Tuesday 30 July 2019

On demand: "The Angry Birds Movie"

Believe it or not, there are worse things to base a movie on than a game people play while waiting for the delayed 49 bus: a character foisted on the world in a series of YouTube clips, for instance, or a Ray Cooney farce apparently written in 1983 but feeling far, far older than that. Converting Angry Birds from phone screens to a 90-minute big-screen experience has at least allowed the creatives associated with Sony's animation wing - veteran Simpsons scribe Jon Vitti and directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly - to raise and set about answering those unaddressed philosophical questions that may have popped into players' minds on those damp mornings when the number 49 doesn't show up at all. Such as: why are these birds so angry? Why are the birds and pigs at war? And why, indeed, are these pigs green? (Is it envy? Is it swine flu?) The latter goes unanswered, alas, but otherwise far more thought, energy and effort has been expended on The Angry Birds Movie than perhaps it needed to reach our cinemas: the real novelty here lies in watching a multiplex-bound studio digimation flying well above whatever our expectations may have been going in.

If the film isn't quite the knockout riot of invention provided by the first Lego Movie, it magics up a commensurate level of colourful clutter for the passive-aggressive birdland that ticks off solitary hero Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis); and you feel the visual effects technicians having immense fun in a final act that recreates the game's propulsive pleasures on a wider canvas, pinging Red and friends at high speeds and gravity-defying angles through the stacked towers and egg repositories of Pig Island. It's that 3D-courting dynamism that steers most contemporary digimation, yet bumped up to the next level, so that even the pixelated explosions reveal deft, amusing collateral details (a pig bowling team known as the Ballhogs, a poster for Kevin Bacon in Hamlet). Equal time has been spent on the characterisation: Red's sidekicks, introduced in the course of anger management sessions, are the slow yet dependable Bomb (Danny McBride), a feathered pressure cooker who goes off as his name suggests when faced with avian or porcine injustice, and the light-footed Chuck (Josh Gad), whose Magic Mike-like fantasies suggests The Angry Birds Movie might just be the unlikely venue for a breakthrough in animated representation.

Much comedy talent has been bussed in to lend what might just have seemed a calculated exercise in brand expansion an aura of spontaneity; the supporting squawkers (Bill Hader, Keegan-Michael Key, Maya Rudolph, Jillian Bell) would do for a promising cable sitcom, and here they get material that, while limited to some extent by the U certificate, proves worthy of their timing and other talents. If this Angry Birds is a cash-in, it's a cash-in that keeps us chuckling. If nothing else, it may be the film remembered for claiming to give us Sean Penn as the voice of a wordless, growling brute named Terence, and just one of The Angry Birds Movie's unexpected aspects is that, unlike anything else in the last four decades, it makes Sean Penn seem funny. Of the substance Pixar (and, occasionally, their rivals) have given us, there is next to nothing: there is a vision of a society here, but it's so determinedly cuckoo, so hard to pin down, that it'd be futile trying to map it onto our own. On this front, The Angry Birds Movie really does look like a movie based on a downloadable app, movement for movement's sake; it spares us the sore thumbs, while giving us everything else we'd get from playing Angry Birds for ninety minutes, which is to say ninety minutes of distraction, and ninety minutes fewer in which to live your life. Nevertheless, it's the kind of well-turned nonsense kids will roar with laughter at, and even accompanying adults may find themselves weirdly diverted by. It is as William Goldman wrote of Hollywood, long before the world's first app was hatched: nobody knows anything.

The Angry Birds Movie is available to buy on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and to purchase via Amazon Prime; a sequel, The Angry Birds Movie 2, opens in cinemas this Friday, and will be reviewed here that day.

Monday 29 July 2019

On demand: "Chi-Raq"

Chi-Raq, Spike Lee's typically idiosyncratic response to the issue of inner-city gang violence, rewrites Aristophanes' Lysistrata in rapped verse for a predominantly African-American cast to deliver on the streets of latter-day Chicago. (The title reflects the statistical fact there were more gang-related deaths in that vicinity than there had been in the entire Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined.) Lee's Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is a cartoonishly gorgeous sister - hair combed high and wide - who makes a decisive intervention in the clash between two local gangs, the Trojans and Spartans, which has claimed as many innocent victims as active combatants; her solution, as per the original text, is to organise a city-wide sex strike, thereby turning a kerbside grudge match into a full-blown gender war. As the chastity belt-wearing holdouts frame it: "No peace, no pussy". Lee is one of precious few filmmakers to have grown only more mischievous with age (cf. his pricelessly giggly response to seeing Green Book win Best Picture over his own BlacKkKlansman, in essence a movie about a real-life prank call that got out of hand). Part of the fun of Chi-Raq lies in imagining certain classical scholars succumbing to a conniption fit, or otherwise rolling in their grave.

Another part of the fun comes from watching Lee get to this premise, the liberties he continues to take with established film form. A prologue resembling a YouTube lyrics video sets the scene over an image of a U.S. composed of guns; we get Samuel L. Jackson as a peacocking narrator, breaking the fourth wall while sipping from a pimp cup in a barber's chair; and John Cusack, that most concerned of Chicagoans, as a preacher shouting himself hoarse in the delivery of the editorial word. Chi-Raq turns on this latter characterisation: opinion has been split on whether the movie is hectoring (to use another classical reference point) or simply going the extra mile to get its message across - making an acknowledgement, amid all its larkiness, that some things matter. Chi-Raq is not as urgent about taking this stance as was, say, the final act of Klansman - it was made under the Obama administration, when the news cycle still afforded our creatives time to think - but there is a concerted effort here to set out not just the problems of a neighbourhood, as Lee so brilliantly did in Do the Right Thing (reissued to UK cinemas this week on the occasion of its 30th anniversary), but a representative American metropolis as blighted as the Baltimore of David Simon's The Wire. If it's not the absence of father figures (spirited away either to prison, or to fight the wars to which the title alludes), it's the lack of investment; if it's not the need for excitement that leads young brothers to take up arms, it's the profiteering of those insurance companies making money off the deaths of fallen warriors.

