Thursday 31 January 2019

"The Gandhi Murder" (Guardian 30/01/19)

The Gandhi Murder *
Dir: Karim Traïdia, Pankaj Sehgal. With: Stephen Lang, Luke Pasqualino, Om Puri, Vinnie Jones. 118 mins. Cert: 12A. Opens Jan 30

Released to mark the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, this is frankly a bit eggy – indeed, we may not witness an eggier film in UK cinemas all year. Karim Traïdia, the veteran Algerian director who earned a Golden Globe nomination for 1998’s The Polish Bride, has reappeared in India, or Sri Lanka passing for India, with a conspiracy thriller based on the Mahatma’s final days. It bears some resemblance to our very own tuppenny-ha’penny costume and crime dramas, not least in the casting of Vinnie Jones as – and a simple “ahem” would barely cover this – the senior British diplomat overseeing Partition. (I mean: no wonder it all kicked off.) Still, it transpires that Vinnie – who barely features, and gives his usual performance when he does – is only the film’s fifth or sixth weirdest element.

For starters, it’s very odd that the Indian functionaries scheming to remove Gandhi from the picture should be played by Caucasians. “You don’t look very Indian,” guest star Om Puri tells New York-born Avatar heavy Stephen Lang, playing shifty new security chief Sunil Raina; “I’m an ethnic Kashmiri,” comes the none-too-convincing response. Nobody else quite fits the part, either. This Gandhi (played by Spaniard Jesus Sans) has been clumsily overdubbed so his wisdom comes at us as it might from a Cillit Bang commercial; the film’s uptight-verging-on-camp Nehru (Rajit Kapoor) trails an unmistakable air of Larry Grayson. Arrhythmic scene after abruptly curtailed scene offers something to drop the jaw: overemphatic supporting turns, comical back projections, VFX apparently done on the bus en route to the premiere.

That combination of WTF casting and glaring technical limitation proves so distracting one can barely focus on the script’s new intel. The theory seems to be that Gandhi’s lone, Hindu-nationalist assassin was enabled by higher-ups as a ploy to reunite a fracturing nation, but historical credibility is hardly bolstered by the lurching sidestep into horror that sees Puri bothering suspects with red ants, or the delirious vision the Lang character has of Abe Lincoln’s assassination, anchoring some frankly unhinged editorial about martyrs bringing countries together. Cult status may beckon – and perhaps Theresa May might be inspired to ask Vinnie to sit in on the Brexit renegotiations. But never mind Drunk History; this is history off-its-tits.

The Gandhi Murder is now playing in selected cinemas.

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Woman of letters: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

Of the films either there or thereabouts as we go into the final furlongs of the 2018-19 awards season, Can You Ever Forgive Me? can't lay claim to the biggest names, the greatest sociopolitical import, nor the most Spotifiable soundtrack. What it does have is a pretty good, well-told story, and a conflicted, tragicomic character, which might just ensure it rattles round inside the viewer's head longer than at least half of this year's actual Best Picture nominees. That story - adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from their subject's 2008 memoir, and brought to the screen by The Diary of a Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller - is a true yet tall one: how the New York literary and antiquities scenes were suckered by one Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a struggling biographer who'd reached dowdy middle-age without much to show for her labours, save a cramped, flystrewn flat and an ailing cat. (No film in recent memory has been more primed to receive sympathetic notices from jobbing critics - or, indeed, writers of any stripe.) With demand for her proposed Fanny Brice biography dwindling as we join her in 1991, Israel has been reduced to dodging her creditors en route to daytime drinking sessions. There, at least, she gains a companion in ageing gay rake Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), and with him an idea to make some easy money: faking letters by dead celebs and fobbing them off on interested parties. Vintage typewriters are purchased. Signatures are sourced and forged. The con is on.

It is, then, the story of a swindler, and not a terribly charming one at that: there's a marked contrast between the elegantly witty wordsmiths Israel impersonates on the page and the grimily mouthed and cardiganned individual she presents as in person. The film's small triumph is to suck us into her scam; we become a willing, sometimes giggling co-conspirator. Yes, you could appropriate Lee Israel's actions as an act of revenge against a literary Establishment prepared at the time to pay the likes of Tom Clancy advances of $3m per book, as a blow being struck for the perpetually overlooked middle-aged woman. Equally, though, the film lets on that its heroine's deceptions may not have been as noble as all that, and as likely to have been fuelled by self-preservation as anything else. McCarthy - who demonstrated she was a very fine and subtle dramatic actress in such curios as 2007's The Nines before 2011's Bridesmaids invited her to shit in a sink - skilfully reveals the pathos and desperation underpinning the writer's waspiness as she sets out on this shortcut to self-improvement; at the very least, you'll come away understanding why Lee Israel decided to work this angle. The letters buy her food, friends, a measure of professional respect (for conjuring connections out of thin air), even an exterminator to delouse her apartment - but it's all a fraud, made worse by the fact she can't take credit for the bon mots she's putting in the mouths of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Somewhere in the background of this tale, there lurks the tragic spectre of misdirected promise: the wasted potential of a woman who could have been a standalone great writer if she'd only applied herself to the novel she kept kicking into the long grass. (Again: the press screenings must have overflowed with rueful chuckles of recognition.)

