Saturday 27 June 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of June 19-21, 2015: 
1 (1) Jurassic World (12A)
2 (new) Take That Live (PG)
3 (2) Spy (12A) ***
4 (new) Mr. Holmes (PG) ***
5 (new) Entourage (15)
6 (3) San Andreas (12A)
7 (new) The Longest Ride (12A) **
8 (4) Insidious: Chapter 3 (15) ***
9 (7) Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back (U)
10 (6) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) **** 


My top five:   
1. The Third Man [above]
2. Slow West
3. The Long Good Friday
4. Les Combattants
5. Natural Resistance

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Big Hero 6 (PG) ***
2 (5) Interstellar (12) **
3 (2) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12) **
4 (4) Shaun the Sheep Movie (PG) ***
5 (3) Gascoigne (15) ***
6 (8) Jurassic Park (PG) ****
7 (7) Into the Woods (PG) **
8 (6) Kajaki: the True Story (15) ***
9 (9) Annie (PG)
10 (10) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **

My top five:  
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision
2. It Follows
3. Stonehearst Asylum
4. Love is Strange
5. Whiplash

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Edward Scissorhands (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)
2. Beetlejuice (Sunday, five, 5.10pm)
3. From Here to Eternity (Sunday, BBC2, 1.35pm)
4. The Princess Bride (Sunday, five, 1.20pm)
5. Even the Rain (Friday, BBC2, 1.30am)

Friday 26 June 2015

"Knock Knock" (Guardian 26/06/15)

Knock Knock ***

Dir: Eli Roth. With: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Ignacia Allemand. 99 mins. Cert: 18

Multiple producer credits aside, Eli Roth has been lying low since the skilfully nasty Hostel initiated the torture-porn cycle a decade ago. We might, at a pinch, see signs of a maturing in his comeback film’s premise: here, female sexuality threatens not the snickering fratboys of his earlier work, but a middle-aged man who could stand for any number of ageing showbusiness roués. With calculated perversity, Roth and co-writers Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolas Lopez attempt a crossbreed of Fatal Attraction and Funny Games, staging a sustained assault on the idyllic Hollywood retreat architect father-of-two Keanu Reeves shares with his loving artist wife.

With the latter taking kids out of town for the Father’s Day weekend, Reeves’ Evan has been left to play his old Kiss albums and retrieve the pot previously consigned to a drawer in his mancave. Fleshier temptation presents itself when big-eyed, bodacious party girls Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) turn up on his doorstep, soaked through from a storm. We know Evan regards himself as a knight in shining armour, so it’s hardly surprising that he invites them in. We might question the move, though: first the dude’s pants come down, then his whole civilised veneer.

After a sinuous opening tracking shot, we’re largely left in situ watching the girls playing Evan for a fool: cooing upon discovering his DJ past, marvelling at his muscle tone. The film’s a judicious tease: for much of the first half, we’re anticipating hot three-way action, yet for once, Roth appears less interested in the big bang than he is in the initial tremors, and their possible repercussions. “I like building up the anticipation,” Reeves declares while unwrapping his presents, and his director may now feel similarly inclined: the gorehound of yore here reveals a new-found attention to script nuance and other varieties of kink.

Izzo and de Armas, afforded greater screen time than Hostel’s harpies, actually prove the film’s most valuable players, shuffling through multiple wardrobe changes, each time re-entering as different kinds of little monsters. Keanu, attempting more acting than the recent John Wick demanded, is less certain: he’s nicely courtly when shrugging off the girls’ initial advances, and it’s amusing seeing his inner Theodore Logan reawaken when the flirtation moves up (or down) a notch, but he gets hysterical during the morning-after parenting job. (His final scenes recall his deathless Jonathan Harker, which is entertainment of a kind.)

