Thursday 30 August 2018

"Upgrade" (Guardian 31/08/18)

Upgrade ****
Dir: Leigh Whannell. With: Logan Marshall-Green, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen, Abby Craden. 100 mins. Cert: 15

The latest sneak attack from genre kings Blumhouse is an unusually patient, detailed and visceral cyber-thriller that plays like a Black Mirror rethink of The Six Billion Dollar Man, and may be the closest any mainstream production is likely to get to Japan’s cult Tetsuo movies. Left embittered after a carjacking that kills his beloved and puts him in a wheelchair, petrolhead Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) enters into a confidential pact with a reclusive, ominously peroxided tech genius, becoming the guinea pig for what’s dubbed “biomechanical fusion”: a microchipping operation that reboots his broken body with a HAL-like operating system and heightened physical capabilities. Does it endow Grey with renewed peace, though? Big nope on that front.

Capably stepping up to writer-director status, fiendish Saw scribe Leigh Whannell hereby restores those sharp and spiky edges the bigger studios now routinely file off their superhero origin stories to get the kids in. Quadriplegic by day, Java-enabled avenger by night, Grey is obliged to lead a variation of those double lives shared by Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker. Instead of polished production design, however, his quest to solve his wife’s murder drags him through scuzzy flophouses and divebars, to the accompaniment of a pounding Jed Palmer score; instead of 12A-rated mild peril, we get the vicious slicing-and-dicing and gruesome headshots that follow from a man haphazardly wrestling with the fact he’s now part-machine.

This process provides a fine, long-overdue showcase for Marshall-Green, the Tom Hardy-Matt McConaughey hybrid noted in passing among Prometheus’s doomed crewmen: he gets to be hugely charismatic when debating the voice in his head or fending off dogged detective Betty Gabriel, and expressive indeed amid Whannell’s acutely choreographed micro-chopsocky setpieces. Everyone’s so bound up in his internal administrator conflict that the flesh-and-blood villains often seem no more than snivelling afterthoughts, but at its best – in a boundless chase round a hackers’ hangout, and a high-speed freeway pursuit – Upgrade is as fluid and exhilarating as anything the Wachowskis signed their names to in the days when they were brothers: the kind of nifty, sometimes nasty surprise our multiplexes sorely need.

Upgrade opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

"Yardie" (Guardian 31/08/18)

Yardie ***
Dir: Idris Elba. With: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Stephen Graham, Naomi Ackie. 101 mins. Cert: 15

For his directorial debut, Idris Elba has seized upon a book regarded as practically a sacred text among Britain’s Jamaican community – Victor Headley’s ferocious 1992 pageturner about an angry young Kingstonian’s progress through early Eighties Hackney – and strived to reshape it into broadly accessible social history. Yardie the film has ambition, confidence and energy, not to mention the novelty of being a rare homegrown period drama that isn’t beholden to pallid Downtonisms, yet it often finds itself standing, like Aml Ameen’s conflicted protagonist D, at a crossroads. Ahead, its own distinctive, rewarding path; on all other sides, several hundred yards of crime-movie cliché. At most of these junctures, Elba makes the right move.

Its flaw is to put so much into play that it should feel tempted by such short cuts. In this telling, D’s journey is at once immigrant song, a drama of domestic reconnection, and a hopeful parable of inner-city healing; Idris the DJ also can’t resist reflecting the dawn of UK sound-system culture, allowing him to gild his soundtrack with especially choice Island cuts. He wobbles, however, whenever we descend into the sickly-green lair of D’s drug-dealing nemesis Rico (Stephen Graham), who spends his days getting conspicuously high on his own supply and generally coming on like the Scarface of the Kingsland Road. Not even Graham, one of our finest character actors, can rescue these scenes from seeming somewhat stock.

Elsewhere, matters are steadied by Elba’s precision – in everything from the patois to the quiet excellence of Damien Creagh’s production design – and those smart choices made in casting. Ameen, upright and alert, has striking moments when he drops the swagger to reveal the wounded child beneath; Shantol Jackson is a fierce presence as D’s wife Yvonne. What’s around them loses a little snap late on as its antihero processes the trauma he’s both suffered and occasioned: you await the gutpunch Shane Meadows landed in This is England, and instead witness some of the force being smoothed away. A debut of unarguable promise, though – plenty to build on if Elba can himself resist the adolescent lure of running round with 007’s PPK. 

Yardie opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

"Searching" (Guardian 31/08/18)

Searching ***
Dir: Aneesh Chaganty. With: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La. 102 mins. Cert: 12A

A lowish bar has been set, but this is the most carefully considered entry in the laptop-based thriller cycle booted up by 2014’s Unfriended. Again, everything we see unfolds as windows within Windows: its crafty opening montage – establishing the idyllic day-to-day existence of one Asian-American family via uploaded selfies – might have recalled a wildly sappy Microsoft ad were it not for the slow reveal of one character’s cancer diagnosis. The screen becomes a site of further tensions after college-age daughter Margot goes missing, leaving devoted, straight-laced dad David (John Cho) home alone, poring over a trail of pixelated breadcrumbs – Facebook photos, PayPal transactions, Pokémon webcasts – in a bid to bring her home.

