Friday 26 January 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 19-21, 2018:

1 (new) Coco (PG) ***

2 (1) Darkest Hour (PG) **
3 (new) The Post (12A) ***
4 (4) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (2) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
6 (3) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
7 (new) The Commuter (15)
8 (5) Insidious: The Last Key (15)
9 (6Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A) ***
10 (7) Pitch Perfect 3 (12A)


My top five: 
1. Padmaavat

2. A Woman's Life
3. The Cinema Travellers
4. Last Flag Flying
5. The Post

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) It: Chapter One (15) ***
2 (new) American Assassin (18) *
3 (1) Dunkirk (12) ***
4 (6) Paddington (PG) ****
5 (7) American Made (15) ***
6 (12) Sing (U) ***
7 (16) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **
8 (10) Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
9 (8) The Mummy (15)
10 (2) Beyond Skyline (15)


My top five: 
1. mother!

2. I Am Not a Witch
3. God's Own Country
4. Dina
5. Daphne

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Sunday, five, 1.15pm)
2. The Town (Monday, five, 12.05am)
3. How to Train Your Dragon (Sunday, C4, 4.55pm)
4. This is 40 (Friday, C4, 12.10am)
5. Side Effects [above] (Sunday, C4, 11pm)

"Padmaavat" (Guardian 26/01/18)

Padmaavat ****
Dir: Sanjay Leela Bhansali. With: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Aditi Rao Hydari. 164 mins. Cert: 12A

After the trial-by-fire this reimagining of a 16th century epic verse underwent in its native India – onset mob violence targeting director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, death threats against leading lady Deepika Padukone, the loss of an “i” in a court-ordered retitling – the surprise is that its vision should emerge as so complete, with big-picture images that would set a Kurosawa or Lean to salivating. What those unruly mobs imagined lay ahead – the besmirching of a sainted heroine – is nowhere to be seen. What is evident is a measure of knowing camp (guyliner! CG ostriches! a bathing scene to out-queer Spartacus!) and beauty enough for a thousand features.

Bhansali has pared back poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s narrative line – loved-up royals (played here by Padukone and Shahid Kapoor) find themselves under siege from a grabby Sultan (Ranveer Singh), determined to plunder continents and women alike – and overwritten it with around two billion Rupees of opulence. Yet as in Bajirao Mastani, this director’s gleaming Christmas bauble of 2015, it’s not just the extravagance that catches the eye, but the precision with which it’s applied. Every twirl of every sari and every arrow in every battle appears to have been guided by the hands of angels.

Such excess could have proved deadening, but dynamic deployment of old-school star power keeps almost all its scenes alive with internal tensions. Kapoor and Padukone make a most handsome couple, while Singh, pitching up somewhere between peak Alan Rickman and The Lion King’s Scar, offers a study in toxic masculinity that is close to irresistible. For all the hoo-ha, it’s a simpler film than Bajirao – contentedly paralleling its kingdoms of love and hate – and perhaps a little more trad in its sexual politics. Yet while it’s unfolding before us, it provides – whatever else the courts insist we call it – stirring, seductive spectacle. 

Padmaavat is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Small beer: "Downsizing"

Whatever happened to Alexander Payne? At the time of 1996's Citizen Ruth and 1999's Election, the writer-director appeared just about the sharpest blade operating on the fringes of Hollywood, a waspish classicist in the Billy Wilder tradition who'd made it his day job to skewer the more prominent hypocrisies and absurdities of American life. Thereafter, Payne secured access to starrier names and Oscar tickets (About Schmidt, Sideways), and a complacency set in that would sound the death knell for even the sternest of satirists: set the fierce, confrontational deployment of Laura Dern in Ruth and Reece Witherspoon in Election against how Payne uses, say, Clooney in The Descendants, and one concludes that he's succumbed to that same sadsackery he used to diagnose and lampoon in his lumpy male protagonists. (In fairness, this post-millennial decline has not been as pronounced as that of Cameron Crowe, the previous writer-director to position himself in the Wilder lineage - there's nothing quite as terrible as Elizabethtown on this CV - but more like watching a deflating balloon.)

Payne's sputtering new Toytown fantasy Downsizing has the kind of workable premise that an Andrew Niccol type might have carried forward into the new century: to help reduce their impact on the planet (and stretch their income a good deal further), everyday Americans - including Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig's Paul and Audrey Safranek - elect to have themselves surgically shrunk to the dimensions of Lego characters, thereafter to reside in the mini-McMansion splendour of Leisureland, a corporate-built and operated model village. For a while, all is fine; a nimble first act milks this set-up for all the jokes of scale Paramount Pictures money can buy. Patients are wheeled into the shrinking chamber on full-sized gurneys, and are wheeled out on tiny handcarts, having first been scooped up on spatulas like freshly baked cookies; trinkets and forget-me-nots that were relatively small over here (wedding bands, hospital crackers, flower heads) re-emerge as ginormous, room-filling over there; more subtly clever is the way conversations between big people and small people are miked and mixed to reflect their difference in stature.