As a vision, Knock Knock remains pretty grim: the man’s an easily-led dupe who gets what he deserves, the women shape-shifting temptresses. Yet the infrastructure sustaining it – a clever deployment of tensions specific to the Uber app (a mainstream first), one eerily positioned overhead shot establishing the house’s isolation, the tantalising hints this could all be a bad dream – stands as uncommonly sound. Roth remains among our brighter shock merchants; possibly we love to hate his films as we hate to love those of, say, Lars von Trier – because they draw us in as they do.

You may consider it a blessing that the film can’t sustain the frowning moral conservatism of the AIDS-era Fatal Attraction; instead, we witness the director cackling – loudly, maybe reassuringly – as the girls threaten to out Evan as a paedophile, and a punchline that sniggers at the way our nightmares have shifted over recent decades from the private to the public domain. Little here is going to challenge the opinion of Roth as a bratty provocateur, but it’s still fun to experience a latter-day thriller pushing so many buttons in broadly the right order: if Knock Knock’s no more than a sick joke, it’s been very shrewdly constructed.

Knock Knock is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Lauda: The Untold Story" (Guardian 26/06/15)

Lauda: the Untold Story ***

Dir: Hannes Michael Schalle. With: Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton. 90 mins. Cert: PG

That “untold” snipes at Ron Howard’s Rush, where Niki Lauda was deployed as an uptight yardstick against which James Hunt’s roistering could be more efficiently dramatised. This studious documentary profile – Austrian-assembled, despite its overblown American voiceover – benefits from the candid testimony of a driver who went to hell and back while displaying a supremely Teutonic matter-of-factness: on being offered last rites in the wake of that 1976 inferno, Lauda recalls “my pragmatic thinking was that it couldn’t do any harm”. Textured archive punches up Lauda’s transformation from humble berger to post-crash power player, yet after the initial trial-by-fire, the narrative tailgates 2013’s comprehensive F1: Life on the Limit in impressing upon us the sport’s latter-day devotion to risk management. While this has saved a lot of skin, it’s the material of an instructional video; a decidedly MOR closing-credits cover of “Born to Be Wild” damns the untold story as very much the straight story. 

Lauda: the Untold Story plays in selected cinemas for one night only on Thursday 2nd.

"Hippocrates" (Guardian 26/06/15)

Hippocrates **

Dir: Thomas Lilti. With: Vincent Lacoste, Jacques Gamblin, Reda Kateb, Marianne Denicourt. 102 mins. Cert: 15

This oddly bloodless social-realist exercise finds French writer-director Thomas Lilti striving to redefine doctors as distinct from their superheroic small-screen equivalents; the corridors patrolled by boyish intern Thomas (Vincent Lacoste) house only report-fudging, short-staffing and shonky equipment. UK clinicians may recognise much, yet the earnest resistance to melodrama proves self-defeating: despite characterful ensemble work in the vein of Maïwenn’s Polisse, scenes of spinal taps and form-filling outnumber life-or-death resuscitations, and its dramatic pulse weakens scene-by-scene. The result may honour the daily reality of medical professionals – the finale’s a credibly fractious staff meeting – but it makes for a patchy, hesitant dispatch, more “er…” than e.r. 

Hippocrates opens at London's Ciné Lumière today.

"Everly" (Guardian 26/06/15)

Everly *

Dir: Joe Lynch. With: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda, Togo Igawa. 92 mins. Cert: 18

A gruelling gimmick thriller, pitched at dead-eyed graduates of the Matthew Vaughn school of cinematic sociopathy. Working girl Salma Hayek scrabbles to save her daughter while confined to a Yakuza-run cathouse; she does so in kitten heels and a push-up top that gets clingy when the sprinklers go off. Such abject cynicism would have been easier to take cut with any style, wit or momentum, but the contrivances prove exhausting, the digital camerawork’s as crude as the stereotyping, and it’s no kind of star vehicle: it identifies Hayek as a sexy punchbag from minute one, then displays a reprehensible glee in laying into her. 

