Thursday 28 February 2019

From the archive: "Ring"

The Japanese equivalent of the Scream cycle begins with Ring, in which a videotape disseminating curious messages circles among schoolkids and leads to a series of mysterious deaths. Though it starts in familiar horror fashion, with teens being bumped off left, right and centre, its heroes turn out to be a single-mum journalist and her ex-husband, a troubled academic. Major plot details are hidden in that tape, which undergoes the same obsessive scrutiny as the recordings in The Conversation or the photographs in Blow-Up; these fraught-to-fevered sessions of media analysis actually form the most compelling scenes, and the film loses a lot when the couple go out on the road to track down those who may or may not be responsible for the vicious VHS. Shot mostly in deathly silence, with ambient noise taking the place of incidental music, it's at best creepy rather than especially scary, with a couple of subtle shocks in the distorted photographs of the tape's victims and the audio message concealed amid the tape's white noise. The film's own message, which must be profoundly reassuring to all Japanese parents, appears to be: don't stay up late watching TV when you've got school in the morning.

(February 2001)

Ring returns to selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Slum shady: "Gully Boy"

Gully Boy feels in part like a response to those critics who dismissed its director Zoya Akhtar's previous film, the cruise ship melodrama Dil Dhadakne Do, as no more than a big block of soap, unmoored on the ocean waves. Taking the bustling Mumbai slum of Dharavi as its backdrop, Akhtar's follow-up is very much grounded, gritty by Bollywood standards, a film indisputably of the streets. (Its title derives from the Hindi word for backstreet.) What Dil Dhadakne Do's fiercest critics overlooked was that its boiler room - motoring away beneath the film's frothy-glossy surface - was a younger generation's struggles to express themselves in the sternly traditionalist face of their elders, a theme that could only chime with emergent Indian filmmakers' desires to rework and reinvent the established commercial formulas, and which is further developed in Gully Boy's inspired-by-true-events tale of an up-and-coming rapper. Murad, busting rhymes under the street name of Gully Boy, is played by Ranveer Singh, whose thousand-megawatt charisma (much on display throughout last year's Padmaavat) makes him easy casting as a rockstar of some kind. Yet it's a telltale sign of the new film's toned-down naturalism that the first time we see him creeping out of the Mumbai shadows - degroomed and unprimped, as raw and real as the film's arc requires him to be - he's barely recognisable as the figure beaming out at us from covershoots and celebrity wedding photos. This Ranveer is a diamond in the rough; unformed talent that Akhtar will spend a full two-and-a-half hours polishing.

To Western viewers, that arc will most immediately recall 2002's Eminem vehicle 8 Mile, but Murad also exists in a more localised continuum: he's a bestubbled update of all those poor yet keen-eyed poets that have graced Indian cinema (and Indian culture) through the years, an optimistic riposte to the tragic martyr Guru Dutt created in 1957's Pyaasa, both observing and reporting on the poverty of his circumstances - and, in this incarnation, getting his contemporaries to listen and cheer. (An actual poet - the most honourable Javed Akhtar - provides some of Murad's verses.) Rather than a trailer park, Murad barrels straight outta a cramped hovel he shares with his relatives, a location apparently so representative of the city's underbelly that it features on a tourist itinerary that sees condescending, camera-carrying Westerners invade his personal space every couple of hours. When he takes on menial labour, in this case a very zeitgeisty stint as an Uber driver, his passengers' endeavours only flag up his own lack of mobility. Yet throughout, he guards his thoughts and words in a notebook alongside a picture of Slim Shady: these will in time be converted into YouTube hits and block-rocking floorfillers. A star will be born, in time-honoured tradition, but Murad has to take what for Indian cinema will be an unusual route to the top. 

For starters, rap gives the musical sequences new, angular contours: the rhymes come at us with fists and elbows, often in onstage battles with markedly different reference points than those in 8 Mile. One competitor namedrops the Mahabharat, and there are notably fewer yo-momma disses than expressions of genuine affection for the women who brought the rappers up. In what we might call the Brittany Murphy part, we find Alia Bhatt as the "good Muslim girl" Safeena, the actress's doll-like features only accentuated by the character's hijab. This is a secondary role on paper - you sense only Akhtar could have talked a topliner like Bhatt into playing it - yet it's a surprising one, and perhaps only Bhatt could have played it this well. She claims that hijab as cover in multiple senses, and promptly instils Safeena - a student dodging her folks' pleas for her to pair off with a suitor of their choosing - with a very modern spark, going for the throat of one love rival, and taking a bottle to the head of another. Even in repose, she's prone to weaponising that hitherto sweet smile for the purposes of withering sarcasm. She is, in short, a perfect match for the scrappy Gully Boy: a fixed (albeit sharp-edged) point our boy might hold to in times of uncertainty, possessed of that kind of constancy that keeps a guy on track. (Either that, or it's the threat of physical violence.) Oddly, Safeena is allowed to display more energy than our slightly crumpled protagonist, who only really comes alive with a microphone in his hand.

