Saturday, 24 September 2016

On DVD: "Love & Friendship"

With some style and not untypical intelligence, the writer-director Whit Stillman has brought himself in from the margins of American cinema, via a succession of projects that sustained the illusion of giving the beancounters (and possibly even the audience) what they wanted while insisting on doing very much their own thing. 2011's Damsels in Distress could be sold as another candy-coloured campus comedy, even as it pursued a more philosophical bent; his Amazon Prime pilot The Cosmopolitans opened up the possibility of a move into television, current medium of choice for any grown-up who couldn't give a fig about superheroics. Now Stillman ventures Love & Friendship, an adaptation of a lesser-known Jane Austen text ("Lady Susan"), which lands at a post-Downton moment when the period drama has never been more prominent in the audience's imagination, nor more marketable. (Accordingly, it swiftly became Stillman's biggest hit to date upon its theatrical run earlier in the summer.)

As has been widely observed, the new film tesselates closely with the status-obsessed worlds set out elsewhere in this director's back catalogue: the preppy New York of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, the ex-pat communities of Barcelona and The Cosmopolitans. Yet if L&F retains a measure of stiff formality - introducing all its dramatis personae with typeset captions - it also offers the ruffling shock of seeing a filmmaker entering this genre, at this late stage in the day, and demonstrating more interest in the words being spoken than he really does in the costumes and fixtures. How this outsider came to shake up British high society is mirrored in Austen's plot, which sees a black sheep - Kate Beckinsale's penniless widow Susan - returning to the fold of her extended family, an American confidante (Chloe Sevigny) in tow, at a moment of crisis that has set everybody to gabbing at once.

Rather than seeking to immerse us in this world, Stillman's dipping a toe in and looking at it askance - and what he sees, with its frills and love letters, is an innately silly construct, at least as ridiculous (and as ripe for mockery) as the hoity-toity members' clubs of Metropolitan or the snob's paradise of Disco or the DIY suicide prevention centre in Damsels. Immediately, that switch of perspective differentiates L&F from all those desperate Downton wannabes that have emerged over the past few years, hobbled in their attempts to match that show's Masterpiece Theater finery by their comparatively sparse budgets. Stillman, as an American freelancer working in an Ireland dressed to pass for Austenland, doesn't himself have the resources to throw lavish balls and wedding parties, but then his forte has always been tight groups of people in comfortable rooms, and it barely seems to matter that he can't wholly commit to the costume part: the film's closer in spirit and execution to a spoof like 1997's Stiff Upper Lips than it is to Sense & Sensibility.

Draping layers of irony over the footmen and Chesterfields might have irked the purists who take Austen's matchmaking seriously and insist that all her life-wisdoms be served straight, yet anecdotal evidence - and, perhaps most crucially, box-office returns - would suggest most demographics have gone away satisfied. Long-time Stillman fans will be further reminded of this filmmaker's enduring affection for the kind of ensemble players who can work distinct forms of magic on a screenwriter's words. (In this, he is markedly more generous and open-minded than either Tarantino or Woody Allen, who tend to insist all their players come to sound like them.) Damsels could be floated on the back of the wispy mumblecore movement as a vehicle for mumblequeen Greta Gerwig, but it wouldn't have been half the comedy it was without the contributions of her fellow Damsels, not to mention the lunks, jocks and dweebs who circled around them.

A similar tactic is in evidence here. Stillman crafts a legit star role for Beckinsale, not just picking up a career thread abandoned during her millennial plunge into blue-screen dreck (Underworld, Van Helsing), but skilfully weaving it into a character worthy of any more foursquare Austen adaptation. (L&F is the film that makes you realise the actress has a great nose for playing snobs.) Yet other faces and presences announce themselves beside her. Erstwhile Twilight makeweight Xavier Samuel - he was the third werewolf from the right, you'll remember - assumes the Taylor Nichols/Matt Keeslar/Adam Brody role of handsome swain who probably deserves better than to be stuck with this lot; the hitherto unobserved Tom Bennett pilfers whole sequences as a posh nitwit who's never eaten peas and has "quite funny" ideas about the opposite sex.

