (1) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
2 (2) Big Hero 6 (PG) ***
3 (3) Shaun the Sheep Movie (U) ***
4 (4) Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) *
5 (new) The Wedding Ringer (15) *
6 (new) Project Almanac (12A) **
7 (6) Peppa Pig: The Golden Boots (U)
8 (8) The Theory of Everything (12A) ***
9 (5) Jupiter Ascending (12A)
10 (7) American Sniper (15) ***


My top five:   
1. White God
2. It Follows [above]
3. Maidan
4. Predestination
5. Hinterland

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (12) **
2 (new) The Equalizer (15)
3 (2) What We Did on Our Holiday (12)
4 (4) Before I Go to Sleep (15) **
5 (6) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (U) ***
6 (5) A Walk Among the Tombstones (15) **
7 (7) The Best of Me (12)
8 (8) The Fault in Our Stars (12) **
9 (10) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12) ***
10 (9) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12) *** 

My top five:  
1. Mr. Turner
2. Life Itself
3. The Babadook
4. Palo Alto
5. Maps to the Stars

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Wizard of Oz (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)
2. Crimson Tide (Monday, five, 11pm)
3. Gladiator (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
4. Cemetery Junction (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
5. Runaway Jury (Saturday, C4, 10.55pm)

"White God" (DT 27/02/15)

White God ****

Dir: Kornél Mundruczó. Starring: Zsófia Psotta, Zsótér Sándor, Lili Horváth. 15 cert, 121 min

White God, a remarkable thriller from Hungarian writer-director Kornél Mundruczó, arrives as a shining example of how exposure to genre movies can imbue a filmmaker’s work with a new immediacy. Where Mundruczó’s previous mood pieces – 2002’s ironically titled Pleasant Days, 2008’s rape-reliant Delta – laboured through their various humiliations, his latest opens in the jolting manner of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later…. 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is traversing an apparently abandoned Budapest on her bike. Suddenly, a pack of murderous canines tear out of a sidestreet and begin closing on her. Welcome, everybody, to the Dogpocalypse.

Immediately, we’re gripped, yet it’s in explaining how man’s best friend turned on us that this fable accrues its meaning. We’re initially following Lili’s quest to retrieve Hagen, the beloved pet cast out at the roadside by her indifferent father. That Hagen is identified as mixed-breed suggests Mundruczó may have migration on his mind, yet rarely do we feel lectured. If Hagen’s backstreet progress recalls Bresson’s sainted arthouse classic Au Hasard, Balthasar, where a donkey served as humanity’s whipping boy, Mundruczó’s staging owes more to Jason Bourne, notably in an electrifying setpiece that finds Hagen pursued by animal control operatives.

Hagen’s passage from dumb mutt to snarling revolutionary provides the true throughline, yet Lili’s plight – removed of her dog, her beau, even her bike – is just as affecting, and it’s that empathy that makes the difference: for the first time in Mundruczó’s filmography, we feel his characters’ hurt, rather than merely witnessing it. The result, a social conscience movie with real cinematic bite, positions the viewer like a dog between two masters: Mundruczó challenges us to pick a side, get involved, care – and hopes we carry that compassion back out into a world that, for man and beast alike, remains frequently barking, and often plain rough.

White God opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Hinterland" (DT 27/02/15)

Hinterland ***

Dir: Harry Macqueen. Starring: Lori Campbell, Harry Macqueen. 15 cert, 78 mins

The low-budget British road movie Hinterland really ought not to be as transporting as it is. This there-and-back-again plays out in just 78 minutes, and can’t depict more than 48 hours of story time; for at least half of that duration, we’re sat in the back seat watching our driver – bottled-up late twentysomething Harvey (writer-director Harry Macqueen) – interact with the childhood friend he’s driving to the Cornish coast. Ominously, his passenger Lola (Lori Campbell) is wielding both a guitar and the kind of flappy woollen hat that usually signifies Adventures in Indie Quirk. Where do we turn off?

