Friday 31 March 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of March 24-26, 2017:
1 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (new) Power Rangers (12A) **
3 (3) Get Out (15) ****
4 (2) Kong: Skull Island (12A)
5 (4) Logan (15) ***
6 (new) Life (15) **
7 (new) The Lost City of Z (15) ***** 
8 (new) CHiPS (15)
9 (8) Secret Cinema Presents: Moulin Rouge! (12A)
10 (new) Idomeneo - Met Opera (nc)


My top five:   
1. The Lost City of Z
2. The Salesman
3. Get Out 
4. Fear Eats the Soul [above]
5. Ghost in the Shell

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) Arrival (12) ***
2 (2) Doctor Strange (12) **
3 (new) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *
4 (3) The Girl on the Train (15) *
5 (4) Inferno (15) *
6 (new) A Street Cat Named Bob (12) **
7 (5) I, Daniel Blake (15) ****
8 (6) The Light Between Oceans (12)
9 (new) Storks (U)
10 (7) Deepwater Horizon (15) ***


My top five:  
1. Moana
2. The Young Offenders
3. Endless Poetry
4. Revolution: New Art for a New World
5. Paterson

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Dead Poets Society (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
2. From Russia with Love (Sunday, ITV1, 11.45am)
3. We Dive at Dawn (Saturday, BBC2, 8.25am)
4. Populaire (Saturday, BBC2, 11.35pm)
5. Titanic (Saturday, C4, 7pm)  

At the BFI: "Masaan"

That Masaan intends to transport us some distance from the Hindi norm can be discerned from the opening scene alone: a young couple meeting for an assignation in a hotel suite, and unabashedly getting it on, only for the authorities to come crashing through the door, scattering F-bombs left, right and centre, driving one of the lovers to slit their wrists in shame. Where be your song-and-dances now? This doomy tryst initiates but one strand in a tapestry writer Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan unfurl on the banks of the Ganges - some distance from the usual movie hotspots, and rather closer, it would appear, to the end of the world; a place where life is hard, minds can be narrow, and happy endings come at a cost. The female half of the lovers, Devi (Richa Chadha), returns home, already in a state of some shock, to find a cop blackmailing her father over a video recording of the assignation; and yet, around the next corner, and altogether more optimistically, nervy young swain Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) is starting to connect with the object of his affections via Facebook, little foreseeing that hidebound issues of caste will present as an obstacle to romance.

On one side of the screen, then, tradition, on the other, modernity; on one, the death of love (and its grim funeral arrangements), on the other, love's birth (and its niggling teething pains). What's most impressive about Ghaywan's film - a French-Indian coproduction, enabled by the revolutionary producer Anurag Kashyap, and screened to considerable acclaim at Cannes 2015 - is that all its elements come to line up in perfect balance: one set of relationships seems to be building itself up as another comes crashing down. It's a film that guides us round a very real, unadorned (in many ways, non-movie) space where people live, work, have good and bad days in equal measure, rub up against one another, and - crucially - strive to make something of their lives before they turn to dust. (The title would translate into English as Crematorium.) There's an unusual, documentary-like aspect to Ghaywan's shot selection and framing - he's not making escapism, so much as seeking to show exactly those situations ordinary souls might seek to escape from, which explains why he casts performers who don't seem to have the right words or easy answers at their disposal, and whose bruised and wounded looks serve as signifiers of a tough, circumscribed existence.

Where a crowdpleaser like Slumdog Millionaire dashed so breathlessly through the poverty of India towards uplift and validation, Masaan takes care to study it, and the impoverished thinking it can sometimes beget: deep into the closing half-hour, there looks to be no way that these characters can pull themselves out of the mire - and yet they will do, as real people do, against all the odds, and in such a manner as for the film entire to count as a quietly moving triumph. Avinash Arun Dhaware's cinematography is crucial to this, alert as it is to both the rigours of the daily grind - not least the transfixing horror of the Ganges cremation rituals ("The skull must burst to release the soul") - and those sporadic flickers of beauty that float up out of nowhere, like the heart-shaped balloon seen heading for the heavens over a passing funfair. (Again: escape.) It makes sense that Deepak's Facebook sweetheart should seek to commemorate her feelings in verse rather than status updates, texts or Tweets: there is a streak of authentic street poetry running through Masaan that hasn't been this prominent in Indian cinema since the days of Guru Dutt.

Masaan screens as part of the India on Film season at BFI Southbank tomorrow at 3.50pm, and on Friday 7 at 8.30pm. 