Singh chewed up the scenery (and there was a lot of it) as Padmaavat's pantomime villain, yet his was a smart, knowing pantomime - I wasn't the only onlooker reminded of the blockbuster heyday of Alan Rickman. This actor proved he could do thoughtful work even amid the copious excesses of 2015's Bajirao Mastani, where his brawny warrior-king appeared sincerely conflicted, as anyone might be with Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra competing for their affections. I wonder whether, at 33, he isn't already a little too old for the role of ingenue, visibly more man than boy (which no-one could have said of Eminem back in 2002), but his brooding here has been carefully calibrated: Murad opens up and shuts down in a recognisable pattern of straight working-class male behaviour. Offstage, he barely speaks, and Akhtar makes a point of noting as much; here's someone who's biding time, waiting for the right beat, the right moment to set him off - much as we in the audience wait for this smacked-down, sadsack Ranveer to transform, Hulk-like, into the screenfilling megastar we know he can be. It's a very droll joke on Akhtar's part that the first time we witness Murad rapping in anger, he's shut himself in his car after being turned away from a chi-chi nightclub, heard by an audience of one. (And then none: Akhtar cuts to an exterior of the car and its silently raving driver. To an outside eye, the creative process often resembles lunacy.) Yet once his words are unstopped, he becomes unstoppable; the moral of the story, handed to Murad's producer-associate MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi, rocksolid in his feature debut), may simply be "let it flow".

There remains something of the traditionalist in Akhtar - she's following a rags-to-riches trajectory you'll be able to second guess at most junctures - but she's flexible with it, craning her neck around the obligatory plot points to spot those generational schisms and class divides that give a drama detail and heft and its characters convincing inner and outer lives. We always know why Gully Boy is spitting bullets: when, at one point, our troubled troubadour arrives at the line "Even with this closeness, there's a chasm between us", we're reminded of the wall of disapproving faces awaiting him at home - those of the elders who've resigned themselves to the way the world is and their own place within it, and who would perhaps prefer their kids to wind up stuck in the same dead-end ways. Watching Gully Boy, I was alerted for the first time to the generic similarities between these types of dramas and the prison-break movie. Plans are put down on paper; a crew is assembled; and then, once the right equipment is prepared, they bust a move. (There is something cellblock-like about Akhtar's gullies, with their grilled windows and flourishing drug trade, their seemingly plentiful opportunities for recidivism.) Our hero will need his fair share of luck to get out alive, but Gully Boy also presents as an ode to friendship, those harmonies we make for ourselves - often in defiance of our elders - and how they too can help us out of the deep, dark holes in our lives. As Murad and his crew take their late-night drives around the city's fringes - listening to formative tunes, stoking one another's dreams, rearranging their immediate environment along more favourable lines - Gully Boy takes on an aspect that might legitimately be described as lyrical.

Gully Boy is now playing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Frozen stiff: "Cold Pursuit"

2014's In Order of Disappearance was a here-today-gone-tomorrow black comedy from the Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland that felt like a belated Scandie effort to repatriate the Coen brothers' essentially Scandinavian Fargo: it was the one with Stellan Skarsgård as the upstanding snowplough driver driven to go on a kill-crazy vengeance rampage - plough heavily featured - after drug smugglers do for his offspring. That film has now been remade as Cold Pursuit in the US (the snowy outskirts of Denver, to be precise), where it has fallen subject to a deadening conflict of interests. The new film's moneymen clearly saw in the material the potential for another thick-eared Liam Neeson beat-'em-up, and have cast accordingly, yet it leaves Moland, who's travelled with the tale in his carry-on luggage, clinging in vain to those odd and offbeam gags that were the basis of the first movie. The whole project has been pointed in a new direction, somewhere between ultra-droll and just plain mirthless, and wound up stranded. The original wasn't anything much, but it knew what it was, and was a modest enough proposition for even its more bathetic jokes to land. The remake is inevitably bigger (full of down-at-heel perps living in swish Philippe Starck-like houses) but somehow emptier still, if not a total write-off then far too tonally clumsy and narratively misbegotten to be anything like a good time.

Above all else, it's just plain cold: an exercise in snickering heartlessness undertaken by individuals with no more than money on their mind. There are palpable traces of grief apparent in the acting as Neeson's Nels Coxman and wife Grace (Laura Dern) learn their boy was pumped full of heroin and left at the roadside, but once we enter the mortuary, Moland feels compelled to repeat a piffling joke (it takes forever for the corpse to be lifted up for identification via a pneumatic footpump) which wasn't especially hilarious first time around, and gets only crueller through repetition. Thereafter, the film is Neeson going from ne'er-do-well to ne'er-do-well up the drug dealers' supply chain, doing what Neeson now does in these types of movies - the basicness of it all compounded by Moland's decision to cast a dozen of the most blandly nondescript Caucasians to play our hero's sneering targets. (These guys are barely there long before the ploughman wipes them out.) One cheers up in the more characterful and lived-in presence of William Forsythe as Neeson's brother, but he's here to turn over as much exposition as he can before himself being offed, and Dern is scandalously wasted (three, four minutes of screen time, tops?) on the assumption nobody needs to hear from the wife in this kind of man's-gotta-do movie. 

