Tuesday 28 February 2017

From the archive: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

Is there any phrase in contemporary movie parlance duller and more deadening than "origin story"? Here are two words that speak of a deep-rooted pedantry within the comic-book fraternity. The true exhilaration of these latter-day fairytales surely resides in what their constituent superheroes could do - their potential - rather than what they've already done; the cynical-minded cash-ins that have resulted, literally backward-looking entertainments, serve merely to plug in some very specialist knowledge, to patch a hole in the universal anorak. For those who really need to find out such things, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first in a planned series, does at least explain why Hugh Jackman's hirsute action man John Logan appears so bloody grumpy all the time: you'd be in a permanent strop, too, if you found yourself on every battleground from Gettysburg to Omaha Beach, having to chaperone a brother (Liev Schreiber) who shows every sign of going over to the dark side.

I feel increasingly sorry for Jackman. No matter his heroics elsewhere - reanimating Nicole Kidman in the course of Baz Luhrmann's Australia, trouping his way through the Academy Award ceremony - he's destined to go down in movie history for growing Alvin Stardust sideburns and strapping on a pair of (here, ropily virtual) adamantium talons. In what's supposed to be his own standalone movie, Wolverine keeps being outshone by altogether more vivid turns, not least from Lost's Dominic Monaghan as a psychokineticist who comes to a sad end in a trailer full of old toys, and Ryan Reynolds as a swordsman so gifted he can slice bullets in two even as they're headed towards him; there's also the rare sight of Schreiber enjoying himself for Jackman to contend with, while I suspect more than a few pairs of Spider-Man underpants will be moistened at the arrival of cardsharp Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) somewhere around the midpoint. 

Any sense of peril, though, ebbs away, purged by the fact that - as in previous instalments of this franchise - there are so many diverse and varied superpowers being placed on display: an X-Man for all seasons, if you will. Every conceivable foreign and domestic eventuality is covered: having survived Vietnam without incurring so much as a scratch, Logan's most pressing concern becomes the quantity of bed linen he nightly shreds. And since we know big bad Danny Huston will grow up to become big bad Brian Cox in the X-Men movies proper, the pay-off has to be deferred elsewhere. Arriving a week ahead of a no less back-to-basics Star Trek, Wolverine is intended as the opening blast of the summer blockbuster season, and yet it's never more than functionally spectacular, moving us from point A to point B in the universe of X. Early on, Schreiber is asked to describe the sensation of having a firing squad's bullets bounce off his genetically fortified form. For all Wolverine's expensively heavy artillery, his response rather sums up the whole: "It tickled."

(April 2009)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; a concluding chapter, Logan, opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow, and will be reviewed here in due course.

Monday 27 February 2017

On DVD: "American Honey"

Without abandoning her favoured 4:3 aspect ratio, Andrea Arnold has expanded her horizons with each new project. She navigated increasingly fraught urban scenarios in her short Wasp and features Red Road and Fish Tank; she ran wild on the Moors with 2011’s radical rethink of Wuthering Heights. Her next step takes her closer to Hollywood than one might have imagined of a filmmaker whose instincts are realist. American Honey is preceded by the Universal logo, and plays out entirely on US soil, where things are bigger, louder and brighter; perhaps it’s unsurprising Arnold should have lost her bearings a little.

That Arnold seeks to open up a new angle on America is evident just from her opening scene, of a young woman in a supermarket dumpster, retrieving a frozen chicken. The girl is Star (Sasha Lane), and immediately we can tell she is as much of the fringes as Arnold’s previous heroines. Something is stirred within her, however, when she spies a minibus full of tanned, boisterous contemporaries pulling into the carpark: here is both a ready-made gang and a family more appealing than her own grim domestic set-up. Even in this most fiercely individualistic of nations, the need to belong is strong.

No matter that they number Shia LaBeouf with ear studs and ponytail, she runs away with this merry band of outlaws – not circus folk, for all their off-duty rough-and-tumble; rather, they form a fly-by-night, seat-of-the-pants operation flogging magazine subscriptions. It’s a weird way into the wider country, and Arnold seems at least semi-aware of the irony her protagonists should be channelling their abundant energies into rustling up interest for what circulation figures would suggest is a dying medium – but she also wants us to share these kids’ wide-eyed wonder as they reach some new point on the map.

Thanks to her resident cinematography genius Robbie Ryan, these sights are no less impressive for being viewed in 4:3 through a grimy minibus window; though square and cramped, every frame hums with life of some kind. The menagerie Arnold rounded up in Wasp and Fish Tank is here expanded to include flying squirrels, brown bears, even the worm at the bottom of a mescal bottle. (One reason she may have shipped out: it gives her whole new species to classify.)

Her ability to find poetry in poverty is also much in evidence – and, unlike in other Universal releases, that poverty is certainly apparent. LaBeouf’s Jake, variously compared to a gangster and Donald Trump, possibly exerts the hold he does because he’s the first man Star’s ever met who owns a suit jacket. Still, even in this moderate-to-small form, business can be a cruel place: bubblegum-snapping overseer Krystal (Riley Keough, coolly terrific) obliges her lowest-selling salespeople to wrestle for the others’ amusement.

The flaw with American Honey is how all this life has been shaped. At an unwieldy 163 minutes, the film has the feel of a rough cut, and while part of me was impressed that an outsider had been allowed to turn in something this uncompromising, my shifting buttocks noted four or five too many scenes of the gang hanging in car parks listening to aggressive rap music, and three or four more of them razzing one another in the minibus while listening to aggressive rap music. (I suspect many viewers will want less mixtape, more movie.)

