Saturday, 25 March 2017

1,001 Films: "Barry Lyndon" (1975)

Barry Lyndon sits – along with early works Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss – among the least seen of Stanley Kubrick’s handful of films, a prisoner to its length (at three hours plus intermission, longer than 2001), a shifting critical reputation and the place it occupies in the director’s own filmography, between the more notorious A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Revived this week to tie in with Somerset House’s new Kubrick exhibition, it still looks more experiment than complete success, seizing upon a text that might have made for trad heritage cinema only to attempt something entirely contrary with it.

The big idea – and it’s such a droll one it rather plays into the hands of those mistakenly accusing Kubrick of having little discernible sense of humour – is that, for three hours, we will be deposited in the company of a passive no-mark known as Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), boyish drip turned adult lush, as he’s set adrift on the winds of 18th century fate. For the first half, matters will broadly go in his favour; in the second, they don’t.

This, clearly, is Kubrick going his own way once again, determining to construct a lavish epic around a figure who is not notably likable or heroic. In his better moments, Barry merely resembles a fop or twerp, in his worst a negligible parasite or monstrously opportunist sociopath. The compensation has always been that the film looks good: exteriors by Gainsborough, Hogarthian interiors lit by candles enough to fill out the average branch of Anthropology.

While Barry remains a non-entity, there’s ample surrounding incident. The backdrop of Britain’s Seven Years War against European forces has renewed resonance in 2016, but also adds a few new shades to the director’s gallery of onscreen conflict: to the agonised mud and grit of Paths of Glory and the hellzapoppin’ satire of Dr. Strangelove, Lyndon addends the Sealed Knottery of columns of men in tricorn hats being mowed down by gunfire. (This may be as close as we’ll ever get to seeing Stanley’s planned Napoleonic epic.)

And there’s detectable skill in Kubrick’s marshalling of his performers, particularly those character actors (Leonard Rossiter, Pat Roach, Patrick Magee) the hero bounces off. O’Neal’s matinee-idol blankness is fine for what Kubrick was aiming for, but a little of it goes a very long way: by the time the director is cutting between Barry and the haughty beauty of Marisa Berenson’s Countess in search of a spark of passion, it’s laughable – we’re watching two catalogue models wondering whether they’ve left the iron on in their dressing rooms.

The bigger problems are those of shapelessness and affectlessness. Barry Lyndon isn’t heading anywhere at any particular speed: it could go on for three hours, or three centuries, in the same first gear, with the same classical cues (light years removed from 2001’s musical dynamism), in which time the central character might pass from Redmond Barry to Barry Lyndon to Tom Ripley to Leonard Zelig to Patrick Bateman to James Franco.

It would be the same story, hammering the same points into the ground: that life is a crapshoot, and some lives are blanks. And yes, Kubrick’s film is very clever in the way that flies in the face of so much moral and sentimental education. But it’s still a fidgety three hours, however you parse them: the kind of film cinephiles have desperately squinted to see greatness in, lest they have to concede that a great director is as capable of directing a dull film as any hack. And I write that as someone who finds Eyes Wide Shut fascinating.

(MovieMail, July 2016)

Barry Lyndon is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

Friday, 24 March 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of March 17-19, 2017:
1 (new) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (1) Kong: Skull Island (12A)
3 (new) Get Out (15) **** 
4 (2) Logan (15) ***
5 (3) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
6 (4) Viceroy's House (12A)
7 (6) Sing (U) ***
8 (new) Secret Cinema Presents: Moulin Rouge! (12A) [above]
9 (5) Moonlight (15) ****
10 (7) Hidden Figures (PG) **


My top five:   
1. The Lost City of Z
2. The Salesman
3. Get Out 
4. Aquarius
5. Beauty and the Beast

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (new) Arrival (12) ***
2 (1) Doctor Strange (12) **
3 (2) The Girl on the Train (15) *
4 (new) Inferno (15) *
5 (4) I, Daniel Blake (15) ****
6 (6) The Light Between Oceans (12)
7 (3) Deepwater Horizon (15) ***
8 (new) Mum's List (12)
9 (re) The Magnificent Seven (12) **
10 (new) The Infiltrator (15) 


