Monday 30 October 2017

From the archive: "Rise of the Footsoldier"

Warning: the British gangster movie of the late 1990s is trying to make a comeback. Rise of the Footsoldier climaxes with fevered speculation over the same unsolved Rettendon Range Rover murders that inspired 2000's Sean Bean flop Essex Boys, having tried, and failed, to pass itself off as an insightful alternative history of Britain from the mid-Seventies to the mid-Nineties. The source material is the autobiography-cum-self-justification of one Carlton Leach, soccer hooligan-turned-nightclub bouncer-turned-career criminal, a progression that moves Julian Gilbey's film from sub-Football Factory rumblings through the rave era (big insight on Ecstasy: "the drugs were breaking down social barriers") to tangles with Craig Fairbrass, never an especially good idea. It's the usual form - actors from The Bill and Holby City knock one another abaht, shooters go off, much claret is spilled - but this time stuck with unintentionally hilarious narration ("The firm was Craig's life. Without it, he had no sense of direction") and a stop-start structure that makes it even harder to suffer such unsavoury characters. As with his debut, last year's Rollin with the Nines, a certain energy suggests Gilbey may yet get around to making a good film if he could only find a story worth telling, but Leach's isn't it, and it's probably best if we evacuate cinemas showing Rise of the Footsoldier until it goes away.

(September 2007)

A third film in the series, Rise of the Footsoldier 3: The Pat Tate Story, opens in cinemas this Friday.

Sunday 29 October 2017

From the archive: "What We Do in the Shadows"

What We Do in the Shadows is a very goofy way to shut the lid on a coffin. Those vampire tropes reanimated by Twilight and True Blood towards the end of the last decade have already prompted their fair share of lampooning: most prominently in 2010’s Vampires Suck (about which the less said the better) and more adroitly in the same year’s Belgian comedy Vampires, which approached its bloodsucking clan in the same way reality-TV cameras have done the Kardashians and Osbournes. (There may be something of a bloodline there.)

Here, the team behind cult TV favourite Flight of the Conchords have cobbled together the budget and effects that might have made for a modest horror show, and instead turned them to more comic ends, with a mockumentary about an undead houseshare in latter-day Wellington. Within this sitcom set-up, we’re introduced to lovelorn dandy Viago (director Taika Waititi), self-styled “Nazi vampire” Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), insistently vain Vladimir (Jemaine Clement), and Petyr (Ben Fransham), a Nosferatu who lives in the basement.

These guys have delusions of Gothic grandeur, and a very different concept of time to you or I (“You haven’t done the dishes for five years!”), yet their nights on the tiles are decidedly humdrum. Unable to get into clubs – a consequence of the vampire lore that says they have to be invited across the threshold of human properties – they wind up mooching around the streets, getting into amusingly petty scuffles with local werewolves. This may be the first vampire film to spot a downside to eternal life: long stretches of ennui.

Thankfully, we’re never quite so bored. Stepping up from the wearyingly thin quirks of his debut Eagle vs. Shark, Waititi happily delivers full-blooded splatter – taking a bite out of Peter Jackson’s early horror comedies, Shadows isn’t shy about showing what happens when its characters make a mess of an artery, or stumble into the sunlight – alongside rather more nimble visual invention, as in a pleasingly clunky, non-CG take on Inception’s running-up-the-walls sequence.

Waititi and Clement’s script shares its consistently funny ideas among a tightly drilled team of performers: beyond the central foursome, shoutouts should go to Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue as a supremely credulous pair of police officers, more concerned with the absence of smoke alarms at the vampires’ retreat than they are by the presence of fangs, and I liked Jackie van Beek as Deacon’s long-standing, put-upon familiar, wearily noting how vampirism has become something of a boys’ club (“If I had a penis, I’d have been bitten years ago”).

At this late stage in history, it can really only be a footnote, a sharp little cocktail stick playfully pushed towards the heart of a genre that has been prone to humourlessness. Yet anyone unmoved by the Twilight franchise’s relentless romanticism may well find its bathos refreshing, to say the least: asked for early thoughts on his new vampire lifestyle, laddish victim Stu (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) shrugs, “I just thought it was some German thing these blokes do.”

(MovieMail, November 2014)

What We Do in the Shadows screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.15pm.

Laws of gravity: "Base"

It's too perfect that Base should be distributed in the UK by Vertigo Films: this really isn't a movie for anybody who struggles with heights. The adventurous British writer-director Richard Parry made one of the better late-cycle found-footage features in 2012's A Night in the Woods, where a relationship could be observed falling apart in the course of a fraught Dartmoor camping trip; now he takes to the skies alongside representatives of the basejumping community, those daredevils who launch themselves off rocky outcrops and tall buildings while wearing airy jumpsuits they hope will catch a breeze and carry them horizontally, invariably filming themselves with GoPro cameras as they swoop and soar. The footage that has been sourced by Parry's performers - actual basejumpers, playing fictionalised versions of themselves - is rarely less than spectacular, repeatedly teetering (and obliging us to teeter) over the cliff edge. It's not just that they should seek to defy the laws of physics at every turn; they also choose to do so from the tops of sweeping hillsides in Switzerland and Rio de Janeiro, rather than, say, a clocktower on the outskirts of Nantwich. How this footage has been stitched together is another matter.