The problems arise once Damon's Paul has come round from the procedure, and we begin to explore this brave new world not with wide eyes, but almost exclusively from the jaded perspective of a schlubby middle-aged white bro. The fleet-footed progression of the first act gives way to dead-end dates, an embarrassing trip sequence that starts with Damon hunched over the lavatory bowl and somehow succeeds in going downhill from there, and scenes in which Paul slowly falls under the spell of his Vietnamese cleaning lady (Treme's Hong Chau, working adorably hard to humanise a deeply queasy screenwriter's daydream). A sympathetic soul might view Payne and his usual writing cohort Jim Taylor as victims of the rapid changes American movies and society are presently undergoing. Had they turned in this script around the time of 1996's high-concept midlife crisis comedy Multiplicity, or even as late as 2004's Spanglish, a white liberal guilt handwringer that provided a change of pace for Payne's one-time associate Adam Sandler, few would have batted an eyelid - certainly not those middle-aged Caucasian executives experiencing variants of that shrinkage Payne and Taylor are describing here. In 2018, however, Downsizing emerges as a pallid relic of that old world, a last twitch of the collective white male muscle memory.

It's not a terrible idea that Paul Safranek should enter the supposedly utopian Leisureland with the same doubts and fears he might have had in the real world; it's just that, as realised here, those doubts and fears aren't anywhere near as funny or revealing as they needed to be to sustain a two-hour-plus movie. What follows are a run of cutesy sitcom stand-offs in which Damon appears bemused amid a swelling sea of kooks, clumsy dollops of editorial handwringing over the state white men have left the planet in, and a final-act escape by boat to some mini-Scandinavian idyll that owes an obvious debt to The Truman Show and Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty redo. Somewhere along the route of this (hawks, spits) "journey", the film stops making sense on even a basic, nuts-and-bolts level. Again, it's not an unclever revelation that this Little America should hide in its shadows a Little Mexico - from where it sources a steady stream of little little people to cook and clean and mow its tiny lawns - but it's never clear why its residents should turn to the Damon character (real world occupation: shift manager at a steak processing plant) as an osteopath and prosthesis technician.

Suddenly, the film's whole structure starts to seem wobbly, arbitrary. Abandoning the big world/little world contrast that pepped up those early scenes - Audrey, whose own existential crisis surely merited equal exploration, is never heard from again - Downsizing grows flabby around its middle, stuffed with "larger than life" (i.e. intensely irritating) characters set in place solely to nudge our hero along his redemption arc, before giving into exactly that New Agey, watching-the-sunset nonsense the younger, hungrier Payne would once have spotted in his dappier characters and mercilessly kebabbed, and then shrugging its way towards no sort of an ending whatsoever. You come away from the film with the impression that only one person connected with the project needed to downsize, and it wasn't Paul Safranek: this toothless non-event is what happens when a well-meaning but weak-willed filmmaker enters into a system that affords him all the money and stars in the world while insisting he keep up a steady stream of phoney smiles, surgery-poster homilies and limply happy endings in return. Go back to Indieland, Alexander? Please?

Downsizing is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Thursday 25 January 2018

From the archive: "Machete"

The trailer for Machete - once Robert Rodriguez's outlandish idea of a B-movie spoof, now a marginally less outlandish reality - got 2007's Planet Terror, the better half of the Tarantino-engineered Grindhouse double-bill, off to an appreciably lively start. The full feature lands among us as a vehicle for the craggy Danny Trejo - one of modern cinema's great faces - as a vengeful ex-Federale driven out of his native Mexico by the corrupt bosses and politicos who've chopped his beloved wife in half to boot. Relocating as an illegal across the border in Texas, he soon finds himself recruited as the fall guy in a staged assassination attempt designed to raise the profile of a good-ol'-boy senator spouting anti-immigration rhetoric (Robert DeNiro, in one of his more committed slums); fortunately, he has his trusted machete on hand to cut through his enemies' bullshit. And their skulls. And their throats.

We're dealing with knowing trash here, of course, and with that the attendant sense of intelligence being put to waste, fun being firmly corralled between quotation marks. Yet Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis turn themselves over wholeheartedly to the creation of gory spectacle. You know that bit in Die Hard where Bruce Willis abseils from one floor of the skyscraper to another with the aid of a firehose? Well, Machete goes one further by having Trejo pull off the same manoeuvre with the aid of one adversary's large intestine. The correct response to all this excess may be Shea Whigham's exasperated onscreen eyeroll upon seeing yet another of his goons being rent asunder by Machete's blade - but having that gesture within the film counts for something, and elsewhere, the belief grows that Rodriguez is attempting at least mildly clever and subversive activity within this limited framework.

Take the sequence where news of the failed assassination filters through in shots of Mexican immigrants cooking and cleaning and doing the jobs nobody north of the border wants to do, or the later scene in which one of the antagonists explains how a truly free market would necessitate open borders - the kind of point more usually aired on Newsnight, here pushed (or growled) by Jeff Fahey, while Tom Savini is busy nailing Cheech Marin to a cross. It is, then, a contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding America's relationship with its neighbours, albeit one couched in pulpy B-movie terms: punchy dialogue (encompassing everything from Trejo's taut "Machete don't text" to Fahey's encomium to an especially precise assault rifle: "You can shoot the pecker off a mosquito at a thousand yards, and keep the balls unruffled"), regular eruptions of vomit, violence and nudity, hell, even Steven Seagal - who presumably turned down The Expendables for this, thus proving himself cannier than first thought - making the move into pudgy villainy he should have made a decade ago.

The carapace of irony, bulletproof but burdensome, gets it only so far, and you may find yourself wearying of Machete going into its final act; one problem with these expensive, studio-derived B-pictures is their tendency to overcomplicate the simple pleasures of this form, principally by recruiting too many characters to run screaming across the screen. Rodriguez hardly reins in his propensity for novelty casting, either. In ethnic terms, there's a certain logic in casting Jessica Alba as the immigration agent who eventually comes round to our hero's side, but I don't think anybody's convinced she's spent too much time in the Academy; her rousing final-act speech ("We didn't cross the border - the border crossed us!") is laughable in all the wrong ways, and watching her make out with Trejo is perhaps only Danny Trejo's idea of a good time.

