Saturday, 18 November 2017

On demand: "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond"

To what extent can and should we separate the art from the artist? Those questions, much asked in recent weeks, rear their ugly head yet again in the course of the new Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond - or, to give it its full title, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond - Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Chris Smith's film has a unique selling point in accessing previously withheld footage - shot for electronic press kit purposes, but most likely deemed too potent for promotional use - of Jim Carrey playing Andy Kaufman behind the scenes of the framebreaking 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. As was much discussed at the time, Carrey went full Method for the part, remaining deep in character as Kaufman and the comedian's multiple alter egos (bothersome lounge singer Clifton among them) even after veteran director Milos Forman called cut. 

Lest we forget - and Man on the Moon has retreated from view in recent years - this thoroughly postmodern venture (memorably recreating scenes from Taxi with Kaufman's sometime castmates Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane playing their younger selves) emerged at the very end of a decade of unprecedented self-reflexivity, ten years that gave us The Larry Sanders Show, Pulp Fiction and Scream. Despite respectable reviews and a measure of awards buzz that peaked with a Golden Globe win for its leading man, the film numbered among several high-profile fin-de-siècle commercial flops that arguably prevented American cinema from pursuing a more adult and adventurous direction. The similarly toothsome Tom Cruise had the Mission: Impossible franchise to fall back on after Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut bombed, but Carrey's career would never quite be the same again. (Exhibit A: Dumb and Dumber To, an admission of creative defeat that arrived as late as 2014.)

Smith, whose own breakthrough arrived with the same year's American Movie, appears to have taken this project on at Carrey's behest, in part to offer a definitive answer to the presumably much-asked question of whether the star was just putting everybody on at the time. That answer is a big fat upper-case NO: Carrey-as-Kaufman can here be observed stirring the shit on set, disrupting rushes screenings, even grabbing the mic at the movie's wrap party. Some of what we see could be claimed as modestly amusing gonzo pranking: Carrey-Kaufman storming into Spielberg's office on the Universal lot and demanding to see the shark from Jaws, say, or plotting a (surprisingly successful) lookalike scam with regular Kaufman conspirator Bob Zmuda during a party at the Playboy Mansion. (Like I said, the film coincides with a lot of trending themes: Hef does not appear best pleased to be made a fool of on tape.)

Still, we can't help but sense something weird - abnormal, even - was going on around these soundstages. Early on, we see Carrey-as-Andy-as-Latka telling Kaufman's actual, bereaved sister Carol that he thinks the finished film will be a "healing" experience. ("For you, too," she replies, tellingly.) Watching the actor being a colossal pain in the arse (albeit a knowing pain in the arse) to his director, co-stars, Universal executives and passing civilians, you can kind of see why the studio didn't expend undue effort on promoting the results; while C-K received a modicum of onset pushback - most notoriously from Jerry Lawler, the pro wrestler cast as himself who, proving oblivious to the finer points of Carrey's Situationism, left the actor hospitalised following an all-caught-on-camera feud - it's hard, especially in the current climate, not to feel we're witnessing a minor-to-medium abuse of star power.

Smith duly interlaces the testimony of that star as he is today - older, beardier, more vulnerable, and just perhaps aware this period, however turbulent, was about as good as it got for him professionally. How you react to The Great Beyond - whether you see it as a document of a jolly jape or an altogether more troubling episode - may well depend on how you react to Carrey's latter-day assertion that "what happened... was out of my control". There is a strong whiff of self-justification here: early on, we're told this footage has been locked up in Carrey's office for nearly twenty years, and the understanding is that it's only being released now as clinching proof that the actor's genius is too great (maybe too dangerous) to be let out of the bottle. In one of his more emotional stretches of testimony, Carrey explains that he learnt all about compromise from his lovable milquetoast of a father, so was driven from a very early age to go to extremes wherever possible. (In a Nineties context, this presumably meant going beyond Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.)

Yet that testimony is intriguingly open - the Mask is very definitely off - and much of it goes to issues many of us are wrestling with right now. Given that most stars are born exhibitionists, do we allow them to behave like outright asshats - to push those around them, figuratively and/or literally - if it produces work as good-to-great as Forman captured? The Great Beyond is fraught both with that possibility, and the collateral damage it creates. Carrey reports that Michel Gondry, in the run-up to the pair's collaboration on 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, told him: "You're so beautiful, so broken - please don't get well." Carrey himself insists "suffering is so valuable". At risk of outing myself as a total normal, one whose pet movie hates include scenes where actors-playing-characters in extreme emotional distress start punching walls with their bare fists, I have to ask: but wouldn't you rather not suffer? (Furthermore: wouldn't we all prefer you didn't inflict that suffering on others?) 

Without any shadow of a doubt, those issues remain too damn hot and knotty to be resolved in the course of a single 95-minute movie, but you should nevertheless see The Great Beyond, if only for its choice selection of cutaways to Carrey's Man on the Moon co-stars Paul Giamatti and Danny DeVito. Here are steady, dependable character performers rather than lightning-bolt stars: in this business for the long haul, sage enough to try and get on with the day job wherever possible and, in DeVito's case, experienced enough to have seen/suffered all this before with the actual Kaufman on the set of Taxi. Their expressions in the behind-the-scenes footage, however, are so openly baffled, bemused and cringey that they inevitably recall Laurence Olivier's advice to a neophyte Dustin Hoffman, struggling with his own Method on the set of 1976's Marathon Man: "Have you tried acting, dear boy?"

