Saturday 30 December 2017

From the archive: "Noah"

Eventually, we shall become evolved enough to make only as much fuss about a movie based on the international bestseller the Bible as we would about another Harry Potter. Whether you believe or not, the Noah legend has been part of our lives since the year dot, reliably passed down from one generation to the next – and its tale is at least as full of wonders and wizardry, narrow escapes, and Great Things Happening as any more contemporary literary phenomenon.

This current adaptation’s co-writer/director, Darren Aronofsky, proved with 2006’s The Fountain that he can mount a religiose folly with intelligence and visual flair; his 2008 triumph The Wrestler (itself more than a little Jesussy) showcased a facility for turning conflicted human beings into mythic archetypes, and vice versa. Yet there’s equally something of the scientist about this filmmaker, as evidenced by his 1998 breakthrough Pi and the weights and measures of 2000’s still-astonishing Requiem for a Dream.

Both approaches are on display in Noah, which mounts its Old Testament spectacle on the grandest imaginable scale, but continually submits individual elements to a surprising level of scrutiny. It’s the work of a 21st century filmmaker who’s taken a huge chunk of Paramount money to see whether this story still holds water; it feels like the most experimental event movie in some time.

If you like Great Things Happening, then Noah is certainly full of them: the creation of a vast, credibly inhabitable ark, for starters, along with swarms of snakes and birds, armies being smashed into the ground – even before the deluge arrives to wash everybody away. Yet it’s also stocked deep with small, personal details that merit closer examination – for creation, surely, is as dependant on pollen and spermatozoa as it is on Big Bangs.

In the beginning, a lone flower pokes through the soil – a miracle in its own right, prompting Noah (Russell Crowe) to deliver unto middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) a lesson about the ways Man should live upon the land: “We only take what we need.” A theme is being established: propagation, and what we do to ensure the survival of the species – an urge that transcends the source material, as felt back in Ham’s day as it is among anybody expecting another extreme weather front to roll in.

So there’s some Al Gore in here, and some Darwin, too: putting Crowe at the helm of a big boat can’t help but recall 2003’s studious Master & Commander. The film is ultimately pro-family values – as was The Book – but it keeps finding enlightened ways to explore and dramatise them: there’s fierce debate within the movie as to whether the flood represents a blessed, God-given do-over, or a curse.

Crowe’s Noah is a foursquare, practical man inclined to put up, shut up and do what he’s told: his conviction will drive him to consider some terrible acts, the grey beard he assumes at sea only underlining his conservative bearing. Alongside him, Jennifer Connolly’s grave beauty is put to pointed use, as her Naameh – Mrs. Noah – questions why these events are taking place, and what might be done to get everybody through them alive. (Their dynamic suggests an alternative title: Take Shelter.)

Not all of Aronofsky’s inventions work, and the film occasionally succumbs to the usual temptations of the Hollywood flagship movie. Speedfreak cutaways to Eden’s hissing Serpent scream “immoral acts!” just as surely as those pink triangles once inserted into C4’s foreign films. And I wasn’t quite sure what Aronofsky was getting at by including a tribe of rock giants known as The Watchers – save, perhaps, to add bonus FX before the waters break, and then to take a measure of agency away from a figure as contentious as God.

Yet if Noah moves in mysterious ways, it nevertheless makes for fascinatingly ambiguous, sometimes sceptical spectacle: a considered, secular-humanist retort to the blunt-force certainty of Mel Gibson’s Passion. Of course, you’re free to look upon it as an approximation of real-world miracles, or as a more extravagant version of what’s now expected from the Hollywood effects movie. Either way, this determinedly non-denominational blockbuster offers multiple readings, and much else for the congregated masses to marvel at.

(MovieMail, April 2014)

Noah premieres on BBC2 on New Year's Day at 10pm.

