Friday 31 January 2020

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 24-26, 2020:

1 (1) 1917 (15) ***

2 (2) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
3 (new) The Personal History of David Copperfield (PG) ****
4 (3) Little Women (U) ****
5 (5) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
6 (4) The Gentlemen (18) **
7 (6Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12A)
8 (11) Spies in Disguise (PG)
9 (8) Jojo Rabbit (12A) **
10 (new) Paw Patrol: Ready, Race, Rescue! (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. A Hidden Life

2. La Dolce Vita
3. The Personal History of David Copperfield
4. Midnight Traveller
5. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

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

1 (1) Rambo: Last Blood (18)

2 (5) Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (18) ***
3 (3) Downton Abbey: the Movie (PG)
4 (2) It: Chapter Two (15) **
5 (13) Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
6 (11) Rocketman (15) ***
7 (7) Hustlers (15) ***
8 (10) Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12) **
9 (19) Yesterday (12) **
10 (17) The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)


My top five: 
1. Bait

2. Inna de Yard
3. The Farewell
4. By the Grace of God
5. Animals

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. Men in Black [above] (Sunday, C4, 4,40pm)
2. Creed (Thursday, five, 10.20pm)
3. Up in the Air (Saturday, BBC2, 12midnight)
4. Yentl (Thursday, BBC2, 3.05pm)
5. American Sniper (Saturday, ITV1, 10.40pm)

Cinema heaven and hell: "Talking About Trees"

We see more films about the sorry state of filmmaking in developing countries than we see films from developing countries, which may account for the sorry state. The immediate precedent for this week's Talking About Trees would be 2017's The Prince of Nothingwood, that quirky character study of a titan of the Afghan film business, unknown everywhere else. Suhaib Gasmelbari's new documentary, produced by the great Chadian director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun and bolstered by a crew uniting European and African technicians, introduces us to four greying lions of the Sudanese cinema, which enjoyed a brief flowering in the 1970s before its slow and steady decline: what happens when a country has minimal investment, scant stability and - as the opening navigation of a blackout underlines - only fitful electricity, that lifeblood of the audiovisual industry. Gasmelbari's interest lies in what these men are doing now, long after the last of them has shouted cut. An appearance on a radio arts forum offers some context for the gardening leave they find themselves on; otherwise, they're left to sweep their modest offices (no sprawling Bel Air mansions with adjacent swimming pools for these guys), revisit the sites of past glories, and make sporadic raids on the archives to see if any of their Seventies work has survived. At one point, we see one of the group cracking open a trunk containing VHS copies of both Truffaut's Le Peau Douce and the Matthew Broderick romcom The Night We Never Met: put it together with the later scene in which the local kids extol the virtues of Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, and you're struck by the fact films have a funny, haphazard way of travelling. You never know what's going to show up where. Our heroes do, however, have a plan of sorts: to restore and reopen an abandoned cinema. If they can't make films, they can at least cultivate somewhere to show them. One reassuring constant of darkness: how it always allows for a possibility, slim as it may be, of light.

Gasmelbari's opening - the men filming one another, in the absence of resources to film anyone or anywhere else - looks a little stagy, forced as introductions can be, but Talking About Trees soon settles into an observational mode, quietly unfolding the logistics of this operation, and what cinema means to those carrying it out. These are citizens of the world, to borrow a phrase: cinephiles who studied in Germany and the USSR, where they were exposed to the kind of films they presumably wouldn't have seen back home, and then returned to Sudan to initiate a new wave that never quite came together. (Ripples of their directorial handiwork punctuate the film.) There's an obvious poignancy in seeing these now-sixtysomethings mulling over their youthful ambitions, and yet the main thrust of the cinema restoration is positive, forward-looking: they're putting down roots, building something, leaving a concrete legacy behind. Gasmelbari has a gift for resonant framing, alighting upon his subjects as they wait around outside a cinema that is so much bigger than them, and then in backrooms littered with tossed reels of celluloid. (Preservationists will either jump for joy or weep tears at the waste.) His own footage sometimes seems as quotidian as a morning makeover show, documenting meetings with businessmen and calls being put in to hire firms; we're never allowed to lose track of the fact it takes money to turn your dreams into reality. Elsewhere, though, he lends a poetry and magic to what's effectively the filming of a small community project. Talking About Trees is a useful reminder that, even empty, the cinema is a great location, full of ghosts and spectres - half-glimpsed shimmers - but also anticipation and transformational promise. That's why the guys name their cinema The Revolution; it may also be why what happens in the film's final third happens in the final third. No spoilers, but safe to say this was not the Cinema Paradiso ending anyone - not the film's subjects, not its maker, nor perhaps the audience - might have expected. That's how the world turns sometimes, though, and if it doesn't jolt Western viewers - sat in a cosy seat in one of several air-conditioned screens, with a choice of flavoured kettle chips within easy reach - into some awareness of their very considerable privilege, I suspect that nothing will.

Talking About Trees opens in selected cinemas from today.

On the road again: "Le Grand Voyage"

Le Grand Voyage, the French-Moroccan director Ismaël Ferroukhi's tale of a father-son road trip to Mecca for the Hajj, emerged into an altogether different world back in 2004. On a superficial level, its simmering juvenile lead Nicolas Cazalé was being positioned as France's hottest young thing with his performances in this and the same year's Le Clan, a heat that looks to have ebbed away over the subsequent decade-and-a-half. (Much of it, I suspect, went the way of Tahar Rahim, whom Ferroukhi directed in 2011's Free Men, and who generally appears happier and better slept.) More critically, it landed just before the movements of Muslims anywhere in the post-9/11 world fell open to such sustained and noisy question. Here is one of the few Noughties films on the subject of Islamic faith that could just as easily have been made in a previous decade, before the Towers fell. It's a generational clash, plain and simple, stuffing into automotive close quarters a stern-faced, apparently inflexible patriarch (Mohamed Majd), who insists on conducting evening prayers even in the midst of passing through Central European customs checks, and the kid in the driver's seat (Cazalé), keen to speed through the whole experience, either to get away from or back to the gal who was lighting up his Nokia 3210 - in as much as a Nokia 3210 could ever be lit up - before dad threw it in a rest-stop waste bin. Their journey will be a humbling experience for the headstrong, prideful youngster; for us, a meandering, slightly dour crowdpleaser with dabs of proto-Dardennesian realism, like the banger the pair travel in, a salvage job from the family scrapyard with one off-colour door.

