Monday, 16 October 2017

From the archive: "Ida"

A wanderer returns home. Having roamed to Margate (for 2000’s Last Resort), Yorkshire (2004’s My Summer of Love) and from there to Paris (for 2011’s The Woman in the Fifth), Pawel Pawlikowski has returned to his native Poland for his latest film. Ida is a retreat, a regroup, and an acknowledgement that somewhere on the road leading out of Warsaw, this talented imagemaker got very badly lost. Now he finds himself again, quite magnificently.

Where The Woman in the Fifth looked like the work a jobbing international filmmaker feels obliged to undertake with the embarrassment of riches suddenly available to him, the new film pares back to first principles in everything from its Academy-sized frame to its monochrome colour scheme. Its modest success in US arthouses over the summer may be down to an element of novelty: just as The Artist looked (and sounded) like nothing seen on screen since the 1920s, Ida’s small square of light houses a thematic seriousness and visual rigour more commonly associated with the heyday of Robert Bresson.

We are, indeed, in the 1960s here – and Pawlikowski is simultaneously channelling a whole history of Polish cinema dealing with those traumas incurred under the Nazi occupation. A week before taking her vows, novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is granted leave to visit her only living relative. Within minutes of entering the flat of her worldly magistrate aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), Anna has learnt she’s actually Jewish by birth; furthermore, that she wasn’t originally named Anna, but Ida.

The two hit the road to uncover more about the girl’s parents, and in a film of stark contrasts, perhaps the starkest is that between this odd couple: Wanda darker and dolorous from all that she’s seen and done, striving wherever possible to drown her sorrows with jazz and vodka, Anna/Ida light-haired and open-faced, clinging to her wimple and Bible even as her eyes are widened by new, sometimes welcome, sometimes bruising experience.

The scenery the two pass through could hardly be more dramatic. Pawlikowski’s rediscovery of Margate in Last Resort, and his description of his writer hero’s grotty apartment block in The Woman in the Fifth, indicated a filmmaker drawn to atmospherically rundown backwaters. Here, the contours of rural Poland are captured on damp, wintry afternoons when one might well take to prayer or introspection; there’s one particularly striking, Béla Tarr-like tableau that notes the last dances of a big band night at the hotel the pilgrims are staying at, with balloons littering the floor and someone’s stray dog sniffing around for food.

Throughout, Pawlikowski uses the 4:3 frame dynamically, placing faces and bodies at the bottom or edges of the image, the better to emphasise how the world, and its history, seems to both weigh on and weigh down these characters. It’s a space that feels lived-in, and everything we see and they experience counts double for that: we’re heading towards a conclusion that plays like the coda of a superlative short story, as these women return to their previous lives, only to realise their experiences in the field have been such that those lives can never be the same again.

For the film’s director, at least, this trajectory is more triumph than tragedy. In recounting Ida’s story, Pawlikowski realises there is much to be gained from forsaking the centreground and instead scratching around at the margins – not least a sense of what his cinema could be, rather than what moneymen and marketplace lore insist it should be. It makes for engrossing, revivifying drama: as Anna comes to know exactly who she is, so too does Pawlikowski.

(MovieMail, September 2014)

Ida premieres on Channel 4 tonight at 2.55am.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

On DVD: "Miracle Mile"

One that originally got away - never quite making the quantum leap from VHS to DVD at that pivotal moment in home-entertainment history - 1988's Miracle Mile is another of those B-movies that manages to overcome any number of wobbly performances and gaucheries in its writing and directing because its premise is entirely gripping. Imagine a Twilight Zone episode from the final minutes of the Cold War, or an After Hours played deadly straight: Anthony Edwards, caught in those wilderness years between Top Gun and e.r., is the L.A. everynerd (job at the Natural History Museum, keen trombonist) bracing himself for the night of his life with the girl of his dreams when he picks up a ringing payphone outside the diner where the latter works, and hears a military whistleblower spilling the beans that a pre-emptive nuclear strike is set to obliterate the West Coast within the hour. 

