Thursday 31 August 2017

Countryside alliance: "Eat Locals"

The genre quickie Eat Locals - turned round by prolific producer Jonathan Sothcott for Jason Flemyng to direct on one location with a bunch of thesp pals - has a certain speed on its side: it's the first British film that can properly lay claim to being of the Brexit era, as denoted by its notionally political set-up. An octet of red-irised bloodsuckers - including such familiar faces as Freema Agyeman, Charlie Cox and cuddly Annette Crosbie from One Foot in the Grave, representing the Daily Mail readership - gather one evening at the clangingly named Thatcher's Farm to discuss the new world order; having done for one of their own (and Flemyng misses a trick here by failing to cast any one of the 6,000 recent RADA graduates who sound like David "Dave" Cameron), they start eyeing up fresh meat in the form of a passing Romany lad (Billy Cook), trying to complete the kill before the Army - who have them under surveillance, then under siege - move in conclusively.

With a smidgen of seriousness, any hint of the (genuinely horrific) paralysis and despair that gripped the nation in the wake of the referendum result, the film might have been something; as it is, it's no more than a throwaway exercise, a pocket-money job only ever intended to occupy the time between the serials that keep the roofs over cast and crew's heads. So it is we get, in no particular order: not terribly funny pratfalls, makeshift casting (Mackenzie Crook as a hard-bitten military commander!), bathetic references to more accomplished features, ironic use of David Essex, and hapless shifts in tone and perspective that suggests Flemyng and screenwriter Danny King haven't spent much time thinking their premise through. (I believe Flemyng intends for us to actually like his vamps by the time his jokey "You Have Been Watching" end credits roll, a task that may be beyond Remain and Leave voters.)

Along the way, Eat Locals burps up snickers and chuckles that might temporarily distract viewers when it reaches its natural home of the London Live channel's post-pub slot: a couple of potty-mouthed kids in the opening sequences are good, and Crosbie seems to be having as much fun going feral and wielding an automatic rifle as Richard Briers did in a similar role in 2012's Cockneys vs. Zombies. Yet we're clearly many, many leagues away from the state-of-the-nation address you'd hope our brighter writers and directors were now trying to get funded, and even the single location (a necessarily shuttered farmhouse) becomes a limitation rather than an advantage in Flemyng's hands: all those presumably long, wearying, chilly night shoots, and there's not a single interesting or striking shot in the whole movie.

Eat Locals opens in selected cinemas from Fri 8, ahead of its DVD release on October 30.    

Flame in the streets: "Detroit"

A divided (and apparently divisive) work for a divided moment, Detroit lands among us as a drama that aspires to the look and authenticity of documentary, and a film about black anger and black suffering written by a white man and directed by a white woman. It arrives at the end of what's been the oddest summer season in living memory, tossed into the mix like a Molotov cocktail, some counterblast to the weirdly apolitical Dunkirk (war as immersive, teen-friendly RPG, thus a massive hit): two-thirds of its frames burn at their very edges with the effort exerted by writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow in trying to pin down the specifics of that long hot summer of 1967 during which the titular city fell subject to unrest and was taken over by the National Guard. Whether it was some deliberate, William Castle-ish 4DX gimmick or just an unfortunate aircon malfunction, the heating in the late-August public screening I attended was cranked up to the max; either way, the film scarcely seemed to require it. For much of its running time, Detroit is incendiary enough.

The first thing to be said of Bigelow's film - and my gut feeling is that viewers on both sides of the argument will agree on this, if this point alone - is that it has been composed with this director's now expected virtuosity: you cannot deny Detroit generates a force, even as it begs the question of how (and to what ends) that force is wielded. A prologue skilfully establishes the disrepair most major American inner cities had been allowed to fall into by the closing years of the Sixties, and the specific conditions that fed into the Detroit unrest: a series of heavy-handed police raids on after-hours drinking establishments popular among the black community that led to rioting, looting, then to less scrupulous members of the city's police force taking potshots at looters as though they were the Trump kids on their first safari. Having whipped up a considerable storm, Boal and Bigelow place us at its epicentre: the modestly appointed Algiers Hotel, where on the night of July 25, 1967, a report of shots being fired at police and National Guardsman stationed nearby prompted a cabal of openly racist cops - led, in this iteration, by the composite figure of Will Poulter's Krauss - to storm the premises and subject several black guests, and their (white) female company that night, to what proved a fatally inept interrogation.

The Algiers scenes are the movie's furnace room, and they form an hour of pure ordeal cinema, surpassing even The Hurt Locker's bomb-disposal sequences and Zero Dark Thirty's raid on the Bin Laden compound in their impact. Boal and Bigelow dig their fingernails in at every opportunity by subtly emphasising everybody's position in the food chain: here are young black men and young black women who find themselves entirely at the mercy of white men drunk on the power their badges and guns confer upon them - a power, it becomes apparent, which is wholly disproportionate to their smarts or regard for the niceties of the law. These are the sequences you come away from Detroit remembering, even if Poulter - a useful performer, making much of Boal's carefully codified language (endless, dehumanising "they"s and "you people"s) - still seems somehow five-to-ten years too young to play the entrenched racist-in-chief. He's outplayed by a terrific John Boyega, playing the real-life figure of Melvin Dismukes, a security guard present inside the Algiers that night who found himself having to occupy an impossible position: accused of being an Uncle Tom by the rioters for trying to keep the peace, he strove to fade into the background and intervene whenever the cops were looking the other way, emerging from that night with a measure of triumphs (not least getting away alive) while still being hauled in for questioning as a suspect in the hotel shootings. Here, Boal and Bigelow hit upon a powerful irony: that the same officials who saw nothing but skin tone as the unrest spiralled beyond their control were utterly blind to Melvin Dismukes - his words, his actions, his entire demeanour - when he needed to be seen most.

