Thursday 31 May 2018

1,001 Films: "Ghost Busters" (1984)

Ghost Busters was a major blockbuster distinguished above all else by its casting: contrary to the 1980s' general movement towards chiselled, monosyllabic-laconic action heroes (from Stallone and Schwarzenegger to Willis), it pushed centre stage a cast of talky, nerdy, somewhat doughy comics (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis) who wrote or, in Murray's case, simply made up their own material. You can tell the casting directors were onto something from the way they went for Sigourney Weaver, no kind of bimbo whatsoever, as the heroine who has something nasty at the back of her fridge that may bring about the end of the world as we know it.

The effects continue to hold up particularly well - particularly Slimer, the translucent poltergeist who leaves Murray in such a state in that hotel corridor - though more of the film than you remember is in analogue: the ground opening up outside Weaver's haunted apartment block is a nice sight gag achieved without the aid of computers. It's as hip and savvy a studio production as Men in Black was to seem a decade or so later, acknowledging its New York location as both a melting pot and city under siege, and that horror - a genre then going like gangbusters on the nascent home-video format - could be repositioned as a viable mainstream phenomenon if done with the right spirit(s). But the film's innocence, its sense of fun, is what you warm to: somehow it seems entirely appropriate that the action should come down to the toasting of marshmallows on a massive scale.

Ghost Busters is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Sunday 27 May 2018

1,001 Films: "This is Spinal Tap" (1984)

Although directed by (and featuring) Rob Reiner, This is Spinal Tap counts as an early delineation of what writer-star Christopher Guest was to take on (and develop) as his own comedy aesthetic in such later works as 2000's Best in Show and 2003's A Mighty Wind. Already in evidence: a preference for verisimilitude over straight-ahead gags (though, of course, if it's lifelike and funny, so much the better), extending to spot-on pastiches of not just the music, but musical ephemera (album covers, period pop-show coverage); and a remarkable ensemble cast improvising their way around characters who feel so real you couldn't easily make them up. Many of these performers helped to define American comedy over subsequent decades: look sharp, and you'll spot Fran Drescher, latterly a sitcom queen in The Nanny; Dana Carvey as a jobbing mime waiter, and Billy Crystal as his boss ("Mime is money!"); Paul Shaffer, David Letterman's bandleader, as hapless promoter Artie Fufkin; and Fred Willard, a standout of Guest's later films, as a clueless Air Force lieutenant.

Though studded with wonderful riffs, both musical and comic - Derek Smalls' football shirt, the constant gum-chewing, Guest's gloriously fey reading of the line "It's one louder, isn't it?" - the film has bigger things on its mind and down its trousers. It works because Guest, Reiner, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer establish a painfully credible dynamic between the Tap's three frontmen (and between these three and the band's tagalong backing musicians) and combine to tell as an engaging a story - about a relic-group plodding onwards toward oblivion - as any vérité documentary. Actual rockumentaries Dig!, Some Kind of Monster and Anvil! The Story of Anvil wouldn't have been framed as they were without the film's existence, but the surest sign of Tap's success as satire is that more bands will have watched it on their tourbus than, say, Woodstock, Don't Look Back or The Last Waltz - and still certain musicians can't help coming across publicly like Nigel Tufnel or David St. Hubbins.

This is Spinal Tap is available on DVD through StudioCanal. 

Saturday 26 May 2018

From the archive: "The Past"

It’s a bold move on Asghar Farhadi’s part to give his latest The Past a roughly similar startpoint to his global breakthrough A Separation: a couple meeting with the intention of signing their divorce papers. What follows is both variation on and expansion of a particularly discordant theme. This time, we’re in the Parisian suburbs rather than Tehran, and judging by the distance put between its ex-lovers in the opening frames, it’s clear some considerable upheaval has already taken place. A Separation was just the warm-up, a storm in a teacup; this time, a whole crockery cupboard teeters on the brink.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has flown from Iran to formalise his separation from his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) – or perhaps, given the open return he’s travelling on, to talk her into giving it one more go for the sake of their offspring. At any rate, Marie has kindly agreed to put Ahmad up for the duration of his stay, although over the first night, it becomes apparent she has a new man. From the moment the brooding Samir (Tahar Rahim) returns from work, there really are three people in this marriage.

Early scenes economically sketch a home that, in everything from the wet paint on its doorless walls to the fraught and tentative relationships it houses, is very much under construction. Bridling against Marie’s neatfreakery, Samir’s young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) throws a colossal strop, demanding to be returned to his “real” home. But that home’s similarly breaking up: we soon learn Samir is himself married, to a woman left comatose after a suicide attempt apparently sparked by her husband’s affair with Marie. It is, how you say, complicated.

This is the genius of the Farhadi approach: to take characters whose social status might otherwise see them comfortable, and then show them becoming frazzled by an accumulation of everyday incidents. “It’s the small things that set you off,” muses Ahmad to his mournful eldest Lucie (Pauline Burlet), and the film is riddled with such annoyances: allergies, sudden rainstorms, ringing phones, stained clothing, a lost suitcase. (Farhadi is subtle enough not to dwell on the multiple meanings of the word “baggage”, though we might.)

