Thursday 30 April 2020

Lifeforce: "Ema"

Over the past decade, the Chilean director Pablo Larraín has established himself as just about the most exciting filmmaker working anywhere in the world. (There are even cinephiles who'll make you a case for his one American work-for-hire, 2016's Jackie, a film that struck these eyes and ears as stiffly inorganic.) Larraín has spent most of that time poking usefully around in his homeland's past: the legacy of the Pinochet years in Tony Manero, Post Mortem and NO, the later life of Pablo Neruda in the extraordinarily imaginative Neruda, the more recent issues afflicting the Catholic Church in The Club. With Ema, however, Larraín offers a character study of a none-more-contemporary figure: a polysexual millennial with peroxide-blonde hair and painful-looking piercings (Mariama Di Girolamo), living and working as a dancer on the bohemian fringes of trendy Valparaíso. An opening movement establishes that Ema is at once a supremely magnetic and graceful performer - poetry in motion - and, away from the studio, a hot mess, trailing an abandoned son, a rash of complicated relationships, and a close associate who's in hospital for some reason. Duality has long been central to Larraín's work: one thinks of the "good men" doing Pinochet's dirty work in the director's breakthrough features, or the mediocre cop jealously hounding the brilliant poet Neruda. Here, in a confoundingly singular film, he gives that duality a very modern, feminine face, and grants it space to bust an unexpected move or two.

Early on in Ema, it becomes clear Larraín isn't interested in playing by the usual movie rules, as he wasn't when he took on the fusty-sounding assignment of a biopic of Chile's premier poet and delivered the most exhilarating chase thriller of its year; his aim here is to convert either a manifesto on the permeable membrane between art and life or a programmatic narrative about the getting of wisdom into a fully immersive audiovisual experience. This means no set-up, no warning, no gentle easing-in: instead, we're tossed headfirst into the heroine's daily life, with all its knotty complications and contradictions, and forced, as she is, to figure some of them out as we go. What exactly is the nature of her relationship with the choreographer Gaston (Gael García Bernal), who seems so much older and wiser than her, so unlikely to stick his fingers into the fire? Why has she been removed from her kid, and what is that associate doing in hospital? How many lovers is it possible for a young woman to take without being hospitalised herself, at the very least with exhaustion? Why is she keeping a dead cat in her fridge, and is that some indicator of her inability to care for small creatures? This barrage of questions is prompted because both film and heroine float up before us like vast question marks: what is it? Who is she? Where are they both going? I guarantee you Ema will sail several stratospheres over some viewers' heads; others will grab at it, without fully grasping it. Even at the end of an initial viewing, I wasn't entirely sure: is this an ultra 21st-century parable of progressive parenting, or a vaguely conservative thriller on the same subject? Is it a little of both?

Let this stand as notification that, for the longest while, Ema threatens to be Larraín's airiest, most vaporous film yet. With its neon lighting and electro soundwashes (care of Nicolas Jaar), it's the closest this director has come to Nicolas Winding Refn, which I can't at this stage offer up as a compliment; it's also a movie that will draw deeply on the viewer's reserves of tolerance for spending time around twentysomethings with preposterous haircuts. Larraín can cut through this hipster veneer with humour, granted. After Ema pours out her feelings for Gaston, the choreographer's first, slightly stunned response is "What if we have a quickie?"; another funny sequence finds the troupe's female dancers ganging up on a handsome bartender. Yet we're always aware of watching fleeting, evanescent pleasures, colourful traces of the rosebuds Ema has taken it upon herself to gather while she can. Larraín's very best films - which, not coincidentally, happen to be those he's scripted himself - have been grounded by some wider sense of history or politics. Ema has Gaston around to remind her of her past, yes - Bernal tails Di Girolamo as he once did Luis Gnecco's Neruda - and she scatters telling crumbs of biography: a dead father, a fussing mother. Mostly, however, Larraín merrily skips along in the footsteps of a heroine determined to live in the moment, and there are points amid the conspicuous posethrowing where you feel Ema drifting into artful inconsequentiality, as if it were a photoshoot that had absconded from the pages of Vice magazine and somehow landed itself a distribution deal.

Still, however haphazardly, film and heroine do develop, go somewhere surprising. If the manifesto Larraín is setting out here needed words and phrases to go along with its ever-arresting images, then - and here's where Ema does appear sincerely progressive - they would counsel being flexible and keeping an open mind. Going with the flow, perhaps: the same flow that has carried this filmmaker from Chile to North America and back, that shifts his films between tragedy and comedy, the past and the present, and that leads Ema to answer "Freedom" when asked what subject she enjoys teaching during an unlikely job interview. I say unlikely, as some of the befuddlement and exasperation Ema is bound to provoke can be attributed to an organising figure who could scarcely be less organised: the enigmatic Di Girolamo is entirely right for the role of someone who hasn't worked herself out yet, a tightly wound ball of potential energy bouncing off everyone and everything in sight. (Where she stops, nobody knows.) I spent much of Ema wondering how compelling this essentially blank-faced, vaguely melancholy performer was in and of her own right (would you glance twice at her in another movie, or on a Camden sidestreet?), and how much was the construct of a director doing his level best to find his discovery fascinating at every turn. That may be Ema's one question to stand as entirely moot, as whenever filmmaker sets actress to dance at twilight on a rooftop overlooking the old port, or sends her out to take a homemade flamethrower to an old banger, Di Girolamo cannot help but light up the screen and set the night ablaze with possibilities. In real life, you'd be lucky indeed to meet a woman with that ability, let alone remain in her orbit for a full 100 minutes.

Ema streams via MUBI UK from tomorrow.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

On demand: "The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash"

The editor-turned-director Thom Zimny has hitherto been most closely associated with Bruce Springsteen, overseeing the Netflix gig Springsteen on Broadway before collaborating on the rocker's concert-film-cum-album-promo Western Stars. With The Gift, we find Zimny stitching together a feature-length documentary tribute to Johnny Cash at the behest of YouTube's new Originals label. (Two, in fact: the film exists both in a 94-minute form and a 115-minute "Bonus Cut" available to premium subscribers.) There are obvious points of comparison between Zimny's subjects of choice. Both presented themselves as outlaw rockers, fighting with music and lyrics for what is just; both fumbled their way towards an idea of America, and an indigenous, identifiably American music; and as Western Stars (film and album) made clear, both men wrestled with the tension that exists between the loner and family man, navigating between going their own way (personal and artistic freedom) and returning to the homefront and the company of the one or ones they loved (dependency of one form or another). Zimny has become the pre-eminent chronicler of rock's sincere wing, in other words. You could take Bruce or Johnny home to meet your mother; you could only take home Elvis or Jerry Lee if you'd troubled to lock up the town's daughters - and, who knows, maybe even some of those mothers - beforehand.

