Friday 29 April 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 22-24, 2015:
1 (1) The Jungle Book (PG) **
2 (3) Eye in the Sky (15) *** 
3 (new) Bastille Day (15)
4 (2) Zootropolis (PG)
5 (new) Friend Request (15)
6 (4) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12A)
7 (5Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
8 (6) The Huntsman: Winter's War (12A)
9 (new) Shakespeare Live! (12A) ***
10 (new) Miles Ahead (15)


My top five:   
1. Son of Saul [above]
2. Arabian Nights vol. 2: The Desolate One
3. BFI Presents: Richard III
4. Heaven Knows What
5. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Top Ten Streaming:

1 (1) Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (18) ***
2 (new) Hitchcock/Truffaut (12) ****
3 (3) Carol (15) ****
4 (2) Black Mountain Poets (15) ***
5 (5) Court (PG) ***
6 (new) Symptoms (15)
7 (new) Macbeth (15) ***
8 (4) Eisenstein in Guanajuato (15) **
9 (7) BFI Presents: Richard III (15) ****
10 (8) Sunset Song (15) ***

(source: BFI)

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12) **
2 (2The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
3 (3) SPECTRE (12) ***
4 (4) The Martian (12) ****
5 (5) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
6 (6The Good Dinosaur (PG)
7 (8) The Intern (12)
8 (7) The Dressmaker (15) ***
9 (9The Last Witch Hunter (15)
10 (re) Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)

My top five:  
1. Innocence of Memories
2. Hitchcock/Truffaut
3. Next to Her
4. Krampus
5. The Survivalist

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Cop Land (Friday, C4, 12.10am)
2. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sunday, five, 4.30pm)
3. Elysium (Sunday, five, 9pm)
4. Drive Angry (Sunday, five, 11.10pm)
5. Rabbit-Proof Fence (Sunday, BBC2, 11pm)

"Heaven Knows What" (Guardian 29/04/16)

Heaven Knows What ***
Dirs: Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie. With: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress, Eleonore Hendricks. 94 mins. Cert: 18

The Safdie brothers’ divisive portrait of a New York heroin addict’s deadbeat existence hews closer to Larry Clark than Trainspotting. A cast of varyingly unwashed, toothless, abrasive semi- and non-professionals scratch harsh truths from lead Arielle Holmes’ memoir of her time on the margins: as they shuffle, zombie-like, from one grating encounter to the next, you feel the Safdies shaping deathly dull flophouse downtime so as to make even upright citizens feel the need for a hit of something. As with actual junkies, it can be a headache, a bore or a horror show, but the directors keep finding the right arresting detail to illuminate aspects of this experience. A quasi-epic attempt to thread a sewing needle suggests our heroine’s desperation to restore some part of a broken life, although here, as elsewhere, Holmes is so convincingly zonked one can only wonder what’s still in her system, and in her soul. Cautiously recommended.

Heaven Knows What opens from today in selected cinemas. 

"Ratchet & Crank" (Guardian 29/04/16)

Ratchet & Clank **
Dirs: Kevin Monroe, Jericca Cleland. Animation with the voices of: Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Bella Thorne, Rosario Dawson. 94 mins. Cert: PG

Converted from the Sony console game, this latest factory-line animation so insistently generates intergalactic spectacle that it tramples its own message about rejecting grand gestures and doing the right thing. As our plucky vulpine hero progresses from self-doubting cadet to resistance top gun, the animators prove rather better at rendering hovercars and bogeyguns than original ideas, repurposing key narrative and design elements from Pixar, TV’s Futurama, perhaps even the old Super Nintendo shoot-‘em-up Starfox. Again, it’ll fill a screen and kill ninety minutes if the kids have seen everything else – surely its biggest hope – but the ratio of hardware to heart badly needed another tune-up.

