Thursday 28 March 2019

Brothers in trouble: "Eaten by Lions"

Between Winterlong and Eaten by Lions, it's clearly the week of modestly budgeted Brit indies centred on makeshift familial arrangements. That Jason Wingard's film arrives as by far the more accomplished of the two is down to its good-natured spirit and end-of-the-pier comic nous; it surrounds its inexperienced (yet very engaging) young leads with established funny people, and comes up somewhere between a half-decent ITV pilot and the outer fringes of the Peter Kay universe. The pitch is odd-couple road movie: we're watching two half-brothers as they set out from their native Bradford to Blackpool, in the vain hope of finding the father who abandoned at least one of them. (The genealogical particulars are its fuzziest point: grabbed handfuls of flashbacks don't really help.) The responsible one of the pair is Omar (Antonio Aakeel), upright, Asian, yearning; his sidekick Pete (Jack Carroll), on the other hand, is a gobby lad born with cerebral palsy, who runs his mouth off to make up for his trailing legs. When they lose their few possessions and the minimum of cash they've troubled to carry with them, they're forced to rely upon the kindness of strangers - and here's where those familiar faces come in. Vicki Pepperdine and Kevin Eldon are distant relatives and prospective guardians; Tom Binns, whom Wingard directed in an early Ivan Brackenbury short, is a fortune teller who points the boys on their way; Johnny Vegas, in an outrageous wig that makes him look rather like the troglodyte he voiced in Aardman's Early Man, runs a down-at-heel B&B; Asim Chaudhry is - true to recent form - the feckless bullshitter behind Blackpool's first Asian gift shop. (His delivery of the line "Lads will be lads" is up there with the best of his Chabuddy G.)

It not only makes us chuckle, then, it keeps on making us chuckle, and the surest sign that it's working is that it would likely make us chuckle even without its illustrious cameos: Carroll, whose lovely, understated delivery suggests he may take over the world some day, gets a hilarious riff about Ramadan, and what it has in common with the motion picture Gremlins. Wingard squeezes in a lot of value-for-money jokes, inessential to the main narrative thrust, but funny anyhow: a cutaway establishes the Eldon character's entirely unexplained fondness for photographing wall sockets, and when a lit cigarette is flicked out of a window, it naturally lands on a bald man's head. More encouragingly yet, he has - unlike so many emergent comedy directors - a keen sense of how to work the widescreen frame, making space at the table of an Asian family meal for an English bloke called Kev who finds himself pilloried for bringing ketchup across the threshold (a quiet, subtle strength: every outsider, however basic, gets their moment in the spotlight), and contriving a closing image of reunion all but guaranteed to warm the cockles. It doesn't quite reach the Tower-like heights of Damien O'Donnell's sadly out-of-circulation Heartlands, the great lost Blackpool movie of our times, but it's another fine advert for the warmth and wit of the North.

Eaten by Lions opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday 27 March 2019

From the archive: "Night Moves"

If we say that most American cinema is geared towards surety and security – engendering a reassuring sense that both protagonist and viewer know exactly where they are – then the writer-director Kelly Reichardt has gone against the flow in persistently pursuing characters who, whether by intention or accident, find themselves utterly lost.

Consider the lovers on the run in her 1994 debut River of Grass; the heroine of Wendy and Lucy, tracking down her errant pooch; the party of settlers in 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt’s films are diversions in the literal sense, charting long walks or other journeys that don’t conclude where their instigators were hoping, or any onlookers might expect.

Her latest Night Moves follows a couple of kids drifting off-course in the wilds outside Oregon – a location presented here as a frontier on which a number of cultural and environmental battles are still being fought. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are young activists casting around for a project into which to channel themselves; they elect to go big by blowing up a hydroelectric dam, thereby sparing all the salmon being chewed up in the demand for lower energy bills.

To this end, they’ve sought out the guidance of Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an older activist whose Marine background confers a kind of authority upon him. Josh and Dena are happy to go along with his suggestions, though the Harmon we see is a man of somewhat shifty and shambling demeanour, hardly the type you’d want to be holding the detonator.

That shift in perspective – from what the earnest, blinkered Josh and Dena see to what we spot – is crucial here. Night Moves could have been a bold, brash mission-movie: the kids equip themselves with a boat (from which the film takes its title) and begin stuffing it with bags of ammonium-nitrate fertiliser, in anticipation of a big bang. Yet our confidence in these so-called heroes are undermined from the off, and the result is a compellingly hushed and panicky drama, entirely in tune with the vacillations of this uncertain moment.

Reichardt casts her players, already huddling under face-shielding baseball caps, into shadow, and proves sensitive to the notes of doubt and suspicion hanging in the air. Harmon’s belated revelation of an earlier prison stretch hardly settles the nerves; as we were alongside those heading into Meek’s Cutoff, we grow increasingly uncertain where we’re heading.

Early scenes trade on Eisenberg and Fanning’s reps as bright, committed kids, but Josh and Dena really are just kids – vulnerable, suggestible, impulsive, destructive. They may believe they’re doing the right thing, but then so do most jihadists. Reichardt is at all points careful to frame these outliers in relation to other citizens, not only to build tension (every interaction throws up another witness, increases the chances of this party getting busted) but to underline the sense of a world beyond the activists’ bubble.

When the mission inevitably goes awry, we follow the leads away from the crime scene and back to the lives that have previously been withheld from us. There, they’re observed waiting anxiously for these moves to play themselves out; they wonder what their co-conspirators are up to, worry away at themselves, and slowly sink beneath the weight of what they’ve done – and what they’ve failed to achieve. If the first half shows these youngsters toying with the idea of isolation, the second hits them – hard – with the real thing.