"Ghost in the Shell" (IndieWire 29/03/17)

Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cyberpunk opus Ghost in the Shell, one of the first Japanese anime titles to cross over to Western audiences, has been reissued and repackaged so often since the millennium that it’s scant surprise studio execs seized upon it as reproducible property. Possibly it was a matter of waiting: for digital effects houses to get up to spec, the right deals to be struck, and any accusations of cultural appropriation to blow over. Paramount’s all-new live-action Ghost, powered by hefty reserves of American and Far Eastern money, emerges as a dazzling logistical display with a missing file where the human interest might once have been stored.

Fans need not blubber unduly: as overseen by Snow White and the Huntsman’s Rupert Sanders, this transliteration would seem faithful enough to satiate those who just want to see favourite scenes and characters redrawn on the biggest screen imaginable. As that suggests, what’s been tinkered with is the scale: Oshii’s knotty postmodern inquiries into identity – a stopover on that fin-de-siècle sci-fi continuum connecting Blade Runner to The Matrix – are here stretched into IMAX-ready, 3D-enabled spectacle. Blown up to this magnitude, ideas already threadbare through twenty years of recycling start to look doubly thin.

Narratively, there’s little to separate the two movies. Again, we open on the creation of a cyborg – Scarlett Johansson’s Major, being a human brain, retrieved in the wake of a fatal accident, set lovingly in a slinky-dinky metal-plastic carapace – who evolves to exist at the mercy of multiple masters. There’s the counterterrorism chief (Takeshi Kitano) who dispatches her to investigate a series of assassinations; the female engineer (Juliette Binoche, slumming elegantly) who nurtures her and patches her up; and her corporate manufacturers – embodied by Peter Ferdinando’s brooding Mr. Cutter – who regard her as no more than an asset on a spreadsheet.

More compelling than any of these figures, however, is the realm they pass through. The flawed but glitzy Snow White rehash positioned Sanders as a facilitator of lavishly visualised if faintly derivative worlds; armed here with both the latest modelling software and several skilled analogue collaborators – production designer Jan Roelfs (Gattaca), emergent cinematographer Jess Hall (Transcendence) – he goes into hyperdrive. Every scene thrusts out something to catch (and occasionally caress) the eye: murky drinking dens besieged by scuttling, arachnoid attendants, a watery virtual limbo where binary ones and zeroes float up like bubbles.

So yes, it’s the shiniest of kit; whether the emotions are stirred is another matter. Johansson sets the level of engagement, by playing the impervious shell rather better than she does the restless ghost. In 2013’s unsettling Under the Skin, the actress was directed into signalling a hybrid’s dawning consciousness (and conscience); here, she’s limited to looking puzzled while convoluted plot stuff streams around her. The time Johansson has logged among the Avengers means she could perform the role’s asskicking aspects in her sleep – but in so many other scenes, she appears to be on autopilot: left to execute commands, rather than encouraged to flesh this part out.

Supporting players are defined chiefly by their hairstyles. Snowtown ne’er-do-well Daniel Henshall models a mullet that identifies him as an individual of questionable judgement; Major’s sidekick Pilou Asbaek sports a shock of white fluff that might work for manga heroes but turns grown men into Billy Idol tribute acts. As his explosion-blackened corneas are replaced with ophthalmic lenses, you sense a rampant techno-decorousness beginning to consume the performers – a instinct compounded upon seeing Buddhist monks plugged into a towering cable router redolent of Avatar’s Tree of Life. Like much else here, it’s striking but second-hand.

That last image has presumably been designed to chime with a moment when even the Dalai Lama delivers his wisdom in 140-character bytes, yet – like the allusions to corporate overreach and female consent – it doesn’t connect meaningfully with anything else: the data collected from Oshii’s film is pinged round inside the new film’s circuitry without it ever threatening to accumulate any critical mass. The result is a Ghost for the Twitterati, all flashing lights and pretty colours, at once distracting and distractible, busily spinning its wheels ahead of a citytrashing finale that recalls… well, every other citytrashing finale of the past half-decade.

As with Twitter, the film is not without its passing, superficial pleasures, and non-devotees might soak up some of its stimuli for future repurposing as profile photos, or as the backdrop to a club night. Sanders is becoming increasingly adept at framing the kind of images any 14-year-old would deem cool (Scar-Jo in slo-mo, erupting through plate glass in latex!), which should ensure smooth progress in the modern movie business. Yet whatever philosophical nuggets were lurking amid Oshii’s tangled plotting, they surely merited closer consideration by a filmmaker who wasn’t just trading in gloss, and doesn’t merely regard human beings as elements of design.

