Friday 26 October 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 19-21, 2018:

 (1) A Star is Born (15) ***
2 (new) Halloween (18)
3 (new) Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (PG) **
4 (3) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
5 (2) Venom (15)
6 (5) Smallfoot (PG) ***
7 (4) First Man (12A)
8 (new) Hunter Killer (15) **
9 (new) Samson Et Dalila - Met Opera (uncertificated)
10 (9) The House with the Clock in its Walls (12A)


My top five: 
1. Beetlejuice [above]

2. Possum
3. The Evil Dead
4. An Artist's Eyes
5. Orphée

Top Ten DVD sales: 

(1) Solo: A Star Wars Story (12) ***
2 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (4) Deadpool 2 (15) **
4 (2) Book Club (12)
5 (6) Coco (PG) ***
6 (10) Hocus Pocus (PG)
7 (7) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
8 (9) Moana (PG) ****
9 (new) The Hurricane Heist (12)
10 (8) Peter Rabbit (PG)


My top five: 
1. Whitney

2. Summer 1993
3. Custody
4. Mandy
5. The Happy Prince

"An Artist's Eyes" (Guardian 26/10/18)

An Artist’s Eyes ***
Dir: Jack Bond. Documentary with: Chris Moon, Mick Rock, Chris Jonns, Jack Bond. 77 mins. No cert.

Over his eight decades, director Jack Bond has curated one of the most cultured and quietly cultish filmographies in British cinema, having signed off on 1979’s avant-garde sci-fi Anti-Clock (rediscovered on the BFI’s Flipside label), 1987’s ripe-for-revival Pet Shop Boys curio It Couldn’t Happen Here and 2014’s Adam Ant study The Blueblack Hussar. This profile of punkish Essex-based painter Chris Moon opens with a coup de cinéma to rank alongside anything in those defining art movies La Belle Noiseuse or The Quince Tree Sun: ten minutes in which Moon, fag in mouth, daubs a jet black canvas with coloured streaks that get stripped back to reveal new shapes and shades. It’s a maximal variation on that thrillingly on-the-hoof creation Rolf Harris performed in prime-time before things got problematic.

Moon’s MO, amply illustrated here, is instinctive improvisation: he regularly changes his mind as to what he wants to paint even as he’s painting it, sometimes finishing canvasses mere hours before an exhibition. As one onlooker puts it, using a term that connects with Bond’s back catalogue, these methods are very “rock ‘n’ roll”, like a guitarist letting rip with enormous, unexpected mid-set solos. There is, however, a stark contrast with the quiet, solitary endeavour the camera witnesses in coffee cup-cluttered studios, where we learn of Moon’s struggles with depression. The closest he comes to a stadium gig are those first nights in dingy East End backstreets, and even here the movers and shakers in the crowd are most often heard discussing the market – commerce – and not the art.

Producers who weren’t part of Moon’s entourage might have pushed for a tighter edit; others might want a critical voice to set this work in context. Firmly old-school, Bond resists prevailing docu-trends: there’s no “journey” for his subject to undertake, just the daily grind of getting up and creating something to sell, relieved by the fact those sales allow him to tour Andalusian canyons with his battered box of pastels. Such diversions yield crisp, romantic images, if nothing that matches that dynamic opening artblast. One suspects production began amid hopes Moon would become the next big thing, and when that didn’t happen, the film evolved, like the artist’s canvasses, into something more tentative, even touching: a sketch of as yet unfulfilled promise. Chris Moon is a work in progress.

An Artist's Eyes opens at the DocHouse, Curzon Bloomsbury today. 

"Waiting for You" (Guardian 26/10/18)

Waiting for You **
Dir: Charles Garrad. With: Colin Morgan, Fanny Ardant, Audrey Bastien, Abdelkrim Bahloul. 92 mins. Cert: 12A

This Brit indie quickly meets the basic competency threshold that isn’t always a given at this budgetary level – it’s attractively shot, and far from badly played – but then never ventures beyond second gear. You wait for it to get good, gripping or perhaps great, and instead it remains stubbornly passable. The waiting isn’t unsuited to a slowburn mystery that opens with bookish student Paul (Colin Morgan) taking delivery of evidence that suggests his late Army father enjoyed a second life in southwestern France. It’s just there’s so much of it: once Paul reaches reclusive pianist Fanny Ardant’s hillside retreat, we’re waiting for doors to be unlocked, secrets to be uncovered, pennies to drop. It’s a film for those patient souls who actively enjoy spending time on hold.

We at least have time to admire the scenery – the excellent cinematographer David Raedeker (My Brother the Devil) gathering sights guaranteed to send viewers scrabbling to apply for the appropriate residency visa – and to enjoy the gradual détente in an entente less than cordiale. Morgan’s schoolboy French proves reliably charming, never more so than when set before Ardant’s sceptical-to-withering schoolmarm gaze. Still, it seems a needless delaying tactic that, rather than straightforwardly asking his host what went on back in the day, Paul should have to put on the big façade of an amateur property surveyor; he has to poke round the attic and get found out before the story can slope forwards.