The doomy paranoia that sets in links Reichardt’s film to its 1970s namesake, but it’s filtered through a more modern sensibility: the surveillance equipment here isn’t hidden, but everywhere one looks, busily recording every betraying gesture. Reichardt’s unconventional perambulations have yielded some of recent American cinema’s most rewarding field data, and here she proves it’s possible to pitch a gripping thriller in the lowest possible key: Night Moves builds its remarkably disquieting mood from a mere handful of flinches and twitches.

(MovieMail, August 2014)

Night Moves screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.30am.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Father-and-child reunion: "Winterlong"

Winterlong - shot around Hastings, and bearing a prominent credit for the University of Bedfordshire - lands among us as another of those patchy, scratchy British debuts, mixing quiet strengths with glaring weaknesses. It opens, for one, on a story beat that's both essential for the drama that follows and yet not remotely persuasive as presented, as an apparently loving middle-class mother dumps her teenage son Julian (Harper Jackson) on the doorstep of her ex-husband Francis (Francis Magee), a beardy hermit who exists in an unheated trailer on a scrap of wasteland that doesn't appear to have much in the way of spare room. After the boy discovers he's being stranded and insists on being taken home, within hours of his arrival, he finds every room (including his own) conspicuously stripped of both belongings and furniture, with not even a trace of a forwarding address left behind. It is, then, a film built on contrivance; the questions it raises, as Julian returns to the trailer and slowly readjusts to his new life in the middle of nowhere, are first whether it can rise above it, and then whether we might get anything out of the results.

By far its strongest suit is Magee, a hefty, lived-in unit who makes the idea of a Home Counties Davy Crockett, with a stash of guns under a log in the woods and a twentysomething singer girlfriend on tour in Belgium, seem vastly more plausible than it should. Magee nails Francis's shifting moods: he's capable of a boozy bonhomie, as when attempting to woo Doon Mackichan's flirty divorcee Barbara (of course Barbara) with a sack of potatoes; yet you also feel he could swing for his boy at any moment, which lends events a welcome tension. Increasingly, however, Francis starts to resemble a notable character in search of a sturdier movie. We don't take much away from limp scenes of the sullen Julian attempting to integrate into his new school in a vomit-flecked tracksuit, and at one point the camera simply drifts off to refind the singer (who never quite seems to be singing the songs we hear sung) and her band. There's a narrative ADHD here - a prevailing lack of focus - which leaves the film unsatisfying: it seems to be headed towards a climactic, breathless fuss, as one of dad's shooters is finally discharged - per screenwriters' law - but it even shrugs and meanders on past that. TV graduate David Jackson fosters a certain, low-level atmosphere - sending DoP Ben Cole off to find nice new angles on the off-season holiday park these boys end up at - but set this dads-and-lads affair against last year's mother-daughter narrative Pin Cushion, which inhabited a comparable milieu on a similar budgetary level, and it looks both unformed and very rough around the edges.

Winterlong opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 24 March 2019

For what it's worth...

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

1 (1) Captain Marvel (12A) ***
2 (new) Fisherman's Friends (12A)
3 (new) What Women Want (15)
4 (3) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***
5 (2) Fighting with My Family (12A)
6 (5) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
7 (4) Instant Family (12A) ***
8 (6) Green Book (12A) **
9 (new) Miszmasz Czyli Kogel Mogel 3 (15)
10 (8) The Kid Who Would Be King (PG) ***


My top five: 
1. Us
2. Benjamin
3. The Kindergarten Teacher
4. Alien
5. Sauvage

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

1 (1) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
2 (3) The Grinch (U)
3 (2) A Star is Born (15) ***
4 (23) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (PG)
5 (17) Overlord (18)
6 (4) Venom (15)
7 (new) Free Solo (12A) ***
8 (6) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
9 (10) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
10 (8) The Greatest Showman (PG)


My top five: 
1. Widows
2. Wildlife
3. The Wild Pear Tree
4. The Guilty
5. RBG

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The 39 Steps (Saturday, BBC2, 2.05pm)
2. Night Moves (Wednesday, C4, 1.30am)
3. 30 Days of Night (Friday, C4, 12.10am)
4. Despicable Me 2 (Saturday, ITV, 6.10pm)
5. The Cabin in the Woods (Saturday, C4, 12.15am)

Friday 22 March 2019

Double trouble: "Us"

Us, being Jordan Peele's follow-up to 2017's Get Out, inspires several questions, chiefly one linked to its status as a "difficult second movie": how do you replicate the impact of a film that became a phenomenon, generating endless thinkpieces on (sorry) "elevated horror", a cool $255 million worldwide, and awards buzz besides? Peele's response has been to come back with something bigger and perhaps a little - just a little - rattlier, but which demonstrates enough confidence and verve to stick us to our seats for just under two hours. That directorial debut was a dinner-party anecdote, a midlist Blumhouse item, and so self-contained it could all take place around the grounds of the one property. Us is a travelogue that develops into a freakout and some sort of state-of-the-nation address before climaxing with a soaring helicopter shot over an America torn, apparently irreparably, in two. It starts, however, among the leisured classes in sunny Santa Cruz, where we find the Wilson family repairing to their inherited holiday home. Dad Gabe (Winston Duke, bulk of a linebacker, bearing of a prize nerd) is in his element, whizzing about the adjacent lake in a clapped-out speedboat. Mum Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) proves rather more guarded, having experienced some childhood trauma in a boardwalk funhouse. Her fears are confirmed one night when the power goes out and a family of four in red valour jumpsuits clutching shears appears in their driveway. It's them. Or, alternatively: "It's us!", as the clan's youngest Jason (Evan Alex) exclaims. "We're Americans!" his masked opposite insists, but only after these shadow selves have forcibly occupied the premises.

