Wednesday 28 February 2018

The expendables: "Erase and Forget"

At base, Andrea Luka Zimmerman's fascinating and disconcerting documentary Erase and Forget comprises an extended study of an apparently representative figure. The figure is a man with the spectacularly American name of James "Bo" Gritz: one of the most decorated of all Vietnam veterans, credited inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's character John Rambo, and now a stalwart of the red-state gunshow scene, he's a one-man fighting machine, first observed here replaying Special Ops moves in the desert for the camera, obliging invisible foes to submit to his grey-haired might. The desert seems significant, however, as does Gritz's solitude. There is no wife or family in this picture; we hear talk of a Chinese sex worker whom Gritz brought back to the States at one point, only to see her run away with a handyman, and while footage from the late 80s/early 90s shows a middle-aged Gritz in the company of a bubble-permed younger admirer, she too is nowhere to be seen in the present day.

We sense Zimmerman didn't have to press particularly long or hard to get her subject to share memories of his days in uniform: not long after that prologue, we're shown Gritz poring over the many photos on display around his house of erstwhile brothers-in-arms, offering a running commentary on the injuries, fatal or otherwise, which they incurred. At one of his gunshows, the camera catches Gritz casually reaching for the handgun in his bag, just to check it's still there and functioning; he gives the filmmaker an effusive grand tour of the many weapons dotted around his house, from the rifle resting against his nightstand in anticipation of nocturnal intruders, to the hunting blade he keeps sharpened in an ankle holster. He remains garrulous good company, and a goldmine of material, caught muttering about Apocalypse Now ("a bad movie") even as he claims a measure of credit for its idea of Kurtz. (Were it not for all the guns and knives, Joe Conrad would surely raise some objection.)

The question is what this manliest of men represents. A walking embodiment of decades of US foreign policy, almost certainly; the gun fetish made flesh, perhaps; arguably even the point where might-is-right masculinity intersects with the most genial form of sociopathy. Gritz could be an easy target, you sense, a piñata just waiting to be beaten and brought down by a filmmaker wielding forceful liberal-left intentions: it's no surprise to discover the younger, snarkier Louis Theroux sought Gritz out as the site of one of his very first Weird Weekends. Yet Zimmerman has a knack of reframing her material scene by scene, in such a way as to change the film's lines of inquiry and attack, and to make us think anew about our attitudes towards her subject. Early on in Erase and Forget, we watch someone fast-forwarding through 2008's Rambo reboot while logging an onscreen death count: it seems a barbed editorial interjection, until the sequence is revealed as a viral video created by a Facebook group called Carnage Counts, intended to be disseminated among those who share its bloodlust. This mindset gets passed on; its consequences spread ever wider.

Gritz himself appears gripped by some ambivalence as to how his experiences have been seized upon and weaponised, as seen by his suddenly sombre to-camera rumination on what it truly feels like to take a life; more shocking yet are those remarks, seemingly collected during a depressive night and layered with savage irony over a yee-hawing recruitment video, that suggest his former employers in the US Army convert bright, shining, idealistic youth into "garbage". Zimmerman doesn't have to look too far to find evidence of angry, hopeless or otherwise debilitated veterans who, having once been deployed as tools of the state, found themselves being tossed on the scrapheap. The question then becomes: what happens next? For Gritz, clearly, it was a matter of finding other battles to fight: teaching his patented Spycraft system of self-defence, using funds from Clint Eastwood and William Shatner to stage a very Rambo-like but ultimately abortive mission to rescue POWs rumoured to have been kept behind enemy lines in Indochina, a drift into white supremacy, and towards no-budget straight-to-video actioners trading on his expertise and persona.

The conflict between fantasy and reality in movies and television and the American popular imagination - how the dream factory reclaims and repackages the stuff of nightmares - may be what Zimmerman's really getting at here. She goes to the lengths of seeking out Ted Kotcheff, the Canadian director of First Blood, who still seems tormented by regret at the manner in which John Rambo, a much more ambivalent, even peaceable figure in that first iteration, came to be lionised by the American right; with a sagacity you perhaps wouldn't expect from the creative who gave the world Weekend at Bernie's, he warns "be careful of the engines of violence you create". Whether highlighting the original (test audience-rejected) ending of that first Rambo film, which would have brought the franchise to a very different conclusion, or seeking out the degraded videotape that may or may not show Gritz giving the fascist salute to the skinheads gathering at the foot of Ruby Ridge, Zimmerman wants us to interrogate those images of conflict others would simply have us consume; there may be no easy way to swallow her montage of actual historical atrocities, which goes beyond Stallone's playacting, and doubtless accounts for the film's 18 certificate.

Nothing, however, is quite as arresting or alarming as James "Bo" Gritz himself, a figure very much of the present tense, caught visibly struggling to process a half-century of trauma, with no-one, save his fellow gun nuts, to help, and no endpoint save death in sight. (In any number of senses, the desert is calling out to him.) In the final moments of Zimmerman's film, we witness him visiting a private collector's house, and addressing a small army of mannequins dressed up in military uniform, like a Poundland Patton ("I could live with these guys"). Befuddled beneath his veneer of bluff clubbability, unable or unwilling to separate his fantasies of domination and power from sad reality, battered and to some degree broken by all that he's seen and done (and been forced to carry out), here is someone who stands for the America of 2018 better than anyone in this year's Best Picture nominees.

Erase and Forget opens at selected cinemas from Friday. 

