Wednesday 30 November 2016

The Edge of Seventeen (Guardian 29/11/16)

The Edge of Seventeen ***
Dir: Kelly Fremon Craig. With: Hailee Steinfeld, Kyra Sedgwick, Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner. 104 mins. Cert: 15.

Every few years, a teen movie arrives that may not be wholly original in the timeless impulses it describes, but nevertheless possesses insight and charm enough to become a sleepover perennial, while extending a hand to an actress who’s just been waiting to dance. Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, Emma Stone in Easy A: it’s an illustrious modern pantheon, to which we can now elevate Hailee Steinfeld, on career-making form as a sensitive outsider navigating a perilously choppy formative moment on wits and high-tops alone in writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s winning debut.

Craig hones in on a specific yet universal teenage crisis: how friendships formed during childhood and fortified in early adolescence often founder once the opposite sex appears on the radar. The friends in question are Nadine (Steinfeld) and Krista (Haley Lu Richardson); the male interloper is Nadine’s hot-jock brother Darian (Blake Jenner), whom Krista beds after an evening on the alcopops – a betrayal of sorts that alters the girls’ whole dynamic. Overnight, Nadine is demoted from BFF to third wheel, driving home her already marginalised peer-group position, and steering her towards the arms and car of entirely the wrong dude.

Craig’s screenwriting rhythms help to distinguish the ensuing tangle from the pack. Hardly self-assured smartmouths, her characters are credibly awkward, muttering words like “multifaceted”, before cringing at the syllables emerging from their lips; the signature scene is the amusingly non-committal pep talk Nadine gives herself in a bathroom mirror at a party. Like some lovechild of Judy Blume and early Cameron Crowe, Craig makes light of all this tentative umming-and-ahing, while allowing herself time to suggest the source of her heroine’s stunted self-esteem: thoroughly insecure mom Kyra Sedgwick, unravelling after the death of Nadine’s doting dad.

In places, the film itself gives into fond familiarity: Steinfeld’s drolly funny run-ins with teacher Woody Harrelson arguably replay Stone’s Easy A duels with Thomas Haden Church a touch closely. As a coming-out ball for its lead, however, it’s a small, sustained triumph: Steinfeld very smartly weighs the comedy of Nadine’s hormonal disquiet against her potentially tragic need for affirmation, never more adroitly than in a shaded setpiece involving an accidental sext. We’ve all passed through similar phases, at the movies or in reality, but when it’s this alert, Craig’s film feels nearly as lived-through and heartfelt as the song that gives it its title.

The Edge of Seventeen opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Ring rust: "Bleed For This"

The dream factory would appear to be repackaging many of its greatest hits this week, just in time for Christmas. Moana is the Disney quest narrative, painted in vibrant new shades; The Edge of Seventeen the coming-of-age pic, with bonus psychological depth. Ben Younger's Bleed for This is a boxer's rise and fall and rise again - you know, such as we all cheered in last year's Southpaw and this January's Creed - but I'm not so sure what it possesses in the way of special features. Its USP may just be that it's based on a true story, that of Vinny Paz (formerly Pazienza), the journeyman fighter - first seen here on the receiving end of a pummelling from a lesser-known Mayweather - who recovered from a broken neck and spinal injuries sustained in a car crash in 1991 to go toe-to-toe with no less a figure than Roberto Duran in a world title fight some four years later.

Paz is incarnated by Miles Teller, initially working from under a John Oates mullet-and-'tache combo, who displays more or less the same mixture of vulnerability and pugnacity he showed in the course of his Whiplash bootcamp: he absorbs every blow, and keeps coming back. This Paz is pitched as a regular working-class brawler: he's unruly (shown gambling and fucking on the eve of that Mayweather fight), subject to fluctuations in weight, prone to throwing punches after the bell, and very much the product of a cluttered blue-collar household in the heartlands. Scooping up the fractious, heavily accented chatter over the spaghetti meatballs on the family dining table, Younger is attempting to do for Vinny's native Providence, Rhode Island what David O. Russell's The Fighter did for Lowell, Massachusetts - one of several early signs the film might be somewhat lacking in the new ideas department. (The first training montage arrives after just twenty minutes: this may be a record.)