Former Google promo director Aneesh Chaganty complicates this cherchez la femme game with the fact Margot’s curated online persona bears little resemblance to lived reality; as the excellent tagline puts it, David can’t find out where she is until he finds out who she is. Satnav trajectories, online news footage and (a cheat, this) security-cam footage helps expand the film’s search parameters, and some nuance has been found within the central, organising gimmick. It changes the meaning when David replaces the exclamation mark at the end of one furious Messenger tirade with a full stop, and it goes to character that dad should be running a PC, where his offspring evidently preferred a Mac.

The film is a bit PC itself, operating somewhere between ploddingly dependable and frowningly conservative, pitching itself at technophobe parents who may themselves have asked David’s high court judge-like “What is a Tumblr?” (Those with fond memories of Cho’s participation in the Harold & Kumar comedies will instantly feel very old.) One limitation is visual: the clean lines of social media never really inspire much in the way of real cinematic dread. Chaganty’s tab-toggling is pacy enough, but he gets pedantic about tying up unfinished digital business, and Unfriended’s pulse-raising wildness is beyond him. Mostly, Searching holds the moderate, passive appeal of watching a competent player ace a round of Minesweeper, each click bringing us closer to the desired resolution.

Searching opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

"Action Point" (Guardian 31/08/18)

Action Point **
Dir: Tim Kirkby. With: Johnny Knoxville, Dan Bakkedahl, Chris Pontius, Eleanor Worthington-Cox. 85 mins. Cert: 15

Still no sign of that Adventureland sequel, but this week brings us a puzzling film in which 47-year-old Johnny Knoxville, in the guise of a renegade theme-park operator, gets to rag on millennials for their observance of basic health-and-safety codes. Cinema, like life, is rarely fair. If Knoxville’s Jackass movies were, for better and frequently worse, everything they set out to be, Action Point looks very much like the kind of PG-13 rated compromise – gooey teen coming-of-ager, with stunts attached – which studio Paramount might have imposed on those doofi had then-hot producer-director Spike Jonze not had their back. Watching it is like travelling through a wormhole to a slightly crummier version of 2004.

The sense of a fading star looking over a repeatedly dislocated shoulder is underlined by the new film’s framing. Bookends find Knoxville, in Bad Grandpa latex, reminiscing with a grandchild about the late Seventies heyday in which his D.C. transformed the fortunes of a beat-up backwoods attraction by taking the speed limiters off the rides. The upshot is an erratic run of skits, assembled with neither rhyme nor reason, in which Knoxville and loyal second Chris Pontius are knocked over, or have live squirrels introduced to their nethers, or chuckle at the sight of copulating dogs. Some of these – like an incident involving a trebuchet – are just blunt enough to force out a fleeting snicker; most yield frowns or uneasy grimaces.

The surprise is that such a reactionary artefact should be credited to a director best associated with progressive British comedy. Tim Kirkby (Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Fleabag) appears to have chiefly asserted himself by getting Sham 69 and The Undertones onto the soundtrack, thereby scattering traces of punk attitude amid the product placement and flagrantly insincere father-daughter bonding. Elsewhere, evidence suggests he could only go along with some questionable executive-level decisions, and then the ageing yahoos making mildly merry while trashing his set. Not good for much, all told, but there may be a lesson in here about the extent to which rowdy rabbles can ever be successfully appeased.

Action Point opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

On demand: "Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran"

The planets being aligned as they are, we may very well be in for a run of films in which India explores its own recent history, much as German cinema did in the Seventies and again in the Noughties, and Romanian cinema has since the turn of the millennium. There will, however, be pronounced differences between this New Wave and those that came before it. Firstly, the bulk of these movies will be couched as crowdpleasers, and therefore obliged to conform to certain conventions, not least song breaks that would have been unthinkable in Downfall or 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Secondly, yet not unrelated: as these films will be addressing the issue of how India became modern India - which is to say Modi's India - they will likely end up broadly uncritical in their tone, or having to be very careful in the way in which they frame their criticisms. Parmanu, a genuine oddity that hit cinemas earlier this year, revolves around the composite character of Ashwat Raina (John Abraham), one of the civil servants who rethought and redesigned the country's nuclear program in the 1990s, when - as the film has it - India was cowering in fear from the military might of neighbouring Pakistan and China. Plotting Raina's haphazard route towards the successful execution of a gamechanging nuclear test, this is a film that marches with unexpected enthusiasm towards a very big bang; to paraphrase those noted historians Fall Out Boy, every scene isn't a scene so much as a goddamn arms race.

