Friday, 20 April 2018

For what it's worth...



Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of April 13-15, 2018:

1 (new) Rampage (12A)

2 (1) Peter Rabbit (PG)
3 (2) A Quiet Place (15) ****
4 (3) Ready Player One (12A) ***
5 (new) Truth or Dare (15)
6 (7) The Greatest Showman (PG)
7 (4) Love, Simon (12A) ***
8 (5) Isle of Dogs (PG) ***
9 (6) Black Panther (12A) **
10 (10) Duck Duck Goose (PG)

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. Grease [above]

2. A Fistful of Dollars
3. Custody
4. Western
5. October


Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (new) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12) ***
2 (1) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
3 (2) Justice League (12)
4 (3) Wonder (12)
5 (4) Moana (PG) ****
6 (5Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
7 (7) Murder on the Orient Express (12) ***
8 (6) Daddy's Home 2 (12)
9 (10) The Boss Baby (U)
10 (8) Paddington: Double Pack (PG) ****

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. 
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
2. Paddington 2
3. The Florida Project
4. Star Wars: the Last Jedi
5. The Disaster Artist


Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Dances with Wolves (Sunday, five, 2.15pm)
2. Testament of Youth (Saturday, BBC2, 10.05pm)
3. Easy A (Sunday, C4, 11.10pm)
4. Tropic Thunder (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
5. Nanny McPhee (Saturday, ITV1, 11.20am)

The body politic: "120 Beats Per Minute"


The French writer-director Robin Campillo has long displayed an affinity with the marginalised. His 2004 directorial debut They Came Back (inspiration for TV hit The Returned), found the homesick undead shuffling back to their birthplaces to look forlornly in at life carrying on without them. There were the inner city schoolchildren in 2008's The Class, Campillo's Palme d'Or-winning collaboration with director Laurent Cantet; there were the Ukrainian hustlers gathering around the Gare du Nord in 2013's Eastern Boys. In each instance, we were introduced to characters operating very much on the periphery, circling worlds they could interact with, but never fully be part of. The characters in 120 Beats Per Minute are likewise outsiders, if we care to define them against the cultural mainstream, but right from the film's opening moments - which depict kids armed with whistles and klaxons and balloons filled with blood taking en masse to the stage of a conference to which they've not officially been invited - they seem wholly more inclined to storm the battlements.

These are the activists of Act Up Paris as they were in the early 1990s, and their rowdy, headstrong movement comes in stark contrast to the inertia of the French government with regard to staunching or even slowing the spread of HIV within the gay community. It is not the last time we will see Act Up taking action of one kind or another: over the course of these 140 minutes, they will burst, unannounced and mob-handed, into boardrooms, classrooms and function rooms alike, to be welcomed by some, scorned anew by others. For these latter, the group's noisemaking and (fake) blood-smearing would - as with the activities of Act Up's sister groups in New York, London and across the Western world - have been considered breaches of all the usual rules of engagement and etiquette; yet they succeeded in fostering an awareness in ways the authorities of the time clearly didn't. For those powers-that-be, AIDS was at best a problem, an issue, a concern. For the activists - many of whom were HIV+ themselves - it was a race against time, a matter of life and death.

Campillo was himself a member of the movement, and his film - something like Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air before it - seeks to throw an arm around inquisitive viewers' shoulders, and shepherd them inside a very precise and specific historical moment. After that initial stunt, we're introduced to Thibault (Antoine Reinhartz), one of Act Up's senior hands, as he briefs a set of fresh-faced new recruits in the finer points of the group's weekly meetings. These meeting scenes aren't so very far from the schoolroom scenes in The Class in their framing and emphases: the kids are a little older and wiser (and queerer, bien sûr), but yet again Campillo places us in the middle of an intersection (deaf gays over here, concerned mothers over there), a place where ideas can be proposed and debated. It's also a place where the people carrying those ideas can come together - in this case to support and organise, to further an agenda, and by way of relief or reward, in their nights off, to dance and/or hook up. 

