Tuesday 31 July 2018

From the archive: "Cléo from 5 to 7"

With the release of The Beaches of Agnès alongside two boxsets of her finest hours last year, Agnès Varda has made as prominent a cinematic comeback as any director over the past twelve months. That revival looks set to continue with a BFI Southbank retrospective this summer, and the re-release of 1961's Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda's international breakthrough. The tall, striking Corinne Marchand is Cléo, a Parisian singer who pops out for a couple of hours while awaiting the results of a test for stomach cancer, only to see reminders of her own mortality just about everywhere she looks. Varda's camera, meanwhile, becomes as fascinated by these signs and signifiers as was Godard's around this time (JLG has a rare acting role in a short-film-within-a-film, casting off his trademark lunettes noirs to woo and win Anna Karina), although here they're far less concrete - Tarot cards, superstitions ("you must never wear new clothes on Tuesday") and other arcane showbiz beliefs (reading reviews is "like saying Happy Birthday in advance: it brings bad luck") - and we're free to make of them what we will. What we're watching, essentially, is one woman's life passing before her very eyes, in something approximating real time.

By presenting us with multiple perspectives on these pivotal two hours - it turns out not just to be Cléo's story, but the story of everyone else she meets on her travels - the film now appears to predict our social network era, but it also deserves to enter into movie history for its thoroughly modern heroine, perhaps the first of her kind in French cinema. Marchand's Cléo is a celebrity (a commodity, even), with a tremendously chic apartment (tiny kittens, matching hot water bottle), but even greater needs; gnawed away from within by doubt if not necessarily by the cancer she fears, she's obliged to negotiate the twin worlds of art and politics (Algeria looms larger here than it does in many other early New Wave features) on a quest for the ever-elusive happiness that might ease the ache at her centre. Intellectually and geographically curious - it wanders and it wonders, a predecessor to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset diptych - it's as playful as any other early evening spent on Varda's shores, albeit with sudden swells of emotion that rise up out of nowhere: the lament Cléo's songwriters have her perform, and a bittersweet final leavetaking, position this director, once again, at the very heart of the New Wave.

(April 2010)

Cléo from 5 to 7 launches the Gleaning Truths season with a Q&A event at Curzon Soho, London this Thursday; it then returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

From the archive: "The Beaches of Agnès"

Elsewhere this week, the autoportrait The Beaches of Agnès finds veteran director Agnès Varda - most prominent (you could say sole) female representative of the French New Wave - hanging around on a beach along with several mirrors, trapeze artists, and a naked bloke, and wondering just why it is she's always felt the call of the ocean, and why beaches have played such a substantial part in her filmography. What follows is a retrospective of Varda's life and her career working across several disciplines: not solely as a director in the cinema, but as an installation artist and photographer, as an artist in her own right, and as the wife and muse of fellow New Waver Jacques Demy, whose Les Demoiselles de Rochefort was successfully revived over the summer. Photos and trinkets are tossed into the air, snippets of celluloid made subject to the sea breeze, and what follows plays like a more emollient digest of Godard's epic assemblage Histoire(s) du cinéma (or, closer to home, Terence Davies' Of Time and the City): a collage of memories and movies and memories of movies, coupled up by a filmmaker for whom life and art have long been inseparable. 

Varda's worldview is naturally more playful than her peers: a sprightly septuagenarian with a Widdecombian pageboy haircut, she retraces her steps - in places, stepping or rowing backwards - to the scenes of her past works. Some of this is very funny: we see La Varda dressed as a potato to promote one of her exhibitions, and struggling to park a cardboard car, and in conversation with Chris Marker disguised as a cartoon cat with a Stephen Hawking voice. Some of it is rather moving: recalling her debut film, 1956's La Pointe Courte, Varda encourages one featured performer's sons to push a cart on which a projector unspools unseen footage of their now-departed father. What's clear is that Varda shares Godard's sharp eye for matching images: the film knits together canvasses and cinema, prints she retouched as a student with a damp patch on her ceiling, and - most cherishably - scenes from her own films with similar scenes from Demy's, illustrating just what a two-way street their relationship was. If Varda's histories are less standalone than Davies's, they can't fail to exert a certain charm if you know anything of this career: the clips sourced from the director's back catalogue - with their glimpses of a youthful Philippe Noiret and Gérard Depardieu - only make one wish again that her work was more widely accessible on this side of La Manche.  

(Sunday Telegraph, 4 October 2009) 

The Beaches of Agnès returns to selected cinemas this Friday as part of Curzon's Gleaning Truths season: more details here, and more reviews through the week.

Sunday 29 July 2018

From the archive: "Rams"

Perhaps it's the relative sparseness of the human population, but our Icelandic cousins have an unusually intense relationship with their animals, if the movies are anything to go by. A few years back, this bond resulted in Of Horses and Men, Benedikt Erlingsson's singular comedy on the subject of equine breeding. There now follows Grímur Hákonarson's equally idiosyncratic Rams, centred as it is on two warring brothers and the woolly ovines they have in some ways come to resemble. Beardy Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), the jollier of the two, and the balding, bibulous Kiddi (Theódór Júlíusson) have been engaged in their own interpersonal cold war for decades, their rivalry heightened by fluctuating fortunes in their remote village's annual prize ram contest. Though a barbed wire fence separates the siblings' adjacent properties, they continue to scowl and spit at one another during their fleeting, wordless encounters; we glean that these shaggy, solitary creatures, clad in near-identical jumpers, aren't far from locking antlers themselves. Tension escalates after one detects a hint of scrapie - 2016's unlikeliest plot device - in the other's livestock, a situation that leaves the pair of them facing a quandary: whether or not to follow the vet's advice and eliminate the one thing beyond a name the pair have left in common.

