Friday 30 November 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 23-25, 2018:

 (1) Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A)
2 (2) The Grinch (U)
3 (3Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
4 (new) Robin Hood (12A)
5 (new) Nativity Rocks! (U)
6 (new) The Girl in the Spider's Web (15)
7 (4) Widows (15) ****
8 (5A Star is Born (15) ***
9 (7) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (PG)
10 (new) Planeta Singli 2 (15)


My top five: 
1. Die Hard

2. Roma
3. It's a Wonderful Life
4. The Wild Pear Tree
5. Disobedience

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (1) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
2 (4) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (new) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12) ***
4 (9) Skyscraper (12)
5 (3) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12) ***
6 (new) Hotel Transylvania 3 (U)
7 (2) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
8 (5The Grinch (2000 version, PG) ***
9 (23) Sherlock Gnomes (U) **
10 (6) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***


My top five: 
1. Leave No Trace

2. First Reformed
3. Incredibles 2
4. Lucky
5. Mission Impossible: Fallout

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Incredibles (Sunday, C4, 5.25pm)
2. Back to the Future Part III [above] (Sunday, C4, 3.05pm)
3. Anna and the King (Tuesday, C4, 1.55am)
4. Run All Night (Sunday, five, 9pm and Friday, five, 10pm)
5. McFarland, U.S.A. (Saturday, BBC2, 5.30pm)

Flickers: "The Image Book"

Some misguided souls will doubtless arrive here in the hope your correspondent will have made complete, top-to-tail sense of The Image Book, the latest dispatch from Jean-Luc Godard. The title of Godard's headscratching 3D opus of 2014 - Goodbye to Language - would suggest we're long past that point; to cite an earlier Godard title, it may now be Every Man for Himself. Arriving mere months after this most elusive cineaste's hurtful no-show at the finale of Agnes Varda's Faces Places, The Image Book might be dismissed as further proof that JLG became the cinema's foremost shut-in some while back, and that his films have become those of a man talking to himself (and himself alone) in the dark. Yet if their apparently random imagery and asynchronous sound have made it increasingly difficult to pin down what this director's going on about, it's still been just about possible to get a sense of how he's feeling about the world. In recent years, Godard titles have been a touch misleading in this respect. 2001's In Praise of Love came over as entirely despairing, where Goodbye to Language seemed less valedictorian than it did upbeat. The Image Book - which felt hopeful to this viewer, albeit in a roundabout way - turns out to be entirely aptly titled. Here is a film born of the desire to construct a flicker book of images, separated on screen by fades to black that would be the movie equivalent of turning a page. 

Nothing else is that simple. At this year's London Film Festival screening - held, somewhat improbably, at the IMAX in Waterloo - a warning pasted above the ticket booth cautioned of incoming "images of real death". Although one or two of the images in the film - of political assassinations, and the concentration camps - are clearly what this notice was referring to, it's often impossible to tell real from reel here. What Godard has mounted is an assemblage of clips, bits and pieces, some from movies we immediately recognise (VertigoSalò, Elephant), many from those we may not, some drawn from newsreel, others from CCTV, others still from films taped off the telly, so that their constituent frames are desaturated and defamiliarised. (This is very much the handiwork of the theorist Godard who once asserted that movies shown on TV aren't movies, rather reproductions of movies, like a Mona Lisa poster you might buy to hang in your front room.) This visual bric-à-brac has been overlaid with soundbites collected from diverse sources. Some of this speech has been subtitled for non-Francophone audiences, but much of it isn't; and just in case you were still under the impression this would be an easy-breezy night out at the pictures, sometimes subtitles appear where there is no dialogue to be heard. Incomprehension of at least some of the above is not an option, I would argue, but an obligation; "Chatting with a madman is an invaluable privilege" someone is heard to intone around the halfway mark, and by then, you may feel The Image Book has invited you to do exactly that.

Not for the first time with latter-day JLG, then, your experience (enjoyment seems too limited a word) will depend on the extent to which you're willing to enter into the game of "What's He Getting At?" I found the initial barrage of visual and verbal non-sequiturs challenging in the extreme; yet by minute twenty-five, I'd relaxed into and found myself more or less completely compelled by the way the images had started to flow before my eyes. (Godard has cut his own movies for the best part of fifty years now: we may not always understand his words, but his sentence structure is something else.) It helps that this timecheck coincided with a section that is clearly about trains - trains in the movies, trains in real life, no more, no less - which should arrive as a blessed relief to any hardy cinephile still trying to make head or tail of the singular artefact put before them here. We are suddenly presented with something akin to what Christian Marclay has done in his masterwork installation The Clock (still ticking away at Tate Modern): a filmmaker announcing that here is a theme, and here is how that theme has been filmed over the years. The Image Book thus reveals itself as a continuation of that encyclopaedic project Godard began with his Cahiers reviews and eventually reworked into his landmark Histoire(s) du Cinéma: an attempt to round up or corral the movies, to gather and communicate some sense of cinema en tout.

