Monday 31 August 2015

From the archive: "Bronson"

A biopic of Britain's most notorious prisoner (Charles Bronson, born Michael Peterson in 1952) from Vertigo Films, purveyors of lads-mag endorsed odes to rucking? My expectations going into Bronson weren't entirely high. Thankfully, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn is too smart a filmmaker to fall into the obvious traps. By all accounts, he hadn't heard of Bronson before reading Brock Norman Brock's script, which gives him some critical distance from his subject; and this director's Pusher trilogy, set in the Copenhagen underworld, formed anything but a straightforward glorification of criminal misdeeds. What we're provided with here is a fever dream-cum-freakshow sparked by the confessions of this most dangerous mind - less straight-up hagiography, in fact, than mildly unhinged wack job. Form and subject come to coincide.

On what looks like a music hall stage - elements of The King of Comedy here, right from the off - Tom Hardy's Bronson, unreliable narrator and circus strongman lookalike, recounts his life story to a variously stirred and unmoved audience, changing costume and adorning himself with make-up as Refn sees fit. 34 out of Bronson's 57 years have been spent behind bars, thirty of those in solitary confinement, which may explain the wild, imaginative flourishes we bear witness to: an asylum disco where doped-up inmates frug narcotically to "It's a Sin"; a polysexual council-flat brothel operated by Bronson's Uncle Jack; the marvellous Matt King (Peep Show's Super Hans) as the flamboyant bare-knuckle boxing promoter who gave Peterson his cinematic stage name, and who himself appears to be called Paul Daniels. (Now that's magic.)

How much of this is true of course remains open to question, and I'm not entirely sure whether making Bronson a comic figure, a bit of a card, is any more palatable than couching him in strictly heroic terms. (The final frames do look like a plea for his release, on the grounds that he's never killed anyone.) Winding Refn marshals all the filmmaking effects available to him - like Lynch, he's good on rooms that seem ever so slightly off, as though somebody's died (or is about to die) in them - and he coaxes an utterly committed performance from the perpetually coiled Hardy, though you may have cause to ponder just what the actor's committing to, and whether or not he should be committed himself for so doing. In the end - like the Australian film Chopper, which it often recalls - Bronson left me uneasy, and that may be a more worthwhile response to Peterson's life story than simply frothing at the mouth.

(March 2009)

Bronson is re-released in selected cinemas from Friday. 

"Phantom" (Guardian 30/08/15)

Phantom ***

Dir: Kabir Khan. With: Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kaif, Rajesh Tailang, Denzil Smith. 136 mins. Cert: 15

Just as 9/11 gave rise, after an appropriate mourning period, to a decade of soul- and cave-searching in American cinema, so the spectre of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai in 2008 seems likely to hover over Indian cinema for the foreseeable future. Already we’ve had 2013’s Greengrassy docudrama The Attacks of 26/11, the veteran Ram Gopal Varma’s sober recounting of these events from the perspective of Rakesh Maria, the Mumbai chief of police. There now arrives Phantom, Kabir Khan’s adaptation of Hussain Zaidi’s speculative fiction Mumbai Avengers, which owes more to the 24/Homeland school of counterterrorism, vacillating as it does between pulpy pertinence and arrant wish-fulfilment.

Objections have already been lodged by both Médecins Sans Frontières and the suspected Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed, suggesting action specialist Khan is operating on a broad spectrum of offence. Yet this pacy film propels us through its problematic patches, and also proves unexpectedly telling as to how insecure India feels over the fact the attack’s masterminds remain at large, from the moment a policy wonk decries the lack of an official response: “All we do is stop playing cricket”. Enter the Jack Bauer-like Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan), a disgraced army officer sent on a hushed-up mission to flush the killers out, deploying methods that really aren’t cricket.