Sixteen years on, Le Grand Voyage still lands for this viewer somewhere between middling and minor. It has its virtues, sure: sinuous cross-continental camerawork from Katell Djian (who went on to shoot Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button), climaxing in the ever-impressive spectacle around Mecca itself; an elegantly lovely, Michael Nyman-like score by Fowzi Guerdjou; and an early glimpse of Roxane Mesquida as the kid's increasingly distant girlfriend. (The fact this brief appearance is mute, arriving via a photograph, rather flags how caught up the film is with the time-honoured cinematic business of dads-and-lads: right through to its final act of charity, it's as conservative as a preacher's parable.) None of this quite disguises the fact we literally know which direction matters are headed in - the plodding midsection fair begs audiences for an audible sigh of "Are we there yet?" - and a vague feel of autobiography that hasn't entirely been worked up or out into involving drama; in spots, it does feel somewhat like a what-I-did-on-my-holidays assignment that won a prize to go before the cameras. You'll have time to ponder why the film is being returned to our screens now - there's no obvious reason for a reissue, no retrospective to tie it to, although I note we're nearing the 15th anniversary of its BAFTA nomination (when it lost, not unfairly, to a more rigorous father-son tale: Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped). Could it possibly be a sly political statement from our generally engaged pals at Peccadillo Pictures - that it might be worth revisiting this pair's smooth crossing of borders, now more than ever? The film's Europeanness - its hymn to free and easy movement - admittedly lends Le Grand Voyage a certain poignancy this weekend. Just not enough to justify the grand in the title.

Le Grand Voyage opens today at Manchester's HOME, ahead of its DVD reissue this Monday.

Thursday 30 January 2020

This boy's life: "The Personal History of David Copperfield"

To some degree, Armando Iannucci's new film of David Copperfield - The Personal History of David Copperfield, the one long-winded thing about it - has had its way paved by the success over Christmas of Greta Gerwig's Little Women. Here is another notable recent example of what we might call the paperchase adaptation (DC's poster makes a conspicuous feature of pages being thrown in the air): a distinctively redirected take that rigorously upends a text you may think you know back-to-front, with an aim to seeing what now falls out and attracts the eye and interest. Little Women was definitely Gerwiggy: light, bright and flighty, and as preoccupied with the struggles of young creatives in the first years of the 21st century as it was with those of young creatives in the last years of the 19th century. David Copperfield follows as recognisably Iannuccy: taking its cue from its hero's own paraphrased "these moments must show", it's shot fast and loose like sketch comedy, encompassing an ensemble who've flourished in superior examples of the form. Yet again, we're watching the making of a creative, but here, it's the making of an observational comic or satirist, the camera noting how this Copperfield (Dev Patel) learns to scrutinise his absurd world, and what he makes from it, more often than not from next to nothing. You could mourn what's been left behind in turning a serial into a single two-hour sit: certainly, the film barely sets foot into the Dickensian darkness, and so there's never anything quite as bleak or tragicomic as there was in Iannucci's previous The Death of Stalin. What's crucial, though, and what I think merits cheering to the rafters, is how this Copperfield coheres into its own individual thing. It's that rare period drama that makes selective choices, rather than just trotting through the same old story again because this narrative has played well for several centuries. Sure, it deals in moments, but they're the moments that make us, and they're almost all memorable and cherishable; you know from a very early stage that this is a film you will revisit.

It's a bargain, too: two visions of England for the price of one. For starters, there is that of the original author: the individuals turning their backs on cold-hearted industry and striking out towards self-fulfilment; the parsing of an eccentric national character, punched up here via the casting of such singular performers as Tilda Swinton (as the donkey-shooing Betsey Trotwood), Peter Capaldi and Bronagh Gallagher (as Micawber and wife) and Hugh Laurie (as the distractible, head-in-clouds Mr. Dick, best paired with a kite). By the time the generally twitchy Ben Whishaw shuffles on as Uriah Heep, it's clear he will be competing to be only the fifth or sixth biggest weirdo on screen, however regrettable his haircut. In this regard, the film is Iannucci's vision, too, reclaiming the world as a stage to be filled with funny people and funnier bits of business. What made me chuckle more? The creditors making off with Micawber's possessions through open windows at the back and sides of shot? Or the scene in which a ravenous Copperfield sees a tempting plate of cakes repeatedly snatched from his grasp, which proves but an amuse-bouche for possibly the finest cake-eating sequence in 21st century cinema? (Again, this may point towards national character: is there some genetic correlation between eccentricity and low blood sugar? Does that explain Bake Off?) Iannucci and writing collaborator Simon Blackwell have isolated what's funny in the book and made it funnier still, whether by that casting, or their own sharp reframing and cutting. Perhaps more personal, too: they've yanked out what resonates most with them. When David tells Mr. Dick how "when I've been in the company of someone of strong character, their voice becomes lodged in my head", you can tell he, like anyone else who ever slid a highlighter over this line, might well have it in him to become a comedy writer. Even Iannucci's frenetic pacing, roughly 300% more breakneck than the average Downton wannabe, yields a poignant realisation: yes, this may be what was required to turn a 700-page novel into a 118-minute movie, but isn't this also how quickly our formative years seem to slip through our fingers? 

