The future’s blight

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Dystopia: I want to go to there. I have a real soft spot for dystopian visions of the future, or of the parallel present. Who wouldn’t? Utopia is clearly never going to happen. And if it does it’ll be based on credit, which never lasts. As a general rule – and I’m basing this on sci-fi films rather than sci-fi novels, as I’ve hardly read any – if things look bright in any given future, then things are about to go very badly wrong. Look at Logan’s Run. Or Westworld. Or The Island. Or Metropolis. Or, right now, look at Elysium at the cinema, or Oblivion on DVD.

Elysium first. Out on 21 August, it’s the hotly-anticipated follow-up to South African Neill Blomkamp’s sleeper hit District 9, which was also dystopian, in that it allegorised apartheid by way of a lower caste of aliens, disparagingly known as “prawns” and kept in a Johannesburg township by the administrative human master race. With a much bigger Hollywood budget to play with, it’s interesting that Blomkamp has stayed within his discomfort zone and created another sun-baked dustbowl shanty world, this time Los Angeles in a future when the earth has become largely uninhabitable; meanwhile, the 1% – as they are not called – are safely ensconsed in a revolving space station designed like an architect’s brochure of luxury gated living. (Star-gated, if you will.)

As a bleak and arid vision, Blomkamp’s is clever, as it accentuates divides already in place in our own unequal society: the poor are getting poorer, and the filthy rich filthier and richer. Elysium, the ultimate rich person’s retreat, even hangs in the air, visible to the majority who can never afford to zip up there in a little spaceship. (It’s fascinating, too, that in Oblivion – another exhausted earth, this time wasted by war, and with its oceans being industrially sucked up to create energy – a controlling space station, the pyramid-shaped Tet, also hangs in the air. I think I’m right in saying that, in both films, a spaceship ride to both Elysium and Tet is a 20-minute hop.)

Matt Damon is the everyprole in Elysium; he knows that the 1% get to lie in special pods that cure all known diseases, which is why he so wants to get up there; on this, the story hinges. We want him to get there; we identify with the 99%. In this sense, as with District 9, it’s a socialist film. The proletariat are always the heroes in dystopias, the workers who rise up. Maybe this is why I like these films so much; even though they have a musclebound hero (and Damon is pumped up to the point of looking like Stretch Armstrong), which cleaves to the old right-wing Reaganite 80s action-hero orthodoxy of one man saving the world – without help from Big Government, right? – they usually lead the downtrodden to a better world. I won’t say whether he does it or not, as that would be a spoiler. But you’ll root for him in a film that’s actually more interesting as a concept than as a film, as in the third act, it follows one too many sci-fi action presets.

Oh, and corporate America is the bad guy, once again. This happens a lot, and almost suggests that such films are not made by corporate America. (To be fair, Blomkamp’s is a co-production with money coming from Canada, Mexico and South Africa, as well as the US.)

Oblivion is also a thoughtful film, and with less metallic, Transformers-style action to bog it down and make it feel generic. Adapted from his own apparently unpublished graphic novel by writer-director Joseph Kosinski, it really is a like a graphic novel on the screen, with stunning production design, and gorgeous vistas, albeit ones set on a sucked-dry earth, awaiting the final departure of the last few humans. The race is not unsatisfactorily represented by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough’s seemingly perfect couple, who live in a giant iPad on a stick above a scorched earth that looks like Iceland, where much of it was evocatively filmed, with CGI bits of recognisable New York sticking out of the top of it, recalling Planet Of The Apes, of course.

It’s hard to go into too much plot detail, partly because there are a number of key structural and temporal twists, and partly because it’s way too complicated. The story is well told, and Melissa Leo is key, even if her character only appears in a tiny screen on Riseborough’s touch-screen coffee table, as she represents the smiling face of authority up on the aforementioned Tet. Again, it speaks of our own time, as in flashbacks we see New York as it once was, and shows how fragile “civilisation” is. It’s more sombre than Elysium. Things get blown up, and shots are fired, but the more memorable scenes are quieter, more existential, and set in landscapes that seem to go on forever. Unlike Elysium, there’s not much city.

