Timbuktu

timbuktu

I didn’t know anything about Timbuktu going in, which is fitting, I suppose, for a film named after a place considered by Westerners as unfathomably distant and unknowable. (Do Africans have a ‘Timbuktu’ equivalent? Do Saharan villagers say things like “from here to Milton Keynes”?)

Far more unfathomable than any colonial-era geographical mystique is the baffling ideology of ISIS, the terrorist group who form the loose subject of Abderrahmane Sissako’s gorgeous film. Granted, a movie about Islamic fundamentalists hardly seems like a barrel of laughs, and I’ll admit, there is not quite a barrel’s worth of chuckles here. But what’s surprising about Timbuktu is how warm and perversely optimistic it is, even in the face of incredible persecution.

Maybe optimistic is the wrong word. It’s dark. It’s rife with injustice and terror. It does not end well. People are punished, and murdered, for the flimsiest of reasons. But Timbuktu’s great strength is portraying the humanity that comes up against this ugly force.

It presents a side of the ISIS story rarely told in western media: the Average Joe. Most of the people in Timbuktu are just nice, ordinary people, trying to get by, who react with a mixture of exasperation, weariness, drollery and anger when this parade of idiots roll into town.

Put aside their extreme religious or murderous elements and you arrive at one incontrovertible truth: ISIS are just massive, massive arseholes. They ban cigarettes, music, and footballs. They force women to wear veils and gloves. They’re hypocrites (one member smokes secretly behind sand dunes) and cowards. Their utter dickishness is counterpointed by the brilliant stoicism of the people they oppress.

Witness the religious elder who calmly, quietly tells one of the terrorists that there is nothing in the Koran which approves of child murder. Or the woman who offers her hands up for chopping in frustration after refusing to wear gloves. Or the boys who play football without a ball, miming an entire game with breathless enthusiasm.

These ephemeral acts of civil disobedience offer no small amount of hope. That’s where the optimism lies. If you had to offer a criticism, you could say it is a little unfocused, and the motivations of a central character, tried for murder under Sharia law, seem somewhat spurious. But it’s worth seeking out. Sumptuously shot – it probably doesn’t take much to make a country like Mauritania look beautiful, but still, credit where credit’s due – and buoyed by a mesmeric soundtrack, Timbuktu brushes beauty and humanity against an unfathomable ideology in one elegant, timely package.

San Andreas

San-Andreas-DI-1-1Time was when disaster movies were the domain of cheap ‘n’ cheerful B-movies, all wobbly skyscraper sets and screaming crowds of extras.

The advent of CGI puts paid to all that: in modern blockbusting, filmmakers can now destroy entire cities (​Man of Steel), continents (​The Day After Tomorrow) or even planets (​2012) with barely the click of a mouse or tap of a keyboard.

These days, mass destruction on an industrial scale is frequent, and frequently thoughtless. Can the sight of another city being levelled by visual effects artists hold the power it once could? Are we bored of the apocalypse yet?

San Andreas would hope not. Reuniting the acting-directing partnership of Dwayne Johnson and Brad Peyton (at last!), after their fruitful collaboration on, erm, ​Journey 2 The Mysterious Island, it sees America’s west coast trembling at the arrival of the ‘big one’ – the long-awaited mega-earthquake predicted along the San Andreas fault.

With all the scientific rigour and accuracy of a medieval apothecary woman, Paul Giamatti’s seismologist sets the scene. Apparently, the tectonic plate under California is shifting. A clutch of disaster movie clichés (“I think you’re gonna want to see this…”) condescendingly explain the finer details.

Small quakes in Nevada portend the computer-generated demolition to come. The Hoover Dam is the first victim; Los Angeles follows; San Francisco is close behind. Buildings topple with barely a moment’s reflection for the cost, human or otherwise.

As ambitious as it is in scale, San Andreas is totally unambitious in plot. Johnson plays a heroic search and rescue pilot – naturally – but he’s dragged down by his dull-as-dishwater family: an estranged wife (Gugino), a slick new romantic rival (Gruffudd), and a doe-eyed daughter (Daddario) who finds time between tremors to bat her eyelids at a new beau (Johnstone-Burt).

A dreary dead-daughter subplot serves only to facilitate the film’s supposed emotional core (and further facilitate a frankly baffling 30-second cameo from Kylie Minogue). Half of the supporting cast are irritating enough that you’ll find yourself willing the ground to swallow them up.