The "gift" enshrined in the title is the name Cash's mother Carrie gave her son's voice after it broke some time in the early 1940s - that gravelly, authoritative timbre that at times sounded indistinguishable from some imagined voice of God. With no better qualified narrator, Zimny endeavours to give us Cash in his own words, using a series of audiotaped interviews to nudge his biography onwards between extracts from the key recordings, starting with 1955's "Hey Porter" (which may strike some listeners as the singer's "Rock Island Line", were Cash not then heard covering exactly that) and bound for his comeback recordings with the producer Rick Rubin. One advantage of watching the film on YouTube: presumably you can pause and open up a new search window, if one of these tracklets takes your fancy. The great editorial advantage The Gift has over 2005's enduring Cash biopic Walk the Line is that paints a considerably fuller picture of the ups and downs of this life - the hard yards that led to the earlier film's happy ending. We're introduced to Johnny before June, the outlaw Man in Black spending long days and nights on the road building a name and career for himself, propelled by all manner of stimulants; we become aware this is exactly the kind of wearing schedule that might well make a man yearn to settle down. Among the treasure Zimny has loosed from the archives: gorgeous photographs of his subject stripped of all greasepaint and showbiz lustre, looking properly dogtired - here is the fatigue Joaquin Phoenix worked into his performance in the biopic.

We know the second act already - Cash finding somebody to harmonise with, offstage as on - yet The Gift benefits from the return to primary sources: video and photos collated from his time together with June show a visibly sunnier and happier Cash, while electric footage of the singer duetting with The Carter Sisters on "Were You There?" is about all the proof you could want of how effective this pair were professionally. Yet equally, here are Johnny and June after the Hollywood happy ending, their offspring on hand to talk us, with typical candour, through the drug addiction (lingering side effect of life on the road, or something new?), the rows and the unhappy slide into creative complacency. Of course, Cash kept the faith, kept walking that line, which led to Rubin and his eventual rediscovery: here is an American life that very definitely had a triumphant third act, which explains why our filmmakers have been drawn to it so. In many other ways, however, this journey was unusual, atypical, more 20th century than 21st. That "Were You There?" clip is central to The Gift - Zimny places it around the halfway mark - because it underlines the deeply felt spiritual aspect of this life, bound up with Cash's upbringing among the churches and preachermen of the Deep South. Zimny's film posits that Cash understood all along that his voice was God-given, and that at a certain point resolved to use it for good; that whenever he sinned, he pledged anew - with each song - to redeem himself and others. (Springsteen, a secular saint raised amid the business-is-the-new-religion mindset of post-War America, seems to have been liberated from this burden; perhaps it bears down more heavily on men with the initials JC.)

This allows the film to broach Cash's progressive politics (where Walk the Line confined itself to rustbelt-pleasing romance): the causes he championed, the rows with radio stations, the arrests. Possible to sense that, one way or another, Cash was always going to end up in Folsom Prison, a site foregrounded in Zimny's prologue; it's just that he chose to go there, at a moment in his career when he had the power to do so, and when doing so would do the greatest good. Love - the love of a good woman; his lifelong love for this music - pulled him through any remaining tests. As the distance between Cash and the rest of us grows, it becomes ever clearer that he was redeemed in a manner of speaking, which is why this continues to stand as one of pop's most moving stories. It remains a hell of a life to have to try and sum up in 94 minutes, when the basic narrative components would more readily suggest some Biblical epic. (It may well be that the "Bonus Cut" - also available on YouTube - allows Zimny greater room to breathe, and to pull more treats yet from the archive.) I suspect at some point we'll get a long, multipart Cash doc such as Scorsese has given us on Dylan and George Harrison, and Alex Gibney gave us on Sinatra, and that it may stand as definitive: you won't mind hearing the songs again, because these songs were built to last, with good motors and gas in the tank. In the meantime, The Gift will be near-essential to fans, while even a casually interested onlooker like your correspondent couldn't fail to be struck by the extraordinary poise Cash displays in one clip - an aside in concert footage doubtless buried elsewhere on YouTube, but here spruced up in 1080p streaming resolution - while turning down a fan's offer of a mid-gig swig of bourbon: "I don't drink any more. I don't drink any less, I just don't drink any more." It isn't just the voice, Zimny's film understands; it's what you choose to do with it.

The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash is now streaming on YouTube.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Lightly seasoned: "Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy"

Some films threaten to review themselves. The documentary Nothing Fancy is an affectionate, no-frills 83 minutes spent in the company of Diana Kennedy, the Englishwoman who helped bring home the joys of Mexican cuisine to North America in a series of bestselling cookbooks and primetime TV series. (These latter are excerpted here, and it would be a hard-hearted viewer who didn't delight in the cheeringly naff sight of Kennedy using red peppers as earrings during one such show's opening credits.) Now located deep in rural Mexico, where she lives alone, driving a Nissan truck to and from the local markets, Kennedy emerges as a recognisable type: an upper-class eccentric who became an expert in what was considered a highly niche field, a woman possessed of both the curiosity and time to hoover up decades of culinary knowledge passed down from one generation to the next, yet who also enjoyed an access to publishing houses and television networks most Latin-American chefs wouldn't have had in the 1970s. Director Elizabeth Carroll fair revels in that eccentricity. Here is Kennedy taking a half-hour to make coffee for her visitors because she insists on personally roasting the beans rather than reaching for the Nescafé; here she is getting disproportionately huffy while whipping up some guacamole ("I'm so sick of all this saltless cooking!"). You can see why a filmmaker might be drawn to such a personality; once there, though, I'm not sure Carroll finds much of a story to tell.