Stay the course, however, and you begin to notice the economy and assurance with which Macqueen’s film clocks up its emotional mileage. Contemporary radio chatter – political pointscoring, student-loan talk – suggests what these characters might be fleeing, yet their destination hardly forms an escape: windswept, depopulated and largely boarded-up, it could well have been what Morrissey had in mind upon penning “Everyday Is Like Sunday”. Gradually, Hinterland assumes the dimensions of those personal explorations more commonly ventured by young French filmmakers; the road movie, breaking up its enforced intimacy with cutaways to passing scenery, provides a fitting vehicle for this director’s concerns.

The leads’ friendly yet unusual dynamic draws us in only closer. Bathing together in their underwear, they’re more brother-sister than potential partners, which prompts noticeable regret on at least one side: Macqueen’s slow-release sigh of a performance makes you wonder whether Harvey didn’t have higher hopes. If what’s been captured here is no more than a tiny moment – a small respite or deviation from the norm – Hinterland commits entirely to inhabiting and describing it. In doing so, Macqueen maps welcome new terrain: few recent homegrown debuts have better captured the promise of fresh starts, and the disappointments that lurk in wait behind them.

Hinterland opens in selected cinemas from today.

"A Dark Reflection" (DT 27/02/15)

A Dark Reflection *

Dir: Tristan Loraine. Starring: Georgina Sutcliffe, Rita Ramnani, Marina Sirtis, Mark Dymond, Nicholas Day, Stephen Tompkinson. 15 cert, 102 mins

The eccentric Brit indie A Dark Reflection squanders time and money on entirely the wrong things. Given that writer-director Tristan Loraine is railing against the industry cost-cutting that has reportedly seen carbon monoxide seep into passenger-jet cabins, some logging of airmiles was clearly necessary; as suggested by his 2009 debut 31 North 62 East – a Crawley-set political conspiracy thriller, currently in heavy rotation on the Movies4Men channel – Loraine is your go-to guy for soaring helicopter shots of the South Downs. What’s back on the ground, however, stays woefully, often comically under-resourced. The film’s head is forever in the clouds.

Loraine, a sometime pilot, may very well have news to break, yet the template into which he’s copied-and-pasted it resembles a Poundland Silkwood: a once-jetsetting journo (Georgina Sutcliffe) – now relegated to a dispiriting reporter’s beat on the Sussex Standard – regains her crusading zeal while investigating the affairs of the coyly fictionalised “JaspAir”. So we know who to boo, the blustering Sir Charles Jaspar (Nicholas Day) is shown hunting pheasants as his planes tumble (unseen) from the skies; his wife (Marina Sirtis, from Star Trek) establishes her credentials by wondering aloud what a chore it must be to have to rent one’s living quarters.

These straw people at least have some shape about them. Everywhere else you look, your gaze alights on underdirected performers having to frame threats to the layman in scenes that plod on far beyond their natural cut point: poor Stephen Tompkinson, drafted in for a one-scene favour as a green-skinned organophosphate victim, only reminds one of Drop the Dead Donkey’s hapless danger-junkie Damien Day. Loraine’s planning a follow-up doc on this subject, and that – providing the budget goes on anything other than McDonnell-Douglasses – might just play; however well-intentioned and informed, this tinny and tensionless dispatch really doesn’t.

A Dark Reflection opens in selected cinemas from today.

"The Boy Next Door" (The Guardian 27/02/15)

The Boy Next Door **
Dir: Rob Cohen. With: Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, Kristin Chenoweth, John Corbett. 91 mins. Cert: 15

The success of Fifty Shades may mean we’re in for a spate of 90s throwback erotic thrillers, this time flogging female desire. Few will be as abundantly silly as this one, in which Jennifer Lopez’s married schoolmarm learns that the gym bunny she’s strayed with is a possessive homewrecker who knows how to cut brake cables – so, you know, ladies: beware. It’s one of those innately conservative Channel 5 matinee movies with glossier production and more shots of its leading man’s sixpack, but the inevitable sass-along screenings will be a scream, and it may be your sole opportunity to see J-Lo parsing the Iliad. 