Sunday 25 February 2018

Dashing blades: "The Ice King"

The Winter Olympics conclude for another four years, and our cinemas, like our ice rinks, suddenly find themselves besieged by an influx of skater boys and girls. Sent forth this weekend as a non-fiction counterweight to I, Tonya, the sports documentarist James Erskine's new film The Ice King hews more sincerely to its established set of facts: it pulls from Bill Jones's admired biography Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry the story of how an engineer's son from a small village outside Birmingham came to dazzle the world with his footwork - albeit at some considerable personal cost. Overbearing parents will once again play a part. In an early Eighties interview Erskine places upfront, Curry can be heard to confess "I wanted to be a dancer. I was allowed to ice skate, because it was a sport." A not uncommon theme - gay self-denial - is being set up here, and The Ice King wastes no time in underlining that Curry was gay at a time when it was still technically illegal in the UK. We're left in no doubt that the film's subject forged his path the hard way - we hear in passing of a Swiss coach who insisted "you must skate like a man" - but Erskine also suggests that this Billy Elliot-like yen to dance above all else may have provided some competitive advantage. Curry was always striving for grace rather than the hard power of some other athletes, with beauty, rather than victory, the ultimate goal - a mindset borne out in period footage that positions this tall, lithe figure closer to Nureyev or Baryshnikov than the pocket rockets we've witnessed competing in Pyeongchang this past week. (His trajectory towards a pro career and gold at the 1976 Olympics was greatly accelerated by the American philanthropist Ed Mosler, with money that might just as easily have gone to the Met or the New York Philharmonic.)

Erskine's typically sharp-eyed and far-reaching archive work gets us inside Curry Sr.'s workshop and his son's closed training sessions; it runs the gamut from Pebble Mill sitdowns with Paul Coia to Soviet promotional films hymning the strength of the skater's rivals. Yet while the elements of an East-West battle might hook in sports fans, The Ice King feels appreciably more personal than Erskine's earlier films on footballers and cricketers. The deployment of those letters Curry wrote to sweethearts and close friends has much to do with that, yet Erskine also lets several ice dance routines play out at length, the better to demonstrate how these were, in their own way, realisations of a vision, crystallisations of exactly that beauty Curry the artist was pursuing. Such sequences speak to a refinement of this director's own technique. Erskine's previous films (2010's Italia '90 retrospective One Night in Turin, say, or 2013's The Battle of the Sexes) had a diverting sense of hotly contested events, changing mores and watershed moments, but tended to rattle past any deeper emotional or psychological analysis for fear of driving the lads watching on ITV4 away to find more lager. The Ice King - Erskine's first production to bear the branding of the BBC's Storyville strand, and not coincidentally the first not to seem like a skilfully compiled highlights package - works towards the full revelation of an often troubled personality, whether it be caught out on the ice, behind closed cabin doors on Fire Island, or through the testimony of those who both admired and suffered for Curry's perfectionism. It loses a few technical marks here and there - I still get grumpy at Erskine's decision to stretch material shot in the 4:3 ratio of 1970s televisions across the width of the widescreen frame - yet the whole emerges as a small triumph of contextualisation and commemoration: its final act, which takes in Curry's final choreographed work (set to "The Blue Danube Waltz") and an obvious handwriting deterioration as the skater's body succumbed to the ravages of AIDS, is deeply moving.

The Ice King is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream here.    

Friday 23 February 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 16-18, 2018:

1 (new) Black Panther (12A)

2 (1) Fifty Shades Freed (18)
3 (new) The Shape of Water (15) ****
4 (2) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (3Coco (PG) ***
6 (4) Early Man (PG)
7 (5Darkest Hour (PG) **
8 (9) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
9 (8) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
10 (6) Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)


My top five: 
1. The Ice King

2. Lady Bird
3. The Shape of Water
4. Loveless
5. The Mercy

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) The Lego Ninjago Movie (U)
2 (1) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
3 (2) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
4 (new) My Little Pony: the Movie (U) **
5 (new) The Mountain Between Us (12)
6 (3Victoria and Abdul (12A) **
7 (5) Dunkirk (12) ***
8 (4It: Chapter One (15) ***
9 (new) Loving Vincent (12) ***
10 (7) Fifty Shades Darker (18)


My top five: 
1. The Death of Stalin

2. Boy
3. Hotel Salvation
4. A Woman's Life
5. Beach Rats

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Point Break (Sunday, BBC1, 11.15pm)
2. A Hijacking (Friday, BBC2, 11.55pm)
3. Philomena (Saturday, BBC2, 10pm)
4. Blades of Glory [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
5. Dredd (Saturday, C4, 10.50pm)

On DVD: "Boy"

Somewhat surprisingly, it took Boy seven years to reach this part of the Northern hemisphere, but it's the film that best explains the easy transition the Kiwi director Taika Waititi made to the American studio system (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which may or may not now be the exact same thing). At its centre is a young Maori boy - known simply as Boy (James Rolleston, later an effective presence in true-life chess drama The Dark Horse), and perhaps not all that dissimilar to young master Waititi himself - who passes through some of the usual coming-of-age manoeuvres in a small coastal community, with only memories of his late mother to console him, and a deadbeat dad (played by Waititi himself), just sprung from prison, who proves more hindrance than help. In its vaguely cartoonish, forever genial vision of a broken home, the film sets out something like Maori cinema's big international breakthrough Once Were Warriors as made over by the nerdy, dreamy kid sat doodling over his textbooks at the back of the class, but there are more universal aspects yet. Boy opens, indeed, with a quote from E.T.; the lad's Michael Jackson fixation generates a nimble "Billie Jean" pastiche; and his sisters are apparently named Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest, while his serious younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) believes he has comic-book powers, though at this stage Waititi's VFX capabilities were limited to crayon drawings of what conspicuously fails to materialise in the kid's reality.

