Sunday 30 June 2019

On demand: "Last Breath"

Last Breath is a documentary account of a near-fatal industrial accident; it should by rights be preceded by one of those ads for some "where there's a blame, there's a claim" ambulance chaser. The incident in question occurred in September 2012, when Chris Lemons, one of a three-man team of divers carrying out routine maintenance on a North Sea oil well found himself - via a freak set of circumstances - stranded at the bottom of the ocean, with the umbilical cord connecting him to his diving vessel irreparably severed, leaving him with but five minutes of air, and thus five minutes of life. The directors, Richard da Costa and Alex Parkinson, have given this tale a broadly conventional retelling; they know they've been handed a heartstopping, life-or-death story, and so simply crack on with the job of conveying it. In one respect, they tamp down any suspense by having all three divers - Lemons, Dave Yuasa and Duncan Allcock - appear on screen, very much alive, within the opening fifteen minutes to start their testimony. Thereafter, it's just a matter of whether da Costa and Parkinson can evoke the fear and dread of Lemons' fraught moment under the sea.

They're helped considerably in this task by the divers' own coverage. The specialised sub-aquatic plumbing Lemons undertakes is a complicated process that necessitates a camera being attached to diving masks, and constant monitoring from above; pulled from the deep, Lemons and co. provide a running commentary in talking-head form, and judicious reconstructions fill in any remaining gaps. There's a certain fascination in seeing how this job would be done even on regular, uneventful shifts: da Costa and Parkinson show us the flooding of the diving chamber with helium that gives these roughnecks Betty Boop voices, Allcock's hoarding of chocolate bars for energy purposes, the radar technology that keeps boats faced with rolling tides in more or less the same position, so divers have the best possible chance of returning safely to the surface. The narrative grist, however, is how from the lowest of low points - separated from his vessel and his colleagues, all but written off as dead - this one diver got back to a ship that had drifted several miles away from the dive site.

It was a smart choice on the directors' part to have Lemons go quiet once he's cut adrift, as it suddenly allows the film to repressurise with suspense: we're left wondering where he went, and what he was feeling. What bubbles up in the meantime is a remarkable story of teamwork: how the extraordinarily fleet-footed actions of a group of individuals bound by a deep responsibility to one of their own saved another man's life. Throughout, there's a marked contrast between the gravity of the situation under discussion and the divers' unflustered responses, which you realise might well make the difference between life and death in situations such as these. Time and again, what strikes us as medal-worthy heroism is downplayed and shrugged off as just doing a job, although the deadpan Yuasa is onto something about the nature of his colleagues when he confesses "you don't want to be down there with a knob". (I'll say.) If Last Breath's title sets us to panic stations, then, its content proves unexpectedly buoying: if Chris Lemons can come back from this, there's absolutely no reason why - with the right people around you - you can't bounce back from that ghosting, that bad day in the office, or any other deep, dark place you happen to find yourself in.

Last Breath is now streaming on Netflix.

Saturday 29 June 2019

In memoriam: Sylvia Miles (Telegraph 23/06/19)

Sylvia Miles, who has died aged 94, was an actress, socialite and camp icon who emerged amid the adventurous American cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s, giving vivid, lusty life to characters of a certain age.

She earned the first of her two Oscar nominations for her role in Midnight Cowboy (1969) as Cass, the bottle-blonde, no-nonsense working girl who takes in Jon Voight’s Joe Buck upon his arrival in New York. Miles was on screen for less than ten minutes, yet she established a dramatic contrast between the battle-hardened streetwalker and her lodger’s doughy malleability, before tearing into a tremendous, defiant monologue: “Who do you think you’re dealing with?... In case you didn’t happen to notice it, you big Texas longhorn bull, I’m one hell of a gorgeous chick!”

That envelope-pushing film’s success bestowed a curious form of celebrity upon her. Miles’ most substantial role of the Seventies came in Heat (1972), Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s knowingly trashy riff on Sunset Boulevard, in which she played an ageing actress seducing Joe Dallesandro’s former child star. (She appeared unabashedly topless on European posters.)

A second Oscar nomination came her way for bringing a melancholy faded glamour to a five-minute scene in Dick Richards’ adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely (1975), where her booze-sodden widow Mrs. Florian informed Robert Mitchum’s Philip Marlowe “When I like a guy, the ceiling’s the limit.” It was, as the New York Times reviewer observed, “a role that seems an overdone cliché, until you realise [Miles] is doing it with such subtlety that her lost beauty keeps flickering back”.

She had been born Sylvia Lee in Greenwich Village, New York on September 9, 1924, the daughter of furniture maker Reuben Scheinwald and his wife Bella (née Feldman). After studying at Washington Irving High School and the Pratt Institute, she signed up at the Actors Studio, then entering its late Forties heyday. The Method training she received there was one factor in her career longevity: unlike such essentially decorous, passive Warhol discoveries as Dallesandro and Edie Sedgwick, Miles knew how to act.

She began on the stage, quickly drawing eyes to an emergent off-Broadway scene. After making her debut in a 1954 production of Harold Robbins’ A Stone for Danny Fisher alongside future Producers star Zero Mostel, Miles was cast in generally seamy roles: as the prostitute Margie in 1957’s fabled Jason Robards production of The Iceman Cometh, as the brothel thief in 1960’s Obie-winning staging of Jean Genet’s The Balcony, as a witch in 1962’s An Anton Chekhov Sketchbook.

Miles made her film debut in crime thriller Murder Inc. (1960) and racked up multiple TV credits before Midnight Cowboy put her on the Hollywood radar. Pursuing an idiosyncratic career path, she thereafter popped up in cultish projects: as a script girl in The Last Movie (1971), Maxine in Broadway’s 1976 revival of The Night of the Iguana, the Countess Rasmussen in Bollywood thriller Shalimar (1978). In Michael Winner’s horror cash-in The Sentinel (1977), Miles played a character she described as “a mad, dead, crazed German zombie lesbian ballet dancer”.