Yet where Russell let his actors off the leash, the better to see what they might add, scene by scene, everybody in Vinny's corner is kept very much on-script, and toeing to an altogether familiar line. The tale is several degrees more remarkable than the no-frills retelling it gets here: with Younger shrugging us past the accident to set about describing the fighter's comeback, Vinny's lows are allowed to feel not noticeably lower than his highs. Whatever effects the actors achieve appear cosmetic and faintly ridiculous. Aaron Eckhart, as Vinny's boozy trainer Kevin Rooney, operates with a shaved hairline and conspicuously whiny accent; Ciaran Hinds, as father-promoter Angelo, lands a grey bouffant and Elvis shades that leave him looking somewhat like a minor mafioso in The Sopranos

It's left to Teller, tacking the mass on and off as required, to carry our sympathies, and as in Whiplash and The Spectacular Now before it, this young actor has a nice way of retreating within those flushed puppy-fat cheeks at moments of crisis, to suggest an innately sensitive soul furiously beating itself up. Younger tosses him a couple of effective scenes of masochism, one involving the lifting of weights in the immediate wake of the accident - Vinny's heroic authenticity is only bolstered by the fact he made his comeback not with modern sports science but old-school, early Nineties muscle, in the grimy depths of his parents' garage - the other describing the removal of the screws in Vinny's neck brace, achieved without the aid of sedatives. (Sensitive viewers should probably look away, but it's one of the few instances where the film allows us to feel something of the pain inscribed in its title.) 

It does, however, feel a marked limitation that this director displays no particular flair for shooting fights: instead, Younger briskly Xeroxes all the angles from the actual HBO coverage, cutting away at predictable intervals to Vinny's nervy entourage at ringside or back on the sofa in Providence. It still engages on some moderate-to-low level - as triumph-of-the-spirit stories such as these often do - and I'd wager good money on it becoming the 2016 awards contender most likely to be watched dopey-eyed by sports fans on longhaul flights, which is one audience for it. Whether they'll leap to their feet cheering come the final reel remains to be seen, however: Bleed for This has nothing more in its fists than the basic facts, which is why Younger never comes close to landing the knockout blow - and even those viewers who don't know the story but have seen enough boxing pictures to know how boxing pictures work will surely see most of its moves coming.

Bleed for This opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Speaking in tongues: "Arrival"

Is there intelligent life out there? At this point in 2016, you could be forgiven for asking. Denis Villeneuve's Arrival hovers into view in that Pre-Christmas Semi-Sentient Sci-Fi slot occupied by Gravity and The Martian before it, intending to probe a little deeper than, say, the boom-bang-a-bang of this summer's Independence Day: Resurgence. Here is what's essentially a two-hour conversation between a woman and a couple of extraterrestrial hand-squid things, a dialogue initiated specifically to keep explosions and casualties at a minimum; and a mainstream multiplex project skewed towards jaw-jaw, not the usual war-war. How often do we find ourselves presented with a much-trumpeted, talking-point event movie in which the central figure, here seen working both with and against the might of the military machine, is a linguist - and a female linguist at that?

As Amy Adams' Dr. Louise Banks is summoned from academia to help establish the purpose of the alien craft hovering over her part of Montana (and elsewhere around the globe), Villeneuve again demonstrates his ability to put an audience right in the thick of things. Early on, a lovely, sinuous shot from the POV of the helicopter Banks is being choppered in on establishes both the presence of the crescent-shaped craft amid the Montana hills and, circling further around, the massing ranks of the US Army, gathered in equal parts anticipation and suspicion: a flourish that immediately sets the audience on notice as to the two forces in opposition within the film, and to Banks's status as an intergalactic go-between.

Already the director has underlined his status as a scholar of the multiplex sound system, with a scene in which the ringing of students' smartphones alerts our heroine to the notion something's amiss beyond campus; this supremely immersive use of sound - a feature of Villeneuve's previous Sicario - continues as Banks is zipped inside her hazmat suit before making her way out to the craft ahead of first contact; any remaining space on the soundtrack is swiftly filled by the crackle of walkie-talkies, round-the-clock news media chatter, and those online wind-up merchants insisting Earth should fire the opening shot, while Johann Johannsson's score drifts in and out like the fog off the surrounding mountains. What Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer - adapting Ted Chiang's short story Story of Your Life - set us to consider is how any invading force could make itself heard in the modern era, and whether or not we Earthlings would be capable of listening.

That's an interesting angle for a contemporary SF movie to explore, and far more so than in the bombastic yet slightly hollow Sicario - that critical and commercial hit that presumably allowed Villeneuve a shot at a project this questing - this filmmaker's virtuosic technique has been wedded to knotty, fascinating ideas. Chief among these is how language works, and Heisserer has done an admirable job in breaking down this complex subject into something popcorn-munchers everywhere might engage with. The difference in how some men and women talk, for example, strikes us during an apparently throwaway anecdote that finds a grunt on the phone to his understandably concerned beloved: the sweetheart teary, emotional, imploring, her alpha swain bluffly neutral, pushing against her pleas with the firmest and straightest of bats. (Thus are Mars and Venus reconciled on Earth.) Villeneuve develops this idea in his blocking of key scenes: where the men - Forest Whitaker's Colonal Weber, Michael Stuhlbarg's CIA analyst et al. - forever stand resolute, arms across chests, in anticipation of hard, fast responses to their inquiries, Adams-as-Banks, her hands at her sides, remains open to nuance, ambiguity, debate, and QED to a future others would close off.

