Monday 30 May 2016

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" (Guardian 30/05/16)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows *
Dir: Dave Green. With: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Tyler Perry, Laura Linney. 112 mins. Cert: 12A

With 2014’s live-action/CGI hybrid Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, mega-producer Michael Bay refashioned deathless reptilian merchandise in his preferred image. Bay’s Turtles were high-fiving meatheads buffed to a fine digital sheen, thus broadly interchangeable with the steroidal heroes of 2013’s Pain & Gain and last year’s 13 Hours. Sequel Out of the Shadows reintroduces this foursome via onscreen graphics that label Donatello as “Donnie” and Michelangelo as “Mikey”. Accompanying adults are thereby spared from having to explain why these guys have such funny, non-American names, but the touch also betrays how far we now are from anything as lofty as art.

Approached as commerce – as any 3D Ninja Turtles movie should be – it’s soon clear that OOTS follows the model of Bay’s Transformers sequels. Longer, louder and boasting even more hardware, it does everything to generate the illusion of bleeding-edge bang-per-buck, while cribbing shamelessly from 1991’s Secret of the Ooze: the Turtles must again stave off Shredder (Brian Tee), who’s escaped custody and rearmed with scientist Tyler Perry’s world-conquering serum. Bay’s subtexts remain questionable: here we’re asked to cheer heavily weaponised pizza guzzlers against a cabal of non-Caucasians, in a way that altogether uncomfortably aligns turtle power with its white equivalent.

That may make for good business; for human interest, not so much. These über-turtles – joshing pixelated clumps – remain incredibly dull company, their flesh-and-blood sidekicks little better: Will Arnett replaying his glib-jerk schtick without the material that makes it funny, Megan Fox handed disguises that run the gamut from “sexy nerd” to “minxy schoolgirl”. The heart flatlines upon the arrival of multiple Golden Globe-winner Laura Linney, stuck with the one understandably disbelieving expression as New York’s police chief; her presence suggests some Tina Fey parody of Bay’s cinema, only with laughter replaced by sadness at such an egregious example of thespwaste.

OOTS is assembled with consummate slickness, nominal director Dave Green – following up 2014’s semi-heartfelt Earth to Echo – approving many of the right effects shots. Yet only Bay could conceive of blowing this much time and cash upon identifying the exact spot at which zesty, subversive trash (as the Turtles might once have been) sours into ugly, empty junk, assembled solely to school our young in brute market forces and indiscriminate consumption. Our former heroes in a half-shell have become hulking, cold-bloodied bullies, demanding our pocket money and offering nothing in return – save a joyless, two-hour noogie such as this.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 28 May 2016

From the archive: "The Prestige"

"The prestige," as Michael Caine's ingenieur Cutter explains in The Prestige's opening sequence, is the third act of a magic trick - the moment an audience cheers at the reappearance of a person or object the magician has previously made disappear. Christopher Nolan's tale of rival magicians in turn-of-the-20th-century London hasn't come out of nowhere itself - it's based on a novel by Christopher Priest - but it is a very skilful work of cinematic conjuring, on a par with this filmmaker's backwards-thriller Memento. You'll need your brain switched on, and your eyes at their sharpest: the action takes place as a series of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks, held together by narration sourced from notebooks written by authors deliberately intending to mislead the reader/viewer. Amazingly, it all makes a kind of sense, although multiple viewings may be required to establish how much exactly.

At its centre are down-to-earth Cockney family man Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a grafter on the theatrical circuit, and aristocratic American showman Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Attempting to one-up each other by performing the greatest tricks the world has seen, the two soon become deadly rivals: the Magic Circle's own Salieri and Mozart, its Danton and Robespierre. (Angier even performs under the stagename "the Great Danton".) In terms of Nolan's filmography, these two would appear to be period archetypes of the cop and killer in Insomnia, and the stalker and stalkee in Following; the presence of Bale even reminds us of the duality he expressed in his role as the protagonist of last year's Batman Begins.

We're in altogether tricksier territory here, though: the entire film appears to have been constructed as an extended, even extravagant pun on the homonym illusions/allusions. The misdirection includes repeatedly putting Scarlett Johansson in corsets as the magicians' glamorous assistant; asking both leads to assume more than one role, or to play against themselves in certain scenes; casting Caine in a supporting part that refers back to Sleuth as much as it does Batman Begins; and an entire subplot involving the reclusive scientist Nikola Tesla, played by a very famous rock star - anything, one suspects, to throw viewers off the scent of what's really going on between its antagonists. 