Grade: B-

"The Autopsy of Jane Doe" (Guardian 31/03/17)

The Autopsy of Jane Doe **
Dir: André Øvredal. With: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Kelly. 86 mins. Cert: 15
No cutting around the take-it-or-leave-it conceit of Troll Hunter director André Øvredal’s English-language debut: for ninety minutes, this is a woman’s naked corpse being poked and prodded by two men. Granted, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch – as father-and-son morticians – display vital flickers of humanity in parsing the clues secreted in their charge’s cavities. Yet they’re helpless once this fleshy Pandora’s box is opened and the matter of whether the film is operating in a procedural or supernatural key is decisively resolved. The second half’s merely morbid runaround, punctuating its soundtrack crashes with self-justifying footnotes on historical misogyny. Øvredal keeps matters brisk, while porting over a very Scandinavian air: it’s functional VOD filler, but chilly with it. 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 30 March 2017

1,001 Films: "Cria Cuervos/Raise Ravens" (1976)

A young girl creeps downstairs in the early hours of the morning to fix herself a snack, only to hear her father - a tyrannical man, prone to wearing a general's uniform and fondling the help - huffing and puffing, and then to see his ashen-faced mistress scooping up her clothes and fleeing into the dawn light. As the girl tentatively enters the bedroom to find dad splayed out on the linen, colder than he's ever been, we grasp that what we thought were the sounds of la petite mort were actually those of death itself, and that these apparent gasps of pleasure were instead a last gasp - not that young Ana (Ana Torrent) is old enough to have grasped these terms, let alone to be making the distinction between them.

All of this will change over the course of Carlos Saura's 1976 drama Cria Cuervos, a curious hybrid of coming-of-age tale and European art/history movie that seeks to describe a particular Madrid household at a particular moment in time. The moment is deliberately smudged: there is Danone in the fridge and there are posters of the young Clint Eastwood on the walls of the bedroom Ana shares with her sisters, pointing to a contemporary setting, and yet the house itself honestly appears to have been this way for decades if not centuries; painted in drab browns and blacks, it's an archaic doll's house, one the three sisters (the signifiers may be intentional, given Saura's subsequent stage work) share with their guardian, an aunt who herself shows signs of years of repression and frustration.

The impression we get is of the backward nation Spain may very well have become under Franco. (We might also say, upon observing the film's insistently muted palette, that the country really needed an Almodóvar to come along and literally brighten the place up.) Though these kids have spark of a kind, their behaviour is closer to the Victorian groundlings observed in films like The Innocents or The Others - and Cria Cuervos is itself a ghost story of sorts. Although we rarely venture outdoors - Ana's spectral vision of herself leaping off the building (to her doom, or to fly?) is a striking exception - the walls of this house appear permeable, and time is a concept unfixed: Saura rotates the house's past, present and future inhabitants, so that when Ana calls out for her deceased mother in the night, the latter (Geraldine Chaplin) can walk in as though from the next room.

The film is fluid and feminine - you can see how Saura progressed from this danse macabre to his later, vibrant musicals - and quite possibly a reaction to the patriarchal tyranny of the Franco regime, but its form shouldn't blind us to how tough it is, too. Cria Cuervos is unusual among coming-of-age pictures in recognising how childhood, as well as providing the occasional wonder year, can be a site of deep-rooted psychological trauma. Torrent - one of the all-time top five child performers, even more remarkably unruffled here than she was in the earlier The Spirit of the Beehive - is both as cute as a button and, more crucially, as blank as a blackboard, onto which all the wisdom and sins of her elders can be written.

Several times, characters remark on how much Ana resembles her mother - to the extent that Saura also casts Chaplin as an older Ana, looking back on these events - but left unsaid is how much she's inherited from her father: insisting her sisters play dead during a game of hide-and-seek, she then further tests the limits of her own control by turning amateur poisoner. Time and again, the film returns to the sight of Ana's wide, dark eyes taking in the death throes of someone around her (father, mother, pet guinea pig), and one starts to wonder how much of this is childish fascination, and how much the girl might be admiring her own handiwork. Raise ravens, as the maxim goes, and you shouldn't be surprised if they come to peck your eyes out.

What's most odd about Saura's film is that it displays precious little joy at the death of a tyrant - the joy that liberated Spaniards of this period would surely have felt - and instead gives off morbid, uncanny frissons of déjà vu, of a history bound in some way to repeat itself. When Ana sees her mother for the last time, the latter is clutching her stomach and bleeding out, a spectral sister to Harriet Andersson in Cries and Whispers; reeling on her bedclothes, her final words are the less than reassuring "It's all a lie. There is nothing." The chicken's feet in the family fridge are a constant, there at the beginning and at the end, the suffering of their erstwhile owners taken for given. It's a film about looking death in the eye, and being powerless to do anything but accept it.

