Saturday 30 September 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 22-24, 2017:

1 (new) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15)

2 (1) It: Chapter One (15) ***
3 (2) Victoria & Abdul (PG) **
4 (3) mother! (18) *****
5 (5) The Emoji Movie (U)
6 (6) The Jungle Bunch (U)
7 (4) American Assassin (18) *
8 (10) Despicable Me 3 (U)
9 (8) Dunkirk (12A) ***
10 (7) American Made (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

2. Lawrence of Arabia
3. mother!
4. Belle de Jour
5. Our Last Tango

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) The Boss Baby (U) [above]
2 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
3 (2) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
4 (5) Logan (12) ***
5 (3) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
6 (6) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
7 (new) Going in Style (12)
8 (4) Kong: Skull Island (12)
9 (8) Life (15) **
10 (new) Hidden Figures (PG) **


My top five: 
1. City of Ghosts

2. The Red Turtle
3. My Life as a Courgette
4. David Lynch: The Art Life
5. Suntan

"Brimstone" (Catholic Herald 28/09/17)

The Dutch Western Brimstone (*, 18, 148 mins) prompts many queries – several of the “why am I watching this?” variety – but foremost among them is the question of labelling. If Italy gave us the spaghetti Western, and Spain the paella Western, what do we call a Dutch Western? A stroopwafel Western? A pancake Western? Either would in fact fit, given the drab flatness of Martin Koolhoven’s film, an exercise in America- and religion-bashing that hammers its every point into resistible pulp. Not for Koolhoven the Brechtian provocations of Lars von Trier’s Dogville; Brimstone is all Trumpian overstatement, from that punishing running time to the director’s fondness for torching his sets in the wake of each atrocity.

That Koolhoven has religious hypocrisy in his sights can be inferred from our first glimpse of Guy Pearce’s The Reverend, a heavily accented scarface introduced banging on about false prophets in a manner that implies insider knowledge. Sure enough, after a nervy exchange of glances across the pews that establishes his fraught relationship with mute homesteader Liz (Dakota Fanning), he’s looming over her offspring, stringing up her man by his guts, and – to complete an unholy trinity – converting the family’s home into a blazing pyre. This, by the way, is just the first act: Koolhoven is so hellbent on earning the “operatic” tag bestowed upon Sergio Leone’s westerns he thinks nothing of going risibly over the top.

Opera, however, demands beauty, tragic or otherwise, where Brimstone expands to draw uglier and uglier pictures of its America. Acts two and three comprise a flashback to Liz’s time in a whorehouse whose proprietor thinks nothing of employing underage labour, and where we spot how much of the film is founded on gynaecological distress. Brimstone opens with a breach-birth pregnancy, proceeds through the slaying of an expectant flock (symbolism!), before arriving at a destination where women are routinely abused for money. Having two members of the Game of Thrones cast present feels like a giveaway: Koolhoven is trading in the same facile misogyny that show has used to ramp up its dramatic stakes.

The performers fall hostage to this directorial posturing, Fanning’s pale, quivering features deployed to signal purity in an alarmingly retrograde fashion, the skilled Pearce stuck playing a walking rape threat. Script logic dictates the Rev should reject his wife’s attentions to dwell upon Liz’s blossoming daughter – but why, then, does the camera join this pederast in peeping in at the child while she takes a bath? Unedifying and complicit as spectacle, Brimstone equally proves suspect as an artistic statement: each lipsmacking frame suggests Koolhoven would bite the hands off any HBO executive who offered him a cheque to cross the Atlantic. Before, most likely, setting fire to the room.

Brimstone is now playing in selected cinemas.

Fellow travellers: "The Road to Mandalay"

The Road to Mandalay is another of the cinema's recent travellers' tales, although the migrants it presents us with are - unlike those in predecessors In This World and The Golden Dream - headed East, from impoverished, troubled Burma to the notionally more stable Thailand. In an unprecedented move for this mini-genre, it begins with what, in less parlous, straitened circumstances, might be taken for a meet-cute: Guo (Kai Ko), a tall, chivalrous fellow, volunteers to take the cramped space in the boot of a car set to cross the border so that Lianqing (Ke-xi Wu), to whom the space had originally been assigned, might sit upfront. For the writer-director Midi Z, the journey - completed without any of the usual obstacles - is of less import than the pair's destination, and the brutally harsh realities of life in a foreign land without the official papers: the long hours of menial work for modest reward, the sense of being at the mercy of others, the cramped lodgings, the slow drive to the end of one's tether. Love, in this climate, is a tragically expendable luxury.

Set against its epic predecessors in this field, Mandalay initially feels a shade low-key, so determined not to appear sensational or sentimental that it risks not seeming dramatic. Its approach is basically observational, vérité-like, each modest sequence nudging us towards a greater understanding of how the system now works in this part of the world: the police making a big show of busting illegal workers so that their bosses can show up at the station the next morning with the bribes to buy them back, our fellow travellers finding themselves having to look out for one another, because this tentative connection is just about all the two of them have got. There's a lovely scene in which, sleeping side-by-side one night in separate beds, their hands initiate a speculative ballet - and we're reminded that immigration in the vast majority of cases is a hopeful reaching-out, for stability, affection, a brighter future.

