Tuesday 31 January 2017

Dad jokes: "Toni Erdmann"

In the German writer-director Maren Ade's 2003 debut The Forest for the Trees, a lonely young teacher proved so desperate to fit in, make friends and make a success of herself that she went ever so slightly doolally. Watching on, those of us in the audience could see this woman needed an intervention of some sort: someone or something to reroute her thoughts, calm her frenzied neuroses, ease her solitude. Ade's new comedy Toni Erdmann presents us with precisely the man for that job. We first see Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a white-haired sexagenarian who resembles a cross between James Brolin and Kenny Rogers, as he's opening the door of his home in the Rhine to a parcel courier. The parcel has been addressed to one Toni Erdmann, who Winfried insists is the brother who lives with him, a mailbomber recently sprung from prison ("Hold on, I'll go get him"). After several seconds of staring at the back of the now understandably perturbed courier's neck, this Toni appears on the doorstep - and it might take you (as it takes the courier) a minute to twig, but Toni is Winfried, stripped to the waist and adorned with fright wig and false teeth. 

Winfried, it transpires, is a prankster - a survivor of Ken Kesey's generation - and Toni his greatest creation yet: an agent of chaos and change at a time of ingrained social conservatism, whose only goal - though there may be no goal more important in this day and age - is to put a smile on people's faces. Once the gag becomes apparent, the courier loosens up; we do, too. Yet Winfried faces a greater challenge - a tougher crowd, if you will - in the form of his unsmiling daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a no-nonsense executive in the oil industry who simply has no time for messing around, away as she is on business most of her while. Unable to get any quality face time with his girl - and finding even his occasional phone calls diverted to voicemail - Winfried decides to take action; and so he turns up, wig in his carry-on bag and false teeth in his top pocket, in Bucharest, location of his girl's latest business trip, providing exactly that intervention that Ade's earlier heroine, tragically, never received.

A big part of the joke of this new film is that its action plays out in much the same realist key as Ade's previous work: it's like watching a Ken Loach movie into which has been inserted a complete wild card of a character. Ade insists upon the absurdity inherent in our world of branding and corporate-speak ("A concept makes no sense without a client"); unless that threatened Brexit film comes to fruition, this will almost certainly be the only screen comedy you'll see this year to discuss outsourcing and namecheck Herman van Rompuy. What Ade's getting at, however, is deeply serious: the schism capitalism has opened up between one generation, for whom the system worked, and the next, for whom it hasn't. Toni Erdmann's twist is that it's young Ines who, in her need to get ahead, appears by far the more uptight of the two main characters: so much so that she storms out of a hotel massage that fails to meet her rigorous demands ("I'm not paying €100 to be petted").

Old Winfried, on the other hand, represents all those qualities we may be at risk of losing in our time-is-money economy: play, joy, mucking around for the sake of mucking around. In old age, Ade spies a return to childhood, the liberation that follows from not caring what others think and not doing what others tell you to do. This provides the film with a constant, ready-made conflict between father and daughter, heightened when Winfried pops Toni's gnashers in during a networking event and clears the room, then again once he decides it would be a tremendous wheeze to handcuff himself to Ines. (Of course, he loses the key.) Yet it plays to us as a curative and a positive: being around her old man relaxes her, and as the scale of his jokes and imposture broadens, he piques her sincere interest, sets her wondering as to what he's up to, takes her mind off the myriad strains and stresses of corporate life. He sets her to singing; he gets her laid, which seems a near-impossibility at the film's start.

That Toni Erdmann seems likely to stand as the year's most human comedy is down to Ade's close-up, hands-on work with her performers. Hüller, that cherishable German midpoint between Michelle Williams and Chloe from 24, senses entirely that terrible tizz and tangle those of us working for a living feel obliged to get ourselves in nowadays; she bears down with a most Teutonic frown until Ines becomes such a pressure cooker her very toenails pop off. Yet the pleasure here comes from watching her gradually letting her guard down: her corpsing is something special, and she makes a particular triumph out of a final-reel bout of physical comedy involving a too-tight evening dress. Simonischek, though at times indistinguishable from a sheepdog, succeeds in making Toni a character in his own right, while never losing sight of the touching paternal impulses that spawned him: Winfried sees his child is unhappy, and sets out to make her life better, and happier.

True to life, that process is an erratic one, yet Ade's pacing is peerless: she allows for long stretches of trying corporate chatter that demonstrate exactly what Toni's up against - but these also set us to longing for this oddball to burst through the conference room doors and rescue our heroine, or at least toss in a stink bomb. This may be the first 162-minute movie in history to provide a philosophical justification for its running time: as Winfried would doubtless appreciate, it takes us away from the world and allows us to settle in and unwind before sending us out with a broad, beaming grin on our face. Even so, you can find Toni Erdmann in a nutshell in a snatch of poetry we overhear at a leaving service for the headmaster of the school at which Winfried volunteers - a pithy oneliner, as valuable as any of the film's sight gags and setpieces, which Ade surely wants us to mull over and take to heart: "How glorious it is to do nothing, and then to take a break."