Throughout, the attitude towards women is problematic, bordering on the Latin. We get something of a twofer in the return of Lindsay Lohan as Fahey's daughter, an aspirant starlet most often observed semi-clad and out of her head on the floors of successive ne'er-do-wells. (And yes, I checked the end credits: any resemblance to any living persons really was entirely coincidental.) Still, you could hardly accuse the film of dwelling long or hard on its own scuzziness, and even the finale - a sort-of Planet Terror rerun, stocking an industrial park deep with hardware - offers the value-for-money sight of Lohan in a nun's habit going after DeNiro disguised as a migrant, and the prospect of a colossal swordfight between Trejo and Seagal. If it's still ultimately less fun than we might have expected going in, even Rodriguez-signed trash abounds with more energy and bright ideas - and a greater understanding (however cartoonish) of the wider world - than Tarantino has summoned forth in fully fifteen years now.

(November 2010)

Machete plays on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.10am.   

Road movies: "The Cinema Travellers"

In the week Padmaavat receives its delayed release, we might not have needed another reminder that India is cinema-mad, and sometimes driven mad by cinema. Still, new doc The Cinema Travellers ushers us into that madness at ground level by following the movements of those mobile operations touring remote villages with the aim of bringing the movies to the masses. We are, it's quickly clear, some distance from the cosmopolitan multiplexes of Mumbai. Prints arrive on vast, burdensome spools, often mere minutes before showtime; the restless crowds stampede upon admission; and delays and technical hitches leave some punters clamouring angrily for refunds. (One of the film's achievements: to leave us with a newfound appreciation for the basic order and functionality of our local fleapits.) With its close links to the sideshow circuit, this model of cinema may be closer to the grindhouse than it is to the arthouse: one of the operators doesn't hesitate to book and play softcore porn after a dip in profits. Nevertheless, at every stop along the route, people flock to sit, more often than not on bum-numbingly rocky floors, transfixed by the images beamed in so erratically from the wider world. Here lie the grassroots of escapism.

The good news is that the film, co-directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya, forms pretty sound observational cinema in itself. It helps that the filmmakers have before them a cast of salty vagabonds, busy using mud to shore up their projectors, applying their own cigarette burns to the prints, and cursing wherever events go awry, as they frequently do. Their film returns us to the romance of the carnival, and all those elements that once tempted young men and women to run away from their homes: the tents being raised, and the moon - and the boom of the barker's voice - rising up over those in turn. Yet it's also attuned to the elbow grease required to get and keep this show on the road. Abraham and Madheshiya appear suitably in awe of one of their subjects, greying engineer and part-time inventor Prakash, these operations' go-to for overnight equipment repair and philosophical wisdom: while showing the filmmakers around his small, cluttered workshop, he arrives at a casual parallel between the complex inner workings of the projector and those of the beating human heart, a comparison that comes to linger over the film entire.

Some day, as the elephants' graveyard of dusty, abandoned equipment on Prakash's shelves indicates, those hearts will very likely stop beating. "New films don't come on prints," laments one tour manager, when faced with a schedule of especially tatty, outmoded product; cutaways to satellite dishes being bolted to the roofs of houses along the carny's route underline how the alternatives to this most traditional form of exhibition are only growing in sophistication and number. And so from what opens as a film for the format fetishists among us - spotting that the scratchy and flickering images that these teams project are arguably closer to the statuary they see carved into a mountainside on a morning off than they are to the hi-def visions being shown off inside a television showroom - The Cinema Travellers comes to witness a transition of sorts; the travelling inscribed within the title proves as much figurative as it is literal.

That transition will be a haphazard one: ahead of the first digital projection, a ritual is performed that involves the burning of turmeric and the cracking open of a ceremonial coconut - and even after this conjuring of good fortune, everyone has to sit around waiting for a laptop to have its drivers updated. (As anyone who's turned up with child to see The Boss Baby only to witness the latest Paranormal Activity being projected in its place could testify, new tech can be just as glitchy as old tech.) And perhaps the film could have done with a little more editorial tightening or narrative clarification: the impression I took away was that one of its operations made the quantum leap to digital and the other didn't and died, but I couldn't be sure. Still, quietly, often poetically, the film allows for the possibility of positive change in the lives of its scrappily heroic subjects, even as it frames a wider snapshot of Indian modernisation, and the way cinema (as both business and artform) has to move forward if it is to survive. As Prakash acknowledges in the course of his closing appearance, sometimes in life the reel runs out, the picture fades to black, and a change of scene is required.

The Cinema Travellers screens at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London from tomorrow.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

What the papers said: "The Post"

Steven Spielberg always was a voracious scholar of history - it's why his back catalogue encompasses projects as diverse as 1941 and The Color Purple - but as he's entered his twilight years, this director has become especially fascinated by the particulars of American democracy. 2012's Lincoln followed a Republican leader as he sought to stitch a ruptured nation back together, and do the right thing by the least powerful of his constituents; 2015's Bridge of Spies, which may well endure as the stealth masterpiece of this late period, turned its attention to U.S. foreign policy, and the country's capacity to do right by the lowliest of other nations. The Post, detailing the efforts of the Washington Post to publish extracts from the leaked Pentagon Papers in 1971, is Spielberg making a timely show of support for the idea of a free press - a stance all but guaranteed to elicit favourable critical notices, even before the first loving montage of metallic type being set. It's almost too apt that the film should replay these events at a moment when the fourth estate again finds itself under threat from a darkly muttering President holed up inside the White House like Pacino at the end of Scarface, but then a lot about The Post is nothing if not on the nose.