Everly opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Train of thought: "Station to Station"

For the next month, London's Barbican is playing host to the umbrella event Station to Station, a latter-day happening described by its prime mover, the artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken, as "a journey through modern creativity". By way of an advance party - and an attempt to pull slightly sharper focus on that buzzily vague item of phrasemaking - we have this documentary sampler of the event's US incarnation, tracking 24 days on a train travelling from East Coast to West in 62 dispatches of one minute or less: UK viewers might be reminded of BBC2's Video Nation series, given a new, hipster twist.

As a real-world event, Aitken's inclusive, all-encompassing project - folding in contributions from the worlds of art, music, architecture, photography, dance and literature, not to mention cinema - invited its initial audience to hop on and off, and travel as far with these ideas, as they wanted. The question with the film is whether such a bitty, piecemeal approach coalesces into anything substantial; whether you'd be better off booking for one event at the Barbican, rather than rapidly channel-hopping through all 344, as we often seem to be doing here.

The snatches of artistic self-justification we hear would, for one, almost certainly be better expressed at greater length within the context of a site-specific Q&A, and Aitken's tactic works against his musical star turns (Thurston Moore, Cat Power, Giorgio Moroder, Patti Smith), who can only play sixty seconds of just one of the twenty-odd songs they'd doubtless power through at any live gig. Jackson Browne has the right idea, using his minute to squeeze in a reminiscence of his life on the other side of the tracks; Ariel Pink, observed unpicking a dream while wearing a Bela Tarr T-shirt (nichest merchandise item ever), may be representative. 

Elsewhere, Aitken provides a useful platform for such up-and-comers as the band Bloodbirds, who go all shy when asked to explain themselves; he also catches a lovely moment with reggae veterans The Congos, amusing themselves in fashioning vocal harmonies from the names of places they've visited. This is where you feel the conceit pays off, in demonstrating simple ideas coming together or gathering momentum: in the development of a piece of video art (by Aitken himself) in which a cattle auctioneer caught rehearsing his spiel becomes a resonant keepsake of the territory the train passed through, or in the study of Olifur Eliasson's "Drawing Machine", in which a paint-covered ball was left to create "kinetic canvasses" dependent on the train's movement.

Minute by minute, we're getting a sense of the tremendous, diverse creative energy this project unlocked - energy enough perhaps to power a train all the way across America on its own. What's most stirring, particularly in the context of the defeatism proliferating on social media among the British left in the wake of the recent General Election result, is the very American can-do optimism evident among performers and audience alike; Aitken shows us young people putting themselves out there and getting on with things, moving inexorably forward and in the process opening up new horizons for themselves and the culture.

Whether or not that idea can be sustained in the shadow of the City of London remains to be seen, but in place of moping or handwringing, these sixty-odd shorts collectively venture a modest yet appreciable proposal: if you don't like the enforced immobilisation of society, and if the limitations being placed upon the majority of us do mean we're all going to wind up playing hobo sooner or later, then let's ride the rails for a bit, and see where the journey takes us. Metropolitan London audiences are at a particular advantage in this respect: to board this train, they won't have to travel beyond Zone 1.

Station to Station opens at London's Barbican and ICA cinemas from tomorrow.         

Monday 22 June 2015

"ABCD2" (Guardian 23/06/15)

ABCD2 ***

Dir: Remo. With: Prabhudheva, Varun Dhawan, Shraddha Kapoor, Lauren Gottlieb. 152 mins. Cert: PG

2013’s ABCD – it stood for Any Body Can Dance, establishing the talent-show territory it was staking out – found Bollywood cutting in on an idea proven profitable elsewhere: its stereoscopic urban danceathon marked another jump-off from the Step Ups. This takeback was more cheeky than venal: Hindi cinema has its own tradition of fleet-footedness, a lineage ABCD2 underlines by appointing a boy schooled in Indian classical dance to head its crew. If you’re looking for flow from your musicals, here it is – and this sequel even folds in claims of plagiarism, the better to transcend them.