That sorry lesson alone would be enough to make Detroit a valuable and pertinent document fifty years on from the events it describes, and yet - midway through the film, around the time Krauss's ire had reached its peak - I started to regret just how terse a filmmaker Bigelow had become. In 1995, Bigelow made Strange Days, a post-Rodney King, pre-millennial sci-fi with a plot that hinged upon the shooting of a rapper by racist scions of the LAPD. All the fear and prejudice to be found in Detroit was there channelled into a pulsating genre framework: electric with (not unjustified) paranoia, it wasn't a film so much as a conspiracy theory being laid out - in astonishing Technicolor, and at around 150 beats per minute - by a voice then operating on the fringes of the studio system. Perhaps inevitably, given how jittery L.A. was in the 1990s, that same system buried a film that could well have sparked a revolution in the multiplexes, sending one star (Ralph Fiennes) off to play Voldemort for the next decade-and-a-half, another (Angela Bassett, Oscar-nominated not two years before for playing Tina Turner) into something like limbo, and Bigelow herself off for a rethink before her subsequent evolution into Serious Bigelow. (Her next films were 2000's po-faced The Weight of Water and 2002's leaden submariner K-19: The Widowmaker, neither of which you'd want to return to in any hurry.)

Detroit, which is unmistakably the work of a well-connected industry figure, is weighted with a dread that makes it very much of our present moment, where you'd say the worst looks to have come to pass in America, were there not signs that worse still is yet to come. It's undeniably a weightier achievement than, say, Bigelow's Point Break, an upper-case History Movie doing everything it can with the ample resources it has to set its particular, tragic moment in stone. Yet it's somehow far less dynamic, rewarding or instructive as a motion picture: I left it behind impressed but knowing - as I did when leaving The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty - that I'd have no particular desire to watch it again, which would seem to be a major problem for a film that surely intends to jolt complacent palefaces out of some of their lazier prejudices. Some of the impact is muffled by an extended coda, set in the days, weeks and months after the Algiers shootings, which is applied as one might a wet tea towel to staunch bleeding or smother flames: there is a courtroom drama, and scenes of the survivors to rebuild their lives, as they surely had to, and - at the last - a gospel song, holding out the prospect of delayed peace after two-and-a-bit hours of trial by fire.

For all their good, worthwhile, radical instincts, Boal and Bigelow are adhering to an arc here, building towards a revelation and working through of trauma as surely as they were when Zero Dark Thirty climaxed with the tears rolling down CIA analyst Jessica Chastain's face - and here, as there, some have accused the director of pointing her camera in the wrong direction, of missing something crucial to this unrest. As a stated fan of Bigelow, I'd be less inclined to attribute this to her so-called white privilege than to the sheer scale and ambition of these recent projects, the desire on her and Boal's part to digest a dozen Time and Newsweek articles every time and thereby cover as much ground on a multiplex screen as any American filmmaker now can. Her prowess is such that she's effectively been making three films in one here - the unravelling social tapestry, the site-specific horror movie, and the Big Hollywood History Picture, set out before a final-reel jury - which perhaps explains why Detroit emerges as so expansive, so sprawling and so compromised, at once a lot and not quite enough. For her next trick, if it's not too much of an over-simplification, she should go back to picking one movie, limber up, and direct the hell out of that.

Detroit is now playing in selected cinemas.  

Wednesday 30 August 2017

1,001 Films: "Body Heat" (1981)

Only the sex (and perhaps the underlying fascination with real estate) establishes Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan's elegant rewrite of the Double Indemnity plot, as set in 1981; the rest of the film seems to be taking place forty years before, as William Hurt's sweaty, horny small-town lawyer Ned Racine tangles with woman-in-clingy-white Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) and gets himself ensnared in a plot to bump off her husband. Kasdan's achievement is to keep the stylisation (wind chimes, a John Barry score, much business with hats) from toppling over into pure pastiche: Body Heat works as a thriller as well as it does homage, and retains some tension even if it's possible to intuit every last one of its twists well in advance. Hurt dials down his formidable screen intelligence from under a nebbishy 'tache as a man whom Matty has rightly skewered as "not too smart", one prepared to continue servicing her even after she's screwed him legally, and then boast about his conquest to an opposing counsel. 

Turner, giving a masterclass in how to stoke a guy's passions while keeping him at bay, makes more than just a cartoon out of a woman who's essentially too hot to handle. A femme fatale like Matty inevitably arrives trailing a whiff of misogyny; more crucial to the film's moment of release may be that Racine, who kills for love or lust, is out-thought and undone by someone who kills out of sheer greed. (A high-school yearbook reveals Matty's ambition "to be rich and live in an exotic land".) Though contemporary audiences will recognise a softly spoken Mickey Rourke and Ted Danson in glasses, the real supporting cast is the array of fans and air conditioning units gathered in the corners of each frame. Whether the sizzle of deep-fat fryers or cigarettes, or the (moral?) fog that envelops Matty and Ned as they go about disposing of bodies, few films have so generated their own climate: you practically feel the celluloid itself getting tacky, just as its characters come to slip up on all the sweat and sex. 

Body Heat is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Tuesday 29 August 2017

1,001 Films: "Airplane!" (1980)

Now enshrined as a regular feature of the television schedules - where the pan-and-scan frame and broadcasting restrictions mean it usually loses a few marginal sight gags and Kitten Natividad's brief topless appearance - Airplane!, the breakthrough collaboration between Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, introduced a new style of screen comedy: a form of parody more immediate and scattershot than the considered, affectionate homages overseen by Mel Brooks in the previous decade's Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Several decades on, it's still possible to be struck by just how daring Airplane! is in its subversion of those tatty 70s mid-air disaster movies: not just casting basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a pilot, but then squeezing his seven-foot frame into a mock cockpit, and furthermore sending up the whole business of casting star names by subjecting his "Roger Murdock" to sustained interrogation by some punk kid passenger who refuses to recognise him as anything other than KAJ. (Just as outré, if you're thinking about rather than laughing at it: how the film sustains the inherently phoney romance between stewardess Julie Hagerty and pilot-with-a-drinking-problem Robert Hays, conceived along the lines of Casablanca meets From Here to Eternity.)

