Friday 29 May 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of May 22-24, 2015: 
1 (1) Pitch Perfect 2 (12A) **
2 (2) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) ****
3 (new) Tomorrowland (PG) ***
4 (new) Poltergeist (15) ***
5 (3) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12A) **
6 (4) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
7 (5) Far From the Madding Crowd (12A) ***
8 (7) Home (U) **
9 (new) Tanu Weds Manu Returns (12A)
10 (re) Two by Two (PG) ** 


My top five:   
1. Spring
2. The New Girlfriend
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Tribe
5. Clouds of Sils Maria

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Big Hero 6 (PG) ***
2 (1) Into the Woods (PG) **
3 (new) Interstellar (12) ** 
4 (new) Annie (PG)
5 (2) Gone Girl (18) **
6 (3) The Maze Runner (15)
7 (new) Testament of Youth (12) ****
8 (6) Foxcatcher (15) ****
9 (4) Pride (15) ***
10 (5) Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Never Beast (U) **

My top five:  
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision
2. Whiplash
3. Spring
4. Testament of Youth
5. Foxcatcher

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Rear Window [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 3.10pm)
2. Comfort and Joy (Saturday, BBC2, 1.20am)
3. The X-Files: I Want to Believe (Saturday, C4, 10.55pm)
4. Pride & Prejudice (Saturday, C4, 4.15pm)
5. Shutter Island (Sunday, C4, 9pm)

"The Connection" (Guardian 29/05/15)

The Connection ***
Dir: Cédric Jimenez. With: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette, Mélanie Doutey. 135 mins. Cert: 15

This confident Gallic takeback of the true-life story underpinning the Popeye Doyle films of the 1970s proves both narratively engrossing and skilful in its marshalling of the widescreen frame. As magistrate Jean Dujardin adopts ever riskier methods to bring druglord Gilles Lellouche to justice, co-writer/director Cédric Jimenez can’t swerve many of the usual retro crime-movie clichés: yes, higher-ups advise our hero to halt his investigation, and yes, Dujardin’s weary spouse eventually takes the kids to her mother’s place. Yet the actors impose themselves, rather than simply trying on these sideburns for size: the film’s too busy to settle for pastiche. If its shape and trajectory are quickly felt out, Jimenez hauls in punchy story and character beats – the destination of a bribe the magistrate accepts, Lellouche’s near-anaphylactic reaction to Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” – while Dujardin’s sweaty gravitas will be a revelation to those who’ve only seen him pantomiming in silent movies and Nespresso ads. 

The Connection opens in selected cinemas from today.

"The Dead Lands" (Guardian 29/05/15)

The Dead Lands **
Dir: Toa Fraser. With: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan. 107 mins. Cert: 15

It’s both appropriate and unfortunate that Toa Fraser’s film should bear the logo of Mel Gibson-affiliated distributor Icon: this tale of a young warrior’s blooding resembles Apocalypto in Maori instead of Mayan, although the comparison does it few favours. Despite a promisingly muscular set-up – survivor of tribal massacre leads his pursuers into no-man’s-land – the hide-and-seek games that follow feel constrained for budgetary reasons, and a self-conscious solemnity settles upon the drama. Tastefully framed and culturally sensitive, but even the action scenes – doing something Sealed Knotty with sharpened wooden paddles – underwhelm: I say it quietly, but I missed Mad Mel’s tacky showmanship and transgressive zeal. 

The Dead Lands opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Search Party" (Guardian 29/05/15)

Search Party **
Dir: Scot Armstrong. With: Alison Brie, T.J. Miller, Krysten Ritter, Thomas Middleditch. 93 mins. Cert: 15

The bromance lingers on in Hollywood thinking, like a fart in a sex dungeon. Writer-director Scot Armstrong here revises his millennial hit Road Trip’s general trajectory, this time with thirtysomething roomies retrieving a naked bud from Mexico. Guilty snorts lurk between the level-setting gay panic and the finale’s vomiting donkey, yet our dumbly conformist travelling companions aren’t notably charming, and prove persistently creepy around anything female. These films were always down on women – Armstrong squanders the peerless Krysten Ritter as eye-candy – but this slovenly runaround only exposes the low opinion they’ve harboured of their target male demographic. We’re meant to identify with these dicks? 

