Saturday, 20 January 2018

From the archive: "Sicario"

The state of permanent anxiety America finds itself in with regard to its borders means we’re probably due a bulletin like Sicario every few years. Orson Welles got here first, setting the explosive opening of Touch of Evil on the U.S.-Mexico meridian, but Sicario’s real precedent would be 2000’s Traffic, from which it retains the services of Benicio del Toro as one who walks both sides of the line. That film was elevated by Steven Soderbergh’s abiding fascination with shape, colour and form, and how pieces of a narrative puzzle can break away and tessellate like landmasses. The new film, written by rookie Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is more straightforward, apparently driven by no more than a desire to do something hard-hitting at the dead centre of the multiplex: the bombs are louder, the collateral damage more explicit, the prevailing tactic shock-and-awe.

You grasp as much from the opening, in which a kidnap-response team led by FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) storm a suspect’s home in the Arizona wilds and, after dodging an initial fusillade, uncover the decomposing corpses of a dozen torture victims being used as cavity wall insulation. Everybody’s just finished vomiting when Macer’s colleagues trigger an explosion, literally disarming the forces of law and order – in that we see one officer scrabbling among the rubble in search of his severed hands. Such horror is potent, and in this instance, it serves a narrative purpose: when shady, CIA-affiliated headhunter Josh Brolin subsequently offers Macer the opportunity to join his taskforce in order to pursue the cartels responsible for the carnage over the border, it’s no surprise she should say yes. 

Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) can flag a grim, nervy mood: whether Kate’s surrounded by guys in a hurly-burly briefing room or sitting in convoy peering at mutilated bodies suspended from bridges – Sicario’s idea of a “Welcome to Mexico” banner – we’re always wondering just what our heroine has got herself into. Equally, though, you can feel him laying it on a bit thick. Soderbergh brought a typically cool, analytical approach to the War on Drugs, examining every level from the ground up. Sicario, by contrast, is the sound of arrivistes making a galumphing statement with the high-end resources now available to them; it takes its lead from Brolin’s pre-raid war cry “We want a lot of noise – think Fourth of July on steroids.” 

It yields a number of terse set-pieces, punched up by Johann Johansson’s pounding score: a checkpoint stand-off with gangbangers that leaves bodies in the road for their fellow Mexicans to see; a cantina pick-up that goes near-fatally awry; a night-vision sequence that strives to replicate the tense denouement of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark ThirtyYet there’s a nagging sense that set-pieces are all Sicario has to offer; that it’s revelling in, rather than really saying anything about America’s failures in this decidedly immediate field of foreign relations. Sheridan’s insights come in dispatches (a muttered “this won’t even make the papers in El Paso” as the convoy pulls away from that blood-spattered checkpoint), while Villeneuve’s framing suffers a honkingly literal mise-en-abime when the camera looks away during a brutal interrogation so as to refocus on a nearby grate: everything’s going down the drain, duh.

Blunt gives another smart and watchful performance – the film needs her to offset the swaggering machismo – but the script takes a serious wrong turn around the halfway mark, when Kate’s capability suddenly becomes less important than her fuckability; the committed pro of the first hour is redefined as first a woman, then a liability, then really no more than a sideshow. You could argue a point’s being made about the place intuition has on this ultra-macho turf, but it is, like much of Sicario, so brusquely achieved as to feel insulting. The whole is just obvious enough to rustle up some business, and doubtless secure Villeneuve’s place on the Hollywood career ladder. But it lands its one truly substantial shot early on, with an expressive succession of helicopter shots that show the border stretching across the screen, a vast, untamed frontier that suggests how the Wild West of yore has migrated south. It will be drowned out by the loud crashes and bangs, but here at least Sicario ventures an urgent, pertinent question: how do you even begin to police that?

(MovieMail, September 2015)

Sicario screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Friday, 19 January 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 12-14, 2018:

1 (new) Darkest Hour (PG) **

2 (1) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
3 (new) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15) ***
4 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
5 (new) Insidious: The Last Key (15)
6 (2Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A) ***
7 (5) Pitch Perfect 3 (12A)
8 (6) All the Money in the World (15) **
9 (4) Molly's Game (15) ***
10 (7Paddington 2 (PG) ****


My top five: 
1. A Woman's Life

2. Persona
3. The Post
4. The Final Year
5. Coco

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) Dunkirk (12) ***
2 (new) Beyond Skyline (15)
3 (10) Davina - Toned in 10 (U)
4 (new) Detroit (15) ***
5 (new) The Man with the Iron Heart (15)
6 (4) Paddington (PG) ****
7 (2) American Made (15) ***
8 (7) The Mummy (15)
9 (8) La La Land (12) ***
10 (13) Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****


My top five: 
1. I Am Not a Witch

2. Dina
3. Daphne
4. A Ghost Story
5. It: Chapter One

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Aladdin [above] (Sunday, C4, 4.50pm)
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Sunday, five, 6pm)
3. Sicario (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. Papadopoulos and Sons (Saturday, BBC1, 12.30am)
5. Machete (Friday, C4, 12.10am)

Thursday, 18 January 2018

On DVD: "Daphne"

Over the past year or so, we've witnessed a handful of films - Sean Spencer's Panic and Thomas Napper's Jawbone foremost among them - which seem to have worked out how to shoot the city of London as a living, breathing entity, both home to millions and a cool, cruel mistress. Daphne, written by Nico Mesinga and directed by Peter Mackie Burns, unfolds in a capital that is almost tangibly recognisable, shying away from the usual tourist landmarks to instead place us within easy reach of 24-hour fried chicken and unexpected knife crime, and within touching distance of happiness (or at least stability) and despair. You can smell the smell of certain street corners, if that doesn't immediately send you running for the hills. In this context, our eponymous heroine (Emily Beecham) comes to seem like part of the scenery, all too visibly muddling through: she has a demanding job as an underling in a moderately successful bistro, but squanders her leisure time on drink, drugs and casual sex, none of which serves to dispel her evident anxiety about her place in the bigger picture. 