It could have made for no more than a dryly procedural account of paperwork-shuffling, yet writer-director Abhishek Sharma has packed the facts of the matter off to the gym and reshaped this chapter as something both commercial and vaguely familiar: the tale of a maverick officer cast out of the system by lazy superiors before being re-embraced as the only person whose methods get results. (Call it Dirty Bomb Harry.) As played by chiselled action hero Abraham, this Raina is by some distance cinema's buffest functionary. When the government doesn't listen to his initial warnings, then has the temerity to pin the blame on him for an unsuccessful test, we suspect he's but a hair's breadth away from ripping off his shirt and giving someone a severe beatdown; as Sharma frames it, it was only with the appointment of (just-deceased) Atal Vajpayee as PM that Raina found the institutional toehold he needed to drag India into the fully weaponised 21st century, taking root in a disused fort and assembling a squad of oddbods and outcasts - a Dirty Bomb Dozen, if you will - to assist him in his tinkering. (In a concession to New Movie thinking, there is also a gun-toting, ass-kicking female officer, drafted in to lend some additional measure of glamour to what was, in real life, a project overseen largely by middle-aged males.)

Their mission is compiled with a mixture of competency and clunkiness. Sharma folds in actual news archive to lend his narrative greater context, and that story does carry us into an area that is both genuinely intriguing (how do you run a nuclear program?) and generally classified. It yields leftfield setpieces - much of the second half finds Raina trying to keep the test site clear from prying US satellites - and winds up celebrating one particularly crafty move, involving onions and the Kashmir region, in the manner of a bold-faced prankster who cannot hide his glee at having pulled off such a trick. Other elements are very movie, and might only pass muster if you were feeling generous. It feels a shade contrived that Raina should get the idea for assembling a team while watching five mythical warriors riding through an episode of Mahabharat, and Diana Penty is wasted in the Anne Archer role of Wife Who Spends Her Screentime Waving Hubby Off To Work. The songs, thumping hymns to the Motherland and the prospect of nuclear annihilation ("The ground trembles/There is no stopping us now"), will have to go down as an acquired taste. No denying the confidence pulsing through its veins, though, and the attempt to turn nuclearisation into the basis of an Ocean's-style caper tickled me - even as its final-act flagwaving and speechmaking underlined that this is exactly the kind of propatainment that might have been playing at the Pyongyang Odeon any time over the past fifty years. 

Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran is now streaming on Netflix.

Monday 27 August 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 17-19, 2018:

 (new) Christopher Robin (PG) **
2 (2) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
3 (1) The Meg (12A) ***
4 (new) The Equalizer 2 (15)
5 (new) The Festival (15) ***
6 (3) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
7 (5) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12A) ***
8 (4) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12A)
9 (re) William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (12A) [above] ***
10 (6Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)


My top five: 
1. Heathers

2. BlacKKKlansman
3. The Eyes of Orson Welles
4. Gold
5. Cléo from 5 to 7

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (2) Peter Rabbit (PG)
2 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (new) A Quiet Place (15) ****
4 (1) Ready Player One (12) ***
5 (8) Mamma Mia! (PG) *
6 (10) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)
7 (13) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
8 (4) Pacific Rim: Uprising (12)
9 (9) The Incredibles (U) ****
10 (14) Coco (PG) ***


My top five: 
1. A Quiet Place

2. Ghost Stories
3. Beast
4. Ready Player One
5. Love, Simon

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Sunday, BBC2, 6.10pm)
2. Strictly Ballroom (Friday, BBC2, 1pm)
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Saturday, ITV, 8pm)
4. Senna (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
5. The King's Speech (Friday, BBC1, 10.35pm)

Small time crooks: "Bad Samaritan"

The crime movie Bad Samaritan is an unusually small-scale and low-watt project for Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich's producer on Independence Day and Godzilla, to have got caught up in; it may have been that, as creatives operating at high Hollywood levels often do, he felt an urge to attempt a swift, back-to-basics palate cleanser after the long and reportedly troubled genesis of last year's Geostorm. If so, it is to Devlin what Pain & Gain was to Michael Bay: take that comparison as you will. It opens with a panorama of working-class Portland locales, then settles in for an extended, slightly convoluted first act designed to hold a plot revelation at arm's length from us. The basics are these: fervently anti-corporate photographer Sean (Robert Sheehan, allowed to keep his Irish accent as a migrant's son) has, in his day job as valet for a chichi restaurant, developed a scam whereby he and a colleague rob the homes of the folks whose fancy cars they've been entrusted to park. A profitable run comes to a crashing halt one night after he slithers into the house of thoroughly corporate arsehole Cale (David Tennant) and discovers a woman (Kerry Condon) chained up in his basement. If it takes a while to set it up, here is a pleasingly cruel dilemma for a 2018 movie to land its protagonist in. Call the police, and risk being busted for breaking-and-entering; don't call the police, and become a possible accomplice in the death of an innocent. Not even the director of Geostorm can entirely mess this premise up.