Search Party opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Sword of Vengeance" (Guardian 29/05/15)

Sword of Vengeance **
Dir: Jim Weedon. With: Stanley Weber, Annabelle Wallis, Ed Skrein, Karel Roden. 87 mins. Cert: 15

As opportunistic Game of Thrones cash-ins go, this perversely watchable low-budget quickie at least improves upon its producers’ risible Hammer of the Gods. It has Stanley Weber’s lone warrior – sporting precision cornrows that suggest some Norman-era equivalent of Aveda – falling in with Northern rebels to repel William the Conqueror’s forces, here rendered as thirty blokes stood about a muddy, foggy field in Serbia. The action is circumscribed more through necessity than choice: though director Jim Weedon lends his one-on-ones a brooding ad-land style, he’s forced to frame pitched battles in medium-close shots so as to disguise the poor turnout. Modest post-pub fun, nevertheless. 

Sword of Vengeance opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

Flatlands: "The Goob"

The title of Guy Myhill's social realist coming-of-ager The Goob requires some explanation, although one need only watch a few minutes to discern that it might be synonymous with "dweeb" or "dork". Our lanky 18-year-old protagonist (Liam Walpole) is heading home on the final school bus before the summer holidays, and then life itself - home, in this case, being a rundown diner on the fringes of rural Norfolk, which the Goob - as he's known - shares with his mother (Sienna Guillory) and her boyfriend Womack (Sean Harris), a petty, tattooed tyrant whose standing as a local stock car champ has led him to a decidedly inflated opinion of himself. It's this shadow of a man, we learn, who conferred that demeaning nickname upon our boy: it might, perhaps, be short for the American term "goober".

Practically the first spoken line of Myhill's film is the bus driver advising the Goob to get the hell out of this shithole, and the somewhat hazy narrative comes to track the path by which this meek, voyeuristically inclined introvert eventually makes his way out into the world. Though The Goob could be held up as a banner example of the kind of regional filmmaking our London-centric industry has traditionally been slow to support, one suspects Myhill won't be receiving the call from the Norfolk Tourist Board any time soon. His Norfolk is a place where watching burnt-out old bangers race round and round in circles counts as the epitome of excitement and glamour; where a fumble in the stock car circuit's toilets might very well be scored to Lieutenant Pigeon's less than arousing "Mouldy Old Dough"; where - to continue the musical theme (and Myhill displays a keen ear for such things) - even the once bright-eyed and bushy-tailed former S Club popstrel Hannah Spearritt might be reduced to minimum-wage drudgery, scraping fat off a grill and accepting sexual advances from allcomers.

Yet having established these decidedly narrow story perimeters, what Myhill chooses to do within them proves far less persuasive: his film takes on the look of another of those British debut features that stalled in the process of developing a good shorts director into a fully-fledged auteur. In the absence of any forceful narrative progression, the drabness starts to feel too much - the keepin'-it-real default setting of a particular kind of British indie cinema. (We're moving through much the same strained territory as 2012's Strawberry Fields, several Duane Hopkins dispatches, and - further North - the Wolfe brothers' recent Catch Me Daddy.) In place of the poetry conjured by Andrea Arnold, reigning queen of social realism, Myhill ventures longish stretches of prose, as flat as the landscape: cue plentiful shots of Walpole looking gormless while hanging out in trees or fields, like a lost Treadaway brother.

Of the other performers, Guillory remains at risk of becoming one of those actresses - like, say, Jodie Whittaker - who spend their entire careers on the sidelines in underdeveloped supporting roles, for Myhill's gaze and focus is almost exclusively male. It gets predictable: whenever our boy starts to have fun, we can be fairly sure Harris's big bad ogre will march in to stop it, and while the actor hardly gives a bad performance, he can provide only so much variation in the role of black cloud. It's inevitable such a philandering brute will take against the Goob's effeminate friend Elliot (Oliver Kennedy), whose party piece is dragging up and lipsynching to old Northern Soul hits; it's just repetitive when he intervenes in our boy's budding rapport with a migrant girl (Marama Corlett) who's arrived on site to pick cabbages.