At first, this triggers no more than a ripple of ironies - stepping inside the diner, our boy has to endure the kind of banal, everyday pleasantries you'd probably grow impatient at with fifty-nine minutes left on the clock - yet increasingly it becomes clear that writer-director Steve De Jarnatt (following up the previous year's no less cultish Cherry 2000) intends to twist the fantasy of insider knowledge inside-out. Edwards comes to appear as powerless as everybody else on screen, and - given the levels of carnage his fellow Angelenos rack up as news of potential armageddon leaks out - there's a fair bit of evidence to suggest we'd all frankly be better off not knowing when the big one drops. The phrase the panicked soldier uses over the phone, however, is "locked in", which is exactly the status of everybody on screen and looking on.

Edwards and Mare Winningham, actors who'd got used to playing second fiddle to the Rob Lowes and Demi Moores of this world, make an immediately sympathetic couple who you want to see in a new dawn together, and their movements are intertwined with a Tangerine Dream score that - as with the group's scores for The Keep and Risky Business - converts the action into a compulsive nocturne: you begin to wonder whether somebody's having a nightmare before your very eyes. De Jarnatt himself all but vaporised after this - only trace credits on e.r. and The X-Files remain - but he has a vivid, painterly eye for late 80s L.A. architecture, and fills these streets and buildings with an affecting, quietly chilling sense of mounting desperation and hopelessness: the whole film's like a Hopper canvas where you can hear the sirens and screams getting louder by the second, and there is no easy or obvious way out.

Miracle Mile is released on DVD tomorrow through Arrow Video. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 6-8, 2017:

1 (new) Blade Runner 2049 (15)

2 (1) Kingsman: The Golden Circle (15) **
3 (2It: Chapter One (15) ***
4 (new) The Mountain Between Us (12A)
5 (3) Victoria & Abdul (PG) **
6 (4) Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG) ***
7 (new) Norma: Met Opera (12A)
8 (5) Flatliners (15)
9 (6) Home Again (12A)
10 (7) The Emoji Movie (U)


My top five: 
1. Blood Simple [above]

2. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
3. The Ornithologist
4. The Party
5. Hellraiser

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12) **
2 (2) The Boss Baby (U)
3 (3Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
4 (4) Logan (12) ***
5 (6) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
6 (8) Hidden Figures (PG) **
7 (9) Kong: Skull Island (12)
8 (7) Going in Style (12)
9 (10) Life (15) **
10 (new) Miss Sloane (15)


My top five: 
1. City of Ghosts

2. The Red Turtle
3. My Life as a Courgette
4. David Lynch: The Art Life
5. Suntan

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The 'Burbs (Sunday, five, 1.35pm)
2. Ida (Monday, C4, 2.55am)
3. Leave to Remain (Sunday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
4. Pyaasa (Tuesday, C4, 2.45am)
5. The Last Boy Scout (Saturday, ITV1, 11.40pm)

Family affair: "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)"

The new Noah Baumbach film provides further confirmation of two very old saws. Firstly, it dramatises the idea that children either learn from or get damaged by their parents' mistakes; secondly, it demonstrates once again that, in filmmaking, casting is half the battle. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) centres on a family unit that, for all its sharp points and rougher edges, tesselates as a family unit should, and one made up of performers among whom we very quickly come to feel at home. A vaguely boho clan, something like Wes Anderson's Tenenbaums with the colour contrast turned down several shades, the Meyerowitzes are presided over by bearded patriarch Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a once-noted sculptor - referred to, with Godlike certainty, as "The Dad" - who now spends his days nursing a variety of career-related gripes and resentments, and projecting his own insecurities onto his already harassed offspring. Accountant Matthew (Ben Stiller) initially seems the family's golden boy, not least for having figured out a way to support himself, but his return to the family's soon-to-be-sold property reveals a kid still desperate to impress or just satisfy his pop; with the dowdy, awkward Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) overlooked seemingly on the grounds of being a girl, we're left wondering about the fate of black sheep Danny, a gentle, divorced composer found clinging onto his outwardly mobile 18-year-old daughter, a lifebuoy recovered from the wreckage of his marriage.

