Sunday 31 July 2016

On DVD: "Zootropolis"

Disney's outstanding run of form continues. Zootropolis is, among other achievements, the studio's animated contribution to the young-woman-makes-it-in-the-big-city cycle that has recently given us such zeitgeisty, much-parsed texts as Girls and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on TV and Frances Ha in cinemas - the key difference being that its heroine is a bunny making her way as a rookie cop within a city populated entirely by non-human mammals. (You go with it.) Officer Judy Hopps' hunt for an otter who's become the subject of a missing persons inquiry allows the Wreck-It Ralph team of Rich Moore and Byron Howard to nudge a variety of fluffy critters through a busy, semi-recognisable urban environment that encompasses both an investment bank named Lemming Brothers and the footwear outlet Hoof Locker, and where the characters check in via an app called Muzzle Time.

It soon becomes clear that this world isn't so very far from our own; that Moore and Howard are using the distinct interspecies tensions present on these streets to comment on real world racial and sexual matters. Hopps is forever being looked down on for her diminutive stature, and there's an especially sorry situation down at City Hall, where Mayor Lionheart has his sheepish female assistant clamped firmly beneath his paw. Yet the script keeps checking its PC impulses (which could have generated something regrettably pious and dull) with a repository of socked-over, top-drawer gags: the film is unusually enlightened megaplex fare, yes, but - best of all - it's funny with it, whether smartmouthing (Hopps on her extended family: "we're good at multiplying"), setting up finessed, Nick Park-ish sight gags, or simply indulging an extended skit involving animal nudity where the thing we're laughing at isn't actually on screen, but rather unspooling in the viewer's head. (At last, a Disney movie addresses Donald Duck's decision to wear a shirt but no trousers - although the scene also refers back to all those live-action shows and movies in which boundary-pushing female cops are confronted/embarrassed by naked male flesh.)

That earlier word "nudge" is the key here, however. Zootropolis is, in the main, as gentle in tone and pace as the late afternoon sunlight this city is suffused in; it packs a lot in, without ever having to rush or strain, which instantly elevates Moore and Howard's work over those over-cranked, machine-tooled animations that have been doing the rounds of late. These directors get away with slowing the action down to a virtual standstill for the film's choicest gag, when Officer Judy encounters the sloths manning the counter at the Zootropolis DMV. Here timing is once more proven to be the secret of comedy - though the gag gets additional chuckles of recognition: we've all been stuck in queues like this. And so, after a rocky first couple of years, the separation of Disney church from Pixar state has proven to be a very good thing indeed, each set of animators pushing the other, each attempting to show their rivals what they can do. Zootropolis operates in the long, tall shadow of Inside Out, a more forceful, emotional, funny-profound rendering of a specific existential condition. (How could you top that?) Yet it proceeds with wit and invention, subtexts up the wazoo, and the kind of message you instinctively feel the movies should be exposing our children to: though you may be small in form, don't let that stop your dreams from being as big as your heart, or a city entire.

Zootropolis is now available through Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

1,001 Films: "Frenzy" (1972)

A crowd is distracted from an MP's promises to clean up the Thames when a woman's naked body washes up on the banks of the river, causing all present to wonder whether London has a new Jack the Ripper on its hands. One of Hitchcock's later, less well-regarded efforts, Frenzy is keen to impress upon us - from this opening scene onwards - that the public's appetite for "a good murder" was as insatiable in the 1970s as it was back when the director was starting out in the film industry in the 1920s. Despite the inclusion of more modern elements - nudity and explicit violence - the film reveals a filmmaker out of his time, stuck on the same locations (the markets, boozers and backstreets) that made up the London of Blackmail and The Lodger a half-century before; viewed today, it's actually Psycho - made a decade prior to this - which appears the more contemporary work.

Ex-Squadron Leader Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) has fallen on hard times: fired from a barman job after landlord Bernard Cribbins catches him drinking, he's reduced to sleeping in a Sally Army hostel when his estranged wife is murdered - by Blaney's best (read: only) mate Barry Foster - and suspicion lands upon him for the crime. Shades of The Wrong Man here too, then, but one overriding problem with Frenzy is that it was produced in the Britain of the 1970s, not the American studio system of the 1950s: visually, it's of a piece with the Confessions series - drab interiors, stomach-churning close-ups of full English breakfasts and unflatteringly photographed female flesh - and guilty of spending far too much time around sweatily unappealing men. Foster sports a hair colour only ever seen in 1970s films, and Finch is an abject-stupid hero who keeps making matters worse for himself.

Scripted by Anthony Shaffer in the middle of the run that also brought Sleuth and The Wicker Man to the screen, this isn't greatly more misogynistic than any of Hitchcock's other films, but the director's characteristic jokiness in the presence of carnage suddenly seems less than funny. It's difficult to sanction such lines as "every cloud has a silver lining" when a doctor learns the killer's victims were raped prior to being murdered; most of the light relief comes at the expense of harridan, henpecking or hopeless wives. A running gag about the rubbishness of Anglo-Saxon cuisine - Hitch biting the hand that kept him so obviously well fed - suggests it's all a matter of personal taste, and there's undeniable technical expertise in the way the camera withdraws from crime scenes while we await the terrible consequences, but it's finally much less fun than a movie that gives away the identity of its murderer so freely should be, and can seem almost as emotionally stunted as the killer himself.