By then, her acting career was secondary to her reputation as a social butterfly: she was the first public figure to inspire the observation they would “attend the opening of an envelope”, a line variously attributed to the ventriloquist Wayland Flowers, gossip columnist Earl Wilson and Miles herself. In a mid-70s interview, Miles gave her reasoning: “I go out a lot because that’s the only way I get to meet people… I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of.”

She created furore at a party during 1973’s New York Film Festival, however, after upending a plate of steak tartare over the famously sniffy theatre critic John Simon, who had dismissed her in print as “one of New York’s leading gatecrashers”. (Miles insisted she was always on the guest list.) When Simon said he’d send her the dry cleaning bill, Miles retorted “It’ll probably be the first time that suit’s been cleaned.” The hullabaloo didn’t stop the invites: a People profile of 1976 bore the headline “What Would a Manhattan Party Be Without the Ubiquitous Sylvia Miles?”

She worked steadily in the decades that followed, lending flamboyant character to small supporting parts: fortune teller Madame Zena in fairground slasher The Funhouse (1981), the Broadway producer in Agatha Christie adaptation Evil Under the Sun (1982), a realtor in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) and its sequel Money Never Sleeps (2010). She was a matchmaker in Crossing Delancey (1988), Meryl Streep’s mother in She-Devil (1989), and turned up in a 2002 episode of Sex & the City, sprinkling granulated lithium on her chocolate ice cream.

In her personal life, she was a keen chess player, and married and divorced three times: her husbands were William Miles, from whom she took her surname, the actor Gerald Price, and the DJ Ted Brown. “I’m often thought of as controversial or avant-garde or erotic or salacious,” she stated in that 1976 profile. “But there isn’t anybody I know who wouldn’t live my life if they could.”

Sylvia Miles, born September 9, 1924, died June 12, 2019.

From the archive: "American Sniper"

After Jersey Boys, in which he channelled the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in the manner of an elderly uncle dancing to Pitbull at a wedding reception, Clint Eastwood has returned to a subject he knows a thing or two about: violence. This season’s biopics have dissected numerous troubled hearts and minds, but American Sniper targets perhaps the most troubled, and adopts an unexpectedly ambiguous line of inquiry: its interest – its fascination – lies in how a man gets to the point of pulling the trigger, and what happens once the shots ring out.

As depicted here, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enjoyed a very Texan upbringing: hunting, praying, rodeo-riding. After witnessing the mid-90s terrorist attacks on US embassies on TV, however, he reacted in much the same way he did to the sight of his younger brother being attacked by the school bully – by barrelling into the fight. Entering the Navy SEALS, he soon became the most decorated sniper in recent military history. A magnet briefly glimpsed on the Kyle fridge puts it best: “Don’t mess with Texas”.

Kyle’s memoir became a bestseller at certain supermarket checkouts, yet either screenwriter Jason Hall or (more likely) his director has appropriated this story as an opportunity to interrogate an idea of masculinity. After Whiplash, American Sniper is the second film this week to position humiliation – in its many and varied forms – as a formative part of the American experience.

Kyle’s swaggering cowboy façade first slips upon catching his girlfriend cheating on him; he only regains his sniper’s eye upon sleeping with wife-to-be Taya (Sienna Miller) for the first time. Shortly thereafter, the humbling phallic knockdown of 9/11 hands him a ticket to Iraq, and a mandate to shoot women, children and anybody else who might pose a threat to the American way of life.

This big lug will doubtless be claimed as a hero by many. Cooper’s Kyle is sincere in his passions, his patriotism, his belief he’s been put on this earth to wipe out evil: “Your heart is beating out of your chest,” notes Taya on the couple’s wedding day. Eastwood gives him the uniform and kill ratio to back up his conviction and life choices: he’s so good at his job his brothers-in-arms swiftly confer the nickname “Legend” upon him.

Yet, as with Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Eastwood’s concern resides in how such legends come about, and his conclusions are unmistakably bleak. No simple booyah, American Sniper intuits that a life spent lying in darkened isolation, growing increasingly suspicious of anyone who passes into one’s eyeline, might not be the healthiest; and that it might not be fair to engage in a firefight with one hand while keeping your pregnant sweetheart hanging on the phone the other’s holding.

Though Miller dishes out some rather one-note home comforts with intelligence, these homefront scenes offer little Kathryn Bigelow hadn’t already achieved, with greater visual acuity, in The Hurt Locker. Eastwood is visibly more engaged by the bruising combat sequences, and the details he hones in on are exactly those of a former cowboy who’s seen too much bloodshed in his lifetime, and who knows what being on either end of a gun can do to a man.

The editorial line is most strikingly evident in Cooper’s agonised weariness upon realising he’ll have to shoot yet another Iraqi child if he picks up the rocket launcher one just-neutralised adult target has dropped; in a supposedly triumphant takeout – a “fuck yeah” moment anywhere else – which registers here as a numb shrug, and begets only more trouble; and in a final act in which the cycle of violence Chris Kyle found himself in is both concluded, and renewed.

In American Sniper, we’re reacquainted with the same critically minded Clint who alighted upon Unforgiven, Gran Torino and J. Edgar, scripts that finally gave this tersest of elder statesmen something to say: it’s another of those projects in which Eastwood turns that piercing gaze on aspects of the American mindset, and wonders whether the worst of these is actually worth fighting for. Not insignificantly, it may also form the most persuasive argument any Republican-affiliated filmmaker has ever made in favour of stricter gun control.

