Friday 29 June 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 22-24, 2018:

1 (new) Ocean's 8 (12A)

2 (1) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***
3 (2) Hereditary (15) **
4 (4) Deadpool 2 (15) **
5 (3Solo: a Star Wars Story (12A) ***
6 (7) Avengers: Infinity War (12A) ***
7 (8) Sherlock Gnomes (U) **
8 (6Book Club (12A)
9 (11) The Happy Prince (15)
10 (10Blade Runner: The Final Cut (15) ****


My top five: 
1. The Piano

2. The Deer Hunter
3. Vagabond
4. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
5. All the Wild Horses

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Fifty Shades Freed (18)
2 (1) Black Panther (12A) **
3 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (2) Darkest Hour (PG) **
5 (new) Fifty Shades Trilogy (18)
6 (5) Coco (PG) ***
7 (8) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
8 (7) Early Man (PG)
9 (6) Den of Thieves (15) **
10 (4) Dunkirk (12) ***


My top five: 
1. Lady Bird

2. The Shape of Water
3. 120 Beats Per Minute
4. Game Night
5. Nothing Like a Dame

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Fight Club [above] (Saturday, five, 2.40am)
2. Lethal Weapon (Monday, five, 9pm)
3. Alien (Sunday, C4, 11.20pm)
4. sex&drugs&rock&roll (Saturday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Alien³ (Friday, C4, 12.30am)

"Sanju" (Guardian 29/06/18)

Sanju **
Dir: Rajkumar Hirani. With: Ranbir Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Anushka Sharma, Sonam Kapoor. 155 mins. Cert: 15

The career of Bollywood megastar Sanjay Dutt has been the rockiest of rides. Born to Nargis, iconic figurehead of 1957’s Mother India, Dutt’s initial breakthrough was stymied by drink, drugs and womanising, and subsequent comebacks separated by stretches of prison time. The actor’s air of disrepute bolstered 2006’s terrific comedy Lage Raho Munna Bhai, where he played a heavy nagged towards virtue by Gandhi’s ghost: the gags there had the ring of hard truth. That film’s director Rajkumar Hirani now brings us a decidedly soft and authorised-looking biopic featuring boyish pin-up Ranbir Kapoor as the roguish colossus, which to British eyes seems like recruiting, say, Men’s Hour lynchpin Tim Samuels to play Ray Winstone.

In actuality, Kapoor proves a lightweight film’s strongest suit: he’s accumulated the muscle mass, the bags under the eyes that speak to late-night licentiousness, even a measure of Dutt’s bad-boy swagger. Everything else about this hagiography intends to make the character look good. Sanju opens with Dutt’s third wife Manyata (Dia Mirza) persuading an initially sceptical journo (Anushka Sharma) to tell her suicidal hubby’s side of the story, and that’s exactly what this script does, generating nigh-on three hours of self-justification. The drugs were the actor’s way of escaping his father’s control and his mother’s decline. The women? He was irresistible and broken-hearted. The guns? There for protection. The infamy? Blame the press.

There’s a certain old-school comic nous about an early mix-up involving women and whisky (“I was enjoying an 18-year-old on the terrace…”), but it’s otherwise sad to see an irreverent talent like Hirani tidying up generally unruly legend, and trying to reframe a lot of grimly male misbehaviour as simple misunderstanding. At a moment when film industries are having an overdue rethink of their relation to star privilege, an ambiguous life such as this might have offered up a cautionary tale, or at the very least some learning curve. What we get instead is a patchwork of feeble evasions and celebratory elaborations. This story barely hangs together inside a cinema; no wonder it didn’t pass muster in the law courts.

Sanju opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday 28 June 2018

Closed encounters: "The Endless"

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are the writer-director partnership who've taken it upon themselves to find new paths into and through well-trodden genre territory. They first came to this viewer's attention at the London Film Festival in 2014 with their semi-unclassifiable Spring, which began as an unusually nuanced Hostel knock-off, morphed into a monster movie, and wound up within the realms of sincerely touching romance. Spring very quickly became a cult movie, one you found yourself pushing on people even as you struggled to explain why they should see it; Moorhead and Benson now return with The Endless, which is literally a movie about a cult, albeit a cult approached from a slightly different angle than the cinema usually permits. The angle is this: what if you had the good sense to haul yourself (or be hauled) away from what the media are reporting as a "UFO death cult", only to feel as though you'd left something behind there, and that you'd made the wrong choice?

The opening act introduces us to two brothers - played by the filmmakers themselves - who left the community their mother raised them in upon her passing, and subsequently developed contrasting personalities. Justin (Benson), the older of the two, has determined to to roll his sleeves up and make a go of it in the real world, no matter that he re-enters society at the lowly rank of cleaner, from which position transcendence seems even further off. His younger sibling Aaron (Moorhead), on the other hand, finds a dusty old tape showing the compound sparking a nostalgia for the place where he was served hand-picked, home-cooked vegetables (rather than the Super Noodles these lonely boys now make for themselves) and left to his own devices, without the mundane earthly concerns of work and rent. On the drive back to the site, for a visit intended to bring a measure of closure (or to remove rose-tinted specs from kid brother's eyes), Aaron tells Justin "it's not a cult, it's a commune". Inevitably, this being a Moorhead and Benson film, it proves to be something else entirely.

We know not what for the longest time. Unlike the cult in Ti West's disappointing The Sacrament, a Jonestown facsimile where we were basically just waiting for someone to bust out the Kool-Aid, the brothers' former home Camp Arcadia proves a far more ambiguous site of inquiry. Yes, it has one or two oddballs, and a light smattering of curious rituals (such as the tug-o'-war with the night), as with any community on this planet, but its residents are far from the hollow, credulous zombies who have traditionally populated screen cults; instead, the boys are introduced or reintroduced to a series of nice, photogenic people in flannel shirts who have inner lives and a karaoke night and a nicely self-deprecating way with the adjective "culty". We, however, come to see them through two sets of eyes. There is Aaron's point of view, that of a big kid falling in love all over again with a place and its people, and there is Justin's point of view, with its innate suspicion that there is something ever so slightly off about it and them - that the whole set-up is a little too New Age idyllic to be true.