The presence of talismanic editor Ben Bradlee and the immediately recognisable geography of the Washington Post newsroom marks Spielberg's film from the off as operating in the shadow of 1976's all-timer All the President's Men, and it doesn't help that the new movie opens up on such a microscopically small level. We first find Bradlee (played here by a gravel-voiced, combative Tom Hanks) scratching his head about the fact the Post's society reporter has been barred from Tricia Nixon's wedding; meanwhile, the paper's owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, dialling down the imperiousness) is being coached through the finer detail of the paper's imminent flotation on the New York Stock Exchange. What the screenwriters, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, are working towards is some sense of the inner workings and backroom policy shifts that dictate what a newspaper eventually runs on its front page, and they've found an ally in late Spielberg, with his sharpened eye for nuance and irony. It transpires the Post was originally scooped to this story by the New York Times, only for the Papers to be returned to Bradlee's lap once the White House had slapped a gagging order on his rivals - the first time such extreme measures had been put in place by an administration. Bradlee's team are not quite, then, the crusading journo archetypes of yore, rather accidental heroes who stepped up and seized a moment.

Spielberg, adhering to the Preston Sturges dictate that there is a kind of democracy inherent in large ensemble casts, has the players at his disposal to keep the politics and investigative legwork reasonably interesting. Hannah and Singer's most prominent throughline concerns Graham - who inherited ownership of the Post after her late husband Philip passed, and was apparently considered something of a makeweight by her peers - and how she came to find her voice in rooms overrun by patrician males. Yet Spielberg, taking a cue (and a player) or two from quality television, knows he has at least one nifty B-plot to cut away to involving senior reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), sent to track down the elusive whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). Slimmer pickings elsewhere: it's become something of a standing joke that Spielberg can think of absolutely nothing for his heroes' wives to do, and you may see it as either an upgrade or an even greater waste that it should be Sarah Paulson who, as Bradlee's missus, gets to hand the leading man his jacket and make turkey sandwiches for the rest of the Post's payroll. (It may be a prerequisite of films in which Meryl Streep Saves The World that no other woman is permitted a look in: The Post's end credits inform me that small-screen heroines Alison Brie and Carrie Coon were in there somewhere, but neither is assigned a single memorable moment.)

With regard to other limitations, The Post emerges as the plainest-looking Spielberg film in some while. The director's regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski made tremendous play with the light-and-dark shadings of Bridge of Spies, but here looks to have suffered from the reportedly accelerated shooting schedule. There's one striking sequence that finds Bradlee and his reporters gathering in the editor's front parlour to parse the Papers' several hundred pages: the very Spielbergian radiance streaming through the front windows is a neat visual translation of the old adage about sunlight being the best disinfectant. Otherwise, we're left looking at functional set-ups elevated by the quality of their dramatic personnel. Granted, it is still a rarity to encounter a 21st century studio release that addresses its audience as intelligent adults, and Spielberg throughout retains his peerless sense for the big scene, the big moment. All the leads connect up in an extended sequence, midway through the picture, in which Graham, pulled out of a party to take a conference call with her backers and her employees, has to weigh up whether or not to defy Nixon and run the story; never mind that we know the outcome, the combined weight of Spielberg and Streep's choices succeed in making these few minutes of hesitation seem somehow epochal.

Trouble is, we then immediately have to sit through a speech in which Paulson underlines what a brave stance this was for a woman to take - Spielberg restrains himself from flashing the word "FEMINISM" up on screen, Wayne's World-style, but it must have been close - and then a truly awful bit of staging that has Graham walking triumphantly down a section of courtroom steps apparently reserved for gasping female admirers. Spielberg is so determined to drum his (not unworthy) points home that he keeps lapsing into overstatement, in a way All the President's Men, convinced its audience was keeping up, never did: his film ends with a very silly coda involving the Watergate complex that will almost certainly leave one or two dimbulbs wondering whether we're in for The Post II: Post Harder. It is absolutely a film for our noisy, fractious moment, and its finest scenes are up there with the best of this director's recent output, but a light touch is not one of The Post's strengths: where Bridge of Spies had the Coens and Rylance and a certain irreverence that might also be worth defending in some way, The Post is Tom and Meryl repeatedly telling their core audience everything they might want to hear for two hours. If you happen to fall into that demographic, it might be considered ticket money well spent, but it also positions the film far closer to a dazzlingly appointed group hug than it is to great cinema.

The Post is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

Saturday 20 January 2018

From the archive: "Sicario"

The state of permanent anxiety America finds itself in with regard to its borders means we’re probably due a bulletin like Sicario every few years. Orson Welles got here first, setting the explosive opening of Touch of Evil on the U.S.-Mexico meridian, but Sicario’s real precedent would be 2000’s Traffic, from which it retains the services of Benicio del Toro as one who walks both sides of the line. That film was elevated by Steven Soderbergh’s abiding fascination with shape, colour and form, and how pieces of a narrative puzzle can break away and tessellate like landmasses. The new film, written by rookie Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is more straightforward, apparently driven by no more than a desire to do something hard-hitting at the dead centre of the multiplex: the bombs are louder, the collateral damage more explicit, the prevailing tactic shock-and-awe.