Oddly, there is a pressing subtext buried in this script – about the British capacity to wreak havoc overseas – yet it’s timidly handled, and we spend so long literally going around the houses there’s scant time to consider it before the lights come up. That leaves us with undemanding matinee viewing for anyone who finds themselves with nowhere better to go, and one early spark of dialogue that seems, intentionally or otherwise, to intuit where we might be at this particular cultural moment. “Are you English?,” asks Sylvie (Audrey Bastien), the comely innkeeper’s daughter with whom we may well be waiting for the protagonist to pair up. After Paul replies in the affirmative, her response is quicker than anything else hereabouts: “Bad luck.”

Waiting for You opens in selected cinemas from today.

Super-furry animals: "Smallfoot"

Given the wondrous, often fantastical array of flora and fauna our digimators have arrived at since the revolution of Pixar's Toy Story two decades back, it's something of a surprise no-one's yet got round to Yetis. They've come close: with the shaggier beasts of the Ice Age franchise, and one could perhaps argue that Monsters, Inc.'s beloved Sully was in some ways an indoors-Yeti. Yet Warner Bros.'s new film Smallfoot showcases mainstream American animation's first self-identifying Bigfoot: Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), resident of a community of these furry not-quite-monsters high in the Himalayas, whose laws are literally inscribed in stone, and who've convinced themselves there is nothing beyond their immediate lost horizon. A plane crash only Migo witnesses presents evidence to the contrary, however, and soon our hero has become a pariah among his tribe for floating the existence of so-called "smallfoots" (i.e. human beings). Like a hairier Moana, he will eventually be forced out on a quest to disprove the received wisdom of his elders.

Director Karey Kilpatrick's sole previous animated credit was for DreamWorks' 2006 title Over the Hedge, which stands among the most undervalued of those first-wave digimations: a consumerism fable centred on critters going through suburban bins, it announced this filmmaker as a gagsmith capable of lightly mocking societal norms without skimping on those elements - the furry things, the songs, the pratfalls - enjoyed by young viewers. Smallfoot feels a tad basic in comparison. Successive acts carry Migo to the bottom of the mountain and back again, and Warners' three-quarters-formed animation arm can only lend the view from the top a fraction of the bustle and colour a Pixar story would surely have gifted us. (Parents who are still recovering from February's Peter Rabbit should also be aware that Migo's point of human contact is a wildlife presenter voiced by The Ubiquitous James Corden.)

Nevertheless, a lot of likable work was clearly put in at the writing and composition stage. The songs - broadly measuring up to Ben Folds' tunes for Hedge - are very solid, and occasionally (as in a potted Yeti history rapped by Common after the manner of Gary Byrd's "The Crown") inspired. The script, bearing input from the reliable Glenn Ficarra/John Requa double-act (Bad Santa), sets loose a number of amusing running jokes (the Yetis refer to discarded human toilet rolls as "scrolls of infinite wisdom") while cuing zippy, Looney Tunes-level setpieces involving Yetis on bridges and Yetis catapulting themselves into gongs. When Migo's pa Dorgle (Danny DeVito) advises his charge "check your aim is true, and remember - whatever you do - you have to hit [the target] head on" before one such flight, Smallfoot appears to be constructing a sly metaphor for seeking out and confronting sometimes harsh truths about the world, nudging its impressionable young viewership towards asking questions, gathering knowledge, and trusting the science while keeping an open mind. There are probably no-marks wasting their lives getting furious about the film on the Net as we speak.

Smallfoot is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Red: "Mandy"

Mandy is the first Nic Cage film to take place inside an album cover, which is at the very least a step up from all those recent vehicles that seemed to take place solely inside Nic Cage's fraying consciousness. Its notional real-world setting is a leafy forest (Belgian, redressed as American) circa 1983, but an epigraph attributed to the Grateful Dead ("When I die/Bury me deep/Lay two speakers at my feet/Put some headphones in my head/And rock 'n' roll me/When I'm dead") and ochre Roger Dean skies suggest the film's imagination is stuck firmly in the groove of 1974, year of King Crimson's "Starless" (the soundtrack's opening cut) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (of which, more later). It's here we find Cage's beardy logger Red Miller living in secluded bliss with the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), who is almost exactly the kind of gal someone who's spent long, late nights poring over dog-eared Michael Moorcock novels might imagine themselves shacked up with, and doing anything for: pale and gaunt, generally clad in band T-shirts, with pupils that appear to be in a permanent state of dilation. Trouble comes to this retro paradise once those eyes meet a passing glance from one Jeremiah (Linus Roache), a fey former folk rocker who's used his fifteen minutes of fame to surround himself with a collection of variously goo-goo and gaga acolytes, one of whom is forever caught with a corner of his drooling mouth agape. Quite what Jeremiah is doing in this neck of the woods is unclear: looking for trouble is the best guess the film can afford. Suffice to say, he gets it.