(MovieMail, January 2015)

American Sniper screens on ITV tonight at 9.55pm.

Friday 28 June 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 21-23, 2019:

1 (new) Toy Story 4 (U) ***

2 (1) Aladdin (PG)
3 (2) Men in Black International (12A)
4 (3) Rocketman (15) ***
5 (new) Brightburn (15)
6 (4) The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)
7 (8) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
8 (5) X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12A)
9 (new) Child's Play (15)
10 (7) John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Article 15

2. Mari
3. Support the Girls
4. Toy Story 4
5. Amin

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

1 (1) 
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
2 (new) Cold Pursuit (15) **
3 (4) Instant Family (12) ***
4 (2) Stan & Ollie (PG) ***
5 (3Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
6 (25) Toy Story (U) *****
7 (10) Aquaman (12)
8 (6) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***
9 (new) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
10 (5) Green Book (12) **


My top five: 
1. Loro

2. If Beale Street Could Talk
3. Boy Erased
4. Liam Gallagher: As It Was
5. A Private War

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Zootropolis (Saturday, BBC1, 5.15pm)
2. American Sniper (Saturday, ITV, 9.55pm)
3. Hot Fuzz (Friday, ITV, 11.10pm)
4. Buried [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
5. Pride (Sunday, BBC2, 12.30am)

"Article 15" (Guardian 28/06/19)

Article 15 ****
Dir: Anubhav Singh. With: Ayushmann Khurrana, Isha Talwar, Manoj Pahwa, Aakash Dabhade. 130 mins. Cert: 15

Plenty of recent Indian crowdpleasers have hymned the country’s rapid modernisation. Hot from this year’s London Indian Film Festival, Anubhav Singh’s arrestingly tough policier makes the counterclaim that the Modi millions haven’t trickled down anything like enough, leaving vast regions subject to caste conflict, exploitation, and a lawlessness bordering on barbarism. Singh and co-writer Gaurav Solanki use a single case – a missing persons inquiry that becomes a murder investigation after two of three absent girls are found strung up from a tree – as a means of interrogating the state of the motherland as it may still be in 2019. It hardly yields the prettiest picture, but this is as close as any mainstream Hindi release has come to matching that 21st century Korean masterpiece Memories of Murder.

As there, part of the fascination resides in following a case that gets messier with each frame, like a stain that spreads with rubbing. We’re offered an upstanding hero in Additional Commissioner Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana, as precise as his clipped moustache), banished to an Uttar Pradesh backwater just as this sorry case is breaking. Yet he’s battling marital issues that don’t seem like the rote fallback of so much primetime cop drama – more a sickness of the liberal soul – even before he runs up against a restless underclass and his colleagues’ rank complacency. Manoj Pahwa is credibly loathsome as a rotund stationhouse veteran, the embodiment of justice in its most compromised and slow-moving form, who tells a female coroner outraged by the girls’ treatment that she should post a few poems on Facebook.

The plot scarcely lends itself to idle popcorn-snacking, and some intricate details of caste may pass non-Indian viewers by. (Pointedly, social reformer B.R. Ambedkar merits three mentions; the current PM none.) Yet every narrative idea – even a literally throwaway aside involving dog treats – ties up and pays off, and Singh thinks in big, resonant images: an undrainable swamp, a political rally that erupts in flames. One extended close-up on the titular article, bedrock of India’s civil rights legislation, suggests this filmmaker knows where real-world attention must be paid, but Singh also manages to seize our imagination in the dark. “What the fuck is going on here?,” yelps Ranjan after a sparky briefing on caste. Sometimes – and you absolutely wouldn’t have to be Indian to feel this – this is all one can ask of one’s country. 

Article 15 opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Arifa" (Guardian 28/06/19)

Arifa **
Dir: Sadia Saeed. With: Shermin Hassan, Luca Pusceddu, Jeff Mirza, Shazia Mirza. 91 mins. Cert: 15

Here’s another of those homegrown debuts that appears hellbent on snuffing out its own flickers of promise. Writer-director Sadia Saeed has alighted upon a protagonist who may actually be closer in her circumstances to the cinemagoing demographic than most of the heroes and heroines the movies have lionised: Arifa (played by Shermin Hassan) is a frustrated 28-year-old British Asian woman who works in insurance and lives at home with her parents. Yet scenes float by with a weird lack of urgency that doesn’t appear to be a conscious choice, jokes are muffled, and some of the performers fail to convince. Arifa can’t work as comedy, because the material isn’t up to snuff. As character study, it struggles to wring much of note out of a protagonist who may simply be too ordinary to sustain a feature-length work.

The odd thing is that Saeed seems partially aware of this shortcoming, working in scenes in which the heroine’s fumbling attempts at creative writing are offered a no-nonsense critique by her tutor. One of the latter’s observations – “this isn’t a story, it’s a magazine article” – reverberates altogether loudly through the slice-of-life snapshots that follow, yet even a student-rag profile would demand more connective pith than Saeed’s script provides. A naggingly unpersuasive strand involving dad’s illegal tobacco smuggling operation generates less tension than the matter of which unworthy suitor our girl can shake off first. That quandary, in turn, becomes secondary to minor disputes in newsagents and aerobics classes, where Saeed mistakes the mundane for the revealingly quotidian.

By far the film’s strongest suit is Hassan’s bright and likable turn, revealing an inner spark that makes the character less of a pushover than she initially seems, and which may serve this performer well, should she get her hands on more fortified, lived-in writing. A sparse piano score, by Level 42’s Mike Lindup, adds a note or two of atmosphere conspicuously lacking in the dialogue scenes, and cinematographer Giuseppe Pignone collates some not unattractive glimpses of Soho at Christmas and a deserted, out-of-season Brighton. Yet too often what’s going on within these frames registers as humdrum in the extreme: at risk of sounding like that creative writing tutor, it’s the kind of drama one might experience for free walking past an open door. 