You grasp as much from the opening, in which a kidnap-response team led by FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) storm a suspect’s home in the Arizona wilds and, after dodging an initial fusillade, uncover the decomposing corpses of a dozen torture victims being used as cavity wall insulation. Everybody’s just finished vomiting when Macer’s colleagues trigger an explosion, literally disarming the forces of law and order – in that we see one officer scrabbling among the rubble in search of his severed hands. Such horror is potent, and in this instance, it serves a narrative purpose: when shady, CIA-affiliated headhunter Josh Brolin subsequently offers Macer the opportunity to join his taskforce in order to pursue the cartels responsible for the carnage over the border, it’s no surprise she should say yes. 

Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) can flag a grim, nervy mood: whether Kate’s surrounded by guys in a hurly-burly briefing room or sitting in convoy peering at mutilated bodies suspended from bridges – Sicario’s idea of a “Welcome to Mexico” banner – we’re always wondering just what our heroine has got herself into. Equally, though, you can feel him laying it on a bit thick. Soderbergh brought a typically cool, analytical approach to the War on Drugs, examining every level from the ground up. Sicario, by contrast, is the sound of arrivistes making a galumphing statement with the high-end resources now available to them; it takes its lead from Brolin’s pre-raid war cry “We want a lot of noise – think Fourth of July on steroids.” 

It yields a number of terse set-pieces, punched up by Johann Johansson’s pounding score: a checkpoint stand-off with gangbangers that leaves bodies in the road for their fellow Mexicans to see; a cantina pick-up that goes near-fatally awry; a night-vision sequence that strives to replicate the tense denouement of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark ThirtyYet there’s a nagging sense that set-pieces are all Sicario has to offer; that it’s revelling in, rather than really saying anything about America’s failures in this decidedly immediate field of foreign relations. Sheridan’s insights come in dispatches (a muttered “this won’t even make the papers in El Paso” as the convoy pulls away from that blood-spattered checkpoint), while Villeneuve’s framing suffers a honkingly literal mise-en-abime when the camera looks away during a brutal interrogation so as to refocus on a nearby grate: everything’s going down the drain, duh.

Blunt gives another smart and watchful performance – the film needs her to offset the swaggering machismo – but the script takes a serious wrong turn around the halfway mark, when Kate’s capability suddenly becomes less important than her fuckability; the committed pro of the first hour is redefined as first a woman, then a liability, then really no more than a sideshow. You could argue a point’s being made about the place intuition has on this ultra-macho turf, but it is, like much of Sicario, so brusquely achieved as to feel insulting. The whole is just obvious enough to rustle up some business, and doubtless secure Villeneuve’s place on the Hollywood career ladder. But it lands its one truly substantial shot early on, with an expressive succession of helicopter shots that show the border stretching across the screen, a vast, untamed frontier that suggests how the Wild West of yore has migrated south. It will be drowned out by the loud crashes and bangs, but here at least Sicario ventures an urgent, pertinent question: how do you even begin to police that?

(MovieMail, September 2015)

Sicario screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Friday 19 January 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 12-14, 2018:

1 (new) Darkest Hour (PG) **

2 (1) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
3 (new) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
4 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (new) Insidious: The Last Key (15)
6 (2Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A) ***
7 (5) Pitch Perfect 3 (12A)
8 (6) All the Money in the World (15) **
9 (4) Molly's Game (15) ***
10 (7Paddington 2 (PG) ****


My top five: 
1. Padmaavat

2. A Woman's Life
3. Persona
4. The Post
5. The Final Year

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) Dunkirk (12) ***
2 (new) Beyond Skyline (15)
3 (10) Davina - Toned in 10 (U)
4 (new) Detroit (15) ***
5 (new) The Man with the Iron Heart (15)
6 (4) Paddington (PG) ****
7 (2) American Made (15) ***
8 (7) The Mummy (15)
9 (8) La La Land (12) ***
10 (13) Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****


My top five: 
1. I Am Not a Witch

2. Dina
3. Daphne
4. A Ghost Story
5. It: Chapter One

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Aladdin [above] (Sunday, C4, 4.50pm)
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Sunday, five, 6pm)
3. Sicario (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. Papadopoulos and Sons (Saturday, BBC1, 12.30am)
5. Machete (Friday, C4, 12.10am)

Thursday 18 January 2018

On DVD: "Daphne"

Over the past year or so, we've witnessed a handful of films - Sean Spencer's Panic and Thomas Napper's Jawbone foremost among them - which seem to have worked out how to shoot the city of London as a living, breathing entity, both home to millions and a cool, cruel mistress. Daphne, written by Nico Mesinga and directed by Peter Mackie Burns, unfolds in a capital that is almost tangibly recognisable, shying away from the usual tourist landmarks to instead place us within easy reach of 24-hour fried chicken and unexpected knife crime, and within touching distance of happiness (or at least stability) and despair. You can smell the smell of certain street corners, if that doesn't immediately send you running for the hills. In this context, our eponymous heroine (Emily Beecham) comes to seem like part of the scenery, all too visibly muddling through: she has a demanding job as an underling in a moderately successful bistro, but squanders her leisure time on drink, drugs and casual sex, none of which serves to dispel her evident anxiety about her place in the bigger picture. 