The task he has undertaken is staggering, and quite likely impossible, which is why The Image Book sometimes seems to stagger in the direction of non-sense; yet in this moment of fifteen theatrical releases every week, and how many hundreds of millions of hours of footage being uploaded to YouTube every day, there is something ennobling, even touching in the thought of Godard as the Canute of cinema, up to his neck in a still-swelling ocean of imagery, yet still trying to point out the most eyecatching waves to those who care to look on from the shore. There is real beauty in some of the images Godard selects and sets before us here: in the close-ups of actresses from screen history, in the director's own hypersaturated inserts of flowers and kids at play on a beach. (Can we see Godard himself in the sea behind them, not waving but drowning?) And he's still capable of redirecting our eyes towards the political, as in a chapter on the Arab world, which pieces together shots from Pasolini's Arabian Nights, the Algerian conflict, Michael Bay's 13 Hours, and jihadist videos to bolster an argument that the Middle East, comparatively underregarded by Western eyes, is still very much unfinished business. (Overlook it at your peril, Godard warns.) 

Alongside the images we see, then, there's some analysis of that we don't see. Virtuoso sound mixing shuttles our attention between the left and right-hand sides of the screen, and you'll almost certainly emerge with a greater understanding of the hierarchies of viewing - how you respond to an image versus how you respond to the soundtrack. (Viewers fluent in Arabic may get more from the film than those who merely speak English, and are therefore reliant on subtitles that aren't always forthcoming. Godard can be a royal pain in the arse, but he remains unparalleled at unpicking viewer complacency.) You may still lament how the young turk who changed the face of cinema with Breathless turned into an old man effectively building cathedrals out of matchsticks in a shed in Switzerland - except that these constructions are themselves somewhat radical to behold, and still possessed of the capacity to move or awe us. A thought came to mind, watching The Image Book: is Godard the octogenarian making movies that only Godard the brilliant young critic could fully interpret? Is the new film, then, more self-involvement, or a gift or challenge to a new generation of imagemakers, a defiant holler of "see what you make of this"? To this viewer, it very much looked like both a masterpiece and a travesty, an attempt to mainline all films simultaneously that, by the very futility of that task, comes to look like no kind of a film whatsoever - or, just perhaps, a film like no other. Your own mileage may, as they say, vary, but The Image Book does finally get very close to an ideal of pure cinema: a film in which everything - sense, continuity, perhaps even the viewer's physical and mental well-being - has been sacrificed to the act of seeing.

The Image Book screens in selected cinemas this Sunday, before streaming via MUBI.

Growing pains: "The Wild Pear Tree"

We may be in danger of taking Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the epic poet of Turkish cinema, for granted. His latest film The Wild Pear Tree landed a Cannes competition slot, but took its bow on the festival's closing weekend, when its best and brightest observers would have been packing up and heading out, and eventually came away prizeless; it opens in the UK at an especially competitive moment for foreign language cinema, merely a week after Hirokazu Kore-eda's Palme d'Or-winning Shoplifters and on the very same day as Alfonso Cuarón's Venice prizewinner Roma makes its much-heralded theatrical debut. Ceylan himself hasn't made things any easier. Going beyond his lengthy 2012 triumph Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and his own (slightly attenuated) Palme winner Winter Sleep, Pear Tree clocks in at a leisurely three hours that encompasses missed encounters and many mini-dramas between conversations that go on for ten or twenty minutes down long and winding roads. It operates, in short, at something close to the mysterious and confounding pace of life, and we may still be more used to that in our novels or television series than we are in the cinema. Nevertheless, the film's deliberations are both deliberate and masterly: Ceylan's project here is to observe how projects come to fruition, how people turn out - and how time and lived experience prove an essential part of that process.

The protagonist, pointedly one of Ceylan's youngest yet, is Sinan (Dogu Demirkol), introduced leaving teaching college behind and returning to his hometown to see what awaits him next. He presents as a recognisable mix of youthful ideals, impatience and impracticality: his immediate goals are to ace his exams, publish the manuscript he touts as (gulp) "a quirky metafiction auto-novel", and then get the hell out of a backwater he sees as full of slowly rotting conformists and bigots. A judgier film would prove him right at every turn while smoothly ushering him - and us - towards an exit, but Ceylan, now approaching Renoir-level equanimity, instead sees the world in this village - a world any true novelist could spend years, if not decades, describing: with patience and sagacity, he notes how Sinan's loving family, his neighbours, the childhood sweetheart about to enter into a marriage of convenience, even the mayor who offers him publishing advice, are perfectly pleasant individuals with which to co-exist. Our boy, however, insists on charging headfirst into the world with unshakeable certainty, dismissing everything that came before him as irrelevant, and threatening to be a force as destructive as he is creative: "I'd drop an atom bomb on this place if I could," he spits down the phone to a pal while looking out at his (not untypically photogenic) new horizon. What Ceylan knows, and what he shows us, is that it doesn't take a bomb blast to alter the course and shape of our lives; the changing of the seasons and the rhythms of the everyday will likely do that for us anyway.