By far the film's strongest suit, however, is the central performance by Wu, whose air of gauche eagerness - her upright attention whenever she enters the frame, or someone is talking to her - is exactly right for the role: you would swear the performer herself were relying on her appearance in the film to provide her with the right papers, and determined to work every hour of the day or night to receive them. Much of that optimism gets squashed in a final movement that didn't quite work for me: you can feel the filmmaker wanting to impose himself here, rather than trusting in the cumulative impact of what's gone before, and the result is a logical conclusion - in the context of survival-of-the-fittest capitalism - but not an especially satisfying one. Still, it's very rare, watching a modern-day movie, that you feel you're seeing characters who would otherwise go undocumented, in art as in life: Z's quietly attentive, supremely empathetic camera goes the extra mile to ensure the struggles of his protagonists are positioned front and centre throughout.

The Road to Mandalay is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Tall tail: "Zoology"

Zoology turns out to be one of those films from the "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" subgenre, so named for the Crash Test Dummies song that detailed a series of unexpected and inexplicable events, but it starts off firmly within the realms of common-or-garden character study. Under observation is Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), a somewhat downtrodden, middle-aged procurement manager at a zoo on the Russian coast; there, she falls prone to collapsing fits and the mocking taunts of colleagues who see her first and foremost as a loveless spinster. (She does, in fact, live with her ageing mother, and an ailing cat.) The camera follows her through several of the kind of sparsely functional doctors' surgeries that have recurred in recent Eastern European arthouse cinema, and it's only when our heroine undresses for an X-ray that the full extent of her medical problem becomes clear. Let me put it this way: did you hear the one about the woman who grew a tail from her lower back?

Writer-director Ivan Tverdovskiy offers no reason for this development, save perhaps the suggestion that Natasha is capable of an empathy that the snide, appearance-fixated gossips around her simply aren't, and that she may have taken on animal characteristics as she senses more than most what it's like to live in a jungle. Initially, the tail is a novelty (here's a woman who can make herself look like a cat without recourse to those semi-baffling Snapchat filters) and a source of embarrassment comedy ("Could you hold it so it doesn't wiggle?," asks one doctor), yet increasingly it's as much cause for distress as any other growth, placing Natasha at the mercy of both the system and the kindness and tolerance of strangers. When she's dismissed from her local church for her resemblance to the Antichrist, tail hanging limply between her legs, the seriousness of her situation becomes clear: she's now even more of an outcast in a deeply superstitious superstate where even those waiting in line for medical treatment are prone to treating urban legend as gospel truth.

Zoology can seem simplistic and picture-booky: Natasha's cackling colleagues, hiding her calculator in a desk drawer filled with mice, are no more than hybrids of wicked stepsisters and Gareth from The Office. (Furthering the warped fairytale vibe: a potential Prince Charming in a young doctor who treats his patient with consummate diligence, although - in a film offering cold comfort - it should be no surprise he's only into her for one reason.) Like the tail, the tale develops erratically, with longish scenes that don't really add much to our understanding of the heroine's plight, a risky strategy in an 87-minute feature. The results can feel more like the basis of a quirky ad campaign, or a short that's grown out of hand, than any truly serious consideration of Putinland's humanitarian failings. Still, it's unarguably different, and thus merits at the very least a measure of bemused engagement: not averse to scanning a zoo's internal-ops meetings to see what they might reveal about human nature, a fable about a woman who grows a pendulous prosthetic appendage that unfolds in the same loveless Russia, the same cruel world, as the films of Andrei Zvyagintsev.

Zoology is now showing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on Oct 30.  

Wednesday 27 September 2017

Reanimated: "Young Frankenstein"

Reissued to UK cinemas for one night only to coincide with a new West End stage version (which I see has had the inspired idea of getting Ross Noble to shuffle in Marty Feldman's footsteps as Igor), Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein now sits as far as away in time from us as it did from the films it so faithfully and affectionately lampoons. It's at least five minutes before anybody on screen tips us the wink this is meant to be comedy-horror rather than horror per se, during which you could - taking in the ominous titles, (gorgeous) black-and-white photography and high-walled castle sets - persuade yourself you were watching an original Universal production from the early 1930s. Even the slightly clunky exposition is true to the originals, setting up as it does a recognisable dramatic throughline: the vain attempts of Gene Wilder's New York-based medical professor Frederick von Frankenstein (pronounced, of course, Fronk-en-steen) to resist the nominative determinism that insists he wind up in a Transylvanian bolthole passing electricity through dead body parts. I suspect there will be newcomers who only really realise this is a comedy during FvF's cartride to the castle, with the introduction of Teri Garr's Inga ("Would you like to have a roll in ze hay?") and the immortal "Werewolf?"/"There, wolf" exchange. (Somewhere in there lie the origins of Look Around You's "Thanks, ants" joke.)