That's a tricky balancing act for any film to pull off, and The Endless manages it for a good hour in which you can sense freelance writers everywhere readying Moorhead and Benson for inclusion in that jerrybuilt pantheon of "elevated horror": horror, in other words, that doesn't much look or play like the horrors of our youth, the kind of horror that sparks bloodless thinkpieces on mainstream news websites. My feeling is actually that these filmmakers are to this genre (or any other genre: it's never entirely clearcut what territory we're passing into) what Judd Apatow has been to comedy, namely mini revolutionaries so resistant to the strictures of pre-existing story templates that their output risks sprawling shapelessness. Spring, which ran closer to two hours than normal B-movie length, was fairly loose and baggy, which allowed Moorhead and Benson to work in scenes and character beats rarely seen in genre movies; The Endless is baggier still, using the camp's routines to delay the revelation of what everybody's doing there - and what the film is - until the last possible moment.

You could start huffing impatiently at this, were the shifting and circling around not so clearly part of the film's design. The narrative closing of circles is borne out in everything from a spiralling murmuration of starlings to a ring of Polaroids Justin finds in the dust, and it yields one sharp, lowering matchcut early on, moving us from an overview of the expected UFO landing site to one of the pail of cleaning products central to the siblings' post-cult reality. (Way to bring a brother down to earth.) The extra time allows these writer-directors to better define both their characters and their position in relation to the cult, but I'm not so sure Moorhead and Benson explain the plot continuums they're caught up in to the level The Endless really requires. On further reading, it transpires that some of the new film spins off from this pair's 2012 debut Resolution, and prior knowledge may be essential to understanding what exactly is going on among the film's many sidebars and discursions. We are, it seems, headed into that dangerous brand-building game played by certain franchises in assuming each film is but a fragment of something bigger, a clause in a masterplan.

Even as an exercise in laying out and then solving a puzzle, The Endless can seem erratic. Spring segued fluently from one kind of movie to the next, but this hits a bumpy patch around its midsection - and around that crucial juncture between worlds - with the introduction of several excessively abrasive performers in the roles of desperate methheads, and thereafter lurches forwards in fits and starts. (I also have to confess that Moorhead and Benson didn't entirely work for me as leading men: they convince as bros, but their range is decidedly bro-ish, with none of the expressiveness of Lou Taylor Pucci in their previous film.) The terrain these filmmakers don't get anywhere near this time is that emotional territory Spring passed through. That film, openhearted and openminded, was identifiably the work of young male adventurers still wearing their hearts on their sleeves, yet The Endless feels overly cerebral and closed-off in everything from its narrative trajectory to its casting, culty in the wrong sense of the word: there's a kind of logic to the way it draws circles in the sand, but I spent two hours on the outside looking in at it. Kool-Aid readied, but not sipped.

The Endless opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, ahead of its DVD release this Monday.

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Resonance: "Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda"

For a documentary on an accomplished musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda sure starts out quiet. Granted, a prelude sees Sakamoto - now, at 66, entering into the revered greyhair stage of his career - tapping out notes on a piano found among the devastation of Fukushima ("I wanted to hear the sound") and eventually sitting down before a rapt audience at one of the local evacuation centres to strike up that simple-seeming yet enormously evocative theme from Nagisa Oshima's 1982 drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a reminder to any onlookers of just what a gifted composer and performer he is. Thereafter, however, the piano lid is closed, with reason. Director Stephen Nomura Schible joined Sakamoto in 2014, where his attempts to finish scoring the Oscar-winning The Revenant were thrown into disarray by a diagnosis of throat cancer. We thus find the composer amid a pause for thought, reflecting - in hushed tones that speak either to his condition, or an innately sanguine personality - upon his legacy (as both a founder member of the pop futurists Yellow Magic Orchestra and a solo artist) and his hopes for a future work, inspired by nature, that would stand as "a soundtrack for a film that doesn't exist", to be set against his recordings for those that do. Slowly, over the months that follow, the music begins to reassert itself, in an act of creation intended to keep death - and its attendant silences - at bay. Here, then, is a film almost uniquely attuned to process. How does this man reconcile himself with the news he may not be long for this world? And how does he go about making the sounds that may carry something of his spirit forward after death?

The bulk of Schible's film follows this last line of inquiry. Time and again, we find Sakamoto, one of that rare and cherishable breed of sonic collectors, venturing out into the field (be that his back garden, a forest, or a remote African village), microphone in hand, to gather up noises, then heading back to his studio in New York to push the buttons and twiddle the knobs that fold the results of his harvesting into the intense soundscapes that have become his trademark. (As he sets off for the Antarctic to record the ice melting, I couldn't help but hear Half Man Half Biscuit imagining what Brian Eno's outgoing answerphone message must sound like, on their track "Eno Collaboration": "Brian's not home/He's at the North Pole/But if you'd like to leave a/A weird noise...") This methodology - half-human/organic, half-circuits and wires - was, we learn, in place from Sakamoto's earliest recordings: a precious archive clip captures him arriving at the gloriously wonky keyboard riff, played by man yet accelerated and distorted by machine, that drove the Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Behind the Mask" (and was later appropriated by Eric Clapton for his biggest Eighties hit). In the present day, meanwhile, we watch as Sakamoto tinkers with soundwaves while cross-referencing a list of the first thousand prime numbers. Somehow, these diverse inputs come together and become greater than the sum of their parts, and a few seconds of camera time preserves a recording that will hang around on YouTube until the day they pull the plug on the Internet.