This is not a film that cares much for women or minorities: we get something of a twofer in Forsythe's dragon-lady Asian bride, Arnold Pinnock's gunman The Eskimo is a devolution of Bokeem Woodbine's Mike Milligan from Fargo S2 (and further proof that American TV now routinely has the jump on American movies), while the native American tribe who wander on at the halfway mark are, right to the last, barely more than shambling punchline fodder. In retrospect, part of the shock with Neeson's recent promotional overshare can be attributed to the fact the actor was ready to let slip a revelation like that - and in doing so jeopardise future bookings - while hyping a project as fundamentally flimsy as this. (A less generous reading: that it was a calculated dogwhistle designed to catch the ear of exactly those troglodytes who might have enjoyed Cold Pursuit, if Moland had put in anything for anybody to enjoy here.) In fact, the film treats the theme of revenge with no greater seriousness than it does the themes of race-relations or human mortality, and as it would a passing fart; it goes horribly slack in the middle as the screen clutters up with disposable goons for Neeson to plough through, then limps in a minute short of two wasted hours. Interest will have long since drained out, although there's some quite nice, picturesque second-unit footage of actual ploughmen clearing heaped roads, the only time anyone involved with Cold Pursuit appears wholly certain of the job they've been sent out here to do.

Cold Pursuit is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 22 February 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 15-17, 2019:

1 (1) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***

2 (new) Instant Family (12A) ***
3 (3) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
4 (2) Alita: Battle Angel (12A)
5 (4) Green Book (12A) **
6 (new) Happy Death Day 2U (15) **
7 (new) The Kid Who Would Be King (PG) ***
8 (12) If Beale Street Could Talk (15) ***
9 (5Glass (15)
10 (13) The Favourite (15) ***


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

1 (new) A Star is Born (15) ***

2 (new) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
3 (1) Venom (15)
4 (new) Halloween (18)
5 (2) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
6 (3) The House with a Clock in its Walls (12)
7 (new) Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (PG) **
8 (6) The Greatest Showman (PG)
9 (5) The Predator (15)
10 (11) Night School (15)


Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 1.45pm)
2. Leave to Remain (Sunday, BBC2, 12.25am)
3. La La Land (Saturday, BBC2, 9pm and 
4. Black Narcissus (Sunday, BBC2, 1.35pm)
5. Red Lights (Wednesday, C4, 1.25am)

On DVD: "The Guilty"

A few years back, we saw The Call, a souped-up yet not unenjoyable high-concept thriller in which emergency dispatch operative Halle Berry found herself getting unusually invested in the fate of a kidnapped girl. The Guilty is the Scandie variant: lower lighting, a shade more ambiguity in the characterisation, and occasional pauses for melancholy or regretful thought. The phone jockey here is Asger (Jakob Cedergren), an erstwhile patrolman demoted to Copenhagen's dispatch division after an on-the-job transgression for which he's being raked over the coals by his superiors and in the press. Unlike the thoroughly nice Halle, Asger registers as a bit judgey while taking his first calls during this fateful nightshift, distracted by the prospect of the following day's disciplinary hearing, and only belatedly does he seem to engage with one of the sorry souls asking him for help. This is Iben (voice: Jessica Dinnage), a distraught young mother who calls in to report she's being held against her will in a speeding van; it quickly becomes apparent this is a pedal-to-the-metal domestic, and one unlikely to be calmed or even halted by Asger's frantic efforts, against his colleagues' counsel, to run point by himself from a darkened side-office. Crucially, we never leave his side; each new wrinkle and snafu comes at us down the line.

It is, then, as close as any film in a while has come to being a radio play: a procedural done as a phone-in, one that asks us to listen to a series of voices as our hero calls around in a bid to head the errant vehicle off and bring everybody in without any loss of life. That it hooks us is purely and simply a matter of smart technique: the co-writer/director, Gustav Möller, has thought long and hard about how to tell this story in a way that remains involving and dynamic. He shoots in tight close-ups, varying the angle of approach so as to keep the eye interested, but also in such a way as to seem to box the protagonist in. The camera does to Asger, in other words, what the furious van driver has done to the film's damsel-in-distress, and it's a tribute to Cedergren that his watertight, carefully calibrated performance - no false notes, carrying us somewhere as he hustles from fraught conversation to even fraughter conversation - bears up to such relentless scrutiny. (There's even a kind of journey in where the calls are placed: Asger begins the film as part of a team, then heads into a dark, lonely place before being yanked back into the light. All in a night's work.)

Crucially, it does all this without anything much in the way of excess or flab. A brisk sit at 85 minutes, it plays out with not a trace of the score by which The Call cranked onscreen events up to 11, wanting us to catch every last, nerve-fraying detail of its hero's telecommunications, the sounds of a regular working day going off the rails, and of people (on both ends of the line) approaching the end of their tether at a perilously high velocity. The silence when offscreen characters hang up and don't immediately call back is walloping. (It's surely significant that Iben and hubby are speeding towards Elsinore, to be or not to be.) Some (I think deliberate) patches of dead air mean this isn't quite the thrill ride the Hollywood version was, but it has at least one ace up its sleeve in the most tremendously underhand plot reversal in recent cinema, a development that laughs in the face of natural viewer sympathies and calls us all for the sorry suckers we are. (Listen very closely, and you might be able to hear Möller's compatriot Lars von Trier cackling to himself.) It'd be worth putting yourself through this wringer of a film for that alone; the rest affords us just enough time and visual space for the mind to paint some pretty damn vivid pictures.

The Guilty is available on DVD from Monday through Signature Entertainment.

