Friday 24 April 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 17-19, 2015: 
1 (1) Fast & Furious 7 (12A) ***
2 (2) Cinderella (PG)
3 (3) Home (U) **
4 (new) Child 44 (15)
5 (7) Woman in Gold (12A) *
6 (5) The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (U)
7 (new) A Little Chaos (12A) ** 
8 (4) The DUFF (12A)
9 (6) John Wick (15) ***
10 (8) Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (PG) **


My top five:   
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision
2. The Falling
3. Stonehearst Asylum
4. Glassland
5. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence [above]

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Paddington (PG) ****
2 (2) The Imitation Game (12) ***
3 (3) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
4 (4) Gone Girl (18) **
5 (5) What We Do in the Shadows (15) ***
6 (7) The Maze Runner (15)
7 (6) Fury (15) **
8 (8) The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG) ***
9 (9) The Equalizer (15)
10 (10) Mr. Turner (12) *****

My top five:  
1. Dreamcatcher
2. Kon-Tiki
3. Maidan
4. What We Do in the Shadows
5. Still Life

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Unforgiven (Monday, five, 11pm)
2. A Bronx Tale (Saturday, BBC1, 1.20am)
3. Senna (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
4. Up in the Air (Saturday, BBC2, 10.15pm)
5. Inside Man (Saturday, ITV1, 10.15pm)

"The Falling" (Telegraph 24/04/15)

The Falling ****

Dir: Carol Morley. With: Maxine Peake, Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Anna Burnett, Greta Scacchi, Rose Caton, Lauren McCrostie, Katie Ann Knight, Monica Dolan, Mathew Baynton, Morfydd Clark, Joe Cole. 15 cert, 102 min

What strikes you first is that they know too much. From the slow fades, lingering looks and free-associative edits that open The Falling, we infer that the schoolgirls drifting across the frame aren’t the empty vessels their teachers assume. It’s the early 1960s, and sex is moistening even the Home Counties’ drier regions; “magic-with-a-k”, as somebody puts it, is in the air. These girls have butterflies in their stomachs and ants in their pants, so the fainting epidemic they subsequently succumb to almost seems organic: willingly or otherwise, our ethereal heroines are soon dropping like bluebottles into Mother Nature’s welcoming arms.

Carol Morley’s potently suggestive follow-up to 2011’s Dreams of a Life floats multiple interpretations for these curious collapses. The most reductive – mass hysteria – comes, inevitably, from the school’s science bloke (Mathew Baynton): “It’s just a few neurotic types.” Yet the girls’ fainting during a fusty WI talk starts to resemble defiant collective action, a means of rejecting the housewifely poise being drilled into them. (One spark out, all spark out.) Either way, we note, Morley’s youngsters seize the moment, and the attention, in ways their hollowed-out elders – wistful head Greta Scacchi, eerily lacquered shut-in Maxine Peake – no longer appear able to.

Credit ace casting director Shaheen Baig (Peaky Blinders, X+Y) with sourcing these diverse looks and personalities, and assisting in the creation of one indelible friendship. Florence Pugh’s Abbie combines teen-queen bearing with the vulnerability of one still unsure of her own body: like a homegrown Laura Palmer, her presence hovers over even those scenes from which she’s absent. Maisie Williams may be more familiar – she’s Arya Stark on Game of Thrones – yet her Lydia’s something new: a wildflower left to grow toxic, snuggling closer to her BFF by seducing Abbie’s most recent lover. Dodgy call, considering he’s her own brother.

Such complications account for the film’s intensity of feeling, which hails from another era entirely. Morley keeps eliding and pausing time, deploying Tracey Thorn’s spare yet keening songs in dreamy montages that recall such folk-cinema one-offs as The Wicker Man. For all The Falling’s period trimmings, its uncanny power resides in these ellipses and blackouts – in elements that cannot be easily rationalised. Retaining Nic Roeg’s son Luc as producer suggests Morley intends some continuation of those notes of otherness Performance and Don’t Look Now secreted about the British cinema: seizing a moment herself, she’s made a film that swoons with a similar artistic purpose.