Yet Holofcener and Heller remain crowdpleasers above all else. The barbed and painful ironies of Lee Israel's life are visible in the subtext of each scene, but the film overall is as shabbily convivial as daytime drinking itself: good, literate company, with jazzy soundtrack cuts in near-permanent rotation, and our immediate field of vision filled with individuals with whom you'd merrily share a sharpener or two. Grant is fun both as a comic foil and a marker of just how low our heroine has fallen; and there are deft contributions from Jane Curtin (as Lee's understandably weary agent), Dolly Wells as a trusting bookseller with whom Lee shares what looks like a tentative first date, and from the very great Anna Deavere Smith, whose fleeting late cameo reminds us what it might have been like to cohabit with the ever-difficult protagonist. (Heller demonstrates admirable honesty in retaining such a straggly, easily deletable scene.) As the coda neared, I realised I hadn't been quite as knocked out as many colleagues have been; what the film struck me as was a continuation of that variety of intelligent, well-crafted picture the studios turned out as standard in the 70s/80s/90s, and for which we're now expected to be pitifully grateful in that brief window before superhero season starts up once more. Despite McCarthy's efforts, Can You Ever Forgive Me? can't quite make the leap beyond crisp, well-turned anecdote: the stakes may well appear low to those outside the metropolitan media bubble, the emotion diffuse and hard to place until the final moments. (I'll continue to lament that more voters haven't seen Tamara Jenkins' Private Life, a more roundly rewarding depiction of Manhattan despair.) There is, however, a slyness about Heller's film - not least a way with words - that its subject would doubtless have appreciated, albeit begrudgingly.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Suckers: "Crucible of the Vampire"

By rights, any film bearing the title Crucible of the Vampire ought to detail snooker player Ray Reardon's attempts to win the Embassy World Championships in Sheffield, ideally with Christian Bale essaying the lead role beneath a latex widow's peak and with his original Haverfordwest accent. The movie landing on our screens this week is, alas, a strained low-budget throwback horror cramming over-enunciating repertory thesps into the quite nice-looking Midlands stately home writer-director Iain Ross-McNamee secured weekend access to. A monochrome period prologue sees an underling of witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins putting a vagrant to death on a spurious charge of sorcery, before cleaving the unfortunate's cauldron in two; we then flash ahead to latter-day Shropshire, where our wholesome blonde curator heroine (Katie Goldfinch) has been dispatched to investigate reports half of said cauldron has turned up on the grounds of a country house undergoing renovation. Her eccentric-to-glowering hosts are, clearly, Up to No Good, but we may wonder why the one familiar face (TV's Neil "Bluddy Hell!" Morrissey) has been relegated to playing the estate's gardener. (His predecessor, we're told, died in "a mysterious accident", suggesting some crossover between the worlds of Downton and Spinal Tap.)

The film's mysteries are set loose in a flatly functional, no-frills manner, but we're then left sitting around twiddling our thumbs for at least half an hour before any of them even start to be resolved. A terminally draggy second act is hardly enlivened by the recurrence of certain stock characters (a village idiot who proves more savant than anybody offers him credit for, the host's panty-sniffing saucepot daughter), tangential flashbacks and ghost stories, or the gobbets of exposition shared among Morrissey and co. There's a lot of undistinguished talk here, in other words, and the action that Ross-McNamee does seem excited about getting to (some light Sapphism in floral nightwear) is either plain skeezy or nowhere near skeezy enough. That half-bodied quality is finally Crucible's downfall: it's a very 15-rated vamp movie, caught between juvenile swooning and something more adult, and there will almost certainly be direct-to-DVD horror items released this month, sourced from the darkest recesses of the festival circuit, which display greater spark and originality. It's one of those poverty-row offerings that isn't incompetent - some of the beats in the last-reel chase and fight scenes land - but is terribly basic, and has no reason to haunt either our cinemas or imaginations for long: one cast, crew and investor screening would probably suffice.

Crucible of the Vampire opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

Monday 28 January 2019

From the archive: "How to Train Your Dragon 2"

DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon, a 2010 adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s books about a Viking community making peace with the fire-breathers in their midst, was one of all too few recent digimations to use 3D not as an extortion tactic but a constructive aesthetic choice. 

Stereoscopy there wasn’t just a means to enable the viewer to soar alongside dragons in flight; it could also immerse us in the busy life of a small village perched precariously on the very edge of a rocky outcrop, and chart the tentative approach of a socially awkward outsider to a sleekly feline foundling – it was as much courtship as spectacle, which is why it won as many hearts, young and old, as it did.

For How to Train Your Dragon 2, again written and directed by Dean DeBlois, the stakes have been raised, the scale expanded. Time has visibly passed, too: Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the original’s nerdy hero, has grown into an adventurous, battle-scarred young man on the verge of taking over chieftain duties from his imposing father (Gerard Butler). This at a time when a rival chieftain has started to raise a dragon army; where dad’s first response is to lock his community down and prepare for war, his son wonders whether conflict has to be inevitable.

The software updates of the past four years have only enhanced this already detailed world: there are now a gazillion dragons flapping around us, each with their own distinct look and personality, and the characters now appear more photorealistic yet in their range of expressions. It’s significant that this behind-the-scenes tinkering should have gone towards better calibrated emotional responses, as the bridging of personal space again informs the storytelling.

A key subplot follows Hiccup’s attempts to reconnect with his estranged mother (Cate Blanchett, with roaming Celts accent), who we learn had rather more impact on the boy’s character than his galumphing father, and found herself equally alienated by the prevailing patriarchy. (As in the recent Edge of Tomorrow, this world’s most destructive avatars are explicitly referred to as “Alphas”: perhaps Hollywood is wising up to something about their audience make-up.)

Some aspects of this conflict now feel fresher than others – the numerous dragon fly-bys start to blur into one – but DeBlois marshals his story space such that this, at least, never gets monotonous. While meeting all the requisite quotas for swooping and fighting, he’s careful to make room for, say, the love song by which the chieftain hopes to win back his wife – a sob-inducing interlude that cuts through any clutter, and should hold even younger popcorn-rustlers under its tender spell.

The trailers beforehand (Planes 2, anyone? The Nut Job?) should serve as ominous notice there will be a lot of animated dreck and filler in cinemas between now and September, but How To Train Your Dragon 2, fresh from its premiere at Cannes, finds an appreciable balance between art and commerce: it deserves to burn up all the pocket money it surely will.