The bulk of the film is recomposed from tried-and-true showbiz schtick that may well go off like gangbusters on stage, and which in any event reveal Brooks and co-scenarist Wilder's status as keen scholars of comedy: the revolving bookcase bit looks like a new spin on the Marx Brothers' mirror business, and there are routines that, like some of the spare parts in the castle's basement, date back further than that ("Could be worse?" "How?" "Could be raining."). It has two of the best looks to camera since the days of Oliver Hardy: the cut to the monstrous Peter Boyle's face as the little blonde girl runs out of flowers and wonders what the pair of them should throw in the well next is only rivalled by the filthy look on Wilder's face as Inga asks whether there's any way she could give him "a little peace". It replays Shelley's blind-man scene as a clumsy waiter skit, with Gene Hackman and a solid-gold punchline; and it builds towards a musical number that mixes up the original movie with certain contemporaneous RKO productions in taking the monster to town, albeit in top hat and tails. The grand finale is bedroom farce that incidentally goes some way towards addressing the age-old pedant's issue of whether Frankenstein is the name of the doctor or the monster: here, it can be both, and also - Brooks being Brooks - the cue for a colossal, all-star, hall-of-fame dick joke. Given the extravaganza The Producers wound up becoming, it is sort of amazing nobody thought to put this on the stage before now - but that shouldn't detract from the primacy of what remains one of the great screen comedies.

Young Frankenstein returns to selected cinemas tonight. 

Tuesday 26 September 2017

A house divisive: "mother!"

I caught up with Darren Aronofsky's freakout mother! upon its second week on release, by which point its fate as the premier film maudit of late 2017 had been sealed: reports of audiences fleeing in their droves, trailing historically low feedback scores in their wake, had been countered by a statement from studio Paramount, defending the writer-director's right to push boundaries and challenge taboos, which was in turn countered the following weekend by cinema bookers, scurrying to slash the number of screenings to better accommodate the majesty of Kingsman: The Golden Circle - thus apparently concluding the latest flurry of activity in the eternal clash between popular entertainment and personal expression, between art and commerce. The advantage of watching mother! with a second-week crowd was, I think, that we were all more or less aware of what we may have been letting ourselves in for: sure enough, I detected at least one walkout amid the film's final descent into full-on cannibal holocaust, but the door was closed discreetly and respectfully (one of those very British "I don't think this is really for me" walkouts), and the mood in the auditorium was more generally caught by the fellow sitting across the aisle from me, who cracked his knuckles as the lights dimmed, as if to say bring it on. In case there is anybody left in the world who was still in any doubt: it is most certainly brought.

We open on a rustic property in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by a couple whose age gap is as striking as their division of labour: the male half of the equation (Javier Bardem, 48), referred to in the credits as Him, sits behind a desk in his position as a lauded (if currently blocked) writer, while his younger, adoring better half, referred to as The Mother and played by 27-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, busies herself fixing up the place. One evening, an orthopaedic surgeon (Ed Harris) shows up at the couple's door, having mistaken this out-of-the-way property for a B&B; rather than turn this pilgrim away, however, the writer invites him in, pleased for the company, no matter that he proceeds to drop cigarette ash everywhere and condescendingly refers to his hostess as "not just a pretty face". More curious still: next morning, the surgeon's vampish wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives equally unannounced, and again is taken in without too much in the way of intramarital consultation. Thick and fast they come at last, and more and more and more, Lawrence's tendency to refer in protest to what rapidly becomes a shelter for waifs and strays as "his [i.e. her husband's] home" rather than the more typical "our home" immediately raising what will prove a pressing question of proprietorship: just whose house is this?

Given the plentiful God's-eye shots establishing we are many, many hectares from reality, another question soon frames itself: what might this house represent? (I suspect mother! is more likely to keep you in your seat if you treat it as a giant game of What's Bugging Darren Aronofsky?) The film actually opens with a sequence in which solitary creator Bardem places a diamond on his mantelpiece that instantly transforms his cold, bare living quarters into the kind of trophy home money and success brings, running to three wood-panelled levels, brand-new fixtures and an attractive, pliable blonde in the master bedroom. Soon enough we will find out how these diamonds are mined - certain warlords may blanch - but the fact Lawrence senses this house has a pulse, possibly that of the organ she envisions being flushed down the toilet at one stage, has led some to speculate whether this vulnerable structure stands for the planet entire, a vulnerable Eden set to be despoiled by a combination of reckless indifference and sudden, rampant over-population. The arrival of a preppy Cain and Abel - played, in a deft casting touch, by actual brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson - should be enough to remind us of the religiose Aronofsky who gave us The Fountain and Noah and that celebrated Christ allegory The Wrestler. (Even in his breakthrough film Pi, he was proposing a link between Hasidic Judaism and numbers.)

Increasingly, however, the film's structuring concern looks to be fame, that new religion: could Aronofsky, the fabled director oft-papped in the presence of former flame Rachel Weisz and current muse Lawrence, merely be writing what he knows? In this reading, the circular dream home functions as a mixed-media metaphor for living in the panopticon of the public eye, a spot where all the money in the world can't protect you from the barbarians at the gate, nor from the strains that fame will place on your relationships. That reading fair screams woe-is-me millionaire self-pity, yet Aronofsky circumvents it by being uncommonly honest - to the point of self-laceration - about male control and a woman's place within that framework. By far the most peculiar hot takes on mother! have been those which have argued that the subjugation of the Lawrence character - Bardem's blithe insistence that she cook, clean and conceive while he gets on with the truly important business of writing stuff down - is presented in a favourable light; it strikes me that the unease of the film stems from a deep-seated unease with these one-sided types of relationships, and male privilege in general. Consider the passing anecdote in which Lawrence rejects the advances of some slick dude who's popped up in her kitchen, and is informed in turn that she is, in fact, an "arrogant cunt": that's not horror, nor fantasy, but documentary footage, readily sourced from any number of parties and online forums.