The Falling opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Stonehearst Asylum" (Guardian 24/04/15)

Stonehearst Asylum ****
Dir: Brad Anderson. With: Kate Beckinsale, Jim Sturgess, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson. 112 mins. Cert: 15

The latest knowing genre item from director Brad Anderson (Transsiberian, The Call) has the advantage of superior source material: riffing on Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, it dispatches idealistic doc Jim Sturgess to a remote fin-de-siècle institution where the boundaries separating inmates from custodians prove porous at best. Wielding a budget ample enough to bring this murderous upstairs-downstairs tumult to ghoulish life, Anderson stocks each scene with so many eccentric homegrown performers that events soon resemble a Gothic Gosford Park. The throwback, character-centric approach affords everyone – from rival shrinks Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine to David Thewlis’s leering steward and Sophie Kennedy Clark’s naughty nurse – their moments of madness, while Anderson’s laudable resistance to the usual bangs and crashes preserves Poe’s subtler ironies and resonances: Dr. Freud would surely have been rather taken by Sturgess’s dinky Derringer. You’ll watch this supremely entertaining danse macabre wearing the broadest of connoisseurial smiles. 

Stonehearst Asylum opens in selected cinemas today, and is also available on demand.

"The Good Lie" (Guardian 24/04/15)

The Good Lie ***
Dir: Philippe Falardeau. With: Reece Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Kuoth Wiel. 110 mins. Cert: 12A

The poster positions Philippe Falardeau’s follow-up to Monsieur Lazhar as the most turgid variety of soft-focus, Ron Howard-produced awards bait – legally blonde Reece Witherspoon rescues Sudanese refugees! In actuality, the film reserves its closest attention for its migrants, charting with sincerity and authenticity the journey of these so-called “Lost Boys” from war-ravaged homeland to a Kansas City that, with its Happy Meals and waffle houses, makes a banally abundant kind of Oz. Margaret Nagle’s spirited script steers away from the expected arcs and climaxes, instead making wry sport of the American Dream as a vaporous, ever-shifting concept shaped by profit motives, political bias and outright BS: Witherspoon’s late-arriving counsellor is but an overworked cog in an imperfect system, no more heroic than anybody else here. The rougher edges of an In This World or The Golden Dream were perhaps beyond its multiplex-oriented remit, yet Falardeau works in surprising levels of funny, winning, stirring detail. 

The Good Lie opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Stonehearst Asylum" (Reader's Digest 24/04/15)

A young doctor arrives at a remote institution and finds little difference between staff and patients in this cracking Edgar Allan Poe adaptation.

The American Brad Anderson has emerged since the millennium as one of the smartest genre filmmakers around: he’s made disconcerting horror freakouts (2001’s Session 9, 2004’s The Machinist) and nifty, crafty thrillers (2008’s Transsiberian, 2013’s The Call), all the while overseeing some of America’s classiest television (The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire). With Stonehearst Asylum, he lands some of his best source material yet: a Joe Gangemi script that riffs most enjoyably on Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.

In the last days of the 19th century, head-in-clouds Oxford medical graduate Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the titular institution with an eye to learning his trade. The household he enters divides firmly along Downton lines. Upstairs, Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) pursues a decidedly progressive methodology, encouraging inmates to run wild; downstairs, however, there lurk various caged and dirty unfortunates – including one Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine) – who claim to have been the asylum’s original staff, overthrown by crazy fake-MD Lamb during a violent regime change.

As Newgate weighs each side’s claims, Anderson sends on lunatics from all points on the British and Irish acting spectrum. Brendan Gleeson cameos as a lecturer who establishes the heartless rottenness of Establishment thinking; David Thewlis plays the leering Irish gatekeeper Mickey Finn; while Kate Beckinsale is the so-called hysteric Eliza Graves, to whom our hero takes a particular shine. There’s brief release as a couple of escapees are pursued to their doom, but we’re mostly on lockdown with these oddballs as a harsh winter draws in and all certainties are overturned.

