Friday, 23 February 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 16-18, 2018:

1 (new) Black Panther (12A)

2 (1) Fifty Shades Freed (18)
3 (new) The Shape of Water (15) ****
4 (2) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (3Coco (PG) ***
6 (4) Early Man (PG)
7 (5Darkest Hour (PG) **
8 (9) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
9 (8) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
10 (6) Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)


My top five: 
1. Lady Bird

2. The Shape of Water
3. Loveless
4. The Mercy
5. Phantom Thread

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) The Lego Ninjago Movie (U)
2 (1) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
3 (2) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
4 (new) My Little Pony: the Movie (U) **
5 (new) The Mountain Between Us (12)
6 (3Victoria and Abdul (12A) **
7 (5) Dunkirk (12) ***
8 (4It: Chapter One (15) ***
9 (new) Loving Vincent (12) ***
10 (7) Fifty Shades Darker (18)


My top five: 
1. The Death of Stalin

2. Boy
3. Hotel Salvation
4. A Woman's Life
5. Beach Rats

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Point Break (Sunday, BBC1, 11.15pm)
2. A Hijacking (Friday, BBC2, 11.55pm)
3. Philomena (Saturday, BBC2, 10pm)
4. Blades of Glory [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
5. Dredd (Saturday, C4, 10.50pm)

On DVD: "Boy"

Somewhat surprisingly, it took Boy seven years to reach this part of the Northern hemisphere, but it's the film that best explains the easy transition the Kiwi director Taika Waititi made to the American studio system (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which may or may not now be the exact same thing). At its centre is a young Maori boy - known simply as Boy (James Rolleston, later an effective presence in true-life chess drama The Dark Horse), and perhaps not all that dissimilar to young master Waititi himself - who passes through some of the usual coming-of-age manoeuvres in a small coastal community, with only memories of his late mother to console him, and a deadbeat dad (played by Waititi himself), just sprung from prison, who proves more hindrance than help. In its vaguely cartoonish, forever genial vision of a broken home, the film sets out something like Maori cinema's big international breakthrough Once Were Warriors as made over by the nerdy, dreamy kid sat doodling over his textbooks at the back of the class, but there are more universal aspects yet. Boy opens, indeed, with a quote from E.T.; the lad's Michael Jackson fixation generates a nimble "Billie Jean" pastiche; and his sisters are apparently named Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest, while his serious younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) believes he has comic-book powers, though at this stage Waititi's VFX capabilities were limited to crayon drawings of what conspicuously fails to materialise in the kid's reality.

You sense the filmmaker likewise coming of age, building on the imaginative strengths of his somewhat fey 2007 Eagle vs. Shark while aligning himself with emergent American sensibilities. In his framing and editing, this Waititi presents as a more amenable Jared Hess or heartier Wes Anderson, never too far from arriving at the next truly funny idea: handing Rolleston a floor polisher that's too big for the tyke to keep under control, setting his gang of ne'er-do-wells to sip tea from dainty china cups, covering the protagonist in Sharpie tattoos that read "FRONT" and "ARM". Already, he was undermining some of those moves and tropes the cinema had started to take for granted: Boy's idea of his pa as some dashing criminal blade is compromised by the revelation he buried his ill-gotten gains in a nearby field, only to forget where exactly. There are sketchy patches, but the film deepens and becomes genuinely dramatic going into its final act, drawing from a well of wisdom about the ways in which we eventually come to see our parents for who they really are. "Don't get into the Nazi stuff," says dad to lad in one of his rare moments of clarity, pointing towards the swastika he etched into the wall back in a younger, more reckless day; with his gentleness, his eye for the little guy in the back and corner of the frame, and his spirited mockery of pompous, incompetent patriarchs, Waititi may just be the crowdpleasing oppositional filmmaker Trump's America has been crying out for.

