Category: Movie Articles
Dreams çome true at night.
A glamorous Parisian cop investigates a death in remote northern Scandinavia in this intriguing series opener. Plus: Mystery of the Man on the Moor.
Here’s an A-level physics question. A middle-aged Frenchman is tied to the rotor blade of a helicopter, head facing out, away from the axis. Actually, it’s not important that he’s French or middle-aged, but it adds colour. Anyway, the helicopter is started up, and the rotor begins to rotate, accelerating at an angular rate of x rad/sec. Given that the ultimate tensile strength of middle-aged French neck is y MPa, how long before Pierre literally loses his head?
It has been a while since I did physics A-level; some extra data may be required – thickness of neck, mass of head, distance from axis of rotation. And does Coriolis force come into it? A fascinating problem, though, I think you’ll agree. The answer appears to be about about 35 seconds, according to Midnight Sun (Sky Atlantic).
It certainly makes for an arresting/memorable/horrible opening sequence. We – the helicopter, Pierre, his now scattered head – are in the far north of Sweden. What is this smartly dressed, wealthy French chap doing here, and what has he done to deserve this grim demise?
That’s what jaded local prosecutor Rutger (Peter Stormare) has to find out. With help from his timid, dithering sidekick, Anders (Gustaf Hammarsten), and glamorous Parisian cop Kahina (Leïla Bekhti). The investigation, and the series, is a Swedish-French collaboration, The Killing meets Spiral, Abba covers Je t’aime, köttbullar au vin. It’s a promising flavour combination, gory and gothic, even if the meat may be a little underdone for some palates.
The Swedes are reassuringly straight-talking, stoic, gloomy and pale; Kahina combines ridiculous north African beauty with comedy shruggy-chic Gallic cool, pffff. Everyone has the requisite personal complications – relationships, families, ghosts, miseries. A little humanness to add to the beastliness.
There’s stuff going on underground in Kiruna as well, rumblings and cracks opening up. Because of the mine. Mother, the locals call her. She produces enough iron ore every day to make six Eiffel Towers. I hope it’s just a mine, and that Midnight Sun isn’t going to go all otherworldly Fortitude nonsense.
And because of the latitude and the fact that it’s midsummer, everyone’s a little mad. Kahina can’t sleep; there’s something of Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia about it. Perhaps the handsome helicopter pilot will help her…
Hello, who’s this, though, naked and chained to a rock? Prometheus? Not quite the right part of the world, it’s probably something to do with Thor. And it’s not an eagle that visits, but wolves, a pack of them. Aaarwwwooo! Shoo! Noo! Oww! The man is missing a foot … well, that’s better than a head I guess, but he’s got wounds all over, cuts, he’s lost loads of blood. He manages to get one word out: järv. Which means not wolf, but wolverine. Intriguing…
Mystery of the Man on the Moor (Channel 4) tells another story of a body found in a wild, remote place. Only this time it’s not fiction. There are no wolverines – or wolves – on Saddleworth Moor in the Peak District, but there was strychnine in the body, and that’s not something Oldham CID comes across every day.
You’ll remember it: the man, inappropriately dressed for the outdoors, with no identification, who, after months and months of police work, was found to be David Lytton, former London Underground driver, who had recently spent time in Pakistan. This documentary follows that painstaking investigation. And it’s both totally engrossing and ultimately a bit disappointing.
Engrossing because of the extraordinary nature of the case, the enigma of David and his death. The film has access to his brother, Jeremy, and to his former girlfriend Maureen, who contribute something to who David was and to the human side of the story. But it’s disappointing because in the end I didn’t learn very much that I hadn’t already read.
I realise this was the story of the investigation and it wasn’t going to find answers to the fundamental questions the police and the inquest hadn’t. Such as: why had he come to the Pennines? And was it really suicide?
But a documentary, and what you want from it, isn’t always the same as an investigation. There was one area in particular I feel should have been explored further: Pakistan.
We got a tiny tantalising glimpse of David’s life in Lahore, on some footage of his flat the man from the National Crime Agency brought back. That was it, though. The crew didn’t go there, didn’t track down his new girlfriend, or the man who helped David buy a house there.
Maybe, as his brother says: “The fact that it didn’t make sense makes perfect sense.” But I wanted to know what the hell a Jewish Londoner who hated the heat was doing living in Lahore for 10 years. And it would have been a better film if it made more effort to find out.
It is often said that the brain is the most important erogenous zone. It’s often said, too, that there’s nothing sexier than a sense of humour. I’m not sure whether either of these assertions has been scientifically proven but, if they have, it could explain why Fifty Shades Freed is about as arousing as staring at a mildewed patch of wallpaper.
This is the third film to be adapted from EL James’ trilogy of zillion-selling “mommy porn” S&M bonkbusters, and its protagonists are two attractive young lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other, so it should be a turn-on, if nothing else. And yet Fifty Shades Freed is so unarousing that it could be used as therapy in a sex addiction clinic. The complete lack of intelligence and fun has got to be a factor.
The film opens with Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) getting married to Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), Seattle’s most eligible bachelor. Their high-society wedding is dispensed with in a montage. Then their luxury honeymoon in France is dispensed with in a montage. And then, well, everything else drifts by with so little structure or intrigue that it might as well be a montage, too. Ana and her friends buy dresses; Christian buys a house. Ana drives a car; Christian drives a jet ski.