Granted, subsequent acts mostly unfold as throwback thriller runaround - Sean trying to prove to the authorities that he's not crying wolf, Cale suavely fending off official inquiries and going after his accuser, minor characters being set up for nasty falls - yet individual setpieces are capably staged, and Devlin gets more out of his performers than the apocalyptic blustering his blockbusters have generally traded in. Tennant, pinch-faced and insouciant, appears to be having a lot of fun ensuring his poundstore Patrick Bateman has precisely zero redeeming features; the generally unsympathetic Sheehan (anybody remember Jet Trash, cited in a bizarre in-jokey reference here?) is as effective in this role as - and this isn't entirely a backhanded compliment - Shia LaBeouf was in 2007's Disturbia. That may be the best indicator of the level everybody's operating at here - not Hitchcock, but mock-Hitchcock (or mock-mock-Hitchcock). Still, there are worse creatives for a prominent producer-director angling for a new career path to model themselves on, and this is one of those rare occasions where dialling back the excess - slashing the budget, trawling a less illustrious talent pool, limiting the camera to a few city blocks - really does seem to have refocused a filmmaker into thinking about the plot mechanics that transform story into movie. There remain elements you might well splutter at or quibble with if this were a more serious venture, but here seem to come with the lurid, all-but-straight-to-streaming territory: the use of women as props, some shoddy VFX, a very Nineties protagonist who, when it comes to it, just won't fucking die. Yet watched on VoD or a long-haul flight, it'll sweep you up and carry you along just fine: there will be bigger, starrier thrillers released on many more screens this year that won't work half as well.

Bad Samaritan is now showing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on October 8.

"Slender Man" (Guardian 25/08/18)

Slender Man **
Dir: Sylvain White. With: Joey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, Annalise Basso. 93 mins. Cert: 15

A Slender Man movie might well have presented as a commercially viable option earlier this decade, when the spectral childsnatcher created by Eric Knudsen for was proliferating as one of the Internet’s creepier memes. That was before the near-fatal 2014 stabbing of a 12-year-old Wisconsin girl by classmates claiming to be serving this fictional creation, the objections the victim’s father raised to the then-shooting project, and the cuts designed to both appease the relatives and secure a teen-baiting rating. Sony have hustled the results out into scattered late-night slots without fanfare, perhaps understandably, as there’s not much left to distribute: if you thought the bogeyman was slender, wait till you see the film.

Writer David Birke and director Sylvain White here graft together material from The Ring, the Blair Witches and Wes Craven’s Nightmares, garnished with an incongruous dash of the Traveling Pants franchise. (Arguably just the pants bit.) In a nondescript Massachusetts backwater, four broadly interchangeable BFFs stray during a sleepover onto a website blasting epileptic-unfriendly imagery. When one subsequently vanishes, the others begin roaming dark woods and shadowy reference libraries with torches, attempting to bargain with a figure who strikes the eye as far less disturbing than Jacob Rees-Mogg. Makeweight and unfinished, this Slender Man’s featureless visage mostly recalls those balls-on-sticks deployed as placeholders in the filming of effects movies.

Despite the cuts, what’s going on around him proceeds with a vague internal logic, albeit of the dull, flat, relentlessly unoriginal kind: here’s a stock horror scenario, White proposes, and here’s how it generally plays out. What’s been vanished from this theatrical version is any trace of blood or dread. Too often, these scenes default to indifferently timed jump scares, mothballed dream imagery, and cinematography so artlessly murky it’s no surprise characters keep disappearing. (Faceless ghouls almost become normalised when you can’t see anybody’s eyes.)

The modest, generally well-behaved young crowd I saw the film with on opening night tolerated an hour before shrugging exitwards or trawling their phones for “Baby Shark” remixes; they missed one late, semi-arresting sylvan sequence that might have served as a legitimate showstopper in a less obviously compromised production. Still, when the multiplex’s cultural reference points are this vaporous and moment-specific, can we really blame the target audience for moving on, or simply failing to see the outcome at all?