I had a few reservations. Stillman has so far enjoyed an easier ride than many directors who've continually returned to rooms full of landed white folk, possibly because he seems to know them so well, possibly because the portraits he paints there aren't as overtly flattering or genuflecting as those painted by Allen, or the Anderson-Baumbach gang who followed him in the indie continuum. Either way, the stakes can feel low here: as in a spoof, you quickly gain a sense that nothing that occurs in the course of this quintessential divertissement really matters; that these characters are just pieces nudged into elegant, appealing formations in a puzzle Stillman feels he has to solve in order to earn a much-overdue commercial hit. And, as elsewhere in this director's filmography, it may take as long as half the film to develop an ear for all this twitter: Stillman, to his credit, is one of the few working American filmmakers whose work actively benefits from being seen and heard more than once, the better to relax into its aperçus. Still, there's no denying Love & Friendship brings something fresh into the drawing room: it's a tart, swift lancing of a genre that's sorely come to deserve it.

Love & Friendship is available on DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye from Monday. 

Flowered up: "Dare To Be Wild"

The new Irish biopic Dare To Be Wild would appear to be one of those instances where a filmmaker thought her subject matter justified an altogether florid approach. This is the life story of Mary Reynolds (Emma Greenwood), the young landscape designer who - as Vivienne de Courcy's film would have it - overcame the odds and rank institutional snobbery to take the top prize at the Chelsea Flower Show. (When, exactly, is left unclear by a rare biopic to shy away from onscreen dates; the action here unfolds not in our world, but in romcomland, which sets one to questioning the veracity of its other developments.) First and biggest problem: horticulture - even, really, competitive horticulture - does not in itself make for gripping cinema. While we wait for the grass to grow and Chelsea to come round, there's a lot of our Mary lying down in fields and pointing out trees, which is educational but not especially entertaining; her creative struggles (exploitative bosses, financial penury, the greenhouse's glass ceiling) are more often explained than dramatised.

For the most part, the film determines never to take its heroine's achievements or vision seriously. Some very limp light comedy is wrung from the misadventures of Mary's oddbod crew, while there's a Mills & Boony romance with Tom Hughes as a violinist/wildflower expert who sporadically floats down from the treehouse he sleeps in to catch our girl when she faints. (Amazingly, an end title card suggests he's based on an actual living person.) Reducing Hughes to a pair of supportive cheekbones is typical of de Courcy's approach to actors: Greenwood, lively in Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship earlier this summer, is mostly deployed as a mouthpiece for greenspeak, while Alex MacQueen is enlisted to serve, somewhat inevitably, as the posh Nigel who represents all the worst, most entrenched beliefs of the British establishment. A mid-film Ethiopian diversion is attractively shot, and de Courcy retains the very best of intentions with regard to the planet, but the whole emerges as perhaps the first homegrown production to be both carbon and dramatically neutral: leaving no trace of itself behind, this version of the Reynolds story remains a hopelessly weedy proposition, no matter how much horseshit the filmmaker shovels on top of it.

Dare to be Wild is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Friday, 23 September 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of September 16-18, 2016:
1 (new) Bridget Jones's Baby (15)
2 (new) Blair Witch (15) ***
3 (new) The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years (12A) ***
4 (1) Sausage Party (15) ***
5 (5) Kubo and the Two Strings (PG) ****
6 (3) Don't Breathe (15) ****
7 (4) Bad Moms (15) **
8 (6) Finding Dory (U) ***
9 (new) The Infiltrator (15)
10 (2) Ben-Hur (12A)


My top five:   
1 (1) Captain America: Civil War (12)
2 (2) The Jungle Book (PG) **
3 (3) Zootropolis (PG) ****
4 (5) Deadpool (15)
5 (4) Eye in the Sky (15) ***
6 (6) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (12)
7 (8) Eddie the Eagle (PG) ***
8 (new) Our Kind of Traitor (15) *** 
9 (9) The Revenant (15) ***
10 (re) Grimsby (15)  

My top five:  
1. The Nice Guys
2. Embrace of the Serpent
3. The Measure of a Man
4. The Closer We Get 
5. Love & Friendship

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Leaving (Saturday, BBC2, 1.25am)
2. Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
3. The Hurt Locker (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
4. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (Thursday, C4, 12.55am)
5. Beowulf (Saturday, ITV1, 11.20pm)

"The Brother" (Guardian 23/09/16)

The Brother ***
Dir: Ryan Bonder. With: Tygh Runyan, Jed Rees, Anthony Head, Belinda Stewart-Wilson. 86 mins. Cert: 15
An intriguing anomaly: a London-set crime thriller boasting just enough storytelling heft and idiosyncratic style to merit investigation. Writer-director Ryan Bonder takes a borderline preposterous set-up – brooding Canuck Adam (Tygh Runyan) hides out as a Tate cloakroom clerk in a doomed bid to escape his arms-dealing family – then develops it to keep generating fresh perspectives on both the city and his characters. Thematically, it’s more Jacques Audiard than Nick Love: Adam’s relationship with a deaf dancer (Noémie Merlant) echoes 2001’s Read My Lips, the piano playing 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. (Again, it’s crime versus culture: we intuit that the brother who shows up is trouble from his brusque handling of Adam’s vinyl collection.) Not every gamble pays off – certain narrative backalleys remain under-illuminated – but it’s strongly performed and full of bold, eye- and ear-catching directorial choices: if nothing else, this must be the first neo-noir to unfold to a Northern Soul soundtrack. 

