Monday, 20 February 2017

Eruptions: "Tanna"

Rush-released to capitalise on its Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, Tanna is one of Australian cinema's sporadic embraces of the Aboriginal - although, unlike its earthier predecessors, 2006's Ten Canoes and 2009's Samson and Delilah, the new film is configured towards beauty: it sends forth the most vibrant greens you'll see on screen all awards season. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean travelled to the volcanic Pacific island of Vanuatu, where they recruited locals to play out a tale that, while drawn from their own history, contains just enough elements of a classical tragedy like Romeo and Juliet for white Academy voters, and the rest of us besides, not to feel lost.

It begins as a romance between the ever-beaming Wawa (Marie Wawa) and lean, hunky warrior Dain (Mungau Dain): conducted in secret in the forestry around their encampment, in defiance of elders who insist on marrying the poor girl off to some chump from a rival tribe. Yet to pitch the film as a love story is to slightly misrepresent the narrative, and where it's headed. Given the tribal songs of forgiveness adorning the soundtrack, and the revelation that this is a part of the world where people still literally bury the hatchet (or club), Tanna's key theme turns out to be the struggle of a young generation to make their peace with the mess that's gone before them.

Any confusion of genres may be attributable to the intimate feel Butler and Dean lend this drama. Presumably, this was one of those projects enabled by the kind of lightweight, low-cost digital equipment that makes it a good deal easier for small crews to head off into the wilderness and return with images of an astounding lushness and clarity. (Was this the rapture audiences felt upon seeing Murnau's Tabu on its first release?) The dimensions, perhaps, return us in the direction of naive art: the film is altogether straightahead and even a little rudimentary in its staging, framing and cutting. Yet Butler and Dean presumably felt they didn't have to move the camera much once they were in situ, because so much else here was bursting out at them - and us: the mischief of Wawa's young sister Selin (Marceline Rofit), or the lava of an eruptive volcano that backlights both an assassination attempt and a lovers' embrace. Image after image leaps off the screen and sears itself onto your imagination.

My intuition is that Tanna may nevertheless be considered a touch too small to win the Oscar next weekend - volcanoes aside, it could be taken for a community project, which you couldn't say about either Toni Erdmann or The Salesman - but it does at least pay us the honour of dramatising its big, award-worthy themes at a literally grassroots level, via a story with its own rolling, organic internal logic. The consensus is that the committee charged with vetting those foreign-language films submitted for Academy consideration have upped their game in recent years, and a nomination like this only bears that out further: Tanna is entirely accessible, indeed teachable, and yet still capable of ravishment.

Tanna is now playing in selected cinemas.

Brickbat: "The Lego Batman Movie"

At last, a superhero movie that recognises what a thoroughly puerile concern superheroes might be. Every successful family franchise has its breakout character: 2014's triumphant The Lego Movie gave us a poseur Batman (voiced by Arrested Development's Will Arnett, past master of condescension) who arrived late to that party in a haphazard bid to save the day, convinced he was cooler and more awesome than everybody else around him. (In this, of course, he was very wrong.) Spin-off The Lego Batman Movie proves, in its own off-kilter way, an origin story, positing that the murder of his parents at a formative age, coupled with the immense wealth he inherited, left this bijou Bruce Wayne frozen in time as a perpetual adolescent: a brat-man, dressed in black, with someone to go round picking up his clothes for him (the butler Alfred, dryly voiced here by Ralph Fiennes), and prone to transforming into a colossal mardy-arse whenever anybody sees fit to challenge his worldview.

This immediately converts the character into a figure of fun (not to mention ridicule), and allows Chris McKay's film to rethink Wayne's relationships with the other inhabitants of Gotham City. His match-ups with Bane, the Joker and Superman are now positioned as sublimated, sexually ambiguous, insistently casual flirting ("I'm fighting around"), although he can be nudged towards some form of maturity via his pairing with Robin (Michael Cera), the orphan he distractedly agrees to take under his wing. Thus can McKay's extensive writing staff (including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' Seth Grahame-Smith and Community's Chris McKenna) achieve new and often amusing perspectives on a universe they surely know has been excavated to the point of exhaustion: Wayne's formerly romantic seclusion is recast as tragic-pathetic, that of a billy-no-mates kid shutting himself away in his bedroom.