Which is not to say that Arrival is entirely convincing. Somewhere deep in its DNA, there are traces of those old Disney live-action ventures in which an idealistic young soul tries to make friends with the animal that's strayed into their backyard - and to keep said pet safe from those reactionary old coots reaching for their shotguns. (Here, in a nod to our new world order, those coots are China, Russia and Pakistan.) I found the merging of the emotional with the supernatural far less effective here than I did in Gravity: the film loses something when it shrugs off its philosophical mantle in the closing half-hour to reveal its true form - that of puzzle picture - and it becomes outright bathetic once the title's dual meaning is fully articulated. Where Spielberg (in Close Encounters) and Kubrick (in 2001) looked upwards and outwards going into their final acts, Villeneuve turns his gaze backwards and inwards - we're headed towards a close enounter of the most basic and heteronormative kind.

At the same time, though, you cannot deny those elements of intelligent, often elegant design assembled here: those hand-squids, for example, pumping their ink out into zero gravity so as to compose circular sentences in the sky, or the fact these particular alien crafts resemble the usual flat discs, only flipped up along the vertical axis, so that they come to look like satellite discs or - at a stretch - open ears. All Heisserer's final-reel softsoaping can't entirely overwrite a resonant idea that lingers in the mind and soul far longer than Gravity's bungee-cord gimcrackery or The Martian's practical science applications: language as a form of empathy, a reaching-out - which is why it may be more important than ever how we use it. Hello, my name is Mike, and for the sake of the world as it stands - and of the world as it might yet be for future generations - I recommend that you go see this movie.

Arrival is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Saturday 26 November 2016

From the archive: "Shifty"

Shifty comprises a snappy, promising debut from writer-director Eran Creevy. The eponymous hero (Riz Ahmed) used to be the cleverest kid in class; now he deals drugs out of his devout Muslim brother's house in the nondescript London suburb of Dudlowe. On the day we join him, he's accompanied on his rounds by best friend Chris (Daniel Mays), who's arrived from Manchester for a party happening that night. Chris has a mortgage, a career - he's going places, and wants nothing more than to take his mate with him - but within a few hours, he too is running from the police, and feeling the pressure of being dragged back down to where he started.

There'll always be a place in the British film industry for directors who know how to shoot kitchens and bathrooms in interesting ways, and Creevy displays a sharp eye both for the detail of Shifty's domestic arrangements - the gleaming possessions bought with ill-gotten gains, row-upon-row of brand-new trainers - and for the drudgery of his fictional cul-de-sac of a location. Dead low, indeed: its inhabitants are most often observed giving into either infantile frustrations, like coked-up white van man Trevor (Jay Simpson), or a narcotic glaze, like the couple we see dopily inserting counters into a Connect 4 grid. (Putting away childish things would seem to be a remote possibility in this neck of the woods.)

If the above synopsis reads a little too close to standard-issue social realism, then fear not: there's spirit here, in the form of the leads' variously clipped, easy and droll banter. (I liked Chris's guide to keeping a cat: "Starve it for a week, and it'll eat a condom.") Maybe Creevy's a touch too keen, come the final reel, to explain himself and tidy up the plot's looser ends - a rookie mistake - but elsewhere he manages to conjure up a whole world (or at least a whole suburb) through the interactions of a small handful of characters, and works tiny but appreciable miracles with the relationship between the pensive, baleful Mays - the thinking viewer's Danny Dyer, surely - and the sharp, spiky Ahmed.

(April 2009) 

Shifty screens on BBC1 tonight at 12.20am.

Friday 25 November 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of November 18-20, 2016:
1 (new) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A) ***
2 (1) Arrival (12A) ***
3 (3) Trolls (U)
4 (new) Andre Rieu: Christmas with Andre (U)
5 (2) Doctor Strange (12A) **
6 (4) The Accountant (15)
7 (5) A Street Cat Named Bob (12A) **
8 (6) Nocturnal Animals (15) **
9 (7) The Girl on the Train (15) *
10 (8) Storks (U)


My top five:   
1 (new) The BFG (PG)
2 (1) Now You See Me 2 (12)
3 (new) The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years (12) ***
4 (new) Me Before You (12) **
5 (5) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (12) **
6 (2) Supersonic (15)
7 (new) Miss Saigon: 25th Anniversary Performance (15)
8 (3) The Angry Birds Movie (U)
9 (4) Alice Through the Looking Glass (PG)
10 (10) The Nice Guys (15) ****

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Speed [above] (Saturday, C4, 11.40pm)
2. Manthan (Thursday, C4, 1.35am)
3. Shifty (Saturday, BBC1, 12.20am)
4. Enchanted (Sunday, BBC1, 1.15pm)
5. Saving Private Ryan (Sunday, five, 9pm) 

