Tuesday 30 May 2017

Desert island movie: "The Red Turtle"

At the time of its first screenings in Cannes last year, the castaway fable The Red Turtle was being floated as the final film to bear the Studio Ghibli imprimatur; as it finally lands on UK screens, we can rest easy, knowing that this is no longer the case. (By all accounts, Hayao Miyazaki has changed his mind on retirement and returned to his drawing board: le vent se lève, il faut tenter de vivre.) If anything, the film has the look of a formerly closed shop opening its doors and then its mind to the idea of cross-pollination. Under the auspices of Dutch-born, British-based animator Michael Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle marks a break from recent Ghibli tradition in several respects. Its animation style, for one, is not just less florid, but sparser, grainier, more individualistic; as befits what is at heart a tale of isolation, the frame is emptier than it ever was in Spirited Away or Ponyo, the imagination channelled somewhat differently. Although de Wit shares Miyazaki's enduring fascination with the elements, rarely can a Ghibli film have appeared this elemental.

This, it transpires, is the other crucial difference: de Wit favours a form of storytelling so stripped down and pared back as to invite allegorical reading. Here is a man (credited only as The Father) left living and working in isolation on a desert island after his craft is destroyed during a storm; his attempts to float himself back out into the world will be continually stymied by the creature enshrined in the title, a russet-hued reptile who initially presents as an obstacle, but will eventually prove key to his future happiness. The Father is a tiny figure, most often viewed in longshot, his eyes mere currants rather than the usual anime saucers. (He is of a genus closer to Tintin than Totoro.) In his solitary labours - chiefly the lashing together of tree branches into an escape raft - he could be seen as an analogue of the artisanal animator, whittling down his own HBs. Yet he's also been characterised as rather self-absorbed - impulsive and restless, driven to bludgeon the turtle after one failed escape bid - who must learn how to co-exist with the world around him.

In this respect, The Red Turtle is very Ghibli, yet we should also note another influence: that of de Wit's co-writer Pascale Ferran, who gave us 2006's lush Lady Chatterley adaptation. The palette, however, is all de Wit's: the green of the forest where the castaway finds the wood for his raft, the burnished yellow of the shores he comes to collapse upon in despair, fading to black and white as the sun goes down or the protagonist enters a dreamspace. We're headed towards an anthropomorphic twist that recalls Hans Christian Andersen (source, lest we forget, of Ponyo), yet the second half most reminded me of certain countercultural animations from the 1960s and 70s: it wouldn't surprise me if very young viewers were a little bemused by events, and equally if the film attracted a crowd of stoners with their own theories on what it ultimately all means. It may, I suspect, be rather more conventional than that demographic would insist - something along the lines of last year's Raymond Briggs adaptation Ethel & Ernest, relocated to an uncommonly exotic backdrop.

That's not to say, however, that it isn't transporting and finally very moving in its description of how time passes and things change. It's the starkness of this description that is most striking, and bold with it. Other desert-island movies - whether Castaway or Cast Away - have found devices via which their protagonists can keep up a dialogue of sorts, but de Wit is clearly of the school that maintains that if your images are indelible enough, you don't or won't need to explain yourself. There's a sparing score (by Laurent Perez del Mar), but for the most part we're left, like this latter-day Robinson Crusoe, to listen to the birds in the trees, the crickets in the long grass, and the waves lapping rhythmically upon the shore. It's opening here in time for the school holidays, alongside a computer animation titled Spark: A Space Tail (primates in space); something tells me de Wit's film contains more artistry in a single frame than the other movie has in its entire ninety minutes.

The Red Turtle is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday 29 May 2017

No end in sight: "War Machine"

In the end, the issue may lie at the point of departure, not the point of delivery. The trade press has been ablaze these past few weeks with the debate, originated in Cannes, over the right of Netflix's original features to compete in festivals intended to showcase big-screen fare. If there is a "Netflix problem", however, it strikes me as developing further up the conveyor belt: that here is an organisation blessed with increasingly vast amounts of subscriber money, and creatives lining up to receive a benevolence currently denied to them by the comic book-obsessed studios, but without the hard-nosed producers who could better regulate the flow of cash for content. These are the middlemen who might, for example, have hovered over Aziz Ansari's shoulder and suggested that Season Two of Master of None was getting cutesy, and that its female love interest needed at least one more rewrite; who might have deigned to tell Tina Fey that the brilliant comic ideas bubbling up in the course of a 30-minute Kimmy Schmidt episode might be better served by a 23/25-minute cut, of the kind that made 30 Rock a show for the ages; or simply have sidled up to Baz Luhrmann as he was effusing about The Get Down, and uttered a deflating but necessary "nah". (The precedent would be HBO, who at the turn of the Nineties turned subscriber revenue into a run of useful made-for-TV movies, stand-up specials and boundary-pushing series - but that service had the personnel on hand to trim the fat where necessary, and it wasn't handing Adam Sandler an allowance every couple of months.)