The script, by Campillo and Philippe Mangeot, acknowledges that Act Up had their internal rifts and splits, like any party. Those pushing for greater access to preventative vaccines are looked down on and rather brusquely dismissed as naive by the "poz" lobby, for whom prevention comes too late, and the group has its militant elements, although Campillo is very careful to dramatise from where that militancy derives. Neither is it blind to the mistakes the group made: indeed, that very opening shows the activists pushing too hard too fast to make their point, and having to deal with the fallout. Yet, as Campillo sees it, they own up to these errors and learn from them, as any movement worth the blood, sweat and tears must, and crucially they realise they have far more that unites them than divides them - above all else, the potentially lethal indifference or contempt that the French establishment, whether President Mitterrand or pharmaceutical chiefs, displays towards them.

Their ideas and disputes are lent a sympathetic, occasionally indulgent ear: as the overlong Eastern Boys suggested, Campillo remains a sharper writer and director than he is an editor. He's picked up some interesting moves in the years since his last film: throughout 120 BPM, you catch him intersecting scenes in a way that serves both characters and theme, massaging into one sex sequence a hefty gobbet of exposition (turning on a shift of emphasis: "Am I the first poz you've slept with?" "You're the first one who's told me") which cuts to the risk that must have been involved in any kind of intimacy or interaction at this moment in time. I liked Arnaud Rebotini's sparse piano score, which threatens to break into either one of the era's trance anthems or a funeral march, depending on the space between notes or blood cells. And there is something very trancey about Campillo's out-of-nowhere close-ups of motes suspended above a dancefloor, and his inserts of inhibitor drugs entering the bloodstream, choices that serve notice of the intention to anatomise this movement from top to bottom and the inside out, to study big bangs and microscopic particles alike.

We need this to know what's going on inside the head and body of outspoken poz activist Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, his eyes growing bigger and more haunting as the rest of him shrinks) when he shows up at a meeting even after his AIDS enters the terminal stage; the danger is that, as he drifts in and out of what's being said, so might we. Those meetings, which Campillo returns to time and again as the foundation stones of this movement, are as important as the collectivism debate was in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom in helping to define not just the tension of individuals-versus-group, but also a sense of what grounded a movement chiefly composed of varyingly responsible youth. Yet they have a similar effect of stopping the movie stock still for three, four, five minutes at a time. I can understand why Campillo might want to get more of his experiences and research up on screen, and why he couldn't bring himself to cut away from his virtuosic ensemble in full flow; I've no idea why we end up getting a lesson in how to decant fake blood a full hour after we've seen it being deployed, one of a handful of scenes here that would appear eminently deletable.

There is, for all this, something genuinely stirring and educative about being left in a room with people whose sometimes frequent - and frequently vocal - differences of opinion didn't ultimately prevent them from making a difference. (In the age of Twitter, this may be the film's most valuable lesson of all.) Campillo refocuses very effectively and movingly in the final half-hour's progression from the political to the personal and back again, and one could argue the whole film might be boiled down to a single line spoken late on at a hospital bedside: "We don't like one another, but we're still friends." The temptation with a big-canvas movie like this, arriving at this particular moment, would be simply to prescribe it to leftists of all stripes and persuasions as a vivid nostalgia trip; yet at a time when there are Nazis in the White House, and the leaders of both main British political parties appear hellbent on nudging the country over a cliff, 120 BPM's vision of oppositional unity and purpose seems way too urgent and vital merely to be approached as nostalgia.

