Wednesday, 26 July 2017

On demand: "Headshot"

The tremendous success of the Raid films has led Western buyers to look East - much as they did in the wake of John Woo's The Killer and Park Chan-wook's OldBoy - and led Eastern filmmakers to resume production on the kind of high-octane actioners liable to grab Western buyers by the collar. Headshot takes us back to Indonesia, and combines the expected kick-assery with elements of a puzzle-picture like Memento. Iko Uwais, the Raid franchise's lithe, bullet-quick hero, washes up without memory on an unfamiliar shore, and is prompted - first by a kindly nurse, then the arrival of heavies with guns - to figure out the cause of his amnesia; initial evidence points to the likelihood it has something to do with the violent jailbreak we bear witness to before the opening credits. As he sets out on this quest, we inevitably wind up making mental comparisons with the Raids. Headshot takes rather more time to get up and running after that prologue, and can feel tatty whenever Uwais isn't duffing someone up: functionally plotted (its memory games boiling down to a standard-issue matter of vengeance) and variably performed, it's the 21st century equivalent of those action titles that headed direct-to-video in the van Damme/Seagal era.

What is thrillingly apparent, however, is the extent to which action choreography - the staging, shooting and cutting of fight scenes - has been radically improved in recent years, not so much by new ideas (although it's clear lightweight digital cameras help to throw an audience right into the thick of it) as by the return of an old, simplifying, quasi-musical one: letting us know exactly where these bodies are in relation to one another, such that entire sequences here can hinge upon the precise angle of a gun or a knife, or pivot on a close-up of metal fragments protruding, Wolverine-style, from between one ne'er-do-well's knuckles. Uwais, whose resemblance to the young Phillip Schofield makes his eruptions of murderous rage all the more surprising, marauds through these stand-offs, which is my warning to viewers of a delicate or sensitive disposition to avert their gaze - but he's also possessed of a dexterity and flexibility that allows him to punctuate his big beats with those deft touches that made Jackie Chan a huge crowd favourite back in the day. Yes, you'll yelp as he snaps yet another arm or neck on his route to the truth, but watch him thwart the heavy who's just doused a commuter bus in petrol by blowing out his lighter, and try not to smile.

Headshot is now streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Arrow Films.  

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

On TV: "George Best: All By Himself"

Daniel Gordon's documentary George Best: All By Himself opens with a chastening gobbet of to-camera testimony from none other than Angie Best. One night, she recalls, she was driving home in the rain when she saw a bedraggled old soak hunched over at the side of the road - a figure she first took for a homeless drunk, and only belatedly realised was her then-husband George. How had one who'd known such highs, as the most celebrated and adored sportsman in the land, been struck so low that even the mother of his child could no longer recognise him? That establishes the line of inquiry Gordon is pursuing over these ninety minutes; the pleasures of his film reside in its astute stitching together of the available archive.

Of course, the filmmaker has the advantage of a subject who was both much photographed and supremely photogenic, who made a perilous task - dribbling past defenders drilled to kick wideboys and flash Harrys like Best into the back row of the stands - look effortlessly easy, like a schoolboy nutmegging his contemporaries for fun. The rise, even after all these years, is still stirring: fast-tracked through the ranks at Old Trafford, Best found himself in the Man U first eleven at precisely that post-Munich moment when the fans were desperate for reasons to cheer - and quickly repaid the faith Matt Busby placed in him several times over. Celebrity followed - and here, too, Best wrote the book as British football's first superstar, dubbed "The Boy with the Beatle Haircut", and presented with an array of temptations that Paddy Crerand and Harry Gregg (old-guarders, both interviewed here) never faced.

Yet unlike the Beatles, who had people around them to help convert dizzying overnight success into the basis of A Hard Day's Night, Best had to negotiate the breakneck twists and turns of modernity relying only on gut instinct: he was, as per the title, left to his own devices. Gordon carefully and sensitively sows the seeds of the tragedy that was to follow: a late Sixties TV interview in which Crerand, Best's roommate during those glory years, unsmilingly admits suicide is the only future he sees beyond football, a confession Best made to agent Bill McMurdo in the dressing room after United's European Cup victory in 1968, worried that he might never again experience anything as elevating. How to match those intoxicating highs?