Boy is released on DVD through Vertigo on Monday.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

"Dark River" (Little White Lies Jan/Feb 2018)

Call it the New Ruralism: a recent run of lowish-budget homegrown features that have broadened British cinema’s horizons by returning us to the soil. Practical winds guide these projects; there may be less competition for Screen Yorkshire funding than there is at Film London. Yet this grassroots initiative also speaks to a growing empathy between our creatives and the nation’s farmhands, toiling long hours at society’s fringes for scant recompense. Clio Barnard’s Dark River forms the third born-in-a-barn movie to open inside a year, enough to convert eminent anomalies The Levelling and God’s Own Country into a movement of sorts, even if, dramatically, it presents as by far the slightest.

Barnard’s agricultural homecoming particularly suffers from arriving so soon after The Levelling, compared to which it seems both familiar and flimsier. The minute protagonist Alice (Ruth Wilson) re-enters her family’s dilapidated farmhouse on the Moors, we again sense major work needs doing. Her time and attention will subsequently be split between wayward livestock, a bluff brother (Mark Stanley) plotting to sell the land, and a raft of phantoms in flashbacks. The most looming of these: the siblings’ just-deceased father (Sean Bean), whose presence suggests Alice has returned to confront some lingering childhood trauma.

That process ensures Dark River emerges as Barnard’s most explicitly feminist work yet, centred on a woman determined to fix up a property in the face of masculine indifference or aggression, and thereby fix up herself. The director has a fierce ally in the begrimed Wilson, whose harassed gaze and air imply someone with a hundred more sheep to dip before sundown. “Your mother were a hard-nosed bitch an’ all,” jeers an auction-house cowpoke, and this director-star combo clearly intends to reclaim that insult as a badge of honour. Yet Alice’s headstrong progress towards something like independence is undermined by Barnard’s shakiest screenplay to date.

Narratively, Dark River feels both underdeveloped and overwrought, its mystery trauma guessable the first time Ghost Dad Bean hovers a beat too long in a bedroom doorway. Much of the supporting characterisation is similarly spectral. Set against God’s Own Country’s subtly shaded Yorkshiremen, Stanley’s Joe is an arrant bastard, slashing and burning rather than putting in the physical and emotional labour required to rebuild – yet Barnard is heavily reliant on his tantrums to seize drifting viewer attention. A wordless inter-sibling coda proves far more effective, but also a reminder of what might have been elsewhere.

Barnard’s acclaimed first features positioned her as an industry figurehead overnight, which perhaps explains why her third film feels so rushed: these cramped ninety minutes have no time to notice the scenery, and are caught straining to make the accidental death of a day player tragic. (Even then, the fallout hardly convinces.) It’s not Barnard’s fault that Dark River rolls in behind two bar-raising films in a similar field; yet it was entirely her call to lay hackneyed thunderclaps over her plot’s more melodramatic troughs. Fingers crossed she’ll get back on track – this time out, her realism feels oddly, disappointingly inorganic.

Anticipation: The third feature from the director of The Arbor and The Selfish Giant. 3
Enjoyment: Plenty of intrigue, paid off in bleak shrugs. 3
In retrospect: A muddy misstep from an otherwise notable talent. 2

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Fly away home: "Lady Bird"

In her screen career to date, the 34-year-old actress Greta Gerwig has shaped up as a very striking, apparently super-relatable presence: wearing a superficial sophistication, applied like morning-commute mascara, over a bedrock of scatty millennial disorganisation, she's suggested a new and more grounded variety of American sweetheart, caught with arms aflap, running in vain after a disappearing bus. More credulous observers, unable to separate the life from the art, might have been given cause to wonder whether such a figure would ever be able to keep it together long enough to write and direct a feature of her own; yet they should bear in mind that even the la-di-da Annie Hall went on to sustain a reasonably successful career behind the camera, and that Gerwig has been close to the director's chair for several years now, most recently in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Mistress America) and before that as part of the close-knit role-swappers who made up the Noughties mumblecore movement. (She already has one co-directorial credit, working alongside Joe Swanberg on 2008's Nights and Weekends.)