I knew nothing about Kennedy (and scarcely more about Mexican cuisine) going in, so the first half served as a useful historical briefing, but increasingly the experience of Nothing Fancy becomes that of watching a 21st century documentary rather dutifully ticking off everything a 21st century documentary is meant to do, in the absence of any greater vision or insight. Carroll is careful to counterbalance her white European subject with testimony from indigenous Latin voices; she makes a case for Kennedy as some form of feminist figurehead; and as the film progresses, Kennedy is allowed to editorialise about consumption and sustainability in a way that chimes with the charity work we see her performing, presumably a trade-off of sorts for the access she grants Carroll and her crew. That's all fine and dandy, but the second half contains a lot of superfluous filler material, artlessly stuffed in to counter the fact Kennedy has undergone no great dramas for the film to speak of, and broadly seems comfortable indeed with her lot, saltless cooking aside. You could, at a push, argue it underlines the subject's credentials as an entirely independent domestic goddess, but is there a compelling cinematic reason for us to wind up watching Kennedy peg her washing out? (Here, as elsewhere, we spy the pernicious influence of reality TV on modern documentary: nowadays just about anything, however banal, counts as content.) No denying that Kennedy, just turned 97, remains a lively character, but Carroll's film can't make the substantive case for her life's work that, say, a box set of her TV shows or cookbooks doubtless could. Dare I say it: it needed a dash more spice.

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy will be available to stream from Friday.

Monday 27 April 2020

From the archive: "Sátántangó"

Both a masterpiece and a badge of honour for its survivors, Béla Tarr's extraordinary 1994 adaptation of László Krasznahorkai's novel Sátántangó achieves the purest imaginable distillation of a particular arthouse aesthetic, and - not coincidentally - stakes some claim to being the least commercial movie ever made. Comprising a full seven hours of long takes photographing hunched and put-upon humanoids traversing muddy agricultural flatlands in a resolute monochrome, Sátántangó shouldn't be watched back-to-back with, say, Speed; if the shock didn't kill you outright, you'd almost certainly succumb to the moviegoer's equivalent of the bends.

As an experiment in screen time, and just how immersive the film experience can be, Tarr's film makes Céline and Julie Go Boating seem a breeze at half the length. What the director's imitators (yes, that means you, Gus van Sant) haven't quite grasped is how these experiments don't circumscribe a properly satisfying telling of stories. From its chapter headings onwards, the film is unapologetically novelistic in its description of a community where nothing much happens except it rains.

Tarr devotes at least thirty minutes to introduce each of the characters dancing with the devil, where a conventional feature would in only one or two scenes, ten minutes tops. Here, then, are squabbling business partners Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) and Schmidt (László Lugossy), one cuckolding the other. Here is the returning poet Irimias (local rock star Mihály Víg), in whose florid turn of phrase the villagers come to place far too much trust. And here's the grumpy doctor and unofficial town chronicler Orvos (Peter Berling), whose trip out to replenish his stocks of pear brandy turns into an epic quest, and sets up the film's magnificently sardonic punchline.

During its second third, Sátántangó begins to circle around on itself, repeatedly returning to a nightmarish gathering in the village pub, like an incorrigible alcoholic. Accordion music plays as though on a loop; one local staggers about balancing a breadroll on his forehead; and even the spiders start to conspire against these characters. As visions of human futility go, it's right up there; the circularity, in this instance, is infernal. The death of an innocent while most of the villagers are in this state of inebriation seems to set up a murder-mystery, but Tarr instead scatters his principals further, turning them into refugees and immigrants in a way that chimes with events elsewhere in Eastern Europe at the time of the film's production.

Yes, it's tough-going in places - a cinema that exposes characters and viewers alike to the elements, the K2 of film - and an experience for which you may need to train yourself. (Tarr's comparatively accessible Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation - his Snowdon and Ben Nevis, if you like - are available as a DVD double-pack.) But this director has a remarkable eye for the halls and corridors of bureaucracy, rainy-grey mornings, empty town squares and the ways bored children find to kill time, and the characters - cursed by fate, squabbling over money, scared and superstitious; people who, even when in groups, seem to be ploughing their own lonely furrow, waiting for God-only-knows what - aren't so very far removed from you and I. It takes a while to get there, obviously, but the view from the top is unlike anything else in the movies.

(April 2007)

Sátántangó is streaming at Curzon Home Cinema, and available on Blu-Ray through Curzon Artificial Eye, from today.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Constructivism: "A Russian Youth"

This week's other release to bear the Russian Ministry of Culture's imprimatur - radically different from Why Don't You Just Die! - sees an Aleksandr Sokurov protégé, the writer-director Alexander Zolotukhin, undertaking what is simultaneously an act of homage and deconstruction. For most of A Russian Youth's 72-minute duration, we're watching a grainy mock-up of a Soviet war movie following a plucky young private's progress through the trenches of WW2. The twist is that we're doing so at one remove, in a recording studio where this film is being scored or rescored by the contemporary Tavrichevsky orchestra - and so its sound and effects are periodically dialled down in the mix while the composer gives instructions on which notes and phrases to punch up. The other day, I was reminded of Director's Commentary, a one-series ITV wonder inspired by the then-fashionable DVD extra, in which Rob Brydon voiced a fictional filmmaker talking viewers through his repertoire. (The conceit has since been refined, rather brilliantly, by the Inside No. 9 lads, and inevitably scuzzed up in a more than typically cacophonous episode of Family Guy.) Zolotukhin's film has some of that inbuilt cleverness; what he's inherited from Sokurov is the keenest of interest in film form and the myriad ways image is married to sound. Part of A Russian Youth's project is to flag up that the flagwaving film at its centre is a construction, engineered to make audiences respond in a particular fashion at particular moments.

Yet equally, I think you could enjoy Zolotukhin's reconstruction of such a film in its own right, as he gets so much of it spot on: the hardy, unglamorous faces, the attractively muted colours, the flaring image that indicates the film is being projected from old stock. The filmmaker sets about his task with a sincerity we might describe as recognisably Russian. It'd be easy for a 21st century cineaste to take cheap shots at the corniness of a narrative that sees its protagonist first blinded, then deafened, but no: Zolotukhin affirms that this - with its broad, knockabout comedy (see the blind lad stumble into a sauna tent!) and time-honoured redemption arc (see him assume a new role and soldier on!) - is just what these films were, and that audiences responded to them in their time as modern multiplex crowds have to the contrived ups-and-downs of any Avengers movie. (Daringly, Zolotukhin cuts in a shot of one soldier riding his steed not just bareback but bare-arsed, an image of Russian masculinity of the type that surely imprinted itself on the imagination of a young Vladimir Putin, today's foremost practitioner of shirtless equestrianism.) The other part of A Russian Youth's project is to point up how even a crude, scratchy narrative such as this - one in the process of being finished off and polished up - can still hook us and tell us something. You might want one element without the other - as my colleague Peter Bradshaw opined in his Guardian review - or the two fully integrated, and it's true the whole never quite shakes off an air of the student graduation film, a work quite literally in progress. Yet Zolotukhin announces himself here as a gifted student, and his film has a quaint, playful charm - the charm of something like The Artist - which crept up on me. Sokurov, established master though he is, has never come close to that.