This quest for eternity - or at least some small corner of it - can present as a little po-faced. That teasing hint of "Behind the Mask" is all we hear of the poppier end of the Sakamoto spectrum, and though we get a fun anecdote about Bernardo Bertolucci coaxing the composer into rearranging one cue for 1990's The Sheltering Sky moments before it was due to be recorded ("Ennio Morricone would do it"), Coda remains, in the main, a sober, scholarly endeavour. Schible huddles watchfully and protectively over his subject, much as his subject huddles over the keyboard, stopping only to reach for clips - scenes from Tarkovsky's version of Solaris, and from Sakamoto's 1999 opera Life, with its gloomy Robert Oppenheimer quotes ("I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds") - which mesh only too well with the elegiac tone of the music being assembled over this period. Of those two processes mentioned earlier, there is far more of the work - lots of EQ adjustment, some messing around with gongs - than there is emotion, although you sense soldiering on regardless may just have been Sakamoto's way of coping, as it is for many artists. (His cancer, thankfully, went into remission some time in 2015.) Still, if you know these recordings, there is an obvious appeal in seeing the ideas and labour that went into them; the film retains that fascination that follows from watching a master throwing open his doors and laying out his working. Early on in Coda, Sakamoto confesses to becoming obsessed with the notion of "the perpetual sound, one that won't dissipate over time". A technohead such as he is surely can't have failed to note how the cinema offers myriad possibilities towards that end: Schible's film shows us a piano lid being opened with renewed purpose, before enabling the music made there to play on forever.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Extreme measures: "In the Fade"

She's been an ever-present on the red carpet at major movie festivals over the past decade, but Diane Kruger has had a hard time being taken seriously, as models-turned-actresses often do. Always a tricky business, persuading onlookers to extend their sympathies to someone who already boasts the considerable life-advantage of having emerged from the desired end of the gene pool; it hardly helped that Kruger's first major film showcase came playing the fabled Helen in 2004's all but disastrous Troy, one of those billings even a seasoned performer would struggle to live up to. (I am reminded of Judi Dench in the recent doc Nothing Like A Dame, confessing to having wondered why producers sought out "a menopausal dwarf" like her to play Cleopatra.) In the Fade, a would-be heavy-hitting, politically charged drama from the German writer-director Fatih Akin, takes certain steps to address this issue. It finds Kruger a little more lived-in than usual, and sporting the kind of beauty-disrupting tattoos appropriate for playing the wife of an ex-con; it hands her a pair of spectacles, always a sign an actress is pushing for greater credibility; and its plot encourages her to pull the kind of silly, mashed-up and eventually agonised faces that would never in a million years be allowed at a Vogue cover shoot. Truly, it's a whole new world.

As in the film, which opens with a brisk, sly panorama of the multicultural neighbourhood in Hamburg where Kruger's Katja has settled with her hubby (now reformed as a financial advisor at a drop-in centre for the area's Muslim community) and a son so adorably cutesy-poo that you can only fear the worst for him. Ten minutes in, and that worst comes to pass: before the title has had chance to fade up, some ne'er-do-well plants a nailbomb outside the centre, killing our heroine's nearest and dearest. The film's potential strength is that Akin has recognised such atrocities come as a test of all our biases, latent, unconscious or otherwise. The detectives who show up at Katja's doorstep in the wake of the attack can at least claim to be doing their job by asking needling questions about hubby's religious orientation (he's an atheist, Katja retorts) and his affiliation with his clients - you yourself might wonder how two thirtysomethings working in the volunteer sector can afford such a spacious property in which to raise their child - but the media inevitably prioritise some details of the case over others: a photofit of a young woman wanted for questioning in relation to the attack bears the presumptive, arguably prejudicial words "She is probably Eastern European". There is the extra charge that all this should be unfolding in the heart of 21st century Germany: Act One draws to a close with Katja's stark realisation, in the office of the lawyer who provides her with numbing crack, that "the Nazis did it".

Already, you could be sensing In the Fade's tendency towards the overemphatic: it is, palpably, the work of a filmmaker whose reputation has waned somewhat in the decade or so since his 2004 breakthrough Head On, pushing way too hard for the impact that might bring him back into the cultural conversation. Hubby's demise coincides with what seems like several years' worth of rain falling on Hamburg; when the suspects are finally tried in Act Two, it is in a courtroom so bizarrely overlit it begins to resemble a Hype Williams promo for a song called something like "Da Law Is An Azz". The idea, presumably, is that any injustice should be put in plain sight, but these courtroom scenes are where the film's own issues of plausibility become starkly apparent. So Katja is forced to sit seething through the grim forensic details of her son's death; the witnesses are arranged in such an odd fashion that they have to turn 360° in their chair to answer lawyers' questions; and the father of one of the suspects (Ulrich Tukur, nicely understated in the circumstances) apologises for his son's actions without any of the defence lawyers raising the merest objection, the better to support the directorial thesis about the need of good men and women to stand up to intolerance, and to instil optimistic viewers with false hope such goodness will win out.

There is, instead, only one way In the Fade is heading. Act Two shades into Act Three with that not-guilty verdict (larded with close-ups of the accused's gloating, gleeful, got-away-with-it grins), and the film transforms into a woolly liberal Death Wish, as our heroine heads to a sundappled Greek coastal idyll to singlehandedly bring down the country's anti-immigrant Golden Dawn movement. Of course, Akin can't wholly endorse the idea of retributive violence, so - between lessons on cobbling together a nailbomb, set to an ill-applied, vaguely Knopfleresque Josh Homme score - there follow plentiful shots of our heroine staring out to sea and wondering how far she is prepared to go. We, meanwhile, are left to contemplate how fortunate it is for cinematographer Rainer Klausmann that Golden Dawn should have maintained a bolthole round the corner from an 18-30 holiday resort, rather than, say, in a grimy flat in downtown Thessaloniki. En route to the sea, the carefully integrated context of that first act is gradually stripped away, and a film that initially asked to be taken seriously is revealed as a limp - if admittedly leftfield - Taken wannabe. (It goes almost without saying that Diane Kruger is no Liam Neeson.) The extreme right remain on the rise across the globe, and it behoves the rest of us to counter these dunderheads wherever possible - but for God's sake, cinema, give us stronger arguments and smarter calls to arms than this ropy, posturing, unedifyingly nihilistic flim-flam.