Friday 29 December 2017

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A) ***

2 (1) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
3 (2) Daddy's Home 2 (12A)
4 (3) Wonder (PG)
5 (4Justice League (12A)
6 (5) Murder on the Orient Express (12A) ***
7 (6) The Disaster Artist (15) ***
8 (8) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
9 (11) The Star (U) **
10 (7Thor: Ragnarok (12A) ***


My top five: 
1. A Matter of Life and Death

2. The Muppet Christmas Carol
3. Persona
4. Mountains May Depart
5. Mountain

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Dunkirk (12) ***
2 (3) Micky Flanagan: An' Another Fing Live (15)
3 (5) Despicable Me 3 (U)
4 (2) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **
5 (9) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
6 (10) Paddington (PG) ****
7 (11) Elf (12) **
8 (6) War for the Planet of the Apes (12) ***
9 (1) Game of Thrones: Season 7 (15)
10 (7) The Emoji Movie (U)


My top five: 
1. Logan Lucky

2. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
3. Patti Cake$
4. The Limehouse Golem
5. American Made

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Groundhog Day [above] (New Year's Eve, five, 2.55pm)
2. Speed (Saturday, C4, 11.20pm) 
3. The African Queen (Saturday, five, 10.50am)
4. Clueless (Tuesday, ITV1, 11.10pm)
5. Noah (New Year's Day, BBC2, 10pm)

From the archive: "Elf"

Deck the corporate halls with bows of flimsy, over-priced holly: the Hollywood executives have decided Christmas is here. The tepid Elf has Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human raised among elves in the Arctic Circle; learning his father is Manhattan publisher James Caan, he sets out for the big city. Can Buddy melt the heart of his Scrooge-ish pop? Will he win the heart of cynical shopgirl Jovie (Zooey Deschanel)? Will anyone still be bothered when they shove this out on DVD in June next year? What you get is your standard-issue fish-out-of-water comedy, dressed up in green felt and pointy boots, so Buddy struggles to fathom department-store lifts and starts picking chewed gum up off the pavement in the belief it's free candy. You might expect more from director Jon Favreau, after Swingers and his funny, pointed cameo in The Sopranos, but this is strictly button-pushing, pastel-paint-by-numbers stuff conceived solely as a vehicle for a comedian whose man-child persona, with its icky echoes of Robin Williams, stretches mightily thin even over ninety minutes. Deserves one award, for Best Supporting Sweetmeats - every set appears to be crammed with elaborate cakes, gingerbread men and Swiss rolls, not to mention a prominently positioned toasted breakfast snack - but there's no comparable sourness by way of balance. Given the choice between the mass singalong here, and that led by a grouching Bill Murray at the end of Scrooged, I know which one I'd warm my chestnuts to.

(November 2003)

Elf is available on DVD through Entertainment.

On demand: "Creep 2"

Creep 2, a sequel to 2014's disarming found-footage chiller, begins where its predecessor left off, with an unknowing victim-to-be receiving a DVD that suggests someone's been watching him uncomfortably closely. What becomes especially unnerving, as the sequence (and DVD) rolls on, is that the houseguest introduced offscreen as Aaron, a name we associate with the patsy of the first film, turns out on camera to be Josef, the psychopathic narcissist (played by writer-star Mark Duplass) last seen making Aaron's life such a misery. No trace survives of the actual Aaron (though Patrick Brice, who played him, stays on as director), but we soon learn that Josef's original Craigslist post has attracted many more responses, including one from Sara (Desiree Akhavan), director-host of a failing webseries in which she makes blithe fun of men encountered online. Despite the namechange, Josef remains the same old oversharer: within moments of Sara's arrival at his woodland bolthole, he's announced he is, in fact, a serial killer, shown her the first film's bloody climax as proof, stripped naked, and confessed that he might be undergoing a midlife crisis. Sara, sensing he might provide all the material she needs to clinch her thesis on pathetic masculinity, elects to stick around. So begins the last of 2017's myriad battles of the sexes.

Now that both films have entered into wider Netflix circulation, it's possible to view them as the closest American equivalent to that fin-de-siècle Belgian provocation Man Bites Dog, though there's arguably something much funnier still about Josef-turned-Aaron, a lonely, needy sociopath aggrieved by his lack of fame and insistent his every banal word and action be taken seriously. Both movies are sustained by Duplass's weirdly credible portrayal of a predator in sheep's clothing, hiding his darker motives beneath a toplayer of boyish ingenuousness that he uses to nuzzle up against his victims' boundaries; he would seem a topical monster even without his insistence on getting the whole process on camera. Yet if Brice's Aaron was an obvious fall guy, getting further out of his depth the deeper Josef led him into the woods, Akhavan's Sara arrives as rather more of an equal or match. She films Josef with his hair and guard down in the hot tub; he goes to film her in the shower, only to get the fright of his life - and then fights back by informing her, in his signature dead-eyed, passive-aggressive style, that he knows the ingratiating games journalists like her have traditionally played with their subjects.