For a while, Burns is content that we should shamble alongside her. We have time to spot how the front door of Daphne's flat looks to have been installed back-to-front (no wonder she doesn't know whether she's coming or going), and that she's just as likely to spend her evenings online talking to photos of Ryan Gosling as wake up with another no-good man in her bed. (And you think: yeah, I know somebody like this.) Her latent insecurity heightens anew one night after she witnesses a violent robbery at a minimart, and leaves the scene just as the victim is carried into the back of an ambulance: taking away no clear sense of whether this man has survived the attack or perished, he becomes for her a kind of Schrödinger's shop assistant, the most vivid of the half-lives she trails in her wake, trying not to think too hard or too carefully about. As Daphne confesses to a counsellor late on, in what amounts to a dazzling moment of self-actualisation: "I'm a master of the old duck-and-dive... I'm very adept at ignoring the important questions."

Without once invoking the very contemporary spectre of Tinder, the film is strong on those tentative and tenuous convergences - you can't really call them relationships - that people strike up in cities: with those behind the counter of your local shop, say, or the strangers on the bus, or just someone you keep bumping into on the street. These would be enough to fill the singleton's days with something, but they're palpably not enough; forever running away whenever things start to get serious, Daphne's problem would appear to be a lack of substantial connection, which is not the same as cock by the yard. I suspect some viewers may grow frustrated by the lack of overt narrative progression, but then its Žižek-reading heroine, suspicious of all narratives (including her own), surely wouldn't allow it. At the very least, that circular shambling is true to Daphne's own aimlessness, and Mesinga and Burns do much to imbue every sidebar and each apparent dead end with a certain suspense as to how it might turn out, and - moreover - whether their protagonist will ever pull it together.

What this downtime also accentuates is the director's close and attentive work with actors. Burns sets up revealingly tetchy tête-à-têtes between Daphne and her waspish mother (the ever-excellent Geraldine James); everything you need to know about their relationship can be gleaned from mum's joke about having a spare key cut for Daphne's flat in case her daughter ever kills herself. Then there is Beecham, a credibly nervy redhead whose translucent skin only accentuates those issues lurking close to the character's surface: funny and likable when relaxed, her Daphne is lacerating whenever she's close to the edge (which is more often than not), the actress inviting a sympathy the character would shove right back in our faces, too bullheaded to admit any need for help, or that she might be charting the wrong course. Burns knows he has something special with this performance, whether viewed in tight close-ups that succeed momentarily in pinning Daphne to the spot, or craning up above her as she staggers across a road or torches another bridge, forever searching for either direction or herself. It doesn't always make for a pretty picture, but the British film industry has enough of those right now, and - besides - it's rare to see a homegrown feature with the intelligence to invite us to play psychoanalyst: to scrutinise this woman, and the landscape she walks out of, and to form our own judgement accordingly.

Daphne is available on DVD through Altitude from Monday.  

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Buttons and bones: "Coco"

It is getting as hard for animations to find room of their own as it is to find space in our cemeteries. Possibly it's for the best that Pixar have elected to release Coco while Guillermo del Toro is busy touring The Shape of Water on the awards circuit, since the company's latest bears an actionable resemblance to The Book of Life, the Fox-backed digimation del Toro produced for Jorge Gutierrez as recently as 2014. Here is the studio's own take on Mexico's Dia de Muertos legend - overlapping with its predecessor much as A Bug's Life once overlapped with DreamWorks' Antz - and a film that might once have raised the question of cultural appropriation, before Disney began its weekly in-house sensitivity seminars. Everything from Coco's choice of voice artists and behind-the-scenes personnel to the subtly roseate quality of light as the sun sets upon its onscreen barrios has clearly been thought long and hard about, replayed and revised; if what we're watching looks in so many ways familiar, we cannot deny the sensation we've been placed for the duration in the safest of safe hands.

We might even argue that Coco constitutes the company's first coming-out drama. Our hero Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a pre-teen born into a family of cobblers and expected to take up the bradawl himself, yet he has music in his DNA - a legacy attributed to his great-great-grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a troubadour and sometime matinee idol whose name remains unspoken in Miguel's household, a consequence of his having jilted the kid's great-great-grandmother, the still-extant Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), while she was with child. Soon, Miguel finds himself even more of an outcast. While attempting to liberate Ernesto's trademark pearl guitar from a crypt during the Night of the Dead, he passes over into the underworld, and has until daybreak to resolve his tangled heritage and get back home. This graveyard shift will involve the assistance of bony chancer Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a stray dog called Dante (geddit?), who can sniff out ghosts but curiously has no appetite for these skeletons' bones; it's as though Tim Burton's ghoulish stopmotions had been remodelled as bright, shiny 21st century product.

Even without these illustrious reference points, it would be Coco's curse - and the curse of all recent Pixar films - to be set against Inside Out, the company's great comeback-masterstroke of 2015, and an animation so intrinsically original it left one only thinking of itself. Here, the directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina adhere to the same kind of quest narrative that has powered 90% of recent kids' animations, hotfooting from one admittedly lively, detailed location to the next: a bridge covered in iridescent petals that connects the Land of the Dead to the wider world, a workshop for skeletal bohemians, presided over by a Frida Kahlo-styled performance artist, another animated talent show, during which Miguel finds his voice. The film's own artistry is never in doubt. With her fine wrinkles and slumped posture, Mama Coco makes a super-annuated sister to Up's Carl Fredricksen; Miguel's own skin grows more translucent the further he ventures into the underworld, mirroring the photo Marty McFly clutches in Back to the Future; while the screen around him swirls with so-called spirit animals, vivid hybrids with glowing flecks in their fur.