Again, the design team have worked overtime to create a dense, busy universe that seems forever to be reconfiguring itself before your overstimulated eyes, and will therefore repay multiple viewings when the DVD gets here. Yet equally they never shy away from the idiosyncratic specifity of Lego itself: the dots on the floor, the crap, flat-blocky renditions of fried eggs and ketchup squirts, those afterthought hands. The million-gags-a-minute template laid down by the Lord-Miller partnership in the first film doesn't appear to have been abandoned, either: if anything, TLBM is even more relentless, allowing the spitballing scribes responsible to get away with one properly rude (if thrown away) gag involving the numberplate on Bruce Wayne's car, and a very sly dig at the entire premise of last summer's Suicide Squad. (If the execs or censors blink, they'll miss 'em.) 

We should note that - as with all the Murdoch-razzing Mr. Burns material on Fox's The Simpsons - this is another contemporary example of a corporation having its cake and eating it: holding every last one of the Batrights as they do, Warner Bros. can presumably offset any deficits Squad or Batman vs. Superman registered if a larkier exercise like this cleans up at the box office. The new film doesn't have the surprise factor of the first movie, and part of me thinks it peaks comedically with an early routine involving the cooking of a lobster thermidor: thereafter, the pace accelerates, but we're left haring around just the one city, where Lord and Miller crossed frontiers and kept building new worlds. Still, it restores a sense of play sorely lacking from the monomaniacal recent Batflicks, folding in all previous incarnations of this character (yes, even Adam West), but also elements of King Kong, Lord of the Rings, YouTube clips, Dr. Who and the Daleks ("British robots - ask your nerd friends"), the Christian Slater skateboarding vehicle Gleaming the Cube, and the Cutting Crew back catalogue. Anything is up for appropriation, and everything is mostly awesome once again.  

The Lego Batman Movie is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Pet sounds: "Sing"

Although it bears a "written and directed by" credit for the humanoid known as Garth Jennings - consolidating that prominent element of design visible in his Hitchhiker's Guide and Son of Rambow enterprises - Sing is one of those digimations that appears not just to have been animated by computers, but originated by one. Certainly some monumentally large numbers have been crunched behind the scenes here: it's cutesy-funny animals (profitable mainstay of modern family flicks, from Madagascar to Zootropolis) performing in a vocal talent contest (mainstay of global TV schedules, from The X Factor to Glee, and the moneyspinning Pitch Perfect franchise besides), thus funny-cutesy animals performing the kind of pop music that's been circulating on syndicated radio for months, if not years. Suffice to say, the element of risk is roughly naught; since its release in the middle of January - generally a time when younger viewers are ill-served, with cinemas besieged by awards bait - the film has sat comfortably atop the UK box office.

It has at least two points in its favour. First, it's attempting something other than the usual, hidebound quest narrative, instead using the ramshackle theatre and rehearsal space operated by koala impresario Buster Moon (voiced by the newly ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey) as a base for a rapidfire succession of daft backstage skits and stories. Second, accompanying adults may be struck by the sheer variety of songs Sing sings. There's no Einstürzende Neubauten, granted, and it's almost a given that put-upon pig Rosita (Reece Witherspoon) should feel inclined to burst out at one point with Katy Perry's "Firework", inspirational anthem de nos jours. It's less expected, however, that she should later be seen sashaying to the Gypsy Kings; and if you ever had a yen to see and hear arachnids harmonising along with "The Ketchup Song" or a mollusc covering Christopher Cross's "Ride Like the Wind", Sing could well be the timekiller for you.

It may well be the case that the animators were only the second busiest individuals on this production, behind those administrators obliged to work overtime clearing the relevant copyrights. Jennings, lest we forget, made his name in the field of pop video (where he gave us, among other highlights, the very sweet promo for Blur's "Coffee and TV"), and his ardent soundtracking here extends in every direction: a brief snatch of ominous Morricone panpipes introducing the llama sent by the bank to repossess the New Moon Theatre, the deafening operatic blast attached to the imposing philanthropist Buster has to court to stave off foreclosure, a cocktail-lounge cover of Daft Punk's "Around the World" heard over a midfilm makeover montage. For those of us who grew irritated by the lazy, kid-triggering overuse of "I Like to Move It" in the Madagascar movies, the effect is a not unappealing zappiness - something like what it was to flick through the MTV channels, back in the days when MTV actually stood for Music Television.

What Jennings does with all these tunes narratively is pretty conservative: Sing proves as merciless as any Cowell project in honing in on its competitors as warbling case studies. These songs provide ways out of crime, or means of shoring up fragile self-confidence; they allow thrashy porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson) to recover from a bad break-up, and finally make Rosita's husband - a literal chauvinist pig - to sit up and notice the loving, creative woman to whom he pledged his troth, or trough. Where Zootropolis assembled its super furry animals with an eye to thinking about society in general, Sing's emphasis on escapist razzle-dazzle chimes with our la-la moment, when a career in the performing arts offers the comforting illusion of social mobility; it actually trumps La La Land in acknowledging how the world of showbusiness abuts those of exploitation (witness Buster, at his lowest, converting himself into an ursine squeegee at a topless carwash) and criminality (for it is a police helicopter that will shine a spotlight on the final, big show).