For a while, Burns is content that we should shamble alongside her. We have time to spot how the front door of Daphne's flat looks to have been installed back-to-front (no wonder she doesn't know whether she's coming or going), and that she's just as likely to spend her evenings online talking to photos of Ryan Gosling as wake up with another no-good man in her bed. (And you think: yeah, I know somebody like this.) Her latent insecurity heightens anew one night after she witnesses a violent robbery at a minimart, and leaves the scene just as the victim is carried into the back of an ambulance: taking away no clear sense of whether this man has survived the attack or perished, he becomes for her a kind of Schrödinger's shop assistant, the most vivid of the half-lives she trails in her wake, trying not to think too hard or too carefully about. As Daphne confesses to a counsellor late on, in what amounts to a dazzling moment of self-actualisation: "I'm a master of the old duck-and-dive... I'm very adept at ignoring the important questions."

Without once invoking the very contemporary spectre of Tinder, the film is strong on those tentative and tenuous convergences - you can't really call them relationships - that people strike up in cities: with those behind the counter of your local shop, say, or the strangers on the bus, or just someone you keep bumping into on the street. These would be enough to fill the singleton's days with something, but they're palpably not enough; forever running away whenever things start to get serious, Daphne's problem would appear to be a lack of substantial connection, which is not the same as cock by the yard. I suspect some viewers may grow frustrated by the lack of overt narrative progression, but then its Žižek-reading heroine, suspicious of all narratives (including her own), surely wouldn't allow it. At the very least, that circular shambling is true to Daphne's own aimlessness, and Mesinga and Burns do much to imbue every sidebar and each apparent dead end with a certain suspense as to how it might turn out, and - moreover - whether their protagonist will ever pull it together.

What this downtime also accentuates is the director's close and attentive work with actors. Burns sets up revealingly tetchy tête-à-têtes between Daphne and her waspish mother (the ever-excellent Geraldine James); everything you need to know about their relationship can be gleaned from mum's joke about having a spare key cut for Daphne's flat in case her daughter ever kills herself. Then there is Beecham, a credibly nervy redhead whose translucent skin only accentuates those issues lurking close to the character's surface: funny and likable when relaxed, her Daphne is lacerating whenever she's close to the edge (which is more often than not), the actress inviting a sympathy the character would shove right back in our faces, too bullheaded to admit any need for help, or that she might be charting the wrong course. Burns knows he has something special with this performance, whether viewed in tight close-ups that succeed momentarily in pinning Daphne to the spot, or craning up above her as she staggers across a road or torches another bridge, forever searching for either direction or herself. It doesn't always make for a pretty picture, but the British film industry has enough of those right now, and - besides - it's rare to see a homegrown feature with the intelligence to invite us to play psychoanalyst: to scrutinise this woman, and the landscape she walks out of, and to form our own judgement accordingly.

Daphne is available on DVD through Altitude from Monday.  

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Buttons and bones: "Coco"

It is getting as hard for animations to find room of their own as it is to find space in our cemeteries. Possibly it's for the best that Pixar have elected to release Coco while Guillermo del Toro is busy touring The Shape of Water on the awards circuit, since the company's latest bears an actionable resemblance to The Book of Life, the Fox-backed digimation del Toro produced for Jorge Gutierrez as recently as 2014. Here is the studio's own take on Mexico's Dia de Muertos legend - overlapping with its predecessor much as A Bug's Life once overlapped with DreamWorks' Antz - and a film that might once have raised the question of cultural appropriation, before Disney began its weekly in-house sensitivity seminars. Everything from Coco's choice of voice artists and behind-the-scenes personnel to the subtly roseate quality of light as the sun sets upon its onscreen barrios has clearly been thought long and hard about, replayed and revised; if what we're watching looks in so many ways familiar, we cannot deny the sensation we've been placed for the duration in the safest of safe hands.

We might even argue that Coco constitutes the company's first coming-out drama. Our hero Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a pre-teen born into a family of cobblers and expected to take up the bradawl himself, yet he has music in his DNA - a legacy attributed to his great-great-grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a troubadour and sometime matinee idol whose name remains unspoken in Miguel's household, a consequence of his having jilted the kid's great-great-grandmother, the still-extant Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), while she was with child. Soon, Miguel finds himself even more of an outcast. While attempting to liberate Ernesto's trademark pearl guitar from a crypt during the Night of the Dead, he passes over into the underworld, and has until daybreak to resolve his tangled heritage and get back home. This graveyard shift will involve the assistance of bony chancer Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a stray dog called Dante (geddit?), who can sniff out ghosts but curiously has no appetite for these skeletons' bones; it's as though Tim Burton's ghoulish stopmotions had been remodelled as bright, shiny 21st century product.