In the Fade is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema. 

Monday 25 June 2018

On the road: "Vagabond"

In 1985's Vagabond - reissued to UK cinemas this week as the flagship film of the BFI's summer Agnès Varda season - a girl lies dead in a ditch, and her corpse provides the cue for an investigation into the failures of empathy that led to her passing. The girl is Mona, played by Sandrine Bonnaire in that defiantly unprepossessing manner that had already caught the eye of Maurice Pialat, all dirt under the fingernails and leaves in the hair, a total absence of vanity or shame. Mona is homeless, and mostly contextless: who she is (or was) turns out to be far less significant in Varda's film than what she represented to the people she crossed paths with on the French agricultural lowlands. For the men, she's most commonly approached as an easy lay, a piece of ass to be picked up and discarded - so grubby even the local prostitutes complain about her stink. For the region's other women, however, themselves often trapped in unhappy living conditions, Mona appears as an avatar of liberty and free will. We might see her as a defining creation of the feminist or post-feminist cinema: independent, headstrong, sexually carefree, bored by or unsuited to routine and domesticity, and yet ultimately uncertain which way to turn - not to mention doomed.

As a viewing experience, Vagabond suffers from the centralisation of a character who, by her very nature, is perpetually hard to pin down (at various points, the girl could be known as Mona, Simone or even Sandrine, such is the level of naturalism the film is aiming for), and whom one suspects even Varda wouldn't condescend to know entirely. Yet there's something heroically dogged and unflinching in the way the camera pursues this young woman along her slow, inevitable downcurve - keeping an eye on her, as almost no-one else cared to - and something adventurous and tirelessly inquisitive about its broader picture, venturing as it does into what looks a very lowly part of the French countryside, the kind of backwaters where huddled locals gather in gloomy, rundown bars to hear talk of yet another farmworker's suicide. Varda pushes Bonnaire into tentative, revealing encounters with pro performers and non-pros alike, and finally gleans from this cruel and unforgiving earth a handful of supremely evocative images. As the filmmaker sets a bourgeois housewife's manicured nails against the young girl's mud-splattered hands, we see one world failing to connect with the other, and the tragedy inherent in that disconnect.

Vagabond returns to selected cinemas from Friday, and remains available on DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye.

Saturday 23 June 2018

From the archive: "Walesa: Man of Hope"

Walesa: Man of Hope finds Andrzej Wajda, at the grand old age of 87, composing a triumphant conclusion to the trilogy of films that began under Communist rule with 1977's Man of Marble and continued with 1982's Man of Iron. That Wajda has no truck with the great man theory of history can be gleaned from the way his Lech Walesa, the bright spark of the Solidarity movement emerging out of the Gdansk shipyards, is introduced: getting flustered ahead of an interview with an Italian journalist in a poky flat overrun by six noisy kids. As incarnated by the cherishably hangdog Robert Wieckiewicz, Walesa soon puts on his game face, but he's never allowed to get too far ahead of himself. The interview instead provides the occasion for Wajda to cut back to his subject's activity over the 1970s, when his achievements were far less certain, the secret police were tailing him, and wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) was struggling to feed her brood. (In these scenes, Wajda uses all the resources available to him to show just how impoverished Poland was between 1970 and 1980 - and positions Walesa as the spirit necessary to put food on the table.)

Janusz Glowacki's script is fully aware of what might be considered character flaws, if not defects: this Walesa seems awfully fond of the sound of his own voice even before he's handed a loudhailer, and he's headstrong to a fault. He marches devil-may-care into the middle of a hunger strike to tell the participants what they're doing is crap before he even deigns to introduce himself; he hides illegal pamphlets in a pram, neglecting to remove his own son first, which leaves him holding the baby after he's arrested and thrown behind bars. (In one of the film's richest anecdotes of lower-case solidarity, a female police officer offers to breastfeed the mewling tyke.) "Do I sound cocky?," he asks the journo at one point, which chimes with the Walesa self-confident enough to tell his captors they'd never kill him, because they'd thereby transform a man into a martyr. Throughout, however, he is a vital presence: there's never any doubt his country needed his hand on the scruff of its neck to drag it into a new era.

Around him, Wajda makes the potentially dry business of collective bargaining appear an urgent and necessary endeavour for those 21st century audiences who roll their eyes at train strikes, then wonder why they don't have any money left in their pockets come the end of the month. Partly it's the fluid shooting style, Pawel Edelman's restless handheld camera capturing the tumult that inevitably followed whenever Walesa barrelled into a room - and the covert surveillance to which he was subjected. Partly, it's the playful editing, splicing Wajda's own footage into period newsreel, so that Wieckiewicz-as-Walesa seems to be going head-to-head with the greying movers and shakers. And partly it's the heterodox soundtrack, which skips chronologically through Polish punk, thrash metal and New Wave pop, building a musical history of dissent and resistance. Yet the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by Wieckiewicz, whose tremendous performance gets to the heart of something in this particular history: here is a Walesa who, in the face of ever more forceful attempts to undermine him, determined not to be cowed, swayed, trampled or otherwise overcome.

(January 2017)

Walesa: Man of Hope screens on BBC2 tonight at 1am.

From the archive: "Creed"

One area where mainstream entertainment really has raised its game in recent years is in spinning fan fiction - previously scratched out in the Internet's nerdier corners - into box-office gold. TV's Fargo has done its best work around those markers that the Coen brothers set down in the snow almost twenty years ago; among a rash of decidedly nostalgic 2015 blockbusters (Jurassic World, SPECTRE), Star Wars: The Force Awakens is arguably just a megabucks projection of what a fanboy like J.J. Abrams would have posted on message boards or forums during his formative years. Now it's the turn of Ryan Coogler's Creed to enter the ring: an attempt to rejuvenate and relaunch the Rocky series by wondering what would happen if Apollo Creed's offspring had set out to follow in his father's dancing footsteps.