As Daniyal barrels around – from the Oval via the Middle East to a final date with destiny in Pakistani waters – he gathers an aid worker sidekick (Katrina Kaif), and the tension that exists between these two represents a split that surely exists within Indian intelligence ranks: she urging caution, data-collection and the need to play the long game, he dashing around terminating, wherever possible, with extreme prejudice. You’ll just have to overlook the fact that as shadow operatives go, the well-groomed Saif and the ever-lipglossed Kaif form a couple broadly as inconspicuous as the Kardashian Wests; their movements don’t demand surveillance so much as a Vanity Fair spread.

Jolting dashes of realpolitik continue to permeate the action: the heads of a Pakistan-based terror organisation opt to meet Daniyal in Syria, reasoning that nobody will notice another dead body there. Yet the director is far more adept at constructing taut assassination set-pieces than he is at diplomacy: the incendiary editorial on Pakistan is handled with rather less than due diligence. The film does something very dubious with Kaif’s character, introduced flashing her “Medicine International” credentials as a voice of reason: after key scenes go missing around the intermission, she’s suddenly – like so many characters in 24 – transformed into a moist-eyed apologist for the hero’s bloodier responses. You can see why MSF would be irked.

They won’t be the only ones, for Phantom displays that unique pulp mix of motion and emotion that is compelling and revealing, but also deeply discomfiting to encounter. This relentless, reckless, wounded-bull-in-a-china-shop production is fuelled by a violence you can see in the leading man’s eyes and feel in its whiplash crosscuts, all of it directed towards getting hold of the attackers, and not necessarily bringing them to justice. (With lyrics like “I couldn’t handle this atrocity of love”, even the songs sound like calls to arms.) That violence gives Khan’s film its undeniable grip and punch – but we might pause to consider whether this region hasn’t seen and heard enough of it already.

Phantom is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 29 August 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of August 21-23, 2015: 
1 (new) Paper Towns (12A)
2 (2) Inside Out (U) ****
3 (new) Sinister 2 (15) **
4 (3) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12A) **
5 (4) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (12A)
6 (1) Pixels (12A) **
7 (new) Vacation (15)
8 (new) The Bad Education Movie (15) **
9 (5) Trainwreck (15) ***
10 (8) Minions (U)  


My top five:   
1. 45 Years [above]
2. En Equilibre
3. L'Eclisse
4. Phantom
5. Straight Outta Compton

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Cinderella (U)
2 (4) American Sniper (15) ***
3 (1) The Divergent Series: Insurgent (12)
4 (2) Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) *
5 (new) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12) ** 
6 (3) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
7 (7) The DUFF (12)
8 (new) Child 44 (15)
9 (5) The Water Diviner (15)
10 (6) The Theory of Everything (12) *** 

My top five:  
1. The Falling
2. Glassland
3. Good Kill
4. Girlhood
5. Phoenix

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Saturday, ITV1, 4.05pm)
2. The Westerner (Saturday, BBC2, 6am)
3. The Golden Dream (Monday, C4, 1.40am)
4. The Bourne Ultimatum (Saturday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
5. In the Valley of Elah (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)

"Building Jerusalem" (Guardian 28/08/15)

Building Jerusalem ****

Dir: James Erskine. With: Sir Clive Woodward, Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson. 89 mins. Cert: 12A
The latest sports doc from the industrious James Erskine zeroes in on that mid-1990s moment when English rugby union was converted from hidebound amateur pursuit to the better organised proposition that carried home the 2003 World Cup. Again, Erskine’s broadly conventional method involves informed talking heads casting light on carefully sourced archive: bluff warrior Martin Johnson represents the old school, pensive Jonny Wilkinson the new wave. Yet he’s becoming more adept at juggling the micro (analysis of coach Clive Woodward’s myriad one-yard gains) with the macro (discussing the mixed bag of Murdoch money), and retains his knack for uncovering the human stories behind these gamechangers: Johnson’s excitement at receiving a free mobile from sponsors soon subsided upon realising nobody else had one to call. Wilkinson’s dropkick against the Wallabies is the pay-off, but Erskine sees there’s something both instructive and inspiring in rewinding the play and detailing the foundations that permitted such elevation. 