From the archive: "In Order of Disappearance"

Though Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance sails in on the back of the Scandinavian crime wave, it’s a little more blackly comic than the earnest police procedurals that have previously passed our way. For starters, we’re out in the deep snow of Norway, which – as fans of Fargo will be aware – always makes matters slightly surreal and slippery to read. And though its vengeful hero will be compared to Dirty Harry, the 1970s touchstone Moland’s film most resembles is Death Wish – albeit the kind of Death Wish only a truly liberal nation might arrive at: firmly tongue-in-cheek, altogether joshing in its attitude to race, and with an immigrant, no less, at the centre of the action.

Stellan Skarsgard, whose many years of working with Lars von Trier has left him constitutionally unable to resist a provocation, plays Nils Dickman, a Swedish snow plough driver feted in the remote town he now calls home for his tireless work in keeping the roads open. Shortly after receiving the Citizen of the Year award, Nils learns his son has been killed by a gang trafficking cocaine along those very same roads – and so sets out after those responsible, cleaning up the neighbourhood in a rather more extreme manner: several corpses will be deposited over a handy local waterfall.

Each victim’s demise will be marked by an onscreen headstone – hence the English-language title – yet at no point are we meant to take Nils’ quest seriously: as if the hero’s surname wasn’t a big enough clue, you might guess as much from the early mortuary scene in which a trolley holding the body of Nils’ son has to be raised by a pneumatic footpump – a process that goes on a beat or two too long to be in any way respectful.

Another corpse will be repatriated to Serbia in the back of a nondescript truck – going out the same way he perhaps came in – while the druglord turns out to be a cupcake-scoffing prat with a childish streak and an alarming facial resemblance to a young Jeremy Clarkson; his tackily appointed pied-a-terre looks very much like a send-up of the understated good taste displayed by most recent Scandinavian crime productions.

As with some of von Trier’s provocations, In Order of Disappearance can seem overstretched and thin. Most of its antagonists are fall guys invited on to say and do the most appalling things before being dispatched. (If Moland took their race-baiting seriously, the joke probably wouldn’t be funny.) Needless over-complication ensues with the arrival of Bruno Ganz’s rival firm of traffickers, and its subtler points about Norway’s relationship with its neighbours are buried amid the carnage, if not entirely lost in transit.

For all its larky, postmodern dressing-up, Moland’s film is really about no more than an angry middle-aged man in a gigantic snow plough going hell-for-leather after those who have irked him – and as the Simpsons episode “Mr. Plow” realised, that’s a premise that needs no frippery or sophistry to be perversely compelling.

(MovieMail, September 2014)

In Order of Disappearance is available on DVD through Metrodome, and to stream via Amazon Prime; an American remake, Cold Pursuit, opens in cinemas today, and will be reviewed here over the weekend.

In memoriam: Bruno Ganz (Telegraph 19/02/19)

Bruno Ganz, who has died aged 77, was an acclaimed, versatile actor who quietly won cinephile hearts over his near-sixty year career. He will be best recalled from two contrasting roles undertaken after he had reached lived-in middle age: displaying a touching stillness as Damiel, the melancholy angel descending from Berlin’s rooftops to live among mortals in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), then a manic fervour as the terminally entrenched Hitler of Downfall (2004). Ganz’s watchmaker-like eye for character detail was much in evidence there, yet it was this Hitler’s rants – extracted and resubtitled by wags – which proliferated online, resulting in a peculiar quirk of the early Internet age: a sexagenarian who’d spent decades honing his craft found himself reinvented overnight as a YouTube sensation.

These roles placed Ganz among cinema’s most eloquent German speakers, yet elsewhere his career was defined by a certain Swissness. Roaming Europe from a base in his birthplace Zurich, he maintained an aura of thoughtful detachment that enabled him to convince as celestial observers, professors and sympathetic patsies alike. The plot of The American Friend (1977) – an earlier Wenders collaboration, drawn from Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game – was reliant on the balding, 5’6” actor being so nondescript he might get away with murder. Faced with choosing between the eternal and the earthly, Ganz – like Damiel – generally plumped for the latter: “I like to walk. I like to read. I like to watch people. I’m very curious.”

He was born on March 22, 1941 to an Italian mother and a Swiss mechanic father, and apparently baffled both with his decision to quit school to pursue acting. Spells as a bookseller and paramedic followed, but he soon found employment within the movie business, making his debut as a hotel page in comedy The Man in the Black Derby (1960). After compiling a decade’s worth of minor stage and screen credits, he relocated to Berlin, forming the left-wing theatre company Schaubühne with writer-director Peter Stein in 1970. An early success came with the group’s epic 1971 staging of Peer Gynt; Ganz would be named Actor of the Year by the magazine Theater Heute in 1973.

It was Stein who boosted Ganz’s screen profile, directing him in an adaptation of Gorky’s Summer People (1976) that became a local hit. His international breakthrough came later that year in Eric Rohmer’s painterly Kleist adaptation The Marquise of O, quickly followed by The American Friend, where the actor’s meticulous, low-key approach made a fascinating contrast with Dennis Hopper’s strutting Ripley. He became a pancontinental go-to, spotted as the cloning expert briefing Nazi hunter Laurence Olivier in The Boys from Brazil (1978), then as Harker in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu rethink (1979), seducing the young Isabelle Huppert in Lady of the Camelias (1981), and anchoring Alain Tanner’s Lisbon-set curio In the White City (1983).