On and on this product placement-heavy conspicuous consumption goes, but there’s hardly any personality to it, and even less plot. Would it be cruel at this stage to mention that the screenwriter, Niall Leonard, also happens to be James’ own husband? Maybe. But, to be fair, his scripting is no more perfunctory than James Foley’s directing. Between them, they seem to have been aiming for the will-sapping vapidity of a Kardashian reality TV show overseen by Tommy “The Room” Wiseau.
Still, Fifty Shades Freed isn’t wholly without incident. Every now and then, Ana goes to her office in a publishing firm, thus establishing that she is the only senior fiction editor in America who doesn’t have a single manuscript or proof copy at home. And every now and then she and Christian bicker about having children – the kind of work-life disagreement which would barely fill the Charlotte storyline in an episode of Sex and the City.
And sometimes – oh so rarely – the film-makers remember that Ana is being stalked by her cartoonishly psychotic former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), at which point the stupidity ramps up, but not the excitement. Hyde’s hazily motivated attacks on Ana are quashed with laughable ease: Christian’s collection of riding crops would be more likely to do her an injury. But it’s still impossible to understand why Jack is treated so nonchalantly by the authorities. Halfway through the film, he tries to abduct Ana from the Greys’ swanky flat.
After her bodyguards have dealt with him – which they do, without breaking a sweat – a police detective reassures her: “Don’t worry about Hyde, we’ve got enough to hold him.” And, somehow, he says it with a straight face. Enough to hold him?! The guy’s just broken into the home of Christian Grey – the wealthiest, most influential man in the city! And he’s held a foot-long knife to Christian Grey’s new bride! Of course you’ve got enough to hold him! You’ve probably got enough to send him straight to the electric chair! But apparently not. A few minutes later, Hyde is granted bail and walks free – and nobody tells Christian. That’s how head-slappingly idiotic Fifty Shades Freed is.
You could argue that none of this vacuousness matters, and that the film exists for its sex scenes. But these tend to be brief, discreet, waist-up interludes. Christian, it seems, is growing out of the whips and chains which obsessed him when the series began. He may be obnoxiously controlling in regards to every other aspect of Ana’s life, but he can’t be bothered with bondage. At their most daring, the newlyweds have sex in a car (a parked car, mind you – safety first), and they have sex on a kitchen table in their Aspen holiday home, during which Christian frets that they might wake up their fellow guests.
And while these tame couplings could, in theory, have been titillating, the film’s pervasive joylessness acts as a cold shower. The ever-frowning Dornan has to take the blame. As usual, Johnson brings some much-needed flirtiness and recognisable human emotion to Ana, but Dornan always sounds as if he’s got a blocked nose, and always looks as if he would rather be at tomorrow’s board meeting. In one scene, Christian is so grumpy with Ana that he gives her a “not-tonight-I’ve-got-a-headache” brush-off, and that’s the only moment when Dornan’s performance has any conviction.
As feeble as it is in almost every respect, Fifty Shades Freed might perhaps have been watchable if Christian had been played by Bridget Jones-era Hugh Grant or by Wall Street-era Michael Douglas – or, for that matter, by any actor with confidence and swagger and a devilish twinkle. Instead, we’re stuck with a leading man who seems to be having a miserable time. Everyone in the audience will have a miserable time, too.
The stars’ new war thriller evokes the Hollywood classic – but can it compare? Whatever one might think of Allied, a glossy World War Two espionage thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as secret agents who try to forge a viable family life in the midst of a world on fire, it’s worth celebrating that Robert Zemeckis is firmly dedicated to filming flesh-and-blood people again.
Zemeckis has always been a superb craftsman, with a particular gift for assimilating technical advances in the art of moviemaking, but he lost over a decade of his creative life pursuing the sterile art of motion-capture animation, nearly getting lost in the uncanny valley for good. It’s hard to think of a major filmmaker who came so close to being ruined by technology, just as it’s hard to believe that anyone except film historians will be watching Beowulf, The Polar Express or A Christmas Carol even a decade hence.
Rather than pushing towards the future, Alliedlooks to the past, and not only in terms of its plot. The movie begins with Pitt’s Canadian spy, Max Vatan, parachuting into the Moroccan desert, and within minutes we’re in Casablanca – and, perhaps more to the point, in the film Casablanca. Max and Cotillard’s Marianne Beauséjour are highly trained agents with a deadly, top-secret mission, but that doesn’t prevent them from looking fabulous while doing so.
Allied is a movie about loyalty and trust, about the bonds that hold people together and sometimes blind them, but it’s also a movie about how silken fabrics fall on Marion Cotillard’s frame, and how dashing Brad Pitt looks in a knitted v-neck. Joanna Johnston has been Zemeckis’s costume designer for nearly three decades – and is therefore partly responsible for the person who walked by me on Halloween when I was wearing a down vest and called out, “Hey! You look like Back to the Future!” – but between this and last year’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it feels like she’s abruptly risen to a new and dazzling level of accomplishment.
Although there’s no show-stopping set piece to rival Flight’s plane crash or The Walk’s Twin Towers tightrope act, Allied is technically immaculate from stem to stern. Every shot framed by Don Burgess feels purposeful, every one of Mick Audsley and Jeremiah O’Driscoll’s cuts precise. It’s a movie that ought to be studied in film schools, both for its technical achievements and as an example of how it’s possible to get every one of them right and still produce something that feels hollow inside.