Early on, we see one jumper sitting behind a desk in an edit suite, and hear him musing in voiceover about the burden that comes with assembling the pieces of a life. The unexpected gravity perhaps derives from the fact Parry was doing something similar: leading man Alexander Polli died in a basejumping accident while the film was in post-production, a tragic development that appears to have pushed the project in a whole new direction. If the early thrill-seeking suggests we're in for eighty minutes of bronzed and toned bros sticking out their tongues and throwing up peace signs to camera, what follows is a markedly more sombre and self-reflexive exercise, centred on a man alone and indefinitely grounded in a South London flat, sifting through hours of footage and pages of Facebook tributes to his dead buddy, and trying to reconcile himself with his part in a loss of life. This gives Base some of the psychological shading that was already apparent in A Night in the Woods: when our troubled hero takes the express lift to the roof of a skyscraper overlooking the City, we're led to wonder whether he's planning one last leap into the unknown, and it seems a touch cruel he should head up in the company of his dead friend's gal (Julie Dray), a questioning presence who loved the deceased in spite of his compulsion.

Yet it also carries the film into curious territory, landing it somewhere between rigorous critique of impulsive masculinity and commercially-minded redemption journey: whatever internal conflict Parry had inside his own edit suite has seeped into the final cut, the Dray character's fluctuations, in particular, straining credulity. (Then again, these guys go with the wind.) At its best, Base gives us a real feel for both the highs and lows of what is, evidently, an extreme sport, yet the hybrid form - that element of non-fiction in the fiction - keeps raising questions that a straightahead documentary treatment might have been better placed to answer. How do these underemployed twenty- and thirtysomething gadabouts find the money to get them up a mountain in the first place? Is it just a rich kid's pursuit? (There's a gobbet of cod psychology in Parry's script: the Polli character mumbles about a banker father who threw himself out of a window after the markets tanked.) And - just from a ploddingly practical point-of-view - don't basejumpers have to hike back up these cliffs after landing, in order to retrieve those personal items they jettison before jumping into the void? I can understand not wanting to let the shadow of mortality creep across you - but wouldn't the looming knowledge of that chore dull the edges of any thrill?

Base is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 28 October 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 20-22, 2017:

1 (2) 
Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
2 (new) Geostorm (12A)
3 (1) Lego Ninjago (U)
4 (new) Happy Death Day (15) 
5 (new) The Death of Stalin (15) *****
6 (new) My Little Pony: the Movie (U) **
7 (4) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
8 (3) The Snowman (15) **
9 (new) Mersal (12A)
10 (new) Secret Superstar (12A) ****


My top five: 
1. Perfect Blue

2. The Death of Stalin
3. I Am Not a Witch
4. North by North-West
5. Dina

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (2) The Boss Baby (U)
2 (1) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12) **
3 (3) Logan (12) ***
4 (6) Hidden Figures (PG) **
5 (4Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
6 (7) Kong: Skull Island (12)
7 (10) Get Out (15) ****
8 (8) Going in Style (12)
9 (new) Churchill (PG)
10 (re) Life (15) **


My top five: 
1. City of Ghosts

2. The Villainess
3. Zoology
4. Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle
5. Bushwick

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Animal Kingdom (Saturday, C4, 1.10am)
2. Airplane! (Saturday, ITV1, 11.45pm)
3. Source Code (Saturday, C4, 11.40pm)
4. What We Do in the Shadows (Sunday, BBC2, 12.15am)
5. The Descent [above] (Monday, five, 11.50pm)

Friday 27 October 2017

Gods of comedy: "Thor: Ragnarok"

Where DC's worker bees have had to spend the best part of this year digging in, first ensuring Wonder Woman became the brand-salvaging hit it did, then knuckling down - ahead of Justice League - to plotting the kind of synergy Avengers Assemble achieved half a decade ago, their rivals at Marvel Studios have spent 2017 with their foot off the gas. Granted, there were early summer successes in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, but these were products from the larkier end of the superhero range, so confident of their fanbases they could afford to go a little slack in the edit suite. Thor: Ragnarok, ambling in this weekend, is pure goof-off, tossed casually into the marketplace by a studio that knows it has money and audience goodwill in the bank, and a franchise that, at this point, has nothing to lose. It features superheroes who stagger into scenes late or drunk, and mistime their would-be snappy lines; it distresses its hunky lead's chiselled appearance no end; and its skittish rhythms peak with the apparition of Jeff Goldblum wearing a gold-lamé dressing gown and electric-blue nail polish. It is thoroughly non-canonical, and easily the best film in the Thor series, not least because it acknowledges how intrinsically silly these stories are, and how "Asgard" can sound a little rude if you say it right.