What Myhill may have learnt is that it's a tricky business making compulsive drama out of cycles of destructive masculine behaviour - that, unless they're very careful, a filmmaker risks aping his characters in hitting the same grim beats over and over again, and in doing so trying the patience of his audience. He builds a brooding, ominous atmosphere here nevertheless, and with director of photography Simon Tindall constructs a film that catches the eye, even as it struggles to hold the attention: as its Venice slot last year suggests, it's a respectable enough calling card, if not quite the breath of fresh air it might have been. 

The Goob opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 28 May 2015

Death metal: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Blimey. George Miller has been biding his time since parking up the Mad Max franchise some thirty years ago: he wrote an unlikely smash hit (1995's Babe), only to follow it with a wounding, if fascinating, failure (1998's Babe: Pig in the City), and was last seen animating tapdancing penguins to keep himself on the studio radar. (From Mad Max to Happy Feet: there's a trajectory that speaks to the wider infantilisation of the movie mainstream.) His decision to reenter the action fray with Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in the series, comes just as those same studios have bogged themselves down in the business of franchise building and brand expansion; at a moment when even a notional crowdpleaser like Avengers: Age of Ultron resembles nothing so much as an especially canny item of portfolio management.

What I thrilled to most about Fury Road - and it is thrilling, quite likely the most thrilling example of action cinema we'll see all summer - is the considered two-fingered salute it offers to that very corporate, risk-assessed model of filmmaking: though it demonstrates some of the meticulously detailed world-building Miller's fellow Antipodean Peter Jackson has of late become bogged down in, it moves through its own universe with a heightened degree of ruthlessly fleet, unfailingly idiosyncratic thought. Spending almost every minute of its two hours on the move, it is the blockbuster that shows up the exposition-bound Avengers movies (and, indeed, the Fast & Furious series, the Mad Max franchise's petrol-huffing offspring) as beyond bloated, not to mention square indeed.

This may just be what happens when a filmmaker is cut loose, both from the franchise mentality - though there is some assumption that, after the three-decade timelag, Fury Road will be the first Mad Max movie to enter the eyeline of the 16-34 demographic - and from the studio system itself. One of the few advantages to making a film in the desert is that it presumably reduces the chances of suits visiting the set to pester a director with notes and suggestions; what Miller has returned from his Namibian locations with is as much a (re)vision as a reboot, and you can either take its berserker flourishes, stapled as they have been to a story that changes gender and doubles back on itself, or you can leave them. (So-so box office so far suggests the Warner executives were keener to market something more ingratiating.)

Miller was apparently drawn back to this world by the opportunity to try something newly critical within the Mad Maxscape. Here is a universe that, much like Hollywood's dwindling creative pool, stands all but exhausted and in desperate need of refreshment, where years of squabbling over finite oil and water supplies have left everybody at the end of their tether, and you can't go five minutes down the road without somebody holding a knife to your throat. The general air of hot-headedness is established during an early chase - or, rather, the first leg of what's effectively one non-stop chase - in which, faced with a Biblical-looking sandstorm, all drivers elect to put their foot down and plough straight on, rather than seeking alternative routes. This is Fury Road in a nutshell: a film that steers insistently into a duststorm.

In fact, this Road is full of leftfield turns, from a futzing opening title card upon which Tom Hardy, playing the named lead, is billed slightly lower than Charlize Theron, as the imperiously named Imperator Furiosa. (Even christenings must be harder work in these parts. You'd have to anoint the baby's head with Castrol GTX, for one.) As that fiddle suggests, this Max proves rather more selfless than Mel Gibson's Reagan-era road warrior: he puts his fury in Furiosa's service, much as Tommy Lee Jones's washed-up cowpoke bowed to Hilary Swank's proto-feminist frontierswoman in last year's Western The Homesman. Blockbuster scaling means the vehicle of choice this time isn't a humble wagon, rather a thunderous 18-wheeler, but Miller - like Jones before him - retains a gentlemanly interest in this stagecoach's passengers: a coterie of young women whom Furiosa has rescued from being impregnated so as to be harvested for the milk that has become currency in this bone-rattling environment.

Much online outrage has been elicited by the fact a major event movie should have dared broach the subject of men attempting to control the bodies of women - or maybe the whiners were just put off by the film's conspicuous breastfeeding, as Nigel Farage was a while back - yet for all the sound and fury it generates in other areas, Fury Road hardly appears to make a fuss about upending our preconceptions about action heroes and gender roles. As in the recent The Drop and his appearance on TV's Peaky Blinders, Hardy takes naturally and unassumingly to the role of second banana, and frankly you suspect he'd have had little-to-no choice in the matter anyway, given Theron's utterly committed showing as the tough-cookie Furiosa. (Cohabiting with Sean Penn must be good practice.)