As it is, I was more taken by Lawrence's resilience here than I was at any moment in the Hunger Games series, or indeed Winter's Bone before that - she's really up against something in these two hours - and found her final-reel fightback all the more cathartic, given the passivity she'd previously been forced into. (Could it be in some way telling that both female leads are involved with hugely successful writer-directors, and therefore perhaps know better than most that of which the film speaks?) What's most thrilling about mother! is the possibility it could house all of these possibilities, and much more besides - that a multiplex movie might have something other than sequels on its mind, and could finally be entrusted to grown-ups, even if the squeamish among them were sent packing long before the closing credits. Having now experienced mother!'s final act, I cannot entirely blame them: there is imagery here that decimated the Peter Greenaway fanbase back in 1993, let alone a crowd showing up in cheerfully optimistic expectation of seeing the world's number one female star in what could, from the outside at least, have appeared like another Paranormal Activity or The Conjuring Part III. What's especially shocking and wrenching is that all this carnage is wrought in the name (or guise) of love, the film's ultimate concern: I sensed Aronofsky substituting in extreme physical violence in a non-safe psychic space for the equally horrifying emotional violence taking place in the wider world.

mother! scatters reference points like tears - among other phenomena, you may, in the course of the film's duration, find yourself being reminded of bad AirBnB experiences, the reaction to news of yet another Royal baby, possibly even Rod Hull's Pink Windmill (there's somebody else at the door) - yet the one that has stayed with me is the idea this might just be Aronofsky's Magnolia: prodigious OTT cinema (not least for its ability to squeeze the entirety of Paul Thomas Anderson's L.A., frogs included, onto a single soundstage) which has turned people off in their droves, but remains deeply, at times painfully personal in what it's attempting to articulate. Aronofsky is gloomier than Anderson, which accounts for that final mise en abime: he pulls absolutely no punches whatsoever in laying bare the relationships certain male creatives initiate, and entrap others within, and the grave collateral damage that can result from those relationships. (His chosen title, naturally, is that hollered by lost boys everywhere.) Yet it struck me that mother! was constructed from the off as a cautionary tale, a sick joke that skews into outright tragedy, a warning of things from which any sensitive soul might well want to flee. Aronofsky seems to know all too well the fire he's playing with here, and as much as his astonishingly apocalyptic film wants to burn or otherwise bring the house down, it's really trying to break your heart.

mother! is now playing in selected cinemas.  

Sunday 24 September 2017

From the archive: "The Last Stand"

The Last Stand should interest us on two fronts: as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to above-the-title billing after his probationary supporting role in studio Lionsgate’s Expendables series, and as the English-language debut of Korean director Kim Jee-woon. For the uninitiated, Kim is the sharp stylist who moved from 2003’s distinctive horror A Tale of Two Sisters and 2005’s terrific hitman flick A Bittersweet Life to 2008’s rambunctious The Good, The Bad, The Weird; here, he goes full Hollywood with what’s effectively a Western in casual modern clothing.

Arnie plays Ray Owens, sheriff of the Arizona bordertown of Sommerton, yet The Last Stand’s first surprise is how much of the film is allowed to go on around him. Like a rinky-dink Hawks, Kim is more interested in hanging with his characters – the sheriff’s Stetson-sporting deputy (Luis Guzman, giving typical good value), a couple of yearning underlings (Jaimie Alexander and Zach Gilford), the bestubbled prisoner in cell one (Rodrigo Santoro), the crackpot owner of a local gun museum (Johnny Knoxville, used in mercifully spare doses) – affectionately spying their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, and working up a keen sense of community.

Sommerton’s tranquillity will, however, soon be threatened, with the lightning-fast approach of murderous convict Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), who – during his escape from custody – has somehow come to equip himself with the fastest car in America. As harried FBI agent Forest Whitaker, showing up late to the party, phrases it: “A psychopath in a Batmobile – how am I supposed to top that?” Well, having a Terminator at your disposal – even an aged and creaking one – might help.

As in Jack Reacher, there’s some cognitive dissonance to get past for maximum enjoyment: powering down your brain might help. How else to square the film’s lingering shots of bullets being poured into and pumped out of mini-cannons, which might well rally the NRA at this uncertain moment in its history, with the gun debate America finds itself in? One could argue it comes with the territory: sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even if that means starting the mother of all shoot-outs on Main Street.

For his part, Arnie now delegates much of the running and shooting to others, partly out of generosity, partly – no doubt – from necessity, and his fabled non-gift for dialogue is very much front and centre here, offered up as part of the joke: there’s a reason his early successes limited him to terse wisecracks, and why Last Action Hero was the closest he got to playing Hamlet.

Still, the guy has a whole Monument Valley’s-worth of presence, which is what you might be looking for in a sheriff, or anywhere else; faced with the blankness of the Tatum-Gosling generation, where no-one really seems to know what a leading man might look like and has to wilfully project to find one, it’s oddly reassuring to be returned to a more stable and recognisable model of stardom. Writer Andrew Knauer keeps finding witty new ways to humanise Schwarzenegger, stuffing Ray with doubts, fears and regrets. “How are you, Sheriff?,” inquires the concerned owner of a diner whose window Arnie has just come crashing through. “Old,” is the response.