(MovieMail, July 2014)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is available on DVD through DreamWorks; a third film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

Sunday 27 January 2019

1,001 Films: "She's Gotta Have It" (1986)

She's Gotta Have It was Spike Lee's breakthrough film: a still-strikingly fresh and sexy comedy, shot in vérité-style monochrome, about the bedroom antics of one Nola Darling (the breezy Tracy Camilla Johns), a young New Yorker seemingly irresistible to women, men and boys alike. For those who've queried this director's sexual politics over the years, it'll be something of a relief to see Lee sympathising with his heroine over and above those men making fools of themselves in trying to possess or impress Nola; Lee casts himself as the stereotypical hip-hop head Mars Blackmon - a jittery nerd who keeps his sneakers on in bed - and lets a poet (Tommy Redmond Hicks) and a poseur (John Canada Terrell) duke it out for Nola's affections. Variable male performances are a weakness, but where later Lee films would be marked out by an intensely politicised anger that owed something to blaxploitation, this full-length debut was distinguished by a quiet, scholarly appreciation of all things cultural - photography, literature, painting, poetry, dance (framed in glorious, Oz-inspired Technicolor) - which makes the film a Brooklyn equivalent to Une Femme est une Femme, and positioned its director (misleadingly?) as the black Godard.

She's Gotta Have It is currently unavailable on DVD, but streaming via Netflix, alongside the first season of the recent TV remake.

Saturday 26 January 2019

1,001 Films: "Shoah" (1985)

Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's soup-to-nuts account of the Holocaust, opens with the filmmaker interviewing Simon Srebnik, a survivor of the Chelmno camp in central Poland. Two of Srebnik's statements provide the tentpoles upon which the subsequent nine hours of footage are based. These are "it was terrible" - nobody's arguing with that - and "no-one can understand it." This latter, I think, Lanzmann disputes: he wants us to understand, and the rest of his film embarks upon the task of trying to make the unfathomable event of 20th century history a little less incomprehensible. Shoah exists, as much as anything, to flip the lid on the gas vans and mass graves, and to say - look - here's first-hand evidence of what actually happened.

Compiled from the late 1970s onwards, the film crucially committed to celluloid the testimony of an older generation of survivors before they passed on, and serves as a reminder to - or, indeed, a learning experience for - those younger generations coming up in their place. Lanzmann himself appears on screen almost throughout, often seen smoking away like a caricature of a hack journalist (at one point, he appears to stub out a cigarette on the railroad tracks at Treblinka); next to him, and standing between him and his interviewees, there is invariably a translator of some sort. We watch not just the testimony, then, but the process of testimony: the way in which information is obtained from the witness, translated (very ably: the subtitles seem to suggest the interpreters are more or less fluent in the language of grief) and then received by the third party, whether that be Lanzmann or the viewer.

It's a film very much about the exposing, the demystification, of processes others might well want to hide or deny. This liberating, open-handed approach, encouraging the contributions of all, is the rhetorical opposite of the fascist closed fist, and it's evident throughout: in the way Lanzmann films hidden-camera interviews with SS officers, but also films the van in which this interview footage is being collated; in his refusal to edit out potentially problematic moments, such as those in which he tells tearful survivors "you have to do it: we have to know"; in the way he stops one collective Q&A session to allow a church procession to pass - and then follows the procession to film that, too. (You're getting a sense of why the film lasts for nine hours, as well as an assertion that life must, surely, go on.)

Only once does this approach fall flat on its face, when Lanzmann confronts a former Belzec guard in his new job as a barman. After a comparable sequence in Bowling for Columbine, I have come to the conclusion that - in the main - these kinds of scenes in documentaries are very rarely more than petty, pointless acts of revenge, in which, unless handled correctly, the camera becomes no more creative a tool, and no less blunt a weapon, than a gun. Holding it to the bully's head certainly doesn't make for good cinema: the person on the wrong end usually ducks the question or flees, and the filmmaker merely comes across as insufferably righteous - even when, as Lanzmann does here, he has the suffering of millions on his side.

Generally, though, it's to Lanzmann's credit that the camera is left running where others might have shut it off: he wants us to see exactly how he went about getting his information. Getting the survivors out in the open, taking them back to the places in which they were once imprisoned, is also crucial to the director's thesis, not just to note the bleak, muted beauty of the surrounding countryside. (The sites of former concentration camps seem to be crying with loss, as though mourning the abuses perpetrated upon them; you won't ever have seen snow this doleful.) Lanzmann is drawing a map of Europe between 1940 and 1944, of its myriad backroads and forests, wherever the dirty work - and, especially, the unacknowledged dirty work - went on.

The precision of the approach is most evident in a sequence at Sobibor where Lanzmann asks one survivor to step out the camp's perimeter, and its relation to the neighbouring railway station: one of the film's underlying tenets is that, during the Final Solution, there was a fine line indeed between living and dead. It's there in the director's questioning, too: asking a barber whether he used to take scissors or a razor to the heads of women about to be gassed, sourcing train timetables that demonstrate the specifics of railroading people to their death. At nine hours, you'd maybe expect some kind of repetition; the plain truth may be that ninety hours wouldn't be enough to contain the enormity of the horrors incurred. We're spared much of what we've already witnessed - none of that newsreel footage of bodies being dumped in pits or emaciated survivors at the moment of liberation - and instead presented with a variety of individual and group perspectives. A historian points out how the Nazi project was really nothing new; a number of Polish women stand around in the street and bitch about the beauty of their late Jewish rivals in love.