Cria Cuervos is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through the BFI. 

Monday 27 March 2017

1,001 Films: "Manila in the Claws of Light/Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag" (1975)

Here is a city of which we really haven't been shown much at all. The director of Manila in the Claws of Light, Lino Brocka, introduces us to it in black-and-white, freezing it in time: though this footage was taken in the mid 1970s, it has the air of period newsreel about it, so impoverished is the landscape our gaze alights on. Only when Brocka brings up the colour - on the face of a haunted, hungry-looking wastrel (Rafael Roco, Jr.), lingering on a street corner, apparently for work - do we grasp that Manila is unfolding in the same decade as Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and, further afield, the release of Star Wars. Brocka's theme - ripped from the pages of Edgardo Reyes' novel In the Claws of Brightness - is the human cost of development. Seemingly shellshocked hero Julio has drifted into the city for reasons initially unclear; finding work among a crew of casual labourers paid a pittance to assemble luxury flats, he enters Manila society on just about the lowest possible rung of the ladder, one where life is cheap, and industrial accidents commonplace. Brocka appears to be pre-empting Ken Loach's later work around building sites and railway sidings, but the narrative line resolves itself in the direction of detective fiction - for it transpires Julio has come to town in pursuit of a girl; the ensuing game of cherchez la femme pulls him into the darkness, towards bumfluff and blind alleys, homelessness and prostitution.

It has the seaminess of an exploitation feature, but skirts it via the seriousness of a notable movie about exploitation, Brocka's leftist politics working its way into every last, desperate frame - and few films have been so completely committed to showing their audience how there are societies (possibly more prevalent now than in 1975) where the poor exist solely to serve the rich. If it sometimes unfolds like a series of sob stories taped crudely together (missing girls, mysterious deaths, slum clearances, con tricks), they have the ring of truth about them; this is one of those plots that works by accumulation, barrelling towards a point where our hero is finally driven mad by the sounds, iniquities and other pressures of the city and turns towards the violence that is his sole remaining recourse. Presumably this is one of those films Brillante Mendoza, himself a keen observer of the Filipino street scene, grew up with and took much from, but Western viewers might find other aspects strangely familiar, watching the new print restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project: could Brocka's depiction of mounting urban alienation - centred on a hero with what eventually proves a lethal case of white knight syndrome - have possibly fed into the following year's Taxi Driver?

Manila in the Claws of Light is available on DVD through the BFI.

Sunday 26 March 2017

From the archive: "Cold in July"

One of the few positive developments in recent US film has been the indie sector's rediscovery of a pulpy, R-rated kind of thriller all but abandoned by the major studios in their pursuit of superhero megabucks: a rattling 100 minutes or so that would have gone over like gangbusters had it emerged on VHS back in the day, but now appears doubly exotic for appearing on a cinema screen long after the grown-ups have packed up and moved on to premium cable television. Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin was one such title, Adam Wingard's You're Next and The Guest two more. Cold in July, from the team behind 2010's superior vampire pic Stake Land, takes a particular care to preserve intact pulp's wayward instincts: it demonstrates a likably subversive edge in interrogating America's enduring gun fetish, while eventually winding up somewhere closer to Death Wish. You can't say it isn't a hell of a ride, even if there are points where cautious-minded viewers might want to get off.

Jim Mickle's film, adapted from the Joe R. Lansdale novel, begins in East Texas in 1989 - the precision is noted and appreciated - where Michael C. Hall's bemulleted everyman Dane is about to find his life altered overnight after accidentally shooting dead a kid who breaks into his family's home. The police - in the form of the amenable local lieutenant (co-writer Nick Damici) - advise our hero to plead self-defence, seeking to reassure everybody in the wider community that the victim got more or less what he deserved. This doesn't, however, prevent Dane from succumbing to sleepless nights, and a mounting desire to turn his house into Fort Knox - what might seem an understandable over-reaction, were it not for the fact that his victim's ne'er-do-well pop Sam Shepard has been seen lurking nearby, muttering dark words on the theme of an eye for an eye. That, lest we forget, was the title of a 1996 potboiler starring Sally Field and Donald Sutherland, and the Mickle-Damici pairing are clearly keen to reclaim, repackage and reinvigorate that which has gone before in this field. 