You sense the filmmaker likewise coming of age, building on the imaginative strengths of his somewhat fey 2007 Eagle vs. Shark while aligning himself with emergent American sensibilities. In his framing and editing, this Waititi presents as a more amenable Jared Hess or heartier Wes Anderson, never too far from arriving at the next truly funny idea: handing Rolleston a floor polisher that's too big for the tyke to keep under control, setting his gang of ne'er-do-wells to sip tea from dainty china cups, covering the protagonist in Sharpie tattoos that read "FRONT" and "ARM". Already, he was undermining some of those moves and tropes the cinema had started to take for granted: Boy's idea of his pa as some dashing criminal blade is compromised by the revelation he buried his ill-gotten gains in a nearby field, only to forget where exactly. There are sketchy patches, but the film deepens and becomes genuinely dramatic going into its final act, drawing from a well of wisdom about the ways in which we eventually come to see our parents for who they really are. "Don't get into the Nazi stuff," says dad to lad in one of his rare moments of clarity, pointing towards the swastika he etched into the wall back in a younger, more reckless day; with his gentleness, his eye for the little guy in the back and corner of the frame, and his spirited mockery of pompous, incompetent patriarchs, Waititi may just be the crowdpleasing oppositional filmmaker Trump's America has been crying out for.

Boy is released on DVD through Vertigo on Monday.

Thursday 22 February 2018

"Dark River" (Little White Lies Jan/Feb 2018)

Call it the New Ruralism: a recent run of lowish-budget homegrown features that have broadened British cinema’s horizons by returning us to the soil. Practical winds guide these projects; there may be less competition for Screen Yorkshire funding than there is at Film London. Yet this grassroots initiative also speaks to a growing empathy between our creatives and the nation’s farmhands, toiling long hours at society’s fringes for scant recompense. Clio Barnard’s Dark River forms the third born-in-a-barn movie to open inside a year, enough to convert eminent anomalies The Levelling and God’s Own Country into a movement of sorts, even if, dramatically, it presents as by far the slightest.

Barnard’s agricultural homecoming particularly suffers from arriving so soon after The Levelling, compared to which it seems both familiar and flimsier. The minute protagonist Alice (Ruth Wilson) re-enters her family’s dilapidated farmhouse on the Moors, we again sense major work needs doing. Her time and attention will subsequently be split between wayward livestock, a bluff brother (Mark Stanley) plotting to sell the land, and a raft of phantoms in flashbacks. The most looming of these: the siblings’ just-deceased father (Sean Bean), whose presence suggests Alice has returned to confront some lingering childhood trauma.

That process ensures Dark River emerges as Barnard’s most explicitly feminist work yet, centred on a woman determined to fix up a property in the face of masculine indifference or aggression, and thereby fix up herself. The director has a fierce ally in the begrimed Wilson, whose harassed gaze and air imply someone with a hundred more sheep to dip before sundown. “Your mother were a hard-nosed bitch an’ all,” jeers an auction-house cowpoke, and this director-star combo clearly intends to reclaim that insult as a badge of honour. Yet Alice’s headstrong progress towards something like independence is undermined by Barnard’s shakiest screenplay to date.

Narratively, Dark River feels both underdeveloped and overwrought, its mystery trauma guessable the first time Ghost Dad Bean hovers a beat too long in a bedroom doorway. Much of the supporting characterisation is similarly spectral. Set against God’s Own Country’s subtly shaded Yorkshiremen, Stanley’s Joe is an arrant bastard, slashing and burning rather than putting in the physical and emotional labour required to rebuild – yet Barnard is heavily reliant on his tantrums to seize drifting viewer attention. A wordless inter-sibling coda proves far more effective, but also a reminder of what might have been elsewhere.

Barnard’s acclaimed first features positioned her as an industry figurehead overnight, which perhaps explains why her third film feels so rushed: these cramped ninety minutes have no time to notice the scenery, and are caught straining to make the accidental death of a day player tragic. (Even then, the fallout hardly convinces.) It’s not Barnard’s fault that Dark River rolls in behind two bar-raising films in a similar field; yet it was entirely her call to lay hackneyed thunderclaps over her plot’s more melodramatic troughs. Fingers crossed she’ll get back on track – this time out, her realism feels oddly, disappointingly inorganic.

Anticipation: The third feature from the director of The Arbor and The Selfish Giant. 3
Enjoyment: Plenty of intrigue, paid off in bleak shrugs. 3
In retrospect: A muddy misstep from an otherwise notable talent. 2

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Fly away home: "Lady Bird"

In her screen career to date, the 34-year-old actress Greta Gerwig has shaped up as a very striking, apparently super-relatable presence: wearing a superficial sophistication, applied like morning-commute mascara, over a bedrock of scatty millennial disorganisation, she's suggested a new and more grounded variety of American sweetheart, caught with arms aflap, running in vain after a disappearing bus. More credulous observers, unable to separate the life from the art, might have been given cause to wonder whether such a figure would ever be able to keep it together long enough to write and direct a feature of her own; yet they should bear in mind that even the la-di-da Annie Hall went on to sustain a reasonably successful career behind the camera, and that Gerwig has been close to the director's chair for several years now, most recently in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Mistress America) and before that as part of the close-knit role-swappers who made up the Noughties mumblecore movement. (She already has one co-directorial credit, working alongside Joe Swanberg on 2008's Nights and Weekends.)

What strikes us immediately about Lady Bird, Gerwig's first effort flying solo, is how well and how instinctively the woman behind the camera appears to know her characters and her material. Granted, the writer-director has re-entered the fray with a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale, a field within which countless neophytes have taken their first, cautious authorial steps, but the film's hyper-accelerated editing rhythms - which are novel, somehow very Gerwig, and take some getting used to - suggest a filmmaker working hard to process her memories and cram in the most vivid among them; these choices derive not from scattiness, rather strategy. In this, the most condensed 94-minute feature of the season, every cut provides its own form of closure on one rite-of-passage or another, while opening up the possibility that life might be going on elsewhere, beyond the ken of its rangy yet relatively clueless lead. A few months flash before our eyes, and the follies of a girl in late adolescence come to be reappraised from the perspective of an almost fully grown woman.

