Saturday, September 25, 2010
[No major plot spoilers, as long as you know it's about non-educated delinquents. Which is the title acronym.]
Watching Peter Mullan's Neds at a Spanish-subtitled screening in San Sebastián's Teatro Principal was an experience both electrifying and frustrating in ways an immediate tweet-response and grade can't really take into account, so I'm glad I've had the benefit of a few days and an unexpectedly epic homebound journey to ponder it further, particularly since it's now been awarded the Best Film and Best Actor awards. I remain thoroughly on the film's side, some clearly wobbly sequences notwithstanding, but an especially tricky problem was posed by the sound: this soft Southerner struggles to comprehend thick Scottish accents at the best of times, but every single English-speaking viewer I bumped into afterwards had the same complaint about huge quantities of mumbled Glaswegian slang falling by the wayside. (Trust me, the leeway Mullan gives his locally-sourced actors in this makes Trainspotting sound like An Ideal Husband.) There were insults and laugh-lines only the local viewers found hilarious, thanks to the benefit of being able to read the Spanish — if it weren't for the embarrassment, I'd have turned to my neighbours and asked "What was that uproarious thing he just said?" more times than I was able to count. Though the Principal's acoustics may have been partly to blame, my strong hunch is that Mullan will be asked to subtitle the movie for English (and surely American) audiences too; I think it's customary to find this silly or appalling, but in this case I actively look forward to catching it a second time and being able to relish all the rude catcalls and bits of bullying invective I missed, on top of the many excellent scenes that rang out loud and clear.
That initial tweet reaction ("messy but inspired") is still roughly where I'm at, but inspiration and mess tend to go hand in hand here: the film has superb, sustained passages which jostle right up against chunks of stuff that plain don't work. Everyone will draw their own conclusions about the following: the whole last act, dramatically choppy and schizoid in ways that bothered me less than the too-organised flaggy allegory of Shane Meadows's This is England, to which it's already being compared; the ostentatiously metaphorical final sequence, which I'm still mulling over; slightly earlier and even bolder, a druggy, go-for-broke encounter with a kick-ass manifestation of Christ; and Mullan's own supporting performance as the main character's permanently wasted, abusive father, a fierce and gurning turn which is right on the edge of being simply too much.
Then again, Mullan's best work as a director is almost always dancing on this very precipice. For every viewer who mentally checked out of The Magdalene Sisters when Eileen Walsh started shouting "You are naart a man of Gaard!", I know someone else who thinks it's the film's bravest and most brilliant coup. What's particularly outstanding here is the school stuff, and there's a (very) good hour of this. The journey of John McGill from milksop swot to vicious sociopath, charted through jagged phases that I believed far more palpably than the textbook conversion of Shaun in the Meadows film, is quietly tragic and unobtrusively affecting: we watch his intelligence curdle, this bright, diligent mind reorient itself to discover a kind of animal cunning. Neds never feels like lecturing sociology, serving up the mitigating circumstances to explain why John falls in with the ASBO crowd. It's significant that he hardly spends any time with his older brother Benny (Joe Szula), a notorious wrong 'un, because Mullan consistently keeps them at arm's length, more interested in the disparities between these siblings, in age, interests and scholarly drive, than the temperamental common ground forced on them by domestic circumstances. "Problems at home" may not have been so specifically dramatised since Nil By Mouth, albeit in a glancing, intentionally banal way here. The repeated shots of Mullan hollering at his wife from the base of the stairs have a harsh, lurid, debatably overacted menace, but he's even scarier as this faceless, disarticulated presence moving through rooms, violently opening drawers, a dark midriff passing silently behind the dinner table. It's entirely apropos that we want to spend as little time in this fearful household as humanly possible.
