Monday, 16 January 2017

The Final Girls

Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015, USA

Another post-modern horror playing with the themes the genre is built on, this time Carol J Clover’s “Final Girl” trope. Since the success of ‘Scream’ the genre has been eating and regurgitating itself in this way to varying effects, and there is a lot of fun to be had. It’s like gently pranking a friend.  Unimaginatively, it’s packaged on the cover with another selection of pouty young people in a line-up (yes, you came for carnage but you also came for the some cheap prods for your libido, kids) and another killer derived from ‘Friday the 13th’. This one begins strongly with a girl mourning her scream-queen mother – lost in a car accident – when there’s a fire in the cinema and she and some friends try to escape through the screen but find that they escaped into it. They’ have, in fact, entered the 1980s summercamp slasher flick that made her mother cult-famous. Initially this provides jokes at the expense of that particular sub-genre and, because it’s all bright and breezy, it’s all good. The best gag is perhaps that the characters can tell when the killer is coming by the Jason Vorhees-like musical cue on the soundtrack (ch-ch-ch-ch). Every now and again it shows some of the vitality it began with – a car crashing through the title that displays when and where the flashback is, for example – but it runs out of steam by the end, veering into tired emotional outpourings to try and achieve some resonance. By the time the end credits are full of outtakes of goofs, the meta-horror comes across as enjoying itself behind the scenes more than onscreen and not being as clever as it thinks it is.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

best of home-watching 2016

Here’s a list of  the top films I saw at home during this year.

Eastern Boys
Robin Campillo, 2013, France. 
A fascinating gay drama that moves into thriller motifs without losing focus. The early party invasion scene is brilliantly elongated and credible, a thorough masterclass on how to play out a moment in all its tones. It’s cool, slightly detached approach leaves many questions unanswered and thereby capturing an open-ended realism.

Song of the Sea
Tom Moore, 2013, Ireland-Denmark-Belgium-Luxumbourg-France.
A dazzlingly beautiful animation mixing the modern with Celtic Myths. With loss as its central theme, it avoids patronising its potentially young audience and bears a pleasing melancholic tone despite its exuberance and constantly startling with its visuals. 

           Aleksei German, 2013, Russia
Overlong, maybe, but this is the kind of film-making that is haunting, surreal and hallucinatory and bizarre without any use of cinema trickery, just diving those qualities from the oddness of humour behaviour and set design.

Alan Clark, 1974, UK
A film that captures the variety of overlapping themes that characterise many bildungsroman in literature but often abridged in cinema. Baffling and dated it may be for some, but rarely has the complex shifting of a young person’s delusions been so richly captured.


Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014, Russia
Where Zvyagintsev’s ‘The Return’ bore immediate emotional resonance, ‘Leviathan’ is far more insidious. Small town politics prove an insurmountable obstacle and overwhelmingly mean-spirited force that destroys anyone that gets in its way. 

Slow West
John  Mclean, 2015, UK-New Zealand
Possibly the opposite of the more naturalistic style of modern Westerns such as ‘The Homesman’ and ‘Bone Tomahawk’, nevertheless ‘Slow West’ has an artiness that comes across like a perfectly contrived short story. With the excellent closing shoot-out, the narrative reveals its true colours.

       Radu Jude, 2015, Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic-France
Not so far from ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ in conjuring up another era to explicate on a lost culture and the timelessness of prejudice.


Microbe and Gasoline
          Michel Gondry, 2015, France
Wherein the rough and sensitive nature of adolescence finds perfect juncture with Gondry’s magic realism, inventiveness and sad-sack humour. A film whose attitude doesn’t seem to care what the adults think.

         James Ward Byrkit, 2013, USA-UK
A sci-fi horror story about reality failing you. A triumph of low-budget film-making where the puzzle-box narrative dominates.

      John Favreau, 2016, UK-USA
Nope, it’s not as cuddly as the original animation and there be objections to the differences, and maybe I felt it more threatening than others did (but then it’s been called ‘The Revenant’ for kids by more than one reviewer), but I was beguiled at its oddness and the rendering of talking animals. One can also see a message of hope with the ultimate all-coming-together-to-defeat-a-common-foe. It doesn’t quite fully gel all its elements but it cheekily cherry-picks the best from the original animation while staking out more of a tone that feels closer to ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

The Assassin
  Hsiao-Hsien Hou, 2015, Taiwan-China-Hong Kong-France
Another film that won me over due to its oddness and elusive qualities, as well as being lush and literary. Another film where multiple viewings will reveal more and more.