Still, Peyton is a director who recognises the power of an actor like Johnson – or rather, recognises that while he isn’t really much of an actor, he radiates sunbeams of A-list charisma. His broad shoulders, swollen biceps and million-dollar smile hold immense screen presence. He can rescue the dowdiest of films. He’s fought wrestlers, lions, giant bees – and now tectonic plates.

He is, simply put, a latter-day action saint. From first line (“just doing my job, ma’am!”) to preposterously patriotic last, Johnson is the film’s saving grace.

The Rock, you could say, is caught in a hard place here: lumbered with a powerfully stupid script and drainingly repetitive special effects. But as so often in his career, he makes the best of it.

The Grandmaster

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Because I’m a lucky so-and-so, I recently found myself undeservedly invited to a rather exclusive early screening of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster last week. The screening was a Heineken® Star Screening, organised as part of the Open Your City, and anyone can be as lucky as me – head to the Heineken Star Treatment Page at startreatment.co/star-access for more information about other ‘Star Access’ events.

In Hong Kong cinema, Wong Kar-wai is not known for his martial arts action spectaculars. The Hong Kong peninsular has produced plenty of action auteurs – your John Woos, your Johnnie Tos – but Wong always stood apart from the crowd. His films, like 1994’s Chungking Express or 2000’s In the Mood For Love, were more thoughtful impressionistic dramas, rather than the wild action stylings of his countrymen.

The Grandmaster is not as wilfully silly or outlandish as other action Hong Kong pics. There’s plenty of slow-motion fight scenes, sure, but they’re resolutely grounded, by a sense of solemnity, a deep and abiding respects for the Chinese traditions, and a tale of unrequited love – a typical Wong trope – which underpins it all.

The film tells the contemporary legend of Ip Man, a martial arts master who revolutionised Kung-fu by bringing together rival schools from the north and south of the country. Among his many achievements, Ip Man trained a certain Bruce Lee.

This is not the first film to recount the Ip Man story – 2008’s Ip Man saw Donnie Yen play the master – but it is surely the most impressive. Wong’s reverence for his subject matter is manifested with a preternatural level of care and craft. (“Kung fu is not a circus act”, as the Ip Man says.)

Nowhere is this more apparent than in lead actor Tony Leung. A veteran of both Wong Kar-Wai and Hong Kong action cinema in general, it’s almost unthinkable to consider anyone else as the titular Grandmaster: every appearance he makes – stalking almost every frame of the film – has gravitas, quiet dignity, and crucially, the physical prowess needed to convince.

The technical ability and precision required to portray such expertise is immense. (Or at least, I presume it is – believe it or not, I know nothing of the intricacies of the Wudang Boxing northern school.)

Leung’s technical mastery is only matched by his supporting cast, and though there are several pretenders to his throne, only one challenger actually manages to defeat him. Zhang Ziyi plays Gong Er, the daughter of a grandmaster who could never hope to rise the Kung fu ranks, due to her gender.

Zhang is superb, but Wong’s third act focus on her, temporarily discarding his title character, leads to a slightly uneven structure, as he jumps around timelines and locations, and we sometimes wonder why a film titled the Grandmaster doesn’t focus on the Grandmaster.

But these are minor quibbles. Overall, it’s an immensely satisfying entry in the crowded shelf of Hong Kong martial arts epics: sumptuously shot, with depth and purpose to all its characters. Here’s hoping Wong Kar Wai stays in this world.

Underground Film Club

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Cinemas are awful, aren’t they? I’m not talking about the artform. I like cinema. But cinemas, the bricks-and-mortar buildings, the garden-variety multiplex chains, are the worst: sticky-carpeted monstrosities, devoid of joy, where eye-watering popcorn prices require a payday loan, experienced projectionists have been replaced with a teenager pressing play on a DVD player, and the whole place possesses as much atmosphere as dead amoeba. It doesn’t matter how good the film is. You wouldn’t eat Michelin-starred food at a restaurant that looked and smelled like piss.

Unsurprisingly, savvy Londoners have been turning to alternatives, and a veritable popcorn-flavoured smorgasbord of pop up cinemas have, in a very literal sense, popped up all over the city. One such pop-up is the Rooftop Film Club, in which hardy souls surrendered themselves to the Great British Weather for movies under the stars.

The team behind Rooftop have sensibly hibernated for the winter and now the Underground Film Club offers subterranean cinematic nourishment for the discerning film fan. There’s no sticky carpets or pervading sense of despair here. This is cinema with a soul.