The film's triumph - one that has had U.S. critics and audiences on their feet applauding - is that it rediscovers that appealing cocktail of sincerity and street smarts that powered 1976's first Rocky, applying a kerb-level authenticity to its speculative set-up, and thereby translating it into something that might pass for stirring reality. Take the unusually detailed depiction of Adonis "Don" Creed (Michael B. Jordan)'s dual life: unstirring white-collar drudgery by day, Tijuana bar brawls by night. Perhaps we might still detect a line or two of contrivance, sentimentality or wish fulfilment in Don's choice of trainer upon quitting the day job: yes, that'll be Sly Stallone's Rocky himself, found newly widowed and greying at the Philly restaurant we left him in at the end of 2007's not bad comeback assignment Rocky Balboa.

Though Stallone's presence is as crucial to Creed's emotional appeal as Harrison Ford's was to The Force Awakens - livening up a 5:45am training run with irresistible dad dancing, coming to wrestle with his advanced years - in the reorganisation of this franchise around Don Creed we witness a shift of emphasis, from Italian-American to African-American life, that feels tectonic. Yet there's something interesting going on even within that shift: Don isn't the junkyard dog Rocky was - someone who needs to fight as a means of escape - but the well-to-do scion of a sporting dynasty who has options before him, not least denying his father's name in order to stand and fight alone. If the film takes such care with the Rocky legacy, it's in part because it is itself wrestling - on this narrative level - with the responsibilities of assuming a name. (Don't underestimate the extratextual significance of having a young black actor called Michael Jordan wrestling with such an issue.)

Coogler, who previously collaborated with his star on 2013's punchy true-life reenactment Fruitvale Station, lets us know where he's coming from early on with the casting of Phylicia Rashad - the mum from the once-cosy Cosby Show - as Ma Creed, and goes on to pursue a very different kind of drama from his debut. That film applied a realist eye to characters on a collision course; here, it's to people coming together for the better. At 133 minutes, Creed winds up with the longest running time of any Rocky movie, but it allows the performers to feel their way around the characters (and one another), and for the camera to do the same for a particular gym, street corner or neighbourhood. You can feel Coogler wobbling a little around Creed's eventual opponent, a Liverpool lad (real-life cruiserweight Tony Bellew), who once - we learn - "ran around Toxteth with a gun"; the film's UK scenes suggest some crossover with those indifferently performed British crime movies of the millennium.

Yet it's amazing that a 2016 film should find new things to do with its fight scenes: here, meticulously choreographed encounters, often shot in extended or single takes to punch up the physicality and endurance of the performers. (The finale, too, forsakes Vegas or Madison Square for a new arena that may just tickle Brit sports fans.) At every turn, Coogler succeeds in taking the edge off his bigger narrative contrivances, if not hiding them completely; there never seems to be any sleight-of-hand going on. Yes, this remains an arc the movies have shuffled through many times before - the underdog who comes through initial training montages and a midfilm bodyblow to land himself a shot at the title. (Ludwig Goransson's score keeps threatening something mightily familiar.) Yet it's one that will continue to have some impact so long as our collective urge for self-improvement remains strong: the tighter Jordan gets, the more inspired viewers should be to renew their gym membership. For his part, Coogler plants his feet in the right place and finds his own effective rhythm; by the point where he starts winding up to land a punch, Creed has accumulated power enough to scatter one's popcorn, and possibly even knock you back in your seat.

(MovieMail, January 2015)

Creed screens on ITV tonight at 9.30pm.

Friday 22 June 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 15-17, 2018:

1 (1) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***

2 (new) Hereditary (15) **
3 (2Solo: a Star Wars Story (12A) ***
4 (3Deadpool 2 (15) **
5 (new) Race 3 (12A)
6 (4) Book Club (12A)
7 (5Avengers: Infinity War (12A) ***
8 (6) Sherlock Gnomes (U) **
9 (8) Show Dogs (PG) *
10 (7) Blade Runner: The Final Cut (15) ****


My top five: 
1. The Piano

2. All the Wild Horses
3. Lek and the Dogs
4. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
5. Veere Di Wedding

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Black Panther (12A) **
2 (1) Darkest Hour (PG) **
3 (2The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (10) Dunkirk (12) ***
5 (5) Coco (PG) ***
6 (3) Den of Thieves (15) **
7 (4) Early Man (PG)
8 (7) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
9 (6) Journey's End (12) ***
10 (8) Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager (12)


My top five: 
1. The Shape of Water

2. 120 Beats Per Minute
3. Nothing Like a Dame
4. Phantom Thread
5. The Wound

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Full Monty [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.25pm)
2. Walesa: Man of Hope (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)
3. Creed (Saturday, ITV, 9.30pm)
4. Zombieland (Friday, C4, 12.35am)
5. The Core (Sunday, C4, 1pm)

On demand: "My Happy Family"

The Georgian-based couple Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross made a striking debut in 2013 with In Bloom, a coming-of-age drama that introduced a handgun in the first act by way of an extra element of narrative jeopardy. Their richly detailed follow-up My Happy Family - which has taken its international bow not in cinemas, but on Netflix - introduces us to Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), a middle-aged teacher who shares a flat in downtown Tbilisi with her loving husband, overbearing parents, and a teenage daughter and son. This set-up would seem a pretty standard picture were there again not a gun waiting to go off, this time in the form of a secret revealed to us in the very first scene: Ma is investigating the option of moving out of this long-settled abode, and into a place by herself. Fifteen minutes into My Happy Family, and you have the happy sensation of stumbling upon something you haven't really seen before in a movie: a character who desires nothing more than a little peace, space and quiet, who wants everybody up to and possibly including the camera to leave her alone.