Even if one does lose one's way, though, it's a fun film to get lost within, unfolding in a universe both convincing and compelling, full of secrets, shadows and slights-of-hand. Nolan has a real feel for the work of the theatrical conjurer, and just how their tricks were thought up, staged and perfected; the film might just as effectively be called Practical Magic, were that title not already claimed. Clever staging (on Nolan's part, if not his character's) leaves Angier in the bowels of the theatre, unable to receive his standing ovation upon completing his most accomplished illusion halfway through the film - a smart bit of motivating action. And in an audacious, creepy sequence shortly thereafter, Borden hijacks Angier's trick (and applause), leaving his rival suspended as a comic stooge, somewhere up in the rafters.

Yet Nolan's just as interested in the cinema as a magic trick: when Angier employs a double (an out-of-work sot, also played by Jackman) to help him pull off one vanishing act, the director initially seems content to keep the two Jackmans in separate frames, until an encounter that brings them face-to-face, thanks more to digitalisation than prestidigitation. The flashback structure requires close attention, and even then keeps us guessing; and even all the vaguely extraneous business about electricity as an emergent social force seems to tie in with the understanding that old-hat conjurers like Angier and Borden were soon to be rendered obsolete by the moving image, struck down by the shock of the new. The greatest surprise, as Nolan's film knows very well, is the one you don't see coming until it's way too late.

(November 2006)

The Prestige screens on BBC2 tonight at 11pm. 

Friday 27 May 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of May 20-22, 2016:
1 (new) X-Men: Apocalypse (12A)
2 (2) The Angry Birds Movie (U)
3 (3) The Jungle Book (PG) **
4 (1) Captain America: Civil War (12A)
5 (4) Bad Neighbours 2 (15)
6 (new) A Hologram for the King (12A)
7 (5) Florence Foster Jenkins (PG)
8 (6) Our Kind of Traitor (15) ***
9 (8) Secret Cinema: 28 Days Later... (18) ****
10 (new) Thomas & Friends: The Great Race (U)


My top five:   
1 (1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12) **
2 (2) The Hateful Eight (18) **
3 (new) Spotlight (15) ***
4 (new) Bridge of Spies (12) *****
5 (3) SPECTRE (12) ***
6 (5) Room (15) ****
7 (new) Dirty Grandpa (15)
8 (6) The Martian (12) ****
9 (7) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
10 (9) The Intern (12)

My top five:  
1. The Club
2. Creed
3. Lawrence of Belgravia
4. Room
5. Rams

Top Ten Streaming:

1 (new) Spotlight (15) *** 
2 (1) The Propaganda Game (15) ***
3 (new) The Assassin (15) ***
4 (3) Like You Mean It (15)
5 (re) Black Mountain Poets (15) ***
6 (6) Hitchcock/Truffaut (12) ****
7 (new) The Wind That Shakes the Barley (15) ***
8 (2) A War (15) ***
9 (new) Rams (15) ***
10 (new) The Lobster (15) ***

(source: BFI)

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Grosse Pointe Blank [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 11.40pm)
2. Withnail and I (Friday, C4, 2.05am)
3. The Prestige (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)
4. The Two Faces of January (Sunday, C4, 12.30am)
5. Back to the Future Part II (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)

"A Beautiful Planet" (Guardian 27/05/16)

A Beautiful Planet ****
Dir: Toni Myers. With: Terry Virts, and the voice of Jennifer Lawrence. 43 mins. Cert: U

With such IMAX credits as Mission to Mir and Hubble 3D to her name, Toni Myers is doing as much as any director to map the galaxy’s outer reaches. Her latest large-format eye-widener achieves a breathtaking new perspective on earthly life by floating cameras to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Tim Peake’s Twitter feed: mere dilettantism. What’s beamed back here combines a snapshot of ISS routine – zero-gravity haircare; terrifying external repairs – with an overview of landmasses subject to vivid natural and man-made phenomena: thunderstorms exploding under cloud cover, pollution clogging veiny rivers, a telling darkness north of the 38th Parallel. Jennifer Lawrence’s narration gets so earnest you might wish she’d sunk at least one rum-and-coke beforehand, but elsewhere dry, rational science is mixed with piquant detail and playful soundtrack choices. The result is the best kind of spectacle: that which encourages us to look up and beyond ourselves – and does so using only organic special effects.

A Beautiful Planet opens in IMAX cinemas nationwide today. 

