Sunday, 25 June 2017

On DVD: "20th Century Women"

I've been a little resistant to Mike Mills since he stepped up from pop promos to feature directing: both 2005's Thumbsucker and 2010's Beginners struck me as inherently flimsy propositions, compensating for a lack of real substance with an irksome grab-bag of kooks and quirks. I have to say his latest 20th Century Women went some distance towards winning me over, not least for having found a new angle on the messily familiar business of coming-of-age. At the new film's centre, there is a mother and her son - immediately swerving American cinema's yawnsome dads-and-lads fixation - and furthermore a mother and son separated by such a pronounced age gap that it makes it even harder for each to figure the other one out.

So on one side, we have Annette Bening's Dorothea, 55 years old as the film joins her in 1979: unmarried and staunchly independent, with a ready supply of books and a cat to keep her company in bed anight. By day, Dorothea frets about the fate of her boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a fifteen-year-old who's been tempted in from the fringes of the punk scene - and it could well be that she fears dying before her offspring has reached full maturity. As a protective countermeasure, she recruits her apartment block's other inhabitants, and various local hangers-on, to pick up some of the parental slack and help nudge the kid in the right direction - a motley crew that numbers womanising handyman William (Billy Crudup), ethereal gal-next-door Julie (Elle Fanning) and artsy photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig).

It starts out about a boy, then - and those trademark Mills shots following young bucks on skateboards will come to accrue an extra layer of meaning as Jamie navigates the sharp bends and dangerous curves of teenage life - before becoming an extended treatise on what makes a man, exploring those diverse influences brought to bear on this boy (for whom we could conceivably read the writer-director himself, a mere thirteen in '79) at this specific moment in history. Thus does 20th Century Women stave off the weightless quirkiness of Mills' earlier film work: you witness it growing and deepening with every encounter, driven as it is by characters who feel very much like products of their times and circumstances.

William's shaggy 'tache and attitudes, certainly, scream Santa Barbara '79, no matter that Crudup wears them effortlessly; yet what Mills really seems to be getting at is a moment when, say, erratic birth control was giving way to more reliable forms of contraception, and the inflexible tenets of feminism's first wave were being challenged by new ways of thinking. (Would that everything were as timelessly pleasurable as the menthol cigarettes Dorothea is seen to puff away on - though the film acknowledges that even these nasty weeds would change the course of several of these lives.) He's helped considerably by his performers, capable as they are of fleshing out even this script's tinnier moments. Whole sequences are organised around the maternal warmth in Bening's smile, and the twinkle and pride in her eye; she has a cherishably crafty moment attempting to sneak a smoke as the hippy-dippy Crudup is teaching her to meditate, a gag softened into a greatly more expressive character beat. 

Likewise, Mills finds a vulnerability in Gerwig that we've never seen before, grounding the actress's usual tics and neuroses in something more real and believable yet - for Abbie, too, has mortality on her mind. The debate between her and Dorothea speaks to a marked difference in the way the generations approached the issue of liberation, and how the feminism of '69 was surely not the feminism of '79 (as that, in turn, is surely not the feminism of 2017); underpinning the potentially bland, sunkissed harmony is a melancholy, retrospective awareness that this moment, like its union of oddbods, cannot endure. The apparition of outgoing President Carter, giving his "Crisis of Confidence" speech on Dorothea's TV, clinches the argument: this was the point where the last utopian vestiges of community yielded to the aggressive, divide-and-conquer tactics of corporate capitalism. After this, you were out on your ear, and on your own.

This is the world 20th Century Women emerges into, and it wouldn't surprise me if some started tutting and huffing at a straight white dude like Mills co-opting key feminist writers and thinkers to make his points land; a less voguish, but more valid criticism would be that some of the lessons being learnt here - like Crudup teaching Bening the difference between Black Flag and Talking Heads - can feel a tad easy, although I'm willing to concede that not everybody has had the benefit of a John Peel education. If the film is autobiographical, it does explain the ambient, New Agey tendency in Mills' back catalogue, making it an instruction manual in how to look at these films as much as a repository of useful life advice. Yet it also offers something more far generous and affecting besides: the rare spectacle of men and women at least trying to understand one another, a pursuit as necessary and worthwhile at this point in this century as it was at any time in the last.