Force Majeure
  Ruben Östlund, 2014, Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark
Against the backdrop of brochure cleanliness and clarity plays out a tale of the more undesirable attributes that make up a personality: attributes like cowardice. That clean look and the precise style make this fell like a dissection of a family where being on holiday can't protect you from your flaws.

The Firm
           Alan Clarke, 19890, UK
Clarke’s no-nonsense portrait of a community of football hooligans, unable to band together to beat a perceived common foe because they can barely express themselves beyond insults and posturing. 

      Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2015, France-Belgium-Spain
Another triumph of oddness, the kind ordinarily relegated to short films and all too rare in horror cinema. Surreal, mysterious and disturbing.

       Toke Constantin Hebbeln, 2006, Germany
A small tale of a boy losing it all and then getting out of town dressed up in a fairy-tale like atmosphere and the appearance of magic-realist diversions, even if fantastical things don’t really happen. 

Captain Phillips
        Paul Greengrass, 2013, USA
Where Greengrass’ hand-held style proves ideal for the claustrophobia of a ship being hijacked. Tom Hanks has probably never been so good: earnest, trained, afraid and smart. Those final moments where he can finally let go of the composure he has shown all along are riveting and exemplary, the camera joining in with the professionals around him by never letting him alone.   

Re-uniting with:
Films I watched again and found better than ever

The Brood
        David Cronenberg, Canada, 1979
The pinnacle of domestic drama finding such chilling expression through horror. There's something furiously aggrieved in here. Oliver Reed’s quiet, silky tones prove the film’s secret weapon, never allowing his character to overbalance the whole thing into trite melodrama of “mad scientist” tropes.

Sidney Lumet, USA, 1976
Prescient, chilling and insightful, now more than ever.

I should know better, but…

       Eduardo Sanchex, 2014, USA
Despite everything, that final close-up of the sasquatch meant I forgave so much.

        Noel Marshall, 1981, USA
It’s been called the most dangerous film-shoot of all time… well, it’s certainly a pinnacle in the WTF files of film-making. It doesn’t even come into the so-bad-it’s-good pile– it’s something else.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Cinema Favourites 2016

Of what I saw in the cinema this year, this is my "best 10", in no particular order:

1. The Revenant
2. Bone Tomahawk
3. The Witch
4. Victoria
5. Embrace of the Serpent
6. Under the Shadow
7. Paterson
8. American Honey
9. Train to Busan
10. High-Rise

‘The Revenant’ - For the tracking shots and long takes and the bear attack if nothing else. Alejandro G Inarritu, 2015, USA-Hong Kong-Taiwan 

‘Bone Tomahawk’ - Because it paid attention to character and then unleashed genuine horror. S. Craig Zahler, 2015. USA-UK

‘The Witch’ – For being genuinely haunting and uncanny. Robert Eggers, 2015, USA-UK-Canada-Brazil

‘Victoria’ – For being a great example of how everything can happen to you in a short space of time and for the bravado of its one take. Sebastian Schipper, 2014, Germany

‘Embrace of the Serpent’ – For being so otherworldly. Cira Guerro, 2015, Columbia-Venezuela-Argentina

‘Under the Shadow’ – For being such a great example of genre tropes done right and explicating on real world themes as only Horror can. Babak Anvari, 2016, UK-Qatar-Jordan-Iran

‘Paterson’ – For revealing such warmth and respect for routine and the everyday expression of art. Jim Jarmusch, 2016, France-Germany-USA

‘American Honey’ – For capturing an expression of freedom and for its ultimately joyous loose-limbed feel. Andrea Arnold, 2016, UK-USA

‘Train to Busan’ – For being so much genre fun. Rarely have I felt an audience enjoying itself so much. Sang-Ho Yeon, 2016, South Korea