This redoubling is the first of several ingenious strokes. For anybody keeping score on representation, it means there are now two black families on screen, surely a first for any mainstream horror undertaking - and the producer in Peele must have been happy to see these eight characters being played by the same four actors. (Our B-movies have traditionally had practical reasons for taking up the doppelganger theme.) If Get Out was a creative response to America's ongoing race war, Us finds Peele considering wider issues of division. A prologue finds the young Adelaide watching a promo for 1986's Hands Across America event, seized upon as a signifier of Reagan-era togetherness; a sticker on the Wilsons' car shows four linked figures. An opening title card insinuates that the interlopers have emerged from the abandoned network of tunnels running beneath America's surface, framing them as a 21st-century variant of H.G. Wells's Morlocks, or the mutants from 1984's C.H.U.D. (spotted in VHS form early on). As organisms, there is something basic, even amoebic about them. New Gabe communicates in a caveman howl; their son scuttles around on all fours. They're groups of cells sloughed off at a prior stage of evolution: no privilege, all id, equal to their quarry but lethally separate - or otherwise Other. Peele makes the Wilsons the masters of their own destruction: our thoughts may be being directed towards those disenfranchised voters who helped sweep Trump into power out of a desire to upturn the status quo. Equally, though, Us could be good-liberal Peele wrestling with his own new life as someone who can now afford nice holidays at resorts staffed by lowlier African-Americans. (Is this why the Betty Gabriel character in Get Out was so haunting - that she was representative of a class the director knew he was leaving behind?)

But enough subtext: does Us work as a Saturday-night thrillride? Broadly, the answer is yes. One of its uppermost pleasures is how the film continually shifts shape; it wriggles around within its chosen genre, as if it, too, was trying to break loose, rise up, run free. (It's alive, and you can't say that of everything in the multiplex nowadays.) At the end of its first act, you have it pegged as a home-invasion runaround, only for the chaos to spread to the Wilsons' well-appointed white neighbours (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), and for a TV news bulletin to report that the doubling now extends beyond these families and as far as the eye can now see. That this should follow from an encounter in a hall of mirrors underlines Peele's thoughtfulness and skill as an imagemaker - he selects images that would be fascinating in isolation, and succeeds in connecting them up on some level. That kindergarten daisy chain of people standing hand-in-hand, returned to time and again, attains real resonance and ambiguity: it's an image of solidarity and unity - of one nation, indivisible - which nevertheless looms up on screen as terrifyingly impassable, like the catchers' line in a game of British bulldog. Peele affords his leads a similar scrutiny, finding striking new ways of shooting Nyong'o in particular. Petite actresses with delicately etched features are oft described as being possessed of a doll-like beauty; Peele shows us the flipside of that, how those constituent doll parts might be as disconcerting as encountering The Conjuring's Annabelle in a darkened stairwell. Over two films, this director has given us a half-dozen great close-ups of black actors, making him invaluable in a moment when the movies have finally started to pay greater attention to performers of colour.

If there's a weakness, it's that the humour that lent Peele's debut its barbed satiric edge frequently shortsells or undercuts the tension here - there are one or two too many get-outs, if you will. Adelaide calls out her husband mid-siege for referencing the booby traps of Home Alone; even late into the third act, the family can be heard arguing over which of them has racked up the highest bodycount. There's an altogether knowing revival of the 1995 hit "I Got 5 on It" by Luniz, exactly the kind of big yet semi-forgotten international hit filmmakers grab when they want to prod the weekend crowd. Peele, evidently a child of pop culture, cannot help himself: Us panders to us far more than Get Out ever did, and pandering remains a strange look for a horror movie. It feels about right that the final act should return us to that gaudy funhouse - what we find there is a prodigal director having all the fun in the world with the expensive production design and lighting and animal props he can now afford. As a result, even with the doppelgangers' shears glinting malevolently in the moonlight, Peele's latest never cuts quite as deeply or as incisively as Get Out did, but enough of that fun - the fun of watching a gifted creative making light work of a new medium - transfers across to us to justify the admission price. Here's a movie calculated first to shift a whole lot of popcorn, then to scatter it all over the multiplex floor - but those who come looking for it should find at least a little thematic grist to chew on.

Us opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Five Feet Apart" (Guardian 22/03/19)

Five Feet Apart **
Dir: Justin Baldoni. With: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, Claire Forlani, Moises Arias. 116 mins. Cert: 12A

It’s been nearly fifty years since Love Story showed people will pay good money to watch pretty youngsters dying slowly, and five since The Fault in Our Stars revived this morbid subgenre with notable commercial success. Justin Baldoni’s middling derivative courts viewer sympathies with a novel-ish conceit, taking place almost exclusively within the hospital where perky vlogger and cystic fibrosis patient Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) has been confined as part of a drug trial. Dragging her oxygen line around intensive care, she crosses paths with a fellow trialist, floppy-haired hunk Will (Cole Sprouse), and a wicked new twist is added to an old meet-cute: they can’t get too close, lest they exchange potentially lethal lungfuls of bacteria. Here are two kids who, as test results show, could kill with a kiss.

It’s a curious hook, granted, dependent on the leads hawking up more phlegm than has ever been set before us in the course of an aspirant date movie. Putting the onus on characters who’ve been prescribed bedrest leaves these two hours a touch shuffling dramatically: you sense Baldoni killing a lot of time before he can send on the Reaper for his contracted cameo. Regular musical montages find someone or other moping in the cafeteria while something like The Fray tinkles on the soundtrack; Stella schools her devil-may-care beau via YouTube in the correct application of latex gloves. Love letters are secreted in balloons Will has to pop, filling the hospital corridors with alarming loud bangs. (The issue of who’s paying for this extended sleepover is, of course, never remotely addressed.)   

Trading shamelessly on any weakness for medical soap, Baldoni returns the lamentably underemployed Parminder Nagra to the doctor’s scrubs she once wore on TV’s e.r., while allowing Richardson – whose smart choices were better showcased by last year’s Columbus – to lend individual scenes and moments an apple-cheeked vivacity. Yet she surely realises, as Fault’s Shailene Woodley did before her, that this is the kind of marshmallow martyrdom that has to be briskly worked through before they let you at the grown-up scripts. The airlessness of the single setting – a controlled environment allowing teens to approach mortality from safe distance – is only dispelled late on, with some daffily fateful business atop a frozen lake: in this case, love means pushing your luck.