It's around this point that the sincerity in Hákonarson's storytelling begins to shine through. It wouldn't be too hard to imagine a humdrum Britcom about rival farmers that played this agricultural one-upmanship for insistently mild jollity, but Rams digs deeper, folding in the horror and devastation that follows from having to enter a barn and do away with the adorable creatures that have filled up your long and lonely hours. The landscape preserved by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's properly widescreen lensing - still serene, spacious bordering on empty - consequently becomes more wintry and desolate yet, as though the brothers' hearts had been turned inside out and presented to the world. Yet this sudden silencing of the lambs serves to clear some measure of space in the two men's lives; it puts them both on a level playing field. We're spared the hellish imagery that the UK's own foot-and-mouth crisis generated, but the disposal of the dead sheep demands a bonfire of the vanities - and a return to first principles - which can only be healthy for the film's antagonists.

The literal and figurative thaw that follows plays out in that droll, gnomic tone that has sustained Icelandic cinema from 1995's Cold Fever through to the Erlingsson film. It will entail one brother marching naked into the other's Christmas dinner, the emergence of long-buried secrets from the snow, and one imaginative - if brusque - deployment of a haybale picker. What's more striking is how Hákonarson gets his characters moving again (and how he moves us), everything heading towards a resonant final image with tremendous assurance, yet with neither contrivance nor overstating the implicit message of forgiveness. Instead, Hákonarson grounds each development in the leads' subtle playing - and both Sigurjónsson and Júlíusson convince entirely both as individuals who look as though they might know how to operate a tractor, and men who might be stubborn and prideful enough to hold onto a grudge for years or decades. In the midst of awards-season trumpeting, it's a delight to encounter a film that quietly, gradually creeps up on you, and which - without ever seeming to expend much effort in doing so - puts a smile on your face, warming enough to get you through the next extreme cold snap. I'm tempted to say flock to it.

(MovieMail, February 2016)

Rams screens on Channel 4 tonight at 2.05am.

Saturday 28 July 2018

On demand: "The War Game"

What goes around comes around. Peter Watkins' The War Game won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1966, in what would today be debated as a potential categorisation flub. This is, after all, less a record of historical actuality than another of British TV and cinema's vivid mid-20th century what-ifs, to be set alongside Brownlow and Mollo's It Happened Here; a supposition, framed like newsreel, of what might occur were the UK to fall subject to the threat of multiple Soviet nuclear strikes. Having commissioned the film, the BBC of the time gave the results a hard pass - labelling it "too horrifying" for broadcast (not an unfair review, given that it goes some distance beyond what the horror cinema of the time could show) - and so, after several decades of half-life on the repertory circuit, it was only screened to terrestrial viewers in July 1985, in that late Cold War dead zone that separated Threads from When the Wind Blows. It's now been made available on the iPlayer, at a point when the world has grown jittery for a multitude of reasons, recurrent nationalism among them.

The film's genius lies in its relentless accumulation of chilling detail. Watkins bombards us with stark facts (many pulled from the still-burning rubble of Dresden and Hiroshima), talking heads that mostly demonstrate the ignorance of the man and woman in the street, and staged interviews in which the cognoscenti rehearse or finesse some political point, all of which give way to aargh-we're-all-gonna-die recreations of the nuclear event itself. Screaming kids incur seared retinas from watching the initial blast. Through thick plumes of smoke, bodies can be seen falling in the road. Hospitals become overrun with corpses. All this comes before we get to the agonies of the irradiated, having to nurse their keloids and tumours on dwindling food supplies and a single bowl of unpolluted water per day. Watkins builds towards a single, loaded question, reportedly asked by Nikita Kruschchev when weighing the consequences of any such attack: "Will the survivors envy the dead?"

You can try and be rational about it, telling yourself that - yes - that's a clever reverse of the negative simulating the blast, and the rest is just a matter of shaking the camera, as they used to on the era's Star Trek episodes. And in the absurdly contrary Britain of 2018, perhaps there will be those who initially harrumph at our narrator's "possibly"s and "almost certainly"s, reasoning "it wouldn't be that bad" and clinging to the Dunkirk spirit as an example of our ability to pull through such crises intact. Even they, though, might eventually find their complacency wiped out by sustained exposure to a full forty-three minutes of these brilliantly forceful, unsentimental images and juxtapositions. CND should ready itself for another flurry of applications, as it has received whenever and wherever the film has been screened; anyone who still comes away from The War Game feeling smugly confident of their own security should know the early-warning siren system that gives these poor sods a measure of time to prepare for the worst was scrapped many years ago. Don't have nightmares.