My top five:  
1. The Young Offenders
2. Endless Poetry
3. Paterson
4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
5. Bleed for This

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Wizard of Oz (Sunday, five, 12.35pm)
2. Hue and Cry (Saturday, BBC2, 8.40am)
3. The Princess Bride (Sunday, five, 10.45am)
4. The Wooden Horse (Saturday, BBC2, 1.45pm)
5. Cold in July (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

"The Lost City of Z" (Catholic Herald 24/03/17)

The true-life figure driving the transporting The Lost City of Z (*****, 15, 141 mins) is Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a jobbing British Army serviceman of lowly descent who, while mapping the Bolivia-Peru border in 1906, became distracted by rumours of a mysterious city of gold: the same talk, we note, that lured conquistadors to their doom. For indie nearlyman James Gray, it’s a bold move into Herzog-Coppola territory: an obsessed character, the leafy unknown. “Success could change your lot considerably,” quoth a Royal Geographic Society bigwig to Fawcett; as for our hero, so for his director.

The wind is certainly at their backs. Where earlier Gray ventures dealt in stasis, here an enveloping forward motion propels both protagonist and film. It’s evident right from the opening deer hunt, officers tumbling over their steeds in sweeping overhead shots as Fawcett first veers off-track. Gray’s describing a thrilling moment when the world seemed wide open and up-for-grabs – if doubtless more dangerous, too. Immersive setpieces surpass even The Revenant’s heavily digitised spectacle: you instinctively duck whenever native arrows start to fly.

The film is not so boysy as to overlook the pull of home comforts, represented by Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife Nina, expecting the couple’s second child as hubby first takes his leave. Gray’s elegantly structured screenplay – drawn from David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller – proposes three such expeditions, each with different motivations. Fawcett seeks at various points to reclaim a family name; escape a marital row (while, conversely, initiating a dialogue with tribesmen); then, after the horrors of WWI, to reconnect with now-teenage son Jack (Tom Holland).

This final movement is where Gray reveals himself as a touch softer than Herzog, yet that empathy allows him to nurture something far more recognisable than crazed extremes in his seekers. For one, he coaxes a welcome wryness from Robert Pattinson, full-bearded as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp Henry Costin, and he keeps finding ways to illustrate why people were drawn to Fawcett’s eccentric mix of scrum-half solidity and high Romantic fervour – or Hunnam’s own blend of the two, for we’re also surely discovering this ever-improving actor en route.

That’s crucial, because what Z ultimately seeks to reveal is the El Dorado within: our glittering dreams, and where they carry us by day. The film is specific about the hardships incurred in such deviations, while also operating on some wider-roaming, metaphorical level. What Gray sees in Fawcett is the willingness to pursue a line as far as it goes, to see where it might lead – a pursuit that appears newly poignant as borders close and aspirations dim. Whether or not this is the film that wins these adventurers the audience they merit, you can’t accuse them of not going the extra mile.

The Lost City of Z opens in cinemas nationwide from today.

"Power Rangers" (Guardian 24/03/17)

Power Rangers **
Dir: Dean Israelite. With: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin. 124 mins. Cert: 12A

You can rationalise and contextualise and say that the Marvel effect means any Lycra-clad saviour with an iota of brand recognition is now apt for revival in some format. Once the lights dim, however, nothing can prepare you for the ontological strangeness of watching a Power Rangers movie in 2017. Especially one that is – forgive me if my voice rises an octave here – not entirely terrible? That is, in fact, basically harmless, if you don’t object to feeding your kids pop-cultural leftovers, with odd flickers of charm besides? In an age of hype, some films are bound to benefit from massively reduced expectations; this would be one of them.