Arifa screens at the Genesis Cinema, London, this Sunday.

Birdwatching: "Support the Girls"

The American writer-director Andrew Bujalski emerged from the movement known as mumblecore - the Noughties variant of the Weinstein-reinforced indie boom of the 1990s, engineered by a ragtag of creatives with far less disposable income to work with. Starring family, friends and non-name performers, Bujalski's early works (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha) weren't so much movies as mixers, overseen by a keen-eyed sociology student trailing multiple theses on how people now meet, whether cute or otherwise. (The films received enough good word to carry them over the Atlantic, but there were equally those who preferred their cinema a little more professional.) With increased funding, Bujalski has been able to expand his fieldwork beyond the bedsit and the corner coffee shop, and start exploring the possibilities of where people might meet: some kind of proto-Comic-Con in 2013's Computer Chess, a gym in 2015's Results (his first production to employ recognisable faces), and now, in this week's Support the Girls, the Hooters-style sports bar Double Whammies, staffed almost exclusively by women, frequented more often as not by men. In its day-in-the-life set-up, the new film presents as not unlike Kevin Smith's scuzzy indie landmark Clerks revisited from a 21st century perspective. Once again, we encounter the everyday problems of a somewhat careworn establishment (an overnight break-in, a personnel change, the opening of a rival enterprise), but this time round, the fairer sex occupy more prominent positions, there's diversity hiring, and a sprinkling of lo-cal sweetener atop every portion of dialogue, where the incorrigible Smith offered salt.

As the lunch crowd gives way to the dinner rush and then last orders, Bujalski busies himself finding new angles on different types of gal, as if he were Howard Hawks shooting pictures of disparate hombres in one of his saloon-movies. The ever-sympathetic Regina Hall plays the bar's manager Lisa, obliged to deescalate where necessary and hold things together as best she can; Shayna McHayle, the rapper professionally known as Junglepussy, brings a wiry energy to the familiar role of Danyelle, the single-mom waitress who brings her son into work; Orange is the New Black's Lea DeLaria represents the butch trucker trade; and lesser tables are worked by a cast of apple-cheeked newcomers, Haley Lu Richardson among them. Support the Girls can't really go anywhere - the location came first, everything else is secondary - but as it tracks these women in second gear, it serves as a continuation of the amiable hanging-out that was a feature of Bujalski's first films: it's as if he's just happy setting up his camera in the corner booth of an establishment where one of the house rules is "No Drama" to watch the world and its waitresses go by, all the while listening to the same handful of pop and country songs that play on a loop in such places.

Occasionally, we spy a flash of something more. Having Danyelle's son prop up one end of the counter suggests a day at Double Whammies might be a formative experience teaching us something of the fraught and harmonious ways in which men and women interact. (There remains something academic about the Bujalski oeuvre; collegiate, too.) A visit from uptight franchise owner Cubby (indie talisman James Le Gros) punches up some of the labour tensions in play behind the scenes. Via a cumulative effect, we do take away a sense of these birds as swans: all grace and elegance up top and out front, but using their tired legs to paddle for their lives. We also realise that, as mumblecore alumni go, Bujalski is basically the happy medium. He's never been drawn to the balls-out extremes of Joe Swanberg (who left movies behind to make Easy for Netflix) or Amy Seimetz (who herself moved into TV with the extraordinary The Girlfriend Experience), and his work lacks the formal polish of his contemporary Alex Ross Perry (whose Her Smell opens here soon). His sound recording remains brutally rough, a liability in a film so predisposed to talk; scenes go on far longer than they have any right to be; and we get the creeping sensation, particularly amid the chaotic final act, that his rambling non-structure might collapse entirely were it not for model pro Hall doing her level-best to retain our patronage.

Against all that: he remains sincerely interested in people and the places and situations they find themselves in. (His Achilles heel here may be the attempt to pack too much into one representative day.) The approach results in Support the Girls' one truly great, inexplicably funny (doubtless because fundamentally truthful) episode: a shot of a nearby smoothie bar offering a healthy alternative to Double Whammies' high-carb staples, and all but empty save for one somnolent employee pulling the dullest afternoon shift anyone could possibly be forced to work. (So dull, in fact, that this zomboid mango-crusher can't wait to interrupt the conversation Lisa has with the colleague who's retreated there.) Anyone who's entered the workforce in the years since Reagan and Thatcher came to power will have been there, or thereabouts; the kind of menial labour that already seemed dead-end in Clerks has here turned slacker still. Nonetheless, Bujalski doesn't seem the type to push a sociopolitical point, and so he shambles on past it, towards a shruggingly upbeat ending. The filmmakers of the Nineties indie boom made their films with long careers to look forward to, whether or not they were fully deserving of them; their successors, born of a vastly more temporary moment, compile theirs for leisure and pleasure alone. Whether you come to Support the Girls for fun or consolation, there's a little of both here.

Support the Girls opens in selected cinemas from today.