At school, Mullan resists any tempting Magdalene urge to ham up an ensnaring sense of institutional oppression. It's a place of apathy, mockery, and just muddling along, which is nonetheless desperately likely to fail all its students (and indeed staff) in offhand yet brutally life-altering ways. John, played as an uncertain youngster by Gregg Forest, fights his bookish little corner to begin with, but Mullan only needs a judicious moment for a forward jump and older actor (Connor McCarron, the gong-winner) to suggest what has changed, a certain light that's gone out, a hardening against the idea of being exceptional in the herd. Among the various teachers, played with chippy charm by Crying with Laughter's Stephen McCole, whose wrong side you would not want to see, ineffectual palliness by David McKay in a terrific one-scene cameo, and Gary Lewis, whose introduction, offering John a piggy-back through the school's main entrance, is a bizarre and unsettlingly deadpan tour de force, the most significant is Mr Bonetti (Steven Robertson), who welcomes John into Latin lessons and has wily methods of encouragement which carry frequent risks of backfiring. Robertson's scenes are almost unfailingly the film's best, I think, not only because his performance, as the most guardedly optimistic character, has places to go the other supporting turns lack, but because Mullan builds him into the pivotal moment when John conclusively turns his back on academic ambition, throwing this kindly, exasperated mentor to the wolves when he calculates what classroom cred he can gain from an act of insolent insurrection. McCarron is at his strongest here too, stepping up to a level of performative cockiness pitched carefully to John's peers — he manages to combine wicked assurance with shrugging indifference, and win the fight hands down.
The patchier second half never reaches these formidable peaks, though two scenes on a bus come close. John steals money from a driver at knife-point, a charged, indelible, oddly intimate encounter that lasts mere seconds, and later taunts his posh ex-friend Julian (Martin Bell) from the seat behind, cruelly flicking the ear of a black companion he's never met, and whose only moment in the film this is. Anyone who has ever sat through an uncomfortable or hostile experience on British public transport will feel the excruciating power and precision of that flick, more for the point it's proving than the token pain caused: it made me wince more than any of the all-out scenes of Clockwork Orange-esque gang beatings, the scrabblings with knives in school bathrooms, or the clonking of a character on the head with a loose gravestone, acute though Mullan's staging control often is in these outbursts. I don't want to dwell here on what's simply disorganised towards the end of Neds, which seems strangely unclear whether it's disappearing inside John's swirling head or backing away into abstract metaphor, because the limitations of the movie are easily the least interesting thing about it. What Mullan grasps here he grasps with clenched fists, and shakes often enough to sock his points home: that adolescent unhappiness and intellectual promise can be about the worst possible bedfellows, and the deadliest thugs, in another, more privileged life, might have been shoo-ins to Oxbridge. B+
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
René Clément made his name with the cinematographer Henri Alekan, who would go on to carve out an arguably greater reputation for Cocteau’s La belle et la bête and Wings of Desire, with an Oscar nomination for Roman Holiday along the way. I haven’t seen their acclaimed 1945 documentary La bataille du rail, about Resistance saboteurs, but a stark faux-doc style is the hallmark of this surprisingly obscure subsequent feature, a commercial flop at the time which has amassed the paltry sum of 44 votes on IMDb to date. No measure of a movie, I know, but it surely deserves better than that on face value alone, as a grimly involved and engrossing tale of maritime intrigue in the closing days of the war. The action is largely confined to an escaping U-boat, which pulls away from Oslo to seek harbour in one of those South American Nazi sanctuaries where Josef Mengele pitched up. (At least, that's the plan.) It’s almost Hitchcock’s Lifeboat in negative — this vessel's full of Nazis and collaborators of various nationalities (the title means “The Damned”, making it the third film of that name I've seen this year) whose safety or certainty of escape is obscurely compromised by the arrival on board of French doctor Guilbert (Henri Vidal), who knows more German than anyone quite realises. He’s beckoned in to attend to the injured, near-comatose wife of an Italian industrialist, played by Florence Marly in a performance with more than a touch of Foreign Affair Dietrich: her blatant cavorting with Kurt Kronefeld’s SS general suggests a long-hatched escape plan which makes for awkward moments aplenty, given that everyone, to include her outraged husband (Fosco Giachetti), is bunked in such heaving and smeggy proximity.
Alekan’s skill is not, alas, at full maturity in every frame of this often crudely lit, excessively shadowy production, but there’s an excellent, viscerally wobbly, Paths-of-Glory-trench-cam reverse tracking shot as Guilbert is lured down the full length of the sub to attend to Marly's flaky diva, little realising that the boat will pull away before he has the chance to disembark; he's thereby held captive for his continued medical expertise before the assembled fugitives grasp that his presence is potentially treacherous, if not disastrous. The other visual highlight is an on-shore episode involving negotiations with a turncoat agent (Marcel Dalio, top-billed for a virtual cameo) who plans to sell them all downriver now that Hitler’s death in the bunker has hit the airwaves: a wily young German adjutant (Michel Auclair) tries to strike a deal to make his getaway, hiding in a warehouse full of coffee-bean sacks which Alekan treats to a welcome touch of overhead expressionism. Otherwise, functional claustrophobia is the order of the day, with as many talking heads crammed into the average frame as possible, while morale frays and the less fervent buddies of the Führer start panicking about when to desert this figuratively sinking ship, and how.