Yet for at least two-thirds of Coco's running time, the plotting underpinning these flourishes feels merely functional, rather than especially inspired: Miguel is here, then there, and then has to follow the right instructions to get back here in one piece. There is, granted, something appreciably meta in the way Unkrich and Molina eventually write appropriation into their own narrative: a song first written as a sincere forget-me-not but seized upon as a gaudy showstopper has to be reclaimed for good in a finale guaranteed to wrench a tear or two from the sentient viewer. If Coco isn't likely to hold up as primo Pixar - that it's a dead-cert for this year's animation Oscar can surely be attributed to a lack of obvious competition in the field over the past twelve months - it does stand as an example of a company reaching into other cultures for more resonant reasons than expanding its audience share, and these final reels have a certain tried-and-tested quality about them that older viewers will likely find reassuring. As the characters in Inside Out would understand, sometimes a film pushes the right buttons in the correct order, and an emotion of sorts is produced. 

Coco opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday. 

Monday 15 January 2018

The end of the affair: "The Final Year"

To watch The Final Year, Greg Barker's fly-on-the-wall documentary account of the last twelve months of the Obama administration, is to wrestle with at least two issues. Firstly, it's simply impossible not to watch the film through the prism of What Came Next; secondly, you do begin to question the extent to which access - and Barker places us in the very heart of the West Wing, revealed here as a surprisingly poky, cockroach-blighted bunker - has been traded for an easier ride. With legacy in the forefront of everybody's mind, was it really such a good idea to let the cameras in? Or, conversely, was it an inspired one? This was, after all, the most media-savvy administration since the days of JFK, one that traded on fond memories of Aaron Sorkin's progressively minded The West Wing just as surely as the Kennedys once did the legend of Camelot, and embraced the Internet (and, specifically, social media) to spread its message in a way, say, the fuddy-duddy Dubya administration never got to grips with.

In an early sequence, President Obama can be seen telling a conference of young would-be business leaders that the one thing people are attracted to, above all else, is a story. Barker's film is itself a story of sorts, one that identifies its key characters - Secretary of State John Kerry, UN ambassador Samantha Power, speechwriter Ben Rhodes - in its opening moments, and its fraught timeline in its title. So what's this story telling us? Firstly, and as Kerry acknowledges when he notes "the clock is ticking", The Final Year is about how time (and how one manages it) may just be the most crucial element in politics: the Pres can be heard pointing out that, if the US had entered the conflict in Syria, as had seemed likely at one point during these twelve months, there would have been fewer opportunities to obtain the agreements this administration achieved in Paris, Iran and Cuba. (Brexiteers, take note.)

The year Barker documented began on a high, with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, before the President set out on what was effectively a farewell tour - stopping off in Vietnam, Hiroshima and Laos, attempting to heal the wounds left by his predecessors in office - while Kerry set off for Iceland, where he received a schooling in climate change not dissimilar to those seen in Al Gore's Inconvenient movies. New challenges present - Syria for one, Boko Haram for another - but increasingly, perhaps inevitably, the hugest shadow is cast by the campaigning Donald J. Trump, heightening and coarsening the political rhetoric on social media, where he who shouts loudest oft wins the day. Nobody could guess what was coming, save perhaps the disaffected white folks of the American heartlands, growing wary if not weary of this team's internationalism, fancy words and good intentions.

Of all the elements in The Final Year guaranteed to foster audience nostalgia for a moment only recently passed, foremost will be the Obama team's unwavering and unwaveringly sincere belief in the power of diplomacy - a belief borne out on screen by the success of the Iran deal. (Two sides, habitually at loggerheads, sit down around a table and agree some common ground: the past really can seem like another country.) Beyond the day-to-day reality it describes, Barker's film often plays like an extended treatise on the matter of words, and how words matter: it captures in passing a philosophical discussion between two staffers, worthy in its own way of a Sorkin (or Voltaire), over whether post-crash, pre-Trump America is going through a bad moment or - long view - the best time ever to be alive. Even in its more routine stretches, we find the policy wonks striving wherever possible to open up or extend a dialogue rather than, say, barking taunts or bending others to their will.

What the film is not, pointedly, is warts-and-all vérité, in the yellowing, Primary-era sense of the term. Clearly, there were levels of governance beyond Barker's clearance: yes, the filmmaker was allowed to go on recon, attend photo ops, and occasionally catch revealing moments of human interest - Old Man Kerry forgetting his phone, The Prez sliding into shots like The Fonz, dispensing sage, considered advice to all and sundry - but the film is at least a little sketchy on what's actually going on back in Washington while its key players are enjoying their last hurrahs. Crises - like Rhodes' frank interview with New York magazine - are hustled past, as politicos perhaps have to in order to remain sane (and employed), but only once, with the discussion of an alleged Russian air strike on a Syrian aid convoy, does The Final Year appear to gather material you feel its subjects wouldn't want on the public record.

If this containment strategy proves more limiting than illuminating overall, the film does, nevertheless, have the benefit of a profoundly dramatic closing section, as the night of November 8, 2016 brings about the crushing of all those hopes, dreams and ideals this team brought into office. Rhodes, for once, is left speechless; Power holds her young daughter in her arms, left wondering what the future holds for them both. If politics is the way we react to events, here you feel romance being eclipsed by realpolitik: after ninety minutes of watching a legacy being shored up and polished, we finally emerge into a brave new world, with a whole new administration that has spent its first year in office seeking to overturn what came before. The West Wing, famously, concluded on an upbeat note ("What are you thinking about?" "Tomorrow"), and those words may now be cast in an pessimistic light; but Rhodes, at least, provides a measure of cautious optimism: "Maybe there's a different happy ending." Even as they packed up and shipped out, this administration was clinging to an idea of hope.