Taking the high woad: "Robert the Bruce"

The bulky character actor Angus Macfadyen has worked consistently over the past three decades, on screens both big and small: he played Richard Burton to Sherilyn Fenn's Liz Taylor in a post-Twin Peaks TV movie, became Peter Lawford in HBO's The Rat Pack, and Orson Welles for Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. Arguably his highest profile role, however, remains that of Robert the Bruce in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, that multiple Oscar-winner that isn't much watched nowadays (hard to schedule a three-hour movie from ye olden days of 1995 in TV primetime, doubly so when its creative figurehead has done so much to vilify himself) yet which persists in informing our Game of Thrones-y moment. Now Macfadyen has co-authored the passion project Robert the Bruce, which - in a vaguely Trumpist bit of spin - he insists isn't a Braveheart sequel, even though the film takes place chronologically after William Wallace's death, and finds its writer-star once more playing the Bruce. Perhaps this is a considered tactic, designed to stave off either copyright lawsuits or direct critical comparisons. An indie project such as this was never going to attract a Fox budget or much in the way of star power, and the lack of Gibson's wild-eyed bloodlust comes to feel as much a failure of nerve as it is a virtue. Robert the Bruce is not unhandsome, but it falls too easily into the middle of that "men with beards trot round forests" subgenre primarily enjoyed by men with beards who don't get out as much. It's not so much mythic as anecdotal, and only ever as stirring as footnotes tend to be.

There are isolated flickers of interest. Macfadyen, co-writer Eric Belgau and the Australian director Richard Gray have realised this is a pointed moment to revisit a battle for (or to escape) a union with Scotland's neighbours to the south, and so the script serves as a tentative inquiry into the type of leader Highlanders might want to rally them towards independent rule: the conclusion would appear to be robust without being bellicose, of the people, and not populist. (Just as Robert learnt from Wallace's passing, so too Macfadyen may have taken a lesson or two from Gibson's flameout.) Partly to keep the beardiness in check, but also partly for thematic reasons, a high percentage of the tale is told by a peasant woman to her son, framing the Bruce as the kind of legend passed down from one generation to the next, and involved in a conflict that still reverberates today: you can only imagine Nicola Sturgeon's heart swelling upon hearing mother tell son "One day, we will all be free." (Looking at the toxic dead weight Scotland presently finds itself shackled to, you cannae blame her.) Yet while that framing device may have seemed inspired when Macfadyen was sitting at the laptop - not least because it covers several holes more money might have filled - it gives the action a weirdly passive, preordained quality when translated to the screen: in this telling, the story simply can't seize us by the throat, as Wallace's story did.

For a film titled Robert the Bruce, there's also not all that much Robert the Bruce: he's offscreen for at least an hour, holed up in exile with that spider (a spindly cameo from an uncredited arachnid), waiting for the threat levels to deescalate; much of the two-hour running time is therefore given over to the variously hirsute men roaming around snowbound woodland (in reality, the forests of, ahem, Montana) in search of him. Macfadyen, whose oratorical skills were a big part of his being cast as Welles, repurposes the character as a strong, silent type, holding firm in the midst of a constitutional crisis - exactly the kind of leader the Scottish people could do with right now - but his biding of time would only be interesting cinematically if the supporting parts were more richly drawn: a too-brief cameo from Jared Harris as thin-lipped appeaser John Comyn is as good as it gets on that front. There are advantages to the circumspect approach - during the quieter moments, you can almost hear history books being picked up rather than, say, tossed on a bonfire by a ululating Antipodean - and the film certainly displays greater consistency than Outlaw/King, David Mackenzie's compromised Netflix venture from last year. Yet it's really no more than consistently ordinary, never quite summoning the dramatic force to suggest why, even with the Union in the state it now is, it might be necessary, let alone essential.

Robert the Bruce opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 27 June 2019

Guardians of the cutlery: "Toy Story 4"

The more Pixar pick up their toys at moments of crisis, the more those toys resemble therapy dolls or comforters, fixed points of security in an increasingly unstable universe. The studio's animators first turned back this way in the late Noughties, as the company was pivoting to Cars and Planes and watching the wheels come off their spotless creative track record; they do so again at the end of whatever we're calling this decade, which saw John Lasseter being placed on judicious leave and 2015's Inside Out burning through the bulk of the Pixar brains trust's better ideas. (It wouldn't surprise me if we were to see The Good Dinosaur 2 at some stage, but we surely cannot hold out much hope for its prospects.) In the years between Toy Story 3 and this week's Toy Story 4, Woody, Buzz and co. have been sent out to sing for their supper in a series of made-for-TV shorts and corporate ad campaigns, demonstrating once again that what begins as close-to-the-cutting-edge art generally winds up inhabiting the realm of commerce. As my Guardian colleague Peter Bradshaw observed in his review, these toys should by rights be looking a whole lot more careworn than they do in Toy Story 4: Andy's dog Buster aged more between Toy Story and Toy Story 3 than any of the lead playthings have in 25 years - but then maybe what they're ultimately peddling is the Disney fantasy of eternal youth and innocence.

Those spin-offs and footnotes have been fun, while seeming overburdened with residual characters. Toy Story 3 gained from hitting every last emotional beat of its closing transitional phase, which described the handing over of these childish things; the tears that sequence coaxed helped us forget what had gone before it, which often felt penned-in and cluttered, lacking the light, space and movement of its more dynamic predecessors, where the technology wasn't quite there to fill every inch of every frame. The first two movies were the Goldilocks' porridge of late 20th century cinema: not too many ideas, not too few, just right. In Toy Story 3, you felt a franchise getting too considered for its own good. The fourth film returns us to basics, and manages to be appreciably smart about it, if not perhaps dazzlingly so. There are still too many toys in this box - series veterans Rex and Hamm barely get a close-up between them - but we open on a clearout that separates Woody (voiced, again, by Tom Hanks) from his beloved Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and there's a new arrival whose basicness forces toys and animators alike into a rethink. At kindergarten, the toys' new owner Bonnie creates Forky, a spork with pipe-cleaner arms and glue-on googly eyes whose guileless after-hours personality is such that he's convinced he's no more than trash, and thus determined to throw himself into the nearest available bin. Forky (gurgled by Veep's Tony Hale) is both a typically funny Pixar idea - a toy who senses he's so disposable he voluntarily pitches himself towards oblivion - and one with obvious existential undertones: he needs rescuing and redirecting, like a toddler crawling with fingers headed for an electrical socket. Born of trash yet bound for better, he's also Pixar's doodled contribution to the nature-versus-nurture debate.