Ratchet & Clank is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Saturday 23 April 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 15-17, 2015:
1 (new) The Jungle Book (PG) **
2 (2) Zootropolis (PG)
3 (new) Eye in the Sky (15) *** 
4 (3) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12A)
5 (4) Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
6 (1) The Huntsman: Winter's War (12A)
7 (new) Fan (12A) ***
8 (new) Theri (12A)
9 (new) Criminal (15)
10 (5Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG) ***


My top five:   
1 (new) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12) **
2 (1) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
3 (new) SPECTRE (12) ***
4 (3) The Martian (12) ****
5 (4) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
6 (2) The Good Dinosaur (PG)
7 (6) The Dressmaker (15) ***
8 (7) The Intern (12)
9 (5The Last Witch Hunter (15)
10 (8) Brooklyn (12) ****

My top five:  
1. Innocence of Memories
2. Hitchcock/Truffaut
3. Next to Her
4. Krampus
5. The Survivalist

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (Friday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
2. Contraband (Saturday, C4, 11.20pm)
3. Fort Apache (Saturday, BBC2, 7.55am)
4. Heartbreakers (Wednesday, C4, 1.30am)
5. Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Saturday, BBC2, 12.05am)

Swingers: "The Jungle Book"

In the half-century since their canonical animated version, Disney have continually returned to Mr. Kipling's best-known narrative, whether to retain a copyright or see if it might enchant youngsters anew: one senses it has become as sacred a text to the company as, say, the Holy Bible was to Cecil B. DeMille. If Stephen Sommers' live-action take from the early 1990s has now largely been forgotten about, its fate may be preferable to that of the generally reviled The Jungle Book 2, an animated 2003 product born of the Mouse House's millennial lowpoint. Jon Favreau's new live-action adaptation The Jungle Book, on the other hand, displays the bounteous commercial confidence you'd expect from a post-Frozen proposition: it arrives with plentiful 3D-appointed, IMAX-ready spectacle (lush forestscapes, rushing waterfalls, mudfalls, tree climbing) and a full menagerie of photorealistic CG animals who presumably took far longer in the rendering than their hand-drawn predecessors.

With the very savvy, very businesslike Favreau - who pulled in a cool $620m worldwide on Iron Man 2 - at the helm, all this was perhaps a given: the executives can return to the massage table knowing they've got what they presumably set aside a whole lot of money for. There are, though, bigger questions to be asked of it. Like: does this smoothly engineered product have much in the way of charm to go with its polish? And, perhaps most crucially for anyone not overly engaged by the business of weekend box-office figures: will we all still be watching it in fifty years' time? In these matters, I think, the Favreau version is walking barefoot on altogether rockier ground. Take our entry point into this universe, the film's one flesh-and-blood representative Neal Sethi: a very Californian Mowgli, he speaks all his lines as though he were auditioning to play one of Tim Allen's sons on Home Improvement. (You'll look for signs of the enfant sauvage in vain; even the animated Mowgli was seen to wrinkle his nose and his forehead from time to time.)

As with its hero, so with the film, which purges any real wildness from the frame, and keeps offering up bizarre mismatches between voices and bodies. George Sanders brought experience and worldliness to the task of voicing Shere Khan in the original animation; the wildly overhyped Idris Elba, by contrast, sounds like a wannabe DJ dropping by on his way to the next Hoxton garage night. Scarlett Johansson's Kaa exists as no more than a single, breathy note: behind-the-scenes footage will surely show Favreau directing her as he gazed upon her changing clothes while playing Tony Stark's chauffeur in the Iron Man sequel. And while, yes, there's a degree of wit in having the Christopher Walken-voiced King Louie emerge from his mountain lair as though he were Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, recruiting Bill Murray to voice Baloo feels an all too obvious and pandering choice, ten years after Peak Murray. (The actor's lazy irony has always needed someone or something to work or rub against to be funny; simply indulge it, as Favreau does here, and you end up with A Very Murray Christmas, and truly nobody deserves another one of those.)

Of course, a modern multinational megatainment has to get saleable names onto the poster, but in this case it makes for a jolting experience; you're marvelling at the effects or hearing the voice work, never quite engaging with the characters or narrative. This is a major problem for a film with an already episodic narrative, nudging its hero towards maturity: you're just settling into it, only for some element to throw you out. In the '67 version, the songs helped to cultivate a vibe upon which viewers might be carried, but that film was close enough to the movie musical boom to know how a decent tune could function as an expression of character, and not merely the cue for another setpiece: folding, among others, the noted bandleader Louis Prima into its foliage, it was - along with the subsequent The Aristocats - perhaps the closest the uptight Disney squares, hunched over their drawing boards, ever got to the looseness of jazz.