"Streetdance Family" (Guardian 27/05/16)

Streetdance Family ***
Dirs: Debbie Shuter, Adam Tysoe. With: Entity Allstars. 87 mins. Cert: 12A

Not strictly affiliated to the established British urban franchise, this cheery documentary nevertheless rotates in similar circles, tracking U-16 dance crew Entity from their Barking clubhouse to the world champs in Bochum. Directors Debbie Shuter and Adam Tysoe shake up the usual contest-doc choreography by remaining open to the element of surprise. While the kids bust spectacular moves, the mums get tiddly on the sidelines, and the UK’s Streetdance Ambassador is revealed as a greying Greg Davies-alike named Derek. Objectivity is soon abandoned – the filmmakers’ son Ethan is in this troupe, so onscreen graphics deploy the first person plural – yet that’s a small sacrifice set against the heartening community spirit evoked either side of the camera: here are people working against the odds, with presumably limited resources, to give these youngsters a rare sense of achievement. More so than any BGT montage, it makes backflips and voguing seem an urgent, possibly even life-altering concern.

Streetdance Family opens in Odeon cinemas nationwide from today; for details on venues and ticket availability, click here.

Wednesday 25 May 2016

From the archive: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind - The Director's Cut"

For some reason, the special edition of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the version in regular circulation growing up, and I had nothing to compare it to: it was what it was, and that was that. Now, thanks to Columbia TriStar, we have the director's cut, which arrives at a particularly interesting point in this director's career, just after the release of War of the Worlds (again: watch the skies). Revisiting CE, a contemporary viewer is bound to be struck by the quiet eerieness of its opening stretch; it's very different to the unrelenting bombast of Spielberg-doing-Wells, which kept having to insist something of thunderous import - A Major Motion Picture Event - was about to take place before our very eyes. 

Rather than noise and fury, the earlier film is powered along by that beautifully crisp, no-nonsense form of 1970s editing - you'll have witnessed enough of it in The Conversation and All the President's Men for it to qualify as a style in its own right - which maintains that just when a scene is on the verge of a crescendo, the most effective choice is to cut to silence, or something approximating it. (Would that 21st century blockbusters were so understated: the new normal is to try and sustain that crescendo for as long as technologically possible, at risk of monotony and/or tinnitus.) My father walked into the room just as Richard Dreyfuss's Roy Neary was commencing work on his mashed potato mountain, and - not unjustly - wondered whether I was watching with the sound off.

In the modern blockbuster, built on equal parts chutzpah and insecurity, everything has to be front and centre - partly so the audience can be reassured we're getting exactly the right amount of bang for our bucks. But the Spielberg of Close Encounters keeps throwing in background jokes that very nearly go unseen: the lights that first appear in the rear windscreen of Neary's electrical repair truck, the TV coverage that gives away what the hero's obsessive-compulsive mountain-making has been geared towards. Were audiences really this much sharper back then? Or have we just got dumber, and lazier? War of the Worlds, for one, assumed its viewers were drooling morons who'd miss stuff - the hero's Everymannish nature, a 9/11 allusion, complex CG effects - were it not dangled in their faces.

If there is movement and madness in Close Encounters, it's both recognisable and, in the main, realistic: the clutter of an all-American household, with toys lining the floor and kids creeping about with first-wave video cameras. This is at once further confirmation of why Spielberg (and in particular his early work) was and is so popular in the West: that he had broadly the same childhood so many of us were lucky enough to have had. The same backyards and brand names; the same shows, interrupted by the same adverts. More of that bedrock of innocence was preserved in him than in his fellow 70s moviebrats, who surely eroded much of theirs - while gaining other, harsher life-insights - with every shot of bourbon and each nostril of coke.

Still, for all the film's reassuring familiarity, there remains a lot of weirdness, and a lot of displacement here - ships in the desert, an opening sequence that has much in common with The Exorcist, one shot late on of a soldier crouching among helicopters that prefigures Apocalypse Now - all of which perhaps explains why, however blockbusting, the film didn't quite post E.T. numbers. (As a child touched by otherworldly forces, the spooky Cary Guffey doesn't have the Reece's Pieces sweetness of Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas; when playing the five-note musical motif on the xylophone, he appears genuinely possessed.) Nonetheless, Spielberg cleaves to the wondrous point-of-view of a child to see us through, which is why Guffey's first response to the aliens' flashing lights is not to duck for cover but scream for ice cream; and why, perhaps, Dreyfuss has to pitch this extraterrestrial intervention to his offspring as "better than goofy golf". Almost, Roy Neary; almost.

(April 2006)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - The Director's Cut returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Summer Arts Agenda: Film (ST 22/05/16)

Twenty titles to keep an eye on this summer, for the annual Sunday Telegraph Top 100:

The Nice Guys (June 3)
Snark merchant Shane Black (Iron Man 3) pairs Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as disreputable detectives driving the Mob from 1970s L.A. in this knockabout actioner. Expect trashy Friday-night fun, and frankly terrible menswear.