Like many of the mumblecore experiments from which Duplass first emerged, there's nothing much to it: just a pair of performers, stumbling round the one location in deceptively casual set-ups. Yet Akhavan, displaying more of that droll wit she brought to bear on 2014's Appropriate Behaviour, lends the central face-off a new dynamic and depth. The tension this time around derives from our uncertainty as to whether Sara is Josef's enabler, massaging his ego while boosting her own brand by the act of getting such an oddbod on tape, or his Waterloo, using her feminine wiles to undermine her subject's murderous egotism. In any event, it's a rare sequel that uses the extra time to interrogate both its returning character - where he came from, what his aims are, why he feels so starved of attention - and, to some degree, the world that spawned the likes of him; the narrative creeps towards dual punchlines, the first of which should satisfy anybody who bridled before the gender politics of Darren Aronofsky's mother!, the second more unnerving yet. I don't think more than six actors in total can have shown up in these movies, but they've succeeded in suggesting a universe full of individuals whose self-image has warped entirely, leaving them running amok with cameras in a desperate bid to regain control and put themselves back on top. Netflix have both films filed away in the horror-thriller category; in our Kardashian age, there's a case they may also legitimately qualify as documentary.

Creep 2 is now streaming on Netflix. 

Thursday 28 December 2017

The force: "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

Some mornings I think the problem is that we have too much escapism. Harder to push back against our present-day dystopias, to mobilise and organise, when there's a shiny new fantasy tempting us into the multiplex every second weekend; to those still clinging to the power of social realism or documentary to open eyes and win hearts and minds, I would say look at the listings for your local independent or arthouse cinema over the festive period, and ask yourself what the free market has ever done for you. Instead of revolutionary texts, great art, films to change the world for the better, we've ended up sitting credulous and uncritical before a run of movies that have continually paid lip service to our current struggles (alighting upon superheroes of both sexes, seeking out warriors of colour) while facilitating no lasting or meaningful real-world difference save to transfer a further ten-to-fifteen pounds or dollars from our pockets into the coffers of one corporate empire or another. Some of these diversions have passed the time entertainingly enough; many more have seemed like unfocused sound and fury, designed to keep us in a wide-eyed, infantilised state, so that we fall for their every trick - and keep returning to the same teat.

Of the 136 minutes of 2015's The Force Awakens, second (or third) coming of the Star Wars series, only three story beats - amounting to ten minutes of screen time tops - have persisted in the memory. Firstly, there was the touching reunion of old warriors Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher); then, the unexpected death of one such oldtimer at the hands of Adam from Girls; then, the climactic meeting between young Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a late-arriving master of the Jedi form. The remainder of its two hours were filled with a variant of that playground runaround best left behind at the school gates, and while some of those doing the running (Ridley, John Boyega's Finn) displayed a vigour and newness that allowed them to distinguish themselves from all this frenetic make-believe, several more (most prominently, the usually sly and skilful Oscar Isaac) simply got lost behind the bike sheds. The Last Jedi runs to 150 minutes, which would be cause for renewed concern were it not quickly clear that incoming writer-director Rian Johnson is less of a slavish fanboy than his predecessor JJ Abrams - hence the deviations from canon, and the time wasted by furious virgins in the Internet's muskier corners - and, in fact, a far better storyteller. For two thirds of the new film's duration, scenes click together to form material that seems to be heading somewhere halfway interesting - a bonfire of this franchise's vanities.

Episode VIII, such as it is, is a complicated shot at simplification, setting out by telling two stories, one macro (the usual business of duelling spaceships in the sky), the other (Rey's personal journey to learn and use the Force) appreciably micro. The complications follow from the way Johnson himself uses the Force, to set up what appear to be interplanetary crossed lines: so Mark Hamill's Luke, grounded in exile on some rocky outcrop, can temporarily be reunited with Fisher's Leia, commanding one of those ships in space; and Rey can cut in on Adam Driver's Kylo Ren as he's pottering round the house with no top on. These connections, both unexpected and unexpectedly charged, register more forcefully than the explosions; throughout, Johnson has more skin in the scenes between the setpieces than Abrams ever did. One consequence is that the actors suddenly appear to have been directed, rather than moved into position like action figures. Isaac's Poe Dameron reemerges from the back of the toybox as a forceful, impulsive personality, straining at the leash; Hamill finds hidden depths within the cardboard cutout role of Luke Skywalker, a feat that becomes doubly impressive upon learning the actor is basically playing an idea; and Driver begins to do something oddly fascinating within the framework of series bogeyman, allowing vivid flickers of doubt and ambiguity to ripple across the widescreen frame. (Johnson here reveals himself as a far savvier imagemaker than George Lucas: when your bad guy has a face as compelling as Driver's, you don't stick it under a helmet.)