Danny is played by Adam Sandler, and his presence is the first sign of the excellent work Baumbach did right from casting and rehearsals. Here is someone who appears out of place in the world of MoMA-high art Harold moves in, yet right down to the sorry slump of his sadsack moustache, Sandler is deeply convincing as a decent, even sweet man who's had much of the stuffing knocked out of him - and has the limp to prove it; he more than holds his own against a bluffly brilliant Hoffman, a thoroughly engaged Stiller, the slyly scene-stealing Marvel, and even in one or two scenes opposite Emma Thompson as Harold's hippy-dippy new spouse, observed fussing over the whereabouts of her "good wok". Much as I liked 2005's The Squid and the Whale, I'd spent the past decade growing resistant to Baumbach's tales of Manhattan privilege, yet there's a maturity and warmth about his writing here, coupled to a heightened idea of how to use his actors and camera to frame all this talk. Witness the inspired set-up that congregates the Meyerowitz offspring in a hospital doorway as they learn their father's doctor is about to depart to China on holiday, a choice that immediately reduces these grown-ups to the needy children they are; or the pained (yet very skilfully sustained) heart-to-heart between Sandler and Stiller that gains a comic undertow from going back-and-forth across the same scrap of community-college lawn; or - and you cannot fail to miss this - Baumbach's dryly funny habit of cutting elsewhere whenever one Meyerowitz or another reaches the very end of their tether.

If, on the surface, the film dramatises the myriad ways family members will rub each other up the wrong way, it wisely proceeds from the assumption its viewers will be only too aware of this phenomenon, and that there's no need to labour unduly over the subsequent fallout - it's what keeps The Meyerowitz Stories from toppling over into the over-emphatic, sentimental melodrama of The Family Stone or that one with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman in it. More than this, the new film feels like a suddenly middle-aged creative's touching, tentative contemplation of legacy, and what (and/or who) we leave behind us after we pass into eternal storage: hence Harold's tetchy harrumphing at the thought of being included in a group show rather than earning an individual retrospective, a show at which Danny is struck by the idea that if his father wasn't a great artist, "he was just a prick". The consoling movement of the film, however, is away from exceptionalism and towards togetherness, and from Harold being thought of as "The Dad" to being one dad among many, including, just perhaps, the viewer's own. Suffice to say infirmity plays its part in this process, as it often does in life, bringing about change in not just the great Harold Meyerowitz but his sons and daughters, too - and Baumbach is wise enough to note the support networks even chalk-and-cheese siblings can form at moments of crisis. This is the kind of movie American cinema had to originate, and has had to keep making, because it never had a King Lear of its own to revive - and this is a very good example of that kind of movie.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to stream on Netflix.

Between the walls: "School Life"

School Life is a bit of a charmer. It's just possible that documentarists Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane found themselves watching Être et Avoir a few years ago and wondering "why don't we have anything quite like this?" And so it was they travelled to Headfort, a boarding school deep in the Irish countryside, in order to turn their cameras upon the kind of activity that goes on in schools across the land, every day of every term. Above all, they honed in on John and Amanda Leyden, married, middle-aged teachers who live on site, presiding over a smattering of youngsters from broadly diverse backgrounds, many of whom are negotiating their first, formative weeks and months away from home. Though Mrs. Leyden's pierced eyebrow is a novelty, here are educators who - unlike, say, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers - actually look like the people who taught us way back when: John has that flyaway cape of white hair nature reserves solely for learned men and derelicts. (I wouldn't want to cross him; I can't do detention next Saturday.)

The emphasis is on the Leyden's teaching methods, and there is something of the spirit of A.S. Neill's experimental academy Summerhill in the non-prescriptive space they upon up for learning-through-experience. While Amanda has the book-learning down, furrowing her brow upon encountering a copy of The Shining hidden away in one pupils' desk, she also prompts her pre-teens into a debate on the (in Catholic Ireland, doubly controversial) issue of same-sex marriage; John, meanwhile, is most often found encouraging his charges to form bands and do their own DIY in the graffiti-covered, paint-splattered outhouse that passes for Headfort's music room. In short, there is between these walls an element of chaos - the chaos of life itself - which you probably wouldn't find inside your local Ofsted-fearing primary: John's tendency to dole out the occasional, withering "honey" to his female students might raise a non-pierced eyebrow or two, although I was reassured everybody was in safe hands the minute he kicked off an afterschool jam session by spinning Shampoo's "Trouble".