The more dubious, envelope-pushing jokes - like the paedophilic captain and his animal-loving wife, or the subtitling of two jive-talking passengers - are funny enough at the point of execution for one not to question exactly how dubious they might be, and even the flash-in-the-pan pastiches, like the Saturday Night Fever number that might have seemed a shameless coattail on the just-passed disco craze, hold up because the films being pastiched have endured alongside them. (It seems unlikely that the same will be said of the Scary Movies, on which the Zuckers worked, in a quarter of a century: given that those films have spoofed such here-today-gone-tomorrow titles as What Women Want, Snakes on a Plane and Click, probably not.) Finding a balance of smart-silly and dumb-silly in its saturation of verbal and visual gags, it remains one of the best performed comedies in the repertoire, a consequence of the ZAZ team's insistence that everybody passing before the camera maintain the straightest of faces, and quietly pulls off something very tricky: repeatedly breaking the frame, yet getting the viewer to believe in its reality to an extent such that we wonder whether this plane will touch down intact, and what would actually happen if a plane had pilots named Roger, Victor and Captain Oveur at the helm.

Airplane! is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Paramount.  

Sunday 27 August 2017

On demand: "Casting JonBenet"

Casting JonBenet is a tricky one: another of those New Documentaries doing its level best to blur the lines separating fact from fiction in the hope of arriving at some bigger, wider, more resonant truth. A few years back, the filmmaker Kitty Green showed up in Boulder, Colorado, hometown of murdered child beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey, where she posted a casting call for locals to play the key players in a mooted feature on Ramsey's brief life and tragic, still unexplained death. It is just possible that, early in this process, Green sensed there would be something tawdry about digging through the particulars of this case once again, or that the results would most likely generate another bad TV movie. (The snippets of straightforward reconstruction we see here, with their cheesy score and flatly melodramatic reactions, do seem to be heading that way.) Instead of barrelling towards the expected fiction, she started cutting the auditions together, intuiting there might be a more revealing means of retelling this story somewhere in that raw footage, thereby generating a notable example of what we might call always-show-your-working cinema.

You can see why Green might have been led in this direction. Several of those auditioning knew or claim to have known the Ramsey family, and have retained their own theories on whodunnit and why; they all, to a man and woman, demonstrate a love of the camera, a desire for recognition, which aligns them with the victim in this case. As in the recent Kate Plays Christine, another modern American tragedy is seized upon as an opportunity for performance of one kind or another. Nothing about Casting JonBenet, however, rebuts the accusation of bad faith on Green's part. We can assume her interviewees consented to go on tape for audition purposes, but were they made aware (and were they happy) that their often deeply personal, in several places borderline slanderous, asides would eventually be beamed into the world's cinemas and living rooms? How about those non-professionals who came in to audition for the role of accused pederast John Mark Karr, and who - in the final edit - have ended up being framed as spokesmen for the smalltown view on paedophilia?

Green's onto something semi-interesting in the contrast she draws between, say, those women who view JonBenet's mother Patsy as a frustrated narcissist living through her haloed daughter and those who defend her as a tough, proud showbiz mom, the Sharon Osbourne of Boulder. (The men seem almost unanimously predisposed to defend the girl's father John against any allegation of wrongdoing.) She also wrings thin, ain't-life-funny? chuckles from such moments as two interviewees realising they're Facebook pals, or from the presence of a bounty hunter who, mid-audition, reveals his nocturnal identity of sex educator, and whips out the flogging equipment to prove it. Time and again, though, Casting JonBenet leads us back to the conclusion that nobody save the killer, or killers, really knows what happened in this case: around 90% of what Green preserves here falls between idle gossip and artful speculation, mounted without a single iota of the responsibility an Errol Morris would bring to this kind of true-crime excavation. The film fits perfectly with that morbid Netflix strain that has so far given us Making a Murderer and Amanda Knox, projects that effortlessly spin human suffering into bingeworthy entertainments for consumers who wouldn't go near a supermarket tabloid. Still, it looks an awful lot like tapdancing around a child's grave: you may admire the audacity, and indeed the technical skill involved in its manoeuvres, but it didn't leave me cold so much as hypothermic.

Casting JonBenet is now streaming on Netflix.

Saturday 26 August 2017

From the archive: "Captain Phillips"

Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips opens in colour, but with a black-and-white contrast. In leafy, plentiful Vermont, captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) prepares for his next assignment, steering his cargo vessel from Oman to Mombasa in Kenya; evidently a family man, he stuffs photos of his nearest and dearest into his holdall, and – on the drive to the airport – worries to his wife (Catherine Keener) about the world’s growing ruthlessness, and the effect it may have on their college-age son.

In a parched Somalia, meanwhile, young men of a similar age emerge from cramped and makeshift shacks to line up on a beach, clutching weapons to their chests. They, too, are heading out to sea – or at least some of them will be, for it transpires being picked for a piracy mission is not unlike being selected for a school football team or off-the-books construction work. As with the latter, this is a high-risk, high-reward engagement: fail to make the squad, and you and your impoverished family will only fall further behind.

As in Greengrass’s American breakthrough United 93, what follows will be a fateful collision of First and Third Worlds. The pirates track Phillips’ vessel by radar as it charts its own course through the Somali basin (“We can’t attack a herd”); they steel themselves to relieve the ship of its sizeable bounty; and soon, the Captain and his Somali opposite, a tenacious young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) are eyeing one another up through their binoculars.

This David-and-Goliath scenario has already been played out on our screens this year – in the very fine Danish drama A Hijacking – but that film, a fiction from the brains behind TV’s Borgen, was a matter of skilful negotiation, where this more expansive, Sony-backed enterprise, drawn from the real Richard Phillips’ memoir about a 2009 hijacking, is geared much more towards suspense and action.

What Greengrass brings to the project is his usual, remarkable integrity: he gives the Somalis a (subtitled) voice, and never allows the film to stray into Under Siege-style superheroics. Much of it is shot (by the ace cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) in that nervy, increasingly common pseudo-documentary mode: the scenes on Phillips’s bridge as the pirates approach, are repelled, and then rally again, are not so dissimilar from the frenetic air traffic control activity at the opening of United 93.