Although Cruise and Riseborough are frankly beautiful and serene, they are still the everyproles, technicians working on mankind’s final exit and maintaining robot drones, which protect and serve, with firepower. (Oh yes, it’s a short thematic hop to Obama and his unmanned weaponry in those drones, surely, especially as this is post-war.)

Nobody wants our own future, or near-future, to pan out like Elysium or Oblivion, with all-out war or all-out profligacy laying waste to the planet, even if some of the gadgets look nifty. You can keep those. Me? I feel trapped enough by the dystopian present. Especially on days when I feel like I already live in a one-party state, where the totalitarian government holds ordinary people in contempt and would willingly wipe a whole caste out if it thought it could get away with it in the media.

I recommend both films (Oblivion, the longer of the two at just over two hours, is out on DVD on 19 August), especially if you’re a connoisseur of futures that are so blighted, you’ve got to wear protective suits.

Geek ending

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Honestly, you wait ages for a male-bonding apocalypse comedy, and then two come along at once, like computer-animated ant fables, Truman Capote biopics or volcano-based disaster movies. Except Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is The End wasn’t the end of the world. The World’s End is.

I’ve been so looking forward to sharing my thoughts about the third and final part in Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s audacious Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy – completing the set with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz – ever since I saw the first 45 minutes of it, at an exclusive preview in mid-May. (We signed a press embargo when we saw the whole thing last Wednesday, but this apparently lifted last night when Variety went live, and all the other reviews crashed in behind them.)

Because the film’s release date was “pulled forward”, to use the impenetrable industry jargon, by a month, there has been a certain amount of frenzied activity behind the scenes at The World’s End as it was readied for public consumption, which is why selected journalists with long lead-times were treated to the weirdest screening ever: the first half of a film. (It was even introduced by Edgar.) In it, Pegg’s boorish Gary, the hedonistic goth who refused to grow up and is first seen in rehab, gets the old gang back together to stage a second attempt, 20 years on, at their old hometown’s “Golden Mile” 12-hostelry pub crawl. (The town is Newton Haven, played by two “garden cities”, Letchworth and Welwyn, which join Crouch End and Wells in Somerset on the Cornetto map.)

The gang – who have all inconveniently grown up in the interim and view the developmentally arrested Gary as something of a necessary irritant – are played by regulars Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, and a finer bunch of British avengers you could not hope to assemble. (Rafe Spall and Julia Deakin also have small parts, which means they have been in all three films, along with Pegg, Frost and Freeman.) In those first 45 minutes, we get a keenly observed and deeply self-critical portrait of misspent adulthood, which does Pegg, Frost and Wright – all essentially huddled around the big four-oh – proud.

Wright is still haunted by a crawl he never completed in his youth, and his own nostalgia and self-examination seem to fuel the story – as well as provide the soundtrack of iconic early-90s indie-dance-crossover tunes that are not heard in films as often as, say, 60s beat hits, or mid-90s Britpop. (When the lads groove to the Soup Dragons’ I’m Free in Gary’s car, it’s all good, clean, I ♥ The 90s fun until he reveals that not only is this the same compilation cassette from 20 years ago, it’s also the same car. For this, he is regarded as comically tragic by the others. But who doesn’t cling to simpler times?)

When I interviewed the trio last Tuesday in Claridge’s I still hadn’t seen the second half of the film we were there to discuss. This would ordinarily be intolerable – the height of film studio arrogance and cheek. But hey, it really was not quite finished yet. We all saw it on Wednesday. For those of us who’d seen the first 45 minutes – which ended with the first clue that all was not of this earth in Newton Haven – it was odd to see the run-up again, but, like all of their best work, it’s worth repeating, and in fact matures.

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It’s a terrific film, confident, silly, warm and surprising, and a worthy finale to an insane, parochial cinematic adventure. Don’t worry: I won’t tell you anything key about the plot, or where the third Cornetto comes in, or reveal a couple of well-kept casting secrets, as it’s not out until next week. Pegg, Frost and Wright were being extra careful last Tuesday, mouthing names to each other, and playing a guessing game about an extra audio detail Wright had inserted into the final sound mix. When you set this much store by details, metatextuality, in-jokes, paybacks and cross-references, it’s important to handle them with care. The title – and the trailer – are pretty explicit about the apocalyptic end-point, but not the getting there, other than it involves hand to hand combat, at one juncture with pub stools for weapons. It also gives away a sight gag that refers back to Shaun and Hot Fuzz, although knowing about it does not subtract from the glee of seeing it.