We spend much of this Copperfield saying hello and goodbye to people, though we're always happy to see them, and sad when we leave them behind, as good a litmus test when dealing with Dickens adaptations as it is in the real world when assessing potential friends. I don't say this lightly, but Sarah Crowe may yet have surpassed the casting jamboree she put on for Stalin, putting either a pip or a dandy of a performer in even the bitparts, and helping to facilitate a real coup with the title role. Even before you factor in the colour issue, it would be asking a lot of Patel to hold a film as skittish as this together, to endure the hail of custard pies being tossed around him and still seem to stand for something sincerely aspirational, as Dickens's Copperfield surely does. Yet one of recent cinema's legitimate pleasures has been watching a kid who seemed like an adorable human being but a shaky and self-conscious performer circa Slumdog grow into one of our most assured and versatile leading men. Patel is funny here: he aces the mimicry that's essential to both visions, a recognition on Dickens and Iannucci's part that you have to look and sound as if you know what you're doing to fit in within English society, even if - as the prominence of several current cabinet ministers attests - you really haven't a clue. Yet he's courteous with it, too: after appalling his actress sweetheart Dora (Morfydd Clark) with his promise to bring something to throw at her after her stage debut, he pulls out a nervy "flowers!". Early on in this Copperfield, the servant Mrs. Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper, from This Country) observes of her young charge that "he digs for joy, that boy. Finds it, too." Patel has that quality in spades, and for all the sententious waffle written about the art and practice of cinema, sometimes making a movie can be as simple as that digging: cast the exact right actor to play a character who represents the best of us, and centre him in a world that is, from first to last, inclusive, outward-looking and optimistic. There are good reasons audiences are seeking sanctuary in it, this of all weeks. 

The Personal History of David Copperfield is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Beyond borders: "Midnight Traveller"

A documentary that's also a thriller and a diary, Midnight Traveller in many ways picks up where last year's standout non-fiction title For Sama left off. Where its predecessor found student-turned-filmmaker Waad al-Kateab wrestling with the issue of whether or not to leave her besieged homeland of Syria as the bombs fell ever closer to her new family's neighbourhood, Hassan Fazili's film commits from the off to a vision of journalism in flight and parenting on the hoof, documenting the journey the director, his wife Fatima and their young daughters Nargis and Zahra were forced to make after Fazili was issued with a Taliban death threat in the spring of 2015. The plan was to set out from Tajikistan via Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey to what they hoped would be a safe haven in Greece; inevitably, there came a point where plans and reality headed in markedly different directions. The film's USP is that, having abandoned all non-essential equipment to speed their progress, this party recorded every last one of these deviations using three common-or-garden smartphones, presumably praying there'd be ample time and opportunity to charge their gadgets en route. The ninety-minute movie we have here, then, has been pieced together from the kind of thirty-second-to-one-minute clips any of us would take on our phones when passing through new and interesting territory, digital postcards from the unknown. Yet, as in For Sama, the images aren't ever so blithe that they could be mistaken for holiday snaps; instead, they carry the dread sense that Fazili and his family were recording to mitigate against those forces who would silence them or wipe them off the map, so as to have proofs in their pocket if ever the worst came to the worst. The film's describing a transitional moment to its audience, yet there are several points along the way where its images could just as easily be taken in as evidence of some kind.

For a while, you can have fun determining who shot what. No doubt Nargis or Zahra got the footage of the goats meandering round one makeshift stopping-off zone, the creatures proving rather freer to roam than the tiny humanoids trying to feed them, but only a grown-up would have troubled to tape the hustling that went on between smuggled and smuggler, or the large groups of people squeezed into the boots of cars or backs of vans. Increasingly, what's important is what they shot. It's someone (Fatima?) noticing the way Hassan slumps low when travelling, either through fatigue or to avoid detection; it's the girls' determination to treat this passage as an adventure, which might well keep spirits up while trudging through damp forests on a crocked ankle, though even they will succumb to boredom and tears at the thought of a childhood without books and toys or a garden of their own. Damningly, the family enjoy relatively easy going until they reach Europe, whereupon they find themselves betrayed by their smugglers, bitten by bugs, and beaten by nationalist thugs. (If there's one thing we sorely need to learn from Middle Eastern culture, it's how to be better hosts.) Yet country by country, frame by frame, Fazili succeeds in putting a face to a movement, to personalise what tends to be spoken about in abstract numerical terms, if at all that kindly. They're not quite saints - Hassan, a terrible flirt, is prone to hide behind the lens (as filmmakers do), while Fatima can come over as brusque, though I suspect you'd be snippy if you'd had to travel this far with no guarantee of settled status - but they're caretakers, not creeps, ghouls or leeches: witness how they fix the beat-up room they're assigned in a Bulgarian refugee camp, the evident pride they take throughout in watching their kids grow. Ideally, of course, this is a film its maker would never have had to make in the first place, or where the raw footage he did collect came back too benign and banal to ever be released theatrically. In our imperfect world, it presents as not just an engaging if occasionally tense watch, but a timely response to so much right-wing propaganda, and actually a pretty damn persuasive argument for keeping all borders open, if only to provide some means of escape.

