Saturday 29 February 2020

1,001 Films: "My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown" (1989)

My Left Foot makes for a supple, surprisingly funny portrait of the artist as a young man in a wheelchair. The painter and writer Christy Brown was born in the Ireland of the 1950s, to a father who took his son's cerebral palsy as an affront to his masculinity (and, later, his authority); he emerged into an uncomprehending working-class community who saw fit to dismiss the boy as a useless eejit. With the exception of Brenda Fricker (tough and tender as Ma Brown) declaring "make your mark, Christy" as her child first comes to pick up a stick of chalk between his toes, Jim Sheridan's adaptation of Brown's autobiography doesn't overplay those moments where its subject overturned all those preconceptions. Rather than going down the maudlin or sentimental routes, My Left Foot approaches Brown's life via a number of alternative avenues, not least scenes to which Christy himself couldn't have been privy. Sheridan and co-writer Shane Connaughton work in a study of a loving family adapting to a very special set of needs, allowing Fricker to nail the challenging arc of having to express doubt, anger, relief and finally ambivalence at seeing her son being taken out of her hands by representatives of art and science. The mid-section is especially strong: a great scene with Christy getting drunk in a restaurant and berating his patrons, followed by a complex suicide attempt, Christy and his mum's amateurish efforts at bricklaying, and a bar brawl that that adopted son of Ireland, John Ford, would surely have adored. By and large, it may be one of those instances where the story is more remarkable than the quiet, self-contained graft of the filmmaking, but Sheridan demonstrates an immense, instructive patience around his hero, never cutting around Christy's travails, and always seeking the angle that best puts us in his position. The unflashy approach also has the considerable benefit of showcasing some flawless acting, first from Hugh O'Conor as the young Christy, and then Daniel Day-Lewis, whose Christy the elder is above all else a feat of compassionate observation, straining with every muscle to embody Brown's unfettered spirit as much as his tangled form.

My Left Foot is available on Blu-Ray through ITV Studios Home Entertainment, and to buy via Amazon Prime and the BFI Player.

Friday 28 February 2020

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 21-23, 2020:

1 (1) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG) [above]

2 (3) Dolittle (PG)
3 (2) Parasite (15) *****
4 (new) The Call of the Wild (PG)
5 (6) Emma (U)
6 (4) 1917 (15) ***
7 (5) Birds of Prey... (15)
8 (new) Like a Boss (15)
9 (new) Brahms: The Boy II (15)
10 (7Bad Boys for Life (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2. True History of the Kelly Gang
3. The Invisible Man
4. First Love
5. The Lost Boys

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

1 (2) 
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (PG)
2 (1) Joker (15) **
3 (new) Terminator: Dark Fate (15) **
4 (9) Gemini Man (12)
5 (3) Downton Abbey: the Movie (PG)
6 (4) A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U) ****
7 (5) Zombieland: Double Tap (15)
8 (6) Abominable (U)
9 (18) The Lion King (PG)
10 (15) Toy Story 4 (U) ***


My top five: 
1. Roma

2. Honeyland
3. So Long, My Son
4. The Peanut Butter Falcon
5. Monos

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. L.A. Confidential [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 11.40pm) 
2. Con Air (Friday, five, 9.45pm)
3. Manchester by the Sea (Sunday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. What Richard Did (Tuesday, C4, 1.20am)
5. Shrek 2 (Sunday, BBC1, 3pm)

Thursday 27 February 2020

On demand: "Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota/The Man Who Feels No Pain"

You may require a sweet tooth to get through the early stages of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota - it's a bit Tarantino, a bit Edgar Wright, even a bit Taika Waititi, a combo that at this point would send most sane observers running to the hills - but, like its protagonist, it toughens up as it goes along, and generally displays enough of the right wit and spirit to keep us on side. Narratively, it has the look of the Hindi cinema's up-and-comers branch making its contribution to the current superhero boom, albeit with a knowing smirk and a (slightly) wider frame of reference: it's the tale of a plucky youngster with a congenital insensitivity to pain, Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani), who spends his formative years memorising the moves on VHS tapes of US and Indian action flicks and eventually emerges into modern-day Mumbai as a would-be hybrid of Bruce Wayne and Bruce Lee. This dude has the origin story (his mother was killed in a confrontation with necklace-snatching thugs) and a familiar tendency to take to the roofs of the city's tallest buildings; he gains a mission upon learning the one-legged karate master he revered as a child is being victimised by his evil twin brother, and another when he spies his childhood sweetheart Supri (Radhika Madan) being married off to a controlling asshat. The joke, similar to that of 2006's Special and 2010's Super, is that our boy believes he's indestructible; in fact, he's just oblivious to the fact that he's suffered a concussion or that his leg has snapped. Amid the carnage that results, one spies glimpses of the movies the Kick-Asses would have been, had they been made by fully functioning creatives rather than soulless, snickering sociopaths.

Had MKDNH just been that, it would possibly have played a little thin. As it is, it's still pretty popcorny, but its writer-director Vasan Bala is keen to do more than scatter callbacks and replay favourite scenes from his youth. He doodles with a free hand around his hero's haphazard progress, and seems at least as interested in the very real, non-fantastical world into which Surya bursts out. We get asides on the rapid redevelopment of Mumbai, and a passing glimpse at the fraught relationship between three generations of men in the same family, and how that friction relates to the death of the woman who meant so much to them as a daughter, a wife and a mother; there's also a sincere attempt to make Supri rather more than just a love interest/damsel-in-distress. Bala's biggest achievement here may lie in direction (or redirection): with the exception of the hero, forward-rolling into a Mumbai police station and immediately setting every cop on edge, nobody on screen acts as they would in any comparable Marvel movie, even when they're trapped on the 13th floor of a burning building. That's one place where you can see the budget being stretched, but elsewhere MKDNH sports as many original ideas and moves as it does hand-me-downs, and Bala grasps the limitations of cinematic postmodernism in a way I still don't believe Tarantino has. One of the film's early musical numbers contains the tip-off line "It's hard to find new words to tell the same old story". At his most inspired here, Bala does just that, which is why Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota presents as the best kind of throwback: to a time when, unencumbered by their own mythology and the dull demands of the marketplace, our superhero movies were freed to be goofy fun.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is now streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

