Monday 31 July 2017

Defective detective: "The Ghoul"

The strongest suit of Gareth Tunley's homegrown headtrip The Ghoul is its uncannily sure feel for the mean streets and shady backalleys of London, a hard place to inhabit at the best of times: as in Sean Spencer's impressive Panic from last year, the landscape our defective detective hero sets out into in some way reflects the darkness and uncertainty within him. (With its preference for night shoots and narrative ambiguity, we could call this cinema the anti-Notting Hill.) Interiors and exteriors come to be very closely linked in Tunley's film: hence the prominence afforded to a Klein bottle, the ornamental equivalent of a Moebius strip, in that it loops round to disappear inside itself, mirroring the shape of The Ghoul's own plot. 

If Tunley's exterior work generally proves assured and atmospheric, the interiors into which Tom Meeten's mournful investigator Chris ventures undercover can appear a little on the sketchy side. The shoestring budget makes itself most apparent in a therapist's office that really is just two office chairs in a room - a location where the doctor in residence (Niamh Cusack) helpfully points out where she keeps her patient notes, and even more helpfully leaves the room mid-session in order to take a telephone call. What Tunley looks to have taken from his executive producer Ben Wheatley is a conviction that aiming for cult status means you don't have to do anything so boringly literal as dotting and crossing your is and ts.

This director arms himself well, though, with recognisable faces, each possessed of enough wily screen experience to give individual scenes life. Meeten, eternally cowed and put-upon, is a usefully shifty, awkward presence: we can never quite be sure whether this crumpled figure is going to end up a homeless wretch or the new Nigel Havers. Typically solid contributions come from Dan Skinner and Alice Lowe as a married couple Chris becomes entangled with, and from Rufus Jones as a fellow paranoiac with a creepy lightswitch smile; best of all is Geoff McGovern as a mischievous rival shrink who encourages his charges to give their depression a proper name, like Derek. If it can occasionally be seen cutting a corner or two that probably needed extra time and money to be more carefully rounded off, the film never lacks for character, and displays a commendable economy, taking just 85 minutes to unravel what exactly is eating its protagonist up. Val Lewton, for one, would approve.

The Ghoul opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 30 July 2017

From the archive: "Lilting"

The Godfather. The Great Beauty. Surf Nazis Must Die! Some films are so perfectly titled you can’t ever imagine them being called anything else. To that list, we must now addend a new (if far less maximal) title: Lilting, a nuanced and subtly rich debut offering from Cambodian-born, UK-based writer-director Hong Khaou that does so much to dramatise and visualise that melancholy passage separating happiness from sadness, connection from estrangement.

We open on Junn (Cheng Pei Pei), a widowed Cambodian-Chinese immigrant presently holed up in a London care home, shooting the breeze in Mandarin with her half-English son Kai (Andrew Leung). Their chat – everyday stuff about food, music, flowers, the buses – is hardly revelatory; what follows, however, is. A change of lighting, occasioned by a care worker replacing a bulb, reveals Kai is no longer there; the conversation was mere consolation, a memory a lonely old woman might cling to in a place so very far away from where she originated.

Like many an emergent indie kid, Khaou has a particular ear for talk: not just the conversations the bereaved might have mentally with just-departed loved ones, but the here-and-now smalltalk – an English prerequisite – by which those around the bereaved strive to say the right thing. It’s through a translator that Kai’s boyfriend Richard (Ben Whishaw) comes to reach out to Junn, and we sense the need for an interlocutor: there’s a frostiness between the two that stems from the fact they were never properly introduced – Kai hadn’t come out to his parents before his death – and share no common tongue.

The one thing they both agree on – that they loved this young man – is the one thing they can’t say out loud; the drama of Khaou’s film therefore stems from a process of negotiation, the tentative attempt to find and occupy this small patch of common ground. It’s through this process that Lilting transcends the “gay drama” tag: it’s as much the story of a mother who’s never truly felt at home in the UK, and of one generation’s attempt to communicate to another.

Khaou has realised there’s something formally interesting in having so much of his dialogue translated on screen, without the comforting immediacy of subtitles. It allows the words to hang in the air, and the viewer extra seconds to watch these sentiments hitting home; alternatively, it allows us to observe the characters drifting out of conversations they don’t understand – to go somewhere in their heads or retreat into the past – and Lilting is eloquent indeed about that grief-related condition we call “being out of it”, and what it takes to get us back in the room and the present tense.

As the dramatic stakes are raised, one has the sensation of watching a verbal poker game: these individuals are working out what exactly they need to lay down on the table, and what they feel the need to withhold by going untranslated. (Presumably, the film’s full range of subtleties will only be apparent to viewers fluent in both English and Mandarin.)

Any latent wispiness is dispelled by the superb leads: Cheng fiercely unsentimental, expressive in a way that barely requires translation, Whishaw reaching for defensive, inward-looking glances and self-censoring stumbles that somehow never obscure the character’s very best intentions. Yet Khaou is just as interested in the conversations going on around them: Naomi Christie makes a sparky, spontaneous translator, and there’s a nice reminder of the peerless, sitcom-honed timing of Peter Bowles as the English gent trying to woo Junn in the care-home lounge in a light-comic, hetero counterpart to the main action.