What strikes us immediately about Lady Bird, Gerwig's first effort flying solo, is how well and how instinctively the woman behind the camera appears to know her characters and her material. Granted, the writer-director has re-entered the fray with a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale, a field within which countless neophytes have taken their first, cautious authorial steps, but the film's hyper-accelerated editing rhythms - which are novel, somehow very Gerwig, and take some getting used to - suggest a filmmaker working hard to process her memories and cram in the most vivid among them; these choices derive not from scattiness, rather strategy. In this, the most condensed 94-minute feature of the season, every cut provides its own form of closure on one rite-of-passage or another, while opening up the possibility that life might be going on elsewhere, beyond the ken of its rangy yet relatively clueless lead. A few months flash before our eyes, and the follies of a girl in late adolescence come to be reappraised from the perspective of an almost fully grown woman.

It should be noted that this isn't strictly Greta Expectations: Saoirse Ronan's heroine bears the given name Christine McPherson, although she's rechristened herself Lady Bird, a typically teenage act of rebellion that reflects her status as one about to fly the nest for college, but which also never stops seeming affected and silly. Yes, the luminous-pale Ronan bears a passing resemblance to the younger Gerwig, the character grows up in the humdrum Sacramento of her creator's youth, and yes, there are details and incidents that strike us as too specific not to have been lived through in some awkward or painful way: Christine's bathroom-basin dye job and clove cigarette habit, say, or the scene that finds her demanding her parents work out how much it cost to raise her, so that she can reimburse them in later life. Yet the emotions the film goes for and gets at are universal. Christine tangles with boys (Lucas Hedges as a sensitive fellow drama student; Timothée Chalamet as a brooding non-conformist who could only be a member of a band called L'Enfance Nue), changes best friends as it becomes plain one of her classmates is developing at a faster rate than the hesitant Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and comes to terms with shifts within her family unit.

Here, the film reveals its greatest economy: performers capable of sketching whole lives with a handful of words. Playwright Tracy Letts gives another of his skilful, subtly expansive supporting turns as Christine's father, a pill-popping sadsack deflated by the task of making ends meet. (If ever you wanted to see a man who needed rescuing from the burdens of patriarchy.) Yet the heart of the film is one of the most believable mother-daughter relationships in modern cinema. Christine's mom Marion, a health professional, is prone to domestic microaggressions that wind our wannabe free-spirit heroine up no end, but which the older Gerwig now has the wisdom to sense were the efforts of a houseproud lower-middle-class woman to keep up appearances and raise her offspring right. The excellent Laurie Metcalf does the character the honour of playing Marion as an actual woman with real, bruisable emotions rather than the fussing sitcom caricature she might have become, and the switch in perspective proves to be key. This blithe entertainment doubles as an overdue love letter to a parent whose sorry fate, during her daughter's formative years, was to be bawled out on an almost nightly basis - a way for Gerwig to repay her mom by making the effort to understand her. (Cinema bookers: bear in mind that March 11th is almost upon us.)

In form, Lady Bird bounds up to us resembling one of those familiarly sunny, easy-to-sell indie ventures that were ten-a-penny back in the 1990s, before the market got saturated, the credit got crunched and the mumblecorers were obliged to rebuild the movement from scratch. (For Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, swap in those altogether healthier souls over at A24.) Yet it's testament to Gerwig's originality of outlook that the film never once succumbs to the usual Sundance Lab formula (for one thing, I don't think you'll be able to see its final movement coming, and it's all the more touching for that), and instead sustains itself and its audience by a buoyant generosity of spirit - the same spirit that might well carry a young creative from one spot on the planet to another, from a suburban backwater to the red carpet of the Academy Awards. Late on in the film, Christine's Goth brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) responds to his sister's rapid progress through the world with a scowled "Whatever you're up to, it won't end well." Lady Bird was what the slyly, studiously observant Gerwig was up to all along, and - against everybody's expectations, quite possibly even Gerwig's own, waiting in the rain for that next bus - it really has.

Lady Bird is now playing in selected cinemas, and expands nationwide on Friday.  