One really funny thing about Ragnarok is that it does all this while describing events other comic-book movies would approach with frowning seriousness: the dissipation of Anthony Hopkins' Odin, for one, his ashes scattered over a cliff somewhere in Norway, and - back up in the heavens - the wholesale destruction of our hero's celestial hometown. Most noisily of all, there is the reemergence of Thor and Loki's vengeful sister Hela, played by Cate Blanchett in Gothy styling that makes Eva Green look like Shirley Temple. The Kiwi director Taika Waititi is, however, more inclined to use his sacrosanct source material as something to doodle and scribble over, proving more interested in what's going on at the margins, and in the shadows, than his narrative throughline. Almost half of Ragnarok's (commendably brisk) two-hour running time is the result of Waititi inviting Antipodean film industry buds to come in and mess around for a day or so, an open-door policy that yields such fun new characterisations as Korg, a market own-brand variant of the Fantastic Four's own Thing lent incongruously timid voice by Waititi himself, and Skurge, played by Karl Urban as a low-ranking Asgard flunky almost damned by nominative determinism.

A measure of corporate thinking passed close to these sets. You could view Ragnarok as merely a reaction to the near-complete anonymity of 2013's The Dark World, attributed to one Alan Taylor yet indistinguishable from the average Alan Smithee, and some question remains over how much of a risk the move towards light entertainment really is: the gags are still packed around a core of that moderate fantasy violence that has always landed these films a PG-13 rating and a $100m opening weekend. (More if you open on the Tuesday of a half-term holiday, as Ragnarok has in the UK.) The larky self-reflexivity is welcome: early on, while the film is still up in the heavens, we get a puckish theatrical reworking of the first movie's events, with Sam Neill walking the planks as Odin, a lesser Hemsworth playing Thor and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Matt Damon cast as Loki. Yet the wider MCU self-referentiality still grates: this offshoot is at its least interesting with its obligation cameos from Scarlett Johansson and Idris Elba, at which points the franchise reverts to company men and women doing what their contracts demand for what their paycheques stipulate. Get back to Goldblum, we cry - and, to his credit, Waititi has the sense to hear that cry out.

This is the first Thor to suggest how franchise and protagonist alike might have a personality tucked away under their considerable muscle. Hemsworth #1 eases into nice, offhanded rhythms with Mark Ruffalo as a bemused Bruce Banner and Tessa Thompson as the Valkyrie who comes to their aid; for much of its duration, Ragnarok is Hot People Being Funny, which would be reason enough to return to the multiplex on a Saturday night. (One image of Thompson wiggling in a flowing blue cape while manoeuvring a massive gun into position is exactly the reason Thor Light comprises such an improvement upon its predecessors.) Better still, the general air of relaxation allows the occasional thunderclap of drama to register more forcefully: working enthusiastically with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others), Waititi stages Hela's slaying of Thompson's fellow Valkyries as a grand canvas, properly spectacular in 2D or three. Mainly, though, everybody's enjoying themselves. The effects in the much-trailered midfilm smackdown between Thor and the Hulk ("I know this guy from work!") suggest a more elasticated WWE, and even the last-reel setpiece, set to Led Zep's "Immigrant Song", is less rote green-screen smash-up than
 end-of-term disco, taking enormous delight scanning bodies in motion. Waititi's throwing a Thor party here, and - while, yes, it tessellates with what's gone before and what's upcoming - it's infinitely preferable to hearing the dull details of our hero's day job. 

Thor: Ragnarok is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 22 October 2017

From the archive: "Thor: The Dark World"

Well, this feels tardy. It’s now been over two years since Thor first stomped into our multiplexes, and over two months since a summer blockbuster season that sorely needed a heavyweight presence came to its conclusion. Thor: The Dark World even ends with a smash-up of Greenwich that seems like an expensive afterthought to last year’s Olympic/Skyfall-inspired repositioning of London as the centre of the universe – Star Trek Into Darkness set about the capital with less grinding obligation back in May. A moment has been spectacularly missed.

The heel-dragging speaks to a franchise struck with a sudden lack of confidence in its own product, and to lengthy script conferences intended to work out just what to do with a character who remains one of the least engaging of modern movie superheroes. You’ve met Thor, of course: the invulnerable prop forward with the prissy Legolas locks and the all-conquering hammer, played with muscles upon muscles by Chris Hemsworth as a study in the limitations of the alpha-male personality.

As this return match cranks up, the other pieces have been far from favourably positioned. The first film’s breakout character, Tom Hiddleston’s sneering villain Loki, sits in chains; a brief reintroduction to the franchise’s mortals reveals they haven’t developed beyond cut-out nothings (or, in the case of Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings’ science-free scientists, rather flavourless eye candy); and it’s unlikely anybody’s coming back for more of Anthony Hopkins’ beardy waffle as Odin.

Worse: the script conferences don’t appear to have heeded the lesson of the first film – that the Earth stuff is always going to play better than what’s happening up in “space”, which is men in silly helmets running round on silly sets apparently remaindered from the TV Star Treks. The world of the Gods has become more turbulent in the gap between films one and two, it seems – civil war has broken out, obliging Thor and Loki to team up – but it has become no less risible-sounding, again raiding the IKEA catalogue for its mythic place names (Svartalfheim, anyone?)