Even without these illustrious reference points, it would be Coco's curse - and the curse of all recent Pixar films - to be set against Inside Out, the company's great comeback-masterstroke of 2015, and an animation so intrinsically original it left one only thinking of itself. Here, the directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina adhere to the same kind of quest narrative that has powered 90% of recent kids' animations, hotfooting from one admittedly lively, detailed location to the next: a bridge covered in iridescent petals that connects the Land of the Dead to the wider world, a workshop for skeletal bohemians, presided over by a Frida Kahlo-styled performance artist, another animated talent show, during which Miguel finds his voice. The film's own artistry is never in doubt. With her fine wrinkles and slumped posture, Mama Coco makes a super-annuated sister to Up's Carl Fredricksen; Miguel's own skin grows more translucent the further he ventures into the underworld, mirroring the photo Marty McFly clutches in Back to the Future; while the screen around him swirls with so-called spirit animals, vivid hybrids with glowing flecks in their fur.

Yet for at least two-thirds of Coco's running time, the plotting underpinning these flourishes feels merely functional, rather than especially inspired: Miguel is here, then there, and then has to follow the right instructions to get back here in one piece. There is, granted, something appreciably meta in the way Unkrich and Molina eventually write appropriation into their own narrative: a song first written as a sincere forget-me-not but seized upon as a gaudy showstopper has to be reclaimed for good in a finale guaranteed to wrench a tear or two from the sentient viewer. If Coco isn't likely to hold up as primo Pixar - that it's a dead-cert for this year's animation Oscar can surely be attributed to a lack of obvious competition in the field over the past twelve months - it does stand as an example of a company reaching into other cultures for more resonant reasons than expanding its audience share, and these final reels have a certain tried-and-tested quality about them that older viewers will likely find reassuring. As the characters in Inside Out would understand, sometimes a film pushes the right buttons in the correct order, and an emotion of sorts is produced. 

Coco opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

The end of the affair: "The Final Year"

To watch The Final Year, Greg Barker's fly-on-the-wall documentary account of the last twelve months of the Obama administration, is to wrestle with at least two issues. Firstly, it's simply impossible not to watch the film through the prism of What Came Next; secondly, you do begin to question the extent to which access - and Barker places us in the very heart of the West Wing, revealed here as a surprisingly poky, cockroach-blighted bunker - has been traded for an easier ride. With legacy in the forefront of everybody's mind, was it really such a good idea to let the cameras in? Or, conversely, was it an inspired one? This was, after all, the most media-savvy administration since the days of JFK, one that traded on fond memories of Aaron Sorkin's progressively minded The West Wing just as surely as the Kennedys once did the legend of Camelot, and embraced the Internet (and, specifically, social media) to spread its message in a way, say, the fuddy-duddy Dubya administration never got to grips with.

In an early sequence, President Obama can be seen telling a conference of young would-be business leaders that the one thing people are attracted to, above all else, is a story. Barker's film is itself a story of sorts, one that identifies its key characters - Secretary of State John Kerry, UN ambassador Samantha Power, speechwriter Ben Rhodes - in its opening moments, and its fraught timeline in its title. So what's this story telling us? Firstly, and as Kerry acknowledges when he notes "the clock is ticking", The Final Year is about how time (and how one manages it) may just be the most crucial element in politics: the Pres can be heard pointing out that, if the US had entered the conflict in Syria, as had seemed likely at one point during these twelve months, there would have been fewer opportunities to obtain the agreements this administration achieved in Paris, Iran and Cuba. (Brexiteers, take note.)

The year Barker documented began on a high, with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, before the President set out on what was effectively a farewell tour - stopping off in Vietnam, Hiroshima and Laos, attempting to heal the wounds left by his predecessors in office - while Kerry set off for Iceland, where he received a schooling in climate change not dissimilar to those seen in Al Gore's Inconvenient movies. New challenges present - Syria for one, Boko Haram for another - but increasingly, perhaps inevitably, the hugest shadow is cast by the campaigning Donald J. Trump, heightening and coarsening the political rhetoric on social media, where he who shouts loudest oft wins the day. Nobody could guess what was coming, save perhaps the disaffected white folks of the American heartlands, growing wary if not weary of this team's internationalism, fancy words and good intentions.

Of all the elements in The Final Year guaranteed to foster audience nostalgia for a moment only recently passed, foremost will be the Obama team's unwavering and unwaveringly sincere belief in the power of diplomacy - a belief borne out on screen by the success of the Iran deal. (Two sides, habitually at loggerheads, sit down around a table and agree some common ground: the past really can seem like another country.) Beyond the day-to-day reality it describes, Barker's film often plays like an extended treatise on the matter of words, and how words matter: it captures in passing a philosophical discussion between two staffers, worthy in its own way of a Sorkin (or Voltaire), over whether post-crash, pre-Trump America is going through a bad moment or - long view - the best time ever to be alive. Even in its more routine stretches, we find the policy wonks striving wherever possible to open up or extend a dialogue rather than, say, barking taunts or bending others to their will.

What the film is not, pointedly, is warts-and-all vérité, in the yellowing, Primary-era sense of the term. Clearly, there were levels of governance beyond Barker's clearance: yes, the filmmaker was allowed to go on recon, attend photo ops, and occasionally catch revealing moments of human interest - Old Man Kerry forgetting his phone, The Prez sliding into shots like The Fonz, dispensing sage, considered advice to all and sundry - but the film is at least a little sketchy on what's actually going on back in Washington while its key players are enjoying their last hurrahs. Crises - like Rhodes' frank interview with New York magazine - are hustled past, as politicos perhaps have to in order to remain sane (and employed), but only once, with the discussion of an alleged Russian air strike on a Syrian aid convoy, does The Final Year appear to gather material you feel its subjects wouldn't want on the public record.

