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.

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Locke

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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.

 

Ikarie XB-1

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Rather blandly retitled as ‘Voyage To The End Of The Universe” in some English-speaking markets, the snappily-monikered Ikarie XB-1 (the title alludes to Icarus, the Greek mythological character who flew too close to the sun) is a rather wonderful trailblazing sci-fi from 1963. Set a couple of centuries in the future, it follows a spaceship on a mission to a distant star system in the hopeful search for life.

Technically brilliant, there’s a devout attention to detail across the board, particularly in the impressive production design (the influence on Stanley Kubrick is plain to see); only a robot called Patrik who looks like an antique toy dates poorly.

But Ikarie XB-1’s real strengths lie in its ideas: the script ponders the impact of relativity, of extraterrestrial life, of the unhinging claustrophobia of long-term space travel. A classic of Eastern bloc filmmaking, it summons that early thrill of discovery and dread of the unknown that the space programme once invoked.

Ikarie XB-1 is out on DVD next week.

Post Tenebras Lux

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The title of Carlos Reygadas’ fourth feature film, Post Tenebras Lux, means “light after darkness” in Latin – and unwittingly, it perhaps alludes to the polarised reaction it has received since its premiere at last year’s Cannes. Met, at its first screening, with the absurd chorus of boos that spoilt Cannes audiences often like to dole out, it went on to win Best Director Award for Reygadas, and opinions continue to diverge sharply. As with his earlier efforts, Reygadas’ approach – artful, unhurried, often bafflingly aloof – has delighted and infuriated.

There’s much to compare here with Terrence Malick, that other Cannes darling, in the reverence and quiet esteem it gives to the natural world, and our relationship with it. Like Malick, Reygadas presents ideas slowly, thoughtfully and with an impassive precision. Minutes pass without any dialogue or notable action. Yet despite the occasional surreal interlude – seemingly irrelevant vignettes of an English rugby club are particularly perplexing – there is, at its core, a fairly conventional narrative, of a marriage faltering and a father grappling with his own morality.

The opening sequence, it should be noted, has received universal praise. The first shot is of an infant girl, seemingly alone in a field, with a gaggle of dogs, horses and cows nearby. A brilliant pink sky is reflected in puddles. The girl splashes about merrily, calling out to the animals, but then the sky darkens, and a lightning storm erupts overhead. The girl calls out for her mother, but her calls are not met. She starts to cry. There’s something immensely powerful about this dazzling melding of imagery, and it hits you elementally: the raw power of nature, both beautiful and terrifying, set against the vulnerability of childhood. It’s unfortunate that this mesmerising visual overture promises a little more than the rest of the film can deliver.

Reygadas has likened Post Tenebras Lux to an impressionist painting, and this makes sense: generally, this film is ethereal rather than tangible. We glimpse at strange, transient segments of human activity, but our impression is only a feeling, not a rounded understanding. Throughout the film, there’s an odd blurring effect around the edges of the frame, which emphasises the dreamlike concept, as if the whole film is told in a feverish flashback.

But where it is visually vigorous, its content is practically impenetrable. Reygadas respects his audience enough to offer questions rather than answers, but certain sequences (an animated devil figure; an orgy with sweaty unrelated characters; a jaw-dropping moment of self-mutilation; the aforementioned rugby match) are oblique and obfuscating. Conversely, the cinematic tip-offs are sometimes too heavy handed by half (the film ends on young rugby player extolling the virtues of teamwork).  Like a dream, Post Tenebras Lux is a hypnotic whirlwind: confusing and inconsistent, but destined to haunt your mind.

Glastonbury The Movie: In Flashback (DVD)

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It’s been mere weeks since the 2013 edition of the Glastonbury Festival ended, the cows not yet back in the hallowed fields of Worthy Farm – but festival fans still shaking off withdrawal symptoms could do worse for a pick-me-up than Glastonbury The Movie: In Flashback, an affectionate rockumentary of the festival as it was in 1993. A director’s cut of the film first released back in 1996, it is an oddly passive account. Director Robin Mahoney presents the festival on its own terms and generally allows the action to play out organically. There’s no commentary, very few interviews, and the only ostensible structure is a day-by-day division. We follow a few characters (‘Vanessa the Pink Dress Girl”, for example) but otherwise it’s defiantly loose.