Kenneth Branagh, wisely, passed on making this fly a second time, and Alan Taylor’s shruggingly proficient direction merely leads you to the conclusion The Dark World is nothing more than a placeholder: it exists solely to remind distracted audiences that the Thor guy you once liked is still a viable concern for Disney, and may be back again in two years, perhaps in a better film, if you pony up enough of your hard-earned. 

It’ll no doubt recoup enough of same to at the very least break even, but might we not mourn whatever time and money was spent on making a superhero movie that turns out this bathetic, this ordinary? Every scene throws up something newly underwhelming. Portman has a new intern called Ian, who – for all the effort expended on developing the role – may just as well be played by a broom with a volleyball stuck on top of it for a head. And for some reason, the in-film reportage is provided by ITV News, not the go-to BBC, which means that, at one point, we’re confronted by a big 3D close-up of Matthew Lorenzo. (Was Elton Welsby unavailable?)

This recent run of Marvel adaptations became their own self-regulating (and thus critic-proof) universe with last year’s Avengers Assemble, the very model of stock-boosting corporate synergy, and it’s just possible that a subpar, out-of-season spin-off like this might be a deliberate shot at bar- or pulse-lowering, its eerie absence of anything like personality, wit or real dramatic heft designed to make the casual viewer actively long for another Captain America movie. (A typically smarmy Chris Evans cameo reminds us we have that joy awaiting us next year.)

But here’s what I continue not to get about these films – y’know, beyond why anyone over the age of 14 would actually bother to shell out for them. In one format or another, these comic books have been going for years, generating and revisiting decades of potent, apparently compelling pop-culture history. Surely there are more compelling myths to be drawn from the Thor universe than the ones the movies select to showcase? So what the hell is everybody doing in those damn script conferences?

(MovieMail, November 2013)

Thor: The Dark World is available on DVD through Disney; a sequel, Thor: Ragnarok, opens in cinemas nationwide this Tuesday.

From the archive: "Saw V"

Saw V opens with a murderer being strapped to a table and offered a choice between crushing the tools of his trade (his hands) in a vice or being sliced in two by a blade swinging over him. With the blade swinging ever lower, the murderer chooses to put his hands through the wringer in a bid to appease his captor - only for the latter to slice his victim in two anyway. So far, so much carnage as usual, yet more proof that the Saw franchise has become further and further detached from the rules of the game established by 2004's ingenious first instalment. The surprise is how the rest of the new film, a slight return to earlier form, should come to call the franchise out on its recent sloppy work, and make tentative moves to correct it.

That franchise remains the biggest fluke, the goriest anomaly in recent movie history: every Halloween since the original, a sequel has arrived in cinemas, shot on a minimal budget, with fewer narrative ideas, less well-known stars and heightening grimness, and yet still - somehow - managing to attract an audience. It's not as though these films reward Johnny-come-latelys: unlike the Friday the 13th, Nightmare and original Halloween movies, where only the monsters remained consistent from film to film, the Saw series has developed its own (literally) torturous mythology, one that - rather cleverly - means individual movies only really come into their own as part of a DVD boxset, to be consumed one after another.

Saw V, by way of an example, moves in three directions at once while rewriting series history in much the way Back to the Future Part II did its predecessor. With sadistic killer Jigsaw seemingly off the board for good, the focus settles first on two detectives (Scott Patterson and Costas Mandylor) investigating one another's involvement in a pattern of serial slayings; then, in the most cursory strand, on Jigsaw's ex-wife (Betsy Russell) as she takes delivery of her late husband's legacy; and then on the latest round of victims to find themselves in a copycat killer's lair, trying to avoid being decapitated, electrocuted or otherwise blown to bits.

Some of this fifth instalment - directed by David Hackl, taking over from gorehound hack Darren Lynn Bousman - wouldn't even pass Filmmaking 101: Patterson and Mandylor, neither possessed of an excess of charisma, are so physically similar as for the opening scenes to be plain confusing. But the meat of the film revives the warped gameplaying of the first films, and the main players, far from the usual disposable no-marks, are at least recognisable: Julie Benz from Dexter, Morris from 24 (his line readings as gloriously flat as ever) and Meagan Good from The Love Guru.

After the anything-goes Saw IV, some small measure of quality control has been reasserted here, principally through the revival of a key character who insists "killing is distasteful" and rebukes their copyists' methodology and tools. It's still as grim as all hell, and the trailer's promise "you won't believe how it ends" proves, perhaps unsurprisingly, an empty one: with two, perhaps three killers on the loose as the end credits roll, the wheels of Saw VI are, even as you read this, very much in motion. The uneasy fascination of the first film, however, is back; viewers of a sensitive disposition are advised to try High School Musical 3 in the screen next door.

(October 2008)

All seven Saw films to date are available on DVD through Lionsgate; an eighth in the series, Jigsaw, opens in cinemas nationwide this Thursday.