20th Century Women is available on DVD tomorrow through 20th Century Fox.   

Saturday, 24 June 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of June 16-18, 2017:

1 (1) Wonder Woman (12A) ***

2 (2) The Mummy (15)
3 (3) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12A) **
4 (4) Baywatch (15)
5 (new) Churchill (PG)
6 (new) Gifted (12A)
7 (6) My Cousin Rachel (12A)
8 (7) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (U) **
9 (8) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12A) **
10 (new) Whitney: "Can I Be Me?" (15) ***


My top five: 
1. The Graduate [above]

2. Souvenir
3. Edith Walks
4. Whitney: "Can I Be Me?"
5. Dying Laughing

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
2 (3) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (12) ***
3 (4) Passengers (12) **
4 (2) Lion (12) ***
5 (5) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12)
6 (6) La La Land (12) ***
7 (new) The Founder (15) ***
8 (new) My Name is Lenny (15)
9 (8) The Hatton Garden Job (15)
10 (new) Gold (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Loving

2. Moonlight
3. 20th Century Women
4. The Lego Batman Movie
5. Harmonium

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. The Spectacular Now (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
2. Casino Royale (Saturday, ITV1, 9pm)
3. Goodbye First Love (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)
4. Northern Soul (Friday, C4, 1.05am)
5. Conviction (Tuesday, C4, 2.20am)

"Tubelight" (Guardian 23/06/17)

Tubelight **
Dir: Kabir Khan. With: Salman Khan, Sohail Khan, Om Puri, Zhu Zhu. 157 mins. Cert: 12A

Three years ago, few could have predicted that Salman Khan – Bollywood’s somewhat incredible hulk, then mired in career controversy – would eventually devote himself to issuing filmed humanitarian statements. This curious turn into mid-career community service began with 2015’s summer megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan, in which the star sought to build bridges between India and Pakistan; it continued through last year’s biopic Sultan, where an ageing action man pondered how best to use his muscle. In new release Tubelight, the charm offensive stutters: with its pitifully glib pleas for peace, this 1960s-set mushfest makes Culture Club’s low-barring “The War Song” sound as though it was written by AJP Taylor.

The unlikely source is Little Boy, 2015’s Emily Watson/Kevin James farrago, although UK viewers may be haunted by lingering traces of a similarly titled Rolf Harris number. Khan’s pea-brained yet broad-shouldered Laxman gains the nickname Tubelight after fluorescent strip lighting reaches his mountaintop village: a dim bulb, he’s considered slow to spark into life. His younger sibling is Bharat (Sohail Khan), hale and heartier, and therefore among the first to be drafted when tensions escalate along the Indo-Chinese border. Thus are our boys torn asunder: wide-eyed Laxman left at home blinking and worrying, while Bharat endures dusty battle scenes, time in a POW camp, and a general sense of innocence being lost.

Some of this innocence could well do with getting lost. The sight of the now-fiftysomething Salman playing the teenage Laxman is unignorably ridiculous: with his tanktop, slicked-down hair and worried grimaces, his flies forever undone by way of a vaguely disturbing running gag, the historical figure he most resembles is Ricky Gervais as Derek. Then again, Laxman’s entire journey feels both forced and familiar. As he overcomes local suspicions to befriend the young son of a Chinese refugee, Salman and director Kabir Khan appear to be directly replaying Bajrangi, albeit with a child performer who’d have fared markedly better being left in their trailer to get on with any homework. 

The spin would be that this is big-hearted Salman reaching out and making friends with that emergent Chinese audience who, as their considerable contributions to Dangal’s global box-office recently illustrated, are embracing Bollywood in their millions. Yet olive branches lose their symbolic worth when they come with a price tag attached. Bajrangi’s sentiment was to some degree sincere, which is why it left us – against our rational instincts – blubbering in the aisles; here, it’s thin syrup drizzled over a cold-eyed business proposition, one as calculated as any of those Western blockbusters who’ve taken to shooting cutaways of Fan Bingbing in the hope of making off with a little extra yuan.