Those of us who grew up watching Best's increasingly troubled and troubling chat show appearances in the Eighties and Nineties will already know the answer - but here those look like endpoints, brick walls, possibly even cries for help. (Did he mistake Wogan - that avuncular Irishman with the soothing voice and the comfortable couch - for a shrink?) Gordon's thesis is that his subject's first response, through the fallow Seventies and Eighties, was that of many disaffected working-class boys: to run away, from one girl to the next, from Manchester to London, the UK to the US (where he briefly reinvented himself as a commodity in the nascent NASL, before his lack of professionalism became an issue). If that gives All by Himself the same rise-fall shape as a half-dozen other recent documentary requiems, there is a sense that only now, a decade or so on from Best's passing, can we properly catch up with its errant subject.

Certainly, this is a very 21st century perspective, one that views Best less as a sorry joke or tabloid punchline than as, among other things, the victim of a terrible disease - and we all of us now know enough about alcoholism, its causes and effects, to be able to respond to the footballer's decline with a good deal more compassion than anybody thought to do at the time. You could look upon the moisturised millionaire Beckham - Best's obvious successor in United red - and see proof positive of an evolution in footballing circles; equally, though, you could watch All by Himself back-to-back with the recent Gazza doc Gascoigne and ponder this: how has the game improved its response, beyond throwing more and more money at these talented young men, in the hope it'll make all their problems disappear?

George Best: All by Himself screens tonight on BBC2 at 12.10am, and is available to view on iPlayer here.   

Friday, 21 July 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of July 14-16, 2017:

1 (new) War for the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***

2 (2) Despicable Me 3 (U)
3 (1) Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A) **
4 (new) Cars 3 (U)
5 (3) Baby Driver (15) **
6 (new) The Beguiled (15) ***
7 (4Transformers: The Last Knight (12A)
8 (new) Jagga Jasoos [above] (12A)
9 (5) Wonder Woman (12A) ***
10 (6) All Eyez On Me (15)


My top five: 
1. Victim

2. David Lynch: The Art Life
3. The Tree of Wooden Clogs
4. The Beguiled
5. War for the Planet of the Apes

Top Ten DVD rentals: 

1 (new) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (new) Sing (U) ***
3 (1) Passengers (12) **
4 (2) T2: Trainspotting (18) **
5 (4) Lion (12) ***
6 (3Hacksaw Ridge (15) ****
7 (re) Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (12)
8 (re) Patriots Day (15)
9 (5) Assassin's Creed (15)
10 (8) Moonlight (15) ****


My top five: 
1. The Lost City of Z

2. Neruda
3. Heal the Living
4. Get Out
5. Certain Women

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Maps to the Stars (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. Megamind (Saturday, BBC2, 8.35am)
3. Legally Blonde (Sunday, five, 3.45pm)
4. Hope Springs (Wednesday, C4, 2.20am)
5. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Saturday, BBC1, 3.30pm)

Keyboard warrior: "Scribe"

Scribe - the rather prosaic English name for what was originally titled La Mécanique de l'Ombre - arrives as another of those efficient timewasters the French cinema occasionally dispatches our way: for at least half an hour, it's essentially a man sat at a typewriter, and you may find yourself wondering if it took director Thomas Kruithof and co-writer Yann Gozlan that long to knock the idea out. In narrative terms, c'est une espèce de Conversation: François Cluzet (go-to guy for these thrillers since the international success of 2006's Tell No One) plays Duval, an alcoholic wash-up handed what he takes to be a midlife career boost transcribing a series of surveillance recordings for shadowy suit Denis Podalydès; what begins as a benign moneyspinner breaks bad once our hero twigs these chats have something to do with an upcoming election, and the murder of a prominent Arab businessman.

To its credit, the film sets out into what's now unfashionable, neo-Hitchcockian territory, landing as vaguely exotic at a moment when British crime thrillers are almost exclusively thick-eared, meat-and-potatoes affairs, lacking the GCSEs required for subterfuge. Cluzet gives it his usual rumpled gravitas, and Kruithof affixes each scene with a patina of style, seeking out crepuscular Parisian locations while shooting ominous close-ups of tape passing over recorder heads as the plot unfolds. Yet from the midpoint on, that plot doesn't thicken so much as drastically thin, the tension dissipating with the appearance of every new stern-faced figure entering shot to reveal a little bit more of the conspiracy. As a calling-card movie, it does just enough to catch the eye, but not enough to hold it: where the very best paranoid thrillers lodge in your gut and assume the weight of personal or national tragedy, Scribe passes altogether briskly through the system, dealing not so much in obsession as distraction.

Scribe opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on August 7.    

