Friday 31 May 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 24-26, 2019:

1 (new) Aladdin (PG)

2 (new) Rocketman (15) ***
3 (new) The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)
4 (1) John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (15) ***
5 (2) Pokemon Detective Pikachu (PG)
6 (3Avengers: Endgame (12A) **
7 (4) The Hustle (12A)
8 (5) Paw Patrol: Mighty Pups (U)
9 (8) Amazing Grace (U)
10 (new) Muklawa (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [above]
2. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
3. Birds of Paradise
4. Booksmart
5. Memoir of War

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

1 (3) 
Glass (15)
2 (1) Bumblebee (PG) ***
3 (new) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
4 (8) Mary Queen of Scots (12) **
5 (4) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
6 (10) The Secret Life of Pets (U) **
7 (5) Mary Poppins Returns (U) ***
8 (2) The Favourite (15) ***
9 (6) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
10 (new) Lancaster Skies (PG)


My top five: 
1. Sauvage

2. Beautiful Boy
3. Colette
4. Stan & Ollie
5. Bumblebee

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. In Which We Serve (Monday, BBC2, 3.20pm)
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Sunday, five, 7pm)
3. Killing Them Softly (Friday, C4, 1.05am)
4. The Peacemaker (Friday, BBC1, 11.25pm)
5. The Cruel Sea (Saturday, BBC2, 2pm)

"I Love My Mum" (Guardian 31/05/19)

I Love My Mum **
Dir: Alberto Sciamma. With: Kierston Wareing, Tommy French, Aida Folch, Dominique Pinon. 86 mins. Cert: 15

Perhaps it says something about the film industry that where Michael Fassbender was whisked off to Hollywood in the wake of Andrea Arnold’s breakthrough Fish Tank, his equally compelling co-stars Kierston Wareing and Katie Jarvis were left behind to seek gainful employment on EastEnders’ Albert Square. Wareing, who’d worked with Ken Loach (on 2007’s It’s a Free World…) before her Arnold assignment, lands a starring role of sorts here, albeit as a castrating mother in a scattershot comedy that sets out like a hybrid of Ray Cooney farce and Channel 4 reality-show, and winds up making the dottiest contribution yet to the recent wave of migration movies. Its heart remains broadly in the right place, yet there are points where you question just where its head is at.

It opens in Tilbury, with none-more-Essex lad Ron (Tommy French) involved in another contretemps with Wareing’s blowsy Olga. The difference is this one ends with Ron crashing his car into a cargo container that – in the first of several oh-just-go-with-it contrivances – is promptly sealed up and shipped over to Morocco, where mum and son emerge bedraggled, broke and visaless. (There are weird frissons of tension as Wareing wanders the souks in dressing gown and slippers.) As the pair navigate back to the European mainland – via stolen taxi, a raft charged with African refugees, and eventually a pedalo – some of the surface eccentricities clear to reveal a familiar story: that of two antagonistic fish out of water who realise they need one another more than first thought.

There’s evidence here of how a few weeks of location shooting can open up a low-budget production, and Spanish-born indie scrabbler Alberto Sciamma (Killer Tongue, Anazapta) sporadically unleashes ideas that dig an elbow into your ribs and force out a chuckle, such as having Ron’s beachside tryst with a singing senorita interrupted by a literally incandescent Olga, dressing gown in flames. Yet the writing rarely rises above bizarro sketchiness, and if you think the deployment of those mute migrants as a plot device sounds glib, wait ‘til you see the punchline. French and Wareing make an endearing if cartoonish couple, at least: with its scenes in which the latter strides towards the Pyrenees in a pair of fringed UGGs, the film counts as one of Brexit cinema’s livelier, more eccentric footnotes. 

I Love My Mum opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 30 May 2019

"Rory's Way" (Guardian 31/05/19)

Rory’s Way **
Dirs: Oded Binnun, Mihal Brezis. With: Brian Cox, JJ Feild, Thora Birch, Rosanna Arquette. 107 mins. Cert: 12A

Every now and again – between Question Time bookings – the actor Brian Cox reminds us just what a powerhouse screen presence he can be. Since his terrific work in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation and Michael Cuesta’s underseen L.I.E., however, television has provided his most notable roles: the gentleman-impresario of Deadwood, Neil Forsyth’s blustering Bob Servant, and recently media mogul Logan Roy on HBO’s Succession. This middle-of-the-road drama sees Cox crafting something notionally characterful in the guise of Rory McNeil, an ailing Highland crofter (hobbies: whittling, skinny-dipping) yanked decisively into the 21st century. Yet he’s doing so within a film which sets its satnav for that grey hinterland between soporific matinee fare and reactionary bunk. Silver Screen audiences should approach with caution.

Its arcs and beats are as careworn as your grandfather’s armchair. Once Rory is installed in the chichi San Franciscan apartment of sous chef son Ian (JJ Feild) ahead of an appointment with a medical specialist, we’re waiting for the gruff Rory to resolve any unfinished business and meet the Reaper head-on. Israeli imports Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis while away time pitting their protagonist against some of the West Coast’s more forward-facing aspects, as if he were a kilted Crocodile Dundee. Rory never strays into the Castro district, regrettably, but many tuts and grumbles are elicited at the expense of selfie-snappers, segues and cocktail mixologists. Handed a vaporous brew labelled the Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Rory mutters “Smoke gets in my bollocks, more like”, which is as close as the five credited writers get to wit.