Simon, of course, had the luxury of several seasons to set out his vision and finesse his rhetoric. Chi-Raq, by comparison, can seem crude, as cartoonish as its heroine: it hits an especially rough patch in its second act, as everybody including the viewer realises two hours is a long time to fill without anyone seeing any action. Lee drafts in David Patrick Kelly to play an armoury general in Confederate underpants who winds up straddling a Civil War cannon nicknamed Whistlin' Dick; having made this sniggering, schoolboyish point, he makes it again a few decibels louder via D.B. Sweeney as a lawmaker who enjoys dressing as Imhotep in the bedroom. It's not that there aren't sequences that are powerful, as when Lee reroutes his performers to attend an actual march for Chicago's fallen. Funny, too: Dave Chappelle drops by for one scene as an anguished stripjoint owner who realises the strike means he'll have to put some less desirable blokes on the pole, and I liked the authorities' attempt to break the stand-off by blasting slow jams intended to put Lysistrata's withholding girls in a suggestible froth. Still, Chi-Raq struggles to cohere and achieve that blunt-force power this director's best work has always had: it needs Jackson's narrator on screen to give it even the illusion of shape. Few other American filmmakers would have so rejected the pieties traditionally associated with the ghetto genre, and so enthusiastically embraced the rhymes, dance routines and climactic big bangs that take their place here - there's a weird kind of black privilege at play in Chi-Raq, which is why it's often wayward, but never dull. Yet I can understand why some accused Lee of screwing around while the world burned. The following year brought President Trump, and with it the Empire Strikes Back return of white nativism muttered about in jokey dispatches here. As BlacKkKlansman better realised, this would be no laughing matter whatsoever.

Chi-Raq is available to stream via Amazon Prime.

Saturday 27 July 2019

From the archive: "Midnight Special"

The current vogue for Spielberg/Lucas fan fiction continues. After Jurassic World and JJ Abrams' recent endeavours, the baton - or pen - now passes to Jeff Nichols, who gave us one of the great American features of the decade with 2011's Take Shelter, that brooding rural parable that served as a lightning rod for any number of contemporary concerns. Midnight Special, which seems to exist in the same universe as that early success, might be claimed as E.T. with family station wagons in place of bikes, but its real achievement lies in the way Nichols navigates his own path between those twin titans of blockbuster cinema: it's a film that generates the pleasures, and the occasional electric chill, of seeing a resonant yarn being unravelled before us by a storyteller approaching the big leagues. 

It opens with two men and a young boy on the run through Texas - why isn't clear, although TV bulletins reporting the kid as a missing person cast at least half a shadow over his keepers' motives. Gradually, we learn that this party is being pursued not just by the authorities, but by altogether shadier forces: the tentacles of a religious cult based in these parts and overseen by pastor Sam Shepard. That's one early revelation; another is that the boy has powers, rendered as a rudimentary visual effect - a beam of white light that emerges from his eyes, such as seen in any number of naff sci-fi movies a wannabe filmmaker might have absorbed in the home-video era. (Bonus for any Spielberg wannabes: it's an almost instant lens-flare generator.) It should, in the context of the modern multiplex's detailed and filigreed VFX work, be laughable; instead, we become more concerned as to what exactly this "gift" represents.

Nichols makes especially clever use of actors who might get us to believe in the reality of this situation. He can rely upon the terse Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton, as the boy's handlers, to stay tightlipped as to their characters' motives until we're a good distance down the road; he also brings out more of the profound yet barely articulated sadness Kirsten Dunst first revealed in Melancholia. His biggest casting coup, however, comes in the role of the middle-aged heavy Shepard's preacher sets on the boy's tail: veteran character actor Bill Camp, who has the face of a 1970s journeyman - a George Kennedy or J.T. Walsh - and doesn't look entirely out of place amid the nondescript backroads and banal suburban spaces the pursuit winds through. This could be any missionary, passing through to spread the word of the Lord.

That's another kind of storytelling, of course, and Midnight Special gains a dimension from its considered playing-off of reality against fantasy. It's there in the comic books Edgerton gives the kid to distract him from danger ("he needs to know what's real," tuts Shannon); it's there in the swimming goggles the boy is fitted with, either to keep the light in, or the world out. As in Take Shelter, Nichols is wondering whether such enhanced vision - such acute sensitivity to the possibilities of this world - is a blessing or a curse; when those among us who resolve to light the way are hounded as this kid is hounded, perhaps we're all better off keeping our blinkers on.

As a result, Midnight Special might be approached as another of 2016's notable parenting parables, yet there's a marked difference between Spielberg (who's generally regarded the family as a benign, cohesive entity) and his successors, who deem family dynamics worthy of closer, more critical study, as one might study extraterrestrial activity. As in Room, the child comes to represent a fragile form of hope; what this unusually quiet and thoughtful chase movie is preoccupied with is how we protect our young, and what it is we're protecting them from.