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The snapper: "Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock"

Shot!, a portrait of the legendary rock photographer Mick Rock, is everything you might expect from a Vice Films production directed by someone called Barnaby: lots of filters, cameos from Karen O and Father John Misty, and a fidgety, ADD-ish shooting and editing strategy in which any evidence of music-biz hedonism gets prioritised over compositional analysis or the finer points of its subject's creative philosophy. For a while, at least, it's lively enough. A framing device finds yer actual Rock (his real name, conveniently) watching over an actor recreating a cocaine-induced heart attack he had in the early 90s, thereby enabling a life to flash before our eyes; the snapper, it transpires, has tales to tell, usually in colourful language, about the kind of people we might still want to hear about. Cue the images: of Syd Barrett and David Bowie (an image - or rather a series of images - just waiting to be photographed); of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (marginally less curmudgeonly around Rock than he was with the rest of the world); of Freddie (whom Rock shot as though he were Dietrich), Debbie ("the Monroe of pop", and an obvious gift to any photographer) and Meat Loaf (less so).

There's value to sitting Rock down and getting his thoughts on the record: he wandered onto this scene just as rock was being revolutionised and weaponised in the late 1960s, exploding across TV screens and teenage bedroom walls in full colour. He can just about get away with describing himself as the Goebbels of this movement, one charged with overseeing the music's visual propaganda wing, because so many of the images director Barnaby Clay puts on screen back this claim up: looking again at the young Bowie fellating the neck of Mick Ronson's guitar, it's evident that something new, thrilling and/or threatening was going on at this moment on these stages. (Lock up your sons and your daughters.) Old heads will doubtless be satisfied; for non-nostalgics, however, the trouble will be that those images increasingly speak louder than anything else in Shot!. Certainly, Rock's own, blokey commentary settles into a droning monotone after a while, running through a list of names that passed before his lens on their way to immortality or obscurity; the absence of other perspectives - no musicians, no critics, no picture editors - comes to be all too keenly felt.

Shot! is very Vice Films in its underlying insistence that experience is everything, and context for pussies: Clay's interview technique appears to have been simply to goad Rock into giving up one tale of excess after another, up until the point where the narrative arc demands he address the sorry toll coke took on his subject's output, a precipitous descent into paranoia, debt, ill health and - at what was surely his lowest point - directing promos for the likes of Ace Frehley and Mötley Crüe. As we rejoin him today, Rock cuts a lean if lived-in figure, inhabiting a healthier if necessarily circumscribed and far less decadent place in the universe: he's a survivor, which makes him of interest, but Clay often seems far too much in his thrall to spot the absurdity Rock is capable of, and thus the absurdity he threatens to tip the whole project into. Watching the photographer spinning about and performing headstands in his studio before a shoot, or making loftily serious pronouncements about the mind-body connection, you begin to realise just how musicians rub off on their chroniclers, and how close Simon Day and Rhys Thomas's Brian Pern spoofs got to la-la rock reality.

Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock tours selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Man about the house: "The Beguiled"

On paper, or on the Internet, or wherever it was you first encountered it, this would have presented as at the very least an intriguing idea: Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) bringing her delicate sensibility to bear on The Beguiled, the pulpy Thomas Cullinan novel published in 1966 and filmed by Don Siegel as a Clint Eastwood vehicle in 1971. Though that earlier adaptation still holds up as a rollicking, close-to-the-knuckle entertainment, it really is a raw steak of a movie, lusty, gory and gaudy, off-colour even when it isn't being openly incorrect - very much the work of a male actor-director pairing seeing just what they might be allowed to get away with in an era of newly relaxed censorship and incipient women's lib. (Further context: Eastwood filmed it the same year he made Dirty Harry and Play Misty for Me. The guy was on a roll back then, and nothing was going to stop him.) The welcome surprise is the extent to which Coppola succeeds in shaping her own distinct film from this material: lighter, ironised, unarguably tidier and more PC, but equally striking and involving, and affecting in a way its predecessor wasn't.

The set-up is exactly the same. In Virginia in the year 1864, with the Civil War raging within earshot but just beyond the frame, a wounded Yankee soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell, in the Eastwood role), is pulled out of the woods by a pupil of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a sanctuary of sorts, left untouched by the surrounding conflict and populated by a small coterie of easily flustered Southern belles. It's within the Seminary that the two films' emphases begin to deviate. As their mutually braided hair establishes, Coppola's young ladies are as much of a girl gang as, say, the sisters in The Virgin Suicides or Marie-Antoinette and her attendants, and this telling is naturally a little more interested in their individual personalities - bored, curious, dreamy, uptight - than were Don and Clint. Their narrative developed along the lines of a ripe joke, a cackling cautionary tale about a pussyhound tripping over his own dick, such as might be burped across a table to a drinking buddy in some smoky watering hole: the girls were to some degree interchangeable, and secondary.