It transpires that en route to TV triumph, the Mumbai Stunners pilfered a move from a rival troupe, the steal called out on social media for all to comment upon. Mortal shame is thereby brought upon brooding mentor Vishnu (Prabhudheva) and chief B-boy Suresh (Varun Dhawan), although possible redemption presents itself after it’s revealed the Stunners have won a place in an international competition in Las Vegas – blatant brand expansion, this, not unlike Pitch Perfect 2’s decision to dispatch its Bellas to Copenhagen.

What ensues follows a recognisably Cowellian arc. Early auditions garner cheap laughs at the expense of clumsy no-hopers; the discoveries get a midfilm warm-up in Bangalore that serves a similar narrative purpose to Glee’s recurring regionals; there’s a makeover section; and, eventually, we reach the make-or-break bling of the World Starz Hip-Hop Challenge – or to give it its full, slightly less street title, the Ponds Men’s Face Wash World Starz Hip-Hop Challenge. (These characters have 99 problems, but acne isn’t one.)

All of which is to suggest that, for fullest enjoyment, there is much about ABCD2 that requires forgiveness, or at least overlooking. There is, firstly, that Glee problem of performers who look of an age where they should be shopping for Cath Kidston towels rather than seen wearing baseball caps backwards in public. And, boy, is it gimmicky: festooned in confectionary-wrapper colours, given to item-tossing business designed to justify the 3D surcharge. Its comic stretches deploy a wacky-zany mode even kids’ TV has abandoned; a cantering gag – it hardly reaches running speed – depends on one dancer’s enduringly smelly feet.

Yet none of this matters whenever a beat drops. ABCD2 is the latest film to recognise that – however you gender your gaze – there is an abiding pleasure in watching bodies in motion, and choreographer-turned-director Remo d’Souza keeps nudging more of them on. Many bases are covered: a funny drunk number as Vishnu drowns his sorrows, Dharmesh Yelande’s precision robotics, those Diversity-like massed-rank interpretative stomps that look like some light-entertainment repurposing of the Nuremberg Rallies, a trad clifftop love song lent extra wow by its Monument Valley backdrop.

At 152 minutes, the film is, let’s say, generously edited, but we’re allowed time to admire – and sometimes marvel at – the choreography: by holding shots several clicks longer than the norm, d’Souza offers unbroken passages of movement, and every chance to catch distinguishing flourishes within the overall design. (There may, in fact, be good reason why his kids appear older than their Western equivalents: it presumably takes years of training to attain such expressivity. No-one gave a damn how old Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly were the instant they tapped a toe.)

Having Disney on board has inevitably resulted in a budgetary upgrade: the makers of 2010’s Streetdance, where Nichola Burley stockpiled KitKats within a Frank Harper-operated greasy spoon, will likely gasp in envy at the split-level cocktail bar where Suresh earns his crust. Yet the improvements aren’t merely superficial; they’re structural, too. Relocating this formula to a cinema where song and dance is the rule and not the exception allows d’Souza to slip freely between set-pieces without recourse to his predecessors’ straining narrative contrivance.

Yes, there is here a turned ankle, an estranged son, even – at the last – a nasty case of TB (which hale-and-hearty Channing Tatum never had to overcome), yet the film takes all these elements in its stride. Nothing is allowed to harsh the prevailing youth-club vibe; the film is as lithe, and as blithe, as dancers aim to appear on stage. Frivolous as it may seem on the surface, the material’s been shaped with showbiz savvy, by the safest imaginable pair of jazz hands. d’Souza knows these films are only as good as their last dance – and this sequel retains some undeniably entertaining moves.