Kim, meanwhile, is having great fun making one of the most briskly entertaining East-to-West transfers in recent memory. While something of a throwback in itself, The Last Stand turns out to be an action movie with characters you like and maybe even care about, full of set-ups that are very deftly, and often artfully, paid off. Tarantino can gab on all he likes, but sometimes a dumb-as-nuts oneliner’s what you really want.

(MovieMail, January 2013)

The Last Stand screens on five tomorrow night at 11.05pm.

1,001 Films: "Poltergeist" (1982)

For some time, Poltergeist was the site of a conflict of ownership, and indeed it does still seem surprising that a film this sunny-glossy should have been Tobe Hooper's second most prominent credit after the thoroughly grotty The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Part of the issue stems from the film's precise depiction of life in the Californian suburbs circa 1980: cable TVs being set off by a neighbour's remote, a mother being caught flushing her kids' dead canary down a toilet, a daughter trying to hide a phone under her bedclothes, builders in the backyard completing the next phase of westward expansion. Here are the hallmarks of writer-producer Steven Spielberg, in other words, and that Poltergeist is more PG-13 fantasy than outright horror movie (or, perhaps, Spielberg's idea of a horror movie) can be gleaned from mom JoBeth Williams' first response to the outbreak of paranormal activity: an excited appreciation of just how cool it would be to have an invisible presence around the house, rearranging the furniture from time to time. (The shifting, swirling toys in her kids' bedrooms surely owe more to Mary Poppins than they do The Exorcist.)

The grown-ups in this tale, busy getting baked and jumping up and down on their bed, are hardly rational types confronted by a force they don't understand (which would be scary), but wholly credulous teenagers - baby boomers turned babysitters - who prove just as susceptible as anybody else to all the movement and sound, and thus ideal surrogates for the film's presumed target audience. (Pop Craig T. Nelson only gets through to his daughter when he threatens to spank her - making Poltergeist a parable for parents who need to demonstrate greater responsibility, where The Exorcist left Ellen Burstyn indelibly helpless at her child's bedside.) The effect is further diluted by Williams' giggly late-night drinking sessions with parapsychologist Beatrice Straight, the comical sight of a rogue pork chop moving of its own accord across a breakfast bar, and the light domestic farce that sees Nelson attempting to keep this outbreak of unexpected events a secret from his boss.

The surest sign of a behind-the-scenes power struggle: Hooper clearly wants to make disconcerting the television set that pumps out interference at all hours, but the square-eyed Spielberg regards it as a second home, something reassuring for the family to keep on in the background; it's hard to feel their daughter is really under all that much threat from Mr. Rogers. From its treacly Jerry Goldsmith score on down, the final product was a TV movie in every sense: a young child gets separated from their guardians - inside a cable box, rather than down a well this time - and the parents are agonised and anguished up until the point where the family unit can be restored. The final twenty minutes are some of the film that title deserved, but up until then, it's all over the place tonally, and no more terrifying than any other here-today-gone-tomorrow light show. Even the later Ring movies - which themselves could be credited to any number of authors - did less to undermine their own premise.

Poltergeist is available through Warner Home Video.

Saturday 23 September 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 15-17, 2017:

1 (1) It: Chapter One (15) ***

2 (new) Victoria & Abdul (PG) **
3 (new) mother! (18) *****
4 (new) American Assassin (18) *
5 (4) The Emoji Movie (U)
6 (new) The Jungle Bunch (U)
7 (2) American Made (15) ***
8 (3Dunkirk (12A) ***
9 (6) Wind River (15)
10 (7) Despicable Me 3 (U)


My top five: 
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

2. Lawrence of Arabia [above]
3. mother!
4. Belle de Jour
5. Our Last Tango

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
2 (2) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
3 (4) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
4 (5) Kong: Skull Island (12)
5 (9) Logan (12) ***
6 (10) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
7 (7) Their Finest (12) ***
8 (8) Life (15) **
9 (re) The Great Wall (12)
10 (new) Get Out (15) ****


My top five: 
1. The Red Turtle

2. My Life as a Courgette
3. David Lynch: The Art Life
4. Suntan
5. The Untamed 

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Boyz N The Hood (Saturday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. Up in the Air (Friday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
3. The Last Stand (Monday, five, 11.05pm)
4. Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (Sunday, ITV1, 3.25pm)
5. Enter the Dragon (Sunday, five, 11.15pm)

Friday 22 September 2017

All the right moves: "Our Last Tango"

The presence of Wim Wenders as executive producer presumably positions Our Last Tango as the Buena Vista Social Club of ballroom dancing documentaries. Here are a pair of Argentinian veterans of the sport - Maria Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copes, now in their eighties - reunited on stage for one last twirl, but not before they've had the occasion to pick through their photo albums, and surviving memories, in the company of the dancers enlisted to play their younger, lither selves in director German Kral's handsome, sepia-toned reconstructions. The reappearance of these performers as active rehearsal-room interrogators serves to signify just how fully Kral has embraced the theatre of the tango: key moments from the lives of her subjects are here recreated, either on elaborately appointed sets or exteriors in sequences that bear the marked influence of Wenders' 3D film on the work of Pina Bausch, not least in the crisp, striking way they describe the movement of bodies through space.