It may also be key that unlike today's MTV-schooled blockbuster directors - who hark back no further than to 1999's virtual The Matrix as a touchstone - Miller came of filmmaking age in the late 1970s, when the likes of John Carpenter and Walter Hill were still clinging to that old Howard Hawks dictum that character is best expressed through action. He shoots his stunts largely for real, in camera, with minimal CGI; inside Furiosa's cab, he trusts his audience to keep up with relationships that are established and developed through looks and glances - and, in Max's case, one tellingly sheepish thumbs-up - where current Hollywood wisdom insists every last nuance be explained away in reshoots so the schmucks in the cheap seats aren't left for dust. At times of doubt, the script reasons, shut up and drive.

There are clumsier interpolations - flash-cuts sketching in the idea that Mad Max might have some demons hardly add to what's already there in Hardy's performance - yet it's the unbridled, fifth-gear showmanship that grabs you, and which we'll almost certainly struggle to find much of elsewhere this summer: where other directors might send their ne'er-do-wells into battle to the strains of "Ride of the Valkyries", say, Miller amps the trope up to eleven in numbering among his nogoodniks a dude attached by bungee cords to a speeding speaker stack, thrashing out crashing chords from a double-necked, flamethrowing guitar. In-car entertainment has come a long way since the days of blue CDs on the Hallmark label, and Mad Max: Fury Road has the ring of a death-metal war cry: defiant, exhilarating, and - in this instance, a rare blockbuster that stays in your head for days afterwards - remarkably well-sustained.

Mad Max: Fury Road is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

1,001 Films: "Zabriskie Point" (1970)

Michelangelo Antonioni reached the US in 1970, and found a country in internal disarray, with the Summer of Love an increasingly distant memory. As with the earlier Blow-Up, which zoomed in on the desolation Antonioni had detected beneath swinging London’s poppy toplayer, Zabriskie Point proposed that all was not entirely right under California’s sunny skies, although it takes some while for this editorial line to come into focus. Initially, we’re merely eavesdropping on the hubbub of student radicals staging a sit-in and preparing their next move. There are heated confabs in the refectory; soon, there will be blood on the quad. (The film opened a matter of months before the Kent State killings: Antonioni had sensed there was something in the air.) Off-campus America is presented as hostile, almost entirely industrialised, determined to reduce individuals to cogs in a machine: The Red Desert on a bigger scale.

Already, though, you’re dazzled by the film’s revivifying reframing of its landscape, an outsider perspective rivalled only by Point Blank in turn-of-the-70s cinema; the incredible colours leap out from the screen. This first act, which might go under the title “Paradise Sold”, nails the kind of consumerist fakery Godard had done so much to show up. The frame floods with billboards, presented here as a kind of supersized junk mail. Only in the second act, a sort of Paradise Regained, do human faces begin to outnumber impersonal signs, as two students – trickflying longhair Mark (Mark Frechette), suspected of killing a cop in the protests, and developer’s daughter Daria (Daria Halprin) – break away from the troubled masses, and head off to the untamed Mojave in search of peace, meaning, connection.

Compared to the agit-prop of La Chinoise – which had its students recite entire passages from Mao – Zabriskie Point’s critique of capitalism is hardly sophisticated. Its title is sourced, rather bluntly, from a Mojave landmark “where old prospectors lost their way”, and it winds its way towards the detonation (fantasised or otherwise) of the harshly modernist glass box in which Daria’s father (Rod Taylor, gruffly patrician in a way that now recalls late Mel Gibson) has imprisoned a staff of mute ethnic domestics. It could be the closing passage of a nursery school primer entitled Stick It To The Man, Man! Antonioni’s sponsor here was MGM, and the soundtrack (the Stones, the Dead, the newly emergent Floyd) and sight of two good-looking kids having a high old time in the wilderness suggest all concerned were working towards something that might attract the same drive-in crowd who lapped up Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde. Antonioni’s affectless Adam and Eve veer between the lovers in Pierrot le Fou – though clumsy with dialogue, Frechette shares Belmondo’s knack of using the frame as his own personal playground – and, in their drippier moments, those in The Blue Lagoon.