The Final Year opens in selected cinemas from Friday.        

Sunday 14 January 2018

Forever man: "Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars"

"CLAPTON IS GOD" read the legend daubed on a wall in North London's Arvon Road some time in the late 1960s, by which point Eric Clapton had been elevated to the pantheon of rock greats. With Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, her new documentary account of the guitarist's various highs and lows, the filmmaker Lili Fini Zanuck spends two hours in search of Clapton the man: evasive and elusive, muddled and vulnerable, often wobbly in both his judgement and movements - but unmistakably a stone-cold master of his instrument. It is, then, a film of some noteworthy, epoch-defining music, but its success for non-diehards may depend largely on how interesting you find technical mastery, and whether or not you believe it can be used to mitigate against some fairly shoddy, ill-considered behaviour. Not for the first time in recent weeks and recent movies, we're invited to weigh the art against the artist.

It's certainly fitting that Zanuck should choose to open with footage of Clapton paying video tribute to BB King, and end with King, in one of his final live appearances before his death in 2015, repaying the compliment: she's realised that the Clapton story forms another chapter in the wider history of the sometimes harmonious yet often fraught relationship between rock's white and black strands. So the biography begins: with Clapton the fair-haired Home Counties lad, born out of wedlock and abandoned by his mother at birth, finding an early friend in the Saturday morning radio show hosted by an uncle, a transmission that introduced him to the likes of Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. Just as myriad white boys have connected over the years with the anger, cussing and horniness of certain black rappers, his blues was to merge with theirs. 

Other influences fill the screen, as young Eric first picks up a guitar - performers as varied as Bismillah Khan and Little Walter - and, in due course, we get the footage of the emergent rock god palling around with Hendrix and Aretha. If it starts to seem as if Zanuck's setting something up, that's because she is: she knows that any honest Clapton movie will eventually have to address the 1976 gig in Birmingham when her subject let fly with a racist tirade in support of the anti-immigration MP Enoch Powell. (The tirade was to directly inspire the Rock Against Racism movement.) It's by no means a good look: the man who'd appropriated the sound of those he called "wogs" and "coons" now telling them, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off.

How did we (and he) get here? From the childhood photos of a stern-faced, inward-turned child through his deadeningly earnest Sixties interviews to the cover of August, his bestselling long-player of 1986, a certain humourlessness dogs the film's subject. "We thought the Beatles were wankers," Clapton confesses, by way of an explanation for his decision to quit The Yardbirds after the success of their Beatlesesque "For Your Love"; he leapt from there to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, although the song used to soundtrack this shift - 1965's "Crocodile Walk" - isn't noticeably heavier or more authentic. Not for the last time, the framing and editing proves somewhat flattering to a subject whose motives are often far from entirely sympathetic. 

For one, Zanuck offers a soft-pedalled account of the Clapton-Harrison-Boyd affair, introducing into evidence Persian texts, a throwaway reference to the Beatle's philandering, and more details of Clapton's abandonment ("I was more on my own than I'd ever been"), but arguably he stole off with Boyd as he'd stolen off with Waters' guitar licks, splitting up a friend's marriage just as following his impulses had split up band after band. Of course, the film insists, the affair needed to happen so the soundtrack of every other movie (including this one) can build towards the agonised riffs of "Layla": you sense the art being used to justify the means. Such considered juxtaposition recurs elsewhere: the 1976 outburst is positioned at the end of a segment describing the star's descent into alcoholism, the implication being that it was the drink talking that night, not that something had been unstopped in the man.

Zanuck has fifty years of rock history at her disposal - decades of excess, waywardness and tragedy, much of it documented in attractive Kodachrome colours - and yet her film never grabs us by the lapels as Julien Temple's recent pop archaeologies have, or 2012's tempestuous Beware of Mr. Baker did. Life in 12 Bars settles into the steady rhythm of a VH1 primer early, and sticks to it for the next two hours, layering Clapton's offscreen (and distant-sounding) recollections over the archive gig footage, while ticking off the hits and highlights. Like many films on this scene's survivors, it palpably tails off once the countercultural battles are fought and lost and we reach the 1980s. We hear nothing of, say, "Behind the Mask", the most energetic single he'd released in years - though even that owed a debt to Ryuichi Sakamoto's Yellow Magic Orchestra; the recordings take second place to the women wooed and abandoned.

Only with the death of Clapton's four-year-old son Conor in 1991 - a genuine tragedy that by all accounts led the musician to sober and wise up, and eventually inspired his most personal hit ("Tears in Heaven") - can you feel Zanuck starting to get close to her otherwise standoffish subject. The lows of this life have been so low that it's a relief to see Clapton in relaxed late-life, smiling and playing with his now-extended brood. (To don my pop psychologist's hat for a moment: here, perhaps, is the family denied to him as a boy.) Somewhere behind the rote chronology sits an intriguing idea of Clapton as a Biblical figure - not a God, but something like a musical Job or Lot, granted one special power (advanced fretwork) but bedevilled in so many other respects. Had he been prepared to face Zanuck's camera and look the viewer in the eye, we might have had something truly revealing; as it is, we've wound up with the kind of fan-pacifier where the biography is often indistinguishable from special pleading.

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is now playing in selected cinemas.