At the centre of these scenes stands one of the most inspired casting decisions of 21st century cinema. Greengrass has been savvy enough to recognise Hanks as a figurehead of contemporary capitalism: a captain of Hollywood industry, shortly to be seen playing Walt Disney, and able to shift even potentially difficult product like this past the pre-production discussion stage and out to the multiplexes.

Yet this role also relies upon the actor’s reputation as a dependable pro: like the generally unflappable Phillips, Hanks is known for showing up first thing and unfussily getting on with the job in hand. Though he has seniority over much of the cast here, the star is never allowed to pull rank, in part because Greengrass and his screenwriter Billy Ray are interested in the way these crews work as units – the American sailors complaining to Phillips that they didn’t sign up to dodge bullets, the Somalis undergoing a more brutal leadership challenge – but also because Hanks is now older, heavier, wearier than he once was.

We see how the hijackers – wiry, wily, hungrier souls – might just get around Richard Phillips’ defences, but at the same time, how inexperienced the pirates are, how impatient they are to grab the big brass ring, and how Phillips might just be able to teach them a thing or two during the crisis: the film’s something of a lesson in the importance of keeping a firm hand on the rudder, behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Again, you marvel at Greengrass’s technical and logistical skill, which in this instance may even outstrip his work on the Bourne sequels – not least because Captain Phillips was actually shot at sea, rather than in a tank somewhere. And Ray’s script keeps moving and reframing this impasse in impressive ways: the boat gets smaller around the halfway mark, narrowing the focus and upping the tension until the life-or-death moment when we’re left peering into a small porthole, wondering – most likely worrying – how this stand-off will be resolved.

This push towards self-containment might be regarded as Greengrass’s reaction to the sprawling, multi-character messiness of 2010’s Green Zone, and suggests one possible flaw with the new film: an absence of any wider political discussion. A Hijacking gained a critical edge by bringing to the table shipping company bosses who were prepared to sell their workers out; Phillips’ vessel drifts out of radio contact early on.

Instead of a corporate presence, we instead get the armed forces, who are mobilised late on in the film, and after all the choppiness – and the closing half-hour may be as gruelling as any 12A-rated feature is now likely to get – one senses a degree of reassuring control being exerted again, as though this hijacking were no more than an isolated incident, to be swiftly and bloodily resolved. Perhaps it’s only Hanks’s lingering depiction of shock that prevents you from forgetting the carnage by the time you reach the car park.

You may be too tensed up by this point to notice, though, and perhaps we shouldn’t carp unduly about a major studio release that fosters such even-handedness in the treatment of its characters. Aboard the good ship Greengrass, there is ultimately no good and no bad, no black or white, just people – vulnerable little fish in a very big pond, doing whatever they need to survive.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Captain Phillips screens on ITV1 tonight at 10.15pm.

Friday 25 August 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 18-20, 2017:

1 (new) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **

2 (1) Dunkirk (12A) ***
3 (2Annabelle: Creation (15)
4 (4) The Emoji Movie (U)
5 (new) The Dark Tower (12A)
6 (5) Despicable Me 3 (U)
7 (6) Girls Trip (15) ***
8 (3) Atomic Blonde (15)
9 (new) Everything Everything (12A)
10 (7) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **


My top five: 
1. Logan Lucky

2. Hotel Salvation
3. In Bed with Victoria
4. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
5. Detroit

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (2) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
3 (new) Their Finest (12) ***
4 (4) Sing (U) ***
5 (3) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
6 (5) The Great Wall (12)
7 (6) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
8 (8) Split (15) ***
9 (7) Power Rangers (12) **
10 (new) xXx: Return of Xander Cage (12)


My top five: 
1. I Am Not Your Negro

2. Lady Macbeth
3. Williams
4. Raw
5. Their Finest

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Toy Story 2 (Sunday, BBC1, 4.35pm)
2. The Magnificent Ambersons [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 8.45am)
3. The Searchers (Bank Holiday Monday, five, 2.35pm)
4. Captain Phillips (Saturday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
5. The Box (Friday, BBC1, 12.10am)

The comeback kid: "Logan Lucky"

The big story with Logan Lucky is the return of Steven Soderbergh, the Sinatra of modern American cinema, unretiring himself after an absence of fully, ooh, four years. (Since the theatrical release of 2013's Behind the Candelabra, he's worked exclusively in television - overseeing two seasons of period hospital drama The Knick - and confined his communication to gnomic Twitter missives.) One sadness within the wider tragedy of the 90s indie bubble bursting in the first decade of the new millennium was watching one of the Sundance scene's brightest and most inventive filmmakers strike out time and again with ideas he seemed invested in only up until the first morning of the first day of shooting - wisp-films, doodle-movies, something to focus a brilliant yet restless mind until the money for the next project came together. (See also: the sprawling filmographies of Michael Winterbottom in the UK and Johnnie To and Takashi Miike in the East, those of creatives whose reserves of ready funding have outweighed any reserves of patience.) For an idea of where Soderbergh was at the start of this decade, one need only contrast his enervated and infuriatingly vague 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience with the stunningly sharp and precise TV series later Sundance alumni Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz fashioned from it.

We sense how refreshed Soderbergh is very early in the new movie: here is a heist film making moves not unlike those of his Ocean's movies - a lark that turned into the kind of lumbering studio franchise liable to exhaust any right-thinking director - and yet it's possessed of a markedly different feel. For one thing, this here's a rural heist movie - shot around Georgia and North Carolina - and we shouldn't discount the possibility that being out in the open, and taking the country airs, has had a positive effect on Soderbergh. (Bonus: it takes him further beyond the reach of meddling executives.) It's here we find Channing Tatum's Jimmy Logan in the course of being fired from a construction job because his medical insurance will no longer cover a pre-existing leg injury. (Rural America, then, but also real America.) This, as Rebecca Blunt's script would have it, is but the latest manifestation of a family curse that also saw Jimmy's younger brother Clyde (Adam Driver) lose his upper left arm while fighting in Iraq. Over the bar Clyde now tends, a plan is hatched to reverse the pair's fortunes: raiding the loaded bank vault beneath the local NASCAR track. To this end, they - and Jimmy's poised sister Mellie (Riley Keough), just maybe the brains of the operation - assemble the expected motley crew, the participation of any one of whom would be enough to cast doubt over the plan's likely success: their explosives expert, an Aryan-blond hulk nicknamed Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), is presently behind bars for his troubles, while their scrawny computer whizz (Jack Quaid) undermines any air of expertise via the "DANGERUS" tattoo he flaunts on his right shoulder.