Coppola, for her part, approaches this story as though it were a teachable moment - a lesson in the games the sexes play, and continue to play. (Its ideal partner in any future double-bill wouldn't necessarily be the Siegel film, rather Catherine Breillat's take on the Bluebeard legend.) When McBurney rouses from his injuries, he realises he's on easy street so long as he presents different sides of his character to - or plays different roles for - those young ladies who are of an age to respond: showing a tantalising glimpse of flank, while dropping hints he might usefully be kept around as a gardener and companion, to the practically inclined Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, nicely eerie); recasting himself as a romantic adventurer for the schoolmarmy Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); offering a bit of rough to restless teen Alicia (Elle Fanning). Soon enough, everyone's competing to give him an extra dollop of cream on his apple pie and a song at his bedside, the tension - narrative, erotic - building until the point these girls themselves wake up to the fact this sharp-tongued charmer (and the casting of the ever-more-assured Farrell as the ultimate fuckboy counts as a minor stroke of genius) is, in fact, a snake in some very long and untended grass.

That gets Coppola's film two-thirds of the way towards where it's going; only in its final act does it start to feel a little like pale imitation. This director is au fait with the sex and sensuality written into this narrative - witness the tremendous moment when Farrell scatters the buttons of Dunst's dress in a climactic eruption of lust - but she gets squeamish around the violence the author intended as its equal and opposite effect. Coppola doesn't so much blanch as avert her eyes altogether in the run-up to the book (and the first film)'s key scene: let's just say a cut stands in for a cut, as though the filmmaker had been charged with composing her own inflight variation of these images. Much else about the concluding thirty minutes feels a touch hesitant or choppy: for all their blunt force, it's Siegel and Eastwood who seemed more inclined to linger over these final few pages, savouring every last bite of Cullinan's decidedly chewy punchline. Still, by then, Coppola has drawn enough elegant parallels and landed enough points for The Beguiled not to feel entirely self-sealed and cut off from the rest of the world, as many of this director's films have.

Granted, with the assistance of blue-chip collaborators (regular production designer Anne Ross, The Grandmaster cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, electroheads Phoenix), Coppola cultivates a hothouse atmosphere within the Farnsworth Seminary dorms, but it's especially amusing to watch The Beguiled in the wake of the debate the film has sparked in the corridors of Film Twitter - for here, surely, is that forum's perfect mirror image: boys trying to impress (or impress themselves upon) girls, girls ganging up to shut boys down, everybody winding up somewhere between 75-80% more overheated than they need to be, or than might be good for anybody's health. It's hard not to think Siegel and Eastwood took on Cullinan as a dare, egging each other on to do or say or show something nasty; Coppola is on to something else in this book, holding the Civil War at bay some distance beyond the Seminary's gates - which, for better or worse, takes the issue of race off the table - and instead reframing Cullinan's tale as a continuation of a longer-running battle, one still raging on paper, on the Internet, elsewhere. As the 2017 Beguiled's magnificently melancholy closing image makes palpable, this is a battle nobody can ever really win.

The Beguiled is now showing in selected cinemas. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

From the archive: "Victim"

Although it's hardly Bruce LaBruce, Victim was considered shocking back in 1961 for its treatment of (the then-illegal matter of) homosexuality; today, it looks both groundbreaking and fascinatingly awkward, obliging its audience to insinuate and extrapolate that which the film's network of well-spoken gays can only hint at. Dirk Bogarde is the high-flying lawyer whose wings are clipped when his past - and, more specifically, ties to a dead (rent?) boy - embroils him in a plot to blackmail London's queer community. Shot mostly on location by Basil Dearden (The Blue Lamp), this has the gritty, noirish feel of late 50s British urban cinema, but also a strain of drawing-room debate in which Bogarde's "outsider", assuming the role of detective, adopts a more aggressive and antagonistic line of questioning than your average copper, provoked by the social mores of the time. The script - by Janet Green and John McCormick - can feel a little too hung up on notions of "normal" and "abnormal" (Bogarde's wife Sylvia Syms runs a clinic for delinquents) for it to entirely convince nowadays, but you keep spying flickers of all those issues later queer cinema would find itself working through: a strain of virulent self-hatred that Bogarde pushes to the max ("Nature played me a dirty trick") and a genuinely edgy, uncomfortable response to women. Syms has a slightly more complex characterisation than one might expect, but the turncoat's a bitter harridan with a neurotic disgust of pretty much everyone, especially the sad, lonely men classed as criminals at the centre of the piece. 

(April 2000)

Victim returns to selected cinemas this Friday.