The Boy Next Door opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday 26 February 2015

1,001 Films: "Deep End" (1970)

Four decades from its initial release, Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End re-emerges as an especially kooky and unpredictable coming-of-age movie, shot through with the weird impulses and reflexes which that other exiled Pole Roman Polanski would demonstrate in his own black comedies of the period (Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant), and working its way, slowly yet inexorably, towards a final mise en abyme. Slightly dozy, virginal 15-year-old Mike (John Moulder-Brown, an early exponent of the Bieber fringe) takes a job attending to the needs of the clientele at his local swimming baths. When not being pestered by Diana Dors and her outrageous football metaphors ("Did you see George Best's six goals against Northampton? You can't keep Georgie out"), Mike becomes enchanted by the cruel beauty of his older colleague Susan (Jane Asher, at her peachiest); she, however, already has her hands full with the attentions of the pool's married yet lecherous swimming coach. Watching an old man plunging off the high board one lunchtime, Mike wistfully bemoans "I can't do that." Susan replies "There's always a first time." You get the picture.

Looked at today, Deep End appears uneven in pitch and pace, on the one hand luxuriating in the baths' hothouse atmosphere, the peeling paint and tantalising proximity to exposed flesh. On the other, in everything from the title on down, the film is a sniggering double entendre. Mike is taught to drive by an experienced older gent ("Release the clutch slowly..."); the baths' cashier accidentally unleashes a spurting fire extinguisher ("It's a monster... it goes on for ever"); Asher has a whole scene devoted to Susan's devouring of the whipped cream atop her hot chocolate ("You'd like some of this, wouldn't you?"). As Dors's presence insinuates, we're not far removed from the tatty British sex comedies of the same period - but then this was exactly the era when Robin Askwith could turn up in a Pasolini movie without anybody batting an eyelid, and "educational" films like Dr. Lotte Fielder's The Science of Sex Part 2 (which the leads troop off to see at one point) were actually playing in semi-respectable picturehouses; among other things, it's a relic of a time when the waters of high and low culture were being muddied in intriguing ways. What's crucial is that this is an outsider's film, one that doesn't for a moment present any of its fumbling as normalised or heartwarming behaviour - partly because it knows what's coming.

Skolimowski is compelled - in his detached, askance way - by the strangeness of the British attitude to sex: the strict delineation of male and female changing areas (and the fluster that results whenever these lines are crossed), the recourse to allegations of "importuning" (an offence that nowadays sounds resolutely Victorian), the members' clubs (pun surely intended) where you have to know the right people or passwords to achieve entry. It's the film that points the way to not just the Confessions... series, but the murderous sexual frustrations of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut: consider, in this light, the mid-film nightmare that sends our hero scuttling around Soho to one of Can's finest musical wigouts, learning along the way that his angel may very well be a centrefold, and encountering a hooker who keeps her most noted clients' signatures as mocking notches on the cast of her broken leg. This version of the paradise-lost story is ragged, certainly - it needed Kubrick to finesse it - but certain elements are already in place, not least the hero driven to distraction by the movements of a redhead. At all points, Moulder-Brown's gangly gaucheness is exactly right, and Skolimowski is canny enough to make the film's one recurring dirty mac - Asher's very swinging yellow number - an object of fascination, rather than revulsion. When Susan finally removes this life preserver, bad things come to pass.

Deep End is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through BFI Flipside.

