Friday 26 February 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of February 19-21, 2015:
1 (1) Deadpool (15)
2 (2) Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (U)
3 (new) How To Be Single (15)
4 (5) Goosebumps (PG) ***
5 (4) Dad's Army (PG)
6 (new) Triple 9 (15) **
7 (3) Zoolander 2 (12A)
8 (6The Revenant (15) ***
9 (9) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A) **
10 (8Spotlight (15) ***


My top five:   
1. Bone Tomahawk
2. A Bigger Splash
3. The Propaganda Game
4. King Jack
5. Chronic

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Legend (18) ***
2 (2) Sicario (15) ***
3 (3) Minions (U)
4 (4) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12) **
5 (8) Terminator: Genisys (12)
6 (9) The Lobster (15) ***
7 (new) A Walk in the Woods (15)
8 (5) Macbeth (15) ***
9 (7) Pixels (12) **
10 (10) Ted 2 (15)

My top five:  
1. Brooklyn [above]
2. Crimson Peak
3. Taxi Tehran
4. Freeheld
5. The Program

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Finding Nemo (Sunday, C4, 5.10pm)
2. The Philadelphia Story (Sunday, BBC2, 2.50pm)
3. Coming to America (Friday, C4, 1.20am)
4. Braveheart (Saturday, C4, 10.55pm)
5. Leave to Remain (Friday, BBC2, 11.35pm)

Thursday 25 February 2016

From the archive: "The Secret in Their Eyes"

Since his international breakthrough feature - 2003's enjoyable comedy-drama Son of the Bride - the Argentinian writer-director Juan José Campanella has been plying his trade in U.S. procedural drama, of the House and Law & Order variety. The influence of these series can be felt on Campanella's latest, The Secret in Their Eyes, which beat A Prophet and The White Ribbon to take this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and - in doing so - confirmed my suspicion the Academy will always plump for the subtitled offering it feels closest to, regardless of said film's ultimate quality. Oscar surely felt more at home among Secret's crime scenes and depositions than it would have been in the middle of a race war between Arabs and Sicilians, or trying to figure out the complexities of German Protestantism. In short: Campanella got lucky. Maybe his time in television has left him with friends in high Hollywood places.

Secret takes place in two timelines simultaneously, cutting back and forth to demonstrate the ripples the past has left, and keeps making, on the surface of the present. It's here we find Campanella's regular lead Ricardo Darin as Esposito, a legal investigator using his retirement to try and nail down the one case that got away from him: the rape and murder of a young bride, presented as the sort of photogenic corpse that might well inspire obsession in certain morbidly inclined males. Reunited with his former boss, the weathered judge Irene (Soledad Villamil) - upon whom our hero has been cultivating a serious, 25-year office crush - he's inspired to recollect his scattered memories, and to establish once and for all, with the benefit of hindsight, whodunnit.

Your involvement with The Secret in Their Eyes may depend entirely on how you come to view this relationship, between two lived-in middle-agers given cause to reflect upon a quarter-century of personal and professional regrets. Is this, as the Academy clearly thought, foundation enough for a mature and adult entertainment? Or is it instead the basis for a creaky, at times outright cranky film, one where the autumnal romance skews terribly the central murder investigation? Campanella's theme, after all, is quiet obsession, the kind that can lead a widower to sit on a train station platform every day hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved, or to pursue a grudge long after the forces of law have exhausted all their leads.

Yet - shot through with an amber-hued nostalgia - the film's line of inquiry is persistently more romantic than forensic: this, presumably, is the reason it got the Oscar, and a film like David Fincher's Zodiac didn't get a sniff back in 2008. Fincher, at least, was scrupulous in his evocation of a time before criminal databases, when pen-pushing and legwork had to take up the investigative slack. When Campanella dispatches Darin's Esposito and his alcoholic (and clearly doomed) sidekick to a football stadium in the vain hope of apprehending one suspect, it's really just an excuse for the filmmaker to inject some helicopter shots and chase scenes into a work that otherwise remains as desk-bound as David Brent - the two lawyers could as easily have happened across their man walking down an empty street.

