Saturday 26 September 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of September 18-20, 2015: 
1 (new) Everest (12A)
2 (1) Legend (18) ***
3 (2) Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (12A)
4 (3) The Visit (15) *
5 (5) Inside Out (U) ****
6 (4) Straight Outta Compton (15) ***
7 (9) Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back (U)
8 (new) A Walk in the Woods (15)
9 (new) The Battle of Britain at 75 (U)
10 (new) Bill (PG)


My top five:   
1. Mia Madre
2. Older Than Ireland
3. Roger Waters: The Wall
4. McFarland, USA
5. Arcade Fire: The Reflektor Tapes

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12) **
2 (2) Cinderella (U)
3 (4) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12) ** 
4 (3) The Divergent Series: Insurgent (12)
5 (5) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
6 (9) Home (U) ** 
7 (6) Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) *
8 (8) Ex_Machina (15) **
9 (7) Building Jerusalem (12) ****
10 (10) Child 44 (15) 

My top five:  
1. The New Girlfriend
2. The Treatment
3. The Tribe
4. Building Jerusalem
5. The Canal

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. This is 40 [above] (Sunday, C4, 11.10pm)
2. Love Like Poison (Sunday, BBC2, 12.35am)
3. 2012 (Sunday, five, 1.55pm)
4. Youth in Revolt (Sunday, BBC2, 11.10pm)
5. Snow White and the Huntsman (Saturday, C4, 8pm) 

Good grief: "Mia Madre"

Nanni Moretti's new film Mia Madre opens with a philosophy and ethics debate on the location of an impassioned political drama. The drama's director, Margherita (Margherita Buy), argues that it's important to her to show a scene of strikebreaking in a composed longshot, so that the viewer can take in the action at his or her leisure; one of her cameramen, on the other hand, is insistent that his decision to punch up the action by zooming in on the batons pummelling the striking factory workers is a valid one. Both opinions will be trumped, later that same night, by Margherita's ailing mother (Giulia Lazzarini), who from her hospital bed wonders why anybody in this day and age would bother to shoot another dreary movie about an industrial dispute, from any angle. The debate feels like an extension of that Moretti's inspiration Woody Allen was still prepared to enter into around the time of 2004's Melinda and Melinda - one that ponders the chewy notion of whether our entertainments have any particular duty to be funny or sad, or whether they can, like life, be a little of both.

This interplay between the light and dark of this world continues into the main body of Mia Madre, which turns out to be something like Day for Night on the set of Tout va Bien: a movie about moviemaking and moviemakers, yes, but also an energising stroll along that fine line that separates art from life. By day, Margherita calls the shots on her opus, striving to cope with the increasing derangement of her overbearing American guest star Barry Huggins (John Turturro); by night, she returns to mama's bedside, where her lack of practicality is shown up by the presence of "good brother" Giovanni (Moretti himself). In between, however, there are a number of unsettling slippages - dreamlike scenes, the meanderings of an unsettled mind - in which Margherita imagines seeing, say, everyone she knows in a cinema queue that snakes around several blocks in a way cinema queues rarely do. What's most disconcerting about these interjections is their lack of consistency. One scene that initially feels like a dream - Margherita getting out of bed to find her feet wet, her apartment flooded - may very well be a reality, albeit one that comes in uncannily close to a dream in Michael Haneke's Amour, that sacred-solemn touchstone on the imminence of death.

As his international touchstone Dear Diary flagged, Moretti is one of the few filmmakers at large in world cinema to have had hands-on experience of running and programming an actual cinema, which is to say he's a director who knows better than most what does and doesn't play with an audience. There are stretches in Mia Madre where you strongly feel Moretti processing the experiences he's been through (he lost his mother while filming 2011's We Have a Pope) alongside the movies he's had on his mind in recent years; his film is a mix of the first and second hand, the intimate and the universal. Where it succeeds is that this filmmaker gets his characters out of the stifling observation chamber - and, beyond that, the sepulchral High Culture universe - in which Haneke so firmly locked his: he gives them context, takes them out onto the shop floor. Moretti's characters aren't tragic figures or test subjects, martyrs to be preserved in arthouse aspic; they're first and foremost flesh-and-blood creations having to negotiate the myriad day-to-day challenges of life.