‘High-Rise’ – For revealing its true boldness on a second watch, for being such an often brilliantly rendered oddity. I’m ware I’m probably the odd-one-out on this. Ben Wheatley, 2015, UK-Belgium


Unexpected & undeniable treats:
Love & Friendship - Whit Stillman, 2016, Ireland-France-Netherlands
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople - Taiki Waititi, 2016, New Zealand
Edge of Seventeen - Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016, USA
Rogue One - Gareth Edwards, 2016, USA
Deadpool - Tim Miller, 2016, USA 
Broken - Shaun Robert Smith, 2016, UK
Tale of Tales - Matteo Garrone, 2016, Italy-France-UK

All these films were funny, except ‘Rogue One’ and ‘Tale of Tales’ and  ‘Broken’, of course. ‘Deadpool’ genuinely captured the anarchic nature of comic books even if ultimately its storyline was conventional. It showed how by-rote so much else in the superhero world is. ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ was thoroughly winning and quirky. ‘Edge of Seventeen’ possessed a great trilogy of central performances with a script which managed to be cutting but not mean-spirited. ‘Love and Friendship’ proved – despite a potentially terrible title – to be slick and sly satire. Actually that can also be said of the splendid horror-comedy ‘The Director’s Cut’ (Adam Rifkin, 2016., USA). ‘Tale of Tales’ was elegant and possessed a lot of agreeable weirdness and ickiness. ‘Broken’… see below. 


‘Hail, Ceasar’ proved an often joyous trifle. (Coen bros, 2016, UK-USA- Japan)
‘Midnight Special’ was good minor genre fare. (Jeff Nicholls, 2016, USA-Greece)
‘Dheepan’ seemed to be deeply misunderstood as a vigilante drama: it wasn’t, it was about a man being dragged back to the worst of himself. Jacques Audiard proved again that he is a masterful director, even if this was one of his lesser works. (Jacques Audiard, 2016, France)

Old school treats: 
‘The Big Short’ (Adam McKay, 2015, USA) and ‘Spotlight’ (Tom McCarthy, 2015, USA-Canada) showed how cinema can tackle real stories, through a box of cinematic tricks (the former) or straightforward and austere narrative flow (the latter). Both proved up to the task and both were commendable in their tackling of difficult subjects. Of the consummate sort, ‘Hell or High Water’ (David Mackenzie, 2015, USA) was a winner for being an old school film that was well acted and written. 

Rising somewhat above its stock: 
‘Creed’ proved better than its Rocky Balboa stock material, mostly due to Michael B Jordan’s and Sylvester Stqallone’s performances and a great one-take tracking shot for a fight. 
‘Rogue One’ too.

In retrospect… meh: 
I enjoyed ‘The Hateful Eight’ (Quentin Tarantino, 2015, USA) very much at the time but find myself more indifferent upon reflection, although I’m sure another watch will remind me of its worth when watching.  I found the same growing indifference for ‘Hardcore Henry’, but I was never really invested even though I enjoyed it superficially at the time.   And despite my initial Hey-it’s-not-that-bad response to ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’ and ‘Suicide Squad’, I concede that they are both bad. But it was Duncan Jones' 'Warcraft' (2016, USA_China) that left me most cold.

Yeah, but hmm: 
I know ‘Room’ (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015, Ireland-USA-UK-Canada) was an emotional winner for many but it seemed to me to be remarkably conventional for Lenny Abrahamson when it could have been ideal for the odd and striking effect of his ‘Frank’ or the chilliness of ‘What Richard Did’.

I knew at the time that I needed some distance to really know what I thought of Ken Loach's ‘I, Daniel Blake’ after my knee-jerk response of approval of its intent. I was conscious at the time that it had problems, that everything in it was aimed at the agenda without real nuance, but its ultimate message of “this system kills” meant that I glossed over its weaknesses of contrivance because it was agitprop that I endorsed. There is no doubting Ken Loach’s humanitarianism and that film because a touchstone for political debates, providing a reference to open up the subject of how the welfare state operates. All this contributes to the argument that film can be instrumental in societal change, something that Ken loach has proved pivotal to ever since, say, ‘Cathy Come Home’. But there’s no doubt that Paul Laverty’s script does take liberties of contrivance to get where he’s going and this proves a fundamental weakness. A kind of ends-justifies-the-means scripting and usually I wouldn’t be taken in by. I tend to be in line with Michael Koresky’s clear-headed review and concur when he says it is “A frustrating watch on levels intended and not.” I find myself willing to forgive its weaknesses – as we do for films we favour – because it’s capturing of a certain realism is considerable and as a slab of humanitarian agitprop its worthy and angry.