Five Feet Apart is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Thursday 21 March 2019

Last bites: "Sharkwater Extinction"

Rob Stewart first presented to UK cinemagoers as the tanned, buff Canadian Cousteau figure fronting Sharkwater, a documentary that hymned the sleek beauty of the selachimorphia genus and sought to defend its animal subjects against a number of threats: what was defined as the "Shark Week propaganda" coming out of Hollywood, the predations of shark fin soup lovers, and the wider indifference of man, busily pumping plastic and other toxins into the oceans. Now Stewart returns with a sequel, Sharkwater Extinction, which shapes up as a mystery, as if the real killer had been missed by the first movie. It opens, indeed, with a stark fact: 150 million sharks die in international waters each year, apparently, but scientists can only account for around 70 million of these deaths. There's something fishy going on, in other words, and Stewart's investigations in the course of the movie turn up some answers, while heading towards a development this viewer, for one, wasn't expecting, and which this otherwise very watchable film doesn't entirely know how to handle.

For much of its running time, Extinction exudes the appeal of noir in open air, as a blithe detective in sleeveless T-shirts follows this bloodtrail down dingy backstreets in sunny locations, accompanied by invariably photogenic female assistants. We begin in Costa Rica, where finning (the process of slaying sharks for the riches contained in their extremities) has notionally been outlawed, but where Stewart's crew uncover a series of under-the-counter deals that opened up the docks to all kinds of nefarious, shark-harming activity; chased out of town, Stewart moves onto the Bahamas (nice work if you can get it); to Panama, a birthing hotspot where toxic meat is passed off as cheap eats in less than scrupulous eateries (lifehack: avoid the "rock salmon"); to Cabo Verde, a geographical loophole facilitating the import and export of boatloads of fins; and finally back to the U.S., where Stewart's inquiries see him being shot at by aggrieved trawlermen. It's one of those digest-docs that packs in and hops around a lot, but it quickly identifies a recurring suspect in deregulated capitalism, all but given up when a hunter wearing a sharktooth necklace declares "Show me the money".

For all the ugly and underhand behaviour Extinction uncovers, it remains a film of considerable, at times shimmering beauty. Early on, Stewart states his aim as being "to make people fall a little bit in love with" his sharp-toothed subject, and thereby encourage us to look out for sharks as we traditionally have lions, elephants and pandas. The underwater photography he commissions is properly mollifying, bringing us closer than ever to the immense grace of these creatures, and vividly illustrating their ability to co-exist peaceably with other species. When Stewart, mid-dive, extends a gloveless hand to one such creature, as if he were in a petting zoo rather than the middle of the deep blue sea, he may as well be holding an olive branch. (The film entire stands as testament to the ways lightweight digital cameras have brought a new immediacy to reportage, on both land and sea: the tech carries Stewart and viewers closer to these sharks than Cousteau ever got, and - in its surveillance application - to those shark-corpses being flung into the back of vans to be sold onto restaurants.)

It transpires, however, that these jaws were the least of Stewart's worries. It's jolting when voices other than our established narrator's flood the soundtrack some way into the film, and more than a little disconcerting when the camera suddenly lingers on our host as he makes preparations for what, in the course of events, looks set to be a routine dive. These were editorial choices imposed on Extinction during post-production, for Stewart drowned during that dive in January 2017. (The pre-dive close-ups correlate to those shots in Asif Kapadia's Senna of the racing driver ahead of his final green-for-go; it's footage transformed by hindsight.) The shock occasioned is at least partly down to the fact that, for the preceding hour-and-a-bit, Stewart has been so present, so visibly alive (as folk on camera tend to be), and the development seems to catch the film offguard, as it does us; suddenly rudderless, it stitches together a tribute montage before prematurely fading to black. (Stewart retains the director's credit; a wrongful-death lawsuit is currently being argued over.) Clearly, this isn't the ending anybody associated with this project wanted, yet by folding in these tragic events with a notable sensitivity, editor Nick Hector ensures Sharkwater Extinction emerges as a thematic continuation of Stewart's conservation work. It's a reminder that all life is precious and fragile, and that we'll miss it when it's gone.

Sharkwater Extinction opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

The many selves of Simon: "Benjamin"

In Help, the memoir/stand-up anthology he published last year, Simon Amstell wrote with candour and familiar self-deprecation about his attempts to get past using humour as a defence mechanism and thereby arrive at a higher, more truthful state: a tricky task for most young men, doubly so for one whose existence depends on making jokes for a living. Amstell's directorial debut Benjamin more than likely came out of this haphazard process of growing up: it's a droll, unusually mature and sophisticated romantic comedy centred on the agonies that ensue when the eponymous Benjamin, a tousle-haired, yammering filmmaker played by Colin Morgan as as much an analogue for Amstell himself as the stammering Kenneth Branagh was for Woody Allen in 1998's Celebrity, locks lips and limbs with Noah (Phénix Brossard), a breezy French musician who apparently suffers no neuroses whatsoever. We are left to wonder whether these polar opposites can possibly attract, and how feasible it is to go looking for one's true self when one's very understanding of that self is so fragile, so dependent upon the affirmation of others. You can hear Amstell the first-time screenwriter striving to reassure himself when our Ben's producer Tessa (Anna Chancellor) attempts to head off her angsty charge's jitters by insisting, of his latest, at least semi-autobiographical project, "Some people will like it, and others won't be that into it"; even more typically reflexive is the gesture of Ben's pal Stephen (Joel Fry) who, upon being introduced socially as a comedian, immediately insists "I'm not funny."