The differences between the two films prove instructive. Zodiac - based on fact - dared to portray obsession as a force that drove people apart (or left them unhinged). Secret - which is pure fiction, and feels more Hollywood in its cathartic story arcs - proposes that obsession is useful because it brings people together, in interrogation chambers or over cups of coffee; that it is, in fact, a kind of alchemy, fostering all manner of previously unexplored chemistries. It's true that Darin exudes a rare, wry charisma, and that Villamil's scarcely faded beauty holds the eye, but - outside the final act, with its ageing latex and melodramatic plot hikes - their scenes together are where the film is at its phoniest. In Campanella's eyes, the young woman's rape and murder can be considered a positive thing because, eventually, it meant the lawyer working the case got more than a nod and a wink from the foxy judge he was jonesing for. I don't know about you, but that's what I'd call a bit off.

(August 2010)

An American remake, simply titled Secret in their Eyes, opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow and is reviewed here.

Saturday 20 February 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of February 12-14, 2015:
1 (new) Deadpool (15)
2 (new) Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (U)
3 (new) Zoolander 2 (12A)
4 (2) Dad's Army (PG)
5 (1) Goosebumps (PG) ***
6 (3The Revenant (15) ***
7 (4) Dirty Grandpa (15)
8 (5) Spotlight (15) ***
9 (6Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A) **
10 (new) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (15)


My top five:   
1. Bone Tomahawk
2. A Bigger Splash
3. Chronic
4. Freeheld
5. The Mermaid

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Legend (18) ***
2 (2) Sicario (15) ***
3 (7) Minions (U)
4 (5) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12) **
5 (6) Macbeth (15) ***
6 (3) Stick Man (U)
7 (10) Pixels (12) **
8 (9) Terminator: Genisys (12)
9 (new) The Lobster (15) ***
10 (re) Ted 2 (15)

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The 'Burbs [above] (Sunday, five, 2.30pm)
2. Memento (Sunday, BBC2, 10.55pm)
3. Dumbo (Sunday, C4, 5.50pm)
4. Earthquake (Wednesday, C4, 2.55am)
5. Philomena (Friday, BBC2, 9pm)

"The Mermaid" (Guardian 19/02/16)

The Mermaid ***
Dir: Stephen Chow. With: Jelly Lin, Chao Deng, Show Luo, Yuqi Zhang. 94 mins. Cert: 15

Currently obliterating box-office records in China, this live-action cartoon finds Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer) elevating a Disneyish set-up – ruthless developer is mollified by the mermaid inhabiting the lagoon he’s plundering – with more of his usual good-to-inspired sight gags. (Much amusement is derived from an attempt to describe a hybrid form to a police sketch artist.) Happily, Chow’s eye for funny faces and presences remains undimmed: with her wonky lipstick and penguin waddle, Jelly Lin’s heroine could halt even the most intensive construction work, though she can’t quite top the prologue’s bearded, pot-bellied mock-merman, who rises from a bathtub like Ricky Tomlinson in Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff. Only the broader knockabout casts Chow out into troubled tonal waters. A last-reel merperson massacre – apparently framed to recall 2009’s conscience-pricking ecodoc The Cove – has earned The Mermaid a 15 certificate that feels simultaneously justifiable and restrictive, especially as so much else here unfolds as brisk, enjoyable child’s play.

The Mermaid is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Sunday 14 February 2016

Wild thing: "The Survivalist"

The Survivalist is one of those rare genre pieces that works intently and effectively within its box, while also thinking some distance beyond it. That debutant writer-director Stephen Fingleton is attempting something at least a little different can be understood as early as his opening sequence, a nervy ballet between the lines on a graph - plotting the planet's human population against oil production - that comes eventually to speculate on the calamity that may well befall the former when the latter begins to tail off. Our understanding of that calamity is only deepened throughout a largely wordless first act, which describes the daily routine of a shaven-headed loner (Martin McCann) reduced to farming the small scrap of land around a decrepit shack in some after-the-fall wilderness, and what happens when a mother and her teenage daughter (Olwen Fouéré and Mia Goth) emerge from the woods one afternoon, and attempt to initiate a dialogue.