Favreau's version slashes the songbook in favour of more Spectacle, and presents those few numbers that have survived the test-screening process as half-hearted, semi-embarrassed throwbacks. True, you get to hear Murray sing "Bare Necessities" and Walken do "I Wanna Be Like You", but the music is as deadeningly ironised as any Meghan Trainor cover, and orchestrated after the manner of the Robbie Williams swing album. Deprived of their buoying marching song, meanwhile, this jungle's elephants are reduced to the standing of forlorn screensavers. All of this points to what Favreau surely pitched his Jungle Book as: another goddamned reboot, as though Kipling had written no more than an origin story, and Mowgli were no more than a Peter Parker-in-waiting, awaiting the opportunity to leap from branch to branch across an IMAX screen. The result has scale and sweep, undeniably, but too little in the way of heart, soul or genuine poetry - and, as the lady so nearly said, any Jungle Book don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

The Jungle Book is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Soft bellies: "Kung Fu Panda 3"

It feels some while since 2011's Kung Fu Panda 2, but then a year is a long time in a marketplace where there's now a medium-to-high profile animation release every school holiday. (Back in the day, when these films took far longer to manufacture - and it was all fields, rather than Frankie and Benny's and Cheesecake Factories, around the Odeon - you were lucky to see two a year.) In the course of just under a decade, this mid-ranking franchise has stepped forward, film by film, to occupy the vacuum left once the Toy Story series went on hiatus; its orientalist bent - evident in a voice cast that has encompassed Jack Black and Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie and Lucy Liu - has presumably allowed it to obtain a greater foothold in the emergent Asian markets than, say, the Snoopy or Marmaduke movies ever managed.

Narratively, each instalment has concerned itself with nudging tubby hero Po (Black) further and further away from the undermotivated, mateless sloth he began as. This third pass, which sees the writing staff continuing to raid the Buddhist (or Alcoholics Anonymous) playbook for plot points, has Po turning teacher, and attempting to pass on his learnings to others; he's also obliged to take breaking news about his lineage - plus the arrival from the spirit world of a massive warrior buffalo (voiced by J.K. Simmons) - in his stubby-legged stride. Yet if this series has anything like a signature move, it's in (under)cutting its drama and mysticism with bathetic punchlines and goofy asides: Po's dramatic entrance involves him jumping the queue at a noodle bar, while one character's adoption of heavy battle armour leads to an ornamental vase being filled with vomit. Mostly, directors Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carioni plump for a form of well-cushioned slapstick that suggests a gentler, less inventive Looney Toon or pixellated Paul Blart - and the dumpling-guzzling Po is indeed a hero that kids raised in the middle of an obesity epidemic might cheer all the way back to the popcorn counter. 

Amid long stretches of workaday CG artistry, the background design spins pleasing variations on crimson and jade, arriving at the occasional Hokusai landscape and something more besides in the spirit realm, where the animators can play as fast and loose with gravitational logic as Inside Out did within the Zone of Abstract Thought. Of subtext, however, there is nothing, save a very lightly sketched vision of different species working together for good - an idea reportedly punched up in Disney's Easter release Zootropolis. While it's bumbling along, Kung Fu Panda 3 is fine, entirely adequate product that should provide ninety minutes of much-needed peace and quiet for accompanying adults. (Bonus: the 3D glasses may assist in dozing.) Still, I do wonder what this glut of animated films is teaching our young beyond an obligation to turn up at the multiplex and hand over their pocket money come what may whenever school is out. This series has proven far less opportunistic and grabby in this respect than some, granted, but it remains really no more than an exercise in training up our inner consumer: call it Zen and the art of demographic maintenance.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Faces in the crowd: "Fan"

Dual roles have become to Shah Rukh Khan what masks were to Tom Cruise in that millennial moment that gave the world Eyes Wide Shut, Mission: Impossible II and Vanilla Sky: a way of parsing his own colossal celebrity, while circumnavigating the limitations of an established star persona. Just as the only way we couldn't notice Cruise on screen would be if the actor were to disguise himself (cf. Tropic Thunder), so too the only way we might buy that a character played by Khan could be bested would be if his nemesis were played by Khan himself. To a growing rollcall of cops and robbers, masterminds and naifs, and other yin-yangs, Khan's latest vehicle Fan adds two further mirror images: the one a very loosely fictionalised version of himself, the other the kind of movie-mad ingenu he might have ended up as had the mantle of fame not been placed upon his shoulders at a very early age.