Flickers of a more warming experience persist. Despite a tinkly incidental score shamelessly plundering “Baby Face” for its leitmotif, the songs are someway stronger than the dialogue; the late Om Puri adds clout as a village elder, and Shah Rukh Khan enjoys a nimble cameo as a travelling magician. Yet everyone’s deferring to a producer-star whose saviour complex looms heavy over every frame. These past few years have seen Salman becoming smarter about his public persona – Laxman literally strives to move mountains to bring people together – but without the tears that might soften our vision, all Tubelight resembles is a rebranding process: somewhere between act of vanity and lamentable waste of energy.

Tubelight is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Swan's way: "Edith Walks"

The last time we caught up with Andrew Kötting - British cinema's great perambulator, forever mapping the margins and marginalised - it was with 2015's In Our Selves, where he followed in the wayward footsteps of troubled 19th century poet John Clare. With his latest Edith Walks, we find Kötting stepping even further back into native history by mirroring the movements of one Edith Swan-Neck, an 11th century wanderer (and wonderer) who reportedly travelled from Waltham Abbey to St. Leonards-on-Sea on foot in the wake of the Battle of Hastings to recover her husband King Harold's corpse from the battlefield. We get an expressionist taster of this turbulent moment in time from Forgotten the Queen, an accompanying animated short composed by Kötting's daughter Eden, in which screen and viewer are subjected to a barrage of arrows, found sounds, crayon-red blood and a lingering scepticism as to the militaristic ways of men. The main feature, a rough-edged travelogue, joins Kötting as he and several members of his established coterie (writer Iain Sinclair and sound artist Jem Finer among them) accompany a new Edith (honey-voiced singer Claudia Barton) in recreating this journey as it was circa summer 2016.

Although these pilgrims' progress is marked out onscreen by regular Ordinance Survey references, this is very much filmmaking on the fly. The first scene shows this motley crew apparently breaking into the Abbey via a sidedoor, and we consequently hear them being told off by a security guard for rolling camera without the appropriate permits. (Given that we witness Ms. Barton all but dryhumping statues of Harold and Edith at various points, the guard's concerns would seem legit.) As in By Our Selves - which marked something of a fork in the road of Kötting's previously autobiographical filmography, turning him back towards the past, and towards the lives of others - there's an amusing incongruity inherent in watching figures clad in period dress wafting through a Greater London of Prets and Routemaster buses. Kötting's merry pranksters schlep down through Greenwich, getting temporarily waylaid by a pair of jovial constables for drumming in public, and then - between cutaways to archive footage of primary school kids recreating scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry - push on through the outer reaches of the M25 towards the coast.

En route, it soon becomes apparent that Kötting is pursuing a path rarely travelled in recent British cinema - that strain of art-school avant-gardism that previously yielded Derek Jarman's experiments with film form and the English landscape - and the director's playfulness makes it easy to tag along. Finer and that errant drummer, David Aylward, carry in their wake a homemade contraption that, with each step forwards, generates a rhythmic percussion from flattened Foster's cans. (The spirit of the amber nectar does indeed hover over certain stretches, but then walking, like filming, is thirsty work.) An ostensibly serious mid-walk discussion between Sinclair and Alan Moore as to poor Harold's fate is enlivened by a cut to a beardy sound recordist, wearing a Viking helmet for the occasion. In terms of 2017 theatrical releases, granted, there may be none more niche: increasingly, Kötting seems to have meandered into cinemas through the fire door, with films that really have no economic business being on the same listings pages as the latest emissions from the DC and Marvel universes. Still, this latest's a brisk, invigorating stroll - just over an hour, taking in Eden's short - and one that has a funny way of making its particular history come alive.

Edith Walks opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.   