My admiration for the work Pegg, Frost and Wright do as a fighting unit – and although Wright is very definitely the director, and Pegg and Wright credited with the script, it’s clear Frost is closely consulted throughout – is very high. To adapt the fanboy fun of Spaced to work across a broad canvas, not to mention sell it to the Americans, has been one of the more heartwarming successes of British cinema in the 21st century. (The support they’ve had from Working Title and Universal, as well as Big Talk, is key, too, but these guys are the ones with the ideas and the pre-midlife crises to draw on.)

This geek ending is final in every sense. It’s bigger and costlier than the previous two films, but as good rather than better. To have kept their end up, to the end, is reward enough. I always enjoy seeing Pegg and Frost in other stuff, and Wright will easily adapt to a Hollywood career if he wishes it, but there’s nothing to beat the three of them in a room together, and you have to hope they’ll reunite through a cosmic need to do so, rather than a financial imperative.

Having met the clubbable Pegg and Frost during press for Hot Fuzz, and struck a surprising seam of mutual admiration with Pegg (ie. he’d read my books, which had been given to him by a mutual Northampton-based friend, Tony Kirkland, with whom I co-starred in a Weston Favell Upper School production of Macbeth in 1983), I was lucky enough to reflect in the collective glory of the whole Spaced gang at a BFI reunion day in November 2007, where I first met Edgar and crossed that Rubicon where we might actually say hello in the street. They’ve all been kind to me ever since whenever our paths have crossed, and Simon gave me a cover quote for my non-selling third memoir, which I still treasure: “Fucking hilarious.” As is often the case when you meet cool people professionally, you start out as a fan, gain their trust, and became something slightly less needy. (But remain a fan.) Here’s me unable to hide my enjoyment onstage at NFT1.

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I’ve read all the reviews that went up last night. Most critics have been impressed by the scale; which is to say, the bigness of the sci-fi half, but also the intimacy of the first, without which the second half would just be big. Even when things are credibly sci-fi, they remain just as credibly real, thanks to the chemistry of Pegg and Frost first and foremost, but among the other cast, too. One or two have said it’s too long at 109 minutes, but I found that even when the big stuff hits a plateau of destruction, it’s always cleverly undercut by the matey and often foul-mouthed dialogue. That comes from practice, I’d say. I could watch it again now, and that would mean seeing the first 45 minutes for the third time.

The World’s End is released next Friday, July 19, and if you are fond of the other two films and the sitcom from whence they came, you’ll be first through the doors, and you won’t want to leave at last orders. This Is The End is still on general release. Let’s Boo-Boo.

In a field of its own

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We are gathered here today to celebrate what I’m going to have to go out on a critical limb and call “the genius” of Ben Wheatley. I have never met the man – although I’d like to – but his work has given me much to chew on since making his no-budget debut in 2009 with Down Terrace. I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t see this at the time, but the sizzle it created drove me to Kill List in 2011, which sealed the deal. (And I’ve seen Down Terrace since, on the telly, which is herewith significant. This means I have discovered Wheatley in the wrong order, but I plan to atone for that sin.)

A Field In England comes only about seven months after the aggressively marketed release of Sightseers, one of my Top 10 films of 2012. (I put Kill List into my Top 10 of 2011.) How can this be? It’s a faster turnaround than Woody Allen. Well, A Field In England is a little different. It’s not as if Kill List or Sightseers were CGI-dependent blockbusters, but A Field is more like a first feature than a fourth, in that it’s been shot on a shoestring in a single location and has a principal cast of five. (It’s difficult to get hard numbers, but it looks as if this cost £300,000, compared to Kill List‘s £500,000. It doesn’t take a studio accountant’s understanding of the film business to know that this is not very much.)