There's an element or two of the 1990s home-invasion cycle in here, unmistakably: characters hiding in crawlspaces, a fairly negligible role for Vinessa Shaw as Hall's missus, for this remains a subgenre chiefly concerned with the things a man's gotta do. Yet with a notable economy and virtuosity, this first plot movement gets resolved within a half-hour, leaving Dane to pursue what amounts to a nagging doubt for the remainder of the running time; what should be an open-and-shut case instead gives way to a Texan free-for-all, involving Don Johnson as a larger-than-life PI known as Jim Bob and representatives of the so-called Dixie Mafia. In this respect, Cold in July may have more in common with the second season of TV's Fargo, another shifting, multi-character piece of the kind the studios now shy away from. The risk - and it's one the studios are all too aware of - is that you lose viewers while warping from one film into another; certainly Cold in July, toggling between the James Ellroy and Carl Hiaasen schools of crime fiction, becomes a jokier proposition in its second hour, and it feels both a strength and a liability that we cannot ever pin it down.

Nevertheless, it emerges as yet another effective calling card for the flexible Mickle to demonstrate he can do pretty much anything, handed the opportunity and the appropriate resources. Before Lansdale's narrative succumbs to the trashy business of snuff tapes and luridly lit rooms, he shows a real knack for drawing us into his hero's troubled headspace, having Dane zone out with delayed panic at a level crossing or while watching a couple's most public PDA aboard a Greyhound bus; with Damici's assistance, he also very deftly inserts an extra question mark here and there as to just how these grown men's behaviour has come to impact upon their offspring. As in Stake Land, the filmmakers appear entirely assured in building a close-knit ensemble of actors who work consistently well together as their characters find out new and surprising facts about one another: Hall, who did such tremendous, filigreed work on TV in Six Feet Under and Dexter that he absolutely deserves a big-screen showcase, is very good at conveying Dane's restlessness, his inability to find peace once his cage has been decisively rattled. Whether mainstream movies can accommodate his subtle gifts at the moment is another matter entirely.

(June 2016)

Cold in July screens on BBC2 tonight at 10pm.

Saturday 25 March 2017

1,001 Films: "Barry Lyndon" (1975)

Barry Lyndon sits – along with early works Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss – among the least seen of Stanley Kubrick’s handful of films, a prisoner to its length (at three hours plus intermission, longer than 2001), a shifting critical reputation and the place it occupies in the director’s own filmography, between the more notorious A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Revived this week to tie in with Somerset House’s new Kubrick exhibition, it still looks more experiment than complete success, seizing upon a text that might have made for trad heritage cinema only to attempt something entirely contrary with it.

The big idea – and it’s such a droll one it rather plays into the hands of those mistakenly accusing Kubrick of having little discernible sense of humour – is that, for three hours, we will be deposited in the company of a passive no-mark known as Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), boyish drip turned adult lush, as he’s set adrift on the winds of 18th century fate. For the first half, matters will broadly go in his favour; in the second, they don’t.

This, clearly, is Kubrick going his own way once again, determining to construct a lavish epic around a figure who is not notably likable or heroic. In his better moments, Barry merely resembles a fop or twerp, in his worst a negligible parasite or monstrously opportunist sociopath. The compensation has always been that the film looks good: exteriors by Gainsborough, Hogarthian interiors lit by candles enough to fill out the average branch of Anthropology.

While Barry remains a non-entity, there’s ample surrounding incident. The backdrop of Britain’s Seven Years War against European forces has renewed resonance in 2016, but also adds a few new shades to the director’s gallery of onscreen conflict: to the agonised mud and grit of Paths of Glory and the hellzapoppin’ satire of Dr. Strangelove, Lyndon addends the Sealed Knottery of columns of men in tricorn hats being mowed down by gunfire. (This may be as close as we’ll ever get to seeing Stanley’s planned Napoleonic epic.)

And there’s detectable skill in Kubrick’s marshalling of his performers, particularly those character actors (Leonard Rossiter, Pat Roach, Patrick Magee) the hero bounces off. O’Neal’s matinee-idol blankness is fine for what Kubrick was aiming for, but a little of it goes a very long way: by the time the director is cutting between Barry and the haughty beauty of Marisa Berenson’s Countess in search of a spark of passion, it’s laughable – we’re watching two catalogue models wondering whether they’ve left the iron on in their dressing rooms.

The bigger problems are those of shapelessness and affectlessness. Barry Lyndon isn’t heading anywhere at any particular speed: it could go on for three hours, or three centuries, in the same first gear, with the same classical cues (light years removed from 2001’s musical dynamism), in which time the central character might pass from Redmond Barry to Barry Lyndon to Tom Ripley to Leonard Zelig to Patrick Bateman to James Franco.