Blessed with a budget that does full justice to Poe’s cruel and unusual punishments, the result is more expansive than claustrophobic, carefully extracting and brushing down the story’s themes. If the Eliza-Edward romance tends towards the wan, the Salt-Lamb struggle amply compensates: this may be Kingsley’s most substantial role since 2000’s Sexy Beast – or at least the role that makes best use of the latent madness in the actor’s eyes. If you like your horror movies literary, and more restrained than overwrought, have at it: it’s a cracking story, told with appreciable wit and skill.

Stonehearst Asylum is now playing in selected cinemas and on demand.

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" (Reader's Digest 24/04/15)

The Avengers reassemble for the second of writer-director Joss Whedon’s superhero synergasms. Success is inevitable. But is the film any good?

The trouble with these Avengers get-togethers, it transpires, is not just that they’re too big to fail, but that they’re almost certainly too big to function as drama. Swallowing up every last character, actor and dollar, the franchise has thus far manifested itself as the lumbering ne plus ultra of modern movie gigantism, while the Avengers themselves – the hall of superhero fame headed by Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk – remain the safest of bets, covering so many eventualities that their triumph is all but assured.

In pre-release interviews, writer-director Joss Whedon has cited this sequel as the hardest work he’s ever done, and you can bet most of that toil went on finding an antagonist capable of making any fight seem fair enough for an audience to reasonably cheer. Here, he’s settled on Ultron, which may sound like a brand of dishwasher tablets, but is actually an artificial intelligence (voiced by James Spader) with an army of robots at his disposal. It’s superheroes versus supercomputer, then; of human interest, there is little-to-nothing.

This tussle sends more computer-generated masonry flying than ever, which is an achievement of sorts, but the expensive kit and relentless set-pieces mask a playground-level goodies-vs.-baddies runaround. Proper actors are bought in to bolster the beef/cheesecake, yet the two-second appearance of arthouse muse Julie Delpy doing nothing is both a jolting incongruity and a suggestion that all resistance to this behemoth cinema might be futile. They can’t claim the script attracted them: Whedon’s drama is banal, his wisecracks composed of deadening snark.

By all means claim Age of Ultron as fun, but it looks very much like the kind of fun the suits want you to have – an utterly impersonal, corporate triumph. Watching these logo-simple characters (the starred shield, the arm-and-hammer, the not-so-jolly green giant), I wondered whether we weren’t meant to be cheering for the likes of Marvel, Disney, Google, Apple and Coca-Cola as they boosted their global market share. Put your pennies in these deep pockets, by all means, but my instinct would be to sit out any fight that is so obviously and expensively rigged.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 18 April 2015

"Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" (Guardian 18/04/15)

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 **
Dir: Andy Fickling. With: Kevin James, Raini Rodriguez, Eduardo Verastegui, Daniella Alonso. 94 mins. Cert: PG

The gut feeling is that if anybody urgently needed the further adventures of Kevin James’ human Weeble, we’d have had them a year or two after 2009’s amiably duff original. Six years on, and the gods have provided us with a cinematic equivalent to the second Cheeky Girls album, or anything Sir Mix-a-Lot put out after “Baby Got Back”: any novelty has long worn off, leaving behind a flagrant cashgrab. Repeat exposure does raise the intriguing possibility that Blart – a plump, dim-witted sucker who gets knocked down repeatedly, but always recovers to restore order – might be meant as a manifestation of middle-American character, much as Tim Spall’s awkward, weather-sensitive, snaggletoothed Mr. Turner was bound up in ideas of British self-image. Still, that’s almost certainly to ascribe too much significance to a film born of Adam Sandler’s production-line formula, sloping out towards another incentive-offering leisure resort – here Vegas, where Blart foils a casino heist – to cobble together saggy sketches mixing blunt, obvious knockabout (of course PB blunders into a Cirque de Soleil-style spectacle) with underfelt family values.