Building Jerusalem screens in selected cinemas for one night only this Tuesday, ahead of its DVD release on Monday 14. 

"Hitting the Apex" (Guardian 28/08/15)

Hitting the Apex **

Dir: Mark Neale. With: Valentino Rossi, Marc Marquez, Casey Stoner, the voice of Brad Pitt. 132 mins. Cert: 12A
Beneath the leather and diesel, a heavy whiff of A-lister indulgence comes off this Brad Pitt-produced doc profiling the young generation of bikers who’ve dethroned reigning Moto GP champ Valentino Rossi. Director Mark Neale ekes out traces of personality – the goofy Marco Simoncelli is such a vital pitlane presence that events at the 2011 Malaysian GP catch everyone out – but any drama is limited to the track: its grip depends entirely upon your interest in watching men leaning at high speed. A lax edit offers diehards two-plus hours of that, but nobody’s likely to mistake Pitt’s narration (“Crashing hurts… it wrecks your bike”) for expert analysis. 

Hitting the Apex screens in cinemas nationwide for one night only, followed by a Q&A, on Wednesday 2, ahead of its DVD release on Monday 7.  

Thursday 27 August 2015

On DVD: "Phoenix"

As bound up in issues of personal and national identity as its heroine is in bandages, the German film Phoenix repeatedly sets us to pondering one question: who are these people? Writer-director Christian Petzold (Yella, Barbara) hails from what's been labelled the Berlin School, a group of filmmakers who've come to pick away at some of the same social concerns tackled with an austere formal rigour in the New German Cinema of the 1960s and 70s; with as many years having passed between then and now as there were separating those first-wave filmmakers from the rise of Nazism, these concerns can now be viewed through the prism of genre.

Distance can be a liberating thing. Phoenix, concerning one woman's quest to rebuild her life in the immediate wake of WW2, operates in the key of romantic melodrama, complete with songs, lavish costumes and a narrative that time and again approaches the heightened preposterousness of its avowed inspiration Vertigo: it's one of those plots about a plot that has to have its heroine - Nelly (Nina Hoss), emerging from the camps nursing scars from the plastic surgery incurred after she took a bullet to her face - utter the line "But nobody will buy it!" in the hope of abating any doubts or fears that might be gathering in the stalls at that point.

There are gaps in the heroine's skull, then, and also in her backstory: we know from an early stage that she was a singer of some kind before the war, and that she was married to a pianist before events intervened. What's less clear is the state of play in this relationship, for hubby was reportedly arrested and himself carted away - perhaps to provide information? - shortly before a bomb flattened their home and killed Nelly's remaining family. Our heroine sets out to find him amid the rubble, and eventually does so in the nightclub of the title - which, far from some thriving Weimar cabaret, appears more like a cramped room, an attempt to make merry amid desperately reduced circumstances: with little need for pianists, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) has been reduced to washing dishes, oblivious to the fact he even still has a wife.

Petzold isn't averse to deploying the cliches of movies about identity - there's a lot of Nelly looking into mirrors, or fragments of mirrors - yet what becomes increasingly crucial is that his heroine is a performer of sorts. Seeing the arrival in his midst of a dead ringer for his lost love, Johnny enlists the lookalike to play Nelly as part of a get-rich-quick scam; rather than declare her actual identity, she chooses to play along. Here, Phoenix demands a leap of audience faith, although Petzold has laid the psychological foundations for Nelly's decision so precisely that you may just buy it. It's clear, for one, that at least a small part of our heroine is still in shellshock (and we'd do well to remember that psychology in wartime is very different from its peacetime equivalent).