Toni Erdmann opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 30 January 2017

American honeys: "Loving"

As the Obama era gives way to What Comes Next, there emerge a number of films conceived and produced at a more enlightened moment, which will speak in time either to roads not taken, or fights that will need taking up. The 2016-17 awards season has fair spilled over with such works, whether or not the predominantly white, aged voting bodies bestow their favour upon them: ahead of next month's Moonlight and Fences, we have Jeff Nichols' interracial romance Loving, whose title serves as both gerund and introduction. The protagonists here are Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), a real-life couple drawn together in segregated Virginia at the end of the 1950s who found themselves obligated to serve jail time, jump through legal hoops, and eventually plead to the U.S. Supreme Court to build the life they wanted for themselves, and permit the life many contemporary viewers might still want for themselves.

That makes Loving sound like another of Hollywood's Big Stories. In its ramifications, this one is big, certainly - big enough to make you emerge wondering why you hadn't heard it before - but Nichols' masterstroke is to start small and simple, and only gradually build in complication. The first scene has Mildred telling Richard that she's pregnant with the (as yet unmarried) couple's first child. "Good," Richard nods, before vowing to build the three of them a house. This opening stretch takes time to evoke the pleasures of smalltown life: the eating, the dancing, the drag racing with which professional tinkerer Richard is involved. It's only after the couple have married (in the neighbouring state of Washington, where miscegenation laws didn't apply) and the local sheriff's department kick in the Lovings' door in the middle of the night that we realise the title has a third, more archaic meaning: the name of a crime one might be accused of, and for which one might be sent into exile.

Nichols first emerged as a protege of David Gordon Green, himself a protege of Terrence Malick: a rich lineage of nature boys who've realised it's often enough to set your actors down in an American field at magic hour and thereby allow your film - and your audience - the chance to breathe. It's in one such field that Richard first proposes to Mildred, and it may well be 21st century cinema's most gorgeous pledging of troth, evocative of an entire post-War moment when at least some small part of America was reordering and reconstructing itself along radically different lines; Nichols holds the moment and allows us to feel the promise in the air, and it's as thrilling to behold in 2017 as it must have been for these two back in 1957. The corollary is that those who seek to divide this couple must therefore be operating against nature in some way: the second act runs close to the conspiratorial mode of Nichols' previous Take Shelter and Midnight Special, with their close-knit family units undertaking nocturnal flights away from oppressive forces.

Having established the Lovings as a couple of underdogs right-thinking viewers might easily cheer for, Nichols makes us actively ache and care for them by letting his audience in on their whispered intimacies, getting us to share both their hopes for a better future, and their fears that it might be denied to them. It is a sign of this filmmaker's great skill as a dramatist that he can do this without recourse to tubthumping speeches: indeed, Edgerton must have barely twenty lines in the entire script, instead playing Richard as a taciturn, sometimes difficult yet practical man whose few words are his bonds, and barely deserve to be wasted on those who would separate him from his love. And who wouldn't fall for Negga, with what seems an entire history of sadness and suffering inscribed into that remarkably expressive face of hers? This Richard and Mildred deserve to be together because he gets her to lift her eyes off the ground - to look up and ahead, both literally and figuratively - but the entire film works by gesture and implication: Nichols gives us the domestic peace and quiet, the room to roam or raise a family, so that we miss it when it comes to be disrupted or taken away.

This approach swerves effortlessly past the manipulation and special pleading lesser filmmakers might have given into. Nichols rightly senses that clearing out the clatter and clutter that have traditionally made liberal-minded Oscar bait such a plod and a slog to sit through might allow the characters in a script to come to life as people, rather than symbols in a schema. Yet it also allows the Lovings' very specific battles to stand for, or at least foresee, bigger struggles up on the road ahead: those for black rights, say, or women's rights, or gay rights, or anything else a concerned citizen might fight for in a democracy truly worthy of the name. Rather than a soggy sop, the film that emerges stands as a remarkably affecting statement of belief in the American system's ability to do the right thing when pressed: written into Loving's every frame is the idea that the freedom to love whosoever you want to love, and live however you want to live, is - for any truly decent and civilised society - a prerequisite, a baseline, simply how it ought to be. And how it should still and always be, no matter where the arc of history happens to carry us.