What’s actually unique about the film isn’t the film, but its release. It made history on Friday when it debuted at selected arthouse cinemas, on DVD, on-demand and, most thrillingly, on free-to-air TV (namely, Film4). I say “thrilling” not just because a film this earthy should by rights be seen terrestrially, but because Freeview is surely the riskiest channel, as it were: it’s tantamount to inviting people to see it for nothing. As a film writer, I am able to see films for free, but often choose to see them at the cinema, where I pay for them, so I hope I haven’t scuppered the experiment by watching it on Film4. Having seen the trailer at the cinema a number of times, I know that Laurie Rose’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning, and merits a larger canvas. (It’s also pretty amazing on a small screen, at once making this 17th century period piece seem old and musty, yet digital-clarity new.)

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.

Even Sightseers, Wheatley’s most accessible film, is challenging viewing. And that’s all to the good. But you’d have to say that A Field is his most “difficult” work, despite feeling more formal in certain ways. It’s not going to be for everyone, and nor, one suspects, is Wheatley (until he sells out and directs an X-Men movie!), and there are moments here that descend, or ascend, into hallucinogenic experimentalism. It’s a history play only in that it cleaves to 17th century-sounding speech patterns and makes a backdrop of the Civil War against which our four deserters embark upon a misadventure into witchcraft.

Reece Shearsmith is impeccable as the scholar on the run from his master, the “coward” who cannot handle weapons who succumbs to the orders of Michael Smiley’s Irish alchemist. If I tell you that the other four men literally drag the talismanic Smiley into the field by pulling on a thick rope, you’ll have to run with it. This field is one from which there is no escape, ringed as it is by a forcefield of magic mushrooms that cannot be crossed. Shearsmith, who at one point seems to fall under Smiley’s spell and becomes a divining rod for buried treasure, is captive of a soldier who believes he can reach a fabled alehouse, but too gets distracted by Smiley’s promise of riches. You may not recognise actors Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope and Richard Glover, but you’ll have glimpsed all in various character roles (Ferdinando was in The Mimic; Pope in Ideal, which Wheatley directed; Glover in Sightseers), and all immerse themelves here, looking suitably mud- and shit-stained.

There is violence. There are visions. There is cruelty. There is scatology. There is humour. But how to categorise a film whose visual and thematic reference points – so exhaustively catalogued by Kim Newman in Sound & Sound – range from Peter Watkins’ Culloden to Witchfinder General? What Wheatley and his screenwriting/editing wife Amy Jump have created here is something new. How often does that happen in a medium that sometimes – like pop music – feels exhausted of possibility? I found myself transfixed, not just by the imagery, and the down-and-dirty acting, and the vast leaps between dots that refused to join up, but by the decision to have the actors form still-life tableaux, and by the music from Martin Pavey and Jim Williams, which blended ancient folk song with rumbling unease.

Wheatley’s career does not hinge upon the success of A Field In England, as it’s Film4’s pioneering experiment (or, more specifically, that of its innovative Film4.0 arm), not his, but the collision of one couple’s oddball vision and one company’s equally groundbreaking business plan, strikes me as vital and encouraging. (You know how much the current government hates the arts, except for the bits of the arts it does like? This feels like a bit they won’t ever like, and for that reason, it matters.)

While interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright last week, we fell into discussion (for self-evident reasons) about films you could watch again and again. I watch a lot of films, and I have long concluded that some films are perfectly good, and not theft of two hours of your life, but at the same time you never need to see them again. Ben Wheatley’s films demand to be seen again.

It’s good to get that down in black and white.

Scrap, metal

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I’ve never actually been beaten to a pulp in real life, so I can only guess what it must feel like. But I think it might feel like watching the final third of Man Of Steel. It’s a reboot – which is a clear, unequivocal vote of no confidence in that last reboot, which only reached one film – and it’s also an “origins” story. That makes it fundamentally a remake of the first Superman movie, a committee-written affair in 1978, but brought to fruition in colourful, then-groundbreaking style by Richard Donner.

Now, it’s at this point that I must declare an emotional-historical stake in the cinematic birth of Superman: it was our big Christmas movie of that year, I was 13, and it came hot on the heels of Star Wars; it felt, for all the world, as if big, blockbuster cinema was ours. (Remember, we’d only had re-runs of the “Ker-Pow!” live-action Batman and the animated Spider-Man on TV.) My friend Neil Stuart somehow managed to get his hands on an official Superman movie programme, perhaps from a screening in London? (I don’t know how, but I do know we looked up to Neil.) He generously gave it to me. I treasured it. I was that kid who would badger my parents for the flimsy tie-in book of each new blockbuster: the ’76 King Kong, Close Encounters etc. I was at the stage in any nerd’s life in those pre-Internet days when the need to find stuff out and see pictures of stuff and, if possible, own that stuff was overwhelming.