It's during these gang scenes that Mandy - directed by one Panos Cosmatos, who turns out not to be the lost member of Aphrodite's Child, but the son of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra director George Pan Cosmatos - begins to flaunt the heaviest influence it wears on its sleeve. Stroboscopic light flickers, the brooding sound washes, pools of red light warning of danger and carnage up ahead, the sense of an evil that comes from deep within a forest and extends far beyond the eyeline of mere mortals: parts of the film resemble the most flagrant David Lynch tribute act since Chris Sivertson's mildly maligned Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me back in 2007. Cosmatos does, however, enter into pockets of weirdness Lynch hasn't gone near over his fifty-year career. Jeremiah may dispatch his minions to wrest Mandy from Red's manly arms and make her his-all-his, but the minion-in-chief, a balding nondescript who goes by the name Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), subsequently delegates the task by using a gizmo known as "the Horn of Abraxas" to summon a gang of latex-clad hell monsters; these demons, almost certainly the least fathomable and explicable characters to be found in any mainstream feature released this year, appear to obtain or sustain their supernatural strength and powers from quaffing a fizzy grey liquid out of jam jars more readily deployed nowadays in Shoreditch cocktail joints. Again, your guesses on this front will be as good as mine. To those very Seventies fixtures rape and revenge, Cosmatos appends a third r: randomness.

On some basic, fundamental level, Mandy is hoary, blokey bollocks - the kind of hoary, blokey bollocks often found adorning the lyric sheets of certain prog albums, recounting the Mythic Quest of a Righteous Hero, slaying Bad Men with his Mighty Silver Broadsword in the name of a Deathless Love. At the packed Friday night screening where I caught the film, it was notably the young male horror aficionados who guffawed at the extreme Cageness of it all, while their attendant Mandies wandered off in search of the bathroom, appearing in no particular rush to return to the site of battle. (In a couple of instances, it was the young women who initiated the walkouts.) Yet it's hoary, blokey bollocks delivered with a conviction that, for at least some of the running time, is forceful and often impressive, the work of a filmmaker entirely cut off from modern movie trends, pushing on with creating his own world, his own legends. Flickers of a weird, self-aware wit are visible along the way. When Cage is finally unleashed on his foes, the first artefact his eyes fall on isn't that mighty broadsword - which he has to forge for himself - but a TV advert for a product called Cheddar Goblin. (Is this real? Did I imagine it?) There is an intense stare-off between Red and one of Jeremiah's minions in an LSD lab that has a yawning Bengal tiger in the corner. (Of course a yawning Bengal tiger.) And the film arguably peaks - both full-stop, and in its blokishness - with a scene in which Cage whips out his modest, common-or-garden chainsaw to duel with a foe packing... a ginormously bladed tool.

Those walking out might argue, and I wouldn't wholly disagree with them, that the film is at once too much and not enough, that Cosmatos has merely poured gore and kitsch (like the animated inserts of Mandy) over a perilously thin plot; that he's used elements such as the hell monsters to trick out what would have been an 80-minute B-feature back in 1974 to an artful two hours; that it is, in sum, as grabbily de trop as the moment when Cage bests one opponent with a kitchen knife, then takes a massive snort of coke off a fragment of broken glass. (Personally, I found the strong, silent type Cage sketches in the first half more radical and interesting than the blood-soaked avenger he develops/devolves into; fans have had to make extravagant claims for New Cage's unhinged acting style to justify their enthusiasm for the film entire.) It's both arresting, and the kind of film that film bros will be boring other people at parties with for decades to come - making the case for a vision that proves as oppressive over its two hours as spending any length of time in the bedroom of a weed-smoking adolescent who never opens his window and has at least a month's worth of dirty underwear under his unmade bed. You can, as I did, admire its visual poetry and unreconstructed bravura - but I do wonder whether prog horror isn't automatically a dead end, destined to be blown away by punk horror, with its shorter, sharper shocks, and its ability to be performed by anyone, not just the well-connected.

Mandy is now playing in selected cinemas, ahead of its UK DVD release on Monday; it also screens at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival this Saturday (PVR Icon, 8.45pm).

Friday 19 October 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 12-14, 2018:

 (3) A Star is Born (15) ***
2 (1) Venom (15)
3 (2) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
4 (new) First Man (12A)
5 (new) Smallfoot (PG) ***
6 (new) Cliff Richard Live: 60th Anniversary Tour (X)
7 (new) Kler/Clergy (18) ***
8 (new) Bad Times at the El Royale (15) ****
9 (4) The House with the Clock in its Walls (12A)
10 (5) Night School (12A)


My top five: 
1. Bad Times at the El Royale

2. Blindspotting
3. The Wife
4. Orphée [above]
5. Kler/Clergy

Top Ten DVD sales: 

(1) Solo: A Star Wars Story (12) ***
2 (new) Book Club (12)
3 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (2) Deadpool 2 (15) **
5 (new) Hereditary (15) **
6 (5) Coco (PG) ***
7 (4) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
8 (9) Peter Rabbit (PG)
9 (8) Moana (PG) ****
10 (10) Hocus Pocus (PG)


My top five: 
1. Summer 1993

2. Custody
3. The Happy Prince
4. Solo: a Star Wars Story
5. Apostasy

"Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween" (Guardian 19/10/18)

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween **
Dir: Ari Sandel. With: Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Black. 90 mins. Cert: PG

2015’s Goosebumps offered an unexpectedly playful distillation of R.L. Stine’s teen-horror oeuvre, energised and elevated by Jack Black’s turn as a neurotic Stine variant. Presumably held up at that house with the whatsit in its thingamajigs, the actor is a regrettably late arrival in this by-the-book sequel, which leaves us watching kids running around blandly safe suburban spaces that the film’s one rogue element – a walking, talking ventriloquist’s doll named Slappy – can only disrupt so much. Yielding fewer jolts and giggles than its predecessor, the results play more like functionally programmed babysitting software than any work of the imagination: not for the first time in recent years, accompanying adults of a certain age may find themselves pining for the heyday of Joe Dante.