Fish Tank snapped into thriller mode late on; Wuthering Heights had Bronte’s eternal passions as a throughline. All American Honey has to sustain it is Star, Jake and Krystal’s playground love triangle, unless you’re particularly compelled by the particulars of hawking magazine subscriptions. Even here, I didn’t buy that people would so graciously welcome these urchins into their homes to discuss the finer print, and I don’t believe that, in the 21st century, even a tearaway like Star would jump into so many strangers’ cars and trucks with such carefree abandon.

There’s a small miracle here, and it’s that a model of filmmaking arrived at on the sink estates of Glasgow and Essex should have been transplanted West, and taken root so. Yet American Honey struck this viewer as Arnold’s least impactful film to date, losing its moments of wonder and rapture amid an unvaryingly dreamy haze. As it drifts into its third hour, the film amply demonstrates Arnold’s near-unparalleled ability to get down and stay down with the kids. Those of us whose afternoons don’t, perhaps, stretch into infinity might just prefer her to get on with it, that’s all.

American Honey is now available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

On demand: "The Black Stallion"

When they say they don't make 'em like they used to, The Black Stallion is presumably close to what they mean. For starters, there is the matter of that title, nowadays a source of sniggering; then that someone should have cared to do a live-action adventure featuring an actual horse, rather than a pixellated equivalent; then that said project should have been entrusted to a skilled cinematographer, rather than any passing hack. But then this was the late 1970s, when an independently minded producer like Francis Ford Coppola still had carte blanche to assemble his personnel as he saw fit, and before the Star Wars sequels had insisted that every family film should arrive alongside a thousand marketing tie-ins.

Right down to one very knowing piece of casting, this was at heart a throwback to the matinees of the moviebrats' youth - in this instance, those kid-and-pet confections (think National Velvet, The Yearling, Old Yeller) lent greater scope, texture and intensity by the team Coppola assembled for the project: director Carroll Ballard, writer Melissa Mathison (warming up for E.T. by adapting Walter Farley's novel), cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, several prominent examples of that doughty strain of character actor that seemed to flourish in the 1970s, plus the best horse wranglers and whisperers in the business.

Opening with - James Cameron be damned - cinema's most terrifying shipwreck, it's a tale of abandonment transformed into something else: that of a freckle-faced boy in ragged PJs (Kelly Reno, the closest American film got to Kes's David Bradley), who washes up on a Mediterranean island, his only playmate the jittery, jetblack steed who carried him safely ashore. The first hour maintains an air of documentary, and is all the more captivating for it. We're watching a little kid trying to tempt a wild beast his way with but a palm leaf and a handful of good intentions, and Ballard is wise enough to know when to fade down Carmine Coppola's romantic orchestrations and let this process play out in suspenseful silence.

The second half, in which our heroes are returned to post-War suburbia, proves inevitably more conventional, and you can tell this is a product of the movie mainstream from the manner in which Mathison and Ballard elide the trauma this boy has been through in the pursuit of redemptive sporting glory; it can feel as though everybody involved was keen to use these two hours to bring that element of wildness in the film's own DNA under control. (Which may, in fact, be what Coppola required - a safe bet - once Apocalypse Now began spiralling in the opposite direction: for all the company's invention and daring, here was one of American Zoetrope's few bankable successes.)

The two-hour running time would, one suspects, be another aspect deemed untenable within the context of the modern multiplex: some of the dialogue in which Mickey Rooney's aged trainer swears the kid to their not-so-little (equine) secret would surely have to go, or need a little finessing, lest it risk misinterpretation. Still, it remains handsome right through to the final furlong, and retains that feel - rare and therefore cherishable in U/PG-rated fare - of properly weathered, passed-down life experience. When, late in the day, a passing rag-and-bone man asks our boy "What happened to you?", it makes sense that he should reply with a single word: "Everything."

The Black Stallion is now streaming on Netflix.  

Sunday 26 February 2017

On demand: "The Ivory Game"

In 2015, Netflix earned one of its first Oscar nominations for the documentary Virunga, about the fight to protect a Congolese wildlife reserve from increasingly rapacious poachers - a stand-off that generated scenes closer to Assault on Precinct 13 than anything in the generally serene Dave Attenborough back catalogue. The Ivory Game operates in much the same vein, although it expands the field of survey to Kenya and Tanzania, natural habitat of those elephants whose ivory is routinely hacked off for sale to rich pricks in China. This new breed of nature doc has two major selling points. The first remains the wildlife itself, now filmed up close by GoPro cameras or from above by drones: here, we marvel at the prehistoric otherworldliness of the elephants, lumbering yet graceful and somehow, despite their mass, as cuddly as Dumbo ever was. Secondly, and more thrillingly, these films have the night-vision footage of those patrols going after the poachers, innately cinematic sorties that sometimes result in abject horror: ele-carcasses slashed up in the most savage fashion. Occasionally, though, they arrive at a happier ending - the arrest of those responsible.

Around these setpieces, directors Richard Ladhani and Kief Davidson weave an involving behind-the-scenes drama that showcases the investigations of Wildleaks, a whistleblowing website to which tipoffs can be uploaded anonymously. This strand allows for some wider analysis of the global ivory trade, which begins to look very much like any other area of capitalism: those poor dumb suckers employed to do the actual killing receive, on average, a mere 6% of every sale, leaving those higher up the criminal chain to pocket the rest. For a while, the film seems to be casting around for structure, torn between responding to reports of poaching and pulling back to provide an overview of the market, yet - nimbly deploying onscreen maps - Ladhani and Davidson eventually start to connect their own dots, showing us first where the ivory is harvested (and by whom), then following the money into the cities of the Far East to show us where it ends up and the staggering amounts it goes for.