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My friends and I were caught up in the hype and we were more than ready to “believe a man could fly”, as per the marketing promise. (I had also decreed Gene Hackman to be My Favourite Actor, so I was stoked by the idea of seeing his latest movie when it came out, rather than on telly a number of years later.) I was equally enthused about Superman II in 1980 and Superman III, which my brother and I dashed to see in 1983 as we were confirmed Richard Pryor fans by then. The law of diminishing returns did not diminish our desire to return to the Northampton ABC.

So, every time Superman is rebooted, I recoil a little bit and lose some of my strength, just as I do each time the original Star Wars trilogy is ruined by George Lucas. They’re punching my childhood. That said, I am a grown man. And if a reboot is good, I’ve nothing against it in principle. Batman Begins was truly terrific, the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. Although it came way too soon, I found much to admire in The Amazing Spider-Man last year. Conversely, I was unmoved by Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, with some people called Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in it as Clark and Lois. (I never watched Smallville.) I had no objection to Zack Snyder having another crack at the man of steel, as I have an awful lot of time for his Watchmen.

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Unfortunately, Man Of Steel is awful. It sucks the life out of the franchise and jumps up and down on any of the first movie incarnation’s charm or humour. (It goes without saying that Man Of Steel is not camp. Even its trademark blue and red are dirty blue and matt red. There are two jokes; I counted them.) This overlong, over-serious, portentous sheet-metal opera seems to have only one setting: eleven. If it was ever satisfactorily wrought, then they must have taken it back in fear and wrought it some more. In the boxing-gloved hands of Dark Knight – and, let’s not be coy, Da Vinci’s Demons – scribe David S Goyer, and the bombast-worshipping Snyder, this new Superman is a charcoal-coloured, bass-note, quasi-biblical apocalypse. And that’s just the opening sequence.

From the destruction of Krypton, we move into a sombre, po-faced re-telling of Kal-El’s evacuation to Earth. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane make a good set of adoptive parents, but The Tudors‘ Henry Cavill, who physically fills the part, has little to play with. His son of Krypton gets bullied, learns the hard way not to show his strength and works out how to “focus” the cacophonous hell his super-senses create inside his head, before becoming a sort of itinerant oil-rig worker so that he can seek out a crashed spaceship in the Arctic?

Not 100% sure about what was going on during this bit, which is where he fortuitously meets and reveals himself to an unconvincing Lois, whose pushy reporter Amy Adams has to work furiously to pump any life into. A Superman film shouldn’t be boring, should it? But I certainly nodded off while Russell Crowe was delivering a lecture in holographic form, and when I awoke, he was still delivering it.

But the meat of the story isn’t Clark’s evolution to a super man (they don’t call him that much, and the “S” on his chest doesn’t stand for “Superman”, so there), it’s his never-ending cosmic grudge match with Michael Shannon’s General Zod, who’s a kind of intergalactic thug whose superpowers match Kal-El’s, hence the climactic battle (or “smackdown” as it’s been more accurately described), which goes on and on and on and on and on. And then, just when you think that Metropolis couldn’t take any more of a beating as these two supreme beings punch each other a mile away at a time, it goes on for a bit longer.

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Huge, looming spaceships, a honking “world engine”, entire skyscrapers falling onto other skyscrapers, more military hardware than you’ve ever seen before, airstrikes, explosions, everything’s massive, everything’s an attack … Transformers springs to mind; as does the first Hulk, whose comedic bouncing style also seems to have been adopted, and that’s not a good look. (Unless you just want to squeeze as much money out of teenage boys as possible, in which case, why make it 143 minutes long? Cut the gooey stuff and make it all battle and run it in at 106 minutes! Cram more screenings in.)