That changeability - of landscape, character, mood - is key to The Wild Pear Tree's success; it's what keeps the film not just engaging but rapturously alive over its marathon running time. Winter Sleep became bogged down by bedding in alongside a character long set in his ways, but here we're observing a getting of wisdom that is at once more haphazard and meandering (and thus truer to life) than those streamlined US teen movies that pass before us on a fortnightly basis. It remains a quietly subversive act to centre a movie on a young man who, that film notes, is at least a bit of a brat, and still has much to learn: Mia Hansen-Løve's excellent Eden of 2014 struck out in a similar direction, but - over two hours rather than three - that film didn't go quite as far, nor dig as deep, as Ceylan does here. It was a perfect lightning-strike of casting that led the director to the doughily promising Demirkol, who - somewhat like Miles Teller in Whiplash - occupies the screen like an unformed lump of clay: we're watching a character getting beaten into shape by the universe. (What shape that character will finally take is the source of the film's dramatic tension. From some angles, at certain moments, this kid resembles a Turkish Ryan Gosling; from others, the scowly young Sean Penn. He could be a dreamer or a fighter, and the scenarios Ceylan throws him into keep testing him out in different roles.)

What makes this a more cinematic and memorable coming-of-age drama than most is that Ceylan looks out at the landscape in ways his self-absorbed protagonist fails to, and sees the infinite possibilities lying ahead of this kid, the truth and beauty that could yet fall within his reach. That unforgettable scene in Anatolia where the murder investigation is stopped in its tracks by a beautiful chieftain's daughter serving tea is matched here by the early sequence in which Sinan's childhood sweetheart Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü) lets down her hair just as the sun breaks through the clouds and the wind rustles the trees shielding these secret lovers from the outside world: a fleeting moment - the young woman thereafter disappears (into what we take to be a loveless marriage) - but one that might well linger in any mind open enough to accommodate what-ifs. For Ceylan, change and adaptation are inextricably linked to the natural, and he sees something unhealthy - dangerous, even - in Sinan's rigid clinging to adolescent dogmas. (TVs in the background locate the action within Erdogan's Turkey; the personal and political become intertwined.) In the best case scenario, the film says, we shed our pretensions and illusions as the pear tree sheds its leaves, and push on with the useful work of being a functioning human being - and there should be nothing tragic about this. "When we learn we are not so important, why is our instinct to be hurt? Wouldn't it be better to treat it as an epiphany?": Sinan, who is not without intelligence and sensitivity, stumbles across this insight forty minutes into The Wild Pear Tree. But he - and the viewer - still has a long and rewarding ways to go.

The Wild Pear Tree opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Plagi Breslau" (Guardian 30/11/18)

Plagi Breslau ***
Dir: Patryk Vega. With: Malgorzata Kozuchowska, Daria Widawska, Andrzej Grabowski, Maria Dejmek. 97 mins. Cert: 15

Patryk Vega is the Polish writer-director whose muscular commercial ventures – spin-offs from TV hit Pitbull, medical procedural Botoks – have become appointment viewing for diaspora audiences and thus regular guests in the UK Top 10. Not for nothing does the logo for his production shingle Vega Investments feature a charging bull. His latest – translating, somewhat ominously, as The Plagues of Breslau – is a flat-out serial killer thriller, ninety blood-spattered minutes that make those carefully designed Scandie crime dramas seem newly fussy and wussy. It opens with the graphic autopsy of an abattoir worker who was branded before being sewn alive into suffocating cow hide, the sole visual relief being a cutaway to the morgue’s greasy helix of flypaper. Everything that follows is similarly strong meat.

It has, however, been infused with an eccentric-to-distinctive local flavour. Where Western variations would generally feature chiselled, photogenic protagonists, Vega’s cops all appear to have been found sleeping rough in their cars. Lead detective Helena Rus (Malgorzata Kozuchowska) might resemble an Eastern Jane Tennison were she not perpetually tired and crying, and operating beneath an undercut even Lisbeth Salander might think a little unforgiving. The superior parachuting in to oversee her investigation (Daria Widawska) arrives not in a powersuit, but wearing sweatpants and a sour expression; she does possess unexpected physiotherapy talents, though, and vital intel that suggests the killer is following Frederick the Great’s model in purging Silesia of its predators and degenerates.

It’s not always original, as Helena’s pursuit by a tabloid TV reporter would suggest. It’s not always entirely convincing, either. That hell-for-leather pace whisks us past the implausibility of a killer multitasking as a historian and blacksmith, but some of Vega’s dashed-off grue isn’t quite up to snuff. Yet his location work (spooking the PM at a speedway meet, making murderous use of a cycle path) is unusual and striking, and this verve in staging makes for a perversely enjoyable watch. Offering a setpiece every ten minutes, a twist every thirty, it’s pure pulp – an airport novel condensed into movie form – but Vega knows how to sell it, and there are pearls of wisdom amid the nastiness. You’ll flinch, you’ll squirm, you’ll learn how to increase your survival chances should you be doused in gasoline and set alight. 