Casablanca is driven, above all, by a call to self-sacrifice, the idea that next to the struggle against the threat of global fascism, whether one man and one woman end up together or not doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Allied is about the hill of beans. It’s set against the same backdrop, and given the alarming resurgence of neo-Nazi ideology around the world, it stops you dead the first time a swastika armband swoops in front of the lens. But Allied’s Nazis are ultimately no more frightening than Top Secret’s.
Zemeckis has always styled himself as an apolitical filmmaker, claiming that the overtly right-wing Forrest Gump was intended to poke fun at both ends of the political spectrum, but here that disdain for taking sides robs the movie of what ought to be its core conflict. Once Max and Marianne tumble into each other’s arms we’re mainly worried about whether they’ll be found out, not whether their romantic entanglement might end up getting anyone else killed. The most inventive sequence in the movie doesn’t involve spy craft or the art of war but the two characters coupling in a car in the midst of a Moroccan sandstorm, the camera circling around their increasingly unclothed bodies as the wind whips ever-faster around them.
Its classical Hollywood reference points notwithstanding, the movie Allied most resembles is Zemeckis’s What Lies Beneath, which was also a Hitchcockian genre piece motivated at heart by questions of fidelity. (There’s an intriguing overlap, too, with Mr and Mrs Smith, in which Pitt and Angelina Jolie played professional liars who could never quite be sure if their love for each other was a deep-cover con, and last year’s Jolie-directed By the Sea, which was similarly animated by the pleasures of gazing at Pitt’s body and a woman in negligees.) Here, war is hell not because good people die, but because it makes it impossible to trust even the people you think you know, and those suspicions don’t end simply because an assignment does. Allied spans countries and continents, but the world it’s concerned with feels awfully small.
From a Japanese animation to a hilarious German comedy, Nicholas Barber looks back at the most enjoyable movies of the year.
1. La La Land
These days, hardly anyone makes film musicals that aren’t adapted from hit stage shows, but Damien Chazelle, the writer-director of Whiplash, makes it look easy. All you have to do, it seems, is cast two goofily charming actors (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), write them some well-honed songs and spiky romantic banter, embrace them in a rainbow of bright colours, and make the whole enterprise a sincere tribute to the glamorous Golden Age of Hollywood and jazz. The result is one of the most delightful films in years. As buoyant and nostalgic as La La Land is, however, it’s more than a pastiche. It won’t let us forget that life doesn’t always turn out the way it does in the movies.
Anomalisa was directed and co-written by Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And, in its modest way, his latest film is as surreal, ingenious, heartbreaking and hilarious as either of them. An unsettling commentary on loneliness, depression and the ease with which we can fall in and out of love, Anomalisa uses stop-motion animation to tell the strange tale of Michael (David Thewlis), a customer-service guru who is so sick of the human race that, to him, everybody sounds as if they have the same voice (Tom Noonan’s voice, to be precise).
The one exception is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fan he meets in a Cincinnati hotel. Anomalisa was written as a play to be performed by three actors on a bare stage, and yet the animated figurines are so integral to its mood and themes that it’s hard to imagine it any other way.
3. Nocturnal Animals
For a film about a woman (Amy Adams) sitting quietly at home and reading a novel, Nocturnal Animals is ridiculously entertaining. Tom Ford’s second offering as a writer-director is a waspish satire of Los Angeles’s glitzy art scene, a poignant tale of youthful romance, and a nightmarish western that pits a mild-mannered family man (Jake Gyllenhaal) against the redneck from hell (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). All three sections are ferociously acted and dripping with style; together, they add up to a proudly nasty treatise on fiction and revenge. You can admire the film’s cleverly intertwining structure and still be absolutely terrified.
Not long after the Independence Day sequel came and went, lovers of monsters-from-outer-space movies were treated to a far more resonant take on the same scenario, one that replaced ray guns and explosions with the question of how we are supposed to communicate with creatures from another world.
Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction mind-bender isn’t short of awe-inspiring spectacle or eerie atmosphere, but it’s essentially a small, intimate chamber piece that showcases Amy Adams’ unique balance of toughness and fragility. Then comes That Twist, which raises the film to another level. What’s so satisfying about the final revelation apart from how moving it is is that it’s nearly impossible to guess in advance, but all the clues are there.
5. Toni Erdmann
No other comedy in 2016 matched Maren Ade’s third feature for side-splitting set-pieces, which is inconvenient for anyone who believes that Germans don’t have a sense of humour. It isn’t just the year’s funniest film, though. With its unsparing depiction of soulless, globalised corporate life, Toni Erdmann is one of the year’s saddest and most insightful films, too.
Peter Simonischek is wonderful as an ageing music teacher who finds it so difficult to connect with his careerist daughter, Sandra Hüller, that he resorts to desperate measures: he puts on a cheap wig and a cheaper suit, and turns up at her offices in Bucharest, claiming to be a life coach and/or ambassador. From there, Ade keeps taking her characters to ever more daring and unpredictable places for two-and-three-quarter hours.
6. The Founder
The Keatonnaissance continues. Following his leading roles in two Oscar winners, Birdman and Spotlight, Michael Keaton picks another ideal home for his jittery charisma. The Founder is a balanced, snappy docudrama about Ray Kroc, the travelling salesman who stopped at a roadside burger joint run by two brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), and knew at once that he could turn it into a coast-to-coast franchise: McDonald’s. There’s plenty here to chew on. John Lee Hancock’s fascinating film may be set 60 years ago, but its competing visions of all-American industry – family businesses versus cost-cutting corporations could scarcely be more relevant today.
7. Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergen has been the writer-director of only three films in 16 years You Can Count on Me, Margaret, and now Manchester by the Sea but they’ve all been intensely humane triumphs. His new slow-burning drama stars Casey Affleck as a laconic janitor who returns to the eponymous coastal town in Massachussets when his brother dies, but who has his own reasons for wanting to leave again as soon as he can.
Lonergen doesn’t give his characters grandstanding speeches about the tragedies in their past; he just shows us their daily routines and quiet conversations in such credible and often very funny detail that we feel as if we’ve lived through everything they have.
8. The Distinguished Citizen
The Argentinian entry for Best Foreign Language film at February’s Oscars, The Distinguished Citizen stars Oscar Martinez as a suave author who has turned down every honour since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but who decides to accept a tin-pot award from his own home village, 40 years after he left it to find fame in Europe. Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s wry, perfectly performed comedy drama strolls breezily from mischievous jokes about provincial incompetence to rigorous debates about the purpose of culture, covering a vast amount of territory in between.
9. Florence Foster Jenkins
In Stephen Frears’ sparkling comedy drama, Meryl Streep is predictably glorious as a New York grande dame who can afford to stage lavish opera recitals in the 1940s – never mind that she has the voice of a dying parrot. But it’s Hugh Grant, as her husband and enabler, who steals the show.
Grant hasn’t always chosen the most challenging material, but in Florence Foster Jenkins he fulfils his potential, injecting his richest ever role with anguished energy and conviction. Thanks to his committed performance and Nicholas Martin’s complex script, the unbelievable true story deepens from a delightful farce to a mature and touching portrait of an unconventional marriage.
10. Your Name
Makoto Shinkai’s Japanese smash hit is dazzling in more ways than one. The range of lighting effects and painterly panoramas makes it the most spectacular cartoon of the year, and the plotting gets weirder and more apocalyptic as it goes along: Your Name starts as a high-school comedy about a country girl and a city boy who switch identities every few days, and then it grows into a mystical, time-travelling disaster movie. But amid all the visual and narrative fireworks, it never loses sight of the tender coming-of-age story at its heart, as its young protagonists realise that they may never meet their soulmates.
1) Has Internet criticism made a significant contribution to film culture? Does it tend to supplement print criticism or can it actually carve out critical terrain that is distinctive from traditional print criticism? Which Internet critics and bloggers do you read on a regular basis?
1) a. Significant and profound. Because the changes it has wrought are ongoing and unfolding, it’s still hard to have a comprehensive fix on them.
1) b. It can and does do both. By broadening the playing field in terms of players, methodologies, audiences, social formations, and outlets, it certainly expands the options. The interactivity of almost immediate feedback, the strengths and limitations of being able to post almost as quickly as one can think (or type), the relative ease of making screen grabs — these and many other aspects of Internet discourse are bringing about changes in content as well as in style and form, shape and size.
1) c. Here’s just a sample: To varying degrees (some much more regularly than others), I like to read Acquarello, David Bordwell, Zach Campbell, Fred Camper, Roger Ebert, Flavia de la Fuente, Filipe Furtado, Michael E. Grost, Andy Horbal, Christoph Huber, David Hudson, Arianna Huffington, Kent Jones, Dave Kehr, Craig Keller, Glenn Kenny, Naomi Klein, Roger Alan Koza, Laila Lalami, Kevin Lee, Adrian Martin, Dave McDougall, Mark Peranson, Quintín, Andy Rector, Lisa Rosman, Alex Ross, Girish Shambu, Brad Stevens, Terry Teachout, Alexis Tioseco, and Noel Vera. Some of these writers don’t have blogs of their own and some aren’t even film people, but I’ve included them if what they’ve had to say occasionally relates to my film interests.
2) How would you characterize the strengths and weaknesses of critics’ blogs? Which blogs do you consult on a regular basis — and which are you drawn to in terms of content and style? Do you prefer blogs written by professional critics or those by amateur cinephiles?
2) a. The strengths and weaknesses of most critics’ blogs relate to the fact that they aren’t edited — apart from a few like The Chicago Reader blogs, whose strengths and weaknesses relate to the fact that they are edited (or at least the initial posters are edited, if not the respondents).
2) b. The film blogs I read or consult most regularly at the moment are those maintained by three Davids (Bordwell, Hudson, and Kehr) and Girish. I tend to read Bordwell and Hudson more for content than for style; among the bloggers whom I tend to read more for style than for content are Glenn Kenny, Quintín, and Lisa Rosman.
2) c. I have no idea what differentiates “professional” film critics from “amateur” cinephiles, apart from the fake credentials dispensed by institutional bases — or the fact that “professionals”, whether they’re academics or journalists, don’t have to be cinephiles, don’t have to know anything about film, and don’t have to know how to write or do research in order to be regarded as “professionals” within their respective professions.
As for those with blogs, I prefer those who are cinephiles, know something about film, and know how to write and do research, such as Dave Kehr, even if he didn’t make it into Phillip Lopate’s American Movie Critics collection. I regret that many of the best film critics and film scholars that we have — including Thom Andersen, Raymond Bellour, Janet Bergstrom, Nicole Brenez, Manohla Dargis, Bernard Eisenschitz, Manny Farber, J. Hoberman, Alex Horwath, James Naremore, Gilberto Perez, Donald Phelps, and François Thomas — aren’t bloggers, at least as far as I know.