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is now streaming on Netflix; Man on the Moon screens on BBC1 tonight at 12.20am. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 10-12, 2017:

1 (new) Paddington 2 (PG)

2 (1) Murder on the Orient Express (12A)
3 (2) Thor: Ragnarok (12A) ***
4 (3) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
5 (4) Jigsaw (18)
6 (5) The Death of Stalin (15) *****
7 (new) Only the Brave (12A)
8 (new) The Florida Project (15) **** 
9 (8) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
10 (6Lego Ninjago (U)

My top five: 
1. The Silence of the Lambs

2. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
3. The Florida Project
4. Good Time
5. Marjorie Prime

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Despicable Me 3 (U)
2 (1) Transformers: the Last Knight (12)
3 (2) The Mummy (15)
4 (3) Fast & Furious 8 (12)
5 (4) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
6 (10) Paddington (PG) ****
7 (6) Wonder Woman (12) ***
8 (5) Moana (PG) ****
9 (7) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12) **
10 (12) Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (12) **


My top five: 
1. The Ornithologist

2. The Big Sick
3. Baskin
4. The Beguiled
5. Your Name

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Man on the Moon [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 12.20am)
2. Badlands (Saturday, BBC2, 1.20am)
3. Boyhood (Friday, C4, 12.05am)
4. Carry on Screaming (Sunday, ITV1, 11.05am)
5. Safe (Thursday, five, 11.05pm)

Sic transit Gloria: "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"

The campaign to get Annette Bening the awards recognition she almost certainly deserves continues. Those miffed by the Academy's collective decision to overlook Bening's sterling work on 20th Century Women should be heartened by her return in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool: produced by Bond heavyweights Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, it hands its star the plum role of a Hollywood great, and even climaxes with newsreel footage of its subject accepting an Oscar, by way of an extra nudge. If Bening doesn't get at least a nomination for this one, we can safely accuse the electorate of not watching their screeners all the way through. The subject is Gloria Grahame, erstwhile bombshell of It's a Wonderful Life and The Bad and the Beautiful, but caught here in the very twilight of her celebrity - her Norma Desmond period, if you will - touring British repertory theatres as the 1970s gave way to the Eighties. This GG is, however, still capable of turning heads, not least that of Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a jobbing actor and lad-about-Liverpool, whose memoir serves as the basis for Matt Greenhalgh's script. This pair first met in 1979 around Notting Hill, where the vivacious Grahame initiated the May-December romance; we join them in 1981, however, with a newly needy, pill-popping Gloria exiled to the provinces and plagued by unspecified medical complaints. This old broad has, visibly, reverted to a near-childlike state: one of the first things she asks her lover to do is to burp her.

The set-up recalls 2011's My Week with Marilyn - a relationship between a fragile movie icon and a civilian who falls under her spell - yet the film's timeshifts, pointing up the sand hurrying through the hourglass, lend Greenhalgh's script greater poignancy and texture, and shifting the action north stocks the frame with a different class of character actor: these people have chins, for one. Around the two leads, we get cherishable work from Julie Walters as Peter's mother - absolutely of this world (Walters would have herself been serving an apprenticeship at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre at this exact historical moment), and nailing one intrinsically mumsy move in fretting about putting an electric blanket on when Gloria shows up on the Turners' doorstep - and from Stephen Graham as Peter's older brother Joe, a tracksuited scally who has no time whatsoever for thespian frivolity: his hair is very Terry McDermott, and not coincidentally the funniest thing I've seen on screen for some while. For much of its duration, the period detail - the boys playing football in terraced streets, the graffiti, the rain - is just so; at the (London) press screening I attended, the notion one might purchase beer at 90p a pint elicited hearty if vaguely rueful chuckles. Only when the film follows Gloria back across the Atlantic do matters start to feel overstretched. Its America, evidently filmed none too far from Chester, is all rear projection and spaces too small and cramped to convince, although even here we alight upon notable acting, like a Malibu homecoming dinner that concludes abruptly, with Gloria's dotty mom (Vanessa Redgrave) urging Pete not to marry her daughter.

Our emotions, however, are carried by the two leads. Bell - in both his most prominent and strongest showing for several years - gives Peter a hint of edge, a certain steel around the eyes, which ensures this story isn't the romanticised copout the Marilyn movie became: no coy skinnydipping here, none of Eddie Redmayne's blushing. Peter calls Gloria "a crazy old fucking lady" in frustration at one point, and she reacts to that "old" as if he'd just punched her on the nose. It makes it doubly affecting when the young swain sincerely falls for this fallen star; and again as he attempts to prolong their affair in the face of her illness. If his co-star's performance doesn't quite match her work in 20th Century Women, Bening nevertheless brings all her considerable intelligence to bear on material that might easily have retreated into TV movie territory, showing us the difficult, sensitive woman behind the marquee name, attempting to will herself better, fitter, younger - as if moviestars were indestructible, and beyond such trivial mortal concerns as cancer. (The film's kitchen-sink setting offers its own rebuke to that belief.) There's nothing flashy about journeyman Paul McGuigan's direction: as John Crowley did in the not incomparable Brooklyn, he hands his excellent cast a fine script, and tries wherever possible to stay out of their way. Yet there are equally scenes here where his camera appears genuinely fascinated to be watching Bening do what she does: he cannot pull or cut away. All actresses should have an ally like this: the biggest gift Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool gives us is allowing us to see why and how Peter Turner fell for this woman - and why it might be an idea to reward Bening before, heaven forbid, it gets too late for her, too.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Rhapsody in mauve: "The Florida Project"