Plagi Breslau opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday 29 November 2018

In transit: "Back to Berlin"

Catherine Lurie's documentary Back to Berlin is a road movie with pointed diversions and layovers. The travellers at its centre are 11 Israeli bikers, many the offspring of Holocaust survivors, who serve as ambassadors for the Maccabiah Games, the ongoing multisport event initiated in 1932 to showcase Jewish athletes and counter the world's mounting anti-Semitism. In 1935, a year before the Hitler Olympics, a similar band of bikers set out to Germany to promote the Maccabiah Games' second iteration; eighty years on, Lurie found a latter-day pack revving up their engines and setting out across a newly fraught continent by way of anniversary tribute. The destination - once more, the German capital - was, perhaps inevitably, less important than the journey, mapped out as a reckoning with the past. In Thessaloniki, the bikers are seen to sweat it out in one of the train carriages that carried their forefathers to the camps; in Romania, they visit a synagogue in which worshippers were rounded up for torture, then the fields where they were executed; eventually, the party turns itself towards Auschwitz. Less predictably, their route also led them into a confrontation with the present day. The bikers are advised not to fly the Star of David while passing through the Greece of the Golden Dawn movement; at the border between Hungary and Serbia, they witness police clashing with protesters over the fate of Syrian refugees being held there. There is a sense the bikers are reclaiming roads and routes the Nazis once marched along (as the most senior, Yoram Maron, declares: "It is better to come to Auschwitz by bike than by train"); yet we also sense how, though the faces and colours have changed, we persist in playing the same games in the 21st century as our predecessors did in the 20th, and thereby risk a similar outcome.

The film could have been no more than a dusty memorial or dry history lecture, but Lurie has evidently realised the advantages to be gained from putting this story in the hands and hearts of subjects who have the wind behind them and a tank full of gas. It keeps matters moving and changes the scenery, for one, and because it covers more ground than most films of this type, Back to Berlin moves towards an idea of the Holocaust, which some might conceive of as limited to a small handful of ghettos and a few damp campsites, as far-reaching tragedy - a scar running the entire length of the continent. (It had to have been: just look at the numbers involved.) That said, some passages come to carry more weight than others. The physical realities of Auschwitz prompt Maron into telling or retelling the story of what he experienced in the camps as a child, and again one is amazed that, after so many hours of cinema on this subject, there are still fresh horrors to be excavated and brought back to the surface. The filmmaking surrounding such raw moments is more often solid than especially inspired: there are a few visual clichés (more drone shots for the sake of drone shots), and the odd shaky creative choice (a slightly overstated Jason Isaacs voiceover, the sloppy stretching of 4:3 archive footage into 16:9) here and there. Yet the overriding seriousness of the bikers' project, and of Lurie's direction, keeps Back to Berlin on something like the right course: it's a film that sets out to remind us, and succeeds in reminding us, of where we've come from, and exactly where we are today.

Back to Berlin is now playing in selected cinemas.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Gerrard's game: "Make Us Dream"

Recent football documentaries have done a variable job of tracking the game's geniuses: 2015's Gascoigne seemed at all points a touch too airbrushed to be true to that troubled life, while the same year's Ronaldo was little more than an exercise in brand polishing. (We have Asif Kapadia's much-anticipated Maradona to come.) Sam Blair's new film Make Us Dream adopts a different tack, firstly by refusing to canonise its subject in the title, then by focusing its attention on a grafter: Steven Gerrard, the tenacious attacking midfielder revered by Liverpool fans - for whom he lifted the Champions League trophy in 2005 - yet who remains inextricably linked to that so-called Golden Generation (Beckham, Rooney et al.) who never quite delivered on the expectations of England fans at major tournaments. Blair joins Gerrard in late 2016, cutting an isolated figure in the L.A. of his new club the Galaxy; sitting in his spacious pad, he reflects frankly, in newly sombre, lived-in tones, on his achievements and disappointments, and why he now exists in exile, an Englishman abroad, estranged from the community that nurtured and idolised him. Did he feel he let the fans down, or betrayed them somehow? What's the point of having the kind of home 21st century footballer money can buy, if all you have to fill it with are regrets?