3) Internet boosters tend to hail its “participatory” aspects — e.g., message boards, the ability to connect with other cinephiles through critics’ forums and email, etc. Do you believe this “participatory” aspect of Internet criticism (film critics form the bulk of the membership lists of message boards such as a film by and Politics and Film) has helped to create a genuinely new kind of “cinematic community” or are such claims overblown?
3) Within my own experience, I would say that the “participatory” aspects of film writing, including criticism and scholarship, have helped to create a new form of community, and I would further submit that those who consider this claim overblown probably haven’t been participants or members of this community, except indirectly. (I’ve written about this topic elsewhere, in “Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflections,” in the Spring 2007 issue of Film Quarterly — an article that ironically can’t be accessed online.)
I hasten to add that my own recently launched Web site doesn’t invite or allow other participants to post, which suggests that my feelings about this community aren’t entirely or exclusively positive, by any means. Nor would I argue that the communities that have formed are always democracies, or that some of these communities wouldn’t have been formed without the Internet. (A 2003 collection that I coedited and contributed to — Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, which is very much concerned with such formations—initially took shape before any of us had email, but email certainly helped us during its final stages.)
4) Jasmina Kallay, writing in Film Ireland (September-October 2007), has claimed that, in the age of the Internet, the “traditional film critic… is losing his stature and authority.” Do you agree or disagree with this claim? If you agree, do you regard this as a regrettable or salutary phenomenon?
4) I agree, and on the whole regard this phenomenon as more salutary than regrettable — especially after protracted exposure to more “traditional” criticism in both academia and journalism before the advent of the Internet. Even though I miss such invaluable outposts as Cahiers du cinéma during the Fifties and Sixties and Penelope Houston’s Sight and Sound, not to mention such eclectic scholars and critics as Raymond Durgnat and Jay Leyda, I can’t think of any pre-Internet equivalents for Senses of Cinema in its early years or Rouge, either.
I also regret that some magazines as important as Positif don’t have any online presence. Frankly, we get more of everything now on the Internet — including more that’s worse than anything we had before as well as more that’s better. I regret the way that some critical works that aren’t available online have dropped out of our critical canons — Durgnat is a prime example — but this suggests only that we need to make more things available online.
In the fifth instalment of Danny Leigh’s series about modern cinema, he examines the shift in film-making brought about by digital. The Dogme 95 movie Festen, made at the tail-end of the 20th century, revealed the unavoidable future. But it still cost over a million dollars to produce.
The real revolution, beyond the liberation offered by digital cameras, was ushered in by Tarnation, which foretold society’s obsessive fascination with self-curation on a budget of $218. On another scale, Alfonso Cuarón’s beautiful and terrifying rendition of the vastness of space, Gravity, was made possible with massive processing power. Back on earth, the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi avoided the gaze of the regime that had banned him by shooting Taxi Tehran on tiny dashboard cameras. Catch up on earlier episodes Sex, Money, Death and Film, below.
Episode 1 / Film
The first episode examines how film itself is referenced in contemporary movies: beginning with Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s sensuous, distorted dissection of Hollywood and of film itself then continuing with Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, where an actor criss-crosses Paris where each location in his odyssey becomes a strange, anarchic movie. Finally, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary The Act of Killing, Danny considers how the director relives the 1965 massacres in Indonesia. Here, the unrepentant gangsters who formed the death squads also happen to love films, so the director convinces them to restage their crimes for a ‘movie’ in order to set the record straight.
Episode 2 / Money
In the second episode, Danny looks at movie portrayals of money – and the people making it. Margin Call, starring Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, takes an insistently authentic look at the rarefied world of investment bankers in 2008, just as Wall Street is about to open up beneath them. In The Wolf of Wall Street, audiences loved Leonardo DiCaprio’s gangster-as-banker Jordan Belfort, who was “at least honest about his dishonesty”, making it Martin Scorsese’s biggest box office success. Spring Breakers features four girls desperate to head to the Florida sun, who land with James Franco’s character Alien, a “svengali, drug dealer, rapper and enthusiastic capitalist”. Is this the good life?
Episode 3 / Sex
The third episode of Film Now takes a look at sex and gender. The Hollywood sex scene’s heyday was rendered obsolete by the internet’s arrival. Away from the mainstream, arthouse auteurs reacted to online porn’s challenge – or perhaps took advantage of it. As well as being explicit, and sometimes brilliant, films like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac were about women as seen by men, and directed by men. But, slowly, women have started to get their visions seen on-screen, and they see women differently – soaringly so in Celine Sciamma’s Paris-set Girlhood. And gender, sexuality and relationships are central to Tangerine, which portrayed trans street culture in Los Angeles and smashed conventions with both its casting choices and filming techniques.
Episode 4 / Death
The fourth episode of Film Now, Danny Leigh’s exploration of modern cinema, takes a look at approaches to death in three key 21st-century films. Directed by Paul Greengrass, United 93 was the tragic story of the only flight of the four hijacked on the morning of September 11th 2001 not to reach its intended target.
Only God Forgives was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, his follow-up to the much-loved Drive, and again starring Ryan Gosling. This time, the response was what we would politely call divided, to a movie slick with Refn’s stylised bloodshed. And at first glance, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows looks like that most mundane of things, the American suburban teenage horror movie, with a cast destined to be sliced, diced and forgotten. But it messes with every expectation.