The War Game is now available to stream here

Friday 27 July 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 20-22, 2018:

 (new) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
2 (1) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
3 (2) Skyscraper (12A)
4 (3) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***
5 (4) The First Purge (15)
6 (new) Hotel Artemis (15) ***
7 (5Ocean's 8 (12A)
8 (new) Spitfire (PG) ***
9 (new) Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie (U) **
10 (new) Dhadak (12A) ***

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. First Reformed

2. Vertigo
3. Incredibles 2
4. Summer 1993
5. Path of Blood

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Tomb Raider (12)
2 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (8) The Incredibles (U) ****
4 (2) Red Sparrow (15)
5 (3) Black Panther (12A) **
6 (4) Darkest Hour (PG) **
7 (6) Coco (PG) ***
8 (12) Mamma Mia! (PG) *
9 (7) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
10 (5Fifty Shades Freed (18)

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Sweet Country

2. Lady Bird
3. Journeyman
4. Western
5. Mary Magdalene

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Fight Club (Sunday, five, 11.45pm)
2. Face/Off [above] (Sunday, five, 9pm)
3. Rams (Sunday, C4, 2.05am)
4. Nanny McPhee (Sunday, five, 2.05pm)
5. Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (Sunday, five, 4.10pm)

"Breaking Through" (Guardian 27/07/18)

Breaking Through *
Dir: John Swetnam. With: Sophia Aguiar, Shaun Brown, Kelsey Crane, Marissa Heart. 101 mins. Cert: 12A

Despite the patronage of exec-producer John Legend, this entirely flavourless dance flick has taken three years to find distribution; now that it’s here, it doesn’t drag its feet so much as shuffle them with bland indifference. Writer-director John Swetnam has given the boilerplate narrative that underlaid his Step Up 4 screenplay a vaguely zeitgeisty twist, in that Californian suburbanite Casey (Sophia Aguiar) spends her downtime choreographing YouTube clips with her Doritos-ad pals. Can she retain her integrity after a bigshot sweeps in with plans to make her a star? Anybody with “heroine tempted to ditch her crew” in the dance-trope sweepstake should hold onto their ticket.

There follow 101 minutes of inanities and inconsistencies, without a consoling trace of the genre’s fleeting pleasures. Again, these teens bemoan their lowly place in the gig economy while hanging out in a loft space with a six-figure scatter-cushion budget; the incongruous reference one emergent bodypopper makes to the now quarter-century old Wayne’s World marks the film as recognisably the work of middle-aged men. They’ve scrimped money elsewhere. Unlike the studio-backed Step Ups, this indie hasn’t the resources to nab the big hits, so we instead get a low-watt cameo from popstrel Anitta (“She’s the Katy Perry of Brazil!”) and market-stall knock-offs of recent chart sounds.

In an ideal world, any dance movie’s predictable narrative manoeuvres would be disrupted by the dynamism of its setpieces, but even on the basic level of cobbled together talent showcase, Breaking Through fails to function. The routines Swetnam elects to commit to film are framed with zero distinguishing flair; more thought has gone into prominently positioning one YouTube channel’s logos, and crowbarring insidious talk of branding, shingles and cross-promotional traffic between the usual glib platitudes and awkward burps of exposition. The comparatively innocent delights of the Mashed Potato – heck, even the Macarena – seem a very long time ago. 

Breaking Through opens in selected cinemas from today.

Born to run (again): "Dhadak"

Dhadak, if you haven't been following, is the much-trumpeted Hindi remake of Sairat, the Marathi drama that quietly struck a chord with local and festival audiences back in 2016. With its unvarnished, naturalistic performances and its sometimes awkward but unfailingly sincere gestures towards a bigger (indeed, 170-minute) picture, Sairat might almost have qualified for the tag "naive art", had it not been shot and scored with such consummate skill. Dhadak, which has been produced by mega-mogul Karan Johar, stars the scion of one of Bollywood's more illustrious families, and runs to just two hours in a bid to facilitate more screenings per day, clearly isn't naive: everybody here knows full well where this story's heading, and (hopefully) what they've got to do to get it there. So what's changed? Rather a lot, as it happens, and in ways that prove instructive of the difference between regional and commercial cinema, and what gets purged from more artisanal forms of cinema to generate major international hits. What gets added, too: as the new film's somewhat arbitrary-seeming decision to replace Sairat's opening cricket match with a chilli-eating contest hints, most of these alterations are tied up with issues of consumption and taste.

Firstly, there are changes of scenery and context to reckon with. Sairat unfolded around a small village where the old ways of courtship had set firm, but Dhadak carries us to a spruced-up and plugged-in Udaipur, where - we are informed - Jennifer Lopez once performed for a local entrepreneur. (The Jenny from the Block tour was unlikely ever to have passed through Sairat's humble backwater.) The kids in the foreground are now catalogue-pretty. Archi, the first movie's haughty heroine, has become Parthavi (Janhvi Kapoor, daughter of the late star Sridevi), well-groomed daughter of an ambitious right-wing politician; Parshya, Archi's ardent young swain, is now Madhu (Ishaan Khattar), who forsakes his predecessor's bumfluff for precisely clipped stubble, snazzy duds, and the beginnings of a six-pack. Madhu is the son of a guest house owner - thus more middle-class than farmboy Parshya, as Dhadak's audience will likely be more middle-class than Sairat's. Narrowing the social gap between these two star-crossed lovers complicates what Sairat was getting at: Dhadak's lovers are such an obvious match that it seems all the more absurd that forces should conspire to keep them apart. Still, we might wonder, where might two teenage runaways raised in the heart of the city flee to? Dhadak's answer is other cities: first Mumbai, then Kolkata, and a series of studio sets that don't seem greatly dingier than where they were before. It's not the characters' circumstances that are reduced, but the sacrifices involved: this flight has a little of the Gap year about it.