However melodramatic certain plot developments get, there are at least another two or three that could happen to you or I, which is why Farhadi remains such a valuable and pertinent filmmaker: his films don’t require supervillains to threaten the world, because they take the world as it is, full of irritations enough to generate their own friction and drama.

He’s again aided by a cast who prove only too willing to flaunt their fraying nerves. If you only know Bejo from her beguiling work in The Artist, her appearance here – that of a woman nearing the end of her tether – will come as a genuine revelation. Farhadi equally mines thematic payloads from his male leads’ vague physical resemblance, and he’s particularly alert around children: no mere onlookers but potential collateral damage, the stepsiblings are every bit as crucial here as the young supporting actresses were to A Separation.

If The Past doesn’t quite have the same impact as its predecessor, that may be something to do with the difficulty of capturing lightning twice in a similar place, and because the ruthless, thriller-like cause-and-effect of A Separation is here replaced by a more cyclical structure. As Ahmad’s stay extends into a second, third, even fourth day, we’re left to watch these people stomping over the same old ground, gradually grinding both themselves and those around them down.

Such passive aggression only offers further grist for Farhadi’s mill, however, and the film’s remarkable dramatic weight pins you to your seat until the ambiguous final image: an inversion of the opening, dependent on a tiny wrinkle that may significantly alter the futures of everybody we’ve spent the past two hours watching. As the man said: it’s the small things.

(MovieMail, March 2014)

The Past screens on BBC2 tonight at 2.05am. 

Friday 25 May 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 18-20, 2018:

1 (new) Deadpool 2 (15) **

2 (1) Avengers: Infinity War (12A) ***
3 (2) Sherlock Gnomes (U) **
4 (3) I Feel Pretty (12A)
5 (4) Life of the Party (12A)
6 (8) Blade Runner: The Final Cut (15) ****
7 (5) Breaking In (15) ***
8 (6A Quiet Place (15) ****
9 (7The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)
10 (new) An American in Paris - The Musical (PG)


My top five: 
1. 2001: a Space Odyssey

2. A Cambodian Spring
3. The Sound of Music
4. Raazi
5. The Rape of Recy Taylor

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) The Greatest Showman (PG)
2 (1) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
3 (2) Pitch Perfect 3 (12)
4 (new) All the Money in the World (15) **
5 (3Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12) ***
6 (new) Molly's Game (15) ***
7 (15) Deadpool (15) ***
8 (new) Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (15)
9 (4) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
10 (new) Batman Ninja (12)


My top five: 
1. The Square

2. The Ice King
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. A Fantastic Woman
5. The Post

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Great Expectations [above] (Wednesday, BBC2, 12.35pm)
2. Frankenweenie (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC2, 10.05am)
3. The Past (Saturday, BBC2, 2.05am)
4. Hot Fuzz (Friday, ITV1, 10.50pm)
5. Over the Hedge (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC2, 11.25am)

"The Little Vampire" (Guardian 25/05/18)

The Little Vampire **
Dirs: Richard Claus, Karsten Kiilerich. Animation with the voices of: Rasmus Hardiker, Amy Saville, Jim Carter, Alice Krige. 83 mins. Cert: U

German author Angela Sommer-Bodenburg’s tales of a pintsized bloodsucker have already generated one half-term timekiller, a Europuddingy live-action adaptation of 2000, chiefly of note for being directed by Christiane F.’s Uli Edel. Eighteen years on, there follows this similarly cross-continental digimation, attempting to monetise whatever brand awareness the books have among a new generation, and – more specifically – steal a commercial march on Adam Sandler’s third Hotel Transylvania offering. Its generically designed, jerkily swaying characters are only the most visible sign we’re in the hands of algorithms, not artisans.

The one boon it might offer accompanying adults is a certain pace. It takes under 80 minutes for undead Rudolph (Rasmus Hardiker) and mortal Tony (voiced by Amy Saville) to forge the friendship that sees off ruthless vamp hunter Rookery (Jim Carter). Directors Richard Claus and Karsten Kiilerich double down on the action: there’s plentiful swooping around Black Forest landscapes, and eventually the sight of a flying heifer taking down a helicopter with its dung, which counts as some kind of first. Yet the absence of nuance, wit and judicious pauses for either reflection or emotion means it quickly succumbs to numbing relentlessness. Nobody’s ADHD is going to be well-served by it.

True, it’s hard to get too grumpy about a project that retains echoes of Sommer-Bodenburg’s original message of tolerance. (That Rudolph flies in from the cold of Eastern Europe now seems a happy socio-political coincidence.) Still, parents will have to do all the heavy interpretative lifting on the car journey home: every movement within the film is programmed with an eye towards zappy distraction rather than sincere education, which explains why the final product feels as weightless as it looks artless. It’s rare that a professional critic can say this, but you may just do better holding out for the Sandler movie. 

The Little Vampire opens in Vue cinemas nationwide today.