It's still recognisably a Star Wars movie, a statement I intend to wield as a double-edged sword (or lightsaber). For something with Saturday-morning serials in its DNA, The Last Jedi is way too long, with transitional patches you forget about even as you're sitting through them. (Hence the number of times you find yourself wondering "why's he going there?" or "where's she gone?") The dialogue remains Kryptonite to anything that might be taken entirely seriously by grown men and women: its pre-eminent casualty is the generally capable Domhnall Gleeson, stuck once again in the role of interstellar Gordon Brittas, an awkwardly uptight functionary most often found wrinkling his nose in impotent disgust whenever the Resistance sneak beneath the Empire's defences. And for all its new manifestations, the Force continues to resemble American cinema's waftiest get-out-of-jail-free card, as great an enemy to real jeopardy as the X-Men or Avengers' collected, base-covering superpowers. (Another reason for keeping us infantilised: to lull us into believing there's something - anything - at stake in these films beyond the successful delivery of stock bonuses.) Still, accept the limitations of Star Wars as an eternally two-sided coin - bland goodness on one side, 12A-rated evil on the other - and there are scenes in The Last Jedi that do stand up as drama, where you can't quite tell which way that coin is going to fall, or become aware of the element of chance or why-notness in Johnson's plotting.

Gambling is established as an organising principle the moment Finn diverts to an alien Monte Carlo to recruit a famed safecracker (Justin Theroux, left hanging in this instalment as a face at a casino table, Lily Cole on his arm: nice work, if you can get it). Big narrative punts here include Rey's decision to strike out alone in the hope of turning Kylo Ren away from the dark side; supporting imagery includes a jettisoned lightsaber that revolves on the floor mid-duel, like a roulette wheel, and a set of bronzed dice one character gifts to another. Johnson's most self-referential gambit, however, is Luke's second-act decision to torch a repository of old Jedi texts, the insinuation being that their essence can be crystallised and passed on to a new generation. I don't believe that knowledge is anything like as complex as fanboys insist, but in as much as anything associated with a Star Wars movie opening on a gazillion screens worldwide might be considered a risk, this mid-cycle attempt to rewrite and streamline the canon is it: it explains why those mewling shut-ins, who just want to experience the same reassuring emotions their seven-year-old selves had, have spent the holidays getting their Chewbacca underpants in such a knot. Despite this high-profile online griping, another example of social media amplifying entirely the wrong voices, The Last Jedi is - at time of writing - well on its way to surpassing one billion dollars at the international box-office, a landmark that suggests that, for all its travails over the past twelve months, the Hollywood idea of capitalism seems to be doing fine as we check in with it at year's end. The question we should ask ourselves - and make time to ask ourselves - is this: how are those of us in the cheap seats doing?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Wednesday 27 December 2017

From the archive: "Creep"

Creep, a superior, darkly comic late offshoot of the found-footage cycle, adds one distinctly 21st century element to the mix: Craigslist. The man holding the camera this time is Aaron (writer-director Patrick Brice), a videographer hired via that website to drive out to a small town and record the thoughts of the happily married Josef for an as yet unborn child in the event of his having a cancer relapse. This is, plainly, A Nice Thing to Do, yet we sense that something's a bit off when Josef starts raving about 1993's Michael Keaton tearjerker My Life as "a beautiful film"; also from the fact he's played by Mark Duplass as a habitually oversharing hugger, unduly keen to don a latex wolf's mask and lead the disconcerted Aaron out into the woods. He is, in short, the kind of character I'm told one might well meet on Craigslist in this day and age: possessed of the rough edges that can make somebody interesting to hang with but - in the worst case scenario - liable to poke your eyes out.

That aligns Creep not so much with the Blair Witch school, collating footage of easily harassed adults as it did, rather with those mumblecore experiments - in which Duplass has previously played such a part - geared towards scratching out a character or characters on the spot. What's crucial here isn't the relationship between the observed and some external force, but that between observer and observed, which builds from nervy circling to bro-ish camaraderie to something edgier as Josef inevitably crosses a line of intimacy; the genuinely surprising final act features the most effective what's-in-the-box moment since Se7en. I suspect this is how The Cable Guy and Chuck & Buck might have looked if they had emerged any later than 2000: what's being recorded, in the main, isn't aggression, rather the typical passive-aggression of men who'd rather talk to their equipment than deal with matters face-to-face. That's enough to make Brice's film a genuine novelty at this stage in the cycle: the bulk of Creep's footage isn't evidence of an atrocity - though, rest assured, there will be blood - but of a deeply awkward, entirely avoidable social situation.