The ‘Underground’ element is something of a misnomer – it is, technically, at ground level – but it definitely feels somewhere a burrowing animal might feel at home. The club resides at the Vaults, a cavernous series of Victorian warehouse spaces beneath Waterloo station only recently rediscovered and turned into a “multi-disciplinary art space”. Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic Theatre was a recent occupant.

The film club are its current temporary residents, using a lavish velvet-seated auditorium borrowed from Banksy, no less. It’s a sumptuously decked out space, with curious art tidbits adorning the walls, leather sofas, and colourful changing lighting creating an ambience all of itself. The bar from Bulmers Cider dishes up moreish cocktails, and a colourful range of Bulmers in new flavours, neatly in keeping with the #LiveColourful campaign. There’s even a Bulmers Live Colourful photo booth, which provided Warhol-esque photo prints on the spot. (Not your average passport pic.)

Inside the auditorium itself, the curvature of the tunnels gives the whole thing a proscenium arch sort of feel, like this is the revived fossil of a grand old picture house from the golden age, when going to the cinema meant four feature films, a newsreel, a cartoon, and a rhubarb ‘n’ custard bon bon from the foyer, altogether costing a thrupenny bit with change to spare.

There were, alas, no bon bons on sale at the Underground Film Club. But there was an excellent pie shop. And – joy of joys! – reasonably priced popcorn.

The evident effort and love from Bulmers poured into the experience enriches the filmwatching process beyond measure. I was there for opening night, to see Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, a tale of whimsy and farce almost tailor-made for the quirky surroundings. The clever sods gave everyone wireless headphones, which dulled both popcorn and the trains overhead to a distant murmur.

I came out of the film with a smile on my face, wondering quietly to myself that if the permanent, soulless multiplexes of the world were replaced with these spirited, thoughtful pop-up alternatives, it wouldn’t quite be the end of the world.

Underground Film Club website
Bulmers Cider website

Locke

Locke_1

Most thrillers tend to follow a fairly rigorous formula. More often than not, it’s a murder or crime that triggers the thrills. Perhaps a web of conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Most likely a trigger-happy hero at its centre.

Locke is not most thrillers. Its titular star, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), is an ordinary working stiff. He is married with kids. He works in construction and obsesses over cement. He speaks in a gentle Welsh lilt. He wears a fetching bit of Laura Ashley knitwear. And he spends the entire duration of the film in the front seat of a BMW X5, driving the 120-mile journey from Birmingham to London, never once threatening the speed limit.

On paper, Locke sounds dull and pointless. On the screen, it’s unfailingly gripping, an intriguing experiment in minimalism and suspense. Like Buried or Phone Booth, the fixed location means thrills come not from gunfights or combat, but frantic phone calls and methodical plot developments. Yet the experiment seldom trips over itself.

Writer-director Steven Knight’s ingenious script extracts tension and excitement from the unlikeliest of places. Ivan is an orderly, stoical man, who approaches life in a calm businesslike fashion, and a single foolish mistake threatens his hard-won peace. Morsels of the drama reveal themselves slowly and precisely, layer by layer; we watch spellbound as Ivan’s life collapses via his hands-free phone.

Inevitably, given the ambitious format, not every piece fits perfectly. Ivan’s imagined conversations with his late father, directed to an empty passenger seat, are a clumsy device, which breaks the naturalistic spell. But it’s an infrequent stumble. Though some in the Valleys might take issue with the accent, Hardy’s is a commanding, absorbing performance. Most actors would have aimed big and blustery with the part; Hardy goes small and measured, nuance from behind a seatbelt.

Meanwhile, Knight’s direction – aided by Haris Zambarloukos’s slick cinematography – is at once inventive and unpretentious. It’s a delicate tightrope to keep a confined location visually compelling without detracting from the story, but Knight manages it – and at a running time just shy of 85 minutes, doesn’t outstay his welcome. Lean, engrossing, and entirely unique – you’ll never look at junction 5 of the M1 in the same way again.

 

Her

Spike-Jonze-Her

As genre mashups go, science fiction and romantic comedy aren’t regular bedfellows. But in typically ingenious fashion, writer-director Spike Jonze (purveyor of offbeat comedies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) has put a remarkably fresh spin on a the boy-meets-girl template: what, so the premise here goes, if the girl was Siri?

Theodore Twombly (a never-more-charming Joaquin Phoenix) is our human guide in this near-future tale. An incurable romantic, he writes bespoke love notes for an online letter-writing service, conjuring a false reality for lovers everywhere.