Buy - an actress still better known in her homeland than she is internationally - becomes the film's figurehead, its bedrock: her Margherita is a consummate pro who finds herself having to defer to a higher and more arbitrary form of direction than she's used to giving on set. Yet for the film's thesis to come to life as it does, it needs Turturro to be right there alongside her: though the actor pushes the blustering ham to an extreme, he pulls the film into a new and livelier shape whenever Moretti threatens to get lost in his (or his heroine's) thoughts. (An extra resonance: as Margherita loses a mother, she gains an unruly child.) As with so many other films in the Moretti filmography, it's not a showy work, offering nothing likely to upset the applecart or frighten the horses - just a quiet, engaged accumulation of truthful interactions. Yet at a time when Allen, for one, looks to have given into morose compulsion, set firm in his ways, Mia Madre provides the not inconsiderable consolation (and pleasure) of seeing his assumed inheritor still very much striving to calibrate his cinema, keep all of life's elements in play, and - best of all - involve us, deeply, in the process.

Mia Madre is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 25 September 2015

Keep the car running: "Arcade Fire: The Reflektor Tapes"

Busy week for concert movies. Perhaps it shouldn't be such a surprise that where Roger Waters, in his The Wall, ventures a bombastic, vaguely indulgent two-hour political statement, Arcade Fire, in their The Reflektor Tapes, cleave to an artful minimalism: 75 minutes of distended or otherwise distressed images, non-synch sound and quotes from Kierkegaard, and an attempt - on the part of acclaimed shorts director Khalil Joseph - to stitch together these sharp, shiny, eye-and-earcatching bits-and-pieces into something as glittering as the reflective suit worn by the band's aptly angular Mirrorman mascot.

By all accounts, including the fleeting one Joseph's film offers in dispatches, 2010's The Suburbs, the album that promoted Win Butler's troubadours from the indie fringes to the top of the charts, ensnared its makers in a feedback loop: getting markedly better as an ensemble through the endless hours of live performance, yet growing increasingly dissatisfied with aspects of their new-found celebrity, and wondering where a set of art-school refuseniks might wind up once they'd passed through the mirror separating observers from observed. The answer, which might legitimately fill any conscientious musician with a rare mix of thrill and dread: bigger arenas still.

Emerging out of this period of introspection and doubt, 2013's Reflektor - ditching the anthems for alienated lyrics and asides on the soul-sapping properties of modern recording equipment - would be the sound of yet another band getting a tad restless and grumbly both with their own success and each other; the kind of creatively testing experience that often decides whether or not a band has any future together. Though a fractured listening experience - literally so, in splitting its fourteen tracks over two discs - the album has moments as elevatingly poppy as anything the band had previously attempted: it stakes a fair claim to being the closest the 21st century has yet given us to a group catharsis like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.

To record it entailed getting away from the hoopla for a while - to Haiti, where Joseph's film catches the group rehearsing with local musicians to generate the album's big, grounding, tribal beats, the pulses that prevented Reflektor from getting bogged down in neurosis. (It's not explicitly stated, but Haiti also appears to be the source of Butler's skeleton suit - a local custom, and perhaps a means of expressing just how run-down and over-exposed he was feeling by this point.) There are issues of cultural appropriation here; Chassagne's Haitian heritage is mentioned in passing by way of mitigation, but Joseph, in his first feature assignment, appears unwilling to push the band further on the matter.

The distancing extended to the creation of a second, other self - a reimagining of Arcade Fire as The Reflektors, i.e. the same musicians decked out in oversized papier-mâché heads. This development, similarly, begs for closer analysis than The Reflektor Tapes, seizing upon it as the basis of a funny sight gag, provides: not only does it chime with the premise of last year's Frank (where, again, a troubled art-rocker sought refuge by hiding in plain sight), it also hits upon a neat visual analogue for a band who might have felt stuck inside their own big brains - and simultaneously a representation of the mindless, merchandisable puppets, the cartoon rockers, which Butler and Chassagne feared becoming. (In this configuration, at least the band get to control their own movements.)

The Reflektor Tapes permits glimpses of all these influences and transformations, and Joseph's stitching is occasionally effective, as in the cut that takes us from the band performing "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" at an Earls Court gig in June 2014 to the moment it all began (Butler laying down the vocal in the Caribbean), a few words from the singer about his relationship with Chassagne rooting the recording - and the live performance - in graspable emotion: you're allowed to see how they got there from here. Too often, however, such glimmers come at the expense of any bigger picture, and you begin to wonder whether hiring a shorts man to make a feature was the best idea. Several sequences look to build towards some revelation, chorus or other climax - only for the music to cut out, the attention to drift away somewhere else. 