Frenzy is available on DVD through Universal Pictures UK.

Monday 25 July 2016

1,001 Films: "Cries and Whispers/Viskningar och rop" (1972)

Question: what's black and white and red all over? Answers: a newspaper, a nun in a blender, and Bergman's Cries and Whispers, which uses these colours exclusively to paint a picture of a household steeped in unhappiness. It's the story of three sisters and their maid: in some ways, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), the sibling dying of cancer (could be stomach, could be ovarian), seems the best off - no matter how much pain she's in now, at least she knows relief, in the form of death, is imminent. There's no such reassurance for the other two: Maria (Liv Ullman) watched her own husband commit suicide in front of her, while the deeply repressed Karin (Ingrid Thulin), who won't let anybody touch her, has started to see and hear things that just aren't there. Or are they?

The cries and whispers of the title go as much unheard - reduced to white noise inside the characters' heads - as unheeded within these still, quiet chambers, decked out in the coldest reds ever put on screen: the reds of lifeless, long-spilled blood. (In a film of such bodily concerns, the visuals suggest exactly what it might be to poke around inside a diseased and collapsing organ.) Bergman here takes what he was theorising about in Persona and The Silence - the distance between people - and applies it practically to a dramatic situation, with characters who've become isolated from the rest of the world (because of their wealth? Their sex? Their sisterhood?) and effectively left to rot. You can imagine it working as well on stage as on film - a few flashbacks notwithstanding - but in whichever form you encounter it, it's a remarkably intense work, building something compulsive out of the simplest of elements.

Cries and Whispers is available on DVD through Tartan.  

Sunday 24 July 2016

From the archive: "Finding Nemo"

Finding Nemo, the latest Disney-Pixar collaboration, tells the tale of a neurotic single father's quest to track down his only child, after the latter is carried away by a couple of strangers. Rest easier: the main characters are all fish, and the bulk of the action takes place on, under or around water. The father, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), is a clownfish who simply isn't funny, and the Great Barrier Reef setting allows for the presence of pelicans called Nigel and Gerald, and reforming sharks known as Bruce. The textures (ranging from something as banal as water in a plastic bag to the vast, terrifying shadow creeping slowly up on Marlin and his female guide Dory) are, as you'd expect from the people behind Toy Story, lovingly rendered, and the ambient ocean sounds soothing beyond belief. The script achieves the usual blend of thrills and fish poo gags for the kids, while delivering a parable of modern parenting for their guardians. "I promised I'd never let anything happen to him," mourns Marlin at one point, prompting the generally scatterbrained Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) into a rare moment of clarity: "That's a funny thing to promise."

Perhaps it's the control freakery of the creatives who make them, but so many films about children are about holding on - one might even argue Toy Story is about this very need - but here's one that proposes letting go as an alternative: its parenting paradigm is an eminently laidback turtle called Crush (voiced by the film's director Andrew Stanton) who's only too happy to send his kids swimming and spinning away in order to let them grow, safe in the knowledge they will more than likely paddle straight back to him. This is a much warmer and funnier film than Pixar's previous effort Monsters, Inc., with its cuddly corporate conveyor belt and arbeit macht frei moralising. For all that, and the return to the pastel seascapes of The Little Mermaid, it's a movie with a sincere understanding of the real scary monsters - never mind your jellyfish and toothsome sharks - haunting middle America at the moment: abandonment and loss. The result is a film that knows exactly what it is to be a small fish at the very bottom of a very big pond; regrettable Robbie Williams cover of "Beyond the Sea" aside, it also has the perfect ending.

(September 2003)

Finding Nemo is available on DVD through Walt Disney Studios; a sequel, Finding Dory, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday. 

Saturday 23 July 2016

Empty space: "Independence Day: Resurgence"

In the absence of sound new ideas, the Hollywood studios have come to bet the house on nostalgia - and given the vast sums of money hoovered up over the past year by such retro-leaning endeavours as Jurassic World, SPECTRE and The Force Awakens, you can't fault their financial logic, at least. After a couple of stalled shots at seriousness (Anonymous, Stonewall), Independence Day: Resurgence is Roland Emmerich succumbing to give-'em-what-they-want thinking in trying to replicate the success of a dumb-as-nuts popcorn flick that went down like gangbusters back in 1996. Twenty years on, we might have cause to wonder whether it's possible for anybody to be nostalgic for a large-scale, effects-heavy exercise in city-trashing, given that that's exactly what 90% of major American releases now are; surely you can't miss what's put before your eyes every other week.