A Russian Youth streams on MUBI UK from Thursday.

Saturday 25 April 2020

From the archive: "Love & Mercy"

At some point, there will be written a tome that properly addresses the bipolarity of pop music – how the combination of major and minor chords has resulted in a song for more or less every opposing emotion. It caused him considerable anguish, this we know, but perhaps it was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys who understood the phenomenon best of all: it may be why a song like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” can sound buoying (ain’t it sweet to dream?) or heartbreaking (doesn’t reality suck?) depending upon the circumstances in which one hears it.

The new Wilson biopic Love & Mercy – written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, and directed by Bill Pohlad – deploys a structural device that ensures it’s particularly attuned to these highs and lows, running two versions of its subject alongside one another, the better to heighten the contrast. We join Wilson (Paul Dano) in his mid-60s pomp, striving with “Pet Sounds” to move the band away from the surfer hits with which they made their name and fortune, and towards what he hopes will be the greatest record of all time.

While he’s heading for a breakdown, Pohlad flips to this story’s B-side: Wilson as he was in the mid-80s (John Cusack), subsisting under the quote-unquote care of quote-unquote doctor Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a physician who knows he’s onto a good thing. It’s around this moment that Wilson crossed paths with car dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and begins feeling his way back towards something akin to a normal life: a re-release, as it were.

If Dano and Cusack don’t immediately appear an obvious physical match, these intelligent performers find ways to tessellate. What links these Wilsons is a soft-spoken spaciness: it’s a biopic that insists mental instability in our musicians need not necessarily mean Beethoven-in-Immortal Beloved wildness, but could just present as hypersensitivity. (Is it possible Wilson heard the voices he did because one ear was overcompensating for the other, boxed into disrepair by his brute of a father?)

Dano surfs that relaxed California vibe – coaxing a dog to bark in the recording booth, he’s no more out-there than the average Monkee – until he starts taking too much on, be it pop operettas or LSD; Cusack aces arguably the tougher assignment – having to play a man subject to an extensive (and erroneous) program of medication – in bringing the damaged, scared mortal behind the dope into clear focus: you won’t ever have seen this actor so rattled on screen.

There could still be room for a biopic that takes us further inside Wilson’s head as the sunny Sixties gave way to the dark, paranoid Seventies, but Pohlad proves good on process. He finds new takes on the music by situating the young Wilson in the studio, laying down the instrumentals for “God Only Knows” et al (“Even the happy songs are sad!” protests Mike Love), and then, in the 1980s scenes, by honing in on the trust-building that goes into any rehabilitation narrative.

It helps that Cusack’s Wilson has a never-lovelier Banks sitting alongside him at the piano stool: her Melinda, trailing her own heartbreak, is evidently attracted to Wilson’s gentleness, but Banks makes that attraction feel like a conscious choice on the part of a woman who knows exactly what she’s taking on – to the extent that she knows she may, at some point, have to walk away. It’s their unusual, affecting love story that provides the film with its heart, and Banks really will make you wish they all could be Californian girls.

Demons and monsters aren’t far away, of course. Through the Landy character, Love & Mercy can evoke the altogether unhealthy control particular to the entertainment industry; it’s also a sign of how well-versed Moverman and Lerner are in pop history that the spectre of Spector (Phil), one of several figures against which the boy Wilson measured himself, can loom off-screen throughout, himself pushing too hard in making “River Deep, Mountain High” (more peaks and troughs).

Mostly, though, the material is tuned towards celebrating a figure who emerged from his mental miasma clutching one hell of a legacy (the songs sound as good in Dolby as they’ve ever done) and the exact right person to accompany him into an encore. Love & Mercy isn’t just a timely counterpoint to the downward spiral of last week’s Amy; it’s one of the most human stories Hollywood has attempted in some while, right through to an ending that, this once, is indisputably happy.

(MovieMail, July 2015)

Love & Mercy screens on BBC2 at 10.15pm tonight, and will be available on iPlayer for the next month.

Friday 24 April 2020

For what it's worth...

My top ten streaming picks (for the week ending April 24, 2020):

1. And Then We Danced (15) **** (Curzon, BFI)
2. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (12A) **** (via Amazon Prime)
3 (new) A Russian Youth (uncertificated) *** (MUBI)
4 (new) Moffie (18) *** (Curzon)
5 (new) Ghost Town Anthology (uncertificated) *** (MUBI UK)
6. Who You Think I Am (15) *** (Curzon)
7. The Grand Bizarre (uncertificated) *** (MUBI UK)
8. The Perfect Candidate (PG) *** (Curzon, BFI)
9. Vivarium (15) *** (Curzon, BFI)
10. Dogs Don't Wear Pants (18) *** (Curzon, BFI)

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12)

2 (1) Jumanji: The Next Level (12)
3 (3) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
4 (2Frozen II (U) **
5 (new) Blue Story (15) ***
6 (5) Trolls (U)
7 (4Knives Out (12) ***
8 (15) Hop (U)
9 (14) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12) **
10 (new) Playing with Fire (PG)


My top five: 
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
2. Talking About Trees
3. Bacurau
4. Why Don't You Just Die!
5. Blue Story

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 12noon)
2. The Full Monty (Friday, BBC1, 10.45pm)
3. Love & Mercy (Saturday, BBC2, 10.15pm)
4. The Departed (Saturday, ITV, 10.30pm)
5. The Elephant Man (Sunday, BBC1, 10.30pm)

From the archive: "Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa"

First things first. Now that Alpha Papa’s finally here, it proves as weird to see Alan Partridge on a big screen as it would be to see, say, one’s own dad on the big screen. We’ve grown up with Steve Coogan’s comic creation bumbling around our front rooms embarrassing himself and others, every bit the product of the 4:3 analogue TV era; those recent Internet specials were exactly the kind of venture a washed-up DJ might resort to in a bid to prove himself down with the kids. Back in the game, as the man himself might say.

Digital comebacks aside, it’s nevertheless jolting to suddenly be confronted with a scaled-up and apparently rejuvenated Alan, singing along with Roachford’s “Cuddly Toy” (early evidence of the good time Alpha Papa’s here to show us) in stonking, multi-channel Dolby. There’s a world in which Alan Partridge has already found his ideal home on tatty TV channel Dave, going out in perpetuity between reruns of his beloved Top Gear.