The smartest decision director Shashank Khaitan has taken has been to retain the original film's melodies, which always were glorious. The insane, tabla-smashing "Zingaat", time signature roughly comparable to the blood pressure of a hummingbird entering tachycardia, was the solid-gold party banger of 2016 and is no less so in its remixed 2018 state. It's too perfect that this song should immediately precede the lovers' first kiss, and the plot's first violent incursion: in its nervous excitation, its capacity to get even the semi-dormant matinee viewer worked up, "Zingaat" still sounds like an orgasm or terrible kicking waiting to happen. Khaitan has also streamlined many of the original's rougher edges, in particular clarifying the political backdrop. In Sairat, the heroine's father - and chief obstacle to lasting happiness - was just a man like any other backwoods patriarch; he could have been your own father, which is why his actions became so unsettling. Here, the character has become more obviously villainous: a sneering demagogue played by Ashutosh Rana with dark eyes and waxed moustache, he resembles no less a figure than Al Swearengen, the fearsomely controlling saloon owner of HBO's Deadwood, albeit a Swearengen removed of any complexity. If the original formed a heartfelt statement on the everyday infelicities of the caste system, what Johar and Khaitan give us is a story about two pretty kids being separated by an unpretty man, and a film that has to flash up some statistics before the end credits to underline what it's really been getting at.

As Dhadak went on, the more I wondered whether those rough edges weren't an essential component of Sairat's masterplan: it's why it's not quite accurate to describe that film's art as naive. The original built up its romanticism over its first half before gradually stripping it away, the better to show what two disinherited youngsters had been left with in reality. Where Sairat set about that task with a chisel, Dhadak prefers the chainsaw, ruthlessly lopping off anything that might bring a mass audience down: the time that lets us observe characters changing and growing, scenes of struggle and despair and isolation. All of that survived in the original, which took a stock movie set-up and followed it past the usual happily ever after, into the realms of real life; that imposing running time was an integral part of its methods. Dhadak, a sleek yet naggingly plasticky replica, is less interested in giving us the whole picture than a pretty picture, of the kind that has traditionally sold tickets. It is that, unarguably, and it's unlikely to disappoint anybody who hasn't experienced the original and just wants to swoon and cry as cued. The young leads, as capable as they are handsome, conjure up some chemistry and emotion between them, and the ending, rather craftily reconfigured to throw off anyone who has seen the first movie, still drives home some kind of a point - though with such a reduced build-up, it now delivers a short, sharp shock rather than the profound, thought-provoking tragedy it means to be. Again, it's illustrative of the differences between the two productions. Sairat was a not inconsiderable slice of life, but Dhadak - in everything from its casting to its lighting - is only ever just a movie. What this story gains in riches, it's lost in richness.

Dhadak is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 26 July 2018

On demand: "Sairat"

Much has been written about the inspiration Indian filmmakers have drawn from Stratford-upon-Avon's very own William Shakespeare over the years: it's been most apparent in Vishal Bhardwaj's freehand Hindi versions of Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet, but the Bard has also been present in such outliers as The Hungry, the recent indie rethink of Titus Andronicus (screening as part of this year's Not Just Bollywood season at HOME in Manchester). Sairat, Marathi cinema's breakthrough film of 2016, works from an original screenplay set firmly in the present, but it looks and crucially feels Shakespearian: within its epic sweep, we glimpse balconies and letters, characters hiding behind bushes, and - at the centre of it all - two star-crossed kids. 

At first, there is just Parshya (Akash Thosar), the M.S. Dhoni of his small village's cricket team, and the kind of student-athlete combo who'd be prime college material were he not such a slacker at heart; we suspect he knows all too well that he's been born into a class that isn't expected to make anything much of themselves. Enter new girl Archi (Rinku Rajguru), whose family own the surrounding farmland. Archi has the power in the opposites-attract courtship that follows - you see it in the lofty disdain she initially displays towards her goofy, bumfluffed suitor, and in the gleaming red tractor on which she pulls up outside Parshya's house at one point - but the power she has to dictate the course of her own life is, it turns out, greatly more circumscribed. The first hour of Sairat sees boy meeting and wooing girl; the second finds Parshya and Archi running up against (and away from) a system that doesn't allow for such matches; the third feels like a battle for the very soul of India, between backwoods ways and a more enlightened path. Personal gradually shifts into something more political; only with the potent final image can we be certain which side has prevailed.