The Brother is now playing in selected cinemas.

"Light Years" (Guardian 23/09/16)

Light Years ***
Dir: Esther May Campbell. With: Sophie Burton, James Stuckey, Zamira Fuller, Beth Orton. 89 mins. Cert: 12A 

Now Andrea Arnold has gone West with American Honey, who’s coming up behind her? This delicate debut suggests it might yet be Esther May Campbell, a writer-director who here ventures Bristol way, digs around at the intersection of social and poetic realism, and emerges with several extraordinary images alongside handfuls of arthouse filler. Campbell’s mapping of the uncertain terrain around three young siblings left directionless by distant/absent parents is frequently arresting: golf balls and butterflies erupt into the frame, while a wild-haired old man pursues nervy Ewan (James Stuckey) in one terrifyingly Lynchian development. Yet her geography’s stronger than her psychology: while cinematographers Zac Nicholson and Will Pugh cram the screen with formerly under-observed, left-of-centre life, the manner in which these characters talk and behave sometimes strains credibility. Promising, nevertheless: the final push towards reconciliation is heartening, and Campbell’s visual sense is already so strong you long to see where she’s headed next.

Light Years tours selected cinemas from today.

"Gangsters, Gamblers and Geezers" (Guardian 23/09/16)

Gangsters, Gamblers and Geezers *
Dir: Amar Adatia, Peter Peralta. With: Amar Adatia, Peter Peralta, Richard Blackwood, Jodie Marsh. 103 mins. Cert: 15
Just when you thought tuppenny-ha’penny crime capers had gone into remission… Here’s a dog-eared calling card from writer-director-stars Amar Adatia and Peter Peralta, floating a sub-Harold and Kumar double-act as aggressively horny underdogs incurring MI5 suspicion while striving to pay off landlord Richard Blackwood. It’s aiming for randomness – slurs are offered against Liz from Atomic Kitten’s ladyparts; there’s a crossdressing dwarf – although some constants emerge: threadbare production values, underqualified performers, a failure to filter the amusingly crass from the merely offensive. I’m not calling it inept, but it’s the kind of film where Scotland Yard memos warn of activity by “Al Queda” [sic] – an Iberian torch singer, perhaps? 

Gangsters, Gamblers and Geezers opens in selected cinemas from today.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

From the archive: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

You might blanch at using the M-word in this instance, but the masterminds plotting a jewellery heist in Sidney Lumet's tremendous thriller Before the Devil Knows You're Dead aren't the scuzzy low-lifes we usually associate with this genre. They are, rather, a pair of outwardly respectable brothers working white-collar jobs in the same corporate accountancy firm. Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a divorced screw-up perpetually late with his alimony payments; he's going along with the heist to pay for his daughter's latest school trip. The one thing he's got going for him is Gina (Marisa Tomei), with whom he enjoys weekly bunk-ups. The prime mover behind the heist is the older brother, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a bullying libertine with an expensive heroin habit to fund. Gina, I should mention, is Andy's wife, frustrated by her hubby's drug-induced dysfunction.

The plan the brothers hatch is to turn over a mom-and-pop operation to pay for their lifestyle choices, and the first twist in Kelly Masterson's zigzagging script is that the jewellery store belongs to the siblings' own mom and pop (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), the spoils thus serving as an advance upon any inheritance, and payback for years of assumed parental neglect. Inevitably, the heist goes horribly wrong, and the film thereafter whips us back and forth in time, the better to show how information made available to Andy wasn't made available to Hank, or vice versa. The title refers to a hope among non-believers that they'll be given a half-hour's head start on the way to heaven before Satan can catch up with them; Masterson and Lumet evoke something like that same experience, of terrible revelations creeping up from behind on both characters and viewer alike.