The problem lies not strictly with what’s on screen, which on its own, reduced terms is basically watchable and not unlikable, but in what’s been elided or forgotten about in the rush to duplicate the original’s surprise success: any sustained wit or personality. Incoming director Ari Sandel – a shrugging replacement for the first movie’s Rob Letterman – increasingly displays one tactic, getting the effects team to toss all his constituent elements (Frankengnomes, Gummi Bear monsters, grape-shaped balloons) in the air, then spiralling the camera to see where they land. The second-half revival of Black’s funny Uncle Capote schtick briefly raises the film’s middling game, but also highlights what’s gone missing, and how Sandel tends to lob comedians at the screen rather than passing them workable material.

Ken Jeong at least serves some plot purpose as a holiday-obsessed neighbour with a handy closetful of monster costumes, but Chris Parnell – 30 Rock’s immortal Dr. Leo Spaceman – is among those swallowed up amid the digitised spectacle, and sometime Bridesmaid Wendi McLendon-Covey (in what we can only call “the mom role”) barely gets to play damsel-in-distress. If these old hands summon the odd allowance-worthy moment, repeat exposure only leaves this franchise looking newly anonymous and synthetic. Stine’s writing has set countless youngsters onto literature’s spookier byways, and to reading as pleasure. This frenetic product, by contrast, merely seems a means of hooking ten-year-olds on that very ordinary, ever-busy, rarely scary strain of multiplex horror.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween opens in cinemas nationwide today. 

"Hunter Killer" (Guardian 19/10/18)

Hunter Killer **
Dir: Donovan Marsh. With: Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Linda Cardellini, Common. 122 mins. Cert: 15

When we last encountered Gerard Butler, in February’s semi-enjoyably derivative Den of Thieves, he was rerunning Al Pacino’s old Heat moves. Tonight, Matthew, cinema’s loudest Scotsman will be impersonating The Hunt for Red October-era Alec Baldwin. Swerving any lawsuit that might have followed from calling his character, say, Jack Bryan, Butler’s maverick sub commander has been assigned the no less no-nonsense name of Joe Glass. Joe has an intense rep. “He never went to Annapolis!,” a Pentagon functionary gasps, upon parsing our guy’s file. “I heard he once punched his CO,” gossips a passing seaman. Glass is first seen tracking elk with manly bow-and-arrow; you’re surprised the filmmakers didn’t go the whole alpha hog and have a shirtless Butler best the poor creatures in an arm wrestle.

Yet as with much else in this muddled, disjointed non-thriller, that intro proves misleading. Glass actually turns out to be a thinker and boat lover – two parts Cousteau, one-part Poirot – who finds himself plunged into choppy diplomatic waters while investigating the simultaneous torpedoing of US and Russian subs. Could it be the Russians themselves, as represented by noble seadog Captain Andropov (the late Michael Nyqvist)? Or might it relate to Berocca-swilling Chief of Staff Gary Oldman, who bellows something gruff about chess to his (female) President, then goes suspiciously quiet for an hour? Don’t invest too much: for all the military hardware, this long, loud game of Battleships will result in a terrible fudge.

Butler’s convoluted claptrap phase remains preferable to his louche bachelor period, yet at two hours, Hunter Killer is carrying a lot of undue timber, not least a very boring, Poundland Michael Bay B-plot involving a squadron of Marines doing the on-the-ground chestbeating the star usually does. Elsewhere, indifferent cutting only heightens the weird artificiality of the sub scenes: the off-kilter footage of Cap’n Gerry sternly relaying orders seems to bear scant relation to the model shots of metallic phalli running silent and deep through the studio fish tank. Toning down his usual act in a manner that suggests he’s finally read his reviews, Butler gives it handfuls of dramatic ballast, but this vessel has been badly compromised: any interest seeps out by the frame.

Hunter Killer is now showing in cinemas nationwide. 

Reservation dogs: "Bad Times at the El Royale"

In case you missed it, pop culture has now eaten itself up to the 1990s - or, to be more precise, a generation raised on that decade's multiplex activity is now taking its first fledging steps in the TV and film business. Some will call the results recycling; to others, among them any true child of the Nineties, this is simply the circle of life. If we ever get round to a medium-budget reboot of those dreadful Anciano/Burdis films with Sadie Frost and Jude Law, then it might be time to shut the cinema down for good, but with Bad Times at the El Royale, writer-director Drew Goddard has had the not at all bad idea of revisiting a moment when Quentin Tarantino was in some way bearable. The title of this light-comic crime fresco carries distant echoes not just of Pulp Fiction's raw meat, but also 1995's partially forgotten Tarantino-starring Destiny Turns on the Radio; an alternative might have been Fourteen Rooms, its action being confined to a motel that is, as the saying goes, a character in itself. Established in the 1950s on the California-Nevada border to take advantage of the latter state's lax gambling laws, the El Royale has fallen into a state of considerable disrepair by the time the film passes through its monogrammed doors in the late 1960s, left with a twitchy dope fiend of a clerk (Lewis Pullman), and inhabited by a clientele who are either on the run, have no place better to go, or come bearing an excess of baggage. Like Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods, however, the El Royale isn't what it first appears. There are bugs in the telephones, rather than the mattresses; there are hidden back channels to be explored; and there is a bag of money buried under the floorboards, a feature that attracts tricky tourists in their droves. The rooms are black holes, basically: the guests have no idea what they're setting foot inside.