The star's 25 years of screen credits, public appearances and award-ceremony acceptance speeches make it very easy for director Maneesh Sharma to establish the immense popularity of Khan's Bollywood megastar Aryan Khanna: an opening montage deploys some frankly jawdropping TV news footage of the superfans swelling outside Khan's own Mumbai abode in the hope of getting a glimpse of their idol. It might, however, have been considerably harder work getting the 50-year-old SRK to convince as the type of hayseed who might at this point look up to a figure such as he - and here Sharma makes a fine choice in turning to the detailed physical effects work of Hollywood's Greg Cannom (Benjamin Button), who has resculpted the star's features with a latex carapace that leaves him looking fresher of face than he has done on screen for several years. (It is, in its own way, a mask.)

Our sympathies may initially go out to Gaurav, an Aryan superfan and part-time impersonator: he's conceived, after all, as one of us, sitting in the cheap seats, dreaming of meeting his hero and emulating his fame and wealth. Yet beneath the film's bright and peppy toplayer, Sharma and the writer Habib Faisal are busy sowing seeds of doubt. The shrine Gaurav maintains to Aryan can't help but remind British viewers of Alan Partridge's infamous stalker; he threatens to throw himself off a speeding train if he's not permitted safe passage to his idol's hometown. By the time this oddball has shown up brandishing duct tape on the doorstep of an acting rival who has dissed Aryan publicly, what began as a journey - in the heavily hashtagged, post-Cowell sense of that word - has started to look ominously like an act of stalking.

This pilgrim's progress entails a degree of tonal fluctuation. What we're watching is essentially the 15- or 18-rated business of a psychothriller like 1996's The Fan (baseball ace Wesley Snipes stalked by Robert De Niro), pulped into a family-friendly multiplex entertainment, which means some of the violence and creepiness has had to be pantomimed. It's also not short on the kind of implausibilities the average American thriller on this theme hopes to usher us swiftly past. What hooks us, though, is Sharma and Faisal's awareness of the cruel symmetry underpinning this tale: that, just as a star without fans is nothing (a point elegantly made when a touring Aryan walks out to the deathly silence of an empty auditorium), so too a fan without a star to gaze upon can quickly lose their bearings. When the action relocates to Europe after the intermission, a humiliated Gaurav stages a one-man campaign to smear Aryan's good name, molesting a waxwork at Madame Tussaud's before groping a young woman at a VIP event. Where the Yewtree-era Fan differs most from the 20th century The Fan is in its recognition that a star's physical self has become far less vulnerable than their public image; nowadays, you go for the brand, not the throat.

Khan's own brand has declined somewhat over recent times: in the Bollywood sweepstakes, he's now possibly placed third behind his namesakes Aamir and (somewhat unthinkably) the resurgent Salman, a fact Fan appears to acknowledge by having Aryan called out on social media by emergent young hunks. Yet far more than his indulgent Christmas vehicle Dilwale, this is a very decent showcase for Khan the performer: at one point in the hall-of-mirrors finale, he's required to play Aryan playing Gaurav impersonating Aryan - a tricky technical challenge he meets with style - and it's an appreciable wrinkle that the closer Gaurav and we get to Aryan, the more we see what a pampered jerk the latter is, an empty vessel who has to read all his speeches off idiot boards because he has no sincere sentiments left in his heart to give. It does feel as though Khan is using his status as an elder statesman to address the excesses of celebrity as much as he is to denounce those of fandom: all similarities here are presumably entirely intentional.