It should be noted that this isn't strictly Greta Expectations: Saoirse Ronan's heroine bears the given name Christine McPherson, although she's rechristened herself Lady Bird, a typically teenage act of rebellion that reflects her status as one about to fly the nest for college, but which also never stops seeming affected and silly. Yes, the luminous-pale Ronan bears a passing resemblance to the younger Gerwig, the character grows up in the humdrum Sacramento of her creator's youth, and yes, there are details and incidents that strike us as too specific not to have been lived through in some awkward or painful way: Christine's bathroom-basin dye job and clove cigarette habit, say, or the scene that finds her demanding her parents work out how much it cost to raise her, so that she can reimburse them in later life. Yet the emotions the film goes for and gets at are universal. Christine tangles with boys (Lucas Hedges as a sensitive fellow drama student; Timothée Chalamet as a brooding non-conformist who could only be a member of a band called L'Enfance Nue), changes best friends as it becomes plain one of her classmates is developing at a faster rate than the hesitant Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and comes to terms with shifts within her family unit.

Here, the film reveals its greatest economy: performers capable of sketching whole lives with a handful of words. Playwright Tracy Letts gives another of his skilful, subtly expansive supporting turns as Christine's father, a pill-popping sadsack deflated by the task of making ends meet. (If ever you wanted to see a man who needed rescuing from the burdens of patriarchy.) Yet the heart of the film is one of the most believable mother-daughter relationships in modern cinema. Christine's mom Marion, a health professional, is prone to domestic microaggressions that wind our wannabe free-spirit heroine up no end, but which the older Gerwig now has the wisdom to sense were the efforts of a houseproud lower-middle-class woman to keep up appearances and raise her offspring right. The excellent Laurie Metcalf does the character the honour of playing Marion as an actual woman with real, bruisable emotions rather than the fussing sitcom caricature she might have become, and the switch in perspective proves to be key. This blithe entertainment doubles as an overdue love letter to a parent whose sorry fate, during her daughter's formative years, was to be bawled out on an almost nightly basis - a way for Gerwig to repay her mom by making the effort to understand her. (Cinema bookers: bear in mind that March 11th is almost upon us.)

In form, Lady Bird bounds up to us resembling one of those familiarly sunny, easy-to-sell indie ventures that were ten-a-penny back in the 1990s, before the market got saturated, the credit got crunched and the mumblecorers were obliged to rebuild the movement from scratch. (For Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, swap in those altogether healthier souls over at A24.) Yet it's testament to Gerwig's originality of outlook that the film never once succumbs to the usual Sundance Lab formula (for one thing, I don't think you'll be able to see its final movement coming, and it's all the more touching for that), and instead sustains itself and its audience by a buoyant generosity of spirit - the same spirit that might well carry a young creative from one spot on the planet to another, from a suburban backwater to the red carpet of the Academy Awards. Late on in the film, Christine's Goth brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) responds to his sister's rapid progress through the world with a scowled "Whatever you're up to, it won't end well." Lady Bird was what the slyly, studiously observant Gerwig was up to all along, and - against everybody's expectations, quite possibly even Gerwig's own, waiting in the rain for that next bus - it really has.

Lady Bird is now playing in selected cinemas, and expands nationwide on Friday.  

Sunday 18 February 2018

That sinking feeling: "The Mercy"

Creatives keep returning to the story of Donald Crowhurst - a name in fleeting newspaper headlines at the end of the 1960s - doubtless because the story threatens to communicate so much about Britishness, our aspirations and our isolation. (A Remainer might stretch and suggest there might be reasons why he should have bubbled back up into the collective consciousness at this particular moment.) Crowhurst, you may or may not recall, was the amateur yachtsman who enthusiastically signed up to take part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, despite having no applicable experience and entirely the wrong equipment for the task; he soon found himself adrift in his stricken vessel, hopelessly alone, and going ever so slowly out of his mind. This not-so-able seaman's plight previously inspired 2006's outstanding documentary Deep Water, narrated by a never-spookier Tilda Swinton and making considerable use of Crowhurst's logbooks and diaries; it's also the subject of indie adventurer Simon Rumley's forthcoming psychological drama Crowhurst, which one suspects may well retain some of that earlier film's chill.

For now, we have The Mercy, a brisk middlebrow retelling that finds director James Marsh, hot off the back of 2014's The Theory of Everything, doing everything possible to make the sailor's experience on the high seas a little less of an ordeal than it might have been at the time. In Colin Firth, an actor who's quietly perfected a diffidence that may or may not be inseparable from Englishness, Marsh's film finds its ballast: here is the kind of performance that might well have factored into this year's awards conversation had everyone else around committed to it more fully. The casting is commercially minded, but very sound. Firth handles this boat as well as Crowhurst did - which is to say well enough to steer it out of Teignmouth harbour - but never so confidently as to suggest he might get it round the globe; his generally groomed star persona makes Crowhurst's slide into ranting, seaweed-covered dishevelment all the more shocking and impactful. This Crowhurst is a would-be dashing blade who realises, mere minutes after signing up to this romantic venture, that he has in fact backed himself into the tightest of corners, with no easy way out; the film's most gripping sequences, watching the sailor desperately striving to fix up his leaky trimaran, recall 2013's All is Lost, only tacked in a different direction. This is no parable of survival, but a story of male pride, and the dark waters it can carry us into.

The trouble is that Marsh and regular Soderbergh screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects) have decided this ought not to be the whole story - or, rather, that that story might just be too stark for an audience (and particularly Firth's core audience) to take. So we also get the sailor's reminiscences of the Laura Ashley life he shared with wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) and kids, intended to serve as compensation for the manner in which Crowhurst absented himself from these loved ones; there are cutaways to David Thewlis as a jovial Northern press agent that I think are meant to provide comic relief, and - at the script's most superfluous - a midfilm round-up of the progress of the Golden Globe Race's better prepared participants. You could argue that what Marsh and Burns are offering us is context - a greater sense of the consolations and pressures Crowhurst was sailing away from - but there's a jolting disconnect between the quasi-impressionistic tale of survival Firth is acting up a storm in and the greatly more conventional period piece going on ashore; for a story hinged on increasingly insupportable solitude, The Mercy sure feels over-populated.