I was there at that Earls Court gig, and what impressed me most - other than that it was a bunch of pallid-looking Canadians who should be making such an almighty racket - was the sheer multi-stage, confetti-blasting, laser-doodling spectacle of the occasion: the kind of spectacle the Waters film dines out on, the kind of spectacle that, at point of initial impact, seemed to suggest Arcade Fire had, after all the soul-searching, come to embrace their destiny of large-scale partyplanners for all the world's outcasts and oddballs. The gorgeous fragments Joseph compiles here preserve the band's mystique but short-sell that experience; less definitive record than tentative sampler, it's really just a deflektor, one that needed a more rigorous handler behind the camera, imploring their not uncompelling subject to look the camera in the eye for once.

Arcade Fire: The Reflektor Tapes is now playing in selected cinemas.

"Older Than Ireland" (Guardian 25/09/15)

Older Than Ireland ****

Dir: Alex Fegan. 76 mins. Uncertificated.

Both wry treat and testament to the efficacy of modern medicine, Alex Fegan’s documentary rounds up thirty Irish centenarians, and invites them to hold forth on subjects from the Civil War to Twitter. While sketching a turbulent national past, Fegan’s history leans towards the social: the film invokes that Advanced Style appeal of watching hardy sorts – caught at prayer, at bingo and in the hairdresser’s chair – offer entertainingly gossipy titbits on courtship, beauty and other everyday pursuits. If, even with judicious subtitling, certain interviewees aren’t always so intelligible, you still find yourself leaning in – encouraged by cinematographer Colm Nicell’s simple yet often beautifully revealing framing – to glean these tribal elders’ every word. Most shrug off claims to profound wisdom, but in recording bedbound Luke Dolan’s whooping recollections of his first kiss, and Dr. Flann Brennan’s still-vivid grief at outlasting his children, Fegan succeeds in preserving something essential to our existence. You’ll shed a tear or two, possibly more. 

Older Than Ireland opens in selected cinemas from today.

"McFarland, USA" (Guardian 25/09/15)

McFarland, USA ***
Dir: Niki Caro. With: Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez, Morgan Saylor. 129 mins. Cert: PG

This year’s Disney-sponsored true-life sports movie marks an improvement on 2014’s Million Dollar Arm. Kevin Costner brings old-school moviestar authority to his role as a much-fired football coach making state-beating cross-country runners out of the titular outpost’s Latino kids; director Niki Caro displays the same sharp yet sensitive eye for Mexicana as she showed for Maori customs in 2002’s Whale Rider, fostering something subtly atmospheric amid the Californian heat and dust. That this genre remains chiefly a male domain is evident from the way the Coach’s missus (Maria Bello) gets packed off to the salon, and everybody has to circumnavigate some on-the-nose scripting. (There are literal uphill struggles.) Yet Caro and Costner work hard and well with the youngsters: long before Coach’s big, white privilege-checking rallying speech, the film has generated the cloud of warm liberal fuzziness required to carry us up over the pick-and-mix platitudes and predictable narrative diversions. You run with it, just.

McFarland, USA is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Roger Waters: The Wall" (Guardian 25/09/15)

Roger Waters: The Wall ***

Dirs: Roger Waters, Sean Evans. With: Roger Waters, Dave Kilminster, Snowy White. 132 mins. Cert: 12A

Trust the Pink Floyd mainstay to attempt something ambitious with his shot at one-night-only event cinema. This document of Waters’ 2010-13 solo tour, co-directed by Sean Evans, cuts its primo stadium spectacle with footage of the musician pottering around Northern European battlefields, suggesting some History Channel remake of 20,000 Days on Earth. Amid the concert’s logistical shock-and-awe – elaborate light show, replica Stukas et al. – one spies hints of naff: synchro-clapping schoolkids for “Another Brick”, Waters duetting with his younger self. Yet The Wall’s themes – fear of State and Bomb alike – continue to resonate, and their off-kilter framing here further reveals the extent to which Waters’ generation was shaped by conflict. If – at two hours plus – it risks leaving bums uncomfortably numb, such indulgence will presumably be no issue for seasoned prog-lovers; for anyone else, it is, right through to its concluding collage, a concert movie where the considerable pyrotechnics gathered never quite obscure the fully-functioning conscience centre-stage.

Roger Waters: The Wall screens in selected cinemas on Tuesday 29.