So, yes, Sairat runs to just shy of three hours (three-plus, if you observe the intermission), but it stands as a persuasive advert for filmmakers stretching out. An opening cricket match takes its time to position these kids within a wider, less carefree society (parents, politicians, issues of class and caste); yet writer-director Nagraj Manjule also wants us to feel the anticipation Parshya feels as he races across town to catch a glimpse of his beloved. A later sequence will make the biggest fuss imaginable out of the delivery of a single mashnote - because, to his characters, it really does seem like the most important, most life-or-death thing in the world. How little they know. If Sairat runs long, it does so to accommodate a worldview that proves keenly pragmatic beneath its swooning romanticism: one that encourages us not to fall in love but dive, while cautioning there may well be nothing but concrete to meet us.

These three hours allow for a greater wealth of colour and detail (choice aside: a hopped-up Parshya so busy dancing in triumph to his ringtone that he misses Archi's first call), but also grant Manjule time and space to negotiate and finesse some tricky tonal twists and turns, carrying us from budding romance (with gorgeous Ajay-Atul songs) to thriller (with no time for the luxury of dancing) to low-key migrant drama, as our heroes begin a new life, and - in Archi's case - face up to suddenly reduced circumstances. By the end of the film's first hour, you will very likely believe these two fresh-faced and beaming youngsters could change the world with the force of their affections; what follows thereafter is a demonstration of just how hard that goal is to achieve, and what we risk when we set out to achieve it.

"There is a huge difference between movies and real life," warns one of the couple's hosts as they make their escape from squaresville, and Manjule clearly intends to observe the gap between these two worlds. Right from the casting sessions, it seems: his unvarnished leads are precisely the types Ken Loach might have selected for a drama about first love, which ensures fresh responses to sometimes stock scenarios, and that the film feels as big an adventure for the actors as it does for their characters. These youngsters visibly grow as the film goes on - there's something very touching in the way Thosar's bumfluff blossoms into a beard - but their dewy sheen of optimism seems temporary and vulnerable: you can (and do) see these kids getting hurt.

Differentiating movie life from real life also demands a rethink of technique, and the sleek, swooping camera movements that do so much to establish the village as a playground of possibilities in the film's first half give way to something subtler and sparser in the second as reality bites. (It's testament to Manjule's casting choices that Thosar and Rajguru seem as comfortable operating in this key as they do in the more melodramatic opening stretch.) Mostly, though, it's a matter of staying the course, following through: here is a teen romance that dares to wonder what happens after you get the girl or guy, particularly in a society that decrees only a certain type of guy can get a certain type of girl, and that the consequences for any transgression of this status quo will be considerable indeed. Sairat reinvents itself in order to reinvent the love story, by refusing to elide the downtime, the missteps and squabbles, and the forces making it that much harder to live happily after after; as in our better Shakespeare restagings, all that is old becomes new, moving and powerful once more.

Sairat is available to stream via Netflix. 

God's lonely man: "First Reformed"

You can never quite write Paul Schrader off. Ever since this most doggedly combative of creators came to prominence with his screenplay for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in 1976, his up-down trajectory has kept generating projects that have the compelling desperation of a last shot, one final throw of the dice, some fiery rage against the extent to which the moviemaking odds have appeared to be stacked against him. After the intentionally/hopelessly/transcendentally trashy excesses of 2013's The Canyons and 2016's Dog Eat Dog - you may delete according to personal taste - First Reformed marks a return to first principles, namely the cinema of Robert Bresson that Schrader once wrote at length about: it features a diary, a country priest, a palette so muted it may as well be monochrome, and a general air of austerity that starts with (but is far from limited to) its square, no-frills, pared-down frame.

There has always been a seriousness about Schrader that the American cinema needs, desires and thus - even when leaning towards its most fantastical and Marvel-lous - cannot entirely purge; it is precisely this lived-in sincerity, this willingness to wrestle unironically with our darker nature and the nature of the world beyond us, that has made him a filmmaker to turn to at times of spiritual crisis. (We may need him more than ever.) We are reminded of this standing early on in the new film via a simple yet weirdly profound dolly shot that brings us to the front steps of the titular church, sited in a wintry Albany, New York. Schrader approaches this church, and the faith it stands for, as only Schrader can: straight-on, headfirst, yet with evident deep respect for the mysteries it holds and those that surround it.

The church has provided sanctuary for the Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) since the death of his son led to the dissolution of his marriage some years before. We sense, however, that such divine protection may well be coming to an end. For one thing, First Reformed has been comprehensively outstripped by Abundant Life, the happy-clappy Christian superchurch down the road; for another, Ernst Toller has started coughing and pissing blood. He's dying. (But then again: aren't we all?) As his faith is challenged from within, so it's also challenged from without. One of the last few parishioners Toller can claim, a pregnant woman who just so happens to be called Mary (Amanda Seyfried), enlists the priest to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who retreated into a depressive funk upon learning the couple were expecting their first child.

The question the activist raises, and obliges the now-childless Toller to consider, is a never-more-timely one: how can anyone bring new life into a world we seem to be doing our level best to destroy? The priest's initial response, which seems a little feeble and by-the-book (by-The-Book?), is that we owe it to ourselves to hold despair and hope in equal weight. Yet over a series of interactions with the pair, this dogma will be properly tested, a burden taken on. It proves heavier than first thought: as much as Schrader declares himself in thrall to Bressonian minimalism, he's also unafraid to make a baroque paraphrase of that old Hitchcock dictum, reckoning that a suicide vest introduced in a film's first act must eventually recur come the conclusion. There is a pressure cooker under the cassock, then, and we spend almost the entirety of First Reformed's second half waiting for it to explode.