Yet just as the hotel has two faces - one looking eastwards, the other to the West - so too do the characters. The apparently kindly Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a Catholic priest introduced selflessly lending meek Motown back-up singer Cynthia Erivo a quarter for a cup of the El Royale's signature undrinkable coffee is the first individual to be glimpsed tearing up the carpets in search of the loot; a windswept new arrival (Dakota Johnson) dubbed a "peace-loving hippy" by condescending vacuum salesman Jon Hamm actually has an unconscious body in the trunk of her car, and even this proves unrepresentative. Hamm, too, is not what he seems - or, rather, he holds onto the same patrician handful of attitudes while juggling two hats. The revelations and switchbacks involved risk reducing Bad Times to Tarantino's flimsy-tinny brand of postmodern pastiche, yet there's an expansiveness here - in narrative, and in the film's peppy approach to its characters - which justifies the 140-minute running time, and Goddard uses smarts, as opposed to Tarantino's increasingly resistible smart-aleckry, to back that expansiveness up. (Among the film's other collateral victims: July's Hotel Artemis, which employed a similar MO - and found another Drew in the director's seat - but would now only look extra-cramped and B-movieish set next to this.) 

Any writer-director who casts two members of the Parks & Recreation ensemble and one of the lost souls from The Good Place clearly grasps how best to inject human warmth into a dead-end locale and a potentially chilly conceit, yet Goddard also marshals these performers into unexpectedly winning partnerships and alliances: out of that lousy cup of joe, Bridges and Erivo pull one of the year's most enjoyable movie double-acts, although it is not untypical of Bad Times that it should first involve her smashing him round the head with a wine bottle. Crucially - and unlike the monoglot Tarantino - he writes very different voices for his characters (choice moment: Bridges' oldtimer response upon hearing the first bars of Deep Purple's "Hush", namely "It's, uh... it's not for me"), and displays a restraint you perhaps wouldn't expect from the writer-director of a two hour twenty-minute feature. I dread to think what QT would have done with the El Royale's built-in peep show feature; though there is what the BBFC defines as strong violence here, it's just brief enough to still be shocking, and never leered over. Indeed, the characters who display the most swaggering or controlling attitudes towards women tend to be the ones who come off worst from their stay in these parts: Erivo's "I'd rather sit here and listen to the rain" will surely be used in times ahead to shut down any number of arguments online and in real life.

That possibly makes Bad Times sound like a morality play, and there is an element of theatricality about it, never more so than in the final act, when the survivors are gathered in the one spot. Yet Goddard elevates even his most prosaic scenes by making wise, witty, affirmative choices - the choices of a sentient adult, rather than the adolescent nihilist Tarantino never had to develop beyond under Harvey Weinstein's protection. You can almost imagine the latter making some of these choices: layering on a jukebox-worth of prime 60s platters - fresh as the afternoon they were recorded, sincere enough to keep glib irony at bay - for one. Yet Tarantino would never have had the nous to invite Erivo to break into "You Can't Hurry Love" as Goddard does at one point, a development that at once serves a plot purpose (it covers Bridges' noisier excavations), showcases the remarkable pipes of an emergent Broadway star, and offers an editorial mission statement as the film approaches the two-hour mark, with a further half-hour to go. (The same applies to Erivo's closing-credits cover of "Hold On, I'm Coming": unlike certain filmmakers, Goddard knows when he's going on a bit - but also that he has a yarn worth spinning out.) That the film should have ended up a one-week wonder on UK screens is no fault of its own: most suits, critics and audiences won't have encountered a properly big, properly starry, properly accomplished multiplex picture like this in decades, so it's no surprise they had very little idea how to react to it. The film's a gem; the industry around it remains as dysfunctional as ever.

Bad Times at the El Royale is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Thursday 18 October 2018

The high Low Country: "Gangsta"

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah - who bill themselves, with typical informality, as simply Adil and Bilall - are the young Flemish writer-directors who made an impression across Europe with their 2015 thriller Black. Their follow-up Gangsta returns us to the same inner-city milieu, though it's very much a film of two halves: the freshness and cheek its makers display early on wears off with a dismaying rapidity. Its boldest move, as contemporary crime drama, is to throw back not to Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, but to those religiose gangster movies of the 1930s, describing the haphazard swathe one credulous slacker cuts through the Antwerp drug trade with structuring help from the seven deadly sins. Sloth is the life our boy leads before his life of crime (bunking off, gaming, masturbation); envy enters the picture after a sharpsuited Dutch kingpin speeds into town to offload several kilos of cocaine and makes off with our boy's dreamgirl. Gluttony is what he spends his ill-gotten gains on; wrath is left until late on.