This certainly sets a spirit-of-the-sixties tone – the use of split-screen is perhaps a rather conspicuous nod to Woodstock (1970), that other rockumentary about that other legendary festival – but the directorial aloofness means we never really get a sense of the history or the purpose of the weekend – something Julien Temple’s 2006 documentary Glastonbury managed pretty comprehensively. It looks beautiful, though – shot on everything from 35mm to betacam, the filmmakers deftly utilise that particular year’s near-perfect weather to capture the kind of golden hour hazes that would make Gaia herself weep. The sun rising from behind the Stone Circle is a highlight.

Then there are times when – this being a twentieth anniversary re-release – it shows its age. When witnessing curtain haircuts bobbing along to acid house with a ‘psychedelic trail’ effect added to the picture á la Top Of The Pops, proceedings veer into self-parody. And some of the musical artists featured are long-forgotten, with good reason. Was anyone really crying out for an Ozric Tentacles gig to be committed to the posterity of home media? That said, there are a few memorable musical slots, including a headline set from The Orb, and an early appearance from The Verve, with Richard Ashcroft seemingly not yet out of puberty, and the band so unknown at that point that they were not granted backstage camping.

The DVD package offers considerable further value for the Glasto connoisseur, with an arse-numbing 12 hours of footage over four discs. Like the film itself, these are patchy with flashes of excellence. Disc 2 has a “Follow the Cow” feature, which provides in-film deleted scenes and other tidbits of varying quality: an audio interview with a litter picking co-ordinator will be of interest to few, but a ginger hippie with apparently limitless streams of intoxicant-fuelled bullshit provides surprising mirth. Disc 3 makes use of the rarely exploited ‘multi-angle’ feature on DVD. And Disc 4 features a litany of further relevant artefacts, from a TV documentary on the Avalon field, to an illuminating set of interviews with some weary locals.

Your endurance for all this will depend on your affection for the festival; both film and extras are occasionally something of an ordeal. In fact, throughout, it’s scrappy, messy, confusing, crowded, and often joyous, which is really quite an accurate realisation of the kind of experience Glastonbury can be.

Bullet To The Head

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This latest installment in the post-Expendables renaissance of Sylvester Stallone ticks all the sorts of boxes you might expect from an action star old enough to draw a state pension: there are guns, there are girls, there are explosions, there are rippling, steroid-enhanced muscles, there’s a dunderheaded plot of sorts, there’s even a few choice one-liners (best of which is, undeniably, “You had me at fuck you”). And yet, despite all these key elements dutifully present, Bullet To The Head rarely rises too far beyond mediocrity.

Perhaps it’s down to being lost in translation – the film is an adaptation of the French graphic novel Du Plomb Dans La Tête, which if nothing else provides Stallone with the character name James Bonomo, aka, er, Jimmy Bobo. This yields some unintentionally hilarious dialogue: “Get me Bobo!”, or “Up the stairs, Bobo!”, etc, all delivered with mystifyingly straight faces. Perhaps in French, the name Jimmy Bobo is tough and masculine, not absurd and cuddly as it is in English. Sadly, it’s rather indicative of the film’s wobbly disconnect with the hearty action vintage to which Stallone clearly aspires.

Bobo (seriously, that really is his name) is a tough-as-nails hitman from the wrong side of the tracks, having spent most of his life either in jail or running from the law. We join him on an assassin job with his partner – a job which will unknowingly embroil him in a web of conspiracy and corruption that “goes all the way to the top”. When his partner is murdered, he’s compelled to team up with Asian-American detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), diving headfirst into interracial buddy-cop territory. Stallone and Kang share an awkward and slightly forced chemistry, trading a few spiky barbs where they can, but as with much of this film, it’s all been done before, better.