In this world, however, the movie spin-off we’ve arrived at is effectively Die Hard with a Partridge – strike that, Lynn: Die Hard with A. Partridge – doing its very best to recast a character previously encountered as a prizewinning prat as the closest thing North Norfolk has to an indomitable hero: the first man the police think to turn to as negotiator after aggrieved Irish DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) starts taking hostages at a party intended to celebrate North Norfolk Digital’s absorption by a multimedia conglomerate.

Of course, Alan loves the idea: the role offers him the chance to don a bulletproof vest and live out all those macho Andy McNab fantasies fostered during those long dark nights in the Linton Travel Tavern. And, of course, the gag is that he’s a rubbish negotiator, forever ducking out, falling asleep or otherwise failing to respond when the opportunity presents itself; while sharing the airwaves with Farrell – and a newly trussed-up Sidekick Simon (Tim Key) – Alan even finds himself sympathising with the oldtimer, brushed aside by thrusting corporate bucks keen to replace Neil Diamond with Tom Odell.

We’ve gone from Hapless Alan to Alan: Man of (Sort of) Action, in other words, and the shift takes some getting used to: the film, a brisk 90-minute romp overseen by comedy veteran Declan Lowney (Father Ted), is steered by plot, where Partridge’s TV appearances were slow-burn character studies, and only occasionally does it attempt the shows’ signature mix of comedy and bathos, as when Alan flicks through the television channels to find his hostage crisis has dropped down every agenda save that of regional news magazine Look East.

There’s a tonal concern, too, in that for this plot to function, it demands a heightened level of violence and threat that – the dark desires of Alan-stalkers aside – hasn’t previously reared its head inside this universe. Meaney responds by wrapping his man-going-postal inside a cuddly befuddlement, but this is still the first Partridge project to rack up a (granted, modest) bodycount, which you could get squeamish about, and the denouement depends on a blood loss far more life-threatening than one might suffer from, say, impaling one’s foot on the gates of a Norwich country club.

What smoothes the experience over – and makes Alpha Papa one of the few TV-to-film crossovers that doesn’t embarrass itself – is that it is funny, at least two or three times a minute, the work of comedy pros keenly and smartly parsing each scene (and, indeed, the entire Partridge back catalogue) for set-ups to pay off. At the press screening, critics were enthusiastically noting down what looked like three-quarters of the script for future use, which wasn’t the case at, say, The Inbetweeners Movie, where even the funnier material sounded unprintable.

I’ll just limit myself to noting Lynn’s quietly hilarious assertion she couldn’t have had anything to do with Farrell’s rampage because she only ever baked the Irishman three cakes, “all of them plain”; that, while he may have seemed an interloper in those viral vids, Key’s underplaying here serves as genuine relief amid the shoutier, bangier business, establishing him as perhaps the Freeman to Coogan’s Gervais; and that there’s clever (if sparing) use of the one character in the Partri-verse who you suspect might actually flourish in any siege scenario.

Mostly, though, this is a one-man show, very much dependent on your fondness for/tolerance of Coogan-as-Partridge, whether he’s holding inappropriate mid-siege phone-ins (“Have you ever met a genuinely intelligent bus driver?”), using the radio station forecourt to stage his own low-rent version of Dog Day Afternoon, or simply indulging those petty and pedantic urges that link him indelibly to smaller-screen Little Englanders.

Ever since the days of Tony Ferrino and Phileas Fogg, Coogan has been champing at the bit to play the lover and the hero, no matter that he’s almost always funnier (and more likable) playing pitiable or pathetic. Here, he’s reached the point in his career where he can try and square the two – no matter how this alters the boundaries of the Partridge world – and quite possibly get away with it.

The have-your-Dundee-cake-and-eat-it approach is encapsulated in the end credits, which mash up a Partridge-approved chart-topper with an attempt to broaden the demographic appeal – though this Alan, an almost-alpha, is now hero enough to publicly denounce the work of Example as “rubbish”. As elsewhere in Alpha Papa, he’s more right than wrong.

(MovieMail, August 2013)

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa screens on BBC1 tonight at 11.45pm.

Icicle works: "Ghost Town Anthology"

The French-Canadian Denis Côté is one of those directors whose idiosyncratic visions have been revered on the festival circuit, yet who's never quite gained a foothold on UK screens. Curling, his Locarno-feted drama of 2010, only landed on these shores ten days ago via a Second Run Blu-Ray; 2013's Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, much admired at Berlin, at least played that year's London Film Festival before disappearing from circulation. Côté remains a tricky sell, but lockdown has apparently opened a gap in the market: this week, MUBI UK is showcasing his latest film Ghost Town Anthology, an adaptation of a novel by Laurence Olivier (not that one) that offers a portrait of a snowy, windswept small town being emptied out one way or another. The credits have barely rolled when the population is decreased by one, courtesy of a car accident that might be a suicide bid, and leads, either way, to the death of a young man. Côté is less interested in the cause than the effects, specifically how this tragedy fragments the community as it did the car's windscreen - a fragmentation reflected in the film's own form. For the remaining ninety minutes, GTA flits between the town's inhabitants: the bereaved Dubé family, the highly strung woman (Larissa Corriveau) who becomes convinced her home and neighbourhood have become haunted, the masked figures (itinerants? Kids? Something less earthly?) seen making merry in the surrounding fields. Watching over them all - like the least interested (or most self-interested) of landlords - is the local mayor (Diane Lavallée), who has the werewithal to note in her funeral address than "for a house of cards to crumble, one need only remove one card", yet blithely dismisses an offer an outside psychiatric help for her constituents, insisting "We can sort our own problems. We're all adults."

The cold outside corresponds to the pronounced chill of Côté's interiors. It's quickly apparent that GTA is not going to be a film in which problems are overcome by collective action and a whole lot of small-town cheer. (Comparisons have been drawn with Twin Peaks, though Côté generally adopts a more naturalistic approach than David Lynch: the film struck me as a good deal closer to Atom Egoyan's Russell Banks adaptation The Sweet Hereafter, with tantalising hints of the Robin Campillo movie that birthed the TV series Les Revenants.) We're struck first of all by the overwhelming whiteness of the town's demographic make-up: how these characters flinch around non-Caucasian faces, how curtly the mayor packs off a headscarfed psychiatrist. What Olivier and Côté look to be getting at is small-town exceptionalism: that belief that we take care of ourselves (and ourselves alone), a line of thinking that increasingly looks like the second biggest plague on the world as it enters this century's third decade. What we're here to witness is a dwindling of promise and spirit: this town starts out small, like a town in a snowglobe, and in the absence of the affection that might bond it together, it breaks up only further. Family ties are loosened, houses torn down; cinematographer François Messier-Rheault's granular images themselves suggest something coming apart; and as the wind whips up anew and the lights and heat go out, some townsfolk begin to vacate their senses. It might all seem like an arty horror movie, if it wasn't playing out so much like a scaled-up science experiment.