The art of love: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire"

One reason advance word on the French period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been so thunderous is surely that the themes it wholeheartedly embraces are so vast: it spends its two hours considering nothing less than life, love and the very act of creation itself. On paper, that would indicate some departure from writer-director Céline Sciamma's previous films, which - though not without memorably expressionistic flourishes, like the all-girl hotel room singalong to Rihanna's "Diamonds" in 2014's Girlhood - were principally exercises in quiet, attentive observation. Portrait unfolds over a bigger canvas, it's true - its ravishing images are by Claire Mathon, the cinematographer who did so much to carry the Netflix-bought Atlantics around the world last year - yet it proves strikingly simple, often sparse in its framing, Sciamma remaining disciplined in the way she directs the viewer's gaze, and schools us in what to be looking out for. The film is, on some level, a mystery, describing the genesis of a painting hauled into an art class taught by the mournful Marianne (Noémie Merlant). "What's it called?," asks one student. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," comes the loaded response, at which point - barely three minutes in - the representatives of that US society who show up for movies just to hear the title being spoken will stand up, applaud and make their exit. Their loss. Beneath the opening credits, we've already seen the students making their first, tentative marks, attempting to capture something of what's made Marianne so melancholy. The assignment is taken up by Sciamma herself when the film enters flashback mode: having set out the framework, she now begins - in the grand melodramatic tradition - to fill it and us in.

The story proper begins with solitude: we see a lighter, forward-facing Marianne, the daughter of a celebrated painter, arriving by boat on an island off the coast of Brittany, where she is to complete a portrait for a well-to-do Italian family. (One early, especially blissful sight: a nude Merlant smoking a pipe while drying herself and her sea-soaked canvasses off in front of the fireplace.) She is, however, adrift without a subject, and this she finds in the family's daughter Heloïse (Adèle Haenel), an imperious former novitiate withheld from us for a good twenty minutes, then introduced emerging from a cape while threatening to throw herself off a cliff. Factor in the girls' conversational icebreaker - mutterings of a recent plummet in the vicinity - and it becomes clear there isn't a melodramatic trope Sciamma won't sweep up and run away with. The portrait Marianne has been commissioned to paint is meant to alert a potential suitor to Heloïse's beauty; it's as if the painter has been summoned here to provide an especially labour-intensive Tinder pic. Yet Sciamma's suggestive imagery tips us the wink to the growing attraction between Marianne and her subject: an interplay of faces as they stand on that cliff edge - looking out to sea, wondering if they, too, might take some kind of plunge - is rather like if Bergman had employed Yves Klein as a cinematographer and turned that famously gloomy gaze outwards, in the direction of pleasure and joy rather than guilt and remorse. The very fact Merlant and Haenel look at one another as spoons must look at tiramisu makes it plain these two are meant to be together; no canvas can possibly separate them for long.

Portrait is as interested in the act of creation as, say, La Belle Noiseuse or The Quince Tree Sun, that (literal) art cinema the 39-year-old Sciamma might well have been raised on: there are longish sequences of Marianne (or Merlant's hand double) scratching away at her easel, which offer the always vaguely perverse pleasure of actually watching paint dry. Where this filmmaker differentiates herself - and where Portrait of a Lady on Fire soars above and beyond its predecessors - is that she's every bit as alert to the world beyond the workshop, and how the artist comes not just to find but to know her muse. In Sciamma's eyes, this isn't just a matter of looking, but loving and empathising; it's not drilling a hole through somebody (as the male gaze has traditionally been accused of doing), but rather noticing who someone might be, the way they hold themselves, and then what that might communicate to any third-party observer about the kind of person the observed was and is. When first completed, Marianne's portrait bears only a superficial likeness to Heloïse (as it does to Haenel); the more time she spends on the island, the more time she gets to know the other woman, the more the painting gains in depth, texture and shade. In her own way, with a few deft brushstrokes here and there, and none of the fuss-and-nonsense that greeted the arrival of the Dogme movement, Sciamma appears to be pasting up a manifesto for her own cinema, and anybody else who might want to commit to it: it states that art means getting to know somebody and passing that knowledge along, and that it must be shaped by both the act of observation and the act of collaboration. It must be consensual; it cannot be a one-way street, nor undertaken in isolation. As those noted art historians the New Radicals put it: we only get what we give.

Perhaps that makes Portrait sound self-indulgent or drily theoretical. Nothing could be further from the truth. That has much to do with the joltingly modern leads, who bring figures from dusty daguerrotypes into full colour as longing, thirsty, flesh-and-blood creatures; Marianne and Heloïse come together to complete this one project, and wind up with one another's faces, bodies and beings imprinted on their very psyches. With their blonde and brunette hair and tutti-frutti red-green dresses, this pair complement one another perfectly, and Sciamma situates them at the centre of a universe that feels as immersive as any Fragonard tableau. She achieves this by keeping those images simple and resonant - never cluttering the frame with period excess - and instead layering up her story. Her ladies gain a surrogate child in the family's maid (Luana Bajrami) - another blank canvas, a girl who needs instruction in the ins and outs of menstruation and needlepoint - and the closer the portrait nears to completion, there's a growing fear that that suitor will show up to whisk Heloïse away. It was some while before I noticed Portrait was a vision of a world without men, hushed, unhurried, and open to the elements; indeed, faced with the thunderousness of the initial critical responses, one shock is the quiet utopia of the film itself. There's an impromptu musical interlude, but set Portrait against the agonised cacophony of the cinema's last notable creation-about-creation, Darren Aronofsky's mother!, and it could be a movie from another planet. If you'll permit me to do anything as noisy as clearing my throat, I think Sciamma gives us one scene too many - she attains perfection, then goes past it - though I can appreciate it might be crucial to her overall design that both her ladies on fire experience some form of catharsis. Otherwise, the established harmony between watchers and watched struck me as entirely legitimate: that one reason the film has been so thunderously well-received is that its effects are thunderously well achieved. Sometimes, if we're lucky, art speaks to us on a profound, maybe even life-changing level. Sometimes our hearts beat loud and in synch.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Uncertain movements: "Push"