The result achieves the delicate, hard-to-conjure magic of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, even as it gently, carefully extends the scope: all of its relationships are thought through, inhabited and brought to rare life, and Khaou’s quietist, understated handling only enhances its moods, its emotion, its humanity. It absolutely lilts, and quite beautifully with it.

(MovieMail, June 2014)

Lilting screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.50pm.

Saturday 29 July 2017

1,001 Films: "Nosferatu the Vampyre/Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht" (1979)

2009’s Bad Lieutenant fostered a good deal of hoopla, for various reasons, but it’s worth remembering this wasn’t Werner Herzog’s first remake. Arriving just as German cinema had started to address the country’s chequered history, Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre rejects the breathless narrative sweep of the Murnau film – or, indeed, the faux-eccentricity of his Abel Ferrara redo – to do the very Teutonic thing of looking death squarely in the eye, as its opening panorama of a cryptful of embalmed corpses proposes; this being a Herzog film, you just know these are the real deal, sourced Gott only knows where.

The feature proper reframes the Dracula legend – any Nosferatu’s lifeblood – as a very Herzogian journey, up mountains and across oceans, between one world and the next. A study in the transportation of evil, this version actually feels like the director’s own version of the contemporaneous Apocalypse Now – that most Herzogian of American enterprises – complete with its own bald-pated killer at the end of the line: and here be Klaus Kinski’s Count, a comparatively restrained outing for this actor, mouthing philosophical discourse on the themes of love, death and salvation.

The whole re-emerges as more than a little stiff, performed by those for whom English was at best a second tongue: its own, rather florid strain of Germanic poetry never quite manages to mitigate against the creaks and creases of an original that will remain the essential text – and, with his revisionist ending, Herzog adds a few debatable wrinkles of his own. For a vampire movie, it’s also oddly sexless, generally more concerned with the local livestock than with Isabelle Adjani’s most luscious of Lucies.

Nevertheless, this Nosferatu is worth revisiting for several moments unique to the Herzography. The arrival of a ghost ship into a town shortly to be overrun with rats is like nothing seen in any Dracula before or since: even Coppola’s grandiose 1992 folly couldn’t compete with the sheer physicality wrought into the celluloid by a filmmaker warming up for Fitzcarraldo’s big push. There’s also a certain bleak beauty in watching rows and lines of coffins containing plague victims being precisely manoeuvred into place, like dancers in a Busby Berkeley routine.

Auteurists will discover a possibly surprising degree of continuity with the rest of this director’s CV: he dispatches his regular cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein to peer restlessly and inquisitively around the Alps and Carpathians, while Popul Vuh’s score is as eerie as ever. Herzog may have been passing somewhat closer than usual to generic territory here – but the same dreamy, misty atmosphere as prevailed in Aguirre, Wrath of God or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser comes to gather around us, beckon us in, and ultimately chill the bones.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Nosferatu the Vampyre is available on DVD through the BFI.

Friday 28 July 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 21-23, 2017:

1 (new) Dunkirk (12A) ***

2 (2) Despicable Me 3 (U)
3 (1) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
4 (3) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
5 (4) Cars 3 (U)
6 (new) Andre Rieu's 2017 Maastricht Concert (U)
7 (5) Baby Driver (15) **
8 (6) The Beguiled (15) ***
9 (new) The Black Prince (12A)
10 (9) Wonder Woman (12A) ***


My top five: 
1. Howards End [above]

2. City of Ghosts
3. Victim
4. David Lynch: The Art Life
5. The Big Sick

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (2) Sing (U) ***
3 (3) Passengers (12) **
4 (4T2: Trainspotting (18) **
5 (7) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12)
6 (8) Patriots Day (15)
7 (9) Assassin's Creed (15)
8 (re) The Founder (15) ***
9 (new) The Lost City of Z (15) *****
10 (re) Underworld: Blood Wars (15)


My top five: 
1. The Lost City of Z

2. Neruda
3. Heal the Living
4. Get Out
5. Certain Women

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Lilting (Sunday, BBC2, 11.50pm)
2. Arbitrage (Wednesday, C4, 1.30am)
3. The Peacemaker (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
4. Pride (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
5. I Am Bolt (Monday, BBC1, 8.30pm)

"Mubarakan" (Guardian 28/07/17)

Mubarakan **
Dir: Anees Bazmee. With: Anil Kapoor, Arjun Kapoor, Ileana D’Cruz, Athiya Shetty. 156 mins. Cert: 12A

The Hindi comedy specialist Anees Bazmee made his name with a series of broad, knockabout romps. 2007’s Welcome and 2015’s Welcome Back cemented a commercially successful partnership with Anil Kapoor; between these two projects, he was linked with a never-realised Indian remake of The Hangover. Subtlety, you’ll gather, isn’t Bazmee’s forte. Rather than tickle his audience with a feather, he prefers smacking us round the head with a saucepan, usually while jabbing hard at the sound effects button. Yet he also revels in insanely complicated plots – curiously, this frantic gagman seems as influenced by Shakespeare in this respect as the elegant classicist Vishal Bhardwaj.