If you are looking for a character piece on how the rickety nature of institutions causes damage on individuals, then ‘Broken’ was a solid example. Its argument came to lack-of-proper-care-leads-to-horror-stories and that isn’t so different to ‘I, Daniel Blake’. The performances are exemplary and it certainly has more nuance than Laverty’s script. 

‘Swiss Army Man’ (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, 2016, USA) won on oddness and fartiness but
there was something I still needed to work out about it. Yes, it’s a great meditation on depression but when I saw someone read it as a “love story for the ages” that I raised an eyebrow. A second watch will definitely resolve what I think of it: as it is, it’s a must-see for fans of the surreal and a-bit-out-there cinema.

The same with ‘Your Name’ which was at the very least a gorgeous piece of animation. (Makoto Shinkai, 2016, Japan)

Similarly there was plenty of good in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ (Tom Ford, 2016, USA) but I found in retrospect I couldn’t quite fully commit. A second watch will resolve.

Guilty pleasure
‘The Accountant’ (Gavin O'Connor, 2016. USA) was probably the most guilty pleasure: it was half good and half crap and didn’t quite gel, but I can’t deny it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Rogue One

Gareth Edwards, 2016, USA

I found myself going around disparaging ‘The Force Awakens’, or at least indifferent to its ‘Star Wars’ charms. When I have heard people say “It’s shit,” I’m half in agreement and half thinking that I wouldn’t quite go that far. I know that people enthuse about it, but then I remember its overall clunkiness and unwillingness to move beyond fanboy call-backs, its neglect of key implications so that all the fun of sci-fi hardware and swashbuckling becomes vacuous. I can just about live with its humanising Stormtroopers (but why?) but Han Solo’s martyrdom is surely ill thought-out in its rush to be emotional. By putting his personal drama first and sacrificing himself, isn’t he ensuring the evolution of the new Death Star (or whatever) and therefore condemning entire planets to death and doesn’t this make him a selfish dick? And its a narrative built on self-reference that doesn’t transcend its reliance on nostalgia.

Luckily, ‘Rogue One’ is here to show how it’s all done. I liked Gareth Edwards’ ‘Monsters’ a lot (a sci-fi version of ‘Before Sunrise’ perhaps) but was not impressed with ‘Godzilla’ (effects strong; narrative weak). I was anticipating this expansion of the ‘Star Wars’ universe would similarly tip over into disappointment but that wasn’t the case. There will be nothing new story-wise but that isn’t what we came for: a certain predictability and simplicity is surely why these films have such mainstream appeal. And there’s enough details to satisfy fans that like to argue and make theories over minutiae (like what is  Forrest Whitaker actually doing?). It was never possible to predict as a kid that the opening crawl of the original of ‘Star Wars’ would lead to ‘Rogue One’ decades later, or indeed that it would have such a grip on popular culture. I mean even as I write this, I am drinking from a ‘Rogue One’ tie-in mug my sister bought me at Christmas.

Despite being well over two hours, Chris Weitz’s and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay keeps things brisk so that the action breezes along until the final battle: it hardly seems that length. It probably has the least clunky dialogue of any ‘Star Wars’ film and it carries the most mature tone since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. The overriding theme is of self-sacrifice which is a far more tangible focus than the abstract born again resurgence of The Force. This also widens the naive black-and-white morality of the earlier entries in that it casts the Rebels as also having to follow an end-justifies-the-means agenda, making things a lot greyer than they have been previously.*  It’s also more fitting for the template it derives from war films. Also too, it’s devoid of Muppets so that is a bonus. 