"Show Dogs" (Guardian 25/05/18)

Show Dogs *
Dir: Raja Gosnell. With: Will Arnett, Natasha Lyonne and the voices of Ludacris and Jordin Sparks. 92 mins. Cert: PG

Were you to need further proof of Western cultural decadence, consider the staggering manhours moviemakers have logged filming dogs doing things dogs aren’t generally inclined to do: playing competitive sports (1997’s Air Bud, 1999’s Soccer Dog), seeking Simon Cowell’s approval (2014’s Pudsey), rolling over for second billing behind long-eclipsed humanoid stars. Show Dogs hails from that good-cop-dog-cop line that once begat Turner and Hooch and K-9 – but its USP is that the mutts now bark back with (minor) celebrity voices. If your actual dog were this lame, you’d be making ominous arrangements with the vet, not hustling everybody towards the cinema.

Director Raja Gosnell has previous with these cinematic chewtoys, although there was obvious tail-off even between 2002’s Scooby Doo and 2008’s Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Here, we get a shaggy-looking Will Arnett and Max the Rottweiler (voiced by rapper Ludacris), who emerge from the first act’s matted exposition having to enter a Vegas beauty contest so as to apprehend nefarious panda smugglers. Anyway, never mind about the plot, because – look – dogs! Dogs with badges! Farting dogs! Dogs getting bikini waxes! Dogs having their privates inspected! No film in motion picture history can ever have made more fuss about the state of one canine’s anus.

Of the handlers, Arnett has the terse air of a man doing anything he can to keep up with his alimony payments; Natasha Lyonne submits to a makeover so comprehensive she’s all but unrecognisable, a smart move on reflection. Mostly, it’s anonymous voices growling unfunny references, very cheaply inserted between the jaws of creatures with no idea of the indignities this production had in store for them. Few will leave Show Dogs feeling shortchanged – it’s as mirthlessly cynical as it looks – but it does suggest we perhaps need a dog equivalent of those movements presently working to make the industry a healthier place. #TimesPup? 

Show Dogs opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Memories of overdevelopment: "A Cambodian Spring"

In the popular imagination, Cambodia has never seemed an especially happy place: site of those Khmer Rouge atrocities chronicled by local filmmaker Rithy Panh in such films as 2003's S21 and 2013's The Missing Picture, and by the visiting Joshua Oppenheimer in 2012's The Act of Killing. With the passing of Pol Pot in 1998, one might have hoped the Cambodian people were headed for greater security and prosperity, but Chris Kelly's exceptional new documentary A Cambodian Spring - providing an overview of the nation as it felt its way into the 21st century, shot over the best part of the last decade - finds those same people at the mercy of an altogether fraught process of rebuilding. Kelly's focus is on the predominantly female householders of Boeung Kak, a lakeside community in Phnom Penh that came under threat after Prime Minister Hun Sen's aggressively pro-business regime sold off the land to developers working under the auspices of the World Bank. As the diggers moved in, the women stepped up their opposition, finding a lone ally in Venerable Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk who - in a concession to worldly things - armed himself with a smartphone early on in the impasse, and provided the raw handycammed footage that brings Kelly's film directly into the eye of a gathering storm.

For the most part, A Cambodian Spring is a masterclass in calm, committed observation. Kelly forsakes any of that theatrical tricksiness that some objected to in Oppenheimer's film, instead limiting his interventions to sober, white-on-black chapter headings that nudge the narrative and timeline along at regular intervals. What we're left to watch is the sight of a community being torn apart both physically and emotionally in the name of quote-unquote progress. As the placement of the title over a shot of the spume of water used to flood the land ahead of development suggests, this is an epic of ebbs and flows. For much of these densely packed two hours, the film contents to gather evidence of an uneasy stand-off: the vultures in hard hats beginning to circle the women's properties, the women wondering just how long it will be before the water comes up to their family's necks. 

Every now and again, however, the tension between the two factions erupts into outright violence: a scuffle during a visit from UN honcho Ban Ki-moon pre-empts the ruthless destruction of several lakeside properties, often before their erstwhile tenants' eyes, sometimes before these tenants have really had chance to retrieve their possessions. We're headed towards an electoral showdown between Sen and Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader returning to Cambodia after several years in exile, and a general strike that sees many of those who've been displaced by this regime flooding the streets in turn. Amid this tumult, Kelly reels in images that speak eloquently indeed to some wider imbalance of power: a fisherman struggling against a rising tide, a digger bearing an EU insignia on its flanks, shots of a hundred or more armed troops hustling to their jeeps as another protest breaks out.

Watching these determined women juggling childcare with their newfound responsibilities as pillars of the opposition, you can only wonder where the men of Boeung Kak have gone. My guess was that they were away working the ten-to-twelve hours a day this regime demands of them to support their families - an absence that ironically makes it all the easier for the corporations to move in on their homes - though of course it's men who show up at the protests with crowbars and machetes in the role of paid stooges, ready to bundle mothers, children and grandmothers into the back of police vans. There is, however, one complication in any gendered reading of the film: the pronounced, lasting and visibly painful split that develops between those householders willing to accept the Sen regime's scant concessions and those determined to fight on. What Kelly offers, and what makes A Cambodian Spring so much more universal than the regional, seasonal story its title promises, is a lesson in how one movement can tessellate with others - a vivid illustration of what the woke world dubs intersectionality - but also how those in positions of power can open up and exploit the faultlines running between groups and individuals.