120 Beats Per Minute is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player. 

Just one of the guys: "Love, Simon"


Love, Simon arrives at an interesting time: a time when the John Hughes movies to which filmmakers have spent several decades paying fulsome and enthusiastic homage have started to be reassessed by a whole new generation, not to mention their now fully grown stars. (Verdict: not good enough.) Greg Berlanti's film bounds up to us as the kind of sweet-natured project Hughes might have arrived at if he'd grown up with an only just slightly different set of parameters, life experiences and desires. It unfolds around the usual sunny suburban streets, among a set of high-schoolers whose bedroom walls and in-car playlists are top-to-tail with hip musical referents (now Elliot Smith, Radiohead and Animal Collective, where once all was Psychedelic Furs), but it allows for one very significant variation, insinuated to us by protagonist Simon (Nick Robinson, from Jurassic World) in his opening, very Hughesian voiceover, but which he finds hard to articulate to his nearest and dearest: he's gay.

Well, so what?, you might declare: after all, TV's Glee worked through many hours of coming-out dramas, and even the recent, raucous Blockers accepted the teen sex comedy need not be an exclusively straight domain. Yet Berlanti's film is the first studio-backed teen movie to centre a gay protagonist, and his struggles with a heteronormative world pursuing its own agenda. Perhaps to reassure passing bluestockings, the script falls back on one of those epistolary narratives that have underpinned hetero fiction ever since the Bard. Simon engages with an anonymous poster on his school's social network who claims to be undergoing similar confusions, and faces two problems. One, his dreamier side starts lingering over his correspondent's every linguistic tell and attempting to match it with those around him; two, a kid called Martin (Logan Miller) - representative of the lamest aspects of straight teendom, right down to his Trump voicemail message - has found out Si's secret, and decided to hold it over him so as to get closer to his female best friend.

What Berlanti and writers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have succeeded in is explaining the tricky business of coming out to those alpha males who stalk the boardrooms of Tinseltown: on some fundamental level, Love, Simon is the story of a boy struggling to maintain control of his own narrative after a leaked email threatens to expose who he really is. There is nothing here that might truly be considered threatening or an affront to comfortably heterosexual viewers: Berlanti works very hard to give these events the comforting look, feel and sound of a common-or-garden teen comedy, even having Simon declare "I'm not that gay" on the outro of his big, all-singing, all-dancing musical number. Gay he is, nevertheless, and that incontrovertible homosexuality does give the film a whole new route into and through certain scenes: anything set at one of those ridiculously well-appointed parties where beer is served in red plastic cups and the presence of at least one non-hetero male might complicate the usual hormonal pairing-off, the birds-and-bees talk where dad doesn't quite realise who he's talking to and what he might have to explain.

These encounters are very nicely played, as is the remainder of the film - Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell are good value in the funny teacher roles - but every now and again Love, Simon can feel sensitive to a fault. Glee's Kurt and Blaine pairing faced a measure of criticism - amid the considerable praise - for presenting a poster-boy ideal of gayness, rather than anything that might be liveable by flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings; the permanently pining Simon makes those dudes seem like down-and-dirty hustlers. (The one ride he gets comes at the very end, and it's on a Ferris wheel.) I kept thinking back to Emma Stone's Olive in 2010's Easy A, the last great American teen movie, a more proactive creation whose sexuality sat closer to the surface, and who was allowed to make mistakes and mess up. That may be a definition of straight privilege, but even our hero's folks set me to thinking of the earlier film: Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are well cast as a model of heterosexuality any boy would find it tricky to live up to - and Garner has her best scenes since 2007's Juno - but I still think we'd rather shack up with Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson.

For all that, only the most closed-minded, peanut-hearted grinch could look at the film's very existence, and its warm reception by critics and audiences, and not see it as another small step in the right direction. If I were thirteen again (perish the thought), and having feelings similar to those Simon is having, I think I'd be relieved indeed to have a film like this on my DVD shelves as a point of reference or a source of comfort, and even my ploddingly straight 13-year-old self might have learned a thing or two about being a more attentive and supportive pal to my gay or undecided friends. (To those folks, I can only say: sorry if I let you down at any point through my cluelessness.) Even if as a film, Love, Simon leans more often than not towards the drippy than it does towards the daring, those drips still find a way of adding up to something or simply eroding any scepticism. There is something unimpeachably lovely about the way Berlanti and Albertalli, via Berger and Aptaker, offer a hand to those who've traditionally found themselves on the sidelines of this genre, and our schools - if not to dance, then at least to reassure them that they're really not alone.