The Swedish documentarist Fredrik Gertten last reached UK screens with the 2009/11 diptych of Bananas!* and Big Boys Go Bananas!*, idiosyncratically typeset single-issue bulletins on the lawsuits Dole Food launched against first its Nicaraguan pickers, and then the director himself. These were interesting dispatches, but now Gertten has his sights on a wider-reaching, possibly even universal subject: the vast and thus far unbridgeable iniquities of the housing market. Push ventures out at the side of Leilani Farha, the UN's special rapporteur on adequate housing, and very quickly spots that wherever she travels in the world - the film will whisk us from Canada and Chile, via the UK, Germany and Sweden, to the Far East - the picture is much the same: wages stagnating while property prices continue to spike, social housing being allowed to fall into disrepair, the rise of sparkling new "luxury developments" that no-one in the immediate vicinity can afford to move into, and private equity firms, unfettered by a lack of government regulation, hovering over what is already a bleakly unpromising landscape for the first-time buyer. Farha's daily meetings with housing specialists suggest a shift in our collective thinking (and, crucially, in the thinking of the rich and powerful, that which has the most immediate real-world impact): from houses for homes, which require occupation to fulfil their destiny, we've arrived at a point where houses are most commonly claimed as assets, which may need to stay vacant in order that their value may go up. Bottom line: there is a plague on all our houses, and one of the reasons is that there are certain individuals making serious bank from it.

The situation is laid out in one of those digest-docs that covers a lot of ground in pursuit of experts with something to say; if Push offers no easy solutions (save doing shots with like-minded refuseniks in a Barcelonan bar), you should emerge with a fuller understanding of the problem. The most relevant and compelling material for UK viewers will be that Gertten collected at the foot of the blackened Grenfell Tower, which confronts us here in widescreen, high-definition images, and more than ever looks like a scar on the very soul of London, no matter how urgently the authorities who signed off on its cheap, flammable cladding scurry to cover it up. For Farha and Gertten, Grenfell represents the most conspicuous symbol yet of how communities are being displaced and destroyed - a more extreme and tragic symbol than most (errant landlords have traditionally waited until properties were empty before letting them burn), but with the same result: an overnight rise in homelessness, coupled to a staggering absence of accountability. Intriguingly, Farha is far from some hammer-and-sickle-wielding Emma Goldman acolyte (she states upfront that "I don't believe that capitalism in itself is problematic", and apologises at one point for labelling developers as vultures), a moderate position that clearly allows her to go between working-class correspondents about to be turfed off the land and those moneyed nabobs who make the decisions that determine the market's direction of travel. 

A leftier endeavour - perhaps a post-Parasite endeavour - would insist we need to shoo off the vultures who've been allowed to dictate the terms of the social contract for too long; that we do, in fact, need a Goldman to tear the whole rotten system down. There's a naggingly blithe detachment about Push that, for all its pertinent intel, makes it tricky to recommend unconditionally: it's a film made by an established filmmaker about a figure representing a powerful institution who has a most spacious abode of her own, and presumably a generous expenses account that permits her smooth passage around the globe. Far better she undertakes this investigative legwork than not, of course, but Gertten spends a few too many minutes around Farha, establishing her as a plucky underdog tossing pebbles at such implacable foes as the investment group Blackstone, and not nearly enough time among those Farha is pursuing these cases for; in several places, I was driven to wonder whether a filmmaker lower down the documentary food chain might have been better placed to capture the insecurity and fears that follow from being kicked to the curb.

The Avios-sponsored overview Push is going for occasionally touches down on stretches of analytical insight: Farha's mentor observes how, when we speak of new buildings going up, most people think of their careful design and conclude they must automatically be a good thing - an improvement - rather than going on to consider how they will be filled, and the purpose they surely have to serve. Gertten also works in some smartly managed material on the theme of image versus reality: his frequent cutaways to people gawping at their phones, oblivious to those around them, attain a particular piquancy when we see UN delegates updating their Insta feeds during Farha's keynote housing speech. It's just a pity that the film goes on to turn such imagery against itself via one dreadful waft of narcissism, as the rapporteur's assistant gets Farha to strike a pose before her own cameraphone with a plaintive "I don't have any pictures of you". (It's not about her, Fredrik!) Gertten's imploring us to talk, listen and collaborate more, and these are noble sentiments - but, dare I say it, they're likely to provide greater comfort to those upwardly mobile viewers paying to see Push in cinemas this weekend than they will to the family of five who've been given until the end of the week to gather their belongings and make alternative arrangements.

Push opens in selected cinemas from Friday.  