True, there may have been flickers and glimpses of this elsewhere in cinema history. The film's first part recalls Chantal Akerman's totemic Jeanne Dielman... reshaped and refocused as a thriller rather than statement of feminist intent, a domestic prison break where our heroine spends every overcrowded scene drumming her fingers, avoiding her relatives' gaze, and looking to some far horizon. One complication of our sympathies is that the family under scrutiny aren't terrible or abusive, just a tad stuffy and traditional in their attitudes: the malefolk bluff and brusque or - in the son's case - hopelessly mollycoddled, the elders banging on about the same values that were drilled into them, hanging around as a constant reminder to this unhappy housewife that her societal fate always was to marry young and pick up the laundry. 

Around them, Ekvtimishvili and Gross once again demonstrate their considerable savvy as dramatists. We get nothing so obvious and expected as the moment in which Ma drops the bomb on this household, rather a brisk, funny thumbnail sketch of its aftermath: hubby tersely smoking on the balcony, grandma retreating to the sofa with a cold compress on her forehead. Even when Manana makes a run for it, her problems aren't over. It proves a tricky business, attempting to forge a new life with loved ones at your heels, urging you to come back; even taking a couple of steps in the direction of independence - popping out to the market for supplies, say - obliges Manana to see her family from new angles. The longhair squiring her daughter is spotted with his arm around another girl; more poignantly, she gains a new insight into her own relationship. Does she intervene, or keep the distance she's sought out for herself? Life is more complicated than the bulk of our movies trouble themselves to be.

These self-effacing directors - reducing themselves to a rather cute "Nana and Simon" in the credits - pack all this conflict in without a single camera movement that draw attention to itself. Instead, they keep the frame mobile, the better to spot the contrasting, sometimes conflicting perspectives that arise from close, attentive study of people crammed into the same room, city, universe. In this, and their fine-tuned ensemble, these filmmakers seem close to the Iranian master Asghar Farhadi ("A Separation" would make a fine alternative title here), although Farhadi has never quite arrived as anything as lyrical as the sequence in which Ma fixes herself a modest snack and sits down to strum the guitar that her departure has loosed from storage: here, at last, is that time and space for which this character has so keenly fought.

Such sequences suggest that Ekvtimishvili and Gross - all right, Nana and Simon - are alert to the possibility of positive change in the world, which distinguishes them from all those arthouse Cassandras presently doing the rounds; there's a flexibility in their approach that explains both how My Happy Family remains unpredictable through to its closing seconds, and its makers' willingness to embrace new distribution models. (One genuine first here: the sight of the words "a Netflix Original presentation" rendered in Georgian script.) Of course, those Cassandras - and even Farhadi - have logged between one and three decades on the festival circuit, which ensures them a framework of financing and distribution to operate within. Nana and Simon have had to rely on Netflix deploying its newfound wealth as a safety net, no matter that it may mean notable films such as theirs being swallowed up among endless teen romances and Adam Sandler freebies. There My Happy Family is, all the same, just a button-click away from where you read this - and its emergence on this format does offer the intriguing prospect of this quietly insurrectionary drama being readily available in households where somebody else is doing their darnedest to break or get away.

My Happy Family is now available on Netflix.  

Going underground: "Lek and the Dogs"

The British artist and filmmaker Andrew Kötting continues to scrabble usefully around in the dirt, but his latest Lek and the Dogs comes as a departure from recent impromptu gallivants (Swandown, By Our Selves, Edith Walks) in that its subject matter is that a more conventional documentarist might have seized upon. It takes a while to grasp as much - Kötting is prone to dropping his audience in the middle of nowhere, with scant contextual guidance, to be bombarded by unfamiliar sights and sounds - but this is the director's take on a grim true-life enfant sauvage tale: that of Ivan Mishukov, a young Russian man who, after the breakdown of his family in the 1990s, was found living underground among a pack of stray dogs. Hattie Naylor, credited as co-writer, took up this story in her 2010 play Ivan and the Dogs: Mishukov was coaxed out and resumed a relatively normal life, only to later vanish, reportedly upset by the behaviour of the two-legged beasts he now found himself running with.

If the bare narrative bones recall so many cinematic Kaspar Hausers, both real and fictional, this is the version of this story that only an outlier like Kötting could and would make. It opens with the striking image of a bald, naked figure (performance artist Xavier Tchili, replaying the Lek role he occupied in the Kötting-directed This Filthy Earth and Ivul) galloping on all fours through the desert, then works over this tale - and Naylor's play - with a patchwork of imagery sourced from old science and nature films, newsreel and drone technology. As if this unruly montage wasn't unsettling enough, its images are coupled - if that's the right word - to an ever-shifting soundscape that meshes recordings of Lek's memories of his life as a dog with psychoanalysts discussing his predicament, input from canine behavioural specialists, and even longtime Kötting collaborator Alan Moore, holding forth about time, space and existence in a role the closing credits define as The Wizard.

The recurrence of the word trauma in the testimony would appear to indicate some shift in Kötting's traditionally sunny outlook. A grey, impoverished post-industrial landscape has replaced the leafy green scenery of his previous films; where once this larky nature-boy director set out in search of transcendence, here his aim is to paint a picture of deprivation his subject would surely recognise only too well. As a result, Lek and the Dogs can feel gloomily subterranean. Very different from Gallivant or Swandown, films where the director's lines of thought remained above ground and easily grasped, this one's far from entry-level Kötting, if there ever was such a thing. Instead, Lek is rather more like an abandoned mine you duck into at your own risk, armed with the foreknowledge you will have to stay alert, try not to freak out and, at certain times, really dig in so as to get anything rewarding out of the experience.

It is, nevertheless, studded with eye- and ear-catching ideas that gleam intriguingly once polished and held up to the light. Hard, for one, not to compare the film's crushed and crumpled landscapes to our own, and to wonder whether Kötting sees in the Mishukov legend's pack mentality something of the populism, the entrenched safety in numbers, that has risen up across the globe of late. (Ironically, the film lands on our screens at a moment when liberal democracies appear in abject disarray, while Russia is restored, by fair means or foul, to something like its former pomp.) It does feel like a seethingly political film, whether Kötting means to use Lek's seclusion to get at the atomisation of "societies digging their way into the past", the removal of those structural safety nets that prevent individuals from going to the dogs, or just how the loyalty and empathy of our four-legged friends will forever trump the self-serving motives of men. A bracing watch, either way, anchored by Tchili's physically and emotionally agonised presence: you won't readily return to it, one suspects, but don't be surprised if one or two of its wild howls at the moon come back to haunt you.