From the archive: "Saw IV"

"If it's Halloween, it must be Saw," pronounces the tagline, not altogether modestly, and if it's Saw, there must now be no press screenings, which is how this viewer came to skip Saw III. How sloppy and dull this series has become in just four years. Saw IV opens at the point engineer-turned-psycho John "Jigsaw" Kramer (Tobin Bell) and his apprentice daughter (whose identity was revealed at the conclusion of Saw II) have been killed off. An autopsy reveals the extent of Jigsaw's murderous legacy: a tape recording secreted inside the killer's stomach suggests he managed to get a fair bit accomplished in the days before his passing, while setting up a whole new round of grisly happenings. A SWAT team member (Lyriq Bent) - fairly insignificant, in the scheme of things - is given 90 minutes to rescue cop Donnie Wahlberg, whom Jigsaw absconded with at the end of Saw II, while the detectives pursue a new line of inquiry in the form of Jigsaw's ex-wife. The latter is played by Eighties throwback Betsy Russell, whose oft-topless appearances in early VHS titles Tomboy and Private School clearly left an impression on director Darren Lynn Bousman.

The best setpiece passes early on. An unfortunate fellow with eyes sewn shut, and another whose lips have similarly been sutured, wake up in a mausoleum attached to a winding mechanism, and - rather than helping one another to locate the keys that will free them both - are drawn by self-interest into tossing axes at one another. Again, the implied critique of a society running low on empathy (Jigsaw's clues encourage the cops to "see what I see" and "feel what I feel") might stand up to greater scrutiny were the film not shot (ineptly) by the individual responsible for giving Paris Hilton her first starring role, for the benefit of teenagers who are only showing up to cackle over the torture sequences. In retrospect, what was clever about the first Saw wasn't the fiendish plotting, but the use of a single location where the main characters were given time to develop - to live, breathe and panic, as well as self-mutilate - before they were sliced and diced. Saw IV is another of this year's notable victims of sequel bloat, staggering about and flashing back all over the place, through any number of interchangeably seedy hellholes, haphazardly reviving characters from the first three films while recruiting new ones, played by cheap, crummy actors (Costas Mandylor!) it's impossible to give a damn about. Booooooooo-ring.

(October 2007)

From the archive: "Saw II"

Released to coincide with Halloween, last year's first Saw - directed by James Wan from a script by leading man Leigh Whannell - was a sleeper hit distinguished by high levels of ingenuity, its grisly setpieces engineered by a doubly sick fuck (Tobin Bell's cancer-stricken John "Jigsaw" Kramer) for whom imprisonment and execution held no fear. Its immediate legacy appears to have been convincing multiplex bookers to take a gamble on films - like Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects or last month's Wolf Creek - which even hardened horror fans might concede hardly constitute a fun night out. The inevitable Saw II, written by Whannell with director Darren Lynn Bousman, is a messier film in several respects, expanding the franchise's queasy worldview while reducing any pleasures that might be gained from sitting in the dark with it. 

After a particularly nasty pre-credits sequence, we learn the police - in the form of seedy detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) - have finally caught up with Kramer, only for the killer to reveal an extra trick up his sleeve. This is a bank of monitors, displaying a group of youngsters - including Matthews' son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) and Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the first movie's sole survivor - locked up in a house that's been heavily boobytrapped and is gradually filling up with nerve gas. What follows cuts restlessly between the kids, moving from room to room in search of an exit, and the police back at Kramer's lair, attempting to puzzle out what to do next.

Again, there's a smartness about some of the plot points - eventually explaining why one of the housemates doesn't appear to be affected by the toxin, a niggle that nags away at the viewer for much of the running time - and how the film goes about setting up fresh meat for a possible third film. There's also something clever about the conceit, which ties into why we might be watching horror movies in the first place. Kramer puts his victims through the mill in order to make them less inured to life, just as one supposes those heading to see Saw II do so in the hope of experiencing jumps and jolts they might not in the real world. 

These the film duly delivers, but its creeping sense of dread gives rise to more inevitable demises than surprise deaths, and it's hard not to notice the peculiar moral outrage underpinning this latest instalment. All the plot strands - from the housemates' incessant, finally fatal bickering to Wahlberg's ill-advised last-reel decision to turn maverick cop - have been calibrated to point up how selfishness inevitably leads to these characters' undoing; in almost every instance, death could have been prevented if the main players actually worked together. (That there is such carnage turns out to be the result of two psychopaths collaborating successfully.) 

The problem - more evident here than in the tight two-handed original - is that Saw II is too crudely directed and acted to really land these points. The wily Bell and Wahlberg lend the framing story an interesting dynamic, but those inside the house are a mixed bunch, the gruesome invention rather slips out of the death scenes after an hour, and it's, let's say, something of a downer as entertainment. Far better our horror films be horrifying than just loud or slick, but in the end, Saw II is the sort of film from which the viewer can only take away small mercies: that its makers applied their sadistic tendencies to celluloid rather than human flesh, and that real life rarely throws up 100 minutes as punishingly blunt and brutal as these.