(September 2016)

Creep is available on DVD through Kaleidoscope, and to stream on Netflix.

Friday 22 December 2017

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A) ***

2 (1) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
3 (2) Daddy's Home 2 (12A)
4 (3) Wonder (PG)
5 (4Justice League (12A)
6 (5) Murder on the Orient Express (12A)
7 (6) The Disaster Artist (15) ***
8 (8) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
9 (11) The Star (U) **
10 (7Thor: Ragnarok (12A) ***


My top five: 
1. A Matter of Life and Death

2. The Muppet Christmas Carol
3. Mountains May Depart
4. Mountain
5. The Big Heat

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Game of Thrones: Season 7 (15)
2 (new) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **
3 (3) Micky Flanagan: An' Another Fing Live (15)
4 (6) Olaf's Frozen Adventure (U)
5 (2) Despicable Me 3 (U)
6 (1) War for the Planet of the Apes (12) ***
7 (5) The Emoji Movie (U)
8 (4) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12) **
9 (8) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
10 (9Paddington (PG) ****


My top five: 
1. Logan Lucky

2. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
3. Patti Cake$
4. The Limehouse Golem
5. American Made

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Gone with the Wind (Christmas Eve, five, 9.20am)
2. Babe [above] (Thursday, ITV1, 9.25am)
3. Back to the Future (Boxing Day, C4, 6pm)
4. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Boxing Day, ITV1, 3.30pm)
5. Singin' in the Rain (Christmas Day, five, 1.05pm)

Peak cinema: "Mountain"

The Australian documentarist Jennifer Peedom is shaping up to be a little like Leni Riefenstahl before she got into all that tricky Nazism business. Peedom first made an impression on UK screens back in December 2015 with her film Sherpa, a gripping account of the tensions mounting between climbers and guides on the slopes of Everest; she has returned this Christmas with a film that all but does away with human focal points, reducing those people who pass before its gaze to tiny specks moving up and down vast hillsides. Mountain aims to compose a stirring hymn to the world's great peaks, "wild and ungovernable", as our suitably craggy narrator Willem Dafoe phrases it, yet captured here in close-ups, angles and light a starlet would die for. That Peedom is going for something more impressionistic than the usual David Attenborough/NatGeo treatment is evident as early as an overture that keeps its cameras indoors to witness the Australian Chamber Orchestra, source of the film's music, warming up; if any BBC influence can be felt here, it comes from those poetic flights of fancy (From the Sea to the Land Beyond, Atomic) which sought to traverse a given theme or subject with music and reels of archive footage in their backpacks.

The thesis is that mountain-climbing is a relatively recent pursuit, and one we're still collectively figuring out: if the peaks have been there for aeons, it's only during the past few centuries - during the formation of our towns and cities - that mankind has been minded to wonder what, if anything, lay beyond the foothills and above the cloudline, and whether it, too, may be reclaimed, tamed, civilised or commodified. The archive thus roams from genteel Pathe-era newsreel, following those adventurous souls who first went in search of the sublime, to the kind of yowser GoPro footage now routinely uploaded to YouTube; Peedom's field of inquiry extends beyond the mountains themselves to how they've come to be documented over the years. One minute, we're setting out among those formally suited ambassadors of Empire responsible for bringing back the images that went to make up the likes of 1924's recently rediscovered The Epic of Everest; the next, we're tearing after Red Bull-swigging latter-day Mallorys, clad in Lowe Alpine, who throw themselves off cliffs clutching onto youthful memories of Warren Miller snowboarding videos.

Peedom's film has been far better produced and packaged than any of the latter: with the possible exception of Werner Herzog, no director currently working has thought longer or harder about how to capture the majesty of mountains. Yes, there are familiar elements in the mix: helicopter flyovers of iridescent, unspoilt snow, some Koyaanisqatsi-like timelapse photography. Yet Peedom gets breathtaking effects from redirecting those self-same helicopters to fly in low and flat, like a plane approaching a runway, so as to emphasise the unbelievable scale of her subjects, and point up the distance separating summit from terra firma. This restless close-up/faraway variation brings us face-to-face with gorgeous textures (cooling lava, snow and ice sheets shearing off), but equally allows Peedom to yank the ground away from beneath our feet, pulling back to show some eager-beaver daredevil straining to climb a sheer rockface with no visible ropes or safety net (no!, your inner health-and-safety inspector screams, stop it!), and then pulling back once again to highlight how isolated and vulnerable these explorers are, how close they are to wiping out.