Sunday, 18 February 2018

That sinking feeling: "The Mercy"

Creatives keep returning to the story of Donald Crowhurst - a name in fleeting newspaper headlines at the end of the 1960s - doubtless because the story threatens to communicate so much about Britishness, our aspirations and our isolation. (A Remainer might stretch and suggest there might be reasons why he should have bubbled back up into the collective consciousness at this particular moment.) Crowhurst, you may or may not recall, was the amateur yachtsman who enthusiastically signed up to take part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, despite having no applicable experience and entirely the wrong equipment for the task; he soon found himself adrift in his stricken vessel, hopelessly alone, and going ever so slowly out of his mind. This not-so-able seaman's plight previously inspired 2006's outstanding documentary Deep Water, narrated by a never-spookier Tilda Swinton and making considerable use of Crowhurst's logbooks and diaries; it's also the subject of indie adventurer Simon Rumley's forthcoming psychological drama Crowhurst, which one suspects may well retain some of that earlier film's chill.

For now, we have The Mercy, a brisk middlebrow retelling that finds director James Marsh, hot off the back of 2014's The Theory of Everything, doing everything possible to make the sailor's experience on the high seas a little less of an ordeal than it might have been at the time. In Colin Firth, an actor who's quietly perfected a diffidence that may or may not be inseparable from Englishness, Marsh's film finds its ballast: here is the kind of performance that might well have factored into this year's awards conversation had everyone else around committed to it more fully. The casting is commercially minded, but very sound. Firth handles this boat as well as Crowhurst did - which is to say well enough to steer it out of Teignmouth harbour - but never so confidently as to suggest he might get it round the globe; his generally groomed star persona makes Crowhurst's slide into ranting, seaweed-covered dishevelment all the more shocking and impactful. This Crowhurst is a would-be dashing blade who realises, mere minutes after signing up to this romantic venture, that he has in fact backed himself into the tightest of corners, with no easy way out; the film's most gripping sequences, watching the sailor desperately striving to fix up his leaky trimaran, recall 2013's All is Lost, only tacked in a different direction. This is no parable of survival, but a story of male pride, and the dark waters it can carry us into.

The trouble is that Marsh and regular Soderbergh screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects) have decided this ought not to be the whole story - or, rather, that that story might just be too stark for an audience (and particularly Firth's core audience) to take. So we also get the sailor's reminiscences of the Laura Ashley life he shared with wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) and kids, intended to serve as compensation for the manner in which Crowhurst absented himself from these loved ones; there are cutaways to David Thewlis as a jovial Northern press agent that I think are meant to provide comic relief, and - at the script's most superfluous - a midfilm round-up of the progress of the Golden Globe Race's better prepared participants. You could argue that what Marsh and Burns are offering us is context - a greater sense of the consolations and pressures Crowhurst was sailing away from - but there's a jolting disconnect between the quasi-impressionistic tale of survival Firth is acting up a storm in and the greatly more conventional period piece going on ashore; for a story hinged on increasingly insupportable solitude, The Mercy sure feels over-populated.

This may perhaps be a reflection on the director's newfound standing within the industry. Ever since coming in from the cold of documentary production - with 2008's Oscar-winning Man on Wire - Marsh has had resources enough at his disposal to make the bigger pictures and cast A-list actresses in roles that demand no more of them than peeling potatoes and doing the hoovering, not to mention recreate the Sunday Times newsroom as it was in 1968, no manner that such an elaborately appointed out dilutes some of the power of the story he's come to tell. As successive iterations have demonstrated, that power resides almost exclusively in the sight of a man on a leaky boat in the middle of nowhere, living a lie he was uniquely unsuited to sustaining, and facing up to a life-or-death decision - an existential conundrum (momentum = madness?) shared by the no less wayward pioneers Marsh depicted in 1999's breakthrough documentary Wisconsin Death Trip.

A director weighed down by recent Academy and BAFTA laurels is unlikely to have the creative freedom to make a film as open-ended, hallucinatory and fundamentally bleak as that, however, and so we find Marsh once more feeling an obligation to round off and tidy up after himself: The Mercy heads towards a coda determined to provide both a measure of closure to the Crowhurst clan, and - for the wider audience - a way-too-neat lesson in what we might learn from its protagonist's actions. Gained over several decades of their own experience, this director's steady-handed professionalism and his leading man's admirable commitment ensures the finished feature just about meets its original brief as functioning matinee fare - but one can't help but think Crowhurst's story is a story to haunt our dreams, as it did in the wake of the documentary, not merely to kill a couple of the hours separating Doctors from A Place in the Sun.