Loving opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Saturday 28 January 2017

1,001 Films: "Fantastic Planet/La Planète Sauvage" (1973)

One of the most consistently strange films ever made, the French-Czech animation Fantastic Planet sets out a universe where humanoids, known here as Oms, exist as the playthings of a race of blue baldies ("Draags") who have gills where their ears should be and do all their heavy lifting with their minds. Snaking between bizarro, sometimes plain inexplicable hand-drawn and cut-out animation activity, the main narrative thrust concerns a tiny Om raised by a Draag princess who grows up to be blooded in battle; eventually he will come to lead an uprising against the oppressive masters who killed his mother, and who now have wholesale ethnic cleansing on their agenda.

Part of the mystification is that the film invents its own lexicon of credible-sounding words and phrases ("savibon", "organure", "pontic ribation") for our narrator to play with; as one of the Draags is seen applying eye make-up similar to that sported by Alex and his Droogs in A Clockwork Orange, we might consider the extent to which director René Laloux is speaking the lingo of Burgess and Kubrick. If the animation's a little scratchy in places, it nevertheless succeeds in creating a thoroughly alien environment. Blobs of white goo fall from the sky on an extraordinary array of floral and insectoid hybrids; two Om lovelies are tied together at the hair and obliged to engage in a topless catfight, while the men busy themselves with duels that involve very odd dinosaur-worm protrusions. (More white goo, anyone?)

All the women, indeed, are sketched as pert-breasted, pouty and quick to divest themselves, marking this as a work of frenziedly male - adolescent, even - imagination: a hotchpotch of SF bandes dessinées, the music (and album covers) of Focus and Yes, and doubtless several psychotropic substances to boot. Its wilder, crueller flourishes clearly stuck with Jan Švankmajer and Terry Gilliam, to name but two latter-day visionaries; viewed today, it would seem to contain as much diverting kitsch as genuine artistry - though these visuals may still be a boon for hipster projectionists hosting retro club nights, and promoters may also want to retain Alain Goraguer's score, coming in as it does equidistant between prog rock and the accompaniment to any European porn movie of the period.

Fantastic Planet is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Eureka Entertainment.

Friday 27 January 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 20-22, 2016:
1 (1) La La Land (12A) ***
2 (new) Split (15) ***
3 (new) xXx: Return of Xander Cage (12A)
4 (new) Lion (12A) ***
5 (2) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A) **
6 (new) Jackie (15) ***
7 (6) Manchester by the Sea (15) ****
8 (3) Moana (PG) ****
9 (4) Assassin's Creed (15)
10 (5) Passengers (12A) **

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five:   
1. GoodFellas
2. Trainspotting [above]

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) Bad Moms (15) **
2 (2) Suicide Squad (15)
3 (3) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
4 (new) Sausage Party (15) ***
5 (4) Star Trek Beyond (12) ***
6 (5) Finding Dory (PG) ***
7 (7) Hell or High Water (15) ****
8 (8) Ghostbusters (12)
9 (6) Mechanic: Resurrection (15) **
10 (new) X-Men: Apocalypse (12)

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:  
1. Under the Shadow
2. Kubo and the Two Strings
3. Anthropoid
4. Julieta
5. Hell or High Water

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Social Network (Wednesday, C4, 1.30am)
2. Avatar (Sunday, C4, 4.55pm)
3. Cliffhanger (Saturday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
4. The Guardian (Friday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
5. Haywire (Saturday, C4, 11.20pm)

On DVD: "Sausage Party"

The computer animation revolution initiated by Pixar’s Toy Story has been running for two decades, but no-one’s tried doing this before: an animation pitched squarely at the filthy minded, closer in content and tone to Ralph Bakshi than Brad Bird, that sets a bar from its first word of dialogue, a Seth Rogen-muttered “shit”. As Sausage Party’s prime mover, Rogen has realised something the studio suits have struggled to conceive of late: that there are gaps in the market for different kinds of consumable product, and that he might be just the man to (insert throaty chuckle here) fill them.

Consumables are key here. Where previous ‘toons have pondered what might go on after hours in the toybox/zoo/arcade, Sausage Party invites us to observe what happens the aisles of well-stocked emporium Shopwell’s once the automatic doors are locked for the night. It is, mostly, what happens in bars just before last orders: much briny flirting, more in hope than expectation, between the hot dog sausages (for whom we are supposed to read heterosexual men) and the hot dog buns (their female equivalent), premised on the likelihood of the meat contingent spreading those buns and going several inches deep.

It takes a while to adjust to the sight and sound of these wide-eyed, smiling, conventionally polished animated creations dropping the F, C and S-bombs so liberally. (And wait until you see where the tinned sweetcorn comes out in “The Great Beyond”, as the world outside those automatic doors is known; it’s no fun being a talking condom in this world, either.) Yet the scatology is so relentless, so much a part of the joke, that it soon becomes standard operating procedure, as if the minions in Minions had developed beyond sniggering at the word “bottom”.