This may perhaps be a reflection on the director's newfound standing within the industry. Ever since coming in from the cold of documentary production - with 2008's Oscar-winning Man on Wire - Marsh has had resources enough at his disposal to make the bigger pictures and cast A-list actresses in roles that demand no more of them than peeling potatoes and doing the hoovering, not to mention recreate the Sunday Times newsroom as it was in 1968, no manner that such an elaborately appointed out dilutes some of the power of the story he's come to tell. As successive iterations have demonstrated, that power resides almost exclusively in the sight of a man on a leaky boat in the middle of nowhere, living a lie he was uniquely unsuited to sustaining, and facing up to a life-or-death decision - an existential conundrum (momentum = madness?) shared by the no less wayward pioneers Marsh depicted in 1999's breakthrough documentary Wisconsin Death Trip.

A director weighed down by recent Academy and BAFTA laurels is unlikely to have the creative freedom to make a film as open-ended, hallucinatory and fundamentally bleak as that, however, and so we find Marsh once more feeling an obligation to round off and tidy up after himself: The Mercy heads towards a coda determined to provide both a measure of closure to the Crowhurst clan, and - for the wider audience - a way-too-neat lesson in what we might learn from its protagonist's actions. Gained over several decades of their own experience, this director's steady-handed professionalism and his leading man's admirable commitment ensures the finished feature just about meets its original brief as functioning matinee fare - but one can't help but think Crowhurst's story is a story to haunt our dreams, as it did in the wake of the documentary, not merely to kill a couple of the hours separating Doctors from A Place in the Sun.

The Mercy is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Saturday 17 February 2018

From the archive: "There's Something About Mary"

One might claim There's Something About Mary as film zero of the current American comedy revival, and way ahead of the curve on the Friends Reunited phenomenon. A writer named Ted (Ben Stiller) attempts in adult life to track down his childhood sweetheart Mary; he finds her in the form of Cameron Diaz, only everybody's fucking with him, and she's surrounded by suitors prepared to play very nasty indeed in the hope of getting into her underwear. You can tell this was going for something different from the studio comedies of the era from the one early scene that makes a mountain (enlisting Mary's parents, the police, a fire truck, an ambulance) out of the molehill of Ted getting his testicles caught in his fly, but also from the way the Farrellys leave Stiller, the nominal hero of the piece, on the sidelines for long stretches of the first half while going in pursuit of some new, generally silly tangent.

Four screenwriters are credited, which may explain why There's Something About Mary often feels like a mishmash of disparate elements, as though the Farrellys had been drafted in to lighten up something that originally played far darker; the emphasis put on the extraneous in places pushes the running time closer to two hours than 90 minutes, another trait of the New American Comedy. Nevertheless, some of the Farrelly formula - irresistible, once upon a time - is established: a faultlessly integrated cast, with disabled characters both grouchy and saintly, a close attention to even minor characters (Lin Shaye's increasingly tanned speedfreak, surely an inspiration for Matt Lucas's Bubbles de Vere from Little Britain; Harland Williams as a suspicious hitchhiker), and image-warping celebrity cameos (former Miami Dolphins quarterback Brett Favre is enlisted as a deus ex machina who nearly steals off with the girl).

The Farrellys look to have taken the film on at least partly as a challenge, trying to meet the demands of the gross-out and date movie crowds alike, and to protect an innocent and pure central relationship from a supporting cast of creeps, weirdos and psychopaths. (One reason Ted is kept off-screen for so long: he's going through a nightmare as black as Griffin Dunne's in After Hours, allowing the directors to establish the very bad things the film's other men will do for love.) Any problems of tone, and the brothers can simply switch scene to sunny Miami, and bring on Jonathan Richman as an unlikely Greek chorus. The magic isn't quite there yet - all the business with the dog (up to the full bodycast) is pretty basic, the plotting gets haphazard towards the end, and I'd still maintain that Stuck on You is the funnier comedy - but it did nobody any harm at the time: Stiller, previously better known internationally as a director (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy) than as a performer, became a bona fide star off the back of it, and Diaz is adorable as the sort of slightly geeky but basically gorgeous sports nut all nerds (and nerdy writer-directors) like to imagine is out there somewhere, just waiting for a nice guy like them to come along.

(March 2007)

There's Something About Mary screens on five tonight at 10.30pm.

Friday 16 February 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 9-11, 2018:

1 (new) Fifty Shades Freed (18)

2 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (2) Coco (PG) ***
4 (4) Early Man (PG)
5 (3) Darkest Hour (PG) **
6 (5) Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)
7 (6) Den of Thieves (15) **
8 (8) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
9 (9) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
10 (7) The Post (12A) ***


My top five: 
1. Lady Bird

2. The Shape of Water
3. Loveless
4. The Mercy
5. Phantom Thread

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
2 (1) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
3 (2) Victoria and Abdul (12A) **
4 (3It: Chapter One (15) ***
5 (5) Dunkirk (12) ***
6 (new) The Highway Rat (U)
7 (6) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
8 (18) Despicable Me 3 (U)
9 (4) Kingsman: Double Pack (15) *
10 (new) Flatliners (15)


My top five: 
1. A Woman's Life

2. Beach Rats
3. The Party
4. Loving Vincent
5. Strangled

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Third Man [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2.15pm)
2. The Producers (Saturday, BBC2, 12.40am)
3. Young Frankenstein (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)
4. There's Something About Mary (Saturday, five, 10.30pm)
5. Our Kind of Traitor (Sunday, C4, 10.15pm)