The Venerable Sovath, whose very calling surely places him on a higher spiritual plain to such niggly earthbound struggles, comes to be dragged into the mire himself after Sen - operating in his guise of Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander, roughly half-a-dozen titles too many for any one man - appoints the conservative Tep Vong as Great Supreme Patriarch, the national religious leader. Vong uses his new platform to speak out against those monks who sully their hands with the concerns of ordinary people, especially those who would push back against his employers; soon, splits are appearing even among the ranks of the orange-robed - so much for harmony - and the increasingly isolated Sovath is being pursued through the streets of Phnom Penh by (a quite extraordinary concept, this) "the monk police". (As he's heard to lament while dodging his pursuers: "Religion belongs to the Government now.") Church and state may, in this, have become one totalitarian whole, but everywhere else one looks in Kelly's film, we see how the policies of progress are often indivisible from old-school divide-and-conquer. Wherever we are in the world, and whichever direction our cameras seem to be pointing in, isn't that always the capitalist way?

A Cambodian Spring is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday 24 May 2018

Snark attack: "Deadpool 2"

Successful though it was, 2016's Deadpool felt oddly tentative in spots, as though the Fox beancounters still weren't entirely certain that an R-rated comic book movie was worth betting the house on. You saw it in the comparatively limited number of setpieces, the low-rent British villain, the wisecracks about not being able to afford the better X-Men, the scant 100-minute runtime, and the cheapest post-credit sequence of any Marvel release to date, in which Ryan Reynolds' hero - styled as Ferris Bueller at the end of his day off - shooed us away while imploring us to return for a sequel that would feature a proper Big Bad. Deadpool 2 is, for better and worse, a more confident proposition. It runs to a full two hours, with a proven action director (John Wick's David Leitch) overseeing a slambang setpiece every half-hour; we get a higher calibre of X-Men cameo; and there's even a broadly upbeat ending in which Reynolds lays the spectre of Green Lantern - that notorious 2011 flop - to rest, while our hero brings Josh Brolin to heel in a way the Avengers couldn't. Marvel's grip on the fanbase is unprecedented, and might be impressive if it wasn't so terrifying. Infinity War got you down? Here's the big red happy pill to perk you up again.

In short, this is the film in which this franchise reveals its true colours, and it's far from an edifying sight. More money means Leitch can expand and flesh out the first film's limited B-movie universe: the guest X-Person known for some reason as Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) has landed a girlfriend, Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna), in a throwaway gesture towards inclusion, bartender Weasel (T.J. Miller) gains a staff and visible clientele, while there are, from first frame to last, many more extras to behold on these mean streets. Deadpool, for his part, loses a loved one (Morena Baccarin's Vanessa, figuratively wasted as a damsel-in-distress in film one, literally wasted in a prologue here), but gains a son of sorts in rogue mutant Firefist (Hunt for the Wilderpeople's Julian Dennison, again not nearly as funny or charming as the film around him seems to think), and halfway through the running time shruggingly starts to assemble a ragbag back-up team, of which the most enduring seems likely to be Zazie Beetz's Domino (superpower: luck), and the most amusing is Rob Delaney's Peter, a portly bloke with a moustache but no actual superpowers, who saw Deadpool's ad in the newspaper and thought he'd give it a go.

Where the first film's tight screenplay circled round before eventually bringing us to the point, the sequel's script - composed by Reynolds himself with original scribes Rhett Reece and Paul Wernick - is far more of a hodgepodge, tossing in and yanking out elements seemingly just for shits and giggles. (A callback dubstep gag is framed as the height of narrative sophistication.) The overarching joke is that Deadpool doesn't operate - and, free from the intermeshing webs of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, doesn't have to operate - like other franchises, but what that translates to here is an excess of non-sequiturs, a numbing over-reliance on ironically placed pop songs, and a flailing attempt at depth - introducing concepts of family and true love - that ultimately feels as insincere as anything else going on. One problem is that there may be no serious way of developing a figure who, in everything from his attitude to his crummy rubber suit, has been drawn to resemble a walking whoopie cushion, blowing raspberries everywhere the plot requires him to be. The character's most striking aspect remains his ability to regrow severed body parts by way of sophisticated tumours, a nifty analogue for Marvel movies as an ever-spreading, Hydra-headed whole. Zap 'em, bash 'em, tear 'em apart - and still they come back for more.

For all that these troll-courting movies might have provoked gurgling laughter in their target demographic over the past week, they've not yet managed to clear the low bar of being offensively funny in the way, say, the average episode of Fox's Family Guy typically summons up something to catch the breath; the stakes are as negligible comedically as they are dramatically. A combination of expensive persistence and growing storytelling heft led even this Marvelsceptic to spend idle minutes wondering which Avengers will be returning after the conclusion of Infinity War; after spending four hours in Deadpool's world, I couldn't care less who signs on for movie three, in part because there's so little in an affectless echo chamber like this for anybody over the age of fifteen to care about. Even that sharp streak of self-referentiality that elevated the first movie above the level of adolescent snark has dwindled: Reynolds spends somewhere between five and ten minutes of the sequel pointing out what he calls "lazy screenwriting", and putting that in quotation marks doesn't make it any less lazy. "Big CGI fight coming up," winks Deadpool as the film ploughs indifferently into its closing showdown, and any grown-ups remaining in the auditorium will note that he says it like he says everything else over these two hours: like it's a good thing.