He remained much in demand among German creatives, however, impressing as the Lebanon-bound journalist in Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit (1981), before receiving stellar reviews for his Hamlet in Schaubühne’s six-hour 1982 production. Similar notices ensued for the era-spanning TV series Fathers and Sons: A German Tragedy (1986) before he donned Wings of Desire’s shabby mac and feathers; his down-at-heel cherub became such a touchstone that fellow passengers told Ganz they felt safer with him aboard their flight. He would reprise the role twice: first via a cameo in Icelandic drama Children of Nature (1991), then in Wenders’ ill-fated, all-star Wings sequel Faraway, So Close! (1993).

Ganz missed out on the lead in Schindler’s List (1993), but won praise for his Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the BBC’s Saint-Ex (1996) and was moving even when dubbed into Greek as the writer protagonist of Theo Angelopoulos’s Palme d’Or-winning Eternity and a Day (1998). He juggled commercial ventures (late-life Italian romance Bread and Tulips, 2000) with passion projects, like the 14-hour Faust filmed for German TV in 2001 and documented in Behind Me: Bruno Ganz (2002). American filmmakers began to take notice. Before playing Hitler, Ganz showed up in arch-cinephile Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004); he followed Downfall with Francis Ford Coppola’s Romanian-shot folly Youth Without Youth (2007).

The work grew only more varied and surprising with age. Running the gamut of European history, he was a Holocaust survivor in The Reader (2008), then lent precision to making (cyanide-laced) tea as an ex-Stasi agent in Liam Neeson runaround Unknown (2011). He played a Dutch diamond dealer in Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor (2013), a Serbian heavy in Norway’s blackly comic In Order of Disappearance (2014), then Grandpapa in Heidi (2015), the most successful Swiss film of all time. He was riotous as a holistic cuckoo in Sally Potter’s Hampstead-set comedy The Party (2017), a Virgil variant in Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built (2018) and a cigar-puffing Freud in The Tobacconist (2018).

In 1996, he took delivery of the Iffland-Ring, a diamond-studded trinket passed to “the most significant and worthy actor in German-speaking theatre”, and which he held until his death. He received the European Film Academy’s Lifetime Achievement award and the German Order of Merit while serving as President of the German Film Academy between 2010 and 2015. In 2018, he withdrew from the Salzburg production of The Magic Flute upon a diagnosis of colon cancer; his final screen appearance will be in Terrence Malick’s WW2 drama Radegund. Reflecting upon Wings of Desire in 1994, he confessed it was an amazing experience: “In some way I became an angel, and who except me has experienced that in his lifetime?”

He is survived by a spouse, Sabine, from whom he was separated, and by their son Daniel; his long-term partner was the photographer Ruth Walz.

Bruno Ganz, born March 22, 1941, died February 16, 2019.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Prince charming: "The Kid Who Would Be King"

Here's a funny thing: Joe Cornish, the tall, skinny one who made skits with plush toys on The Adam & Joe Show, has spent a small number of 20th Century Fox's millions on making a Brexit movie for kids. (This follows 2011's action-comedy Attack the Block, where Cornish pitched an alien invasion into inner-city tensions that preempted that summer's London riots.) Arthurian legend would appear to have returned to the forefront of our creatives' imagination in recent times, perhaps with good reason: it offers a vision of a kingdom "divided, fearful, leaderless", as an early line in The Kid Who Would Be King has it. The twist Cornish puts on the legend is to make the chosen one who pulls the sword from the stone and then unites warring factions against the wicked Morgana a bullied kid: Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Lorraine and Andy's very likeable son), whose walk to school from his one-parent household on Malory Lane sees him bypassing rows of closed shops, headlines reporting infighting in Westminster, and huddling homeless people. Faced with the responsibility of banishing evil and restoring the country to working order, our boy feels obliged to point out "I'm twelve! I'm not even old enough to do a paper round."

Cornish, for his part, is of a generation just old enough to remember the days when the output of the Children's Film Foundation - matinee timekillers such as 1970's Egghead's Robot, starring the young Keith Chegwin - was still a mainstay of the British cinema circuit; some of that influence has clearly lingered. Initially, Kid can seem a touch constrained. It's a small enough production for real care and attention to have been lavished on its visual effects: trees that uproot themselves to fight Alex and his pals, skeletal warriors, a young Merlin (Angus Imrie, a potentially great screen eccentric in the making) who shapeshifts into first a moulting owl, then an equally dishevelled Patrick Stewart. Yet the live-action, analogue scenes have a distinctly televisual look, doggedly staking out the backstreets of Harrow. (You can see immediately why the film nosedived upon its US release last month: it's self-evidently the product of a country looking in the mirror, talking to itself, fighting its own battles.) Once it leaves the suburbs behind, however, setting out on a thinly disguised Megabus down Tintagel way for a second act training mission, the film expands beyond modestly diverting and starts charming our socks off.

I began beaming around the time of the Adam Buxton cameo, and the smile didn't leave me through the raid on a seaside amusement arcade ("Cameslots") to fund a shopping spree for armour, and grew wider still during the journey to the centre of the Earth - lair of this version's Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson, ever the signifier of budgetary limitation, but more interesting as a vengeful harpy than she's ever been as a love interest) - with its fun Marcus Rowland production design. Perhaps there's an element of overreach in the way it shoots past the logical CFF ending (which arrives bang on the 90-minute mark) and onto a full-on VFX fest come the actual final reel; Fox (and possibly Cornish himself?) may have conceived of this as a project bigger than its natural shape. If nothing here has the grabby, ready-made cult appeal Attack the Block possessed in spades, the storytelling carrying everyone from A to B is far more consistent and better developed than it was there: a decade of script-doctoring in the Hollywood saltmines has served Cornish well. There will be less satisfying movies around to take your youngsters to this half-term, or to discover alongside them after it's been shunted onto the streaming services - and who knows, maybe one of those youngsters will be the one to lead us out of the state we're in?