Being a 21st century reboot, of course, director Dean Israelite’s hands are tied by the deadening demands of the origin story, yet this remains one of the goofier ones, chortlingly realised: five small-town kids assuming colour-coded superpowers after trapping themselves beneath a sluff of prehistoric alien space rock. If the group’s trajectory from detention through training montage to final, city-trashing battle is diagrammatic, Israelite senses it’s silly enough not to belabour the throwaway plot points generated. “Any questions?” asks Bryan Cranston, operating behind a Blu-Tack carapace as galactic guardian Zordon. “Nah, I think I’m good,” responds wiseacre Blue Ranger Billy (RJ Cyler). That’s the spirit.
No-one’s pushing the subvert button too hard: the much-reported gay subtext proves so muted as to make Beauty and the Beast seem like Paris is Burning. Nevertheless, those leftfield choices Israelite does make (bovine masturbation gags, batty product-placement, Elizabeth Banks vamping as cosplay-ready villain Rita Repulsa) are welcome, and the New Rangers such likable types it’s a pity they should eventually suit up. We didn’t need this: not the repackage, nor more superheroics, nor the closing-credits cover of Snap’s “The Power”. Yet the film achieves a functioning mediocrity we perhaps thought beyond this franchise, offering a modicum of diversion in return for the cash disappeared from your wallet. 

Power Rangers opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Life" (Little White Lies 24/03/17)

As the success of Star Wars in 1977 opened up a new frontier of science fiction, ranging from the nasty Alien to the far cuddlier E.T., so the box-office conquest of Gravity, The Martian and, yes, New Star Wars has persuaded the studios to return to the skies. There will be fallers in this multiplex space race: for every Arrival, determined to take the science in its sci-fi seriously, there follows a Passengers, attempting nothing more cosmic than zero-gravity soap opera. Daniel Espinosa’s Life itself proves mostly motion, floating its camera around a creditable simulacrum of the International Space Station and a starry crew of astronauts finding the intelligent lifeforms of Mars a touch too clever for comfort. Everyone circles the Sun at a fair lick, without finding anything new under there.

A promising first act scatters reasons why this motley, multi-ethnic crew have signed up to sift the heavens. For blithe head ‘naut Roy (Ryan Reynolds), it’s an out-of-this-world goof; for introverted David (Jake Gyllenhaal) a matter of loathing the war-torn planet he’s left beneath him; chief scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) cherishes the way weightlessness frees him from his wheelchair. Onboard space, however, soon shrinks with the arrival of “Calvin”, the name given to the organism the crew retrieve from a scraping of Martian bedrock. Starting out performing cute VFX pirouettes in a Petri dish, Calvin swells first to starfish proportions, then into a voracious hybrid: part-squid, part-Disney’s Stitch. “There’s going to be a big custody battle over this one,” quips Reynolds. Painful, too, it transpires.

Clearly, the screenwriters – the Deadpool duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – have determined we need to talk about Calvin, a metaphor in plain sight for all those back-row dimbulbs who couldn’t quite parse the significance of John Hurt’s chest bursting open in Alien. Yet where Hurt’s trauma came as a genuinely nasty surprise – and one that merited extensive dissection – Calvin is just a bad seed who, thanks to the Lucasfilm wonks’ overtime work, gets bigger and badder with every frame, in inverse proportion to a rapidly thinning idea. As this murderous toddler doles out overfamiliar facehugs, you wonder whether Reese and Wernick haven’t themselves been sampling those intergalactic horror-thrillers that went straight-to-VHS in the heyday of Ritz Video.

Espinosa, who initiated Sweden’s slick Easy Money series before heading to Hollywood in search of precisely that, at least ensures it’s a brisk rip-off, earning grudging points for arriving at the kind of gotcha ending Rod Serling might have applauded. Yet he finds no time for his actors to develop anything like the internal life we cheered in astronauts Bullock and Damon, and is mostly reduced to cycling through yawnsomely predictable B-movie set-ups: the look on Ryan and Jake’s faces as one seals the other on the wrong side of a quarantine bay door (“Not this again”) rather says it all. Whatever concerns Ridley Scott may have as he finishes post-production on the upcoming Alien: Covenant, the generally non-intelligent Life need not be among them.