It must be said that Clément’s on-again, off-again approach to the point of view he’s giving Guilbert, who gets voiceover through some parts, and is first shown committing his whole testimony to a journal, but is nowhere to be seen through key sequences like the Dalio stuff, makes the dramatic basis of the movie a lot more rickety than it might have been: popular though Vidal would become in the 1950s, he’s a colourless lead here, and the character gets lost in his endless skulking in and out of hatches below deck. The real star — the film’s Col Hans Landa, if we must — is Jo Dest, whose Gestapo officer Forster is handily outranked by the decorated SS general he essentially strips to mince. Elderly and obviously homosexual — Kronefeld at first places him only after a glance at Auclair’s pretty-boy sidekick — he’s all the more snakelike for what a deferential role he appears to be playing: Dest makes of him a deadly veteran functionary, who can insinuate his way to the top of command and talk the crew into firing up torpedoes. The framing business with Vidal scribbling ardently by candlelight and the final, declamatory coining of the title are thudding and lame, but no more so than you might get from a jobbing-it Orson Welles, say, taking a crack at a promising Graham Greene script everyone else had passed on. It's some way better than its overrated Losey and Visconti namesakes, and certainly never as squiffy as Welles’s more-or-less contemporary The Stranger (1946), but if we needed further proof that Clément is merely roughing out a commercial style here, the altogether smoother, more clement (I went there!), yet somehow headier voyage of Plein soleil (1960) is right there to provide it. B–
Friday, August 20, 2010
Piranha 3D (18 cert, 88 min) ★★The suspense is as skimpy as the swimwear in this shameless 3D remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 Jaws spoof, directed by French gore specialist Alexandre Aja. The presence of Kelly Brook, who acquits herself fine, typifies an excessively guilty bit of Friday-night trash — it wants to have its breasts and eat them. It’s spring break at a lake in Arizona, and a minor quake unleashes prehistoric gnashers on an unsuspecting parade of partying hotties, under the concerned eye of Elisabeth Shue’s sassy sheriff. Richard Dreyfuss and Christopher Lloyd have fun cameos, but Aja’s lazy direction and reliance on tawdry digital body trauma makes the movie more of a gloating endurance test than an actual good time: it’s quite leering enough before Eli Roth turns up.
Sunday, August 08, 2010
*Michael Douglas, Wall Street
William Hurt, Broadcast News
Marcello Mastroianni, Dark Eyes
Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam
Timothy Dalton, The Living Daylights
Richard E. Grant, Withnail and I
Joe Mantegna, House of Games
Terry O'Quinn, The Stepfather
Saturday, June 19, 2010
With apologies for the lengthy break in service.
BEST ACTRESS, 1994
Jodie Foster, Nell
*Jessica Lange, Blue Sky
Miranda Richardson, Tom & Viv
Winona Ryder, Little Women
Susan Sarandon, The Client
(Not quite as useless a line-up as people often claim, though it could have been so much stronger if it weren't for eligibility snafus and general myopia...)
Toni Collette, Muriel's Wedding
Linda Fiorentino, The Last Seduction
Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers
Julianne Moore, Vanya on 42nd Street
Sigourney Weaver, Death and the Maiden
Melanie Lynskey, Heavenly Creatures
Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures
Sunday, May 09, 2010
The Back-Up Plan (12A cert, 104 min) ★
Here’s the way Hollywood careers work. Jennifer Lopez needs a comeback. She’s looking terrific – no problems there. She’s 41, just past what studios normally consider the romcom best-before date, but Sandra Bullock has earned an extension on that, so why can’t she? After all, she’s put Ben Affleck and Gigli behind her – so very 2003. Still, we don’t want to risk a failure that conspicuous, anything risky like a thriller, or anything with an actual plot. Something safe, then. Old tricks.
New spin? A baby, perhaps. She’s had one? Passé. She wants one. How about artificial insemination, so she’s pregnant before even meeting the man of her dreams? A premise! It’s new-ish, without being off-puttingly new. It’ll fit into an acceptable zone of mind-numbing, women’s-weekly-editorial, pseudo-zeitgeisty tedium. It’ll do.