Characters who therefore begin neck-and-neck at the start begin to nose in front of one another with each new time shift, or alternatively drop back into the pack; knowledge is the prize here (a key exchange towards the end: "You know I know." "Know what?" "I know."), and only a few of those runners and riders mentioned above will stay the course and make it past the finishing post. (Several more will be taken out back and shot before the credits roll.) What we're watching, in other words, is a sweepstakes being contested among thoroughbred performers, and the heist movie Devil kept reminding me of - partly because there hasn't been anything like this, or anything like this that was this clever or cunning, for some time - was Kubrick's racetrack classic The Killing.

Of course, ten years ago, heist-gone-wrong flicks with titles like City of Industry and Body Count were a dime-a-dozen: most hovered just above the direct-to-video route, churned out by Tarantino copyists. (Britain was suffering through its own crime wave, in the form of those post-Guy Ritchie gangster farragos.) At that time, Lumet would have been working on Night Falls on Manhattan, a very decent legal drama that was dismissed as old hat by audiences, and disappeared out of sight almost overnight. What the director brings to this new picture is the worldliness you'd perhaps expect from someone with fifty-odd years of experience behind him, but here it's backed up with a renewed vigour you'd have most likely thought beyond an 83-year-old man. (Devil may, in fact, be the most gripping thriller ever directed by an octogenarian - feel free to use that on your publicity, distributors.)

From his 1957 debut 12 Angry Men onwards, Lumet's films have displayed an passionate interest in law and order - specifically, the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system - and a liberal conscience that can be (and has often been) attacked for generating drama of the worthiest kind. Nobody's ever really credited him with much of a sense of humour, though this latest project has a persistent undercurrent of black wit: even during the penultimate scenes, which feature some pretty horrific bloodshed, he leaves his camera running a few beats longer than is dramatically necessary to describe a suddenly dishevelled and puffy-faced Hoffman's struggles to fit himself through a doorframe. (No easy exits here.)

With a less assured hand behind that camera, this most intricately constructed of scripts might have been demolished, leaving behind the utterly incomprehensible, and a longing that events had been recounted in more linear fashion. Yet Lumet not only handles the shifts and jumps without any loss of clarity, he makes time and space between them for reflection, and unexpected pauses for thought: witness the long, wordless sequence in which Andy paces the antiseptic chambers of an upmarket drug den, readying himself for his next hit. (As we've never previously encountered this particular location, the sequence begets its own narrative tensions: what is Andy doing here? Who is the fey young man in a dressing gown who opened the door to him?)

In such moments, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead accomplishes something beyond that late 90s cycle of heist movies, which is to say something: about need and greed, and - more than that - about a particular species of pampered white American male, hopelessly and tragically unable or unwilling to do a damn thing for themselves. (At work and at play, Hank and Andy are always subcontracting, delegating and buck-passing; rarely, if ever, do we see them meet their responsibilities.) In those scenes involving Finney and Harris as the parents, you get a potent sense of an average, all-American, aspirational family turning inwards upon itself: the elders aghast at seeing all their hard work destroyed by the mewling obligation of their offspring.

Lumet has long been known as an actor's director, and here he makes fine use of the contrast between Hawke (skinny, prone to introspection, with a look that suggests he doesn't know how to look after himself properly) and Hoffman (burly, thunderously extroverted, subject to monstrous appetites). Yet he also mines them for deeper, richer subtleties, the latter's Andy making desperate attempts to connect, the former suggesting a perennial loser getting further and further out of his depth. (Hawke has a terrific, white-knuckle encounter with taunting blackmailer Michael Shannon in a bar: "Do you mind if I call you Chico?") Tomei lends a breathtaking physical presence to the one slightly underwritten part - you can see why Hank desires her so, and why Andy feels he's letting her down so badly - and Finney, after several lazy post-Brockovich cameos, comes through with his most persuasive work in decades.

Everything else is in place, too, from the skilfully muted cinematography to the sharp sound design: part of the film's impact as a thriller derives from the fact each gunshot and every explosion of rage has been turned up to eleven, and the same goes for Carter Burwell's insinuating score, lending matters an added dimension of scale. Burwell scored Hawke's movements in the millennial update of Hamlet, and the composer's deployment here is typical of a movie that takes material close to pulp and insistently, thoroughly works it over (in every sense of that phrase) until it resembles something closer to the Shakespearian. In an age when our cinema has become ever more keen on quick-fix stimuli for kids, it's a rare treat to encounter a work of slow-burn craftsmanship - one that grabs your attention from its very first images (Hoffman and Tomei in flagrante delicto) and thereafter reveals its full magnificence gradually, line by line, scene by scene, blood drop by blood drop.

(December 2007)

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead plays on Channel 4 tomorrow at 1.05am.