Blair previously made Personal Best, an unusual, strikingly impressionistic study of athletes in training for the 2012 Olympics: he's less interested in sports branding than genuine human endeavour, and the work that has to be put in to enjoy the spoils of victory. Wherever he finds his subject, he's acutely alert to what Gerrard accomplished, particularly at Liverpool, where - week in, week out - he rallied supporters desperate for success during that post-Hillsborough rescaling of the domestic game that benefitted the club's Manchester rivals more than it did anyone else. (One brief, brilliant insert of Dean Saunders - a useful player, but no Ian Rush - looking downcast during a night game played in sheet rain conveys multitudes about a whole decade of underachievement.) It's impossible not to spot the renewed passion and commitment local boy Gerrard brought to the Liverpool squad of the early Noughties. As sociologist and avowed Red John Williams phrases it, here was someone "who's going to run through a brick wall for your football team", and Blair has his pick of those screamers his subject fired in from outside the box on a semi-regular basis. Still, there's another story going on behind the on-pitch action here, made explicit with a sidebar on developments over at Chelsea (who repeatedly offered Liverpool top-dollar for Gerrard's services through the mid-to-late Noughties). 

A traditionally proletarian game was about to enter its capitalist phase, where even a dour 0-0 draw on a wet Tuesday night could be rebranded as pay-per-view entertainment, and it became possible to buy rather than earn success. Blair shows us a swish new CEO (José Mourinho) being imported from the Continent to oversee this transition period, and in late 2018, with football passing into its hyper-capitalist phase, it's something of a kicker to witness Mourinho back in the days when he was still having fun in press conferences. (Nobody at the game's highest level is allowed to have fun any more.) In this brave new world, passion - the ability to run from box to box - was no longer enough, and loyalty a tenuous thing: Gerrard hints at some saddening severing of ties with Michael Owen, with whom he grew up, after the striker signed for Real Madrid in 2004, although it's typical of Blair's nuanced approach that the film acknowledges how this departure forced Gerrard to step up and assume greater responsibility as club captain. That process peaked with that extraordinary, fairytale night in Istanbul in 2005, converted into a nailbiting setpiece here: Blair makes the case that Gerrard singlehandedly dragged the club towards glory that season, and - looking at the evidence as presented - it would be hard to make a comparable case for Vladimir Smicer or Harry Kewell. Still, there was nothing much else to cheer in the immediate aftermath, and holding an entire club together took a considerable mental and physical toll. As Gerrard declares, in flatly perfect Scouse, upon the revelation of an infection that ate away at his pelvis: "Me body give up."

Some viewers may be disappointed by the decision to shy away from Gerrard's misadventures with England, which surely had as much to do with the move abroad as anything else. The film's core audience looks to be Liverpool fans, who'll thrill to the unseen youth team footage and recognise (anew) how Gerrard ran himself ragged in the service of the shirt. There's a whole other film in the breakdown of relations between England players and fans following the 2006 World Cup - one that would reach a nadir with Rooney badmouthing the travelling faithful on camera at the 2010 tournament, and pivot with the reintroduction of Gareth Southgate - but limiting his study to L4 allows Blair to underline Gerrard's physical decline while bolstering his core thesis with the arrival of the Tom Hicks/George Gillett partnership. There are grace notes along the way - not least a poignant new angle on Hillsborough, a tragedy rendered familiar by successive TV documentaries: Blair shows us the schoolboy Gerrard and teammates lining up for a minute's silence - but also a real understanding of the pressures that follow from playing at such a high level for so much money. Though Blair leaves his subject in a happier place - returning him to grass roots - the self-interrogation Gerrard submits to over ninety minutes plus extra time ensures Make Us Dream cuts altogether deeper than the average sports doc, revealing the disquiet felt at the heart of the modern domestic game by even its eminent survivors. Rooney doubtless enjoyed the glorified testimonial England bestowed upon him the other week, but Gerrard - honest pro to the last - has bequeathed us a proper movie.

Make Us Dream is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Amazon Prime.

Tuesday 27 November 2018

From the archive: "Wreck-It Ralph"

Faced with immersive console epics sloughing off vast amounts of their target audience’s disposable income, the movies once again attempt to co-opt computer-game imagery for their own ends. With Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s in-house animation whizzes have arrived at a variant on the inspired premise of Pixar’s Toy Story films: here, everyone’s been given a free hand to explore what might happen after the lights in an amusement arcade are turned out for the night.

At its centre is a fictional arcade game, which is presumably even now being converted into a console-ready tie-in. This is Fix-It Felix, a Donkey Kong-style platformer in which Felix, a humble repairman armed with a magic hammer, must tidy up each time angry ogre Ralph wreaks havoc on a pristine apartment block. A hulking outsider amid the weebly inhabitants of this particular game universe, Ralph is frequently hurled from the top of tall buildings, yet he’s only truly hurt when he learns he hasn’t been invited to the game’s after-dark anniversary celebrations.

His reaction is to go walkabout through the arcade’s circuitry, throwing the world of Fix-It Felix into disarray (what’s there for Felix to fix when nobody’s around to break anything?), while enabling the animators to craft those other worlds into which Ralph ventures. These will include a first-person shoot-‘em-up along Call of Duty lines, in which heavily armoured soldiers are attacked by flying bugs, and a psychedelic Oriental racing game that suggests a candified Speed Racer, setting ice-cream wheels to spinning over gumdrop hillocks.