Monday 24 February 2020

In the public interest: "Dark Waters"

After the curious incident of 2017's Wonderstruck - the much-touted Cannes selection with a starry cast and clear crossover potential that seemed to open on one UK screen for one week only - Dark Waters finds the generally astute Todd Haynes committing to making the kind of movie the studio system feels at home around and knows how to sell. (I caught a trailer for it at my local megaplex a full two months before it was due to open, which represents more of a push than its predecessor ever got.) Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan from Nathaniel Rich's 2016 New York Times article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare", this is one of those one-man-against-the-system social justice procedurals Hollywood makes to make us and itself feel better about the world, given a minor twist by the fact its crusading hero emerges from deep within the system he comes to take on. Rob Bilott (played here by Mark Ruffalo) was a corporate defence lawyer working out of Cleveland's ivory towers for the likes of Exxon when a farmer marched brusquely into his offices, claiming a connection to the lawyer's grandmother back in West Virginia, and that 190 of his cows had been poisoned by run-off from an adjacent site owned by the petrochemical giants DuPont. Over a longish-seeming two hours, we have time to weigh just what Bilott and the West Virginia locals found themselves up against: not just the might of a company that had developed a reputation as a household favourite ("good people", as one plaintiff phrased it), but resistance from within Bilott's own firm - headed by a frowningly patrician Tim Robbins - who questioned why on earth our hero would want to prosecute such potentially generous clients.

With the narrative unfolding in many of the expected directions - of course there's a meeting in an underground carpark - those of us who've seen ten or more of these films will find our minds turning to the question of style. The formal flourishes that sustained (and arguably sunk) Wonderstruck have here been toned down. Haynes's regular cinematographer Ed Lachman adorns the film with big, widescreen images - working particular compositional wonders with a roomful of the discovery materials DuPont swamped Bilott with - and generates a perfectly fine ambient look influenced to some degree by Soderbergh's Traffic (muted blue for the exteriors, muted golds whenever our hero comes in from the cold); as Ruffalovian procedurals go, this one's rather more thoughtfully framed than the workshirt-plain Spotlight, a movie almost made to be watched on awards-season screeners. An even greater attention has been paid to the performers' styling, though, and here Dark Waters betrays its somewhat obvious and superficial approach to this story. Ruffalo has been dowdied down with a side parting and a jowlier look than he'd have on the red carpet; Bill Camp, as the farmer who first raises awareness of this malfeasance, sports eyebrows that resemble caterpillars after they too had supped from the poisoned water table and swelled to the proportions of Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World; Anne Hathaway, altogether overqualified in the role of Bilott's wife Sarah, gets a soccer-mom makeover, as befits a character who spends the longest time here doing no more than keeping house.

That this is Haynes-goes-Hollywood (as opposed to Haynes-goes-his-own-way) is apparent from the emphasis Dark Waters places squarely on the one man going up against the system: these three acts witness a guy everybody would underestimate were he not played by the Hulk going through boxes, discovering the extent of the pollution, and then going hard at the polluters. Somewhere in here is an instructive story about corporate thinking and spin: the case turned on how a breakthrough marketed as a timesaver - the Teflon that DuPont applied to the world's pans and carpets - in fact proved to be a killer. You can see why these stellar creatives were drawn to it, and drawn to it now, with the world finally waking up to the myriad ways in which corporations have fundamentally altered the make-up of our surroundings (and our bodies). You can see why Ruffalo, in particular, was drawn to take a producer's credit. He gets to act obsessed and tenacious - sounding distant echoes of his work in David Fincher's Zodiac - and return to the naturalistic mode he mastered before serving time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; he gets a lot to do, in other words, but disappointingly a lot of that is simple laying out. The story has been reduced to the bare essentials of its timeline, cookie-cuttered to fit a genre prone to telling rather than showing: the obviousness spikes during one Robbins rant ("We should be outraged!") before peaking with Bilott's spluttered last-reel "The system is rigged!" and Haynes' deployment of "I Won't Back Down" over the closing credits, put there for the benefit of any dimbulbed onlookers who haven't yet got the point.

You can even see why Haynes might have been attracted to this material, beyond the renewed visibility it might have given him coming off a commercial failure and going into another awards season. This story allows him to oversee justice for the marginalised (several real-life plaintiffs recur in cameo roles), reconnect with actors after the extensive effects work of his previous movie, and - just perhaps - fashion a reverse-angle sequel to his 1995 breakthrough [safe], in which Julianne Moore played a Californian homemaker succumbing to an extreme allergic reaction to the modern world. (At first, she wonders if the chemicals in her dry cleaning - chemicals not unlike those patented by DuPont - are to blame.) Yet a comparison of the two films only points up what was so intriguing about one, and what's underwhelming about the other. [safe]'s reluctance to explain the whys and wherefores of its story were what made it so haunting; it's why the film took up residence in your brain, where it could be replayed and mulled over as anything from a riff on the AIDS traumas of the preceding decade to a response to the growing environmental crisis facing the planet. In Dark Waters, everything that [safe] left open to interpretation is worked through, explained and ploddingly squared away. That can't help but prove reassuring on some level, and maybe that justice - a straightforward righting of gross structural wrongs - is what the audience is thirsting for in the first months of 2020. Yet how disappointing that a film so keen to press upon us Bilott's achievements in bucking the system and breaking the rules should find Haynes on his very best, very dullest behaviour.

Dark Waters opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 23 February 2020

On demand: "My Cousin Rachel"

A period drama that ventures some distance off the Downton track, My Cousin Rachel pulls from Daphne Du Maurier (underread among modern screenwriters) a big old grudge, a nasty battle of the sexes, and a cool commentary on English misapprehensions around foreign nationals that, whether intentionally or not, makes this very much a film of our Brexit moment. The grudge is that of Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), and it concerns the eponymous Rachel, the exotic contessa he believes did for the cousin who took him in as a boy. Here, Rachel is kept offscreen for a good twenty minutes, just enough time for her to be built up in the mind of our suggestible hero (and perhaps any suggestible viewers) as a monstrous, predatory figure; it comes as a jolt, then, when she's eventually revealed as being played by Rachel Weisz, seemingly as delicate as the porcelain she travels to Britain with, yet with a fierce streak that quickly turns the malleable Philip to putty in her hands. As these two begin to cohabit, we realise the premise is not unlike a gender-flipped Rebecca: the suspense lies in whether Rachel really is the sensitive, intelligent, generally admirable widow she takes such care to present as - a prize catch, to all outward intents and purposes - or if Philip has withdrawn his objections too soon, ensuring that Ashley history will repeat itself.