More so than any other American feature released this year, The Florida Project has high spirits. 2015's breakout hit Tangerine, an iPhone-shot tale of transgender sex workers at large on the boulevards of L.A., introduced writer-director Sean Baker as a filmmaker keen to paint the screen with new shades and stripes, and intelligent enough to recognise that achieving this is more often than not a matter of casting - seeking out anyone beyond the same old faces going through the same old routines. Baker's new film revolves around six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, a movie newcomer invited to play (or simply to be) Moonee, a little princess in reduced circumstances who spends her days and nights transforming the mauve-painted, Disneyland-adjacent motel complex she inhabits with her grifting ma Halley (Bria Vinaite) into her own personal theme park. Moonee and her pals Scotty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) are children who seem like real children, not movie constructs; you might even label them brats, given that their unschooled afternoons involve spitting on cars, setting fire to things, and running pell-mell into and out of rooms and scenes alike. You could watch the mites doing this for hours, but then you're also aware you don't have to clean up after 'em, or indeed look out for them.

Baker, too, has realised authentic youthful chaos is a novel hook to hang a movie on; he hails from that indie New Wave that has given us not just Tangerine but Moonlight, another Florida project that proposed one could shrug off linear plot for sustained atmosphere, and that sensed we can gain a lot from being allowed to hang with a film's characters for extended periods. Some clue as to The Florida Project's real project comes with the early shot that finds an oblivious Moonee playing with dolls while Halley, out of focus in the foreground, pleads her case before a counsellor or parole officer. As confirmed by a later scene that reprises this framing (Moonee busting dance moves while Halley rows with a motel clerk), this is a film operating on two planes simultaneously - something like last year's excellent Little Men shifted several hundred miles west. On one plane, the blessed ignorance and innocence of youth; on the other, the adult world, with its constituent stresses and strains. For most of the running time, all Baker has to do to retain the interest is set what might be going on behind closed motel doors (the pimping, trafficking and philandering) against the blithe mischief Moonee's mob are getting up to in the stairwells and carparks beyond.

This dichotomy established, The Florida Project starts to develop into a treatise on how we police the fine line between these two worlds. Sometimes, it's straightforward: motel caretaker Bobby (a terrific, never-more-lived-in Willem Dafoe) - wearily tolerant of his tenants' transgressions and indiscretions, possibly as he's long realised he's not so very far removed from them, socioeconomically speaking - chases off a shady sort who's started hanging around the picnic benches the kids have appropriated as budget monkey bars. (He'll later be seen doing the same to some stray herons, suggesting an ingrained aversion to predators of all types.) Other times, it's a little more complex: throughout the film's second half, we're invited to wonder why Halley, hardly a health-and-efficiency nut, has suddenly become insistent that her daughter take long soaks in the bathtub of an evening. Baker's structure, it turns out, is deceptively loose: he shows us what in this particular social milieu might require protection, then throws open the door that reveals exactly why it might need protecting in the first place.

For all that, The Florida Project is never grim: every last one of its frames pops with life. Switching from the portrait of Tangerine to a new landscape mode, Baker's efforts to keep up with Moonee result in a grand tour of Floridian tourist-trap architecture: gift shops fronted by looming wizards or mermaids, the ice cream stand styled after a giant sundae. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe makes the oddest sights captivating, then fascinating: a humdrum saloon car parked under a solitary streetlight becomes a refugee from a Hopper canvas or Gregory Crewdson photograph. The sly aimlessness only feeds into the vivid sense of place. We're given time to appreciate these people probably won't travel far off-site - it's why they regard passing tourists as alien lifeforms - but also that they've created their own community here, one with its own distinctively salty argot ("Night bitch, I love you!") and leftfield, non-Disneyfied ideas of entertainment: one afternoon it's watching abandoned condos burning down, the next night rubbernecking road rage. Yet all of this, somehow, seems secondary to the sight of a young girl creating a magic kingdom of her own, and at a time when the innocence of American movies appears to be disappearing forever, there is something especially joyous about watching a director coaxing out and shaping an extraordinary central performance by apparently doing no more than offering his leading lady handfuls of Skittles between set-ups. The Florida Project is a delight, and Prince the cherry on top of it: please, for the love of God, somebody take care of this kid.

The Florida Project is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tech talk: "Marjorie Prime"

Marjorie Prime, the latest of writer-director Michael Almereyda's experiments at the fringes of the independent American cinema, has at least one inspired idea going for it: casting Jon Hamm as an idealised image of masculinity. The whole film opens, indeed, on Hamm and an elderly woman deep in conversation at a beach house, its ocean-facing windows casting that Don Draper square jaw in an especially dreamy light. The woman, Marjorie (Lois Smith), is evidently enraptured by her companion's presence - this static extended prologue is charged, to some degree, by the sparkle in Smith's eyes - but something somewhere seems off to us, a gut feeling confirmed when Marjorie takes a step or two across the room towards this eloquent charmer, and her foot is observed to pass through his constituent pixels. The Hamm, it turns out, is a sentient hologram, composed in the image of Marjorie's late husband Walter, and purchased by her middle-aged kids (Geena Davis and Tim Robbins) to accompany their frail and lonely mother on long walks down memory lane. We join this household at a pivotal moment, with ma's condition deteriorating and the Hammgram about to be switched off - but the passage of time and successive software upgrades conspire to leave everybody on screen more reliant on technology than ever.