ABCD2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 20 June 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of June 12-14, 2015: 
1 (new) Jurassic World (12A)
2 (1) Spy (12A) ***
3 (2) San Andreas (12A)
4 (3) Insidious: Chapter 3 (15) ***
5 (5) Pitch Perfect 2 (12A) **
6 (4) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) ****
7 (8) Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back (U)
8 (new) London Road (15) ***
9 (6) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12A) **
10 (7) Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (PG) ***


My top five:   
1. The Long Good Friday [above]
2. Les Combattants
3. Natural Resistance
4. ABCD2
5. Mr. Holmes

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Big Hero 6 (PG) ***
2 (new) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12) **
3 (new) Gascoigne (15) ***
4 (2) Shaun the Sheep Movie (PG) ***
5 (4) Interstellar (12) ** 
6 (5) Kajaki: the True Story (15) ***
7 (3) Into the Woods (PG) **
8 (9) Jurassic Park (PG) ****
9 (6) Annie (PG)
10 (7) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **

My top five:  
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision
2. Stonehearst Asylum
3. Love is Strange
4. Whiplash
5. Dior and I

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Happiest Days of Your Life (Saturday, BBC2, 7.55am)
2. The Rookie (Saturday, BBC1, 12midnight)
3. The Other Guys (Sunday, five, 10pm)
4. Fallen (Friday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
5. Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (Sunday, C4, 1.10am)

Wednesday 17 June 2015

"Hamari Adhuri Kahani" (Guardian 15/06/15)

Hamari Adhuri Kahani **
Dir: Mohit Suri. With: Emraan Hashmi, Vidya Balan, Raj Kumar Yadav. 129 mins. Cert: 12A.

Western viewers tend to regard blockbuster season as an exclusively English-language phenomenon, which isn’t the case in this globalised moment. The 21st Century Fox fanfare blares out before this new Hindi release; next week, the Disney-backed sequel ABCD2 bounces onto our screens. Anyone anticipating a degree of homogenisation in such multiplex-bound ventures will likely be confounded by director Mohit Suri’s new throwback: this is straight-faced hothouse melodrama, very much Bollywood trad, pitched at a level Hollywood rarely pursues even in Nicholas Sparks flicks. It may provoke a similar sniggering from the cheap seats.

Such films can yield their own swooning pleasures: in irony-saturated 2015, it reassures the soul to know the movies – and Hindi movies especially – are still keen to sell us the image of a woman in a flowing sari running at full pelt through sand dunes, and without packaging it in winking quotation marks. Yet Suri’s also testing the modern audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief, and the material he’s working with here – unfolding the happenstance-heavy mystery of a woman at the mercy of the men around her – proves barely fit for this purpose, or any other besides.

The woman, Vasudha (Vidya Balan), is not long for this world: the film’s barely five minutes old when she stumbles off a bus to expire on a dirtroad. A two-hour flashback sketches an under-corroborated history of her personal relations – first with a brutish hubby (Raj Kumar Yadav) suspected of terrorist activity; then with Aarav (Emraan Hashmi), multimillionaire owner of the hotel she drudges within. This Prince Charming whisks her to Dubai – that fairytale kingdom renowned for throwing open its doors and arms to the fairer sex – to point out the stars in the desert sky. This courtship is, of course, doomed.

Some of its floridity is inbuilt. Vasudha’s job involves filling Aarav’s suite with lilies and orchids; later, after she’s channelled Foreigner in imploring him to teach her what love is, the pair are encircled by a sudden flurry of cherry blossoms – you’d call it freak, were it not part of an overall strategy intended to associate the heroine with such rare, delicate and perishable blooms. For Aarav, Vasudha’s presence prompts memories – and therefore a flashback within a flashback – of his own mother, a hard-scrabbling saloon singer. This revelation should at least grab the attention of amateur psychologists; whether the film can retain it is another matter.