Fire at Sea (June 10)
Cinema’s recent run of exceptional travellers’ tales continues: our own Tim Robey described this close-up documentary study of migrants circling Lampedusa as “shattering” at this year’s Berlin festival, where it won the Golden Bear.

Gods of Egypt (Jun 17)
Hollywood turns to CGI in an attempt to revitalise the old-school epic. Alex Proyas’s film sparked “whitewash” controversy after casting Caucasian actors as Arabs: bellower-in-chief Gerard Butler aims to drown out the lukewarm buzz.

Independence Day: Resurgence (Jun 23)
Twenty years on, and with Hollywood running out of fantasy franchises to rejig, the aliens return to Earth. President Bill Pullman and nerd-for-hire Jeff Goldblum return; original breakout star Will Smith, conspicuously, does not.   

Elvis & Nixon (Jun 24)
Liza Johnson’s film offers a light-comic take on the 1970 incident when Elvis pitched up on the White House lawn. Michael Shannon, a performer in peak form, dons the rhinestone jumpsuit; Kevin Spacey is Nixon.

The Secret Life of Pets (Jun 24)
Despicable Me’s animation powerhouse Chris Renaud ponders what animals do once their keepers go to bed: butt-sniffing and death metal, the trailer suggests. A fine comedic voice cast (Jenny Slate, Louis CK, Albert Brooks) assists him in his research.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (Jul 1)
Big-screen Britcoms face a make-or-break summer (cf: Aug 19). Jo and Jen’s perma-pickled Patsy and Edina here acquire a showcase accessorised with front-row fashion faces; let’s hope the jokes aren’t so last century.

Maggie’s Plan (Jul 8)
A textbook “Sundance sensation”, Rebecca Miller’s indie comedy sets up a love triangle examining the impact a hot-to-trot Greta Gerwig has on happily married Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. Early reviews have been glowing.

The Neon Demon (Jul 8)
Few modern filmmakers have arrived at images as boldly gaudy as those Nicolas Winding Refn did in Drive and Only God Forgives: the world of high fashion, setting for his latest, Cannes-applauded freakout, would appear a perfect, sheeny fit.

Ghostbusters (Jul 15) [above]
To the chagrin of fanboys, they’ve redone 1984’s supernatural extravaganza with – eww – girls. The less virginal can but savour a considerable comedy pedigree: Bridesmaids’ Paul Feig directs Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig alongside SNL alumna Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.

Ice Age: Collision Course (Jul 15)
Yes, we know: somewhat amazingly, there have been five of these now. The latest picks up where last year’s (rather good) short Cosmic Scrat-tastrophe left off, with heroes Sid, Diego and Manny facing a new threat from the heavens. 

The BFG (Jul 22)
Pre-eminent storytellers power this live-action/animation hybrid: Roald Dahl’s book has been adapted by the late Melissa Mathison (E.T.) for Steven Spielberg to direct. Early reviews suggest a generally whizzpopping experience; Penelope Wilton plays the Queen.

Chevalier (Jul 22)
Leftfield counterprogramming: Attenberg’s Athina Rachel Tsangari floats another absurdist comedy, this time about six men in a boat engaging in increasingly ridiculous competitions – because, well, men. Tackle will be measured; ribs tickled; heads scratched. Everyone’s a winner.

Jason Bourne (Jul 28)
After 2012’s sidestepping The Bourne Legacy, the millennium’s premium action franchise gets back on track: director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon both return as a now-ageing JB remembers what he came in the room for. Or something.

Finding Dory (Jul 29)
2003’s Finding Nemo remains a high animated watermark; expectations for this sequel are no less elevated. With Pixar buoyant after last year’s Inside Out, fins crossed it’s more Toy Story 2 than Cars 2.

Suicide Squad (Aug 5)
Heaven forbid summer should be a comics-free zone: D.C. follow March’s ill-received Batman vs. Superman with this raucous/noisy-looking mash-up, in which motley supervillains – including Jared Leto’s Joker – are enlisted to do America’s dirty work.

David Brent: Life on the Road (Aug 19)
After Derek and Special Correspondents, Ricky Gervais could do with renewed momentum: here, his best-loved creation leaves the paper behind to pursue his first love, music. Capable comedy faces lend support.

Swallows and Amazons (Aug 19)
Arthur Ransome’s classic of kidlit – filmed in 1974 as Saturday matinee material – receives a 21st century scrub-up from Call the Midwife’s Philippa Lowthorpe. In an age of digital delights, will it still hold water?

Ben-Hur (Aug 26)
Lew Wallace’s Biblical doorstop gets whipped into lean, globalised multiplex shape, with Russian Timur Bekmambetov at the directorial reins, Brit Jack Huston as Hur, and Brazil’s Rodrigo Santoro as Christ. A 3D chariot race awaits us.