Yet we also suspect that Nelly might just be glad for the attention: that, after weeks or months of being cast as a literally faceless woman, the part of "Nelly" - invited to step down off a train framed by plumes of smoke, as though she were Sarah Bernhardt playing Anna Karenina - is exactly the comeback role for which she's been looking. Bonuses include not having to try and recount the more than faintly unbelievable truth that the fates have assigned to her, and an opportunity that brings her close to being the loving, loyal wife she's always wanted to be; what she hasn't factored in, however, is that things have changed in Johnny as they have in the outside world. Soon this makeshift attempt at reunification is itself no more than a pile of rubble.

Petzold gives us plenty of thematic heft, although he remains a little too dourly academic to conjure much in the way of thrills or sparks: the ending is both an airtight summation of everything he has to say about the incompleteness of Germany at this time, and still in some way unsatisfying. He does, however, work very closely and rigorously with his small cast: the suavely bullying Zehrfeld exemplifying the type of guy a girl might go to extremes for, revealing notes of vulnerability only at the last, while Hoss - as elsewhere, proving one of the most compelling actresses in modern world cinema - very deftly sketches a woman trying to pull herself together, only to find some of the pieces have changed beyond all recognition, while others have simply vanished without a trace.

Phoenix is available on DVD through Soda from Monday.      

Monday 24 August 2015

"All is Well" (Guardian 23/08/15)

All is Well **

Dir: Umesh Shukla. With: Abhishek Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Asin, Supriya Pathak. 126 mins. Cert: PG

Hindi cinema has become as hung up on families as Hollywood now is on superheroes, which poses a problem: while immensely relatable and profitable when done right, the formula permits only finite variation, and may lead to projects that proceed from the same idea. All is Well is this summer’s second road movie to cram squabbling relatives into the back of a car: that set-up ignited May’s low-key but transporting Amitabh Bachchan vehicle Piku, and now drives Umesh Shukla’s much broader comedy-drama, which follows a similar narrative route with one erratic hand on the wheel and another Bachchan travelling upfront.

Here, it’s junior scion Abhishek playing Inder, a mopey rockstar recalled home from touring to settle his irascible father’s accounts – and, inevitably, unresolved tensions. Papaji (Rishi Kapoor) hoped his boy might someday take over the family bakery, and rightly rues the missed opportunity: if Inder’s chapattis were as flat as his love songs, he’d be set for life. More recently, he’s packed Inder’s befuddled mother (Supriya Pathak) off to a home. Yet given 24 hours to assemble the funds required to repay loan shark Chima (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), dad and lad are forced to grit teeth and fake an affection that – inevitably – becomes the real deal.

Why, you ask, doesn’t the vaunted rocker just write a cheque to settle the matter? Much torturous exposition fills in this plothole – it’s inherited stubbornness, apparently – while attempting to make disparate elements take. With his dandyish topcoat and moustache, Ayyub is a colourful dash of cartoon villainy, but there’s a tonal mismatch whenever Shukla frames him next to the confused mother. Also jostling for attention is Inder’s childhood sweetheart Nimmi (Asin), although her continued devotion seems downright peculiar upon sustained consideration of the stolid Bachchan: the Noel he recalls is Edmonds, not Gallagher.

Once on the road, All is Well gains some energy, yet it’s hardly subtle, and pretty episodic: reaching for loud, cuckoo sound effects whenever a gag isn’t working, Shukla leaves us pottering around anonymously dusty backroutes, awaiting the next diversion before the climactic declaration that all is, indeed, well. In one such stop-off, Bachchan trips the light fantastic with diner siren Sonakshi Sinha, but the number has as little bearing on events as Kareena Kapoor’s guest slot in last week’s Brothers – and I’d like to believe that if a man were so lucky as to dance with Ms. Sinha, it would alter the course of his existence forever.