I felt I was back in safe hands around the time of the scene that finds Woody and Forky walking hand-in-hand along the the hard shoulder of a deserted freeway: it's quiet and slow, a simple moment of (father-son?) connection of the kind a digimation of the Wonder Park or Secret Life of Pets school would unfailingly hustle past. Furthermore, the sequence opens up the frame, and the series entire: we're on the road now, heading towards new horizons. The whole of Toy Story 4 is one of those outward-bound setpieces of which there were five or six in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, back when these films were packed with wonders. Forky strays into the clutches of a defective doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), and her army of antique-shop ventriloquist's dummies; Woody and co. have to get him back. En route, the anthropomorphism that has converted pixels into plastic and then personalities with apparent feelings sets us to wondering whether there isn't something a little old-school Disney about the implied link between physical defectiveness and villainy (the idea is that, unlike the heteronormative Woody and Bo Peep, Gabby is childless, therefore bitter), yet there is something so very Pixar in the way this antagonist is herself finally redeemed. The movie turns out to be a rescue mission for every last one of its characters, and perhaps the franchise entire, not that it really needed it. No spork left behind.

If the toys haven't aged, the four films will stand as their own record of changing times in modern Hollywood. The voice cast, for one, is notably more diverse than it was for the first Toy Story, with Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key stepping up to provide the supporting schtick as a pair of fairground gonks. There's a vastly more proactive role for Bo Peep, who seems to have replaced poor old Buzz Lightyear as Woody's primary sparring partner. (May the Lord spare us the whiny online petitions.) And it makes instinctive sense that Woody and Bo Peep - the sheriff and the shepherdess - should have ended up as something akin to parents, or at least adoptive guardians, for the five-year-olds who sat saucer-eyed before the first Toy Story in 1995 will now be pushing thirty, and perhaps parents to five-year-olds of their own. This wouldn't be the first Disney property to operate according to some circle of life. What's been lost over the four films is that innocence our dewier movie ideas exude. Toy Story and Toy Story 2 sprung fresh from creatives we watched having immense fun establishing and expanding the boundaries of a new cinematic medium; traces of that vicarious viewing pleasure remain in the third and fourth instalments, but now we're watching those same creatives racking their brains as to how to continue having fun in that medium. The exuberant element of play has been replaced by exertion, plain old work.

Toy Story 4 is at least good, committed, largely diverting work. The grand finale offsets its vaguely familiar funfair setting against such amusing flourishes as having Kristen Schaal (as triceratops Trixie) voice a satnav; the very last line, tucked away amid the closing credits, gets to the heart of what this franchise has been about all along, and would be a perfect note to conclude on, if indeed this is meant as a conclusion. (Again, as with Toy Story 3, you sense Pixar working hard to come up with an ending that might redeem some of the so-so material that has preceded it: you leave the cinema on a wistful high, which wouldn't be the case if you'd left after an hour or half-hour.) It remains the curse of digimation that computer processing technology rapidly outpaced the analogue business of coming up with a worthwhile idea, turning that into an engaging story, and then setting that out in a script; it's why we've all sat through so many half-term screenfillers churned out without a trace of wit or invention, Forky-films sorely lacking the abundant, gifted writing staff who've succeeded in preventing Toy Story 4 from chucking itself in the bin. (Eight scribes are credited here, including Lasseter, Finding Nemo's Andrew Stanton, The Office's Rashida Jones and her Celeste and Jesse Forever collaborator Will McCormack.) I enjoyed Toy Story 4, but I can't help but think the one line the animators returning to this toybox responded to most keenly was Woody's response when asked why he's going the extra mile for Forky: "Because I don't have anything else to do."

Toy Story 4 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday 25 June 2019

On demand: "Die Tomorrow"

Die Tomorrow is another of those lyrical, ever-so-slightly-mysterious imaginings the Thai film industry now seems to specialise in, reaching as it does for a spiritual dimension than alters our perception of what a film can be. The logline would be A Short Film About Dying: it's a 75-minute patchwork (shroud might be the right word) stitched together from snippets of drama and documentary, photographs and any other mementos mori the writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit could get his hands on over the five years he spent assembling it. (In that time, his earlier features 36 and Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy received UK theatrical releases.) Thus vérité footage of children being questioned on their perceptions of death sits side-by-side with dramatisations of the circumstances leading up to banal, everyday demises, an interview with a 102-year-old man who's outlived his wife and children alike ("I don't know how I've lived this long... Maybe it's a genetic thing, maybe it's some kind of error") and footage of the Challenger disaster. The blurring of fact with fiction is such that a late vignette that presents us with a daughter caring for her ailing father first strikes the eye as ominously close to the real thing, real suffering; only an elegant camera shift, pulling us away from this tableau as the man passes from this world to the next, reassures us that it has, in fact, been staged - yet Thamrongrattanarit seems to be asking why we need that reassurance in the first place. After thousands of years of it, why are we so scared to look death in the eye, or give it the time of day?

This filmmaker is most fascinated by death's everyday aspect. Though we hear (pardon the pun) passing talk of accidents involving planes and motorbikes, these aren't the spectacular ends the Final Destination series has trafficked in, rather a part of normal life, something with which his subjects, real and fictional, have to come to terms and make their peace. In an especially effective formal flourish, a stopwatch runs in the top left hand corner of the frame, counting not just how long the movie has been going for, but also how many people will have died worldwide in that time. (At an estimated 170,000 per day, it works out around 120dpm, or deaths per minute.) A ticking soundtrack makes audible the sand passing through the hourglass; the reduced aspect ratio Thamrongrattanarit shoots in at several places - no wider than that of an iPhone in portrait mode - suggests the darkness closing in on his characters from both sides. Enjoy yourself, the film advises: it's later than you think.