Star Wars’ is known to make even an esteemed, capable actor look crap, but there is none of that here. It benefits from having someone as great as Ben Mendalsohn to flesh out an otherwise rote villain, and the commitment of Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and others to enliven the protagonists. But what it does have, which throws a spanner in the works and takes you out of the flow, is a CGI Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. We have actor Guy Henry walking about but the face is all CGI, giving a new Peter Cushing performance. Apparently. What is this new thing, a performance from a long respected and deceased actor, by a digital effect? I’m a Cushing fan – rarely could an actor bring such dignity to so much silliness – but I don’t feel on side with this, regardless that I can see why they would choose to do so (hey, gotta please the fans - callback!). It’s not quite the same thing as using a deceased celebrity’s likeness for advertisement purposes (that being nakedly about making money whereas at least this can be seen as in the service of story), but this is not a performance by Cushing. It’s being framed as enhanced make-up, but it’s beyond that: if IMDB ever puts ‘Rogue One’ as Cushing’s final performance, that would be a wrong-doing. “'Morbid and off-putting' or 'convincing'?” asks The Telegraph: I would say both.** And it’s also true that the sardonic robot K-2SO gets the best lines and proves the film’s break-out star, and that tells you something.

But back to the positive: Edwards’ incidentally breaks out some genuine beauty, which is not quite an ingredient quickly associated with ‘Star Wars’: the shadow-half of the Death Star, or the natural coastal beauty of planet Scarfi, for example. The reveals are mostly artfully done, with an eye on how they will have most impact: the AT-ST Walker appearing through the fog of war, for example. But then there is also C3PO and R2-D2 shoehorned-in briefly and one can see why detractors complain about the cameos (for me, they were not as cumbersome and pandering as those in ‘The Force Awakens’).*** 

Scarfi is where the final battle takes place - and what a battle it is. It’s multi-levelled but always fluid and coherent. Anyone looking to be awe-inspired will find it here: anyone inclined to marvel at spaceships and the swash-buckling end of sci-fi will not be disappointed. Rarely has the sheer size-of-things in such a space-based battle been evoked. And then there is some of the best saved for the last few minutes, showing how Darth Vader can take on a whole army without breaking a sweat. B. Alan Orange does have a point that this is so successful a moment that segueing into ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ is going to make Vader look more subdued and disappointing. Nevertheless, so thrilling and epic is this battle that it may cause some to see this as the best in the series. For me, it’s alongside the Hoth battle.****

I did come away knowing that I had gone “Wow” a number of times. Even Chirrut Îmwe’s (Donnie Chen) first melee struck me as a touch above standard choreography for the series (yes yes, there is the fight with Darth Maul, but there is a fluidity here with action and editing that seemed attuned with the heightened expectations of contemporary action fans). As this review attests, whereas ‘The Force Awakens’ had the opposite effect, with ‘Rogue One’ I find myself lingering on all the positives and ready to defend it. I’ve always thought that the truly interesting ‘Star Wars’ material was in the secondary details – the Sand People; Boba Fett; Chewbacca (always secondary to Han); scavenging from a Star Destroyer crashed in the desert, etc. – which implies that it’s the Extended Universe of ‘Star Wars’ that interests me more, and I am sure I am not the only one: George Lucas’ true master-stroke was to let fans make ‘Star Wars’ their own, which is why it has lasted so long and we have the Extended Universe. ‘Rogue One’ is a great action flick that doesn’t let the inherent weaknesses of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise get in the way of exceptional set pieces. 

 *   The humanising of John Boyega’s Stormtrooper doesn’t particularly provide a grey area as it’s all about redemption; and the tone of ‘The Force Awakens’ isn’t really interested in investigating his conflict to any great depth. He’s an innocent that’s been indoctrinated into something bad and wants out.
**   There is no such ethical debate about the same techniques rendering a younger Carrie Fisher cameo as she was alive to give her consent at the time. Nevertheless, this too is jarring, our familiarity with this uncanny valley perhaps leading us to see the other effects as just a glorified video game. Indeed, the game adaptation will probably look just like this. Anecdotally, I was overhearing a conversation where a guy was saying the Grand Moff Tarkin and young Leia cameos were the film highlights, and I don’t think he was being totally ironic.
***   When does this moment occur: two-thirds of the way in? The point is that it was just before this gratuitous cameo that I realised the bulky profile of the man along the row was actually obscuring his son who couldn’t have been more than five years old. The boy had been totally quiet all this time sot that I hadn’t even known he was there, only climbing onto his dad and being restless for about ten minutes of the film at this point: when C3PO and R2-D2 appeared. He yelped with delight. Then he climbed back into his own seat and was quiet for the rest of it. Despite the questionable fact of whether he should be watching, the fact that it kept him quiet surely attests to how engrossing it is for even such a young audience.
**** It occurs to me that the Star Destroyers colliding is the manifesting of kids playing with their toys and bashing them together.