Although the new film opens with a you-must-remember-this datablast of President Bill Pullman's rousing fightback speech from the original, it's soon clear Will Smith will not be returning - we get the character's son (Jessie T. Usher) instead, who appears to have rebelled against his pop by becoming the most stolid of state functionaries - and that the series has undergone a marked paradigm shift. Emmerich's Big Idea this time around is that mankind piggybacked upon those alien craft that stalled or crashed at the end of the first movie to establish a foothold in space. Resurgence's version of 2016 is therefore closer to Blade Runner than to our own reality, with various ships hovering over the Washington skyline, but the space business only gives the film the look and feel of very generic sci-fi.

Key elements here include people in spacesuits bouncing round in zero gravity in scenes that play like plasticky Ridley Scott, Liam Hemsworth as a cocky space cowboy with the inevitable name of Jake, several token Chinese characters in another flagrant play for the expanding Asian market. (Where ID4 could be claimed as part of Emmerich's imperial phase, its sequel reminds you of the opportunist who, back in his native Germany, attempted to surf the Ghost Busters zeitgeist with the little-rented Ghost Chase.) Clearly, the filmmaker has decided to turn his hand to "hard" sci-fi (or as hard as the numbercrunchers will allow, factoring in the success of Gravity and The Martian), but all he's succeeded in doing is diluting the brand: I'll happily make public claims for the first movie's zappy thrills, but Resurgence was not the Independence Day sequel I was looking for.

Down on Earth, the returning Jeff Goldblum moves on from the loss of the Smith character by forming an unexpected double act with photojournalist Charlotte Gainsbourg, and for a while, the pair's offbeat rhythms please the ear. Yet the actors are hunting for scraps in a script that's otherwise preoccupied with reintroducing dimly recalled survivors from the first movie (Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Brett Spiner, each offered the narrative equivalent of a walk-on and a wave at Comic-Con) or introducing entirely new characters. Emmerich has no qualms about doing this as late as an hour in, in defiance of all known storytelling laws: some kids in a car (who never develop beyond the initial mental logline of "some kids in a car"), some blokes on a boat (ditto), your mum's friend Doreen from two doors down.

But of course, you tell yourself, these scenes are just the entrees before Emmerich furnishes us with the main course: the colossal blowing-up of shit. To give Resurgence some due, it at least bothers to find one new way of achieving this: our new alien foes have developed a means of overturning the Earth's gravity, which gives them (and the VFX team) the opportunity to suck buildings, air traffic and any other hangers-on up and fling them elsewhere rather than smashing them to smithereens on the spot. Yet so much of Insurgence's spectacle is literally throwaway, of no consequence whatsoever. The Emmerich of 1996 could make a big deal out of nuking the White House; his 2016 equivalent, sensing (rightly) that we may have seen much of this before, hastens from one green screen to the next, barely stopping to look for survivors. (And when movies, like politicians, don't appear to give a damn about we ordinary proles, why should we give a damn about them?)

The relentless cross-cutting gives Insurgence a sense of movement without momentum, undermining any attempt at pathos - this two-hour product leaves scant time for mourning - and yet the film's real failure is one of scale: that Emmerich should have squandered a ginormous budget while somehow managing to generate not a single moment of genuine wonder or horror. (The average item of Independence Day messageboard fan fiction would surely have been more inspired.) Previous alien invasions have been violent, comic, politically loaded; in the case of last year's Under the Skin, strange and beautiful simultaneously. This one has all too clearly been initiated by executives who've spent more time consulting spreadsheets than scripts: all artlessly arranged ones and zeros, it's alien invasion as here-today-gone-tomorrow content. This time round, they're here to distract us.

Independence Day: Resurgence is still playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 22 July 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of July 15-17, 2016:
1 (new) Ghostbusters (12A)
2 (new) Ice Age: Collision Course (U)
3 (1) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
4 (2) The Legend of Tarzan (12A)
5 (4) Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (15)
6 (new) Secret Cinema: Dirty Dancing (15) ***
7 (3) Now You See Me 2 (12A)
8 (5) Central Intelligence (12A)
9 (7) Independence Day: Resurgence (12A) **
10 (8) The Conjuring 2 (15) ** 


My top five:   
1. The Hard Stop
2. Born to be Blue
3. Chevalier [above]
4. K-Shop
5. Baskin

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) London Has Fallen (15)
2 (new) Allegiant (12)
3 (1) Bridge of Spies (12) *****
4 (new) The Big Short (15) ***
5 (2) Goosebumps (PG) ***
6 (new) The Boy (15) **
7 (3) Spotlight (15) ***
8 (4) 13 Hours (15) **
9 (6) Creed (12) ****
10 (new) High-Rise (15) ***  

My top five:  
1. Son of Saul
2. Arabian Nights
3. Zootropolis
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
5. The Witch

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Finding Nemo (Sunday, C4, 5.30pm)
2. Rear Window (Sunday, BBC2, 1.30pm)
3. Escape from Alcatraz (Sunday, C4, 12.45am)
4. Toy Story (Saturday, BBC1, 5.15pm)
5. Grease (Saturday, C4, 5.55pm)

Raw meat: "K-Shop"

It sounds horrendously lurid and exploitative - the obvious poster quote would be Death Wish meets Sweeney Todd, ideally set out in a shocking pink or ectoplasmic green hue, and with an exclamation mark appended - yet you can see exactly where Dan Pringle's thought-through genre item K-Shop is coming from: it's born out of a sincere sympathy for those unfortunates stuck behind neon-lit bakelite counters at three in the morning, frying chips and shaving doners for lairy, horny or otherwise mashed-up clubbers. We've all observed their plight; here, we're introduced to Salah (Ziad Abaza), a politics student who returns to his native Bournemouth to help his ailing father run the family kebab outlet, and winds up adding one or two items to the specials menu after his customers push him too far.