What that is exactly is best left for Nichols to reveal, and for you to discover for yourself, but given that Midnight Special takes in religious extremism, surveillance satellites falling from the sky and muttered talk of some nuclear threat, it soon becomes clear that the writer-director has more on his mind than simply shuttling everyone from A to B. Lucas and Spielberg were Californian baby boomers, born into a moment of relative prosperity and security, and who spent their formative years of the cinema. Nichols grew up in Texas, home of the doomy weather warning, and appears to have seen a lot more bad news across a greater variety of media.

There are losses and limitations that come with that sensibility, notably a reluctance to venture a joke, lest it let light in on the gloom and expose any absurdity in the premise. Yet there are considerable gains, too: a form of fiction that brings us closer to the emotions we feel when we stay up to watch the nightly news - which addresses the grown-ups in the audiences as well as the young. (It is at once the year's most apposite 12A, and an antidote to the snarky escapism of Messrs. Abrams and Whedon.)

If the closing moments lose a little in making our harried young hero's visions explicit, building CG bridges between this world and the next - scenes that can't help but recall last year's grand folly Tomorrowland - the rest of Midnight Special proves deeply engaged with the issue of what it will take to get us there in one piece. Bracket it with this season's The Witch and 10 Cloverfield Lane as another utterly fascinating document of the dying of the Obama light, and a moment when America fears itself, its children and all its tomorrows to be very much under attack.

(MovieMail, April 2016)

Midnight Special screens on BBC2 tonight at 11pm. 

Friday 26 July 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 19-21, 2019:

1 (new) The Lion King (PG)

2 (2) Toy Story 4 (U) ***
3 (1) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12A) ***
4 (4) Yesterday (12A) **
5 (3) Annabelle Comes Home (15)
6 (new) Pavarotti (12A)
7 (6) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
8 (5) Aladdin (PG)
9 (7) Midsommar (18) **
10 (8) The Queen's Corgi (PG) **

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. The Chambermaid

2. Only You
3. Die Tomorrow
4. The Edge
5. Varda by Agnès 

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

1 (2) 
Captain Marvel (12) ***
2 (3) Alita Battle Angel (12)
3 (1) Fisherman's Friends (12)
4 (5) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
5 (new) Us (15) ****
6 (17) Mary Poppins Returns (U) ***
7 (4Fighting with My Family (12)
8 (8) Bohemian Rhapsody (15)
9 (6) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
10 (16) The Greatest Showman (PG)

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Us

2. Ash is Purest White
3. Birds of Passage
4. The Hole in the Ground
5. The Kindergarten Teacher

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Heimat Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision - Part One (Saturday, BBC2, 12.45am)
2. The Third Man [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 12.40pm)
3. Midnight Special (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)
4. Shaun the Sheep Movie (Saturday, BBC2, 9.10am)
5. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Thursday, C4, 1am)

From the archive: "Shaun the Sheep Movie"

With pre-Christmas release Paddington still doing Top 10 business – and doing better than anyone would have predicted in the States – we appear to have rediscovered the lost art of exporting satisfying family entertainment to the masses: no 3D, no rote quest narratives, nothing that might obstruct the sincere storytelling traditionally undertaken in bedrooms everywhere before lights-out.

In the case of Aardman’s latest stopmotion Shaun the Sheep Movie, we can extend that list to include “no more than one ‘the’ per title” (curious) and – crucially – “no words”, for what we’re offered here is all but a silent movie, centred on a flock of wordless woolly Gromits. Perhaps only The Artist’s success could have tempted the company to expand its dialogue-free CBeebies fave to feature length, yet the team assembled under directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have outdone themselves finding other ways for their characters to communicate.

From the off, it’s clear Shaun is pitching to a younger crowd than the universally loved Nick Park movies, not least as its timid, hungry, murmuring hero is clearly meant as a toddler surrogate. The show’s parameters have, however, been enlarged for the big screen: tempted beyond Mossybottom Farm’s peaceful hedgerows in pursuit of the errant Farmer, Shaun and chums will wind up in “The Big City”, a bewildering landscape for any little lamb, stocked as it is with such terrifying authority figures as relentless animal containment officer Mr. Trumper. (Accompanying adults are permitted to snigger at that one.)

What follows is a succession of meaty set-pieces that speak to hours of brainstorming in the writers’ room and pop with deft visual gags worthy of being paused and reassessed on DVD. (The Aardman staff aren’t just dextrous animators and inventive gagmen; they’re also canny suits who know that stocking their films deep with this kind of extra-narrative material will likely drum up repeat business down the line.)

No po-faced synopsis could do justice to the chaos unleashed by these characters in operating rooms and chi-chi restaurants; one throwaway sequence involving a sheep losing his jumper would make scant sense on the page, but it had me in bits as it unfolded on screen. The film flows appreciably between stop-offs: the opening and closing movements, involving a runaway caravan and a pantomime horse respectively, are mini-masterclasses in that Looney Tunes motion that’s run through Aardman’s work ever since A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers.

Yet whatever speed they’re going at, these characters bear the traces of well-thumbed personalities. Take the Farmer: a squinting, invariably tatty figure in Vic Reeves specs, he nevertheless comes to serve as a father figure to Shaun in much the way James Cromwell’s Farmer Hoggett did to Babe. There’s a genuine emotional kick when, in the throes of plot-induced amnesia, he shoos his flock from his door; the sheep, bless ‘em, wind up encamped in the Big City’s own Poverty Row, drawing pillows for themselves in the dirt.

That these ovines are all somehow distinctive – no boilerplate animation here – is a keystone of the film’s cheeringly matter-of-fact inclusivity, which extends to female bus drivers, male hairdressers (a major plot point) and a recognition, among the supporting characters, that plasticine comes in many colours. (You could call it the Paddington effect.)