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Jungle Book

John Favreau, 2016, USA-UK

Of course the trouble with remakes is that they are always going to be compared to an original. In the case of John Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’ despite there being many versions this will be compared to Disney’s first animated adaptation, this being the second. The tightrope apparently needed to be walked for audiences is to tick all the right boxes from the predecessor, to just trace it over enough but also to offer something new. So of course good writing helps, but remakes can be mostly validated by using contemporary tricks that weren’t available at the time of the original. I am thinking here of Franck’s remake of ‘Maniac’ but this Disney remake of the well-loved ‘The Jungle Book’ fits that mould too. Not as if analogue animation, as it were, was ever lacking, but here we are.  (I should mention that I have not seen the original since I was a kid so came to this without any real demands.) 

If you were dazzled by Richard Parker in ‘Life of Pi’ – and I was – then there is plenty here to amaze. This is a time where talking animals are everywhere – apes; racoons; everything else - but the CGI variety on display here goes some way to making the human dream of anthropomorphising animals complete. Only Neel Sethi as Mowgli is live-action but everything else onscreen is artificial but this CGI moves with such convincing heft and nuance that it’ll be hard for anyone not be dragged in and persuaded. In this context, it should be noted how winning Sethi is, since he was mostly acting to puppet heads and blue screen; if he couldn’t hold the attention it would all collapse. Yes, he has some of the attitude we know from other American kid’s flicks, but he is just the right side of bratty. 

It’s immaculately conceived and frequently very beautiful but what is remarkable is how dark this version is, and not just that it’s often quite sheathed in shadows. The animals are realistic as can be which means – without any cartoonishness to mitigate – there is a constant tension of dread and threat that is barely relieved (it’s rated PG). When Sheer Khan kills, it is striking in its suddenness and cruelty; when King Louie pursues Mowgli by swinging across his city and then, gigantic as he is, crashing through its pillars, it reminds of the gargantuan threat of the dragon Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’. There’s quite a lot of reading The Jungle Book’ as ‘The Revenant’ for kids, and that’s a good way of conveying the relentless peril in this version. We have a brutal rendering of Sheer Khan (Idris Elba), of course, but there is also the hypnotic seduction by the snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson); even Baloo is all about conning Mowgli at first: of course he’s benign but he follows the trend of manipulation that both Kaa and King Louie (Christopher Walken) use. Oh, I’m sure Baloo is never meant to be seen as a dilemma, but duping Mowgli is initially his thing. King Louie is a mixture of the selfish conjob Baloo tries and the physical threat of Sheer Khan and as voiced by Walken, he’s all gangster. Shere Khan who is nearby trying to seduce and manipulate young wolf cubs. In this jungle, there is always a threat for youngsters, both physical and psychological. And in this way, the atmosphere is persistently dark in tone. Only the wolves and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) – as the surrogate family of the man-cub – are straight with Mowgli.

So maybe the funny stuff doesn’t really land so much but that doesn’t capsize things. Then the film, although it’s not a musical, lurches into song to lighten things up; and when Mowgli is floating on top of Baloo dueting ‘The Bear Necessities’, it’s quite exuberant to see such an iconic animated moment come to life. If you are expecting a musical, you would have to refer to the original animated feature, and what favoured songs it can’t squeeze in initially it saves for the extensive end credits.  (Scarlett Johansson does a great version of Kaa's 'Trust in Me'.)