In fact, Stallone is a curiously anchorless presence here. Without the novelty of an Action Hero Greatest Hits Parade, nor the cosy brand familiarity of a Rocky or a Rambo, Hairdye Sly struggles to confidently carry a film alone. He has a wingspan twice the size of any of his co-stars; carries an eternal grimace on that now quite rubbery face of his; and mumbles every line to the point of extreme imperceptibility. His screen charisma is, at once, overwhelming and underwhelming.

He’s best, of course, when fighting or shooting, and the action sequences hark back, quite deliberately, to Stallone’s trashy pastel-hued glory days – muscles, bullets, conflagrations, and – at one point – axes, flying every which way. When the flare-ups come, they are perfectly serviceable, if bloated and derivative. But director Walter Hill – himself responsible for some timelessly entertaining 1980s romps – seems unsure which direction to take with his lumbering lead. Bullet To The Head has a slim comprehension of its inherent ridiculousness, which ultimately proves its middling, unremarkable downfall.

Bullet To The Head is out on DVD on Monday.

The King of Pigs

kingofpigs

Korean animation has skulked in the shadows for some time: South Korean animation houses have long performed the grunt work for countless popular US cartoons – from The Simpsons onwards – whilst homegrown efforts have always had to compete with the established heritage of the neighbours on the other side of the Sea of Japan. However, a quiet renaissance has occurred over the last few years and the Lord of the Flies-esque The King of Pigs is one such example.

Directed by débutante Sang-ho Yeon, it’s a grim morality tale, mostly told through flashbacks to a violent school classroom. We open on a woman, lying dead on a dining table. This is the wife of Kyung-ming, a depressive CEO, and in the wake of his business collapsing, it is implied that he murdered her. This sudden spark of barbarity compels Kyung-ming to reconnect with his old school friend, the leaden-eyebrowed Jong-Suk, now working as a downtrodden ghostwriter in a publishing company, his personal ambitions fading rapidly. The two men have not spoken in fifteen years, and together they softly recall their troubled years spent in middle school, where the roost is ruled by a triumvirate of bullies, known as the ‘dogs’.

The dogs spend their days delivering savage retribution to the ‘pigs’, the classmates unfortunate enough to be poorer or less intelligent than they. Then along comes Chul, an angry, fearless little boy who dares to challenge this perverse status quo; with Jong-suk and Kyung-ming at his side, he becomes the titular King. Chul, pure raging id, speaks confidently to the boys about accepting the evil that exists in all humans, and for a while it seems that revenge – a favoured theme in South Korean cinema – will rear its head. But this is less a bloody vengeance thriller in the Park Chan-wook mould than it is a bleak social satire on class.

The dogs often whisper of the “school’s atmosphere” being disturbed by the younger boys, and the script delivers biting critiques of the corrupting cancers worming their way through Korean society. The King of Pigs is also depicted in crisp, utilitarian animation, harnessing a neat hybrid of hand-drawn and computer-assisted techniques. You wonder, though, were it not for the brutal child violence, whether the material would be better suited to live-action. Most scenes are dialogue-centred and set in a single classroom. Fared against the ambitious spectacle of its anime cousins, the film is visually unmemorable. As it happens, much of the film struggles to sway your attention.

Yeon’s film builds slowly and surely but hits a midway point of extreme stagnation, and only in its closing minutes attempts a proper climax. Even this dénouement descends into overwrought melodrama for a rather predictable rooftop finale. With its weighty themes of power-plays and aspirational struggles, The King of Pigs has ambitious designs, but it’s ambition that could have furnished a more interesting and consistent story.

The King of Pigs is out on DVD today.