Pauline Kael notoriously accused Lanzmann of inspiring feelings of guilt and nothing more constructive than that, yet it seems to me the burden of watching Shoah is far lighter than suffering that of (the much shorter) Schindler's List. The difference may be that Spielberg was directing drama, and found himself having to work much harder to make the viewer believe this actually happened; Lanzmann, and his subjects, already know it happened - some of them saw it happening with their own eyes - and if they're not taking it in their stride exactly, they are living with it, and coping in relatively unhysterical ways with the most shattering of events. (While we're on this comparison, Shoah explains absolutely why Godard thinks what he does of Schindler's List. If what Lanzmann uncovers here is true, than Spielberg hasn't prettified the Holocaust, but he has to have simplified it: the mock gas chambers of Schindler's List seem positively roomy when set against the harrowing sight of the scale model Shoah presents us with, that of a fully functioning oven crammed with tiny clay figures - sorry stand-ins for those who lost their lives - clambering over and crushing one another.)

For all that, Shoah remains a rare film where a filmmaker's inability to grasp the full extent of his subject seems, all of a sudden, not such a terrible crime. These nine hours can, ultimately, be distilled to one single, indelible image. It occurs in the film's final quarter, the weakest in the entire film, though that may be owing to its reliance on the testimony of politicians and bureaucrats rather than first-hand, ground-level evidence; it might be that the first seven hours have dispelled so much daunting mystery that the process of dotting the "i"s and crossing the "t"s in extermination is bound to be less than entirely involving; that Lanzmann found himself faced, when it came to it, with that old cliché about the banality of evil. However, it's hereabouts that Lanzmann goes to interview Jan Karski, a former courier for the Polish administration, now a university professor in the United States. Karski breaks down in tears before the interview even starts, and dashes off-camera left to compose himself; the camera then pans a little right, back to where Karski was sitting only a moment before; and that empty frame, unintentional as it may have been, tells you almost everything you need to know about both the terrors of the Holocaust and its legacy. Only a director prepared to leave his camera running would get that on tape; it's a nullifying void, fascinating and deathly - no wonder Lanzmann keeps his distance from here on in.

Shoah is available on DVD through Eureka.

Friday 25 January 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 18-20, 2019:

1 (new) Glass (15)

2 (new) Mary, Queen of Scots (12A) **
3 (1) Stan & Ollie (PG) ***
4 (3) Mary Poppins Returns (PG) ***
5 (2) The Favourite (15) ***
6 (4Aquaman (12A)
7 (5) BumbleBee (PG) ***
8 (6) Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
9 (9) Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)
10 (10) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***


My top five: 
1. An Impossible Love
5. RBG

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

1 (new) The House with a Clock in its Walls (12)

2 (new) The Nun (15)
3 (1) The Predator (15)
4 (8) Unbreakable (12) ****
5 (new) King of Thieves (15)
6 (2The Greatest Showman (PG)
7 (3Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
8 (new) A Simple Favour (15)
9 (4) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12) ***
10 (6) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12)


My top five: 
1. The Wife

2. American Animals
3. 1985
4. Cold War

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind [above] (Saturday, five, 11.45am)
2. From Russia with Love (Sunday, ITV, 2.15pm)
3. How to Train Your Dragon (Sunday, C4, 4.35pm)
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Sunday, five, 3.45pm)
5. The Man in the White Suit (Sunday, BBC2, 6.25am)

Thursday 24 January 2019

Spotlight: "On Her Shoulders"

Alexandria Bombach's documentary On Her Shoulders opens with footage of a predominantly male crowd surrounding a woman in a public square, jostling to take selfies and cameraphone footage. Uninitiated viewers might well wonder who this woman is. One of the Kardashian-Jenner clan? Cardi B? The newly prominent Ruth Bader Ginsburg? The woman, it turns out, has far fewer Instagram followers than any of these, but she does have an urgent message to communicate. She is Nadia Murad, the twentysomething Iraqi targeted by ISIS as part of their attack on the country's Yaziri population in 2014; taken prisoner and put into sexual slavery, she escaped after several months, fleeing to the West with the aim of alerting lawmakers to the very specific threat her people face from the caliphate. (To simplify somewhat, she is to ISIS what Malala Yousafzai has been to the Taliban: a symbolically diminutive figure who stood up to the worst of brutes.) Presenting such a case constitutes a form of heroism, naturally, but it's also - as that title frames it - considerable hard work, a hell of a responsibility, as it might be for anyone having to relive a life-altering trauma in public. That opening image increasingly comes to seem more than a little ambiguous: Ms. Murad's public profile has protected her from harm, but you can see how being surrounded by men, even fans and well-wishers, might still be unsettling.

Bombach joined Murad in New York in 2016, by which point her subject had dropped the niqab she'd previously used to conceal her identity on camera and embarked upon a tour of North American institutions and news outlets. Shots of her being directed through local news preamble, along with raw footage of a Canadian radio interview, very quickly establish that Bombach is interested above all else in how Nadia's story was disseminated and framed. It's not just that she has to relive her experiences, but that she's obliged to relive them over and over again - and be aware, even as she's reliving them, that similar or worse fates might still befall her sisters back home. (And that not reliving them will change nothing.) When her case is picked up and given renewed momentum by Amal Clooney, news reports inevitably begin to skew towards the lawyer's movie-star husband; we are invited to spend so long looking at the gravely beautiful Murad, a pint-pot Charlotte Gainsbourg, that we might wonder whether the media (and the jostling men in that crowd) would be half as interested in a less obviously photogenic survivor. The filmmaker's own interviews with Murad, shot straight to camera in a darkened room, are a model of editorial sensitivity, allowing the subject to raise the points she'd prefer to address. It's clear, for one, that she'd rather speak of the future, or of an alternative present, than she would of the past: "I wish people knew me as an excellent seamstress... or a student... or an athlete."