Though it unfolds along a screenfilling stretch of the Cornish coastline - and takes in a picnic in gorgeous, bluebell-littered woods - this is a pretty picture that doesn't entirely dress up the ugliness of its underlying emotions. (In several respects, it feels pre-Downton, as if Iain Softley's Henry James adaptation The Wings of the Dove had been a bigger hit back in 1997.) Roger Michell, writing and directing for once, gets there by paring back some of the extravagances we associate with this genre. Instead of a lavish ball, he stages a Christmas party on the Ashley estate that degenerates into drunken caterwauling and a competition among the assembled extras to determine who can devour their chicken the messiest; and though fine actors pop up among the supporting cast (Donald Sumpter and Simon Russell Beale; Holliday Grainger as a potential love match overlooked once Rachel is on the scene; Iain Glen as Philip's godfather, who spots exactly the trouble his charge is getting into, but knows the boy will only do as he will), they're held at something of a remove, Michell sensing - as these characters sense - that there will be no cutting in on Philip and Rachel as they circle one another in what could either be a dance of seduction or death. (Or both.)

Neither lead fully convinces as the twentysomethings Du Maurier wrote - we have too much history with the actors - but they succeed in making this dance compelling for the most part. Claflin has become an unfussy specialist in the depiction of weak men, which makes him a boon for any filmmaker trying to do something different within the confines of costume drama (cf. the recent The Nightingale): here, he establishes how Philip's pliant infatuation is but an extension of his earlier misogyny, making the shift in the character's thinking more plausible. He makes a convincingly callow hothead, and almost gets us past the final-act problem that the audience can see what's thundering up Philip's driveway long before this besotted fool can. Weisz does skilful work with a tougher assignment, which is not to give the game away too soon, to remain on some level unknowable. (Michell aids her cause by shooting Rachel through veils and curtains for a while.) She twists us round her finger, to some degree: we warm to her giggling Juliet as Philip climbs through her bedroom window one night, though it's a bad sign that she sleeps with him only after he's emptied the contents of a bag of jewels on her mattress. The film, it turns out, is the real black widow: it watches on as a domestic power game becomes ever more twisted, waits for the fateful moment, and then strikes. The quiet ruthlessness throttles costumed complacency.

My Cousin Rachel is streaming on All4 until Wednesday. 

Saturday 22 February 2020

On DVD: "The Peanut Butter Falcon"

Stranger things have happened, but even so it seemed altogether unlikely that the final months of 2019 should witness a Shia LaBeouf renaissance. December saw the release of Honey Boy, a collaboration with Alma Har'el in which LaBeouf played his own father, to considerable acclaim; by way of an initial olive branch, there was The Peanut Butter Falcon, a simpler, more obvious crowdpleaser, something like Huckleberry Finn with a few crucial revisions. At its centre are a couple of lost and lonely boys, coming to find one another against the florid backdrop of the Florida Everglades. LaBeouf plays Tyler, a taciturn fisherman who's irked his rivals by sabotaging their lobster pots; Zack Gottsingen, an actor with Down's Syndrome, plays Zack, a barrelling lad with Down's Syndrome who stows away on Tyler's boat after escaping the care home for elders in which he's been abandoned. When Tyler sails off, he's cutting his losses, leaving it all behind and sailing into another uncertain future, yet Zack has somewhere to be, post-haste: the wrestling school he's seen advertised on television. The title refers to the younger lad's chosen ringname, but also reflects his desire to take flight, eat what he wants, and transform himself into a hero.

The scene is all set, in other words, for maximum tweeness, yet writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz fend off any sap, first and foremost through their casting and their direction of actors. As recent history has taught us, LaBeouf is pathologically unable to bring to his material anything other than the utmost seriousness; with his sea salt's beard and Florida tan making him appear more brooding than ever here, his presence is like a no-bullshit sign hanging over the picture, swatting quirks and cliches as if they were mosquitoes. When Zack tells Tyler he has Down's, and the latter bluntly responds "I don't give a shit", it doesn't seem cruel so much as the beginnings of a compliment the whole movie extends towards the stowaway - a marker that Tyler intends to approach Zack, as Nilson and Schwartz's camera approaches Gottsingen, on the level, as an equal. There's no special pleading; the way the boatman comes to look out for his fellow traveller (drifter might be the better word), hears him out, and offers a gruff peptalk whenever Zack gets upset or feels sorry for himself is what humanises Tyler, and having LaBeouf on board is proof you can make what your gran would describe as a nice movie without shearing off all its rough edges.

Nilson and Schwartz back up the generally satisfying throughline that relationship provides with rewarding formal choices. Kevin Tent and Nathaniel Fuller's editing is laudably matter-of-fact, eliding any undue sentiment: within a beat of Tyler pulling Zack from the water bullies have forced him into, we're back on the riverbank watching the boatman taking a leak. (No hugs, no tears, no messing about.) Elsewhere, however, the filmmakers foster a relaxed ambience that works in The Peanut Butter Falcon's favour, shooting in quiet, laidback, out-of-the-way locations, and then layering on a score that mixes banjo plucking with traditional folk tunes. If Nilson and Schwartz can't quite match the visual beauty of Jeff Nichols' Mud, 21st century cinema's foremost Twain variant, their film is far less neurotic and knotted-up. No-one's forcing anything here; there isn't a phalanx of producers lurking behind the camera insisting the directors hit certain narrative or emotional beats. The story goes where it goes, like the river Tyler and Zack are travelling on. There are, granted, a few leaps of faith along the way: I wondered whether Dakota Johnson's carehome worker Eleanor, setting out in pursuit of her runaway charge, would agree quite so readily to sail along with Zack and Tyler on a raft, but then you can't miss the delight she takes in becoming their playmate, and thus being freed for even a few days from the daily drudgery. The movie simply scoops her up, as it scoops us up, and carries us all along.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is available on DVD from Monday through Signature Entertainment.