What begins in Africa becomes a very specifically Asian concern: as one of our gamekeeper heroes notes, this may be the first time that one man - Chinese president Xi Jinping - holds the fate of an entire species in his hands. Soon thereafter, we get a sense of evidence being collected, a case being made, the net closing in, due in no small part to the efficiency of those first responders on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania. The elephants may provide the publicity images, in other words, but the heroes are resolutely human: individuals remaining steadfast and phlegmatic in the face of rampant market forces. At one point late on, we witness one of the activists talking excitedly about an upcoming meeting with Hillary Clinton to discuss the elephants' fate - framed as a major development in raising awareness of the ivory trade. You can only shudder to think what will become of these creatures - the pachyderms, and their protectors - now there's a big game hunter in the White House.

The Ivory Game is now streaming on Netflix.      

Saturday 25 February 2017

"Rangoon" (Guardian 24/02/17)

Rangoon ****
Dir: Vishal Bhardwaj. With: Kangana Ranaut, Shahid Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Richard McCabe. 150 mins. Cert: 12A

In this time of pronounced division, it’s reassuring to know East and West can still play nicely together. Vishal Bhardwaj, the director of several impressive Shakespeare-goes-Hindi adaptations (Maqbool, Omkara), here teams with sometime Spielberg screenwriter Matthew Robbins for a sweeping WW2 epic that ironically describes a collision of worlds: on one side of the widescreen frame showbusiness, on the other the theatre of war. This being Bollywood, the centre is occupied by a love triangle enacted by more characterful types than those Pearl Harbor excavated: a spoilt silver-screen goddess (Kangana Ranaut) drafted to entertain British Indian Army troops in Burma, the suave yet possessive one-armed impresario accompanying her (Saif Ali Khan) and the no-nonsense soldier boy (Shahid Kapoor) left chaperoning our heroine after her convoy is bombed.

The jungle-bound first half deliberately throws back to The African Queen, with Kapoor toughening up his charge while generating old-school chemistry with Ranaut. Yet as in his Kashmir-set Hamlet adaptation Haider, Bhardwaj also displays a sure feel for the wider conflicts surrounding his main players, painting a vivid broad-strokes picture of an India divided between the peaceable Gandhi and the punchier Subhas Chandra Bose, its British masters (capably embodied by a bilingual Richard McCabe) and a new future for itself. Post-Slumdog, Hollywood and Bollywood have repeatedly attempted to collaborate, with mixed results: here, they’ve produced a properly expansive and enthralling afternoon matinee, owing as much to the David Lean back catalogue as it does to the industry that gifted us Lagaan – and those films didn’t have dance numbers about winding up Hitler.

Rangoon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 24 February 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of February 17-19, 2016:
1 (1) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
2 (2) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
3 (new) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
4 (3) Sing (U) ***
5 (new) The Great Wall (12A)
6 (new) Hidden Figures (PG) **
7 (4) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
8 (6) Lion (12A) ***
9 (5) La La Land (12A) ***
10 (new) Moonlight (15) ****

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five:   
1. Toni Erdmann
2. Loving
3. Rangoon
4. Moonlight
5. The Fits

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) The Girl on the Train (15) *
2 (2) Deepwater Horizon (15) ***
3 (3) Bad Moms (15) ** 
4 (5) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
5 (4) Suicide Squad (15)
6 (new) The Magnificent Seven (12) **
7 (7) Star Trek Beyond (12) ***
8 (6) Sausage Party (15) ***
9 (re) X-Men: Apocalypse (12)
10 (8) War Dogs (15)

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:  
1. Train to Busan
2. I, Daniel Blake
3. Ouija: Origin of Evil
4. American Honey
5. Cameraperson 

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Insider [above] (Wednesday, C4, 1am)
2. In Which We Serve (Saturday, BBC2, 8.10am)
3. The Terminator (Sunday, five, 11.15pm)
4. Badlands (Sunday, BBC2, 12.05am)
5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Saturday, C4, 9pm) 

"It's Only the End of the World" (Catholic Herald 24/02/17)

Even an enfant terrible must grow up sooner or later. Prodigal French-Canadian Xavier Dolan’s trouble is that he’s done so along the Cannes Croisette, where he screened his debut (2009’s I Killed My Mother) aged just 20, then won acclaim for increasingly ambitious works (trans drama Laurence Anyways, Hitchcockian thriller Tom at the Farm), before seeing latest It’s Only the End of the World (***, 15, 98 mins) pilloried by non-Francophone critics. One accusation was that Dolan had blanded out – to reuse the titular qualifier, that he’d “only” added subtitles to those awards-hungry dysfunctional-family dramas that premiere every year, restyling August: Osage County in a striped Breton top.

Following the bristling expansiveness of Dolan’s 2014 opus Mommy, this adaptation of the late Jean-Luc Lagarce’s autobiographical play can, admittedly, feel self-contained. After a twelve-year exile, talk-of-the-town writer Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) returns to the countryside for dinner with his clan: bluff older sibling Antoine (Vincent Cassel), apparently determined to spend the occasion with his back to the room, his empathetic wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard), younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), and – a Dolan staple, as per those titles – their overbearing maman (Nathalie Baye). As convention dictates, Louis has news to break; the hard part, naturellement, will be getting a word in.

Dolan finds an arresting visual analogue for this domestic ambush, composing each set-to as a wall of looming close-ups. In the year of I, Daniel Blake and Toni Erdmann’s affecting naturalism, those Cannes critics perhaps resented being forcefed such conspicuous starriness: few directors have dwelled to this extent on Cassel’s abrasive cragginess (scabbed knuckles, iron-filing stubble), or the melting softness in Cotillard’s gaze and smile. Yet the tactic works dramatically, punching up how these relatives have become strangers whose gestures require close interpretation; it’s moving indeed when the camera finally looks Antoine in the eye, and spots years of broiling intellectual inferiority.