The Kid Who Would Be King is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Dead again: "Happy Death Day 2U"

Repetition was an inbuilt feature of 2017's Happy Death Day, the (mildly) gory Groundhog Day riff in which college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) tried to find a way out of the timeloop that saw her repeatedly knifed to death by a killer wearing a babyface mask. Repeat exposure, with this week's Happy Death Day 2U, reveals this as a franchise keen to be pretty much anything other than the slasher fare it first presented as. The original was part-Mean Girls comedy - the cattiness of its inspiration pushed a little further into stabbiness - and part-parable of self-improvement, with the rhythms and punchline of a well-told joke: it was an enjoyable ride, but unlikely to trouble the sleepover crowd beyond its 93 minutes. With this month's Netflix sensation Russian Doll muscling into similar territory, the sequel takes on inflections of science fiction, finding its way back into Tree's predicament via Ryan (Phi Vu), the seemingly dimbulb Asian bro who dubbed our heroine "fine vagine" last time round; here, he's revealed to be the mastermind behind some particle accelerator doohickey that was responsible for the blackouts, and perhaps the events, of the first movie. HDD2U picks up where that film ended, then cycles backwards, replaying scenes and stretches of dialogue from new angles; it occasions the kind of plot that may only make complete sense with a very large pinboard and lots and lots of string, but which gets tidied away on screen with the assistance of a cafeteria napkin.

The pleasures of this series reside in that ability to flex and pivot casually between realities, genres and reference points. Tree's curly-haired beau Carter (Israel Broussard) cites Back to the Future Part II as precedent at an early juncture, though HDD2U more closely resembles a Looney Tunes version of Inception (also namechecked), breezing blithely through those elements of theoretical plotting Christopher Nolan built into a grandiose vision, and simply shrugging and starting from scratch whenever one or other of its characters meets their maker. A second trip on this merry-go-round confirms Rothe as one of the more committed and capable heroines in recent teen horror: she makes very funny Tree's incandescent rage at having to revisit events she'd thought were behind her. (She's like a critic learning that a sequel has been made to their least favourite movie.) And while the character's relationship with a mother absent from the first movie has the air of a calculated demographic sop - part one presumably played well among daughters - it's played with a sincerity that makes it possibly the franchise's most surprising aspect to date.

There is, alas, a marked tail-off in energy and invention in the second half. Happy Death Day set out its logic, then stuck rigidly to it; it was mechanically efficient, a device to make the suggestible viewer jump in their seat and then giggle for having been such a silly sausage. HDD2U, by contrast, begins to shake and sputter around the hour mark: you catch it flapping around the margins of its own set-up, in a desperate attempt to keep an insanely complicated plot moving. A sequence of painfully unfunny slapstick recasting the sorority's queen bee-yotch Danielle (Rachel Matthews) as a Frenchwoman called Amélie Le Pew is followed by a limp wrap-up, and a sting for a third movie that suggests the valuable life lessons gained in the original are about to be thrown out in the name of franchise expansion. (The director, Paranormal Activity 5's Christopher Landon, has taken over scripting duties from the original's Scott Lobdell; it's by no means an improvement.) Perhaps the kids the series is aimed at will themselves shrug off this sudden dip in quality control, but just because a film's knowingly aiming for déjà vu, it doesn't mean you won't feel as if you've already paid for it, and what horror there is here still seems very mild, designed to cause a weekend spike in popcorn sales rather than anything in the way of lasting night terrors.

Happy Death Day 2U is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Tuesday 19 February 2019

On demand: "Happy Death Day"

Happy Death Day is another of Blumhouse's bright ideas: a gorier Groundhog Day, in which a young college student is knifed to death on her birthday and then wakes up to find herself replaying the same events with an eye to avoiding that grisly fate. (This set-up was arrived at a full year before the current Netflix hit Russian Doll.) As the narrative string theory unravels, clues get scattered across the screen, both as to why the heroine (Jessica Rothe) might be stuck in this timeloop (something to do with the rejection of her dormmate's birthday cupcake, or indeed any other show of affection?) and the identity of her killer; our girl gets first more freaked, then smarter with each iteration of the same events, learning to swerve the red herrings and dead ends in the realities presented to her. What the writer Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon have done is found a way around that old gripe that slasher movies basically consist of stupid people doing mindless things, by centring their action on a protagonist who has to draw on her experiences and raise her game in order to stay alive. (She even gets a shape-up montage set to Demi Lovato's "Confident".) 