If this containment strategy proves more limiting than illuminating overall, the film does, nevertheless, have the benefit of a profoundly dramatic closing section, as the night of November 8, 2016 brings about the crushing of all those hopes, dreams and ideals this team brought into office. Rhodes, for once, is left speechless; Power holds her young daughter in her arms, left wondering what the future holds for them both. If politics is the way we react to events, here you feel romance being eclipsed by realpolitik: after ninety minutes of watching a legacy being shored up and polished, we finally emerge into a brave new world, with a whole new administration that has spent its first year in office seeking to overturn what came before. The West Wing, famously, concluded on an upbeat note ("What are you thinking about?" "Tomorrow"), and those words may now be cast in an pessimistic light; but Rhodes, at least, provides a measure of cautious optimism: "Maybe there's a different happy ending." Even as they packed up and shipped out, this administration was clinging to an idea of hope.

The Final Year opens in selected cinemas from Friday.        

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Forever man: "Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars"

"CLAPTON IS GOD" read the legend daubed on a wall in North London's Arvon Road some time in the late 1960s, by which point Eric Clapton had been elevated to the pantheon of rock greats. With Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, her new documentary account of the guitarist's various highs and lows, the filmmaker Lili Fini Zanuck spends two hours in search of Clapton the man: evasive and elusive, muddled and vulnerable, often wobbly in both his judgement and movements - but unmistakably a stone-cold master of his instrument. It is, then, a film of some noteworthy, epoch-defining music, but its success for non-diehards may depend largely on how interesting you find technical mastery, and whether or not you believe it can be used to mitigate against some fairly shoddy, ill-considered behaviour. Not for the first time in recent weeks and recent movies, we're invited to weigh the art against the artist.

It's certainly fitting that Zanuck should choose to open with footage of Clapton paying video tribute to BB King, and end with King, in one of his final live appearances before his death in 2015, repaying the compliment: she's realised that the Clapton story forms another chapter in the wider history of the sometimes harmonious yet often fraught relationship between rock's white and black strands. So the biography begins: with Clapton the fair-haired Home Counties lad, born out of wedlock and abandoned by his mother at birth, finding an early friend in the Saturday morning radio show hosted by an uncle, a transmission that introduced him to the likes of Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. Just as myriad white boys have connected over the years with the anger, cussing and horniness of certain black rappers, his blues was to merge with theirs. 

Other influences fill the screen, as young Eric first picks up a guitar - performers as varied as Bismillah Khan and Little Walter - and, in due course, we get the footage of the emergent rock god palling around with Hendrix and Aretha. If it starts to seem as if Zanuck's setting something up, that's because she is: she knows that any honest Clapton movie will eventually have to address the 1976 gig in Birmingham when her subject let fly with a racist tirade in support of the anti-immigration MP Enoch Powell. (The tirade was to directly inspire the Rock Against Racism movement.) It's by no means a good look: the man who'd appropriated the sound of those he called "wogs" and "coons" now telling them, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off.

How did we (and he) get here? From the childhood photos of a stern-faced, inward-turned child through his deadeningly earnest Sixties interviews to the cover of August, his bestselling long-player of 1986, a certain humourlessness dogs the film's subject. "We thought the Beatles were wankers," Clapton confesses, by way of an explanation for his decision to quit The Yardbirds after the success of their Beatlesesque "For Your Love"; he leapt from there to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, although the song used to soundtrack this shift - 1965's "Crocodile Walk" - isn't noticeably heavier or more authentic. Not for the last time, the framing and editing proves somewhat flattering to a subject whose motives are often far from entirely sympathetic. 

For one, Zanuck offers a soft-pedalled account of the Clapton-Harrison-Boyd affair, introducing into evidence Persian texts, a throwaway reference to the Beatle's philandering, and more details of Clapton's abandonment ("I was more on my own than I'd ever been"), but arguably he stole off with Boyd as he'd stolen off with Waters' guitar licks, splitting up a friend's marriage just as following his impulses had split up band after band. Of course, the film insists, the affair needed to happen so the soundtrack of every other movie (including this one) can build towards the agonised riffs of "Layla": you sense the art being used to justify the means. Such considered juxtaposition recurs elsewhere: the 1976 outburst is positioned at the end of a segment describing the star's descent into alcoholism, the implication being that it was the drink talking that night, not that something had been unstopped in the man.

Zanuck has fifty years of rock history at her disposal - decades of excess, waywardness and tragedy, much of it documented in attractive Kodachrome colours - and yet her film never grabs us by the lapels as Julien Temple's recent pop archaeologies have, or 2012's tempestuous Beware of Mr. Baker did. Life in 12 Bars settles into the steady rhythm of a VH1 primer early, and sticks to it for the next two hours, layering Clapton's offscreen (and distant-sounding) recollections over the archive gig footage, while ticking off the hits and highlights. Like many films on this scene's survivors, it palpably tails off once the countercultural battles are fought and lost and we reach the 1980s. We hear nothing of, say, "Behind the Mask", the most energetic single he'd released in years - though even that owed a debt to Ryuichi Sakamoto's Yellow Magic Orchestra; the recordings take second place to the women wooed and abandoned.

Only with the death of Clapton's four-year-old son Conor in 1991 - a genuine tragedy that by all accounts led the musician to sober and wise up, and eventually inspired his most personal hit ("Tears in Heaven") - can you feel Zanuck starting to get close to her otherwise standoffish subject. The lows of this life have been so low that it's a relief to see Clapton in relaxed late-life, smiling and playing with his now-extended brood. (To don my pop psychologist's hat for a moment: here, perhaps, is the family denied to him as a boy.) Somewhere behind the rote chronology sits an intriguing idea of Clapton as a Biblical figure - not a God, but something like a musical Job or Lot, granted one special power (advanced fretwork) but bedevilled in so many other respects. Had he been prepared to face Zanuck's camera and look the viewer in the eye, we might have had something truly revealing; as it is, we've wound up with the kind of fan-pacifier where the biography is often indistinguishable from special pleading.