Capable performers pepper these otherwise nondescript digital frames, vainly trying to persuade us we’re not watching some rogue telefilm. Thora Birch makes a welcome return to our cinemas as Rory’s daughter-in-law, a character defined chiefly by her powersuit; Rosanna Arquette’s gallery owner extends the prospect of a final fling; and Peter Coyote plays the academic taking an interest in Rory’s profane strain of Gaelic. (The film may yet accrue value as a rare cinematic record of a vanishing tradition.) All, however, are secondary to an uneventful matter of lineage that yields first defensive spluttering at the ways of the new world, then tatty and obvious platitudes. Cox grants the occasional sentiment a semblance of heft, but everything else gets flimsier by the frame.

Rory's Way opens in selected cinemas from today.

Wilde life: "Booksmart"

The "one crazy night" narrative has become a commonplace in modern comedy, and teen comedy in particular, an altogether accelerated getting of wisdom enabling young protagonists to fumble in the dark and glean a few extra life lessons before the sun comes up over the adult world. The spin Olivia Wilde puts on this pitch over the nocturnal hours that make up the actress's directorial debut Booksmart involves squaring it with the very contemporary fear of missing out. Wilde's heroines are a pair of keen scholars who realise, on the night before their graduation from high school, that their pals have had way more fun than they have over the preceding years, at no great cost to their academic progress. Leading the charge into living for the moment is the organised, generally future-focused Molly (Beanie Feldstein), keen to experience what life might be like on the other side of her planner; backing her up is the gentler Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), openly out for most of her adolescence, but yet to do so much as to kiss a girl. Many obstacles stand between this two-girl squad and their goals: low Lyft ratings, tainted strawberries, the wrong party, and a humiliation via Bluetooth that updates what happened to Jason Biggs on the Internet in American Pie some two decades ago. (And yes, we are all very old now.) Booksmart's running joke is that it's a notionally loud and lairy teen comedy centred on two teenagers who aren't really set up for partying - yet jokes aren't all the film has in its pockets.

Wilde and her all-female writing staff (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman) quickly put flesh on their bare-bones premise. In the post-Pie era, those Judd Apatow-initiated comedies (of which 2007's Superbad would be the most immediately comparable) got their kicks by throwing their characters together - literally so, in their more cacophonous moments of slapstick. Dever and Feldstein, by contrast, simply tessellate. As characters, Molly and Amy aren't just inseparable, they make total sense: the former's robustness shoring up the latter's tendency for overthinking and self-doubt. The movie often feels geared less to the mechanical generation of gags than it is to evoking a friendship between two girls slingshotting one another into the world; the affection suffuses every set-up. Wilde's touch is gentler than that of Apatow and his acolytes, and it helps to both take the edge off any fraught encounters and to sustain a more even tone. It might seem an unusual observation to make of a multiplex comedy, had we not all sat through so many multiplex comedies that looked like they'd been dragged through a hedge, but Booksmart is unusually attentive in matters of lighting, bathing even its pastier adolescents in the forgiving glow of fairylights and fireworks. The visual imagination doesn't stop there: one of the parties Molly and Amy crash turns out to be a period murder-mystery, which allows the director to fill the frame with something other than the usual red solo cups, while a sidebar involving stopmotion Barbie dolls is the closest any film since the Harold and Kumars has got to the oddball invention of "Savage" Steve Holland, the lost auteur behind such teenpics as 1985's Better Off Dead....

It's far from the plottiest of comedies, which may account for any viewer drift: there's a lot of hanging out and poking around (as teenagers are wont to engage in), and the script relies on a last-act row over a busted crush - the kind of slightly strained falling-out our romcoms once traded in - to suggest there might be anything at stake here. It's both an editorial strength and a dramatic weakness that these protagonists don't really have all that much to learn from this experience, save that, indeed, they don't really have all that much to learn, and this may be what ultimately distinguishes Booksmart from all those teen comedies centred exclusively on boys. Molly and Amy, notably more mature than their male contemporaries, are fine as they are; whenever one of them wobbles, the other has their back. The movie is a celebration, not an instruction. Still, coming as it does within a year of the similarly good-natured and sex-positive Blockers, Booksmart may leave you wondering exactly what's going on within the studio comedy. At a time when fantasy franchises are eating up resources, screens and the popular imagination, films like these would appear to offer the last space available outside the end-of-year awards corridor where American creatives might attempt something original, human and wise. If you've already outlived the kind of misadventures Wilde outlines here, Booksmart may not be enough to blow your mind, but if you're young enough, it just might. Either way, from its karaoke Alanis to its final affirmation, it makes for a pretty good time. For fullest enjoyment, take a pal.

Booksmart is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

The occupied: "Memoir of War"

The original title of Memoir of War, taken from Marguerite Duras's memoir of her experiences during World War II, was La Douleur, or Pain, and it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that it fits: beginning with the almost parodically French sight of a woman smoking up a storm while gazing pensively out of a window, a thick fug of melancholy and barely suppressed despair hangs over every last one of writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel's images. The lady smoker is Marguerite Antelme (as Duras once was), and she's played by Melanie Thierry with her usual glamour dialled back to dry-lipped, underslept wanness; we join her in April 1944, looking out on - and eventually setting out to negotiate - the fraught streets of Nazi-occupied Paris as part of her search for a husband who's been disappeared by the city's occupiers. Her quest will bring her closer to two men: Dionys (Benjamin Biolay), a colleague in publishing who introduces her to the intellectual branch of the Resistance, but then starts to doubt her loyalty to the cause; and Pierre (Benoit Magimel), a midlevel functionary in the Vichy administration, who may possess information about the one man Marguerite wants to spend time with, but cloaks it in condescension and the suggestion he may well want something off-menu in return for it. By far the film's strongest suit is its evocation of Paris as a kind of limbo, emptied out of cars, colour and its usual bonhomie; in its place, we find general uncertainty and terrible choices, made all the more fearful by the realisation at least one of these forks in the road leads directly to the grave.