Human flow: "The Shape of Water"

If at first you feel a touch queasy around The Shape of Water, the second most prominent beauty-and-the-beast romance of the past twelve months, that may be attributable to the colouring. Guillermo del Toro's lavish fantasy unfolds in a particular shade of aquamarine previously most associated with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, the early 21st century's foremost Marmite movie - and here is another intensely art-designed study of loneliness centred on an entirely winsome heroine. (Jeunet has accused del Toro of plagiarising both from that film, and his earlier Delicatessen.) Is it, we might wonder, the interior decoration that scares potential suitors off? This jaded jade - like the roseate mud of del Toro's previous Crimson Peak - gets everywhere. It seems to have seeped into the walls of the Cold War-era Government research facility within which our mute heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is employed as a lowly cleaner. It rhymes with the gills of the strange aquatic lifeform - half man, half fish - being held there under lock and key by the brutal, obsessive Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa's neighbour and confidante, a comparably sad and lonely middle-aged man called Giles (Richard Jenkins), bids for an illustrating gig with a mock-up ad featuring a housewife brandishing a vivid red Jell-O. "It needs to be green," comes the rejection. Of course it does.

In both its styling and its telling, this is a picture-book simple fable: a mutant Free Willy sequel, steered towards a race-against-time in which the creature will be spirited away from its vicious handlers and delivered back to the ocean. Yet it's bolstered by a slow-blossoming depth of characterisation that has yet to be observed anywhere in the Jeunet filmography. Before the creature shows up, del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor sketch in nimble portraits of everyday solitude: it's here we find Elisa, letting her fingers do the talking and the walking, setting an egg to boil before taking her pleasure in the bathtub. (The makers of that old Cadbury's Flake advert might like to consider joining Jeunet in any class-action lawsuit.) The facility scenes, meanwhile, go towards a recognition of the precarious place occupied by the non-white, non-male humanoid in the Atomic Age workplace: the Latinate Elisa and her sister-in-cleaning supplies, the buoyant Zelda (Octavia Spencer), occupy the very lowest rung on the institutional ladder, there to mop and scrub at Strickland's say-so.

Yet the film is just as interested in the latter, bulking up the part from the one-dimensional caricature it might have been in other hands. So yes, evidently Strickland gets off on enforcing the kind of silence and complicity that have provided several dozen newspaper headlines of late, and his gangrenous fingers position him as an exemplar of literally toxic masculinity; but then del Toro and Taylor follow him home to his wife and kids, the better to observe how he behaves around people he's actually meant to care about. His colleague Dr. Robert Hofstettler (the suddenly resurgent Michael Stuhlbarg; and one of the film's connoisseurial pleasures is watching Stuhlbarg and Shannon circling one another) operates as a double agent, paid by the Russians to monitor developments at the American end. Some of these characters live dual lives; others lead no lives at all. The key - and the reason why, I think, this disarming fantasy has struck such a chord among early viewers - is that del Toro sees both the beauty and the potential for monstrousness in them all.

Among its many public services, The Shape of Water returns to the filmed fairytale that sex and violence that decades of Disney have trained out of filmmakers and audiences alike. del Toro and Taylor are not coy in depicting Elisa and the Creature's growing closeness: the two eventually get it on in a scene that squares the tenderness and lyricism of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête with the headspinning WTF-ness of Borowczyk's La Bête, then pirouette through a black-and-white musical number à la Fred-and-Ginger (and, just perhaps, Young Frankenstein). Love or loathe them, it is a film of unusual - sometimes kinky - choices, revelling in the kind of authorial flourishes executives have been known to shout down or scrub out. All I'd say in the film's defence is that, just as that Jell-O had to be green, so too this is the only way these events could play out. For all its scaly, slimy peculiarities, this hybrid-movie emerges as a monument to del Toro's immense skill and fluency as a storyteller; he may now be Spielberg's only real rival in capturing viewer imagination. Shape sustains itself by a sense, forever true and often very moving, of which channels to follow, and where all this frothing motion (and emotion) must lead; the outcome is a film that couples idiosyncratic detail and excellence of craft with the satisfying inevitability of the best fables. That green, it turns out, is no index of stagnancy or sickness, rather that of a cinema in rude health: renewing and organic, and enchanted like a forest.

The Shape of Water opens in cinemas nationwide today.  

Thursday 15 February 2018

"Loveless" (Catholic Herald 15/02/18)

Writer-director Andrei Zvyagintsev has emerged over the past decade as the agonised conscience of Putin’s Russia, uniquely attuned to the state’s hypocrisies and the follies of his fellow man. After a run of critically admired yet underseen dramas – 2003’s The Return, 2007’s The Banishment, 2011’s Elena – Zvyagintsev made a major advance with 2014’s Leviathan, an electrifying cautionary tale that used a property dispute to illustrate the ability of unfeeling systems to crush individual lives. Loveless (***, 15, 127 mins), a strong contender for this year’s Foreign Film Oscar, offers a bleaker vision yet: a story of extreme self-interest and the world’s ghastliest divorce, it makes Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage look like Terry and June.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are modern professionals of a recognisable kind, caught up in their own lives, careers, phones. Their separation is a given; only the future of their ill-tended 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is unclear. Zhenya, appeasing her new man, insists Boris should have custody. Boris, tending a heavily pregnant mistress, considers childrearing a mother’s responsibility. An erstwhile status symbol recast as excess baggage, Alyosha has other ideas: one afternoon, he vanishes, uniting warring guardians in a search-and-rescue quest that might, in a Hollywood movie, be considered a prelude to reconciliation. In Zvyagintsev’s more fatalistic cinema, it entails a journey to the end of the world.