Can we enjoy Die Tomorrow? Given the morbid subject matter, it's obviously not a barrel of laughs, but it would be hard not to take something memorable away from it, as one would from a funeral. It could just be a mood: the rueful melancholy - a sense of what's been lost - that follows from the punchline to each of the film's dramatised segments: a shot of the same room in which characters have just been seen communing, now vacated of all life. It could be an understanding of death as the great leveller, or alternatively a cosmic injustice: take the sequence in which a man says his farewells to his hospital-bound girlfriend to catch a flight destined to go down with all hands lost. It could even be factual: you'll have the chance to pore over a chart of the ten most popular methods of suicide, complete with a relative index of agony calculated on the time it would take to die. Elsewhere, the non-activity and deliberately banal conversation of Thamrongrattanarit's characters - the time they conspicuously let slip through their fingers - leaves space for reflection and rumination over our own proximity to the grave. It risks the response "life's too short for this", naturally, but Die Tomorrow proves quietly profound, sad in an instructive way: a glimpse into the great beyond, and of the forces that govern our existence (and non-existence), it is, much like life itself, fragile, precious, and all over before you can really get a handle on it.

Die Tomorrow is currently previewing on MUBI UK, ahead of its theatrical release on July 26.

Friday 21 June 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 14-16, 2019:

1 (1) Aladdin (PG)

2 (new) Men in Black International (12A)
3 (3) Rocketman (15) ***
4 (4) The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)
5 (2) X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12A)
6 (6) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12A)
7 (9) John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (15) ***
8 (8) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
9 (new) Diego Maradona (12A)
10 (10) Pokemon Detective Pikachu (PG) 

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Kind Hearts & Coronets

2. Mari
3. A Season in France
4. Toy Story 4
5. Amin

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

1 (4) 
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
2 (1) Stan & Ollie (PG) ***
3 (3) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
4 (new) Instant Family (12) ***
5 (21) Green Book (12) **
6 (2) The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (U) ***
7 (new) Liam Gallagher: As It Was (15) ***
8 (5) The Mule (15)
9 (new) How to Train Your Dragon Triple Pack (PG)
10 (8) Aquaman (12)


My top five: 
1. If Beale Street Could Talk

2. Boy Erased
3. Liam Gallagher: As It Was
4. A Private War
5. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Toy Story 2 [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 5pm)
2. The Nice Guys (Saturday, ITV, 10.45pm)
3. The Devil Wears Prada (Sunday, C4, 2.25pm)
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Sunday, ITV, 4.50pm)
5. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Sunday, ITV, 2.15pm)

"Mari" (Guardian 21/06/19)

Mari ****
Dir: Georgia Parris. With: Bobbi Jene Smith, Madeleine Worrall, Phoebe Nicholls, Peter Singh. 94 mins. Cert: 12A

The latest triumph from Film London’s Microwave scheme – the low-budget production boost that has given us such worthwhile investments as Hong Khaou’s Lilting and Eran Creevy’s Shifty – is an engrossing close-up study of a thirtysomething woman caught between two worlds, and two states of being. The American choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith plays Charlotte, a principal in a contemporary dance troupe whose preparations for a major show are dealt two blows in quick succession. First comes a positive pregnancy test, and the realisation the body with which she so forcefully expresses herself may shortly undergo radical change; next, there’s a call from her family, gathering round the hospital bed of her dying grandmother. A rehearsal-room prologue has already established Charlotte’s uncommon physical flexibility. What follows is a test of mental and emotional adaptability.

Writer-director Georgia Parris’s fascination resides in those tensions that exist in certain bohemian-leaning families, rarely addressed head-on, yet always present in quieter rooms; Joanna Hogg appears to be one influence here. Judicious enough to present us with both sides of this situation, the filmmaker casts supremely sympathetic actresses – Phoebe Nicholls and Madeleine Worrall – as Charlotte’s mum and sister, striving to hold their clan together while insisting that, whatever else they are, dance recitals aren’t quite life and death. Smith herself keeps shifting our responses, much as Charlotte pushes and pulls her troupe. This performer’s nervous vibration makes her solo scenes more immediately compelling than the hospital interactions, yet we understand how her relentless intensity might well drive mum and sis to look for jollifying llama memes.

A few scenes around gran’s cottage risk slipping into that airlessness that dogs Hogg’s work; light and space may well come naturally with a bigger budget. Nevertheless, Parris is way ahead of the game in her framing choices and sound design, and stirringly adventurous in her incorporation of dance into the rigid, humdrum everyday. One dream sequence ranks among the boldest imaginative leaps in recent British cinema, and there’s something so smart in the use of a floor exercise to comment on the unfolding drama of a fiercely self-sufficient woman having to feel her way through the complex business of dependency. If you enjoyed Madeline’s Madeline despite its indie quirks, Parris’s carefully weighted debut may prove just the leftfield ticket: there’s a lot of promise here, but equally a startling level of achievement.

Mari opens in selected cinemas from today, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player. 

"Hero" (Guardian 21/06/19)

Hero ***
Dir: Frances-Anne Solomon. With: Nickolai Salcedo, Pippa Nixon, Joseph Marcell, Fraser James. 111 mins. Cert: 12A

Released to mark Windrush Day, this engaged drama-documentary pays tribute to Ulric Cross, the Trinidadian who became the most decorated of the RAF’s West Indian recruits during WW2, then a producer-presenter with the BBC, then a go-between in several African struggles against imperialism. From the off, writer-director Frances-Anne Solomon strikes a wistful note, wavering between celebration of an extraordinary existence and marked regret around the aims unachieved in that lifetime: footage of the actual, ailing Cross prompts daughter Nicola to remark “it’s just so silly that it takes some dying” to have winkled these details out. As Britain re-examines where it stands in relation to the Windrush arrivals – and those who’ve disembarked behind them – it’s timely viewing, to say the least, though it’s finally an even bigger picture than that suggests.