Sunday 22 February 2015

1,001 Films: "Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace and Music" (1970)

According to Michael Wadleigh's defining music documentary Woodstock, the legendary music concert of 1969 got off to a slow yet slightly chaotic start. There were traffic problems as the self-described "freaks" shambled into town in camper vans, or on bare feet. The stage was still under construction as the first performers took to it. And the first night's bill included Richie Havens, Canned Heat and Joan Baez, which would translate today to having to sit through the Afro-Celt Sound System, the Stereophonics and Dido in the space of one evening. To be entirely fair, the headliners that first night were The Who, who blast their way through Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" before Pete Townshend beats up his guitar and throws it into the crowd; this is, as you might imagine, well worth the wait.

Day two began lively - lindyhopping Sha-Na-Na, Joe Cocker doing "With a Little Help From My Friends" - before tailing off. A storm breaks overhead ("Hold onto your neighbour, man!"). Clouds pass. The spliffs come out. Arlo Guthrie shows up. Suddenly, there aren't enough drugs to go around. (Kidding.) A guy who's a bit White Stripes-y walks off stage clutching a marrow as part-payment for his appearance. (Say, what kind of drugs are these?) By the final day, the site has been declared a disaster area, a situation only compounded when Santana take to the stage. Doubts are already being raised as to the effect this concert will have on the landscape, how much money is being made from it, and to whom that money is going. The music, however, gets better: Sly Stone, Joplin. Finally, there is Hendrix, who clears the field with a controlled explosion of noise; those few left standing appear either mesmerised or shell-shocked. (Maybe it's the drugs.)

So much footage was shot that Wadleigh and his editorial team - which included Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese - have to resort to using split-screen in an attempt to fit it all in. The soundtrack similarly sprawls, mixing up live performance with sounds sourced from the furthest extremes of this site: hippie chanting, campsite soundbites, earnest backstage muso chat, those PA announcements about "bad acid" that inspired the bad liquorice bit in Wayne's World 2. Altman's M*A*S*H came out the very same year: maybe he got himself into an early screening. Arguably the weakest aspects are the performances, which will, in the main, mean very little to those of us who weren't around at the time. (The performers receive little in the way of introduction, so your kids won't have a clue.) 

Still, much of the film bears out the contention that those who go to Glastonbury for the bands have kind of missed the point. Far more interesting are the inserts chronicling the logistics of organising such an event, illustrating how these happenings get tangled and untangled as they go along, and history is often born of near-disaster: it's Havens struggling to retune his guitar while trying to introduce his next song, officers of the law attempting to reroute a snarled-up onsite traffic system, kids explaining to the camera or one another how they're going to change the world, or how an open relationship does and doesn't work. It has dated, but only in the superficial manner typically suffered by historical documents; it remains an experience, and - if by no means a replacement for being there - an admirably comprehensive, multilateral one at that. Forget the music; what you take home is the message, along with a yearning for a hot meal and several good nights' sleep.

(January 2005)

Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace and Music is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Oscars preview 2015 (Reader's Digest 20/02/15)

Another year, another outrage over the year’s Oscar nominations. 2015’s primary column-filling controversy has centred on the predominance of Caucasian males in the major award categories – a reflection of industry status quo, maybe, but taken by some as a particular affront in the year Ava DuVernay’s much-admired Martin Luther King biopic Selma hoped to build on the representational progress of last year’s triumphant 12 Years a Slave. Not for the first time, Hollywood finds itself accused of whitewashing.

These objections are not unfounded, but likely to fall on (in some cases, literally) deaf ears. Academy voters are 94% white and 76% male, with an average age of 63: to moan about the Best Picture shortlist is like asking the most ornery of grandfathers to pick his ten best films, and then questioning why his selections are so stuffy. Change may well be required, though possibly in the form of a rebranding, rather than any quota system: to the squealing Teen Choice awards, the Oscars might, in future, be regarded as a Duffer’s Choice alternative.