Deadpool 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

On demand: "Deadpool"

Ah, right. I'd left Deadpool for a rainy day/the inevitable sequel/until I absolutely had to see it, and it turns out - watched on Netflix, on an overcast Monday evening, with nothing much in the way of expectation - to be a perfectly functional receptacle for all Marvel's snarkier instincts: adolescent where the Avengers remain an essentially childish, action-figure concern, pushing a little further beyond the galaxy of the Guardians, with a hard-R rating (15 in the UK) that allows for try-hard swearing, brief nudity, many bloody demises, and a general air of what-the-hell irreverence. The movie equivalent of a sock deployed in the act of masturbation, every comic-book universe apparently needs one of these, to catch those sulky outliers and refuseniks who consider themselves too old or too worldly for squeaky-clean superhero juvenilia, but not old enough to plot their first high-school shooting: where Marvel has Deadpool, DC has its Suicide Squad, another 2016 release that profited from a ready audience of disaffected incels with lots of pent-up energy and plentiful leisure time.

Approached as a film rather than a PR phenomenon, Deadpool at least attempts something novel with that tattered concept of the origin story. From its jokily deconstructive opening credits ("Directed by Some Overpaid Jerk"), the whole film revolves around a single freeway battle that Ryan Reynolds' Pool, a.k.a. petty tough Wade Wilson, finds himself in; overpaid jerk Tim Miller uses the lulls in this action to brief us on how everybody got there. The upshot of this telescoping is that it takes barely an hour - rather than an entire movie, or three movies - to bring us up to speed. (The film runs to an appreciably brief 108 minutes: snark has a way of cutting to the nub of the matter.) Some fun ideas - a carefully choreographed three-in-one killshot, an extended sex scene tied to public holidays, one death by Zamboni - zing around inside this framing device, and it's undeniably liberating to encounter one of these films that isn't bound to do the 12A-rated right thing at every turn; there's none of that piousness that has always made, say, Captain America such a dullard to be around.

The one potential obstacle between you and an enjoyable night on the sofa is Deadpool himself, a character whose primary superpower is his ability to relentlessly generate glib wisecracks. The closer you are to fifteen - physically or emotionally - the funnier you will find these, and even then, you may find them hit and miss. A gag about 80s TV star Meredith Baxter Birney clearly isn't going to find traction with 21st century teenagers, and to this old man, it just wasn't funny - it's a reference, and that's about all it is. When Stan Lee shows up as a stripclub DJ to introduce a dancer called Chastity - "or, as I like to call her, Irony" - the assumption is that the core audience is so bovine that they need that irony flagged. I can't deny that I laughed - bartending sidekick Weasel (T.J. Miller) waves off the black-clad villains with "Have fun at your midnight screening of Blade II" (the precision tickled me) - but the general pose of subversive, nonconformist outsider art the film throws is just that: a pose, making Deadpool the Mountain Dew to the Avengers' Coke and the Guardians' Sprite. It's nice that a 21st century corporation should have arrived at such variety, and all these products evidently hit the spot every now and again, but it strikes me you can't legitimately chug one of these movies every two weeks (as they seem to be coming at us now) and then spend your time in the real world lamenting how we're all growing slower, fatter and dumber. Drink up, by all means, but let's drink responsibly.

Deadpool is now available to stream on Netflix; a sequel, Deadpool 2, is playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 19 May 2018

1,001 Films: "Paris, Texas" (1984)

The title of Paris, Texas speaks to the whole: here are iconic images of Americana (diners, poolhalls, freeways, mountains) steered in a new European direction. Mute, bearded, baseball-capped Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) staggers out of the Mojave desert, having been AWOL for four years; driven back to his native L.A. and taken in by his brother (Dean Stockwell), he tries to reconnect with first the son he abandoned in his earlier life, then the rest of the country, including the wife who walked out on him back in the day (Nastassja Kinski). Behind the camera, Wim Wenders had clearly realised that Reagan's America was hung up on fathers and sons, reinvention, taciturn men striding out of a Western landscape to do what they've gotta do; what's possibly surprising is how much the filmmaker is himself in thrall to these themes and concerns. Jettisoning the critical eye Wenders brought to Alice in the Cities, Paris, Texas proves far more yielding than the average Werner Herzog inquiry; it has none of the zippy, subversive energy of Alex Cox's near-simultaneous Repo Man

The film's bedrocks are Stanton, who probably couldn't have played sentimental if he'd tried, and Robby Müller's cinematography, which really does bring a fresh pair of eyes to this part of the world. It is, however, a familiar trail to mosey on down merely to discover what turns out to be no more than a Martin Guerre or Paper Moon-like weepie with just enough Ry Cooder slide guitar on the soundtrack to have convinced the Scala crowd they were watching something profound; in actual fact, the final hour is Stanton going out of his way to tell Kinski, at punishing length, just what a terrible mother she's been. It's telling that the filmmaker who really seemed to dig it was another Scala fave: David Lynch, who went on to cast Stockwell in Blue Velvet and Stanton in The Straight Story, may well have been taken by the late-in-the-day peepshow business (Kinski and Audrey Horne are sisters in sweaters), and came to pursue his own path between the conspicuously cult and the oddly conservative.