Purists may cavil at Finkiel's heavy reliance on first-person voiceover to establish that mood, though it's an established tactic of Dumas's own cinema, and also a choice that connects to the way the film's Parisians seem constantly to be justifying their actions, and their existence, in the face of so much that now strikes us as unjustifiable. From that first sequence - in which Thierry's Marguerite tells us about the notebook in which this account was written, and even how it was written - the film does, however, feel like a very literary proposition, despite production designer Pascal Leguellec's intriguingly spare recreation of this Paris. Some reviewers have also clearly been thrown by the (not unlifelike) way in which the narrative changes shape in the second half, as Paris is liberated and the other players in this drama recede from sight, leaving us, like Marguerite, waiting, hoping and possibly smoking. The fierceness of Thierry's stoicism prevents it from becoming the glum slog it might have been; the character's determination to hold it together, which may be essential to the survival of life during wartime, also serves to hold the film together, compelling us to give it at least a few minutes more of our attention, much as Dumas keeps extending her hopes for her husband's return. Not for the first time, one is struck by the rigour with which our Gallic chums approach the generally soft-furnished world of the period drama. We in the UK have the Downton movie awaiting us in the months ahead, of course - perhaps Julian Fellowes will surprise us, but one doubts that venture will be even a fraction as lacerating, self-critical and just plain wracked as Finkiel's achievements here.

Memoir of War is now playing in selected cinemas.

Wednesday 29 May 2019

Cristina (and Ciro)'s world: "Birds of Passage"

What first strikes the eye about Birds of Passage is the arid flatness of its landscape. Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, respectively the producer and director of 2015's remarkable Embrace of the Serpent, have left the jungles behind them and struck out for a vast sandy plain beneath a Sergio Leone sky in their native Colombia's Guajira region to reenact real-life events that took place between the 1960s and 1980s. In what may be an homage to The Godfather, the new film throws us into the middle of a wedding party, although Gallego and Guerra prove far less interested in the vows than the ritual: the face painting, the aggressive dances, the recounting of dreams. Who these participants are (and what those dreams mean) may initially be unclear, but we cannot fail to notice certain elementals, not least the wind, which - unchecked by trees or tall buildings - whips up the tents around the guests and the dust beneath their feet, and demands careful miking and mixing so as not to obscure any of the introductory dialogue. A storm threatens to blow in from one side of these frames, a plague from the other, and by the time Birds of Passage reveals its main dramatic activity to be a gangland feud centred on the region's drug trade, a map has been drawn and a scene set. Here is a place where there is no place to hide, as our vulnerable protagonist acknowledges late on, mired in the incongruously modernist palace he's built on these sands: "Nothing protects us any more." In the closing moments, the storm clouds burst, and those howling gales cede to the sound of rain washing away not just the blood this man has splattered across the land, but the remains of an entire empire.

The two hours separating the wedding party from these funeral rites serve as a vivid reminder that every country has its crime stories, passed from one generation to the next and out into the world; that every country has its underclasses, striving to engineer some social mobility for themselves with the application of muscle and firepower. (Those of us looking on from the cheap seats either get a crash course in running rackets, or are led to note again that crime rarely pays.) Birds is the Colombian equivalent of a GoodFellas or Gomorrah or one of the twenty-six British films about the Rettendon Range Rover murders, though - as with each of those titles - there are distinct regional variations, indicative of Colombia's mid-century status as a developing nation governed less by laws than superstition. For starters, it's a novel touch that our little Caesar, a dashing matinee idol-type going by the name of Rapayet (José Acosta), should first set out to source his product - an especially potent strain of marijuana - on the back of a donkey, and bring it back on goats; it is notable, and more than a little bit pointed, that his first clients should be Americans partying under the flag of the Peace Corps; and it is unusual that the first sign of trouble comes when a village elder points out that the same bird has landed on her hut three days in a row. There are impulses here that any Cagney or Corleone would recognise and act on, like Rapayet's decision to stamp down on a cocky underling who's started waving his gun around and getting ideas above his station, but neither Cagney nor Corleone had to reckon with the fallen associate coming back to haunt them in the form of a stork.

Such surreal auguries provide one link with Serpent, but that film carried us upriver into entirely uncharted territory, where time and space became relative constructs. Birds, a consolidation of these filmmakers' methods, adheres to established chronology, and to a rise-and-fall trajectory that is as old as Paul Muni, and quite possibly written in the stars. Nonetheless, the film has the benefit of decades of on-the-ground wisdom: its every role and strikingly composed frame - confirming Guerra and his cinematographer brother David among world cinema's foremost imagemakers - is filled by people you likely won't have seen before in these situations, and the movie's often startling freshness derives in large part from the freshness of their responses. The crone who stalks these characters' dreams has possibly the saddest face ever turned towards a camera; yet it's every bit as eyecatching when one hood peels a banana only to set the fruit aside and wolf down the skin. (The smile will vanish from his face after the hero's wayward nephew tosses him cash to repeat the trick with a dog turd. As metaphors for the dirty business of capitalism go, it's very much on-the-nose.) If Birds of Passage doesn't land among us with the propulsive narrative charge of, say, a City of God, that's attributable to the producer's circumspection Gallego has added to Guerra's evident talents, and the patience the pair display in staking out this territory, and its homes built on corpses. What holds us spellbound is the film's heightened sense of portraiture: how attentively it frames these figures within their environment, so that they can eventually haunt us as they themselves are haunted. A lot of crime movies wouldn't look out of place on the stages of La Scala or Glyndebourne; here's one fit to be exhibited in the Tate, or any Museum of Latin-American Art.