In every direction, it’s a nerd’s paradise, made for those big kids for whom Comic-Con has become an odorous Elysium, and Wreck-It Ralph is above all else an impressive feat of licensing: the Disney legal team have worked overtime alongside the animators to incorporate Pac-Men and Street Fighters, Q*Bert and Sonic alike, much as the Toy Stories gave their bedrooms additional authenticity by corralling the trademarked likes of Barbie and Mr. Potato Head into the same toybox.

In the hands of The Simpsons and Futurama director Rich Moore, the results are certainly zappy, busily assimilating three decades’ worth of pixelated colour and movement, in-jokes, cheats, hacks and textures; the action sequences are rather like watching state-of-the-art programming play out in some idiosyncratic demo mode. It’s this idiosyncrasy – the odd unexpected gag or leftfield plot hike, familiar from Moore’s small-screen work – that helps Wreck-It Ralph stand out from the CG pack.

For all that it proves dubiously prone to product-placement for junk snacks, for all that there’s nothing much one takes away from this story save a desire to buy the game and possibly visit the concession stand, for all that it is, in fact, canny business (presented, of course, in ticket-inflating 3D) and only derivative art, the film does retain a level of charm, possibly thanks to the strongest voice cast a Disney animation has compiled for some time.

You’d be hard-pressed to recall, say, John Travolta’s contribution to Bolt, or who did what on Cars 2, but Ralph boasts immediately recognisable and cherishable work from performers with superlative comic timing. John C. Reilly’s weary schlub Ralph is amply supported by TV-honed talent: Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock’s preternaturally peppy page Kenneth Parcell, as Felix (whose phrasing of “I don’t have to do boo” gets the film’s biggest laugh), Jane Lynch as a Final Fantasy-like warrior princess with “the most tragic backstory ever programmed”, and Sarah Silverman as the wide-eyed sprite Ralph has to coach past a recurring technical glitch.

Even better than the main feature is the accompanying short, John Kahrs’ Oscar-nominated Paperman, which may be the closest this studio gets to replicating the romantic appeal of The Artist: a largely silent, black-and-white throwback with the hits-you-right-there message that if at first you don’t succeed in love, ya just gotta keep putting yourself out there. Any geeks making plans for Valentine’s Day beyond the Xbox could do far worse than this.

(MovieMailFebruary 2013)

Wreck-It Ralph is available on DVD through Disney; a sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

Monday 26 November 2018

From the archive: "The Grinch"

The 2000 version of The Grinch gave us Anthony Hopkins narrating Dr. Seuss's rhymes, and cast Jim Carrey as the green, furry outcast terrorising the residents of Whoville. In perhaps the closest a human performance has yet come to replicating the effects of CGI, Carrey interprets the title character as somewhere between a movie monster like Freddy Krueger and James Stewart at his lowest and most recklessly destructive point in It's a Wonderful Life. Like most Ron Howard films, more watchable and enjoyable than you imagine it's probably going to be, but it's one of those cacophonous and garish American fantasies (like, say, Barry Levinson's Toys) where, with the exception of the lead performance, you come away remembering the production design more than you do the narrative or any underlying message.

(January 2004)

The Grinch is available on DVD through Universal.

Sunday 25 November 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 16-18, 2018:

 (new) Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A)
2 (1) The Grinch (U)
3 (2) Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
4 (3) Widows (15) ****
5 (4A Star is Born (15) ***
6 (new) Burn the Stage: The Movie (U)
7 (5) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (PG)
8 (8) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
9 (new) Suspiria (18)
10 (10) Smallfoot (PG) ***


My top five: 
1. It's a Wonderful Life

2. Some Like It Hot
3. Widows
4. Back to Berlin
5. 9 to 5

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (2) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
2 (new) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
3 (1) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12) ***
4 (4) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (5) The Grinch (2000 version, PG) ***
6 (6) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
7 (7) Solo: A Star Wars Story (12) ***
8 (9) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
9 (3) Skyscraper (12)
10 (12) Deadpool 2 (15) **


My top five: 
1. Leave No Trace

2. First Reformed
3. Incredibles 2
4. Lucky
5. Whitney

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Mad Max: Fury Road [above] (Sunday, five, 9pm and Friday, five, 10pm)
2. Earthquake (Tuesday, C4, 1.55am)
3. Back to the Future: Part II (Sunday, C4, 4.35pm)
4. Shrek 2 (Sunday, BBC1, 2.40pm)
5. Air Force One (Monday, five, 11pm)

"Pokémon The Movie: The Power of Us" (Guardian 23/11/18)

Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us *
Dir: Tetsuo Yajima. Animation with the voices of: Sarah Natochenny, Ikue Ōtani, Michele Knotz, Rodger Parsons. 112 mins. Cert: PG

No idea whether this makes the prospect more appealing for accompanying adults, but the 112-minute running time here includes ads for the official Pokémon magazine and console games, multiple unfathomable shorts, and a sneak-peek at next summer’s live-action Detective Pikachu. After last summer’s animated series reboot I Choose You! – detailing how Everyboy hero Ash first partnered up with the totemic Pikachu – it’s evidently business as usual within the branded collectibles universe. The overextended cartoon that follows broadens its predecessor’s focus by establishing a coastal Poké-festival that brings multiple players – including (brand expansion alert) girls – to the table. Yet it never transcends its resemblance to a trailer for other forms of product, landing just in time for Christmas.