I was struck again by this absence while watching this weekend's new release War Machine, a Brad Pitt-starring, Brad Pitt-produced satire that looks to have passed onto our screens without any of the usual checks and balances that might ensure us a good time. The source is journalist Michael Hastings' non-fiction tome The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan, centring on a hands-on, take-no-prisoners general who came late to this conflict (in 2009) and increasingly found his primary objective wasn't - as anticipated - rallying the troops to a decisive victory over the Taliban, rather putting glitter on what was, by that point, a towering and especially odoriferous turd. In the book, this figure was the hapless Stanley McChrystal, focus of Hastings' hellzapoppin' Rolling Stone profile "The Runaway General"; presumably at the behest of lawyers, the movie offers us Pitt huffing and puffing away in camouflage garb that bears the name tag Glen McMahon. Very quickly, you see where some additional degree of intervention might have been beneficial. For starters, it needed someone behind the scenes to point out how, for all the material's inherent absurdity, the natural inclination of this story is towards tragedy or at best tragicomedy; that any attempt at remodelling it as a goofy good time would simply be to read against the grain of Hastings' words. It also, more immediately, needed a more objective judge than Brad Pitt to point out the myriad ways in which Pitt's performance as McMahon simply wasn't working.

It is conceivable that Pitt, a thoughtful producer-star in the right circumstances (Moneyball, 12 Years a Slave), felt he had to impose himself triply on this material, to give Hastings' grounded prose a cinematic lift. Yet right from the first shot of McMahon striding bow-legged through an airport terminal, face clamped in a Popeye-like rictus - in short, before the actor has even opened his mouth - your internal "uh-oh" radar is pinging. This is Brad doing capital-F Funny (contracting Clooney syndrome, as was once diagnosed), with all the squandered effort that implies. No-one seems to have mentioned that Pitt is too young-seeming to play a hardened combat veteran: he's left labouring away under a grey dye job and a set of ornery alpha-dog attitudes that sit altogether uneasily on these shoulders. Worse, the film looks to have made its mind up about McMahon being a loser from his first appearance, which means there's nowhere very rewarding or provocative for the next two hours to go: we're meant to laugh at this guy, no matter that the writing and playing is such that we can't. After the excellent but sincerely grim Animal Kingdom and The Rover, David Michod wouldn't have been the obvious choice for this project, and that lack of affinity shows: you wonder whether he wasn't drawn here by the twenty minutes of battle footage he gets to shoot towards the end, because - back at base - scene after scene drifts by without any detectable purpose, and without arriving at anything like a punchline. There's the vaguest air of an idea about a hardened G.I. coming to discover that modern warfare is basically a PR exercise, but all this script pulls from that scenario is a mild series of anecdotes: meetings with a distractible Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley) and an Obama lookalike, a cameo from Tilda Swinton as a German politician, a lot of Brad jogging bandy-legged around his new post, which everybody involved seems to consider the funniest thing you ever did see. (Producer says no.)

There's one very sharply composed and performed sequence, and - perhaps not coincidentally - it's the one scene in which Swinton appears, suggesting she might have been the organising intelligence the project required: here, the galumphing McMahon is set down before a room of dignitaries and obliged to explain why taking out two insurgents often leaves an occupying force with ten or twelve more opponents on their hands. The scene works because, for the briefest moment, nobody in the frame is straining for chuckles; we're simply being given Hastings' straight-up reportage - the hard facts and figures that have been dolled up for entertainment elsewhere. Still, as any producer or general worth their stripes could tell you, one good scene in 120 minutes - like one victory in a decade-long war - can't be considered enough. The movies persist in attempting to jolly up this conflict - think Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, or Rock the Kasbah, or even that one where Nicolas Cage and Russell Brand set out on a donkey to kill Osama bin Laden, if you must - but the conflict stubbornly resists jollification: the underlying facts are too sad, the wounds too open and raw, the sense of waste too great for us to even begin to relax about it, let alone smile and laugh. A film as fundamentally mismanaged as War Machine has no chance of overcoming those obstacles: it doesn't matter how many faces Brad pulls, how much new-media money has been thrown at the screen, nor even which size of screen you happen to catch Michod's film on. The turd remains fundamentally unglittered.

War Machine is now in selected cinemas, and available to stream on Netflix.          