Solomon’s reconstructions bear witness to a modest budget, but they raise complicated questions of identity that a better furnished period drama might stifle among its scatter cushions. An RAF application form prompts reflection on whether Caribbean fliers feel more African or European in their outlook; in post-War London, Cross (the quietly commanding Nickolai Salcedo) lives a dual life, meeting with such thinkers as CLR James and George Padmore, yet hiding their words from his white British sweetheart Anna (Pippa Nixon). He makes for an atypical biopic subject, more analyst than man of action, his tale generating perceptions, not thunderous setpieces. Evidently, Cross saw Britain backsliding into complacency after vanquishing the Nazis; a further tragedy is how Africa, which Cross viewed as a possible promised land, came to be riven with murderous uncertainty.

Those African travels – encompassing a plot to smuggle Padmore’s papers out of Ghana – allows Hero to flirt with commercial thriller territory, but it’s largely a film of meetings and discussions, intuiting that backroom talk most often alters the course of our lives. Solomon’s clever marshalling of archive footage gives it scope, repositioning Cross in the middle of a monochrome world only reluctantly converting to Kodachrome and Technicolor. Inevitably we see Lord Kitchener, cuddly enough to have been integrated into the Paddington universe; more shameful is the unveiling of a “Keep Britain White” banner in Trafalgar Square, forcing the protagonist into a decision presumably now facing many foreign nationals. It gets episodic late on, yet remains stimulating and provocative – filmed history that means to prompt debate, rather than light matinee snoozing.

Hero opens in selected cinemas from today. 

On demand: "Piercing"

Nicolas Pesce is the young American writer-director who, with help from chums Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Antônio Campos (Afterschool), made 2016's The Eyes of My Mother, a monochrome horror nightmare that had a certain formal rigour to commend it, but (as with many of the films to have emerged from the Durkin-Campos school) precious little blood running through its veins. (Had you plunged a knife into it, the film would have leaked formaldehyde and film theory.) Pesce's all-colour follow-up Piercing wears its quotation marks even more conspicuously, in part to mitigate against the horrendousness of the premise it yanks from Ryū Murakami's short story. After a retro "Our Feature Presentation" insert, and 70s-throwback opening credits (over gorgeous miniature work), we're sequestered for more or less the duration in a shag-carpeted hotel room to which morally rotten young father Reed (Christopher Abbott) - think Patrick Bateman with an extra five-to-ten years on him - has summoned sex worker Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) for the express purpose of tying her up and doing very bad things to her with an ice pick. To some extent, you can rest easy. It becomes very quickly clear that our damsel-in-potential-distress isn't just going to lie there and take it; equally, that there's nothing this whackjob dude can do that his intended victim isn't prepared to do to herself first. Nevertheless, it remains a little over an hour of nasty shocks: a pointed, spiky lesson on the subject of that we can and cannot control, up to and including the opposite sex.

Shooting on obvious sets leaves Piercing rather more secure in its tonal variations than its predecessor. There's a heavily ironised self-referentiality to this theatre of cruelty - as the sex worker gasps at one point, "it was like being in a movie, or the leading actress in some big romantic scene" - which keeps disconcerting reminders of reality at arm's length. Within this fascinatingly safe unsafe space, the actors are allowed to veer towards strange extremes, and to do so without entirely alienating any squares and normies looking on. Abbott - who quit HBO's Girls to do such remarkable work in 2015's James White - seems constantly to be squirming with the effort of keeping something unfathomably dark within; he's an actor of infinite clenches. Wasikowska, meanwhile, is busy leading us further down the rabbit hole than she ever did for Tim Burton, pushing her natural spaciness into bold new territory. This working girl's a walking curveball, and the best (and most reassuring) gag in the movie is that Abbott's brooding wretch and this airy blonde flibbertigibbet just aren't on one another's wavelengths; there can be no acceptance of death, because neither would-be killer nor prospective victim are on the same page (and if they are, they're speaking in incompatible tongues). The performances are so vividly insistent on this point that Pesce barely needs the splitscreen effect he reaches for at one crucial juncture: these two don't fit together, however the narrative and visuals configure them.

We might wonder whether Piercing stands as anything more than a joke, a Dahlian tale of the unexpected. We might also wonder whether, in Pesce, we have another Tarantino on our hands, unable to handle a single drop of sincere emotion, or deal with characters who don't seem to have walked out of some sleazy B-movie. (We might even wonder whether Pesce might be one of those indie bros who still takes that as a compliment.) Somewhere in the depths of Piercing - or in what passes for depth in Piercing - there lurks a very zeitgeisty idea about trauma, and the ways in which we come to terms with it. (That, I suspect, comes from Murakami's source material, rather than Pesce's treatment.) Yet while Pesce is prepared to push his violence to extremes, he's not ready to reach that emotionally deep just yet. Instead, he sniggers around this tale, and has a good deal of fun with it: the film rattles by inside 75 minutes (not, one should in fairness note, a Tarantinoid trait), refusing to let us off this deranged train of thought once we've committed to it, and thereafter tying us in knots that are both authentically twisted and generally fucked-up. It is, at bottom, nifty proof of that weird capacity the cinema retains for circumventing all our usual response patterns, and making us thrill to behaviour we'd find horrifying in broad daylight. If you're watching with polite company, you may want to have yourself a safe word ready.

Piercing is now streaming via Netflix.