The whole film is characterised by a similar thoughtfulness. Rather than piggybacking on a self-evidently burdened young woman to prove some pre-existing thesis, Bombach holds back; the film that results is a notable feat of observation, alighting or chancing upon telling, often ironic images that define this transitional phase in its subject's life. Nadia appears acutely aware of the absurd freedoms her newfound circumstances grant her, gliding serenely through shopping malls and looking on as soldiers perform a harmless military tattoo; yet we also see her enduring endless photo ops, and gritting her teeth through the political cant that replaces barbarism in supposedly enlightened liberal democracies. Bombach notes how when the Canadian MP Michelle Rempel breaks down in tears in a Congressional antechamber, it's Nadia who leans in to offer a consoling hug (and we note the irony inherent in a Conservative MP welcoming a refugee with open arms: they do things differently in Canada); and though we catch Nadia relaxing and smiling anew, we also spy those dark clouds of doubt that blow in when time comes to convert words into action. Laying a stirring orchestral score over Nadia's plenty impassioned final-reel speech to the UN feels unnecessarily manipulative, but otherwise On Her Shoulders carries Nadia's story (and, indeed, the wider Yaziri story) forward without undue fuss, simply by allowing its subject to tell it on something like her own terms, to communicate the pressures she feels in the free world as well those strains she underwent back in Iraq. She survived those and would rather be here, obviously. Yet what Bombach's film captures, with laudable sharpness, are those moments where Nadia Murad's thoughts flash back, as they frequently do, to life over there - or, at least, to whatever remains of it.

On Her Shoulders opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. 

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Swinging Dick: "Vice"

The filmmaker liable to make the most striking contribution to social media's current #10YearChallenge would be Adam McKay. Ten years ago, McKay had just signed off on Step Brothers, the latest in his run of successful comedies; he appeared broadly content to mess around with Will Ferrell for the foreseeable future. A decade on, and he now seems to be positioning himself as a cure for all America's problems. Signs of that shift in attitude were first apparent towards the end of 2010's The Other Guys, a knockabout cop comedy that ran stats pertaining to white-collar crime alongside its closing credits. That quirk fed into 2015's The Big Short, a film that saw McKay applying the scattershot methods of his funnies - the widereaching ensemble cast, the spitballing approach to scene construction, the random celeb cameos - to material torn from the current affairs section. At least as much didn't land there as did, but it was a new way of doing (and talking about) business, so we shouldn't have been surprised that it turned heads as it did. Buoyed by the critical reception and Academy attention, McKay returns this week with Vice, a satirical biopic of George W. Bush's right-hand man Dick Cheney which intends to banish any nostalgia that might have started to gather around previous Republican administrations. Maybe McKay saw the chance to slip a few Dick jokes into a far grander picture - one or two survive into the finished feature - but Vice chiefly presents as a statement on the tendency of American politics to attract the most grasping and least redeemable white men on the planet, a gloomy thesis that, again, would have been unthinkable back in 2009. In our hyperaccelerated world, ten years is a very long time; in politics, it's practically a supereon.

The arc isn't entirely dissimilar from that of Oliver Stone's W. (itself ten years old now, itself stuffed with celeb impersonations): how a boozy, multiply DUI-ed good ol' boy from middle America came to serve as the respectable face of the Republican Party. McKay's script suggests this involved a series of deals not unlike those in The Big Short, rebranding bad as good. Upon quitting liquor and heeding the call to Washington, this Cheney (Christian Bale) strikes up a Starsky and Hutch-like double-act with mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) within a Nixon administration that somehow also provided shelter and employment for such individuals as recently disgraced Fox News chief Roger Ailes and hardline conservative judge Antonin Scalia. The impression we take from this brisk sketch of Republican politics of the 1970s was that it was its own form of melting pot, collecting together various cold, hard turds in a thick, roiling bouillabaisse of excrement. As the Beltway's most eminent floater, Bale's Cheney is a little bit like the actor's Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, peering out hollow-eyed through layers of perspective-warping latex; he's something like a vampiric Zelig, rubbing up against (and drawing power from his proximity to) the very worst men in recent American politics; with his bald pate and symbolically middling posture, there's even some resemblance at times to Danny de Vito's scheming Penguin in Batman Returns. This Dick has, in short, become a great movie character, and one of the film's few reliable pleasures is watching Bale, a performer who has all but mastered the art of acting under (here, some very subtle and accomplished) prosthetics, shifting shape within the flashback scenes and finally emerging as the notable monster, the Patton de nos jours, that McKay means to present Cheney as.

This process involves the dissemination of a lot of disparate information, and Vice often strays into didacticism to achieve it. There are isolated patches of crafty, pertinent writing, as with the scene that finds Cheney's wife Lynne (Amy Adams) on the stump somewhere in the Midwest, casually floating a phrase ("liberal elites") that has become a dismaying mainstay of our political discourse. More typical, however, is the early exchange that finds Cheney and Rumsfeld discussing the prospect of bombing Cambodia, which involves Cheney raising the issue of Congressional oversight, Rumsfeld waving it away, a cutaway to a "typical Cambodian village", and a close-up of our anti-hero pondering the implications of such an act, before the scene is interrupted by a narrator (Jesse Plemons) conceived to represent the place of the blue-collar common man within the Cheney narrative. McKay rarely seems to trust his audience to go along with his line of thought, what he's attempting to communicate. It's not enough that Dick and Lynne should recall Lord and Lady Macbeth by their actions; we have to witness Bale and Adams quoting Shakespearian dialogue - at excruciating length - while in bed together, and to the accompaniment of loud thunderclaps. (In such moments, you may find yourself longing for the subtle nuance of a Ferrell.) For all the film's warnings about the consequences of taking one's eye off the bigger political picture, and its urges to watch out for the quiet men, Vice is at least as ADHD and bombastic as McKay's comedies, constitutionally unable to maintain a consistent line, which squishes a good deal of the attempted seriousness.