Nothing else quite subverts reunion formula. Lagarce provides Dolan with one loaded conversation after another, permitting everybody their moment until liberation or exasperation is achieved. Still, if World arrives as Dolan’s most conventional drama, its quiet mastery suggests how much he’s learnt about performance, staging, even life. One sign of maturity, given this director’s previously gaudy tastes, is the decision to shoot in something close to natural light: a pall of melancholy hangs over this household that neither pleasantries nor pop songs can dispel. You can go home, clearly, but at 27, Dolan’s now old enough to intuit it may never be the same, or worse besides – that you might find it exactly the same.

It's Only the End of the World opens in selected cinemas from today.

Ladies who launch: "Hidden Figures"

The surprise hit of this year's awards cycle - taking $145m to date in the US, by comparison with La La Land's $135m - Hidden Figures turns out to be a very old-school entertainment, operating in much the same vein as 2011's much-feted The Help. Given that this awards season has thrown up such singular, elliptical works as Moonlight and Loving, this overt crowdpleaser is perhaps the race story the majority of Academy voters will be most comfortable with, shaping a notable and underheralded true-life story - that of the African-American women who helped get NASA's space program off the ground - for easy multiplex matinee consumption; its merits as cinema, rather than business or opportunity for industry virtue-signalling, strike me as rather more open to question.

Theodore Melfi's film, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction account by the director and Allison Schroeder, opens in 1961, at the start of a pivotal decade in space exploration. Rather than the usual Caucasian male perspective on these events, however, we're offered something else: a celebration of three black women - Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) - employed as NASA mathematicians during this period. Despite being treated as ancillary staff and second-class citizens by some of their superiors and colleagues, these gals came through with the calculations that succeeded in putting John Glenn et al. into orbit. You've heard of The Right Stuff; well here, at long last, is The Non-White Stuff. 

"Civil rights aren't always civil," posits Mary's husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) in an early scene, yet while Hidden Figures unfolds in the opening years of an altogether tumultuous decade back on Planet Earth, it proves civil to a fault: genteel, PG-rated, and - as its original Pharrell Williams compositions segue seamlessly into its soundtrack of period hits - all too blandly and smoothly digestible, breaking down every last one of its plot and character beats so that even the Odeon's slower popcorn-munchers can grasp the significance of what's happening. Melfi, who oversaw 2014's pretty lazy Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent, most often seems to be angling not for awards but for a gig directing for the Hallmark Channel.

The complex business of astro geometry - overseen by Kevin Costner, with our heroines hindered by an uptight Jim Parsons and a brittle Kirsten Dunst on sets that look and feel very much like sets (the space inserts, similarly, have zero atmosphere) - is but a peripheral element, dutifully logged alongside material that would appear to have its basis in savvy producers' notes: a plain-sailing romance between Henson and devoted man-in-uniform Mahershala Ali, afterwork bonding scenes of eating, drinking and dancing. The literal running joke that sees Henson dashing from one side of NASA's Langley campus to the other to get to and from the institution's designated "coloured" bathroom is a rather too obvious screenwriting shortcut, designed to jolly up the era's myriad iniquities before delivering a neat, would-be heartwarming punchline.

All that ultimately distinguishes it is the casting of women of colour in roles the movies haven't typically associated with women of colour. (Even here, though, you need only compare it with the vibrant characterisations of, say, TV's Orange is the New Black to see how Hidden Figures' defining shade is beige.) The leads are experienced enough to sneak traces of personality into cardboard cutout creations: Spencer, matronly and watchful, squeezes a few chuckles from her duets with the agency's new IBM computer; Monáe, playing the designated sparky one, pours warmth into the sidebar detailing Mary's struggles to be taken seriously in her aspirations to be an engineer.

Henson, though, is sensible bordering on cautious, in a way that fits Katherine Johnson's predicament but also makes one wonder: is this generally effusive performer reining herself in to allay our suspicions Hidden Figures might have better functioned as a shoot-for-the-moon star vehicle - The Katherine Johnson Story - rather than the somewhat slack-shouldered, Help-y ensemble piece it's been converted into? Is it the case that the studios simply wouldn't have funded a film focused on a little-known African-American woman - that it was a safer spread bet to present audiences with three demographic-spanning leads, no matter that they have to be crowbarred into the same shot? (The cowardice may run deeper than just the filmmaking.)

In the end, it's the same old Hollywood trad - as signalled by the casting of rent-a-coach Costner, bringing his usual gravitas to bear on more or less the same white ally part as Emma Stone took up in The Help - and its accessibility and success may yet lend it a wider social function: much as you can imagine Moonlight serving as a balm for young men wrestling with their sexuality, Hidden Figures might just tempt young women (and young women of colour, especially) into a closer engagement with maths and science. As a standalone film, though, it looks like a perilously flimsy launchpad, constructed of equal parts chocolate-box wrapping paper, Robert McKee-derived cliché and wispy good intentions you could as easily poke your finger through as applaud.

Hidden Figures is now playing in cinemas nationwide.   

On DVD: "The Magnificent Seven"

This week’s remake/rehash/reboot goes big. John Sturges’ 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven was already a sturdy proposition, a roadshow Western that streamlined Kurosawa while still coming in at 128 minutes, the better to provide elbow room for its jostling ensemble. Action specialist Antoine Fuqua’s almost wholly inessential retelling runs to 142 minutes, and offers the now-standard game of gains and losses: nothing’s been improved upon exactly, but some of it still works. The trouble is just that there’s that much more of it.