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of January 5-7, 2018:

1 (2) 
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
2 (1) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A) ***
3 (3) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (new) Molly's Game (15) ***
5 (4) Pitch Perfect 3 (12A)
6 (new) All the Money in the World (15) **
7 (5Paddington 2 (PG) ****
8 (6) Ferdinand (U)
9 (new) Hostiles (15) **
10 (7Daddy's Home 2 (12A)


My top five: 
1. A Woman's Life

2. Persona
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. The Brawler/Mukkabaaz
5. Jupiter's Moon

Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (1) Dunkirk (12) ***
2 (3) American Made (15) ***
3 (new) Jeepers Creepers 3 (15) [above]
4 (4) Paddington (PG) ****
5 (7) Fast & Furious 8 (12)
6 (2) Micky Flanagan: An' Another Fing Live (15)
7 (12) The Mummy (15)
8 (14) La La Land (12) ***
9 (5) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **
10 (16) Davina - Toned in 10 (U)


My top five: 
1. I Am Not a Witch

2. Dina
3. A Ghost Story
4. It: Chapter One
5. Kills on Wheels

Signs: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

They are, as the phrase insists, characters in their own right. Three rundown hoardings, on a desolate stretch of road on the outskirts of some podunk town, onto which a middle-aged woman has pasted a stark description of her daughter's unsolved murder, and a call to arms to the town's beleaguered police chief. Papering over the aspirational homilies that usually sit here with a message that amplifies her own long-held doubts and anxieties isn't the most popular move Mildred Hayes has ever made, but there the billboards are nevertheless: a cry for help in the dark, a lone voice in the wilderness, three stands against the injustices of this world, nagging, needling, intriguing all those who gaze upon them. Eventually, we will see the back of them - literally so, in one of the elegant reverse-angles that close out Martin McDonagh's much-discussed dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - but they have a way of sticking in the mind a long while after the lights have come back on, fuchsia-pink pop-ups that speak, once again, to the power of advertising.

Perhaps only a woman could have shook things up so. Here's a battle of the sexes that has sunk its claws far deeper into awards voters than that recent cinematic tennis match: no sooner has Mildred (Frances McDormand) completed her handiwork than she's besieged by the all-male employees of the Ebbing police department. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) turns out to be a decent enough cove, well-intentioned and much-loved in the community, but he literally doesn't have the time to reopen an investigation that went nowhere very much in the first place. Altogether more problematic is his rash deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a blunt tool of law enforcement around whom there lurks rumour and suspicion; we know he's no good once we see he shares a mom with Mac from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, out of whose mouth falls gobfuls of Old South invective. Opinion is split elsewhere. Mildred gets moderate support from her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), though even he has to confess the billboards have started to bum him out after a while; her ex (John Hawkes), however, expresses his disapproval by wrapping his hand around her throat and pinning her to a wall, which seems an unduly direct means of trying to shut her up.

Increasingly, it appears as though McDonagh, the playwright-turned-director who's made a career of penning variably heady provocations (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), has turned his eye to the subject of trauma, and the peculiar dance society now does around it. Not for the first time recently, a woman declares something terrible has happened to her, and all of a sudden it's open season: Mildred finds herself surrounded not just by those who would question her sanity and abilities as a mother, but by men who - for one reason or another - simply want peace and quiet, and thereby maintain the status quo. The wild card, which keeps the film away from the piety and predictability it might have lapsed into, is that Mildred is herself something of a wild card, an apparently concerned citizen who begins the film by turning a drill on her dentist, and ends it by initiating a firebombing campaign. Something in the way those billboards are framed replicates our conflicted responses to the traumatising act: do we print it out in angry 25-point font and rub the world's noses in it, in the hope that anger might change the world, or do we let it recede in the rear-view mirror, even as the scars remain and the wrong continues to gnaw at us?

McDonagh refuses to take an obvious side in this conflict, and that refusal - born, I suspect, of equal parts puckishness and an acknowledgement there are no stock or easy answers - has brought him a measure of pushback from Film Twitter, busy erecting their own billboards of protest along the road to the Oscars. I hear some of these protestations: I too doubt whether this filmmaker, unhesitatingly flinging the c- and n-words about, has been within thirty miles of a political correctness seminar, and I agree there are notes of barely disguised sourness in the wit. (If it does go on to scoop the Oscar, Three Billboards will surely be the Best Picture winner with the highest number of fat jokes.) There are outright missteps here, enough to suggest McDonagh isn't as yet the master filmmaker some in high office are ready to crown him as. Oddly cutely asides with Mildred talking to a (poorly rendered) CG deer or her own rabbit slippers feel like executive decisions imposed at precisely the point the character risks getting lost in the shuffle (and also nothing like anything that no-bullshit character would do); and, as in the dreary Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh believes that he can get away with some of his shonkier, more coincidental narrative manoeuvres if he knowingly flags them as such two or three scenes in advance. Martin: you can't.