From the nature of this dialogue, we can ascertain that all niceties have long gone with the wind; instead, a do-or-die bluntness prevails. "Don't come inside her," says the mother, entrusting her offspring to this loner after he takes the pair of them in - advice offered in wisdom, given the consequences of bringing another hungry mouth into these most straitened of circumstances. Yet such transparency of expression doesn't easily translate into trust: our hero keeps his shotgun in hand as the girl begins to shave him, and a dozen other flinches and flickers punch up the impact the base-level insecurity of this world has had upon the characters' relationships. Unusually for a low-budget Britflick, the quandary those characters find themselves in will be as much philosophical as physical: whether or not to put up the shutters and go it alone, or branch out and take the risks any relationship entails. (I'm coming round to the idea The Survivalist may be an inspired choice of release for the Valentine's weekend.)

In couching his film so, Fingleton takes a basic dramatic set-up - three people (and a handful of stalk-on ne'er-do-wells) pottering around the same shed, The Good Life gone bad - and expands upon it exponentially. The show-don't-tell minimalism of the screenplay is a major boon, allowing the performers - and the viewer's imagination - to fill in whatever backstory is necessary. McCann - emerging from under a drastic Levellers haircut as a more interesting Rupert Friend - displays a wiry tautness that speaks of months of rationing and is of a piece with the film entire, while the women pull through as far more than damsels in distress: the silver-haired Fouéré climbing trees and stripping down in a manner that suggests she's unlikely to book in for a cosy stay at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel any time soon, while the apparently waif-like Goth - fleetingly glimpsed amid von Trier's Nymphomaniac - displays hidden reserves of strength and practicality in a scene of self-induced abortion sensitive viewers should perhaps be warned about.

The whole film, indeed, is no place for the faint of heart: we should praise Fingleton for making so many uncompromising choices on his first time out behind the camera, so many of them being exactly the plausible ones for characters mired in this end-of-days scenario. Of particular note: the pared-back sound - no thundering Apocalyptoid score here - which allows us to appreciate anew the effectiveness of silence when deployed as a weapon. In the course of The Survivalist, you can hear not just the existential tension mounting in a room and the footsteps approaching from outside, but every accelerated heartbeat, every last, desperate gasp. A wildly promising debut.

The Survivalist is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Saturday 13 February 2016

On demand: "Out Of The Rubble"

A glass-half-empty viewer might perceive Out of the Rubble as a snapshot of the British film industry in this austerity moment: a twenty-minute item cobbled together out of old images gleaned from the national archive, partly because there's precious little money left in the cultural purse to facilitate the creation of new ones. This has become a common pastime among filmmakers these past few years - think of Bill Morrison's The Miners' Hymns, Martin Wallace's The Big Melt, Kim Longinotto's Love is All and, most recently, Benedikt Erlingsson's The Show of Shows - and it's hard not to think of the practice as a way for creatives to keep their hand in without incurring vast expense, the cinematic equivalent of foraging for scraps in the bins round the back of Sainsbury's. (In our brave new freelancing world, we are all beggars of a kind.)

The director Penny Woolcock has been here before, surveying British coastal life in 2012's From the Sea to the Land Beyond. With this latest collage, she's addressing the pressing issue of national housing policy, and venturing an instructive contrast between the building boom of the post-War years and what's going on today; the rubble of form (handfuls of material sourced from bigger constructions) will come to align with the rubble of content. Some of this content will be familiar to anybody raised on the Government information films of the 1950s onwards: again, you can't help but be struck by the naive enthusiasm displayed by our founding fathers around the creation of new towns like Stevenage, or the official attempts to paint Birmingham's Bull Ring as exotic, and Milton Keynes as a model of diversity. Yet by stitching together the evidence of these projects, Woolcock and her editor Alex Fry shine a light on the utopian ideals underpinning each one: this was a moment when the powers-that-be were minded to at least try and do something for the people.

Woolcock establishes her own seriousness of intent by ditching the droney-ambient scores that have traditionally been a feature of these collages, the better to hear out a variety of voices that reflect historical and contemporary attitudes to the places we live in. You can not only hear but feel that post-War optimism slipping away as the film reaches the mid-1960s - the moment of Cathy Come Home - when the authorities' preferred solution to the swelling population (baby boomers, a sudden influx of migrants) was to throw up unprepossessing concrete blocks; if you think that's grim, it pales beside the current regime's preference for selling off public housing, either to private landlords, or to developers keen to convert the country entire into luxury flats. Though possessed of a comparatively short running time, Rubble offers plentiful, potent illustration of the miserable drift from neighbourhoods and community to faceless corporate superstructures, ivory towers surrounded by slums as far as the eye can see: here, as elsewhere in her filmography, Woolcock's images capture something of the deep and deleterious division Britain now appears to be heading towards. 