Thus can Almereyda's film be hooked up to those speculative currents pulsing through contemporary sci-fi: Hamm's presence recalls his participation in the Black Mirror Christmas special, and Marjorie Prime wouldn't look out of place among the episodes of the recent Philip K. Dick compendium Electric Dreams. These projects have had the good fortune to arrive among us at precisely the time when questions have started to be raised anew about the extent to which the technology in our hands and front parlours has actually made our lives easier and the world a better place. The projected lifeforms in this particular living space, brought in as companions but most often sought out as mother or father confessors, often seem like better functioning humanoids than those who've shelled out for them, in that they've been programmed specifically to listen. Yet there's nothing there, no-one to hold; they are of the coldest comfort. The source is a Jordan Harrison play, and the film retains the dimensions of theatre: fadeouts subbed in for scene breaks, framing a lot of talk about the difference between these characters' real and artificial selves. That loquacity makes this the kind of material actors habitually flock to, but it's striking just how artificial much of the talk itself is: conversations are almost always conducted in the past tense, leaving next to no sense of the world beyond the box the movie arrives in. For much of its duration, Marjorie Prime has the air of a science project, carefully conducted and recorded in a safe, sterile space so as to arrive at a neatly predestined conclusion.

The thing is, when he's not overthinking and overanalysing like crazy, Almereyda - as elsewhere in his oddbod filmography - proves very good on mood. You can fade out from the insistent yakking and tune into the rain lashing against the beachhouse shutters, or watch the snow swirling over the ocean; when the camera pauses to linger over photos of Smith - 87 years young, and new to Twitter this past month, having made her screen debut alongside James Dean in 1955's East of Eden - in her early studio-era pomp, or her and daughter Davis drifting in silent reverie while listening to "I Shall Be Released", Marjorie Prime succeeds in making the incontrovertible march of time feel newly poignant. He didn't really need Harrison for that, though, and for all the playwright's pretty words and clever-clever structuring devices - relationships that fade like memories, to be supplanted by the next - one senses the film making do with fairly standard off-Broadway material about a well-to-do dysfunctional family, not unlike the assumed audience, retreating into small huddles to work through their dependency issues. (It's Proof with an elevated electric bill.) Like many of Almereyda's 21st century ventures - up to and including 2015's very interesting Experimenter - it's almost fascinating, but also a film that suffers from cosying up so tightly to its source. A degree of conscious uncoupling - or judicious use of an extension lead - might have pushed it beyond Times Square and seen it light up the world entire.

Marjorie Prime is now playing in selected cinemas, and also available to stream online.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Of lice and men: "Good Time"

By calling their new film Good Time, New York siblings Josh and Benny Safdie may appear to be offering up an olive branch to those who cavilled before their 2014 feature Heaven Knows What, a vérité study of drug addiction that was nothing if not a bad time. Here, by contrast, two emergent writer-directors turn their hands to a wonky sort of thriller, headed by a bona fide movie star, of the kind that will almost always do respectable crossover numbers at your friendly neighbourhood artiplex. Furthermore, it's a film in which two brothers address the matter of fraternal dependency - and thus, believe it or not, does this scuzzy, grungy filmed clusterfuck become perhaps the only 2017 release to owe a certain debt to John Steinbeck. For the latter's Lennie, the Safdies swap in Nick (played by Benny Safdie himself), a slow-witted, quick-tempered young man first seen being liberated from an institution somewhere in the Big Apple by his more impulsive, streetwise brother Connie (Robert Pattinson). Connie's motives, it transpires, aren't entirely selfless: he's rescuing his bro solely to involve him in a bank robbery that goes awry when the junior party is captured by the police. While Nick makes a swift return to custody - in this instance, an actual prison, staffed by real-life prisoners - Connie bids for redemption, setting out over one long, cold night to scrape together the bail money required to spring Nick from hell. Though billed as a good time, this process is not an easy one, and it won't be for everyone.

What the Safdies have mastered over the course of their first, increasingly expansive features is a you-are-here immediacy that may just sock you in the gut if the film succeeds in keeping you in your seat: Good Time duly offers up yards of jittery handheld cinematography (care of the versatile cinematographer Sean Price Williams) punctuated by sweatily tight close-ups, all set to a pounding electro score by Daniel Lopatin in his guise of Oneohtrix Point Never. Where Heaven Knows What suffered from the low energy of its junkie characters and a draining sense we were merely circling some plughole, the new film is plugged directly into the livewire mania of certain low-end career criminals, and accordingly proceeds at merry-go-round speed, never letting up long enough to let us get off. One way of approaching Good Time is as a very black joke in which one good turn (brother rescuing brother) is gradually undone by a series of lamentably bad moves (Connie smuggling the wrong person out of hospital, or seducing a teenage girl to cover his own sorry behind). Pattinson plays his part in this, all his wiggling allowing the audience to gauge Connie's flawed intelligence: smart enough to just about get out of stuck on a moment-by-moment basis, yet consistently dumber than his brother when it comes to seeing the bigger picture. (A less ironic title would perhaps have involved frying pans and fire.) 

