Thursday, 21 September 2017

Middleness: "In Between"

Maysaloun Hamoud's In Between begins with an illuminating if jolting contrast. A beauty-shop elder instructs a young Palestinian woman to keep her mouth shut and her body waxed if she hopes to attract and keep a man; cue opening title, then an abrupt cut to two other young Palestinian women - two flatmates, aspirant DJ Salma (Sana Jammelieh) and lawyer Leila (Mouna Hawa) - hitting the Tel Aviv bar scene as hard as they possibly can. No such strictures for them. This city, we soon grasp, is another where the old world meets the new: next morning, Salma is roused from hungover slumber by a phone call from her mother, insisting she cover up her tattoos and take out her piercings before she meets with the prospective spouse her parents have lined up for her, little knowing their daughter's sexual preferences reside on the other side of the Gaza Strip. If Salma and Leila are only too keen to break or circumnavigate the rules, their new housemate abides by them religiously. Meek and headscarved Noor (Shaden Kanboura) goes out of her way to please her deeply conservative fiance - but even she seems inclined to turn an ear to her horny housemates' doors and bust a move to their records when nobody else is watching.

Part of the freshness of Hamoud's debut - much-garlanded on the festival circuit - lies in encountering a Middle Eastern film that isn't unduly burdened by the politics of the region. It's true that Salma quits her kitchen job after she's told that her speaking Arabic alienates the clientele, and the girls' status as Arabs in the Israeli capital doubtless contributes to their sense of being neither here nor there. Yet Hamoud, upon this first glance, appears to be less the daughter of Arafat than a sister to Lena Dunham: she's chiefly interested in her heroines as romantic and sexual adventuresses, not as prisoners or casualties of war. For much of its running time, In Between presents as a study of twentysomething women meeting in the middle. Salma and Leila look upon Noor as almost an alien creature when she first shuffles across their threshold, every last inch of her body covered. Yet they will be there for her after her fiance, a zealot so uptight he won't even shake an unmarried woman's hand, crosses a red line - and it's here that what was previously a genial portrait of a generation gives rise to something as concrete and predetermined as a plot.

My feeling is that In Between loses some of its breeziness with that redirection, and its second half flirts with exactly the kind of soapy, issue-led melodrama Hamoud's savvy-hip characters sneer at in an early scene. Salma's trip to her parents' home in the suburbs is very Girls - during a slyly satiric evening meal, one buxom friend of the family boasts that her (fully grown) fiance has never once moved out of his parents' place - but this comic episode is immediately juxtaposed by the altogether sadder sight of our heroine's own guardians taking violently against the presence of their child's (female) lover. Sharp, vivid playing yanks us out of any dead spots, however, and Hamoun has an eye for images that crystallise the social and generational divides, and just where they've left her characters: consider the simple camera movement that removes us from Noor hastening to prepare supper to the carefree men sitting around in the next room, smoking and chatting among themselves, or the early set-up that places Salma at the dead centre of the screen, albeit with her overbearing father on one side of her, and a pretty useless suitor on the other - in between, yet again.

In Between opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, ahead of its DVD release on November 13.   

Monday, 18 September 2017

From the archive: "Kingsman: The Secret Service"

Market forces being as unsparing as they are, it was perhaps inevitable we would end up with a director as cynical as Matthew Vaughn. A producer on Guy Ritchie’s first films, Vaughn occupied the director’s chair for 2004’s Layer Cake, a rote gangland outing that sought our sympathy for a drug dealer who represented the kind of supply-and-demand-savvy middleman Vaughn doubtless fancied himself as. More lowest-denominator fare followed: 2007’s Stardust, which channelled the snickering violence, chauvinism and homophobia of Ritchieland into a dismayingly profitable family film; 2010’s Kick-Ass, that feature-length recruitment video for sociopaths; and, having obtained the keys to the studio kingdom, 2011’s X-Men: First Class, where the concentration-camp scenes gained a crudely effective charge from Vaughn’s apparently close understanding of abuses of power.

Kingsman, his latest exercise in loud, tasteless thrills, is simultaneously a spoiler for Ritchie’s long-gestating Man from U.N.C.L.E, a flagrant Bond-gig audition, and – not coincidentally – masturbation fodder for public schoolboys who weren’t bright enough to get the call from MI5. Vaughn and regular partner-in-crime Jane Goldman, adapting another Mark Millar screed, offer us an alternative security force, modelled on Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer. Besuited and bespectacled, its agents – headed by Colin Firth’s Galahad – operate out of a Savile Row tailor’s overseen by Caine himself; the film’s so in thrall to hollow, GQ-approved ideas of style that their passwords include “Oxfords, not brogues”.