Elsewhere, Shukla veers between mild toilet humour (like Piku, it’s a film compelled by old men’s ablutions) and low-octane stuntwork, but there’s no real internal motor: the quieter character work of Piku and Dil Dhadakne Do is missing, or gets drowned out. Inder eventually gathers that solving dad’s problems will also solve his own, yet that realisation first requires us to navigate ninety minutes of tepid knockabout. It passes relatively quickly, no more inane than, say, recent multiplex-filler Hot Pursuit – but you’d be foolhardy to take that as a recommendation, let alone drive the whole family to see it. That’s how these rifts start.

All is Well is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"The Bad Education Movie" (Guardian 21/08/15)

The Bad Education Movie **
Dir: Elliot Hegarty. With: Jack Whitehall, Iain Glen, Talulah Riley, Jeremy Irvine. 91 mins. Cert: 15

The TV-derived summertime special has again become a fixture of the British film industry, as it was in the heyday of Please Sir!: BBC Films’ The Bad Education Movie, an end-of-term runout for Jack Whitehall’s delinquent teacher Alfie Wickers, opens in roughly the same slot from which the Inbetweeners and Mrs. Brown’s Boys spin-offs profited in previous years. The numbers on those films amply bear out the rationale that insists putting any cheap tat in enough cinemas will turn a tidy profit; here, then, is one last jolly for Class K before they collect their exam results, and Whitehall becomes a blip on the Hollywood radar.

The school’s-out vibe generates a truly obnoxious first half-hour: you sense Whitehall and co-writer Freddy Syborn egging one another on to see who can scrape the bottom of the barrel quickest and loudest. Mushrooms are unknowingly consumed at an Anne Frank exhibit. The school hamster bounces into Joanna Scanlan’s nethers. Wickers ingests a foreskin kept as a holy relic. Yes, it’s laser-guided at the same gurgling demographic that would willingly endure a Snog, Marry, Avoid marathon, but even teenage boys might find the desperation to shock a boner-killer: the film’s initial comic touch makes Seth MacFarlane seem like Lubitsch.

With this opening barrage out of its system, Bad settles into its true rhythm; instead of egregiously bad jokes, we get potentially good ones indifferently told. For starters, it’s sort of funny that austerity measures mean this filmic subspecies must now travel to Cornwall, rather than the exotic Costa Plonka. Series director Elliot Hegarty has modest fun within a pub serving as a Cornish Liberation Army stronghold, where the ladies is a door painted on a wall, and we get a Little Britain-ish doodle of the Cornish gay scene: one middle-aged bloke called Colin, who attempted to order a spritzer in 1984.

Even here, though, there’s uncertainty as to whom the joke’s really on, and events descend into the kind of clumsy farce (knives in hands, people on fire) that suggests nobody present really had much idea how to build a scene. It is, likewise, a workable idea to have Wickers and charges mistaken for a terrorist sleeper cell, but having larded the soundtrack with Grimshaw-friendly grime, Hegarty hasn’t the resources left to play it out: instead we’re given cop Clarke Peters looking concerned in a school hall, and a last-reel runaround in a heritage centre that yields hot-button references to Cheryl Cole and Braveheart.

Here, at least, the film permits us some fresh air. Elsewhere, laughs are stifled by Hegarty’s TV aesthetic, all static medium and close-up shots, chiefly of Whitehall’s ever-harassed testes. Stretched this high and wide, the star’s posh-boy persona can rarely have seemed so charmless; the film acknowledges as much in nudging on Jeremy Irvine as a braying toff whose sole purpose is to make the goon-like Wickers appear admirable. Maybe it’ll divert the target audience, as did happy slapping and chlamydia before it – but The Bad Education Movie hardly forms the most convincing rebuke to Tory paranoia about BBC waste.