There have been signs over the past year that the Indian cinema's commercial sector is smartening up and becoming a little less gauche, a little more self-aware - a tricky process that has so far given us the fitful Shamitabh (nice idea, poorly developed) and Tamasha (Bollywood Resnais, and as jolting as that sounds). As befits Khan's status, Fan is a slicker endeavour, making exciting action-movie currency from the sight of the star effectively chasing his own tail around the continent, and quite possibly referencing Strangers on a Train in the funfairs that bookend this particular face-off. Yet equally it doesn't lack for resonant, suggestive undercurrents. How many real-life transgressions and trespasses found their way into this screenplay? Enough, one would speculate, for Fan to initiate at least a half-dozen theses on stardom in the modern age, enough to make even a Friday or Saturday night crowd ponder just how terrified their favourite performers are of losing control. Cruise, for one, hasn't ventured anything this candidly autobiographical in years.

Fan is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Friday 15 April 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 8-10, 2015:
1 (new) The Huntsman: Winter's War (12A)
2 (3) Zootropolis (PG)
3 (1) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12A)
4 (2) Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
5 (4Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG) ***
6 (new) Midnight Special (12A) ****
7 (5) My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (PG) **
8 (6) 10 Cloverfield Lane (12A) ****
9 (8) London Has Fallen (15)
10 (new) Hardcore Henry (18)


My top five:   
1. Our Little Sister [above]
2. 28 Days Later...
3. Midnight Special 
4. Calamity Jane
5. Fan

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
2 (2) The Good Dinosaur (PG)
3 (4) The Martian (12) ****
4 (3) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
5 (5The Last Witch Hunter (15)
6 (6) The Dressmaker (15) ***
7 (new) The Intern (12)
8 (7) Brooklyn (12) ****
9 (8Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
10 (9) Carol (15) ****

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Spectacular Now (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. Mars Attacks! (Sunday, five, 11.05pm)
3. The Princess Bride (Sunday, five, 1.15pm)
4. Bend It Like Beckham (Sunday, five, 3.15pm)
5. 2 Fast 2 Furious (Saturday, ITV1, 10.20pm)

"The Sweeney: Paris" (Guardian 15/04/16)

The Sweeney: Paris **
Dir: Benjamin Rocher. With: Jean Reno, Alban Lenoir, Caterina Murino, Sabrina Ouazani. 92 mins. Cert: 15

Un peu cheeky, this. After Nick Love’s big-screen Sweeney rehash elicited lukewarm responses back in 2012, its producers stuck the script on the Eurostar and saw it remade as something called Anti-Gang. That film’s now been repackaged as what sounds like a franchise-expanding spin-off, yet its MO is near-identical: blokey – albeit newly subtitled – surveillance-van banter between burly womaniser Jean Reno and sidekick Alban Lenoir (as “Cartier”); much Saab-ad flash applied to careworn maverick cop business; thunderous rounds of ammo passing through paper-thin characterisations. No longer bound by Winstonian gravity, it’s the pacier watch, but these knuckles can only be dragged so far before tiredness sets in.

The Sweeney: Paris opens in selected cinemas today. 

Wednesday 13 April 2016

From the archive: "28 Days Later..."

Danny Boyle's apocalyptic zombie horror 28 Days Later... unleashes a fatal virus known as "the Rage" on Britain's streets, wiping out most of the population immediately, while turning infected survivors into charred-skinned, red-eyed flesh eaters. Hero Jim (Cillian Murphy), a courier with cheekbones, wakes up from a coma to find the hospital he's in abandoned and the world outside just as eerily quiet. The opening twenty minutes - as Jim wonders through depopulated city streets lined with abandoned lottery tickets, useless currency and the fruits of ransacked shops - comprise the best use of the capital for horror purposes since An American Werewolf in London; Boyle, who subverted London's touristy red-bus reputation with that montage in the middle of Trainspotting, here offers Big Ben trinkets littering Westminster Bridge and a double-decker turned on its side in a powerless Whitehall. A few scattered survivors remain, notably Selina (Naomie Harris), all too aware of her status as one of the last women standing, but the group's nerves - frayed by relentless assaults from the infected - leave them just as prone to defeatist bickering.