In that slick Blumhouse fashion, it runs on casters, always sensing which realities are worth poking around in and which ones need whizzing through to cut to the punchline; it's nifty and fun, like a well-told joke. Is it scary? Not especially, being more beholden to Mean Girls than it is to The House on Sorority Row. Much as Scream (another inspiration) used its various blades to hack away at and better organise all that was unruly and disreputable about earlier slashers, Happy Death Day inserts a MBA-armed commercial savvy between itself and anything like primal fear. Instead, you find yourself smiling at the soundtrack's conspicuously tolling bells, and the fact the heroine, Teresa, is commonly known as Tree: she grows before our eyes, using her nine lives to become sex- and body-positive, and to work through her more toxic relationships. This push for affirmation feels novel for the genre, but it occasions some softening: it's very much a 15 certificate, and even the killer's disguise (a baby's face) isn't quite as terrifying looming out of the dark as Scream's Munch mask. Still, on some nuts-and-bolts level, it works - and it's as good a showcase for Rothe as Groundhog Day was for Bill Murray, obliging the actress to cycle through terror, incomprehension, acceptance and blithe indifference en route to self-knowledge and the one reality in which she isn't in some way wasted. It may be the closest anyone's got to making a Buddhist slasher flick, which explains its considerable charm and novelty value - but also goes some way to nailing its limitations.

Happy Death Day is available on DVD through Universal, and to purchase via Amazon Prime; a sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, is now in cinemas, and will be reviewed here tomorrow.

Monday 18 February 2019

Strange developments: "Capernaum"

Nadine Labaki is the Lebanese writer-director who enjoyed an arthouse hit with her beauty-salon romcom Caramel back in 2007. A decade or so on, Labaki has returned to our screens with a film that scooped a Jury Prize at Cannes last year and at the very least has an immediate and not inconsiderable hook. In its opening minutes, Capernaum shows us a scrappy street kid (Zain Al Rafeea), barely older than ten, being dragged in cuffs into a courtroom and demanding he be allowed to sue his parents for divorce. OK, you say: I'm in. It arrives as a pretty colossal disappointment, then, that this pronouncement should only cue a long flashback that explains why this kid should have been pushed into this extreme stance: the long days of child labour in heat and rain, the nights of sleeping three or four to a bed, the draining efforts to protect a sister, herself barely fourteen, from a local shopkeeper's predations. These scenes are not without value as a guided tour of an unfamiliar place, and generate a certain energy and colour: after several handheld-shot skirmishes with Bad Mum and Dad, the kid absconds to a fairground and falls in with an Ethiopian single mum who doubles as a toilet attendant, Labaki letting her camera run as our boy feels his way into this new domestic set-up. Yet the point (life is hard) is made early on, and the more it gets underlined, highlighted, put in capital letters and then set in neon, the more the underlying structure seems neat, tidy and naggingly simplistic. Labaki forsakes the chaos of the title for something far more diagrammatic, photogenic and saleable. In an extended sidebar within the central flashback, we're shown how the kid becomes an impromptu guardian to the woman's toddler, a development that has nothing to do with the divorce proceedings, yet must occupy half the running time, purely as it gives a writer-director access to a certain symmetry: the boy who wants nothing to do with his parents caring for a kid who desperately needs one.

The framework placed around these plot turns is something like the arthouse equivalent of a superhero origin story, taking two hours to circle back around to the present tense, and thereby explaining exactly how the protagonist was toughened up. Labaki actually seems to be aware of this similarity, setting young Zain down on a bus next to an aged oddbod in a knock-off Spider-Man costume who calls himself Cockroach Man; our boy is presumably meant as the Cockroach Kid, hard-shelled and indestructible. Yet with his doe eyes and moptop hair, Al Rafeea is way too model-agency to convince as a down-and-dirty mite who grew up in the gutter; he's the poster boy for child poverty. Labaki made some of the right choices on set, which explains why you stick with it: individual scenes have a whirlwind urgency and spontaneity, catching even passers-by up in the eye of the storm, and she delights in letting the kids run their mouths off at grown-ups and one another, which cuts through the sentimentality to some degree. (They really do say the funniest things.) But she's covering up the many ordinary - sometimes outright misguided - choices she made at the writing stage. You want to know what's going on between Zain and his birth parents back at the courtroom, source of Capernaum's most promising drama, and your hopes slowly fade as scene after scene in the flashback burps up no more than cutesy-poo neo-realism. By the time we get back before the judge, there's not enough time for anything other than dashed-through, phoney-seeming resolution, frantic gabbling meant to tie these events together in a heartwarming, tearjerking bow. Caramel was very enjoyable, and there remain elements to admire here, but it's been a long while since I saw a film that sets off this clearly down completely the wrong path.

Capernaum opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 17 February 2019

1,001 Films: "Children of a Lesser God" (1986)

Children of a Lesser God is a film with its own inbuilt subtitle track, and a real, quality throwback: practically the only elements tying Randa Haines' drama to the 1980s are some period-specific dancing to Pointer Sisters tunes, and the fact we learn the sign language for "Terminator". Idealistic teacher James Leeds (William Hurt) arrives at a new school to apply his new-fangled methods - such as, gosh, music and swearing - to hard-of-hearing pupils. While helping his students find their voice, his attentions are drawn towards Sarah (Marlee Matlin), one of the brightest students the school's ever had, now languishing in her day job as janitor; she's profoundly deaf, and in most other senses, hard to get. As these two protagonists start to communicate in the language of love, some part of the film can't help but register as profoundly corny. The school appears to be cut off from the rest of the world on some grandly melodramatic Isle of the Soundless, while casting Piper Laurie as Sarah's mother feels like an unfortunate Carrie nod: you might well wonder what Sarah endured on prom night. Yet the second half subjects James and Sarah's relationship to a surprisingly tough examination, and even before then, it's evident that this cleverly scripted and performed weepie delivers an entirely different (more complete?) experience for those viewers with some knowledge of sign language. The key info signed by Sarah has to be released to non-signing viewers in other ways, chiefly by having Hurt translate, but also through Matlin's expressions and body language; it's a rare American movie where eyes and hands are as eloquent, and as graceful, as lips and tongues. 