There are, however, limitations to the Safdie approach, and as revealed here, they make me question Film Twitter's assertion that the brothers might be American cinema's second coming. Is Good Time, black joke that it is, funny - in the same way that, say, such nocturnes as After Hours or Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies are funny? For a while, yes; after that, not so much. The collateral damage Connie racks up in the course of his nightshift becomes as wearying as all the high-speed pile-ups in the Fast & Furious movies, so by the time characters start throwing themselves out of windows come the final reel, Good Time is occasioning no more than numbed shrugs. As a film, it's not so much building towards a pay-off as headed towards the pavement or a brick wall at a rate of knots, and a dull-splat realisation that no good can come of these characters, which sorta begs the question: why follow them in the first place? (Hipster nihilism is one phrase that springs to mind.) The film clearly counts as another modest step forward for its makers in finding an audience and a fanbase, and indeed for Patterson in once more shaking and scuzzing up his teen-dream image: bless him for continuing to look beyond the usual scripts and seek out the unlikeliest of directors to nudge the Twilight fanbase towards. Yet I can go no further with Good Time than I could with Heaven Knows What, offering but cautious commendation: it wouldn't surprise me if someone had a go at it under the Trades Description Act.

Good Time opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday, 10 November 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of November 3-5, 2017:

1 (new) Murder on the Orient Express (12A) [above]

2 (1) Thor: Ragnarok (12A) ***
3 (new) A Bad Moms Christmas (15)
4 (2) Jigsaw (18)
5 (4) The Death of Stalin (15) *****
6 (3) Lego Ninjago (U)
7 (7) My Little Pony: the Movie (U) **
8 (5) Blade Runner 2049 (15) ***
9 (new) Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You! (U) **
10 (new) The Killing of a Sacred Deer (15) **


My top five: 
1. The Silence of the Lambs

2. The Death of Stalin
3. I Am Not a Witch
4. North by North-West
5. The Florida Project

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Transformers: the Last Knight (12)
2 (1) The Mummy (15)
3 (2) Fast & Furious 8 (12)
4 (6) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
5 (4) Moana (PG) ****
6 (3) Wonder Woman (12) ***
7 (7) Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (12) **
8 (new) Hampstead (12)
9 (new) My Cousin Rachel (12)
10 (34) Paddington (PG) ****


My top five: 
1. The Ornithologist

2. City of Ghosts
3. Baskin
4. The Beguiled
5. Your Name

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Men in Black (Sunday, C4, 4.45pm)
2. 1: Life on the Limit (Sunday, C4, 12.45am)
3. Free Men (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)
4. Your Highness (Friday, C4, 1.05am)
5. Run Fatboy Run (Saturday, ITV1, 11.55pm)

The Bard in Barbados: "A Caribbean Dream"

We've seen a lot of this lately: old white dude Bill Shakespeare's plays being seized upon by non-old, non-white, often non-male filmmakers and carried off to be staged anew in the former outposts of Empire. The last few months have offered up an excellent, cutthroat Titus Andronicus from India (The Hungry) and a rougher-edged Measure for Measure out of Pakistan (Rahm); with A Caribbean Dream, writer-director Shakirah Bourne transposes A Midsummer Night's Dream onto Barbadian shores. (In this, she follows in the footsteps of One Love, Don Letts' 2003 update of Romeo and Juliet to latter-day Jamaica.) This gives Bourne certain geographic advantages: the first shot of her adaptation is of a roseate sunset, and there isn't a scene thereafter that doesn't open out onto some lush forest or soothing, dentist's-surgery-poster horizon. Her handling of the text, alas, proves far less seductive.

The modernisation Bourne undertakes with co-writer/producer Melissa Simmonds - lines appropriated as Facebook updates, pierced nipples, a female Bottom - is bold but not unobjectionable, and there are flickers of visual imagination whenever the story retreats into the fairy kingdom, with its formation dancing and snug campfire feel. Yet the performers, a ragbag of locals and holidaying RADA graduates, tend to be plonked artlessly before the camera, their dutiful line readings overshadowed by occasional excursions to carnival - sequences in which everyone appears to be having much more fun - and in places even drowned out by the sound of waves breaking on the shore. It's a commendably pacy adaptation - all over and done with inside 80 minutes - but for long stretches Bourne actively doubles down on the tweeness of her source material. The whiff of suntanned am-dram is never more than a frame or two away.

A Caribbean Dream opens in selected cinemas from today. 

Thursday, 9 November 2017

From the archive: "Silver Linings Playbook"

The writer-director David O. Russell has a fondness for turning generic material upside down by the ankles, and shaking it to see what comes out. The idiosyncratic approach found its biggest audience in his Clooney-starring Gulf War comedy Three Kings, but it was already there in his 1996 screwball Flirting with Disaster, and its success was confirmed by 2010’s The Fighter, a boxing melodrama more memorable for its lively kitchen set-tos than its rock ‘em-sock ‘em ring encounters.

Silver Linings Playbook, adapted by Russell from a Matthew Quick novel, plots a recovery arc familiar from innumerable romantic comedies: that of Bradley Cooper’s crushed teacher Pat, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and forced to move back in with his parents following the dissolution of his marriage. Yet Russell’s interest lies chiefly in providing context for his protagonist’s mental distraction: for once, a romcom’s feelgood elements go hand-in-hand with some substance.

The Fighter taught Russell that movies are often more fun the more folks you get in the shot. It isn’t just Pat who’s feeling the strain here, which gives the film the advantage of a certain controlled madness: scenes don’t unfold in quite the way you expect. The instability Russell fosters redoubles when Pat is invited to a realtor friend’s house for dinner, over which he comes to bond with his hostess’s widowed sister Tammy (Jennifer Lawrence) on the subject of antidepressants. We know these two are fated to be together, yet the road taken to get them from A to B is rocky indeed: heaven help anyone in any sequence to feature the sickly sounds of Stevie Wonder’s “Ma Cherie Amour”.