Danny Leigh introduces the series
In film the urge is always to look ahead or behind us. In one direction there’s the giddy rush of new releases, the endless Willy Wonka conveyor belt of colourful forthcoming treats, often better in anticipation than reality. In the other there’s the weight of history, that glorious movie past, a gorgeous panorama of black-and-white filled with Monroe and Brando, Hitchcock and Citizen Kane.
What we do less is look at the moment. So I wanted to dedicate six short videos to the century of cinema so far. The 21st, sixteen years in. As well as enthralling us, movies can be a mirror. On the surface there are headlines, beneath it the stories we tell ourselves on screen, a collective subconscious bubbling up into characters and plots.
So what’s been on our minds, I wondered, in the era that began with a sigh of relief that the Millennium Bug hadn’t snuffed out civilization, and which brought us to right here. Wherever this is.
Some of the videos we’ve made are about film itself – reshaped by the rise of digital technology and filled with thrilling new talents, but still with room for Scorsese, Lynch, Lars von Trier, Kathryn Bigelow.
Most are about the place where it meets the real world. Not film as it was, or might be in the future. But about film and money, love and sex, fear and death, how we see ourselves and each other. In other words: about film now.
Training Day writer David Ayer directs this feature based on the DC Comics anti-heroes, following a secret government agency that recruits imprisoned supervillains to carry out black ops missions. An all-star cast play the rogues gallery of inmates, with Will Smith as the assassin Deadshot, Jared Leto as The Joker and Margot Robbie as his clown-faced partner Harley Quinn.
Taking its cue from Deadpool, Suicide Squad marks a change of pace from the usual comic book blockbuster, as Ayer told The New York Times. “Instead of this Soviet-style series of apartment-block movies that are all built to the same blueprints, there’s room for some Craftsman homes and a little more elegance.” After a critical panning for the most recent DC blockbuster, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ayer is hoping for an adaptation in the spirit of The Magnificent Seven or The Dirty Dozen. “It’s a little morally challenged, but we know we can get away with it.” On general release from 3 August.
Southside with You
As Obama nostalgia already sets in, this take on the soon-to-be-former president’s first date with Michelle will warm the cockles of anyone fearing what might lie ahead. Writer-director Richard Tanner’s debut feature has drawn praise for its casting, with Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers going “beyond impression to deliver something real and human-sized” as the First Couple back in 1989.
According to Variety, the film “stands as something unique, even audacious in American independent movies: a fact-based presidential ‘prequel’ that seeks to present two iconic world figures as convincing and relatable romantic leads… Whether taken as storytelling, propaganda or an artful hybrid of both, it’s a movie that unabashedly wraps its real-life subjects in a humanising embrace.” Released 26 August in the US and 31 August in France.
Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s twentieth film is a more muted affair than melodramas like Talk to Her or Volver: according to Time Out, “the emotions are more buttoned-up, the twists more maudlin”. Nevertheless, it’s “a sombre, ravishing study of grief, guilt and burden… only a master of his art could make it look so easy”.
Based on three short stories by Alice Munro, it follows a mother and daughter as they struggle to cope with the death of a loved one. Almodóvar has said that “maternity inspires me more than paternity,” and The Evening Standard praises Julieta as “a harrowing examination of broken maternity and ever-present mortality”. Released 4 August in Germany and Russia and 12 August in Finland.
Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass reunite for the first time in nearly a decade: and, according to BBC Culture’s Nicholas Barber, still have viewers on the edge of their seats: “Greengrass stages the action with bone-jarring immediacy, using wobbly handheld cameras and rat-a-tat editing to make the viewer feel as if they could be hit by a stray fist or bullet at any moment.”
The fifth installment of the spy-thriller weaves in an Edward Snowdon-esque storyline a year after Bond, but avoids looking jaded by virtue of its star. Time magazine praises Damon for lifting Bourne beyond generic action, claiming that “Watching Damon, in motion or in a rare moment of rest, is the movie’s purest pleasure… Damon, his eternal boyishness finally settling into the inevitability of middle age, brings the personal touch this movie needs. Its action is generic, but he’s always special.” Released 4 August in Argentina, 5 August in India and 11 August in Germany.
Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan co-star in this drama based on a true story, playing two soldiers from the Czechoslovakian army-in-exile sent on a mission to assassinate SS officer Reinhard Heydrich. Parachuted into their occupied homeland in December 1941, they seek to eliminate the man behind the Final Solution, the Reich’s third in command behind Hitler and Himmler.
The UK-French-Czech historical thriller is directed by Sean Ellis, nominated for an Academy Award for his short film Cashback; according to Variety, “if Ellis’ intention was to remind what these real soldiers actually accomplished, as opposed to selling some revisionist Hollywood fantasy of Nazi opposition… mission accomplished”. Released 12 August in the US and 9 September in Ireland.
The latest adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ colonialist story proves it cannot be given a modern overhaul, writes critic Sam Adams.
The Legend of Tarzan, the latest big-screen version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vine-swinging he-man, is a sincere and well-intentioned attempt to wrestle with the legacy of European colonialism in Africa. It is also a movie in which a man punches a gorilla. You could say it’s at war with itself, but it’s a war involving soldiers who are never quite sure who they’re fighting, and who are as likely to slip in the mud and break their own necks as they are to get off a clean shot.