Soderbergh's goal would appear to be regaining the rhythms that sustained his best work, and in this, Logan Lucky (the reversal may be colloquial, as in Country Strong) is a success, loose - wholly relaxed in the manner it goes about introducing its characters - yet strikingly confident and composed. The first half gathers up funny, memorable scenes as one might strawberries with a picnic basket: Jimmy tanning his precocious daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) in his garage using a paint sprayer, or bumping into a nurse (Katherine Waterston) on a corner outside a 7-Eleven and being invited into her mobile surgery for a tetanus booster. Here is the kind of life, not necessarily crucial to the plot, which generally has to be sheared off in the editing room on more mechanical productions, and which was conspicuously lacking from some of Soderbergh's more abstruse and eggheaded experiments: from first frame to last, the new movie is precious good company. You could argue it's a shade too casual about the specifics of the heist itself, in a way a control freak like Danny Ocean (speaking on behalf of his paymasters at Warner Bros.) would never allow: one of Joe Bang's ad hoc explosive devices is a plastic bag holding Gummi Bears and topped up with bleach, a concoction that causes Clyde to mutter (on behalf of the audience) "We're supposed to believe that that's the thing?" Yet it hardly seems to matter so long as Soderbergh remains this deeply engaged with every last one of his characters.

There was a danger that Logan Lucky would turn out to be Soderbergh's impression of an Alexander Payne movie, raining down liberal-elite condescension on its ensemble of hicks, but the casting of Jim O'Heir, the endlessly put-upon Jerry in that beacon of televisual tolerance Parks & Recreation, in a supporting role seems more telling of where the film is coming from. (An aside: between O'Heir and Keough - star of the small-screen Girlfriend Experience - it may well be that Soderbergh spent his time off, as so many of us do, sat on the sofa huffing boxsets. Again, our better movies absorb and learn from Peak TV.) These "hee-haw heroes" are both dumber and smarter than they first look, which accounts for the film's unpredictable energy and kick. Joe Bang explains that concoction by chalking a chemical equation onto the stadium cinderblocks; two scenes later, Clyde has his prosthetic arm sucked into a vacuum. The second half is all punchlines; everything and everyone is paid off in a manner Preston Sturges would have appreciated. Yet if Soderbergh has finally made his peace with that old showbiz axiom "give 'em what they want", he's still smart enough to realise he doesn't have to give it us in the order we were expecting, and that he can also slip in business we didn't know we want - the pleasing sight of Tatum hiding behind a NASCAR-sized candyfloss, say, or a singalong to "Take Me Home, Country Roads" that goes towards the project's essential sincerity. (Opening with Tatum dissecting the significance of "Some Days Are Diamonds", this is very much Soderbergh's John Denver movie.) If the spirit of invention that gave cinephiles sex, lies & videotape, Kafka and the Solaris rethink looks to have been set aside for now, this director has rediscovered his urge to entertain, and we should happily take that for starters.  

Logan Lucky is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Where the river ends: "Hotel Salvation"

The BFI's current India on Film season has done much to illustrate how, even in these commercialised times, there remains a good deal more to the country's cinema than those Bollywood extravaganzas that sing and dance their way into our multiplexes every weekend. Shubhashish Bhutiani's comic drama Hotel Salvation offers an accomplished case in point: the family at its centre, the Kumars, have far too much weighing down on them to consider tripping the light fantastic, not least an ageing patriarch, Daya (Lalit Behl), who has decided the time is right for him to die. How he goes about this is cause for both stress and hilarity. Forcibly removing his overworked middle-aged son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) from his office cubicle, Daya hails a taxi for the pair of them to set out for the eccentric institution of the title, a halfway house between this life and the next situated on the banks of the Ganges - not a million miles from Masaan territory - where oldtimers go to spend their final days. 

What it is not, pointedly, is a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, blessed as that destination was with a Fox Searchlight budget: the paint's peeling, other residents fall between dotty and woebegone, while the shifty proprietor (Anil K. Rastogi) is insistent Rajiv should rent his own room for no small fee. (It's not surprising this hotel should have the reputation of being a portal between worlds: none of its wiring looks up to code.) Yet this extended spa weekend forces squabbling man and boy to look Death - a mutual foe - in the eye, and here's where the film becomes both funny and poignant. We derive a sense of the pair's contrasting worldviews just from that first, fraught taxi ride, Rajiv insisting their driver speed up so that he can knuckle down again, Daya urging patience, so that he can enjoy whatever time he has left. The relaxed nature of life in the sticks - nightly boat trips, breathing exercises, marijuana lassis - give Bhutiani himself time to examine the roles these men were born into, and those they assumed; it's soon clear they haven't talked properly for years, because of the resentment that bubbles up when they do. (Rajiv seems fated to continue the approach with his twentysomething daughter, who has ideas other than being married off at the first available opportunity - a subplot that can feel a bit like a well-meaning footnote.) 

Generally, Bhutiani's work here is observational and quietly revealing: the rebonding process he describes is authentically tricky in its emotional labour, but never forced. Like many Indian filmmakers working beyond Bollywood, he gets a lot more out of his locations by using them not to frame glamorous stars - Behl and Hussain are unmistakably lived-in character performers - but a centuries-old way of life (and death), a pre-existing philosophy that appears a good deal more in touch with nature and the elements than the obsessive development of Modi's India (or May's Britain, or Trump's America) would perhaps allow. Either way, the time and space Bhutiani opens up before the audience allows us to notice some exceptionally skilful and dignified playing, how the years seem to drop off the leads once they're removed from the status quo and obliged to embrace the moment, how the furrows in their brows come to be reclaimed as laughter lines. Already enshrined as a crowdpleaser on the festival circuit - and a worthy successor to 2013's The Lunchbox - it's never sentimental, and finally very touching: a restorative 100 minutes, to say the least.