The courtship that follows is very much rooted in London, and its artsier Northern enclaves in particular, lent an attractive after-hours sheen by cinematographer David Pimm. Benjamin and Noah meet at a "chair party" ("a party to launch a chair"); they have a brief stopover in the Curzon Soho toilets, where the posters of golden-age arthouse smashes effectively place Benjamin in the tradition of the personal filmmaking of yore. With that, there follows an element of self-regard: when our unlikely lovers first make out, they do so only after Benjamin has screened that quasi-autobiographical film (in which Benjamin himself appears) to his beau. Yet the fact that film has been titled "No Self" suggests Amstell is very much aware of it, and he keeps finding ways of ushering us around and past it, so that we emerge charmed rather than screaming. Would it have been altogether too much - too postmodern, too cloying - if Amstell, already proven as a fun (if slightly abrasive) screen presence by 2011's Black Pond and TV's late, lamented Grandma's House, had cast himself as Benjamin? Possibly. As it is, Morgan projects an appealing boyishness all his own while doing an excellent job of capturing the push-pull rhythms that make Amstell such a distinctive writer-performer ("We will get water. How will we do this?").

Equal attention has been paid to the supporting cast. There are useful showcases for Jessica Raine as an endlessly distractible PR; Jack Rowan as an emergent actor who matches Benjamin for vanity but has none of his self-awareness (you wonder who inspired the character, as the candidates would appear infinite); the woolly-haired Fry, who converts Stephen's self-annihilating stage act into a nicely bathetic setpiece; and for Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Benjamin's understandably aggrieved ex. (Recruiting Messrs. Kermode and Mayo to replay their webcast double-act for the big screen - offering "No Self" a mixed review - is one of many medialand details the film troubles to get right, and a useful dramatic counterpoint: briefly, we find ourselves in the company of grown men who've become successful and popular by being themselves, displaying none of the hang-ups, pretensions or doubt displayed by Benjamin and his ilk.) However much Benjamin ties himself in knots, Amstell's own direction remains admirably relaxed and assured: it finds a tone early on, establishes performance (on stage, as in love) as a key theme and recurring motif, then has the confidence to watch these characters hang out - allowing them to reveal themselves, whether happy, lost or simply confused, in their own time. The Amstell who skewered countless creative egos as the teenage co-host of T4's Popworld is present in a thoroughly unexpected revival of Hanson's 1998 hit "Weird", but Benjamin's honest study of the vicissitudes of being twentysomething could only have been made by a filmmaker who's reached the safe haven of his thirties. Believe it or not, kids, it does get better.

Benjamin is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Signs and blunders: "Under the Silver Lake"

It wasn't always like this. After making Stranger than Paradise, the ramshackle, micro-budgeted roadtrip that inaugurated the modern American independent cinema, Jim Jarmusch returned with Down by Law, a movie that confined its characters to a single prison cell. Yet as money began to flood into the indie sector, and wider audiences were reached, the temptation to swing for the fences with the follow-up to a breakthrough work became too great to resist. We can see that urge in Spike Lee going from the scratchy, intimate She's Gotta Have It to the state-of-the-nation musical School Daze, though one could argue the latter film developed logically from its predecessor's Technicolor dance sequence, and paved the way for the landmark Do the Right Thing; it was central to Steven Soderbergh's haphazard progression from the cool minimalism of sex, lies & videotape to the wild Expressionism of Kafka. The process has become time-honoured, yielding as many misses as outright hits. Most would be thankful that Paul Thomas Anderson overcame his disappointments on Hard Eight to arrive at the jubilant Boogie Nights, yet Richard Kelly similarly went for bust in leaping from the whisperingly suggestive Donnie Darko to the carnivalesque Southland Tales, and look where that got him. Next up at the plate: David Robert Mitchell, who follows 2010's atmospheric coming-of-ager The Myth of the American Sleepover and 2014's bristling horror parable It Follows with his own jejune blowout Under the Silver Lake, in which shaggy-haired slacker Andrew Garfield is beset by two-and-a-half-hours' worth of conspiracies and coincidences in latter-day L.A.

Mitchell's previous, entirely self-contained films were very selective in what they ruled in and out. Silver Lake, vastly more voracious in what it sees and references, sets forth multiple mysteries for Garfield's accidental private-eye Sam to investigate. There is the disappearance of the lissom blonde neighbour (Riley Keough) Sam peeps on from his balcony; a secondary vanishing act involving a prominent businessman; and a third line of inquiry circling a figure referred to as the Dog Killer, whose existence is set up by some mumbo-jumbo about a studio-system outcast who shot himself on camera in protest at the attention afforded to a Rin Tin Tin-like pooch. It is quickly established that multiple elements are in play here. Warnings encoded in the pages of comic books, old hobo symbols, back episodes of Wheel of Fortune, details on the dollar bill, the lyrics to R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?": everything is lingered over and dwelt upon at length, and there is always some towering, nefarious subterfuge going on just out of shot or behind the reality our hero-surrogate is presented with. This means the foreground turns into a sushi-bar conveyor belt of red herrings, some of which prove tastier than others. The approach generates a whole lot of movie - shot by shot, sequence by sequence, we catch Mitchell borrowing from Lynch and Hitch and Marty and Bob (Altman), most of the good ones - and yet the film's eyes are substantially bigger than its belly, leaving a lot of its raw visual and thematic material undigested, possibly indigestible. It's not a spoiler so much as a warning to note that none of the aforementioned mysteries will be cleared up with any degree of clarity.