Like any good reboot, it sets up Clark and Lois as fellow reporters for the ultra-modern Perry White, who’s black, so that further episodes can be stacked around them, but if this is how it starts, with what magnitude of a bang is it going to end? And how long with Man Of Steel III be?

Sometimes I think to myself: I just wasn’t made for these times. Superman certainly wasn’t. (I willingly saw it in 2D, by the way. I can only assume in 3D it’s literally unbearable to be in the same room as.)

Campaign for real whale

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On July 26, the documentary Blackfish is released in UK cinemas. It is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen. It tells the tragic tale of one specific captive killer whale, Tilikum, a 22.5 ft (6.9m) long, 12,000 pound (5,400 kg) bull who lives – if you can call it living – at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he still performs for whooping audiences. His name comes from the Chinook word for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people”, which is ironic when you think for longer than a few seconds about the fact that whales in swimming pools are by definition separated from their extended families. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, aged around three years old, and has lived in swimming pools for most of his showbiz life. While held at Sealand in British Columbia, his first “home”, he and two other orcas were herded, every night, into a “holding” pool just 20 ft (6.1m) deep and 28 ft (8.5m) in diameter.)

Blackfish was made by documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who did not start out with an agenda. She had, in fact, taken her kids to SeaWorld and bought into the whole corporate myth that these beautiful cetateans are not “forced” to perform their tricks and do so willingly out of a love for their human trainers. (The word “killer” is usually dropped in the official commentaries at these shows.) Having done the same thing myself in 1994, no matter how conflicted I felt at the time about seeing two whales doing tricks for fish at what was then Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, California, it has haunted me ever since and hardened my anti-zoo stance. I guess I am the choir to which the film could be accused of preaching to, although it’s hard to imagine why any right-thinking person would be happy about large, social marine mammals being kept in prison when they’ve committed no crime.

The orca is an apex predator, but has never attacked a human in the wild. Incidents of whales “turning on” their trainers, however, are more common than you might idly think. The engine that drove Gabriela to make her film was the awful death on February 24, 2010, of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando, which was witnessed, unknowingly, by a whooping audience. The precise cause of death is still murky, but Brancheau seems to have been pulled by Tilikum into the water by her ponytail, possibly in a moment of confusion over fish.

The whales performing on that occasion had been unresponsive and agitated, and only get fish after successfully effecting a trick, so they were especially hungry. Eyewitness accounts differ. Brancheau’s autopsy indicated “death by drowning” and “blunt force trauma”, and noted a severed spinal cord, and “sustained fractures” to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra.

SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but insists that OSHA’s findings are “unfounded”. The implication, as ever in cases like this, is that human error led to the tragedy. This was the story instantly spun around the death at a Cumbrian safari park of zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed by a Sumatran tiger. The news media ensures that our first reaction to the story is never, “What is a tiger doing living in Cumbria?”

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You will learn more about all this in the haunting film, which provides plentiful context: historical, behavioural, neurological (orcas have a section of brain that even clever old humans don’t have) and, yes, emotional. It may make you cry. I met Gabriela on Tuesday night at a private VIP screening of Blackfish laid on by distributor Dogwoof for representatives of various NGOs and activist groups (you might say a “captive audience” if the phrase wasn’t so inappropriate!) and she is a calm, logical, unhysterical advocate of basic commonsense in this area. Here she is.

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In her film, she speaks to a whole parade of ex-SeaWorld trainers, who confirm that incredible bond between animal and human, but who still question the motivation behind SeaWorld’s entire business model. The marine park chain currently has 22 killer whales in captivity, which remain big box office. For them, it’s all about money and turnstiles. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re a corporation. Blackfish is as much a critique of corporate America as it is of animal cruelty. (You won’t be surprised that SeaWorld refused to put up a representative to speak on camera, although transcripts of their defence at a previous court case speak volumes.)

I refrain from urging anyone to see a film. There may be issues closer to home than Orlando that come higher up your priority list. You may simply think: well it’s obviously wrong that massive whales are kept in a zoo, I don’t need to see a film about it to have my beliefs hardened. It’s not a snuff movie – you don’t actually see any trainers die, but you do see the bloody damage distressed whales do to each other when cooped up, and you do see some unprecedented “behaviours” which rather suggest psychological damage. Poor Tilikum seems mostly to be kept as a sperm bank these days. (He’s “sired” 21 offspring in his time, 11 of which are still alive.)