At risk of sounding like a teacher on parents' night, School Life could perhaps do with greater structure. I only gleaned the school's name from a minibus glimpsed in the background; we get a peek at what would appear a highlight of the curriculum - a school Olympics, complete with playing-field opening ceremony - but then have to scurry off to the next class. More drama wouldn't have gone amiss, either: is it that private schools like this only attract well-bred sorts with infinite respect for their elders? (Not in my experience.) Or that the presence of the cameras made these kids too self-conscious to play up? Still, the loose, ramshackle framing arguably mirrors the film's subject: few films have been this alert to the idea that learning can be a fun, collaborative process, and that the best teachers are open to the possibility their charges might teach them something, even if it's just a means to staying young at heart. At any rate, any educators looking on will surely find themselves a new hero in the dryly, affectionately dismissive John, who - after setting aside his full box of teacher's tricks, lighting up a fag, and hearing feet running down a nearby corridor - balefully confesses: "Don't like the sound of that. Sounds like children."

School Life is now playing in selected cinemas.

"The Snowman" (IndieWire 12/10/17)

We’re witnessing the last laps of the Scandinavian crime wave, that border-crossing multimedia movement that washed so much frosty-to-glacial genre fiction onto our shores and screens. The detective heroes of TV imports Wallander and The Bridge walked into the low winter sunset, while the Lisbeth Salander cycle has stalled to a point where reboots have been decreed necessary. Adapting The Snowman, one of Norwegian scribe Jo Nesbø’s bestselling Harry Hole mysteries, isn’t the studios’ worst idea of 2017. Yet it does feel a tardy one, and despite the industry heft thrown at Tomas Alfredson’s film, its execution leaves much to be desired. Beyond these stellar opening credits, there stretch two hours of icy, mostly lifeless waste.

Nesbø’s seventh Hole book provides the basis for this first movie, hence a certain frontloading of defective-detective tics. Michael Fassbender’s Harry is discovered blotto in an Oslo bus shelter, before stumbling back to a singleton’s untended apartment. “We found mould behind the walls,” shrugs the handyman spraying for dry rot, triggering a loud characterisation-through-property klaxon. It’s literary mildew that spreads elsewhere: Harry has a troubled relationship with his gallerist ex (Charlotte Gainsbourg), bathroom cupboards stocked deep with Diazepam, and a stack of unopened letters on his desk, most urgent among them being taunting missives from a serial killer leaving snowmen behind at the scene of his crimes.

Sniggers at early trailers suggest these melting markers will be but one of this notionally sombre thriller’s weak spots. As Harry and equally harassed partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) rifle through years of missing-persons reports, we’re introduced to a whole grotto’s-worth of carrot-noses. There are forlorn-looking snowmen and irked-looking snowmen; flashbacks featuring Val Kilmer as a pie-eyed detective predecessor uncover remote mountaintop snowmen; at one point, there’s even a snowman bearing the severed head of Chloe Sevigny. “She was a free spirit,” eulogises the deceased’s twin sister, played altogether bathetically by a second Sevigny – and yes, this is the kind of film that thinks nothing of casting Chloe Sevigny as identical-twin chicken farmers.

Yet these rogue Olafs – chilling on the page, laughable when made literal on screen – are just the tip of the iceberg. Plot and screen soon throng with self-evident red herrings: James d’Arcy as an uptight husband, David Dencik as an oddball therapist with fuchsia-pink toenails, an underplaying J.K. Simmons as a local grandee trying to bring something called the Winter Sports World Cup to Oslo. It is the standard drift of Scandinavian crime fiction that all murders should point up the food chain towards corrupt, abusive or otherwise wonky administrations, but one of The Snowman’s biggest letdowns is how the promising Dencik-Simmons business winds up a narrative dead-end, somewhere between timewasting feint and audience cheat.