Still, some of the film's so-called crimes actually struck me as interesting ambiguities, nuance of a type generally unavailable on Twitter. To shout down Three Billboards as just a film about the redemption of a racist is a thoroughly woke response, hotwired into the struggles of the present moment, but also, I would suggest, a misreading of the character in question's efficacy come the final act, and of what they might be setting off to do as the credits roll. (It also assumes that Mildred herself has unimpeachable motives, which the previous 100 minutes haven't entirely established: my impression was that McDonagh was playing with the idea of the "strong female lead", either for shits and giggles, or because he sincerely believes that people are more complicated than the majority of movies let on. What if a strong female was utterly misguided in her beliefs and actions, and carried on regardless? What to do with all our hashtags and lapel badges and copies of The Female Eunuch then?) It would, at any rate, be churlish to deny that, on a scene-by-scene basis, McDonagh has a way with even the non-profane words and, in the bigger picture, with plotting that, however it's been assembled, still succeeds in catching the unwary viewer off-guard.

The performers, too, maybe: the less assured supporting players here stick out like maladroit thumbs, but as in Fargo, another much-laureled movie bashed out by professional wind-up merchants, McDormand senses just how much of Three Billboards is going on behind her character's back, and resolves to make her the centre of the film's gravity. Lesser actresses would find themselves forgotten about as McDonagh sets about dramatising the unexpected shifts Mildred's actions cause within the Ebbing PD's power structure, but McDormand digs in, becoming a thorn in both movie and viewer's side: the billboards, when we finally bid farewell to them, suddenly resemble extensions of a forceful yet fractured personality. Some of the film's success is incidental or accidental, then - credit the luck of the London Irish - but a good deal more of its provocation and stimulation is entirely deliberate: it makes for a most unlikely awards frontrunner, but in the scope of its inquiry, its outsider's eye for small-town ugliness, resentment and anger, its reluctance to make nice, neat and tidy, and its ability to provoke heated debate both online and IRL, this is the only film of the season to feel like a vision of modern America, and not a consoling fantasy.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now playing in cinemas nationwide.   

Friday, 12 January 2018

"The Brawler/Mukkabaaz" (Guardian 12/01/18)

The Brawler/Mukkabaaz ***
Dir: Anurag Kashyap. With: Vineet Kumar Singh, Zoya Hussain, Jimmy Shergill, Ravi Kishan. 154 mins. Cert: 15

An eclectic run of credits – 2007’s bizarre psychothriller No Smoking, 2009’s Devdas update Dev. D, 2012’s crime diptych Gangs of Wasseypur – have established writer-director-producer Anurag Kashyap as Hindi cinema’s foremost moderniser. He took a beating on 2015’s Cotton Club-like period folly Bombay Velvet, but his latest is a canny comeback bid: a heavy-hitting social critique disguised as a rock ‘em-sock ‘em sports movie, following the attempts of angry lower-caste boxer Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) to claw back some personal and professional satisfaction after walloping the well-connected coach whose mute niece the boxer was wooing. Kashyap’s own struggles to stay mobile within a stiflingly regulated, sometimes rigged system never seem very far from the surface.

This filmmaker’s preference for no-holds-barred realism over the prevailing comforts of melodrama manifests in characters who spit and curse, use the toilet, and land genuinely wounding punches; the songs following them into battle mix the poetic with the colloquial (“I am as rough as a badger’s arse”). Yet the entire film proceeds to determinedly idiosyncratic rhythms. Kashyap’s less beholden to the standard Rocky template (Shravan is such a pariah he can’t get near a gym) than to the eccentric indie-kid choices of 2010’s The Fighter, setting his camera to study the fractious corners his leads emerge from, and cutting away to a bodypopping bystander at one point, because he senses there’s a rhyme of sorts with Shravan’s niftier footwork.

There’s a lot of dancing around – we get well-timed jabs at India’s rabble-rousing patriarchy, and the pressures developing nations put on their young – although Kashyap finds vivid focal points amid the brouhaha. As the niece, Zoya Hussain makes her signing as fiercely eloquent as any pugilist’s fists, while the bristling Singh succeeds in persuading us he could lapse into thuggery but also scrub up quite handsomely, given the chance; he plays a big part in an early contender for 2018’s strongest closing image. What precedes it can feel jolting – Kashyap’s sound design alone could induce mild concussion – but it’s self-evidently the work of a creative ducking Bollywood’s usual rules of engagement: a film to cheer, and not to be messed with. 

The Brawler opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"Darkest Hour" (Catholic Herald 11/01/18)

Mention Churchill to movie execs, and they respond as his namesake nodding dog: “Oh, yes.” As the debate over national identity rages on, it is perhaps inevitable we should rally around the totemic Briton, and see what wisdom he might still impart to us. Last summer’s Churchill adopted a detailed biographical line; now there’s Darkest Hour (**, PG, 126 mins), an altogether more bombastic procedural punching up our Winston’s first month in office. In the lead role, not some age- and looks-appropriate actor, burrowing inwards towards a core Churchillian truth, rather Gary Oldman, trapped beneath several pounds of latex: the first fatal error of a film forever straining for a weight and gravity beyond its reach.

The script, by The Theory of Everything’s Anthony McCarten, arrives larded with contemporary parallels. Darkest Hour opens on a sepulchral Commons, amid a growing leadership crisis: replacing the enfeebled Chamberlain as PM, Churchill must win over dissenting MPs from both sides of the aisle while commencing frantic negotiation with those on the frontlines to protect Britain’s sovereignty. For director Joe Wright, this necessitates setting Oldman down in shadowy corners (darkest hour, see), from where the actor huffs and puffs towards vast pools of light. The approach owes less to AJP Taylor than Bonnie Tyler: it’s history redrawn in broad pop-promo strokes for a nation desperately holding out for a hero.