Which witch?: "The Wailing"

Although that extreme genus of Korean cinema that flourished in the Noughties appears to have subsided of late - or merely been deemed less marketable by sales agents and distributors - its leading warriors fight on in different fields. The Wailing - brought to us by Hong-jin Na, the sadistic genius who presided over 2008's The Chaser and 2010's The Yellow Sea - opens as a knockabout police procedural, that peculiarly Korean subgenre that was initiated by 2003's Memories of Murder and recently travelled as far as Belgium, the Korea of Europe, giving rise to 2014's P'tit Quinquin. Here, it's a rain-lashed mountain village that finds itself plagued by unexpected events: a spate of bloody murders, houses burning to the ground, reports of a Japanese man, who may be a sorcerer, a cannibal, a ghost or just a transient, living out in the nearby woods. Our man on the case/nonplussed observer/human punchbag is the sturdy Sergeant Jong-gu (Kwak Du-won), who quickly works up a theory that all this has something to do with the local mushrooms; he already has his hands full on the homefront, what with trying to initiate conjugal relations with his wife while his mother-in-law fusses around them, and - more pressingly - with a sudden sickness that consumes the couple's young daughter, leading everyone to ponder what's got into her.

Suffice to say there is a lot going on in these 150-odd minutes; the impression is of another of those recent boxset movies, attempting to cram an entire TV season's worth of plot and incident into a single sitting. Na only ups the discombobulation by bolting together scenes nobody else would assemble in this order. Wince-inducing trauma sits side-by-side with domestic farce; a trip to one grisly murder site climaxes with a priest being attacked by a dog; and at every turn, this director seems to give not one fig whether or not there might be a tonal disconnect. One of the reasons The Wailing feels so dense is its perverse willingness to stick its nose into every last avenue and alleyway of Jong-gu's investigation, even those that don't seem to be leading him (or us) anywhere worthwhile. Na's evidently playing a long game, seeing just how far he can push a genre film without letting slip just what kind of genre film it is. It's the mystery that grabs us by the lapels and pulls us in: few recent films have set their audience so urgently to wondering just what the fuck is going on. Around the midpoint - with the arrival of a travelling exorcist - both the village and the movie appear to have gone quite, quite mad; all we're aware of is that we're slapbang in the middle of something.

The pleasure lies in seeing what that something is revealed to us gradually, by a sure hand: my instinct is that Na knows exactly what he's doing, and indeed where his tale's heading, but that he's having a ball toying with the viewer's perceptions. All I'll let slip here is that what this village is actually plagued by is a suspicion and superstition that points them in the wrong direction; I know it's silly to claim that every film now showing seems in some way a reflection of our troubled historical moment, but you could arguably draw a direct line - and it would be the only straight line this circumlocuting masterwork permits - between the events unravelling on screen and the fear and mob rule that have dictated so much of Western life in 2016. Either way, by arriving hot on the heels of last month's Train to Busan, The Wailing offers further proof that no other film industry is being more brazen right now about upending our expectations of genre fare: it would have been a brave producer who took a look at Na's rushes and declared "yeah, this guy's got it all under control", when - for much of its running time - the finished product plays as so thrillingly, seat-of-the-pants unhinged.

The Wailing opens in selected cinemas from today.

"I Am Bolt" (Guardian 25/11/16)

I Am Bolt ***
Dir: Benjamin Turner, Gabe Turner. Documentary with: Usain Bolt, Pele, Neymar, Serena Williams. 107 mins. Cert: PG
What makes Usain Bolt run? The Turner brothers’ understandably awed survey of how the Jamaican sprinter got from there to here in record time benefits from tailing its subject over a period – between Beijing 2015 and Rio 2016 – when his supremacy faced unprecedented threats: nightclubbing injuries, a hunger diminishing in inverse proportion to his distractibility, rivals new (Yohan Blake) and old (Justin Gatlin). If Bolt’s once-in-a-lifetime talent continues to defy all explanation, the Turners bring us close enough to it to witness bugs swarming over nerveless knuckles on the start line; they also spot how crucial coach Glen Mills is in reframing the training his charge loathes as the kind of play – partying at high speed, in straight lines – he might still lunge towards. Raised high on the big screen, the victories look even easier, more jaw-droppingly elemental: flashes of lightning, allowing us to share in the pleasure of watching a fellow human doing something simple preternaturally well. 