From the way he leaves the cameras rolling on the couple’s first date – held on Halloween, in a diner where Pat orders Raisin Bran cereal – it’s clear Russell’s priority is to mine every scene, each character, for hidden, surprising depths. The technique works wonders in scuffing up The Hangover’s bestubbled permasmirk Cooper and revealing the actor’s likable, vulnerable qualities. It also enables Lawrence’s most pressing claim to movie stardom yet, replacing the glassy, doll-like presence showcased in The Hunger Games with someone more present, more real: a girl with a past, and dirt under her black-painted fingernails.

Robert de Niro is back on something close to form as Pat’s father, a prime representative of that species of blue-collar male who uses sports talk as a substitute for emotion. And the superior supporting cast also witnesses that rarest of things: a bearable, rather sweet turn from erstwhile Rush Hour motormouth Chris Tucker as a fellow patient, whose intermittent appearance in proceedings slyly underlines the film’s idea of life’s arbitrariness, and how lucky we are to survive it.

There’s so much healing going on that Russell can’t subvert it all, though the restorative dance-off Pat and Tammy eventually enter into is far from the Step Up series: the stakes are different, the music choices more inspired, the result to cherish. As with the film, which – for all its cultivated chaos – proves very skilfully assembled (note how Russell integrates the vagaries of the gridiron season in such a way that the P-word can’t entirely be ditched from the title) and supremely entertaining: the kind of smart, zippy gem that rewards its audience’s adventurousness while never once insulting their intelligence. Who let this into the multiplexes?

(MovieMail, November 2012)

Silver Linings Playbook screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.05am.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

1,001 Films: "Tootsie" (1982)

The fondly regarded Tootsie has struggling, temperamental actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) put an end to a run of failed auditions by dragging up as no-nonsense, Marge Simpson-voiced Southern belle Dorothy Michaels, and thereby winning a role in a prime-time hospital drama. The Dave Grusin score accompanying this triumph of the willy can safely be filed away under the heading "Eighties aspirational", and Sydney Pollack's direction, reliant as it is on montages to nudge events along, proves functional at best. The real strength of the film - and the reason it has endured into today's television schedules - is Larry Gelbart's script, a relic from a time when one of the fundamentals of American screen comedy was a sense of craft. Yes, Hoffman in a dress is quite amusing (for a bit), but his gender-bending, in Gelbart's hands, is a pretext for something more than just pratfalls and slapstick, as wasn't the case with Big Momma's House, Norbit, White ChicksSorority Boys, or any of the other crossdressing comedies that emerged in Tootsie's wake. 

Nor is the film solely reliant on Hoffman: a superlative supporting cast includes Jessica Lange, natural and touching as the co-star Dorsey falls for, a typically droll Bill Murray as Dorsey's flatmate, and the sexy-funny Teri Garr as his hypochondriac lover. Its sexual politics remain an area for debate, and may still be a holdover from the (predominantly male) TV writers' rooms of the Seventies: though they yield a cherishably unexpected love triangle (Hoffman, Lange and Charles Durning as the latter's father, who starts crushing on Dorsey-as-Dorothy), the soap, its actresses, and the viewing public here find themselves liberated by a bloke (albeit a bloke in a dress), which seems a funny rewrite of feminism. Unemployed and under-employed actors among us can, however, safely be referred to the opening twenty minutes, still one of cinema's sparkiest evocations of what it is to try and be somebody else for a living.

Tootsie is available on DVD through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and on Blu-Ray through Criterion. 

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

On demand: "National Bird"

The high flier referred to in the title of Sonia Kennebeck's documentary National Bird isn't the bald eagle, proud symbol of American freedom and individualism; rather, it's the drone, that remote-operated, unpiloted, low-risk surveillance technology that has allowed the military unprecedented access to monitor suspects - and kill where deemed necessary. The recent explosion in drone use - a post-9/11 development accelerated by the Obama administration as a "clean" form of weaponry - has itself been monitored by filmmakers in such diverse projects as 2014's Drone, morality play Good Kill and 'plex-friendly thriller Eye in the Sky. Kennebeck's film is less interested in the drone's technical specifics or systemic application than in its human cost, honing in on three individuals with first-hand knowledge of all this death from above. There is Heather, a Kristen Stewart lookalike who, during her time as a drone analyst, was never once told how many people were killed on her watch; there is Daniel, still operating under security clearance, and having to select his words accordingly - with, it turns out, good reason; and there is the older Lisa, who worked higher up the command chain and now worries - as any denmother might - about the effect this technology is having on the Army's impressionable young recruits.

That title speaks to the way drones have rapidly become normalised, framed as part of the natural order of things: Kennebeck shows us Air Force ads that herald the arrival of an exciting piece of kit for the Call of Duty generation, while excerpts from Presidential pressers provide ample evidence that Obama was enthusiastically sold on this equipment as an effective tool for continuing the War on Terror, one that arrived neatly packaged with its own set of checks and balances. Kennebeck's line is that what's actually been normalised here is the act of killing; that just because someone kills at arm's length, it doesn't mean they don't end up with dirty hands. Her drone operators inhabit the dead centre of a moral maze: the fuzzy pixellations beamed back to them leave considerable doubt as to who's being stalked and what, in fact, they might be doing in these images, yet as the interviewees attest, the presence of just one enemy combatant in these God's-eye views has allowed the military to take out many more civilians without much in the way of comeback or consequence. (And that's assuming the camera's been pointed in the right direction, which numerous strikes on schools, hospitals, aid convoys and wedding parties hardly suggest.)