There are, in fact, pronounced differences between Bresson's technique and Schrader's, which seems informed by his experiences of working on the fringes of the commercial cinema. Schrader uses the Academy-like ratio not as a necessity but an effect, a considered choice that positions the camera a few inches closer to his characters and thereby appears to add pounds to the weight on their shoulders (as Hitchcock often did). Through the anguished figure of Ernst Toller, Schrader has realised he can make disparate real-world concerns (accelerated climate change, the rise of extremism, a general loss of faith) palpably physical and install them, as a knot of tension, in the guts of protagonist and viewer alike; we may not be the ones pissing blood, but we sure as hell come away knowing what it might feel like.

Salty old dog that he is, Schrader tosses in one nicely filthy joke about the church organ, but evidently First Reformed was never conceived as light relief, and in places it can come off as a little self-conscious about its handwringing - unlike, say, Bruno Dumont's jawdroppingly matter-of-fact Hadewijch, another drama of contemporary radicalisation, but one that confined itself to standard-issue social realism. Schrader the movie buff can't resist the flourish of having Toller add gloopy pink Pepto-Bismol to his slug of whisky, a close-up that was a quote from Godard back when Scorsese quoted it in Taxi Driver; a late shot of the priest steeling himself for action in a full-length mirror returns us, with a muted horn-honk, to the world of Travis Bickle.

Yet by putting a thoughtful, competent, capable priest rather than an out-and-out sociopath centre frame, First Reformed addresses one of the issues this viewer has always had with the Scorsese film: late Schrader is interested in other people - and the impact we have on one another's lives - in a way I don't believe Taxi Driver, the handiwork of angry, self-absorbed young men, ever was. That intense self-scrutiny, meanwhile, aligns the film very squarely with its agonised protagonist: like Toller, it's aiming for purity of form and spirit, but it can't avoid being corrupted by the knowledge that follows from being in this world for any length of time. You may not thrill to this torturousness, but it is absolutely integral, and defiantly not a pose. 

The exacting approach places a lot on the shoulders of a never-better Hawke, an actor whose career has been its own Boyhood, carrying him from handsome young cynic to lined, haunted soul. Here, he's mastered a concerned frown of a kind you might well want your pastor to wear, but it's one that turns gauntly sinister by night when lit from beneath by the laptop screen on which Ernst Toller schools himself as to those forces banking on a 21st century Apocalypse. The seriousness embedded in this performance carries the film, and those of us of a mind to follow it, to often unexpected places: first into a sublimated sex scene that yields a miracle of sorts (surely more Dreyer than Ozu in its levitation imagery), then to a finale that really does seem to embrace hope and despair simultaneously, pushing the priest's worldview to the limit.

At the public screening I attended, one audience member could be heard to yelp "you bastard" in the silence that separated final image from first credits, and it was unclear whether the epithet was aimed at Toller, Schrader or God himself. The film's success at the specialty box-office this long, jittery, infernally hot summer serves as its own proof of First Reformed's ability to touch an audience's nerves, and it seems to have relieved Schrader of some of his own doubts and anxieties, if the recent photo showing him celebrating his 72nd birthday at a Taylor Swift concert is anything to go by. (He has learnt a lesson unheeded by the out-of-touch goons of Dog Eat Dog, who had no idea who Ms. Swift was.) He was in a happier place there, for which even the non-believers among us might offer a small prayer of thanks. But try shaking First Reformed off.

First Reformed is now screening in selected cinemas.

Monday 23 July 2018

Three stars: "Hotel Artemis"

Hotel Artemis, an enjoyably offbeam directorial debut from screenwriter Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), rips one specific scene out of any number of old-timey crime movies, balls it up, pitches it ten years into the future, and unfolds an entire picture out of it. The scene is the one where a gangster or some other nogoodnik takes a bullet in the course of their skulduggery and has to be carried by their associates to some backstreet location, where a shady, nervy and/or disgraced medical professional can extract the slug and stitch 'em up without reporting any transgressions to the Feds. Pearce's proposition is that, by the year 2028, the great city of Los Angeles will be in such a woebegone state that an entire institution would have risen up to meet the need for suturing heavies. The facility in question, a badly faded former hotel, is operated by a prematurely greying doctor played by Jodie Foster and known only as The Nurse, who oversees a corridor's worth of state-of-the-art surgical equipment - bought, of course, with dirty money - and a personal archive of turn-of-the-Seventies West Coast rock with which she livens up her scant downtime.

We join this Nurse on the night riots have broken out on the surrounding streets over alterations to the city's water supply, with a bank robber (Sterling K. Brown) hauling a badly wounded compadre through the unrest and into this gaudy sanctuary. There are patients already in situ: a trash-talking arms dealer (Charlie Day) whose recovery from facial injuries is hampered by his desire to make life difficult for everyone, and an assassin (Sofia Boutella) with a bullethole in her arm ("This is America," deadpans the Nurse during surgery. "85% of what I deal with is bulletholes") and, it's revealed, a new target in her sights. The atmosphere becomes yet more febrile with a couple of late arrivals: the mob boss who first opened and funded this facility (Jeff Goldblum), now bleeding himself and expecting the VIP treatment, and - uh-oh - an injured cop (Jenny Slate), whose presence challenges the Nurse's rep as someone who only does good for bad men, and indirectly reminds our heroine of the trauma that led to her shutting herself away in the first place. Tough shift.