The froideur is rigorously maintained. You could stick a thermometer in any of these scenes and, though it might crack, it would take something like the same emotional temperature. I couldn't blame you if you felt that was a limitation: after 45 minutes of muted whites, greys and beiges, your eyes may start to long for even the faintest dash of Almodóvarian red, with its insinuation of human warmth. (If you're looking for something to pep you up right now, this would not be the film.) As a picture of desolation and grief, however, Ghost Town Anthology proves quietly forceful: all its negative and blank space really does imprint itself on the imagination after a while. There's something very persuasive in the film's idea of tragedy as a weather front. With the deceased's body cooling off - awaiting a spring burial, when the ground might be more accepting - these characters pass into a ghostly limbo, unsure how to respond to this loss, or to one another; all they can do is wrap themselves up, hunker down, and hope and/or pray for better times ahead. (Super-8 images that might also be memories offer fleeting flickers of optimism: briefly, we see blue skies, and - gasp - even evidence the sun once shone on this cold, hard place.) You'll have to navigate your own path through the final act, which steps firmly into the genre territory the rest of the movie has been tiptoeing around - this, too, comes as a rupture, from the low-key MO that has sustained the film up to that point - but Ghost Town Anthology gets more intriguing frame by frame, yielding at least one extraordinary image as the worst of this ice storm passes. Côté is a filmmaker worth bringing in from the cold.

Ghost Town Anthology is now streaming on MUBI UK.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Orientations: "Moffie"

It's been almost ten years since 2011's Beauty, that jolting study of obsession that smartly updated Death in Venice and gave the South African writer-director Oliver Hermanus his international breakthrough. That was a contemporary piece, shot from the point of view of a middle-aged man gazing with ever greater intensity at a younger man who was all but a blank screen, a repository for his pursuer's projections. The director's latest Moffie follows not as a corrective per se (Beauty barely put a foot wrong), but a counterpoint: here is a period drama - set in the South Africa of 1981, as initially described in André Carl van der Merwe's autobiographical novel - centred on a young man fighting battles on several fronts simultaneously. The noisiest one is that Nick van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) has been conscripted into: apartheid-era SA's underdocumented military action against its Soviet-backed near-neighbours Angola, intended to keep the grave threat of Communism at bay. Others are more discreet, matters of personal identity. Nick's dual heritage and cutglass English-schooled accent mark him as an outsider in the platoon he's yanked into, even before we consider the internal war he's waging with his own sexuality - a conflict hardly becalmed by having to bunk up in close proximity with a dozen or more shirtless, lusty, roughhousing contemporaries. (That affectionate-looking title turns out to be the Afrikaans for "faggot".) The reduced, 1981-sized frame is its own indication that Hermanus is engaged in the manufacture of cinematic pressure cookers, films that subject their characters to the extremes of heat and hormones, put the squeeze on everyone, and watch and wait - as we watch and wait - for an explosion of some kind.

What's notable (and laudable) is how often Hermanus converts those unseen but unmistakably felt pressures into punchy, revealing images. Moffie's first half unfolds much like a sunburnt Full Metal Jacket, as our boy is far from enthusiastically dragged onto the veldt and made subject to the ritual humiliations that pass for Army training. The crucial difference is that Hermanus views the making and breaking of these young men with far greater compassion than the strictly analytical Kubrick. For starters, he tends to view his recruits in close-up rather than at a distance, as faces rather than bodies, which allows him (and us) to better register the pained expressions and tear-stained cheeks of the two boys roughed up in the film's early stages for non-adherence to military norms. Equally, though, Moffie hones in on those genuine moments of camaraderie and brotherhood - like an impromptu singalong to Rodriguez's recently rediscovered cultural touchstone "Sugar Man" - which offer relief and hope amid the relentless, crushing drilling. Out of these moments, Nick establishes a tentative, don't-ask-don't-tell relationship with Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), a fellow recruit with whom he shares an insulating clinch in a trench one chilly night. Yet we never lose sight of the fact these young men are being trained to kill; to turn the abusive instincts they display upon encountering a black commuter on a train station platform outwards against an entire nation. Love is barely in this picture; it seems more likely that these soldiers' inculcated loathing for otherness will wind up being turned against themselves.

Hermanus digs deep into the psychology of van der Merwe's book. It takes a while, but we eventually understand the strange place the shower block occupies in Nick's messed-up thinking, and how it relates to a shame dredged up from childhood; in the meantime, we're bombarded with disturbing flickers of trauma - a sudden suicide, a barrack-room accident - which go unspoken about, seemingly unprocessed even by the narrative, and which have to be repressed along with everything else Nick encounters here. This is a simmering film, violent and volatile-seeming even before it gets to the Angolan scenes; watching it is not unlike being pinned down by sniper fire, which may in turn be analogous to the experience of living in a deeply conservative place and time, a moment where any opportunities for personal growth get all but trampled into the ground by a more pressing need to survive. (It's not an inapt release for April 2020.) That leaves Moffie a tougher sit than Beauty, which in some ways could be packaged as a thriller and observed from safe distance. The closeness Hermanus keeps to his characters erases that distance: there are stretches where he deviates from the Kubrick model and into the horribly compelling, experiential territory of a Casualties of War or Come and See. The control is such that even when you flinch or look away, something in the sound design - a wheezing man's final breaths, say - puts you right back in Nick's boots, and Hermanus finally denies us the catharsis we may be looking (even praying) for: van der Merwe's point, honourably translated to the screen, was that South Africa was engaged in a long march towards the kind of freedoms you and I now take for granted. Much to admire, however, not least the casting of the upright, acutely alert Brummer in the lead, demonstrating a civility and sensitivity that could just be this kid (and this land)'s salvation, if any of it can possibly escape unscathed.