Out of the Rubble is now available to view for free on the BFI Player.

Friday 12 February 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of February 5-7, 2015:
1 (new) Goosebumps (PG) ***
2 (new) Dad's Army (PG)
3 (1) The Revenant (15) ***
4 (2) Dirty Grandpa (15)
5 (5) Spotlight (15) ***
6 (3) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A) **
7 (6) The Big Short (15) ***
8 (4) Ride Along 2 (12A)
9 (new) Point Break (12A)
10 (8) Daddy's Home (12A)


My top five:   
1 (1) Legend (18) ***
2 (2) Sicario (15) ***
3 (3) Stick Man (U)
4 (5) Jurassic World (12) **
5 (4) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12) **
6 (6) Macbeth (15) ***
7 (7Minions (U)
8 (new) Miss You Already (12)
9 (8Terminator: Genisys (12)
10 (10Pixels (12) **

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. There Will Be Blood (Saturday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. While You Were Sleeping (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
3. Mr. Popper's Penguins (Sunday, C4, 5.40pm)
4. Homefront (Sunday, five, 9pm)
5. Meet the Parents (Saturday, BBC1, 11.55pm)

The deep end: "A Bigger Splash"

There's been much handwringing in certain quarters of late over the way arthouse takings are being compromised by the tendency among leading overseas directors to move into non-subtitled, English-language production: this, apparently, is where globalisation gets us. Of all the festival-friendly career moves the past few months have thrown up - Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster, Sorrentino's Youth - A Bigger Splash, being the Italian director Luca Guadagnino's long-awaited follow-up to 2009's I Am Love, emerges as by far the most enjoyable and best sustained. A loose reworking of Jacques Deray's cult 1969 item La Piscine, it seizes upon the "unwanted visitor" trope central to so many thrillers over the years - a trope that arguably dates back to the serpent's entry in the Garden of Eden - while insistently pursuing its own pleasure principle. Here is a film that cocks an eyebrow, tips you the wink, and suggests - as perhaps only a director raised on the Continent could - that there are more exciting things to do with your hands than wringing them.

Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have shifted events several degrees south, to the kind of paradisiacal Italian island where even one as naturally pale as Tilda Swinton might avail themselves of a healthy tan. Her Marianne is a pop star who's retreated here while she recovers from an operation on her vocal chords; her days are spent either sunning herself by the pool, or splashing about within it alongside her hunky filmmaker lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). This blissful time-out will, however, be interrupted by an old acquaintance: the overbearing Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a drug-fuelled music-biz blusterer who formerly dated Marianne and later introduced his hosts to one another. As Marianne is without a voice, she can't say no when he shows up on her doorstep, and she hasn't had the advance notice to run further into the hills; instead, she reluctantly takes him in, along with his unannounced plus one Penelope (Dakota Johnson), a twentysomething waif whom the gallivanting Harry has only just discovered is his daughter.

His houseguests installed, Guadagnino settles back to watch the snakes emerging from the grass to slither across the terrace, and to observe his principals first striking sparks, then becoming hot and bothered, and finally overheating. The funny thing is, A Bigger Splash is in no particular hurry to get to this meltdown; for much of its duration, the dramatic temperature is kept to a low, carefully controlled simmer. What you notice first of all is how the warmth relaxes Fiennes to the point where he's prepared to embody the prize prat absolutely. We've seen flickers of Funny Fiennes before, most notably with his Leonard Rossiter-ish turn in 2010's Cemetery Junction, most recently in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Guadagnino allows the actor to roll up, flaunt his dadbod, and commandeer whole stretches of the picture: one of A Bigger Splash's pleasures lies in watching The Artist Formerly Known As Voldemort (and currently to be seen on stage as Ibsen's The Master Builder) pulling secondhand Jagger moves to "Emotional Rescue" and gurning around the karaoke machine.