Slender Man is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Apt pupils: "The Eyes of Orson Welles"

I caught up with Mark Cousins' The Eyes of Orson Welles a few days after starting to read Cousins' recent book The Story of Looking. Clearly, the man's scopophilia knows no bounds, and at a time when the male gaze - particularly the male gaze in relation to cinema - has fallen subject to renewed interrogation, there might arguably be something problematic in that. Then again, what would not looking suggest? At best, a certain timidity; at worst, a blinkered closed-mindedness, a lack of curiosity. Cousins' Eyes takes Welles, up there with Stanley Kubrick as among the most studied figures in American cinema, and makes him the subject of the new strain of criticism this writer and filmmaker has been developing over his recent projects, including Looking - not telling but showing us how a creative giant like Welles once observed the world, going back to the places where once Orson stood, and making connections between what can be seen there and what can be seen in the work. An overhead light filmed by Cousins in the Chicago museum Welles haunted as a young scholar is shown to recur amid the backdrops of Citizen Kane and The Trial; the compositional aspects of the paintings housed thereabouts are mirrored in the framings of later, moving pictures. Where most of us bumblers use words to get at and summarise a worldview, Cousins - building on the vast leaps and bounds video essays have taken in recent years - cuts out these descriptive middlemen and returns us to vivid images.

Eyes gazes upon one set of pictures in particular: those Welles himself drew and painted over the course of a lifetime, some created for his BBC show Orson Welles' Sketch Book, which Cousins is first seen liberating from storage in New York. Retracing their lines involves retracing their creator's footsteps around the globe, taking the film to Ireland, Morocco, Paris (Welles' favourite city), L.A. (where he was all too briefly flavour-of-the-month), Spain (where he shot Chimes at Midnight) and Arizona (where Orson's third daughter Beatrice now lives, in a house full of Rosebud-like keepsakes). Along this journey, we will encounter Orson the visionary, making the sketches that would factor into his more expressionist work, Orson the romantic, scratching out Valentines to his nearest and dearest, and even Orson the depressive, reduced to daubing self-portraits in blue as the wait for financing grew longer and longer. Cousins' travels, meanwhile, keep raising their own share of questions about perspective. Everybody knows Welles looms over the cinema, both by reputation, and as a sheer physical presence. What Eyes wants us to consider is what Orson saw (and thought) whenever he sat humbled before those paintings in Chicago, or the sparkling lights of Paris by night. Was he ever humbled? Or did he simply see the world as mere grist for his creative mill, a stage on which to perform and conquer?

These questions are more than a matter of film history. By raising them anew, Cousins is attempting to square Welles the prominent leftie - the man who helped stage New Deal musical The Cradle Will Rock, commemorated in Tim Robbins' 1999 drama - with the actor who played so many despots, fascists and rotters (Kane, Harry Lime in The Third Man, Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, Charles Rankin in The Stranger), and perhaps get his head around a world he describes - in a phrase pointedly layered over a shot of Trump Tower - as "ever more Wellesian": bigger, faster, flooded with darker shadows, and more pronounced extremes. Looking through the eyes of another for several hours, or several thousand miles, is here recast as an act of empathy and understanding, an equivalent of walking a while in someone else's shoes. Cousins amply demonstrates that Welles saw far more than most people are allowed to: hence the restless travelling, the radical voodoo Macbeth staged in Harlem with an all-black cast, the deep focus of Kane and co. Yet Cousins himself looks far and wide, too. As in The Story of Film and its pendant-doc A Story of Children and Film, he's always looking out for the little things: those revealing details tucked into the backs and sides of the frame, films that have disappeared or been left to the margins.

As in Story, he's particularly persuasive in the way he folds supplementary material into his arguments, seeking out Welles's radio work (source of its own, infamously vivid images of American society), TV interviews, and even post-film Q&As, where - like a magician who cannot help himself - Orson the Great took great pleasure in revealing how his best tricks were accomplished. Footage of a 1981 screening of The Trial in New York shows Welles responding to one audience question with the bold pronouncement "We are all Jewish, since the Holocaust", a maxim delivered with such force it would surely have sent anybody in the room scrabbling round for a pen with which to sign the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. For Welles, it seems, looking was, among many other things, a deeply political act: a way of seeing what might otherwise be overlooked, concealed, normalised. (He played fascists, the film ventures, to show us what fascism looks like.) For Cousins, however, it's also personal, a simple matter of connection, and knowing exactly where anybody stands in this world. Eyes, with its lingering shots of human faces, is addressed like a love letter written to a teacher by a scholar alert to both the alchemical and emotional properties of the cinema; Cousins' trademark, close-miked narration, refusing the false objectivity of so much criticism, is a voice that whispers into the ear, as if to say - look at this.