Yet even as the screen fills with lithe couples cavorting naked in the Mojave gypsum – and we’re left wondering just how many weeks it took to pick that substance out of their cracks – the film proves rather touchingly naïve. What we’re looking at is a souvenir of perhaps the last moment when this mass medium was still prepared to wholeheartedly endorse other ways of life – which is why I think Zabriskie Point might still be picked up and taken to heart by anyone presently being offered the unappetising choice of signing-on or yet more call-centre work. In documenting a paradise lost, the film has become a paradise lost: it’s hard not to regard that final round of explosions – though notionally liberating, and undeniably beautiful to look at – as bearing witness to a dream going up in smoke. If ever a film deserved a rerelease on the college circuit, this was it: a vivid reminder of a moment when the major studios weren’t just corporate shop windows, and took gambles on works as boldly nonconformist as this. It was, and remains, far out.

Zabriskie Point is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Sunday 24 May 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of May 15-17, 2015: 
1 (new) Pitch Perfect 2 (12A) **
2 (new) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) ****
3 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12A) **
4 (2) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
5 (3) Far From the Madding Crowd (12A) ***
6 (new) A Royal Night Out (12A) ** 
7 (8) Home (U) **
8 (4) Unfriended (15)
9 (6) Fast & Furious 7 (12A) ***
10 (5) The Age of Adaline (12A)


My top five:   
1. Spring
2. The New Girlfriend
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Tribe
5. Clouds of Sils Maria

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Into the Woods (PG) **
2 (3) Gone Girl (18) **
3 (7) The Maze Runner (15)
4 (4) Pride (15) ***
5 (6) Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Never Beast (U) **
6 (new) Foxcatcher (15) ****
7 (8) What We Do in the Shadows (15) ***
8 (9) Dracula Untold (15) **
9 (new) The Drop (15) **
10 (10) Automata (15)    

My top five:  
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision [above]
2. Spring
3. Testament of Youth
4. Foxcatcher
5. Big Hero 6

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Great Escape (Saturday, five, 1.25pm)
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
3. Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (Saturday, BBC1, 12.25am)
4. Trance (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
5. Miami Vice (Friday, ITV1, 10.45pm)

"Poltergeist" (Telegraph 22/05/15)

Poltergeist ***

Dir: Gil Kenan. With: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie de Witt, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements, Jared Harris, Jane Adams. 15 cert, 93 min

1982’s original Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper under writer-producer Steven Spielberg’s eye for boosting popcorn sales, was always chiefly a commercial concern: a funfair Exorcist that ditched its predecessor’s spiritual agonies for more material, Reagan-era concerns. It’s hardly an untouchable property; we need not whine unduly about Fox retooling it. It helps that the director charged with renovating this ghost train, Gil Kenan, sets about his task in the manner of his fantastic 2006 digimation Monster House. Lights flicker, things go bump in the night and – thanks to 3D – much of it lands inches from your face. Again, it’s reasonable fun while it lasts.

Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie de Witt, a couple you instinctively warm to, play the Bowens, setting out on a fresh start by installing themselves and their three kids in suburbia. Their new home, inevitably, has a few glitches. Yes, the rats can be trapped; the electromagnetic disturbances attributed to nearby powerlines. Yet youngest Madison (Kennedi Clements) still winds up pressed to the (newly widescreen) TV, son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) unsettled by a cache of toy clowns – a reminder the original just pipped Stephen King’s remake-ready It to coulrophobia. (Were we being warned about children’s entertainers even back then?)

Around these holdovers, Rabbit Hole playwright David Lindsay-Abaire scatters tantalising flickers of subtext. Where the first movie’s Freelings were upwardly mobile baby boomers, the Bowens are subject to recognisable austerity-age stresses and tensions – not least trying to raise three kids on a diminishing income. Within a brisk, two-shows-a-night running time, there’s also room for a little character: since no one person was ever likely to match Zelda Rubinstein’s inimitable work as the original’s psychic, we instead get chewy parts for Jane Adams and Jared Harris as the academic and Derek Acorah-like investigator running tests for paranormal activity.