For Vaughn, style and class are inseparable. Grateful plebs that we are, we’re meant to take something heartening from the social-mobility narrative that sees Taron Egerton’s rough diamond Eggsy plucked from his lowly surrounds, suited and booted, and placed on his Majesty’s secret service; in a film this gratingly self-reflexive, it may also be possible to see something of wannabe wideboy Matthew de Vere Vaughn reflecting upon the expensive toys bestowed upon him by the movie establishment.

Nowadays, he has the resources to follow his characters as they skydive out of planes, and to build set-pieces around a legless female assassin (Sofia Boutella) who sports razor-sharp Pistorius blades on her stumps – the kind of sexy homage to a convicted wifekiller only a filmmaker of Vaughn’s tact and diplomacy would attempt. He still knows how to produce and package, and to give his audience the sensation they crave: bits with cute puppies and characters tied to the railway tracks, hyperstylised violence set to throbbing pop tunes, and a (flatly horrible) anal sex “gag” as a topper.

Yet you’d have to be soft-headed to fall for a fantasy that proves so flimsy around both ends of the social spectrum: on one side, treacherous poshos named Hugo, Digby and Amelia, on the other, a vision of working-class life that extends to cramming Sam Janus in a council flat overrun by sixteen people’s unwashed laundry, Geoff Bell at his most scrofulous, and blasts of the one Dizzee Rascal track Vaughn heard while his Range Rover was parked up at traffic lights.

That this director is squarely on side with the 1% can be discerned from the film’s opening (Dire Straits) and closing (Bryan Ferry) soundtrack choices, and that his plot has been annotated with cutaways to Sky News – for this is a Fox production, after all, and Vaughn is nothing if not a company man. (Firth’s office is lined with Sun cover stories, in another none-too-classy instance of brown-nosing.)

The prevailing tabloid mentality becomes doubly questionable if we consider just who the Kingsmen’s massed brute force has been deployed against here: Samuel L. Jackson as a lisping Internet tycoon whose utter classlessness is revealed when – gadzooks! – he deigns to serve Firth a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries from a silver platter. Vaughn, of course, thinks nothing of taking the product-placement shilling: here’s one aspirant fat cat determined to have his Happy Meal and eat it.

The Sun good, but Apple, Microsoft and McDonald’s bad? In the week of another controversy over Page Three, perhaps Matthew might like to go away and have a quiet think about that one. Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t. Kingsmen, mindlessly celebrating the triumph of resolutely heterosexual white men over an effeminate-sounding African-American, arrives as proof you can put a dodgy geezer in a sharp suit, but also that, sometimes, clothes maketh not the man.

(MovieMail, January 2015)

Kingsman: The Secret Service is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; a sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, opens in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

1,001 Films: "An American Werewolf in London" (1981)

Three-and-a-half decades on from its first release, John Landis's An American Werewolf in London remains good for both a giggle and a scream. Two backpacking buddies are roaming the Yorkshire moors when they're set about by a lycanthrope: one (Griffin Dunne) is savaged and killed, while the other (David Naughton), rescued by locals after being bitten on the cheek, is flown to London for treatment. While in hospital, he's plagued by violent dreams and understandably stunned when his chum, face ripped to shreds, reappears at his bedside, warning of worse things to come, but not before asking "Can I have a piece of your toast?" 

The best - and most touching - joke in the whole movie is that these friends resume their conversations where they left off, but it's typical of a film where affection trumps cynicism every time. Although clearly spawned by a fondness for American (more specifically, Universal) horror - there's an early reference to The Wolf Man - the film is finally a broadminded American's love letter to the British landscape, weather, odd hospitality (witness The Slaughtered Lamb, home to Brian Glover, David Bradley and a young Rik Mayall), habits (hence multiple tea jokes), television and women: they don't come much more English than Jenny Agutter in nurses' whites, even if Landis shows his hand by having her fall instantly for his hero's transatlantic charms. 