As his flashy replay of Dunkirk in 2007’s Atonement demonstrated, Wright deals in non-subtle, easily translated images that are just expensive enough to dazzle wider-eyed onlookers. For Darkest Hour, he rolls out countless aerial perspectives of battlefields in a bid to open up what’s essentially a series of Cabinet meetings, but so much of this movement seems reductive: the PM meeting a winsome refugee’s gaze while flying into France, or jovially discussing policy decisions during a deeply condescending, biographically dubious Tube commute. Increasingly, Darkest Hour plays like a vision of Britain for a Britain that needs its politics simplified into caricature, a vulgarisation that extends to the conception of Churchill himself.

One-sided awards buzz suggests this is the Oldman show, and it’s certainly striking watching a once-unmatchable performer fighting a losing battle with a fat suit. Whatever the technical challenges, however, the results are a slap in the face to those older actors who might not have needed the phoney bulk, and – to these eyes, at least – a sorry extension of the star’s recent descent into under-directed scenery-chewing. Wibbling about boiled eggs, bellowing about everything else (“Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed in the privy!”), this windbag Winston most often resembles one of Matt Lucas’s creations from a show that provides Darkest Hour with both an alternative title and, presumably, its target demographic: Little Britain.

Darkest Hour opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Hostages of fortune: "All the Money in the World"

All the Money in the World has a place waiting for it in the history books as a technical feat: as has been widely reported, once news broke of the scandal enveloping Kevin Spacey, director Ridley Scott took the decision to recast the pivotal role of J. Paul Getty with Christopher Plummer and reshoot key scenes mere weeks before the film's original holiday release date. The rationale was equal parts ethical and financial: Spacey had become a toxic asset that needed offloading, if the finished feature stood any chance of recouping its budget in the current climate. (In this respect, the director has proven a far cannier operator than, say, Louis CK, whose self-financed feature I Love You, Daddy had its release scrapped after allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour were made against him.) Scott has long seemed like Hollywood's ideal of a director-businessman, one who talks the same turkey as the studios' corporate paymasters, brings every project in on budget and on time, and once made an entire romcom - 2006's A Good Year - dependent on the price of reserve wine. Even Scott's most populist endeavours, the recent Alien bolt-ons, have sometimes appeared like cautionary tales recounted by a John Harvey-Jones-like troubleshooter in the pages of a health-and-safety manual: how not to run an interstellar mining company. 

Handed a script by David Scarpa about arguably the 20th century's most successful businessman, and the fraught negotiations that broke out after the kidnap of Getty's teenage grandson Paul in Rome in 1973, Scott presumably leapt to sign on - and he likewise didn't hesitate to take decisive action once the full extent of the Spacey situation became apparent. (Every creative decision here seems informed by the question "What would Getty do?") Yet the curious thing about All the Money in the World is that the reshoot legend suggests an urgency about this production that is conspicuously lacking from the finished film. That leaden Scarpa script is the chief culprit. After a scene-setting prologue that sees Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation) scooped up off the street by a VW van's worth of bedraggled Italian ne'er-do-wells, the clock doesn't start ticking as start ticking backwards. A full half-hour of this 133-minute picture is set aside to detailing exactly how Getty senior made his billions, where the kid came from, and his bohemian childhood, before Scott can circle back around to address the finer points of his central stand-off. (For the uninitiated: the kidnappers demanded $17m for the kid's safe return, but Getty senior, wary of opening himself up to further extortion attempts, refused to cough up a pretty penny.)

In the meantime, Scott intends us penniless proles to marvel at Getty's screen-filling skyscrapers ("It must have eighty storeys!," gasps the wide-eyed younger Paul), or an anecdote about an artefact that cost the billionaire $11 at a Grecian market stall but would now be worth a cool million at auction, or the old-money sweep of Getty's English country estate, with its well-stocked armoury and glamorous flame-haired fillies shooting skeet for sport over Bloody Marys out back. "I like things," Plummer's Getty muses to his go-to negotiator Fletcher Chace (a composite or invention, played in the loosest sense of the term by Mark Wahlberg). "Paintings, statues... because they're exactly what they appear to be. They never change, and they never disappoint." People, not so much: you wonder the extent to which Scott himself agrees. What we as viewers need amid this moneyed milieu are flesh-and-blood figures, someone we feel we can cling to, or who might just offset all the cold hard cash being paraded before us; what we witness instead are some deeply strange casting and performance choices.

To address the pressing issue first, Plummer slips into his scenes as to the manor born. The actor's seniority and patrician bearing makes him a far better fit for this Getty than you can ever imagine the Voldemort-like Spacey-in-latex of the film's early trailers being; there is, perhaps, an even more fascinating movie going on behind the kidnapping, tailing this desiccated penny-pincher as he stumbles around his darkened Home Counties Xanadu, clutching masterpieces to a hollow chest while mummifying himself in ticker tape. Alas, Scott and Scarpa's focus lies elsewhere. As the boy's mother Abigail, Michelle Williams tests a posh British accent that generates erratic line readings and undermines her flickers of maternal warmth, while the role of Getty's head tactician sorely demanded someone whose ability to suggest intelligence extended beyond raiding the costume truck for thick-rimmed glasses. Deprived of his usual muscle scenes, Wahlberg stands around looking bemused in period waistcoats; he may have received substantially more for doing this than his female co-star, but you wouldn't trust this guy to negotiate a pelican crossing on his own. (Best in show is Romain Duris as the kidnappers' pointman, forging an unexpected bond with his punk charge - though it still seems perverse to cast a Frenchman as an Italian.)