The Rogenness can freshen (or scuzz) up these movies’ shop-worn quest narratives a little, certainly – and that’s what Sausage Party relies upon. After being loosed from their packaging, Rogen’s top dog Frank and sweetest bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) find themselves being pursued, in an inspired touch, by an angry douche representing male privilege’s worst excesses; and when I say douche, I mean an actual feminine hygiene product, enraged after being deprived of the opportunity to get up between one shopper’s thighs. (Listen closely, and you’ll hear Walt Disney spinning in his cryogenic storage facility.)

Having an entire supermarket at their disposal gives the animators fresh produce to squeeze and mould; their creative stocktaking keeps adding diverse new items to the film’s basket. I enjoyed the unfailingly polite – if briefly glimpsed – six-pack of Canadian lager, and the nervy bagel and aggrieved flatbread concerned that their spacious aisle still may not be big enough for the both of them. The take-no-prisoners approach to taste and political sensibilities may, however, be best summarised by the highstepping frankfurters who openly state their intention to “exterminate the juice”.

As with much commercial animation, its greasy, sugary highs wear off once the initial worldbuilding cedes to frenetic action; Sausage Party isn’t high art, more a snack best washed down with a jumbo cola. There’s a scene in which a Rogen-ish humanoid (voiced by James Franco) shoots up bath salts and starts to see his comestibles as sentient lifeforms – and somewhere in the detail of that, I suspect, lies Sausage Party’s origins, and its limitations. The rest nevertheless offers fistfuls of good, honest, dirty fun, no matter how you choose to stuff your taco, or fill your mouth.

Sausage Party is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

"T2: Trainspotting" (Reader's Digest 27/01/17)

One early moment in Danny Boyle’s bittersweet Trainspotting sequel T2 encapsulates everything that follows, good and bad. Returning to the Edinburgh semi he abandoned two decades ago – mother gone, father going – Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) heads upstairs to his old bedroom and starts rifling through his vinyl collection. Easing an LP from its sleeve – Boyle’s careful handling of pop culture already in evidence – he cues one unmistakable picosecond of “Lust for Life” before pulling the needle away. Music. Memories. Too much. Can you ever truly go home? And if so, what do you do with yourself once you’re back?

So yes, they’ve got the band back together again – and remember that the first film exploded into that post-Four Weddings, pre-Full Monty interlude when British cinema seemed like a new rock ‘n’ roll. We now rejoin Renton on tour, leaving a wife behind in Amsterdam to visit the pals he fleeced way back when: Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), running his auntie’s rundown pub and, more lucratively, a blackmail scam; Begbie (Robert Carlyle) busting out of prison, as furious as ever; and poor, lovable, surely doomed Spud (Ewen Bremner), helplessly dependent on the heroin everybody else has left behind.

Aligning the actors’ schedules was a logistical feat, but T2’s trouble is narrative: nobody really knows what to do with them. One long-mooted idea was to shoot Irvine Welsh’s Porno, Trainspotting’s scabrous literary sequel, which would surely have been more challenging to adapt (and watch), but would have handed Boyle a backbone the new film doesn’t have. Instead, he gets a Hodgepodge: scraps of Porno and offcuts of Trainspotting, assembled by writer John Hodge into a low-stakes caper about the boys’ attempts to open a sauna.

Unusually hesitant, Boyle casts around, applying Snapchat filters here, would-be choice indie cuts there, trying to make either the comedy or drama resonate as it once did. Yet the film continually ambles past pressing themes (gentrification, Scottish nationalism), opening promising plot doors it promptly slams shut again, offering barely a glimpse of those (female) characters who might have provided fresh perspectives on these four wee lads. It’s a very middle-aged endeavour, forever entering a room only to forget why it’s there.

Those passages that do work find Hodge digging his heels in and setting these characters to interrogate the actions of their younger, venal selves; there’s obvious poignancy in the contrast between the fresh-faced junkies of yore and their regretful latter-day incarnations. Yet when Bremner catches a glimpse of the young McGregor haring down Princes Street, it serves only as a chastening reminder of how urgent the original was, and how aimless and torpid the new movie feels.

Only belatedly do you sense everyone moving in the same direction, but what T2 finally commits to is replaying the hits at a different speed: cue a gloomier Choose Life monologue, an extended toilet scene, Renton tumbling over the bonnet of a car from behind. In such moments, the generally forward-thinking Boyle retreats into that nostalgic fan service corporate entertainments like Jurassic World now trade in – hence T2’s ending, striving vainly to make a step backwards seem celebratory in some way.