One reason Loveless draws us so deep into its chilly and unforgiving universe is Zvyagintsev’s constant redefinition of these emotionally frozen characters. Call it contrivance, call it clever dramatisation, but it feels apt that Zhenya’s inquiries should return her to her cantankerous mother’s shack, where we intuit exactly whence her slaphappy parenting style derives. The approach is not unlike that of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian filmmaker behind 2011’s lacerating A Separation. Zvyagintsev likewise converts humdrum domestic set-ups into finely acted theatre, deploying performers with bloodhound noses for nuance: clock the gruff cop who tries to reassure Zhenya of her boy’s return by noting “We all enjoy comfort. Your home has that.”

Cold comforts are all we’re getting here: we’re watching another family being dismantled under dishwater-grey skies, a scenario that opens onto the lower depths of human nature, and heads south from there. Still, that rigour remains valuable as an alternative to modern cinema’s glib frivolities, as does Zvyagintsev’s whistleblower-like ability to communicate internalised disquiet in discrete passing, as with the snatches of TV and radio commentary layered into the action. An early clip suggests this separation is occurring during the Obama-Romney Presidential debates of 2012 – the same year Putin ascended to power. By the time the coda has referenced the Ukraine conflict, Loveless has succeeded in setting shivering viewers to wonder: what else has been lost hereabouts of late?

Loveless is now showing in selected cinemas.

Monday 12 February 2018

1,001 Films: "Scarface" (1983)

Anyone criticising Brian de Palma's coke-bloated, blood-spattered 1983 remix of Scarface for the manner in which it inflates Howard Hawks' original obviously wasn't paying attention to the hammy excesses of Paul Muni first time around, or the fact that a surfeit of tacky bling has long been essential get-up for any wannabe hood. (How many gangsta rappers have quoted de Palma's film, without apparent irony, in the years since?) Oliver Stone's screenplay reimagines Tony Montana (played here by Al Pacino) as a Cuban immigrant climbing the criminal ladder in 1980s Miami, his cocky insubordination getting it all: money, guns, girls (Michelle Pfeiffer, one year on from Grease 2, makes every one of her scenes count as a bored moll from Baltimore), power, paranoid delusions following hard on the stacked heels of his delusions of grandeur, and an inevitable demise, not in a hail of bullets, but a blizzard of cocaine.

A more legitimate criticism is that de Palma's conspicuous consumption, deliberate or otherwise, hasn't entirely dated well: some of the locations (the neon-lit Babylon nightclub, the shagpile carpets of kingpin Robert Loggia's crib) and the accoutrements (Pacino's blinding white suits, Giorgio Moroder's synth score) now come over as a terrible hangover from the disco era, and the general tackiness isn't helped by the insistence on pushing Tony's already close-knit relationship with his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the embodiment of those things he wants but cannot have, into intimated incest. As illustrated elsewhere by possibly the cheesiest of all 1980s movie montages (set to Paul Engemann's "Push It To The Limit"), it is, like many of de Palma's films from this point onwards, a faintly silly, insincere entertainment: pastiche, rather than meant. (Stone would have to direct Wall Street himself to make his points about the decade's greed stick in any way.) This director's technical brio keeps every scene well within the realms of garish watchability, even if what we eventually end up watching is no more than the advent of Shouty Al ("You fuckin' buy a gun!"), playing out a simplified version of the Corleone character arc, only with the volume cranked up as loud as some of the decor and leisurewear.

Scarface is available on DVD through Universal. 

Sunday 11 February 2018

On DVD: "Loving Vincent"

By now, you'll likely have heard the story of Loving Vincent's production, representing as it does a technical breakthrough and a backwards gaze. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman shot a live-action drama - set a year after Vincent van Gogh's death, and riffing on a legend concerning the delivery of a letter the tragic painter had addressed to his brother Theo - then employed 100 predominantly Polish artists to handpaint over each frame in the established van Gogh style. (Something about this project speaks to the tireless industry of our Polish friends: we may have cause to miss these artisans in the years ahead.) Radically different filmmakers - Vincente Minnelli, Robert Altman, Maurice Pialat - have sought to revisit this moment in art history, but Loving Vincent is the first movie to attempt a literal reproduction of the painter's shades, textures and moods, tilting as it does at the same windmills and lingering in sunflower fields. Here is a film that begs to be seen and swooned over, even as it struggles on a minute-by-minute basis to reconcile the incredible sophistication of its toplayer with the humdrum artlessness lurking beneath it.

My suspicion is that the live-action drama Kobiela and Welchman shot was basically Europudding, jampacked with RADA graduates whose plummy regional accents stick out like a sore thumb in these particular Low Countries. The letter proves to be the basis of a quest narrative broadly as uninspired as that of any recent kids' animation: our blank-slate messenger-surrogate (Douglas Booth) hops from guest star to guest star (Chris O'Dowd, Helen McCrory, Saoirse Ronan) trying to find or figure something out, giving rise to a succession of monotonous Q&A sessions designed to stretch a van Gogh conspiracy theory out to fit a 95-minute feature. You could be excused for zoning out during these and refocusing your attentions on the pretty pictures, because they are very pretty indeed - it helps that Kobiela and Welchman chose to animate the likes of Booth, Ronan and Eleanor Tomlinson rather than, say, authentically grizzled Flanders farmers - but the editorial reframing of Vincent as a deeply troubled man, plagued by that depression and insecurity that has traditionally dogged artists through the ages, is undermined by the fact the writing has been undertaken with far less skill than the painting. The result is a beautifully polished curate's egg: you end up torn between wanting to hit pause to better admire the unarguable visual achievement, and an urge to lunge instead for the mute and fast-forward buttons. 

Loving Vincent is available on DVD through Altitude from tomorrow.