As this week's Oscar nominations bore out, McKay has become a major Hollywood player with these two films, but he continues to think and cut like a jobbing comedy director - in short, sharp bursts, some more inspired than others. Cheney's frequent heart attacks become a running gag (with a somewhat fanciful punchline); everything around them becomes a bit, a riff, which explains why the film starts to feel a reel or two long at two hours ten, like those Judd Apatow comedies that came and went during McKay's popcorn heyday. (And Apatow was reaching far deeper into his characters.) In the second hour, which is stronger, you feel Vice gathering in purpose: something substantial clicks into place around the dramatisation of 9/11, and the plot to sell the public on the need for war in Iraq. Yet even here McKay is prone to a certain crassness - rhyming his Dubya (Sam Rockwell)'s tapping foot during the televised "shock and awe" speech with the trembling extremity of an Iraqi caught in the bomb blasts - and debatable speculation: I just didn't buy that a specific act of Cheneyian heartlessness led to the struggles of the present moment, as a late-film montage insinuates. The major advantage of the McKay approach is a superficial liveliness: this is a very watchable prestige movie that just can't get itself together to make its points stick. There remains something encouraging in witnessing a based-on-true-events movie having such irreverent fun with the based-on-true-events form - this one earns a chuckle for one of the best-executed fakeout endings in recent cinema - but I emerged from Vice with much the same two thoughts as I had coming out of The Big Short. Firstly: someone needs to sit Adam McKay down in front of Sullivan's Travels, stat. Second, and this should probably be a matter of urgent public policy: in a world that troubled us with Anchorman and Zoolander sequels, why no Step Brothers 2?

Vice opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Risky business: "Destroyer"

Let's give Nicole Kidman this. When Eyes Wide Shut opened to mixed reviews and box-office back in late 1999, Tom Cruise's immediate response was to restart the Mission: Impossible franchise and thus resume his career as the American cinema's last truly indomitable hero: always winning. Kidman, by contrast, was inspired to stick out that swan-like neck even further. Over the next two decades, she would work with, among others, Baz Luhrmann (on Moulin Rouge! and Australia), Lars von Trier (Dogville), Jonathan Glazer (Birth), Park Chan-wook (Stoker) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer); in retrospect it was this actress's most overtly commercial choices (the Stepford Wives redo, Bewitched, The Golden Compass) which generated the least persuasive cinema. The risk Kidman takes with Karyn Kusama's murky police procedural Destroyer is not dissimilar to that Charlize Theron took with 2003's Monster: to put herself in the hands of a female director who determinedly strips away the layers of glamour that have attached themselves to a performer over successive perfume campaigns, uglifying her lead to the point where she becomes not just unrecognisable but very hard to look at. Where Cruise is always, on some level, recognisably Cruise, Kidman becomes somebody else entirely for this one; the question is whether there's an audience that really wants or needs to see it.

The star's transformation into Detective Erin Bell, an undercover cop who's burnt through multiple identities and seen a lot of bad things and people along the way (and now sleeps in her car for her troubles) is Destroyer's main event: as indicated by Kusama's insistently dingy interiors and the non-entities making up the supporting cast, there is literally nothing else to see here. We are alerted to this feat of hair and make-up in none-too-subtle terms - Erin is told "you look terrible" and "you look old"; we await the "you look like shit" that might complete the trifecta - then dispatched after our heroine as she meets with various ne'er-do-wells, seeking to resolve some unfinished business with the gang of bank robbers she infiltrated years before. Regular flashbacks to these less-than-halcyon days remind us of the fresher-faced, auburn-tressed Kidman we know and David Thomson loves, and point up the extent to which both character and actress have been worked over, but never are we sucked into Erin's all-consuming obsession: it's presented from the off as a given - written into the unprimped wanness of the Kidman visage - and then ploddingly explained to us. It's a script problem more than anything else. We need to know exactly how Erin parted company with the gang to fully comprehend or empathise with her present-day predicament, and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Ride Along, R.I.P.D., Ride Along 2) only deign to give us that in the closing flashbacks, by which point we're all too numbed and fed up to go back and watch Destroyer all over again. 

After 45 minutes of footdragging, you twig what this project must have become for the creatives attached: an attempt to regain some of the territory recently claimed by True Detective on TV. I found that show's gruesomely self-serious knuckle-cracking unwatchable beyond two joyless episodes; Destroyer is almost exactly two hours, so its self-seriousness is at least self-contained, but in truth it's no more thrilling or engaging. Kusama made a knockout debut (with 2000's Girlfight), then was unlucky in her follow-ups (2005's underappreciated Aeon Flux, 2009's missold Jennifer's Body) before clawing her way back into the conversation via Netflix (who backed 2015's nifty The Invitation, a far smarter Hay-Manfredi script); perhaps she saw Destroyer as a chance to enter the kind of macho movie space traditionally allotted to men. A midfilm robbery allows the pulse rate to spike a little, but elsewhere any dramatic force is muffled by endless scenes in which Erin pistolwhips anybody who stands between her and her goal, and we arrive at a finale that strives none too convincingly to make a transcendentally big event out of a relatively inconsequential passing in the vast cosmic scale of things. Here, as elsewhere, Kidman does with her wig what she did with her phoney hooter as The Hours' Virginia Woolf: she commits fully to the wearing of it, and that may be enough for some. It remains a cruel irony of the movie business, however, that where the safe bets Cruise has been placing have almost always paid off - which is both the pleasure and the limitation of the various Missions: Impossible - Kidman's recent risks (Sacred Deer, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, now this) have barely merited the gamble. Better luck next time?