As vigilante-movie lore insists, Pringle invokes a specific set of circumstances so we might at least initially go along with the killing: the indifference of the cops who now look upon Friday night brouhaha as standard, and therefore hardly worth investigating; the callousness of a system that refuses all responsibility for Salah's father's condition; the ugly, gloating privilege of those pissheads and pillfiends who come crashing through his doors; the way certain minor celebrities appear to have money, success, women handed to them on a plate. (As a Big Brother contestant-turned-local club owner, Scot Williams does a nifty impersonation of the kind of morally vacuous Z-lister who can only dream of becoming Danny Dyer.) 

Vigilante movies have traditionally reared their ugly heads whenever and wherever a society has taken a pronounced shift to the right. K-Shop could do with a leaner cut: our patience, along with our moral flexibility, stretches only so far, and you come to feel the second half, circling around in the mire. (It also perpetuates one of this subgenre's most clanging cliches: the wall of newspaper clippings by which our so-called hero reveals his secret identity as a sociopath.) Yet on a narrative level, it actually functions far better than any of the titles in the movies' last vigilante cycle (which ran roughly from 2004 to 2009 - perhaps not coincidentally the Dubya years - and encompassed Man on Fire, The Dark Knight and The Brave One in the US, and Outlaw and Harry Brown closer to home).

Pringle identifies a recognisably grotty British milieu in the last-resort fast food stop, and proceeds through it with both an understanding of these outlets' place in modern city centres, and an eye for the skeezier fringes of the Friday and Saturday night crowd. We can safely assume the writer-director didn't have to look too far for the vignettes of aggro, banter and carnage that punctuate the film, but then the level of detail is sound throughout: even the characters' ringtones are telling. The definition of post-pub entertainment, K-Shop is also a horror movie with a (bloodied) social conscience: one to make you think twice as to how you comport yourself the next time you stagger across the threshold of Balham Fried Chicken in search of something to soak up the £1 shots or simply hold down the nausea.

K-Shop opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on August 1.

Thursday 21 July 2016

The credible hulk: "Sultan"

For Hindi cinema to become more self-aware and sophisticated in its appeal - as the modernising faction headed by writer-director-producer Anurag Kashyap would like - it may require the industry's pre-eminent stars to themselves display greater self-awareness, and leave behind the bouffant-haired hunks and eyelash-fluttering heroines of yore. This process of renewal, which has been fascinating to observe, began several years ago, but it's properly accelerated in the past twelve months, as audiences have cottoned onto what might at some stage be referred to as an Indian New Wave. After November's fitful Tamasha (a Resnais-like construction that saw Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor play variations of traditional Bollywood lovers) and April's intriguing Fan (where Shah Rukh Khan was a moviestar plagued by a stalker so representative of his own demons and insecurities he could only be played by Khan again), Sultan arrives as not nearly so knowing or playfully postmodern - it is, after all, a vehicle for Salman Khan, the least flexible of Bollywood's three King Khans. It nevertheless seems to riff on the lead's much-documented on- and off-screen travails: here is the story of a man of action having to overcome considerable personal adversity to regain his title as an ambassador for the Indian nation - and its movie-watching people.

Phase one of the Khan charm offensive came with last year's Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the Eid megahit in which the star successfully (and rather touchingly) shepherded a small child and the audience through a version of the Kashmir conflict. Phase two, which opened in the same slot this year, is effectively Khan's own The Wrestler, casting the star as Sultan Ali Khan, a humble lad from farming stock who uses his considerable bulk to become both a Commonwealth and Olympic champion before falling out of favour. The first half, an extended flashback from this moment of disgrace, gives us the backstory: how he first hit the gym upon being rejected by Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), a promising female wrestler, and eventually came to win not just several major championships but eventually this young woman's heart and hand in marriage. The second half is all comeback, wondering just what a fatneck might do with himself were he to gain the world - or the world title, at least - and suddenly lose everything he holds dearest to him.

Where there was a certain novelty in seeing Khan being sent in to sort out a real-world situation in Bajrangi Bhaijaan - and, indeed, in watching him wrestle with India's patriarchal system in last Diwali's lavish Prem Ratan Dhan Payo - Sultan operates along a conventional sports-movie arc. The world of the unfaked, Greco-Roman school of wrestling has been underexplored on screen, granted, and director Ali Abbas Zahar has the full Yash Raj budget to come up with convincing recreations of the Delhi Commonwealth and London Olympic Games. Once again, though, we're sitting through multiple examples of knockdowns and countouts as life-metaphors, backed up with the usual fast-cut training montages. (Zahar can at least punch up Sultan's country-boy background here, showing his hero not straining in some sweaty backstreet gym, rather pulling tractors and outrunning steam trains, all the while cultivating a roguish Oliver Reed moustache.) The stakes are so clearly established by the interval that there's only one trajectory the second half can follow.