It would be the same story, hammering the same points into the ground: that life is a crapshoot, and some lives are blanks. And yes, Kubrick’s film is very clever in the way that flies in the face of so much moral and sentimental education. But it’s still a fidgety three hours, however you parse them: the kind of film cinephiles have desperately squinted to see greatness in, lest they have to concede that a great director is as capable of directing a dull film as any hack. And I write that as someone who finds Eyes Wide Shut fascinating.

(MovieMail, July 2016)

Barry Lyndon is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Friday 24 March 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of March 17-19, 2017:
1 (new) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (1) Kong: Skull Island (12A)
3 (new) Get Out (15) **** 
4 (2) Logan (15) ***
5 (3) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
6 (4) Viceroy's House (12A)
7 (6) Sing (U) ***
8 (new) Secret Cinema Presents: Moulin Rouge! (12A) [above]
9 (5) Moonlight (15) ****
10 (7) Hidden Figures (PG) **


My top five:   
1. The Lost City of Z
2. The Salesman
3. Get Out 
4. Aquarius
5. Beauty and the Beast

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (new) Arrival (12) ***
2 (1) Doctor Strange (12) **
3 (2) The Girl on the Train (15) *
4 (new) Inferno (15) *
5 (4) I, Daniel Blake (15) ****
6 (6) The Light Between Oceans (12)
7 (3) Deepwater Horizon (15) ***
8 (new) Mum's List (12)
9 (re) The Magnificent Seven (12) **
10 (new) The Infiltrator (15) 


My top five:  
1. The Young Offenders
2. Endless Poetry
3. Paterson
4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
5. Bleed for This

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Wizard of Oz (Sunday, five, 12.35pm)
2. Hue and Cry (Saturday, BBC2, 8.40am)
3. The Princess Bride (Sunday, five, 10.45am)
4. The Wooden Horse (Saturday, BBC2, 1.45pm)
5. Cold in July (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

"The Lost City of Z" (Catholic Herald 24/03/17)

The true-life figure driving the transporting The Lost City of Z (*****, 15, 141 mins) is Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a jobbing British Army serviceman of lowly descent who, while mapping the Bolivia-Peru border in 1906, became distracted by rumours of a mysterious city of gold: the same talk, we note, that lured conquistadors to their doom. For indie nearlyman James Gray, it’s a bold move into Herzog-Coppola territory: an obsessed character, the leafy unknown. “Success could change your lot considerably,” quoth a Royal Geographic Society bigwig to Fawcett; as for our hero, so for his director.

The wind is certainly at their backs. Where earlier Gray ventures dealt in stasis, here an enveloping forward motion propels both protagonist and film. It’s evident right from the opening deer hunt, officers tumbling over their steeds in sweeping overhead shots as Fawcett first veers off-track. Gray’s describing a thrilling moment when the world seemed wide open and up-for-grabs – if doubtless more dangerous, too. Immersive setpieces surpass even The Revenant’s heavily digitised spectacle: you instinctively duck whenever native arrows start to fly.

The film is not so boysy as to overlook the pull of home comforts, represented by Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife Nina, expecting the couple’s second child as hubby first takes his leave. Gray’s elegantly structured screenplay – drawn from David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller – proposes three such expeditions, each with different motivations. Fawcett seeks at various points to reclaim a family name; escape a marital row (while, conversely, initiating a dialogue with tribesmen); then, after the horrors of WWI, to reconnect with now-teenage son Jack (Tom Holland).

This final movement is where Gray reveals himself as a touch softer than Herzog, yet that empathy allows him to nurture something far more recognisable than crazed extremes in his seekers. For one, he coaxes a welcome wryness from Robert Pattinson, full-bearded as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp Henry Costin, and he keeps finding ways to illustrate why people were drawn to Fawcett’s eccentric mix of scrum-half solidity and high Romantic fervour – or Hunnam’s own blend of the two, for we’re also surely discovering this ever-improving actor en route.

That’s crucial, because what Z ultimately seeks to reveal is the El Dorado within: our glittering dreams, and where they carry us by day. The film is specific about the hardships incurred in such deviations, while also operating on some wider-roaming, metaphorical level. What Gray sees in Fawcett is the willingness to pursue a line as far as it goes, to see where it might lead – a pursuit that appears newly poignant as borders close and aspirations dim. Whether or not this is the film that wins these adventurers the audience they merit, you can’t accuse them of not going the extra mile.

The Lost City of Z opens in cinemas nationwide from today.