That immense authorial empathy actually results in what, for me, felt like one of the film's few missteps: a sequence that offers Orson - voiced on the soundtrack by the actor Jack Klaff - a right to reply to our narrator's thoughts from beyond the grave. His words have been carefully sourced from Welles's own correspondence, but the conceit feels a touch fanciful, and I missed hearing Cousins' voice. Crucially, however, the filmmaker handles the clips with the same delicacy as he does the artwork, presenting them in their original aspect ratios - never a given in docs about movies, sadly - and studiously labelling them, so that captivated newcomers can seek the entire thing out. Suffice to say Eyes makes you want to take another look at these films - scattered, broken, brilliant as they are - with fresh eyes, and see what else might be hiding in there. (It made me wish I could have been more enthusiastic when first seeing Chimes at Midnight - but maybe that's something that comes with Falstaffian age.) This is the kind of film criticism that gets inside your head - setting ideas bouncing round there like pinballs heading towards a high score - but the roaming Cousins, forever on the lookout for a great or telling image, has also hit upon something rarer and more valuable besides: a film criticism that finally gets us all out of the house.

The Eyes of Orson Welles is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

Monday 20 August 2018

From the archive: "A Hard Day's Night"

Were there ever four moptops so famous, and so smart about their fame? Fifty years on from its first release, the reissue of A Hard Day’s Night arrives just as Bieber fever begins to go the way of the ague, coming in partway between the hard sell of One Direction: This Is Us and the hip posturing of The National’s Mistaken for Strangers as evidence this did once happen in popular culture: a band shifted millions of units, and remained not just loved, but enduringly, definably cool.

Richard Lester’s film greets the Beatles at the height of their 1963-64 fame – an epochal moment preserved forever in the title track's opening twang, played over shots of the Fab Four being chased around London by screaming female fans. What follows was as much an escape from drab reality as any subsequent mystery tour: Alun Owen’s screenplay takes as a throughline the band’s attempts to peg it and leg it and thereby evade not just these girls, but management, the media, eventually even the police.

This really was a band on the run, yet both its individual members and the harmonies they created together still hadn’t been entirely uprooted. The songs – “I Wanna Be Your Man”, “All My Loving”, “Can’t Buy Me Love” et al. – are recognisably the work of a close-knit gang thrashing something out in a garage, amusing themselves and one another; whatever new showbiz folderol the boys encounter, we sense it’s this music – this playing – that remains the fun part of the job.

As for the boys themselves, they’re presented as the kind of cheeky working-class scamps who pronounce “buffet” as “buffett”; they all have a gob on them, and spend sections of the film drinking, smoking and chasing girls, as they themselves are chased. (Compare this to the more guarded and businesslike This Is Us, where Zayn, Harry and the others displayed no real interest in doing anything other than that management had instructed them to do.)

For the other moment preserved here is a major keychange, a shift in a society swinging away from Old English conservatism, towards a more youthful, reckless energy. “I fought the War for your sort,” sniffs one commuter on the train-slash-cattle truck shuttling the band between engagements. “Bet you’re sorry you won,” is Ringo’s sarky response. The butler doddering to join the boys as they dash out to a promised gambling-den orgy is informed by John, in no uncertain terms, “you’re too old”.

The rabble-rousers are defined further by the presence of squarer, heavier-footed supporting presences: Norman Rossington, with his nightclub bouncer’s bearing and haircut as the band’s hapless manager; Wilfrid Brambell – just a year into Steptoe – as Paul’s fervently Fenian grandfather; Victor Spinelli as an uptight TV director; Derek Nimmo and Lionel Blair as passing turns.

Not all these light entertainment stalwarts could have understood what was being bottled here, but their exasperated reaction shots are an essential part of the joke: they provide the pillars of society around which our heroes can run rings. Lester, an American exile and a man of world cinema, knew a breathless set-up when he saw it: rejecting the antiquated Gainsborough-Ealing-Rank formulas, he instead oversaw the first British film cut to an off-beat, which matched his subjects’ energies perfectly. 

The Beatles as caught here can’t sit still, already keen to explore all musical, cinematic and social possibilities; they were going places, in every sense. Darker clouds would eventually roll in – the tax battles, the obsessive fans, the musical differences – but A Hard Day’s Night now feels as joyous as any other day in the sun, and that spontaneity endures. John, Paul, George, Ringo and Richard gave us not just a record of this band in this moment, but something else: a timeless reminder of the considerable cultural advantages to be gained from allowing the young to run free and mess about.

(MovieMail, July 2014)

A Hard Day's Night screens on BBC2 this Wednesday at 12.20pm.

Sunday 19 August 2018

From the archive: "Bridge of Spies"

Since 2008’s tired-seeming Indiana Jones return and the abortive attempt to launch another franchise with 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg has pursued a course less businessman-like than statesmanlike. This legacy phase – consolidating earlier historical inquiries ventured by Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich – wobbled a little with 2011’s sappy War Horse; it gained rhetorical heft over the course of 2012’s very fine Lincoln; with Bridge of Spies, it provides us with one of 2015’s standout American films.

If Lincoln more or less subscribed to the Great Man theory of history, the new film – written by the British playwright Matt Charman, with input from the Coen brothers – finds its focus among those joshingly defined on screen as “we little men, who do our jobs”. Its hero is James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the commuter-belt insurance lawyer obliged to make the most of a losing hand after being assigned to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy arrested in New York in 1957.