Scott gives us time - practically all the time in the world - to notice the film's quirks and foibles. The pulpy material, tectonic collision of social strata, and Italian setting cry out for a filmmaker working in the tradition of Francesco Rosi or any of the other great European directors who turned towards the thriller genre in the 1970s, someone prepared to shake this story by its ankles to see what truths might fall out of its pockets; instead, it's passed all too smoothly into the hands of old man Ridley, more producer than director nowadays, who potters along in second gear, ensuring every last Wiki-sourced plot point and change of location has been carefully accounted for. The results retain that mild, minor fascination that comes from stumbling onto a well-turned afternoon TV movie where recognisable faces play well-to-do people - I suspect it'll be the 2017-18 awards contender most often encountered for the first time on a long-haul flight (business class, natch) - but its achievements are almost entirely logistical: Scott has converted intriguing facts into functional sequences, and then, amid a last-minute crisis, ensured the completed product was delivered to his bosses on deadline and without undue expenditure. You can admire the professionalism, by all means, but it's not art, and it only just counts as entertainment.

All the Money in the World is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Laws of gravity: "Jupiter's Moon"

Kornél Mundruczó is the Hungarian writer-director whose previously grim and resistible cinema - wispy parables of rural rape and abuse, as bare-boned as his sometime muse Orsi Tóth - took a giant leap forward after he relocated to the city for 2014's White God: here, at last, was a thriller to sink one's teeth into, possessed of both a big, bold, properly cinematic concept (a world overrun by vengeful packs of dogs) and the technique to make good on such a premise. For his follow-up, Mundruczó has reached even further out there. Jupiter's Moon adheres to one prominent arthouse trope of the present moment: it's another of our latter-day traveller's tales, opening up by tracking a young Syrian refugee, Aryan (Zsombor Jéger), as he crosses the border between Serbia and Hungary. Yet the film that follows turns out to be as close to a Marvel movie as Mundruczó is ever likely to make. After he's apparently shot dead by a patrolman, Aryan comes round to discover he has special powers, chiefly the ability to soar and swoop above his new home like Iron Man without the suit.

Now, you might say, this is an unusual if not altogether risky strategy for a serious filmmaker to adopt when addressing the migrant crisis: to abandon the harsh, boots-on-the-ground realities of such recent films as Human Flow and The Golden Dream in favour of pursuing literal flights of fantasy. It does, however, allow Mundruczó to swerve some of the pieties increasingly associated with this strain of cinema. As Aryan escapes a temporary holding camp and sets out for Budapest in a bid to reunite with the father he lost touch with at the border, his fate becomes intertwined with two men who indirectly represent different responses to this issue: a pragmatic doctor (Merab Ninidze), who becomes Aryan's unofficial manager, touring the lad around to perform miracles for cash; and a sour-faced detective (György Cserhalmi), who views Aryan as just another statistic to be rounded up and squared away. Scene after scene is elevated by Mundruczó's new-found big-picture technique. As in White God, the director - reunited with the earlier film's laudably flexible cinematographer Marcell Rév - stages long, very carefully choreographed takes through familiar-seeming metropolitan locations, while the flying scenes, achieved through a mix of analogue and digital wizardry, attain some of the elastic beauty of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity.

Yet the setpieces in White God were very clear in both their execution and their meaning: these were the savage consequences of a dog-eat-dog world being turned upon its axis, so that dumb beasts should turn on Man, fangs bared. You will likely spend between 80-90% of Jupiter's Moon wondering just what exactly Mundruczó and his regular screenwriter Kata Wéber are attempting to communicate. When Aryan spins the house of an injured man who repeatedly spits the word "gypsy" at him, is the takehome that we should take better care of outsiders, because they possess both the power to heal us (as with the healthcare professionals who venture here from afar) and to destroy us (as with those radicalised on their travels)? Is that me being simplistic, or is it the movie? (Or is it the case that, given nationalists have traditionally appealed to the lowest common denominators, those on the Left would likewise do better to simplify - to address concerns about immigration in terms and images the man on the street might better understand?) The image rotates, and the mind boggles.

At any rate, there are signs the film gives in to a different kind of piety around its protagonist. Aryan, played by Jéger as a handsome blank, is identified at an early stage as the son of a carpenter, an occupation presumably chosen for its religious connotations, while the doctor joshingly refers to him as an angel - a reading Mundruczó later validates by having the lad ascend to the heavens, nursing what looks like a broken wing, in the wake of a midfilm subway bombing. Again, we're beset by questions: is Aryan a celestial being, sent among mortals to awaken something in the sceptical doctor, and just perhaps the jaded viewer? (The reviews following the film out of Cannes last summer suggest he'll have his work cut out for him.) Or is he something else, maybe: an embodiment or symbol of the spirit of free movement - hence all his balletic Tinkerbelling above the modern European metropolis?

I'm not sure even Mundruczó's certain, hence the scene late on in the back of a speeding ambulance where the doctor and the cop trade exactly those queries the audience will have been pondering for the duration. Though the film's own movements look to have been storyboarded down to the last small camera tilt, its ideas, admirable as they might seem, don't always seem to have been so closely thought through; the results, both kinetic and sketchy, come to resemble 2016's Midnight Special as made by someone with their head even further up in the clouds. It is true that Mundruczó has become a far more ambitious and accomplished imagemaker in recent years, and the cinema we find here is all the healthier for leaving the rape behind: one way or another, this director has landed firmly on the side of the angels. Yet somewhere amid all these spectacular twirls and humanist pirouettes, Mundruczó loses sight of one key fact: that the vast majority of the huddled masses headed our way are just regular Joes trying to get from there to here, bound by the same laws of physics as you or I, with nothing greater to raise them up than sheer force of will.

Jupiter's Moon is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.