If the first Trainspotting could be read in hindsight as a scrappy social mobility fable, indicative of the Blair years ahead, T2 finds everybody on screen muddling through in reduced circumstances, which may itself be a sign of the times. Either way, Boyle’s usual pep and vitality – that lust for life that’s previously yanked us past all manner of script problems and existential crises – looks to have waned here: T2 sent me out into a cold night feeling awfully old and sad. Aren’t Januarys bleak enough already?

T2: Trainspotting is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

"Kaabil" (Guardian 25/01/17)

Kaabil **
Dir: Sanjay Gupta. With: Hrithik Roshan, Yami Gautam, Ronit Roy, Rohit Roy. 139 mins. Cert: 15

Set against the prospect of Shah Rukh Khan playing mobster in this weekend’s other major Hindi release Raees, this teeth-grinding, mouth-foaming melodrama is destined to appear Bollywood trad, proceeding from the kind of innately preposterous premise someone might have tried to get away with twenty years ago. Here – no word of a lie – is the story of a blind dubbing artist (honey-eyed pin-up Hrithik Roshan) who embarks upon a kill-crazy rampage after his equally sightless beloved is driven to self-sacrifice by well-connected thugs. It’s not good, exactly, but I can’t say it’s not watchable on some far-out level.

Sanjay Gupta, the crime specialist who directed the Hindi redo of Reservoir Dogs (2002’s Kaante), eventually embraces the full absurdity of this set-up. Yes, our hero will use his voice-throwing skills to wrongfoot his nemeses, and yes, somebody points out how “eye for an eye” might mean something else to the visually impaired. Elsewhere, he’s having an off day: a disastrous first act bottoms out with a beyond-kitsch wedding night sequence (“I can’t see, but I can feel”), and the sappiness trickles into the vendetta business, as dreamboat Hrithik fumbles for wifey’s ghost between slayings. Several punches land not with thuds, but damp splats.

Stumbling around during their, let’s say, uniquely choreographed dance numbers, the leads at least make a handsome couple – more handsome than the film, with its flimsy-looking rear projection and smeary digital inserts. Yet Yami Gautam has only to play damsel in extreme distress, and Gupta’s glib touting of rape as plot point impedes any guilty pleasure. Holding his own in the final, ludicrous smackdown atop a half-completed skyscraper, his billowing bouffant more than ever resembling a tribute to “Faith”-era George Michael, Roshan doesn’t look to have aged a day since the millennium. It’s the industry that’s moved on, that’s all.

Kaabil opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Blood and thunder: "Hacksaw Ridge"

Snowflakes beware. Mel Gibson's comeback film as director opens as it means to go on, with explosions of flame, smoke, blood - and scripture. In Hacksaw Ridge, war is a crucible in which character comes to be tested and forged; not so much a crime against nature, as it was in the greatly more peaceable Terrence Malick's WW2 opus The Thin Red Line, as a natural state - an external expression of man's ongoing inner conflict, one it would take a special kind of soul to negotiate without firing a gun in anger or otherwise going over the top. Amazingly - dare one say miraculously? - Gibson has here found such a soul to throw his not inconsiderable weight behind.

The true-life figure providing the calm at the centre of the film's raging storm is one Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who emerges from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, just about as upright as the lonesome pine. In any almost other cinematic context, a figure like Doss would be presented as just another good ol' boy, but Gibson sees nothing but the good in him. A bright-eyed, bushy-tailed church volunteer, Doss is introduced lifting a car off a mechanic's leg after a jack collapses; he's the perfect gentleman in his courtship of Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), the nurse he meets at the hospital, and he's only too happy to do his bit and follow his older brother off to the front as America ships out for the Pacific.

Early expectation is that Doss will be one more lamb to the slaughter, not unlike the rookie grunt Gibson himself played in Gallipoli back at the beginning of his career, yet this story has a very particular USP. As a practising Seventh-Day Adventist - and strict adherent to the sixth Commandment - Private Doss refused to have anything to do with a gun, and therefore entered the battlefield at Okinawa in 1945 as a medic, with only a knapsack of supplies with which to protect himself and the rest of his troop against the flying bullets and hand grenades. Amazingly - again, one is tempted to say miraculously - he made it through the carnage intact, becoming the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.

That's one hell of a contradiction for any filmmaker (let alone this filmmaker) to wrestle with, yet the film's opening hour comprises a throwback swoon, reconstructing a way of life - and a code of honour - which may have vanished from just about everywhere save the hearts, minds and souls of Republican voters. Desmond's first contact with the armed forces occasions a salty strain of barrack-room comedy, with Vince Vaughn as a belittling sergeant who can't get his head round this new recruit and yet can't help but respect the kid's ability to take a beating without fighting back. (The only place Doss could possibly fit in would be as a punchbag in the infantry's gym: he absorbs every battering, and rights himself for more.)