Lek and the Dogs is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via MUBI.

Thursday 21 June 2018

On demand: "Lovesong"

The title of the Korean-born, U.S.-based So Yong Kim's drama Lovesong may be singular, but the loves it describes are many and varied. First, there is the deep bond connecting Sarah (Riley Keough), an all-but-single twentysomething mother, to the young daughter she's been raising within the leafy-green seclusion of the American Midwest. (As first seen in her 2008 international breakthrough Treeless Mountain, Kim has a gift for casting the most adorable children, so this love is very easily communicated and understood.) The distant and fading love shared by Sarah and the father of her child, an aid worker perpetually away solving other people's problems, is evident from a shonky Skype session, hamstrung by a futzing connection, from which neither party gets the consolation they come looking for, basic communication being tough enough. And then there is the love this woman shows for Mindy, an old college friend who comes out this way to visit, and immediately rekindles our heroine's interest simply by asking her whether she's okay, and then holding her when she cries.

The new arrival is played by Jena Malone, which means the character's responses are less archetypal and predictable than they might have been, but Mindy is the kind of flirty, anything-goes free spirit traditionally inserted in movies to shake up a status quo, happy, sorry or otherwise. (It makes complete sense later on when Rosanna Arquette - who played similar catalysing roles through the Eighties and Nineties - shows up in the role of the character's mother.) And so it goes here: after the midnight games of truth or drink, there follows an outpouring of reciprocated feelings, stopped - or, perhaps more accurately, put on ice - by Mindy's tendency to go just as soon as she comes. From that, hopefully, you get a sense of just how steadily and stealthily Kim's film builds, to a point where this last love - the longest of all these loves, and one that continues to burn with the intensity of a first love - begins to complicate all the others.

It's become a (not always helpful) reflex response to cite Brokeback Mountain when faced with cinema that presents as anything greater than Kinsey zero in its outlook, but the longing stitched into Lovesong's first half really did remind me of Ang Lee's film, shifted forward to the present day: what we're watching is two people (two-and-a-half, if we're counting Sarah's daughter) left to their own devices in the middle of nowhere, and becoming more intimate with every serenely passing frame. These scenes suggest either that Kim is a budding master of the close-up, or that she's a whizz at casting performers capable of doing extraordinary things in such tight focus. (Or, even better, both.) Anyone who saw Keough's work on the first season of Amazon's Soderbergh spin-off The Girlfriend Experience will already know this actress's Huppertian ability to convey apparently fathomless depths of emotional activity beneath a placid surface; you watch her, here as there, with the same fascination as you would sharks circling one another behind aquarium glass.

Yet the rupture at the film's midpoint enables a reunion in due course. Lovesong's second half unfolds at Mindy's wedding to some bestubbled dude three years later, where amid free-flowing alcohol and filthy jokes, a symmetry becomes apparent. Now the newly separated Sarah is the outsider moving tentatively in on heterosexual terrain, and it's an appreciably delicate nuance that she should have been invited as a standard-issue guest - an old pal - rather than one of Mindy's inner circle: this way, she has to spend proceedings catching charged glimpses of her beloved, along with all the feelings. A quietist romance thus evolves into a behind-the-scenes-at-the-wedding movie, attuned to those sometimes conflicting impulses scattered like confetti before the walk up the aisle to say I do - the human wobbles, the flickers of doubt, the words that aren't spoken. It's also where a vaguely wispy yet authentically affecting indie owns its own title, by taking on the shape and weight of one of those enduring old-timey ballads where a final verse reflects, from a distance, on what has gone before. In bringing us close to these women, Kim captures more than a few of those what-ifs and maybes that haunt hearts and minds, even as we strive to live in the present tense.

Lovesong is available to stream through Amazon Prime, and on DVD through StudioCanal.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

On demand: "Tramps"

Were this 1995, informed parties would quite rightly be shouting writer-director Adam Leon's name from the rooftops as one of the brightest hopes for a new American cinema. Alas, the year is 2018, and things have changed. Leon's tremendously fresh 2012 debut Gimme the Loot - tagging alongside a pair of young graffiti artists as they wound their way through a New York afternoon - was modestly distributed, and too little seen; his follow-up Tramps has been folded into the rapidly expanding Netflix catalogue, which raises questions of just how emergent filmmakers are expected to get their work out there (and get it seen) at a moment where streaming services have far surpassed even glory-days Miramax in their spending power and reach.

Tramps - which might, for several reasons, bear the alternate title Got the Loot - shapes up as a crime movie with recognisable actors attached, but it's still the same kind of hangout movie Leon was making first time out, and very definitely still a New York movie. It does, however, move in appreciably different directions and circles, meandering from the inner city to its pricier suburban outer reaches, and replacing Gimme the Loot's larky misdemeanours with a shift into the realms of petty crime, with its capacity for bringing disparate souls together. Our heroes are the genial Danny (Callum Turner) and the harder-bitten Ellie (Grace Van Patten), a couple of kids paired up in the wake of a bag drop that goes awry: not a high-octane setpiece, this, rather a matter of eager-beaver Danny stepping onto a subway train a beat too soon.

What follows would be distinctive enough as the sunniest, least bloody crime movie in some time. The bag and its contents are perhaps inevitably no more than a MacGuffin, a means to a narrative end: with hours to kill before their next opportunity to hand it over, Danny and Ellie walk and talk, dodge the few authority figures headed their way, pick over their experiences, and bond in the attempt to set things right. (As the amateurish crime syndicate involved is fronted by nerdy comedian Mike Birbiglia, rather than, say, James Gandolfini, we sense they're in no immediate danger.) Were this 1995, you suspect Leon might well have been accused of riding the emergent Richard Linklater's coattails, but Linklater has proved himself such a versatile filmmaker over subsequent decades that there is surely room for a bright-eyed, attentive student to move in on his predecessor's sometime territory.