That original – in as much as one might call it that – was another turn-of-the-Sixties item to suggest a rhyme between the Western and musical genres, in that its narrative depended on a crew being assembled so as to put on a show (or stand). One crucial loss here is Elmer Bernstein’s rousing theme, relegated to the end credits in favour of rote James Horner compositions that the KLF wouldn’t in a million years consider sampling. Gunfire provides Fuqua’s preferred music; gunfighters his players, recruited over the course of a talky first half.

As with The Hateful Eight, these names will surely form the basis of some future pub quiz round, so pay attention. Lining up to drive back sickly industrialist Peter Sarsgaard are black-clad bounty hunter Denzel Washington, good-time boy Chris Pratt, self-doubting Army man Ethan Hawke, burbling trapper Vincent d’Onofrio, plus a Comanche Indian (Martin Sensmeier), Asiatic knife thrower (Byung-hun Lee) and Spanish speaker (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), presumably here because it’s 2016, and Sony have overseas markets to consider.

The underlying movement remains the same, and not unstirring: these lone gunmen, self-exiled to the vastness of the Old West, slowly coincide around a small village on the fringes of civilisation, and find renewed purpose in putting down a marker for the values Americans will and will not stand for. Yet while the 2016 version contrives to be political in certain respects, it’s utterly apolitical in others. Yes, this is a more diverse Seven – but only up to a point.

Fuqua is certainly less agitated around the idea of a black cowboy lead than was that try-hard Tarantino in Django Unchained: the character suffers no overt racism, and even when he finds himself on the wrong end of a sheriff’s weapon – which might have been teased into a Big Moment for audiences aware of numerous incidents involving African-Americans and latter-day lawmen – any threat is quickly shrugged off with the now-anticipated Denzel cool.

Yet this early moment proves typical of a Seven that feels like a bigger show – working with a budget beyond Sturges’s wildest imagination, Fuqua’s noisily incoherent 40-minute showdown makes Heaven’s Gate look self-contained – even while less of it seems to matter. Emerging in the wake of Hell or High Water, an altogether sincere engagement with classical Western themes, this Seven never shakes off an air of pastiche, apparently conceived just so everybody could play cowboy.

It is, however, a boys’ only game, when the sun sets. Given that Sony backed the all-girl Ghostbusters, one could easily imagine a remake that counted at least one woman in its central septet, but Fuqua’s working from a script by Nic Pizzolato (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (Vamp) which persists with ponderous man’s-gotta-do business. Between the campfire camaraderie and redemptive pistol-packing, Fuqua flirts with elevating Haley Bennett, the one female who gets anywhere near the poster, to the first team – before condemning her to last-reel damsel-in-distress duty.  

Elsewhere, nothing gets trashed or sabotaged too badly: Fuqua is too much the professional for that, and on reflection, perhaps it’s no great sacrilege to update a well-timbered Bank Holiday perennial as a brain-in-neutral Saturday night runaround. Yet I’m not so sure this version, simultaneously over-inflated and throwaway, knows its own values the way Sturges’s seemed to. Amid that indecision, a set-up that needed clever streamlining has only got stodgier – and, by that would-be stirring finale, a heck of a lot sillier.

The Magnificent Seven is now available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Thursday 23 February 2017

On DVD: "I, Daniel Blake"

Back in May, it looked a lot like the summer of Ken Loach. The Palme d’Or victory was closely followed by the release of career retrospective Versus and the rerelease of 1967’s Poor Cow, titles that spoke to a lifelong commitment to championing social change. Thereafter, the quiet man of British cinema was rather drowned out: the angry Right sounded a huffy retreat from Europe, setting the liberal-left into noisy infighting. I, Daniel Blake – for which Loach won that Cannes prize – now reappears as a rallying flag: a salutary reminder of what so many are facing today.

You could call it I, Josef K, such is the bureaucracy in which the eponymous Dan (Dave Johns), a Newcastle carpenter recovering from a heart attack, finds himself entangled. He’s not fit for work, yet the State has him three points shy of the threshold required to claim health benefits; Jobseekers’ Allowance has him looking for gigs he hasn’t the stamina to take on. Crucially, he’s not a scrounger: rather an ordinary bloke with skill and evident civic pride, obliged to jump through hoops for a handful of coins, and made to feel like an abject failure for doing so.

That Loach and his regular writing collaborator Paul Laverty should care to dramatise a sinking feeling millions – including, at points, this reviewer – have known all too well makes I, Daniel Blake an important film, yet it’s not a flawless one: Dan himself might find the joisting a little rough-hewn in places, though its makers would doubtless point to this as proof of the finished product’s authenticity.

Some of the non-pros drafted in as supporting players can seem wobbly, and while Johns, Loach’s latest recruit from the stand-up circuit, looks canny enough to know how to insulate a home using bubblewrap, you sense him nervily feeling his way into this new performance arena. There’s a marked contrast with fellow debutant Hayley Squires, who grabs the screen from the very first moment we see her relocated single mother Katie kicking off bigtime in the jobcentre.

More often than not, though, these scenes from the class struggle explode into life of one form or another. Loach and Laverty have an unfailing knack of imbuing their creations with dignity, pride and a humour that varies from bolshy to wounded, depending on the circumstances: to a neighbour who’s spotted him moving cardboard boxes out of his less-than-palatial flat, Dan quips “I’m off to the Bahamas.” (Byker is as far as he gets.)

The effect is to draw us further into this social stratum, and deeper down into the characters’ plight. For the first time, a filmmaker takes us inside the much-reported food banks, and inspecting their doomy nuclear-bunker-meets-church-social ambiance, we’re left wondering how it is we’ve been brought so low (guzzling baked beans direct from the tin) so quickly. Then again, the options opening up for these characters in the outside world – crime, prostitution, alcoholism – are flatly terrible.