In the end, Mowgli stays with the wildlife and although this may be seen as a cynical way to make sure there’s a ‘The Jungle Book 2’, it can also be seen as his choosing multiculturalism whilst keeping his man-“tricks” and as a rejection of man as a destroyer of nature. Although Kipling has a reputation of a Little Englander, it always seemed to me a little more complex, that Mowgli and ‘Kim’ sided with mixing up cultures, favouring democracy and rejecting a single, dominant civilization. It’s in the animal meetings and truces around the drinking hole, for example (this is even more in evidence in the short stories). When the animals all band together to take down Shere Khan, it’s a rejection of fear and fascism. So, yes, it does end on a Disney positive note, but the bullying of society and nature have been well established by then. It’s quite meaty stuff.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016


Douglas Cheek, 1984, USA

A disgruntled policeman who is researching the alarming rise in missing persons investigates and uncovers an alarming conspiracy: a company has been dumping radioactive waste under the city, which has been turning the subterranean homeless into mutants, or “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers”. And their acronym leaves little doubt as to the trouble they cause.

C.H.U.D.’ has a cult following no doubt because it is so typical of low budget 80s horror fare and touches on nostalgia for that. It’s equally dull and delightful in that way, but it also possesses a somewhat shabby milieu and focus on the city underbelly that gives it a pleasing veneer of urban neo-realism. Well, perhaps not so-much realism as an urban context familiar from the era’s police shows as laid out in the opening sequence (hey, get out of the way, bird!).  The big companies are the villains – Corruption! – and the homeless are mostly the victims. It’s only when a respectable white woman goes missing that there’s an issue. Our other protagonist, as well as the disgruntled policeman (Christopher Curry), however, is not taken from this pool of neglect but is a photographer in the artsy way typical of these films (John Heard). There’s a sense that things are happening according to the fads of genre – it even gets in a shower attack in a film about subterranean monsters – but if you’re going with it this is more like horror comfort food than tiresome cliché.

These narrative whims turn out to be result of a troubled ‘C.H.U.D.’ production where it was re-written to contain. The monsters were originally conceived as the mutated homeless, leaving the social commentary less distracted by the fun of special effects and perhaps making this more like a Larry Cohen film or like ‘Combat Shock’ style social awareness horror than a creature feature. But a creature feature it is and they’re memorable and amusing in just the low budget way you would want. What we came for are the monsters so when they attack a diner (Hey, that’s John Goodman!) things heat up. They even helpfully elongate their necks to make decapitation easier. It’s not a classic by any stretch, but it’s just about above-average fun for genre fans.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

Kelly Fremon Craig, USA, 2016

I started off well at the box office by asking for a ticket for 'The Edge of Tomorrow'. But, luckily, the lady knew what I really wanted to see and she knew I wasn’t asking to see the Tom Cruise sci-fi temporal-twanger years too late. 

The Edge of Seventeen’ is a winning indie coming-of-age drama about (and you may have heard this one before) a savvy, sarcastic outsider girl trying to figure out, you know, growing up in the vacuity of her peers that she can’t quite mesh with. Yes, so the premise is well-worn but what this does have are three highly engaging performances from Hailee Steinfeld as our funny and acerbic protagonist Nadine, Hayden Szeto as Erwin as the goofy and awkward guy who’s genuinely interested in her, and Woody Harrelson who comes to steal the show and win hearts as the teacher who’s sarcasm is more than a match for Nadine. Not that anyone else is lacking but these three performances are pretty much all you need. Harrelson is dour without being misanthropic; Szeto is thoroughly disarming; Steinfield is great as Nadine at her most witty and smart as well as when she is being selfish and obnoxious. The story goes through teenage crushes, embarrassments, fumbling dialogue, risqué and funny dialogue, angst, self-absorption and all that you might expect.
She’s trying to find herself an identity against the mainstream she feels no affinity for.  By having no outright villains, no bullies – no one is truly bad here – the film allows Nadine to be her own greatest antagonist which means she only has herself to fight. She feels real in that way rather than some ‘Breakfast Club’ teen-type. But it’s the breezy pace and Kelly Fremon Craig’s sympathetic script that pervades, particularly showing how Nadine’s brattishness comes from hurt feelings she can’t quite organise, despite her precociousness. Perhaps the ending is too neat, but why begrudge that when the intention is so generous?