Mostly it’s a scare machine, and in this respect Kenan’s is the more efficient telling, its VFX lubricating all that now creaks about the original: the 3D enables such shameless jolts as comin’-atcha drill bits, but also reimagines Madison’s haunted closet as a completely enveloping black hole. The Poltergeist phenomenon has never been more than just a ride, inviting us to pay over the odds for some pretty cheap thrills; adding a 3D surcharge scarcely addresses that. Accept it, however, and the remake has been engineered in broadly the right carnival spirit. It should shift a lot of popcorn, if nothing else.

Poltergeist is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Moomins on the Riviera" (Telegraph 22/05/15)

Moomins on the Riviera ***

Dir: Xavier Picard. Animation with the voices of: Russell Tovey, Tracy Ann Oberman, Nathaniel Parker, Stephanie Winiecki. U cert, 76 min

Images flood the mind, of pallid, potbellied creatures dragging their marshmallow-soft forms along the Croisette. But enough about my colleagues on Cannes duty; back home, we have a brand new Moominmovie to consider. Moomins of the Riviera isn’t the first big-screen runout for Tove Jansson’s beloved creations, and on paper, it sounds among the least immediately compelling: this dubbed, hand-animated 2D patchwork of Janssonalia can’t really compete with, say, 2010’s stopmotion Moomins and the Comet Chase – still unreleased in the UK – which boasted an apocalyptic narrative, several Skarsgårds on vocal duty, and a theme song by Björk.

Early pootling suggests Riviera did need more oomph – that it simply wasn’t enough, in our age of aggressive rebooting, just to nudge these characters around their lakeside comfort zone. It takes Snorkmaiden’s obsession with superstar Audrey Glamour to get us to the South of France, whereupon matters liven up. Any fears that Moominland has been tainted by modern celebrity culture – as Greendale was in last year’s Postman Pat: the Movie – should be allayed by the film’s conception of Riviera glitz, which predates even Bonjour Tristesse: here be duelling artists and aristocrats, and a Grand Hotel to check into under the assumed name “de Moomin”.

What follows is composed of bits and skits, some of which likewise go back a while. Parents will sense what’s coming when Moominmamma (voiced by Tracy Ann Oberman) is handed a seltzer bottle in a fancy restaurant, even if their gurgling offspring won’t. The visuals, too, return us to a more innocent, pre-Pixar aesthetic: in place of dazzling 3D spectacle, we’re offered the occasional static long shot that, preface-like, maps the chaos of the Moomin parlour, with its dirty dishes filed away under the furniture, or the precise positions of the main characters on the island they at one point wash up on.

Gradually, the simplicity yields an idiosyncratic charm. The animators have been freed to sketch traces of personality into every passing cat, rat and insect: family dog White Shadow initiates a job swap with his identical cousin so as to elope. More such flourishes would have been welcome; as it is, the film will probably hold under-fives longer than it will older siblings. For accompanying adults, though, its mellow vibe and laissez-faire worldview should make for a pleasurable throwback: a reminder of the literary teatime telly we were raised on, rather than more of the eardrum-perforating, retina-scorching, toy-hawking product we’ve been stuck with.

Moomins on the Riviera is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Return to Sender" (Telegraph 22/05/15)

Return to Sender **

Dir: Fouad Mikati. With: Rosamund Pike, Rumer Willis, Scout Taylor-Compton, Shiloh Fernandez, Nick Nolte, Camryn Mannheim, Illeana Douglas. 18 cert, 95 min

This often happens: a performer hits the A-list, and all manner of skeletons are pulled from their closet for public exhibition. Rosamund Pike scored a career high last year as Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, and what’s notable about her previous project, the salacious indie thriller Return to Sender, is its rough-draft resemblance to the later film. Again, rape-revenge tropes are toyed with in cynical-to-silly ways; again, we’re meant to be titillated by the manoeuvrings of two sociopaths who arguably deserve one another. The end product: cinematic clickbait that hides its weakest material behind spoilers, and hopes its audience will be gullible enough to proceed.

Pike’s Miranda is the kind of movie nurse whose professional standing can be asserted by the performance of an impromptu after-hours tracheotomy; going on the meticulously iced cake she presents at a colleague’s birthday (“it’s just something I do”), she’s also a domestic goddess. All she’s missing is a man, a lack which a blind date is meant to resolve. William (Shiloh Fernandez) arrives early, and given his resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix’s sketchier younger brother, you might hope for an indefinite postponement; instead, he assaults her over the kitchen table, leaving her there for when her actual date – a charming fellow, carrying flowers – shows up.