Midnight Traveller is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Raiders of the lost archive: "Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché"

If the premise of the new doc Be Natural holds water - and you rather fear it does - then the movies were at it right from the get-go. They elevated a genuine pioneer in Alice Guy (upon marriage, Guy-Blaché), the French writer-director-producer who nudged the nascent cinema away from documentary towards fiction and in the direction of (albeit prerecorded) sound, then routinely elided her from screen history in favour of the usual male suspects: the Lumières, Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith and so on. I was lucky, in that a maverick lecturer at university introduced our class to the Guy-Blaché oeuvre in the late 1990s, but by then the filmmaker herself was long gone, her work mostly forgotten about. What's important about the Alice Guy-Blaché story isn't just that it challenges the myth on which the studio system was built (that filmmaking was, is and shall forever be an exclusively male pursuit: man's work, end of), but that it flags just how early the cinema got into the lousy habit of undervaluing a woman's contributions. There is, therefore, an understandable urgency about director Pamela B. Green's efforts to correct the official record: she wants to fill in the gaps before she loses our attention, pull out the clips before the nitrate rots in the archives, speak to the right people before they pass on. There's a real poignancy, for example, in watching Green's interview with Agnès Varda, one of the few name directors here who can claim to have heard of Guy-Blaché, and a woman who spent her entire career building on her predecessor's legacy. (Varda, of course, was canny enough to document her life several times over before she left us last year.)

As a film, Be Natural proves a bit of a gabble; a pleasurable and informative gabble, yes, but a gabble nevertheless. It's slightly ironic that a film addressing the silent cinema should hear from so many voices, at times it seems simultaneously; it can't and won't shut up about this woman, which is Green's way of rescuing Guy-Blaché from the silence she was cast into. She dashes through the biographical basics in under ten minutes (eased by narrator Jodie Foster's superlative French pronunciation, very nearly worth the ticket price in itself), then spends the rest of the movie dashing around the globe seeking those memento mori that will assist in making the case for her subject's historical significance - a quest for long-buried treasure. Part of Green's project lies in making the labour-intensive and often frustrating business of archiving appear sexier and possibly more collaborative than it might be offscreen, making a zippy show of what usually goes on in drab institutional backrooms, behind closed doors: she floods the screen with Google Earth-like maps, search engine findings, computer models of the studios her subject once filmed in, the raw data of a dozen or more intercontinental Skype calls. No stone is left unturned, or unfilmed, and that's quite a bit to process even before you factor in the footage Green shot with the labourers, both starry and menial, in the film industry of the 21st century. 

Given the essentially scholarly nature of Green's endeavours, I did raise an eyebrow at the range of celebrity talking heads put before us here. If you asked me to ready a list of people likely to appear in a documentary on a lost pioneer of silent film, Andy Samberg, the man who gave the world the sketch known as "Dick in a Box", probably wouldn't be on there; nor, I think, would Jon Chu, the brains behind the Step Up franchise. Most don't contribute that much beyond cuing the next segment or burbling "Isn't that amazing?" at something at which we've already marvelled, though I will concede such star turns begin to make sense if you think of them - yes, even Samberg - as the sons and daughters of Guy-Blaché, being informed of a lineage of which they weren't previously aware. It is, after all, a matter of cinematic ancestry; what the film is ultimately asking about its subject is a somewhat frantic "well, who do you think she was?". Thankfully, Green isn't just well-connected. She's a great labeller, obsessively laying out her findings and showing her workings, and as the film goes on to document the extent to which Guy-Blaché was overwritten (or just plain written out) by successive generations of film historians and cultural gatekeepers, it becomes clear why: to avoid the mistakes her predecessors in this field made, and to point a way forward for further research. The talking heads are forgivable as window dressing for this filmmaker's most valuable finds: an interview from 1964 in which Guy-Blaché, then ninety, appears as sharp as the proverbial tack, and the shorts themselves, which even in extracted form look as spirited and joyous as anything in the canon. Some enterprising cinephile will doubtless be programming an updated Guy-Blaché retrospective as we speak: if they put Green's documentary upfront, its wide-reaching, earbending advocacy will sell all the tickets that remain to be sold.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Fatman scoop: "Richard Jewell"

The apparently indefatigable Clint Eastwood - who turns 90 this May - has extended his directorial late period via a succession of generally well-crafted accounts of true-life stories, roughly one per year: J. EdgarAmerican Sniper, Sully, The 1517 to Paris, The Mule, and now this week's Richard Jewell. It's easy to imagine Eastwood sitting in his office on the Warners lot in Burbank, spending his mornings flicking through the newspapers, tearing out a few columns here and there that strike him as filmable, making a few calls in the afternoon to his trusted artistic collaborators, and gearing up for production a few weeks down the line; as creative processes for octogenarian filmmakers go, it's proven more consistently reliable than Woody Allen fishing around in his bottom drawers for half-completed, long-abandoned legal pads. The new film, however, must have derived from a decidedly yellowing clipping. The screenwriter Billy Ray has adapted a profile Marie Brenner wrote for Vanity Fair back in 1997 of the eponymous figure: a jobbing security guard who achieved momentary infamy the previous year after the pipe-bomb attack on a concert held to mark the opening of the Atlanta Olympics, Jewell was first hailed as a hero, then unceremoniously (and, it transpired, incorrectly) denounced as a possible suspect for the crime.

The question that hangs over the film - and which its ever-terse maker never really gets around to answering - is why Eastwood found himself preoccupied by Jewell in 2019, some twenty-odd years after anyone last thought of this distinctly minor player in American history. Was it just that he'd found the perfect actor to play him? As incarnated by Paul Walter Hauser - the rotund scene-stealer from I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman - Jewell is one of the most unlikely characters ever to be elevated to hero status by a studio movie: unathletic, far from the sharpest tool in the box, beloved of the mom he lives with (Kathy Bates), yet only ever a Happy Meal away from serious heart palpitations, our protagonist first presents as the prestige movie equivalent of Paul Blart, rather haplessly rolling from hired to fired by a succession of exasperated employers. If Richard Jewell the movie contains any lasting value - anything to distinguish it from Eastwoodian busywork - it'll reside in the empathy the director extends towards this chump: with Ray and Hauser's support, he looks past the bluster to spot the sweet, attentive manchild underneath, dogged and rather touching in his determination to make it as a real cop, even after his wrongful arrest. For all his bulk, this Jewell has been conceived as the kind of "little guy" the movies used to champion back when Eastwood was starting out: a Marty who finds himself in a maelstrom.