The cynicism might have slipped down easier if it had been cut with something else; instead, it’s set before us in artless blocks. Director Tetsuo Yajima, a veteran of the late 90s TV series that made this pursuit a phenomenon, can punch up the colours here and there and drop in (clumsy) stabs at digimation, but he’s contractually obliged to retain the same basic-to-ungainly afterschool visuals and irritating voice artists. The reboot hasn’t changed the way these things look and sound; the two animations have merely doubled down on the aesthetic paying fans were nursed on. That creative arrested development surely accounts for the needless furore provoked online by the live-action movie’s newly furry Pikachu: an imagination has been applied that challenges the long-established rules of the game.

Even narratively, the new film’s a dud, as diffuse in its storytelling as the clouds of toxic smog that threaten the Festival’s success. Amid the fug, grown-ups will be able to make out an entirely arbitrary designation of rare new creatures, intended to shift more packets of trading cards, and an environmental message, half-baked and half-inched from Ghibli, which seriously positions Pokémon collecting as a means of slowing the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources; suffice to say, it plays a little synthetic coming barely an hour after an advert for a tie-in magazine offering an array of single-use free gifts. Give the conglomerates responsible points for brazenness, but if our kids are swallowing this meretricious Pika-crap wholesale, we really are doomed. 

Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us screened in cinemas nationwide yesterday.

The splurge: "Assassination Nation"

To get the obvious observation out of the way first: as its every too-cool-for-school camera set-up and soundtrack choice flags, Assassination Nation really, really wants to be embraced as a cult movie, a 21st century Heathers by way of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. It convinced enough first responders at this year's Sundance to spark a bidding war, much as Nate Parker's ill-fated The Birth of a Nation sparked a bidding war last year. (And we wonder: is it the high altitude or the super-cool tote bags that causes journalists and distributors' judgement to go so on the fritz?) It is also, clearly, a film inspired by an unedifying real-world event and then written up by some graspingly opportunistic USC business graduate with his eye on $$$. The event in question was the so-called Fappening (grim name, grim business), the 2014 dataleak that saw intimate photographs of high-profile celebrities being accessed by slavering fanboy hackers and released online for all the world to see; the writer-director Sam Levinson shows us four undercharacterised high-school girls in the prudish backwater of Salem (geddit) taking up arms and fighting back after their own phones are compromised. An opening barrage of totally knowing trigger warnings tips us the wink that Levinson intends to wrestle with a whole bunch of hot-button issues: revenge porn, toxic masculinity, American puritanism. Yet a gap soon opens up between the fullness of the film's agenda and the dismaying vacuity of what's actually been put on screen: a hectoring state-of-the-nation address that gathers all the heft of the average Instagram post. Those tote bags must really have been something.

The key problem is a matter of tone. What drama there is here is presented in such a numb and affectless manner, shrugging listlessly as the hack's innocent victims are harassed by a growing mob into blowing their brains out, that it often seems as if everyone behind this camera is as glassy-eyed as the sheeple Levinson sets before us. A trigger warning for The Male Gaze is placed over a clip of that camera pursuing a young woman in short shorts through a neighbourhood in the middle of the night; the clip has been plucked - haha, no - from the middle of a later attempted rape scene. (The hack turns out to be the handiwork of some disaffected bro doing it very much "for the lulz"; those trigger warnings are put there for the self-same reason.) The rape-revenge aspect might have retained some potency if this script had any kind of handle on cause and effect; as it is, there's just no coherent sense of how these high-schoolers become such a proficient killing force, or why the mobs that we see have taken to the streets, save that the images they generate might say something to someone somewhere about Trumpism, and that maybe Levinson saw the budget-to-gross ratio of the Purge movies and thought "I'm having some of that". (Having unleashed this chaos, he has no idea how to wrap things up, so he sacks off the third act and sends on a marching band instead. Whatever.) In the entire 108 minutes, there are thirty seconds worth salvaging: a monologue a passing Bella Thorne gives in vivid mallratese on what the death of privacy means to her. Here, the film is still precise about what it wants to say, and finds the right, funny voice in which to say it.