Making this particular case could have been pious, dry, or both; again, there’s a fair bit of that Lincoln business of white men sitting in brown rooms talking. (“Everyone deserves a defence,” is Donovan’s rationale, echoing that Schindlerian refrain about he who saves one life saving the world entire.) Yet right from its opening sequence, in which a silent phone call redirects Abel from painting to a park bench on assignment, Bridge of Spies expresses a total, immersive fascination with the world of spycraft.

Diplomacy becomes the substance of great acting. Initially, I hadn’t the foggiest why Rylance, playing a Newcastle-born Soviet agent, should be speaking in a Celtic brogue, but it fits the conception of Abel as an oddbod: a man of no particular place, resisting the rhythms of all those around him – and Spielberg sees how this uningratiating figure (a brother, perhaps, to Ulrich Mühe’s surveillance sadsack in The Lives of Others) is as important to this story as anybody.

Not least as Rylance’s idiosyncrasies provide an appreciable contrast with his typically foursquare co-star – although, as 2013’s Captain Phillips witnessed, Hanks’s projection of decency has only deepened with age and an understanding of the world’s growing indifference to such gentilities. Having Donovan catch the sniffles from his client is both an inspired, simple yet humanising touch – and a sly (Coen-authored?) joke on how the Cold War left everyone a little worse for wear.

Some of Bridge of Spies is pure Spielberg, and that purity is in itself touching. The primacy of home again manifests itself in the lawyer’s petitioning of a judge one Sunday lunchtime, in an attack on the Donovan household, and a punchline that chimes with Lincoln’s late bedroom gag. What’s new is the interest in foreign policy, and how these two fronts are linked – for Abel’s story, it transpires, is also that of Francis Gary Powers, the American surveillance pilot shot down over Soviet territory in a tremendous action setpiece.

Running throughout Charman’s script is the ever-pertinent idea that taking action over there can only have some impact back here. The second half, dispatching Donovan to Berlin to oversee a prisoner swap, finds subtly resonant parallels between US, Soviet and German activity: another phone call, big breakfasts, boyish assistants. The period recreation expands Spielberg’s imagination: one masterful sequence, describing the perimeters of the under-construction Wall, is the work of a filmmaker forever seeking new visual means of expressing long-cherished freedoms.

These extend to a particular freedom of speech, allowing the spy-movie doubletalk to be as ironic as it is rousing. When Donovan tells his wife “I’m doing this for us”, Spielberg clearly intends it to mean all of us. Yet even Abel’s sardonic catchphrase (“Would it help?”) functions on two levels. A throwback to Sturges and Capra, working at a time when filmmakers hoped gags might defuse or distract from conflict, it’s also a badge of honour, worn by a little guy who, very much in his director’s image, can’t resist putting himself in some higher, noble, truly stirring cause.

(MovieMail, November 2015)

Bridge of Spies screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Saturday 18 August 2018

1,001 Films: "Back to the Future" (1985)

At last, the first must-see blockbuster of 2010. After a summer spent watching pre-eminent American producers scrimping and saving (Prince of PersiaThe Losers), or reaching for 3D as a revenue-generating last resort (Clash of the Titans), it's a greater pleasure than usual to return to Back to the Future, and an era when the major studios had both money to burn, and some confidence in what an audience might want to see of a Friday evening. The reputation and reach of Robert Zemeckis's 1985 film have only grown in the years since: giving boyband McFly their name, for one, and sparking a flurry of erroneous Tweets earlier this year when some bright spark Photoshopped the time-travelling DeLorean's readout to suggest this was the year Marty and Doc were all set to zoom off to in the closing moments. (In fact, their destination is 2015 - so you have five years to devise your next witty BTTF-derived Facebook update, providing the Mayan prophecy set out in 2012 doesn't intervene.)

Final-scene pleas for sequels have become commonplace in our event movies - but this boyishly charming film remains one of the few where the process of sequelisation feels thoroughly earned by that conclusion. It's a toss-up between this and the no less pop-culturally savvy E.T. for the title of The First Truly Self-Aware Blockbuster - which may be the reason BTTF gets away with this much Huey Lewis, not only on the soundtrack, but in the singer's brief cameo as the high-school music teacher who judges Marty's band "too loud". (At the risk of going all Patrick Bateman on you, I've always found "Back in Time" preferable to "The Power of Love", the then-ubiquitous break-out single, positioned front and centre as the film opens.)