The stage is being set for what was, by all accounts, a grand, tempestuous romance. Copes and Nieves Rego first met in the dancehalls of Buenos Aires, and swiftly forged both a personal and professional bond: "I'd found my Stradivarius," shrugs Copes, a touch proprietorially. The fact the dancers are being interviewed separately, however, and that Maria generally proves far more forthcoming in her testimony than her erstwhile partner leads us to suspect some kind of rupture awaits, and so it proves. The great tragedy of this romance is that the trust that was so central to this relationship (dramatised in extracts from a remarkably fleet-footed table dance, where both participants are at every turn mere millimetres from turning an ankle) began to ebb away, life leading them in very different directions: Juan into fatherhood with another woman, Maria towards an altogether bruised attitude with regard to the opposite sex. Professionally, at least, they danced on, the former Stradivarius threatening to use her player as a mop and wipe the floor with him; it happens, in relationships.

While we wait for the reunion set up in the opening minutes - will this be a dance of love or hate? - Our Last Tango shapes up as a repository of wisdom on how to juggle one's personal life with one's other passions. For Maria, the question has always been how she could continue doing the thing she loved with or without the man she evidently feels betrayed her. (Could he be trusted to catch her, if they were to mount that table once again?) Having her shadow her onscreen doubles in the rehearsal rooms adds to the general sense of not just steps but useful life-wisdom being communicated, and if that sounds too earnest or otherwise proscriptive, the dance sequences - whether the lovingly mounted archive or the nimbly choreographed reconstructions - do much to shake that impression off. Lucidly shot and very carefully edited - forever striving to maintain a flow, rather than cutting into it - it's one of only a few dance docs that think as, and think to ask the questions, a dancer might, which possibly explains why it comes to attain such captivating grace.

Our Last Tango opens in selected cinemas from today.  

Thursday 21 September 2017

Middleness: "In Between"

Maysaloun Hamoud's In Between begins with an illuminating if jolting contrast. A beauty-shop elder instructs a young Palestinian woman to keep her mouth shut and her body waxed if she hopes to attract and keep a man; cue opening title, then an abrupt cut to two other young Palestinian women - two flatmates, aspirant DJ Salma (Sana Jammelieh) and lawyer Leila (Mouna Hawa) - hitting the Tel Aviv bar scene as hard as they possibly can. No such strictures for them. This city, we soon grasp, is another where the old world meets the new: next morning, Salma is roused from hungover slumber by a phone call from her mother, insisting she cover up her tattoos and take out her piercings before she meets with the prospective spouse her parents have lined up for her, little knowing their daughter's sexual preferences reside on the other side of the Gaza Strip. If Salma and Leila are only too keen to break or circumnavigate the rules, their new housemate abides by them religiously. Meek and headscarved Noor (Shaden Kanboura) goes out of her way to please her deeply conservative fiance - but even she seems inclined to turn an ear to her horny housemates' doors and bust a move to their records when nobody else is watching.

Part of the freshness of Hamoud's debut - much-garlanded on the festival circuit - lies in encountering a Middle Eastern film that isn't unduly burdened by the politics of the region. It's true that Salma quits her kitchen job after she's told that her speaking Arabic alienates the clientele, and the girls' status as Arabs in the Israeli capital doubtless contributes to their sense of being neither here nor there. Yet Hamoud, upon this first glance, appears to be less the daughter of Arafat than a sister to Lena Dunham: she's chiefly interested in her heroines as romantic and sexual adventuresses, not as prisoners or casualties of war. For much of its running time, In Between presents as a study of twentysomething women meeting in the middle. Salma and Leila look upon Noor as almost an alien creature when she first shuffles across their threshold, every last inch of her body covered. Yet they will be there for her after her fiance, a zealot so uptight he won't even shake an unmarried woman's hand, crosses a red line - and it's here that what was previously a genial portrait of a generation gives rise to something as concrete and predetermined as a plot.

My feeling is that In Between loses some of its breeziness with that redirection, and its second half flirts with exactly the kind of soapy, issue-led melodrama Hamoud's savvy-hip characters sneer at in an early scene. Salma's trip to her parents' home in the suburbs is very Girls - during a slyly satiric evening meal, one buxom friend of the family boasts that her (fully grown) fiance has never once moved out of his parents' place - but this comic episode is immediately juxtaposed by the altogether sadder sight of our heroine's own guardians taking violently against the presence of their child's (female) lover. Sharp, vivid playing yanks us out of any dead spots, however, and Hamoun has an eye for images that crystallise the social and generational divides, and just where they've left her characters: consider the simple camera movement that removes us from Noor hastening to prepare supper to the carefree men sitting around in the next room, smoking and chatting among themselves, or the early set-up that places Salma at the dead centre of the screen, albeit with her overbearing father on one side of her, and a pretty useless suitor on the other - in between, yet again.

In Between opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, ahead of its DVD release on November 13.   