There's no mistaking where Eastwood's sympathies lie, particularly set against the rank cynicism and snottiness his film diagnoses in almost every other character: the snooty college dean (Charles Green) who deigns to have our boy fired for accidentally bumping into a student, the jaded FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who pushes on with the Jewell investigation in the face of increasingly shaky evidence, the flirty journalist (Olivia Wilde) who's fucking the cop for information. (Some controversy broke out about this latter portrayal after the film's US release: on screen, it has the look of one of those roles a performer takes on to work with a director, and not because there's anything there worth playing. There have been more of these in Allen's filmography than there have been in Eastwood's, but still.) One of the points Eastwood seems especially keen to clear his throat and make here is that liberal, college-affiliated types are guilty of their own damaging prejudices: he pulls off a nifty gotcha of sorts during the concert - a nicely simmering setpiece the rest of the movie struggles to live up to - when the camera catches sight of and falls in sync behind a restless dark-skinned fellow whose ominously bulging backpack has been filled with... big reveal: brewskis for his buds. What did you think it was?, the movie asks us. You big old racist, you.

What follows falls somewhere between windy and outright Trumpy. We bed down with a small community of so-called deplorables - the good-hearted Richard, his doting mom, and Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), the small-time lawyer who leapt to Jewell's defence on the grounds he "believed" him - as they bond and present a counternarrative to that being prepared by the overreaching lawmen and the fake-news media. Maybe there's a comment about societal entrenchment that makes it vaguely relevant to How We Live Now, but it results in a far smaller movie than its lively opening promised, and one even selected Republicans might find a tad simplistic in its conflicts: the vultures camped out on the Jewell front lawn won't even let the big dude walk his dog without yelling questions at him, while a bumper sticker on Watson Bryant's wall ("I Fear The Government More Than I Fear Terrorism") pretty much speaks for the movie entire. In years to come, Richard Jewell may well find itself grouped with American Sniper and The 1517 to Paris in poundstore 3-in-1 packs and academic theses examining Clint's continued noodling on the theme of American heroism in the terror age. On its own, though, it struck me as nothing much out of the ordinary: a curious, not exactly enlightening anecdote, capably told and acted, it may benefit from the fact this story was dropped as quickly as the media seized upon it - but also explains exactly why everybody shrugged and moved on as they did.

Richard Jewell opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Monday 27 January 2020

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 17-19, 2020:

1 (1) 1917 (15) ***

2 (new) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
3 (2) Little Women (U) ****
4 (4) The Gentlemen (18) **
5 (5) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
6 (3Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12A)
7 (new) Bombshell (15) **
8 (6) Jojo Rabbit (12A) **
9 (new) Just Mercy (12A) **
10 (7) Frozen II (U) **

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. A Hidden Life

2. La Dolce Vita
3. The Personal History of David Copperfield
4. Midnight Traveller
5. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

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

1 (new) Rambo: Last Blood (18)

2 (4) It: Chapter Two (15) **
3 (new) Downton Abbey: the Movie (PG) [above]
4 (5) Ad Astra (12) ***
5 (2) Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (18) ***
6 (3) Angel Has Fallen (15) **
7 (1) Hustlers (15) ***
8 (new) It: Double Pack (15) **
9 (7) The Lion King (PG)
10 (8) Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12) **


My top five: 
1. Bait

2. Inna de Yard
3. The Farewell
4. By the Grace of God
5. Animals

"The Rescue" (Guardian 24/01/20)

The Rescue **
Dir: Dante Lam. With: Eddie Peng, Yanlin Wang, Zhilei Xin, Lyric Lan. 139 mins. Cert: 15

Detective Chinatown 3’s rival for the attentions of the Chinese Lunar New Year crowd is this goofy event movie, a frenetic, finally exhausting mix of soap and spectacle. It’s overseen by Dante Lam, a sometime cult director (1998’s Beast Cops) continuing the transition into commercial respectability he began with 2018’s state-sanctioned seatfiller Operation Red Sea.

The pitch was presumably Top Gun with air rescue workers: heroic winchman Gao (Eddie Peng) is introduced swinging through a collapsing oil rig, and winds up in fraught navigation of a stricken ship. Yet once back on dry land Lam proves just as preoccupied by Gao’s curly-haired moppet Congcong (Zhang Jingyi) and his progress through toilet training.

The new Chinese cinema looks to have taken as its model those Indian masala movies (themselves gaining a foothold in these waters) which mash up multiple genres with an eye to boosting box-office returns. Here, it generates a mixed bag to be dipped in and out of, and discarded on the cinema floor once you’ve had your fill.

Some of it is undeniably tasty: the precision stunt ‘coptering that sees hotshot ladypilot Fan (Zhilei Xin) loose keys from a hook, the professional water tank work as Gao swims through and around that ship. Its complex VFX only sporadically convince as reproductions of tactile reality, however, and the pressure to make this most auspicious of release dates equally manifests in the haphazardness of the female lead’s lipliner in one scene.

Amid the rushing around, any substantial or sustained jeopardy is trampled underfoot. As one setpiece after another is successfully negotiated, you can’t fail to notice how the fate of the passengers in a plummeting jetliner is afforded less narrative weight than little Congcong’s struggles to poop properly, doubly so after the shameless midfilm development that sees the poor tyke starting to lose his sight.

The result is as long and as lavish an advert as has ever been produced for the Chinese emergency services, reassuring us we’d be in the hands of the most upstanding folks if ever our tankers get toppled by rockfall into fast-running rivers. It’s just you might reasonably want your art a little more stirring and challenging, and not quite so obviously rubberstamped.