Like Jennings - sorely in need of a hit, or at the very least a public appearance, a decade on from the small but cherishable success of Rambow - Buster is putting this show on principally to print money, not make great art; it wouldn't be too hard to imagine an animated musical that composed itself principally out of abstract, Busby Berkeley-like geometric shapes - for anybody exposed to the work of Norman McLaren, it might seem like the easiest thing in the world - but Sing, bound for long runs in the multiplexes, plainly isn't that. Jennings has, though, the very good sense to devote an entire setpiece to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off", and to insist that Johnny, the piano-playing gorilla voiced by Taron Egerton, ditch the sappy John Legend track we hear him rehearsing early on to perform a rousing cover of Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" when the show finally does go on. It's still a movie in which computer-generated animals work their way through the fifty top tracks on Spotify, but you take your consolations where you can these days.

Sing is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

From the archive: "Being A.P."

The documentarist Anthony Wonke has parlayed the success of his Scottish BAFTA-winning Piper Alpha account Fire in the Night into back-to-back sporting profiles. The glitzy Ronaldo, which pondered how a superstar footballer might spend his days and his money, premiered in UK cinemas last week; this week brings the more grounded Being A.P., which follows jump jockey A.P. (Tony) McCoy as he trots from Newton Abbot to the National over the 2014-15 season, bidding for his twentieth consecutive Champion Jockey title.

Wonke quickly finds striking new ways of looking at a figure who may have become overly familiar from his regular appearances in the winner’s enclosure. He catches McCoy going over the jumps in slow motion, the better to show every bone-rattling landing; he digs out the X-rays of the surgical equipment holding the jockey’s battered wrists and ribs together; he finds him in the dentist’s chair and on the masseur’s table, undergoing necessary readjustments. Some respite comes when he’s seen reading the Racing Post in the bath, after the manner of Andy Capp.

Moreover, it’s clear the filmmaker has located a source of great narrative drama: that of an ageing champ – comfortable in so many respects, with a wife and two young children at trackside cheering him on – pushing himself once more towards the holy grail of 300 winners in a season. And – arguably – pushing too far: an early tumble leaves McCoy staggering about the family home with a punctured lung, though it’s a tribute to his much-vaunted gift for pain management, and his desire to win, that he should be seen back in the saddle within days – and chalking up further victories.

If his subject’s underdog days are long behind him, Wonke identifies a particular tension: how many more wins will McCoy romp to before he himself is put out to pasture, his whiphand forced either by the daily stresses and strains of his profession, or his wife Chanelle’s increasingly vocal and heartfelt pleas that this might be the right season to bow out. (The film has a sharp ear for candid marital conversations.)

Although the screen fills with that spectacle specific to the track – misty-morning training sessions, overcast afternoons at Sandown and Newcastle, the colour and noise of a Gold Cup day – McCoy himself is most often observed lying prone in examination rooms or taking meetings with his inner circle in the hope of finding a dignified exit strategy: the dismayed look on the jockey’s face after hearing his commercial advisor asking “Do you want to be the face of peanut butter?” suggests a man ready to ride off over the hills and far, far away.

In his opening voiceover, McCoy describes himself as “an addict” – a man on the horse, as hooked on the twists and turns of the turf as any gambler. The film senses how this monomania – three or more rides a day, every day for six months of the year – might well have a deleterious effect on one’s body and relationships, while simultaneously steering its subject towards a future that may well be less gloried, but which instinctively feels a whole lot healthier.

If Ronaldo was the prestige, blue-chip documentary assignment, stalking a global brand ambassador in peak physical condition, Being A.P. instead assumes the look and proportions of a weathered, more appreciably human B-picture: one of the most intimate and involving sporting profiles for some while, Wonke’s film offers a portrait of a champion once more weighing up the field before him and determining the right time to make a decisive move – this time hauling himself past the finishing post for good.

(November 2015)

Being A.P. screens on BBC2 tomorrow night at 10pm.

From the archive: "Testament of Youth"

In Testament of Youth, a fine act of remembrance for the dead of World War I, a face becomes a battlefield. The face – subtly, sometimes gravely beautiful – belongs to Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain, whose first-hand account of the Lost Generation would become as essential to our understanding of this conflict as Anne Frank’s diary would be to our understanding of life under the Nazis. The first time we see it, it is palely haunted, drained of all life, and decidedly out of place amid the Armistice Day revelries; a two-hour flashback reveals why this young woman was in no mood to party.