Pointedly, cinematographer Robbie Ryan has none of the freedom he was granted in the recent American Honey, set instead to describing the neutral-grey tones of the bureaucratic drablands Dan and Katie struggle within. Yet certain other formal choices underline that we’re watching a master at work, one who knows exactly what this story represents: one brilliant, tragicomic cut from a careers advisor’s big spiel on smartphone CVs to Dan’s uncompromising expression is eloquent indeed on how the labour market has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

At every turn, Loach’s humanism – his total commitment to the specifics of the situations his characters find themselves in – transcends all other political labels. Whether you’re to the left or right of Jeremy Corbyn, whether you voted Leave or Remain (and it’s just possible Dan, like many across the depressed North-East, voted to go), here is a film that sets out, very starkly, what 99% of us are now up against. Rally around it and get angry (angrier?), because the alternative – resigning ourselves to dying in the streets like dogs – is, even for this moment in time, too awful to contemplate.

(MovieMail, October 2016)

I, Daniel Blake is available on DVD through eOne from Monday. 

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Body rock: "The Fits"

Although a relative pipsqueak at a mere 70 minutes, Anna Rose Holmer's debut The Fits arrives as a motion picture in the truest and best sense of the phrase: barely a frame goes by without somebody buzzing around and bumping up against it, agitated, like a wasp in a baker's front window. The setting is a run-of-the-mill community college, somewhere in the modern American inner-city, where we find pre-teen Toni (the remarkable Royalty Hightower, very nearly as good as her name) sparring with her older brother, a boxer-in-training. While changing a water bottle within the building, she spies the college's resident dance troupe, the Lionesses, throwing down some ferocious moves on the next floor. This proves as much a Eureka moment as anything in Moonlight: for perhaps the first time, our tomboyish tyke heroine finds herself exclusively among women, inhabiting a secret world - or alien planet - of lipgloss and locker-room chat about boys. The idea we may be watching a form of science fiction is floated by an atonal soundtrack, which couldn't be any further removed from, say, the drumlines and peppy pop of the Bring It On films (Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans previously scored 2013's freaky Enemy); it only intensifies when, as in Carol Morley's The Falling, junior Lionesses start collapsing in rehearsals, as if shot by a tranquiliser dart. Is it the physical effort? Something in the water, as some of the background chatter would indicate? Or could it just be a phase these girls are passing through?

Few low-budget films, certainly, have made a change of scenery - a change of floor - within their primary location feel so significant. Toni is advancing a level in more ways than one: she's moving from childhood into adolescence, from defending herself to expressing herself, from following in somebody else's footsteps to making up her own. She will get there step by erratic step, and as her journey progresses and stalls with the cancellation of classes, Holmer collects images that conjure up that particularly gooey, sticky or otherwise unruly moment in our development: an overhead shot of pugilists setting about a freshly delivered pizza like jackals, a close-up of Toni picking at the sponged-on tattoo on her bicep, apparently shedding her skin. Yet this filmmaker - herself crossing over from documentary - also knows when to stand further back and marvel at her young cast entertaining themselves, improvising routines in the college corridors, finding their own ways to move on what passes for the plot - or crisis situation, whatever you take that to be. It can feel as slender-inchoate as its heroine (its pithiest review may come from the head Lioness, measuring Toni up for her competition costume: "You skinny"); caught awkwardly between extended pop promo and fully-fledged feature, Holmer appears to be sketching out themes and ideas she'd like to explore in greater depth (and with more money) at a later date. Still, its kinetic energy is undeniable, and such relentless whirlwind movement allows Holmer to capture the frantic strangeness of adolescence - that feeling of not knowing what your limbs (and other appendages) are going to do next, how vulnerable or invulnerable you are, what the world has in store for you. And for anybody with a thesis to write on cinema and the body, or any interest whatsoever in dance on film, it's right there waiting, restless and irrepressible, stomping and kicking its feet.

The Fits opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 20 February 2017

Eruptions: "Tanna"

Rush-released to capitalise on its Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, Tanna is one of Australian cinema's sporadic embraces of the Aboriginal - although, unlike its earthier predecessors, 2006's Ten Canoes and 2009's Samson and Delilah, the new film is configured towards beauty: it sends forth the most vibrant greens you'll see on screen all awards season. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean travelled to the volcanic Pacific island of Vanuatu, where they recruited locals to play out a tale that, while drawn from their own history, contains just enough elements of a classical tragedy like Romeo and Juliet for white Academy voters, and the rest of us besides, not to feel lost.

It begins as a romance between the ever-beaming Wawa (Marie Wawa) and lean, hunky warrior Dain (Mungau Dain): conducted in secret in the forestry around their encampment, in defiance of elders who insist on marrying the poor girl off to some chump from a rival tribe. Yet to pitch the film as a love story is to slightly misrepresent the narrative, and where it's headed. Given the tribal songs of forgiveness adorning the soundtrack, and the revelation that this is a part of the world where people still literally bury the hatchet (or club), Tanna's key theme turns out to be the struggle of a young generation to make their peace with the mess that's gone before them.

Any confusion of genres may be attributable to the intimate feel Butler and Dean lend this drama. Presumably, this was one of those projects enabled by the kind of lightweight, low-cost digital equipment that makes it a good deal easier for small crews to head off into the wilderness and return with images of an astounding lushness and clarity. (Was this the rapture audiences felt upon seeing Murnau's Tabu on its first release?) The dimensions, perhaps, return us in the direction of naive art: the film is altogether straightahead and even a little rudimentary in its staging, framing and cutting. Yet Butler and Dean presumably felt they didn't have to move the camera much once they were in situ, because so much else here was bursting out at them - and us: the mischief of Wawa's young sister Selin (Marceline Rofit), or the lava of an eruptive volcano that backlights both an assassination attempt and a lovers' embrace. Image after image leaps off the screen and sears itself onto your imagination.