The Mercy is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Saturday, 17 February 2018

From the archive: "There's Something About Mary"

One might claim There's Something About Mary as film zero of the current American comedy revival, and way ahead of the curve on the Friends Reunited phenomenon. A writer named Ted (Ben Stiller) attempts in adult life to track down his childhood sweetheart Mary; he finds her in the form of Cameron Diaz, only everybody's fucking with him, and she's surrounded by suitors prepared to play very nasty indeed in the hope of getting into her underwear. You can tell this was going for something different from the studio comedies of the era from the one early scene that makes a mountain (enlisting Mary's parents, the police, a fire truck, an ambulance) out of the molehill of Ted getting his testicles caught in his fly, but also from the way the Farrellys leave Stiller, the nominal hero of the piece, on the sidelines for long stretches of the first half while going in pursuit of some new, generally silly tangent.

Four screenwriters are credited, which may explain why There's Something About Mary often feels like a mishmash of disparate elements, as though the Farrellys had been drafted in to lighten up something that originally played far darker; the emphasis put on the extraneous in places pushes the running time closer to two hours than 90 minutes, another trait of the New American Comedy. Nevertheless, some of the Farrelly formula - irresistible, once upon a time - is established: a faultlessly integrated cast, with disabled characters both grouchy and saintly, a close attention to even minor characters (Lin Shaye's increasingly tanned speedfreak, surely an inspiration for Matt Lucas's Bubbles de Vere from Little Britain; Harland Williams as a suspicious hitchhiker), and image-warping celebrity cameos (former Miami Dolphins quarterback Brett Favre is enlisted as a deus ex machina who nearly steals off with the girl).

The Farrellys look to have taken the film on at least partly as a challenge, trying to meet the demands of the gross-out and date movie crowds alike, and to protect an innocent and pure central relationship from a supporting cast of creeps, weirdos and psychopaths. (One reason Ted is kept off-screen for so long: he's going through a nightmare as black as Griffin Dunne's in After Hours, allowing the directors to establish the very bad things the film's other men will do for love.) Any problems of tone, and the brothers can simply switch scene to sunny Miami, and bring on Jonathan Richman as an unlikely Greek chorus. The magic isn't quite there yet - all the business with the dog (up to the full bodycast) is pretty basic, the plotting gets haphazard towards the end, and I'd still maintain that Stuck on You is the funnier comedy - but it did nobody any harm at the time: Stiller, previously better known internationally as a director (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy) than as a performer, became a bona fide star off the back of it, and Diaz is adorable as the sort of slightly geeky but basically gorgeous sports nut all nerds (and nerdy writer-directors) like to imagine is out there somewhere, just waiting for a nice guy like them to come along.

(March 2007)

There's Something About Mary screens on five tonight at 10.30pm.

Friday, 16 February 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of February 9-11, 2018:

1 (new) Fifty Shades Freed (18)

2 (1) The Greatest Showman (PG)
3 (2) Coco (PG) ***
4 (4) Early Man (PG)
5 (3) Darkest Hour (PG) **
6 (5) Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)
7 (6) Den of Thieves (15) **
8 (8) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
9 (9) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
10 (7) The Post (12A) ***


My top five: 
1. Lady Bird

2. The Shape of Water
3. Loveless
4. The Mercy
5. Phantom Thread

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
2 (1) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
3 (2) Victoria and Abdul (12A) **
4 (3It: Chapter One (15) ***
5 (5) Dunkirk (12) ***
6 (new) The Highway Rat (U)
7 (6) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
8 (18) Despicable Me 3 (U)
9 (4) Kingsman: Double Pack (15) *
10 (new) Flatliners (15)


My top five: 
1. A Woman's Life

2. Beach Rats
3. The Party
4. Loving Vincent
5. Strangled

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Third Man [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2.15pm)
2. The Producers (Saturday, BBC2, 12.40am)
3. Young Frankenstein (Saturday, BBC2, 11pm)
4. There's Something About Mary (Saturday, five, 10.30pm)
5. Our Kind of Traitor (Sunday, C4, 10.15pm)