If it all feels effortless, perhaps it is. Set against the groundbreaking Wallace work and the underrated dynamism of Pirates!, the essentially modest STSM finds this company consolidating while playing to an established base; to pick up the agricultural theme, they’ve constructed a slightly bigger barn in a field adjacent to one they’ve already harvested with some success, and the plot – about a hero who just wants his world to return to normal – is just conservative enough to reassure the restless toddler demographic.

Still, you could equally argue The Wrong Trousers was no less geared towards putting the penguin back in his bottle, and at a time when the market for family films is becoming increasingly aggressive – not to mention flooded with flatly contemptuous product – it’s heartening to see this team responding with charm, good humour, and the most expressive sound effects of the year. Aardman are getting so good at the pictures, they no longer have need for words.

(MovieMail, February 2015)

Shaun the Sheep Movie screens tomorrow at 9.10am on BBC2.

Superwoman: "The Chambermaid"

As anyone who's occupied the position could tell you, the role of hotel chambermaid involves a lot of menial labour: if you find changing your own duvet cover the most rotten of chores, imagine having to do it fifty or so times a day, seven days a week, for precious little thanks, and not much more money. The job also, however, bestows a funny sort of privilege: the opportunity to pass at will behind locked doors, and thereby see how the other half live. (Less so if you're working in a Travelodge, but even so, there are levels of access.) The idea of hotel as hierarchy sustains The Chambermaid, a drolly impressive first film from the writer-director Lila Avilés, which never leaves the chi-chi corridors and functional backchannels of a plush Mexico City establishment, and in doing so sets a rich, self-contained universe before us. Heroine Evelia (the quietly mischievous Gabriela Cartol) is a disruptor, a 24-year-old indigenous woman who's learnt to use the invisibility bestowed on her by her housekeeping gig - the invisibility that sees guests stripping naked in her presence, or paying her no heed whatsoever - to take a few liberties here and there: rifling through bins to glean the odd discarded item for herself, carving out pockets of that same leisure time the hotel's clientele have booked themselves in for. In Avilés' conception, Evelia's something like a fixer in a prison-camp movie: we spend much of the film's running time wondering how much this young woman can make off and get away with.

The movie's strengths are observational: it notices Evelia, dares to give her an inner life, considers how she might spend her days. Phonecalls snatched between room services sketch in the nature of the heroine's emotional ties - just who she's doing this work for - and we gradually gain a sense of the small hopes she guards for herself. She has an eye on a red dress someone's handed into lost and found and, beyond that, on a promotion to the hotel's prestigious 42nd floor suites; she takes in-house classes with the aim of obtaining her GED, although she will make credibly haphazard progress on that front. It's a film that not only understands what it is to scrape by - Eve's colleagues endeavour to drum up a few extra bucks here and there via the sale of Avon-like moisturisers or fidget spinners - but has some element of that scraping folded into its very form. Avilés offers us thin slivers of scenes that, over The Chambermaid's 100 minutes, build up to provide a more complete picture of this woman's work. Some of these scenes are cursory: there are a few blunt interactions with a local celebrity who proves every bit as rude and thoughtless as you fear celebrities who check themselves into five-star hotels would be. Others are more surprising, sight gags that - through repetition and variation - becomes appreciable running jokes, like Eve's growing closeness with a window cleaner who's developed a crush on her. Crucially, Avilés never gives into the drudgery of this workplace; instead, she skips down these corridors with the same curiosity as her heroine, aware that all life is here.

The Chambermaid wouldn't hold us as it does without its leading lady; it's a mini-masterstroke of casting. Cartol will almost certainly be the tiniest figure you chance upon on screen this week, but she's by far the most compelling with it: Avilés has such faith in her as a presence that she can set up a scene that involves no more or less than Evelia waiting for a lift - and then make both a joke and a small act of heroism out of it. The scene has a point: Eve's story, we gather, is one of great, unheralded patience and resilience - the patience and resilience that allows menial labourers to go back and deal with other people's not inconsiderable shit, day in, day out. Cartol does a lot with the downturned gaze that's been drilled into this character, yet she demonstrates such irrepressible spirit whenever Eve is left to her own devices - when she feels she's not being watched - that we can't help but root for her to get her due; Avilés bestows an additional grace upon her in those scenes that find this minion looking out, through the vast windows of the hotel's penthouse suites, onto a world in which she would appear to play such a small part. Those set-ups are as about as widescreen as The Chambermaid gets, but the fact Avilés isn't pushing for some vast tableau means Eve comes into even clearer focus than the saintly housekeeper of Alfonso Cuarón's Roma. We believe this woman; we cheer for her, perhaps as her tentatively upward mobility mirrors our own, and worry whenever that progress is checked. By the final moments - with Avilés weighing up whether or not to give Evelia the release she deserves from this five-star prison - you may find yourself head over heels in love with her.

The Chambermaid is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.