1,001 Films: "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy was Gus van Sant's breakthrough film: a study of a gang of drug addicts, led by one Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon), staging a series of distraction raids around the chemists of Portland, Oregon. An immediate sense of the film's left-of-centre world can be gained from its supporting roles: the detective shaking down Hughes and his gang - the movie's embodiment of law and order - is none other than longtime screen scuzzball James Remar, while Hughes' mother - its representative of normality - is played by David Lynch favourite Grace Zabriskie. It remains very much a product of its moment: one of the flagship films in the American independent cinema that found space for such marginalised characters as these, it's able to mimic and mock the Reagan era's emphasis on all-American family values through the Dillon character's cheery cries of "Honey, I'm home" upon returning to his squalid digs and his relationship with "unruly children" (younger dopefiends) James LeGros and Heather Graham. We might also see it as a rebuke to Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, which pledged zero tolerance for both narcotics and those hooked on them; Van Sant and Daniel Yost's screenplay sets up a greyer area for its characters, speaking from experience where necessary - there's a cameo from William S. Burroughs as a hip priest in a methadone clinic waiting room - and aligning itself with the junkies through POV shots and waspish inserts of, for example, the cop's squarely knotted tie.

Set that squareness against goateed anti-heroes who habitually struggle to articulate their feelings, and it's little surprise that the movie became something of a touchstone for the then-nascent grunge movement coming out of Portland and its surrounds. The downside is that this is still very much un film de Gus van Sant (or "Gus van Sant Jr." as the credits put it, for added pretension): modish and rarely more than surface-deep. As signalled by the casting of ex-model Kelly Lynch as Hughes's squeeze Dianne, these are the best-looking junkies you'll ever see on screen - throughout the first half, Graham looks as though she's been injecting nothing more toxic than the elixir of life - and their story is necessarily episodic, having to skip town whenever the leads need another fix or trouble comes down the tubes. This essential rootlessness feels more of a problem here than it did in the later Trainspotting, which used all its directorial energy to combat its characters' lethargy; van Sant is hopelessly drawn towards that lethargy, in a way that foresees his subsequent desire to bore the pants off some part of his audience (My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Last Days). A redemptive second half at least chooses life, if you can make it that far, and some of the offbeam humour - such as Dillon and Remar taking time out from their mutual antipathy to barter over golf clubs - holds up intact, but the overall effect is undermined by all that callow slouching around; good as it is, it's finally much less forceful than it really should have been.

Drugstore Cowboy is available on DVD through MGM.

Friday 21 February 2020

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 14-16, 2020:

1 (new) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG) [above]

2 (4) Parasite (15) *****
3 (1) Dolittle (PG)
4 (3) 1917 (15) ***
5 (2) Birds of Prey... (15)
6 (new) Emma (U)
7 (5Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
8 (new) 365 Dni (18)
9 (8) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
10 (9) The Gentlemen (18) **

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Parasite

2. The Personal History of David Copperfield
3. First Love
4. The Lost Boys
5. Ghost

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

1 (1) 
Joker (15) **
2 (new) Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (PG)
3 (2) Downton Abbey: the Movie (PG)
4 (new) A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U) ****
5 (new) Zombieland: Double Tap (15)
6 (5) Abominable (U)
7 (3) Judy (12)
8 (7) Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (18) ***
9 (4) Gemini Man (12)
10 (9) Rocketman (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Roma

2. Honeyland
3. So Long, My Son
4. The Peanut Butter Falcon
5. Monos

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. Noah (Sunday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. Kubo and the Two Strings (Saturday, C4, 11.55am)
3. The Big Sick (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
4. Night at the Museum 2 (Sunday, C4, 2.45pm)
5. American Made (Saturday, C4, 9pm)

Thursday 20 February 2020

They thrive by night: "First Love"

After the grandiose gestures of his previous UK theatrical release, 2017's period samurai epic Blade of the Immortal, the Japanese maverick Takashi Miike has returned to B-movie basics. The raw ingredients of Miike's new film First Love would have done for any number of post-War programmers, quickies or hackjobs: we're introduced, with breathless economy, to a dying prizefighter, a drug-addled working girl-in-distress, and a corrupt detective, all of whom will become caught up in open warfare between Japanese, Chinese and Filipino gangsters. The collision permits Miike to extend his longstanding fascination with human violence. We're barely moments into First Love when a swift (upper)cut carries us from the boxing ring to a neighbouring alley where some unfortunate is having his head removed from the rest of his body - and it's a typically Miikean touch that the murder weapon should then be stashed beneath a novelty golf club cover. For a while, though, this will be the film's only flourish, as Miike and writer Masa Nakamura instead set out muted, nocturnal interactions - often at actual intersections - which don't work out as intended. Here, you sense this filmmaker feeling his way back in the direction of what was practically a founding B-picture trope: the masterplan that goes rapidly and bloodily south.

By contrast, First Love's own plotting is intricate - setting multiple threads running through Tokyo's back and side-streets - but ultimately ties together. On some level, it feels like Miike's perversion of the Before Sunrise meet-cute: it tails after two relatively innocent kids - mournful pugilist Leo (Masataka Kubota) and Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young woman sold into sex slavery - as they're thrown together and get to know one another, then wonders how this process would be affected if one of them was undergoing cold turkey, and if they had three-quarters of the city's underworld on their tail. The movie has at least one eye on romcom formula: it takes place on the night of February 14th, if I'm not mistaken, and the final third obliges these lovers to (briefly) go separate ways before a reunion. Yet the film's pleasure derives from the snags and twists Nakamura and Miike engineer into this scenario. Among the pair's pursuers is a hallucination Monica has of her abusive father, rendered as a gyrating ghoul draped in a filthy bedsheet and clad in tight white underpants. It's a film of amusing reveals: the unexpected emergence of a secondary character's hitherto unseen housemate at a life-or-death plot juncture, the stirring of a dormant contract killer who whips back their hair to demonstrate she is, in fact, a she. (As in his international breakthrough work, 1999's Audition, Miike permits no sentimentality whatsoever with regard to the so-called fairer sex: clock the madam who lures in her assailant with a vagina-wettened finger, in order to follow up with a swift kick to the guy's gonads.)