At just 94 minutes, this is a notably self-contained endeavour, a clear example of a novice director hitting upon a set-up that allows him to find his feet within carefully defined limits: one location, three acts, one night. Possibly Pearce got the gangster angle from watching The Roaring Twenties on Turner Classic Movies; an additional source of inspiration may have been MGM's 1932 smash Grand Hotel, with its vision of disparate individuals and agendas being sequestered beneath the same roof. This dystopian update is, naturally, far less lavish: Ramsay Avery's production design stretches to a tight maze of mildewed corridors along which characters clash and nasty surprises lurk. Generically, Pearce's film is closer to those one-bad-night episodes of TV's e.r., or a John Wick spin-off set entirely within the confines of the Continental. Still, it's encouraging - especially at the height of the summer silly season - to be presented with a creative who writes because he wants to work in close proximity with actors, and do something driven more by characters than effects. 

Everyone gets a scene or three to add to their showreel. Day is permitted to go several shades heavier than usual; Boutella vamps effectively before the plot requires her to perform her usual asskicking; Brown - thus far best known for TV (American Crime Story, This is Us) - demonstrates he can hold a bigger screen, and the moral centre ground, very capably. It will most likely be remembered as the film that handed Foster, away directing these past few years, her most substantial acting role for a decade: this material would appear unlikely to generate Academy nods, but she skilfully outlines a dedicated professional whose specialty just happens to be dirty work, and Pearce realises he needs her to connect this script's various strands together. It frays a little towards the end - the action's pretty rote - and a few extra narrative and stylistic risks wouldn't have hurt anybody; like 75-80% of modern American movies, it could do with getting out more. Still, at a time when the bulk of our summer releases are overinflated B-movies, it's rather fun to see a crime movie that stakes out its parameters early, before operating smartly and coherently within them.

Hotel Artemis is now showing in cinemas nationwide.  

Friday 20 July 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 13-15, 2018:

 (new) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
2 (new) Skyscraper (12A)
3 (2) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A) ***
4 (1) The First Purge (15)
5 (3Ocean's 8 (12A)
6 (new) The Secret of Marrowbone (15)
7 (4) Sicario 2: Soldado (15)
8 (9) Sanju (15) **
9 (8) Hereditary (15) **
10 (6) Adrift (12A)

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. First Reformed

2. Vertigo
3. Incredibles 2
4. Summer 1993
5. Path of Blood

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
2 (new) Red Sparrow (15)
3 (2) Black Panther (12A) **
4 (4) Darkest Hour (PG) **
5 (3Fifty Shades Freed (18)
6 (8) Coco (PG) ***
7 (10) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
8 (34) The Incredibles (U) ****
9 (5) Finding Your Feet (12)
10 (7) The Shape of Water (15) ****

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Sweet Country

2. Lady Bird
3. Western
4. Mary Magdalene
5. Jeune Femme 

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Pretty Woman [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 10.20pm)
2. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
3. The Bourne Ultimatum (Saturday, ITV, 9.55pm)
4. Stonehearst Asylum (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
5. The Football Factory (Tuesday, five, 11.05pm)

"Spitfire" (Guardian 20/07/18)

Spitfire ***
Dirs: David Fairhead, Ant Palmer. Documentary with the voice of Charles Dance. 99 mins. Cert: PG

Post-Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, there will surely be more of these retrospectives on the horizon, harking back to an age when Britain laid claim to ruling waves and air alike. David Fairhead and Ant Palmer’s documentary, released to mark the RAF’s centenary, bolsters its honourable core project – preserving the testimony of former Spitfire pilots – with material guaranteed to spike the pulse rate of aeronautical enthusiasts: footage of surviving Spits being wheeled out of museum storage; yards of scratchy combat film that underlines how distant these halcyon days now are; nuts-and-bolts analysis of the planes’ defensive strengths. Only belatedly does it consider whether these motorised killing machines might be as problematic as they are emblematic.

The directors enter the archive with scholarly care and craft, finding a useful early toehold in 1942’s flagwaver The First of the Few, where director-star Leslie Howard played Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell. Narrated by unofficial-voice-of-Empire Charles Dance and elegantly scored by Chris Roe, their own feature retains the contours of a stirring underdog tale, as a squadron of plucky Kens and Geoffreys recall signing up to see off the Luftwaffe, despite being outnumbered by a ratio of four-to-one. These twinkly-eyed aces apparently needed scant prompting to revisit their derring-do, generating gobbets of Spit-trivia: the planes’ elliptical wing design, we learn, was a cheeky crib from German WW1 fighters, an instance of Teutonic aggression being turned against itself.