Still, as January's Rocky reboot Creed demonstrated, these things can still stir an audience if done well, and Sultan is done pretty well, all things considered. It's way too long and prone to over-emphasis: far too much of the first half given over to illustrating just what an essentially great guy Khan (actor and character) is, at least one utterly superfluous love song, a second half premised on our hero's superhuman capacity to survive relentless beatings. Two elements keep us interested, though. The first is Khan himself, who's always been an imposing physical presence - here, even the muscles on his shoulder muscles appear to have muscles - but who has, over this recent run of films, become a markedly subtler performer: a director wouldn't hand his leading man this many close-ups if he felt the guy didn't know what to do with them. He retains that adenoidal quality most closely associated with The Sopranos's James Gandolfini, and uses it to sketch a character who while still not the brightest bulb - he first takes Aarfa's brush-off "shit guy" as a compliment - is at least a notch or two more intuitive than his bhai in Bajrangi, working the ring much as Khan the actor has come to work the moviegoing public.

The metatextual bonus - crystallised in the late image of Sultan wrestling with himself - is the tentative suggestion that the actor might just be using this latest vehicle to grapple with his own persona; that the humbling of Sultan Khan just before the intermission may, in fact, refer to the humbling of Salman Khan in real life. (Both involve a tragic, and almost certainly avoidable, loss of life.) If, dramatically speaking, it's something of a pity that his fictional avatar should thereafter undergo the slickest of rebranding - turning up in the octagonal MMA ring left abandoned at the end of last year's Brothers and becoming a license to print money - this development nonetheless reflects the manner in which Khan has reclaimed his own title as a box-office heavyweight, and somewhere within the triumphalism, you detect an admission on the star's part that, yes, at some point in the not-too-distant past, his ego may have got the better of him. It takes a big man to do that, just as surely as it takes a big man to carry piles of bricks over his shoulders - and a star with a sense of irony and humility to pull off all of the above in a film that also sees his character flounce off the set of a post-Olympic promo shoot, muttering "I'm a wrestler, not an actor". When even a lunk of Salman Khan's dimensions shows signs of becoming self-aware, something's very definitely afoot.

Sultan is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 17 July 2016

From the archive: "Star Trek Into Darkness"

JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot gave a once-dusty, kitschy brand an appreciable boost of youthful energy: its origin story, recounting Spock and co.’s early days at the Starfleet Academy, mixed state-of-the-art sci-fi with a college campus comedy, arriving at Revenge of the Nerds in space, or Starship Troopers with the earlier film’s grown-up satire replaced by a puppyish enthusiasm. The one question mark hovering above it was that of dramatic scale. For all that this 21st century Star Trek filled the IMAX with big bangs and other out-of-this-world effects, the story felt absolutely like the beginnings of something – a TV pilot that got lucky, from a creative with eminent small-screen credits (Felicity, Alias, Lost), starring actors beamed up from the boob tube. Dramatically, the sequel Into Darkness goes backwards if anything, stringing together a succession of playground tiffs, of a type the target audience might well recognise. 

Spock (Zachary Quinto) tells teacher on Chris Pine’s ever-impetuous Kirk, in filing a negative report after the latter temporarily abandons his crew during an early mission. Kirk isn’t the only one abandoning our favourite Vulcan: his on-ship squeeze Uhura (Zoe Saldana) isn’t speaking to him either, after a set-to over something or other. Hell, even the loyal Scotty (Simon Pegg) is driven to hand in his resignation after his toys in the Enterprise’s engine room are momentarily removed from him. Captain’s log, stardate summer 2013: everybody’s sulking A LOT. It takes a common enemy to reunite them. This is disaffected doctor John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who begins his reign of terror by using Noel Clarke to blow up the Starfleet archive in future-London, and then goes into hiding. More so than The Mandarin in the recent Iron Man 3, Harrison is essentially Osama-for-beginners, obliging the Enterprise to go, more reluctantly than boldly, on a pre-emptive bombing raid against a planet that will stand for just about anywhere in the Middle East.

What Abrams has subscribed to about the original Star Trek is the notion that Starfleet somehow stands for America, its values and challenges. The pairing of Pine’s Kirk (the rebel/adventurer/cowboy) with Quinto’s Spock (the cool, rational analyst) appears more than ever here a humanisation of the checks-and-balances system the US prides itself on. Still, this is a summer event movie aimed more at teenagers than Prospect readers, so its notions of good and bad, right and wrong, tend to be rendered in easily grasped terms – as in the contrast between the deck of the Enterprise, with its soft-lit, Habitat-showroom feel, and that of rival spacecraft, which betray all the warmth of a Goth’s bedroom with the curtains closed. As a storyteller, Abrams specialises in momentum, not depth: it’s what drew millions of viewers to the withholding nonsense of Lost, and made him an ideal choice to jumpstart the ailing Mission: Impossible franchise. He’s quickly mastered the very modern skill of breaking up “character” scenes (i.e. tiffs) with a sudden jolt of set-spinning action, even if it’s something as hokey as having one of his characters strapped to a bomb that’s armed itself. 