I Am Bolt opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

"Bad Santa 2" (Guardian 25/11/16)

Bad Santa 2 **
Dir: Mark Waters. With: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Christina Hendricks, Kathy Bates. 92 mins. Cert: 15
This tardy-to-needless sequel to 2003’s unusually scabrous studio comedy plays the same dirty tricks with only negligible variations: rather than shopping malls, incorrigible wash-up Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) and his diminutive sidekick (Tony Cox) are reteamed to rip off a Chicago homeless charity. If confronting Willie with bad mother Kathy Bates was one smart creative decision, nothing else – not the jokes about Cox’s size, not charity supervisor Christina Hendricks’ susceptibility to Willie’s dubious charms, nor the ensuing alleyway pumping – catches us by surprise this time. Likable Mean Girls pro Mark Waters wrings occasional snickers from a patchy script, but the whole feels tamely conventional: misanthropy passed through the usual Hollywood motions. 

Bad Santa 2 opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Stronger together: "A United Kingdom"

The most subversive aspect of new British period drama A United Kingdom - possibly the most ironic-seeming title to pass into cinemas in the autumn of 2016 - is that the kingdom that title refers to isn't, as you might have expected, the United Kingdom. (So much for taking our country back.) But we'll get to that in due course. For starters, this is Amma Asante - the director who had such success with 2013's Belle - setting out a true-life romance between two youngsters making their way in post-WW2 London. Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) is a secretary, pinned down in her mam and dad's cramped place within a suburbia set to run like clockwork; Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) the visiting law student she crosses paths with at a thoroughly ordinary missionary dance. The pair bond over a shared love of jazz, although not as the English play it, and make plans to see one another again. Seretse, however, has a surprise for Ruth: upon taking his leave, he reveals that he is, in fact, the heir to the throne of what was Bechuanaland (the British protectorate soon to be renamed Botswana), and must soon return home to rule. There have probably been bigger bombshells dropped at the end of a first date, but not many. A few weeks later, he's asking for Ruth's hand in marriage - and for her to become queen of a country she'd struggle to find on the map.

In truth, this courtship plays as just a little too whirlwind on screen, allowing Pike and Oyelowo scant time to generate the requisite chemistry and heat: from the off, we sense Asante - as she did in Belle - pushing for the kind of 12A-rated costume drama that can be shipped to large audiences in multiplexes, but I think we needed to feel more of the pair's growing connection, rather than simply being led to see them as two figures being nudged hastily together in order to initiate crisis. The waves of condemnation the couple faced in the run-up to marriage, however, could not be more apparent, or better dramatised. Ruth's fusty old pa (Nicholas Lyndhurst, of all people) sees his pipe plummeting from his dropped jaw and promptly banishes his daughter from his sight; British diplomat Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport, oozing condescension) turns up at Ruth's workplace to harrumph "a chief cannot simply come to London and pluck a girl from the typing pool", then sets about meddling on the grounds this interracial coupling threatens to undermine the Government's endorsement of South Africa's new apartheid legislation.

Matters get no easier once Seretse has brought his wife home: his uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), the incumbent ruler, commands him to think again about his choice of bride, while his sisters insist that this pampered white child of Empire is by no means the queen they and their country have long been looking for. Gradually, Asante and her screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) start to frame a question that seems more than ever relevant: how do you win over people who have united against you, and rebut petty-mindedness, ignorance and outright xenophobia? In this, A United Kingdom will most likely be preaching to the converted. It's after that broader-minded Picturehouse crowd who wouldn't for a moment have entertained notions of voting for Brexit or Trump, and be seen to endorse the fringe values that come with those causes; who will understandably blanch at Ruth's discovery of a "Niggers Out" sign pinned to the door of Seretse's London residence, and titter when prat-in-chief Canning sets out to a meeting with the natives wearing his full colonial plumage. The quiet triumph of the film is that it still bothers to make a case - one just strong enough to challenge prejudices, while firming up even the limpest of liberal convictions.

Asante's leads could in themselves win a lot of arguments. If that first act skimps on the initial attraction - possibly to spare us the undignified sight of actors in their late thirties impersonating skylarking college grads - the director and her performers have spotted how Ruth and Seretse were forced to grow up, and grew even closer together, as they were buffeted on all sides. Oyelowo again demonstrates the considerable oratorical skill first showcased in last year's Selma - at several points, he's both an actor addressing his audience and a regent-elect addressing his subjects, appealing to everyone's better hearts and minds - but he's also effective in suggesting Seretse's speechlessness when faced with the sublimated racism of the powers-that-be: Asante frames one piercing shot of the actor huddled on a rainsoaked kerb just after Seretse's been summoned to London to be told that he's being sent into exile. (Whitehall has never looked so white, which is saying something.) Alongside him, an unusually rattled Pike makes notable play from Ruth's hesitant attempts to fit in - like the tentative royal wave she rehearses in a bathroom mirror, a moment that truly transports us through the looking glass. (Given the present fuss about Prince Harry's lovelife, you wonder what scandal would have erupted in the pages of the Mail had Princess Margaret taken up with, say, Paul Robeson - or, worse, a mere commoner.)