PG-rated and matinee-bound, the film can seem a trifle coy about addressing the consequences of combat. Regular flights over rolling English countryside position these planes as no more dangerous than their Airfix replicas; the editorial broadly aligns with the serviceman who confesses “I shouldn’t say I enjoyed it when other people were being killed, but...”. For non-buffs, Spitfire will seem as curious or niche as making a film in 2018 about the Ack-Ack gun; in the week a new fleet of fighters have been commissioned to patrol our skies, there may be reasons why these narratives are being returned to circulation. Yet in and of itself, this cinematic time-capsule does its bit capably, even touchingly: the memories are here, for anybody who wishes to cling onto them.

Spitfire opens in selected cinemas from today.

Going off-track: "Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie"

For those who aren't on point with events in the world created by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, this will likely come as a shock. Having been bought up by Mattel in 2002, everyone's favourite talking tank engines have been relocated to the generic-looking island of Sodor and repurposed as the centrepieces of noisy, busy yet entirely bland digital content conceived to distract youngsters and swipe any pocket money that hasn't already gone the way of Pixar or Adam Sandler. In this respect, the franchising has been successful - Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie is the eleventh Thomas & Friends feature to speed down the tracks towards stricken parents - but it's clear that the homely, laconic charm of the Ringo Starr period is now long behind us; likewise, the objections to 2000's crudely digitised Thomas and the Magic Railroad, featuring (and this never fails to amuse me) Alec Baldwin as the voice of the Fat Controller. Modernisation is all well and good, but it may now be time for Jeremy Corbyn to put forward a plaintive call to renationalise Thomas.

The latest instalment is so busy generating motion and setpieces that it rather forgets about - sometimes whizzes past - anything so hidebound as story. Instead, we get a Thomas travelogue: our hero gets the idea of venturing off the beaten tracks from a rally car voiced by Peter Andre (!), an element clearly sketched in - with no real artistry - because the animators remembered their kids once seemed to enjoy the talking cars in a Pixar movie. (First flashing sign of mediocrity: it's cribbing from the Pixar movies nobody really likes.) Shipping Thomas off to Africa, South America and China does, granted, get the series out of its cosy wheelyard: we get blazing savannah sundowns, trains with faces less pale than Thomas's own, rolling stock with (broad) accents. Yet even this development seems as though it was arrived at after a brainstorming session on how best to tap the goodwill around Marvel's Black Panther and similar projects: our movies, even our pifflingly minor screenfillers, have learnt there is money to be made from diversity. Otherwise, no depth, emotion or subtext, just colours and shapes, which may of course be what four and five-year-olds want, but is going to leave their wearying guardians with ample time to ponder how weird it is that this Thomas should carry on jolly conversations with carriages whose faces are literally coupled to his caboose, Human Centipede-style. This isn't Awdry; it's tawdry.

Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Lock it up: "Escape Plan 2"

I refer you to McCahill's Third Law of Movie Physics: given enough time, everything - no matter how dumb or dingy - eventually gets a sequel. You may vaguely remember that back in 2013, Sly Stallone and Arnie Schwarzenegger were paired as cellmates in Escape Plan, a dimly lit runaround that played like TV's Prison Break on Sanatogen. The all-but-direct-to-DVD Escape Plan 2 does its very best to junk the one thing that non-event movie had going for it: the flexing of old-school, analogue moviestar muscle. Arnie, wisely, has made a run for it and is nowhere to be seen; Sly's security mastermind (stop sniggering) Ray Breslin has outsourced the really heavy lifting, running and fighting to a team of at best semi-recognisable faces, leaving him free to squint at spreadsheets, paw at Jaime King (just the thirty years his junior) and do a light spot of voiceover. It's a sign of the movie times that a significant proportion of this new cast should be Asian, which would appear less a bid for diversity recognition than an acknowledgement the original film took more money in the Far East - where the Planet Hollywood brand may still retain some currency - than it did back home. To that end, the sequel has several members of Breslin's outfit captured while visiting Shanghai and thrown into a top-secret, futuristically appointed chokey known as Hades; its inmates (who look like 17 in total, some indication of budgetary rescaling) are required to fight one another for benefits in an arena referred to as "the Zoo".

The futuristic correctional facility is hardly a novel development - anybody who set foot inside a videoshop in the mid-to-late Nineties would have encountered myriad ex-rental copies of the Christopher Lambert vehicle Fortress - but with a dash of wit, it might have provided for appreciable pulp. Instead, we get bash-'em-out hack Steven C. Miller (Marauders, Southern Fury), who stages very ordinary, oddly cursory fisticuffs with no particular energy or compositional flair, and with the straightest of faces: when warden Titus Welliver whispers the notionally chilling "I'm the Zookeeper!", you just stifle a giggle and hit up YouTube to see whether the line made the trailer. (It did.) Of the film's theoretical selling points, Dave Bautista - a potentially heavyweight screen presence, as his droll contributions to last year's Bushwick and the Guardians of the Galaxy series have suggested - is almost entirely wasted as a PI stalking the fringes of this plot, while Sly pokes his head round the door every ten minutes to remind us he still believes this franchise is a viable concern going forwards. (His final words intend to prompt a third instalment literally no-one, save the star's accountants and legal team, needs to exist.) It is, in the end, one of those sequels for which the phrase caveat emptor was surely coined: even if you're in the market for a dog, it's always disappointing when you pay for a boxer, and wind up being sold a shitzu.

Escape Plan 2 opens in selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD release on September 17.