(October 2005)

From the archive: "Saw"

Saw, this year's Halloween treat from Tinseltown, is a puzzle piece in which the pieces happen to be body parts. Surgeon Cary Elwes and slacker Leigh Whannell (who penned the script) wake up chained to the walls of a grimy basement; with only a corpse and two hacksaws by way of company, the men are instructed to kill one another if they want to get out alive. Unusually extreme for the American cinema, James Wan's film is one of those breakout low-budget horrors - like the Canadian sci-fi Cube or last year's Dead End - where the lack of star names ensures the viewer never quite knows what's going to happen, only that there's likely to be a nasty surprise around every corner. Morbidly ingenious plotting suggests Whannell and Wan simply sat down, one dark night, and thought up the most ghastly things a person could see and experience, most notably a serial killer who's all the more terrifying for offering every last one of his victims a choice between life and death.

(The Sunday Telegraph, October 2004)

Saturday 21 October 2017

Slow future: "Blade Runner 2049"

The rain, at least, hasn't slowed any. It would not be an overstatement to say that Blade Runner 2049 has arrived among us as the most keenly awaited film of 2017: the Star Wars sequels have by now been placed in such safe corporate hands that fans can rest assured they know exactly what they're getting, whereas this feels like a risk, revisiting a vision even Ridley Scott never seemed to settle on in the course of three separate cuts, and spending vast amounts of Sony money on trying to develop rather than dissipate its mystique. The French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, working from a script by original scribe Hampton Fancher and recent Scott go-to Michael Green, seems keen to keep us all waiting. This is the second Villeneuve film in a row I've seen with a paying multiplex crowd - after last year's Arrival - and the second time I've witnessed this filmmaker lure restless popcorn-munchers into a state of hushed anticipation. He does this by giving us other matters to chew over. Where is this story headed? When will Harrison Ford return? Is Ryan Gosling - as Officer K, the replicant cop set on old Deckard's case - ever going to develop a second expression?

While waiting for these questions to be resolved, we can admire, even lap up, a meticulous recreation and expansion of the established Blade Runner universe. Villeneuve's mid-century L.A., as with Scott's earlier conception, is a work of notably intelligent design, both macro (a metropolis now overrun with Russian rather than Asian influences, plagued by freak shifts in climate) and micro (lots of boxes: crates buried underground, tobacco tins for trinkets). We need, and are afforded, plentiful time to take it all in, for 2049 runs just shy of two hours 49 minutes, the size of an iceberg in multiplex terms, and for much of that duration it moves like an iceberg, too. What's remarkable is the extent to which the new film tessellates with what came before: that very Scott-like immersive design, the hazy ambient soundscapes, a toy horse that rhymes with the first film's unicorns. Villeneuve even holds to the glacial pace of the original - which always felt like a depressive art school student's response to Star Wars's matinee hijinks - but now there's nearly an hour more of it, and all but the most obsessive BR fans may find themselves checking their watches. Worse: they'll have time to question how much human interest there really is here.

What Fancher and Green have written forms both a continuation of Philip K. Dick's existential explorations and a reverse-angle upon them. Where Ford's Deckard was a weathered, human presence whose genesis was laid open to interpretation in the course of hunting replicants, Gosling's Officer K is a replicant given cause to wonder what it is to be human. That's a workable new line of inquiry, certainly, but it would only have held had the actors on screen not seemed quite so much like the last element to be dropped into these sets, and by far the least significant. Scott had the advantage of Ford, movie star of the old school, the Bogart of New Hollywood, to keep us interested. His Deckard, however, doesn't show up here until the cusp of the third hour, at which point 2049 picks up the pace a little, interrogating the events of the first movie in much the same way later episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return interrogated Fire Walk With Me. For the most part, alas, we're stuck with monoface Gosling. That lights-on-nobody's-home mien might have been useful for the projection of androidry, but strip Gosling of his gift for light comedy, and he defaults to the setting of mopey passivity: several times, we find him looking on blankly as K's superior Robin Wright barks dialogue at him ("The world is ending!", "You just stopped a bomb from going off!") which is entirely at odds with the film's general lack of urgency.

Lightness will apparently be off the books completely inside three decades, but even when Villeneuve is aiming for colourful, all you see and feel is strain. The revelation that K's corporate nemesis Sylvia Hoeks is getting a mani-pedi while phoning in an air strike might, in a fleeter-footed proposition, have counted as the kind of quick-fix sight gag that jabs a laugh out of drifting viewers. Yet Villeneuve spends so long getting to it, and then dwelling on the peculiarities of the manicurist's uniform and the precise shade of polish being applied, that the gag loses its snap: it's another instance of the film stifling itself with its own design. When Gosling initiates a quasi-threesome by meshing the bodies of a flesh-and-blood working girl (Mackenzie Davis) and his hologrammatic homehelp (Ana de Armas), the scene's forever too clever to be as kinky as it thinks it's being: the blood runs north as the mind wonders how the techies pulled off the effect, and besides Villeneuve cuts away to an advert on the side of a skyscraper just as things are getting interesting. (Something else this filmmaker has inherited from Scott: he doesn't do sex, which partly explains the film's chilliness around women, and presumably seals its director's place in the modern-day studio system.)