My intuition is that Tanna may nevertheless be considered a touch too small to win the Oscar next weekend - volcanoes aside, it could be taken for a community project, which you couldn't say about either Toni Erdmann or The Salesman - but it does at least pay us the honour of dramatising its big, award-worthy themes at a literally grassroots level, via a story with its own rolling, organic internal logic. The consensus is that the committee charged with vetting those foreign-language films submitted for Academy consideration have upped their game in recent years, and a nomination like this only bears that out further: Tanna is entirely accessible, indeed teachable, and yet still capable of ravishment.

Tanna is now playing in selected cinemas.

Brickbat: "The Lego Batman Movie"

At last, a superhero movie that recognises what a thoroughly puerile concern superheroes might be. Every successful family franchise has its breakout character: 2014's triumphant The Lego Movie gave us a poseur Batman (voiced by Arrested Development's Will Arnett, past master of condescension) who arrived late to that party in a haphazard bid to save the day, convinced he was cooler and more awesome than everybody else around him. (In this, of course, he was very wrong.) Spin-off The Lego Batman Movie proves, in its own off-kilter way, an origin story, positing that the murder of his parents at a formative age, coupled with the immense wealth he inherited, left this bijou Bruce Wayne frozen in time as a perpetual adolescent: a brat-man, dressed in black, with someone to go round picking up his clothes for him (the butler Alfred, dryly voiced here by Ralph Fiennes), and prone to transforming into a colossal mardy-arse whenever anybody sees fit to challenge his worldview.

This immediately converts the character into a figure of fun (not to mention ridicule), and allows Chris McKay's film to rethink Wayne's relationships with the other inhabitants of Gotham City. His match-ups with Bane, the Joker and Superman are now positioned as sublimated, sexually ambiguous, insistently casual flirting ("I'm fighting around"), although he can be nudged towards some form of maturity via his pairing with Robin (Michael Cera), the orphan he distractedly agrees to take under his wing. Thus can McKay's extensive writing staff (including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' Seth Grahame-Smith and Community's Chris McKenna) achieve new and often amusing perspectives on a universe they surely know has been excavated to the point of exhaustion: Wayne's formerly romantic seclusion is recast as tragic-pathetic, that of a billy-no-mates kid shutting himself away in his bedroom.

Again, the design team have worked overtime to create a dense, busy universe that seems forever to be reconfiguring itself before your overstimulated eyes, and will therefore repay multiple viewings when the DVD gets here. Yet equally they never shy away from the idiosyncratic specifity of Lego itself: the dots on the floor, the crap, flat-blocky renditions of fried eggs and ketchup squirts, those afterthought hands. The million-gags-a-minute template laid down by the Lord-Miller partnership in the first film doesn't appear to have been abandoned, either: if anything, TLBM is even more relentless, allowing the spitballing scribes responsible to get away with one properly rude (if thrown away) gag involving the numberplate on Bruce Wayne's car, and a very sly dig at the entire premise of last summer's Suicide Squad. (If the execs or censors blink, they'll miss 'em.) 

We should note that - as with all the Murdoch-razzing Mr. Burns material on Fox's The Simpsons - this is another example of a corporation having its cake and eating it: holding every last one of the Batrights as they do, Warner Bros. can presumably offset any deficits Squad or Batman vs. Superman registered if a larkier exercise like this cleans up at the box office. The new film doesn't have the surprise factor of the first movie, and part of me thinks it peaks comedically with an early routine involving the cooking of a lobster thermidor: thereafter, the pace accelerates, but we're left haring around just the one city, where Lord and Miller crossed frontiers and kept building new worlds. Still, it restores a sense of play sorely lacking from the monomaniacal recent Batflicks, folding in all previous incarnations of this character (yes, even Adam West), but also elements of King Kong, Lord of the Rings, YouTube clips, Dr. Who and the Daleks ("British robots - ask your nerd friends"), the Christian Slater skateboarding vehicle Gleaming the Cube, and the Cutting Crew back catalogue. Anything is up for appropriation, and everything is mostly awesome once again.  

The Lego Batman Movie is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 18 February 2017

Pet sounds: "Sing"

Although it bears a "written and directed by" credit for the humanoid known as Garth Jennings - consolidating that prominent element of design visible in his Hitchhiker's Guide and Son of Rambow enterprises - Sing is one of those digimations that appears not just to have been animated by computers, but originated by one. Certainly some monumentally large numbers have been crunched behind the scenes here: it's cutesy-funny animals (profitable mainstay of modern family flicks, from Madagascar to Zootropolis) performing in a vocal talent contest (mainstay of global TV schedules, from The X Factor to Glee, and the moneyspinning Pitch Perfect franchise besides), thus funny-cutesy animals performing the kind of pop music that's been circulating on syndicated radio for months, if not years. Suffice to say, the element of risk is roughly naught; since its release in the middle of January - generally a time when younger viewers are ill-served, with cinemas besieged by awards bait - the film has sat comfortably atop the UK box office.

It has at least two points in its favour. First, it's attempting something other than the usual, hidebound quest narrative, instead using the ramshackle theatre and rehearsal space operated by koala impresario Buster Moon (voiced by the newly ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey) as a base for a rapidfire succession of daft backstage skits and stories. Second, accompanying adults may be struck by the sheer variety of songs Sing sings. There's no Einstürzende Neubauten, granted, and it's almost a given that put-upon pig Rosita (Reece Witherspoon) should feel inclined to burst out at one point with Katy Perry's "Firework", inspirational anthem de nos jours. It's less expected, however, that she should later be seen sashaying to the Gypsy Kings; and if you ever had a yen to see and hear arachnids harmonising along with "The Ketchup Song" or a mollusc covering Christopher Cross's "Ride Like the Wind", Sing could well be the timekiller for you.