Directed by David Yates and written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, Legend would more accurately, if less economically, be called The Legend of the Legend of Tarzan. When we pick up the story in the late 19th Century, John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) is already an international folk hero, an English nobleman raised by apes and returned to his native land. As George Williams (Samuel L Jackson), an American soldier of fortune who’s come to persuade John to return to the Belgian Congo, puts it, he is “Africa’s favorite son”.
The irony of that epithet being bestowed by a black Civil War veteran is not lost on The Legend of Tarzan. And indeed, for a time, it seems as if Yates and company have a handle on how to reshape Edgar Rice Burroughs imperialist fantasy for the modern age. The opening sequence, in which a fastidious Belgian commander leads his soldiers through the jungle mists, is full of redolent images: the bodies of dead troops hung on makeshift crosses, their own rifles used as crossbars; an African tribesman starring indomitably into the lens, a colonist’s white linen hat perched incongruously atop his head.
King of nothing
Unfortunately, the imperative to produce a viable box-office entertainment trumps The Legend of Tarzan’s noble intentions at every turn. We’re cued to hiss at Rom (Christoph Waltz), the Belgian commander, whose first onscreen act is to rip an African flower from its stem, and who, in an especially rococo touch, uses a spider-silk rosary as an offensive weapon. But when tribal soldiers spring from the water beneath his feet, in the variable-speed slow motion that Yates abuses throughout, the effect makes them seem both more and less than human.
We meet kinder Africans later, the cheerful villagers who take John in after his battered body is discovered in the jungle. But it’s Jane (Margot Robbie), the white daughter of an American missionary, who nurses him back to health, and who later becomes his wife. It’s a story inextricably entwined with Europe’s relationship to ‘the dark continent’, and yet actual Africans keep getting pushed to the side.
The Legend of Tarzan has other problems, like its inability to decide whether it wants John Clayton to be James Bond or Aquaman – although it’s best when he’s Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone. This Tarzan doesn’t just speak to the animals: he commands them – the word “conquer” is used without apparent irony – eventually mustering an army of incompatible species to fend off an influx of Rom’s troops that would effectively make the entirety of the Belgian Congo a slave state.
One waits in vain for the revelation that Rom’s real surname is Blofeld. The movie’s initial feints at gritty relevance seem disingenuous, if not downright foolish, once John starts swinging from vines and conversing with crocodiles. At one point, the camera lingers on a boxcar full of elephant tusks, and later, we see another train carrying African men in chains. But then it’s on to another perfunctory chase scene, or a confrontation between Waltz’ moustachioed villain and Robbie’s defiant hostage. (Of course he takes her hostage: for all its contemporary touches, Legend’s plot could have been lifted from a silent melodrama.) These images of unfathomable atrocity are newspaper stuffed in the movie’s cracks, fresh filigree on a dull and worn garment.
At times, Yates seems desperate to jazz up the action, shooting one conversation between John and George in a series of whirlpooling shots that add nothing to the scene but a mild feeling of motion sickness. Perhaps it’s a way of compensating in advance for the movie’s action scenes, a lackluster jumble of weightless CGI and chiseled abs. (Yes, Skarskård’s sculpted torso is impressive, but it’s an unlikely physique for a man in the 1890s.) Major studio movies increasingly feel like acts of brand maintenance first and stories second, and Legend is the latest link in that worn-out chain. It’s a Tarzan movie because there have always been Tarzan movies, not because there was any compelling reason to add one more to the list.
At its core it’s the story of a white European who asserts his dominion, however benevolently, over wild African creatures: like Kipling’s The Jungle Book, it can be tinkered with, but its heart doesn’t change. Humans need stories, but the stories we need change, and sometimes old ones die out because the needs they addressed or the ideas they encompassed no longer apply. It might be time to let Tarzan vanish back into the jungle.
Isabelle Huppert talks about taking the opposite view of ‘misogynistic’ director Paul Verhoeven and gracing the London stage for the first time in two decades in Phaedra(s).
There is little in the way of false modesty from Isabelle Huppert. It’s the day after the screening of Elle at the Cannes Film Festival and the Paul Verhoeven thriller has received rave reviews. It’s a sensational film adaptation of the novel Oh by Philippe Djian and sees Huppert plays a rape victim who turns the tables on her rapist. The actress is in nearly every scene of the movie and comments, “That’s why I was never bored watching it last night.”
It’s hard to argue with the sentiment, because anyone who has seen many of her 100-plus roles, since her debut in 1971, will attest that she’s usually beguiling. The magic of Huppert is that she seems to do so much by doing so little. Verhoeven raved, “She’s the best actress I’ve worked with. I just followed her instinct and let her do what she wanted.”
At the age of 63, the Paris-born star is having a vintage year. So it’s our luck that she seems to be everywhere over the next month. There is a cinematic retrospective of her work taking place in London at the Cine Lumiere and the Barbican with accompanying screen talks by the actress, and in June the Barbican Theatre is putting on Phaedra(s), Huppert’s latest theatrical performance.
It will be the first time in two decades that Huppert has graced the London stage. The play, directed by Polish auteur Krzysztof Warlikowski, has just had a two-month run in Paris; it is performed in French, so one can expect it to be a spectacle from the first night. Of course, Huppert thinks she’ll be great.