Mubarakan, Bazmee’s latest and most expansive endeavour, hinges on identical twins dispatched to opposing corners of the globe at a formative age. While Karan (Arjun Kapoor, Anil’s nephew) grows up in London, gaining a Westernised attitude and haircut, Charan (Kapoor again), raised in the Punjab, is obliged to don the turban and shrug meekly towards arranged marriage. Those arrangements cue a globetrotting back-and-forth in which no farcical avenue goes unexplored. Charan almost ends up hitched to Karan’s beloved Sweety (Ileana D’Cruz). Talcum powder gets mistaken for hard drugs. Two weddings are booked for the same day – December 25th, as if Christmas weren’t tricky enough.

To some degree, Bazmee’s manic style makes sense here: even with a generous running time, there’s a lot of ground to cover. (Hopping between England and India every other minute, the production’s carbon footprint must have been monstrous.) Yet whole stretches of Mubarakan are garbled beyond comprehension. This plot just begs to be lost, and its thread isn’t suddenly regained when one character attempts to explain everybody’s movements using ketchup bottles. Bazmee doesn’t think in straight narrative lines so much as ball up ideas like rubber bands to toss around his sets; the approach generates zippy, unpredictable rhythms before everything disintegrates.

What’s becoming clearer, and could even resemble a redeeming feature if you were in the right mood, is that he adores actors: one reason he takes on these teeming plots is to accommodate appreciably different personalities. Anil Kapoor, prone to over-emphasis elsewhere, fits Bazmee’s design to a tee: spritely in the Welcomes, his wayward yet good-hearted uncle here serves as a presiding spirit, if not the organising figure Mubarakan needed. Several amusing sequences find him lording over what he calls his “Mini Punjab”: a small Home Counties farm, tended to by a white manservant. (It’s Bazmee making widescreen that now semi-legendary Goodness Gracious Me reversal about going out for an English.)

Of all this weekend’s Dunkirk-countering comedies, Mubarakan will likely disappear from memory first, yet it’s the first Bazmee movie to maintain its energy well into its third act, nudged onwards by amiable performances and unusually strong songs. Discount the sappy ending, and you might even take its momentum for a slyly satirical mirroring of the absurd, lunatic contortions involved in getting an arranged marriage in place. Then again, it’s also a film in which someone leans out of a window for better phone reception and promptly plummets, with thumping sound effect, upon his posterior. You pays your money with Bazmee, and you continue to take your choice.

Mubarakan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"The Big Sick" (Little White Lies Jun/Jul '17)

The Big Sick
Directed by: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter

You’ll likely recognise Kumail Nanjiani’s face, if not his name: with credits on everything from Sex Tape to Broad City, the heavy-browed, Karachi-born supporting player has become increasingly prominent among that repertory of oddballs lending added value to the decade’s comedic endeavours. The Big Sick – directed by Michael Showalter, and produced by 21st century mogul of mirth Judd Apatow – feels like the kind of project designed to introduce a wider audience to a performer beloved among their peers but only fleetingly glimpsed elsewhere: a multiplex-ready romcom, co-authored by Nanjiani with wife Emily Gordon, and based on the pair’s unconventional courtship.

Apatow’s influence is immediately felt: a comedy-circuit milieu (here Chicago, succeeding Funny People’s L.A.) is evoked in loose, relaxed, at least semi-improvised scenes, feeding into a generous two-hour running time. Settle in, though, and matters get a shade more culturally specific – a refinement of the disastrous fringe show the film’s Kumail conceives by way of explaining his Pakistani heritage to crowds of watch-checking WASPs. His material? Religion (a non-practising Muslim, he spends prayer time turned towards YouTube), cricket fielding positions, and arranged marriages, the latter providing a real-life stumbling block once he falls for white girl Emily (Zoe Kazan).

For a while, this romance proceeds according to the template of Apatow’s Netflix creation Love. Showalter’s lovers meet very cute (she’s a heckler), then begin to work through yet more of modern dating’s myriad complications. Emily’s whiteness, however, isn’t the real issue here; it’s her growing pallor. Kazan (Ruby Sparks) pays Gordon the compliment of playing movie Emily as an evasively independent, flesh-and-blood woman, not just a stooge recruited to laugh at her co-star’s jokes – and the unusually heightened stakes underpinning this relationship are revealed after she’s rushed to hospital with a rare, life-threatening disease.

Thereafter, the film reconfigures itself into a waiting game, during which Nanjiani – to his credit – keeps testing himself as writer and actor: Kumail withholds his true feelings from his traditionalist parents (Bollywood vets Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) while pleading his case, in the ICU ward, before the wholly cherishable pairing of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s folks. What begins as merely another romance morphs into an inversion of arranged marriage: our young swain is confronted by his beloved’s parents before he’s had chance to connect with their offspring, and as awkwardness cedes to mutual affection, he proves himself a worthy suitor.