He doesn’t want us to become bored, but in so doing he risks our full involvement: we’re constantly more distracted than we are engaged, which is why I sensed even the fanboys around me beginning to get restless. All the movement reveals is the thinness of the material, its resemblance to the kind of glib teen drama one might idly ogle mid-afternoon on E4. With the characterisation set in stone, some of the schtick that tickled or amused first time round – Anton Yelchin’s Slavic accent (as Chekov), Pegg’s paycheque-eyeing mateyness – comes across as precisely that: mere schtick. Saldana and John Cho (as Sulu) are again limited to pushing buttons, and ticking boxes; even Karl Urban’s Bones – a man among boys, whose grouching was the closest the first film got to self-awareness – proves disappointingly subservient this time.

It’s an especially cheap trick on the screenwriters’ part to, at one point, try and milk emotion from James T. Kirk’s apparent demise, when we all know he’ll grow up to become William Shatner, but one typical of the relentless chicanery sustaining the film. Besides, no franchise has devoted itself more to preserving the smirk on Chris Pine’s face: you see it here in the way Alice Eve’s research scientist is served up to him on a plate, all curves squeezed into a figure-hugging jumpsuit, like the loveliest of bananas, just waiting to be unpeeled. It’d be a very jaded viewer who didn’t respond in some way to Into Darkness’s bouncy optimism – if nothing else, it’ll make a perfectly decent, eminently watchable Saturday-night contrast with Iron Man 3’s older-skewing snark and savvy – but bouncy optimism is really all this series has after two films: it remains a franchise you may prefer to pat on the head, rather than fully embrace.

Star Trek Into Darkness is available on DVD through Paramount; a third instalment, Star Trek Beyond, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

Saturday 16 July 2016

1,001 Films: "Deliverance" (1972)

Deliverance is a bad bromance. Four buddies - buff, faintly preposterous survivalist Burt Reynolds, his pensive, pipe-smoking intellectual pal Jon Voight, plus chubby insurance schlub (and biggest liability) Ned Beatty and folksy joker Ronny Cox - set out to prove themselves canoeing up one of the country's wildest stretches of river. Why? "Because it's there," Reynolds grunts, echoing the rationale of developers through the ages. The quartet enter this unspoilt Eden in a state of harmony - the now-notorious "Duellin' Banjos" sequence, rather than ominous, is actually a rare example of locals and interlopers playing nicely together - before coming to fall badly out of synch with their surroundings; soon, these would-be masters of the universe find themselves on their hands and knees in the dirt, scrabbling and, indeed, squealing for their lives. For yes, this was 1972 - the year of Last Tango in Paris - and the film in which sodomy went mainstream, in a scene that predicted the extreme cinema of the late 1990s (John Boorman's direction seeming to stretch out time, and his characters' torments, to fit) and that serves as payback for what such supposedly civilised folks as Beatty had been doing to the American landscape for years.

If Deliverance still (pardon the pun) holds water today, it's because those waters remain as muddied and troubled as ever. James Dickey's novel and screenplay were devised as parables of the great American divide(s), as pertinent to the era of Obama and Fox News as they were to that of Nixon and Vietnam. Assholes weren't the only things being split here: country would be set against city, man against nature, brain vs. brawn, each new conflict revealing further prejudice, and - collectively - measuring just how much disunity there was, and is, within the supposedly United States. Even these four friends can't ever seem to get their stories straight, resulting in a quietly nightmarish coda - a waking dream - that might be understood as as much a coming-home drama as might be found in any 70s war movie: these guys left a part of themselves behind up country, which they know they will never be able to talk about, either individually or together amongst themselves.

The overall effect is reliant on Boorman's ability as an outsider to summon up something thoughtful and disquieting to go alongside the muscular, primal thrills, or - in other words - to reconcile, within a two-hour entertainment, the Reynolds and Voight characters' perspectives, and display markedly greater sympathy for the latter's agonies, which you couldn't ever imagine a Milius or Michael Bay achieving. If not quite up to the hallucinatory force of the same year's Aguirre, Wrath of God (Deliverance's spiritual prologue), it stands as one of the more haunting and beautiful action-adventures Hollywood ever gave us, Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography hewing close to a nature that was only ever going to win out over this opposition, robust as it was in that 70s character-actor way. For lest we be drawn in by the drama to forget, Boorman's crew were also seeking to impose themselves on their environment - and you can bet the actors, sent hurtling over white-water rapids and down sheer rock faces, had their own stories and scrapes to show for it.