Violence underpins even the film's lighter moments, in other words. Back at the Doss homestead, the young brothers spend their afternoons smashing each other round the head with bricks; their father (Hugo Weaving, his eccentricities doing an Agent Smith and multiplying with age), a veteran of the First World War, cuts his hand while getting blotto in a cemetery and drips blood on the white memorial stones; Desmond has a vivid split-second recollection of the old man pulling a gun on his missus. For Gibson, the homefront is its own bootcamp, readying this kid for the main event of the second half: the attempt to take the sheer cliff face enshrined in the title.

Here, the director can roll out some of the heavy artillery he previously deployed in The Passion of the Christ: bodies being blown to smithereens, extreme mortification of the flesh. Twenty years on from Saving Private Ryan, Gibson makes Spielberg's depiction of Normandy look like a child's tea party. Painful sights lodge in your brain like shrapnel, shellshock sets in within minutes: one muddy, bloody face comes to resemble another as the battle wears on. What some will find bombastic and repetitious, others will find fascinating - for increasingly, Gibson seems to be using this hour of screen time, sprawling over a few square miles of hellblasted territory, to grapple with ideas of goodness and evil, while marvelling at the fact a holy innocent like Doss ever made it through this carnage alive.

It's Garfield who may sway you. Handed the tricky assignment Jim Caviezel took on the minute he signed up to play Jesus - namely how to make virtue cinematically interesting - he nails it by playing Doss as he once played Peter Parker: as a boy like you and I might know, faced with growing responsibility, yet one armed solely with the touching hope - call it faith - that someone might be watching out for him. On which point, the practical ingenuity by which Doss wrote himself into the military history books - a matter of ropes, pulleys and supreme grace under pressure - pushes a far stronger case for the existence of a higher power than any single frame of Mel's Passion: this kid, evidently, had a spark about him, and you wouldn't have to be the Archbishop of Canterbury to contemplate where that spark came from. The cliff raises Doss closer to the heavens; might he not have had help from above?

For some, Gibson - like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Nate Parker (a new member for diversity-conscious 2017) - will always be an irredeemable member of the Hollywood lepers' club, and these sceptics will here continue to find him proferring a model of agonised masculinity that could well seem a relic of the old world: who needs Mad Mel, at a moment when we have the light-on-his-feet Magic Mike? Yet this bracing test case refuses to allow us to separate the man from the movie, or - to put it another, more favourable way - to imagine this story being told in this way by anybody other than Gibson himself. If ever you wanted to witness a film made defiantly and uncompromisingly in its maker's own troubled, conflicted image, Hacksaw Ridge would be it.

Hacksaw Ridge opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.  

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Reel life: "Cameraperson"

Kirsten Johnson has been beavering away behind the scenes as a camera-for-hire on a wide range of documentaries over the past quarter-century. Cameraperson, the first film to which she signs her name as director is, it turns out, rather closer to collage or tapestry, stitched together out of loose ends and short cuts from the films she's worked on over that period. Rather than an IMDb showreel or simple greatest hits package, however, what we have here comes to be framed by an opening title card as Johnson's attempt at a memoir. It is an unusual memoir, granted, mostly composed of footage of people the diarist met maybe once or twice, a decade or so ago, and whom she hasn't seen since. And yet it makes for an effective one: what we have here is the footage that has proven hard for Johnson to get rid of, that has stayed with her both literally and emotionally.

The bulk of the footage being presented is much as one might have observed in any number of human interest docs released since the millennium. There are interviews with Nigerian midwives and young American women visiting an abortion clinic; we travel to Bosnia to survey the aftermath of ethnic cleansing, and - back in the States - hear a prosecution lawyer unpick the grisly detail of a case involving an African-American man dragged along in the wake of a speeding car. Occasionally, a familiar face pops up: Johnson was a camera operator on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, so we see that unmistakable figure marching on Washington in his pomp, and she also captured Jacques Derrida out and about in New York in one of the public appearances that made up Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick's 2002 portrait of the French theorist.

Much of these clips are presented raw, without score or explanatory voiceover, with camera wobbles, focus shifts and sound interference preserved. This way, we get to hear the gasp Johnson gave out as she serendipitously recorded a lightning strike while out collecting atmos and B-roll somewhere in the Midwest, and the sneezes that followed in its wake; we also overhear her consulting off-camera as to what her directors want her to show and frame - and Johnson is honest enough, in the course of this memoir, to admit to recreating footage because something happened during the set-up process that she (or her directorial paymasters) liked the look of. It takes a while to adjust to watching what at first seems no more than piecemeal, mere rushes, yet this scattered collection of odds and ends begin to add up to something much bigger - for these unfiltered, unprocessed moments provide a warts-and-all illustration of the way the world works, for better and worse. 