You’d still call it decent rather than mould-breaking, hamstrung by the cosiness that follows from knowing Emily will survive to claim her co-writer credit; the second hour, indeed, has so much narrative to resolve that it often forgets to be funny. Nevertheless, the sweetness radiating outwards from Nanjiani sustains it, and whenever The Big Sick digs a substratum or two deeper than the romcom norm, that spitballing Apatow house style starts to resemble something like profundity: an analogue for the ways in which most of us muddle through this changeable world, trying to make light of life’s trickier moments, hopeful everything will turn out for the best.   

Anticipation: A Judd Apatow production for a previously unheralded talent. 3
Enjoyment: Smart performances jolly us towards a well-earned happy ending. 3
In retrospect: Not quite life-or-death viewing, but as good a star vehicle as Nanjiani might have wished for. 3

The Big Sick is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

"Girls Trip" (Catholic Herald 04/08/17)

Few would have had many hopes for Girls Trip (***, 15, 122 mins), a raucous saga of four African-American pals cutting loose over one New Orleans weekend. Yet it’s become the wildcard in the summer movie season, having already accrued double its $19m budget in just ten days on US release. In part, this is a matter of smart business: correcting a colour imbalance in that post-Bridesmaids run of women-gone-wild comedies, Malcolm D. Lee’s film spied a gap in a competitive market, and merits attention as a rare example of commercial cinema that has actively flourished for not being pushed towards teenage boys. My hunch – as a sometime teenage boy – is they wouldn’t be able to handle it anyway.

Granted, Girls Trip’s broads are drawn in very broad strokes. Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall), the author whose invite to the annual Essence Festival initiates this jaunt, is another of romcomland’s conflicted career women; playing cash-strapped blogger Sasha, Queen Latifah has chiefly to resemble Queen Latifah. Comedian Tiffany Haddish, as spitfire Dina, fares better: she has an uproarious introduction scene, failing to notice she’s being fired. Jada Pinkett Smith, however, is working against a character – just-divorced single mom Lisa – initially defined by the contents of her suitcase: thick socks, travel pillow, hand sanitiser. Given that her weekend involves naked kerbcrawlers and a strategic deployment of grapefruit halves, the last seems a wholly judicious pack.

How to commend this oft-profane artefact to loyal CH readers? Well, I could point to the film’s sweetest scene, which finds our heroines concluding their first night’s carousing with bedside prayers; for all the rowdiness, Lee’s still operating within that devoutly Christian lineage of black cinema. And something semi-miraculous does happen whenever these performers congregate: egging each other on while backing one another up, they convince both as old friends and women who feel they deserve better – the film’s subject, and its intended demographic. At my packed public screening, the girls’ whoops and hollers – upon besting a love rival or catching some hunk’s eye – came to merge with those of the audience: it’s an empowerment party, and everybody’s invited.

It’s rarely sophisticated, verging on outright clunking in its brand-placement and issue-raising. Yet Lee’s big-hearted, laissez-faire handling keeps the pleasures coming, whether a brass band cover of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” or Haddish’s extraordinary laugh, which counts among the most suggestive ever preserved on celluloid. In its distaff casting, resolute indifference to the medium’s technical possibilities and equal determination to give cinemagoers a good time, here is the anti-Dunkirk: you absolutely need not see Girls Trip on an IMAX screen, or in 70mm, but catch it on the right night, with the right crowd, and you’ll laugh, blush and never look at citrus fruit the same way again.

Girls Trip is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

On the beach: "Dunkirk"

Even Christopher Nolan, visionary of the Comic-Con contingent, comes now to look backwards, caught in a moment in which Britain entire is apparently glancing over its own shoulders at rapidly receding former glories. (A question, plucked out of the musty air: could the genteel, cosily acceptable dreams of Empire framed in Downton Abbey have been as responsible for the result of last year's EU referendum as the rabid rhetoric on the back of the average UKIP flier?) Dunkirk, as you'll doubtless already be aware, is the story of a retreat from Europe, albeit in altogether more fraught and challenging circumstances than are faced in 2017: in a realisation of some presumably long-held Boys' Own fantasy, Nolan has been allocated the resources by Warner Bros. - the studio for which he made several cool billions overseeing the new (and, thanks to turbo-capitalism, now old) Batman franchise - to recreate that moment in late May/early June 1940 when hundreds of thousands of British troops were evacuated from the French coast, under heavy bombardment from German forces.

Nolan, ever the strategist, has broken this staggering logistical feat down in terms that might be easily be grasped by Burbank executives and the multiplexgoers of Burslem alike. We're offered three lines through the action, each one operating on a different clock: "The Mole", named for a landing jetty and unfolding over the course of a week, takes place on and around the beach, charting the haphazard progress of those squaddies pinned down by enemy fire; "The Sea", taking place over a single day, sees Mark Rylance taking to the waters as the captain of one of the privately owned "little ships" requisitioned to provide assistance during the evacuation; "The Air", describing but one hour, has Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot encountering the enemy while striving to provide some semblance of cover to those on the ground. Land, sea and air, then, and the surface efficiency of the film - just 108 minutes in total, Nolan's shortest this century - can be attributed to the fact we always know roughly where we are at any given point. (For once, the director of Memento and Inception isn't trying to lose us.)