Julieta (Aug 26)
Fresh from Cannes, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest stems from that sincere interest in mother-daughter pairings that previously powered 1995’s The Flower of My Secret and 2006’s Volver. After 2013’s limp farce I’m So Excited!, that sounds muy bueno.

Saturday 21 May 2016

Outstanding returns: "Kiki's Delivery Service"

Kiki's Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki's animated parable of adolescent self-sufficiency from 1989, surely occupies the same cultural position in the East as The Worst Witch and Harry Potter do in the West. Reissued to UK cinemas this week as part of StudioCanal's summer Studio Ghibli season, this is the tale of 13-year-old witch Kiki, who leaves home - as all 13-year-old witches must - and heads for the big city, where she's taken in by a bakery and launches her own courier operation, the broomstick coming in especially handy. But what's a girl to do once her powers wear off? Once again, Miyazaki arrives at a story that could have been told by a parent improvising at bedtime, while managing, without the merest trace of condescension, to preach the virtues of hard work, due diligence, close care and attention; he makes sly points about the callousness of the privileged folk young Kiki bumps up against, and how obstructive other people can be when you're trying to get a job done. 

The artistry is, as almost always with Ghibli, of the highest calibre: if Kiki is drawn in the now-recognisable Japanese style, the cityscapes she passes through are European in their gabled townhouses and cobbled streets, while the character detailing is exceptional. I don't quite know how it's possible for animators in this nervy day and age to observe children this closely (beyond, you know, having kids of their own), but this lot clearly have: witness the changing look on the face of the young boy our heroine's cat Jiji is delivered to as his parents shout for him to stop watching television and get changed, or the slumping posture Kiki adopts while bored on a slow afternoon in the baker's shop. Drifting in on an air of pine trees and freshly baked loaves, populated by the kindest of creatures, and set to another of Joe Hisaishi's charmingly simple, almost nursery rhyme-like scores, this really is a lovely world to spend some time within.

Kiki's Delivery Service opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday 20 May 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of May 13-15, 2016:
1 (1) Captain America: Civil War (12A)
2 (new) The Angry Birds Movie (U)
3 (2The Jungle Book (PG) **
4 (3) Bad Neighbours 2 (15)
5 (4) Florence Foster Jenkins (PG)
6 (new) Our Kind of Traitor (15) ***
7 (new) Everybody Wants Some!! (15) ***
8 (8) Secret Cinema: 28 Days Later... (18) ****
9 (6) Eye in the Sky (15) *** 
10 (new) Green Room (18) **


My top five:   
1 (1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12) **
2 (2) The Hateful Eight (18) **
3 (3) SPECTRE (12) ***
4 (2The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (12)
5 (6) Room (15) ****
6 (5The Martian (12) ****
7 (7) The Lady in the Van (12) ***
8 (8The Good Dinosaur (PG)
9 (re) The Intern (12)
10 (new) Suffragette (15) ***

My top five:  
1. Creed
2. Lawrence of Belgravia
3. Room
4. Spotlight
5. The Assassin

Top Ten Streaming:

1 (1) The Propaganda Game (15) ***
2 (3) A War (15) ***
3 (2) Like You Mean It (15)
4 (4) Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (18) ***
5 (new) I Am Belfast (15)
6 (8) Hitchcock/Truffaut (12) ****
7 (7) Mr. Topaze (U)
8 (5) Ran (12) ****
9 (new) Iona (15)
10 (new) The Club (18) ****

(source: BFI)

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Psycho [above] (Friday, C4, 12.35am)
2. The Wooden Horse (Saturday, BBC2, 8.30am)
3. I Love You, Man (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
4. Elena (Saturday, BBC2, 12.40am)
5. Evolution (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)

New romantics: "Sing Street"

It's become apparent that John Carney is something of a single-issue filmmaker. This need not necessarily be a limitation: without the persistent, laser-beam focus of Claude Lanzmann, so many of the Holocaust's nuts and bolts might have been left unexamined, and - lest that seem an overly dramatic point of comparison - perhaps we need a Judd Apatow to pick over the pitfalls and occasional pleasures of modern love, ever-changing as they are. Carney's interest lies in music: a filmmaker for a moment when it often seems as though everyone you encounter is walking round with headphones on - either to keep something within themselves, or to shut the world out - he's thus far demonstrated a particular fascination with the ways songs can bring disparate people together, whether on the streets of Dublin (2007's Once) or the fringes of the American recording industry (2013's Begin Again).