The sprawl is such that it might be instructive to try and pin down what connects Silver Lake to its predecessors in the Mitchell canon. From Sam's opening gawp at his topless and semi-clad neighbours, the new film appears to share It Follows' (naggingly conservative) fascination with sex, and its capacity to warp, corrupt, derange. (The Lynch comparisons write themselves.) Garfield's knight errant seemingly sets out on his cherchez la femme mission because he felt he was onto a sure thing; his obsession will carry this feckless soul from sunny L.A. poolside to the city's darker fringes, from a position of peeper-power up top to the cavernous depths of the Earth, where he will be revealed as basically powerless. An early snippet of dialogue pertaining to the male gaze suggests Mitchell isn't wholly behind the curve when it comes to recent developments in film and social studies, but he has a funny-strange way of showing it, repeatedly turning his camera onto women in states of undress. (Being a big-shot auteur means you can persuade more actresses to pop their tops.) Only one moment of voyeurism is effective enough to justify the clanging shot of minor characters lolling against a tombstone marked "HITCHCOCK", and it comes when a pal of Sam's pilots a drone towards the open window of a lingerie model who removes her shirt only to break down in thoroughly unerotic tears. Somewhere in Silver Lake, there's a cautionary tale about the dangers that follow from falling down any rabbit hole: the risk of not seeing what you want to see or, worse, seeing nothing very much at all. 

That film would surely have gone more forcefully after what Sam's pal labels "an entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes..."; it would have cleared more space for us to notice how our notional hero gets stinkier, less mobile and less likable the further he pursues whatever it is he's pursuing, and starts lashing out at anybody he feels stands between him and his ill-defined goal. The trouble with the Silver Lake we have is that, at some point, Mitchell seems to have realised that those mewling fanboys are precisely (and almost exclusively) his core audience - or not to have noticed that he's one himself, instantly squishing any distance between filmmaker and intended target. Vast stretches here depend upon the viewer sharing the utterly suggestible Sam's fascination with babbling gibberish, and you sense Mitchell, too, getting carried away with this madness - tossing in theories, piling on conjecture, panic-buying every urban legend he can - and then self-evidently struggling to cut it all back into coherent shape. The film's paranoiac, throbbing-veined mania is meant to be intriguing and alluring - "Crazy makes for good sex", says that pal, of a woman, naturally - but Under the Silver Lake's narrative designs struck this viewer as inseparable from the moment of Pizzagate, the anti-vaccination movement and Brexit: they're born of a time when supposedly mature and rational human beings have been invited to disregard anything so dull as established, linear facts in order to feel like the chosen ones. (The pictures coming in, these past few days, from Nigel Farage's "Leave Means Leave" march reveal a more banal reality.)

This monument to contemporary cuckoodom has been assembled by a creative with a legitimate big-screen sensibility for the express purpose of being deconstructed and obsessed about on certain Internet forums for months and years to come - but as with so many of the topics currently sucking time and energy online, I'm not so sure there's all that much in the way of substance to get obsessed about here; that all the film is, ultimately, is a mystery premised on the search for mystery, a clever concept that, in practice, generates only partially satisfying results, at best. Among these 139 minutes' fleeting, minor pleasures: Garfield's rabbity run and sulky teenage trudge, which are exactly those your common-or-garden incel might use to haul themselves up from their parents' basement upon reading Marvel have greenlit another female-led superhero movie, and one throwaway line of Hollywood chatter, pertaining to the youngest person ever to have written, directed and sound-designed their own sitcom ("She's twelve, but she clearly has an old soul"), which indicates Mitchell hasn't completely lost his bearings. Yet all other referents would point to the fact you'd do better tracking down the seasoned Jonathan Nossiter's far less self-consciously cult indie Signs & Wonders from 2005, a film that shaped its maddening, overblown chaos into an appreciable critique of late capitalism, rather than - as Mitchell's swing-and-a-miss proves - something wearyingly symptomatic of its indulgences.

Under the Silver Lake is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via MUBI.

Monday 18 March 2019

From the archive: "Sharkwater"

A big-screen refutation of all those "Shark Weekends" that have suddenly proliferated on certain cable channels, the documentary Sharkwater opens with a montage of movie shark attacks sourced from Jaws, Deep Blue Sea and elsewhere, then redresses the balance by stressing the shark's importance as the big fish in our ecosystem. Our host is the boyish Rob Stewart, a buff Frankie Muniz lookalike who has as obvious a bond with his subjects as Steve Irwin has with crocodiles and Grizzly Man's Timothy Treadwell had with the bears of Alaska. (It's only natural that, at several points in the film, you do rather fear for his existence.) Stewart tours the globe, swimming with hammerheads in the Galapagos, before hitching a ride with environmental activist Paul Watson, who drives his boat - customised with Boadicea-like spikes on its side - into any whaling vessels he encounters; when Watson states "our objective is to rock the boat", it's clear he speaks metaphorically and literally. En route, all manner of pertinent info gets dispensed: despite the fact more people are killed by elephants and tigers each year than by sharks - more people, in fact, are killed by vending machines - the world's shark population has been reduced by ninety percent in recent times.

You could therefore call Sharkwater a PR job, intended to reframe the shark as less aggressor than victim: of (illegal) long-line fishing, the boom in shark-fin products in certain Asian markets, the pollution man has pumped into the ocean, and the widespread indifference of a world prepared to bring in legislation against whaling, but - perhaps wary of the shark's reputation - no comparable laws against shark poaching. Those sharp, sharp teeth, and the primal fear of the monster rising from the deep, so skilfully evoked by Jaws, ensure it's a tough task. Yet Stewart trained as an underwater photographer, and he knows how to put on screen the vast array of beauty in the ocean: with its footage of whales, turtles and tunnel-like shoals of fish, the film frequently reminds us where Finding Nemo found its inspiration. It's a nature doc that goes beyond the call of duty - as much Donal MacIntyre as David Attenborough, Stewart is arrested at one point, contracts a flesh-eating disease elsewhere, and risks the wrath of the "shark fin Mafia" in several secret filming sorties - and which may even change your mind about creatures presented here as a good deal more intelligent and peaceable, and much less venal, than the hunter's hunters. Thinking back to Deep Blue Sea: is it not possible Samuel L. Jackson got chomped because the sharks sensed all those soulless ad campaigns for which the actor was about to sign up?