"Captive" (Guardian 25/09/15)

Captive **

Dir: Jerry Jameson. With: David Oyelowo, Kate Mara, Mimi Rogers, Michael Kenneth Williams. 97 mins. Cert: 12A

Martin Luther King: tough act to follow. After David Oyelowo’s commanding Selma turn, here’s an unpersuasive attempt to bolster the actor’s multiplex profile: a threadbare based-on-true-events thriller that unpacks, in utterly functional manner, the mystery of Oyelowo’s Brian Nichols, an escaped convict driven to take recovering addict Kate Mara hostage. TV veteran Jerry Jameson’s sluggish direction becomes no more animated once the cops arrive; everyone’s left sitting around waiting for revelation or redemption, while the uninflected quotation of religiose self-help guru Rick Warren reaches out towards the lucrative faith-movie demographic. The actors are committed – Mara, generally waif-like, appears frail indeed – but there’s barely anything worth committing to. 

Captive is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 24 September 2015

New best fiend: "Just Jim"

Just Jim, the directorial debut of the still unfeasibly young actor Craig Roberts (24), in some ways picks up where 2011's Submarine left off: again, we find Roberts centre stage as a bright if overly sensitive smalltown loner in desperate search of new friends. Cornered at almost every turn by his school's bullies - who've conferred upon him the non-affectionate nickname "Shitpants", doubtless as the kid forever looks likely to do exactly that - poor Jim doesn't know which way to turn: a callously indifferent sweetheart, and his comfortably inert parents, provide no particular consolation. One night, Jim returns home from a long, bully-induced walk to find Dean (Emile Hirsch), an individual purporting to be the family's new American neighbour, sitting waiting for him in the dark. Dean takes one look at the stripling, and snarls the line that will change his nondescript life for good: "You need to man up."

With these words, the emergent Roberts oeuvre deviates from the Richard Ayoade CV: without sacrificing any of his mentor's cult cachet, the younger director pushes beyond stylised cutesiness and into the territory of something like Fight Club. (Roberts surely has to have realised that redoing Fight Club in a small Welsh village is a very funny idea indeed.) The chainsmoking, gun-wielding Dean toughens Jim up - piercing his ears, tattooing his arms, teaching him to strike back at his oppressors - and as this transformation takes hold, one senses Roberts striving to give himself a way of playing just a percentage or two harder than his quickly established screen persona has so far permitted. (The red sports jacket/white T-shirt combination he wears throughout the second half suggests Rebel Without a Cause as another possible influence.)

Something similar looks to be going on behind the camera, too. Roberts the director has the eye for droll sight gags you might expect from his acting assignments: one set-up finds Jim sitting alone at his 16th birthday party as the banner announcing the occasion slides off the wall behind him. More often, you see him and cinematographer Richard Stoddard playing expressively with light: a heightened level of Venetian-blind activity that appears to bleed in from the pastiche 40s noirs Jim slopes off to watch on his lonesome, a date conducted under a Lynchian spotlight in a restaurant otherwise cast in the deepest, darkest shadow. The weirdness can seem studied and secondhand, and it may well be the case that Roberts is, at time of writing, just too much the nice guy to let it go too far: even when Hirsch is on screen, the film's more oddball than truly unnerving. (Some of it - like the family dance sequence, and some slo-mo underwater business - has the look of artful padding designed to get the running time up to eighty minutes.) Yet your interest and curiosity is sustained: there's a quietly twisted promise here that the moneymen would do well to follow up on.

Just Jim opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.  

Saturday 19 September 2015

From the archive: "Rogue"

Rogue, the writer-director Greg McLean's follow-up to Wolf Creek, starts out as Speed II with crocodiles - an irresistible premise, surely worth the price of the DVD rental alone. Chicago journo Michael Vartan arrives in the outback to write a travel feature and makes the regrettable decision to sign up for a boat tour up a croc-infested river. "You'll be all right, so long as you don't go into the water," tour guide Radha Mitchell reassures her roster of yahoos, eccentrics and worriers. Sure enough, everybody will end up getting their feet wet - that is, if their feet stay on their legs long enough to actually get wet.

Rogue comes to disc a good year after the theatrically released Black Water, which similarly sought to make villains out of reptiles, but it's more authentically steeped in nature than its predecessor (Mitchell gets to reel off a list of fun facts about the monsters) and McLean's eye for the Territories, much in evidence before matters turned gory in his debut, reveals itself again here: there are a couple of gorgeous scenes - not necessarily ominous, merely lilting - of the boat just drifting upriver, enjoying the sun. 