Thursday 25 July 2019

A last wave: "Varda by Agnès"

In her final film Varda by Agnès - originally a two-part retrospective for French television, repackaged for theatrical distribution after her death this March - Agnès Varda puts herself first. Varda's penultimate film, Faces Places, looked out onto the wider world, aware as its maker was that her sight was failing. (There was a poignancy in the way Varda reached out to a younger photographer, JR, to assist her in her looking.) Now, she comes indoors, filling a series of venues converted for one night only into a lecture theatre, in order to regale both fans and students - and those of us watching on from the cheap seats. It's first and foremost a legacy project: Varda undertaking to put herself on the record about her art, her life and where the two have coincided, in much the same way she might have done being interviewed for one of Faber & Faber's filmmaker-on-filmmaker books, or on Mark Cousins' much-missed Scene by Scene series. The subject outlines the three watchwords of her art ("inspiration, creation, sharing"); she talks freely about how she strove, where possible, to mesh the fictional with elements of documentary. Yet something about the theatrical framing - Agnès looking out on friends, family and filmlovers - also recalls ITV's An Audience with..., the primetime showcase by which such showbiz veterans as Les Dawson and Bruce Forsyth came to enjoy one last hurrah, while basking in the praise of their peers - an indication of the extent to which Varda, at the time of her passing, had been enshrined among the most revered and most accessible of arthouse auteurs. Even as she neared ninety years of age, people turned out for her.

This was the great miracle of Varda's career: though she dabbled in popular genres, and was even tempted out to work in Hollywood in the 1960s, her renewed visibility can be specifically traced to a series of personal essay films - 2000's The Gleaners and I, 2004's Cinevardaphoto, 2008's The Beaches of Agnès - of the kind more readily associated with her sometime New Wave cohort Jean-Luc Godard. The success of these films was down to a mode of address more open than the oblique Godard has typically allowed for, more curious than clinical: as Varda insists here, "Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love", and she describes inserting herself into her films as necessary "to be with the audience". Godard has tended to hide behind his images, as he has behind his darkened specs; Varda saw herself as a travelling companion, someone who might gently point a few things out to us. (The former's failure to open his front door to Varda at the end of Faces Places now seems a definitive parting of ways, a fork in the cinematic road.) That process of redirection continues into Varda by Agnès, an essay-film on the subject of those earlier essay-films, and more besides. Long-term admirers will gain, for one, a new way of looking at 1985's Vagabonde; newcomers showing up wondering why this director was so revered should find some answer in clips that are gorgeously restored (we may have forgotten how colourful this oeuvre was), presented in the right ratio (not always a given in filmed retrospectives) and chosen to illustrate the enormous scope - embrace feels more Varda-appropriate - of this filmography. (Ideally, everyone who bought a ticket would be handed a boxset of the collected works on the way out, but that may be an indulgence beyond an arthouse distributor in the current economic climate.)

In and of itself, the film is a patchwork, pieced together from several months' (perhaps years') worth of lectures, taped interviews and other public appearances; it's often unclear whether Varda is making a point under her own steam, or responding to audience questions. "We'll jump around," she shrugs early on, giving the film whatever editorial licence it requires. Still, wherever she lands, she generally lands on something of interest: her testimony encompasses both dissection of specific details from individual titles - you realise how cinema provided a form of memory to this octogenarian woman - and conversation that goes to some wider philosophy of life ("I've learnt that recycling brings joy"). In Faces Places, Varda confessed she was unafraid of death, on the transcendentally simple grounds that "that'll be that". The final images she sets before her audience are drawn from that film, outtakes from the sequence that found Varda and JR vanishing amid the shifting sands of one of her signature beaches: "disappearing into the blur", as her newly recorded voiceover puts it, or perhaps returning to dust. Tears might well be shed for Varda's passing at that point ("I'll leave you," she signs off, after so many years of being with us), yet how many female creatives have rounded off a sixty-year career with a film in which they themselves get to direct their audience's gaze, and indeed to have the last word? The industry initiatives presently being set in place may ensure that number rises over the decades to come, if there's still a world for those women to film. For now, though, as this fondest of valedictions makes clear, there's only one Agnès Varda. 

Varda by Agnès is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via the BFI and Curzon Home Cinema. 

Monday 22 July 2019

1,001 Films: "Red Sorghum/Hong gao liang" (1987)

Zhang Yimou's debut Red Sorghum, adapted from a Mo Yan novel, retains the simplicity and economy - not to mention the mystery - of a fable. Our narrator informs us this is the story of how his grandparents met: the beautiful peasant girl who was to be his grandmother (Gong Li, radiant in the days before she became one of world cinema's luxury items) is all set to be married off to a rich leper known as Big Head Li - not exactly a catch, then - when the wedding party carrying her to her destiny is attacked by bandits. The bullhead attendant identified as the narrator's grandfather (Jiang Wen) fends them off, but finds he has his ham-like hands full when everyone gets to the vineyard where Ol' Big Head lives, and the fight for his beloved's heart only increases in scale. So much of it is set out in the fields and tied up with notions of blood and soil that Red Sorghum is open to complex political and metaphorical readings (most obviously of the "reap what ye sow" variety), but Zhang is careful to cultivate the possibility it merely is what we're told it is: a love story of uncommon physicality (there's a lot of trampling down crops, whether to create bedding or battlegrounds), set out in increasingly fiery earthen tones.

The fascination with the workers' lusty songs and rituals (peeing in the wine to give it its tang) suggests something else, however: that this folktale was Yan and Zhang's attempt to do what Alan Lomax had done for those working in the American cotton fields, namely to record for all time a way of life experienced by many of their generation's grandparents, which was at risk of being forgotten as those elders died out. This mix of the personal and the historical won the film the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1988, sparking a renewed interest in the West for Chinese cinema - the ornate, gilded New Wave that would eventually give life to Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern and Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine - and later an epic 21st century TV series that reportedly filled in the evident gaps in the narrator's account. Yet it's precisely those lacunae - the fadeouts between the extraordinary images Zhang boils this narrative down to - which make this telling stay with you: the whole film really does feel like a memory, as vividly imprinted in some places as it is ragged in others.

Red Sorghum is available on DVD through Drakes Avenue Pictures.