Danger lurks in sequence after sequence: spellbinding footage of a tightrope walk between rocky outcrops, an event apparently witnessed by Peedom's crew and no-one else, more hectic inserts of BMXers and basejumpers leaping into the void with an enthusiasm wussy mortals like you and I would consider unthinkable. Peedom frames these activities within the context of a cautionary tale: that narration (penned by the director with the author Robert Macfarlane) comes to note the narcissism, hubris and idiocy that result in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, each year, and the commercialisation that now ensures that, at any given time, something like half the world's population seems to be scaling Everest. As Dafoe solemnly intones: "This isn't climbing; it's queuing." In most cases, however, the response to Peedom's imagery is one of awe - awe, coupled with vertigo-induced collywobbles, and a more generalised regret that a film as essentially inorganic as The Last Jedi should have chosen this week to monopolise the world's IMAX screens. Despite its slender 74-minute running time, this is, doubtless because it had to be, a properly big picture. Mountainous, even.

Mountain is now showing in selected cinemas, and streaming online. 

Thursday 21 December 2017

Tommy's war: "The Disaster Artist"

I haven't seen 2003's The Room - you have to pay me to watch bad movies, darling - so I'll have to take the word of my fellow travellers that it lurks among the worst films ever made, or is simply (as one colleague in particular framed it) "a narcissistic load of old toss". The Disaster Artist is the New American Comedy's attempt to spin a form of silk out of this cinematic sow's ear. Director-star James Franco, no stranger to narcissistic loads of old toss, casts himself as Tommy Wiseau, the curiously accented, deathly pallid, indeterminately aged auteur responsible for this abject folly, and fashions around the part an all-star revue that seeks to explain why a sub-bargain bin curio like this has come to hold such sway over sniggering metropolitan hipsters - perhaps, now, the only audience that can afford to knowingly watch bad movies - since it was adopted on the midnight-movie circuit at the turn of the last decade.

What the sharp screenwriting duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now) have pulled from actor Greg Sestero's on-set memoir is another of Franco's sporadic bromances. On one side of the screen, there is the special one (Franco-as-Wiseau), utterly unlike anybody else in his immediate vicinity (and quite possibly on the face of the planet), yet hamstrung by a lack of talent that is similarly beyond the pale; on the other, the normie (Sestero, as played by James' brother Dave) who has a measure of social skills and critical distance, but otherwise remains firmly, stubbornly unexceptional. Neustadter and Weber hone in on the leftfield ways this odd couple sustained each other, and sustained one another's dreams. Early on, during an impromptu acting lesson he gives Sestero in a crowded L.A. diner, Wiseau rather ironically barks "Don't be weird" - he means self-conscious, restrained or inward-looking; "normal", at a pinch - and then "just do it"; what follows holds to the line that there was something cherishable in the fact Wiseau followed his own advice. 

This double-act nudges The Disaster Artist away from becoming the glib exercise in sneering it might have been, and repositions it somewhere closer to the affectionate tribute of Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Sestero is plainly the only person who believes in Wiseau, other than Wiseau himself, which makes for an especially painful-seeming betrayal when the junior partner deigns to take a girlfriend (Alison Brie) and start pursuing more legitimate acting work - goals apparently beyond Wiseau's reach. The Room can hereby be interpreted as a last grab at the big brass ring after months of Tinseltown scrabbling and ritual humiliation, Wiseau's equivalent of the final heist in a crime movie: a shot in the dark, against overwhelming odds, that somehow both didn't pay off (Wiseau remains, in the final reckoning, a footnote or punchline) and did (he made a bad movie that's been seen by more people than many good ones).