(June 2008)

Sharkwater is available on DVD through Showbox Media; a sequel, Sharkwater: Extinction, opens this Friday, and will be reviewed here in the days ahead.

Friday 15 March 2019

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Captain Marvel (12A) ***
2 (1) Fighting with My Family (12A)
3 (2) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***
4 (3) Instant Family (12A) ***
5 (4) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
6 (5) Green Book (12A) **
7 (6) The Aftermath (15)
8 (8) The Kid Who Would Be King (PG) ***
9 (new) The Sleeping Beauty - Bolshoi Ballet (U)
10 (7) Alita: Battle Angel (12A)


My top five: 
1. Benjamin
2. The Kindergarten Teacher
3. Alien
4. Sauvage
5. The Hole in the Ground

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

1 (1) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
2 (2) A Star is Born (15) ***
3 (5) The Grinch (U)
4 (7) Venom (15)
5 (4) Hunter Killer (15) **
6 (6) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
7 (3) Halloween (18)
8 (10) The Greatest Showman (PG)
9 (17) Widows (15) ****
10 (13) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***


My top five: 
1. Widows
2. Wildlife
3. The Wild Pear Tree
4. The Guilty
5. RBG

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Die Hard with a Vengeance (Thursday, five, 11pm)
2. American Hustle (Sunday, C4, 1.05am)
3. A Knight's Tale [above] (Saturday, five, 10.25am)
4. The Ones Below (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Behind the Candelabra (Saturday, BBC2, 10.45pm)

From the archive: "American Hustle"

American Hustle, the latest of David O. Russell’s experiments in interpersonal chemistry, throws together twin pairs of actor-atoms who’ve previously fizzed under the observance of this director: Christian Bale and Amy Adams from 2010’s volatile The Fighter, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from last year’s no less effervescent Silver Linings Playbook.

Those crowdpleasers described several wild mood swings, but the new film is wildly unstable in form from the off: it shapes up as a love triangle that becomes a quadrangle, then a pentangle, then just a tangle, but only after assimilating the look of a gritty, Serpico-like period crime drama, and then the slick momentum of an Ocean’s 11-style caper.

Russell decks out this expanding test area in expensively gaudy design – not since Boogie Nights has there been this much polyester and hairspray visible on screen, so much static in the air – to embellish his apparently true story: that of two medium-level New York con artists (Bale and Adams) who, in the late 1970s, found themselves recruited by an ambitious Fed (Cooper) to take down the corrupt mayor of Atlantic City.

All is never quite as it appears in a Russell movie, however, and American Hustle acknowledges as much by casting the soft, sincere-seeming Jeremy Renner as said Mayor, a boyish gladhander caught trying to make his small corner of the world a better place. That we can’t really trust any of these guys is apparent the instant Russell cuts away from Bale and Adams’ growing bond to show the former already has a girl waiting at home for him: a single mother (Lawrence) he’s been attempting to provide for.

The film, written by Russell with Eric Singer, takes great glee in besmirching the generally uneventful Jimmy Carter years, by suggesting that such graft – represented here by fake sheikhs touting suitcases full of cash – was as prevalent in the America of the late 70s as it was in the Nixon era, and as it is today; it suggests that these characters’ “empty deals” would only proliferate during the 80s and 90s, and come back to haunt us during the present banking crisis. Like it or not, everybody gets corrupted somewhere along the line.

What redeems American Hustle from its own cynicism is an inspired underlying gag. While everyone on screen has their eye on the prize, no-one has the merest semblance of control – and Russell and Singer make not just palatable but winning entertainment from the sight of characters who, skeezy as they may be, come to realise they’re actually just too nice to be sullying their hands with this kind of lowdown dirty work.

It isn’t enough now to say that Russell, once thought of as something of a pop Cassavetes, is an actor’s director: he’s a one-man Large-Hadron collider, smashing stars together to tremendous effect. These actors were surely held in isolation between takes, and then pressured to make every moment their own personal awards clip. It’s nice when they click – and they do, often, and in unpredictable ways – but collision and conflict comes to seem unavoidable.

Even the more relaxed stretches yield pleasing effects: a nice bit for comedian Louis CK as Cooper’s deskbound superior, trying desperately to impart some wisdom in the form of a story about icefishing that crystallises the film’s love of slippery, hard-to-read narratives, a marshalling of choice period soundtrack items that borders on the Scorsese-ish, and not incidentally establishes Steely Dan as cool once again.

And when the film amps up the heat – as by having Adams hold out on Cooper (doing his best impression of a man who hasn’t been laid for a really long while), or introducing the Mob in the form of a surprise element from Russell’s recent back catalogue – it starts pinging and sparking at another level entirely. Some films don’t require a star rating, but a Geiger counter – and American Hustle registers as mostly off-the-scale.

(MovieMail, December 2013)

American Hustle screens on Channel 4 this Sunday at 1.05am.

From the archive: "Behind the Candelabra"

It could almost be the result of a random movie project generator. Your subject is “the life of Liberace”. Your director? “Steven Soderbergh”. Next around on the wheel: “Todd Haynes” (who has some form with tragic showbiz stories and 70s kitsch) and “Michael Bay” (who might have taken a decidedly heteronormative approach to all the spectacle and boom-bang-a-bang hot-tub action).

Which is to note that Behind the Candelabra could have gone any which way, whether descending into terminal TV-movie worthiness (Soderbergh’s backers were the cable channel HBO, after all) or overdoing the swishing comedy and campy excess. The surprise, even among Soderbergh devotees, may be how restrained the film is: rooted in character, yet shot at arm’s length, with – one scene-setting burst of Giorgio Moroder aside – no music other than Liberace’s own to let us know where and how to feel.