In stitches: "Phantom Thread"

It would seem as though even Paul Thomas Anderson, that great white hope of American cinema, has succumbed to the Downton effect - or perhaps he was ahead of the curve all along. Ever since the grand folly of 1999's still-astounding Magnolia and its pendant-film, 2002's Punch-Drunk Love - Anderson's last fully open texts, each an attempt to fathom out the craziness of this world, and the relationships we strike up in it - this pre-eminent cineaste has come to turn his back on the present day, or to address it only obliquely, digging into the roots of capitalism by converting Sinclair Lewis's novel Oil! into 2007's There Will Be Blood, examining the scars and needs of post-WW2 America in 2012's The Master, retreating into the post-Vietnam disillusionment of Thomas Pynchon's shaggy PI Doc Sportello for 2014's Inherent Vice. Each of these big-canvas works has proceeded with intent more ambitious than simply to adorn their exceptional performers with pretty bows and ribbons; there now follows Phantom Thread, which proposes there might be some virtue in a costume drama - literally a costume drama, centred as it is on a celebrated (fictional) designer in 1950s London - which follows no trend whatsoever, and is as eccentric as any contemporary American filmmaker might be allowed to get away with.

Not for Anderson the sweeping portrait of an era we've become accustomed to; instead, we get a cockeyed character study. Suede-soft where his oil baron in There Will Be Blood was carbon-hard - just don't rub him the wrong way - Daniel Day-Lewis's Reynolds Woodcock presents as an effete aesthete, meticulous in his workshop, distant and detached beyond it, and so obsessed with his own and other people's mothers it will be no surprise to amateur psychologists that he should fall for a woman who furnishes him with breakfast: gauche country waitress Alma (Luxembourgian newcomer Vicky Krieps). Reynolds takes down her numbers, dresses Alma up, and makes her feel special - but Anderson has already established the designer's tendency to treat his muses as seasonal, keeping them on site (in what's grandly referred to as "the House of Woodcock") for the few months necessary to get his next collection out into the world before drifting off in search of something and someone new. The only dame to have stuck around this fellow for any length of time is his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), and we sense he only tolerates her presence because she helps to show his lovers the door, and because she, too, knew dear Mama.

As in Darren Aronofsky's mother!, what we find ourselves looking at invites reading as the work of a prominent artist apparently engaged in an oblique form of self-portraiture, picking over his relationships with the women in his life. (If they hadn't been conceived long in advance of the first allegations levelled against Harvey Weinstein, we might group these movies as the responses of creatively minded men compelled to wrestle anew with their conduct in matters of the heart and crotch.) Yet where the agonised Aronofsky adopted a mortifying approach, using a two-hour movie to effectively beat himself up, Anderson proves wryly self-deprecating, leaning more towards comedy than tragedy; it's a similar idea, realised with an entirely different disposition. (One obvious connection/deviation: the deployment of comic performers. Kristen Wiig in mother! was broadly on the writer's side, and not required to do anything funny; Anderson sends on Julia Davis at a crucial moment to give his protagonist extra needle.) At no point, really, are we invited to look upon Reynolds Woodcock as anything other than a total oddbod: a terminally grouchy fusspot, forever stalking around the gloomier corners of his own head, he could stand for any number of male creatives, expert with fabrics, not so careful with human flesh.

Anderson and his actors nudge this material away from the museum piece others might have generated: almost every scene has the immediacy of this director's earlier films. It was an inspired choice to contrast the insistent thought and weight of Day-Lewis with the airy lightness of the novice Krieps - here is a girl who wants and needs to dance, paired with a man with veins popping out of his temples, so of course we fear for the future of this pairing, and that something in her may well be crushed by something in him. There was something very smart, too, in the casting of Manville as Day-Lewis's sis: here is an actress - perhaps one of the few actresses on the planet capable of this - who never once appears overawed by her co-star. The film comes into its sharpest focus in those breakfast scenes that force Reynolds to descend from his garret and have his words and actions subjected to closer scrutiny by the women of the piece; it's here he falls subject to a wicked narrative turn that lays the designer open to a greater dependency, which may or may not be the same thing as love. (Anderson actually proves more paranoid than Aronofsky in this respect, allowing for the possibility that a muse might exact some measure of revenge.)

Yet it's typical of Phantom Thread's overriding perversity that even these scenes should come cluttered up with curious, pernickety detail that, over the long haul, obscures as much as it reveals: the loud scraping of toast, the limp way Reynolds dangles his asparagus stalks in an accompanying jus, Krieps' accent. (The film's signature image: a close-up of a label sewn into a dress, on which a phrase has been written in a cursive so rarefied it's impossible to read. "Never owned"? "Never cursed"?) My feeling remains that Anderson got badly hurt by the commercial failure of Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, his sincerest splurges, and thereafter began putting up the kind of shutters a sensitive soul might well hide behind. Farewell the solid-gold disco classics that helped make Boogie Nights such a blast, and the straightahead emotion of Aimee Mann; hello Jonny Greenwood's space-between-the-notes noodling, inviting the same kind of introspection as Radiohead sleeve notes.

There is even more control nowadays, and some of the mannerism that followed has unarguably been brilliant (There Will Be Blood), even if the more recent work has proven brilliant and exasperating in equal measure. Phantom Thread is never less than elegantly appointed, and filigreed with all the craft and nous PTA now routinely brings to his projects - but an essential part of its project is to withhold, deflect, mystify: it's not very Downton, at the last, but it is terribly English, which I don't entirely mean as a compliment. Anderson seems to be in a happier place than he was around the time of his last release, but the film's idea of happiness is shifty and wriggling: it's simply less trustworthy than the implied heartbreak Inherent Vice came saturated in. As it is, I think I preferred mother!, because it's always more dynamic to see a creative ripping his heart out and throwing it at the screen than one serving it up to us at arm's length in tiny, careful slivers - particularly when it's unclear just how serious he's being about it. And I may be alone in this, but I do miss the days when Anderson's characters would do anything so straightforward as sing to us.

Phantom Thread is now playing in cinemas nationwide.