Birds of Passage is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Monday 27 May 2019

On demand: "Nervous Translation"

Shireen Seno is a Filipino writer-director who learnt her trade as an assistant to Lav Diaz, that nation's foremost manufacturer of vast historical chronicles, and from her mentor, she would appear to have gathered the importance of close and patient observation. Her second film as director, Nervous Translation, opens with a young girl returning home from school, removing her shoes, and then wiping the soles of those shoes with tissues that fragment to form the onscreen title. Time and again in this quietly fascinating, disarmingly eccentric film, Seno returns to the same tactic. A cassette comes unspooled, and the girl, Yael (Jana Agoncillo), assiduously winds it in with a pen; she fixes a meal for her soft toys on an agreeably tiny chopping board; she sifts her mother's head for grey hairs. The sustained scrutiny gradually reveals the inner workings of a lopsided household at some point in the late 1980s, one where, with the father away on business (that cassette is one of the recordings he routinely sends home) and the mother out at work, the girl has nothing much else to do but try and entertain herself. As a study of a child left to more or less their own devices, the film begs for an alternative, more immediately graspable title: Home Alone.

What these formative moments represent and add up to is another question, and one that proves far trickier to answer conclusively. The flickers we catch of TV news coverage - with the Reagan administration threatening to freeze the country's assets, and the Marcoses countering with a renewed power grab - suggest these scenes might be meant to stand for some other haphazard and largely underobserved development. The peace and quiet Seno establishes during her first half is so lulling that we feel the affront when Yael's front room is suddenly invaded by strangers with chatter and video cameras - and more outgoing girls besides; the film concludes with a force majeure that only underlines how vulnerable these characters are to the elements. Equally, however, Nervous Translation might just be a straightforward account of a girl's life in this kind of at least middle-class household in this particular country at this particular moment in history - that Yael is in some way a surrogate for the writer-director (b. 1983). Certainly, the detail Seno's camera hoovers up on its travels around this house - the dark-grained wooden furnishings, the tattoos on the newcomers' bodies - is such that we do feel we could be watching autobiography.

Agoncillo is as photogenic as the kid from recent arthouse hit Capernaum, but so much more convincing as a representative of her character's social milieu: headstrong, self-sufficient and possessed of the privilege of the time and space to be imaginative, but also somehow lonely and in desperate need of both guidance and stimuli. Is this why everything Yael sees on TV - the zombies of the horror film Demon Wind (released as late as 1990, if my sources are correct, and with a supporting role for current British theatre maestro Rufus Norris), a pen being flogged in stroboscopic adverts - eventually manifests in the girl's reality? Does the pen really have magical properties, or is what we're seeing a representation of that childhood conviction that a single item - be that a pair of football boots, a computer game, an album, or indeed an item of stationery - could be possessed of the power to change your life for the better? To ask such questions is to acknowledge there are elements here that, while intriguing, only partly translate, or which have been left hanging in the air like artful question marks. Yet unlike Diaz, Seno retains the benefit of brevity in describing this household's every nook and cranny to us: a mystery in a nutshell, Nervous Translation doesn't travel a single second beyond ninety minutes.

Nervous Translation is now streaming on MUBI.

Sunday 26 May 2019

On demand: "Soni"

The heroine of the Indian indie Soni will doubtless seem familiar in some way to those of us raised on primetime TV serials. As played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, she's a police officer wrestling with the pressures of her profession, the impact that job has had on her personal life, and more specifically yet with being a woman in a public-facing role. The context we find her in, however, will strike Western eyes as markedly different. Soni patrols the meaner streets of Delhi, where the idea of a woman being elevated to a position of authority is still, apparently, some distance beyond the accepted pale. And our heroine has a temper, which makes her a doubly complicated and fascinating study: in the first twenty minutes alone, we witness her laying into some horndog who's pursued her into an alleyway, and slapping a drunk driver who's refused to follow her instructions. It's not that these men don't deserve the treatment, and it's not that Soni doesn't know right from wrong - she wouldn't have chosen this career path if she didn't - but equally she appears determined to make an already tough job vastly more difficult for herself. She's not a paragon, in other words, but a problem we're invited to puzzle over as her superiors do - a woman so determined to demonstrate her strength and independence that she's almost incapable of working as part of a squad. Somewhere in the back of the film's thinking, you spy the New India wrestling with the simultaneously liberating and threatening notion of feminism.

That we're miles removed from the frontline glamour of Bollywood is evident in director Ivan Ayr's lived-in locations and muted colours, and in the film's fondness for long, skilfully performed scenes that measure the seesawing of power in this part of the world. If there's been a direct Western equivalent to Soni, it wouldn't be the essentially procedural Prime Suspect, but the interpersonal Polisse. Ayr offers us glimpses of the kinds of cases Delhi officers might work, but nothing's directly followed up, and it's crucial to what this filmmaker is going for that Soni isn't a save-the-day heroine, rather a centrepoint her colleagues have to work with or around. So we get scenes in which those superiors try and figure out what to do with this young woman after each breach of code - and it's an insightful new angle to make those superiors a married couple, as if Soni were a problem child to be discussed before lights-out. (These scenes also raise the provocative question of what the authorities would do with any man posing a similar challenge. Soni is hauled over the coals for lashing out at citizens you may well feel merit a clip round the ear, but two male colleagues caught in the act of blackmailing teenage lovers are permitted to walk away without so much as a slap on the wrist.) Ayr's pacing is nearly there: though his longueurs allow us to feel relationships building and fraying, there are arguably one or two too many scenes of Soni pottering around her home to show that a police officer's life isn't all shootouts and car chases. Nevertheless, many of the bedrocks of a long and creatively fruitful career have been set in place here. Ayr stages edgy confrontations, refuses all copouts, and is throughout rigorous in his insistence that what action there is should come from character. It helps that Soni is a hell of a character: resolutely played by Ohlyan - never going for easy sympathy, nor offering even a trace of a smile - she may be the single most complex protagonist in all recent Indian cinema.