It is, ultimately, as British as any film of this period: the Trafalgar Square sequence alone offers Alan Ford as a cab driver and Chief Superintendent Brownlow from The Bill in an early role as a humble constable, plus one of the most mysterious pieces of background graffiti ever filmed (seen on the wall of the phone box Naughton uses to call home) in "GARFATH DOES PARTIES" - what the hell did that ever mean? All the same, you can tell it was directed by an American from the way this werewolf doesn't seem to give two figs about class - his victims include a haut-bourgeois couple, three tramps and a banker - and from the way Landis succeeds in converting Piccadilly Circus into the venue for a demolition derby.

It holds up because Landis gets the simple stuff right: he makes the horror resonant and startling - credit make-up whizz Rick Baker for a hairy transformation that remains striking even in these days of CGI modifications and 200 cuts per minute - while the comedy, such as Naughton waking up in the nud, or the dubbed-English porn, remains genuinely funny. Spin-offs include a run of far limper VHS rentals (Vamp, The Monster Squad, Teen Wolf), a tardy sequel that had Julie Delpy to recommend it and not much else, and a renewal of interest in a Warren Zevon recording from 1978 - but, despite the prominence afforded to "Bad Moon Rising" on the soundtrack, no Creedence Clearwater Revival revival.  

An American Werewolf in London is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

From the archive: "Renoir"

What you notice first about Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir is the quality of its light: how it strikes – and, in doing so, differentiates between – the red in the leading lady’s hair, the orange of her coat, and the peachy flesh tones she will eventually reveal. Unfailingly shimmering and summery, the compositions of ace Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love) will, in themselves, comprise a worthy tribute to the legendary painter.

In strictly biopic terms, however, we’re back in Lincoln territory, again invited to extrapolate from a few months of activity something illustrative or emblematic of the life entire. It’s 1915, and with war raging just outside the frame, Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret) has cycled to the Cote d’Azur home of the great Pierre-Auguste, by then an arthritis-gnarled 74 years old. She’s an actress and aspiring model – they did things the other way around back then – employed by the artist’s late wife almost as a parting gift.

Relations within the household begin somewhat frosty: after it’s revealed at Andrée’s first sitting that Renoir would rather paint lemons, she wonders whether she’s only there because this widower wanted a pretty girl in the room. Yet as the pair talk over long hours in the studio, she – or, perhaps, the vigour she represents – becomes his focus, then his subject, and eventually a cornerstone of the Renoir legacy.

Bourdos has made a less rigorously conceptual film about painting than, say, La Belle Noiseuse or The Quince Tree Sun; what he does instead is show us how, in turbulent times, the beauty that Andrée represented and Pierre-Auguste painted can serve as a balm, a way of soothing troubled minds and bodies. Measured tracking shots gradually reveal the rhythms of the painter’s home, offering a sense of slow but steady progress; Renoir’s statement that “I don’t paint tragedy or misery – others do that so much better than me” is used to justify the pretty-pretty approach.

As in Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, the emphasis is placed on sensual experience, and that which one generation passes onto the next. Renoir’s relationship with the model runs in parallel with his relationship with his three sons, in which the hands-on dad worries (needlessly, as we know) that his offspring might be frittering their time away: eldest Pierre (Laurent Poitrenaux) in the theatre, sulky youngest Coco (Thomas Doret, the Dardennes’ Kid with a Bike) wandering in the fields, middle son Jean (Vincent Rottiers, nicely thoughtful) in the services.

There’s a lot of looking – and everything from the lighting on down is designed to make us want to keep on looking – but it’s always anchored in two notable and effective presences: the veteran Bouquet, whose voice makes every utterance (“Flesh! That’s all that matters!”) sound as though it should be engraved in stone, and the undeniably beautiful Theret, perfectly cast as the kind of girl who would indeed make even the oldest and most arthritic of souls scrabble to squeeze the last drops of creativity from the tube.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Renoir screens on BBC2 tonight at 1.50am.