We see how Johnson was obliged by the authorities to record over some of the footage she took inside Guantanamo Bay; in Bosnia, she hears out rape survivors and tours the sites where mosques were razed to the ground. In the course of this deeply moral work, Johnson acknowledges that the humble cameraperson cannot bring the dead back to life, but that she can at least record the fact they were once there. The filmmaker seems happy watching those Bosnian women baking bread and chopping down trees, because she knows she's gathering further proof that wherever she goes, something or someone will survive: she even tosses in a curious, weirdly haunting incident involving a USB stick and a cement mixer, from which the viewer can gleam there was once a USB stick that was tossed into a cement mixer, albeit for reasons perhaps only known to the filmmakers. (One clue presents itself in the closing credits: Johnson was the cinematographer on 2014's Citizenfour.)

If you feel any weight being put behind any particular set of excerpts, it would be behind that footage taken closest to home, following Johnson's increasingly frail mother as she and her family attempted to come to terms with her Alzheimer's in the years, months and days before her death in 2007. These clips, you feel, are central to the whole project. It's just conceivable that Johnson began rummaging through those storage boxes we all keep at our parents' places upon her mother's passing, retrieving those reels of film and (yes!) memory sticks she'd tucked away within them, so that she didn't forget where she's been and what she'd seen there; that the need to remember became an inheritance, passed down from mother to daughter. By weaving this footage into what came before it, Johnson insists that her story is just one among many, no different from any other in the planet's daily litany of births, marriages and deaths, triumphs and tragedies. 

The resulting film bears some resemblance to those Koyaanisqatsi/Baraka-style kaleidoscopes, but it's less concerned with spectacle than lived emotional experience - what these images mean and represent, as opposed to what they merely show. Johnson's quilting approach means it's possible to drift in and out of the action: individual viewers will have their favourite strands and locations, and those that don't register so forcefully. Yet when Cameraperson connects, it connects hard, as in the electrifying sequence constructed around a young Italian-American boxer witnessed screaming blue murder in the locker room in the wake of a defeat, then seen storming back into the auditorium in search of his mom. Taken with some of Johnson's other footage, this potent offcut underlines that wherever we are in the world, and whatever it is we're doing, sometimes all we really need is a hug from our ma - and that when we're no longer fortunate to have a mother, a photograph may suffice.

Cameraperson opens in selected cinemas from Friday.    

Monday 23 January 2017

Dead air: "Christine"

The sudden rush for stories about women has led to filmmakers ending up telling stories about the same women, which might not be so terrible: if nothing else, it disrupts the seemingly endless conveyor belt of movies about the men behind the Rettendon Range Rover killings. More curiously, though, 2016 brought two movies apiece about two tragic women, and - having now completed the set - I can't honestly say I know what these films say about us, or the culture they've been released into. First, there came the Florence Foster Jenkins one-two - the eponymous biopic and its French variant Marguerite - which, at a pinch, had an idea or two to convey about the relationships required to allow fragile talent to flourish; altogether more sombre is the story of Christine Chubbock, the Florida news reporter who shot herself on air during a live bulletin on July 15, 1974. Last October gave us Robert Greene's Kate Plays Christine, a tricky docu-drama reconstruction of these events that never let its audience forget the difficulties of asking a 21st century actress to inhabit the mindset of a woman who died before she was born. There now follows Antonio Campos' Christine, a comparatively straightforward narrative account of Chubbock's final weeks.

If you didn't know the bloody outcome of this story, the new film might be approachable as the cautionary tale of a no-nonsense woman struggling to make her way in the beige-brown world of 1970s TV news: part Murphy Brown, part Nine to Five. For just under two hours, Rebecca Hall's Christine butts her head against the glass ceiling while stubbing her toes on a number of other obstacles: a station manager (Tracy Letts) who sneers at her socially engaged reporting, instead pushing an "if it bleeds, it leads" agenda; a smarmy anchorman colleague (Michael C. Hall) who seems unlikely to reciprocate her affections; a mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Margaret's monstrous matriarch) who installs a younger lover in the home she shares with her reportedly virginal daughter. Another threat emerges from within: pains in the lower abdomen that Christine brushes off as work-related stress - but which this 21st century film, in one of its more contentious gestures, invites us to read as incipient hysteria.

Campos first came to prominence with a run of impressively chilly character studies: of a teen so desperate to lose her virginity that she sold it online to the highest bidder (2005's Buy It Now), and sociopaths of various stripes in 2008's Afterschool and 2012's Simon Killer. As signalled by its use of period pop music, Christine feels like a warmer, more empathetic production. Hall, front and centre throughout, commits entirely to making visible this overlooked woman's myriad aches and stresses, whether acting out her neuroses in puppet shows at the local volunteer hospital or, more simply, by the frequent darkening of a newly heavy brow. The X-rays thrown up on screen from time to time similarly speak to Campos's desperate need to get (and to get us) deep inside this woman - yet the trouble is, it does feel desperate. Both Christine movies are acting in frantic retrospect, determined to see coming (and thereby explain away) an act which nobody in Christine's immediate circle could - which is, of course, what made her suicide so shocking. (All those cameras, and so little insight.)