The Paperboy

Florida, 1969, and in the midst of a summer so hot, “God himself must’ve been sweating”, a small-town sheriff is murdered. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) will go to the chair for the crime, unless local investigative reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) – aided by brother Jack (Zac Efron) and oversexed convict groupie Charlotte (Nicole Kidman) – can prove otherwise. Heat sears through the screen as the muggy murder-mystery converges with a young man’s sexual coming-of-age, a first love forged in the salty fires of piss on a jellyfish sting.

Director Lee Daniels tenaciously fosters the same provocative, naturalistic atmosphere that won Precious so many plaudits, and his cast is faultless. Cusack in particular impresses as sleazy swamp-dwelling Hillary. However, strong turns and sharp-edged characterisation fail to mollify the lingering feeling that this is a fairly by-the-numbers noir procedural dressed up with some charged sexual and racial politics. The Paperboy hints at something great, but squint past the trickles of perspiration and you’re left wanting.

Originally published in The Skinny magazine.

 

Red Dawn

In 1984, the year Orwell prophesied doom, writer-director John Milius took the Cold War to its barely logical conclusion for Red Dawn, imagining a Third World War where parachuting Soviets invaded the US mainland and might have triumphed, were it not for a plucky band of American freedom fighters. In this silly and largely pointless remake, the enemy may have changed, but the same fatuous paranoia, flag-fluttering patriotism, and flimsy grip on international politics remains.

Just as Soviet Russia was a handy baddie in the ’80s – mysterious, aloof, faceless – so North Korea apparently is today. A right-wing fantasy writ large, the premise would be intriguing if it wasn’t so patently absurd. There’s competent action from first-time director Dan Bradley and the cast, led by Chris Hemsworth, are fine. But it remains an entirely ludicrous ninety minutes, jingoistically guileless in depicting an American insurgency fighting back against an invading foreign army – in reality, of course, it tends to be the other way around.

Originally published in The Skinny magazine.

 

Oscars 2013: Best Picture Round-Up!

Ah, the Oscars! The indulgent, masturbatory highlight of the entertainment calendar, in which pampered millionaires gather together to award each other golden statues for who is the best at pretending. A night of bad jokes and stomach-churning sentimentalism; of overlong speeches and vacuous fashion commentary; of extreme frustration and frequent boredom; of sleep deprivation and exhaustion for British viewers; of little-to-no merit whatsoever.

I’m not a huge fan. But I’m totally complicit. In spite of myself, I watch eagerly every year, swept up in the pageantry and spectacle. This year’s nominees fit the usual specious criteria for what constitutes award-worthiness, not to mention the usual outrageous snubs – where was Moonrise Kingdom? The Master? Holy Motors? The Imposter? – but in spite of all that, it’s a better-than-average crop, and a more-open-than-usual field.

Academy voters pick the Best Picture based on a weighted system, giving their choices in order, and I’ve done the same below, as if I were a voter. (You need me, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.) And this evening I’ll be on Twitter, ‘live-tweeting’ the whole thing like a twat, with my winning mix of sarcasm, caffeine, and a general sense of resignation. Join me! (I mean that in an abstract sense, please do not physically join me in person.)

lesmWhat in bollocks’ name is this even doing in the shortlist? What in bollocks’ name is it even doing in the longlist? One of the worst films ever to be nominated for a Best Picture OscarLes Misérables is a tedious and hollow melodrama that spends the best part of three hours on its knees, pleading that you’ll shed, at minimum, an imperial gallon of tears, or at the very least garnish it with some nice awards. And the singing… Oh, the singing. Always with the singing. A boring, irksome bit of filmed musical theatre with no interval should never be allowed near the Oscars again. (Anne Hathaway deserves her inevitable Best Supporting Actress win, mind.)

lincJust as America’s favourite president flaps about attempting to extract enough votes from the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment and ban slavery, so, it seems, Spielberg and Day-Lewis are flapping about, doing everything but beg on-screen for votes from Academy members. The history might be fascinating, the cinematography stunning and the acting (Sally Field notwithstanding) exemplary, but the execution is drearily worthy. Even a supposedly warts’n’all portrait comes out sugary and reverent with Spielberg at the wheel. Probably best watched on American soil.