But he’s plagued with loneliness. Hounded by memories of his estranged wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), he lives quietly in a plush high-rise apartment overlooking a glossy city of similar high-rises, his life at a virtual standstill – until he hears about the ‘OS’ programme, a highly advanced artificially intelligent helper that can live in your mobile phone, and talk to you as if human.

It’s here that Theodore ‘meets’ Samantha (the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson). Perky, self-effacing, and with a sly sense of humour, the curiously human-like Samantha learns and evolves in the haven of Theodore’s shirt pocket, until, almost inevitably, man falls in love with machine.

The parameters of what constitutes a real relationship are suddenly thrown wide open. Samantha wonders aloud whether her feelings are real, before observing that “we’re all just matter” and that everyone, humans and robots alike, are technically the same age – i.e., 13.7billion years old.

Concurrently, Theodore undergoes a painful divorce with Catherine, and his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) suffers the collapse of her own marriage. Where Catherine is emotional, volatile, and cold, and Amy’s husband shallow and pedantic, Samantha has a lust for life and learning, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Are the fragility of human relationships even a match for an artificial intelligence “untethered by space and time”?

These are huge questions smuggled in under the guise of a sweet and deceptively straightforward love story, and it’s extraordinary how well a balance is kept. Weighty musings on existence are expertly tempered with the simple and intimate dramatics of romance.

And while there’s a satirical edge to it, Her is also blissfully earnest. Though it ponders our over-reliance on technology, its cynicism of the future is gentle at best. In place of the usual sci-fi paranoia, there’s sunny Californian optimism in every frame. Aided expertly by Hoyte van Hoytema’s glistening cinematography, it revels in the honeymoon of a new love as much as it cautions technology’s tightening grip.

Her explores our ever-shifting relationship with technology, but it’s what it says about our relationships with each other that’s most striking. As an affirmation of our humanity, Spike Jonze has made something quite unique.

Lone Survivor

lone survivorPeter Berg’s last film as director posited the threat of sea aliens attacking a navy ship based on toy, with a pop star as a weapons specialist.

Lone Survivor, mercifully, is not Battleship. Instead, we find the director on significantly more sober ground, with a calculated approach towards authenticity. Berg reportedly embedded himself in a real US Navy SEAL team and lived in Iraq for a month in the run-up to production, as well as having Marcus Luttrell (whose real-life account forms the story) as a close advisor.

Luttrell’s remarkable story of survival is worth telling. Inevitably, the temptation to depict US military as consummate heroes creeps through. Yet it’s a more balanced account than you might expect.

Our introduction to the SEAL team is a by-now-familiar parade of machismo, facial hair, wisecrackin’ about good ol’ gals back home, and the word “hoo-ah”. The main cast (Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster) are solid, but virtually indistinguishable.

It’s a slow start. Yet once the disastrous Operation Redwings gets under way – an assassination attempt gone wildly awry – the pace and tension crescendos. As the four-man team comes under heavy fire from an army of Taliban insurgents, Berg pummels the screen with action. Intense, unremitting, taut and brutal, the gunfights paint a grim picture of a grim war.

It’s muscular, gripping, back-to-basics action. Politics takes a back seat. Berg has publicly stated his film is apolitical – and there are those who might wish otherwise. But just when the balance seems skewed, an unexpected ending highlighting the compassion and bravery of ordinary Afghans lends a bit of much-needed perspective.

Admittedly, there’s some mawkish military tributes. An opening credits montage offers real-life training footage; the closing credits feature photos of the real SEALS, complete with a syrupy Peter Gabriel cover of ‘Heroes’.

Both sequences, despite playing well in the States, will sit a little uncomfortably outside of Republican rallies. But the filling of this stars-and-stripes sandwich, the meat of the movie, just about excuses any near-propagandism. Lone Survivor’s impressive battle scenes, feverish pace, and admirable pursuit of realism makes for a hugely well-crafted war film, and one that deserves your time.

 

The Wolf Of Wall Street

wolfThe Wolf of Wall Street opens with Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) ostentatiously reeling off a list of his various assets, riches, and vices: beachside mansions, private jets, sparkling sports cars and luxury yachts sit perilously alongside gambling, drug-taking, hookers and truly outrageous parties – all funded from fraudulent stock-broking scams.

Told in a montage so fast it could give you whiplash, the whirlwind first five minutes are an apt introduction to both character and film. Belfort’s a man entirely driven by his addictions – sex, drugs, and the almighty dollar – and Martin Scorsese provides, with breathless energy, a deliciously ambiguous portrait of greed.