Franco is smart enough to realise that while Wiseau was a lousy actor and not much of a director, he makes for a hell of a character: a grungy Florence Foster Jenkins, if you can believe such a thing. He nails this guy's burnt-out mien and futzing syntax, his tenuous grasp on film history and his own place within it; we frequently find ourselves chuckling at this Wiseau's sheer vagueness (introducing Sestero to the other passengers in his van: "That's Todd, friend of Todd, other friend of Todd..."). Yet The Disaster Artist is itself a little sketchy when it comes to describing who its protagonist is and what he actually achieved, instead preferring to play his antics and tantrums for broadly entertaining comedy. Absent is any real sense of where Tommy came from, how he got his money, whether or not his freakier-creepier behaviour could be interpreted as a sign of something more troubling, even - and more immediately significant - why he kept turning up late to the set of his own magnum opus: Franco approaches the part as if Wiseau were part-meme, part-mystery. 

Moreover, unlike current TV favourite Feud: Bette and Joan (a project from which neophytes can, I think, take away some idea of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a deeply felt narrative), The Disaster Artist offers no substantial sense of The Room as a film, save as a curious cash-in-hand gig for all concerned. Franco-as-director is more interested in the collective behind-the-scenes endeavour that salvaged a sort-of functioning movie from Wiseau's wilder gestures. "Even the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else," proclaims senior cast member Carolyn (Jacki Weaver) during a lunch break, which will come as news to anybody who's worked for Michael Bay or James Cameron. Here, you feel The Disaster Artist giving into the same kind of la-la-land narcissism that might be in The Room, offering yet another round of applause for the dreamers: it extends as far as the end credits, with their shot-by-shot comparison of Wiseau and Franco framings, just in case we'd missed how terribly clever and knowing these scenes were the first time around.

Those reenactments can't fail to satisfy the fanclub and expand the cult - as I write, news breaks that The Room is set to enter into wide theatrical distribution next month - and it's doubtless telling that the grand finale reconfigures The Room's premiere into a raucous rerun of every midnight screening since, with Seth Rogen among the wise-asses shouting back at the screen. Yet I'm not quite sure Franco's film makes the case as to why The Room matters, content as it is to let its creative prime mover float unchallenged across the frame. My feeling remains that life's too short to knowingly watch bad movies, and too damn expensive to pay to watch bad movies, although even as I write this, I am aware I have referred a dozen or more friends and loved ones to Netflix to goggle at the utterly perverse and scarcely fathomable spectacle that is Ray Cooney's Run for Your Wife. As Tommy Wiseau himself ventures, by way of an explanation for one of his more outré performance choices: "Human behaviour."

The Disaster Artist is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Tuesday 19 December 2017

From the archive: "Pitch Perfect"

One of the judges of a collegiate acapella competition is addressing an auditorium-ful of auditionees, and laying down some hard truths. “If you think you can sing and dance your way through any issue, or your confused sexuality, think again. That’s high school. This is real life.” Well, kind of. In fact, Pitch Perfect offers but a minor tweak to a pre-existing formula: this is Glee gone to college, set amongst the misfits and outcasts of a fictional university, and charting the effect tattooed, pierced DJ Beca (Anna Kendrick) has on the uptight Barden Belles, an all-female vocal troupe so out of time and tunes their idea of a showstopper is Ace of Base’s “The Sign”. (If that reference means nothing to you, you’re probably not the target audience.) The enduring gag in Jason Moore’s likably daffy comedy is that everyone within this nerdy, bitchy yet essentially good-hearted community truly believes they’re the coolest, sexiest thing ever to have set foot on a stage; this even when the Belles’ all-male rivals the Treblemakers break into a rendition of Toni Basil’s deathless “Mickey”, and get into a post-competition smackdown with a cardigan-clad choir of oldtimers featuring Har Mar Superstar and Turk from TV’s Scrubs.

From his time working on Broadway sensation Avenue Q, Moore clearly knows how to put on a show, and he has very nearly as much raucous fun with the musical numbers as 2007’s fondly remembered Blades of Glory did with its ice-skating routines. These performers are fitted with sock puppets and gastrointestinal issues and ushered forth into the spotlight, only to be skewered by the merciless, post-Cowell commentary team of John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (“That was like an elephant dart to the public’s face”). Superior performances allow us to care about this ensemble of cartoonish kooks and loons. There’s further proof, after Up in the Air, of Kendrick’s uncommonly good timing, and of the added comic value the Australian actress Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids, A Few Best Men) is capable of bringing to even the most unprepossessing of projects.