Melodrama needs to be watertight to earn our tears: the last notable Hindi example, 2013’s shimmering O. Henry adaptation Lootera, had to seal itself inside a period milieu to have the effect that it did. By contrast, there are too many breaches in Suri’s narrative logic: given that the main flashback encompasses Skype and selfies – not to mention prominent promotional placements for various Middle East-associated brands – are we to assume that the wraparound story takes place in India, thirty years hence? If so, why does everything look identical to the present day?

Elsewhere, the parallel between Vasudha and Aarav’s mother only holds if we see the former doing everything possible for her boy; once she’s been removed to Dubai, however, her kid vanishes for reasons never satisfactorily explained. The frantic second half, in which hubby returns to civilisation a wanted man, and – by way of cosmic reordering – Aarav sets out for a warzone, is almost all sweeping gestures, unmoored from credible motivation; you can’t discern whether it’s the film’s sincerity that has taken a dip, or the filmmakers’ intelligence.

If the Fox execs did exert any influence, it might have been in the altogether romantic portrait of tycoon Aarav as a brooding de Winter type, prepared to walk through minefields to do right by his beloved. (James Murdoch: the gauntlet has been set down.) Either way, Vasudha’s suffering provides a thankless role for Balan, obliged to assume a perpetually crestfallen look while succumbing to her fate. Mother-fixated company man or wild-eyed fundamentalist killer? Perhaps there are women in this world who face comparably rotten life choices, but they – and the rest of us – deserve better elaborated escapism than this.

Hamari Adhuri Kahani is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday 15 June 2015

On DVD: "The Green Prince"

Documentary production powerhouses John Battsek and Simon Chinn have an eye for projects centred on individuals operating deep undercover; they've come to realise that audiences both relate and respond to stories in which the primary fear is the very contemporary, near-universal one of being found out. After Philippe Petit in 2008's Man on Wire, stashing his equipment in preparation for his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, and Frederic Bourdin, the conman key to 2012's The Imposter, the Battsek-Chinn alliance now introduces Mosab Hassan Yousef, subject of director Nadav Schirman's The Green Prince. The son of imam and high-ranking Hamas official Sheikh Hassan Yousef, Mosab came as a teenager to accept an offer to work for the Israeli security service in order to liberate himself from custody, and was then forced to run the gauntlet for the decade between 1997 and 2007 while he figured out where his true loyalties lay.

Several years on, and now in exile in the United States, the now adult Yousef sits in a replica of the interrogation room he was first turned in, talking us through his experiences and feelings - as he originally did in a 2010 autobiography, Son of Hamas - and explaining how he came to find a way through the ethical labyrinth in which both Hamas and Shin Bet could be heard doing and saying much the same things to a boy such as he. As a witness, Yousef could scarcely be better placed: soon after his release from Israeli custody, he became his father's assistant, and elected to use his position - as simultaneously a son and an informant growing increasingly alienated by Hamas's militancy - to keep his dad as safe as any political figure might be in today's Middle East. Yet Schirman has intercut this story with a second narrative, that of Yousef's Israeli handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak, who saw close up what a coup his charge was ("like turning the son of the Israeli Prime Minister") and now speaks, with a degree of frankness, about how this all came about.

Both men are pleased by, even proud of, their work, and prove keen to relay their stories; unlike those in Errol Morris's first-person interrogations, these subjects seemingly require no behind-the-camera prompting or redirection, and their testimonies are presented to be taken more or less at face value. Schirman instead concentrates on packaging and punching up everything else around it, deploying espionage thriller tropes (lots of mock surveillance footage and night-vision reconstructions) as part of the cinematic nous (razor-sharp cutting, deft, atmospheric scoring, a clear, relentless narrative line) now expected of Battsek-Chinn productions. All this helps The Green Prince play - it won the Sundance documentary prize last year - but the blood trickling through the archive footage kept reminding me just how contentious the raw material here is, and how much more contentious it is than the substance of either Man on Wire or The Imposter: the super-slick approach, while dramatically effective, can be ideologically jarring. 