Where soldiers deployed at ground level could tell you exactly how many opposition troops they've engaged and eliminated, Heather's story illustrates how those steering the drones - several thousand miles removed from the theatre of war - are kept in the dark by their superiors as to whether their actions have done for mothers, children or passers-by: everything's left up in the air. A big part of National Bird is therefore devoted to showing how these erstwhile warriors have striven to clear the fuzz and make peace with themselves. For Heather, a more hands-on role at massage school allows her to reconnect with a world - the world of flesh and sinew - from which she'd previously been held at a remove; for Lisa, penance begins with regular visits to Afghan aid missions, allowing her to see in vivid, often painful close-up a people the system othered in black-and-white. These scenes gesture towards the more comprehensive - and potentially drier - drone documentary we may well get several more years down the line, one that addresses all this collateral damage while looking backwards into the drones' manufacture and technical capabilities, explaining both where these murderous pests came from and how and why they've spread.

Kennebeck, for her part, takes drones as a given - here already, and apparently here to stay - but her film does offer a rich and rewarding sense of a story developing before our eyes. There's a spiky irony hovering over National Bird's second half, wherein the watchers find themselves being watched - monitored as potential whistleblowers, Snowdens-in-waiting, a turn that ties the film to wider questions of national security. (This is the first documentary I've seen to bear the disclaimer "No persons involved disclosed classified information to the filmmakers." I suspect it won't be the last.) The Afghan scenes, meanwhile, form a welcome expansion of the film's field of study, opening up to include the testimony of those who've lost limbs and loved ones as a consequence of this overnight policy shift - and who remain most at risk today, observed instinctively ducking whenever a jet soars over them. A quantum technological leap - allowing us to hold the messy business of war at a coldly comforting distance - is here shown to have given rise to a fatally oppressive mindset: when the US goes from being a big brother, looking out for the interests of the weak and the vulnerable, to playing Big Brother, peeping without pushback, everyone's left with a cloud - or, worse, the shadow of death - hanging over their heads.

National Bird is now available to stream on Netflix.  

Sunday, 5 November 2017

From the archive: "Paddington"

In the year Postman Pat and Pudsey the Dog hit the big screen with dull splats, any Paddington movie might have come to form the third strike in some unholy P’d-off trilogy: films that stole off with not just with everybody’s pocket money, but our fond memories of what made these cuddly figures institutions in the first place. Behind-the-scenes talk on the Paddington we have certainly didn’t bode well: there was that much-discussed decision to replace Colin Firth as the voice of its computer-generated bear, and the announcement of new cast members just two months before the scheduled release date.

However many rethinks or reshoots this entailed, it has, somewhat astonishingly, been worth it – perhaps because, throughout the post-production turmoil, director Paul King and his co-writer Hamish McColl always had a pressing reason for making a Paddington Bear movie in 2014. They’ve clung to the cherishable idea of reinterpreting Michael Bond’s books as a modern-day immigrant saga.

Displaced from his home in Darkest Peru by an earthquake, this Paddington (now voiced, with a mellifluous, marmaladey sweetness, by Ben Whishaw) is smuggled onto a boat by a loving aunt. Washing up in drizzly old London, he’s given first a new name, then a new home by the Browns: Ma Brown (Sally Hawkins) identified as a hippy-dippy liberal the minute her kids berate her for skinny-dipping in a Victorian bathing pond, Pa Brown (Hugh Bonneville) a sternly patrician risk analyst who requires a little more softening up.

It’s around the time a West Indian chorus appear on the streets outside the Brown residence – joyfully serenading our hero with Lord Kitchener’s “London is the Place for Me”, the song most associated with the Empire Windrush – that you may just catch Messrs. Farage, Carswell and Reckless scurrying for the exits with their communications staff: they’ll have their work cut out trying to counter such unabashedly pro-migrant propaganda in the weeks and months ahead.

The danger is that the film might have hardened into the kind of po-faced, right-on broccoli Viz’s Modern Parents might force on their offspring. It was, then, an inspired choice to bring in the leftfield King (The Mighty Boosh, Bunny and the Bull), who carries with him a harlequin visual style, an idiosyncratic (and not un-British) sense of humour, and a stuffed comedy contacts book.

You lose count of the moments that make you smile. King offers up both of Ben Wheatley’s sightseers, a scene in which Nicole Kidman (as the taxidermist on Paddington’s case) strings Matt Lucas up from Blackfriars Bridge, and an action sequence through Portobello Market that takes in both a sly Winter’s Tale joke and Peep Show’s Super Hans behaving shiftily indeed. (Suffice to say: both parents and offspring have been royally catered for.)

One might retain some reservations over the film’s look. The Browns’ home is done up like a doll’s house – King typically transforms limited budgets into a screenfilling wealth of detail – but it’s been so strenuously overlit to suggest warmth that it ends up resembling the set of some CBeebies sitcom. And it does feel a shame that Paddington should be rendered as pixels, rather than anything more tactile and present; his dialogue scenes rather expose King’s inchoate, point-and-shoot camera technique, full of cutaways to actors having to react to someone who plainly isn’t there.