It’s true certain elements come as standard. Beca finds herself caught up in a half-hearted love triangle at the campus radio station involving her buff boss (Freddie Stroma) and a joshing, movie-obsessed colleague (Skylar Astin); in a nod to the John Hughes movies that serve as the film’s background noise, she’s also at the mercy of a hard-assed professor father (John Benjamin Hickey) who totes doesn’t understand her. Yet screenwriter Kay Cannon (30 Rock) is rightly less interested in these generic plot-props than in the bubblegum business of passing “Aguilerian” into circulation as a viable adjective, and making a case for the existence of Sisqo beyond “The Thong Song”. No-one’s singing anything out of the ordinary: this lot probably haven’t heard of Journey, and prefer Flo Rida to Scott Walker. Yet any film that seeks to mash up Azealia Banks’ “212” with Young MC’s “Bust a Move” – that has the attitude, but still wants to party – is all right with me.

(MovieMail, December 2012)

Pitch Perfect is available on DVD through Universal Pictures UK; a third film in the series, Pitch Perfect 3, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

Sunday 17 December 2017

For your consideration: my Critics' Circle votes 2017

Best Director
1. Pablo Larraín, Neruda
2. Katell Quillévéré, Heal the Living
3. James Gray, The Lost City of Z
4. Darren Aronofsky, mother!
5. SS Rajamouli, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

(Honourable mentions: William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth; Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman; Dee Rees, Mudbound; Juho Kuosmanen, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki; Jordan Peele, Get Out; Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women; Anna Biller, The Love Witch.)

Best Screenwriter
1. Guillermo Calderón, Neruda
2. Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows, The Death of Stalin
3. James Gray, The Lost City of Z
5. Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman

(Honourable mentions: Justine Triet, In Bed with Victoria; Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women; Sherry White, MaudieCéline Sciamma, My Life as a Courgette; Alice Birch, Lady Macbeth; Jordan Peele, Get Out.)

Best Actor
1. Luis Gnecco, Neruda
2. Jean-Pierre Léaud, The Death of Louis XIV
3. Gael Garcia Bernal, Neruda
4. Shabab Hosseini, The Salesman
5. Steve Carell, Battle of the Sexes

(Honourable mentions: Adam Sandler, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Makis Papadimitriou, Suntan; Ethan Hawke, Maudie; Joel Edgerton, It Comes at Night.)

Best Actress
1. Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project
2. Isabelle Huppert, Elle, Souvenir and Happy End
4. Judith Chemla, A Woman's Life
5. Zaira Wasim, Secret Superstar

(Honourable mentions: Virginie Efira, In Bed with Victoria; Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$; Jennifer Lawrence, mother!; Kim Min-hee, The Handmaiden; Sonia Braga, Aquarius; Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman.)

Best Supporting Actor
1. Steve Buscemi, The Death of Stalin
2. Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
3. Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
4. Jason Mitchell, Mudbound
5. Ian Hart, God's Own Country

(Honourable mentions: Aamir Khan, Secret Superstar; Henry B.J. Phiri, I Am Not a Witch.)

Best Supporting Actress
1. Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
2. Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip
3. Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
4. Bria Vinaite, The Florida Project
5. Meher Vij, Secret Superstar

(Honourable mentions: Michelle Williams, Certain Women; Bridget Everett, Patti Cake$; Laura Dern, Certain Women; Kristen Stewart, Certain Women.)

Best British/Irish Actress
1. Sally Hawkins, Maudie and Paddington 2
2. Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth
3. Ellie Kendrick, The Levelling
4. Emily Beecham, Daphne
5. Sienna Miller, The Lost City of Z

Best British/Irish Actor
1. Simon Russell Beale, The Death of Stalin
2. John Boyega, Detroit
3. Johnny Harris, Jawbone
4. Josh O'Connor, God's Own Country

(Honourable mentions: Timothy Spall, The Party; Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out.)

Young British/Irish Performer
1. Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth
2. Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats
3. Anya Taylor-Joy, Split
4. Jack Parry-Jones, Moon Dogs

(Honourable mentions: Will Tilston, Goodbye Christopher Robin; Raffey Cassidy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.)

Breakthrough British/Irish Filmmaker
1. Rungano Nyoni, writer-director, I Am Not a Witch
2. William Oldroyd, director, Lady Macbeth
3. Francis Lee, writer-director, God's Own Country
4. Thomas Napper, director, Jawbone
5. Hope Dickson Leach, writer-director, The Levelling

(Honourable mentions: Alice Birch, writer, Lady Macbeth; Peter Mackie Burns, director, Daphne; Shola Amoo, writer-director, A Moving Image.)

My Top 20 films of the year list will be published here on New Year's Day.