Moffie is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from tomorrow.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Topical malady: "Sea Fever"

In these cautious, locked-down times, Sea Fever may be as close as we get to a Saturday-night blockbuster: a medium-to-low budget Irish-Scottish-Swedish-Belgian co-production, directed by a TV graduate, which pulls into port bearing a credit scroll that concludes "with Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen". (As ever, you wonder how many fraught transoceanic phone calls were necessary to arrive at that particular designation.) In all other respects, it has the look of one of those self-contained calling-card movies filmmakers assemble to get at the big bucks that might fund their wilder dreams; it's just occasional widescreen exteriors of a rusting fishing vessel adrift on the wide blue yonder, and sporadic bouts of life-or-death action gesture towards a scope beyond most titles being released at a moment when home entertainment is the only entertainment we have. At its centre is a germ of an idea that has sustained the DTV and VOD markets over the past forty years, for this is essentially Alien on the high seas: it strands a socially inept yet resourceful marine biologist (Hermione Corfield) on that boat with varyingly salty shipmates - captained by husband-and-wife team Scott and Nielsen - and then subjects everybody to a parasitic lifeform that eats away at them from within. You could cavil at the opportunism involved in releasing a film plotted thus at this precise point in human evolution, or shrug and accept this is what B-movie producers have done since year dot in their efforts to turn a buck.

As Alien ripoffs go, Sea Fever is neither the best nor worst to have bobbed up in front of us: it sees writer-director Neasa Hardiman - who's done enough notable TV these past few years (Happy Valley over here, Jessica Jones over there) to suggest she might well have a career for herself - doing her level best with the kind of inherently hackneyed material producers and distributors feel confident about selling. You'll have to wait half the running time for the bug to get into this crew's systems, but it generates a couple of effectively grisly deaths, and a semi-intriguing debate - bound to be seized on by over-excitable critics who'll proclaim Sea Fever the film of the hour - about whether the ship should return to shore (so as to seek medical assistance) or enter into quarantine so as to prevent the parasite from spreading. Against that, it's clear from a very early stage (perhaps even as early as those credits) that Hardiman doesn't have the money in the coffers to depict a full societal breakdown; there's not all that much resistance on board, given the thin-to-diaphanous characterisation; and there's a fair bit of poking around in darkened hulls to cover the fact the budget is running out. (Far better lit: the product-placement for an indigenous brand of lager, whose cans are all miraculously positioned with their logos facing the camera.) String theory adherents will be aware there is a timeline where we're all currently happy and healthy and engaged in enthusiastic conversation (in person, at close quarters) about the new Bond movie. Everyone from director and cast to the distributor is giving Sea Fever the old college try, but having Dougray Scott set upon by nefarious bacteria for our viewing pleasure does seem rather like giving a starving dog a rubber bone.

Sea Fever is available to stream from Friday.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

On DVD: "Why Don't You Just Die!"

Our release schedules have traditionally told a different story, but Russian cinema isn't all serious, sombre-hued state-of-the-nation addresses made by vodka-swilling miserablists. With Why Don't You Just Die!, writer-director Kirill Sokolov unleashes - as one might a pitbull - a playfully brutal live-action cartoon that suggests Putinland may now fall subject to a run of Nineties-style crime comedies with a baseline of lurid misanthropy. It opens with a bang - several bangs, in fact, amid the kind of set-trashing donnybrook most movies would reserve for a climax. A young man called Matvei (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) introduces himself at the home of his girlfriend's parents, keen to make a very particular impression - with the hammer we see he's hiding behind his back. Trouble is his intended target, the girl's father Andrei (Vitaliy Khaev, resembling a more forbidding Dom Littlewood), is a corrupt copper of the old school who keeps a shotgun in his kitchen and reacts to even the hint of a threat with brute force, where the younger man displays a lithe cunning. They are as well-matched a pair of antagonists as the cinema has given us for some time. While we lay our bets, the opening act is establishing both a sickly colour scheme (the burst-capillary reds and vomitous greens of early Jeunet-and-Caro films) and, more crucially, a Looney Tunes tone: no matter how many times somebody gets smashed over the head or tossed through a supporting wall, they will re-emerge, as Wile E. Coyote did after plummeting off a cliff, ready for the next round of mayhem. With Kensington gore being splashed all over the shop, the plot slides backwards, to explain how these men got into this mess, and then forwards, to work through its aftermath. There is a lot of cleaning up to do, even before Andrei reaches for his cordless drill.

Tarantino, with his flip approach to violence, is the obvious inspiration, which could have been problematic, were Sokolov not so precise in his execution. There's not a single setpiece in the Tarantino filmography as quietly excruciating as the one in which Matvei has to retrieve a hairpin from the filthy U-bend beneath Andre's sink in order to free himself from the copper's handcuffs - and QT wouldn't have thought to cut in, as Sokolov does, an insert from a mocked-up public information film demonstrating the peculiar locking mechanism of said cuffs. The devil is in the detail, as they say, and here's where Sokolov begins to expose his own methodology, as he does when he cuts in an X-ray image of bones shattering when this hairpin manoeuvre fails and Matvei resorts to breaking his own wrist to free himself. Though limited in its scope - there's not an exterior to be seen - it's a film of constantly moving parts, and Sokolov's interest lies in where they click or (more often) rupture; he's caught doing something similar in piecing together his bric-a-brac narrative. Much as why don't you just die? is a phrase critics have cause to yell at overused generic tropes, Why Don't You Just Die! is unmistakably the work of someone who's seen a lot of movies, and resolved to restage many of their most memorable moments on a single front-room set. So Sokolov toggles through aspects of noir (the girlfriend Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde) is revealed as a duplicitous moll seducing the guileless Matvei to do her bidding) and the spaghetti Western (replete with electric guitar twangs and gunshots on the soundtrack); the set-up even recalls Meet the Parents - the kind of basic slapstick knockabout that smoothly crosses international borders - retooled for a higher body count.

Is there anything more to it than a digest of those titles that might have adorned the DVD shelf of a student at the University of Minsk in the late Nineties/early Noughties? Well, my critical faculties reactivated briefly amid a flashback that describes how Andrei let a Russian athlete off a murder charge in exchange for a large bung, then proceeded to swipe this blood money from under the nose of the partner who really needed it. The opening credits indicate Sokolov was financed by the Ministry of Culture, yet beneath his film's surface styling and layers of postmodern irony, it's possible to make out an altogether bleak vision of a Russia where every-man-for-himself has become the order of the day; were you being held at gunpoint, you could argue this literally broken home (authoritarian father, suicidally meek wife, put-upon offspring) isn't so very far detached from those in Andrei Zyvagintsev's sombre-hued Loveless and Leviathan. Still, that may be to attribute a seriousness of intent to Sokolov that isn't immediately apparent from the splatter unfolding in front of us: my gut feeling was that Why Don't You Just Die! is really only as representative of modern-day Russia as, say, Guy Ritchie's post-Tarantino runarounds are of modern-day Britain. It bears the usual limitation of the Tarantino copyist, in that its sights are set on prompting sniggers and smirks rather than anything more lasting, but for just under 100 minutes, it did manage to make me smile, and in a couple of especially outré places, to make me laugh. Callous fun is preferable to no fun whatsoever.