Soni is now streaming on Netflix.

Friday 24 May 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of May 10-12, 2019:

1 (new) John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (15) ***

2 (1) Pokemon Detective Pikachu (PG)
3 (2Avengers: Endgame (12A) **
4 (3) The Hustle (12A)
5 (new) Paw Patrol: Mighty Pups (U)
6 (4) Long Shot (15) ***
7 (6) Dumbo (PG) **
8 (8) Amazing Grace (U)
9 (7) Tolkien (12A)
10 (5) The Curse of La Llorona (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Batman

2. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
3. Batman Returns
4. Batman Forever
5. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

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

1 (2) 
Bumblebee (PG) ***
2 (9) The Favourite (15) ***
3 (new) Glass (15)
4 (4) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
5 (1) Mary Poppins Returns (U) ***
6 (5) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
7 (3Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
8 (11) Mary Queen of Scots (12) **
9 (7) Aquaman (12)
10 (25) The Secret Life of Pets (U) **


My top five: 
1. Sauvage

2. Beautiful Boy
3. Colette
4. Stan & Ollie
5. Bumblebee

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Full Monty (Saturday, BBC1, 10.20pm)
2. Romancing the Stone [above] (Sunday, C4, 3.30pm)
3. Inside Out (Saturday, BBC1, 5.45pm)
4. Looper (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
5. Arrival (Sunday, C4, 9pm)

"John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection" (Guardian 24/05/19)

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection ****
Dir: Julien Faraut. Documentary with: John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and the voice of Mathieu Amalric. 95 mins. Cert: 12A

Cinematic Tantrum Week continues with a cherishably idiosyncratic essay-film that could be retitled Racquetman, clinching its thesis on the implicit link between big-stadium sportsmen and other impetuous performers. Archivist Julien Faraut has spun documentarist Gil de Kermadec’s raw footage of John McEnroe’s fractious mid-Eighties progress at the French Open into the basis of a philosophical rumination – Herzogian voiceover care of Mathieu Amalric – on tennis, cinema and life. Steady old Ivan Lendl gets barely a look in on the other side of the net; the attraction here lies in watching one man wage noisy war against a world built on treacherous clay. At a stretch, the film might be claimed as a serious-minded Gallic variant on what our own Mac-mimicking Roger Kitter attempted with his 1982 novelty hit “Chalk Dust (The Umpire Strikes Back)”.

McEnroe remains a fascinating focal point: Faraut, thinking under the influence of former Cahiers du Cinéma chief Serge Daney, seeks to elevate him as a singularly tortured creative, an auteur in sports socks. His face set in that teenage De Niro scowl, he offers no celebration, not even a terse, Murray-like fist pump; coaches will recoil at his tendency to stop after each shot, as if anticipating the worst. (Dodgy line calls merely confirm his put-upon worldview.) An opening instructional short illustrating how to hit a forehand comes to seem simplistic indeed set against McEnroe’s imperfect reality, battling balls, officials, crowds, perms and cameramen alike. There are electrifying moments where he stares down the lens mid-match with that signature mix of aggression and derision. You want some? You’re not worth my time.

And yet: surely he needed the cameras there, to document his status as the most tempestuous of showmen? (That McEnroe was the Chaplin of on-court contempt is made clear by the clip that shows him questioning one linesman’s vision, deploying his racquet as a white stick.) De Kermadec spurned televised tennis, drawn to players as vulnerable flesh-and-blood, and that preference may explain the unusually intimate, gorgeously earthy celluloid Faraut stitches together, forsaking full-court coverage in favour of a point-by-point portraiture; the pay-off is an unexpectedly haunting description of 1984’s rollercoaster men’s-singles final. Over the coming weeks, McEnroe will resume his position as the amused, brilliant analyst lobbing wisecracks at Andrew Castle. Is it that, with cameras and spectators on side, he feels he can finally relinquish this riveting inner tension?

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection opens in selected cinemas from today.

Extensions: "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum"

Founded in 2014, the John Wick series was the first major action franchise to be built in the image of The Raid, that next-level Indonesian beat-'em-up/health-and-safety nightmare of 2011. Certain elements were imported wholesale: a hero besieged from every angle; the preference for analogue stuntwork in non-CG environments, allowing us to fully register the thwack whenever bodies hit the floor; and - distinguishing the Wicks from so many fast-cut franchises - the tethering of all this action to a sure sense of space, surest of all perhaps around The Continental, that olde-worlde New York hotel for assassins presided over by a suavely cravatted, cognac-sipping Ian McShane. That location alone pointed to the element of the baroque stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski wrestled into shot; it was one of several art deco flourishes against which the filmmaker could offset his essentially meat-and-potatoes genre thrills. The Raid was a long tall bag of concrete, brutalist entertainment in every sense (although its 2014 sequel got the interior decorators in). The Wicks have had the benefit of the considered design a studio budget can get you, which explains why its protagonist finished John Wick: Chapter 2 squaring off in a gallery; it's also allowed Stahelski to reinforce his vision of an underworld extending out from the margins of the real world, with offices of touch-typing secretaries in place to handle the contracts involved in contract killings, and gold coins being passed out to secure access to those backrooms deemed off-limits to mere mortals. Stahelski wasn't interested in dancing about architecture; kicking-ass around, sometimes through it would be his calling card.