Sunday 21 July 2019

From the archive: "Spotlight"

There's been much discussion in recent times over whether American cinema has been overtaken by television. Tom McCarthy's new film Spotlight, which almost by default has become the frontrunner in the 2015-16 awards race, suggests what the movies may have learnt in turn from their smaller-screen cousin. Much of it is indistinguishable from a high-end HBO miniseries, and major visual and thematic cues are ported over from season five of that network's landmark series The Wire, in which McCarthy had a prominent role as a rogue journalist on the payroll of the Baltimore Sun. It's clear McCarthy shares David Simon's commitment to street-smart, socially conscious storytelling: here's a film that fair oozes due diligence.

A true story has here been reshaped into a procedural - that most televisual of templates - although the focus falls not on the usual cops or lawyers, rather a crack team of journalists gradually pulling a story together. These are the investigative staff of the Boston Globe, who - in a series of landmark 2002 reports - exposed how the Catholic Church had come to cover up abuses carried out by a staggering number of priests throughout the 1970s and 80s. (The Globe's team - known as Spotlight - thus preempted the money-following of Alex Gibney's recent documentary expose Mea Maxima Culpa, though the presence among their ranks of Ben Bradlee Jr. - son of the Washington Post legend immortalised by Jason Robards in All the President's Men - also places their endeavours in a wider journalistic and cinematic lineage.)

The story's one hook, but what really interests McCarthy here is the infrastructure that allows journalists to do their job - that same infrastructure that, since 2002, has been severely compromised, either by the kinds of money men who might well have secrets they don't want investigated, or by internal mismanagement. Spotlight reconstructs one such framework, using character actors we trust implicitly: working under the paper's careful new chief Liev Schreiber, senior editors Michael Keaton and John Slattery oversee the efforts of star reporters Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo to bring the Church to book. The casting of the latter - credibility eroded not a jot by several outings as the Incredible Hulk - is key to what McCarthy is getting at: here are a team of real-world superheroes to rival the Avengers, pitted against the almighty might and reach of one religious institution, with no more than a pen and notepad to serve as their sword and shield. 

Given the film's glowing reception thus far - movie that paints journalists in heroic light elicits great reviews: no surprise there - some recalibration of viewer expectation may be in order. As so often in his best work - by which I mean 2004's The Station Agent, not last year's Adam Sandler curio The Cobbler - McCarthy proves (much like his characters here) a quiet grafter, doing his most energetic work at the word processor. There's something a little dogged and ploddy about his intercutting as the journos gather their leads, and while he makes more of his Boston locations than the recent Black Mass, framing vulnerable clapboard houses beneath the church's looming arches, much of Spotlight is visually unremarkable. McCarthy makes a point of dressing his principals in profession-appropriate cargo pants and putting them in cramped, unflashy apartments; every now and again, the camera will accompany them on a shrugging walk-and-talk through the newspaper's print rooms and archives.

Mostly, though, he's content to hand over the screen to actors who prove a genuine pleasure to watch as they shape and redirect the material, moulding it into something like life: Ruffalo, who does more running around in pursuit of this story than anyone, stops from time to time to perform a wary, circling duet with Stanley Tucci as the lawyer representing the priests, while Keaton and McAdams work on Billy Crudup as the slick DA who assisted in the first wave of dealmaking.

At every stage, Spotlight remains utterly undemonstrative - its big setpiece sends one reporter to the library with another attacks data in a yearbook with a sliderule - yet it gathers its own momentum, and allows viewer outrage at the abuses of power uncovered by the Spotlight team to grow as organically as it would upon reading an expert expose. The lack of onscreen hype may, in fact, be Spotlight's secret weapon, allowing us to better hear out the arguments it makes in favour of institutions (the media and the Church) we might still want to have around and even be a part of if they weren't so corruptible, and - more specifically - in favour of the type of rigorous, conscientious research and writing that would appear to be on life support in this age of clickbait, hot takes and search engine optimisation. 

I'm not so sure such arguments demand or need recognition with an Oscar - a Pulitzer or Emmy might be more in Spotlight's line - but it's just possible McCarthy's film might have the wider impact of encouraging a new generation of writers to pick up a Biro and start asking questions of their leaders, rather than sheepishly accepting the answers. God knows there are stories enough to look into.

(MovieMail, January 2016)

Spotlight screens on BBC2 tonight at 10.45pm.

In memoriam: Ennio Guarnieri (Telegraph 04/07/19)

Ennio Guarnieri, who has died aged 88, was a cinematographer who, over his fifty-year career, worked with such directors as Vittorio de Sica, Franco Zeffirelli and Federico Fellini, helping to craft many of the Italian cinema’s most seductive images as it reasserted itself internationally.

Unlike his contemporary Vittorio Storaro, whose work on such landmarks as The Conformist (1970) favoured starkly dramatic, high-contrast compositions, often plunging areas of the screen into darkness, the bearded, bespectacled Guarnieri’s work was typically suffused with a warm, golden, distinctly Mediterranean light.

His most celebrated work came on de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971), which earned a BAFTA nomination for its photography before winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Guarnieri’s sundappled images enabled this enduring adaptation of Giorgio Bassani’s novel to establish a dreamy, summery bubble around its central characters, a well-to-do Jewish family living a precarious high life in Thirties Italy.

Something of that head-in-the-clouds vision persisted into Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Franco Zeffirelli’s modish take on St. Francis of Assisi’s formative years. Lush Sicilian and Umbrian exteriors earned Guarnieri his first Silver Ribbon award (the Italian Oscar) for cinematography, despite critics railing against the project’s “tourist-brochure look”. His eye-catching work on sand and sea also contributed to the global success of Swept Away (1974), the spiky Lina Wertmüller fable later remade by Guy Ritchie with Madonna (and rather less Marxism).