Why Don't You Just Die! is now available on Blu-Ray through Arrow, and will be available to stream via Arrow TV and Amazon Prime from May 4.

Monday 20 April 2020

On demand: "Extra Ordinary"

Every five years or so, the local industries gift us with a comedy dark horse: a film that arrives in cinemas with scant pedigree and no fanfare, but which demonstrates more wit and invention than those much-trumpeted studio list items that had five or ten writers labouring on them at considerable expense. After 2006's The Gigolos, 2011's Black Pond and 2016's The Young Offenders, the latest of these very pleasant surprises is Extra Ordinary, a supernatural horror-comedy that revisits many of the tropes associated with this genre - nodding in passing to such landmarks as The Exorcist and Ghost Busters - but does so in order to put a distinctively Irish twist on them. For starters, its haunted house of choice isn't some sprawling country pile, but a common-or-garden semi-detached being bothered twice over. It's being haunted by the late wife of its current occupant Martin (Barry Ward, from Jimmy's Hall), who's taken an altogether aggressive approach to watching over her man; meanwhile, the couple's teenage daughter Sarah (Emma Coleman) is being eyed up as a potential sacrifice, not by otherworldly forces, but Christian Winter (guest star Will Forte), an American rockstar and amateur Satanist who's moved to Ireland for tax purposes. The exorcist pitched into the middle of all this tumult isn't as gravely imposing a figure as the late Max von Sydow, but Rose (stand-up Maeve Higgins), a dippy driving instructor who's inherited some of the gifts of her late father, a TV parapsychologist, but who only really agrees to get involved with an eye to getting into Martin's trousers.

Writer-directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman have a lot more plot than money to work with, in other words, but they turn that cheapness to their considerable comic advantage. Anybody coming here looking for million-dollar phantasmagoria should walk on; the hauntings here are wholly parochial, a little bit crap, and roughly ten times funnier for that. We get a spate of unusually animated recycling bins; the spectral spouse yanks a plate from a dishwasher because it's been put in the wrong slot; while a flashback returns the heroine to the scene of a haunted pothole, not the first or last time Extra Ordinary might set you in mind of Father Ted. Not having to worry about the VFX schedule frees everyone to instead build up the characters and relationships, chiefly a winning second-chance romance between the leads, threatened by third parties and Rose's decision to deploy Martin on the supernatural frontline as a vessel for catching spirits. (Ward must spend 25% of the running time retching ectoplasm into a jam jar, not the smoothest of looks for a romantic prospect.)

Despite that underlying, partly improvised development, the film still feels more ad hoc - agreeably ramshackle - than pre-planned or focus-tested, governed above all else by a tremendous sense of mischief. You really do sense Ahern and Loughman are here to have fun within this genre, even if that means throwing out or scribbling over the supernatural-movie rulebook. That may be why the narrative takes so much on - eventually making the daughter as well as the house subject to demonic possession, sketching in a subplot about Rose's pregnant sister and her budding relationship with a county councillor - and why the film keeps finding its way towards offbeam rhythms and leftfield punchlines, stopping one scene dead so that Christian (another solid entry in Forte's ever-expanding gallery of preposterously pompous bellends) can struggle to pull on a pair of velcro driving gloves. (Like many other beats and details here, it goes to character, but Ahern and Loughman insist on taking us round the houses first.) Scene by scene, Extra Ordinary is so cherishably underplayed you wonder whether the big finish traditional to this genre will be beyond either its frame of reference or budgetary means, yet the directors have their own, amusingly alternative idea of a climax, with a semantic argument over who counts as a virgin playing out around a gaping CG portal to Hell; it is, at the last, a very Catholic haunting. Spirited stuff all the same, demonstrating more personality than any number of Conjurings.

Extra Ordinary is now streaming via Netflix.

Saturday 18 April 2020

On demand: "Score: Cinema's Greatest Soundtracks"

Matt Schrader's brisk 90-minute primer on film scoring Score has the bright idea of inviting leading contemporary composers to talk through the history of the medium and the tools of their trade. There's a certain public service in the film's putting of faces to the names that have helped move the movies along in recent times. Schrader finds Marco Beltrami attaching a piano to the wind to fashion The Homesman's authentically primitive, elemental score; he checks in with Danny Elfman, barely seen publicly since his Oingo Boingo days, toiling in the dark as he has been for Tim Burton; and he swings by the archive to spot Hans Zimmer doing his best Ron Mael impersonation in the video for Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star"

At every turn, the film cues up riffs all but guaranteed to release dopamine into the listener's brain (Rocky, The Pink Panther, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), doubly so when attached to many of the most indelible (and rewatched) sequences in cinema. And there are useful insights into the nuts-and-bolts composition and recording of such scores: Alexandre Desplat observes that orchestras in London generate a softer sound than their L.A. equivalents. (Is that because they're further away from the studios, hence notionally more relaxed? Score is pretty good on the pressures that come with composing for film in its current, corporate state: Elliot Goldenthal notes how agonising it is to enter a subway and see his name on a poster for some much-trumpeted future release, knowing he hasn't yet completed his work - a reminder that scores are generally added late in the day, after the images are settled upon.) 

One limitation, and it's a major one, given that definitive subtitle: Morricone aside (tellingly billed as the man behind Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission and The Hateful Eight), there is next to nothing on non-American cinema, which means no mention of Jacques Demy's collaborations with Michel Legrand, zip on A.R. Rahman and Bollywood. Instead, we get a long segment on John Williams - deserved, given he's one of a small handful of composers the man on the street could identify (from that Imperial March alone) - Mark Mothersbaugh telling us how he wrote the Rugrats theme (which isn't really cinema) on a toy piano, and bits on the Transformers and Fast & Furious sequels that really only point up the dearth of imagination in modern blockbuster scoring. (One score clanks like a robot; the other revs like an engine.) Fine, but there's a touch of the Thomas Edisons about its editorial line: other sound systems are and have been available, so long as you keep your ears open.

Score: Cinema's Greatest Soundtracks is streaming via the BBC iPlayer, and available on DVD (as Score: A Film Music Documentary) through Dogwoof.