This may be the eternal flaw of the Blade Runner movies: that they offer so much on a visual and conceptual level, yet so little to quicken the pulse or stir the emotions; that, whichever way you cut them, they're Tin Men headed in search of a heart. Maybe that's why Scott was compelled to keep tinkering with the first film, and why this one, which counts as a success in some ways (not least in how it honours its predecessor), feels in others like some grand, expensive folly. Not one scene in Villeneuve's film displays the spontaneity or spark of that much-memed This Morning outtake in which Gosling and an uncommonly spry Ford proceed to get lightly tipsy in a Park Lane hotel room: that's what it means to be human, revealed in a little over four minutes, and without recourse to clunky, heavy-handed dialogue or Jared Leto stumbling round in dark corners as a beardy blind genius. Blade Runner 2049 is imaginatively conceived, brilliantly designed, and often plain astonishing to look at; its saving grace is that it's a hell of a movie to zone out before. Yet zone out I did, and each crawling frame only served to confirm how a storyboard's panels can become as oppressive as any other prison. Imagine how great the film would be if its images had any life in them.

Blade Runner 2049 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 20 October 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 13-15, 2017:

1 (new) Lego Ninjago (U)

2 (1) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
3 (new) The Snowman (15) **
4 (2Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
5 (new) Botoks (18)
6 (4) The Mountain Between Us (12A)
7 (new) The Ritual (15)
8 (3It: Chapter One (15) ***
9 (new) Loving Vincent (12A)
10 (new) The Party (15) ***


My top five: 
1. I Am Not a Witch

2. North by North-West [above]
3. Dina
4. Secret Superstar
5. Unrest

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12) **
2 (2) The Boss Baby (U)
3 (4) Logan (12) ***
4 (3Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
5 (5) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
6 (6) Hidden Figures (PG) **
7 (7) Kong: Skull Island (12)
8 (8) Going in Style (12)
(10) Miss Sloane (15)
10 (re) Get Out (15) ****


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

Out of Africa: "I Am Not a Witch"

Whisper it softly, but there are signs the British film industry may be moving beyond providing jobs for the usual boys. I Am Not a Witch, the spellbinding feature debut of the black British writer-director Rungano Nyoni, was shot on location in Zambia with money from the Film Agency for Wales, among a panoply of European funding bodies, and just one of the points in its favour is that you very much feel the Daily Mail is going to have a coronary should it happen to get a load of this. From the off, Nyoni places us in what, for the majority of UK cinemagoers, will be unfamiliar territory: she acknowledges as much by opening upon the sight of a coach full of tourists - including one prominent white body, the last but one we will see in the entire picture - heading towards a village where a puzzling tableau-cum-photo opportunity is being staged involving local women and yards of flowing ribbon.

The story, on the other hand, is as upfront as that title. At a police station elsewhere in the same village, Shula (Margaret Mulubwa), an eight-year-old in a #bootycall top, is accused by her elders of witchcraft. It is, patently, an absurd claim, and one that begets an absurd procedural: in place of evidence-gathering or forensic tests, a witch doctor is brought in to slit a chicken's throat to determine whether or not the girl is what she's accused of being. Her status decided, Shula is shuttled off to "witch camp", which turns out to be that earlier tourist destination, a state-approved holding site whose exclusively female residents are kept on big spools of ribbon to prevent them running amok. It makes for almost as striking a metaphor for the subjugation of women as it does an image on screen, yet the girl has boundless youth and a defiant spirit on her side. We already sense that, one way or another, she won't be here for long.

What's startling is that we're not in some unenlightened past or dystopian future: I Am Not a Witch, forever present-tense, unfolds in the here-and-now, and it very quickly becomes clear Nyoni means to satirise some of the less progressive aspects of African life. With the state massively over-estimating her witchy wisdom, Shula finds herself being deployed as a trial judge, and having to call a friend or two back at camp to determine which of the suspects put before her is a thief ("Pick the dark one," comes the advice); later, the authorities, worried about a possible drought, call upon her as a weather forecaster. Her government handler's wife, a picture of new money in her flashy clothes and blonde highlights, lectures her in turn on earning respectability through marriage. Listening from afar - through a conch, indeed - to her contemporaries at play, Shula is surely receiving an alternative schooling in what it is to be a woman in certain corners of the world: as a funny scene with a beautician touting a line of "Micki Ninaj" wigs helps to demonstrate, it is often deemed a matter of fluttering false eyelashes until a successful man comes along to rescue you.

If the film overall leans in the direction of the allegorical, the performers seem too flesh-and-blood, too in-the-moment merely to serve as abstractions. Henry B.J. Phiri makes for a tremendous blusterer as Shula's titled chaperone Mr. Banda ("Minister for Tourism and Traditional Beliefs"), possibly a descendant of the impotent bureaucrat of Ousmane Sembene's great African satire Xala, and absolutely the kind of successful man Nyoni intends to skewer; first seen getting his wife to scrub his back in the bath, he's later all glad hands and fake smiles when touting his young charge on a TV talk show, and finally reduced to grovelling on his hands and knees before a queen. Against him, Mulubwa's sullen, downturned gaze - her refusal to make nice, or play the role desired of her - makes Shula an extremely effective symbol of resistance, although her smile, when it comes, should be enough to melt any onlooker's heart. 