Everything else is all over the place: leering over its sex and violence even as it strikes the pose of being concerned about the plight of young women, deploying artful lighting and slick one-shot sequences to mask and usher us past its glaring lack of integrity and heart. It's not some glorious exploitation throwback but a con job from start to end, and the bidding war suggests there are still plenty of suckers out there - or perhaps that we haven't witnessed a splurge-movie like this for a while, so it might retain some novelty in the marketplace. The closest film I can recall to Assassination Nation - itself trying to get something out of its system, and vomiting bile in the audience's laps in the process - was 2006's American Dreamz, that godawful "satire" of reality entertainment that proved to be the sourest thing the generally good-natured Paul Weitz (American Pie, In Good Company, Mozart in the Jungle) ever signed his name to. Here as there, we're left watching a movie born of multiple malaises, sweated out in the heat of a particular moment, which hasn't the strength to maintain any consistent moral or narrative line, and so winds up spreading those malaises further still. (It could have been contained at Sundance, with the right structures in place.) Maybe Levinson wanted to shove the worst of us right back in our faces - as certain episodes of Black Mirror have done, with far greater storytelling finesse - but those fundamentally punitive tactics didn't seem to take much hold among the Saturday night crowd with whom I suffered through Nation last night. (Grand total: five patrons, two of whom left after a half-hour.) The danger with making an empty movie denouncing an empty culture is that it winds up playing to empty auditoriums.

Assassination Nation is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 22 November 2018

Frozen wastes: "Siberia"

The only explanation for the existence of the murkily bizarre treasure-hunt movie Siberia is that producers in Beverly Hills have realised there are riches in Russia worth tapping, much as their colleagues have begun pursuing certain markets in the Far East: it's a hunt for treasure about a hunt for treasure, which risks making these 100 minutes sound way more interesting and exciting than they actually are. (All tapped out by multiple Marvel movies, Western audiences have been abandoned to their Netflix subscriptions.) For this reason alone, a stubbly Keanu Reeves has been sent to the Siberian wastes with the aim of getting his hands on a rare diamond. Naturally, he will fall foul of local heavies during this quest; naturally, a local waitress (Ana Ularu) will throw himself at him, no matter that he has a wife at home, played for no immediately apparent reason - is she big in Vladivostok? - by Molly Ringwald. The novelty is that the bulk of the quote-unquote action has been shot around abandoned quarries and other frosty-bleak industrial backwaters intended to strike a chord with the presumed audience, and much of the negotiation is conducted in your actual Russian, in which we're supposed to believe the Keanu character is fluent.

That faux-Far Eastern cinema currently being engineered by the major studios trades in robots, monsters and not a trace of sex, the easier to circumnavigate regional censors; faux-Russian cinema, by the looks of things, is going to be awfully male. Siberia's idea of a good time is two goons banging on at great length about their willies, men talking business in hotel suites or meeting in the woods with guns and dogs, and a new twist on the old blood brothers trope that happens to involve, ahem, semen. Keanu's regular hookups with the waitress are meant to dispel some of the muskiness, but become so frequent the film often seems to be hymning the heroism of a married man getting his end away on a business trip over any tenacity or fortitude he might display while retrieving the diamond. Nevertheless, it remains too joylessly ploddy to serve as the commercial thriller its star's presence indicates it wanted at some stage to be, and too drably artless to be the Point Blank-style abstraction director Matthew Ross sometimes gestures towards. Nobody's helped by a script - by A Simple Plan author Scott B. Smith - full of lines agents might say to one another while sitting on park benches ("If you want to fly today, find the man who controls the weather"). Keanu could only have done it for the Air Miles and Stolichnaya; there's not a huge amount in it for you and me, save a sorely furrowed brow.

Siberia is now playing in selected cinemas.

Sunday 18 November 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 9-11, 2018:

 (new) The Grinch (U)
2 (1) Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
3 (new) Widows (15) ****
4 (2A Star is Born (15) ***
5 (3) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (PG)
6 (new) Overlord (18)
7 (new) Thugs of Hindostan (12A) ***
8 (5) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
9 (new) Sarkar (12A)
10 (4) Smallfoot (PG) ***


My top five: 
1. It's a Wonderful Life

2. Some Like It Hot
3. Widows
4. Possum
5. 9 to 5 [above]

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (1) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12) ***
2 (new) Incredibles 2 (PG) ****
3 (new) Skyscraper (12)
4 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (20) The Grinch (2000 version, PG) ***
6 (14) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
7 (8) Solo: A Star Wars Story (12) ***
8 (2) Sicario 2: Soldado (15)
9 (12) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
10 (4) Ocean's 8 (12)


My top five: 
1. Leave No Trace

2. First Reformed
3. Incredibles 2
4. Lucky
5. Whitney

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Back to the Future (Sunday, C4, 4.30pm)
2. The Ladykillers (Monday, C4, 2.50am)
3. The Emperor's New Groove (Sunday, C4, 2.55pm)
4. Over the Hedge (Saturday, BBC2, 8.40am)
5. Air Force One (Friday, five, 10pm)