Anticipation Two of the A-list’s most dependable leading men, in a space odyssey from an emergent genre stylist. Blast off! 3
Enjoyment A regrettably ropey simulation, offering scant new thrills or spills. 2
In retrospect You’ll have forgotten it by the time you touch down in the car park. 2  

Life opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Home under the hammer: "Aquarius"

Kleber Mendonça Filho is the emergent Brazilian writer-director who broke through internationally with 2012's Neighbouring Sounds, a polyphonic evocation of a few square blocks in the filmmaker's native Recife. His follow-up Aquarius narrows its focus further still to deliver a novelistic portrait of a single beachside apartment block - that of the title, named during a new age of hope in Brazil - which has fallen under dire threat from developers. As seems to be increasingly the case, the fightback will be led by a woman: Dona Clara (Sonia Braga), a vivacious sixtysomething - introduced swimming, dancing and performing tai chi; not simultaneously, although you don't doubt she could if she set her mind to it - who has survived the rigours of breast cancer and losing a partner and will be damned if she's going to let gentrification get the better of her.

Very quickly, we note that Clara isn't some scrabbling slumdweller, rather a lady of leisure, and some privilege besides: a successful writer back in the day, she has a swelling family, links to high society, and a loyal domestic on her payroll. Mendonça's idea is that wealth inequality in contemporary Brazil has accelerated to the point where even the relatively well-to-do are starting to feel the squeeze - that land-grabs like the one the film dramatises have become so common that there can be no safe or higher ground. (The film became a cause célèbre in its home country after opening during a right-wing coup that was protested by cast and crew on the red carpet at Cannes, but British cinemagoers need only look to that block of luxury flats going up next to their arthouse of choice - or on the former site of that arthouse - to sense the director may have a point.)

The crucial word in the above synopsis, however, is portrait. Aquarius rarely feels like a thesis, rather a series of snapshots - not unlike those Mendonça presents beneath the opening credits - of individuals and groups of individuals (girls on a night out, guests at a party, musicians in a band) attempting to escape from under some of the same stresses and strains you and I might feel on a daily basis. The approach risks accusations of indulgence. Mendonça's goal is to immerse us in a particular environment and social milieu, and several sequences seem to make their point long before the director can think or bear to call cut. Neighbouring Sounds ran to a generous 132 minutes; Aquarius goes to 148, although it's not unlike its fellow Cannes competitor Toni Erdmann in its proposal that heel-dragging may be one form of resistance against the get-rich-quick merchants of this world.

On the plus side, the handling allows Mendonça to take in more signs of life, not least Braga, that imperious figurehead of Brazilian cinema, who evinces a firm sense of a woman who's seen and done a lot in this world and isn't going to stand for any old crap, not least the boys' game of erecting skyscrapers for the sake of boosting an ego or a bank account. Mendonça locates a growing generational tension - again, very Toni E - between Clara, as much an artefact of the bohemian life as the vinyl records she's collected, and her offspring, who've grown up in a world where the corporations always get their way, and so meekly play along. Will these nearest and dearest provide a buffer between Clara and the moneymen, or - taking the path of least exhausting resistance - give her an extra push out the door?

Throughout the second hour, you can start to feel Mendonça biding his time and treading narrative water. Among the comings and goings, there are distinct signs he has his eye on a crossover hit - so Clara cranks up "Fat Bottomed Girls" to drown out the orgy that's broken out on the floor above her (and I think the musos among us might wonder whether a true bohemian would be quite so into Queen, of all 70s rockers) - and that he feels the need to play up to his leading lady's screen persona as a torrid sex kitten. While the orgy unfolds upstairs, we witness Clara calling up a hunky young gigolo for her own entertainment (rather than sitting around waiting to get shafted in other ways), and - while hurriedly removing his trousers - insisting she won't need lube for the occasion. What a gal!