His latest, Sing Street, is in one sense an origin story, one in which Carney mulls his own past, and how a young lad might develop an interest in music in the first place. Almost inevitably, a girl is involved. Teenage hero Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a newly arrived outsider at a Christian Brothers school in impoverished mid-80s Dublin who elects to form a band despite a total lack of prior musical experience; the reason is that he's on a promise to Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an older girl he's spied on the steps outside his school, and - with a producer's instincts - invited to appear in one of the group's videos. (Great albums have been composed for less.) What follows is a very simple, not unfamiliar tale. Conor auditions and assembles a close-knit core of fellow dropouts, pariahs and geeks; they start to put together a few riffs, a rudimentary image, even eventually a demo tape - building, in other words, where Keira Knightley's heartbroken twentysomething in Begin Again was obliged to rebuild.

Yet Carney succeeds in finding an entirely new context for this rock 'n' roll rise-and-fall-and-rise again, sketched in his first images here: news reports of Irishmen and women quitting their depressed homeland in droves for a new beginning on the English mainland. Music in Sing Street is less a catharsis than an escape from unhappy homes, institutionalised cruelty and poverty, adolescent awkwardness. For Conor and his cohorts, as yet too young to even consider moving out of their parents' place, those early Duran Duran videos, beamed into beigey-grey living rooms via the weekly Top of the Pops, are the height of aspirational glamour - and when you're faced with being punched on the nose and having your Mars Bar nicked off you by some mardy arse in the school tuckshop, why wouldn't you dream of getting to swank around on a yacht with Christy Turlington?

Certain shortcuts are visible, and audible. It's somewhat implausible that the band Sing Street - a play on Synge Street, the boys' alma mater - should sound so good so quickly, for one. The songs were written by Gary Clark, late of Danny Wilson ("Mary's Prayer"), and they strike the ear as very much the work of a fiftysomething musician with several Top 40 hits under his belt, not spoddy boys setting work-book poetry to half-inched guitar riffs. Carney's on surer ground when describing his hero's musical education: older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) nudging his sibling in the direction of an idea of music-as-Art, the lazy afternoons spent in friends' bedrooms listening to their Jam and Joe Jackson LPs. What Sing Street nails in these sequences is the way we figure out what to listen to at a certain age, and in so doing figure out something of ourselves. (One might note that anybody exposed to Jackson's "Steppin' Out" at a formative moment is going to turn out just fine.) 

More so than his breakthrough features, Sing Street is the film that best showcases Carney's assured comic touch: he elicits broad laughs from a local rogue's failed attempt at a three-point turn in a car blasting out Phil Collins, but also from such throwaway business as getting one of Conor's bandmates to open his front door while holding his pet bunny ("What you doin'?" "Just rabbit stuff.") And his great skill at accommodating different perspectives is again in evidence: one unshowy yet graceful cut reveals a late-night fraternal heart-to-heart in the kitchen is being observed by Conor's university-age sister Ann (Kelly Thornton), cutting through anything gooey by wondering whether this Raphina girl doesn't sound a tad pretentious. A lovely, genuinely lyrical scene finds the brothers observing their unhappy ma (Maria Doyle Kennedy, trailing echoes of The Commitments) through the backdoor, at which point we begin to grasp what a consolation music can be: it's what the siblings put on whenever their folks start arguing, hoping to muffle the harsher words.

There are points where the generosity of spirit gets too much, where Carney's (p)optimism becomes unmoored from anything so challenging as reality. Around the ninety-minute mark, it becomes apparent there is nothing this music cannot achieve. Get the girl! Heal the wounds left behind by divorce! Overthrow the tyranny of the Christian Brotherhood! Keeping one's headphones on too long risks turning the brain to mush, a caution that came to mind as Carney pushes his youthful leads out on the roughest-looking stretch of the Irish Sea (music can change the course of your life!) come the final movement. He means to leave us punching the air at this great escape, yet this viewer could only fear the worst: that these kids' corpses would wash up on a nearby shore within 24 hours. A song's one thing, adequate health-and-safety provision quite another. At its best, however, Sing Street serves - as did Once and Begin Again - to make music graspable for even those of us who've never been within ten feet of a Peavey amp, dramatising both how and why we're drawn to it, and what it comes to communicate about our fragile hopes and desires. Here's a film that knows a three-minute pop song often expresses something of the world, of ourselves and of others, far more succinctly and stirringly than any number of words on a page.