This is the first British digital feature to top the UK box office, and I suspect its word-of-mouth success is due partly to the fact that the majority of its audience are unlikely to have seen a film that looks quite like this before. Though multiplex viewers and Dogme aficionados are two very different demographics, what both groups want from a film would appear to be fairly similar; if the Scandinavian movies used digital video as an index of edgy realism, there's no reason why more horror pictures shouldn't capitalise on the medium's pixellated ambiguity. (Strengthening this felicitous union between mainstream content and arthouse form, Boyle has enlisted Festen cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle to shoot the film.) Appropriately, a European lugubriousness is allowed to permeate every frame. After the recent My Little Eye, this is the second Brit-directed horror in a month to have a kind of perversely winning - and, one might have presumed, uncommercial - bleakness about it, operating far from the teen-slasher flashiness of I Know What You Did Last Summer and closer instead to such 1970s genre highpoints as Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. What we have here is a decidedly localised apocalypse.

As in My Little Eye, the situation quickly becomes so downbeat that any optimistic note proposed in Alex Garland's script will invariably seem less convincing than the gloom that has passed before it, but this is a nicely modulated piece that makes good use of familiar character actors (Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston) to bridge those stretches carried by relative unknowns, and which finds time for the odd chuckle (a trolley dash around an abandoned supermarket, reminding you of Boyle's unexpected deployment of Dale Winton in Trainspotting) or spiritual moment (wild horses roaming the countryside) between the bloodletting and general despondency. Boyle busies himself making the backdrop to every attack appear as real as possible. The film's first jolt comes not from an infected creature leaping out of the dark, as might happen in a more conventional project, but from a car alarm going off, and from that point onwards, matters proceed towards the most credible outcome to every situation. In a comparable American feature, a vehicle plowing through wreckage would make it through without a scrape; here our heroes wind up with a flat tyre. Where the characters in most end-of-the-world cinema give into fuck-it hedonism, Boyle's principals can only squabble over how much Valium to give a girl who can't get to sleep. ("Give her half of one," her father grimly concedes.)

One of the few explicitly knowing references in the entire film - and, again, it's a specifically British reference - comes when Jim and Selina show up at an army base overseen by Eccleston's Major West: the troops, desperate for nourishment, strike up a chant of "We hope it's chips, it's chips", theme of that enduring McCain's commercial, and a reference that serves a dual purpose, garnering a laugh of recognition while situating the film firmly in the same Britain as the viewing hordes. As in the previous Boyle/Garland collaboration The Beach, 28 Days... turns on the point at which our notional hero becomes a shirtless wonder with a glint of madness in his eye - and thus a character it's not especially easy to warm to; it could also be said that after the highly atmospheric London opening, the second half - which relocates the action to Manchester - is a relatively conventional horror holdout in the manner of The Evil Dead or even this year's Dog Soldiers. But in its own way, 28 Days Later... is a quietly impressive addition to 2002's list of varied and accomplished homegrown productions, a Brit shocker of a rare scope and scale. Sometimes the pleasure of watching a film comes simply from being in the same room as the work of someone who really, really knows what they're doing.

(November 2002)

28 Days Later... returns to UK screens this weekend as the latest Secret Cinema presentation. Full details can be found here.

Saturday 9 April 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 1-3, 2015:
1 (1) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12A)
2 (new) Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
3 (2) Zootropolis (PG)
4 (3Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG) ***
5 (4) My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (PG) **
6 (5) 10 Cloverfield Lane (12A) ****
7 (new) Madama Butterfly - Met Opera 2016 (12A)
8 (6London Has Fallen (15)
9 (7) The Boy (15) **
10 (8) The Divergent Series: Allegiant (12A)


My top five:   
1. Midnight Special [above]
2. Calamity Jane
3. Dheepan
4. Nasty Baby
5. The Passing

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12)
2 (2) The Good Dinosaur (PG)
3 (new) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
4 (new) The Martian (12) ****
5 (3The Last Witch Hunter (15)
6 (5) The Dressmaker (15) ***
7 (4) Brooklyn (12) ****
8 (6) Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
9 (7) Carol (15) ****
10 (10) The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (12)

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Die Hard (Saturday, C4, 10pm)
2. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Saturday, BBC2, 8.20pm)
3. The Town (Sunday, five, 9pm)
4. The Fast and the Furious (Saturday, ITV1, 9.25pm)
5. Crazy Heart (Wednesday, C4, 1.30am)

"The Passing" (Guardian 08/04/16)

The Passing ***
Dir: Gareth Bryn. With: Mark Lewis Jones, Annes Elwy, Dyfan Dwyfor. 89 mins. Cert: 15