We see a good deal more of that world in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, which picks up almost exactly where its predecessor left off, with the clock ticking down to the point where open season can be declared on Wick for crossing the wrong people in Chapters One and Two. In the first twenty minutes alone, our man will face off against potential killers in the New York Public Library, a handily overstocked armoury, and the city's sole remaining working stables (where Keanu gets the horses to do some of the highkicks for him), allowing us a rapid sense that the whole world has turned against John Wick; as if the threat of being offed wasn't enough, he also has to navigate rush hour traffic, and to do so in torrential rain. It makes narrative sense, then, for Stahelski to set Wick loose in turn against the whole world - to liberate him from the mean streets and relocate him to balmier climes, where the sopping wet platinum-black suit of a trained killer who's trying to reform might dry out. Chapter 3 is where this franchise, having banked enough money to feel secure in its movements, begins to stretch its arms and legs and spread out, for better and worse. The heavier lifting can at least be shared more equally this time around. Reeves, then at the nothing-to-lose stage of his career, was the only star willing to sign on for the shaky prospect of the first movie, but now we also have an imperious Anjelica Huston as a Russian mob boss who dabbles in ballet instruction (giving Stahelski a dash of high culture to cut in with all his fists to the face) and Halle Berry as a sort of sexed-up Barbara Woodhouse the exiled Wick joins in Casablanca, who - in keeping with the attack dogs she unleashes on foes' crotches - snarls her every other line of dialogue.

Chapter 3 has spectacle, then, enough to do you for an idle Friday or Saturday night. What you might long for, amid the longueurs of a flagrantly overextended two-hour sit, is a script that didn't simply feel like a callsheet for Stahelski's stunt performers, or which offered one wisecrack that acknowledged how absurd it is that the slaying of John Wick's dog should have led us to this multiplex version of World War III. Parabellum is not without its lighter moments, and it manages one good joke that's about space, drafting in DTV superstar Mark Dacascos as a John Wick superfan whose obsession insists he be the one to get close enough to take our hero out. More generally, the punchlines start to fall on the blunt side, as if Stahelski had run out of ways to close a scene out, save having Keanu hurl an axe into a goon's face. The bulk of the energy has gone on more stunts, and that worldbuilding that is beloved of fans, but which has increasingly come to resemble the creative equivalent of human resources, shuttling on supporting actors to restate or reframe the rules of every dust-up: Asia Kate Dillon as an adjudicator known as The Adjudicator, Saïd Taghmaoui - of course Saïd Taghmaoui - as a Bedouin chief Wick meets on his travels, Laurence Fishburne as another of the series' throwaway Matrix references. If you're just here to watch Keanu conducting a swordfight while speeding a motorbike into an uncertain night, you'll get your gold coins' worth, yet what this series has gained in scope, it loses in containment and credible threat. Behind the Continental's characterful facade, we now learn, there sits a vast glass-and-metal annex, indistinguishable from the modern corporate workspace, and in some way emblematic of the level this sometime B-movie gamble is now operating on. The content generated there is the same - it's still Keanu beating people up - but the dimensions have changed, so you exit Parabellum with a feeling not of liberation or exhilaration, but vague emptiness, and the exhaustion that comes specifically from watching people having to cover extra ground.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 23 May 2019

From the archive: "The Secret Life of Pets"

The middle-of-the-pack The Secret Life of Pets was digimation specialists Illuminations trying to prove there was more to them than those minions, and the last prominent gig for comedian Louis CK before allegations emerged that suggested he was unsuited for feature-film employment, or indeed any kind of communal activity. (For the upcoming sequel, he has been replaced by the cuddlier Patton Oswalt.) Its workable elevator pitch boils down to "What if Toy Story, but with domesticated animals?": we're introduced to the pets of one New York City apartment block just as their human keepers are departing for work, then left to watch an unlikely alliance forming between incumbent, CK-voiced hound Max and incoming alpha dog Duke, voiced by Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet. Attention has clearly been paid to the ways animals behave both around their owners and when they think they're not being watched; if The Secret Life of Pets isn't in the Ghibli league of observational animation, it at least offers the moderate fun of watching computerised cats giving celebrity voice to their thoughts as they get distracted by laserbeams or soft toys stuck to their paws.

As, however, signalled by the soundtrack's unexpected and thoroughly unnecessary revival of "Stayin' Alive" by N-Trance featuring Ricardo Da Force (the Pets equivalent of Madagascar's "I Like to Move It" by Reel 2 Reel featuring the Mad Stuntman), digimation has abandoned art in favour of pursuing something more immediately saleable. Pets is one of an increasing number of titles content just to function as zippy, colourful, throwaway distraction; it's machine-like in the manner it contrives a speedy setpiece every seven or eight minutes, at every turn hoping that movement will be an adequate substitute for ingenuity or wit. Though we're offered the novelty of Kevin Hart voicing a leporine revolutionary (the franchise's breakthrough star, if the pre-teen focus groups are anything to go by) and the usually mild-mannered Albert Brooks as a hawk, these voice artists have all been funnier with the leash of a U rating off. It is colourful, walking everybody through a soft-edged vision of Manhattan, its skyline fitted with childproofed skyscrapers; and Duke's vision of a meatpacking factory is a late flourish worthy of our loonier 'toons - even though we're aware the silly sausages singing along to bangers from the Grease soundtrack are just meatier Minions. There is, in the main, even less of substance here for accompanying adults than there was in the Despicable Mes - it's all about the little critters - but other channels will be offering worse ways of keeping yours chuckling on damp Bank Holiday afternoons.

(May 2019)

The Secret Life of Pets is available on DVD through Universal; a sequel opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.   