The whole has many of the trappings of Sunday night telly, and some of the same flaws as Belle, notably a certain wobbliness in the casting of supporting actors. (While it's possible Lyndhurst is here for Goodnight Sweetheart vibes, for most British viewers, he will eternally be Rodney Trotter.) Yet Asante's becoming a greatly more capable and confident filmmaker with each new project. She takes to African location shooting like a duck to water, and arms herself with a real ally in Hibbert's accessible yet learned writing: from the midpoint onwards, A United Kingdom develops into an involving tactical game, as the lovers strive to negotiate around this stalemate and past those functionaries who would divide them up as they had done so many countries in a bid to maintain the status quo. You emerge with a real sense of the immense bravery and fortitude of this couple, who didn't just go out on a limb by falling for one another in the year 1947, but by doing so on a stage that made them a clear target for all manner of discontent. What Asante describes so stirringly here isn't only a love story, but an international incident - which makes it all the more astonishing and chastening that this particular episode had all but disappeared from history.

A United Kingdom opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow. 

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Fade to grey: "Doctor Strange"

The problem with year-round blockbusters is that their wows are wearing off faster than ever. The problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that its myriad origin stories can only work minor variations on the same basic set-ups and scenes: if you're drawn to the movies for their storytelling properties, you can't help but feel as though you've seen and heard some-to-most of it before, whether in this universe or another. Doctor Strange opens with malevolent monk Mads Mikkelsen swiping some MacGuffiny Book of Nonsense from its ancient resting place before fleeing through a wormhole to present-day London, where he sees his robed minions knocked around by a space-warping, bald-pated Buddhist played by - you guessed it - Tilda Swinton. It's meant to be jawdropping, and on some superficial level it is, watching sidestreets being folded upwards until they stand at right angles to the ground. Wow, we go: ain't that something? And then the little sceptical man patrolling our memory banks clears his throat, and we go: oh, isn't this a bit like Inception?

This is - like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man before it - meant to be one of Marvel's larkier, more expressionistic outings, such trippy visual flourishes being overseen by the pulp-inclined Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister). And yet its focal point feels uncannily familiar: successful yet spiritually lost neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who will find himself on several levels after emerging from a career-ending car crash and passing into a mystic underworld-otherworld. As this snarky alpha begins to use his privilege for good, the nature of that familiarity becomes clear. Doctor Strange is Iron Man turned 90° to the ground: it enters into the same universe (sorry, Universe), only it comes at it from a slightly different angle. (The Radio Times might list it as "a sideways look at the Marvel origin story".) Early sequences in Kathmandu, where the broken Strange is rebuilt and reschooled by Swinton's Ancient One and her joshing apprentice Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), rebuke the abject humourlessness of Chris Nolan's Batman Begins: it's the same old hokum, now with a knowing smirk. 

Occasionally, Derrickson gestures towards something a touch more serious and interesting: a thesis on the relationship between the body and the landscape. An early conversation between Swinton and Cumberbatch establishes that cells can only be put together in a certain way, like jigsaw pieces; the same could be said of pixels. As Doc heals himself physically and spiritually - becoming a master of the universe the minute he accepts everything matters - so too the world reconstructs itself around him in increasingly elaborate ways. Mikkelsen's Caecilius, by contrast, unfolds the walls and roof of a centuries-old chapel as though it were origami; he tears skyscrapers in two lengthways, as though they were cheese strings. All of this makes for passable distraction - and makes Doctor Strange a virtual shoo-in for next year's effects Oscars - but ultimately they amount to no more than gestures, joshing pastiches of Nolan's unsmiling cosmic philosophy. It seems telling that the second "c" in Caecilius is pronounced soft, not hard (as the Latin textbooks of yore advised): the silly is built in here.

At some point after the initial wave of cheerleading for the MCU subsides, fully-grown critics are going to have to face up to the fact these films are not just fantastical, but fundamentally ridiculous and flimsy - at least as ridiculous and flimsy as, say, the openly derided Gods of Egypt. (Strange just has better PR, that's all.) Swinton and Cumberbatch's floating astral selves swap increasingly portentous pronouncements; Mikkelsen's eye shadow is, one presumes, intended to lend him a toehold alongside Heath Ledger's Joker in the pantheon of modern supervillains, but he mostly resembles a bassist in a Sweet tribute band. The flimsiness begets uncommon levels of thespwaste, an overriding sensation that everyone on screen is underemployed, underengaged, turned solely towards cranking up another franchise-within-the-franchise, banging out more product.