The franchise operates firmly in the PG safe zone, which at least spares us the half-assed chauvinism of Sandler’s recent vehicles, but this only results in even less of an actual movie than Blended or Jack and Jill: 94 minutes of harmless, mostly jokeless, tensionless pop-cultural background noise in which Neal McDonough (so terrific as the DA on TV’s Boomtown) displays unnecessary flickers of class as a precise villain, and James and co-writer Nick Bakay toss in references to Joseph Conrad and “I’ve Never Been to Me” hitmaker Charlene either to win a bet or tip accompanying adults the wink they’re actually more cultured than all this pratfalling would suggest. Blart himself remains a big man – James’s surprisingly limber bulk is the one gag this sequel has to shamble along with – but the pictures really are getting smaller, it would seem: already vanishing from UK screens and surely doing likewise in the US over the coming days, this really is a fly’s fart of a film, the most microscopically tiny of afterthoughts.

 Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 17 April 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 10-12, 2015: 
1 (1) Fast & Furious 7 (12A) ***
2 (2) Cinderella (PG)
3 (3) Home (U) **
4 (new) The DUFF (12A)
5 (4) The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (U)
6 (new) John Wick (15) ***
7 (new) Woman in Gold (12A) *
8 (new) Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (PG) **
9 (5) Get Hard (15)
10 (6) The Divergent Series: Insurgent (12A)


My top five:   
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision
2. Glassland
3. Stones for the Rampart: Battle for Warsaw
4. Gente de Bien
5. The Last Five Years

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Paddington (PG) ****
2 (3) The Imitation Game (12) ***
3 (2) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
4 (4) Gone Girl (18) **
5 (new) What We Do in the Shadows (15) ***
6 (5) Fury (15) **
7 (6) The Maze Runner (15)
8 (7) The Hundred-Foot Journey (PG) ***
9 (8) The Equalizer (15)
10 (9) Mr. Turner (12) *****

My top five:  
1. Mr. Turner
2. Kon-Tiki
3. Maidan
4. Paddington
5. White Bird in a Blizzard

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Father of My Children [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 1.55am)
2. Withnail & I (Friday, C4, 12.20am)
3. Insomnia (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.15pm)
4. Animal Farm (Saturday, BBC2, 7.45am)
5. Drive Angry (Sunday, five, 10.55pm)

"A Little Chaos" (Reader's Digest 17/04/15)

Moderation is inscribed in the title and the very being of Alan Rickman’s second directorial outing: this decidedly mild comedy-drama takes Louis XIV’s grand-scale transformation of Versailles as the backdrop for a trifling period romance.

When forward-thinking landscape designer Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) is appointed to add a water feature to the King’s palatial gardens, she quickly runs into a conflict of interests with project manager André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts). Where Sabine, recovering from a recent trauma, represents Gaia in all her tangled, messy glory, Le Nôtre’s a stick-in-the-mud control freak insistent nature must bend to man’s will. Opposites attracting as they do in movies, you may have some inkling of where all this is heading.

Still, we can’t accuse Rickman of false advertising: his film offers a little chaos, and possibly never enough. This story might have been reshaped as the basis of a fizzy screwball romp: traces of this version persist with the introduction of an impish Stanley Tucci as the King’s polysexual brother Philippe, and a scene in which Sabine mistakes a slumming Louis (Rickman himself) for the author of a tome on pears. Mostly, the film feels like an extension of Rickman’s established screen persona – it’s dry, somewhat cranky, and altogether low on energy.

Landscape gardening may just be a subject better suited to a half-hour Monty Don vehicle than a two-hour feature: it’s such a painstaking process that screenwriter Alison Deegan has had to contrive this low-stakes romance to distract us – anything else would seem too much like hard work. Even so, it seems a travesty that Rickman and cinematographer Ellen Kuras display scant feel for landscape itself: instead, we get the same sundappled configurations of wigs and trees observed in a thousand other costume dramas.

If Winslet gamely mucks in, Schoenaerts fares less well. He certainly looks the 17th-century part, but the charisma the Belgian displayed in 2012’s Rust and Bone is nowhere to be seen: Le Nôtre is too much the staid middleman to convince as the dashing romantic hero Deegan wants to reposition him as. We’re left watching an actor-director’s Sunday project, no more pressing or demanding than a spot of weeding: it’s operating comfortably within heritage cinema’s safe zone, but at no point does Rickman succeed in making the earth move.

A Little Chaos opens in cinemas nationwide today.