His second Silver Ribbon prize followed for helping to open out Zeffirelli’s film of La Traviata (1982). By that point, Guarnieri had established himself as a go-to for name directors in search of toney imagery: he contributed to Fellini’s lavish folly Ginger and Fred (1986), reunited with Zeffirelli (and Placido Domingo) for Otello (1986), and tracked Mikhail Baryshnikov’s movements in Dancers (1987).

Perhaps inevitably, given his trademark sheen, he found easy and profitable employment in the advertising sector between projects, bringing an extra touch of class to “High Society”, a 1985 spot for Barilla that survives as the world’s only Fellini-directed pasta commercial.

Ennio Guarnieri was born in Rome on October 12, 1930. A restless student, he abandoned surveyor training in 1949 to become an assistant to Anchise Bruzzi, the veteran cinematographer who shot de Sica’s defining neorealist film Shoeshine (1946) and pieced together Orson Welles’ angular Othello (1951). Guarnieri’s apprenticeship led to several camera assistant gigs, first on the Bruzzi-shot comedy Hello Elephant (1952), eventually on the industry-changing La Dolce Vita (1960).

He shared a cinematography credit on Alberto Lattuada’s crime drama Unexpected (a.k.a. The Mishap, 1961) before going solo on His Days Are Numbered (1962), the second film by the emergent director Elio Petri, in which a plumber is suddenly confronted by his own mortality. The film fell within touching distance of the old, neorealist ways, yet Guarnieri’s bright monochrome frames told their own ironic story – of a life of leisure forever lying just beyond the workingman hero’s grasp.

Thereafter, Guarnieri worked consistently across a range of genres. His aptitude for shooting actresses was showcased by Marco Ferreri’s satirical sex comedy The Marital Bed (1963), for which Marina Vlady won the Cannes Best Actress prize; he bathed Catherine Deneuve in Tuscan light during the otherwise insipid La Costanza delle Ragione (1964); helped establish the ethereal Verna Lisi’s pin-up credentials in The Girl and the General (1967) and Arabella (1967); and shot a softcore classic in Radley Metzger’s high-kitsch Camille 2000 (1969).

He could do starker work, venturing into the rocky hills of Cappadocia and Aleppo for Pasolini’s Medea (1969), with Maria Callas in the title role. Yet after the success of Finzi-Continis, he was hired for multiple English-language productions, working on Ash Wednesday (1973), Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) and The Cassandra Crossing (1976). In 1979 alone, he completed shooting on the satire Traffic Jam, the crime drama A Dangerous Toy, cult sci-fi The Visitor, and Dr. Jekyll Likes It Hot, a sex comedy starring the voluptuous Edwige Fenech.

The Eighties saw Guarnieri doing much to enshrine Isabelle Huppert’s pellucid beauty in The Lady of the Camelias (1981), Henry James update The Wings of the Dove (1981), and The Story of Piera (1983). Thereafter, he displayed a weakness for international co-productions like Liliana Caviani’s Francesco (1989), with Mickey Rourke as a grimier St. Francis than Zeffirelli had imagined, and Andrei Konchalovsky’s The Inner Circle (1991), a polyglot account of Stalin’s final days featuring Bob Hoskins as Yogi Beria.

He remained close to Zeffirelli, lensing the director’s Sparrow (1993) in Sicily and the runaway camp of Callas Forever (2002) across Europe. After completing the Franco-Russian Rasputin (2011), with Gerard Depardieu as the mad monk, his final credit came on the romcom Under a Happy Star (2014).

His death was announced earlier this week by Zeffirelli’s adopted son Pippo, who said “the world has lost a major artist, and I personally have lost a good friend”.

Ennio Guarnieri, born October 12, 1930, died July 1, 2019.

Saturday 20 July 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 12-14, 2019:

1 (1) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12A) ***

2 (2Toy Story 4 (U) ***
3 (new) Annabelle Comes Home (15)
4 (3) Yesterday (12A) **
5 (7) Aladdin (PG)
6 (8) Casino Royale - Secret Cinema (12A)
7 (5) Midsommar (18) **
8 (6) The Queen's Corgi (PG) **
9 (new) Stuber (15)
10 (new) The Dead Don't Die (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Only You

2. The Edge
3. My Friend the Polish Girl
4. Varda by Agnès 
5. The Matrix

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

1 (new) Fisherman's Friends (12)

2 (1) Captain Marvel (12) ***
3 (new) Alita Battle Angel (12)
4 (2) Fighting with My Family (12)
5 (5) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG) ***
6 (4) How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (PG)
7 (3) Toy Story (U) *****
8 (10) Bohemian Rhapsody (15)
9 (25) Ant-Man and the Wasp (12)
10 (6) Toy Story 3 (U) ****

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Ash is Purest White

2. Birds of Passage
3. The Hole in the Ground
4. The Kindergarten Teacher
5. The Edge

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back [above] (Sunday, ITV, 1.35pm)
2. Zootropolis (Saturday, BBC1, 5pm)
3. Philomena (Saturday, BBC1, 10.20pm and Friday, BBC1, 12.20am)
4. Spotlight (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
5. The Big Short (Saturday, BBC2, 10.50pm)

"The Edge" (Guardian 19/07/19)

The Edge ***
Dir: Barney Douglas. Documentary with: Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower, Kevin Pietersen, Graeme Swann. 95 mins. Cert: 15

The stars align around certain releases. Landing days after last Sunday’s extraordinary scenes at Lords, Barney Douglas’s documentary account of the reinvention of English cricket under the aegis of coach Andy Flower and captain Andrew Strauss counts as almost as well-timed as a Joe Root cover drive. That World Cup final demonstrated how, at its best, this sport writes its own outlandish script. What Douglas underlines – defying decades of filmmaker indifference – is that cricket can indeed be cinematic, at once widescreen (the Sky archives have been raided for aerial shots of packed stadia in sundappled locales) and close-up in its duels between batsmen and bowlers. Unpredictable, too: some intriguing turn in this narrative elevates the film a notch or two over standard sports-doc fodder.