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Just eight rather than the permitted ten titles, which speaks to a dearth of quality in the year’s major English-language releases. Boyhood remains the odds-on favourite: logistically audacious (filmed in snatches, lest we forget, over a dozen years) yet formally conservative, Richard Linklater’s ingratiating indie hair-ruffler puts the family values of past Academy faves as On Golden Pond into nice new sneakers before leaving voters with the irresistible takehome that, here in America, we raise our kids right. At this stage, only American Sniper, a zeitgeist-catching late-year studio release, has the firepower to take it down.
What should win: Whiplash What will win: Boyhood

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Reece Witherspoon (Wild)

A close contest, highlighting strong performances in generally middling films: it’s hard to see voters feeling for the cynical Gone Girl or the splashy Wild – or even, really, for Jones’s measured emoting in the one Best Picture nominee here. The exceptional Cotillard transcends her brand-ambassador status to disappear inside the role of a fragile factory worker – but will the Academy bother to read the subtitles? It’s more likely they’ll reward Moore, for bringing her usual fierce intelligence to bear on the kind of quietly worthwhile indie project she’s been bolstering for 20-odd years.
Who should win: Cotillard Who will win: Moore

Best Actor
Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

You could almost make up a second five of performers unlucky to miss out: Timothy Spall, David Oyelowo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix… If the prize was for Most Improved Actor, then Cooper – nominated three times in three consecutive years upon doing the world the favour of jettisoning his Hangover smirk – would be romping home. As it is, it’s currently neck-and-neck between comeback king (and home favourite) Keaton and the impressively tangled ingenu Redmayne, and not even Carell’s genuinely transformative work in Foxcatcher can compete.
Who should win: Carell Who will win: Keaton or Redmayne

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Laura Dern (Wild)
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Not the strongest of categories, and if you wanted proof of what US TV offers actresses that movies presently don’t, you might usefully compare Dern’s nothingy two-scene bit-part in Wild with her all-encompassing work on the HBO series Enlightened. Distinguishing herself from a shortlist of coasting Academy favourites, Arquette has picked up every award going this season – as with Best Actress, this category may be a case of handing over a distinguished achievement award for a performer who’d threatened to slip under the radar.
Who should win: Arquette Who will win: Arquette

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

By contrast, Supporting Actor makes for as competitive a line-up as any, which is why it’s been somewhat surprising that Simmons’ tremendous, screen-seizing work as the tyrannical drum instructor in Whiplash has so dominated the pre-Oscar chatter. Hawke’s contribution to Boyhood is every bit as committed and valuable as his co-star Arquette’s, while Ruffalo’s usual thoughtful grounding of character helps to give Foxcatcher the punch it finally has – there’s even a case that his onscreen brother-in-arms Channing Tatum (speaking of Most Improved…) was unlucky to miss out here.
Who should win: Simmons Who will win: Simmons

Best Director
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)
Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

There’s no greater illustration of the Downton effect – that curious malady whereby Americans go a tad doolally around genteel British period drama – than Tyldum’s nomination for his TV-level handling of the Alan Turing story. (Consider, instead, Damien Chazelle’s tautly precise marshalling of image and sound in Whiplash: now there’s direction.) Right now, this category depends on how the Academy’s feeling: spoil Boyhood further, or split the top prizes, as it did last year, by rewarding Iñárritu’s showy backstage Steadicamming?
Who should win: Miller or Linklater Who will win: Linklater

Best Foreign Language Film
Wild Tales

UK readers will have to wait for the majority of these – the Argentinian contender Wild Tales opens here in March, Mali’s Timbuktu in May, the Estonian entry Tangerines as yet unknown – but the head-to-head battle suggested by Ida and Leviathan indicates a high quality threshold. Ida’s deserved Best Cinematography nod – and brisk running time, a boon for voters struggling to negotiate a backlog of awards-season screeners – possibly gives it the edge over the heftier Leviathan, currently mired in some controversy over its standing as Russia’s (surprisingly critical) official submission.
What should win: Leviathan What will win: Ida

The 87th Academy Awards ceremony will be held tomorrow.