My suspicion is that creatives have been drawn to Christine Chubbock not by the "suicide" part of her story, but by the "live on air" part, chiming as that does with our present culture of extreme self-documentation: this woman finally made people sit up and take notice at the exact moment she wiped herself out of existence. That there is, as Kate Plays Christine uncovered, a tape locked away somewhere showing this act is a story that must have obvious appeal to the world's imagemakers: hence the headlong dash to fill this audiovisual void, this literal passage of dead air, with something, anything. Greene's film was at least instructive about the futility of making a simple movie about anything so complex as a troubled human being, but watching Campos's doggedly linear pursuit of causes that might be turned into effects, the same fascination turns flatly morbid, piñata-ing a woman's corpse to give up answers we want but the film's subject never found. The story has been brought to our attention, granted, but I think Christine Chubbock deserves to be left to rest in peace now.

Christine opens in selected cinemas from Friday.  

Saturday 21 January 2017

1,001 Films: "The Spirit of the Beehive/El Espiritu de la Colmena" (1973)

A year before Mel Brooks seized upon Frankenstein's creation myth for comedy purposes in Young Frankenstein, the Spanish director Victor Erice took Mary Shelley's tale - and James Whale's 1931 film - to launch a dramatic exploration of the strengths and failings of collectivity in General Franco's Spain. In The Spirit of the Beehive, we watch hordes cramming into the village hall for a screening of the Whale classic; children are taught how different body parts work together via an educational dummy stitched together much like Frankenstein's monster itself. Young Ana (Ana Torrent) and her sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria) apparently have the run of the country, imagining that the monster is hiding out in a nearby barn, comparing footprints in the cornfields and studying the moon's reflection in a lake. 

Erice thus mirrors Whale, but he holds that mirror at a political slant, catching more of the darkness as the sun goes down over this particular Spain, and far more of the black night sky. The actors come to be handled as if by Ana and Isabel's beekeeper father (Fernando Fernan Gomez): the children drone into the schoolhouse, flapping their little wings, while back at home, the grown-ups sit behind honeycomb-hexagonal stained glass, shot through with a sepia tone that makes it look as if honey's trickling down the walls and collecting on the film stock. Erice lulls us into a drowsy, late-summer feel, before hitting us over the head with a pot plant, and then setting our ears ringing with gunfire.

In the absence of any real narrative throughline, we get a film that, like the monster or a Cubist painting (Guernica: The Movie?), comes at us in bits and pieces: moments from the past, sewn together to come vividly alive in the present. Erice's imagery - a girl painting her lips with blood, or holding a cat down until it attacks - has a cruel, Surrealist edge, a sense of the torments already passed and those about to come. When the beekeeper describes his winged charges' movement as "enigmatic and maddened", he seems almost to be describing the film; but even with only one casualty of war - an escaped political prisoner? - depicted on screen, it's clear the movie's real monster is lurking around the corner and just out of shot.

The Spirit of the Beehive is currently unavailable on DVD.  

Friday 20 January 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 13-15, 2016:
1 (new) La La Land (12A) ***
2 (2) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12A) **
3 (5) Moana (PG) ****
4 (1) Assassin's Creed (15)
5 (4) Passengers (12A) **
6 (new) Manchester by the Sea (15) **** 
7 (new) Live by Night (15)
8 (6) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12A) ***
9 (new) The Bye Bye Man (15) *
10 (8) Why Him? (15)  

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five:   
1. GoodFellas
2. Trainspotting

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) Bad Moms (15) **
2 (new) Suicide Squad (15)
3 (2) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
4 (new) Star Trek Beyond (12) ***
5 (3) Finding Dory (PG) ***
6 (4) Mechanic: Resurrection (15) **
7 (7) Hell or High Water (15) ****
8 (6) Ghostbusters (12)
9 (5) The BFG (PG) ***
10 (re) The Legend of Tarzan (12)
(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:  
1. Under the Shadow
2. Kubo and the Two Strings
3. Anthropoid
4. Julieta
5. Hell or High Water

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Trainspotting (Sunday, C4, 10.05pm)
2. The Others [above] (Wednesday, C4, 1.30am)
3. Looper (Saturday, BBC2, 10.30pm)
4. The Day After Tomorrow (Sunday, C4, 5.50pm)
5. Insidious (Friday, C4, 12.50am)