Saturday 27 May 2017

1,001 Films: "Halloween" (1978)

Easy to forget - now they've entered regular TV rotation, and their director has seemingly given into terminal hackdom - just how taut and accomplished John Carpenter's early films were. Take the exemplary slasher pic Halloween: anybody now attempting to make a horror movie should be required by law to sit down and study its beautifully timed and judged build-up before calling "action!" for the first time. The abandoned car; the desecrated grave; a robbery at a hardware store. Long shots - still long shots - that elicit chills from nothing more than a bloke in a boiler suit stepping out (briefly) from behind a hedge. In broad daylight, to boot. And how about that killer - escaped mental patient Michael Myers - and his personality, split along the horizontal: funny-strange (his bird-like way of observing victims by tilting his head) and funny-ha ha (dressing up as a ghost to spook PJ Soles, arranging his corpses to be found in a funfair-like room of horrors). Everything else is either as good as you recall, or as good as you've heard: the best organised screen space of any non-studio horror picture (there's a reason it was shot in Panavision); Donald Pleasance, giving a masterclass in exposition with dignity; the score to end all horror scores, like cold fingers running up and down your spine; Jamie Lee Curtis, appealingly square and even weirdly sexy in the tight green sweater she wears to class; and Blue Oyster Cult singing "Don't Fear the Reaper". Four decades of sequels and remakes may have taken some of the lustre off the blade, but Halloween is still as sharp as ever.

Halloween is available on DVD through Anchor Bay, and Blu-Ray through Platform Entertainment.

Friday 26 May 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 19-21, 2017:

1 (new) King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (12A)

2 (1) Alien: Covenant (15)
3 (2Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A) **
4 (new) Snatched (15)
5 (3) The Boss Baby (U)
6 (5) A Dog's Purpose (PG)
7 (4) Fast & Furious 8 (12A)
8 (7) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
9 (new) Colossal (15)
10 (new) Half Girlfriend (12A)

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. Manhattan
2. Heal the Living
3. The Red Turtle

4. Jawbone
5. Suntan

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
2 (3) Moana (PG) ****
3 (2) Rogue One (12) **
4 (1) La La Land (12) ***
5 (new) Lion (12) ***
6 (4Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
7 (6) Manchester by the Sea (15) ****
8 (5) Trolls (U)
9 (9) Ballerina (U) ***
10 (10) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five: 
1. Toni Erdmann

2. The Salesman
3. Who's Gonna Love Me Now?
4. Hacksaw Ridge
5. Manchester by the Sea

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Searchers [above] (Bank Holiday Monday, five, 3.10pm)
2. Clueless (Bank Holiday Monday, C4, 11.15am)
3. Mission: Impossible (Saturday, ITV1, 2.30pm)
4. The World's End (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. Die Hard 2 (Saturday, C4, 11.10pm)

"Sachin: A Billion Dreams" (Guardian 26/05/17)

Sachin: A Billion Dreams ***
Dir: James Erskine. Documentary with: Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, Virender Sehwag. 138 mins. Cert: 12A

Prolific sports documentarist James Erskine (Pantani, The Battle of the Sexes) here takes on his most ambitious project yet: a study of Sachin Tendulkar – the closest Indian cricket has to a living God – played out over Test session duration to soaring A. R. Rahman compositions. Much as last year’s biopic did for M.S. Dhoni, Erskine positions Tendulkar as a modernising influence, an upwardly mobile middle-class boy driving his country into the 21st century; his ascendancy coincides with the global TV rights boom, reflected in generally enthralling match footage that progresses from wobbly VHS images to super-HD IPL coverage. The world wanted to watch Sachin bat.

Certain sections land somewhere between admiring and naggingly authorised. Erskine soft-pedals around Anjali’s decision to abandon her medical studies to become a full-time wife, Sachin’s apparently fraught relations with India’s ever-byzantine Board of Cricket Control, and the pressures of delivering for fans who think nothing of torching a stadium upon an upper-order collapse. Less intemperate spectators should, however, be sated by the basic combo of heavy-hitting archive and carefully placed lifestyle detail: the revelation that Tendulkar is an unapologetic Dire Straits devotee cues a montage of his 1997/98 majesty set – in a deft edit-suite flourish – to “Sultans of Swing”. 

Sachin: A Billion Dreams opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul" (Guardian 26/05/17)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul **
Dir: David Bowers. With: Jason Drucker, Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, Charlie Wright. 91 mins. Cert: U

Faced with ageing or refusenik performers, the amiable family franchise’s fourth big-screen outing elects for ruthless, root-and-branch recasting. Alicia Silverstone and Tom Everett Scott are new and 33% blander as the Heffley elders, while Jason Drucker succeeds Zachary Gordon as eponymous weakling Greg, here caught plotting to reroute the clan’s road trip towards a much-anticipated gaming expo. Returning director David Bowers gives it sporadic pep: there’s a fun Psycho homage, and CG projectile vomit. Yet elsewhere the books’ trademark stick-figure illustrations get converted into banal, overlit, primetime sitcom images, and the endless off-route wheelspinning makes that subtitle lamentably apt. For once, it’ll be the grown-ups asking the kids “Are we there yet?”

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge" (Guardian 22/05/17)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge **
Dirs: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg. With: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Kaya Scodelario. 129 mins. Cert: 12A

Given the sorry fate of other projects derived from Disney theme-park attractions – 2002’s The Country Bears, 2003’s The Haunted Mansion – it’s staggering that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise should have remained financially seaworthy through four passable-to-indifferent features. With Pirates V, Salazar’s Revenge, the cracks in the hull become unignorable. Orlando Bloom has pled for reduced participation, handing his sextant to onscreen offspring Brenton Thwaites; Skins alumna Kaya Scodelario inherits Keira Knightley’s corsets. The series, in other words, has entered its Muppet Babies or Scrappy-Doo phase, with all the pop-cultural heft that implies.

There’s fresher blood behind the camera, too, not entirely unwelcome after the avant-garde tedium of Gore Verbinski’s three-hour send-off At World’s End and Rob Marshall’s by-the-numbers On Stranger Tides. Norwegians Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, fresh off the Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki, are keener than their predecessors to spend time at sea – some consolation to anybody wondering how interested this series really was in pirating – and toss much of the ballast that clogged previous instalments overboard. Revenge moves at a faster rate of knots than any Pirates film; trouble is, nothing’s really been added. It’s the same soggy ride, set to a marginally preferable speed.

Of plot, there is literally a ghost of an idea: to have Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow – washed up on St. Martin, with his beloved boat The Black Pearl cleverly secreted inside a bottle – tempted back out onto the waves after the resurfacing of one Salazar, a decomposing Spaniard whom Sparrow previously sent to a watery grave. Javier Bardem brings an air of mouldering chorizo to this guest-villain role, but Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay doesn’t develop the enmity so much as jetski around it, stirring up noisy turbulence – doubtless sensing that the fanbase isn’t here for intricate yarnspinning, rather the long-awaited/shruggingly tolerated return of Cap’n Jack.

Depp duly does what Depp does in these films: he swaggers, he rolls those kohl-heavy Keith Richards eyes, he leers at his younger female co-star. The schtick is, granted, more feature than glitch: this franchise has always been about delivering pantomimic nonsense, and lots of it. So it is that Paterson’s Golshifteh Farahani goes bald with rank teeth as a conniving witch; so it is Paul McCartney momentarily shows up as Sparrow’s Scouse uncle. After Becks in King Arthur, it’s not the season’s worst celeb cameo – rather sweetly, Macca strolls on, tells a joke, and walks off, thumbs semi-aloft – but this isn’t A Hard Day’s Night so much as A Very Easy Paycheque.

Viewer value-for-money proves more debatable. The Pirates series hasn’t delivered a single memorable setpiece since Dead Man’s Chest’s oversized waterwheel business, and time and again, Revenge plumps for distraction over consequence, flooding the screen with images that attain scale – like the ship that rears up on its haunches in readiness for attack – but not one iota of meaning. Without any extra emotional investment in these characters – Nathanson regards them as revivable running jokes – the much-trailed zombie shark sequence comes to feel like watching somebody playing a tie-in videogame.

Maybe the franchise’s success lies in the bountiful downtime it offers beleaguered consumers: even with the wind in its sails here, long stretches of fruitless exposition invite one to have a pee, text a friend, make funeral arrangements, whatever. Yet the rock ‘n’ roll irreverence this franchise once claimed to have freighted into multiplexes has now long since drifted over the horizon. For all Depp’s posturing, the singer-songwriter Revenge most reminded me of was neither raffish Stone nor larky Beatle, rather the mournful Robert Wyatt: how curious and sad it is that we’ve canned actual shipbuilding, yet persisted in setting this disposable, plasticky junk afloat.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 25 May 2017

On DVD: "Who's Gonna Love Me Now?"

The subject of the Heymann brothers' documentary Who's Gonna Love Me Now? is a man very clearly living in exile. We're first introduced to Saar, a thirtysomething Israeli now based in North London, as he eyes up his (male) neighbours on a weekend; by day, he works at the Apple store, and by night, he performs among the ensemble of the London Gay Men's Chorus. The latter group's harmonies can only drown out some of the discordant history Saar trails, however: kicked out of a kibbutz (and disowned by his family's more orthodox wing) as a young man for partying altogether too hard, he subsequently found out he was HIV-positive - a development which would appear to make any immediate return to the bosom of his disapproving parents and siblings unlikely at best.

The Heymanns' thoughtfully observational style allows us to quickly intuit the root causes of this tension. We need spend only thirty seconds in the company of Saar's father Katri, a greying instructor of police cadets with a seemingly endless supply of war stories, to know exactly why he's fallen out of favour so. Here is a deeply conservative man, happy to compare Saar unfavourably to his married, devout offspring; his reaction upon learning that his son was gay was, we learn, to a) inform the lad what he'd be missing out on, and b) offer the wince-inducing suggestion "take two pills, and it'll pass". (He tells the filmmakers this himself, so he's clearly proud of the phrasing.)

If we sense we're headed towards some form of reconciliation, we're also made aware that it will not be easily achieved: occasional glimpses of dates from this decade's first years are enough to impress upon us that Saar and his kin are on the long, hard road rarely followed by fictions in the Prayers for Bobby vein. Saar's mother Reut may appear greatly more sympathetic to her boy, but while on a trip to see him in London, she nixes a possible trip to see the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert musical for fear it might be too much for her, and winds up in the kitchen of Saar's flat, confessing over a pan of sizzling latkes that she can't help but seek to protect her grandchildren from the diseased blood running through her son.

Such moments are typical of the intimacy the Heymanns achieve with their subjects: while jetting back and forth between kibbutz and city, they put us right there in the room as Saar begins to rebut his brother Tsur's prejudices, and get in close enough to spot Katri's sour expression as his son kisses another man on the lips in full view of Old Compton Street. Their compelling focal point is Saar himself, visibly bruised by his experiences - emotions never far from his rugged surface - and becoming understandably defensive when he returns to the kibbutz in the final half-hour and faces nineteen years' worth of criticism over his conduct.

What we're watching in this home stretch is an uneasy peace process, a search for some middle ground between London and Tel Aviv, the orthodoxy of the family's position and this prodigal son's desire to live the life that he wants to lead. The film's strength is that it doesn't immediately pick a side: it has the patience and perspicacity to tease out how at least some of Katri's fears - those unrelated to a lack of understanding of Saar's lifestyle choices - stem from a father's desire to see his son outlive him. (Like a lot of conservatives, he's protective to a fault.)

This results in the very moving sight of man and boy beginning to reconnect on some level - a trajectory at least partially enabled, it's implied, by the death of Katri's own father, rendering him a child all over again. Clever counterpointing of the choir's rousing arrangements of recent pop stormers - Pink's "Get the Party Started" as Saar first bridges the gap by flying home - will likely boost attendance at LGMC events by anywhere between 150 and 200%, but also ties in with the central quest. We know Saar's been singing for years, but only late on - deep into these most emotional of negotiations - does he really appear to find his voice.

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? is available on DVD through Saffron Hill. 

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Happy Finnish: "The Other Side of Hope"

As its writer-director Aki Kaurismäki has acknowledged in interviews, the best gag in The Other Side of Hope is that a refugee from the Syrian conflict should come to seek asylum in Finland, a place where - as Kaurismäki's films have proposed for years - there is never very much going on, and what little there is going on proceeds at the most glacial pace imaginable. Out of the frying pan, into the void. It is, nevertheless, the basis of a workable fish-out-of-water set-up, and Kaurismäki's voyager Khalid Ali (Sherwan Haji) is indeed plucked from the ocean: deposited in Helsinki from a freighter along with the several tonnes of coal he secreted himself within, emerging as black about the face as Yosemite Sam after one of his schemes involving ACME-brand dynamite backfires, the darkest of skin passing into what's just about the whitest population on the planet. Back on dry land, Khalid eventually crosses paths with marvellously named captain of industry Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a clothing salesman who leaves his wife in his first scene and quits his job shortly afterwards to pursue his dream of running a restaurant. Here, then, are two men who've been set adrift; the question occupying the film - though Kaurismäki, ever-laconic, doesn't so much state it as float it - is whether they will ever find safe harbour.

Hope was first announced as the second in this director's so-called Port Trilogy - a follow-up to 2011's wryly charming Le Havre - before Kaurismäki, with not untypical perversity, declared it would in fact be his last ever work. You could, at any rate, approach it as the seventeenth-or-so in a series of films d'Aki. The world may have changed dramatically in the years since Kaurismäki's feature debut, a 1983 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, but his framing - the way he's come to look at that world - has remained more or less constant: with a fixed, unblinking camera, positioned slightly closer to the characters than the cameras of Michael Haneke or Roy Andersson, the better to observe those sporadic flickers of emotion passing over his generally hangdog performers' faces. The new film has, granted, a comparatively serious and straight-faced opening movement, illustrating those hoops an asylum seeker has to pass through so as to give himself even a chance of making Northern Europe his home, yet by the time Waldemar wins the high-stakes poker game that allows him to snap up a nearby fleshpot - an establishment that could well do with an extra pair of hands - you can sense the film beginning to relax and have a measure of droll fun with its premise.

It helps that, despite its name ("The Golden Pint"), the restaurant in question is no obvious promised land, rather a dead-end dive last decorated circa 1975 (which would explain the Hendrix fresco adorning one wall). Here, the modest scattering of clientele are attended to by a chainsmoking chef (signature dish: still-canned sardines with solitary boiled potato) and a manager whose final act before turning the keys over to his successor is to empty both the cash register and the tips jar into his own pocket. "We couldn't go any lower if we tried," Waldemar sighs to Khalid at one point, but this last-chance saloon allows Kaurismäki to be amusingly self-deprecating about the nature of Finnish hospitality - one neighbouring hostelry has pints of the local brew pre-poured behind the bar for those sorry souls who pass through its doors - while pursuing a preferred theme of his: the coming together of people in unlikely or reduced circumstances. After discovering Khalid sleeping round the back of his bins ("This is my bedroom," the new arrival shrugs, forlornly), Waldemar gives his charge the helping hand he needs - work, phony ID card, a slightly more salubrious place to rest his head - but only after the two men have exchanged punches to the face.

Anybody coming cold to the film may find its style as much limitation as boon. The action here unfolds not in the real world so much as a gnomic, comic-strip version of it, populated by individuals with no better place to go; big belly laughs are few and far between, and - even when Khalid is confronted by the skinheaded thugs of the Finland Liberation Army - the life-and-death urgency of the In This World and Fire at Sea branches of refugee cinema proves to be beyond Kaurismäki's reach. That style is equally, however, a useful checking device: these scenes are forever too curt and clipped to succumb to mawkishness or blandishments, leaving their author the time and space to come up with, say, jokes about the myriad uses of pickled herring. That may make The Other Side of Hope sound like a niche concern, and in truth, it probably is; still, its characters' stoicism and quiet pragmatism in this matter - and Kaurismäki's determination to treat migration anecdotally, removed from the wailing and gnashing of teeth this subject has provoked elsewhere - is in its own way affecting. Brief encounter by brief encounter, bathetic punchline by pathetic punchline, Hope nudges and tickles its audience into an appreciably better place.

The Other Side of Hope opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Master of the house: "Lady Macbeth"

Signs of life in the moribund period genre. That Lady Macbeth was never intended as another of our rose-tinted, post-Downton, pre-Brexit skips down memory lane can be intuited almost immediately from the clipped precision of its editing and the severity of its framing: we're not meant to luxuriate or wallow in these images so much as see the dust gathering and the chill hanging in the air. Writer Alice Birch and director William Oldroyd have here relocated the powerplays of Nikolai Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, first published in Dostoyevsky's magazine Epoch and later adapted by Shostakovich as an opera and by Andrzej Wajda as a film, to the North of England of the late 19th century; between them, they succeed in making the Northumbrian moors appear even less hospitable than the wilds of Siberia. Some things, so the underlying editorial goes, may be best left to the past.

Leskov provides the basic outline: a young bride - here named Katherine (Florence Pugh, from The Falling), that hard Slavic K differentiating her from those other Cathys who came home hereabouts - married off to a wealthy mineowner and subsequently locked away as one more acquisition among many. With absolutely no purpose of her own, save to produce the heir that might extend the dynasty, Katherine is obliged by day to strap herself into corsets, meekly wait up for the ineffectual man of the house (Paul Hilton) to conclude his business, and then further submit to his control - although this fellow has some funny ideas on how to procreate, forcing his bride to strip before leaving her shivering on their wedding night, and later ordering her to face the wall while he laboriously tugs himself off. 

Still, Katherine has spirit, and a brain, and appetites still: she finds more subversive ways of killing this time, of resisting, even. With hubby increasingly absent, she takes up with a lusty, mocking labourer, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), moving him into her chambers and beneath the sheets of the marital bed, further reorganising this household on her own terms. Yet this proves to be but the briefest of idylls, offering only an illusion of power, not one that can hold for long in this particular day and age. What strikes us, in the meantime, is the extent to which the film has been organised around its leading lady: independent British cinema, with its makeshift resources and mucking-in aesthetic, doesn't tend to throw up many starmaking roles, but this would be one of them.

There was something preternatural or otherworldly about Pugh in The Falling: she was an alien queen in knee-length socks, putting her contemporaries under her spell. Here, she's anomalous in a different way: an unmistakably modern presence, she makes Katherine bored out of her mind, passive-aggressive, bolshy when she needs to be, as though someone had just snatched this twentysomething's iPhone out of her hands seconds before the cameras started rolling. Katherine fucks for pleasure, rather than out of duty, which makes her a threat to the established order: when she suddenly stands up in the middle of a genteel afternoon tea with a passing vicar who's started prying into her extracurricular activities, it's both her way of letting her guest know it's time to leave, and Oldroyd's way of disrupting the neat symmetry of his frame.

This director, who hails from theatre, knows how to work a multiplicity of perspectives into his action. Katherine's sole companion for much of the film, and her co-conspirator for some of it, is Anna (Naomi Ackie), a put-upon black maid who, while she may enjoy a measure of liberation in peeping in at her mistress's carnal activities, appears more trapped than anybody else on screen. However bad Katherine may have it at the clammy, grabby hands of the patriarchy, Anna - hogtied for sport by the labourers, forced to grovel on her hands and knees by her employers - has it far, far worse. (And when everybody's retired behind closed doors, Oldroyd can always cut away to the family's half-starved cat licking up the scraps from table: another sign of just how little trickles down to this household's poorer creatures.)

As befits one who's studied the work of Ibsen and Strindberg, Oldroyd retains a beady eye for the class system's cruelties, some of which have been stamped out, others of which persist, all of which make for rather more bracing and arresting drama than the pageants and parades that make up the bulk of British costume fare. The film's final third is a deviation of sorts, following through the consequences of Katherine's rebellion, and suggesting that such revolts are rarely clean cut; perhaps it required a Russian dramatist to tell us this. A horse's corpse lies uncovered and mouldering in the estate's back fields; ballgowns get dragged through the muck; a child's life hangs in the balance. Here, as elsewhere, cinematographer Ari Wegner's cool, Hammershøi-shaded interiors make no attempt to hide the pain and exploitation that went to make up the pretty pictures of Empire.

Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself confronted with a barrage of questions, less easily dodged than those the vicar tossed her way: what are you going to do now? And what are you prepared to do now? This final act is, in many respects, no more than a nasty, straggly loose end - which distinguishes Lady Macbeth from the keep-calm-and-carry-on flagwaving of a crowdpleaser like Their Finest - but Oldroyd's willingness to pursue it suggests he won't submit easily to the bows-and-bonnets school of thought. If Andrea Arnold's radical take on Wuthering Heights - which Lady Macbeth recalls not just in its location, but its casting and attitude - had reached an audience back in 2011, we might have had five or six more of these in the half-decade since. As it is, we've got one, and it lands as revivifying, to say the least - not so much tea-and-biscuits cinema as a cup of cold coffee, thrown directly into the viewer's face. Brace yourself.

Lady Macbeth is now playing in selected cinemas.

Sunday 21 May 2017

From the archive: "The Homesman"

Tommy Lee Jones’s second feature as writer-director, The Homesman, is an unusual Western, less concerned with what a man’s gotta do than with what a man and woman might usefully accomplish together. The title may be gendered one way, but Jones here confounds expectations from the off, presenting us initially with a thumbnail sketch of one Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single gal caught literally ploughing her own furrow in a small frontier community.

As in Jones’s previous The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, we’re soon left in no doubt that the American West was a tough place for minorities of any stripe or shade. Having established her self-sufficiency with her work in the fields, Ms. Cuddy plans a pleasant evening in with a male suitor, only for her practical proposal of marriage to be turned down flat. She’s too bossy, apparently.

Still, Mary Bee Cuddy has it comparatively easy. Across the plains, the unravelling Theoline (Miranda Otto) is led to toss her new-born child into the outhouse; another woman, Danish immigrant Gro (Sonia Richter), succumbs to visions of her late mother, winding up hogtied by the husband who’s repeatedly raped her in his desire for an heir; a third (Grace Gummer) is reduced to mute despondency after seeing her children ravaged by diphtheria, and left clutching a doll as a poor substitute.

In playing happy homesteaders, all these women have been driven out of their minds; society’s solution is to have them carted off to an asylum some distance away. With the menfolk otherwise engaged, the civic-minded Mary Bee volunteers to drive them, but it’s a big responsibility: she finds help, of a sort, in the form of George Briggs (Jones), a whiskery coot she spies hanging from a tree en route. He, too, finds Mary Bee somewhat bossy.

With the hysterics confined to the back of the wagon, The Homesman’s interest lies in the relationship between the two riding upfront. George is blunt, bluff, confrontational – virtues in the Old West – Mary Bee more considerate and compassionate; he shepherds his passengers as though they were any other freight, she talks to them, feeds them, regards them as God’s creatures. She leads by example: one way or another, she’ll soften George up, and – without him realising, or any strain on Jones’s part – transform him into a crusader for exactly those values she holds to.

Kevin Costner rode into similar territory ten years ago with his Open Range, a lovely, sincere yarn about the domestication of a cowboy; what Jones brings to this material is a Southern gent’s chivalry – he’s courteous, sometimes painterly, in the way his camera looks upon these women – and yet a gimlet eye for the West’s harshness: Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography never flinches from death or despair, but defines it against the natural beauty of the landscape, just as Jones weighs male brutality against the tolerance of the women.

As in Three Burials, there’s also evidence of a wicked, leavening sense of humour. Jones makes a fool of Briggs in a way the noble Costner probably couldn’t. He’s first observed being smoked out of a cabin, face blackened like a cartoon character; in moments of levity, he’s prone to hitching up his long johns and performing a ridiculous jig. It’s amazing any woman would give him the time of day – but that’s what’s great about women, the film fondly sighs: they do.

The Homesman is less expansive than Three Burials: its structure is largely episodic, and Jones misses a trick in not making the three madwomen anything more than an audience for the curious semi-courtship taking place before them; the actresses – Richter especially – give thoroughly committed performances, but the characters never emerge as personalities in their own right.

What it showcases is Jones’s ability to compile Westerns that might speak to contemporary audiences. Three Burials was a lucid contribution to the immigration debate; The Homesman has much to say about how the sexes still relate to one another. Swank, warmly nurturing, is every bit as crucial to this project, and we remember her struggles as George Briggs surely does: by chafing against the rugged masculine individualism common to this genre, Jones has offered an absorbing, touching model of collaboration.

(MovieMail, November 2014)

The Homesman screens on BBC2 tonight at 10pm.

Saturday 20 May 2017

From the archive: "Philomena"

The Well-Made British Picture – modest in scope, but displaying a sound, indeed wholly admirable adherence to the virtues of a well-tempered script and a nuanced set of performances – has become a definable property in recent times, not to mention a reliable staple of the pre-Christmas awards rush. Stephen Frears’ new true-life tale Philomena – every inch the Well-Made British Picture – initially appears to be moving in similar circles to this director’s 2006 success The Queen, opening with a brisk thumbnail sketch of a crestfallen power player.

This is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote with Jeff Pope), recently fired from his job as a New Labour spin doctor and now slumping through Knightsbridge dinner parties as a jobbing freelance writer, so depressed that he’s even considering penning a book on Russian history. On the other side of London – yet, somehow, worlds away – there exists the Irish Catholic Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), working her way through her own, rather more graspable trauma: the memory of having her young son sold off by the nuns at the Magdalene laundry she was assigned to as a teenager.

Worlds will collide – yet it’s an early, promising sign that they do so in ways specific and idiosyncratic enough to suggest this collision might actually have happened. The two lead characters first meet at a Harvester (“it’s mum’s favourite place”), where Philomena spills the beans over the croutons and bacon bits, and Sixsmith’s professional instincts, if not his sympathies, are sufficiently engaged to propose they pursue the lost boy together; when they finally hit the road, Philomena turns up with a handbag full of Custard Creams and Tunes.

The film, fine-tuned for its inevitable matinee outings, forms an attempt to have its cake (or biscuit selection) and swallow it whole. In an early scene, Sixsmith seeks to impress his worldliness upon Philomena’s caterer daughter by sharing his belief that human interest stories are targeted at the weak-minded; Frears, Coogan and Pope then offer us one more or less straight, with occasional caveats.

The road trip Philomena winds up taking may lead to the heart of America’s political scene, but it bears traces of something a little more parochial: Coogan’s opposites-attract collaboration with Rob Brydon on TV’s The Trip. Sixsmith is as cynical as one would maybe expect a New Labour spindoctor to be, and these scenes will contrast his snobbery and jadedness – as established by regular telephone calls to his editor, claiming he could bash out this story to a predetermined template – with his travelling companion’s simpler faith.

And what extraordinary faith Philomena Lee displays: in the religion that looks to have taken at least as much from her as it has given back; in the idea her son might still be out there, and in need of a mother’s love; even in the suggestion that the Martin Lawrence-starrer Big Momma’s House will be the funniest thing she’s likely to see while in America. (I fear Philomena will be directly responsible for an upswing in Big Momma DVD sales among the 55-75 demographic. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a Sixsmith: hold onto those receipts, people.)

Philomena works because, on some semi-profound level, the film believes, too: in stories, and their continued ability to engage, surprise and otherwise touch us. It believes enough to usher us assuredly past the mid-film development that apparently closes down the possibility of an obvious happy ending; and, like all feelgood fables worth their weight in honey, it believes in the possibility that even a grinch of Martin Sixsmith’s standing might be, if not redeemed, then at least somehow challenged or shaken, by the gleam in a nice old lady’s eye.

Some of the knowingness and self-referentiality – ported across from Coogan’s comedy endeavours – is pared back come the final reel to more clearly reveal this belief, and the emotions attached to it. Yet Philomena benefits at almost every turn from an almost ideal division of labour: allowing Coogan to push for the head and the funny bone in reaction shots that mark him, this once, as unmistakably the straight man, while his co-star – on her now-customary fine form – shores up the heart, cockles and tearducts. It is, undeniably, well-made.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Philomena screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.

Friday 19 May 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 12-14, 2017:

1 (new) Alien: Covenant (15)

2 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A) **
3 (4) The Boss Baby (U)
4 (3) Fast & Furious 8 (12A)
5 (2) A Dog's Purpose (PG)
6 (new) Der Rosenkavalier: Met Opera (12A)
7 (5) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
8 (new) Miss Sloane (15)
9 (6) Sleepless (15)
10 (7) Their Finest (12A) ***

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. Manhattan
2. Heal the Living
3. Jawbone
4. Suntan
5. Lady Macbeth

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) La La Land (12) ***
2 (1) Rogue One (12) **
3 (2) Moana (PG) ****
4 (3) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
5 (6) Trolls (U)
6 (new) Manchester by the Sea (15) ****
7 (4) Arrival (12) ***
8 (7) A Monster Calls (12) **
9 (5) Ballerina (U) ***
10 (8) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five: 
1. Hacksaw Ridge

2. Manchester by the Sea
3. Silence
4. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

5. La La Land

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. North by North-West [above](Saturday, BBC2, 1.30pm)
2. Insomnia (Saturday, BBC1, 11.40pm)
3. Philomena (Saturday, BBC2, 9pm)
4. Total Recall (Saturday, ITV1, 9.50pm)
5. The Homesman (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)