If anything, the first half is hamstrung by its need to prove deaf people equivalent, to show that the deaf can be as smart, stubborn, foul-mouthed, loving or annoying (Hurt's class, especially so) as anybody else. Still, it seems fair that Sarah should be defined less by her deafness than by her treatment as a girl: in this light, her late-night skinnydipping isn't an attempt to immerse herself in silence (why would she need to?), but to wash away the sins of others in her past. What really hurt her wasn't those who lined up to take advantage of a girl who couldn't say no, but the fact no-one bothered to learn her language. That's the thing about relationships the film skewers: they cut both ways. It's a measure of Children's success that it might, in theory, still work as a relationship drama if every line were spoken out loud by protagonists with pitch-perfect hearing. The real difference between James and Sarah isn't how they hear, but the way in which they communicate: he in a constant babble, looking away from the intended recipient of his wisdom, carelessly throwing words away; she altogether more considered, from a place deep within her. The suggestion is, for all their flaws and whatever their afflictions, these might just be Everyman and Everywoman. Despite the actor's very best efforts, the plot insists Hurt - as a representative of the hearing world - is repeatedly made to look a fool, as though to cancel out his handsomeness and obvious suitability for Sarah's heart; it doesn't help that at least fifty percent of his dialogue is somebody else's. The same, however, never applies to Matlin, allowed to be wilful and even haughty without losing our sympathies. She didn't win the Oscar for playing disability; she won the Oscar for giving one of the most complex and expressive performances of that year, if not the decade.

Children of a Lesser God is available on DVD through Paramount.

Friday 15 February 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 8-10, 2019:

1 (new) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***

2 (new) Alita: Battle Angel (12A)
3 (1) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
4 (2) Green Book (12A) **
5 (3Glass (15)
6 (5) Mary, Queen of Scots (12A) **
7 (4) Escape Room (15)
8 (6) Vice (15) ***
9 (7) Mary Poppins Returns (PG) ***
10 (new) All is True (12A)


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

1 (1) Venom (15)

2 (new) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
3 (2) The House with a Clock in its Walls (12)
4 (new) First Man (12) **
5 (3) The Predator (15)
6 (4The Greatest Showman (PG)
7 (8) King of Thieves (15)
8 (5Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (PG)
9 (new) Papillon (15)
10 (new) Bad Times at the El Royale (15) ****


Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Toy Story [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 5.10pm)
2. Williams: Formula 1 in the Blood (Saturday, BBC2, 9pm and Sunday, BBC2, 11.55pm)
3. Blades of Glory (Sunday, BBC1, 11.10pm)
4. Spy (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. The Simpsons Movie (Sunday, C4, 4.50pm)

"Instant Family" (Guardian 15/02/19)

Instant Family ***
Dir: Sean Anders. With: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz. 118 mins. Cert: 12A

Director Sean Anders has parlayed whatever goodwill he earned making those Daddy’s Home knockabouts with Mark Wahlberg into filming a light-comic illustrated lecture on the ups and downs of adoption. On paper, Instant Family sounds unapproachably mawkish: Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play Pete and Ellie, a Californian couple circling 40 whose tentative exploration of fostering brings three Latino waifs across their well-ordered threshold. In fact, the worst anyone could say about the finished feature is that it plays a tad square when set against the alternative parenting models US TV now routinely depicts. Very sweet, funny when it needs to be, and evidently drawn from personal experience, it’s not unlike an update of those slickly packaged Lowell Ganz/Babaloo Mandel comedies (Parenthood, City Slickers) that were once in Hollywood vogue.

Within a workable framing gag – that puppyish Pete and overthinker Ellie have no clue what they’re doing – Anders sets about bypassing everybody’s expectations and prejudices. White saviour complexes are shot down, with reference to Avatar, by dream-team care workers Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer; Wahlberg and Byrne, all easy if frazzled chemistry, admit they want nothing more than for their just-installed charges to reach moving-out age. That settling-in period falls between cacophonous and exhausting, as it may well be, yet Anders treats the kids as distinct organisms with issues that require attention, and his casting suggests its own support network. Force-of-nature Margo Martindale and an unimprovably spacey Julie Hagerty provide valuable assists and energy boosts as overnight grannies in a rare American comedy that unabashedly loves its mothers, whatever form they might take.

It doesn’t look like much more than four episodes of a network sitcom bolted together, a midfilm montage to George Harrison’s “What is Life” serving as the height of its cinematic ambition. And the crucial matter of resources has been slyly smoothed over: whatever the chaos wrought there, contractor Pete and the apparently jobless Ellie are blessed with the most aspirational breakfast nook of any onscreen couple since Hidden’s Binoche-Auteuil pairing. (It’s a stroke of supreme movie fortune that their home should be as big as their hearts.) Yet if it can’t entirely banish the spectre of 12A-rated blandness from its doorstep, Instant Family retains the obvious appeal of watching basically nice people attempt a fundamentally decent thing for a few hours. The shamelessly optimistic finale may even leave you with something in your eye, dammit. 

Instant Family is now playing in cinemas nationwide.