Sing Street opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"The Call Up" (Guardian 20/05/16)

The Call Up ***
Dir: Charles Barker. With: Morfydd Clark, Max Deacon, Ali Cook, Tom Benedict Knight. 90 mins. Cert: 15

With the IMAX-scaled Warcraft inbound, this lowish-budget Brit attempt to replicate gaming’s immersive properties – stalking nerds around an of-course-mysterious corporation’s wipe-clean HQ while they beta-test a VR shoot-‘em-up – risks looking a touch Amstrad-like, yet it’s been capably produced. Writer-director Charles Barker may cleave to a dusty old slasher-pic template – most evident in the identities of the first to die and last player standing – but he hustles everybody briskly between levels, sending his industrious design team ahead of him to redress a presumably limited number of sets. If it’s far from bleeding edge – within days, it’ll look as dated as Tron and The Lawnmower Man do today – it’s a modest upgrade on all those killer website movies that popped up a decade ago, keeping us at least semi-interested as to who stands and falls. It’ll fill a slot, if your Xbox connection is down and you felt inspired to quit the sofa. 

The Call Up opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

"The Silent Storm" (Guardian 20/05/16)

The Silent Storm **
Dir: Corinna McFarlane. With: Andrea Riseborough, Damian Lewis, Ross Anderson, John Sessions. 102 mins. Cert: 15

Corinna McFarlane’s gibbering Highland melodrama huffs and puffs around the turbulent marriage of none-more-Presbyterian clergyman Damian Lewis and put-upon Andrea Riseborough. Opening to prenatal hyperventilating, it rapidly ascends to the kingdom of heaven-help-us once the Lord places strapping, poetry-quoting delinquent Ross Anderson under their care. Handed a solitary note to hammer away on throughout, both leads come to look terribly silly. A shirtless Lewis (representing “Punishment”) drags a wooden framework across a beach (Christ!). Riseborough (“Forgiveness”) wibbles through a midfilm magic mushroom interlude that finally brings some colour – well, mud – to her cheeks. Considerable camp value, but everybody’s looking for the Tipp-Ex with which to update their CVs. 

The Silent Storm opens in selected cinemas from today.

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Good time: "24"

The current Tamil hit 24 has little to do with Kiefer Sutherland, although it's equally tangled up with time: it very quickly sets a Guinness world record for the number of clock faces per frame, and you lose track of the number of scenes where characters arrive at their destination with mere seconds to spare, or an instant too late. Writer-director Vikram K. Kumar has here constructed a meticulous fantasy premised on our ongoing desire to halt or otherwise control the sands that pass through the hourglass, centred on a star seeking to extend his own moment in the spotlight: Suriya - the host of the Tamil variant of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? - who herein outdoes Shah Rukh Khan in the recent Fan by essaying not two but three characters at different points in the film's frantic, ever-expanding continuum.

A prologue set in 1990 establishes a deadly rivalry between two brothers: happily married - if absent-minded - inventor Sethuraman (this being Suriya #1) and the brooding, homicidally jealous Athreya (Suriya #2). Shortly before Cain does for Abel, and Abel in turn plunges Cain into a decades-long coma, Sethuraman smuggles two cherished items out into the wider world: his infant son Mani, and a wrist-mounted time-travel device locked inside a hand-turned wooden box. Mani will grow up to become - you guessed it - Suriya #3, a rather aimless sort stuck behind the counter of a watch repair shop, where he cluelessly deploys said box to prop up a wonky chair leg. Its contents, however, become a matter of renewed urgency once Athreya emerges from sleep, more twisted than ever, and determined to claim back the machine, along with the 26 years he believes Mani's father has taken from him.

By their very nature, such manoeuvres demand a heightened level of contrivance, yet Kumar demonstrates a watchmaker's eye for engineering wormholes: at every stage, he tempers the rollercoaster preposterousness of the plot with a measure of on-the-ground precision. Reuniting the box with the curlicued key that might open it - thus making the device viable once more - involves a very carefully laid close-up of a gob of chewing gum being discarded outside Mani's shop; getting the device to function necessitates some clever business with a faulty lightswitch. To move us from here to there, Kumar has realised his script needs to function as a machine, and happily everything's plugged in and switched on and pulling in the right direction: the cause-and-effect of the film's first hour is a small marvel, and something the Hindi industry, in particular, could learn a huge amount from.

Once the pieces are lined up and the box is opened, 24 starts to have immense fun with the time-travelling conceit. Mani finds the device allows him to whizz the day back and forward as desired - correcting his mistakes, pre-empting others - and, thanks to a nifty, Sky+-like pause button, to suspend time altogether. There's a lovely visual effect here: having halted raindrops mid-descent, Mani begins to flick at them as though he were popping bubblewrap - just for the sheer heck of it - indirectly providing the opening beats for the film's first musical number after a solid hour of set-up. "A life beyond my dreams is at hand," our hero trills, and it's around this time that Suriya really does start to resemble a moviestar in the Gene Kelly tradition, one who's got rhythm, a girl in his sights, and - best of all - eternity literally at his fingertips.