While it's nice that these films have made global stars of such likable white chaps as Messrs. Cumberbatch, Downey Jr., Pratt and Rudd, the adherence to a very particular, narrow story arc leaves no time or space for anybody on screen to defy the easy categorisations of "baddie", "sidekick", "love interest" or "expositional tool". Michael Stuhlbarg gets by with two meek scenes as a rival surgeon, a character who'll presumably go to the dark side somewhere down the line - but if you can't see how these movies routinely shortsell their actors' own powers, see what Stuhlbarg accomplished in roughly the same screen time in one astonishing flashback as a homophobic father in the most recent season of the Amazon series Transparent. Rachel McAdams, following up Spotlight, is stuck in the Pepper Potts role of perpetual helpmeet/potential squeeze, nursing our hero back to functionality before getting forgotten about because she's a girl; even Swinton, less an actor these days than a presence, twinkles only briefly before petering out.

As for the main attraction, well, after all Cumberbatch's commendable work to reinvigorate Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Strange emerges from this first introduction as a second-string, stop-gap sort of hero: no more, in total, than a beard, a cape and a handful of pop trivia. (On a performance level, the actor's natural self-effacement seems markedly less effective than Downey Jr.'s calculatedly vulgar screenhogging - we never forget which asshole is inside Iron Man's suit, but Cumberbatch gets lost amid the bigger bangs.) My big problem with Doctor Strange, in the end, is that for all Derrickson's doodling around him, the central figure is never quite strange or unique enough to merit sustained interest - to power one movie, let alone the two or three we're doubtless going to have to sit through over the years to come. If a furrowed brow, facial hair and a passing knowledge of late Seventies one-hit wonders are all that's required to become a superhero these days, there are at least six regulars down my local pub quiz who should have been handed their own Marvel spin-off by now.

Doctor Strange is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 20 November 2016

From the archive: "Bad Santa"

Of the many truths scattered throughout the Half Man Half Biscuit back catalogue, perhaps the truest would be the title of their millennial festive anthem "It's Clichéd to be Cynical at Christmas". That said, if the Hollywood studios are going to release Yuletide-themed movies this early in November, far better Bad Santa, a clever, snarky comedy from Crumb and Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff, than the saccharine candyfloss of last year's Elf. The timing of Bad Santa's UK release also ensures it benefits from the aftershock of an American election in which the Christian right's insistence that some things are sacred extended to voting back in an administration that had spent much of the past four years lying to, cheating, and stealing from the world. Whatever nasty taste Tuesday night's result left in the mouth can be comprehensively spat out here, in a bilious, moral majority-baiting satire that more often than not hits you like a movie equivalent of hair-of-the-dog.

Its hero Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is an unshaven, self-loathing drunk and incorrigible tea leaf who each year takes a menial gig as Santa in a different shopping mall in order to spend extensive time casing the joint. Having claimed the perks of the job - being rude to small children, screwing their moms in the changing rooms - Willie and his elf sidekick Marcus (Tony Cox) lock themselves in on Christmas Eve and make off with whatever cash they can get their grubby hands on. This holiday season, however, is somewhat different: not just because our Santa has reached an absolute nadir of suicidal despair, but since Willie has also attracted the attentions of a portly, put-upon child (Brett Kelly), a relationship that - beneath Zwigoff's gaze - keeps threatening to tip over into Hallmark-movie sentiment without ever quite doing so; its signature moment comes when Willie uses the contents of a whisky bottle to sterilise a cut in the kid's hand, pouring it on neat before taking a swig for himself.

Around Ghost World's strip malls, Zwigoff and his collaborators found literally rich territory for satire. Offered a markedly bigger budget here, he gets shopping malls to make merry and mischief within. The result feels as though the filmmaker had asked his old friend Robert Crumb to "enhance" a festive Norman Rockwell tableau: each scabrous, scatological scene craps on conventional family values while, in its own way, thumbing its nose at the present situation - better a bad Santa than a godly President. You'd think the compulsion to flick fag ash rather than fake snow over everything would lead to a certain greying of vision, a monotonous misanthropy, but Zwigoff strings up performances like fairy lights. Cox is a busy, hectoring Sancho Panza; John Ritter a fey liberal whose political correctness keeps getting the better of him; Lauren Graham a sweet, sexy barmaid with a Santa fetish. Even the cameos, a Ghost World strength, are valuable, taking in Ajay Naidu as a character with the once-in-a-lifetime billing of "Hindustani troublemaker". Nothing, however, detracts from the career-defining platform the film provides for Thornton, itching, scratching and grouching his way through proceedings as this year's most recognisably human American hero.

(November 2004)

Bad Santa is available on DVD through Sony; a sequel, Bad Santa 2, opens this Friday.