These strands yield broadly varied sights: that of anxious, pallid young men lined up by the waters under overcast skies, either sitting ducks or fish in a barrel; that of steady Cap'n Rylance motoring across the Channel towards the shell of a downed plane, nothing else on the horizon; that of planes swooping out of that cloud cover and engaging in the twists and turns of aerial combat. Nolan is entirely committed to reproducing the grim, terse experience of this moment, wherever our ancestors might have observed it from - here is a summer blockbuster with more than a hint of the Sealed Knot about it - and the worldbuilding extends into that very careful, clever manipulation of time: these parallel events will eventually curve round and curl into one another, like the buildings in Inception's suddenly unrooted Paris. What Dunkirk sets out to do, and what it achieves, is to take one battle in isolation, and to cover it from all available angles - and here, I fear, is where the film's problems begin.

Although clearly operating in a more sombre, reverential key, the new film frequently resembles the kind of citytrashing finale Nolan initiated in his Batmovies: spectacular vistas, interrupted by loud, crashing fireballs, creating unnoticed, unmourned collateral damage, nothing lingered over long enough to have any lasting effect. Time starts morphing here, too, though in ways Nolan couldn't have envisaged: I entered Dunkirk thinking it sounded short for a summer event movie, and came out thinking it seemed grindingly long for the last act of a summer event movie. In part, this is down to Nolan's decision to limit himself to generating a particular kind of spectacle: the 12A variety that gets your $100m movie into moneyspinning multiplexes, but which precludes any real blood and guts, and rules out anything so tricky to dramatise or engage an audience with as politics or context. (This lack is perhaps the reason the film has been swooned over by critics on the left and Nigel Farage alike: it's a noisy void, a historical tumble dryer from which you can pull out any warming conclusion you like.)

I had the strongest, strangest feeling of déjà vu watching Dunkirk at my local cinema this week, and realised around halfway through that I'd been undergoing the exact same sensations I'd experienced watching James Cameron's Titanic in the same venue two decades before: being stirred and to some degree impressed by a film's technical achievements, but left emotionally cold by almost every one of its other aspects. Nolan deploys his soldiers not really as flesh-and-blood characters that invite identification, rather avatars of the audience's own shellshocked experience: he pushes untested, interchangeable types (Fionn Whitehead, Jack Lowden, a begrimed Harry Styles) into the front ranks of cannon fodder, then reinforces them with names and faces (Rylance, Hardy, Cillian Murphy) who catch the eye in trailers but have only muffled dialogue to deliver in their bitty, piecemeal scenes. (One exception, and a rare pleasure here: Kenneth Branagh, caught in the final phase of his transformation into A Night to Remember-era Kenneth More. As in Henry V and the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony, Branagh projects a potent, poignant idea of Britishness.) 

The real battle going on in Dunkirk is that between the quiet, dignified heroism occasionally perceptible in some of these performances - a quality that a director truly interested in human valour and frailty might have more closely honed in on - and a prodigious big-picture technique designed to induce PTSD in a Saturday-night crowd because that's now considered an index of A Significant Time At The Movies. (The delayed orgasm the film induces as the little ships bob into the soldiers' view and Hans Zimmer's droning score finally bursts forth into Elgar's "Nimrod" explains why Farage was standing so uncomfortably in front of that Dunkirk poster; the upholstery bill for that screen must have been horrendous.) That the tactic has largely succeeded can be witnessed from the fanatical stance of those format fetishists urging IMAX tickets upon us as though they were war bonds: possibly you need to submit to Dunkirk, to be overwhelmed by it, because that's all it's been built to do. Bear in mind, though, as the last of the bodies are cleared discreetly from Nolan's ever-pristine beaches, that there were people who insisted that about Fast & Furious 8, too.

Dunkirk is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

On demand: "Headshot"

The tremendous success of the Raid films has led Western buyers to look East - much as they did in the wake of John Woo's The Killer and Park Chan-wook's OldBoy - and led Eastern filmmakers to resume production on the kind of high-octane actioners liable to grab Western buyers by the collar. Headshot takes us back to Indonesia, and combines the expected kick-assery with elements of a puzzle-picture like Memento. Iko Uwais, the Raid franchise's lithe, bullet-quick hero, washes up without memory on an unfamiliar shore, and is prompted - first by a kindly nurse, then the arrival of heavies with guns - to figure out the cause of his amnesia; initial evidence points to the likelihood it has something to do with the violent jailbreak we bear witness to before the opening credits. As he sets out on this quest, we inevitably wind up making mental comparisons with the Raids. Headshot takes rather more time to get up and running after that prologue, and can feel tatty whenever Uwais isn't duffing someone up: functionally plotted (its memory games boiling down to a standard-issue matter of vengeance) and variably performed, it's the 21st century equivalent of those action titles that headed direct-to-video in the van Damme/Seagal era.