Such non-sequiturs, coupled with three screenwriting credits, insinuate this wasn’t the smoothest adaptation process. It may have been a non-negotiable Nesbøism that the Snowman Killer is kept on hold for long spells while the leads look into one another’s pasts: novelists generally do thread-juggling better than mainstream movies. Yet there’s a pungent whiff of contrivance about the video-fingerprint technology that requires Katrine to lug ugly, heavy kit around, and inevitably yields the clue that cracks the case. That outcome conveniently resolves all Harry’s issues in one go, while leaving viewers with a dozen or more hang-on-a-minute loose ends to pick through on the grumpy trudge back to the car.

If that process were livelier, The Snowman might have provided functional distraction, but as in his plodding Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alfredson’s direction proves yawnsomely methodical, ticking off surviving plot points as though filling in some I-Spy Book of Scandinavian Crime Cliches. He permits one novelty – an unexpected revival of Hot Butter’s 1972 hit “Popcorn” – and has the advantage of screen-filling Nordic scenery, but his pacing makes the original Salander movies seem turbocharged. Mostly, he concerns himself with reproducing the atmospheric conditions of his breakthrough Let the Right One In, fogging up the viewfinder before the final reel’s choppy, unconvincing and desperately anticlimactic action.

The idiosyncratic performers might have boosted it, yet where Fassbender brought new, uncanny qualities to bear during his recent Alien androidry, here he’s stuck playing Composite Scandie Detective. Standing amid wide open spaces in woollens and parka, his Harry stares frequently into the middle distance, sporadically smoking for added notes of disquiet. Watching him wheel around one scene atop a library cart, we’re struck chiefly by the actor’s own boredom, and it’s a sticking point when your leading man appears bored an hour into a possible franchise-starter. After two hours of The Snowman, we know precisely why Harry Hole takes to drinking in bus shelters. We may even be tempted to join him there.

An after-the-goldrush project like this shortsells everyone eventually. Blink and you’ll miss Toby Jones, playing one more gobbet of exposition; Kilmer’s now ferociously lived-in presence seizes the attention during his five minutes of screen time, but he appears the victim of either dubbing or indifferent ADR; putting Gainsbourg in an LBD is the film’s thin idea of style. Any hope Ferguson might produce some consolatory warmth or heat with her co-star gets extinguished early on, and while it’s almost a relief when the film abandons its limp attempts to make Katrine interesting and instead generates another damsel-in-distress, it’s also an admission of defeat, marking the point at which Alfredson abandons any pretension to serious drama.

It’s a pity, as recent box-office charts have framed this as a boomtime for R-rated entertainments, but you can’t see a perfunctory, much-tinkered-with chore like this sticking round in multiplexes for long. Lacking the pulpy kick and verve of 2011’s native Nesbø adaptations Headhunters and Jackpot, The Snowman is too ponderous to quicken the pulse, and too drably, insistently grey to provide an accidental campfest for would-be snowmen-spotters. For all the considerable nous assembled either side of the camera, no-one can rescue it from its own mediocrity: if this were the opening tranche of a TV miniseries, you’d be exploring other channels some time between the second and third ad breaks.

Rating: C-

The Snowman is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Between the wars: "Goodbye Christopher Robin"

The period hits keep on coming. Although given to a gentleness that sometimes borders on tweeness, Goodbye Christopher Robin, directed by Simon Curtis from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, differentiates itself by attempting to generate something other than the now-standard nostalgia for Empire - not least an ambivalence around the idea of nostalgia full-stop. This is an author biopic, very much in the vein of Finding Neverland, 2004's hanky-dampener on the tragic personal life of J.M. Barrie, but it also intends to be a continuation of its subject's commitment to pacifism, knowing full well the casualties that generally follow when flags start flying and our youngsters are sent off to the battlefield. That gentleness, for all that it might at times appear cosy or underdramatic, is in itself a political stance. 