With the exception of a brief burst of animation inserted late on to cover a stunt the production clearly didn't have the budget for, First Love never really looks like much, partly because its characters are obliged to operate in low-rent spaces under cover of night. And even with its prodigious narrative leaps and switchbacks, there remain stretches where everybody involved appears to be circling pretty familiar territory. What's covered, however, proves far less significant to one's overall enjoyment than how it's covered: at breakneck, rat-a-tat pace, and with a close-to-cartoonish level of surface invention, such that, at the last, First Love can even pull off something appreciably new and energetic within the generically tatty confines of a hardware store shootout. Miike retains that quality that seasoned B-movie producers (and viewers) will always be drawn towards and captivated by: when he's close to fully engaged - as he seems to be here - the ideas he fires across the frame have the same effect as the bullets do on his yakuza or Leo's punches have on his opponents, knocking a scene off its axis, spinning a film around 180 degrees, and reorienting whole genres in completely different directions. Some seventy or eighty years after those ideas first started popping into the left-of-centre cinema's head, that's still exciting to witness.

First Love is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Monday 17 February 2020

On demand: "In This Corner of the World"

It will find its own path out from under it, but a mushroom-shaped shadow hangs over the Japanese animation In This Corner of the World, and that shadow is Studio Ghibli's 1988 masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, perhaps the landmark historical animation of our times. It opens as a study of a young country girl, Suzu (voiced by Rena Nounen in the original Japanese version, and by Ava Pickard and Laura Post in the English dub), coming of age in the Japan of the late 1930s and early 1940s: we watch quizzically as she's paired off in the most formal of fashions with a passing suitor, and absorbed into a household where she's expected to take over her ageing mother-in-law's domestic duties. This opening stretch is as alert to routine and ritual as any Ozu film, perhaps Corner's closest live-action equivalent, although director Sunao Katabuchi and co-writer Chie Uratani - adapting Fumiyo Kouno's serialised manga of the same title - are liberated enough to follow Suzu into the bedroom, where a staggeringly archaic-sounding discussion about some non-existent "umbrella" serves as code for the initiation of conjugal activity. The movie hinges not on these characters' actions, however, but on the proximity of this household to major 20th century events, situated as it is on the fringes of a certain Hiroshima. With that namedrop, a quarter of the way through In This Corner of the World's running time, a previously rather sweet and gentle film sends a palpable shiver down the viewer's spine.

For the most part, Katabuchi - like Kouno before him - is concerned with the details of everyday life in Japan before the wholesale destruction the A-bomb brought about. In this, Corner will remind Western (specifically British) viewers of Raymond Briggs' nuclear-era When the Wind Blows, though inevitably there are regional variations. Katabuchi lends dramatic weight to those slow, quiet early Forties afternoons that see Suzu sewing kimonos in her newfound hausfrau role, or watching increasingly big ships pull into the port her household overlooks. He's keen, too, to provide some context for that quietude - friends and neighbours emptying towns to work for the Navy, the imposition of emergency measures - and keen for us to recognise this as the calm before a gathering storm. Kouno's manga was, among other things, a treatise on how history can creep up on us, obliging us to reroute and adapt or die: this story's throughline isn't strictly the military build-up, which takes place somewhere over the heroine's horizon, but how a dreamy young woman is required by circumstance to become practical and self-sufficient, manning a herb garden and knocking up family meals out of whatever scant rations came to hand. The attention Katabuchi pays to a doorframe on which the heights of children are etched suggests how much humdrum personal growth like this was wiped out in and around Hiroshima, but the image also speaks to the possibility of renewal even in times of crisis: we first notice these etchings when they're set in place as part of an impromptu air raid shelter.

A surfeit of supporting characters means Corner goes some way beyond the typically Ghiblian simplicity of Fireflies' sibling bond, with gains and losses: both Kouno and Katabuchi seem acutely aware of how complicated life can be, especially when the war machine cranks up. What's most distinctive about their endeavours here, however, is how they fold animation itself into their frames. The teenage Suzu is introduced drawing scenes from her own inner and outer life - as Japanese schoolgirls of the time surely did - only for this pastime to be abandoned as a luxury once it becomes impossible, for a variety of reasons, to pick up a pencil; even so, this doesn't stop her from painting impressionistic frescoes in her imagination when a dogfight breaks out over the herb garden, nor from sketching reassuring portraits in the dirt of that shelter, temporary as these may be. The urge to create, to leave a mark of some kind, lives on, even - perhaps especially - on the eve of destruction; and if history teaches us anything, it's that such urges also reemerge in its wake, like the flowers inscribed on the film's title card, pushing upwards towards the light. Here, some seventy years after the horrors the film describes, Katabuchi takes up his pen, invests in the ink Suzu can't afford to buy on the black market, and paints a fuller, often deeply moving picture of this bleak moment in Japanese and human history. Blink away your tears, stick with it through the dreadful hardships the second half depicts, and you'll emerge with a stronger sense of why Japan has been such a peaceable nation ever since - and why its people have turned their efforts to animation, rather than annihilation.

In This Corner of the World is now streaming on Netflix.