The Rescue had its international release postponed on Friday due to the Coronavirus outbreak; it will now open later this year. 

Rocky ground: "No Fathers in Kashmir"

Ashvin Kumar's No Fathers in Kashmir is getting one of this week's more selective releases, but it's notable and valuable for offering a glimpse of a part of the world that was tricky to see or get much sense of even before its recent media blackout. As an opening text underlines, Kashmir has been a site of so much tension between India and Pakistan over the decades that some estimated 100,000 lives have been lost there, three times the number lost in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Kumar's film is framed as a journey of discovery for both the viewer and its protagonist Noor (Zara Webb), a selfie-snapping teenager raised in the UK but returned to her absent father's homeland by a mother seeking signatures on official documents. With cinematographer Jean-Marc Selva set to exploring the region's forests, peaks and bombsites, Kashmir is laid out before us as a place of mysteries, of unfinished business. We're invited to wonder just where Noor's father disappeared to, why his conservative college pal Arshid (played by the director himself as an agonised, melancholy hardliner) can no longer have children, and why he's hiding a man in the attic of a boarded-up Internet cafe - an especially evocative location, given recent developments in the region.

Noor, for her part, has been characterised along Nancy Drew-ish lines, as a clear-eyed, pure-souled seeker uncovering the many secrets lying under these rocks; there's a degree to which her progress is meant as educative, as this teen abandons her initial, gauche goal of getting a Facebook photo with a militant and instead uses her cameraphone to document harsh truths. (She has a lot in common with Waad al-Kateab, the fearless student-journalist heroine of the recent documentary For Sama.) Webb is a bright, alert presence in the role: she seems to get older and less coltish the more she finds out, and there's a nice, possibly Conan Doyle-inspired touch as she inherits her father's pipe in the middle of her investigations. Kumar casts well generally, recruiting assured veterans who'll be better known to southern hemisphere viewers (Raazi's Soni Razdan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda from 2014's Hamlet-goes-to-Kashmir update Haider), and he sets up so many areas of inquiry so quickly that he has time to explore them at length: we even get a sort-of holiday romance between Noor and scooter-riding contemporary Majid (Shivam Raina), and the drollest of jokes as souvenir photos taken at a blithe early stage are delivered at an especially inopportune moment. Here as elsewhere, Kumar senses the fraught place images occupy in Kashmir as proofs of life or death. Occasionally, he'll intersperse the dramatised action with flickers of non-fiction captured around the area; perhaps he could have pushed a little more firmly and decisively into that hybrid docu-fiction territory, but the film he turns in is engaged and engaging enough in itself. We usually have to make excuses for images smuggled out of contested territory, pointing out they were shot undercover, or composed in a rush, or that the authorities may have got censorious fingers on them before they reached our screens. The quiet triumph of Kumar's film is that it needs next to no allowances making for it whatsoever.

No Fathers in Kashmir is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 25 January 2020

Miami guns: "Bad Boys for Life"

It feels as though I've spent the best part of the last decade bemoaning the cheapness of the American action movie. The market crash of 2008 took a big toll on these generally corporate endeavours, and the studios' remaining resources were thereafter squirrelled into low-peril safe bets, such as those ongoing fantasy franchises wherein straightahead action is typically muffled by self-serious mythology. (I was raised on Con Air, honey; a fistful of infinity stones was never likely to impress me much.) In the summer of 2010, we found Hollywood's former action king Jerry Bruckheimer hedging his bets with two (for him) mid-budget productions: videogame adaptation Prince of Persia (empty junk) and fantasy romp The Sorcerer's Apprentice (livelier, if limited by its PG certificate). When neither did the anticipated business, Bruckheimer retreated into TV, and looked on, doubtless with some despair, as Gerard Butler was elevated to action-hero status, great white hopes (such as Crank's Neveldine/Taylor team) burnt themselves out, and the genre as a whole had to exile itself to the desert (site of George Miller's decade-standout Mad Max: Fury Road) to do what it does best: blow shit up in spectacular, screen-filling fashion. Perhaps he was waiting for the movies to revisit his Nineties heyday, a moment that has apparently arrived. Bruckheimer first resurfaced with an expensive flop in last October's Gemini Man, an unlikely Ang Lee-Will Smith pair-up that, for all its technical innovation, merely confirmed that ideas and concepts are a trickier sell to today's multiplex crowd than closely followed formulas. That Bruckheimer's Bad Boys for Life now emerges into the traditional studio dumping ground of January suggests few had any substantial hopes for it, yet it's clearly benefitted from being unlike anything else around - no-one's going to mistake it for, say, A Hidden Life - and our inevitably reduced expectations. Bottom line: it's better than a second sequel released seventeen years after its predecessor has any right to be. You can stick that on the poster if you like, Jerry.