It's a nifty way of reshuffling and reordering some very familiar ingredients (corrupt cops, montages of coke consumption apparently cut by someone who's taken a very big snort, a Taxi Driver homage here, a Fast & Furious-style drag race there), and these are cut with newer elements that keep the pulse rate and interest levels high for a while. Chief among these: a matter-of-fact multiculturalism, approached here head-on, from the inside out, which generates grace notes regarding the ways race and skin colour affects characters already subsisting on the margins, and the cops on their tail. Considerable superficial pleasure can be drawn from the directors' decision to shoot Antwerp, of all places, as though it were the sun-bright Florida of a Grand Theft Auto sequel, and not just a few miles down the track from where the Dardenne brothers have traditionally operated. (Reports linking this pair with the long-gestating Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop sequels make more sense once you've seen the film.)

Everyone's heading for a pretty precipitous fall, however. This is the kind of post-Refn cinéma du look that owes it to itself (and to its audience) to get in, get the job done, and get out without undue fuss or labour; instead, Gangsta ploughs on for a full two hours, allowing ample time for its irreverent highs to wear off, and for what at first seems like youthful cheek to stray into outright waywardness. You can feel these directors egging one another on, resulting in frequent missteps: a POV shot from between anonymous breasts off which coke is being snorted, a fake-out ending that offers only false hope, nasty, leering dollops of violence. Possibly the idea was to shock us - as our hero is shocked to realise the game he's playing has very real consequences - but the tactics the filmmakers deploy start to seem like ugly cliches rather than directorial playthings. Gangsta remains notably more cosmopolitan than Nick Love's The Business, its closest UK equivalent, but it's disappointing that what initially presents as exuberant should descend into the tiresomely posy and juvenile. 21st century Hollywood may be the best place for this pair. But heaven help the rest of us.

Gangsta opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

From the archive: "Eden"

As was noted circa 2011’s Goodbye, First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s off-screen affiliation with Olivier Assayas has only strengthened the profound yet delicately worn humanism the writer-director demonstrated in 2009’s outstanding Father of My Children: she’s found not just a mentor but a mirror, and a stirring model for her own endeavours. In Eden, Hansen-Løve mounts the kind of intimate social history Assayas has mastered: it views the 1990s Parisian house scene as every bit as much a protective bubble for the young and artistically minded as Assayas did the student communes in 2012’s Something in the Air.

On one level, Eden functions as an overview broadly comparable to our own 24 Hour Party People – the French picked up EDM (electronic dance music) later, and ran with it further come the new millennium – yet it’s sustained by Hansen-Løve’s ability to hone in on the beats by which her lightly fictionalised characters progress from innocence to experience. It shows us the dancefloor pulsing with loved-up revellers, but it also spies the one heartbroken girl pushing through the throng with her mascara streaming. Everyone has their reasons, and their rhythms.

Its centre is Paul (Félix de Givry), a would-be superstar DJ whose insatiable love of all things American manifests itself in both the name he attaches to his first club night (Cheers) and his fling with a visiting new-yorkaise (Greta Gerwig, remixing Frances Ha); he remains blind, for the best part of his twenties, to the affection retained for him closer to home by best friend Louise (Pauline Etienne).

Yet the camera – and the narrative – keeps drifting off in pursuit of alternative perspectives. Hansen-Løve senses the frustration of a scene elder (talismanic roue Vincent Macaigne) who’s shown his chums Showgirls three times without, in his eyes, anyone appreciating its vision of American vulgarity; a similar emotion is noted on the face of a bit-part waiter when these party kids enter his bar after hours to bombard him with orders.

Much of Eden is, in this way, buoyantly upbeat, even comic: on the fringes of this scene, we keep running into two sheepish types named Thomas and Guy-Manu, who only seem confident when dropping their latest tune – you’ll know them as Daft Punk, and Eden is the film that, in its roundabout way, explains both why the pair took to wearing helmets in public, and how a tune as revivifying as “Get Lucky” gestated. (Macaigne’s character is sent to interview Nile Rodgers at one point, which is a clue.)

Yet Hansen-Løve never backs away from playing the trickier, more affecting notes. Even when the film relocates to Chicago – so Paul can court producers into handing over fresh tracks – we’re aware this leaves one of the protagonist’s pals back home, fighting a losing battle with depression. Escapist nocturnal highs only last so long; reality – sometimes harsh, often banal, once or twice tragic – always returns to seize the day.

As its A-side/B-side intertitles (“Paradise Garage”/”Lost in Music”) hint, this is to some degree a familiar story, one in which youthful passion and idealism come to be compromised by business pressures, hangers-on and other exigencies of the adult world. Yet Hansen-Løve never stresses this overriding structure, instead riding the waves of mood.

In an interview, Paul describes his favourite music as existing “somewhere between euphoria and melancholia”, and much of Eden is suspended between these two poles: on one side, the heightened BPM of the soundtrack, a lovingly curated mix CD; on the other, the more ruminative time scheme of Paul’s early adult life. Hansen-Løve moves us in both senses of the word: she’s like a DJ spinning Ten City’s “That’s the Way Love Is”, and trying to pinpoint the sweet spots in that bittersweet house classic where chorus meets comedown.