As Belfort, DiCaprio makes for a superb anti-hero, a tornado of charm and macho ruthlessness. With one hand, he shows no scruples for the gullible investors who fall for his slick sales technique (often silently flipping the bird to the telephone); with the other, he fritters his ill-gotten gains on a hedonistic lifestyle approaching absurdity. DiCaprio’s a marvellous fit for the role, and his slimy charisma could charm even the steeliest of souls.

Such depictions of (apparently authentic) excess – midget tossing and a five-hooker-a-week-habit among the tamer examples – are riotously entertaining, even if they probably oughtn’t be. Scorsese’s arms-length approach, directing with a stonking exuberance that belies his 71 years, passes no precise judgement on his crooked cast. It’s a morality play with a potentially troubling lesson.

Yet Belfort and his team aren’t immoral, they’re amoral: existing in a world of dollar-signs-for-eyes, wholly detached from reality. As Belfort’s narration admits: “it was obscene, in the normal world – but who wants to live there?”

With partying given precedence, Scorsese (perhaps wisely) skirts around the minutiae of Belfort’s financial swindles and, it’s fair to say, plumbs rather shallower depths than his previous work.

But this seems entirely in keeping with its shamelessly shallow subject, as does the indulgent three-hour running time. This is Belfort by Belfort: an unreliable narrator taking us on a chaotic carnival ride of capitalism at its most unfettered. For an exercise in sheer self-indulgence, the actions speak rather loudly for themselves.

 

All Is Lost

all is lostAt a time when filmmakers are desperately throwing everything at the screen and seeing what sticks, it’s refreshing to see a film like All Is Lost come along and turn the more-is-more formula on its head.

This is pure, minimalist cinema. The plot can be described in a single breath: Robert Redford finds himself lost on a damaged boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and must use his resourcefulness to survive a storm.

And that’s essentially it. There’s only one actor, and barely three lines of dialogue – one being “Help!” There is no backstory, no flashbacks, no shots of fretting family members at shore, no Helen Hunt moving on with her life, no CGI tiger posturing theological queries. There is only a man, a boat, and the elements.

It’s curiously radical to have a film stripped to the dramatic basics. (The very first shot sees salty water leak into the boat’s cabin.) Every triumph, every pitfall, every turning point becomes amplified to the nth degree.

Our anonymous seaman does his level best to save his own life, deploying some Macgyver-esque ingenuity to repair the damage inflicted by stray shipping container, and his efforts – workmanlike and sensible – are absorbing to watch. But without navigation or radio, he is effectively doomed.

This pared-down approach does make you wonder if other factors have been skimped on; save for a pre-credits voiceover epilogue, we know practically nothing about the never-named hero, other than his skills at the helm of a yacht.

But this is where Redford shines: communicating noisy emotion behind a veil of deafening silence. Huge sections of the film pass with only the ocean (and Alex Ebert’s eerie soundtrack) for aural comfort, and it’s only the veteran actor’s screen presence that fills the gap. Lean, relentless, and gripping: All Is Lost is, in essence, a perfect disaster movie.

 

47 Ronin

47 roninThe tale of the 47 ronin, the samurai without masters, is deeply enshrined in Japanese culture. An epic revenge mission, the legend of the ronin exists in the very marrow of Japan’s national psyche, speaking to quintessential themes of honour, loyalty, and sacrifice.

It’s history become myth, and though the story is verifiably true, this film is pure myth, playing fast and loose with the annals and mixing fantastical elements – not to mention a square-jawed A-lister – into the soup.

Keanu Reeves, whose previous work in eastern-flavoured action makes him a decent fit for this sort of CGI-heavy martial-arts fare, plays a “half-breed” orphan who helps the ronin in their epic quest to avenge their fallen master.

Though slick and sinewy in the fight scenes, Keanu plays everything in his usual husky monotone, and the cast around him – largely Japanese stars, for whom English is a second language – mimic his dull delivery. This, coupled with horribly wooden dialogue and an inert script, gives the impression of a B-movie in an A-movie’s clothing.

And like many B-movies, it exists in a vacuum of humour or self-awareness. A cackling witch, played by Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi, seems plucked straight from a Blackpool pantomime.

With a reported budget just south of $200m, it’s flush with production values. There’s pomp and pageantry in every frame, but the emphasis on historical accuracy in costume and set design sits a little queasily alongside the witches, demons and dragons.

Ultimately, this vision of feudal Japan seems to fall somewhere between a graphic novel and computer game. But even comics and games are less witless and tedious than this. If only they’d spent a little more time on the script and less on the dojo colour scheme…

 

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