Yet everybody here appears newly refreshed, alert, open to the elements; between them, this quartet of performers suggest the intimacy of not just old pals, but people who've known one another's bodies - or the growing intimacy of those who might want to know one another's bodies. Yorick Le Saux's antsy camera resists any listlessness, constantly caressing the actors' faces and forms, setting us to look at them head-on, keeping an eye out at all times for the sexual possibilities that follow from lounging about all day with your top off. At two hours, the film risks seeming a bit too relaxed for its own good - and perhaps we don't really need three separate scenes of Harry plunging either fully clothed or balls-out naked into the pool to establish the character's impulsive nature. Yet the pacing allows us to better feel the space between these people, the breeze blowing through their quarters (not a euphemism), the subtle shifts within their relationships; it transforms what could have been a rather arid or academic, even theatrical fourhander into something fluid, organic, unpredictable.

Kajganich may have set all these situations up on paper, but it needed Guadagnino to pull them out into the light of day and test them: his methods are most apparent in the insertion of one subtle, very shrewd subplot involving the African migrants seen flocking to this island, a development that insures the film against any accusations it might merely be a paean to white leisure-class privilege. (In this respect, it's a progression on the more insular I Am Love.) I suspect some observers are going to be thrown by the unexpected data offered up by the final two reels, when this bohemian bubble gets punctured, the pool is violently drained, and the heavens open. Yet the result is a rare remake that keeps the viewer guessing right up until its final moments. In its wryly quizzical fascination with the mysteries of human relationships - how we initiate them, and how we contrive to over-complicate them, and thereby fuck them up - A Bigger Splash resembles an Antonioni movie made by a filmmaker whose internal compass defaults towards joy and wonder, not pessimism or despair.

A Bigger Splash opens in selected cinemas from today. 

Thursday 11 February 2016

Hard-knock life: "Concussion"

Concussion is another of this season's examples of Hollywood seizing upon real-world reportage and turning it into naggingly pat multiplex entertainment, framed less to convey the original, rather more critical message than to make a star and a democracy look good. That star is Will Smith, whose position among the A-list firmament has come to look shaky of late; here, he's playing Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born, Pittsburgh-based pathologist who exposed a major cover-up within the ranks of the National Football League. (That's right: it's Spotlight for jocks.) After an opening courtroom scene in which the doctor is invited to list his qualifications so onlooking hayseeds have no doubt who their hero for the evening will be, Omalu lands the curious case of Mike Webster (David Morse), a once-robust local football legend who spent his retirement huffing glue to keep his demons at bay. Webber's deterioration is a conundrum only a dogged maverick can solve, and it's one that brings this Omalu into conflict with not just the NFL, but Big Government in all its forms.

Writer-director Peter Landesman, who scripted last year's smart Kill the Messenger, is savvy enough to couch at least the first half of his story as a procedural in the enduringly popular CSI/NCIS vein, even casting CSI:NY hotshot Hill Harper by way of continuation. There's lots of Dr. Will peering into microscopes and setting about cadavers with sharp knives - though, strangely, nothing quite as grisly as one gets even on network TV. (The film reveals its own Achilles heel early: it's just too clean-cut.) By way of compensation, some heavyweight acting talent has been co-opted to listen to the star explaining aspects of anatomy in his new-build Nigerian accent: Morse (working typically hard beneath layers of latex scar tissue) disappears early on, but Alec Baldwin and Eddie Marsan show up for thinly characterised walk-ons, and Albert Brooks mines a little deeper as Smith's mentor Cyril Wecht.