Thus The Back-Up Plan was surely conceived, and it absolutely puts your back up. J.Lo’s new-found beau (Alex O’Loughlin) runs a goat farm and peddles cheese at a market stall. Of course he does. I won’t knock his shirtless tractor driving, but he exudes all the charisma of a boiled slug. Before their first dinner date, we get the inevitable comedy with home pregnancy tests. Her dog swallows one, then throws it up. During the date, he (that’s the beau, not the dog) lays on candlelit pizza for two in one of Manhattan’s obliging walled gardens, leans over for a kiss, and knocks over what must be the world’s only flammable bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape. A disaster, all round.
There’s further scintillating dialogue to come (“I’m your cheese muse”) and a grotesque parody of a single mothers’ support group, culminating in an entirely undelightful sequence with another mum’s polluted birthing pool, into which J.Lo obviously trips. The tick-tock of the biological clock might be a real enough subject, but actual parturition is the grossest thing this movie can imagine, except when Lopez herself gets round to it.
There was always a high likelihood the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street wouldn’t work out. Freddy Krueger’s dream-murder tactics stop being scary the second they’re too familiar, and Samuel Bayer’s film is nothing if not that, rehashing plenty of sequences from Wes Craven’s 1984 original: Freddy’s finger-blades emerge from bathwater, his upper body bulges in the wallpaper above someone’s bed, and he slaughters the same sleep-deprived teens in pretty much the same order. Would novelty have cost them anything?
Jackie Earle Haley, inheriting the role, isn’t to blame, but he’s more stymied by the burn-victim cosmetics than Robert Englund was, and his half-baked performance feels mangled in the edit – it’s not imposing enough. This version is ghoulishly overt about Freddy being a lynched paedophile; where the murkiness of his back-story made him almost a fairytale figure in Craven’s script, here everything has to be depressingly literalised.
I’m not claiming Craven’s film was exactly a tour de force in the acting department, but at least Freddy’s victims had a modicum of personality, so that we cared on some level whether they lived or died. Bayer’s movie, which is garishly incompetent in basic areas like sound synching, assumes bad CGI is enough in itself to suggest slippage between nightmares and reality. There’s maybe some sense of how agonising it might be to stay awake for days on end, but the movie is so sluggish and feebly imagined you could soundly snooze through it and not miss a thing.
Furry Vengeance (PG cert, 91 min) ★★
Brendan Fraser, whose labours in the arena of family entertainment get more and more masochistic, stars as a land developer thrust into a turf war with imperilled forest critters. The whole movie feels extrapolated from the five-second clip of a scheming chipmunk on YouTube, bulked out with many, many shots of Fraser being thwacked with some generic foley crunch noise and falling backwards with his feet in the air. A diabolical raccoon masterminds the attack of the allegedly cute fauna, but they’re off-puttingly creepy and computer-generated, and ever-trashier director Roger Kumble (Cruel Intentions) severely overestimates both the comedy and eco-preaching value of being repeatedly skunk-sprayed. In fairness, there might be some silly fun for the kids here, and Ken Jeong has snappy timing in the role of Fraser’s Blackberry-pecking boss, whose lip-service to green principles never lasts more than a microsecond. But it’s needlessly lame and cardboard stuff.
Sus (15 cert, 91 min) ★★★
A cannily-timed release for Barrie Keeffe’s absorbing three-hander, set on election night 1979, and set almost wholly in a police interrogation room where a black Brit called Delroy (underrated Clint Dyer) is hauled up on suspicion of killing his wife. Dyer’s transition from cocky boredom to tear-streaked fury is powerfully handled, and Ralph Brown brings a credible menace to his covertly bigoted cop. Though it’s hard to see what Rafe Spall’s dawdling, lightweight deputy brings to the party, Keeffe’s play packs a solidly indignant punch on screen.
A Room and a Half (12A cert, 130 min) ★★★
Flights of melancholic reverie and animated fancy pervade this imagined life of the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky – at times self-conscious in its sepia-tinted nostalgia, at others glowing and magical.
Psych:9 (15 cert, 97 min) ★
Hysteria and hysterectomies in a deserted hospital. You mainly fear for the mental health of the screenwriter.
One Night in Turin (15 cert, 97 min) ★★
Naggingly unnecessary doc about the Italia 90 World Cup.
Saturday, April 03, 2010