In Eden’s opening scene, the teenage Paul breaks away from the crowd returning from a rural all-nighter to sit alone in reflection under a tree in an atmospherically foggy field. There is, indeed, something in the air here: at dawn, he vows out loud to record everything he’s seen and heard over the course of this formative evening. Few recent films have so generously and magnificently depicted the ways in which we come to fill the silence.

(MovieMail, July 2015)

Eden screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.15am.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

From the archive: "Goosebumps"

R.L. Stine's horror-themed children's books have been such bestsellers these past decades that a movie version was perhaps inevitable; the problem, one assumes, would have been deciding which of these standalone texts to adapt. Sony's new Goosebumps plumps for the postmodern route, mashing up a dozen or so of the books' monsters, but making Stine himself - rather than spooks, zombies or haunted houses - its organising principle: a not uninspired idea, given a broadly functional treatment by director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) and his small committee of screenwriters. So it is we find hunky teen hero Zack (Dylan Minnette, destined to play the young Captain America at some point) moving to Everytown, USA with his single mom (Amy Ryan, forever underused) and, in his pursuit of the girl next door, coming into near-immediate conflict with her father, a Mephistophelian-looking, black-clad recluse going under the name of Mr. Shivers, and incarnated by Jack Black. The two will have to work together, however, after a series of unfortunate events unleash physical representations of the monsters Shivers - by which the film means Stine - has previously contained within his bestselling fictions, starting with the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, and working through to the Werewolf of Fever Swamp. At which point Letterman hands the job of direction over to his effects team - for however physical these manifestations are meant to be, onscreen they are, almost without exception, virtual phenomena - and hopes that his audience won't be so old as to remember 1995's Jumanji, or the episode of The Simpsons that referenced Jumanji

Anybody who has will recognise not just the set-up (small town falls under threat from the kind of pixellated menagerie only possible in the digital era) but the character arcs (antagonism shading to grudging respect as the town is saved from danger), the jovial, insistently PG tone, even some of the jollifying music cues. Not that Goosebumps isn't fun. Black - as School of Rock proved - is always good value when arching an eyebrow and either smartmouthing or putting the wind up kids; when the runaround pauses, the camera will often alight on other funny faces, seizing a moment. Jillian Bell raises regular chuckles as Ryan's sister, while Veep's Timothy Simons livens up a throwaway part as the local lawman. There's a certain enjoyment to be derived from the sheer variety of ghouls plaguing this particular Main Street, too: at an early script meeting, it was clearly decided to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, and then to install an army of malevolent garden gnomes in that. It is, though, really no more than a predictable, carefully managed sort of fun, devoid of the true mischief a Sam Raimi or Joe Dante (whose fondly remembered TV series Eerie, Indiana would be another precursor) might have lent the project; you suspect those directors would have put a swift red pen through the entirely pat development that sees Stine literally having to confront his demons to move on. In the end, this Goosebumps emerges as the kind of bland corporate entertainment that typifies an age where cinemas are required to keep their lights on during the main feature for safety reasons. Nobody's going to be asking for their money back, but equally, you'll know what you're getting from the get-go; it'll do as a middling matinee, but at every stage of its conception and execution, it's been fine-tuned not to keep anybody awake at night, to haunt no dreams at all.

(MovieMail, February 2016)

Goosebumps is available on DVD through Sony; a sequel, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, opens this Friday.

"They Shall Not Grow Old" (IndieWire 16/10/18)

They Shall Not Grow Old arrives as clinching proof of just how far Sir Peter Robert Jackson has travelled in three decades. Few would have predicted that the beardy yahoo mixing oatmeal and yoghurt to make alien vomit for 1987’s Bad Taste would wind up collaborating with London’s hallowed Imperial War Museum on a project to mark the centenary of World War One, but then history has a way of surprising us all. Now an Academy Award-bearing elder statesman, Jackson has been entrusted with the keys to the archive containing some of the so-called Great War’s most delicate and indelible images. Wearing its sincerity like an Armistice Day poppy, the resulting montage-film – premiering at the London Film Festival tonight ahead of future TV transmissions – does its utmost to honor the conflict’s fallen.

Jackson’s boldest choice has been to colorize some footage, and – for theatrical screenings – retrofit it with the 3D of his Hobbit sagas. Instantly, They Shall Not Grow Old risks reopening and expanding the ferocious debate that broke out around Ted Turner’s late-Eighties decision to colorize classic films, much as Marina Amaral’s colorized photos of WW2 concentration camps have recently sparked heated artworld discussions on morality and Photoshop. Jackson’s reasoning is that black-and-white was not how his subjects experienced life during wartime, and it’s true that his carefully chosen hues unlock a certain immediacy secreted in these images. Here lies a generation in the first flushes of ruddy-cheeked youth, which makes any eventual sacrifices at Passchendaele and Ypres more palpably tragic.