Paris, Texas is available to buy through Axiom Films, and to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

Friday 18 May 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 11-13, 2018:

1 (1) Avengers: Infinity War (12A) ***

2 (new) Sherlock Gnomes (U) **
3 (2) I Feel Pretty (12A)
4 (new) Life of the Party (12A)
5 (new) Breaking In (15) ***
6 (3) A Quiet Place (15) ****
7 (4The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)
8 (6) Blade Runner: The Final Cut (15) ****
9 (5Rampage (12A)
10 (new) Raazi (12A) ****


My top five: 
1. 2001: a Space Odyssey

2. A Cambodian Spring
3. The Sound of Music [above]
4. Raazi
5. Jeune Femme

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
2 (3) Pitch Perfect 3 (12)
3 (2) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12) ***
4 (5) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
5 (7) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
6 (new) Singularity (12)
7 (8) Doctor Strange (12) **
8 (4) Hostiles (15) **
9 (10) Justice League (12)
10 (12) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12) **


My top five: 
1. The Square

2. The Ice King
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. The Post
5. Coco

The messiest mademoiselle: "Jeune Femme"

It's been dubbed the "messy women" subgenre, though perhaps "women" would suffice. (Labellers are such neatfreaks.) Certainly, our movies and TV shows have been working hard of late to expand the definition of how the fairer sex might appear on screen, yielding a run of characters who have arrived unvarnished, deglamorised, rootless and purposeless, all rough edges and sharp corners, and growing more abrasive by the minute. The pushback against the aspirational, Sex & the City-era beauty myth began in the US, with the near-simultaneous emergence of Bridesmaids and Girls; it's already passed through the UK, with the BBC series Fleabag and the indie success Daphne, and now reaches France in the form of Jeune Femme, a Camera d'Or-winning debut from writer-director Léonor Serraille. Serraille's film bears a site-specific kick: in place of the usual well-tailored mademoiselle elegantly stiletto-heeling her way around the boulevards of Paris, we're introduced to une fille who's falling apart at the seams. Aspirational, no; recognisable, yes.

When we first join 31-year-old Paula (Laeticia Dosch), she's literally bashing her brains in: using her head as a battering ram on the door of the flat from which she's just been unceremoniously turfed by her boyfriend. After being sectioned, released back into society, and then stealing off with her ex's cat, Paula finds herself jobless and homeless - spending mere hours on a friend's couch after she pisses off her host - reduced to stumbling around the streets by day and returning to a grotty hotel at night. That her ex is a photographer who's profited from an image of Paula seems significant: our heroine's entire identity appears to have been taken from her overnight, forcing her to start over from scratch. When a contemporary mistakes her for someone else during another aimless ride on the Metro, Paula goes along with it, gaining both a job and a place to stay - but the pretence, the latest bad decision made by a young woman who's both a walking nightmare and someone we know all too well, cannot hold.

Framing the film as plainly and humourlessly as that makes it sound somewhat like the work of that past master of French austerity Maurice Pialat - and positions Paula as a latter-day vagabond - but then Jeune Femme wouldn't be the generational portrait it is without its jagged edges: conversations that don't lead anywhere, a general sense of drift, niggling conflict between Paula and her careerist employer, not to mention unfinished business between our heroine and her mother, that recurring site of feminist inquiry. What makes it a good deal more fun to watch is Dosch's gauche goofiness, her unabashed willingness to talk to plants or carry that (baffled and furious-looking) cat around wherever she goes. Paula is the definition of a hot mess, but she's very easy to pal around with, which leaves us slightly more reassured as to her future: it'd be a cruel director who wanted to punish or condemn her.

Serraille's sensibility is altogether comic and restorative. It's lightly (rather than grimly) ironic that her heroine should find employment in a chichi boutique, selling posh knickers she can't get onto the mannequins, and she stages one great tableau that finds Paula waking up in a bed in a most unlikely position, still wearing the headphones she was using the night before. (There will almost certainly be viewers who say: yeah, I've done that.) Linear plot is forsaken for scenes, skits and observations: there is a strong sense of a film patching itself together much as its heroine does, a marriage of form and subject that obviously suits a modestly budgeted indie like this more than it would a glossy romcom. What Jeune Femme nails is an idea of muddling through, which many twenty- and thirtysomethings - for whom job security, and even life security, has never been on the table - cannot fail to recognise: here are ninety-odd minutes of consolation for anyone labouring away under late capitalism, unsure of the rules of the game, let alone how they might win.

Jeune Femme opens in selected cinemas from today, and is available to stream through Curzon Home Cinema.  

"One Man's Madness" (Guardian 18/05/18)

One Man’s Madness ***
Dir: Jeff Baynes. Documentary with: Lee Thompson, Suggs, Mike Barson, Mark Bedford. No cert. 80 mins.

The movie year began with Suggs reminiscing in Julien Temple’s playful collage My Life Story; now we find saxophonist and songwriter Lee “Thommo” Thompson skanking down memory lane in Jeff Baynes’ lively oral history of all things Madness. If the framing is broadly conventional – that basic, BBC4-courting mix of talking heads, underexposed archive footage and lovingly framed album covers – Baynes has one wildcard up his sleeve: Thompson himself, who appears, often dragged-up, miming to the testimonies of his mother, sister, wife and other witnesses – a technique inspired either by Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Nick Park’s Creature Comforts, or the band’s own TOTP appearances.