Destroyer opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday 18 January 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 11-13, 2019:

1 (new) Stan & Ollie (PG) ***

2 (2) The Favourite (15) ***
3 (1) Mary Poppins Returns (PG) ***
4 (3) Aquaman (12A)
5 (5) BumbleBee (PG) ***
6 (8) Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)
7 (new) Colette (15) ***
8 (new) The Upside (12A)
9 (6) Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)
10 (7) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***


My top five: 
1. An Impossible Love
5. RBG

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

1 (new) The Predator (15)

2 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (2) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
4 (5) Mission Impossible: Fallout (12) ***
5 (7) The Equalizer 2 (15)
6 (4) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12)
7 (3) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12) ***
8 (new) Unbreakable (12) [above] ****
9 (new) Siberia (15) *
10 (6The Meg (12) ***


My top five: 
1. American Animals

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Young Adult (Wednesday, C4, 1.50am)
2. Laura (Sunday, BBC2, 6.20am)
3. Tangled (Sunday, C4, 4.30pm)
4. Defiance (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
5. Dr. No (Sunday, ITV, 2.15pm)

The high-low country: "Beautiful Boy"

After a run of films going out of their way to seek out more diverse perspectives, Beautiful Boy presents as Hollywood reverting to its fallback dynamic of dads and lads. So committed is it to this axis - which, lest we forget, 50% of the world's population has existed on at some time - that it takes as its basis two memoirs drawing on the same set of events, one penned by a dad (journo David Sheff's Beautiful Boy), one by the son he witnessed succumbing to the ravages of crystal meth (Nic Sheff's Tweak). This gives Belgian-import director Felix van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) and writer Luke Davies (Lion) a choice of lived-through, much-considered perspectives to cut between. One is familiar from countless afterschool specials: that of the dad (here, Steve Carell as Sheff Sr.) looking on helplessly as his progeny slips into the long dark night of narcotics abuse. The other is somehow less familiar, but no less valid or revealing: that of the punk kid (Timothée Chalamet as Nic) actively trying to get out from under his father's thumb, to escape his imprint. 

This is, for starters, the first film to have fully worked out what to do with Carell on his less effective setting of "normie". The actor's a little buffer than usual here, and we soon sense something a touch oppressive in his straight edge - how David's doughty devotion to his son might well have seemed suffocating. (It's the tragic flipside of Michael Scott's overzealous romantic pursuits.) When he starts haranguing Nic in a rehab suite ("This is not us! This is not who we are!") we know that "who we are" is exactly that from which Nic sought to flee - yet van Groeningen's even-handed approach is such that the camera holds for a beat to spot the loving father inwardly mourning his sudden loss of control. The film cuts both ways, and in doing so, it goes deeper than most. After the initial introductions, we get the backstory - the slow and sad decline of a bookish, sensitive kid who began popping pills and shooting up in search of an excitement utterly lacking from the Sheffs' insistently stable household. 

Pause Beautiful Boy at any point, and it would undoubtedly assume the look of staid middlebrow drama: it's in the grain of the Sheffs' tastefully wood-panelled San Francisco retreat, and van Groeningen shows his hand to an extent in casting Timothy Hutton - the troubled young lead of 1980's Ordinary People, cinematic father to Beautiful Boy's son - as the medic schooling Carell's curious David in the highs and lows of addiction. Yet the direction is also open to experimentation. Van Groeningen ports across the idiosyncratic, non-linear editing strategies of his earlier film, while cranking a stirringly diverse soundtrack up to 11: yes, we get an agonising snippet of Lennon's title song, but also ominous Gaspar Noe-like parps as dad discovers the drug diary son has helpfully left lying around, and electronic palpitations as David arrives at the hospital Nic has been raced to, only to learn the patient has just as quickly checked himself out. Davies, too, takes risks, throwing in the kinds of scenes we may not be expecting from this type of film (and thereby suggesting a wider-reaching honesty): it's David himself trying drugs in a bid to trip a mile in his son's shoes, an aside that allows Carell, for a brief, precious moment, to be manically funny again. 

Honing in so extensively on this axis means a lot has had to be pushed to the sidelines. It seems a perverse crime to recruit Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan, two of the most criminally underused actresses in recent American film, and then, well, underuse them, setting Tierney (as David's second wife Karen) to painting and supplementary childcare duties, limiting Ryan (as David's first wife and Nic's mother) to long-distance telephone calls. It's a two-hour movie, so there should be room for everyone, yet you sense Davies getting nervous about the responsibility he can place on these (presumably still very much extant) women's shoulders. If the film simplifies at all, it may be in line with its sources: that it reduces this story - as maybe David did in his mind - to a one-man mission in the war on drugs. (No boy left behind.) In other respects, the film is surprisingly strong. At all times, we're made aware of the part the Sheffs' privilege played in what was ultimately a success story, with a happy ending: there would be a very different movie to be made on this subject about the relationship between a black father and son just down the road in inner-city L.A., or indeed from the relationship between the black mother and daughter we hear about in the closing stretch (a piquant cameo here from Lisa Gay Hamilton). One of the tougher-to-swallow morals of the Sheffs' story is that money - even journalism money, whatever that is - bought these boys a second chance that many others simply don't get. 

What's crucial is that Davies (whose own drug memoir Candy was filmed in Australia, with the late Heath Ledger, in 2006) and van Groeningen have understood exactly what this specific story was about: a father learning to be there for his son rather than seeking to save him, and a son growing to realise the implications of this for himself and the father-son relationship. Beautiful Boy makes a particular point of those moments where David and Nic part company - at airports, clinics, college dorms, on the waves while out surfing - partly as it gestures towards an explanation for Nic's addiction (the kid never had to wave bye-bye to meth, until he realised how toxic it was), but mostly because it sets and punches up those moments when they're returned to one another's arms. What we notice at these reunions is the extent to which the cherubic Chalamet has fallen into dishevelment, the most reliable gauge as to where we are on van Groeningen's sometimes tricky and complicated timeline. The real fix, when it comes, will be a measure of tough love, which isn't often dramatised in American movies, and rarely dramatised this well. Yet even the fort/da game that precedes it reveals a truth, one that clearly sustained this relationship through its toughest challenges, and sustains van Groeningen's film through its softer, more conventional stretches: for better and worse, these guys were inseparable.