24 places a lot of time on his side: at 163 minutes, it's a quarter of an hour longer than 2001, the film that famously took us from the Dawn of Man to the Final Frontier. Yet what's quasi-miraculous about it is that Kumar never runs out of good ideas: he always leaves us with something to be amused or gripped by. When we first see Mani's beloved Sathya (Samantha) signing to her parents, the assumption is of deafness on one side or another or both - a development a more sentimentally minded picture might have traded in; it turns out, however, that the elders have taken a monastic vow never to utter a harsh word (and therefore to utter no words) during daylight hours. Mani's attempts to woo her inevitably back up into Groundhog Day territory, as he uses his new-found powers to achieve a desired outcome - but then you never saw Bill Murray ducking out of his dates with Andie MacDowell to ensure Lasith Malinga drops a series-clinching catch. (In India, romantic success may come second to cricketing dominance.)

It's a sign of Kumar's confidence that he can hit the point of intermission (shockingly brutal, even with BBFC-advised cuts) comparatively late, safe in the knowledge he can always wind the clock back and start anew in the second half - although the second half complicates the set-up in ways that prove even more enjoyable. Throughout, this director appears blessed by the best toys and collaborators money can provide a modern Tamil filmmaker with: expansive production design (Sethuraman's cluttered lab is on a par with mid-range Hollywood), sophisticated visual effects, hundreds of extras prepared to strike limbo poses in mid-air whenever Mani pushes pause on his wristwatch, not to mention one of A.R. Rahman's lusher, more keening recent scores, which helps to take the edge off - and adds welcome notes of emotion - whenever matters threaten to become too mechanical.

If the whole suggests - after last summer's Baahubali: the Beginning - another quantum leap forward for Indian cinema (and that Tamil cinema may be harboring the best ideas, and the best ideas men, in this business), perhaps Kumar and co. still have some way to go in matters of psychology. There's no substantial explanation of why Athreya is so angry to begin with, save the understanding that every good story needs an antagonist to set the ball running. (I also suspect a Western movie would get into trouble for making a wheelchair such an essential part of this crooked figure's make-up - although, in Kumar's defence, Athreya has just taken an impromptu header off a viaduct and spent the best part of three decades in a medical coma. You'd have trouble standing up after that.) Whatever: this isn't to deny that 24 is a very good, imaginative, well-executed story - one for which it really would be worth setting aside some time.

24 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

1,001 Films: "Straw Dogs" (1971)

Straw Dogs remains one to rank alongside Salò and Irreversible in the pantheon of horribly effective features, films it's possible to admire viscerally and technically, even as you object to them on a dozen other levels, and come away feeling in need of a long hot shower. Bespectacled American mathematician Dustin Hoffman moves to a small, inward-looking Cornish village with his younger bride, landowner's daughter Susan George. An extended build-up involves David Warner as a paedophilic plot device, and a lingering emphasis on guns and the antique man-trap hanging over the couple's fireplace, but the general narrative thrust is that, while Hoffman's nerd busies himself with formulae, his wife, bored and braless, catches the eye of the local yahoos restoring their property. Suffice to say, it all ends unhappily.

It would have been particularly contentious for having arrived at the time of peace protests and women's lib: at best, the film can be understood as blunt mischief-making on the part of Peckinpah the provocateur; at worst, a load of reactionary macho codswallop. George, introduced as a pair of erect nipples, has remarkably little to do save sit around the house and wait for something bad to happen to her so as to kickstart the plot. As it currently stands - and the sequence has incurred extensive cuts and counter-cuts over the decades - the central rape scene appears poorly handled, allowed to become more ambiguous (and actually more of a sideshow) than it almost certainly should have been; the only simple thing about it is the shot of George seemingly enjoying a post-coital cigarette.

Elsewhere, while the Wild Bunch's demise in a hail of bullets proved unquestionably iconic, there's something far less heroic about applying a similar slow-motion fetishism to shots of a rapist slapping his victim around. The editing is, in the main, magnificently ruthless - as though the film were cut on the teeth of the man-trap itself - but it's let down by its rather sub-Roegian manner of intercutting the assault with images of Hoffman clutching a limp shotgun. This is, of course, all part of Peckinpah's Darwinist offensive: the underlying idea is that the violation (in which a second rapist "tops" the first's grim handiwork) should liberate this worm of a husband, and turn him into the wife-slapping monster he, too, needs to be to survive. You could claim it as the origin of today's ordeal cinema, but what it leads to isn't the rigorous moral intelligence of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Funny Games, the last words in home-invasion terror, but misdirected posturing like Straightheads, and Eli Roth sniggering over boobs, bloodshed and backwards foreigners in those Hostel movies.

Straw Dogs is available on DVD through Fremantle Home Entertainment.