Friday, 15 September 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of September 8-10, 2017:

1 (new) It: Chapter One (15) ***

2 (1) American Made (15) ***
3 (2) Dunkirk (12A) ***
4 (4) The Emoji Movie (U)
5 (3) The Hitman's Bodyguard (15) **
6 (new) Wind River (15)
7 (7) Despicable Me 3 (U)
8 (5Logan Lucky (12A) ****
9 (9) The Limehouse Golem (15) ***
10 (8) Detroit (15) ***


My top five: 
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

2. Belle de Jour 
3. The Villainess
4. Centre of My World
5. Journey Through French Cinema

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (12) **
2 (2) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
3 (3Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
4 (4) Fifty Shades Darker (18)
5 (5) Kong: Skull Island (12)
6 (7) Sing (U) ***
7 (8) Their Finest (12) ***
8 (6) Life (15) **
9 (9) Logan (12) ***
10 (10The Lego Batman Movie (U) ***


My top five: 
1. My Life as a Courgette

2. David Lynch: The Art Life
3. Suntan
4. Chicken
5. Whitney: "Can I Be Me?"

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Renoir (Saturday, BBC2, 1.50am)
2. Drive Angry [above] (Monday, five, 11.05pm)
3. The Nutty Professor (Saturday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
4. Super 8 (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. The Uninvited (Saturday, BBC1, 12.25am)

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (Guardian 15/09/17)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind *****
Dir: Steven Spielberg. With: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon. 137 mins. Cert: PG

The lights in the sky have never appeared brighter. Beaming back into cinemas Monday to mark the film’s 40th anniversary, this digital restoration of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi touchstone reintroduces a genuine UFO: a bona-fide blockbuster that nevertheless operates with hushed stealth, expanding its sense of momentous events approaching from distant galaxies exponentially. No bolt-shooting pre-credits sequence here; for score, a carefully sequenced five-note motif; instead of screen-hogging CGI, a glimpse of something through a rear windscreen, then effects sculpted, more tangibly, from moulding clay and mashed potato. For some while, its noisiest locale is the Muncie, Indiana home of Richard Dreyfuss’s everyman Roy Neary, so convincingly overrun with kids, toys and media that it might drive anybody’s eyes heavenwards, or in search of escape.

That backdrop remains a significant part of Close Encounters’ genius: the depiction of Earth is so credible that we readily take the same extra-terrestrial leaps of faith as its protagonist. In a featurette playing before the rerelease, Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve argues it’s all deeply self-reflexive, a film about filmmaking (hence, perhaps, the presence of Truffaut) and the pressures of generating out-of-this-world spectacle – a line that holds if we approach Close Encounters as the tale of an obsessive struggling to preserve sanity and marriage while rallying others to share his unifying vision. Either way, the view from the mountaintop remains quite remarkable: grand celestial theatre, in which the greatest storyteller in modern movies invites us to set aside any scepticism, look up, and very simply believe

Close Encounters of the Third Kind returns to cinemas nationwide this Monday.

"Centre of My World" (Guardian 15/09/17)

Centre of My World ***
Dir: Jakob M. Erwa. With: Louis Hofmann, Sabine Timoteo, Jannik Schumann, Ada Philine Stappenbeck. 115 mins. Cert: 15

This delicate German coming-of-ager – adapted by director Jakob Erwa from an Andreas Steinhöfel novel – wobbles between genuinely cute and aggravatingly twee before finding its feet alongside its protagonist. Sensitive late-teen Phil (Louis Hofmann) returns from camp one summer to find the small town he’d previously thought a paradise irrevocably altered, if not altogether lost: a storm has rearranged his usual reference points, distancing beloved sister Dianne (Ada Philine Stappenbeck) and leaving free-spirit mother Glass (Sabine Timoteo) even more emotionally fragile than when he left. One ray of light presents in sporty new kid Nicholas (Jannik Schümann), enthusiastically leading our boy into the locker-room showers, but we’re set to wondering whether Phil’s tangled history will darken even this glimmer of promise.

Flashbacks to Phil and Dianne’s days as Teutonically blonde toddlers are proofs of baggage but feel like baggage, and Erwa is prone to occasional visual clichés, like the overhead shot of semi-clad bodies atop a jetty that seems to recur in every Mitteleuropan drama about first fumbling love. Yet he does right by Steinhöfel’s throughline, establishing an intriguing, complicated and capably performed relationship between a mother who’s known only hurt from the opposite sex, and a son palpably longing for male affection and affirmation. A vaguely educative, afterschool-special vibe may mean the certificate reflects its optimal viewer age – it’s partly couched as a primer in handling heartbreak – but Erwa’s emotional candour ensures it’ll likely strike resonant chords with anybody who spent their formative years extricating themselves from strangulating family ties.

Centre of My World opens in selected cinemas from today.