For here, unlike in those predecessors, there's more at stake than just a good yarn. The Green Prince follows 2012's The Gatekeepers in shining a little more light on the once-shadowy activities of Israel's Shin Bet, yet Schirman is far less rigorous in his questioning of the organisation's methods and motives: you wouldn't have to be politically entrenched or entirely wrong-headed to read his film as an endorsement of the tactic of imprisoning and torturing Palestinians - here, it's reported to have saved many Israeli lives, no matter that both Yousef and Yitzhak ended up in the cold. Narratively, it is a hell of a thing - a story with not just one but two fully articulated positions, lives weighing in the balance, and a humanising, we-are-the-world punchline - and it's hardly a surprise Hollywood has pounced upon it, greenlighting a feature version just as it has a feature on Man on Wire in the works. More so than usual, however, it's a documentary that demands very close, careful, attentive parsing.

The Green Prince is released on DVD today. 

Friday 12 June 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of June 5-7, 2015: 
1 (new) Spy (12A) ***
2 (1) San Andreas (12A)
3 (new) Insidious: Chapter 3 (15) ***
4 (3) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) ****
5 (2) Pitch Perfect 2 (12A) **
6 (5) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12A) **
7 (4) Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (PG) ***
8 (new) Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back (U)
9 (new) Dil Dhadakne Do (12A) ***
10 (7) Man Up (15)


My top five:   
1. The Misfits
2. The Look of Silence
3. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
4. London Road
5. West

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Big Hero 6 (PG) ***
2 (2) Shaun the Sheep Movie (PG) ***
3 (3) Into the Woods (PG) **
4 (4) Interstellar (12) ** 
5 (new) Kajaki: the True Story (15) ***
6 (5) Annie (PG)
7 (new) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **
8 (6) Testament of Youth (12) ****
9 (re) Jurassic Park (PG) ****
10 (8) Pride (15) ***

My top five:  
1. Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision
2. Love is Strange
3. Whiplash
4. Wild Tales
5. The Green Prince

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Rebecca (Saturday, BBC2, 2.40pm)
2. Jurassic Park [above] (Sunday, ITV1, 1.35pm)
3. High Fidelity (Sunday, BBC1, 11.15pm)
4. Julie & Julia (Saturday, BBC2, 10.30pm)
5. Creation (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.25pm)

Thursday 11 June 2015

On her secret service: "Spy"

Just as certain rock stars have expressed a desire to be footballers (and, more regrettably, vice versa), so too there may be some aspirational crossover between action and comedy directors: for corroboration, you need only sample that run of features that have situated themselves on the boundary between the two genres, a lineage that has extended from such pre-millennial favourites as 48HRS. and Midnight Run to the Rush Hour series, Pineapple Express and The Other Guys. Having raked in major dollars with 2011's Bridesmaids and 2013's The Heat (itself a comic reworking of the buddy-cop formula), the writer-director Paul Feig has now been handed the production budget and the stunt team that might enable a larky fellow to make a movie that might hold its own at the heart of this franchise-heavy summer.

Spy is Feig's idea of a Bond movie: it has the brassy theme song, the stylised credits, the gadgets, the nuke-touting nemesis and the obligatory casino showdown, but organises itself around a what-if gender reversal, sending the equivalent of a Miss Moneypenny or Chloe - Melissa McCarthy's undervalued CIA flunky Susan Cooper - rather than a James Bond or Jack Bauer-type into the field, and investigating, as Feig did in The Heat, the possibilities of sending a woman to do what the movies have long demarcated as a man's job. It qualifies as a refresh, if perhaps not a radical one: what Feig is doing here only really counts as new when set against all those bromances initiated by Judd Apatow's paradigm-shifting The 40-Year-Old Virgin ten years ago; it's arguable that Spy is no more than the market correcting itself after a decade of dick jokes.