Wednesday 22 May 2019

"Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock 'n' Roll" (Guardian 22/05/19)

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ‘n’ Roll **
Dir: Tom Jones. Documentary with: Bruce Springsteen, Steve van Zandt, Southside Johnny Lyon, Garry Tallent. 117 mins. Cert: 12A

The coastal New Jersey enclave of Asbury Park was pinned firmly to the pop-cultural map upon the release of Bruce Springsteen’s debut album “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” in 1973. Frontloading testimony from Springsteen himself in his role as rock’s plain-spoken elder statesman, this documentary from director Tom Jones (not that one) does a haphazard job of digging around the region in a bid to uncover how that sound – and a wider Asbury scene – emerged. Trailing in some distance behind 2016’s autobiography Born to Run and the stage show Springsteen on Broadway (filmed for Netflix last year), the results form a distinctly minor item of Bruceology, exposed in its threadbare second half as something diehard fans might eventually watch for free on a flatscreen in the foyer of the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce.

By far the film’s most useful feature is its opening history of an area that served as a genuine East Coast melting pot: the only spot along the Jersey shore where African-Americans could bathe in public – partly, it transpires, as the sea met the county’s sewage output there. That laissez-faire party town air has traditionally accounted for the utopian mix of white and black musicians within Springsteen’s fabled E Street Band, yet as many of those performers testify here, their early recordings were born out of the July 1970 unrest that turned neighbours against one another, and aimed at restoring unity to a divided community. A starstruck Jones hardly pushes his interviewees on it, but somewhere in his naggingly monotonous morass of talking heads is the tale of how The Boss gained a social conscience.

It’s somewhat shaky even as a one-night-only cinematic proposition, presenting some archive clips in the wrong aspect ratio, and generally resembling an extended episode of VH1’s Classic Albums, complete with what look suspiciously like fadeouts for ads. A fondness for blokey rock anecdotes will sustain viewers through the first hour, but the Asbury revival story plays as terribly bland, with its faux-inspirational score and shots of newbuilds gleaming in the late-summer sun. Your reward for enduring these civic-minded platitudes is a few minutes of Bruce and Little Stevie trading guitar licks at a charity do, and passing glimpses of poignant pop minutiae – such as the listing Springsteen placed while seeking a pianist – but the whole retains the humdrum look of documentary-making by committee. 

Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock 'n' Roll screens in selected cinemas tonight.

Lost in space: "High Life"

Claire Denis' High Life may qualify as the most oblique contribution yet to the discourse around the #MeToo movement. It's about the ways men and women interact - sometimes harmoniously, sometimes fruitfully, sometimes viciously; be warned it earns its 18 certificate for scenes of strong sexual violence - and yet it takes place stratospheres above our heads, several decades in the future. The men and women it surveys are lost in space, drifting on a prison ship to which death row inmates are dispatched in order to reduce earthly overcrowding and serve as guinea pigs in experiments on the theme of repopulation. That the film intends to be a beam of light connecting the us of the present to the us of the future is evident from the fact this ship isn't some sleek, sterile vision sent from beyond our wildest dreams, rather a drab box, insulated with corrugated cardboard and plastic, and containing all the ambience of some piss-soaked stratum of a council tower block. As we dock, the only signs of life are the buff, bull-headed Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his toddling daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey). Flashbacks reveal the ship was once very nearly as populous as the Earth below, and that there is a story to be pieced together here, but for starters, there is but this man and this girl; the question Denis floats before us is whether the pair represent some new hope, or just about the worst thing that could happen.

Given the film's doomy, oppressive air, the smart money would be on the latter. There are points in High Life's first half where it appears an oblique film even for the writer-director who gave us 2004's notoriously inscrutable The Intruder to have made, and the few puzzle pieces that do tessellate present an altogether bleak and joyless picture. (In case it wasn't already clear, we are light years away from the Guardians of the Galaxy.) One issue is that the film demands a lot of hard viewer work to teleport us fully aboard a place we wouldn't ordinarily want to be, surrounded by people it is - pre-existing crushes on R-Pattz aside - difficult to wholly warm to. Denis remains the flagbearer for a more experiential, non-linear form of cinema, which means that once again we are required to relinquish the guy ropes of plot. It was fun to find oneself stranded in the desert with the Foreign Legion of 1999's Beau Travail (and then to be present in the nightclub where Denis Lavant so memorably cut loose to Corona's "The Rhythm of the Night"); and there was something seductive, perhaps even erotic about the prospect of being caught up amid the Parisian traffic jams of 2002's Vendredi Soir. High Life, by contrast, obliges us to log two hours in the company of mumbly ne'er-do-wells reduced to the basest forms of existence, to fucking and fighting; at times, the film resembles an intergalactic Big Brother spin-off, with a mournful Tindersticks score offered by way of compensation for its terminal lack of humour.

The mood of dour desperation Denis evokes has evidently cast a spell on some - it is 2019, after all - but snap out of it, as I did around the halfway point, and what you see are free-floating setpieces, circled zero gravity-style by arresting blobs and gobbets of imagery. The film is reliant on an entirely standalone scene on a train - with Victor Banerjee as a concerned humanities professor - to let us know why these crumpled cosmonauts are where they are; yet even after floating alongside them for just shy of two hours, I'm still not sure who they are, save perhaps rough-hewn notches on the gender spectrum, victims, aggressors, and some of the points in between. The actors commit, do their best with Denis' muffed English-language dialogue (not a strong point, despite rumours of the involvement of poet-novelist Nick Laird) and get bits of it up and running. Pattinson, for one, locks down the Silent Running-like prologue: what keeps the baby-girl business just the right side of Athena-poster blandness is that his Monte is a hunk who could also be a brute, and more than likely a killer. (You sense Denis racing to get to him before Catherine Breillat could.) Still, while you buy the actor as the surprised father to a toddler, he's simply far too young in star years to be looking after a teenager, which means nothing Denis puts on screen during the film's final ascent into the great beyond can be as moving as the more lived-in (and, indeed, down-to-earth) father-daughter relationship in last month's Eighth Grade.