Deliverance is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Friday 15 July 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of July 8-10, 2016:
1 (1) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
2 (new) The Legend of Tarzan (12A)
3 (new) Now You See Me 2 (12A)
4 (2) Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (15)
5 (3) Central Intelligence (12A)
6 (new) Sultan (12A) ***
7 (4) Independence Day: Resurgence (12A) **
8 (5) The Conjuring 2 (15) **
9 (new) The Neon Demon (18) ***
10 (6) Me Before You (12A) **


My top five:   
1. The Hard Stop [above]
2. Weiner
3. Notes on Blindness
4. Baskin
5. Summertime

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Bridge of Spies (12) *****
2 (2) Goosebumps (PG) ***
3 (5) Spotlight (15) ***
4 (new) 13 Hours (15) **
5 (10) The 5th Wave (15) **
6 (6) Creed (12) ****
7 (8) Daddy's Home (12)
8 (new) The Danish Girl (15) **
9 (4) Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (15)
10 (7) Dirty Grandpa (15)

My top five:  
1. Son of Saul
2. The Witch
3. High-Rise
4. Truth
5. Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)

Top Ten Streaming:

1 (new) The Chambermaid Lynn (18)
2 (new) Triple 9 (15) **
3 (new) Notes on Blindness (U) ****
4 (3) Trumbo (15) **
5 (1) Tale of Tales (15) ***
6 (2) Remainder (15) ***
7 (6) Embrace of the Serpent (12) ****
8 (4) Adult Life Skills (15) ***
9 (5) Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (18) ***
10 (re) Evolution (15) ***

(source: BFI)

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Lion King (Sunday, C4, 6.15pm)
2. Something in the Air (Saturday, C4, 1.05am)
3. Chico & Rita (Friday, BBC2, 12.30am)
4. Total Recall (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
5. Hairspray (Sunday, C4, 1.35pm)

"Baskin" (Guardian 15/07/16)

Baskin ***
Dir: Can Evrenol. With: Mehmet Cerrahoglu, Gorkem Kasal, Ergun Kuyucu, Muharrem Bayrak. 97 mins. Cert: 18

This slowburn Turkish shocker suggests what might have happened if Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s philosophically inclined patrolmen had blundered into Eli Roth territory. We’re riding with a squad of grizzled law enforcers, halting their musky after-hours banter to provide backup in an ominously remote location: a gore-blasted museum of the macabre showcasing the year’s most warped costume and production design. Writer-director Can Evrenol’s cribs are blatant (don’t look now, there’s a Lucio Fulci bit) and Roth’s influence is felt in a punitive streak that hints these non-PC coppers are getting exactly what they deserve. Yet right through to his clever-bleak pay-off, Evrenol finds forceful means of disconcerting us, cutting freely between nightmare reality and vivid dreams, forever landing upon the ickiest of textures. Sensitive souls need not apply, clearly, but hellfiends are hereby alerted to a work of malevolent promise – a film that seizes the attention even as some of its imagery turns the stomach. 

Baskin opens in selected cinemas from today.

Mystic river: "Embrace of the Serpent"

The last of this year's Oscar nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category to reach these shores, Embrace of the Serpent determines to transport us somewhere - not simply pick us up, spin us around for a couple of hours and then drop us back down in the exact same spot. In this, it goes against the flow of anywhere between 75-90% of modern movies; it's no surprise it's had the transfixing effect it's had on awards committees and audiences alike. The Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra has here found a way to revivify the cinema's beloved yet increasingly careworn quest narrative, running two such narratives, from two very different time periods, in parallel. One unfurls at the turn of the 20th century, dispatching Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet), a real-life figure presented here as a beardy old goat, up the Amazon in search of a plant known for its life-giving properties. The other plays out around the midpoint of the same century, informed by all the sage and sorry wisdom accrued in the intervening years. Here, Evan (Brionne Davis), a modest botanist and student of his predecessor's writings, sets out to retrace the explorer's footsteps in the company of his now middle-aged guide Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) and to work out how Theo, representative of science and enlightenment, came to perish in these parts.

Some of the tracks the men follow will be familiar to media-literate 21st century audiences. Not for nothing were such names as Conrad, Coppola and Herzog dropped in the film's early, breathless write-ups; there is a modicum of swaying National Geographic breasts, and a degree of curious jungle ritual. (Theo repeatedly asks his companions to blow a local form of snuff directly into his nostrils, a process that looks roughly as dignified as having it blown up one's rectum.) What is new is the perspective Guerra adopts. Crucially, Embrace of the Serpent starts not within such a flexible concept as "civilisation", but deep within the jungle, with one tribesman peering out from the banks of the river - thus making the white man Theo the Other whose motives are suspect. Though the explorer literally loses his compass at an early juncture, he shapes up as a comparatively harmless figure - a well-intentioned, somewhat sentimental blusterer - especially when set against those we encounter the further he drifts down river: primarily the rubber magnates, an absent presence whose deleterious effect on the locals is illustrated by the emergence of one sorry worker bee, who's lost an eye and an arm in the extraction process and begs his visitors to put him out of his misery; but also the missionaries, busy imposing a language and a punitive worldview upon a populace they deem and demean as cannibals. 