Beautiful Boy opens in selected cinemas from today.

Helpmates: "Stan & Ollie"

For devotees of Laurel and Hardy - those of us who turn to this pair for everything from the most stellar example of critic Manny Farber's "termite art" to the innocent/enduring joys of watching a fat man being kicked up the arse - the very existence of Stan & Ollie will be cause for apprehension. I felt more pop-cultural terror walking into the cinema for this one than I did heading into Mary Poppins Returns or any recent iteration of the Star Wars universe: these guys weren't just casually consumed but beloved in this household, from almost the first time your correspondent caught one or another of their shorts on school-holiday TV as a child. Any failure to grasp their essence - any flailing attempt to update their schtick for a contemporary audience, à la 2012's The Three Stooges - would therefore go beyond disappointment into the realms of outright desecration; I might even have been prompted to leave an ANGRY ALL-CAPS SCREED on somebody's message board. 

Well, take out your hankies and mop your brows. Within its opening twenty minutes, Jon S. Baird's film has staged a note-perfect homage to the duo's dance sequence in 1937's Way Out West, and a scarcely less well choreographed reprise of the "hard-boiled eggs and nuts" routine from 1932's County Hospital (with a new grace note: the half-smile this Stan flashes as he pulls out the salt shaker and gets the laugh he was expecting). Throughout, Jeff Pope's script provides its Laurel and Hardy (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly) with bits that sound like continuations of their on-camera work, but assume a novelty for taking place in the real world; our leads greet spouses (respectively, Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) who are not incomparable to the pair's wives in the shorts and features, and equally alert to any tomfoolery. You begin to relax into, even enjoy, the rediscovery of old, familiar dynamics and rhythms, assured this is a film that has been compiled by careful scholars and craftsmen.

Scholars enough, for one, to have grasped the poignancy of the moment this Stan and Ollie have wound up in: not their 1930s heyday (captured in a single-shot prologue where the pair's bonding gets interrupted by Danny Huston's ferociously patrician Hal Roach), but the 1953 tour of the British Isles that saw them revisiting their routines night after night in front of modest-to-scant crowds in the vain hope of financing the Robin Hood pastiche Stan was typing up after hours. (Pope's longtime associate Danny Baker has the recurring phone-in topic "Celebs in reduced circumstances": the theatre tour is a fine illustration of that concept.) Up and down the land this duo travel, preferring at all stops to sock one another over the head with a prop mallet than address the bone of contention that has lodged in their throats - namely the film Ollie made without Stan in the wake of their contract dispute with Roach, a development the film treats as if it were a sidestep into porno, or a marital infidelity. If that sounds absurd, remember how much screen time this pair spent in bed together.

The presence of Coogan reminds us not so much of Partridge this time, but of The Trip, that masterclass in male avoidance and circumlocution centred on best friends who'd rather make one another laugh than talk about what's really bugging them. Baird's film performs its own form of soft-shoe shuffle around the antagonism at its centre. As he revealed in a recent episode of Radio 4's The Film Programme, Pope originally wrote a much tougher, darker screenplay, which was then reworked substantially along the film's journey to the top of the UK box office. The film we've ended up with a very much a PG-rated tribute to/celebration of the Laurel-Hardy genius and friendship. It has, however, left in enough to hold and divert us while we wait for its dramatic scheme to become apparent - most obviously some meticulous recreations of the routines the pair trotted out on this tour. In this, Baird is aided greatly by his leads' physical transformations. The mould was broken when the original Stan and Ollie took shape, but Coogan and Reilly get as close to them as physiognomy and latex will allow, and they work smashingly well as a team. 

Reilly, naturally, has the broad comedy down pat: what was a film like 2008's Step Brothers, if not a rowdier extension of the L&H ethos? (Even the title would fit a two-reeler from 1932.) His skill here is to suggest the vulnerable soul hidden beneath the bulk, the Southern gentillesse that manifested in that peculiar, supplicatory gesture Ollie used to do with his fingertips. Offstage, this Ollie generally wouldn't hurt a fly, which is why it's so regrettable when he and Stan come to turn on one another. Coogan catches something of Laurel's infinite variety of facial expressions, and that adenoidal delivery; he also allows himself to look his age, not for ridicule (as he's come to do as Partridge) but for far more moving effects. Yet he also has the intelligence to link Stan's on- and offstage personae - to spot how a man celebrated for being a put-upon patsy became a put-upon patsy, and found himself reacting to that. (Eroding the boundaries between selves may well have come easy to a performer who, in the course of a recent BBC interview, had to endure his co-star remarking jovially upon just how often Coogan reminded him of a certain Norwich-based broadcaster.)

Baird has surrounded them with choice production design and secondary casting: Rufus Jones is expertly glib as impresario Bernard "Bernie" Delfont, weaponising a chivvying smile, and the film earns major points for realising that Henderson's cartoonish voice is perfectly tuned for a film echoing the comic excesses of the studio era. (Preston Sturges would have loved her.) Yet the heart of the film is two old troupers attempting to work through a tricky patch, a lovers' tiff, in a manner very much of a piece with the Britain of the 1950s: quietly, indirectly, professionally. That leaves Stan & Ollie as a crowdpleaser in a somewhat minor key, but there are gestures to a wider transitional moment, with the music hall tradition in which the subjects' act was steeped about to be left for dead by rock 'n' roll. (As Ollie ventures, just before the final curtain drops: "It was fun while it lasted, wasn't it?") With assistance from Steve and John, Jeff and Jon afford Stan and Ollie a further bow, another encore, one last moment in the spotlight - and the audience applauds, smiles and perhaps even sheds tears of joy all over again. It always was a simple, uncomplicated pleasure.

Stan & Ollie is now playing in cinemas nationwide.