Hotel Salvation opens in selected cinemas from today. 

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Brooklyn rumble: "Bushwick"

If they're lucky, a filmmaker might capture something in the air when they set their cameras to rolling - a whiff of the zeitgeist that doesn't require undue elaboration for an audience to get where they're coming from. If they're really lucky, then twelve-to-fifteen months after shooting, when the movie finally emerges, that something will not only still be in the air, but will have intensified to the point where their new release feels torn from that morning's headlines. Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, directors of this week's Bushwick, are pretty lucky guys. Here is a nimble B-movie fable about a red-hooded innocent (Brittany Snow) making her way from school to her grandma's house only to find her previously quiet neck of the woods under attack from black-clad gunmen. She picks up a useful protector in former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista, playing a weary janitor trying to get home to family in Hoboken, yet as the pair edge their way between explosions and sniper fire, it becomes apparent the carnage is the work of domestic terrorists - a white supremacist militia who've choppered in from Texas with the aim of taking America back and making it great again.

The basic scenario, co-authored by Stake Land's genre-savvy Nick Damici, suggests a US equivalent to Went the Day Well? or It Happened Here, and a good deal of Bushwick's charge derives from seeing apparently nondescript backstreets (as Snow wonders, "who the fuck invades Bushwick?") and everyday destinations (schools, bodegas, laundromats) assuming their place in what's been reconfigured as a warzone. Given that the film opens with the terrorists' helicopter buzzing towards the former site of the World Trade Center, one passenger's rifle poking menacingly into frame, you might just wonder how on earth the movie got filmed without anybody being hauled into custody under the Homeland Security Act: luck and good permits, presumably. Though Murmion and Milott make their limited number of panoramas count, a lot more of Bushwick is suggestive, the threat posed by the militia expanded by cunning sound design and a skittering, newly immersive camera style - an evolution of the found-footage approach - that refuses anything so simple as a cut when the operator can turn a corner and hustle the leads pell-mell into the next state of siege.

The tactics are both inventive (kudos to whoever thought to send on the Hasidic resistance to this occupation, and those taking to the streets carrying lacrosse sticks, a touch that somehow seems very Bushwick) and slightly, perhaps understandably evasive: we seem forever to be skirting the boundaries of some catastrophic social breakdown, where a major studio production like Cloverfield was possessed of the money to throw us right into the thick of things, and Murmion and Milott never quite outrun the suspicion they have to keep everyone moving because they only have so much to show and tell us. Stop to apply a moment's thought to Bushwick's central impasse, for one thing, and you start to wonder just how closely it applies to the reality of 2017. These militiamen want their beloved Texas to secede from the United States in protest at the actions of the Government - they're Obama-era stragglers - whereas the Nazis of Charlottesville somehow gained Presidential support, if not full approval. 

Again, it would seem we've reached a point where reality is more dysfunctional and therefore terrifying than anything a movie can venture - although I'll concede the despair of the final act helps to better tether Bushwick to our moment. So, too, the hefty presence of Bautista - breakout star of the Guardians of the Galaxy series, a Rock purged of the easy irony - who here resumes his usual skin tone and works appreciably hard amid all the huffing and puffing to sketch a battle-exhausted last bulwark between the forces of civilisation and chaos ("I'm just trying to get through the day"); even slumped in silhouette on a windowsill at the back of one frame, his circular bulk draws the eye, like Big Hero 6's Baymax powered down for the night. The film haring around him feels like a fluke or fly-by-night, the kind of dual-directed flash of inspiration that almost invariably proves impossible to follow up, as Messrs. Myrick and Sanchez discovered after The Blair Witch Project and the Neveldine/Taylor partnership found in making Crank II: High Voltage. Still, it hooks and diverts us skilfully enough for ninety minutes - and Bautista, for one, is surely here to stay.

Bushwick opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Queen of hearts: "In Bed with Victoria"

Despite her triumphantly regal name, the heroine of Justine Triet's leftfield charmer In Bed with Victoria is fighting several losing battles all by herself. A single mother in her mid 30s, Victoria (Virginie Efira) juggles taking care of two adorable yet demanding pre-schoolers with her day job, defence lawyer in a Paris bringing no shortage of crimes to her attention - among them those of an old pal (Melvil Poupaud) accused of stabbing his wife, and an ex (Laurent Poitrenaux) hellbent on defaming her with allegations of promiscuity via his blog. Scant wonder she should be left feeling so jaded and overwhelmed, prone to overthinking her life choices even while abed with her lovers, a crisis that sends her to seek answers for her failing libido from a shrink, a psychic and the world's creepiest aromatherapist. Never mind I Don't Know How She Does It: here is We All Know Why She Can't Do It.

The basic ingredients of Triet's film would do for any number of glossy Hollywood timewasters - with her hair scraped back, Efira boasts a superficial resemblance to a worldlier Katie Heigl - yet from the off, it's marked and distinguished by a strain of wildness. The opening wedding, for instance, numbers a gorilla among its guests and puts a Dalmatian on the dancefloor - you wonder whether they're imagined symbols of our heroine's desperate need to reconnect with nature, only for them to return as star witnesses in the closing courtroom showdown, a development that the Hawks of Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business would surely have stood up and applauded.

Some of this wildness evidently ran on into post-production, which gives In Bed with Victoria radically different rhythms to the stock slick romcom. Early Godard would appear another influence: the restless Triet is forever yanking her music cues prematurely, or running the dialogue of one scene over the images of another. At one point, she even intercuts three separate encounters, so that her heroine appears to be dealing with her inquisitive shrink, a needy client and a oversharing gigolo simultaneously. It's not surprising Victoria should have such problems in the sack: in the bedroom, as in life, this woman doesn't know whether she's coming or going. 

Bolstering some already choice set design - you'd expect Victoria's child-infested bolthole to be stuffed to the rafters with baggage of one kind or another, but even her shrink's office is cluttered with books - such tactics come to evoke a very modern set of conditions: the feeling, exacerbated by social media, that one's dirty laundry is perpetually on display, that one is constantly being surveilled (a recurring phrase here, laced with irony given the legal context: "I'm not judging you"); the sense there is too much going on at once, or at least too much to hit the off-switch and power down for the night - the conditions in which pleasure is best received.