It’s true, certainly, to the larky spirit of Madness, and the wider theatricality of the post-punk scene into which the group emerged; stylised opening credits – introducing key players and themes in the manner of the Peel/Steed Avengers – offer Thompson rare credits for hair, make-up and “character development”. As for Thommo himself, it’s the story of how a Camden delinquent – oft-chased by baton-wielding coppers, as per later promos – found a creative channel for his unruly, raspberry-blowing energies. PA James O’Gara suggests “If [Lee] wasn’t in the band, he’d be locked up in a secure unit”, and you sense Thompson sailing close to the wind even today with his depiction of lawyer Julian Turton as a ruddy-nosed boozer.

It isn’t just messing about in wardrobe. Centralising a songwriter allows Baynes to address the refinement of what was originally trumpeted as “the heavy-heavy monster sound”. A segment on the Thompson-penned “Embarrassment” points up intriguing attitudinal differences between Madness and idealistic Two-Tone contemporaries The Specials; their tightness as a musical unit becomes doubly apparent when set against the sprawling anarchy of Thompson’s side project Crunch. No surprise to find ace musicologist Neil Brand among the contributors – albeit as embodied by Thompson in a Jimmy Edwards-style mortarboard. Chiefly for the fans who crowdfunded it, but cheeky enough to have wider appeal. 

One Man's Madness tours selected cinemas from today.

"A Love That Never Dies" (Guardian 18/05/18)

A Love That Never Dies **
Dirs: Jimmy Edmonds, Jane Harris. Documentary with Edmonds, Harris. 75 mins. Cert: 12A

Here’s an especially tricky film to assess. To see it is to risk feeling as though you are intruding upon some wounding, deeply personal loss; to rate it risks invalidating the participants’ grief. The plain, unemotional facts are these: this is an independently funded and released documentary by Jimmy Edmonds and Jane Harris, a British couple whose son Josh died, aged 22, in a car accident while touring Ho Chi Minh in 2011. In the ensuing years, the pair have travelled America, reaching out to fellow parents who’ve ended up in the unnatural position of having to bury their children, and inviting them to speak about the unspeakable.

Responses from tearful defeat to unending rage are collected and assembled, offset by those rituals of remembrance the subjects find consoling: Jimmy, touchingly, clings to his son’s vast photo archive. The interviewees, however, come from an altogether limited spectrum. Though the filmmakers make a brief stop-off to mourn the passing of a white teenager who volunteered within poorer neighbourhoods, there is a glaring shortage of input from communities which have suffered disproportionately from burying their young; it would have meant venturing beyond the comfortably appointed suburban homes Edmonds and Harris gravitated towards.

The road movie framing lets some West Coast sunshine in on these dark, depressive topics, but equally opens the filmmakers to accusations of grief tourism: there’s often more scenery – the Grand Canyon, desert highways – than real clarity or insight. There’s one compelling encounter with the parents of a boy slain by his father’s gun, and we shouldn’t discount the project’s inbuilt cathartic value. Yet these 75 minutes keep raising questions the directors don’t have the time, distance or editorial rigour to answer satisfactorily. Can privilege help cushion death’s hammer blow? Does money make it easier to outrun grief? The film’s honesty goes only so far. 

A Love That Never Dies opens in selected cinemas from today.

Spy in the house of love: "Raazi"

It's become apparent over recent years that Alia Bhatt is Bollywood's brightest new star, the Jennifer Lawrence of the Southern hemisphere. Understandably, either she or the industry she works in - or a serendipitous combination of both - has so far been protective of her talents: she's never seemed overexposed, which has allowed her onscreen responses to remain fresh and surprising, she's had a strong eye for apt, commercially appealing scripts, and she's integrated well amid large ensembles, which - as it surely has done with Lawrence over in Hollywood - has helped reduce whatever burdens that come with becoming a major movie megastar before you're even a quarter-century old. (She had only to prop up one end of the marquee hosting 2015's goofy wedding comedy Shaandaar, and even 2016's Top 10 hit Dear Zindagi was sold on her proximity to Shah Rukh Khan.) Raazi, an old-school star vehicle in which Bhatt plays a Mata Hari-like historical figure, feels like the first real test of the actress's ability to hold the camera's gaze and open a movie by herself; among its many fascinations is the sense that writer-director Meghna Gulzar has taken a traditionally masculine genre - the wartime spy picture - and feminised it to perfectly accentuate her star's shoulders. Here is the Red Sparrow that merits serious, sustained study.

The backdrop - the 1971 escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan - may initially raise concerns that Gulzar is somewhat opportunistically tapping into that wave of nationalism currently sweeping not just this region but the world entire. It isn't just the period specs and Firthesque bearing of handler Mr. Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat) that gives early scenes the air of a Kingsman-like retro makeover fantasy: Bhatt's Sehmat Khan is plucked, fresh as a daisy, from the lawns of Delhi University, sequestered away to be instructed in the finer points of handling a weapon, and eventually dispatched over the border onto rockier, far more treacherous ground. Yet Gulzar permits none of the egregious flagwaving and willy-waggling associated with the British franchise. The Pakistani military clan Sehmat is married into for reasons of Indian national security are, with the possible exception of a suspicious footman who twigs our heroine might be here on the make, innately good people who mourn the losses their side endure, and not the monsters a far more simplistic feature would have them pegged as; Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), the upright commander's son whose hand she takes, is a kind and cultured soul, insisting the pair take time to get to know one another, before presenting his bride with a trove of Indian classical LPs.