It’s primarily, Douglas realises, a matter of squad management. England’s rise to number one in the rankings is described firsthand by the flinty Flower, circumspect Strauss and key personnel (droll Jimmy Anderson, larky Graeme Swann), each deployed, as on the pitch and in their subsequent media careers, to find some new angle on the often grinding and convoluted business of five-day cricket. Time and distance allows for a sensitive re-evaluation of the Kevin Pietersen situation, that Twitter-heightened flashpoint that threatened to undo burgeoning morale – and which evidently remains a sore spot in certain quarters. Here, Douglas opens the door to sports psychology, and the film starts to reposition itself as a more nuanced proposition than the flagwaver it initially presented as.

The Edge’s second half provides an unexpected analysis of the cost Flower’s militarised push for glory took on his troops, seeing off ten years of post-match interview spin to pursue a more candid line of testimony. Wicketkeeping warrior Matt Prior concedes “life as a professional sportsman doesn’t necessarily lend itself to you being a good person – because it’s about winning”; a painfully vulnerable Jonathan Trott breaks down in tears. Toby Jones’ narration sounds purplish by comparison, but there’s something useful (and very English) in the way Douglas interrupts this moment of sporting celebration to sound a cautionary note, and offer another reminder of why these elongated, intensely pressurised matches are referred to as Tests. Let’s wish the new guard Ben Stokes-levels of luck. 

The Edge is now playing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.

Visibility: "My Friend the Polish Girl"

My Friend the Polish Girl is a film with one foot planted very firmly in our present: a mock-doc shot in and around London, it's peppered with emojis and hashtags, and opens with title cards in which the fictional documentarist signals her intent to make "a film about immigrants and Brexit" while warning the finished product didn't turn out quite as anyone expected. It's also, however, a film with at least a toe or two in the 1960s. Shooting in monochrome Academy ratio frames and very consciously deconstructing everything they show us, the actual directors - a pair of Polish newcomers, Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek - hark back to such key Godardian texts as Une femme mariée and Two or Three Things I Know About Her, working up a gimlet-eyed study of a woman adrift in the harsh modern world: Alicja (Aneta Piotrowska), a 32-year-old aspirant actress inhabiting a flat on the Edgware Road, and a fairly lowly spot on the capital's socioeconomic food chain. It's not always a flattering picture, which may explain why it's taken the indie route to reach us. (The B-movie enthusiast in Godard would appreciate the name of the distributor: Republic.) Yet it's a risky, complex and interesting one, all the more distinctive for not being the type of film British filmmakers are traditionally encouraged to make.

Banaszkiewicz and Dymek hook us instantly with the strained relationship between the filmmaker-within-the-film - a pushy American peeper (Emma Friedman-Cohen, bearing the chilly air of a young Lionel Shriver) who thinks nothing of smuggling cameras into hospices, or filming Alicja as she sleeps - and a subject who presents as at once victim and opportunist, a collector of followers and likes who clearly sees the documentary as a means of boosting her visibility. The directors usher Piotrowska into situations that, if they aren't entirely unscripted, retain a ring of realness about them: an appointment with a Harley Street quack (face obscured) is followed by a meeting in the Groucho with a flowery-shirted chancer who offers Alicja a role as a Russian call girl in what he describes as "a metaphysical gangster movie". As our heroine lets slip during her wardrobe test (keenly attended by the all-male crew) that "this is my seventh part as a prostitute", you're reminded of all those Eastern European glamour girls bussed in to be stripped and groped by Danny Dyer and worse on the sets of our tuppence-ha'penny crime duds, and My Friend the Polish Girl announces itself as a more than faintly radical proposition: a lowish-budget Britpic setting itself up in opposition to the working practices of the poverty-row Britpic.

One wrinkle is that this film-within-the-film-within-the-film isn't specifically Brexit-related - these kinds of movies were being bashed out long before 2016 - though Banaszkiewicz and Dymek could always argue that it's their fictional documentarist who's being opportunistic in deploying the B-word. If there's a thematic connection, it lies in how, once her kindly British boyfriend leaves the picture, Alicja proves painfully reliant on deeply dubious men - her vulnerability arguably mirrors that of the wider migrant population. (And the American watching her every move appears no less ready to exploit.) Banaskiewicz and Dymek foster a melancholy mood and display an austere compositional sense that fits their bleak narrative trajectory: here is a London in a permanent state of winter, with an ill wind blowing down every street. (And this is the hotbed of enlightenment that voted overwhelmingly to Remain, you'll remember.) One sequence struck me as misjudged - softcore, male-gazey business of a kind long debunked in those Sixties art movies angling for the brown-raincoat crowd - yet several more prove hard to shake in a needling, confrontational work from filmmakers keen that their host nation should take a long, hard look at itself. Turn your back on it, if you choose, but that doesn't mean there aren't some uncomfortable truths here.

My Friend the Polish Girl is now playing at London's ICA and Prince Charles Cinemas.