Artificial insemination is a common practice in animal husbandry, on farms, at stables, in zoos and elsewhere, and it’s done for reasons of conservation as well as commerce. However, you might find the sheer scale of doing it to a killer whale rather disturbing. Maybe that’s double standards, I don’t know, but I love killer whales. When I saw one in Vallejo in 1994 and sat right up against the glass of its viewing pool while it swam past my nose, I felt privileged to have seen it. And then sick that I had seen it in that unnatural setting.

I have a recurring dream which I’ve mentioned before, in which I am close to the edge of a pool in which huge killer whales are swimming. But it’s not a nightmare. I am terrified of falling in, and in awe of the whales, but I never do fall in, and they never harm me. No need to analyse that one, Freudians.

Oh, and I urge you to see Blackfish. Damn!

Raymond reviews: bah!

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Well, I went in to see The Look Of Love with expectations at ankle-height thanks to all the below-par reviews, which ran the gamut from lukewarm to cold-shower, enough to give anyone a winter bottom. A straightforward biopic of Soho porn baron and property magnate Paul Raymond, built, or so it seemed, around Steve Coogan’s desire to impersonate him (which he does well), and regular collaborator Michael Winterbottom’s desire to capture to pre-enlightenment days of London’s former sex district, The Look Of Love turned out to be very good.

Maybe the critics turned on it because it seemed to arrive rather engorged with self-confidence, as if asking to be pulled down a peg or two. (The string of TV comedy cameos – David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Miles Jupp, Stephen Fry – may have added to the perceived smugness.) Both Coogan and Winterbottom are prolific, and much admired, so it’s easy to knock them while celebrating their other triumphs. So, too, with screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote Control, which was feted across the board and given a Bafta, and Nowhere Boy. I actually wondered if I was going to love it after seeing the trailer; it had the hallmarks of being “perfunctory”, as many reviewers maintain that it is. I respectfully disagree with them all.

Aside from David Sexton’s virtual lone voice of praise in the London Evening Standard (well, it is a very “London” film), few could even strain up to a three-star rating. Philip French of the Observer called it “crude”, “shallow” and complained that Raymond’s world and life lacked illumination by a “larger social context”. He also said it lacked “wit … insight and … detail”. Our own Stella Papamichael in Radio Times named Winterbottom “a co-conspirator in Raymond’s objectification of women.” Emma Jones in the Independent reported from Sundance, saying it “lacked soul” and calling it “an interminably dull orgy”, but at least recognised that this was probably Winterbottom’s intention. Tim Robey in the Telegraph, another trustworthy critic, used the words “perfunctory” and “hollow”, not to mention “flaccid”, and wondered aloud what Scorsese would have made of it. (Again, he’s clever enough to spot that a British porn baron’s tale is never going to have the crackle of Boogie Nights or Larry Flynt.)  The Mail‘s Chris Tookey stamped it a “turkey” and called it “unobservant, unerotic and dull,” and went further with “dishonest”. Though only awarding three stars, Empire at least identified its “healthy sense of naffness.”

Maybe that’s the problem, although not a problem for me: it does not make apologies for Raymond, as he rises from “entertainer” to impressario, and makes his money through property and pornography. He is plainly depicted as a cad and a sexual cheat, unfaithful in a sort of industrial manner to his first wife (Anna Friel) and his live-in girlfriend Fiona Richmond (a frequently nude Tamsin Egerton) by decree. Yes, he took a showgirl for his wife. Greenhalgh’s script presents Raymond as a man of natural charisma and wit, but doesn’t deify him; he made his living in a sleazy business in what was a sleazy part of town (“welcome to my world of erotica”), using tits to put bums on seats in theatrical sex farce and disrobed revue alike, always pushing against the boundaries of what the Lord Chamberlain allowed.