Thematically, however, many of Mendonça's choices are very effective. The film's second-billed star - less glamorous than the female lead, yet somehow far sturdier - is a wooden dresser accorded its own character arc. Introduced as a supporting player in an idle sexual fantasy, it then pops up in a midfilm nightmare as discarded heritage before finally presenting as evidence of how big business seeks to undermine us all - a recurring motif of the everyday that conveys something of the meanings we attach to material items, as if the tree in last week's The Olive Tree had come to shift into a more domestic shape. It still feels a little long and unwieldy to me, but then form, content and subject do come to align over the course of these two-and-a-half hours: if we are to hold out against the powers-that-be, perhaps we would all do well to convert ourselves into intractable, immovable objects.

Aquarius opens in selected cinemas from today.

On DVD: "Inferno"

It seems amazing that, in the year 2016, we should find ourselves facing down another big-screen Dan Brown adaptation, but here we are. Where we are exactly can be gauged from the absence of pre-release buzz around Inferno, compared to the thunderous hype that preceded 2006’s The Da Vinci Code and 2009’s Angels & Demons. Everybody’s back solely because the beancounters insisted the numbers made sense, a decision reached while the western public were busy bagging up and consigning both those books and movies to damp charity-shop doorsteps.

Howard’s response to this glaring lack of urgency or necessity is to crank Inferno’s opening movement up some measure beyond 11. There’s barely a shot in the film’s first thirty minutes that isn’t subject to some grabby or fidgety effect; it’s like being reintroduced to a vague acquaintance whose opening conversational gambit is to start gibbering about the end of the world. It’s just about clear that Tom Hanks’s Robert Langdon is in Florence and in a bad way, by which I mean not just stuck in a third Ron Howard movie based on a Dan Brown book.

He is, rather, recovering from amnesia and having fiery visions involving rivers of blood, which suggests he’s spent his recuperation period mainlining Simon Heffer columns. At his side, glossy-locked doctor Sienna Something-or-Other (Felicity Jones) appears no less manic, given as she is to reordering her immediate surrounds in line with her OCD. You’d hope her superiors wouldn’t let her anywhere near surgery, but this is a character point quickly forgotten about once she nobly abandons her post to get Langdon out doing whatever it is he’s been doing for the best part of two movies.

One clue to our guy’s fragile state is the biostick he finds in his jacket pocket, a doohickey tweaked so as to shine forth a doctored image of Botticelli’s Map of the Inferno: “The circles of hell have been rearranged!” yelps Hanks, and so off we go again. If you enjoy microscopically low-level cosmic reordering, then Inferno – less event movie than third-rate pro-celebrity game show – could be the film for you: this is Howard pushing the now-established schtick of Hanks plus female sidekick running around taking surprisingly long to solve anagrams about as far as it will go.

Like last week’s The Girl on the Train, with its dire warnings against ending up tipsy and childless in the commuter belt, Brown’s work strikes me as inhabiting that strain of popular literature designed to exacerbate our fears about a world spiralling beyond our control. With its supporting cast of shadowy operatives, Inferno revels in the kind of conspiracy beloved of the alt-right: Howard inadvertently throws this lot a bone by setting mad billionaire Ben Foster’s tirades against population overload against images of Mecca’s pilgrims. (Boo! Too many non-Caucasians!) 

Still, you cannot possibly take seriously a film that insists the secret backchannels of 14th century Florence palazzi have excellent wifi, obliges Jones to totter across rooftop-high wooden beams while wearing heels, and then asks the Oscar-nominated actress to maintain a straight face while delivering the immortal line “Are we in the wrong basilica?” (It’s not just you, my dear.) Howard once converted a Richard Price script into the authentic pulp of Ransom, but that career highlight/anomaly now seems a long time and several billion dollars ago.

He’s on bland megaplex mode here, which means no actual blood or guts, although he permits his actors – a motley crew, recruited to extend the film’s reach into international territories (Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen) – the odd moment to acknowledge this is a project some distance beneath their usual reading level. That all this nonsense is kept to exactly two hours makes Inferno less of a timewaster than its overstuffed predecessors; it doesn’t, however, make it any less of a waste of talent, creative energy or – perhaps most importantly – your hard-earned disposable income. 

Inferno is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.