Triet - on this evidence, a singular mix of social satirist, psychologist and sage Supreme Court justice - treats her heroine's plight with the kind of generosity we've come to associate with Mia Hansen-Løve's auteur films. Not that Victoria has time to notice it, but she's surrounded by men who plainly adore her: a sometime client (Vincent Lacoste) who offers to install himself as her PA, au pair and general helpmeet, not for money but affection; a Craigslist pick-up who bills himself as "Hot Paris Intellectual", but turns out to be almost as burned out as she is, more Tom Paulin than Bernard-Henri Lévy. Even the president of the bar before which Victoria is brought to answer charges of fraternising seems inclined not to come down too hard on her, hinting that he understands hers was a misstep taken under extreme pressure.

Easy to see why everyone's so smitten: Efira, who lit up the screen during the agreeable nonsense of last year's Up for Love, spends every frame tying herself in recognisable knots, a walking embodiment of those struggles we have with ourselves, our sex, and every other living creature around us. Triet doesn't shy away from the trickier aspects of contemporary living. She uses her midfilm montage to describe Vicky's slip into vodka-swigging, bed-bound depression, while the closing trial doesn't merely generate battle-of-the-sexes back-and-forth, but mirrors how ugly relations can get between men and women. Yet her film rules entirely - and I think most viewers will conclude justly - in its heroine's favour: it does about everything it can to give both its central character, and its leading lady, the break she very much deserves.

In Bed with Victoria opens in selected cinemas from Friday.  

Monday 21 August 2017

"American Made" (IndieWire 18/08/17)

There’s a strong argument that insists Tom Cruise is a more compelling screen presence the more desperate he’s seen to get. Much evidence for this claim was gathered in that millennial run – 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, 2001’s Vanilla Sky – in which varyingly forceful writer-directors did their level best to chip away at their star’s glib toothpaste-salesman confidence and expose the very human doubts and frailties behind it. After those box-office failures, Cruise retreated to the surety of known properties and franchises; though we got glimpses of other Cruises – notably Tropic Thunder’s Comic Cruise – this was his fall-back position up until this June’s disastrous The Mummy. Possibly audiences had grown tired of watching a performer playing it so consistently safe: as Kubrick and P.T. Anderson had twigged, it’s always more revealing watching a control freak losing control.

American Made, which feels like a career progression if not the awards-season bar-setter all involved maybe hoped, hands Cruise a very promising character part: that of Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal (1939-1986), prime mover in one of those just-declassified, you-couldn’t-make-it-up stories that sporadically present to grateful producers. A morally flexible TWA pilot handpicked by the CIA at the dog-end of the 1970s to assist with their Central American operations, Seal wound up flying for both the Agency and local drug cartels, profiting hugely from his own machinations while holding court with the likes of Pablo Escobar and Oliver North. Buffeting around inside the fuselage rather than clinging clench-jawed to its exterior, Cruise’s Seal is something like Top Gun’s Maverick gone to seed; the welcome surprise of Doug Liman’s film is that the character’s cockiness comes to be tested rather than hymned.

The first time we see him, he’s literally going nowhere: restlessly holding his position in runway traffic in 1978. (Liman has already set the stagnant scene with President Ford’s doomy prediction “the next five years will be worse than the past five”. 2017 audiences may wonder what, if anything, has changed.) Seal’s yen for risk-taking is established when he pushes his craft into a nosedive just for the shits-and-gigs of waking up a dozing co-pilot (“just a little turbulence, folks”). Subsequent misadventures will grant him excitement, mobility and more turbulence yet. Impressing CIA operative Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) with his flak-dodging surveillance work, he’s soon trafficking U.S. guns to the Contras; with those passed on, the Medellin cartel invites him to fill his Cessna with cocaine for transportation north – a lucrative offer this gadfly couldn’t refuse, yet came to regret.

Liman – whose work has grown steadily more engaged since his blithe breakthrough Swingers, initiating the Bourne series and the recent Iraq-set genre quickie The Wall – gives a lightly satirical swing to Seal’s uplift. Breezily sketching in geopolitics with hand-drawn maps (which occasions a sharp joke on the inability of some to tell one Central American destination apart from another), he finds new ways to polish the central irony of Gary Spinelli’s script: that his anti-hero was both product and casualty of Reaganomics, a delivery boy momentarily handed half the world on a platter. Seal’s conspicuous wealth generation is forever undercut by inserts of later, self-taped depositions, those of someone haunted by the knowledge these might be his only legacy, and that this may be his last chance to offer it. What price a man’s life?

That back-and-forth invests American Made with rather more credible peril than has been on display in the last few Mission: Impossibles. Drug-running proves a risky business even with the Escobars at one’s back, and Liman gives a visceral kick to those scenes which find the increasingly frantic Seal taking off from untested runways, making a single-handed coke drop barely a thousand feet above the ground or making an emergency landing to evade Customs officials, the latter a near-miss that feels dramatically trumped up – big Dolby swooshes, a flash of CGI – yet still succeeds in making the stomach lurch.

The hopping around risks inducing discombobulation or jetlag in the viewer, yet it appears a considered editorial tactic, intended to shake up a generally self-assured leading man. Even with both feet on the ground, Cruise isn’t entirely safe. When Gleeson’s Schafer first confronts Seal with evidence of illegal cigar-smuggling, that familiar grin first freezes, then dies on the actor’s face, as though April Grace’s Magnolia journalist had just walked into the bar. As Seal rolls and lurches through this plot, Cruise sweats and panics in ways Jack Reacher wouldn’t countenance; in jail, the character even loses a tooth, albeit a discreet back molar. (Nobody’s paying to see Tom Cruise turn into Walter Brennan just yet.)

A little of that insecurity feeds back into the film. As War Dogs – last year’s name-director-does-recent-foreign-policy offering – suggested, just because a story in the Times or Post catches our eye, it doesn’t automatically generate characters we want to sit in the dark with for two hours. (Liman concedes as much in spinning Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” just as Seal has evaded three branches of law enforcement simultaneously.) Still, the film has just about enough going on around its anti-hero to sustain the interest and land its punchline, and there are signs Liman (who repeatedly bumped his star off in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow) is solving the enduring problem of making a Cruise film that’s not wholly about its leading man.