That’s a neat – if nasty – twist, and what follows, after Miranda recuperates, is elevated by Pike’s smart work in layering up this character: a control freak rattled by the imperfections of lesser mortals. A ruckus in the drycleaners, just as our heroine should be at her most sympathetic, indicates something’s off with her, but the filmmakers find laughable ways of underlining the point: one minute she’s struggling with her piping bag, the next having a tizz playing Operation. When she starts visiting William in jail for intense heart-to-hearts, we gulp: is this a movie in which a survivor discovers she misses her attacker?

That at least would be daring. What’s actually being withheld proves far less potent: coy payback, pre-empted by a scene – suggestive of 18-rated Nicholas Sparks – in which the just-released William and Miranda paint porch furniture (“you’re dripping”). Weaponising those dark-pool eyes, Pike’s remains a preternatural beauty, but it merits a vehicle that doesn’t encourage us to suspect or loathe her for it as these films do – and that may require her to step away from American popular culture, and its ingrained misogyny, just as she’s being embraced by it. For the time being, there aren’t trigger warnings big enough for trash like this.

Return to Sender is now playing in selected cinemas.

"Spring" (Guardian 22/05/15)

Spring ****
Dirs: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead. With: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker, Vanessa Bednar, Shane Brady. 109 mins. Cert: 15

Writer-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead here offer one of the year’s foremost genre discoveries, although Spring’s exact form is revealed only belatedly: at every level, some shapeshifting is involved. The erratic trajectory of smalltown drifter Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), absconding to Europe after a police charge, initially suggests a dread return to Hostel territory. Yet it’s a feint: the filmmakers, forever more serious than sniggering around death, instead tack onto an altogether scenic alternative route. Holing up in rural Bologna, our boy crosses paths with mysterious geneticist Louise (Nadia Hilker), and their courtly romance transforms the film entirely, each scene nudging the characters further beyond predator/prey archetypes and into almost impossibly vivacious landscapes. Long before its unusual, Lovecraft-via-Linklater third act, in which the lovers try to work a situation out rather than put a stake through it, Spring becomes genuinely regenerative: a monster movie with a heart and soul to go alongside its tentacles. 

Spring is now playing in selected cinemas. A longer version of this review can be found here.

"The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them" (Guardian 22/05/15)

The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them ***
Dir: Phil Grabsky. Documentary with the voices of Robert Lindsay, Glen McCready. 91 mins. Cert: U.

The latest in the Exhibition on Screen series – playing for one night only next Tuesday – finds documentarist Phil Grabsky applying his defiantly old-school house style (talking heads, diary readings, steady rostrum camera in the tradition of Kens Burns and Morse) to the acclaimed Inventing Impressionism show now installed at the National Gallery. Interviewees acknowledge these long-canonised works make it hard to convey the shock of the new Impressionism represented; Grabsky wisely deploys his Manets and Monets to illustrate the struggles of Paul Durand-Ruel, the young dealer whose keen commercial and curatorial instincts eventually smashed down the Salon’s locked doors and cracked these artists in America. Given all those personality-oriented “journeys” in TV land, it’s refreshing to encounter a doc that commits ninety minutes to disseminating its info in considered, scholarly fashion: fascinating theories and titbits abound, and the way these canvasses reflect light renders them newly immersive on the big screen. An enriching experience.

The Impressionists... screens in selected cinemas for one night only this Tuesday.

"Dino Time" (Guardian 22/05/15)

Dino Time **
Dirs: Yoon-suk Choi, John Kafka. Animation with the voices of: Melanie Griffith, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Baldwin, William Baldwin. 75 mins. Cert: U

This week’s digimated chancer is a U.S.-Korean fossil dating from 2012 that features Melanie Griffith and William Baldwin as the voices of warring dinosaurs – remember when these things provoked actual anticipation? This one displays early flickers of wit in zapping squabbling kids back to their hometown as it was in the cretaceous era, before a drab quest narrative kicks in, cueing more plodding than any 70-minute feature should. Shameless, 3D-enabling camera pirouettes and tones ranging from “Sunny Delight” to “radioactive Haribo” provide a measure of visual compensation: it’s not one for the ages, but you’ll have likely shelled out for worse. 