What is thrillingly apparent, however, is the extent to which action choreography - the staging, shooting and cutting of fight scenes - has been radically improved in recent years, not so much by new ideas (although it's clear lightweight digital cameras help to throw an audience right into the thick of it) as by the return of an old, simplifying, quasi-musical one: letting us know exactly where these bodies are in relation to one another, such that entire sequences here can hinge upon the precise angle of a gun or a knife, or pivot on a close-up of metal fragments protruding, Wolverine-style, from between one ne'er-do-well's knuckles. Uwais, whose resemblance to the young Phillip Schofield makes his eruptions of murderous rage all the more surprising, marauds through these stand-offs, which is my warning to viewers of a delicate or sensitive disposition to avert their gaze - but he's also possessed of a dexterity and flexibility that allows him to punctuate his big beats with those deft touches that made Jackie Chan a huge crowd favourite back in the day. Yes, you'll yelp as he snaps yet another arm or neck on his route to the truth, but watch him thwart the heavy who's just doused a commuter bus in petrol by blowing out his lighter, and try not to smile.

Headshot is now streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Arrow Films.  

Tuesday 25 July 2017

On TV: "George Best: All By Himself"

Daniel Gordon's documentary George Best: All By Himself opens with a chastening gobbet of to-camera testimony from none other than Angie Best. One night, she recalls, she was driving home in the rain when she saw a bedraggled old soak hunched over at the side of the road - a figure she first took for a homeless drunk, and only belatedly realised was her then-husband George. How had one who'd known such highs, as the most celebrated and adored sportsman in the land, been struck so low that even the mother of his child could no longer recognise him? That establishes the line of inquiry Gordon is pursuing over these ninety minutes; the pleasures of his film reside in its astute stitching together of the available archive.

Of course, the filmmaker has the advantage of a subject who was both much photographed and supremely photogenic, who made a perilous task - dribbling past defenders drilled to kick wideboys and flash Harrys like Best into the back row of the stands - look effortlessly easy, like a schoolboy nutmegging his contemporaries for fun. The rise, even after all these years, is still stirring: fast-tracked through the ranks at Old Trafford, Best found himself in the Man U first eleven at precisely that post-Munich moment when the fans were desperate for reasons to cheer - and quickly repaid the faith Matt Busby placed in him several times over. Celebrity followed - and here, too, Best wrote the book as British football's first superstar, dubbed "The Boy with the Beatle Haircut", and presented with an array of temptations that Paddy Crerand and Harry Gregg (old-guarders, both interviewed here) never faced.

Yet unlike the Beatles, who had people around them to help convert dizzying overnight success into the basis of A Hard Day's Night, Best had to negotiate the breakneck twists and turns of modernity relying only on gut instinct: he was, as per the title, left to his own devices. Gordon carefully and sensitively sows the seeds of the tragedy that was to follow: a late Sixties TV interview in which Crerand, Best's roommate during those glory years, unsmilingly admits suicide is the only future he sees beyond football, a confession Best made to agent Bill McMurdo in the dressing room after United's European Cup victory in 1968, worried that he might never again experience anything as elevating. How to match those intoxicating highs?

Those of us who grew up watching Best's increasingly troubled and troubling chat show appearances in the Eighties and Nineties will already know the answer - but here those look like endpoints, brick walls, possibly even cries for help. (Did he mistake Wogan - that avuncular Irishman with the soothing voice and the comfortable couch - for a shrink?) Gordon's thesis is that his subject's first response, through the fallow Seventies and Eighties, was that of many disaffected working-class boys: to run away, from one girl to the next, from Manchester to London, the UK to the US (where he briefly reinvented himself as a commodity in the nascent NASL, before his lack of professionalism became an issue). If that gives All by Himself the same rise-fall shape as a half-dozen other recent documentary requiems, there is a sense that only now, a decade or so on from Best's passing, can we properly catch up with its errant subject.

Certainly, this is a very 21st century perspective, one that views Best less as a sorry joke or tabloid punchline than as, among other things, the victim of a terrible disease - and we all of us now know enough about alcoholism, its causes and effects, to be able to respond to the footballer's decline with a good deal more compassion than anybody thought to do at the time. You could look upon the moisturised millionaire Beckham - Best's obvious successor in United red - and see proof positive of an evolution in footballing circles; equally, though, you could watch All by Himself back-to-back with the recent Gazza doc Gascoigne and ponder this: how has the game improved its response, beyond throwing more and more money at these talented young men, in the hope it'll make all their problems disappear?

George Best: All by Himself screens tonight on BBC2 at 12.10am, and is available to view on iPlayer here.   