Those who’ve read Brittain’s memoir, or seen the much-admired TV adaptation of 1979, will already know the reasons, but this big-screen version, directed by James Kent from a script by Juliette Towhidi, makes a point of delaying the inevitable. In the spring 1914 scenes, unflustered kids frolic in the wide-open spaces of the early 20th century: here, at least, Vikander’s Vera glows, attracting male admirers as a flame does moths, before discarding them in pursuing her own path to Oxford. Yet dreaming spires provide only scant shelter from storm conditions, and what Vera sees, hears and experiences over the next four years comes to be written upon Vikander’s features: any greenery is soon torn up, the blossom and dew stripped away as it surely was on the fields on Ypres and Passchendaele. As beauty is despoiled, so too is innocence lost.

Towhidi knows how much of this story’s impact is tied up with Brittain’s prose, and how eloquently it issued the teenager’s standard cry of “it’s not fair” when faced with the expectations imposed upon her generation. (Men: do your bit, and hope not to catch a bullet. Women: marry young, and hope your swains will someday return.) Through voiceover and letters, she’s retained much of its internality, its sometimes clumsy and faltering yet always heartfelt poetry, without sacrificing any narrative momentum. For their part, Kent and cinematographer Rob Hardy have found atmospheric means of describing the slow march to war, and its destructive effect on the landscape. The emerald lawns of Brittain’s Buxton home and the Oxford quads, the comforting pastels of Vera’s knitwear, gradually disappear, replaced by the sombre browns of mud and blood, the black of bomb-blasted battlefields. The fresh air of those early interludes drains out; mustard gas prevails.

Hallmarks of the Well-Made British Period Piece remain, not least a BAFTA-sturdied supporting cast: Emily Watson and Dominic West give deft sketches of privilege as Ma and Pa Brittain, and broadly half the cast of the recent Mapp and Lucia drop by for afternoon tea. Yet this Testament attains its rare emotional focus by demonstrating the effects of war on its cast’s fresher faces: there’s an argument Kent even bests Gone with the Wind’s Atlanta sequence by cutting back into his own towering crane shot revealing the full extent of the carnage, to retrieve his heroine, shellshocked in the midst of it all.

As every foolish, youthful dream gets trampled into this mire, these faces will be angered, numbed and, in the worst cases, disfigured, and Kent holds to the idea there’s more power in framing these front and centre than there is from fussing unduly about the genre’s usual bows and ribbons. The result approaches both its material and its period with commendable delicacy and sensitivity: it’s some sign of Kent’s achievement that he can even quote Brief Encounter in one railway station leavetaking, and not seem like a haplessly reaching copyist. The sense of separation and loss this admirable film evokes really is that acute.

(January 2015)

Testament of Youth screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.

Friday, 17 February 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of February 10-12, 2016:
1 (new) The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***
2 (new) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
3 (1) Sing (U) ***
4 (2) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
5 (3) La La Land (12A) ***
6 (5) Lion (12A) ***
7 (4) Split (15) ***
8 (6) Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
9 (7) Rings (15) ***
10 (new) The Space Between Us (PG)


My top five:   
1. Toni Erdmann
2. Loving
3. Moonlight
4. John Wick: Chapter 2
5. The Founder 

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) The Girl on the Train (15) *
2 (2) Deepwater Horizon (15) ***
3 (3) Bad Moms (15) ** 
4 (4) Suicide Squad (15)
5 (6) The Secret Life of Pets (U)
6 (5) Sausage Party (15) ***
7 (7) Star Trek Beyond (12) ***
8 (8) War Dogs (15)
9 (re) Ghostbusters (12)
10 (10) Mechanic: Resurrection (15) **


My top five:  
1. Under the Shadow
2. The Girl with All the Gifts
3. Kubo and the Two Strings
4. Anthropoid
5. Julieta

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Stage Door [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 6.30am)
2. The White Ribbon (Saturday, BBC2, 12.55am)
3. Testament of Youth (Saturday, BBC2, 9pm)
4. Being A.P. (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Sunday, C4, 9pm)

Where's the beef?: "The Founder"

The latest item off cinema's conveyor-belt of business stories - which seems to have gone into overdrive the closer America's Business President™ got to the White House - would appear far likelier to coincide with an audience's tastes and interests than all those movies about the fluctuations of the stock market in the wake of the 2008 crash, or any project involving Matthew McConaughey overseeing the day-to-day operations of a South Asian goldmine. Indeed, most viewers watching The Founder in their friendly neighborhood megaplex will be doing so approximately ten minutes' walk from the phenomenon-cum-juggernaut whose origins it describes, for John Lee Hancock's film concerns the making of McDonald's, and the breaking of the brothers who actually gave that name to popular culture.