A rare Welsh-language release, this handsome S4C-produced chiller actually sustains itself for a while on the wordless rhythms and textures of woodsman Mark Lewis Jones’ life: long, lonely rounds of digging and praying that promise, as elsewhere, that there will eventually be blood. His routine is disrupted when young lovers Annes Elwy and Dyfan Dwyfor plunge their car into a nearby stream, cueing a period of increasingly tense cohabitation as repressed memories and emotions are hauled to the surface like water from the local well. This slowburn process may disappoint the crash-bang-wallop crowd, who possibly demand more bang for their bucks nowadays than spectral presences at windows. Yet it’s assuredly played, and its melancholy look and feel – handing everyone fading photographs of brighter, better days – ensures it lingers longer than most homegrown genre fare: writer Ed Talfan and director Gareth Bryn find in their characters’ apparent isolation something simultaneously beautiful, terrifying and sad.

The Passing is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Sunday 3 April 2016

From the archive: "The Keeper of Lost Causes"

So much evidence of a Scandinavian crime wave has now washed up on our shores that it’s become possible to identify certain recurring tropes and images: chunky knitwear, clean interior design masking the dirtiest of deeds, windswept beaches, much moody staring out to sea. The Keeper of Lost Causes, an adaptation of the first of author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q novels, risks prompting derisive snorts by supplementing some of the above with clichés imported from the wider world.
Most of these are hiding in plain sight. Impulsive detective Carl Morck is introduced on a busted stakeout that results in himself and two colleagues being shot. Upon recovering, Morck is reassigned to a cold-case division, inevitably located in the bowels of his station, where his only company, apart from the heating pipes, are twenty years’ worth of unsolved files and an Arab sidekick, Assad (Fares Fares), whom it’s subtly inferred may have been relegated here on account of his race.
Off-duty, Morck trails a turbulent personal life, sheltering a tearaway teenage son from an ex who no longer wishes to speak to him; he spends his nights alone, chasing either junk food with Scotch, or pills with vodka; he is grumpy with himself, and tetchy around others. He’s played by Dogme fave Nicolaj Lie Kaas (Open Hearts), whose perma-grimace gives Morck the air of a man fearing the worst being surprised by a really noxious smell; he makes Kurt Wallander look like Barry Chuckle, and may yet prompt Charlie Brooker’s ‘tec-spoofing A Touch of Cloth into venturing a Denmark-set spin-off.
What we admire about Morck is his tenacity: though his investigations (technically reinvestigations) will be obstructed not just by the guilty parties but by fellow cops, he displays a stubborn resolve to get the job done right this time. Lie Kaas plays him with a topnote of impatient irritability – constantly drumming his fingers or legs, stomping out of rooms – which drives Mikkel Norgaard’s admirably pacy film on past its rote establishing scenes, and onto its main order of business: the disappearance of a politician on a ferry some five years before.
Where these crime dramas vary most is in their methodology. Some start with the corpse, then have the cop doggedly backtrack through the facts to reach a point at which it becomes clear who left it there; others go the supernatural route, and establish some psychic or empathetic bond between detective and victim. Keeper goes for a half-and-half approach that may not satisfy more rigorous viewers, but befits a case where no body has been found, and a life is still in the balance.
Morck’s file-parsing is intercut with scenes of the politician (an impressively committed Sonja Richter) after she boarded the ferry, trying to make her whereabouts known to the world. There are a few authorial freebies in here, visualising material Morck hasn’t yet uncovered for himself, but again the tactic effectively cuts to the chase, and a degree of connoisseurial pleasure can be taken from watching his reality move closer to hers. (You may have to look away during the DIY dentistry, mind.)
At the end of this first instalment – more are apparently on their way – this series doesn’t have the compelling atmos of the various Wallanders, nor yet the forceful characterisation of The Bridge, though Lie Kaas and Fares sketch an easy, winning pair of opposites. It’s the conviction inherent in its storytelling that grabs you: like its underdog heroes, Norgaard’s film displays a perfectly watchable desperation to pull all these loose ends and scraps together, and to see where they might usefully lead.
(August 2014)
The Keeper of Lost Causes is available on DVD through Channel 4; a sequel, The Absent One, opens in selected cinemas from Friday.