Still, kids won’t notice, most adults won’t mind, and any residual resistance this viewer had was worn down by the film’s restless inventiveness, and its stream of faces recruited to be funny, not merely familiar. (The most valuable supporting player award goes to Peter Capaldi in the archetypally British role of Mr. Curry: the oddbod neighbour who proves a decent cove when push comes to shove.)

For all its production troubles, it emerges as a good deal more fun than Disney’s live-action Dalmations films, which Paddington sometimes resembles, yet it’s also powered by the biggest heart of any family movie released this year. “Please Look After This Bear,” pleads the tag tied to Paddington’s duffle coat as he sets off on his big adventure. At a time of sketchy cash-ins targeting pre-teens like schoolgate predators, it’s a pleasure to report that, in this instance, King and team really have.

(MovieMail, November 2014)

Paddington is available on DVD through StudioCanal; a sequel, Paddington 2, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

Silver screen (shower scene): "78/52"

The documentary 78/52 operates under the year's most nerdily niche title - a dog whistle to movie buffs and horror aficionados, who may well intuit exactly what it refers to: the 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts that make up the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in which (spoiler alert) Janet Leigh's Marion Crane is stabbed to death by Anthony Perkins' crossdressing Norman Bates. As Alexandre O. Philippe's film reframes it, this fevered, 45-second hack-and-slash - staged over a week on set, after storyboarding input from legendary graphic designer Saul Bass - changed what the movies could do and show forever. Suddenly it wasn't so taboo to kill off your star a third into the running time, and to do so while she was naked: with this none-more-forceful jab in the ribs, Hitch simultaneously pushed back against the censorship that had mollycoddled American movies since the imposition of the Hays Code, and pulled back the curtain separating cinemagoers from the bloody, murderous chaos of the world beyond the foyer. It took a touch under sixty years to get from The Great Train Robbery's final shot to the Bates Motel bathroom, but only a further seven to get from there to the bloodbath of Bonnie and Clyde. The technique, too, was to change the game. Previously, the cinema had broadly been either impressionist or Expressionist; Psycho demonstrated it could be Cubist, cutting round and at its characters in an attempt to create something other than the usual unities of time and space. All bets were suddenly, shockingly off, anything newly possible. 

Philippe is not the first to slow this sequence down in order to pick over its meaning. 78/52 folds in (and builds on) successive waves of analysis by such scholarly figures as Francois Truffaut (in his celebrated Hitchcock interviews), conceptual artist Douglas Gordon (in his installation 24 Hour Psycho) and critic David Thomson (in his monograph The Moment of Psycho). His film, however, is by far the paciest and most enjoyable stab, acknowledging the wicked spirit of a film Hitch always shrugged off as "a joke", even while it rolls up its sleeves and enters into serious, engaged digging. Playful montages frame Psycho within wider social developments, Hitchcock's own entertainments, and this original auteur's long history of scopophilic bathroom intimacies; the second half cuts to the quick of the matter, pausing, rewinding and fast-forwarding through the scene in question to highlight key details as one might in a film-studies class, and doing so in the presence of a stellar parade of guest speakers.

We start with testimony from Peter Bogdanovich, who sensed the tectonics shifting when he attended the film's altogether fraught New York premiere as a critic, then move on to hear out a splattering of post-Psycho horror mavens (Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, the Moorhead-Benson partnership, Karyn Kusama, Perkins' emergent son Osgood), plus related performers (Leigh's daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, sometime Maniac Elijah Wood), editors who spy in this scene a prototype for today's accelerated cutting, composers hymning the genius of Bernard Herrmann's shrieky strings, even an art historian, brought in to talk us through the significance of the painting Master Bates removes from the motel wall to spy on Leigh - and even this fleeting item of set dressing turns out to factor into the overarching thesis of Psycho as pivotal moment. No detail is off-limits; so wide-ranging are Philippe's inquiries that we're also offered a segment on which variety of melon might provide the best sound match for the Foley work of knife slicing through flesh, a careful identification of the hand shown clutching the shower curtain via its owner's disfigured forefinger, and - at the last - an aside on the fact Leigh's eye can be seen flickering briefly in her final close-up. (Is there some connection between this flicker and the one moving image in 1962's La Jetée?) 

There was scope for 78/52 to become more critical yet. This is essentially a fanboy project, its baseline insistent that every last thing the movies do is awesome, and every technical innovation particularly awesome. Some of its purring is justified: however a documentarist slices it, that match-fade from the plughole swallowing up bloody water to the life slipping out of Marion Crane's eye remains capital-C Cinema. Yet as Thomson noted in his monograph, the shower scene was also the beginning of a sustained campaign of onscreen violence against women, not to mention Hitch opening up new fronts in his efforts to prey on his female personnel. Leigh's body double Marli Renfro is the first voice we hear, describing how she had to undress for her director's approval, but thereafter becomes no more than a first-hand source of scene trivia, where you and I might perhaps see in her a warm-up girl for the tyrannised Tippi Hedren of The Birds and Marnie. The long-term effect of Psycho's provocation was to encourage directors to work even harder to shock their audience: 78/52's final half-hour works in clips from Frenzy, Irreversible and From Dusk Till Dawn 2, all signs of the troubling direction Hitchcock pointed the cinema in. Perhaps the most telling detail here comes via the Belgian composer known as Kreng, who - while offering a note-by-note analysis of those strings, apparently from memory - reveals a tattoo of the scene's soundwave on his inside wrist. Whatever else got washed away in Marion Crane's final minutes, her death was one of cinema's under-the-skin moments: it's marked us for life, and arguably sullied everything we watch today.

78/52 is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream online.