Dino Time is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Gender confusion: "The New Girlfriend"

In François Ozon's latest outing The New Girlfriend, everything is fluid. We fade in, to the strains of "The Wedding March", on the sight of a woman being made up, leading us to assume we're watching some blushing bride being prepared for her big day - not, as it turns out, a pallid corpse being readied for burial. The body is that of Laura (Isild Le Besco), the eulogy read by her BFF Claire (Anaïs Demoustier). In a brilliant, wordless flashback sequence, Ozon presents this friendship as an ongoing rivalry between two women who first meet as girls. The meek Claire experiences her first, awkward fumbles with the opposite sex just as the more daring Laura has started to jump on men; she's the bridesmaid at Laura's wedding to David (Romain Duris); when she marries herself - to successful, straight-laced Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), a thoroughly sensible choice - Laura is at her side nursing a baby bump; at the christening, godmother Claire stands at the font, while a visibly sickening Laura is confined to a wheelchair. The race is now over, and Laura has won. What next? Well, spoilers await, so you may prefer to see it, as you should, before reading on.

Ozon adapted The New Girlfriend from a fifteen-page short story that counts as another of Ruth Rendell's inquiries into human behaviour and social norms, although it surely has to go down as one of the least typical. For starters, it's not Laura's death that provides the mystery and requires investigation; the mystery is how life goes on in the wake of her demise. Clearly both Claire and David are affected by her passing: Claire appears newly freed up to question her conventional bourgeois existence, and put herself first for a change; for David, perhaps inevitably, the change is even more dramatic. Forced to assume the role of stay-at-home mum, he's started wearing his late wife's dresses around the house, to console himself and the baby; Claire initially reacts to this revelation, as many viewers will, with shock, but soon finds the clothes confer some essential Lauraness upon David, which sends her into further disarray. History - or, rather, herstory - starts repeating itself.

In truth, everything about the film proves more complex than it first appears. To take the most obvious element, it's organised around what would surely, in other hands, have been no more than a sight gag: the six-foot, four-inch Duris, clad in lippy, heels and the hautiest of haute couture. (Ever since his 1996 short A Summer Dress, Ozon has always been unusually attentive to the interplay between costume and character: Laura bequeathes to her spouse the wardrobe of a 1950s matinee idol.) Certainly, there are comic asides here, in the form of what could be a beginners' guide to transvestism: as Claire gives David tips on applying mascara, and reminds him to shave to avoid five o'clock shadow, it's just possible Ozon intends to school his straight male viewers on how femininity is performance, and all that jazz. "You gotta suffer to be beautiful," winces David in the course of having his back hair waxed.

Nevertheless Ozon, an erstwhile enfant terrible who's grown only more sensitive with age, grants the character a psychological depth. David defines himself as a straight crossdresser who continues to desire women - in trans terms, more David Walliams than Danny La Rue - and one mortuary scene sets us to wondering whether his crossdressing isn't in some way pathological: a retreat under the skin of his dead sweetheart. Certain elements Claire can't help but find attractive: she inherits a gal pal with one change of clothes to haul in firewood, and another to hit the gay bar - presented here as just about the best party a guy, gay, straight or anything in between, might attend. Yet Ozon notes - sympathetically - that this is a lot of baggage for one individual to be carrying around: life gets doubly complicated when David and Claire start trysting at the Hotel Virginia, its very title redolent of a desire to start anew. 

Given the extreme sensitivity of these characters, the final round of lies do come to feel as though they could prove hurtful, if not deadly. Still, the film remains a quietly optimistic and progressive proposition, confident in the ability of its own flawed but decent characters to work through their issues and move towards a happier future for all concerned; it also helps that its writer-director is so acutely alert to the meaning and nuances of his own story that the camera can find elegant, consoling ironies and symmetries wherever it looks. As a result, The New Girlfriend may be the closest the movies have come in recent times to an entirely persuasive merging of the sexes: right through to a climactic sex scene of which many things can and will be made, you sense male and female viewers will take from it polymorphous, and surely numerous, pleasures. Whatever the underwear they're wearing.

The New Girlfriend is now playing in selected cinemas.