"Power Rangers" (Guardian 24/03/17)

Power Rangers **
Dir: Dean Israelite. With: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin. 124 mins. Cert: 12A

You can rationalise and contextualise and say that the Marvel effect means any Lycra-clad saviour with an iota of brand recognition is now apt for revival in some format. Once the lights dim, however, nothing can prepare you for the ontological strangeness of watching a Power Rangers movie in 2017. Especially one that is – forgive me if my voice rises an octave here – not entirely terrible? That is, in fact, basically harmless, if you don’t object to feeding your kids pop-cultural leftovers, with odd flickers of charm besides? In an age of hype, some films are bound to benefit from massively reduced expectations; this would be one of them.

Being a 21st century reboot, of course, director Dean Israelite’s hands are tied by the deadening demands of the origin story, yet this remains one of the goofier ones, chortlingly realised: five small-town kids assuming colour-coded superpowers after trapping themselves beneath a sluff of prehistoric alien space rock. If the group’s trajectory from detention through training montage to final, city-trashing battle is diagrammatic, Israelite senses it’s silly enough not to belabour the throwaway plot points generated. “Any questions?” asks Bryan Cranston, operating behind a Blu-Tack carapace as galactic guardian Zordon. “Nah, I think I’m good,” responds wiseacre Blue Ranger Billy (RJ Cyler). That’s the spirit.
No-one’s pushing the subvert button too hard: the much-reported gay subtext proves so muted as to make Beauty and the Beast seem like Paris is Burning. Nevertheless, those leftfield choices Israelite does make (bovine masturbation gags, batty product-placement, Elizabeth Banks vamping as cosplay-ready villain Rita Repulsa) are welcome, and the New Rangers such likable types it’s a pity they should eventually suit up. We didn’t need this: not the repackage, nor more superheroics, nor the closing-credits cover of Snap’s “The Power”. Yet the film achieves a functioning mediocrity we perhaps thought beyond this franchise, offering a modicum of diversion in return for the cash disappeared from your wallet. 

Power Rangers opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Life" (Little White Lies 24/03/17)

As the success of Star Wars in 1977 opened up a new frontier of science fiction, ranging from the nasty Alien to the far cuddlier E.T., so the box-office conquest of Gravity, The Martian and, yes, New Star Wars has persuaded the studios to return to the skies. There will be fallers in this multiplex space race: for every Arrival, determined to take the science in its sci-fi seriously, there follows a Passengers, attempting nothing more cosmic than zero-gravity soap opera. Daniel Espinosa’s Life itself proves mostly motion, floating its camera around a creditable simulacrum of the International Space Station and a starry crew of astronauts finding the intelligent lifeforms of Mars a touch too clever for comfort. Everyone circles the Sun at a fair lick, without finding anything new under there.

A promising first act scatters reasons why this motley, multi-ethnic crew have signed up to sift the heavens. For blithe head ‘naut Roy (Ryan Reynolds), it’s an out-of-this-world goof; for introverted David (Jake Gyllenhaal) a matter of loathing the war-torn planet he’s left beneath him; chief scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) cherishes the way weightlessness frees him from his wheelchair. Onboard space, however, soon shrinks with the arrival of “Calvin”, the name given to the organism the crew retrieve from a scraping of Martian bedrock. Starting out performing cute VFX pirouettes in a Petri dish, Calvin swells first to starfish proportions, then into a voracious hybrid: part-squid, part-Disney’s Stitch. “There’s going to be a big custody battle over this one,” quips Reynolds. Painful, too, it transpires.

Clearly, the screenwriters – the Deadpool duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – have determined we need to talk about Calvin, a metaphor in plain sight for all those back-row dimbulbs who couldn’t quite parse the significance of John Hurt’s chest bursting open in Alien. Yet where Hurt’s trauma came as a genuinely nasty surprise – and one that merited extensive dissection – Calvin is just a bad seed who, thanks to the Lucasfilm wonks’ overtime work, gets bigger and badder with every frame, in inverse proportion to a rapidly thinning idea. As this murderous toddler doles out overfamiliar facehugs, you wonder whether Reese and Wernick haven’t themselves been sampling those intergalactic horror-thrillers that went straight-to-VHS in the heyday of Ritz Video.

Espinosa, who initiated Sweden’s slick Easy Money series before heading to Hollywood in search of precisely that, at least ensures it’s a brisk rip-off, earning grudging points for arriving at the kind of gotcha ending Rod Serling might have applauded. Yet he finds no time for his actors to develop anything like the internal life we cheered in astronauts Bullock and Damon, and is mostly reduced to cycling through yawnsomely predictable B-movie set-ups: the look on Ryan and Jake’s faces as one seals the other on the wrong side of a quarantine bay door (“Not this again”) rather says it all. Whatever concerns Ridley Scott may have as he finishes post-production on the upcoming Alien: Covenant, the generally non-intelligent Life need not be among them.