The Bad Education Movie is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 22 August 2015

1,001 Films: "Klute" (1971)

Oft bracketed with those dark, adult thrillers that were so in vogue at the start of the early Seventies, Klute surely invites reading as an attempt to take America's pulse: what it found, bleakly if not inaccurately as the conflict in South East Asia dragged on, was that the Summer of Love had given way to more murderous forms of self-expression. Jane Fonda's Bree Daniels is a model-actress by day and a high-class call-girl by night; Donald Sutherland is John Klute, a PI dispatched by a Nixon lookalike sitting behind a desk to track down a missing businessman, last heard from writing dirty notes to the hooker. Bree uses her business acumen to seduce her knight-protector, and the two are joined on a mystery that's almost entirely obfuscated, an obscure subject of desire. Only with the insert of a yellow legal pad an hour and thirty minutes in do we get any sense of the angles Sutherland's working, and only with the playing of a tape in the final moments do we learn what the investigation's actually working towards.

In the meantime, Alan J. Pakula's camera pokes around a succession of underlit, squalid locations, at every turn attempting to isolate the moral rot that had seeped into America's foundations - a metaphor that becomes apparent in the centralising of Bree's apartment building. First Klute must penetrate the darknesses of her basement; then Bree's own flat is subject to a series of defiling intrusions from peepers, pimps and pricks; the final shot, at least, offers some assurance that a much-needed, long-overdue move is on the cards. The film claims a sophistication for itself that's part European - there are surely elements here of Blow-Up (the obsessive study of a recording, an investigation without a body), for one - and part something like Breakfast at Tiffany's (the prostitution, the single gal, her cat). Yet I've always found this is one of those early 70s instances - McCabe and Mrs. Miller would be another - where the deliberate obfuscation, the muddying of generic waters, gets in the way of a satisfying narrative; the neuroses are such it's scant surprise Fonda keeps returning to her shrink, seeking a clarity the film cannot provide for her.

What is clear, however, is that there are two major performances here: they're what keep you hooked, even as what's around them goes in and out of focus. Fonda is mesmerising in one of those roles-within-a-role roles: her Bree is at once a purveyor of fantasies more real than Barbarella (and thus at far greater risk from the fantasies she's selling), a woman finding herself boxed in by men at every turn, and a (proto-feminist?) crusader discovering her braless, let-it-all-hang-out philosophy is at deadly odds with the all-American puritanism that had persisted into the age of Hair and Woodstock. And only in the 1970s could Sutherland attempt a performance as internalised as this in a major studio release: a performance that must have looked dourly uncharismatic, if not entirely blank, in the rushes (has any leading man ever appeared so autistic in his opening scenes?), but makes as much sense over the long haul as a bar-setting technical performance like Gene Hackman's as Harry Caul in The Conversation. Tapes and surveillance will again figure heavily here, but John Klute proves to be the voyeur who comes in from the cold: he goes from looking to loving, lending some redemptive warmth to an otherwise perilously chilly proposition.

Klute is currently unavailable on DVD in the UK.

Friday 21 August 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of August 14-16, 2015: 
1 (new) Pixels (12A) **
2 (3) Inside Out (U) ****
3 (2) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12A) **
4 (new) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (12A)
5 (new) Trainwreck (15) ***
6 (1) Fantastic Four (12A)
7 (4) Southpaw (15) ***
8 (7) Minions (U) 
9 (new) Absolutely Anything (15) *
10 (5) The Gift (15) **** 


My top five:   
1. The Dance of Reality [above]
2. The Treatment
3. The Gift
4. The Wolfpack
5. The Forgotten Kingdom

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) The Divergent Series: Insurgent (12)
2 (2) Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) *
3 (new) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
4 (3) American Sniper (15) ***
5 (5) The Water Diviner (15)
6 (7) The Theory of Everything (12) *** 
7 (new) The DUFF (12)
8 (6) Taken 3 (15) 
9 (9) Ex_Machina (15) **
10 (8) Suite Française (12) **  

My top five:  
1. The Falling
2. Glassland
3. Good Kill
4. Exit
5. Run All Night

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Fight Club (Sunday, five, 11.15pm)
2. Gone Baby Gone (Friday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
3. The Ring (Sunday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
4. Calendar Girls (Saturday, BBC2, 10.10pm)
5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Saturday, BBC1, 6.20pm)