Monday 18 September 2017

From the archive: "Kingsman: The Secret Service"

Market forces being as unsparing as they are, it was perhaps inevitable we would end up with a director as cynical as Matthew Vaughn. A producer on Guy Ritchie’s first films, Vaughn occupied the director’s chair for 2004’s Layer Cake, a rote gangland outing that sought our sympathy for a drug dealer who represented the kind of supply-and-demand-savvy middleman Vaughn doubtless fancied himself as. More lowest-denominator fare followed: 2007’s Stardust, which channelled the snickering violence, chauvinism and homophobia of Ritchieland into a dismayingly profitable family film; 2010’s Kick-Ass, that feature-length recruitment video for sociopaths; and, having obtained the keys to the studio kingdom, 2011’s X-Men: First Class, where the concentration-camp scenes gained a crudely effective charge from Vaughn’s apparently close understanding of abuses of power.

Kingsman, his latest exercise in loud, tasteless thrills, is simultaneously a spoiler for Ritchie’s long-gestating Man from U.N.C.L.E, a flagrant Bond-gig audition, and – not coincidentally – masturbation fodder for public schoolboys who weren’t bright enough to get the call from MI5. Vaughn and regular partner-in-crime Jane Goldman, adapting another Mark Millar screed, offer us an alternative security force, modelled on Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer. Besuited and bespectacled, its agents – headed by Colin Firth’s Galahad – operate out of a Savile Row tailor’s overseen by Caine himself; the film’s so in thrall to hollow, GQ-approved ideas of style that their passwords include “Oxfords, not brogues”.

For Vaughn, style and class are inseparable. Grateful plebs that we are, we’re meant to take something heartening from the social-mobility narrative that sees Taron Egerton’s rough diamond Eggsy plucked from his lowly surrounds, suited and booted, and placed on his Majesty’s secret service; in a film this gratingly self-reflexive, it may also be possible to see something of wannabe wideboy Matthew de Vere Vaughn reflecting upon the expensive toys bestowed upon him by the movie establishment.

Nowadays, he has the resources to follow his characters as they skydive out of planes, and to build set-pieces around a legless female assassin (Sofia Boutella) who sports razor-sharp Pistorius blades on her stumps – the kind of sexy homage to a convicted wifekiller only a filmmaker of Vaughn’s tact and diplomacy would attempt. He still knows how to produce and package, and to give his audience the sensation they crave: bits with cute puppies and characters tied to the railway tracks, hyperstylised violence set to throbbing pop tunes, and a (flatly horrible) anal sex “gag” as a topper.

Yet you’d have to be soft-headed to fall for a fantasy that proves so flimsy around both ends of the social spectrum: on one side, treacherous poshos named Hugo, Digby and Amelia, on the other, a vision of working-class life that extends to cramming Sam Janus in a council flat overrun by sixteen people’s unwashed laundry, Geoff Bell at his most scrofulous, and blasts of the one Dizzee Rascal track Vaughn heard while his Range Rover was parked up at traffic lights.

That this director is squarely on side with the 1% can be discerned from the film’s opening (Dire Straits) and closing (Bryan Ferry) soundtrack choices, and that his plot has been annotated with cutaways to Sky News – for this is a Fox production, after all, and Vaughn is nothing if not a company man. (Firth’s office is lined with Sun cover stories, in another none-too-classy instance of brown-nosing.)

The prevailing tabloid mentality becomes doubly questionable if we consider just who the Kingsmen’s massed brute force has been deployed against here: Samuel L. Jackson as a lisping Internet tycoon whose utter classlessness is revealed when – gadzooks! – he deigns to serve Firth a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries from a silver platter. Vaughn, of course, thinks nothing of taking the product-placement shilling: here’s one aspirant fat cat determined to have his Happy Meal and eat it.

The Sun good, but Apple, Microsoft and McDonald’s bad? In the week of another controversy over Page Three, perhaps Matthew might like to go away and have a quiet think about that one. Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t. Kingsmen, mindlessly celebrating the triumph of resolutely heterosexual white men over an effeminate-sounding African-American, arrives as proof you can put a dodgy geezer in a sharp suit, but also that, sometimes, clothes maketh not the man.

(MovieMail, January 2015)

Kingsman: The Secret Service is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; a sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, opens in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday.

Sunday 17 September 2017

1,001 Films: "An American Werewolf in London" (1981)

Three-and-a-half decades on from its first release, John Landis's An American Werewolf in London remains good for both a giggle and a scream. Two backpacking buddies are roaming the Yorkshire moors when they're set about by a lycanthrope: one (Griffin Dunne) is savaged and killed, while the other (David Naughton), rescued by locals after being bitten on the cheek, is flown to London for treatment. While in hospital, he's plagued by violent dreams and understandably stunned when his chum, face ripped to shreds, reappears at his bedside, warning of worse things to come, but not before asking "Can I have a piece of your toast?" 

The best - and most touching - joke in the whole movie is that these friends resume their conversations where they left off, but it's typical of a film where affection trumps cynicism every time. Although clearly spawned by a fondness for American (more specifically, Universal) horror - there's an early reference to The Wolf Man - the film is finally a broadminded American's love letter to the British landscape, weather, odd hospitality (witness The Slaughtered Lamb, home to Brian Glover, David Bradley and a young Rik Mayall), habits (hence multiple tea jokes), television and women: they don't come much more English than Jenny Agutter in nurses' whites, even if Landis shows his hand by having her fall instantly for his hero's transatlantic charms. 