Spywork is here not a matter not of necksnapping and bodydropping - Bhatt, far from the Angelina model of star, doesn't have the build for it - but insidious emotional betrayal; our heroine - introduced rescuing a squirrel from traffic in a manner that suggests her gifts lie with preservation rather than cold-blooded termination - cries whenever she has to take a life, which is not something we ever caught James Bond or Jason Bourne doing. Certainly, the excellent Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy score tends more towards sensitive keening than conventional action-movie pulsing, the song lyrics (by the director's father, the writer and poet Gulzar) tying very closely to the ebb and flow of the plot, but then this is a rare 130-minute Hindi feature with no unnecessary gestures, no wasted energies, and which benefits immeasurably from holding ultra-tight focus on its protagonist: it's a thriller that realises you don't need characters chasing one another over the rooftops when what's going on beneath their feet is so fraught. At base, Raazi is a domestic drama about a young woman taken prematurely from her actual home and sent to keep an eye on a place where she doesn't belong, knowing full well that to let her cover slip would be fatal; this set-up yields tense setpiece after tense setpiece in the second half, as Sehmat strives, amid rapidly rising stakes, to do what she's been sent to do, and get out before she's found out.

The casting proves both inspired, and a reflection of inspired intelligence tactics first time around: you completely understand why Sehmat's hosts would never, in a billion lifetimes, suspect this apparently meek, dollfaced pipsqueak (codename: "The Bride") of anything so underhand as subterfuge or murder. Yet there's also something in how Gulzar co-opts Bhatt's established star persona - how she takes this outward-looking, forward-thinking girl-next-door, and all but imprisons her for two hours within the machinations of warring states - which is quietly and powerfully feminist. Raazi is a multiplex thriller first and foremost, and one that works superbly as such, but it also sparks more than the odd thought on the dreadfully vulnerable positions conflict can leave women in. Sehmat's final-reel howl at her handler, a lament for everything this mission has taken away from her, is both electrifying and heartbreaking - a long pent-up expression of all that this character has been forced to internalise, and a reminder she was, and to some degree still is, but a child. I went into Raazi fairly secure in my conviction that Bhatt was the best young actress currently working in Bollywood; I came away, shaken, from its closing ten minutes mulling over the possibility she may now be the best young actress working anywhere in the world.  

Raazi is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 17 May 2018

Forever mine: "Allure"

Allure, the debut film of photographer-turned-director siblings Carlos and Jason Sanchez, is an altogether cool puzzle piece, and the puzzle is one movie and TV watchers have been attempting to solve for over a decade now: what's eating Evan Rachel Wood? In the opening scene, we find this spiky, unconventional actress - a frostbitten Kristen Bell, a Sharon Stone origin story - abruptly terminating a bad Craigslist hook-up, sending her poor sod of a correspondent fleeing with tail between his legs; in the second, we witness her Laura oversharing with Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), the piano-playing teenage daughter of the well-to-do woman she cleans for; in the third, we watch as Laura is (it proves characteristically) bolshy with her father (Denis O'Hare), who gave her this job in the first place. The threads connecting these sequences, and those that follow, are interpersonal tension and fraught attraction: the puzzle takes greater shape when Eva rows with her mother and storms out of the family home to take refuge with Laura, a heroine who is already clearly on edge. In its leftfield, standoffish way, the film is a response to the calls for change within the industry some - not least Wood herself - have been making. You want greater female representation on screen? Here's a movie that has troubled women wherever you look.

The result qualifies as an oddity, if far from a complete success: a thriller that operates at an ultra-low frequency, that sets out to be no more than quietly, persistently stressful. The Sanchez boys get almost all their effects from the sight of two young women making credibly poor decisions, and then doubling down on them, as young people are sometimes wont to do; it hardly soothes our fraying nerves that the camera keeps shooting everybody through glass, as if these were bugs to be studied - or crushed. The actors bring these people to some kind of life: O'Hare is as rocksolid as he almost always is, and you sense Wood seizing a moment, or the opportunity to try something more challenging than the porcelain-doll role she currently occupies on TV's Westworld. There are, too, points where the autumnal anonymity of the directors' framing comes close to reproducing that ominous Gregory Crewdson style. Yet it quickly becomes clear that something's missing - that this is a crumpled, damaged movie about crumpled, damaged people, and there's not all that much those of us looking on from the cheap seats can do to fix it. As the initial crackle of intrigue subsides, Allure starts to seem banal and faintly TV movie-ish in its listing of everyday abuses: it sorely needed more heart or a dash of pulpy verve to justify its place on the big screen, and instead it's got Wood, a jagged ice sliver who keeps slipping through our fingers. This is one of those movies that is so deterministically glum and chilly that what it needs most of all is a hug - but it's not a film that invites easy embrace, and one suspects it might even squirm noncommittally out of that. No touching.

Allure opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.