Monday, 5 December 2016

"Paterson" - and the joy of everydayness

Jim Jarmusch, 2016, France-Germany-USA

Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’ has a certain pace and tone that demands it be met on its own terms; and come halfway through if you have recalibrated to its vibe, you will find the same pleasing irreverence and life-affirming aftertaste that perhaps he hasn’t quite captured since his early work. It’s not about melodrama or bad things happening; the ‘character arcs’ so beloved of narrative planning is here ever-so slight, or rather they do not dominate as typical of dramatic thinking. This allows the small details to rise to the surface, like the grunts of the dog, like the overheard conversations on the bus, like how Paterson’s girlfriend has a penchant for black-and-white impromptu designs. These details are not clearly comedic, but accumulation makes them gently funny: by the time Laura makes cupcakes with the same b&w avant guarde inclination, it’s amusing. Jarmusch lets the natural humour of things rise to the surface over time. It’s a film that rewards patience.

Paterson drives a bus through Paterson, New Jersey (which means his name is on the front of the vehicle like a giant nametag), and we follow him through a week on his usual life routine: wake up to kiss his girlfriend; eat breakfast; steal a few moments to write his poetry before driving the bus; get home to be in love with his girlfriend; walk the dog, stop off for a drink at his local bar. He writes poetry but this doesn’t make him vividly unique; rather, it is indicative of the kind of gentle remarkable qualities that make creative people distinctive. He’s quiet but not socially awkward. He’s no tortured genius, just working at an artform he loves. And like much else in the film, repetition of the poetry reveals its worth and joys. Adam Driver is noticeably different from the drippy emo-like Kylo Ren from ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, or even the slightly schlubby National Security Agency analyst in ‘Midnight Special’: here he makes the most of his hang-dog looks, and indeed the entire film can rest easily upon them. Golshifteh Farahani as Laura could have been his cookie girlfriend – the kind that indie romances see as liberated spirits – and she is that too, but it doesn’t condescend or raise her on a pedestal, which means she never quite becomes a manic-pixie girl.
The nature of the film allows this cookieness to be a means of her showing real affection and individuality.  And so on: the eccentricities of the characters that Paterson meets never allow them to become laughing stocks, never quite allowing them to become tropes. Jarmusch’s humanity and amusement at people’s quirks dominate.

It’s nice to see a film where the characters are possessed of a natural goodness, a decency that doesn’t demand ‘conflict’ to show who they are. However, there is a gun pulled at one point and, afterwards, the camera lingers on Paterson’s expression with the adrenalin still running, startled by his own reaction. No, here, it’s the everydayness that is revealing. We see Paterson developing his poetry over days, the text scrawled over the screen. Indeed, people seem to recognise each other as poets and artists, as when Paterson takes time to talk to a young girl writing  her own poetry – and through this encounter, we get an example of how one unrecognised artist can influence another. Life is full of such slight but worthwhile encounters, which Jarmusch has always presented as a thesis.

Peter Bradshaw notes that Jarmusch turns Paterson into a fantasy version of a real place: for example the fact that Paterson and Laura have “never considered or even heard of public performance or poetry slams, or sending his work to magazines, or self-publishing digitally.” Indeed, but it is very evident that they are quite apart from much of modern convenience; Paterson balks at have a smart phone, for example. As Bradshaw further says: 

“Yet so much of the rest of the movie is not quite real, or perhaps it is rather that Jarmusch does not replicate reality in the way other film-makers do.” 

And this feels closer to the truth: this is not quite neo-realism, and yet it is only the last encounter that seems truly to verge on fantasy, maybe because it is too on the nose in the way that marred ‘The Only Lovers Left Alive’. It is exactly what Paterson needs when he’s at his lowest and has to remind himself what he’s all about, and with that in mind it could indeed b e the work of his imagination.

Like ‘Brooklyn’, ‘Paterson’ is about the general decency of people but it’s also about how art colours their lives; like ‘American Honey’, it utilises a loose, baggy style that is ultimately and quietly uplifting. With a welcome lack of cynicism, Jarmusch focuses on an individual’s routine of life to celebrate the quirkiness and natural poeticism that makes the everyday worth living.