The two-man Libyan terrorist team operating out of a VW camper van now seems a quaint touch, but otherwise irony and hindsight are as central to the narrative structure as the flux capacitor is to the DeLorean, as is a sense of things to come: while following Marty's progress, Obama-era viewers might care to consider in passing the less pyrokinetic (yet more significant) journey undertaken by Hill Valley's foremost black resident Goldie Wilson (Donald Fullilove) in proceeding from put-upon busboy to mayor. (Some compensation, possibly, for the Enchantment Under the Sea sequence, where Marty's rendition of "Johnny B. Goode" apparently gives no less an individual than Chuck Berry the idea for rock 'n' roll - which, while funny, smacks a little too much of white moviebrats trying to reclaim rhythm 'n' blues for themselves.)

The question of historical perspective hovers over the film throughout. It's not too difficult to read BTTF as an attempt to rewrite American history along conservative lines, flat-out ignoring the 1960s (too progressive) and the 1970s (Vietnam); as Marty's grandfather says at the family dinner table, "Who the hell is John F. Kennedy?" Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale take a hard line on crime: poor Uncle Joey, announced as a jailbird in 1985, is confined to a playpen in 1955, and thereby resigned to his fate. ("Get used to those bars, kid," Marty urges the nipper.) What the film does achieve is to square the conservatism of the 1950s with its 1980s equivalent - to make momentary sense of how Ronald Reagan rose from Hollywood bit-player in one time frame to most powerful man in the world in the other. "No wonder your President is an actor," 50s Doc proposes, marvelling at Marty's unmarvellous, briefcase-sized JVC camcorder, "He has to look good on camera!"

For Marty, the journey is - as he puts it in his closing words to 50s George and Lorraine - "educational", chiefly about discovering that his folks, schlubbily sexless and wholly uncool in the present tense, once had needs similar to his own: the film is unusually sophisticated in its appeal to both adult and teenage audiences. This being a PG-rated family feature, it isn't, of course, allowed to go too far: yes, Marty ends up in his own (younger) mother's bed, stripped down to his purple Calvin Kleins, and yes, the two of them very nearly kiss - ew! - in the car park before the dance, but clever plotting means fate intervenes whenever matters threaten to get too far out of hand.

It's the upside of Twin Peaks, which similarly meshed the 1950s with a more contemporary aesthetic and morality, but chose the unhappy ending: there, Laura Palmer learnt the hard way about her parents' desires. It may not be coincidence that the tramp roused from his slumbers by Marty's return to the present is none other than Jack Nance, the regular Lynch player caught napping somewhere in time between Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. And what of BTTF's Twin Pines Mall, eventually reduced - in one of the film's subtlest gags, thrown away late on - to the Lone Pine Mall after Marty ploughs the DeLorean through Old Man Peabody's prized front yard?

For all the above speculation, Back to the Future remains not just a model, but a miracle of crisply economical screenwriting: after the first half-hour of pure, undiluted set-up, Zemeckis and Gale and Marty resolve the George-and-Lorraine subplot within 90 minutes, a feat that - in this age of unspeakably flabby blockbusters - stands as its own testament to just how hard that middle hour works. In fact, the film proves in such a rush to set up a sequel for itself that another look reveals how the screenwriters slightly flub their ending. Viewed objectively, the world hasn't improved when Marty returns to the present; its axes have just been shifted. Now George is the big-shot, rich off the back of his (terrible-looking) sci-fi opus A Match Made in Space, and Biff is the one reduced to menial labour. The dynamic is still that of bully and victim, only now the McFlys have a nice new car in the garage. This was 1985, after all.

(September 2010)

Back to the Future is available on DVD through Universal, and to stream via Netflix.

Friday 17 August 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 10-12, 2018:

 (new) The Meg (12A) ***
2 (2) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
3 (4) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
4 (1) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12A)
5 (3) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12A) ***
6 (5Hotel Transylvania 3: A Monster Vacation (U)
7 (new) The Darkest Minds (12A) **
8 (6) Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (PG) ***
9 (new) Unfriended: Dark Web (15)
10 (7) The First Purge (15)


My top five: 
1. Heathers

2. Gold
3. Cléo from 5 to 7
4. Jacquot de Nantes
5. The Gleaners and I

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Ready Player One (12) ***
2 (1) Peter Rabbit (PG)
3 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (2) Pacific Rim: Uprising (12)
5 (new) Love, Simon (12) ***
6 (new) Isle of Dogs (PG) ***
7 (new) Death Wish (18)
8 (6) Mamma Mia! (PG) *
9 (8) The Incredibles (U) ****
10 (7) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12)


My top five: 
1. A Quiet Place

2. Beast
3. Ready Player One
4. Love, Simon
5. Isle of Dogs

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. On the Waterfront [above] (Friday, BBC2, 12noon)
2. Bridge of Spies (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
3. In Which We Serve (Thursday, BBC2, 12noon)
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Saturday, ITV, 8pm)
5. A Hard Day's Night (Wednesday, BBC2, 12.20pm)