If Jesse Plemons and Lola Kirke’s pairing as a shrugging sheriff and his more vigilant wife looks to have been a lamentable cutting-room casualty, others have the time to make more persuasive and valuable contributions: the emergent Sarah Wright Olsen impresses as Seal’s wife Lucy, calling out her man’s wilder manoeuvres on the homefront, and Caleb Landry Jones is touching as a tragically weak link in the whole criminal enterprise. The draw, however, remains Cruise, figuratively walking out on a wing; whether multiplexers rejoin him there will be seen, but after endless formula runouts, it’s encouraging to see him being properly exercised again.

Grade: B

American Made opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Sunday 20 August 2017

1,001 Films: "Loulou" (1980)

After one argument too many, middle-class Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) splits with her jazz musician husband André (Guy Marchand) to take up with farmers' boy, common thief and general lad-about-town Loulou (Gérard Depardieu). Maurice Pialat's 1980 drama Loulou might initially seem the stuff of simplicity - a study in social movement, presented as a series of bust-ups and bunk-ups - but it displays a real feel for cafe and street life, and the eruptions of passion it captures are astonishingly vivid. If its interests are physical rather than intellectual, it's because Pialat evidently takes the side of Loulou's honest brute force over André's passive-aggression. As such, the film turns out to be a genuine rarity: the work of a smart director making a sincere attempt, through Depardieu's oafishly lovable moptop, to understand rather than be snide about the type of non-smart guy some girls want to spend their evenings with.

To some extent, it's Huppert's film: her Nelly is the film's emotional fulcrum, and given the gleaming, Garbo-like iceberg the actress has become these past two decades, it's a nostalgic pleasure to see her back in the days when she was still allowed to smile, laugh and have non-masochistic sex on screen. Yet there's a reason the title isn't Nelly (or Whoa, Nelly!): Depardieu clubs every scene he's in over the head and carries it off over his shoulder, a force of nature apparently acting less than being. Given his physicality, the fit he makes with Pialat's cinema comes as no surprise, but for those of us raised on the jovial gastronome Depardieu - Hollywood's idea of Frenchness - it's still a shock to witness the actor as unvarnished youth. Completing a trio of excellent lead performances, Marchand is wonderfully wormy as the increasingly pathetic saxophonist, refusing even once to ask for the audience's sympathies. A self-absorbed, deeply hypocritical figure who's more of a brute than the brute he accuses Loulou of being, it's somehow fitting that André should finally be left to blow his own horn.

(October 2006)

Loulou is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.

Saturday 19 August 2017

1,001 Films: "The Big Red One" (1980)

A bona fide American film maudit, The Big Red One was snubbed by audiences who'd rather have seen its juvenile lead Mark Hamill fighting intergalactic battles, cut by its producers, and even seized by Manchester's Vice Squad when they misunderstood the threat to public decency suggested by the title. In fact, the big red one in question is the rouged badge of courage sewn to the epaulettes of the First Infantry Division serving America through World Wars I and II - the exact same division that maverick writer-director Sam Fuller himself once served with. Much of what's great about the film is in its stitching - and its suggestion that, in wartime, any outfit was as likely to be torn or ripped apart as remain intact - which is why even a slightly trimmed version might have seemed like an injustice.

It opens with unnamed grunt Lee Marvin knifing a German soldier within hours of the Armistice being signed at the end of WWI, then flashes forward to WW2 and finds Marvin - now promoted to Sergeant - heading a youthful battalion's march north from Africa through Sicily to Omaha Beach and beyond. His fresh-faced men are soldiers of fortune indeed: blessed with a preternaturally lucky streak, they make their way through a series of varyingly fortuitous events, assisting during an attack on a Belgian mental asylum, and after a woman gives birth in a tank. (There's one great linguistic gag here, as the soldiers hesitate to use the French for push - poussez - because it sounds like the American word for what these accidental midwives are looking at.)

The picaresque results are something like Candide as retold by a service veteran. We get the expected sniper hunts and beach landings, sequences which must have influenced Spielberg in the run-up to Saving Private Ryan, but Fuller's personal experience of war, and his journalist's eye, keeps manifesting in the unusual emphasis placed on haunting details like the crucifix planted on a battlefield, the watch on a dead soldier's wrist, or Marvin casually tossing an eviscerated testicle as though it were a dud grenade. A certain morality is evident, but the film seems a quieter and more nuanced statement than the fevered disgust Peckinpah displayed in Cross of Iron: this isn't necessarily war as good or bad, but war as it just might be - a competing mass of narratives, some formative and redemptive, others repetitive and destructive.

A reconstruction of the film, overseen by critic Richard Schickel and running to two hours 40 minutes (as opposed to the theatrically released two-hour cut), was finally released in the UK in April 2005, eight years after the director's passing. This version - which opens with the title card "This film is fictional life inspired by actual death" - makes a strong case for the film being Fuller's most personal and heartfelt endeavour via the reinsertion of several new and telling details. Condoms are unfolded over rifles to keep the water out of them; the battalion is put to sleep by German propaganda broadcasts; Algerians remove American ears as trophies. 

One extraordinary sequence sees Marvin putting an abrupt end to what was presumably his first gay screen kiss ("You've got bad breath, Fritz"), and a love scene, between Hamill and Stéphane Audran at the Belgian asylum, serves a similar purpose to that between Martin Sheen and Aurore Clément in Apocalypse Now Redux: a note of tenderness with which to break up the carnage. An extended coda in Central Europe as the Armistice approaches gets a bit samey, but better connects ending to opening. Generally, this version benefits from greater density of incident, and helps flesh out what was already a pretty fascinating skeleton. A couple of dialogue additions also point up what a balanced piece of frontline storytelling this is: if it has Candide on one shoulder, it almost certainly has Robert Capa on the other.

(March 2003/April 2005)

The Big Red One - The Reconstruction is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.