For most of the film, we’re stranded on another planet, in the furthest outreaches of the showbiz galaxy – the tactics only helping to flag up the peculiarity and singularity of the world our entry point, Liberace’s all-American boytoy Scott Thorson (Matt Damon, repositioned somewhere between glowing farmhand and porno-Adonis), first strutted into circa 1977.

Part Saddam’s palace, part Paris Hilton pied-à-terre, the Casa de Liberace – a truly fabulous feat of production design by Howard Cummings – is a vast self-pleasuring splurge of homoerotic frescos and glittering trinkets, sandwiched by matching keyboard-themed canopies and floor tiles, and serviced by condescending houseboys in glute-hugging slacks.

Somewhere in there lurks its presiding intelligence, regarding the universe entire as something to be remodelled in his own image. When “Lee” Liberace (Michael Douglas, uncanny) baldly states “I was the first person on TV to look directly into the camera” (surely disregarding the contributions of countless newscasters?), we twig it’s highly likely he did so not so much for the connection with the audience as to catch his own reflection in the lens.

Soderbergh’s manner here is only slightly more relaxed. Wry amusement, drafting in a Rob Lowe or Dan Aykroyd to pep up individual scenes, gives way – as in a couple of graphic surgery interludes, stitched together to comprise the recent cinema’s grisliest makeover montage – to something more scientific. He’s compelled to ask how someone would go about getting a facelift or chin implant to look more like their younger self, or someone else. And, more crucially: why?

Naturally, it boils down to need and control, showbusiness’s twin engines since the year dot. Scott’s foster parents, a picture of normality, wonder why one grown man would want to adopt another, and such questions linger; there are dom-sub relationships, and then there’s the plain weird, and Soderbergh makes this one appear more unfathomable yet by framing it as glimpses through doors and in mirrors. Not even he attempts to get between these two, and whatever it was they had.

Shrewdly, Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese realise you can’t use this relationship to bang the drum for gay marriage, because a) Lee and Scott’s coupling couldn’t be tied in a neat knot, and b) it’s every bit as likely to alienate as it is to enthral. What the film can do, however, is put forward a case for Liberace as a true one-of-a-kind, a distinction even the pianist’s detractors might just nod through.

The appreciation of Liberace’s musical talents remains surprisingly unironic right from his introduction, performing a boogie-woogie routine that has the adoring greyhairs that made up his core crowd eating out of his hand – the kind of effortless showmanship that an up-down auteur like Soderbergh can only concede is difficult to maintain. Yet it’s balanced by an understanding of the off-stage torments that resulted from Lee’s desperate desire for image-control: if the film absolutely has to be taken up as a campaigning text, it might just work as a call to greater honesty among our entertainers.

You may be tickled, you may well be moved by the final moments, in which something like emotion (transcendent kitsch, maybe) bleeds into Soderbergh’s traditionally clinical worldview. Yet I suspect you can’t fail to notice the distinct chill of horror that lurks behind this candelabra, and which Soderbergh points up with his every detached camera angle.

Between the bodily transformations, the displays of human weakness, and the lawyers circulating within a world it proves very easy to get sucked into, and mortally difficult to escape from, the Soderbergh film Behind the Candelabra has most in common with isn’t the glitzy Ocean’s 11, nor last year’s whooping, hollering Magic Mike.

It’s 1991’s infamously unloved Kafka, from the stumbling beginnings of this director’s ever-confounding and varied career – and if Soderbergh can finally turn the raw materials of that flop into a lamé-covered, diamond-studded hit while effectuating his own escape from the entertainment business, it’ll be a remarkable note to go out on.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Behind the Candelabra screens on BBC2 tomorrow night at 10.45pm.

"I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts" (Guardian 15/03/19)

I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts ***
Dir: Yusuf Zine. Documentary with: Jaber Mohammed, Mohammed Rafiqu, Rasel Mohammed, Parvin Aktar. 90 mins. No cert.

The levels of displacement in today’s world are such it has become possible to make a film about the plight of Burma’s indigenous Rohingya people without travelling beyond a few snowy blocks in Toronto. Yusuf Zine’s documentary provides a platform for those younger migrants whose parents fled persecution by the Burmese government to tell their stories twice over – first on camera to the director, who’s spent the past few years assisting the Canadian social services, then on stage in a college-theatre production workshopped from their experiences. The resulting film forms another of this century’s lessons in how profound trauma can be worked through and converted into art, applause, affirmation, acknowledgement.

Initially, the handling might appear a shade too light and bright for the subject matter, like an episode of Glee shifted several degrees north. Yet it proves a considered editorial tactic: Zine wants us to see his charges as peppy, upbeat individuals – kids who’ve wholeheartedly embraced the chance they’ve been handed for a better life, including the prospect of a creative career – before he reframes them as victims and survivors. When we learn what exactly these ingenues have been through – and the dramaturgy reveals a distressing litany of mutilations, rapes and bereavements – their optimism seems not just admirable, but an act of defiance, a counterblast against the limited future their oppressors had in mind for them.

Though the rehearsal footage is as sketchy as rehearsal footage tends to be, Zine has the sense to fold his cast-sourced anecdotes into the strongest potted history the movies have so far provided of this situation. Confounding ironies are flagged up, not least that it should be Burma’s notionally peaceable Buddhist majority who’ve carried out the attacks, with the apparent blessing of the Nobel Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi. (Luc Besson’s fawning 2011 biopic The Lady recedes even further in the memory.) Should you need further proof of the ways Trumpism has oozed into the political water table, clock the robed Canadian monk Zine films blithely belittling the Rohingya’s claims as “fake news”. Its status as a grassroots endeavour is evident in some modest production values, but it succeeds in conveying a good deal of pertinent info while simultaneously putting on a half-decent show.

I Am Rohingya: A Genocide in Four Acts is now playing in selected cinemas.