For his part, the botanist Evan is playing catch-up - as indeed we all are, historically speaking - visibly humbled by his task, his surrounds and the eddies of madness he keeps sailing into: one port of call sees him confronted by a Kurtz-like white saviour who's appointed himself King and taken a child bride for his troubles, a sequence that eventually shades into zombie-like horror. Guerra's jungle really is massive - it spans the ages - and we sense how it would take a century or more to transform it into Shoreditch High Street, or just to flush the toxic legacies of colonialism from its system. The director filmed all this in situ, with many of the region's tribesmen enacting scenes from their own history, everybody pushing onwards through torrid rivers and tangled clearings in much the same way Herzog's crew did in making Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Embrace nevertheless emerges as a more mellow and forgiving inquiry than those reference points (and the comparison to Heart of Darkness) would suggest. The natural beauty of these sites is only accentuated by David Gallego's silvery monochrome photography, and you can't fail to notice how the hostile relationship between Theo and the young Karamakate softens into the amused tolerance the older guide displays around the open-minded Evan.

What's crucial is that it is a dialogue: fractious, wry, mocking, Guerra striving at every bend of the river to ensure that his indigenous characters are a good deal more than the mute savages history (and a whole history of North American movies) would damn them as, and that his white men are more complex and complicated than the usual bringers of light and wisdom. (Indeed, at various points, Theo and Evan appear the more helpless and lost of the two tribes. At this point in the annus horribilis that is 2016, who can say that's not the more truthful depiction?) Guerra arrives in this part of the world looking not for barbarism, rather poetry, which is why - amid the wealth of incident that adorns this route - you begin to spot the director making subtle rhymes between his time schemes, putting down the machete to pick up a pen: the butterflies pinned down in Theo's display case suddenly liberated around the older Karamakate's shoulders; the trees that, almost fifty years on, still bear the scars of rubber extraction; Theo's Box Brownie camera paired with Evan's far more portable Olympus.

The spectral light Guerra and Gallego capture is, we realise, another way of squaring this digitally projected, very 21st century film with the photographs we've all seen of the jungle, taken by explorers and scientists keen to position the locals as oddities, trophies or holdouts. By contrast, Embrace of the Serpent floats the thesis that if we go out into the world with the right inquiring yet respectful spirit, we might just return with an expanded consciousness, refined perceptions of ourselves, others and nature: you sense the progress it's working towards when, having spent the best part of the film worried about what exactly these white men are going to impose upon the natives, the final movement finds those same natives wondering aloud how best to get their own stories out to the wider world of white men. That Guerra's film, an essential part of that process, somehow registered with the Academy's palefaces is its own testament to the film's achievements, but then again this isn't a radical break from storytelling tradition so much as an informed continuation of what's gone before: an adventure movie - never more than a league or so away from the next pocket of peril, danger or wonder - albeit one working off an altogether sharper drawn and more richly detailed map.

Embrace of the Serpent is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to view on demand.

Sunday 10 July 2016

1,001 Films: "Last Tango in Paris" (1972)

Back in 1972 - the year of Deep Throat - Last Tango in Paris was the respectable face of screen erotica, a movie for audiences too timid to try anything that might be tarred with the porno brush. Nowadays, it's possible to see Bertolucci's film for what it perhaps always was: yes, the progenitor of the same cinema of extremes that later brought us The Piano Teacher and anything directed by Catherine Breillat (who has a minor speaking role here); but also the hetero Death in Venice - i.e. a phony classic, a preposterous, overrated, never-especially-sexy psychodrama operating somewhere between a light snooze and a total turn-off.

Weirdly haired, raincoat-clad, middle-aged miseryguts Marlon Brando, torturing himself and everybody else around him because of a suicide he probably caused, turns up to view an empty Paris flat that boasts one very mod con: the ripe and pouting yet supremely suggestible 70s chick Maria Schneider. He mumbles something that sounds like "I'll take it" - he's not solely talking about the appartement, you understand - and the two strike up a sulky, sadomasochistic affair in which sex serves both as a balm and a way to forget, and from which there can only ever be one way out.

Then-modish addenda include some wannabe Godard-Truffaut scenes featuring Jean-Pierre Leaud as a director with whom Schneider at least gets to have some degree of fun; with Brando, alas, she spends half her time listening to his incredibly tedious anecdotes ("the ass of death... the womb of fear," he drones, to cite but two of the script's rejected subtitles for Star Trek movies), and the other half getting manhandled to such an extent that she was later to complain about her on-set treatment. The nadir, of course, arrives when Brando performs his "knob of butter" trick on his sobbing conquest, where you don't know what's worse: the intimations of anal rape, or the leading man's horrible Dralon trousers, worn at a solemn half-mast.

As films about lovers attempting to shut out the real world go, it really isn't a patch on the resonant and formally controlled In the Realm of the Senses, though it might serve as an early example of the way Brando would routinely unbalance his 1970s work, a tendency (a personality flaw?) visible in everything from The Missouri Breaks to Apocalypse Now, becoming a burden apt to break the back of any film so conspicuously groping towards naturalism. A lot of Tango, specifically, now looks like chestbeating chauvinist nonsense, all po faces engaged in zipless fucks, and emotional truth was simply never on the agenda. Let's put this on the record once and for all: no two people in the history of mankind have ever had a relationship like this.

Last Tango in Paris is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox.