Sunday 25 June 2017

On DVD: "20th Century Women"

I've been a little resistant to Mike Mills since he stepped up from pop promos to feature directing: both 2005's Thumbsucker and 2010's Beginners struck me as inherently flimsy propositions, compensating for a lack of real substance with an irksome grab-bag of kooks and quirks. I have to say his latest 20th Century Women went some distance towards winning me over, not least for having found a new angle on the messily familiar business of coming-of-age. At the new film's centre, there is a mother and her son - immediately swerving American cinema's yawnsome dads-and-lads fixation - and furthermore a mother and son separated by such a pronounced age gap that it makes it even harder for each to figure the other one out.

So on one side, we have Annette Bening's Dorothea, 55 years old as the film joins her in 1979: unmarried and staunchly independent, with a ready supply of books and a cat to keep her company in bed anight. By day, Dorothea frets about the fate of her boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a fifteen-year-old who's been tempted in from the fringes of the punk scene - and it could well be that she fears dying before her offspring has reached full maturity. As a protective countermeasure, she recruits her apartment block's other inhabitants, and various local hangers-on, to pick up some of the parental slack and help nudge the kid in the right direction - a motley crew that numbers womanising handyman William (Billy Crudup), ethereal gal-next-door Julie (Elle Fanning) and artsy photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig).

It starts out about a boy, then - and those trademark Mills shots following young bucks on skateboards will come to accrue an extra layer of meaning as Jamie navigates the sharp bends and dangerous curves of teenage life - before becoming an extended treatise on what makes a man, exploring those diverse influences brought to bear on this boy (for whom we could conceivably read the writer-director himself, a mere thirteen in '79) at this specific moment in history. Thus does 20th Century Women stave off the weightless quirkiness of Mills' earlier film work: you witness it growing and deepening with every encounter, driven as it is by characters who feel very much like products of their times and circumstances.

William's shaggy 'tache and attitudes, certainly, scream Santa Barbara '79, no matter that Crudup wears them effortlessly; yet what Mills really seems to be getting at is a moment when, say, erratic birth control was giving way to more reliable forms of contraception, and the inflexible tenets of feminism's first wave were being challenged by new ways of thinking. (Would that everything were as timelessly pleasurable as the menthol cigarettes Dorothea is seen to puff away on - though the film acknowledges that even these nasty weeds would change the course of several of these lives.) He's helped considerably by his performers, capable as they are of fleshing out even this script's tinnier moments. Whole sequences are organised around the maternal warmth in Bening's smile, and the twinkle and pride in her eye; she has a cherishably crafty moment attempting to sneak a smoke as the hippy-dippy Crudup is teaching her to meditate, a gag softened into a greatly more expressive character beat. 

Likewise, Mills finds a vulnerability in Gerwig that we've never seen before, grounding the actress's usual tics and neuroses in something more real and believable yet - for Abbie, too, has mortality on her mind. The debate between her and Dorothea speaks to a marked difference in the way the generations approached the issue of liberation, and how the feminism of '69 was surely not the feminism of '79 (as that, in turn, is surely not the feminism of 2017); underpinning the potentially bland, sunkissed harmony is a melancholy, retrospective awareness that this moment, like its union of oddbods, cannot endure. The apparition of outgoing President Carter, giving his "Crisis of Confidence" speech on Dorothea's TV, clinches the argument: this was the point where the last utopian vestiges of community yielded to the aggressive, divide-and-conquer tactics of corporate capitalism. After this, you were out on your ear, and on your own.

This is the world 20th Century Women emerges into, and it wouldn't surprise me if some started tutting and huffing at a straight white dude like Mills co-opting key feminist writers and thinkers to make his points land; a less voguish, but more valid criticism would be that some of the lessons being learnt here - like Crudup teaching Bening the difference between Black Flag and Talking Heads - can feel a tad easy, although I'm willing to concede that not everybody has had the benefit of a John Peel education. If the film is autobiographical, it does explain the ambient, New Agey tendency in Mills' back catalogue, making it an instruction manual in how to look at these films as much as a repository of useful life advice. Yet it also offers something more far generous and affecting besides: the rare spectacle of men and women at least trying to understand one another, a pursuit as necessary and worthwhile at this point in this century as it was at any time in the last.

20th Century Women is available on DVD tomorrow through 20th Century Fox.   

Saturday 24 June 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 16-18, 2017:

1 (1) Wonder Woman (12A) ***

2 (2) The Mummy (15)
3 (3) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12A) **
4 (4) Baywatch (15)
5 (new) Churchill (PG)
6 (new) Gifted (12A)
7 (6) My Cousin Rachel (12A)
8 (7) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (U) **
9 (8) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A) **
10 (new) Whitney: "Can I Be Me?" (15) ***


My top five: 
1. The Graduate [above]

2. Souvenir
3. Edith Walks
4. Whitney: "Can I Be Me?"
5. Dying Laughing

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
2 (3) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
3 (4) Passengers (12) **
4 (2) Lion (12) ***
5 (5) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12)
6 (6) La La Land (12) ***
7 (new) The Founder (15) ***
8 (new) My Name is Lenny (15)
9 (8) The Hatton Garden Job (15)
10 (new) Gold (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Loving

2. Moonlight
3. 20th Century Women
4. The Lego Batman Movie
5. Harmonium

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Spectacular Now (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
2. Casino Royale (Saturday, ITV1, 9pm)
3. Goodbye First Love (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)
4. Northern Soul (Friday, C4, 1.05am)
5. Conviction (Tuesday, C4, 2.20am)

"Tubelight" (Guardian 23/06/17)

Tubelight **
Dir: Kabir Khan. With: Salman Khan, Sohail Khan, Om Puri, Zhu Zhu. 157 mins. Cert: 12A

Three years ago, few could have predicted that Salman Khan – Bollywood’s somewhat incredible hulk, then mired in career controversy – would eventually devote himself to issuing filmed humanitarian statements. This curious turn into mid-career community service began with 2015’s summer megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan, in which the star sought to build bridges between India and Pakistan; it continued through last year’s biopic Sultan, where an ageing action man pondered how best to use his muscle. In new release Tubelight, the charm offensive stutters: with its pitifully glib pleas for peace, this 1960s-set mushfest makes Culture Club’s low-barring “The War Song” sound as though it was written by AJP Taylor.

The unlikely source is Little Boy, 2015’s Emily Watson/Kevin James farrago, although UK viewers may be haunted by lingering traces of a similarly titled Rolf Harris number. Khan’s pea-brained yet broad-shouldered Laxman gains the nickname Tubelight after fluorescent strip lighting reaches his mountaintop village: a dim bulb, he’s considered slow to spark into life. His younger sibling is Bharat (Sohail Khan), hale and heartier, and therefore among the first to be drafted when tensions escalate along the Indo-Chinese border. Thus are our boys torn asunder: wide-eyed Laxman left at home blinking and worrying, while Bharat endures dusty battle scenes, time in a POW camp, and a general sense of innocence being lost.

Some of this innocence could well do with getting lost. The sight of the now-fiftysomething Salman playing the teenage Laxman is unignorably ridiculous: with his tanktop, slicked-down hair and worried grimaces, his flies forever undone by way of a vaguely disturbing running gag, the historical figure he most resembles is Ricky Gervais as Derek. Then again, Laxman’s entire journey feels both forced and familiar. As he overcomes local suspicions to befriend the young son of a Chinese refugee, Salman and director Kabir Khan appear to be directly replaying Bajrangi, albeit with a child performer who’d have fared markedly better being left in their trailer to get on with any homework. 

The spin would be that this is big-hearted Salman reaching out and making friends with that emergent Chinese audience who, as their considerable contributions to Dangal’s global box-office recently illustrated, are embracing Bollywood in their millions. Yet olive branches lose their symbolic worth when they come with a price tag attached. Bajrangi’s sentiment was to some degree sincere, which is why it left us – against our rational instincts – blubbering in the aisles; here, it’s thin syrup drizzled over a cold-eyed business proposition, one as calculated as any of those Western blockbusters who’ve taken to shooting cutaways of Fan Bingbing in the hope of making off with a little extra yuan.

Flickers of a more warming experience persist. Despite a tinkly incidental score shamelessly plundering “Baby Face” for its leitmotif, the songs are someway stronger than the dialogue; the late Om Puri adds clout as a village elder, and Shah Rukh Khan enjoys a nimble cameo as a travelling magician. Yet everyone’s deferring to a producer-star whose saviour complex looms heavy over every frame. These past few years have seen Salman becoming smarter about his public persona – Laxman literally strives to move mountains to bring people together – but without the tears that might soften our vision, all Tubelight resembles is a rebranding process: somewhere between act of vanity and lamentable waste of energy.

Tubelight is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 22 June 2017

Swan's way: "Edith Walks"

The last time we caught up with Andrew Kötting - British cinema's great perambulator, forever mapping the margins and marginalised - it was with 2015's In Our Selves, where he followed in the wayward footsteps of troubled 19th century poet John Clare. With his latest Edith Walks, we find Kötting stepping even further back into native history by mirroring the movements of one Edith Swan-Neck, an 11th century wanderer (and wonderer) who reportedly travelled from Waltham Abbey to St. Leonards-on-Sea on foot in the wake of the Battle of Hastings to recover her husband King Harold's corpse from the battlefield. We get an expressionist taster of this turbulent moment in time from Forgotten the Queen, an accompanying animated short composed by Kötting's daughter Eden, in which screen and viewer are subjected to a barrage of arrows, found sounds, crayon-red blood and a lingering scepticism as to the militaristic ways of men. The main feature, a rough-edged travelogue, joins Kötting as he and several members of his established coterie (writer Iain Sinclair and sound artist Jem Finer among them) accompany a new Edith (honey-voiced singer Claudia Barton) in recreating this journey as it was circa summer 2016.

Although these pilgrims' progress is marked out onscreen by regular Ordinance Survey references, this is very much filmmaking on the fly. The first scene shows this motley crew apparently breaking into the Abbey via a sidedoor, and we consequently hear them being told off by a security guard for rolling camera without the appropriate permits. (Given that we witness Ms. Barton all but dryhumping statues of Harold and Edith at various points, the guard's concerns would seem legit.) As in By Our Selves - which marked something of a fork in the road of Kötting's previously autobiographical filmography, turning him back towards the past, and towards the lives of others - there's an amusing incongruity inherent in watching figures clad in period dress wafting through a Greater London of Prets and Routemaster buses. Kötting's merry pranksters schlep down through Greenwich, getting temporarily waylaid by a pair of jovial constables for drumming in public, and then - between cutaways to archive footage of primary school kids recreating scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry - push on through the outer reaches of the M25 towards the coast.

En route, it soon becomes apparent that Kötting is pursuing a path rarely travelled in recent British cinema - that strain of art-school avant-gardism that previously yielded Derek Jarman's experiments with film form and the English landscape - and the director's playfulness makes it easy to tag along. Finer and that errant drummer, David Aylward, carry in their wake a homemade contraption that, with each step forwards, generates a rhythmic percussion from flattened Foster's cans. (The spirit of the amber nectar does indeed hover over certain stretches, but then walking, like filming, is thirsty work.) An ostensibly serious mid-walk discussion between Sinclair and Alan Moore as to poor Harold's fate is enlivened by a cut to a beardy sound recordist, wearing a Viking helmet for the occasion. In terms of 2017 theatrical releases, granted, there may be none more niche: increasingly, Kötting seems to have meandered into cinemas through the fire door, with films that really have no economic business being on the same listings pages as the latest emissions from the DC and Marvel universes. Still, this latest's a brisk, invigorating stroll - just over an hour, taking in Eden's short - and one that has a funny way of making its particular history come alive.

Edith Walks opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.   

Wednesday 21 June 2017

1,001 Films: "Breaking Away" (1979)

Breaking Away, one of the better "endless summer" movies to have emerged from the 1970s, centres on four boyhood friends from Indiana mooching through their first months beyond the school gates: there's champion cyclist and wannabe Italian Dave (Dennis Christopher), the romantic of the group; frustrated ex-quarterback Mike (Dennis Quaid), the hothead; plus a couple of nerdy hangers-on in Daniel Stern's Cyril and Jackie Earle Haley's Moocher. Together, they stumble into, and very quickly out of, their first jobs, declare unofficial war on the local college kids, and learn the hard way that life isn't fair. It's as good an example as any of just how relaxed American filmmaking was in its storytelling before high-concept took over in the 1980s: up until the climactic bike race, Steve Tesich's episodic screenplay simply hangs out and observes the boys scaring cats with their guitars, Christopher's efforts to keep pace with a Cinzano truck, and Christopher's father (Paul Dooley, in one of his earliest blowhard roles) decreeing that no "eanies" - by which he means zucchini, linguini and fettuchine - be served in his household. In the decades before Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, cycling was a deeply idiosyncratic hook upon which to hang an essentially all-American feature; yet the ever-professional and unpretentious Peter Yates uses the bicycle, and one cyclist's collection of opera 78s, as the glue that holds these truthful skits and pieces together, and elicits performances of great charm from his principals. Quaid, Stern and Haley (recently seen as one of the slavekeepers in The Birth of a Nation) all went onto prominent careers; the slight air of regret hanging over the film is that, despite his long list of credits, the boyish and very likeable Christopher never quite reached the same level. Funny how life works out. Still, the loving but awkward rapport Dave shares with his pop may be the most beautifully etched father-son relationship in any teen movie up to (and possibly including) the American Pie films.

Breaking Away is available on DVD through Second Sight. 

Monday 19 June 2017

Factory-line pop: "Souvenir"

It would not be too great an overstatement to say that Isabelle Huppert has comprehensively owned the past twelve months: first came Things to Come, then Elle, then the Oscar nomination. Bavo Defurne's Souvenir - a melodrama in the oldest sense of the word - might be approached as the joker in this recent run of credits: it has the look of a project a performer undertakes knowing that everything will be laid on for her, and that all she need do is turn up, try on the costumes, submit to the camera's adoring gaze, and wait for her happy ending to come along. There's precisely one stretch here: this is the film in which Huppert sings - a development that might well be trumpeted in much the same way as 1930's Anna Christie was sold with the tagline "Garbo talks!". The bittersweet tone is set by an opening sequence that plunges us into what looks like the fizz of a champagne flute only to reveal a seltzer tablet as the source of the bubbles: after the success, the hangover. We find Huppert's Liliane engaged in nine-to-five drudgery in a pâté factory, applying the garnish to the Flemish equivalent of Christmas puddings. Her own cover is swiftly blown once a young co-worker, part-time pugilist Jean (Kevin Azaïs, from Les Combattants), twigs her secret identity. Liliane, it turns out, was formerly Laura - emphasis on the second syllable - sometime representative of France at the Eurovision Song Contest (where she lost to ABBA), now hiding out from the world following the dissolution of her marriage.

Now, we don't entirely buy that an urban sophisticate such as might be played by Isabelle Huppert might wind up in these reduced circumstances, nor that such a woman would have (or care) to spend her nights alone watching trashy quiz shows. If we are to accept Souvenir as a subtitled equivalent of The Wrestler - or a sister-film to the 2010 Depardieu vehicle The Singer, another showbiz comeback drama - Defurne might have been better off casting an actress who's slipped some way further off the movie radar: Isabelle Adjani, say, or Sophie Marceau. Again, though, we'd have been confronted with the improbability of an incredibly glamorous and desirable woman packing pâté in the middle of nowhere; it may well be that no-one could have made the narrative anything other than preposterous, and that Defurne is encouraging us to embrace that very preposterousness by putting Eurovision centre frame. No-one is likely to mistake Souvenir for Dardennes-like realism, certainly. Defurne's images - as in his early shorts, and the 2011 feature North Sea Texas - are polished to a rare, reflective sheen: the neatfreak in this director manifests in the precise clip of Azaïs's matinee-idol moustache, and recurring overhead shots of Liliane wiping down the surfaces at her workplace. The interior design, meanwhile, comes in a shade we must now call Almodóvar Red, rhyming - in one of several pleasingly absurd touches - an untouched lobster with the dress our heroine wriggles into for her big comeback. 

What finally elevates Souvenir into the realms of solid fun is the manner in which Defurne savours the pleasures of performance, thereby illustrating to us why the reclusive Liliane can't quite leave the persona of Laura behind: the camera doesn't so much linger over as hungrily devour the sight of Azaïs's toned flyweight striking bedroom poses for his lover while stripped to his undershorts, or the singer leaving her viewing public transfixed, with tears in their eyes. And then there is Huppert, and her practically unparalleled ability to create a character before disappearing inside her. It seems especially telling that her Liliane is frequently found staring off into the middle distance, a zoning-out that as much as anything in the script defines this character's altogether tenuous relationship to even Defurne's heightened and swoony reality. For much of Souvenir, we would appear to be watching a woman imagining what it must be like to be a superstar performer like Isabelle Huppert, and to be desired, revered, successful with it. If you've ever doubted the actual Huppert's place in the pantheon of contemporary actresses, notice the care and thought she applies to even a flagrant piece of fluff like this, which might have been no more than a 2016/17 victory lap, or an exercise in selecting the right lippy and earrings with which to accessorise.

Souvenir opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on August 14. 

Sunday 18 June 2017

From the archive: "End of Watch"

David Ayer’s End of Watch starts out in a barrage of contradictory camera angles intended to punch up the multiple shades of grey of being an LAPD beat cop. A video diary is being composed by Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), and perhaps it’s only right we should be sifting through fragments: Taylor and Zavala will themselves come to pick up the pieces – the empty shell casings and severed body parts – of a turf war that’s broken out between the city’s black and Latino gangs.

Another of those found-footage movies, End of Watch (pun presumably intended) is aiming to do for the cop drama what the low-cost, high-profit Chronicle did earlier this year for the teenage superhero flick. Again, you’re reminded one of the advantages this form presents filmmakers with is that these images don’t strictly have to look good, or follow the usual rules of cinematic continuity. Taylor and Zavala have cameras on their dashboard looking in, on their bonnet looking out, and on their collars whenever they’re required to shake it all about.

This digital hokey-cokey extends to Taylor’s new squeeze (Anna Kendrick), whose first move upon waking is to find a camcorder and record a confessional for her sleeping beau; incredibly, it even extends to the gang members, who blithely tape themselves shooting people and taking contracts out on our heroes, a move even the most inexperienced public defendant might advise against.

As Cops and Police, Camera, Action made clear, what this set-up can do is give an entertainment the benefit of immediacy. Ayer, who wrote Training Day before directing a run of similar law-enforcement tales (Harsh Times, Street Kings), knows how to construct a tense stop-and-search, and his film is pretty good on what it is to drive grouchily around on a late shift, and then have to run into a burning property and play hero cop, or to stage a raid on a building in which you’re sure somebody has died, and the killer may still be close by.

Yet there’s a sense the likable Gyllenhaal and Pena are here more as anchormen than policemen, recruited to give a shapeless mass of footage a degree of focus. Between them, the actors create a joshing, winning chemistry: two more perspectives, keeping an eye out for one another. What’s been constructed around them, however, feels perilously gimmicky, using these recording devices to cut around or evade the material’s inherent shifts in tone. When Ayer’s camera finally defaults to a shotgun-barrel POV, we appear to be watching the cinema, still worried by the threat posed by immersive console games, surrendering to its rival outright.

End of Watch is more concerned with the experience of being an LAPD officer than it is in telling us a story about the same, which is not a crime. But compare it to the vastly more complex French procedural Polisse, and you spot how Ayer is condescending to 16-year-old Doom aficionados in breaking the cop experience down into what one character calls “the three basic foodgroups”: money, drugs and guns – or births, marriages and deaths.

“Are you good?” is the question these cops ask themselves at the beginning and the end of each working day. Ayer’s film just about holds together as a taut two-hour viewing experience, but in its leading men’s cutesy asides to camera, its custard-pie gags, and its reassuring finale, it keeps asking us the exact same question, where the truly great cop movies – from The French Connection to L.A. Confidential – rolled on through their material like gangbusters, confident their audience would keep up.

(MovieMail, November 2012)

End of Watch screens on C4 tonight at 11.10pm.

Saturday 17 June 2017

Doomed divas: on the cinema's obsession with short-lived songbirds (RD 16/06/17)

They wither before our gaze. If this week’s new documentary Whitney: “Can I Be Me?” is anything to go by, the cinema’s obsession with the lives – and, more significantly, the premature deaths – of doomed singers remains very much intact. Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s uncompromising account of the tragic demise of Whitney Houston (1963-2012) follows close on the heels of a pair of 2015 releases detailing the downfalls of other short-lived songbirds: Amy, commemorating Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), and Janis: Little Girl Blue, on Janis Joplin (1943-1970). We might ask: why this enduring fascination? Where does it come from? And isn’t it, on the whole, a little morbid?

Historians could tell us the cinema has never lacked for female martyrs: the lineage runs from 1928’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc through Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie to the heroines of Thelma & Louise. It took just forty years for the movies to arrive at A Star is Born, and with it (and each subsequent remake) the idea that the entertainment industry might provide an especially prominent arena for such woes: within these circles, the women suffer not in the shadows, but the spotlight, obliged to slap a smile over their pain and grief to ensure that the show goes on. The star of 1954’s Star, Judy Garland (1922-1969), knew this routine better than most.

Many familiar tropes were established in this first wave of showbiz stories. These were women at the mercy of male executive power, controlling lovers, and a press slavering to eat them alive. Yet they’ve re-entered circulation with the recent wave of music documentaries, reminding us how popular fictions are often rooted in stark fact. There are technical explanations for this wave – the growth of “event cinema” and Dolby sound systems capable of reproducing the live experience, BBC4’s Friday night scheduling – but it boils down to audience and filmmaker curiosity: we want to know why these women were consumed, in the hope the answer might bring us closer to them – or spare the lives of others.

And so there was Amy, the breakout hit that launched a mini-genre, much as director Asif Kapadia’s previous Senna fuelled several movies about men speeding towards their grave. Amy was elevated by the acute sensitivity it displayed around its subject: Kapadia acknowledged Winehouse’s dependency issues, and recognised that this volatile mix of bad choices and impulses was partly responsible for the art that came out of this brief and troubled life, but he framed that art as though in the context of a memorial concert or vigil. A documentary thus became part of a process that allowed its audience to grieve while reminding us how lucky we were to have witnessed such a singular talent.

Whitney, by contrast, fades down its subject’s ebullient music to sound out some dark behind-the-scenes struggles. Broomfield, the investigator behind 1998’s Kurt & Courtney and 2002’s Biggie and Tupac, spends these ninety-odd minutes uncovering copious evidence of Houston’s low self-esteem, a personality flaw compounded by claims of nepotism and musical inauthenticity, and the philandering of hubby Bobby Brown. That it is a far tougher watch than Amy can be attributed to its unblinking study of Houston’s more questionable choices: there’s a grim irony in hearing that the star of The Bodyguard fired her own minder after he raised concerns the singer had fallen in with the wrong crowd.

Of course, there have been exceptions to this rule: no-one would pick up a guitar or enter a recording booth otherwise. 2013’s stirring The Punk Singer detailed how indie queen Kathleen Hanna negotiated both constitutional and institutional challenges to raise a whole new generation of riot grrls aloft on her shoulders; 2015’s Mavis!, a homage to soul survivor Mavis Staples, was jubilatory enough to merit that exclamation mark. That we have an upcoming portrait of Grace Jones to look forward to similarly underlines that it is still possible for female creatives to pass through the showbiz machine with artistic credibility and lifeforce intact – though they may have to be hard as nails with it.

What these films have in common, ultimately, is emotion – perennial raw material of great cinema. These women channelled it more nakedly and candidly than others, perhaps: they wore their hearts defiantly on their sleeves, even as it left them open to bruising and worse. It’s a solitary Amy in the studio, tentatively laying down “Back to Black” in the wake of another break-up with Blake; it’s Whitney retreating to her dressing room and zoning out before the mirror. For all their success, such moments reveal these icons as vulnerable indeed, as alone in their thoughts and feelings as we are sitting in the Odeon. We, however, have the luxury of the dark, where no-one can see our tears.

Whitney: "Can I Be Me?" is now playing in selected cinemas.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 9-11, 2017:

1 (1) Wonder Woman (12A) ***

2 (new) The Mummy (15)
3 (3) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12A) **
4 (2) Baywatch (15)
5 (new) Take That: Wonderland Live from the O2 (U)
6 (new) My Cousin Rachel (12A)
7 (4) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (U) **
8 (5Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A) **
9 (9) Secret Cinema: Moulin Rouge! (12A)
10 (7) The Boss Baby (U)


My top five: 
1. My Life as a Courgette

2. The Red Turtle
3. Whitney: "Can I Be Me?"
4. Dying Laughing
5. Destination Unknown

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
2 (4) Lion (12) ***
3 (5) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
4 (2) Passengers (12) **
5 (6) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12)
6 (7) La La Land (12) ***
7 (new) Line of Duty - Series 4 (15)
8 (new) The Hatton Garden Job (15)
9 (10) Manchester by the Sea (15) ****
10 (9) Ballerina (U) ***


My top five: 
1. Loving

2. Moonlight
3. The Lego Batman Movie
4. Harmonium
5. John Wick 2

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. End of Watch (Sunday, C4, 11.10pm)
2. Footloose [above] (Sunday, five, 1.30pm)
3. Iron Man 2 (Saturday, C4, 8pm)
4. The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (Saturday, C4, 12.35am)
5. The Book of Life (Sunday, C4, 2.30pm)

Friday 16 June 2017

"Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle" (Guardian 16/06/17)

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle ***
Dir: Paul Sng. Documentary with: Nicola Sturgeon, Peter Hitchens, Caroline Lucas, Rushanara Ali. 82 mins. Cert: PG

Whoever forms the next Government, one would hope a DVD of this lands on their desks sharpish. Paul Sng’s documentary offers a carefully balanced, clear-headed study of the myriad ways the UK property market has skewed and malfunctioned in the years since the Thatcher regime established the right-to-buy scheme. What’s notable is the scope of its inquiry: Sng ventures that the issue is as rooted in our primetime television schedules – where “poverty porn” frames affordable housing as a dead-end rather than a societal cornerstone – as in those decisions taken in high council chambers. It can feel breathless, striving to compress reams of information into 80 minutes, but Sng and cinematographer Nick Ward prove keen collectors of images that crystallise the debate they’re entering. On one side, concrete foxholes in abject disrepair; on the other, the shrink-wrapped gleam of those luxury developments raised solely to be traded as status symbols. The juxtaposition, as in all our hometowns, is a provocation in itself. 

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle is now playing in selected cinemas.

"Rock Dog" (Guardian 16/06/17)

Rock Dog **
Dir: Ash Brannon. Animation with the voices of: Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black. 90 mins. Cert: PG

This makeweight, narratively haphazard digimation synthesises Kung Fu Panda and School of Rock, without going to the expense of hiring Jack Black. Guitar-toting Tibetan mastiff Bodi’s protection of a mountain sheep community proceeds via riffs and lifts: a furry Zootropolis-like menagerie, a robot knock-off of WALL-E, a Poundland reduction of the Sing songbook. (A few seconds of Foo Fighters and – unexpectedly – Radiohead is all we get.) Going solo with shaky material, ex-Pixar man Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) composes the odd amusing sight gag, but homogenises his notionally Eastern backdrop terribly: set against the artistry of last year’s Kubo and the Two Strings, it is as the hastily assembled toy in the Happy Meal.

Rock Dog opens in selected cinemas, and is available on demand, from today. 

Thursday 15 June 2017

Chuckle brothers: "Dying Laughing"

For their documentary Dying Laughing, the British filmmakers Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood invited a bunch of stand-up comedians to sit before their cameras and talk, at length, about themselves. Guess what? The comics came through - and in their multitudes, too. As the publicity material will almost certainly press upon you, the directors wound up interviewing pretty much the who's-who of contemporary comedy, extending from elder statespersons (Billy Connolly, Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Victoria Wood, George Wallace) to jobbing chicken-in-a-basket circuit regulars, via modern megastars (Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Jamie Foxx), locally sourced talent (Stewart Lee, Steve Coogan, Jo Brand, Eddie Izzard) and other recognisable faces and voices (Bobby Lee, Emo Philips, Gilbert Gottfried). The budget can't have been much, but Dying Laughing will likely stand as the best connected film of the year: it effortlessly ticks the diversity box, in as much as this scene has traditionally sustained anything like diversity, and even gets that notorious curmudgeon Jerry Lewis to seem more engaged than he has done of late waiting for the nurse to bring him his pudding.

Partly, this is a triumph of intelligent questioning: Stanton and Toogood (who, with that billing, might themselves have carved out a career as a music hall double-act) are interested in that backroom business of craft and methodology - how you put a routine together, and thus a career, from first, invariably faltering gigs to whatever level their interviewees are at now. There are, apparently, different means of doing it, and different means of talking about it. Frankie Boyle talks about an old-school "Seinfeld method" (unconfirmed by Seinfeld himself) of sitting at a desk and writing three usable gags every day; Kevin Hart scrolls down a long list of primo material annotated on his iPhone. (We must presume said phone was lost or stolen in the months leading up to 2015's The Wedding Ringer.) Yet as Shandling (in one of his final screen appearances) insists, "there is no shortcut" - just a constant process of writing, refining, travelling and performing, and then, once that material has been exhausted, putting yourself through the process all over again.

The emphasis, then, isn't on the fun, groupies or other rewards of this profession, but the mental and emotional labour involved, and here's where that mix of star names, journeymen and neophytes pays off: each contributor has an appreciably fresh perspective on this business, although the consensus seems to be that subjecting stand-up to any serious analysis results in it starting to look very much like a fool's errand. As the actor and performer Kevin Christy says: "You're sending someone with depression out to a town where they literally don't know anyone in the hope they might be able to distract a handful of people long enough to make them laugh." (The D-word there invokes the spirit of Robin Williams, which hovers over the production entire.) That's before you factor in the low pay and shitty digs and the hecklers. The hecklers, especially: everybody has a story or two on this front, though no-one threatens to top Frank Skinner's tale of the blind audience member who interrupted his set with a cry of "Get off!", before being heard to mutter "Has he gone yet?"

It's clear that Stanton and Toogood make a receptive audience from their frequent off-camera chuckles, yet while several interviewees display what Judd Apatow's Funny People euphemistically described as "a lot of energy", lapsing into pre-rehearsed bits, the filmmakers know how to nudge their subjects past their usual schtick and into more revealing territory. Boyle is in particularly reflective, affable mode, which may surprise British viewers; Royale Watkins breaks down in tears while discussing bombing in front of his hero Michael Jordan. Where other stage performers have the luxury of pinning any off-night on somebody else's lacklustre material or direction, the life-in-a-suitcase comic has only themselves to blame: an audience's silence, in this context, constitutes a rejection of everything one stands for. Some of the film's wilder claims ("Comedians are like Jedis!") will be set in sharp relief in this week of (admittedly less amusing) documentaries about Holocaust survivors and social housing policy, and the monochrome talking-heads format threatens to become monotonous, no matter that Stanton and Toogood keep ushering on new faces. Still, Dying Laughing may be as close as the majority of us will ever get to the experience of hanging backstage in a comedy club after hours - if that notion holds any appeal for you - and its subjects' testimony does eventually come to make a case for stand-up being yet another ill-funded public service, of a kind we may need now more than ever.

Dying Laughing opens in selected cinemas, and will be available on iTunes, from tomorrow.    

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Last shouts: "Destination Unknown"

It may well be that, as old age takes its course, the number of Holocaust documentaries being produced diminishes; that this is more or less the final shout for those with first-hand experience of these nearly eight-decade-old events - even though the presence of actual, acknowledged fascists in the White House would seem to make their testimony more vital than ever. Claire Ferguson's Destination Unknown is modest in form - running to 81 minutes, compared to the hours Claude Lanzmann has logged on this subject over the years - and a little hazy in its organising principle, reaching out to a decidedly disparate roster of survivors: some who were based at Auschwitz, some Mauthausen, some Treblinka; some who knew Oskar Schindler and his devilish opposite Amon Goeth, many others who didn't. What Ferguson looks to be getting at is the range of people who were sent to the camps - from beardless boys to married couples - and the range of experiences they underwent there.

Several of Ferguson's subjects confess they succumbed to panic and hunkered down, believing that lowering one's head and following orders would be the only means of surviving this moment; others, however, vowed to stand their ground wherever possible, before gradually beginning to fight back; one man speaks movingly of how he was spared from the worst of the torture chambers by the intervention of another prisoner, never seen again. A focal point emerges in the form of Ed Mosberg, whom we first meet donning striped pyjamas and travelling to Mauthausen to aggressively push his story on the gathering tourists; the righteous hurt and anger sitting close to the surface of his performance art makes him an instantly more compelling figure than those interviewees sitting sedately in well-tended front parlours, and you can imagine an entire feature being constructed around his furious energies.

Elsewhere, as ever, it's those everyday details of life under the Nazi shadow that catch the ear: the youngster who sensed something was badly awry when he returned home from playing out to discover his beloved nanny had been disappeared, the survivor who hoped to erase his memories of the camps via the removal of his camp tattoo. (Not so easy: this evil went far beyond skin deep.) Schindler looms large in several interviews, as he has done over this chapter of history ever since Messrs. Keneally and Spielberg themselves intervened, although the stories Ferguson has gathered here serve to make an already extraordinary interlude - about workers looking in desperation to a capitalist to save them from fascism - seem more curious yet: the industrialist apparently told Helen Jonas (née Sternlicht) to remember the history of the Jews in Egypt, which hints he may have regarded himself as a latter-day Moses.

The whole emerges as a round-up, if that's not too triggering a word in this context, rather than a film building a thesis or towards some great revelation; for much of its running time, I found myself wondering whether these anecdotes could be reassembled in any order without any loss of force. (Ideally, we'd get a little less of Andrew Skeet's overworked score.) Still, plenty here could accurately be described as haunting: Jonas describing how her husband Joseph, whom she met on the day of Liberation, succumbed to a fatal depression, or Mosburg's wheelchair-bound, largely mute wife Cesia, who opens up only to detail her siblings' gruesome demises, and her desire to be reunited with them at the earliest available opportunity. Traces of this toxic horror persist into Ferguson's exteriors, shots of sunny, civilised, thoroughly 21st century European streets and byways that collectively invoke what we might call the Lanzmann paradox. It couldn't have happened here, your brain tells you. But it did.

Destination Unknown plays at the Curzon Soho this Thursday evening and at JW3 in West Hampstead on Sunday afternoon; both screenings will be followed by a Q&A.

Monday 12 June 2017

So emotional: "Whitney: 'Can I Be Me?'"

If you're anything like me, you'll have two images of Whitney Houston fixed inside your head. One is of the vivacious twentysomething with frizzy hair who first registered in the world's consciousness in those dayglo videos for "How Will I Know?" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody". This is the Whitney who ended up on countless bedroom walls in poster form; who inspired one of the first KLF experiments, and inspired Serge Gainsbourg to new levels of televised lechery. The other is of a Whitney I never saw, but who may be all too vividly imagined: the Whitney nearing the end of her tragically short life, haunting that suite at the Beverly Hills Hilton in early 2012, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, a bath running somewhere off-camera. With Whitney: "Can I Be Me?", the documentarists Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal strive to dig out the images that make up the rest of this picture, and which might answer that title question, among others. Such as: how did somebody raised as a devout Christian wind up on crack as she neared her fiftieth year? And perhaps most crucially of all: where did all that vivacity, the light and joy in her eyes, finally go?

Broomfield, of course, has form with pop postmortems, yet the first thing to be said about "Can I Be Me?" is that it's altogether more conventionally composed than his conspiratorially minded investigations into the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. Talking heads are spliced together with (rare, and often revealing) archive; although Broomfield can be heard in several places asking follow-up questions of Whitney's friends, colleagues and entourage, he remains off-screen throughout, acknowledging, perhaps, that this is not his story. The question flagged by the title is just whose story this actually is. So it is that "Can I Be Me?"'s first half pays lip service to its subject's imperious, showstopping voice and rapid success, but the film frames Houston almost from the off as a product of a particularly corporate moment, and very much at the mercy of the music industry's machinations: marketed incessantly in conjunction with her illustrious relatives (mom Cissy, aunt Dionne Warwick), produced in such a way as not to sound too black. Enormous success followed, as did a not inconsiderable backlash from within the African-American community.

Very quickly, a fatalistic mood is established: even those early glory years - the bestselling debut album, more consecutive #1s than the Beatles, the transfer to the silver screen with 1992's The Bodyguard (approached, drolly, via an interview with Houston's actual minder David Roberts) - are parsed for signs of the tragedy to come. The editorial line Broomfield and Dolezal adopt insists that it must simply have been very hard for the singer, prone as she was to self-esteem issues, to feel as though she'd accomplished anything for herself. One especially needling biographical detail is that Houston first met Bobby Brown - her on-off partner for the last twenty years of her life - at the very same Soul Train Awards at which she was booed by the audience for perceived inauthenticity; and if ever there was an illustration of the vagaries of the human heart, you might want to consider how a poised, bright and thoroughly upright former choirgirl ended up on the arm of this slouching, swaggering, barely coherent ne'er-do-well. (I mean, I like "My Prerogative" as much as the next guy, but c'mon.) The pair's first public appearances were, in the gospel according to Nick and Rudi, the last glimmers of light before Houston began circling the plughole. 

Throughout its ninety minutes, you can feel "Can I Be Me?" placing unusual emphasis on previously unseen footage of its subject's European concert tour of 1999, describing it as the singer's last successful endeavour. (The voice was shortly to enter into terminal decline, diminished by some very free and easy living; a throwaway caption informs us Houston had already overdosed on cocaine after the filming of Waiting to Exhale in 1995.) This leaves the directors with thirteen years to fill - a horrifying void in which the world barely heard a squeak out of the singer, save for whatever the supermarket tabloids chose to report. What Broomfield and Dolezal uncover here is a behind-the-scenes battle for that showbusiness perennial, control: on one side, Robyn Crawford, Houston's PA, oldest friend and rumoured lover, determined to keep this show on the road; on the other, Bobby, holding up the promise of a wedding ring and the stimulants that made his boo feel better about the world for a moment (or at least forget his philandering). We know who won and who lost - although the tragedy assumes an extra, crushing dimension when Bobbi Kristina toddles on from the sidelines during that 1999 tour, collateral damage waiting to happen.

Although the lawyers have clearly been over it with a fine-toothed comb - you may feel the still-extant Brown gets off lightly in this telling, and Ray J is mentioned not at all - Broomfield's journalistic influence is felt in the unflinching depiction of this descent: it's telling that, after documenting the early highs (and there's one properly astounding clip of Houston's debut as a 19-year-old on The Tonight Show), the film dials back the music to deal in the grim and grubby facts. That makes "Can I Be Me?" a very different proposition from 2015's Amy, a film couched on some level as a two-hour, multiplex-friendly memorial concert; what we're offered here is no more or less than a bracing lesson, a warning from showbiz history - one that realises that so much pop culture is at best optimistic fantasy, pitched to us by those looking to turn a fast and sharp buck, regardless of the consequences. In The Bodyguard, Houston had the dashing white knight Kevin Costner to step in and save her from a would-be assassin's bullets; in reality, Whitney fired her minder after he raised doubts with her management that she might have started running with the wrong crowd. Bittersweet memories; that is all I'm taking with me. Had it been heard in this bleak context, "I Will Always Love You" might have started to sound like the first draft of a suicide note.  

Whitney: "Can I Be Me?" opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Sunday 11 June 2017

From the archive: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

Of all the movies to have emerged from the Marvel universe, 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger surely ranked towards the back of the pack: a joblot of origin-story exposition phoned in by actors searching out a sizeable payday, it mostly felt like a placeholder tossed out to sustain brand visibility while the writers figured out what to do with a character who might seem archaic indeed in the era of Robert Downey Jr.’s postmodern snark machine Tony Stark.

The first film’s romantic interest, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, shows up under old-age latex at the beginning of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and speaks the line that sets the agenda for this inevitable sequel: “All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best we can do is start over.” Now finally unburdened of all that guffy backstory and free to exist in the moment, the franchise here rebuilds itself almost from scratch.

The new film has do-over directors in the generally engaging Anthony and Joe Russo (Welcome to Collinwood, Arrested Development) and a script from the satirically inclined pair of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Pain & Gain) that ponders how modern-day Washington might look to a soldier who’s had the good fortune to skip Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and might therefore have some untarnished idea of what it means to fight the good fight.

The Cap’n himself (Chris Evans) is still trying to catch up on everything he’s missed – an early insert shot of his pocketbook (its suck-ups presumably localised for each territory) suggests the 1966 World Cup final is on his playlist – and growing increasingly ambivalent about the brute-force militarism that calls on him to do all his country’s dirty work. His doubts come to a head after S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised, forcing him outside the normal chains of command, and turning the film into an inside-the-Beltway conspiracy thriller.

For in everything from its plotting to its car-crunching action sequences to a final-reel plunge into the deep, this instalment has clearly been inspired by the Bourne movies: enduring liberal totem Robert Redford assumes what we might call the David Strathairn role, lending renewed class to proceedings as the duplicitous Senator overseeing the Government’s latest expensive weapons program.

And if the ploddingly literal first movie dealt with who Captain America is, this follow-up is a good deal more imaginative about exploring what the character might represent in the modern world: namely, the last good cop standing between order and lawlessness, his shield a glossy inflation of Gary Cooper’s sheriff’s badge in High Noon.

Given the duality the Captain assumes here – simultaneously authority figure and troubled outcast – it still seems something of a shame that the series should have been founded on Evans’ largely one-note, Ken-doll blandness: though he and his biceps have become more adept at filling the screen, the role insists on stripping the actor of even the throwaway one-liners that were offered up as a personality for the Human Torch in those flimsy Fantastic Four movies.

And perhaps it behoves us not to get overexcited about a micro-myth – a tiny piece of a wider universe and business model, to be slotted into a repackaged Blu-Ray boxset at a later date – that spends this much money merely to divert us all for another two-and-a-bit hours, and which winds up clanking around on the same gantry flooring as every other Avengers movie to date.

As a standalone, though, The Winter Soldier is surprising – working its way through the death of a key recurring character, and heading towards a last-reel transformation you really won’t see coming – and the Russos find deft ways to balance the kind of cranked-up action that sells tickets with the character interplay that has sustained the comics for decades. The franchise (should that be sub-franchise?) has been given shape and purpose: it suddenly feels like more than just a recruiting poster pinned to a sixpack.

(MovieMail, March 2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier screens on BBC1 tonight at 10.30pm.