Yet the narrative - originally played out upon the restrained pages of the American medical journal Neuropathy - has clearly had to be trumped up in places for easier two-hour consumption. Another Steelers warhorse has to crack up or go down every five minutes to provide Omalu with corroborating evidence: a compression of time that makes the mass carnage of Midsomer Murders come to seem like gritty realism. Pounding music is laid over the scene in which the good doctor cracks the case while watching football highlights. And lest all this medical roughhousing put off the sensitive viewer, Omalu's church installs a pliable Kenyan stray, Prema, in his bachelor pad as a ready reward for his being such a good man. (She will fall pregnant without the leads sharing so much as a kiss; it's a pretty thankless role for Gugu Mbatha-Raw after the starmaking moments of Belle and Beyond the Lights)

The scene in which Prema pulls her upright host onto a nightclub floor to get jiggy with it is the stuff of test screening interference, and the point at which Concussion abandons all claims to dramatic seriousness. It is, however, entirely consistent with the way Landesman appears to back away from overt criticism of an American sporting tradition in favour of celebrating America's ability to absorb different creeds, colours and medical points of view. Leaving aside the journalistic cowardice involved in that reframing, this Benetton-ad worldview appears borderline fantastical at this Trumpish moment; within the film, it gives rise to boggy-soggy encounters in drab-looking conference rooms, where the useful anger that gave Spotlight its charge gives way to damp-eyed piety. "I think you're going to be an American hero," Wecht tells Omalu around the halfway mark. "I'm not even American," Omalu insists. "That's so fucking American," comes the response. As we head towards the inevitable final-reel image of the Stars and Stripes, Landesman keenly retrieving the notes scattered at his feet by producers and early viewers alike, Concussion starts to feel less hard-hitting than soft-headed, victim of lawyer-assisted compromise - but then Sony needs to promote its product at half-time in the Super Bowl as much as any other studio.

Concussion opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Suffer the children: "Noble"

Cinemas are, one senses, approaching biopic overload (and critics biopic fatigue), so I wish I could report that Noble brought something fresh to the marketplace. Instead, Stephen Bradley's film offers a garbled introduction to the life and good deeds of Christina Noble, the Irishwoman who escaped the institutional poverty she was born into - and a broad range of overbearing patriarchal authority, from a violent father to the Catholic Church - to set up a foundation to give children around the globe a far better start than she herself got. This rushed, meat-and-potatoes retelling stocks its 100 minutes with self-cancelling lumps of incident - Christina's stint behind the counter of a Birmingham chip shop is accorded greater dramatic prominence than her gang rape - and surrounds these with choices and soundtrack cues you could easily guess. The evocation of Noble's childhood on the backstreets of 1940s Dublin has that rained-out Angela's Ashes look; the onset of the Sixties - and the teenage Christina's passage from convent - is marked by a jaunty Beat number; the camera cranes up over the happy ending to the rousing strains of Coldplay.

A cast of familiar Irish faces helps to nudge it along: Liam Cunningham plays the docker da, rather overdoing the table-turning and window-smashing when he comes home from the pub one night; Pauline McLynn and the ever-excellent Eva Birthistle show up among the inevitable nuns. Yet while the younger Christinas - Gloria Cramer Curtis as a gal who sings Doris Day numbers in vaguely Terence Davies-ish pubs, Sarah Greene as her increasingly independent teenage counterpart - Deirdre O'Kane, as Christina the elder, is hamstrung by clunky scripting that obliges the character to continually pour out her hopes, fears and methods to God and anybody else in the vicinity. If you are still keen to learn more about Christina Noble's undeniable accomplishments in this world, an acclaimed documentary - Ciarin Scott's In a House That Ceased To Be - has already done the rounds; Bradley's film, rather too breathless and gabbling in its admiration for its subject, would appear to comprise a very distant Plan B.

Noble opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on Monday. 

Friday 5 February 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 29-31, 2015:
1 (1) The Revenant (15) ***
2 (new) Dirty Grandpa (15)
3 (3) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A) **
4 (2) Ride Along 2 (12A)
5 (new) Spotlight (15) ***
6 (4) The Big Short (15) ***
7 (new) Capture the Flag (PG)
8 (6) Daddy's Home (12A)
9 (5) Creed (12A) ****
10 (new) Turandot - Met Opera 2016 (12A)


My top five:   
1 (1) Legend (18) ***
2 (new) Sicario (15) ***
3 (new) Stick Man (U)
4 (new) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12) **
5 (2) Jurassic World (12) **
6 (new) Macbeth (15) ***
7 (4) Minions (U)
8 (5) Terminator: Genisys (12)
9 (6) 45 Years (15) ****
10 (8Pixels (12) **