Love, Simon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Unholy trilogies: "Ghost Stories"


There's a sorry tradition of notable British horror films being undersold and left to fall into obscurity by cautious, careless or clueless distributors: the memory immediately alights upon the sad tale of The Wicker Man, recut by British Lion to go out as the second half of a double feature in 1973 before being reconstituted, literally, as landfill. Ghost Stories probably won't suffer that fate - it's had a not unreasonable push by Lionsgate - but its misfortune was to enter an already competitive marketplace at the exact same moment as A Quiet Place, the horror sensation of early 2018, and a film that had the generic and financial advantages of leaping out of nowhere onto some 500-plus screens. By contrast, this is a work tangled up with issues of history and precedent: a Hammer or Amicus-style portmanteau, adapted by writer-directors Andy Nyman (pro magician and actor) and Jeremy Dyson (offscreen mastermind of The League of Gentlemen) from their West End stage hit, but in such a way as to make one wonder how something so expansive could ever have worked within the confines of theatre - a neat trick for a lowish-budget directorial debut to have pulled off.

In part, it's a matter of scale, and how the filmmakers have thought about making that modest budget work for them. This is a film of comparatively tiny actors playing withered men who seem all the more exposed and vulnerable for being at the mercy of ace cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland's widescreen compositions: the stage show has been opened out in several directions simultaneously, allowing us to feel these characters' down-to-the-bone solitude - easily the film's most chilling aspect - all the more. Our notional identification point, Nyman's Professor Goodman, strikes us as something of a sadsack from the off, a stagecrashing partypooper in his day job as host of TV's Psychic Cheats drawn out from his dingy hovel to meet a predecessor in the field: an ailing recluse who disappeared several decades previously only to reemerge in a coastal caravan site that looks very much like the edge of the known world, played by an actor wearing such heavy ageing latex that we're immediately set to suspicious-detective mode. This figure hands Goodman a file containing the three cases that gave him cause to doubt his rationalism, and may be linked to his present, enfeebled state: these involve Paul Whitehouse as a nightwatchman unravelled by the failure of his personal relationships and undergoing a bad shift at the office (an abandoned asylum); Alex Lawther, British cinema's new poster boy for the highly strung, as a quaking teen stranded in the dark woods; and Martin Freeman as a snorting finance type confronted by a poltergeist while waiting for his pregnant wife to come home. 

The isolation, in other words, runs right across class divisions: it's recognisably a Brexit-era horror movie (some of the Whitehouse character's attitudes identify it as much), and if the locations and framing will be familiar to long-term horror fans, the psychology connecting the three stories, the attempt to penetrate warped or scrambled mindsets and thereby head off the usual crash-bang-wallop, feels new or new-ish. What's crucial is that this is an investigation being conducted by a decidedly closed-off investigator. In his brisk impatience to prove his thesis (and thus himself) right, Goodman - there's a reason he's been given that name, as there almost always is in the movies - overlooks the Greenawayesque numbers tucked away in the backs and sides of frames; these digits recur so often even the most casual of viewers might break off from texting to ponder what they'll add up to. It's a very subtle film, with nothing that jolted me out of my seat - though I'll concede such jolts need not necessarily be a goal for horror filmmakers - but it does a lot with the combo of creeping dread and shrewd showmanship where it counts, peppering its Sleuth-like structural sleights-of-hand with careful attention to the details that set us to believe in the realities these characters find themselves trapped within. (League fans will doubtless recognise and appreciate the use of a plastic shopping bag to connect two of its strands.)