Juliette Binoche, in the especially ill-defined role of an interstellar Nurse Ratched put aboard to milk the male passengers, merely demonstrates that - not unlike Denis - she's around three-quarters less effective when working in English than she is when working in her native French; the bold gambles that might come off closer to home - such as the nurse's full-bodied writhing atop some kind of orgasmatron device - look a little silly, if not naff here, not helped by the application of the least realistic merkin of this or any other year. (Did the ship dock at a branch of Allied Carpets at some point?) If I remain unconvinced that swing-for-the-stars international coproductions like these are the most beneficial showcases for our auteur directors (elevated budgets aside), High Life's grotty, mend-and-make-do science fiction at least kept me interested. In its patchwork way, the film succeeds in creating its own universe, but be aware it's a cramped and circumscribed one, presided over by an aloof if not wholly indifferent creator. Maybe that's truer to where we now are physically and spiritually than, say, the religiose sci-fi of Spielberg or the bombastic sci-fi of a James Cameron or Roland Emmerich, with their consoling camaraderie and helpful divine interventions. Yet it wouldn't surprise me if seasoned arthouse observers preferred to cling to warming memories of John Carpenter's Dark Star - and it's certainly the first Claire Denis film to have sent me away with a hankering to watch some Red Dwarf.

High Life is now showing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday 21 May 2019

In memoriam: John Singleton (Telegraph 02/05/19)

John Singleton, who has died aged 51, was a filmmaker who came to Hollywood prominence as both the first African-American and youngest person ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. The nomination was for Boyz N The Hood (1991), a stunningly powerful coming-of-age drama set amid the gang violence of South Central Los Angeles, which featured indelible performances from Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube. Singleton instantly caught cinemagoers’ imagination, while setting astonished critics to wondering how an unknown 23-year-old could have gathered the film’s hard-won life experience. Roger Ebert, a career-long Singleton admirer, wrote: “By the end of Boyz N The Hood, I realised I had seen not simply a brilliant directorial debut, but an American film of enormous importance.”

Singleton had had to fight to make it. Columbia Pictures paid him $7m for a script that promised to match the explosivity of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), intending to hand it over to a more experienced helmer. Yet Singleton persisted (“I’m not going to let somebody from Idaho or Encino direct a movie about living in South Central”) and the resulting film, released into the uneasy calm between the Rodney King beating of March 1991 and the Watts riots of 1992, gained in prescience with each week. It sparked a cycle of films depicting inner-city tensions – Juice (1992), South Central (1992) and Menace II Society (1993) all followed in Boyz’s wake – even as Singleton struggled to figure out how to convert his sudden success into the sustainable careers enjoyed by his white filmmaking idols.

He was born John Daniel Singleton in L.A. on January 6, 1968 to realtor Danny Singleton and pharmaceutical sales rep Sheila Ward-Johnson. Though his parents divorced shortly thereafter, the young John enjoyed a steady childhood, shuttling between his mother’s home, serendipitously adjacent to a drive-in cinema, and a father cited as the inspiration for Laurence Fishburne’s nurturing Jason “Furious” Styles in Boyz. After graduating from Blair High School in 1986, the bald-headed, burly Singleton spent the summer working security on the set of TV’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (where he met Fishburne), before enrolling on USC’s screenwriting course. His autobiographical script “Summer of 84” – the basis for Boyz – landed him representation with powerful agents CAA before his sophomore year was out.

An off-the-bat masterpiece like Boyz would loom over most careers, and Singleton’s honeymoon period lasted not much longer than the extravagant nine-minute promo he fashioned for Michael Jackson’s 1992 hit “Remember the Time”. Despite promising elements (Janet Jackson in the lead, Maya Angelou verses), Poetic Justice (1993) met with widespread indifference; Higher Learning (1995), a snapshot of the American college system, was ambitious but dramatically unpersuasive. Tough lynch mob drama Rosewood (1997) drew more favourable responses, but was dumped by studio Warners (“they were afraid of the picture”). In 1999, Singleton pleaded no contest to punching and choking the mother of one of his children; he was sentenced to three months’ probation, and ordered to make a short film on domestic abuse.

His standing within Hollywood was lifted thanks to summer hits with Shaft (2000), a slick, Samuel L. Jackson-starring update of the 1970s blaxploitation flick, and dumbly enjoyable dragracing sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). Between these works-for-hire, Singleton returned to Boyz territory and form with the self-penned Baby Boy (2001), a mellow, engaging, gently floated thesis about the infantilization of young black men in inner cities. No such elevated claims could, however, be made for Four Brothers (2005), the aggravating actioner Singleton filmed in Canada with the pointedly Caucasian Mark Wahlberg in the lead; the sense that career traction had been irretrievably lost was only compounded by Abduction (2011), a nonsensical runaround conceived as a showcase for toothy Twilight pin-up Taylor Lautner.

With his long-planned Tupac Shakur biopic shelved indefinitely, Singleton switched to television, shooting episodes of Empire and Billions, and co-creating the L.A. drug trade drama Snowfall (2017-18). He appeared in last year’s BBC documentary Black Hollywood: They’ve Gotta Have Us, mulling over the inclusive strides the studios have taken in the quarter-century since his breakthrough. A sufferer of hypertension, he succumbed to a stroke on April 17, before being taken off life support.

Twice divorced, he is survived by his parents and seven children: a daughter, Justice, and a son, Maasai, from his first marriage to Tosha Lewis; a daughter, Hadar Busia-Singleton, from his second marriage to actress Akosua Busia; and by three daughters, Selenesol, Cleopatra and Isis, and a son, Seven, from later, undisclosed relationships.

John Singleton, born January 6, 1968, died April 29, 2019.