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. We Dive at Dawn (Sunday, BBC2, 1pm)
2. In the Valley of Elah (Sunday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
3. Hannibal (Monday, five, 10.55pm)
4. Michael Clayton (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
5. The Green Hornet (Sunday, five, 11.20pm)

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Mountain high: "Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise"

He cuts a remarkable figure, this Lee Perry fellow: the beard dyed various shades of red, the personally reconfigured clothing, the proclamations about Jah and Satan and Satan's vampires, the tendency to chat to pigeons as he does to journalists, and to stash ceremonial swords around his studios in anticipation of some imminent, climactic battle between good and evil. If nothing else, the Scratch existence serves as proof of the importance of context when it comes to describing personality. If you were to encounter Perry unawares on the street, you'd surely be prompted to place a concerned call to the appropriate mental health professionals; yet in the realms of the music industry, he's been left to function as he pleases, variously acclaimed as a maverick, a genius, a visionary. The German documentarist Volker Schaner has been following Perry on his travels ever since he encountered the reggae legend at his Swiss retreat back in 1999. Who wouldn't be at the very least intrigued? Here was a man in various forms of exile, apparently cut off from his Jamaican roots, beavering away on artistic projects that ran the gamut from the arcane to the truly unfathomable. How did Perry get here, in this land of cuckoo clocks, having to dig himself out of deep snow to debut his new material before the palefaces of Lausanne? 

One of the achievements of Schaner's new profile Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise - made all the starker by the befuddling interviews we see the film's subject giving to representatives of the music press - is how it begins to make the movements of this so-called "space traveller" make some kind of sense. There are trippy animated inserts designed to school the uninitiated on black migratory politics; the subtitling of Perry's pronounced patois is throughout exemplary in its clarity, while respectful of the speaker's utterly idiosyncratic phrasemaking; producers - generally shrewder interpreters of a musician's material than the musicians themselves - are drafted in to winkle out meaning from Perry's zonked-cosmic lyrics. Soon, we're also spying signs and signifiers everywhere we look: faces inscribed in rocks, connections in airplane vapour trails, demons in the shadows cast by the late-afternoon sun. You'd be shouting from the rooftops, too, if you were seeing this stuff 24/7.

While celebrating Perry's ability to think some distance outside the box, Schaner retains a fascination for the boxes his subject has confined himself within - perhaps to preempt anybody locking him up. The camera approaches "The Secret Laboratory", Perry's Swiss bolthole, as though it were Tutankhamun's tomb, and well might Schaner tread carefully: before its destruction in a fire last year, this fragile shelter was a riot of collages (encompassing everything from Biblical passages to Disney video sleeves) and daubed slogans (the word "GANJA" recurs), a place where spiders were left to roam freely over decades of Perry paraphernalia. These scenes, while forming a felicitous rhyme with the illustrator's dishevelled workshop in this week's animated release Miss Hokusai, actually set me more in mind of the overstuffed Brighton hovel inhabited by the eccentric subject of Toby Amies' doc The Man Whose Mind Exploded. Once again, we're reminded how a certain level of hoarding, while a curse or a solace for the afflicted, offers nothing but a blessing for the passing filmmaker, who can point a camera in every direction and alight upon something of note, not to mention make concrete and literal what might be lurking inside their subjects' head.

Thankfully, this remains an enjoyable headspace to spend any time in: the Perry philosophy, such as we can derive from these 100 minutes, involves banishing demons, fighting the good fight, and taking the edge off with a nice big spliff come sundown. We're left to consider the extent to which music, and being given free rein to create, has helped to stave off any darkness in Perry's life - which is why Vision of Paradise might well provide pertinent viewing not just for longtime aficionados, but also those aforementioned mental health professionals, pondering new courses of treatment. Certainly, the scenes that find Perry wandering the London tourist trail, or swimming under stormclouds back home in Jamaica ("I am a fish!") evince an uncomplicated, in-the-moment joy, one rarely noted elsewhere among contemporary performers. Devotees may gripe there isn't enough of the music, but Schaner's film finally arrives at, if not the grand vision of paradise promised by its title, then at least one of attainable, earthly happiness. Lee Scratch Perry may just be the cheeriest vampire hunter the movies have ever put on screen.

Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise opens in selected cinemas from Friday.