It may well be the case that the animators were only the second busiest individuals on this production, behind those administrators obliged to work overtime clearing the relevant copyrights. Jennings, lest we forget, made his name in the field of pop video (where he gave us, among other highlights, the very sweet promo for Blur's "Coffee and TV"), and his ardent soundtracking here extends in every direction: a brief snatch of ominous Morricone panpipes introducing the llama sent by the bank to repossess the New Moon Theatre, the deafening operatic blast attached to the imposing philanthropist Buster has to court to stave off foreclosure, a cocktail-lounge cover of Daft Punk's "Around the World" heard over a midfilm makeover montage. For those of us who grew irritated by the lazy, kid-triggering overuse of "I Like to Move It" in the Madagascar movies, the effect is a not unappealing zappiness - something like what it was to flick through the MTV channels, back in the days when MTV actually stood for Music Television.

What Jennings does with all these tunes narratively is pretty conservative: Sing proves as merciless as any Cowell project in honing in on its competitors as warbling case studies. These songs provide ways out of crime, or means of shoring up fragile self-confidence; they allow thrashy porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson) to recover from a bad break-up, and finally make Rosita's husband - a literal chauvinist pig - to sit up and notice the loving, creative woman to whom he pledged his troth, or trough. Where Zootropolis assembled its super furry animals with an eye to thinking about society in general, Sing's emphasis on escapist razzle-dazzle chimes with our la-la moment, when a career in the performing arts offers the comforting illusion of social mobility; it actually trumps La La Land in acknowledging how the world of showbusiness abuts those of exploitation (witness Buster, at his lowest, converting himself into an ursine squeegee at a topless carwash) and criminality (for it is a police helicopter that will shine a spotlight on the final, big show).

Like Jennings - sorely in need of a hit, or at the very least a public appearance, a decade on from the small but cherishable success of Rambow - Buster is putting this show on principally to print money, not make great art; it wouldn't be too hard to imagine an animated musical that composed itself principally out of abstract, Busby Berkeley-like geometric shapes - for anybody exposed to the work of Norman McLaren, it might seem like the easiest thing in the world - but Sing, bound for long runs in the multiplexes, plainly isn't that. Jennings has, though, the very good sense to devote an entire setpiece to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off", and to insist that Johnny, the piano-playing gorilla voiced by Taron Egerton, ditch the sappy John Legend track we hear him rehearsing early on to perform a rousing cover of Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" when the show finally does go on. It's still a movie in which computer-generated animals work their way through the fifty top tracks on Spotify, but you take your consolations where you can these days.

Sing is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

From the archive: "Being A.P."

The documentarist Anthony Wonke has parlayed the success of his Scottish BAFTA-winning Piper Alpha account Fire in the Night into back-to-back sporting profiles. The glitzy Ronaldo, which pondered how a superstar footballer might spend his days and his money, premiered in UK cinemas last week; this week brings the more grounded Being A.P., which follows jump jockey A.P. (Tony) McCoy as he trots from Newton Abbot to the National over the 2014-15 season, bidding for his twentieth consecutive Champion Jockey title.

Wonke quickly finds striking new ways of looking at a figure who may have become overly familiar from his regular appearances in the winner’s enclosure. He catches McCoy going over the jumps in slow motion, the better to show every bone-rattling landing; he digs out the X-rays of the surgical equipment holding the jockey’s battered wrists and ribs together; he finds him in the dentist’s chair and on the masseur’s table, undergoing necessary readjustments. Some respite comes when he’s seen reading the Racing Post in the bath, after the manner of Andy Capp.

Moreover, it’s clear the filmmaker has located a source of great narrative drama: that of an ageing champ – comfortable in so many respects, with a wife and two young children at trackside cheering him on – pushing himself once more towards the holy grail of 300 winners in a season. And – arguably – pushing too far: an early tumble leaves McCoy staggering about the family home with a punctured lung, though it’s a tribute to his much-vaunted gift for pain management, and his desire to win, that he should be seen back in the saddle within days – and chalking up further victories.

If his subject’s underdog days are long behind him, Wonke identifies a particular tension: how many more wins will McCoy romp to before he himself is put out to pasture, his whiphand forced either by the daily stresses and strains of his profession, or his wife Chanelle’s increasingly vocal and heartfelt pleas that this might be the right season to bow out. (The film has a sharp ear for candid marital conversations.)

Although the screen fills with that spectacle specific to the track – misty-morning training sessions, overcast afternoons at Sandown and Newcastle, the colour and noise of a Gold Cup day – McCoy himself is most often observed lying prone in examination rooms or taking meetings with his inner circle in the hope of finding a dignified exit strategy: the dismayed look on the jockey’s face after hearing his commercial advisor asking “Do you want to be the face of peanut butter?” suggests a man ready to ride off over the hills and far, far away.

In his opening voiceover, McCoy describes himself as “an addict” – a man on the horse, as hooked on the twists and turns of the turf as any gambler. The film senses how this monomania – three or more rides a day, every day for six months of the year – might well have a deleterious effect on one’s body and relationships, while simultaneously steering its subject towards a future that may well be less gloried, but which instinctively feels a whole lot healthier.

If Ronaldo was the prestige, blue-chip documentary assignment, stalking a global brand ambassador in peak physical condition, Being A.P. instead assumes the look and proportions of a weathered, more appreciably human B-picture: one of the most intimate and involving sporting profiles for some while, Wonke’s film offers a portrait of a champion once more weighing up the field before him and determining the right time to make a decisive move – this time hauling himself past the finishing post for good.

(November 2015)

Being A.P. screens on BBC2 tomorrow night at 10pm.