The author is A.A. Milne, played here by the generally upright and Poohstick-thin Domhnall Gleeson as a man very much of his time. Returning from the frontlines of "the war to end all wars", he's newly traumatised by Roaring Twenties champagne corks that go off like rockets and West End spotlights that resemble searchlights. Marriage (to Margot Robbie's society belle Daphne), fatherhood and a measure of success as a playwright and wit-for-hire all follow, yet as the film has it, it was only with the family's relocation to the open spaces and fresh air of Ashdown Forest in leafy Sussex that Milne found both peace-of-mind and his most enduring success, taking off into the woods by afternoon in the company of his cute-as-a-button son Christopher Robin Milne (played by Will Tilston as a boy, and Alex Lawther as an adolescent), a.k.a. "Billy Moon", to build new worlds with the aid of the lad's ragbag teddy bear.

Cottrell Boyce and Vaughan ensure these woodland manoeuvres go a little deeper than the usual movie Eureka moments: their Pooh Corner becomes a haven, a Brigadoon-like safe space that opened up before the author for a few brief summers, only to disappear again as events elsewhere in Europe, and the Milnes' own relationship, began to darken. The best scenes in the film are those that isolate Gleeson and Tilston in the middle of nowhere, when a combination of time, nature and Billy Moon's bright-eyed purity comes to heal some of the author's scars. When Milne - commonly nicknamed Blue, with all the melancholia that infers - hears a buzzing, his mind immediately scrambles back to the flies descending upon the corpses littering the trenches; it's down to the boy to reassure him it's only bees, busy making honey (or hunny). "This is paradise," coos visiting illustrator Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), looking out over the rolling, sundappled hills, and it's hard not to agree - but the filmmakers keep a close eye on the issues Milne had to work through out here so that his books might later be claimed as philosophical primers.

This, admittedly, leaves little for the women of the piece to do: after mother!, Goodbye Christopher Robin is the second autumn release to draw bleak conclusions about the place of the fairer sex in big country houses. One might generously say that Robbie was miscast, except that her presence on the roster presumably unlocked some funding during the preproduction process: clenched and blinking and working frightfully hard on her cutglass accent, she's entirely unable to overturn the script's unflattering conception of Daphne as a party girl who grew cold and brittle the moment another, dependent human being was sprung from her loins. By way of consolation, Kelly Macdonald offers up her usual warmth as the Milnes' beloved nanny Olive, but I can't be the only viewer who feels he's seen Macdonald cringing her way through nanny roles in eight out of her last ten features; you do wish the British film industry would get round to finishing its Boardwalk Empire boxsets and push more adventurous and substantial material her way. It becomes increasingly apparent the film needs its women to be there solely for them to go away, for the heart of this tale is an all-male double-act: the troubled, solitary man, and the boy who, by way of his very Christopher Robin-like sensitivity (nicely caught in the bowl-headed Tilston), teaches him how to be a father - and a father not just to this kid, but all kids.

Gleeson has that stiff ex-Army reserve ("old soldier, you know; I'll see to myself") down pat, but in his quieter moments, he lets us in on a latent anger at the state of things: it's all this Milne can do to pull himself together and write, in defiance of the cruelties and iniquities of a world that would paralyse us and stifle the imagination. (Dude should have stuck around for 2017.) It is cosy for stretches - such that it's something of a culture-shock to see Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag herself, show up in twin set and pearls as a Times reporter - but Cottrell Boyce and Vaughan withhold their most complex material until the closing stretch, as we learn the extent to which young Billy Moon was himself marked and traumatised by this formative moment. Curtis's adoption of a child's-eye view, which had earlier done so much to usher us between Ashdown and the fictional reality of the Hundred Acre Wood, suddenly looks like a poignant reminder of that innocence that gets knocked out of us with age. What starts out seeming to be a film about a boy whose worst fear is to be abandoned by the adults around him finally resolves itself into a quandary Milne knew all too well: is it not every bit as heartbreaking when a parent comes to be abandoned by their child?

Goodbye Christopher Robin is now showing in cinemas nationwide.