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

1,001 Films: "Breaking Away" (1979)

Breaking Away, one of the better "endless summer" movies to have emerged from the 1970s, centres on four boyhood friends from Indiana mooching through their first months beyond the school gates: there's champion cyclist and wannabe Italian Dave (Dennis Christopher), the romantic of the group; frustrated ex-quarterback Mike (Dennis Quaid), the hothead; plus a couple of nerdy hangers-on in Daniel Stern's Cyril and Jackie Earle Haley's Moocher. Together, they stumble into, and very quickly out of, their first jobs, declare unofficial war on the local college kids, and learn the hard way that life isn't fair. It's as good an example as any of just how relaxed American filmmaking was in its storytelling before high-concept took over in the 1980s: up until the climactic bike race, Steve Tesich's episodic screenplay simply hangs out and observes the boys scaring cats with their guitars, Christopher's efforts to keep pace with a Cinzano truck, and Christopher's father (Paul Dooley, in one of his earliest blowhard roles) decreeing that no "eanies" - by which he means zucchini, linguini and fettuchine - be served in his household. In the decades before Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, cycling was a deeply idiosyncratic hook upon which to hang an essentially all-American feature; yet the ever-professional and unpretentious Peter Yates uses the bicycle, and one cyclist's collection of opera 78s, as the glue that holds these truthful skits and pieces together, and elicits performances of great charm from his principals. Quaid, Stern and Haley (recently seen as one of the slavekeepers in The Birth of a Nation) all went onto prominent careers; the slight air of regret hanging over the film is that, despite his long list of credits, the boyish and very likeable Christopher never quite reached the same level. Funny how life works out. Still, the loving but awkward rapport Dave shares with his pop may be the most beautifully etched father-son relationship in any teen movie up to (and possibly including) the American Pie films.

Breaking Away is available on DVD through Second Sight. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

Factory-line pop: "Souvenir"

It would not be too great an overstatement to say that Isabelle Huppert has comprehensively owned the past twelve months: first came Things to Come, then Elle, then the Oscar nomination. Bavo Defurne's Souvenir - a melodrama in the oldest sense of the word - might be approached as the joker in this recent run of credits: it has the look of a project a performer undertakes knowing that everything will be laid on for her, and that all she need do is turn up, try on the costumes, submit to the camera's adoring gaze, and wait for her happy ending to come along. There's precisely one stretch here: this is the film in which Huppert sings - a development that might well be trumpeted in much the same way as 1930's Anna Christie was sold with the tagline "Garbo talks!". The bittersweet tone is set by an opening sequence that plunges us into what looks like the fizz of a champagne flute only to reveal a seltzer tablet as the source of the bubbles: after the success, the hangover. We find Huppert's Liliane engaged in nine-to-five drudgery in a pâté factory, applying the garnish to the Flemish equivalent of Christmas puddings. Her own cover is swiftly blown once a young co-worker, part-time pugilist Jean (Kevin Azaïs, from Les Combattants), twigs her secret identity. Liliane, it turns out, was formerly Laura - emphasis on the second syllable - sometime representative of France at the Eurovision Song Contest (where she lost to ABBA), now hiding out from the world following the dissolution of her marriage.

Now, we don't entirely buy that an urban sophisticate such as might be played by Isabelle Huppert might wind up in these reduced circumstances, nor that such a woman would have (or care) to spend her nights alone watching trashy quiz shows. If we are to accept Souvenir as a subtitled equivalent of The Wrestler - or a sister-film to the 2010 Depardieu vehicle The Singer, another showbiz comeback drama - Defurne might have been better off casting an actress who's slipped some way further off the movie radar: Isabelle Adjani, say, or Sophie Marceau. Again, though, we'd have been confronted with the improbability of an incredibly glamorous and desirable woman packing pâté in the middle of nowhere; it may well be that no-one could have made the narrative anything other than preposterous, and that Defurne is encouraging us to embrace that very preposterousness by putting Eurovision centre frame. No-one is likely to mistake Souvenir for Dardennes-like realism, certainly. Defurne's images - as in his early shorts, and the 2011 feature North Sea Texas - are polished to a rare, reflective sheen: the neatfreak in this director manifests in the precise clip of Azaïs's matinee-idol moustache, and recurring overhead shots of Liliane wiping down the surfaces at her workplace. The interior design, meanwhile, comes in a shade we must now call Almodóvar Red, rhyming - in one of several pleasingly absurd touches - an untouched lobster with the dress our heroine wriggles into for her big comeback. 