Saturday 19 November 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of November 11-13, 2016:
1 (new) Arrival (12A)
2 (1) Doctor Strange (12A) **
3 (2) Trolls (U)
4 (3) The Accountant (15)
5 (4) A Street Cat Named Bob (12A) **
6 (5) Nocturnal Animals (15) **
7 (7) The Girl on the Train (15) *
8 (9) Storks (U)
9 (8) Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (12A)
10 (6) The Light Between Oceans (12A)


My top five:   
1 (3) Now You See Me 2 (12)
2 (1) Supersonic (15)
3 (new) The Angry Birds Movie (U)
4 (4) Alice Through the Looking Glass (PG)
5 (2) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (12) **
6 (5) Gods of Egypt (12)
7 (9) The Take (15)
8 (10) Mother's Day (12)
9 (8) The Guv'nor (15)
10 (7) The Nice Guys (15) ****

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Boyz N The Hood (Saturday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
2. The Aristocats (Sunday, C4, 5.05pm)
3. Once (Sunday, BBC1, 12.05am)
4. Silver Linings Playbook (Friday, C4, 12.35am)
5. Dirty Pretty Things (Saturday, BBC2, 12.30am)

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" (RD 18/11/16)

Heaven knows we could do with some magic right now. Back in 2001, when J.K. Rowling first sketched out her textbook spin-off from the Harry Potter series, she could scarcely have foreseen what forces would be at play in the Western world come the end of 2016. Then again, some threats remain eternal. Fifteen years on, the film version of Fantastic Beasts – directed by David Yates, from a screenplay by Rowling herself – emerges at the exact right moment to snaffle hearts and pocket money alike: here are two-and-a-bit hours of first-rate distraction-cum-bedazzlement that nevertheless run close enough to current events as to feel like some pop-cultural pep rally.

Rowling, Yates and super-savvy producer David Hayman here expand the Potterverse to the US via the sort of migrant’s tale that moved us in 2014’s Paddington and last year’s Brooklyn. The traveller here is Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, a fantasyland Attenborough (and purported author of that textbook) who arrives in 20s New York clutching a single suitcase containing the many rare creatures he’s collected upon his travels. Little does he know it, but he’s stepped into the epicentre of a cosmic tussle between good and evil.

It takes a while to establish who’s who, but broadly, the forces of liberation – operating out of a prototypical UN – encompass Carmen Ejogo as the West’s first female president of colour, Colin Farrell as her unsmiling second-in-command, and a sparkling Katherine Waterston, seemingly styled after Olive Oyl, as the loose-cannon cop who becomes Newt’s guardian angel. The forces of oppression count among their number Samantha Morton as a hate preacher keen to initiate a new Salem, Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin’s demon seed) as her resentful adopted son, and Jon Voight as a newspaper magnate whipping up anti-wizard sentiment. Already, you can see why FB might chime with the reality of late 2016.

What’s immediately noticeable is that this is Rowling on a bigger canvas, both rebooting and upgrading that universe the movies first began constructing back in 2001 (and which may now look a touch dated to 21st century consumers). Yates, who steered home the Potter franchise, has the budget this time to go beyond Hogwarts and sweep over a meticulously recreated period New York, while his VFX team have a field day, amusing themselves (and us) in cramming every frame with funny in-jokes and Easter eggs. I suspect the self-operating iron will be on many Christmas lists this year; but you’ll also coo at the characterful menagerie – giant dung beetles, clingy stick insects et al. – bursting forth from Newt’s carry-on luggage, and chuckle heartily at the moving illustrations adorning the covers of the books these characters take to bed with them. (At last, accompanying adults may say: a blockbuster that promotes reading.)

These throwaway pixellations admittedly prove more playful and striking than the smash-up-the-city finale by which Fantastic Beasts fits the modern event-movie template, but generally Yates strikes a satisfying balance between the human and the virtual. If Redmayne’s twitching and eyelash-fluttering seems a leftover from The Danish Girl – and his rump-shaking before a horny CG rhino is flatly demeaning – this performance grows on you, and Newt is that species of naïf youngsters will likely adore. And while Yates doesn’t have RADA’s finest with which to bulk out his supporting cast this time, he displays a sharp eye and ear for enjoyable American types. He has a real boon in Dan Fogler as the muggle baker who gives good, uncomprehending cutaway whenever events get too fantastical, while Alison Sudol offers a better quality of flapper than Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby provided; the closing moments also give rise to an unusually effective star cameo.

It would work just as well as a standalone for kids who’ve never heard of Ron Weasley, but retaining the steady Yates’s services ensures the new film coheres with the Potterverse’s best qualities – not least Rowling’s ongoing interest in the fight for a kinder, more caring world. Her creative philanthropy here extends to imagining a humane form of execution by the state, although elsewhere her Britishness shines through: an entire setpiece is built around the safekeeping of a teapot, and there’s a restorative final-reel rainstorm. It’s typical of a major motion picture event that delivers its spectacle while keeping an eye on the small stuff and out for the little guy – high-quality, high-reward product that those of us in the cheap seats probably needed from the dream factory at a point where reality was getting a touch hard to take.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is now playing in cinemas nationwide.