It's a beautifully structured piece of genre writing, too, each act shifting the survivors to a location that presents them with fresh challenges, and reflecting the manner in which their scaly antagonist evolves between kills. After the boat is upturned, the centre stretch engineers to strand the passengers - and Radha's dog - on a tiny island as the sun goes down and the river tide starts to rise; one sequence involving a makeshift rope bridge generates more genuine suspense than most of this year's theatrical releases put together. Vartan, himself resurfacing after far too many years below the radar, makes for a nicely reluctant hero, and the croc - aggressive, where its brethren in Black Water were merely persistent - is a real nasty fucker.

(December 2009)

Rogue screens on BBC1 tonight at 11.55pm.

Friday 18 September 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   for the weekend of September 11-13, 2015: 
1 (new) Legend (18) ***
2 (new) The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials (12A)
3 (new) The Visit (15) *
4 (1) Straight Outta Compton (15) ***
5 (2) Inside Out (U) ****
6 (4) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12A) **
7 (6) Pixels (12A) **
8 (3) No Escape (15) ** 
9 (re) Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back (U)
10 (new) Irrational Man (12A) 


My top five:   
1. Miss Julie
2. The Second Mother
3. 45 Years 
4. Steamboat Bill, Jr.
5. La Famille Bélier

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12) **
2 (1) Cinderella (U)
3 (2) The Divergent Series: Insurgent (12)
4 (3) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12) ** 
5 (5) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
6 (4) Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) *
7 (new) Building Jerusalem (12) ****
8 (8) Ex_Machina (15) **
9 (new) Home (U) ** 
10 (7) Child 44 (15) 

My top five:  
1. The New Girlfriend
2. The Treatment
3. The Tribe
4. Building Jerusalem
5. The Canal

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. 10 Things I Hate About You [above] (Sunday, C4, 1.30pm)
2. Rogue (Saturday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
3. Down Terrace (Sunday, BBC2, 11.55pm)
4. The Box (Friday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
5. 2012 (Sunday, five, 6.15pm)

From the archive: "Steamboat Bill, Jr."

In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster Keaton's college student William Canfield arrives to help out on his estranged father's rusty old paddleboat the Stonewall Jackson, a vessel so unworthy of the Mississippi River that - in a great early gag - even the lifesavers sink when knocked overboard. While trying to avoid the rivalry pa (Ernest Torrence) has stoked up with the neighbouring King dynasty - for whose heiress Kitty (Marion Byron) William has come to develop a soft spot - our naive hero receives a different kind of education: despite his campus-cultivated beret and 'tache - nice if flimsy signifiers of sophistication, soon tossed to the wind - he still needs to learn how to throw a punch, chew tobacco, get the girl and save the day. In 1928, Keaton had just come off the back of The General, his cleverest (if least outwardly amusing) feature, which means stunts (plank-walking, deck-hopping) tend to outnumber the gags here, although the storm-tossed finale, with its tumbling, flying, collapsing houses, is as impressive a spectacle as anything elsewhere in the Keaton filmography. The first half did much to float into cinematic circulation the comic possibilities of two warring clans, though it seems a long way from this to Deck the Halls and Cheaper by the Dozen 2.

(July 2007)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. returns to selected cinemas (as part of a double-bill with 1921's The Playhouse) from today.

"Dartmoor Killing" (Guardian 18/09/15)

Dartmoor Killing **

Dir: Peter Nicholson. With: Gemma-Leah Devereux, Rebecca Night, Callum Blue, David Hayman. 94 mins. Cert: 15
Peter Nicholson’s low-budget horror-thriller starts rather better than it ends. As two young hikers (Gemma-Leah Devereux and Rebecca Night) are led off the beaten track by a hunky guide (Callum Blue), the first act’s every set-up benefits from the screen-filling backdrops of the eponymous Moors. It’s disappointing, then, that Nicholson should thereafter retreat from this most spectacular stage to a farmhouse haunted by mysterious deaths; doubly so when the relationships, dialogue and eventually action all stop ringing true. Redact the gore, and it’d make an attractive promo for Dartmoor Tourism, but 2012’s A Night in the Woods hounded its characters far more persuasively over this particular terrain. 

Dartmoor Killing opens in selected cinemas from today.