argoAKA, ‘the winner’. I mean, really, any discussion about who will win the big prize is pretty much futile. Riding the surge of momentum – and the crossover of voters – from the SAGs, the DGAs, the BAFTAs and countless others, Ben Affleck is the man of the hour (if not the Best Director, thanks to an odd Academy snub), and barring a shock twist, this will almost certainly be crowned Best Picture of the last 12 months. But it quite demonstrably isn’t. It’s a strong film, sure; funny, suspenseful and entertaining, a thriller in an old-school mould. Even the acting from Baffles himself, whose front-of-camera record is haphazard, does a fine job. It’s a good film. Perhaps even a great film. But it just isn’t the best film.

life of piOnce again, Ang Lee delivers a captivating tale with a sweetly optimistic outlook on humanity – and he does so with an animated tiger. Source material and director are perfectly matched, as Lee, sometimes accused of being visually dull, dives headfirst into aesthetic bravado with some of the most beautiful and effective CGI imagery you will have seen. (As the technical team noted when accepting the special effects BAFTA, it was a rare opportunity to use their skills for art.) A faithful adaptation of a faithful book.

beastsThis, a confident and dazzling debut from Benh Zeitlin, came in for criticism from some corners for resurrecting the old ‘noble savage’ blueprint. It’s a fabular tale, depicting optimistic Southern peasants living off the land in near-future Louisiana, at a point when rising sea levels have cut a community off from mainland US in an area now known as ‘the Bathtub’. Whether or not it’s another cinematic manifestation of white guilt is open to debate, but it is inarguably infused with magical jubilation and childlike wonder throughout, thanks in large part to adorable 9-year-old lead Quvenzhané Wallis. She won’t win Best Actress tonight, but she damn well should.

zeroRiddled in ambiguities, Kathryn Bigelow has probably surrendered any chance of Oscar glory with the reams of negative commentary on the those torture scenes. As a historical account of recent real-life events, I had no problem with their inclusion – Mark Boal’s script is a meticulous piece of journalism, and it’s an honest, frank portrayal of Bush-era foreign policy. Politically, I still felt slightly uncomfortable at the less questioning depictions of extreme military heroism. But cinematically, it hit every note, intensely and self-assuredly.

silverA dysfunctional rom-com about dysfunctional people, Silver Linings Playbook is something I should hate, and on paper, I do: mismatched outsiders find love through a dance contest? I think I’ll pass, thanks. But the genre tropes here are immaterial – this is an intriguing, engaging, sporadically joyous character study from David O. Russell, of the kind he does best. And he wrings blistering performances from every corner. De Niro hasn’t been this watchable in years. No wonder it’s the first film in 31 years to get nominations in every acting category.

djangoEffectively the third in his unofficial ‘revenge trilogy’, Tarantino retreads pretty similar paths from Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. But who gives a rat’s ass when he’s on this sort of form? Easily his best effort in a decade, this is a beautifully shot, delicately measured, and blindingly entertaining, a delicious slice of pure pulp cinema. Quentin may get his conciliatory Best Screenplay Oscar but it’s simply too much fun for the Academy to deem appropriate for full honours.

amourAs far as I’m concerned, none of the other films on this list hold a candle to Amour. Here is a devastating and wrenchingly powerful piece of filmic art which lingers long in the memory and delivers a guttural emotional punch, thoughtfully pontificating on the human condition and manning a quiet assault on the senses while it does. It’s impressive, given their horrendous track record, that the Academy even acknowledged a modest European film about death starring a couple of octogenarians, but Michael Haneke can at least be proud of the nomination. Beyond the slow march of mortality, it’s a film in which nothing much happens for two hours. And yet, it’s gripping: a desperately moving account of love, life, family and sickness. It deserves to win everything and probably won’t win anything. And really, isn’t that what the Oscars is all about?

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