Anticipation Two of the A-list’s most dependable leading men, in a space odyssey from an emergent genre stylist. Blast off! 3
Enjoyment A regrettably ropey simulation, offering scant new thrills or spills. 2
In retrospect You’ll have forgotten it by the time you touch down in the car park. 2  

Life opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Home under the hammer: "Aquarius"

Kleber Mendonça Filho is the emergent Brazilian writer-director who broke through internationally with 2012's Neighbouring Sounds, a polyphonic evocation of a few square blocks in the filmmaker's native Recife. His follow-up Aquarius narrows its focus further still to deliver a novelistic portrait of a single beachside apartment block - that of the title, named during a new age of hope in Brazil - which has fallen under dire threat from developers. As seems to be increasingly the case, the fightback will be led by a woman: Dona Clara (Sonia Braga), a vivacious sixtysomething - introduced swimming, dancing and performing tai chi; not simultaneously, although you don't doubt she could if she set her mind to it - who has survived the rigours of breast cancer and losing a partner and will be damned if she's going to let gentrification get the better of her.

Very quickly, we note that Clara isn't some scrabbling slumdweller, rather a lady of leisure, and some privilege besides: a successful writer back in the day, she has a swelling family, links to high society, and a loyal domestic on her payroll. Mendonça's idea is that wealth inequality in contemporary Brazil has accelerated to the point where even the relatively well-to-do are starting to feel the squeeze - that land-grabs like the one the film dramatises have become so common that there can be no safe or higher ground. (The film became a cause célèbre in its home country after opening during a right-wing coup that was protested by cast and crew on the red carpet at Cannes, but British cinemagoers need only look to that block of luxury flats going up next to their arthouse of choice - or on the former site of that arthouse - to sense the director may have a point.)

The crucial word in the above synopsis, however, is portrait. Aquarius rarely feels like a thesis, rather a series of snapshots - not unlike those Mendonça presents beneath the opening credits - of individuals and groups of individuals (girls on a night out, guests at a party, musicians in a band) attempting to escape from under some of the same stresses and strains you and I might feel on a daily basis. The approach risks accusations of indulgence. Mendonça's goal is to immerse us in a particular environment and social milieu, and several sequences seem to make their point long before the director can think or bear to call cut. Neighbouring Sounds ran to a generous 132 minutes; Aquarius goes to 148, although it's not unlike its fellow Cannes competitor Toni Erdmann in its proposal that heel-dragging may be one form of resistance against the get-rich-quick merchants of this world.

On the plus side, the handling allows Mendonça to take in more signs of life, not least Braga, that imperious figurehead of Brazilian cinema, who evinces a firm sense of a woman who's seen and done a lot in this world and isn't going to stand for any old crap, not least the boys' game of erecting skyscrapers for the sake of boosting an ego or a bank account. Mendonça locates a growing generational tension - again, very Toni E - between Clara, as much an artefact of the bohemian life as the vinyl records she's collected, and her offspring, who've grown up in a world where the corporations always get their way, and so meekly play along. Will these nearest and dearest provide a buffer between Clara and the moneymen, or - taking the path of least exhausting resistance - give her an extra push out the door?

Throughout the second hour, you can start to feel Mendonça biding his time and treading narrative water. Among the comings and goings, there are distinct signs he has his eye on a crossover hit - so Clara cranks up "Fat Bottomed Girls" to drown out the orgy that's broken out on the floor above her (and I think the musos among us might wonder whether a true bohemian would be quite so into Queen, of all 70s rockers) - and that he feels the need to play up to his leading lady's screen persona as a torrid sex kitten. While the orgy unfolds upstairs, we witness Clara calling up a hunky young gigolo for her own entertainment (rather than sitting around waiting to get shafted in other ways), and - while hurriedly removing his trousers - insisting she won't need lube for the occasion. What a gal!

Thematically, however, many of Mendonça's choices are very effective. The film's second-billed star - less glamorous than the female lead, yet somehow far sturdier - is a wooden dresser accorded its own character arc. Introduced as a supporting player in an idle sexual fantasy, it then pops up in a midfilm nightmare as discarded heritage before finally presenting as evidence of how big business seeks to undermine us all - a recurring motif of the everyday that conveys something of the meanings we attach to material items, as if the tree in last week's The Olive Tree had come to shift into a more domestic shape. It still feels a little long and unwieldy to me, but then form, content and subject do come to align over the course of these two-and-a-half hours: if we are to hold out against the powers-that-be, perhaps we would all do well to convert ourselves into intractable, immovable objects.

Aquarius opens in selected cinemas from today.