Mostly, you're struck by the advantages of having someone behind the camera who wasn't breastfed on Brideshead, and who accordingly thinks in big, widescreen images: she recruits the adventurous cinematographer David Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent) to capture such sights as the witches lined up on a flatbed truck for easier transportation, or Shula flapping her arms in a bid to rise above a scorched-earth landscape. Nyoni is singularly unafraid of strangeness - of images and ideas that don't initially appear to make sense, but are allowed to take shape, breathe and fly before our eyes - where so many of her countrymen have been given to caution. That caution may be a consequence of working within an industry geared more towards the well-made film - neat, tidy things, destined for a BAFTA screenplay nod and an afterlife in the Sunday matinee slot on ITV3 - than it is towards genuine marvels. A marvel this is, though: you emerge amazed both that Nyoni ever got it funded (imagine the pitch meetings!), and at just how resonantly the film has turned out. Shorn of the usual deferences, equivocations and compromises, here is a British film that actually looks and feels like cinema: raise it high, and set it loose into the world.

I Am Not a Witch opens in selected cinemas from today. 

Moving forwards: "Unrest"

It sounds like a film-school exercise: make a motion picture about someone who cannot move. The truly terrifying thing about the new documentary Unrest, which heightens the challenge by being a motion picture about people who can't move directed by someone who can barely move, is that nothing about it was born of choice: here is one of those rare projects that everyone involved presumably wishes to high heaven they didn't have to start out on. It opens with discombobulating wobblycam footage of a twentysomething woman labouring to haul herself off the floor and onto a bed: believe it or not, this is our director-host's big entrance. The woman is Jennifer Brea, a sometime Ivy League high-flier whose rampant social mobility - excellent career prospects, handsome, Oprah-approved tech-whizz beau, much travel to far-flung climes - was suddenly and irreversibly halted by the crippling condition known as ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Brea took up filming herself in the early stages of physical degeneration so as to document her symptoms, in the hope some medically trained onlooker might spot something that would succeed in rebooting her fritzing system; the camera became a crutch, a means of reaching out for help.

Hours of YouTube footage that Brea discovered while bedbound suggested she wasn't alone in this, so after a while she began filming the stories of others, and the testimony of experts in the field, interviewing via Skype, directing by proxy. We get a very real sense, watching Unrest, of Brea the indomitable go-getter, determined not to let her malfunctioning mitochondria get in the way of stitching together what counts as the first comprehensive onscreen treatment of ME and other comparable conditions - a film that carries us all from yellowing cases of hysteria to a place of greater knowledge. The facts are stark, and often staggering: some 17 million sufferers around the world, of whom 25% are permanently bedbound and some 85% are female, leading Brea to wonder whether the male medical establishment has been in less of a hurry to do the heavy lifting on ME than they have been on other epidemics. (She uncovers one nasty episode in so-called liberal Denmark, where a huffy doctor - quite possibly the inspiration for Dr. Helmer on Lars von Trier's The Kingdom - had one young female patient with ME-like symptoms locked away in an asylum.)

Where AIDS, which came to light around the same historical moment, eventually found itself halted by effective courses of treatment, opinions still differ on what even to call this condition - CFS, yuppie flu, Epstein-Barr - and a big diagnostic problem has always been that it affects sufferers in very different ways: Brea herself can't stand upright some days, but recovers enough to go on walks in the country around the film's midpoint, only to succumb thereafter to horrific-seeming cerebral pain that leaves her horizontal and spouting gibberish. At this point, a caveat may be in order. For anyone possessed of even the slightest trace of empathy, Unrest's first half cannot fail to be a painful watch, staggering as it does between individuals forced to exist in extremes of agony or exhaustion. Even approached as a medical mystery/whodunnit - such as that nice Dr. Greene was faced with on e.r. back in the day - the film is impaired by the fact our detective heroine is prone to collapsing in the wake of any breakthroughs, and can find no immediate solution with which to warm our cockles. She does, however, cover an admirable amount of ground - doubly admirable, if we factor in the limitations the condition places on this filmmaker.

Part of Unrest's project, an extension of those YouTube confessionals, is to counter the invisibility that has driven many CFS sufferers to feel isolated, scared or depressed, and in extreme cases, to attempt suicide; yet Brea is also alert to the strains CFS places on even loving relationships, and how, in the absence of any clear, coherent medical plan of action, the usual cranks and quacks have stepped in to proffer miracle cures, from mould-free tents to huffing aerosol gasses - many tested here in a Spurlocky intermission that yields welcome chuckles but no signs of improvement. Casting around for answers always means rejecting the wrong ones, though, and the power of Unrest lies in seeing a young woman using her remaining privilege and resources to cut through the claims of the snake-oil salesmen - and a more general fug of despair - and thereby come to the aid of others. I can imagine the film becoming a source of immense consolation, possibly even cheer, for anyone living with this condition, and a source of some fascination for anybody with an interest in the workings of the human mind and body. Let's hope someone sees it and cracks the code eventually: the sobering message of this agonising labour of love is that it could happen to you, too.

Unrest opens in selected cinemas from today.