“I could do it in English, but that is not the agenda,” she chimes about the radical reconstruction of the Greek myth. “It’s not exactly Phaedra, it’s several different Phaedras, including Sarah Kane’s Phaedre’s Love and there are excerpts from the book Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee, as well as the text from Euripides.”
One imagines that even if the text was by a five-year-old, Huppert would bring something unique to the performance. She’s been at the top of her game for four decades. She won a Bafta as Most Promising Newcomer for her turn as the virginal Beatrice in The Lacemaker in 1977.
There is no other actress who could make Paul Verhoeven appear like a pussycat. The Dutch director has been described as a misogynist on countless occasions. After all, he’s famous for getting Sharon Stone to cross her legs in Basic Instinct and leaving nothing to the imagination in Showgirls; yet put Huppert in the picture and all of a sudden he makes a film that can only be described as classy, even one being referred to at Cannes as a “rape comedy”.
“You have all this talk of Verhoeven as a misogynist, but to me he’s the opposite,” says Huppert. “Ever since I discovered his first film, I saw Turkish Delight, the film was also mistaken at the time. It was taken as a semi-porno film and was released in a porno video and it only got one good review and that was in Charlie Hebdo, who said it was a masterpiece and he was a good director. So there has always been this blurred vision of him as a director.”
Huppert has recently become a cinema owner. “I’m going to digress because my son programmes a cinema I bought in Paris. It’s in the Rue Christine, and was called Action Christine and we’ve renamed it Cinema Christine 21.”
Recently, Huppert has been a lot more open about her family. She recently appeared on the cover of a magazine with Lolita Chammah, one of three children she has had with her husband of 34 years Ronald Chammah, a producer she met on the set of a 1980 Claude Chabrol movie. “She’s a good actress,” Huppert says of her daughter. “I’ll play her mother soon. I have a supporting role in a film she is making in Luxembourg. The movie talks a lot about involuntary transmission between parents and children.”
The bonds that tie a mother and daughter are also something that takes place on screen, as well as off for the actress. In another of her great roles this year, Huppert plays a woman who discovers there is life after separation in Things to Come, directed by Mia Hansen-Love. The French director once played Huppert’s daughter in Olivier Assayas’s 2000 drama Sentimental Destines.
“And now she becomes my mother,” chirps Huppert. Explaining, “A director is always a bit of a mother to an actress. You can be young and have an old soul, or old and be a young spirit.” The latter is a category that Huppert seems to fit perfectly.
“As an actress, I felt like during the film she has the power and she directed me a lot, maybe more than other directors on other occasions. She had this vision of this character being very open, and very light and instinctively, maybe my deep nature, would be to go for something darker, a little harsher.”
Indeed, there is a certain sang-froid that Huppert instills in her characters. They get their strength from the fact that nothing seems to phase them, they are able to overcome the worst horrors. It’s what made her so magnificent in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, a film that Elle has echoes of in its opening scene. The norm is that as soon as you see Huppert onscreen, you have the idea that her character will overcome all obstacles.
“Well, it’s normal that you think that,” says Huppert, when I ask her if she references her past roles when making contemporary films. “But for me, as an actress there is no link to what I’ve done previously. Because it’s me, you make the connection. People seem to think that you have connections with the roles you play, but the more I think about it, the more I realise I have nothing to do with those characters, those people are total foreigners to me.”
Chinese audiences powered “X-Men: Apocalypse” to the top of the foreign box office charts over the weekend.
The mutant adventure picked up $59 million from the People’s Republic, becoming the second-highest opening in China for Fox, the studio behind the superhero franchise. The latest “X-Men” earned a leading $84.4 million overseas from 66 markets including South Korea ($4.5 million), Brazil ($2.2 million) and the United Kingdom ($2 million). So far, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has earned $402.5 million globally.
In second place, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” picked up $34 million overseas from 40 foreign markets. The sequel disappointed in its domestic debut, opening to $35.3 million, a more than 40% drop from the first film’s $65.6 million launch in 2014. Paramount, the studio behind the $135 million film, hopes that the film can make up ground overseas. China, where the first “Ninja Turtles” earned $62.1 million, will be a critical test. “Out of the Shadows” opens in the country on July 2.
“Warcraft,” an adaptation of the hit video game series, is facing fierce headwinds as it braces for its domestic debut next weekend. Tracking has been soft, and it will have to hold off competitors such as “Now You See Me 2” and “The Conjuring 2.” Still, the fantasy adventure has done respectable business overseas. It earned $29.9 million from 28 territories last weekend to take fourth place on the charts.
The results bring “Warcraft’s” total to $70 million after two weeks of release. The film opened in first place in Spain with $2.5 million, debuted to $2 million in Italy, enjoyed a $3.8 million second weekend in Russia, and topped charts in Germany for a second weekend with $3.1 million. The Universal and Legendary release still represents a big gamble. It carries a $160 million price tag and is on pace to open to less than $25 million in the U.S.
Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and Sony’s “The Angry Birds Movie” snagged third and fifth place on the foreign box office charts, earning $30.9 million and $16.7 million, respectively. The big screen adaptation of the “Angry Birds” game has done solid business, earning $283.5 million worldwide. Not so “Through the Looking Glass.” The “Alice in Wonderland” sequel is shaping up to be one of the year’s biggest bombs. It has earned $176.3 million worldwide, but will have to fight its way into the black given its $170 million price tag and the tens of millions spent to market and distribute the film.