Saturday 15 February 2020

From the archive: "Jason Bourne"

"What is the purpose of your visit?," asks a passport control officer of our hero, two-thirds of the way into Jason Bourne, the fifth entry in the series based on Robert Ludlum's rogue-agent character. "Business," comes the terse response. It would be tempting, studying the receipts of a series that has so far taken over $1.2bn worldwide, to sneer that the only reason Matt Damon's Bourne is back in cinemas is business; that after muscling through a trilogy that arrived, in 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum, at a moment of perfect symmetry, wearying contract negotiations and a doubtless enhanced fee are what's responsible for the reteaming of Damon with Supremacy and Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass. (The existence of 2012's Damon-less The Bourne Legacy, an okayish footnote to the first three films, suggests studio Universal had the meeting room ready.) 

Good news, then: the above exchange lands at a point in Jason Bourne where most viewers will, I suspect, be too involved or excited to mind much. Greengrass and co-writer/editor Christopher Rouse have hit upon a new direction for this series to go in: a post-Snowden course that sees Julia Stiles's Nicky Parsons - the CIA analyst who'd grown increasingly disaffected with the Agency's workings over the second and third films - hacking into the system and threatening to leak evidence of illegal black-ops activity. As the hack uncovers sensitive info about the families of those footsoldiers recruited to do the Agency's dirty work, it's perhaps inevitable she should turn back to our man Bourne for protection, the latter having resurfaced as a never-more-buff bare-knuckle fighter somewhere in the Middle East. That's another novel twist: this spy has to come in from the warm. 

As Parsons and Bourne try to protect and make sense of this data, we're reminded of the first films' considerable virtues, not least their eye for underused, off-radar locations. Parsons is first glimpsed trudging through the snow in Reykjavik, that 21st century alt-culture hotspot; an early chase scene unwinds against the backdrop of an anti-austerity protest in Athens that echoes Greengrass's deployment of Berlin in Supremacy. There is lurking close to the hyper-kinetic surfaces of these films - and it's surely the geopolitically astute Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93, Captain Phillips) who put it there - a treatise on what happens when institutions collapse or betray us, driving conscientious young men and women out onto the street to dodge the falling masonry and water cannons, the attentions of The Man. (They move so fast we might overlook the irony that this disenfranchised demographic is exactly the audience the studio is itself targeting.)

Greengrass hasn't lost his deft way with a setpiece, either. At every frenetic turn, the action in Jason Bourne lets us know exactly where the principals are on the map - a trickier task than ever in Athens, where our heroes are semi-obscured by Molotov-cocktail smoke and tailed by Vincent Cassel as an Agency sniper referred to, somewhat chillingly, as "The Asset", but somehow Greengrass clears a path. Overlook not his close direction of actors whose fate - even after a decade away from these roles - we still care about: the Bourne/Nicky partnership remains intriguing (they're lovers who don't have the luxury of time to kiss), elevated by Damon and Stiles' typically intelligent work, and after a clearout at CIA headquarters, the new film presents us with a Homeland-esque double-act, pitting the intuitive Alicia Vikander, whose fast-rising junior wants Bourne brought in, against the granite wall of superior Tommy Lee Jones, who wants our boy eliminated. (A lesser film - and braver director - might have asked Jones to reprise his "foxhouse, henhouse" speech from The Fugitive.)

If this series continues to move as well as it ever did, there are signs it might be running out of ideas. An instance of hand-to-hand combat in Berlin strikes you as a so-so rerun of a sequence in the second movie, motivated less by character than the need for an action beat after several minutes of exposition. And it feels a little iffy that everybody should end up in Vegas, less a Jason Bourne location, I'd say, than it is a Jerry Bruckheimer location. It's a reflection of how this franchise is now big business - top-dollar entertainment - and therefore has the cash to shut down the Strip for a couple of nights while destroying half the city's transit, yes, but the finale marks the point at which the Bourne series leaves intelligence behind and enters altogether shamelessly into the realms of entertainment: the final reel is indistinguishable from the final reel of Con Air, though I say that as a fan of the latter. 

There is still a degree of skill to be admired in the stitching together of such extravagant stuntwork, how matters are set up and paid off, punches thrown and taken. This might be the advantage of having Rouse there in pre- and post-production, at the word processor and the Steenbeck (or its digital equivalent): even as a runaway SWAT vehicle is ploughing through stationary traffic, sending cars every which way, Jason Bourne reveals itself as an incredibly neat action movie, its cutting ever-rigorous, its Foley work vividly precise. (You really do feel the impact whenever a skull cracks against a stone pillar or floor, and in a film that drops so many bodies, that's an achievement in itself.) Like so many summer movies these days, then, it is finally business as usual - but it's good business, perhaps the best 2016 has to offer, providing a decent two hours in the dark in return for your hard-earned.

(MovieMail, July 2016)

Jason Bourne screens on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight. 

Friday 14 February 2020

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 7-9, 2020:

1 (new) Dolittle (PG)

2 (new) Birds of Prey... (15)
3 (1) 1917 (15) ***
4 (new) Parasite (15) *****
5 (2) Bad Boys for Life (15) ***
6 (3) The Personal History of David Copperfield (PG) ****
7 (new) Kinky Boots: the Musical (12A)
8 (6) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
9 (5) The Gentlemen (18) **
10 (4) Little Women (U) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Parasite

2. The Personal History of David Copperfield
3. First Love
4. The Lost Boys [above]
5. Ghost

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

1 (2) 
Joker (15) **
2 (1) Downton Abbey: the Movie (PG)
3 (8) Judy (12)
4 (new) Gemini Man (12)
5 (new) Abominable (U)
6 (3) Ad Astra (12) ***
7 (5) Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (18) ***
8 (4Rambo: Last Blood (18)
9 (6) Rocketman (15) ***
10 (7It: Chapter Two (15) **


My top five: 
1. So Long, My Son

2. Monos
3. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
4. Bait
5. Inna de Yard

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. Dances with Wolves (Sunday, five, 2.30pm)
2. Love is Strange (Sunday, C4, 1.05am)
3. Young Adult (Wednesday, C4, 1.25am)
4. Captain Fantastic (Saturday, BBC2, 12midnight)
5. Jason Bourne (Saturday, C4, 9pm)