1995's first Bad Boys was a savvy extension of the buddy-cop subgenre that had regularly cleaned up at the box office over the previous decade. Though it introduced audiences to two black cops - the stellar Will Smith, hot from TV, and the emergent, sometimes wayward comic Martin Lawrence - the underlying formula remained the same: one cop proved as uxorious as Danny Glover had been in Lethal Weapon, the other almost as reckless as Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and beyond. (If there was a twist, it lay in the casting of the generally upstanding Smith as this loosest of cannons.) 2003's splurge of a sequel found directing Michael Bay starting to get drunk on his own idea of "Bayhem": it was bigger, longer and louder, with a running joke about a nude female corpse that was problematic before the hashtag. One advantage of Hollywood's enforced action hiatus may have been to purge the genre of its worst excesses: with Bay storming off to Netflix (to make the profligate, not terribly well received 6 Underground), Bruckheimer has hired cheaper migrant labour in the young Belgians known as Adil and Bilall, first brought to Hollywood after 2015's eye-catching Black to work on a fourth Beverly Hills Cop that remains in development hell. His leads are now firmly middle-aged: Lawrence's Marcus becoming a grandpa as the credits roll, Smith's "Bulletproof Mike" briefly confined to a wheelchair after a hit carried out by a vengeful Mexican cartel, the action paused briefly amid one shootout so that Marcus can put his glasses on ("Shit, this is like HD!"). At every turn, the joke is a familiar one, that these two might well be too old for this shit: even the opening reprise of Inner Circle's theme song, a marker of connoisseurial cool back in the Bay era, is brought to a screeching halt after Marcus makes the totally uncool mistake of smashing the door of Mike's sleek sports car into a kerbside fire hydrant. In that car door lies a reflection of the series entire. For an hour or so, Bad Boys for Life exudes the nuts-and-boltsy appeal of one of those reality shows on far-flung cable channels where bald-headed men in sleeveless vests go to work in flatteringly lit garages. We're watching a franchise being panelbeaten into roadworthy, market-ready shape.

This has evidently entailed a group effort, onscreen as well as off. Witnessing the insanely pinballing plot of the movie's first hour - almost certainly a consequence of multiple script rewrites attempting to fit the right plot engine and get the damn thing going again - you may begin to question just how much faith this series still has in the Bad Boys concept. Smith and Lawrence have more scenes apart than they do together, possibly because only one of them is in any real shape to play bad, and we're introduced to a multi-ethnic back-up crew seemingly modelled on the tech support team now built into the Fast & Furious franchise. (In this instance, you feel they're here as a safety net: to carry whatever the now-fiftysomething leads with increasingly patchy box-office form cannot.) That first hour is not much more than a highish-octane recruitment drive, such that a midfilm peptalk given to Mike by his cherishably dyspeptic superior Joe Pantoliano - "Where are you going?" - sounds equally like dialogue and notes Bruckheimer left on the script mid-rewrite. What follows, however, bears out one of this producer's eternal strengths: that - however long it takes, however many scribes the process requires - he does generally get the story right. Here's where his youthful co-directors take over, pacing themselves far better than they did in their breakthrough work, which went off like a rocket only to wind up being put down under a tarpaulin in an adjacent car park. Bad Boys for Life never flags entirely, and in fact its closing stretch proves stronger than what's preceded it.

While avoiding Bay's high-gloss "frame-fucking" - of which, after 200 or so hours of Transformers movies, we've all endured too much - Adil and Bilall have brought in an instalment that tessellates broadly with the look of its predecessors, punctuating its frantic activity with handsome sweeps over Miami at night. If their action initially feels tentative and throwbacky, self-contained in a way it wasn't in Bruckheimer's better films - you'll need to be slightly more excited than I am by the prospect of shootouts in warehouses and underground carparks - it is at every turn far more solid than the patched-in VFX and ugly digital scuffles of Butler's Fallen franchise. Money has been shelled out, not just on the cars but for the stunt drivers to pilot them, occasioning at least one flinch-inducing pursuit that sticks Smith and Lawrence in a motorcycle-and-sidecar, and treats them as though they were a live-action Wallace and Gromit. (We're reminded of the spiritual bond between the action movie and our physics-defying animations.) And at the last, in a setpiece with actual stakes, something like a Holy Grail presents itself: this genre's first properly exploding helicopter since Lehman Brothers went to the wall. Money has been spent, then, and money (over $100m worldwide in its first week) has been made. Too early to declare that the American action movie has got its mojo back: bitter experience tells us that one swallow doesn't make a summer movie season, especially not in the grey depths of January. Yet Bad Boys for Life at least gets it off the couch again, and what could have resembled no more than a mid-franchise crisis or terminal dead end instead takes on the surprising look of a fresh start - the reopening of a cheque book, the lifting of that garage door.

Bad Boys for Life is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

On demand: "Tell Me Who I Am"

Ed Perkins' twisty doc Tell Me Who I Am has some rich ingredients: with its tale of twin brothers, memory loss and obsessive Polaroid-taking (and keeping), it initially seems to play like the non-fiction Memento, although messy interventions from real life means that'd make an altogether misleading poster quote. We open on Alex and Marcus Lewis, fiftysomething upper-middle class siblings from the English Home Counties; the story they're telling is how Alex emerged from a coma in the wake of a motorcycle accident he was involved in aged 18 with no knowledge of who he was, and how Marcus gradually brought his brother back up to speed. So far, so uplifting. That this tale is not quite as simple nor as heartwarming as it first appears is conveyed by Perkins' insistently wintry framing, and the revelation that much as there were places Alex couldn't reach in his mind, so too there were rooms in the sprawling country pile the boys were raised in that were deemed inaccessible. (The film places an unusual emphasis on house keys, for reasons that will become clear.) What's crucial, it transpires, is not what Marcus was giving back to Alex - inklings of a happy, normal childhood - but what older brother was keeping from younger brother all along.

You'll quickly land on your own theories for this, and these will be borne out or discredited around the halfway mark via the deployment of a bombshell word that blows this story, and the pretences it entailed, clear out of the water. In the meantime, you may start to feel a growing tension, not just between the brothers - sundered and interviewed in separate rooms, like the subjects of a police investigation - but within the film itself; between this matter-of-fact, anecdotal retelling of a tale, and a set of implications weightier than an 82-minute inquiry can altogether comfortably support. Early on, we learn that Marcus used to give his brother ten-minute briefings before they entered old friends' houses, reminding him who they were there to see, and how and why they became friends in the first place. Perkins' film is not unlike one of those briefings, all told - a carefully sustained release of information - except that we eventually get the whole picture, what Marcus left out first time round, which brings us into close contact with our old pal the banality of evil. I think Perkins sees something consoling in the way the brothers looked out for one another in a moment of crisis, and I think he's not entirely wrong to cling to this; still, it can seem like such small, cold comfort when set against an ugly trauma that the film just can't square away.