What's clear is that, emerging from years of serial TV work (Arrested Development, Nurse Jackie, The Office), Feig is much more of a storyteller than the spitballing Apatow: he genuinely seems to care about the details of the espionage plot his heroine is thrown into, at least as much as he does about the gags that result from it, and he's banished a high percentage of the indulgence the post-Apatow comedies fostered around their mewling manboys. Although he retains his predecessor's fondness for throwing the most unlikely performers together - Spy, at various points, pairs Jason Statham (never more hilarious) with Allison Janney, Miranda Hart with 50 Cent and, briefly, McCarthy with Eurovision novelty act Verka Serduchka - he's far more attentive to what works and what doesn't: the restless rhythms of the modern action movie allow him to cut out of a situation if it isn't catching fire.

Such precision helps Feig through the fight scenes and the more knockabout comedy, and seems to keep his actors on their toes, too: he gets another terrific, Martini-dry comic showing from Rose Byrne as McCarthy's target, an arms dealer so jaded by her life of luxury that she continues to text while dispatching her foes. In McCarthy, meanwhile, we evidently have another A-list star on our hands, one capable of outmuscling both The Rock's San Andreas at the UK box office and the Entourage boys in the States. Watching her slobbish hurricane in last year's Tammy, flattening every joke and scattering viewer sympathies in her wake, you probably wouldn't have got this, but Spy is the film that reveals her as an incredibly precise performer when the material calls for it.

You see it in the way she handles a hefty wine list in a fancy restaurant, eventually ordering what turns out to be the bistro's name - another of Feig's apparently throwaway gags that go to defining Susan's gauche, try-hard character - and more generally in how the actress seems to calibrate our rogue agent's progression from meek underling to foul-mouthed badass. (Feig pulls off something unusually perceptive for a mainstream comedy here, ensuring that, however salty her language, however many ne'er-do-wells she offs, Susan never loses touch with the tremulous, self-doubting voice in her head - whether her own, or that of PA Hart.) You could come to it as another of Feig's studies of women on the job (he has that Ghost Busters redo on the go, remember); you could claim Spy as a rare example of multiplex empowerment fantasy. Above all else, though, it's a funny Friday night out at the pictures - and some movies require no greater label than that.

Spy is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

Wednesday 10 June 2015

1,001 Films: "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L'Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo" (1970)

"Bring in the pervert." Dario Argento's directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, shot by Vittorio Storaro and scored by Ennio Morricone, established the essentials of the giallo subgenre: the visiting guest star (here, Tony Musante as an American novelist caught up in a grisly series of murders when in Rome), the shopping list of fetish items (wipe-clean leather trenchcoats, plate of sharp objects, the painting that serves as clue), the quizzical scrutiny of sound and image, the screams of tormented women, more prolonged and agonised than those in the Hitchcock films that provided one influence. We're not yet in the fully stylised realms of Argento's later films: the tone is recognisably procedural, grounded by a fascination with the emergent science of forensics, as represented here by Honeywell 1200 computers and a dot-matrix printer. Unlike the freakouts of Suspiria and Tenebrae, everything can be explained, and - in the case of its pat, anticlimactic conclusion - explained away. 

Yet Argento's obsessive study of crime scenes - whether in their physical form, or that of the murderous tableau hanging on the hero's living room wall - is typical of a heightened self-awareness that both prefigures the debate over violent cinema ("Is it really necessary?," asks Suzy Kendall's heroine, as her director cuts away from one particularly lingering and voyeuristic murder) and elevates the whole to a warped kind of art: these slayings are curated, connoisseurial - museum pieces, if you like - climaxing in a site-specific finale in which a gallery's installation will be converted into an instrument of torture. Murder and art as not incomparable forms of self-expression: Storaro shot The Conformist the same year, and the two films are practically blood brothers, most crucially in their view of human beings as caged animals, trapped, sometimes crushed, by the architectural specifics of their surroundings.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is available on DVD through Arrow Video.