Tramps might still be considered a consolidation of what was going on in Gimme the Loot, evidently the work of someone making a similar movie with more money, and the prospect of wider distribution ahead. (It's the same process that, in the 1990s, took Robert Rodriguez from El Mariachi to Desperado and Kevin Smith from Clerks to Mallrats.) Turner (the Brit whose boyish handsomeness has carried him across the Atlantic) and Van Patten (who first registered as Adam Sandler's daughter in last year's Netflix hit The Meyerowitz Stories) are capable young actors who work well within the framework of naturalism Leon lays down - in the grand indie tradition, a lot of Tramps looks to have been shot on the hoof, requiring interactions with actual transit workers and passers-by - even if they can't quite match the uncoachable, possibly unrepeatable pop and fizz of Gimme the Loot's effervescent leads.

Still, as these two born underdogs wander towards a kind of resolution, both for the bag and themselves, the film around them emits a low-key, modest but undeniable charm. (Shot in 1.66:1 in homage to past endeavours, Tramps doesn't even deign to take up the whole of your screen if you do find yourself Netflixing it.) Towards the end of the movie, the bag's rightful owner (the terrific supporting actress Margaret Colin, seizing a moment, as ever) schools Ellie about the syndicate's plan in a few lines that strike the ear like an authorial statement, and a rebuke to the torturous mythologies of so much contemporary American cinema: "You know how some men are: the more intricate they make something, the more impressive they think it is."

Leon never stresses his plot points, preferring simply to ride around with them in his back pocket, but his careful writing and editorial nudging nevertheless succeeds in getting Danny and Ellie into a position where they're forced to make a choice between love and money, and equally the audience to a place where we hope they will make the right call. In our never more atomised, post-Weinstein landscape, it's a kick to cross paths with a filmmaker this unabashedly optimistic and romantic, and with a filmography so dedicated to cultivating and putting out good vibes, wherever and however we come to receive them. Leon might be an even more vital and valuable sensibility to have around now than he would have been twenty-odd years ago.

Tramps is available to stream via Netflix.

Monday 18 June 2018

On demand: "Menashe"

Menashe - which slipped out theatrically in the dark days of December, and is now available to stream - is a 21st century indie that plays and feels like a late Eighties/early Nineties indie, and not just because it unfolds on the streets of New York, hotbed of the scene as it once was. Director Joshua Z. Weinstein (no relation to you-know-who) uses these 82 minutes to draw us right inside a world - or, more specifically yet, a world inside a world: that of the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jewish community stationed within the wider multiculturalism of Brooklyn's Borough Park neighbourhood. The title character (Menashe Lustig, a local resident retreading actual lived experience) is a heavy-set, balding widower who wears the beard but not the hat or the coat, and can more often be seen carrying a cellphone than the Torah; he works as a cashier in a cramped minimart, where his non-canonical views rub up against those of his more Orthodox fellow travellers, and his shelf-stacking Latino co-workers refer to him, with obvious affection, as "Gordito", the fat one.

In general, though, this is a fellow so unprepossessing that even his own cousin fails to recognise him when he calls on the phone at one point; overlooked (despite his girth) and undervalued, Menashe is - as characterised here - something like a kosher version of Ernest Borgnine's Marty, or the urban equivalent of Pruitt Taylor Vince's lovelorn short order cook in 1995's Heavy. Perhaps the one thing he has going for him is the fact he is the father to a son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), on whom he plainly dotes - although he has to do this only sporadically and from afar, the lad having been raised (as tradition dictates) by a married brother-in-law after the kid's mother passed. Sloppy, slovenly, barely at ease with the world going on around him, Menashe is not the most obvious of father figures - we watch him huffing and puffing to drop the kid off, late, at school one morning - but the thought presents itself: what if this boy was the catalyst his father needs to pull himself together?

Put it like that, and Weinstein's film risks sounding like the varyingly sickly product emitted by Touchstone Pictures throughout the Nineties, a sort of One Mensch and a Baby. (It does, unexpectedly, boast an executive producer credit for no less a figure than Home Alone director Chris Columbus.) Yet its protagonist comes to shape up in directions that prove far more haphazard - more truthful - than any simplistic crowdpleaser would allow for. Its big themes (big religious themes, we should note: duty, responsibility, charity) are revealed not by schematic plotting and writing, but glimpsed through a broadly naturalistic framework: Weinstein, who comes to fiction filmmaking having trained in documentary, fashions resonant, telltale setpieces out of acts as everyday as father and son hanging a picture to a wall - a sign that our protagonist's house (and mindset) is returning to order - and eventually succeeds in getting us utterly caught up in the preparations for a memorial meal. (Truly, you will never in your lifetime have been so invested in the fate of a kugel.)

The results form a small miracle, a faith movie that exists without the usual deafening fanfares and judgements from on high; a film that takes its characters' beliefs seriously, but also seeks to set them against the real world of traffic, beggars and poky one-room apartments, the better to spot where there might be room to grow and improve, or simply let a little God-given fresh air in. Yoni Brook's spontaneous cinematography, alert to both the rituals and the space and movement around them, aids Weinstein's cause no end, as does a sparse score (by Aaron Martin and Dag Rosenqvist) that helps shape and focus these quietly attentive images. The performers occupying them, non-professionals cast to represent points along the scale of orthodoxy, seem both entirely of this world and increasingly recognisable. It was a masterstroke, for one, to have the whole thing revolve around Lustig, a galumphing, bearlike presence, yet a very moving one in the final reel when, eyes lowered, he tries to articulate deep-seated feelings he's spent the whole movie gulping down. You just hope Weinstein doesn't get marked down as a niche filmmaker: here's someone with much to say himself on the subjects of modernity and tradition, working from a wellspring of curiosity and understanding we might well need going forwards.

Menashe is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.