Leaning heavily into its Gothic imagery - the now-empty childhood home, approached like the abandoned train carriage in Twin Peaks; lots and lots of leafless branches bisecting the frame - Tell Me Who I Am feels unnecessarily chilly in spots. Would it have gained in warmth by reaching out to those wives and girlfriends who helped patch these fellows up and restored them to something like full working order? Instead, for a final act, Perkins sets the Lewises down face-to-face: a striking coup de théâtre, yes, and a moving one, too, in part because it's the first time that we see Marcus drop the facade he'd previously taken refuge behind. Yet the set-up raises more questions than this troubling film really has answers for. Why hadn't the brothers - self-evidently so close in all other aspects of their lives - spoken on this subject before? Were they waiting for the right film crew to come along? (And the hypotenuse of these questions, suggested by Perkins' use of video playback: did they need the distance the camera provided - something else to hide behind - before they felt they could discuss these matters in any depth?) Tell Me Who I Am merits watching and thinking about, even if all it leads you to is the conclusion that human beings can be such strange, self-defeating creatures; and that there are some humanoids - specifically a certain species of Englishman - who could spend their entire lives talking round a subject, when it might be substantially easier for all to talk through it.

Tell Me Who I Am is now streaming on Netflix.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Dreamcatcher: "El Topo"

Alejandro Jodorowsky's surrealistic Western El Topo, which has reached the grand old age of 50, is one of the most enduring artefacts of that psychedelic moment when the movies and the world were opening themselves up to all manner of weird and wonderful, wacky and wayward ideas. To this viewer, the film still looks like the work of a creative who'd been watching the spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s askance (or under the influence of something far more dizzying than mesquite). So many of El Topo's elements would have been present and correct in any of the period's straight-up spaghetti servings: the big skies, the rocky landscape, the black-clad gunslinger (here played by Jodorowsky himself), the frontier town. (There's even a handful of Lionel Stander and Jack Elam types in the supporting cast, alongside the director-to-be Alfonso Arau, fresh from the previous year's The Wild Bunch - or at least as fresh as anybody could be after surviving a Peckinpah movie.) Everything else under this sun, from the slanting credits onwards, proves ever so slightly off-kilter. The gunslinger rides into view holding a parasol over a naked young boy (the director's son Brontis) who seems to represent an innocence in need of protection; a shootout is cued by a deflating balloon; there are strong suggestions that the gunslinger represents God (or a god) or Christ or perhaps even Jodorowsky the besieged poet-visionary himself. The spaghetti Westerns made around this time by Sergios Leone and Corbucci were only one or two notches on the dial away from spiralling madness. Jodorowsky, unshackled by his contemporaries' commercial concerns, turns that dial further still, and reveals just how close society itself was close to madness as the Sixties played out.

What's particularly fascinating about encountering El Topo in 2020 is viewing the film's structuring quest for enlightenment through the prism of successive real-world waves of progress. The softcore toplessness and suggestive cacti-licking have to be taken as very much of this Askwith moment, and Jodorowsky's casual attitude to the onscreen depiction of rape would come back to bite him firmly in the behind (as detailed here). You'll have to weigh all those elements for yourself, but what strikes me as clear from the film is that Jodorowsky was drawn to the Western as a form in which men hold all the cards, and yet are most frequently left to their own devices. The first hour makes most sense as a litany of those bizarre quests, curious-to-perverse fetishes (shoe-sucking!) and outright nasty habits men take up in the absence of the fairer sex - and then the terrible acts they're driven to commit, to themselves and others, when women do come into the picture. As our hero resurfaces from a spell underground in an outpost where outsiders are buggered and branded, stripped and harassed, it becomes increasingly clear that El Topo is another of the Seventies' insurrectionary texts about power, and what the powerful do with it. Dig beneath the surface weirdness - and no film has been keener to establish that, you know, ya dig - and you'll find a deeply moral work, asking questions about the place of the concerned individual in society that were being asked in the world beyond the cinema in the 1970s.

Granted, that risks being too sober a reading of a film that otherwise proves entirely resistant to anything so dull as rational logic and interpretation. You come to El Topo, as audiences have always come to El Topo, to watch a head opening up before you, and there are sequences, particularly those out in the desert, where a man with no arms carries a man with no legs around his neck, a woman screeches like a bird, our hero rubs his face in honeycomb, and a lion marches back and forth just because, which may be the closest any cinema ever came to delirium or dementia. Not only would Jodorowsky not get something this inexplicable funded or released today, he'd have found the moneymen pushing to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act. It's kept from outright lunacy - babbling nonsense - by its maker's grounding (if warped) sense of humour. Even if you can't fully grasp what's going on, you can discern the form of a joke or some other grand design, as in the sequence of Russian roulette in the church that winds up with a small child holding the gun. Jodorowsky was always too much the clown to play the forbidding, thin-lipped mystic: it's why the gunslinger reinvents himself as a capering fool, though the brutal finale, wherein the peaceable Mole of the title is pushed to breaking point, is no laughing matter. El Topo remains a perfect midnight movie, because it unfolds before you as a carnivalesque procession of big, bold images, sometimes dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, all apparently caught via some cosmic butterfly net; it wouldn't matter if you were watching on some crappy, scratched print (which this new 4K restoration may have banished forever) or if some longhair was obscuring your view of the subtitles, because its sheer oddness is imprinted on every corner of every frame, and impossible to miss. No-one but its creator, caught working through some distinctly heavy psychic shit, will ever understand it fully, but it sure remains a trip, and the West was never wilder.

El Topo is now playing in selected cinemas.