It opens in 1954, where we find travelling salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) having no particular luck attempting to shift industrial kitchenware from the boot of his car. His world - our world - changes when an order for half-a-dozen milkshake mixers comes in from the San Bernardino base of overstretched pattyslingers Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman). After consulting the map, Kroc heads West to achieve his destiny and claim his fortune - by seizing upon the McDonalds' establishment as the basis for a nationwide franchise, replacing the dairy in the shakes with powder, while bulking out the ideology. It was Kroc who hit upon the idea of the Golden Arches, and the notion of referring to both your workforce and customer base as "family" - a touch ironic, given his screwing-over of Mac and Dick, and the negligence he displayed towards then-wife Ethel.

This, then, is the point at which brotherhood ceded to rampant individualism, product to branding, and capitalism - the simple exchange of money for goods - to corporate capitalism, with its insistence on suppressing costs, inflating profits and crushing the opposition. We thus await a film as toothy as its leading man, one that might do for fast food what, say, The Social Network did for Facebook... and yet The Founder winds up only halfway towards where it seemed to be heading. The casting of Keaton, certainly, is one acknowledgement that Ray Kroc was a bit of an oddball: here is another of history's wheedling white guys, alone in hotel rooms, pushing themselves on towards glory to the accompaniment of dubious motivational recordings. As Ethel (Laura Dern, trailing Enlightened wokeness) asks when her hubby finally returns home one night, "When's enough going to be enough for you?" "Probably never," comes the response, as fast and unnourishing as the food.

This Kroc is another of America's weirdo puritans, angrily confronting those franchise owners who deign to deviate from the established McMenu, tutting and fussing around those bad crowds of rock 'n' roll-loving teenagers who went against his quasi-evangelical belief that the Golden Arches should serve as a beacon for right-thinking families. (Somewhere in that pleasingly ambiguous title - sourced from the job title on Kroc's business cards - there are echoes of 2012's The Master.) The pity is that this script somehow swerved David Fincher or Paul Thomas Anderson's in-trays - or that these generally critical filmmakers felt they'd had their fill of dealing with litigious organisations. Hancock is a solid, skilled storyteller - he did the persuasive baseball fable The Rookie in his guise as a Disney company man - and he retains a sharp eye both for the flatter stretches of the American landscape, and the illumination these Golden Arches cast: you can't help but be struck by the eerie, angular Hopper beauty of the franchise's first outlets, against which the soft pastels, chummy adspeak and blocked toilets of today's McDonalds appear more resistible still.

Yet he's never been one to upset the applecart, or send back the molten apple pie: he prefers to blow gently on the material until it's cooled for slightly easier consumption. (You feel the wafting of lawyers' notes being passed back-and-forth behind the camera.) The screenplay - by Robert Siegel, who penned the appreciably salty The Wrestler - doesn't lack for savage ironies (witness Dick's rebuttal of Kroc's sharking: "I'll have no part of such commercialism. It's not McDonald's"), but Hancock hurries cautiously past them; he breaks up the fervent talk about growth with a piano number ("Pennies from Heaven", naturally), and generally plays the negotiation of sums - of which there is perhaps a touch too much, come the second half - for sunny, cutesy comedy. At several points, you sense the film backing off entirely, unwilling as it is to alienate or implicate that large demographic (pardon the pun) who don't much care what they're shovelling in their mouths, nor really where it came from.

The time is surely right for a rigorous examination of modern corporate practice, and the all-consuming monsters it spawns, but stretches of The Founder inadvertently resemble adverts for post-film dining (Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini at their most handsome - which is pretty damn handsome - whipping up a non-dairy milkshake) or TED talks for wannabe Trumps (enter B.J. Novak as the lawyer advising Kroc that the real money resides not in shilling burgers, but in owning the land on which those burgers are grilled). Absent from the frame is any real indication of the litter and obesity to come, or anything of Danny Baker's description of the average McDonald's as "a hospital waiting room that just happens to sell food". (In short, nothing of this.) The Hancock version is handsomely produced, capably performed, and benefits substantially from Keaton's snake-oil smarts in the lead role; it'll fill a gap in anticipation of your next Quarter Pounder. But imagine the shaded Fincher version, or the freewheeling Anderson version, and the belly truly begins to rumble.

The Founder opens in cinemas nationwide today.