We are, however, eased in gently. The film opens in a newsreel ratio, with familiar images of marching Tommies accompanied by the reassuring whirr of a manually loaded projector. Recruitment posters (such as the iconic “Daddy, What Did You Do in The Great War?”) are the first artefacts that pop out at us in colour, a choice that feels far less contentious than working over dead men’s faces. And if rummaging in the archive has presented Jackson’s researchers with hours of usable footage, this has been assembled with a discipline those well-regimented Tommies would have recognised. We pass, as these men passed, through medicals and basic training, before shipping out to Europe; only around the halfway mark does Jackson make the decisive shift to full colorization.

Until then, the soundtrack does much of the heavy lifting. What Jackson gravitates towards in the survivors’ oral histories is any trace of irreverence: there’s much good-natured yet revealing griping about rations, uniform (“In the Army, it isn’t that your boots don’t fit your feet; they say your feet don’t fit the boots”) and billeting. (One visual surprise here: the sheer number of photos the Museum has accumulated of troops squatting bare-assed and perilous over makeshift latrines. There may be an official Keeper of the Grubby Butt Pics.) The testimony, at least, is cleaner than you’d expect from those obliged to kill for King and country, but it’s the language that most connects these images to 1918, dotted with phenomena (“plum duff”, “hookworm”) we’ve since evolved beyond.

While some recall their service with boyish pep, inevitably the shadow of death comes to loom large. It’s crucial that the transition to full color only comes once we’re at the front, with green and pleasant England behind us, and that those colors should be so mournfully muted: the soldiers’ khaki, the indistinct browns of much-trodden ground, the sickly sepia-yellow of mustard gas. We’re not spared the sight of life-drained bodies lying at agonised angles over barbed wire, though Jackson the sometime gorehound is also aware of the shocking notes human crimson can add to an image palette. (There’s even something a touch William Castle-like about one insert showing the Technicolor rot of a gangrenous foot: instructional, yes, but not what you’d want looming out at you in 3D.)

If the project supports any specific colorization argument, it’s that the process may be better off detailing the lifeless than it is the living. Whenever the image lingers on the latter, faces start to appear oddly zombie-like (made-up?), caught between no-man’s-land and the uncanny valleys of Jackson’s dubiously digitised Tintin adaptation, neither as dead as we know them to be, nor quite as alive as the filmmaker wants them. (The consolation of black-and-white imagery: it states, definitively, that this is a thing of the past.) Certain piquant effects would presumably be as evident in monochrome as they are in Jacksoncolor. Soldiers are seen playing to camera, testing their visibility and this new technology; their hard-won, uncertain smiles reveal British dentistry, ever-embattled, to have incurred several further hits.

Some may also cavil at the presumptions that mark They Shall Not Grow Old as the work of a born fabulist rather than a historian or journalist. Trench scenes have been remixed to lend them an atmosphere – a life – absent from more conventionally framed documentary, playing out to a Dolbyfied rumble of shells, while its previously silent subjects are given rhubarbing voice. A sequence of cuts between troop close-ups and bodies on the ground generates a powerful emotional effect, but also implies causal links – that this man died like this – which cannot be verified. What the man who filmed Helm’s Deep is ultimately compelled by is this conflict’s unprecedented, oft-horrific spectacle, hoping that humanity never again becomes so entrenched in its thinking and movements.

Perhaps that makes this conflict more vivid, rather than deepening our understanding: there’s scant socio-political context, little sense of why these men were fighting. Yet They Shall Not Grow Old succeeds in prising open a closed-off historical moment, carrying its traces beyond war buffs towards youngsters who might only know Franz Ferdinand as an art-rock band, and who might believe grainy monochrome images taken on a distant shore several lifetimes ago bear no meaning to their lives. At the very least, Jackson will have smuggled what were previously museum pieces onto screens across the world at a time when that world might learn something from them. By liberating this footage, and holding it up to 21st century light, his project renders all that was old joltingly, often powerfully new again.

Rating: B

They Shall Not Grow Old will screen in selected cinemas tomorrow and Sunday, and on BBC2 on November 11 at 9.30pm. It returns to UK cinemas from Friday Nov 9.

Saturday 13 October 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 5-7, 2018:

 (new) Venom (15) [above]
2 (new) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
3 (new) A Star is Born (15) ***
4 (2) The House with the Clock in its Walls (12A)
5 (1) Night School (12A)
6 (3) A Simple Favour (15)
7 (new) Aida - Met Opera (n/c)
8 (4) Crazy Rich Asians (12A) **
9 (5) The Nun (15)
10 (7) The Wife (15) ****


My top five: 
1. Bad Times at the El Royale

2. Blindspotting
3. The Wife
4. Kler/Clergy
5. A Star is Born

Top Ten DVD sales: 

(1) Solo: A Star Wars Story (12) ***
2 (2) Deadpool 2 (15) **
3 (4) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (3) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
5 (6) Coco (PG) ***
6 (new) Show Dogs (PG) *
7 (new) Bodyguard (15)
8 (8) Moana (PG) ****
9 (9) Peter Rabbit (PG)
10 (21) Hocus Pocus (PG)


My top five: 
1. Summer 1993

2. Custody
3. The Happy Prince
4. Solo: a Star Wars Story
5. Apostasy

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Die Hard (Saturday, C4, 11.45pm)
2. Eden (Friday, C4, 12.15am)
3. Selma (Sunday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. Antz (Sunday, C4, 1.30pm)
5. The Guard (Tuesday, C4, 1.20am)