I wonder whether mass audiences will go so happily along with the untethered weirdnesses of its fourth and final act, in which our conjurers pull away the curtain and confront Goodman (and, through him, us) with the true nature of the sickness he's dealing with, a development that turns the film inwards if not entirely inside-out. (Once you've witnessed Freeman burping a shit-stained, catfood-chomping demon-baby, there may be no easy way back.) Where A Quiet Place establishes the rules of its game in its opening moments, and sticks to them to the bitter end, Nyman and Dyson seem keener to rip up their rulebook altogether, true as that methodology is to their project of overturning meek complacency and complicity in whichever dark corners they find it; some, I guarantee you, will be thrown, which may have an impact on word-of-mouth. Still, for the most part, this is clever and inventive homegrown horror, blessed with a streak of playfulness that helps to offset the cruelties its narrative alights upon. It's clearly bound for cult status and a merry afterlife on DVD and streaming services, which may provide some consolation in the long run, although one suspects the filmmakers would still rather have the big fat bonus cheques and untroubled career progression that come from stellar early-weekend ticket receipts.

Ghost Stories is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

No laughing matter: "Funny Cow"


Funny Cow is one of those projects which, if British TV had any ambition or money, might have made for a ten- or thirteen-part series to rival the best in current US drama. Instead, it's been converted into a cosily circumscribed jumble that never really settles on a tone, flipping between them in a way that might have made sense over the flow of a season but which, in movie form, just seems oddly choppy. The promising throughline is one woman's rise through the fustily hidebound, generally chauvinistic ranks of the Northern comedy club scene of the 1970s, the crucible in which were forged such hardy performers as Crissy Rock and Coronation Street's late, lamented Liz Dawn. Adrian Shergold's film, written by the former Emmerdale actor Tony Pitts, shows us a North where there quite frankly isn't all that much to crack wise or laugh about. A post-War grimscape left to fall into further disrepair, it's lorded over by petty male tyrants who are condescending when they aren't being physically abusive; they show up in the working men's clubs where Maxine Peake's heroine makes her bones expecting the beer and strippers their position demands, not some gobby lass strafing them from the stage with withering putdowns. 

That the film's vision is inherently piecemeal, episodic in the televisual sense, can be seen from the title cards that divide Peake's rise into "bits" ("the first bit", "the next bit", etc.). The best bits are those where the cast take Pitts' writing and lend it a kind of amplitude. Peake enters into a rather charming double-act with Paddy Considine as a polonecked bookseller who fancies himself quite the philosopher - not the pretentious prat he may at first resemble - and who does as much to expand our our heroine's horizons ("Fuckin' 'ell, two bathrooms," she gasps upon touring his most des of res) as he does to point up her intellectual inferiority. You'd happily watch these performers circle one another for weeks at a time on prime-time ITV. By contrast, Pitts sticks himself with the third-wheel role of Peake's brooding husband, a sideburned obstacle wheeled darkly into place whenever the film needs a measure of tension - and perhaps the foremost illustration of the how the endless skipping forward ("the next bit") undercuts every character offered a turn over the course of these 100 minutes.

No sooner have Peake and Considine got together, they're having an argument about having kids; Alun Armstrong's fading stand-up Lenny Lennon, dying one death after another and sensing the end is truly nigh the minute our girl sets foot on stage, deserves a whole tragicomic episode to himself, but is here limited to poignant sidebars and cutaways. Indeed, there are so many characters vying for our attention - and so many cameos from Richard Hawley, who wrote and sings the theme tune - that you feel Funny Cow losing sight of its heroine's trajectory: she doesn't even get on stage for an hour, and thereafter there's no sense of any career progression. As with its protagonist, so with the movie. Peake's working so hard to hold everything together and make the film work that you do find yourself wanting to stand up and cheer the effort, but the framework she's operating within has, through the usual lack of funds and development, allowed something potentially major to dwindle into something fundamentally minor, to stray from funny ha-ha into the merely funny-strange.

Funny Cow opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

For what it's worth...



Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of April 6-8, 2018:

1 (1) Peter Rabbit (PG)

2 (new) A Quiet Place (15) ****
3 (2) Ready Player One (12A) ***
4 (new) Love, Simon (12A) ***
5 (3) Isle of Dogs (PG) ***
6 (5) Black Panther (12A) **
7 (6) The Greatest Showman (PG)
8 (new) Ghost Stories (15)
9 (4) Blockers (15) ***
10 (8) Duck Duck Goose (PG)

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five: 
1. A Fistful of Dollars [above]

2. Custody
3. 120 Beats Per Minute
4. A Quiet Place
5. Cake


Top Ten DVD sales: 

1 (2) Paddington 2 (PG) ****
2 (1) Justice League (12)
3 (3) Wonder (12)
4 (8) Moana (PG) ****
5 (4) Thor: Ragnarok (12) ***
6 (6) Daddy's Home 2 (12)
7 (5) Murder on the Orient Express (12) ***
8 (7) Paddington: Double Pack (PG) ****
9 (9) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
10 (12) The Boss Baby (U)

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. 
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
2. Paddington 2
3. The Florida Project
4. Star Wars: the Last Jedi
5. The Disaster Artist


Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Hotel Salvation (Sunday, C4, 2.10am)
2. 127 Hours (Friday, C4, 1am)
3. The Homesman (Sunday, BBC2, 10.20pm)
4. Legally Blonde (Saturday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
5. Shaun of the Dead (Friday, ITV1, 11.15pm)

"Custody" (Catholic Herald 12/04/18)


The exceptional French film Custody (****, 12A, 93 mins) opens with a moment of peace and quiet: a county court judge sipping coffee in the dawn before a working day. Savour it, because this is the last respite anybody gets for ninety minutes. The coffee finished, the judge must leave her office and go downstairs – a descent that seems increasingly symbolic – to hear the preliminaries in an especially nasty custody battle. She’s soon up to her neck in the case’s nitty-gritty, landing an eyeful of the state of play in the apparently ongoing battle of the sexes. The overbearing father; the seemingly fragile mother. Not for the first time recently, we’re left picking sides.

At first glance, the matter would seem open-and-shut. Papa Antoine (Denis Ménochet, looming patriarch of Mary Magdalene) has both the dimensions and the demeanour of an aggrieved prop forward, an impression his opponent’s lawyer backs up with claims of harassment and physical violence against the couple’s two children. Yet maman Miriam (Léa Drucker) seems cold and distant – is it just chilly around her ex? – and snatches, without thanks, at a care package thoughtfully prepared by her former mother-in-law. In a weird way, the two have arrived at an equality: both are approaching the end of their tether. The only question left is which, if either, is best placed to do right by their offspring.

The fallout brims with subtly heartbreaking detail: those evasions and omissions designed to protect one life from another, the nervy welcoming parties gathering around front doors to ensure nobody’s laid fingers on those hostages being shuttled between guardians – or that no-one’s storming up the garden path behind them. Given writer-director Xavier Legrand’s emotive close-ups, we might well side with the kids, who surely deserve better than this. Yet Legrand locates an exhausted sadness in Ménochet and Drucker that moves us in different ways: a desire not to have to go to these extremes to hold onto something, or to return to the normal civilities, impossible as those may now be.

Legrand’s achievement lies in taking the overarching fraughtness of these situations, and shaping it into a thriller framework. Here is a film made gripping by the fact every character is unhappy, there are no easy solutions, and the complications keep redoubling: one superbly suggestive sequence spies the couple’s daughter unboxing a pregnancy test, longing to start a family to replace the one blown to smithereens. Custody is a series of such bombshells, waiting to explode; its heart-in-mouth finale involves no less than an outbreak of domestic warfare. Savour that coffee, then, because it’s quickly drained. Legrand drags us as close to real life as fiction will allow, messy and painful though the experience might be.

Custody opens in selected cinemas from today.