Friday 21 July 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 14-16, 2017:

1 (new) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***

2 (2) Despicable Me 3 (U)
3 (1) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
4 (new) Cars 3 (U)
5 (3) Baby Driver (15) **
6 (new) The Beguiled (15) ***
7 (4Transformers: The Last Knight (12A)
8 (new) Jagga Jasoos [above] (12A)
9 (5) Wonder Woman (12A) ***
10 (6) All Eyez On Me (15)


My top five: 
1. Victim

2. David Lynch: The Art Life
3. The Tree of Wooden Clogs
4. The Beguiled
5. War for the Planet of the Apes

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (new) Sing (U) ***
3 (1) Passengers (12) **
4 (2) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
5 (4) Lion (12) ***
6 (3Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
7 (re) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12)
8 (re) Patriots Day (15)
9 (5) Assassin's Creed (15)
10 (8) Moonlight (15) ****


My top five: 
1. The Lost City of Z

2. Neruda
3. Heal the Living
4. Get Out
5. Certain Women

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Maps to the Stars (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. Megamind (Saturday, BBC2, 8.35am)
3. Legally Blonde (Sunday, five, 3.45pm)
4. Hope Springs (Wednesday, C4, 2.20am)
5. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Saturday, BBC1, 3.30pm)

Keyboard warrior: "Scribe"

Scribe - the rather prosaic English name for what was originally titled La Mécanique de l'Ombre - arrives as another of those efficient timewasters the French cinema occasionally dispatches our way: for at least half an hour, it's essentially a man sat at a typewriter, and you may find yourself wondering if it took director Thomas Kruithof and co-writer Yann Gozlan that long to knock the idea out. In narrative terms, c'est une espèce de Conversation: François Cluzet (go-to guy for these thrillers since the international success of 2006's Tell No One) plays Duval, an alcoholic wash-up handed what he takes to be a midlife career boost transcribing a series of surveillance recordings for shadowy suit Denis Podalydès; what begins as a benign moneyspinner breaks bad once our hero twigs these chats have something to do with an upcoming election, and the murder of a prominent Arab businessman.

To its credit, the film sets out into what's now unfashionable, neo-Hitchcockian territory, landing as vaguely exotic at a moment when British crime thrillers are almost exclusively thick-eared, meat-and-potatoes affairs, lacking the GCSEs required for subterfuge. Cluzet gives it his usual rumpled gravitas, and Kruithof affixes each scene with a patina of style, seeking out crepuscular Parisian locations while shooting ominous close-ups of tape passing over recorder heads as the plot unfolds. Yet from the midpoint on, that plot doesn't thicken so much as drastically thin, the tension dissipating with the appearance of every new stern-faced figure entering shot to reveal a little bit more of the conspiracy. As a calling-card movie, it does just enough to catch the eye, but not enough to hold it: where the very best paranoid thrillers lodge in your gut and assume the weight of personal or national tragedy, Scribe passes altogether briskly through the system, dealing not so much in obsession as distraction.

Scribe opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on August 7.    

Thursday 20 July 2017

The snapper: "Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock"

Shot!, a portrait of the legendary rock photographer Mick Rock, is everything you might expect from a Vice Films production directed by someone called Barnaby: lots of filters, cameos from Karen O and Father John Misty, and a fidgety, ADD-ish shooting and editing strategy in which any evidence of music-biz hedonism gets prioritised over compositional analysis or the finer points of its subject's creative philosophy. For a while, at least, it's lively enough. A framing device finds yer actual Rock (his real name, conveniently) watching over an actor recreating a cocaine-induced heart attack he had in the early 90s, thereby enabling a life to flash before our eyes; the snapper, it transpires, has tales to tell, usually in colourful language, about the kind of people we might still want to hear about. Cue the images: of Syd Barrett and David Bowie (an image - or rather a series of images - just waiting to be photographed); of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (marginally less curmudgeonly around Rock than he was with the rest of the world); of Freddie (whom Rock shot as though he were Dietrich), Debbie ("the Monroe of pop", and an obvious gift to any photographer) and Meat Loaf (less so).

There's value to sitting Rock down and getting his thoughts on the record: he wandered onto this scene just as rock was being revolutionised and weaponised in the late 1960s, exploding across TV screens and teenage bedroom walls in full colour. He can just about get away with describing himself as the Goebbels of this movement, one charged with overseeing the music's visual propaganda wing, because so many of the images director Barnaby Clay puts on screen back this claim up: looking again at the young Bowie fellating the neck of Mick Ronson's guitar, it's evident that something new, thrilling and/or threatening was going on at this moment on these stages. (Lock up your sons and your daughters.) Old heads will doubtless be satisfied; for non-nostalgics, however, the trouble will be that those images increasingly speak louder than anything else in Shot!. Certainly, Rock's own, blokey commentary settles into a droning monotone after a while, running through a list of names that passed before his lens on their way to immortality or obscurity; the absence of other perspectives - no musicians, no critics, no picture editors - comes to be all too keenly felt.

Shot! is very Vice Films in its underlying insistence that experience is everything, and context for pussies: Clay's interview technique appears to have been simply to goad Rock into giving up one tale of excess after another, up until the point where the narrative arc demands he address the sorry toll coke took on his subject's output, a precipitous descent into paranoia, debt, ill health and - at what was surely his lowest point - directing promos for the likes of Ace Frehley and Mötley Crüe. As we rejoin him today, Rock cuts a lean if lived-in figure, inhabiting a healthier if necessarily circumscribed and far less decadent place in the universe: he's a survivor, which makes him of interest, but Clay often seems far too much in his thrall to spot the absurdity Rock is capable of, and thus the absurdity he threatens to tip the whole project into. Watching the photographer spinning about and performing headstands in his studio before a shoot, or making loftily serious pronouncements about the mind-body connection, you begin to realise just how musicians rub off on their chroniclers, and how close Simon Day and Rhys Thomas's Brian Pern spoofs got to la-la rock reality.

Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock tours selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Man about the house: "The Beguiled"

On paper, or on the Internet, or wherever it was you first encountered it, this would have presented as at the very least an intriguing idea: Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) bringing her delicate sensibility to bear on The Beguiled, the pulpy Thomas Cullinan novel published in 1966 and filmed by Don Siegel as a Clint Eastwood vehicle in 1971. Though that earlier adaptation still holds up as a rollicking, close-to-the-knuckle entertainment, it really is a raw steak of a movie, lusty, gory and gaudy, off-colour even when it isn't being openly incorrect - very much the work of a male actor-director pairing seeing just what they might be allowed to get away with in an era of newly relaxed censorship and incipient women's lib. (Further context: Eastwood filmed it the same year he made Dirty Harry and Play Misty for Me. The guy was on a roll back then, and nothing was going to stop him.) The welcome surprise is the extent to which Coppola succeeds in shaping her own distinct film from this material: lighter, ironised, unarguably tidier and more PC, but equally striking and involving, and affecting in a way its predecessor wasn't.

The set-up is exactly the same. In Virginia in the year 1864, with the Civil War raging within earshot but just beyond the frame, a wounded Yankee soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell, in the Eastwood role), is pulled out of the woods by a pupil of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a sanctuary of sorts, left untouched by the surrounding conflict and populated by a small coterie of easily flustered Southern belles. It's within the Seminary that the two films' emphases begin to deviate. As their mutually braided hair establishes, Coppola's young ladies are as much of a girl gang as, say, the sisters in The Virgin Suicides or Marie-Antoinette and her attendants, and this telling is naturally a little more interested in their individual personalities - bored, curious, dreamy, uptight - than were Don and Clint. Their narrative developed along the lines of a ripe joke, a cackling cautionary tale about a pussyhound tripping over his own dick, such as might be burped across a table to a drinking buddy in some smoky watering hole: the girls were to some degree interchangeable, and secondary.

Coppola, for her part, approaches this story as though it were a teachable moment - a lesson in the games the sexes play, and continue to play. (Its ideal partner in any future double-bill wouldn't necessarily be the Siegel film, rather Catherine Breillat's take on the Bluebeard legend.) When McBurney rouses from his injuries, he realises he's on easy street so long as he presents different sides of his character to - or plays different roles for - those young ladies who are of an age to respond: showing a tantalising glimpse of flank, while dropping hints he might usefully be kept around as a gardener and companion, to the practically inclined Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, nicely eerie); recasting himself as a romantic adventurer for the schoolmarmy Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); offering a bit of rough to restless teen Alicia (Elle Fanning). Soon enough, everyone's competing to give him an extra dollop of cream on his apple pie and a song at his bedside, the tension - narrative, erotic - building until the point these girls themselves wake up to the fact this sharp-tongued charmer (and the casting of the ever-more-assured Farrell as the ultimate fuckboy counts as a minor stroke of genius) is, in fact, a snake in some very long and untended grass.

That gets Coppola's film two-thirds of the way towards where it's going; only in its final act does it start to feel a little like pale imitation. This director is au fait with the sex and sensuality written into this narrative - witness the tremendous moment when Farrell scatters the buttons of Dunst's dress in a climactic eruption of lust - but she gets squeamish around the violence the author intended as its equal and opposite effect. Coppola doesn't so much blanch as avert her eyes altogether in the run-up to the book (and the first film)'s key scene: let's just say a cut stands in for a cut, as though the filmmaker had been charged with composing her own inflight variation of these images. Much else about the concluding thirty minutes feels a touch hesitant or choppy: for all their blunt force, it's Siegel and Eastwood who seemed more inclined to linger over these final few pages, savouring every last bite of Cullinan's decidedly chewy punchline. Still, by then, Coppola has drawn enough elegant parallels and landed enough points for The Beguiled not to feel entirely self-sealed and cut off from the rest of the world, as many of this director's films have.

Granted, with the assistance of blue-chip collaborators (regular production designer Anne Ross, The Grandmaster cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, electroheads Phoenix), Coppola cultivates a hothouse atmosphere within the Farnsworth Seminary dorms, but it's especially amusing to watch The Beguiled in the wake of the debate the film has sparked in the corridors of Film Twitter - for here, surely, is that forum's perfect mirror image: boys trying to impress (or impress themselves upon) girls, girls ganging up to shut boys down, everybody winding up somewhere between 75-80% more overheated than they need to be, or than might be good for anybody's health. It's hard not to think Siegel and Eastwood took on Cullinan as a dare, egging each other on to do or say or show something nasty; Coppola is on to something else in this book, holding the Civil War at bay some distance beyond the Seminary's gates - which, for better or worse, takes the issue of race off the table - and instead reframing Cullinan's tale as a continuation of a longer-running battle, one still raging on paper, on the Internet, elsewhere. As the 2017 Beguiled's magnificently melancholy closing image makes palpable, this is a battle nobody can ever really win.

The Beguiled is now showing in selected cinemas.