What finally elevates Souvenir into the realms of solid fun is the manner in which Defurne savours the pleasures of performance, thereby illustrating to us why the reclusive Liliane can't quite leave the persona of Laura behind: the camera doesn't so much linger over as hungrily devour the sight of Azaïs's toned flyweight striking bedroom poses for his lover while stripped to his undershorts, or the singer leaving her viewing public transfixed, with tears in their eyes. And then there is Huppert, and her practically unparalleled ability to create a character before disappearing inside her. It seems especially telling that her Liliane is frequently found staring off into the middle distance, a zoning-out that as much as anything in the script defines this character's altogether tenuous relationship to even Defurne's heightened and swoony reality. For much of Souvenir, we would appear to be watching a woman imagining what it must be like to be a superstar performer like Isabelle Huppert, and to be desired, revered, successful with it. If you've ever doubted the actual Huppert's place in the pantheon of contemporary actresses, notice the care and thought she applies to even a flagrant piece of fluff like this, which might have been no more than a 2016/17 victory lap, or an exercise in selecting the right lippy and earrings with which to accessorise.

Souvenir opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on August 14. 

Sunday, 18 June 2017

From the archive: "End of Watch"

David Ayer’s End of Watch starts out in a barrage of contradictory camera angles intended to punch up the multiple shades of grey of being an LAPD beat cop. A video diary is being composed by Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), and perhaps it’s only right we should be sifting through fragments: Taylor and Zavala will themselves come to pick up the pieces – the empty shell casings and severed body parts – of a turf war that’s broken out between the city’s black and Latino gangs.

Another of those found-footage movies, End of Watch (pun presumably intended) is aiming to do for the cop drama what the low-cost, high-profit Chronicle did earlier this year for the teenage superhero flick. Again, you’re reminded one of the advantages this form presents filmmakers with is that these images don’t strictly have to look good, or follow the usual rules of cinematic continuity. Taylor and Zavala have cameras on their dashboard looking in, on their bonnet looking out, and on their collars whenever they’re required to shake it all about.

This digital hokey-cokey extends to Taylor’s new squeeze (Anna Kendrick), whose first move upon waking is to find a camcorder and record a confessional for her sleeping beau; incredibly, it even extends to the gang members, who blithely tape themselves shooting people and taking contracts out on our heroes, a move even the most inexperienced public defendant might advise against.

As Cops and Police, Camera, Action made clear, what this set-up can do is give an entertainment the benefit of immediacy. Ayer, who wrote Training Day before directing a run of similar law-enforcement tales (Harsh Times, Street Kings), knows how to construct a tense stop-and-search, and his film is pretty good on what it is to drive grouchily around on a late shift, and then have to run into a burning property and play hero cop, or to stage a raid on a building in which you’re sure somebody has died, and the killer may still be close by.

Yet there’s a sense the likable Gyllenhaal and Pena are here more as anchormen than policemen, recruited to give a shapeless mass of footage a degree of focus. Between them, the actors create a joshing, winning chemistry: two more perspectives, keeping an eye out for one another. What’s been constructed around them, however, feels perilously gimmicky, using these recording devices to cut around or evade the material’s inherent shifts in tone. When Ayer’s camera finally defaults to a shotgun-barrel POV, we appear to be watching the cinema, still worried by the threat posed by immersive console games, surrendering to its rival outright.

End of Watch is more concerned with the experience of being an LAPD officer than it is in telling us a story about the same, which is not a crime. But compare it to the vastly more complex French procedural Polisse, and you spot how Ayer is condescending to 16-year-old Doom aficionados in breaking the cop experience down into what one character calls “the three basic foodgroups”: money, drugs and guns – or births, marriages and deaths.

“Are you good?” is the question these cops ask themselves at the beginning and the end of each working day. Ayer’s film just about holds together as a taut two-hour viewing experience, but in its leading men’s cutesy asides to camera, its custard-pie gags, and its reassuring finale, it keeps asking us the exact same question, where the truly great cop movies – from The French Connection to L.A. Confidential – rolled on through their material like gangbusters, confident their audience would keep up.

(MovieMail, November 2012)

End of Watch screens on C4 tonight at 11.10pm.