It is, ultimately, as British as any film of this period: the Trafalgar Square sequence alone offers Alan Ford as a cab driver and Chief Superintendent Brownlow from The Bill in an early role as a humble constable, plus one of the most mysterious pieces of background graffiti ever filmed (seen on the wall of the phone box Naughton uses to call home) in "GARFATH DOES PARTIES" - what the hell did that ever mean? All the same, you can tell it was directed by an American from the way this werewolf doesn't seem to give two figs about class - his victims include a haut-bourgeois couple, three tramps and a banker - and from the way Landis succeeds in converting Piccadilly Circus into the venue for a demolition derby.

It holds up because Landis gets the simple stuff right: he makes the horror resonant and startling - credit make-up whizz Rick Baker for a hairy transformation that remains striking even in these days of CGI modifications and 200 cuts per minute - while the comedy, such as Naughton waking up in the nud, or the dubbed-English porn, remains genuinely funny. Spin-offs include a run of far limper VHS rentals (Vamp, The Monster Squad, Teen Wolf), a tardy sequel that had Julie Delpy to recommend it and not much else, and a renewal of interest in a Warren Zevon recording from 1978 - but, despite the prominence afforded to "Bad Moon Rising" on the soundtrack, no Creedence Clearwater Revival revival.  

An American Werewolf in London is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

Saturday 16 September 2017

From the archive: "Renoir"

What you notice first about Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir is the quality of its light: how it strikes – and, in doing so, differentiates between – the red in the leading lady’s hair, the orange of her coat, and the peachy flesh tones she will eventually reveal. Unfailingly shimmering and summery, the compositions of ace Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love) will, in themselves, comprise a worthy tribute to the legendary painter.

In strictly biopic terms, however, we’re back in Lincoln territory, again invited to extrapolate from a few months of activity something illustrative or emblematic of the life entire. It’s 1915, and with war raging just outside the frame, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret) has cycled to the Cote d’Azur home of the great Pierre-Auguste, by then an arthritis-gnarled 74 years old. She’s an actress and aspiring model – they did things the other way around back then – employed by the artist’s late wife almost as a parting gift.

Relations within the household begin somewhat frosty: after it’s revealed at Andrée’s first sitting that Renoir would rather paint lemons, she wonders whether she’s only there because this widower wanted a pretty girl in the room. Yet as the pair talk over long hours in the studio, she – or, perhaps, the vigour she represents – becomes his focus, then his subject, and eventually a cornerstone of the Renoir legacy.

Bourdos has made a less rigorously conceptual film about painting than, say, La Belle Noiseuse or The Quince Tree Sun; what he does instead is show us how, in turbulent times, the beauty that Andrée represented and Pierre-Auguste painted can serve as a balm, a way of soothing troubled minds and bodies. Measured tracking shots gradually reveal the rhythms of the painter’s home, offering a sense of slow but steady progress; Renoir’s statement that “I don’t paint tragedy or misery – others do that so much better than me” is used to justify the pretty-pretty approach.

As in Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, the emphasis is placed on sensual experience, and that which one generation passes onto the next. Renoir’s relationship with the model runs in parallel with his relationship with his three sons, in which the hands-on dad worries (needlessly, as we know) that his offspring might be frittering their time away: eldest Pierre (Laurent Poitrenaux) in the theatre, sulky youngest Coco (Thomas Doret, the Dardennes’ Kid with a Bike) wandering in the fields, middle son Jean (Vincent Rottiers, nicely thoughtful) in the services.

There’s a lot of looking – and everything from the lighting on down is designed to make us want to keep on looking – but it’s always anchored in two notable and effective presences: the veteran Bouquet, whose voice makes every utterance (“Flesh! That’s all that matters!”) sound as though it should be engraved in stone, and the undeniably beautiful Theret, perfectly cast as the kind of girl who would indeed make even the oldest and most arthritic of souls scrabble to squeeze the last drops of creativity from the tube.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Renoir screens on BBC2 tonight at 1.50am.

Friday 15 September 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 8-10, 2017:

1 (new) It: Chapter One (15) ***

2 (1) American Made (15) ***
3 (2) Dunkirk (12A) ***
4 (4) The Emoji Movie (U)
5 (3) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **
6 (new) Wind River (15)
7 (7) Despicable Me 3 (U)
8 (5Logan Lucky (12A) ****
9 (9) The Limehouse Golem (15) ***
10 (8) Detroit (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

2. Belle de Jour 
3. The Villainess
4. Centre of My World
5. Journey Through French Cinema

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
2 (2) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
3 (3Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
4 (4) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
5 (5) Kong: Skull Island (12)
6 (7) Sing (U) ***
7 (8) Their Finest (12) ***
8 (6) Life (15) **
9 (9) Logan (12) ***
10 (10The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***


My top five: 
1. My Life as a Courgette

2. David Lynch: The Art Life
3. Suntan
4. Chicken
5. Whitney: "Can I Be Me?"

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Renoir (Saturday, BBC2, 1.50am)
2. Drive Angry [above] (Monday, five, 11.05pm)
3. The Nutty Professor (Saturday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
4. Super 8 (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. The Uninvited (Saturday, BBC1, 12.25am)