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If he was any part of a libertarian or champion of free artistic impression, this is soon eclipsed by his greed for more flesh as he buys into Men Only (whose coke-snorting editor, Tony Power, is skilfully played by Chris Addison, for whom The Look Of Love may provide a more fruitful shopfront than it ever could for the better-established Coogan, whose Raymond does brings to mind an X-rated combination of Partridge and, as per The Trip, Coogan). It’s grubby stuff, mostly, with any glamour tarnished by a combination of 60s and especially 70s naffness (the space-age telly watched by the almost-beaten 90s Raymond after his daughter’s sad death, brilliantly encapsulates the datedness of that metropolitan notion of James Bond cool that only James Bond could pull off).

In terms of the randy threesomes and the magnetic pull of the shag-pile boudoir, you get the sense that Coogan understands this self-destructive cock-led compulsion. The constant refrain of “house champagne” is a nifty way of exposing the cheapness beneath the largesse. (Raymond does keep insisting he’s the boy from Liverpool who arrived in London with “three bob” in his pocket.) If anything, on occasion, Coogan possibly makes Raymond too amusing and suave, in what must be improvised scenes, including impressions of Brando and Connery. (Maybe he was an excellent mimic, but I doubt as adept as Coogan!)

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It’s not life-changing. It is, deliberately, unerotic. And it doesn’t tell us anything new about the history of porn, which was done with more seriousness when Our Friends In The North ventured down south. But at least, for all the flesh on display – including a 70s-appropriate bush of pubic hair that’s foregrounded purely for reasons of nostalgia! – it features a strong, driven, successful woman in Richmond, through whom Egerton rises above the exploitation of her own body and compensates for all the insipid, giggling dollybirds, as they used to be called.

If it has anything to say, it’s that a vast property portfolio, enough money and assets to be named the richest man in Britain at his peak (and before the foreign money took over), doesn’t bring happiness. You’ll still be trying to impress people by telling them that Ringo Starr designed your flat (which Raymond does), and measuring your worth via notches on the bedpost. Raymond ends the film sad and introspective, and minus his beloved daughter (Imogen Poots, who steals much of the film with her rounded, likeable, unspoilt portrayal of a beneficiary of nepotism who rose above it, only to fall victim to cocaine and heroin abuse).

It may sound glib to say it’s a bit of fun, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Winterbottom shoots on the hoof, keeping budgets low, on location (Londoners will love, as I did, the sightseeing aspect), and encourages improv, and while Raymond’s story doesn’t have the innate cool or bangin’ soundtrack of 24 Hour Party People, he may happily file The Look Of Love alongside: a breezy portrait of an essentially naff English success story who charmed his way through a number of scams and left his mark. It’s a bit of a useless title, and it’s a pity Ramond’s estate owned the rights to its intended one, The King Of Soho. What about 24 Hour Porno Person?

The world at war

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Two films at the weekend which I intend to line up for arbitrary comparison because they are both new, both are foreign language and both were premiered at Cannes last year, where they competed in parallel for the Palme d’Or and Un Certain Regard: from Russia, In The Fog, or В тумане, and from Argentina, White Elephant or Elefante blanco.

They formed a sublime, if challenging and counterintuitive double-bill for me at the Renoir, a subterranean refuge from a sunny Sunday afternoon in London’s Bloomsbury. A barbecue and a beer are not the only ways to celebrate the late arrival of spring; you can retreat underground, on your own, and immerse yourself in Russian and South American poverty. Each to their own!

In The Fog first, a long and courageously ponderous fable set in Nazi-occupied Belarus during the Second World War; 1942, to be precise, where the hanging of three partisans sets the scene in an apparently unbroken tracking shot that discreetly turns away from the moment of death and alights upon a cart piled high with bones instead (animal bones, but you get the idea). Such is the skill and precision of relatively new Belarusian feature director Sergei Loznitsa announced. He previously worked on documentaries, but despite the handheld opening, do not expect a story built with the improvised looseness of photojournalism. In The Fog is in many ways a formal piece, in which three central characters move slowly through the forest, their individual backstories illustrated in flashback.

Not much happens. In this regard, I couldn’t help but think of Waiting For Godot. The three main characters seem also to be archetypes, the central protagonist, Sushenya, played by Vladimir Svirskiy, a stoically noble and fatalistic embodiment of the Russian spirit, perhaps. (I am no student of Russian classical literature – this film was based on a 1989 novel by Vasil’ Bykaw – but I’ve seen the films, and I get a sense of the ideological and political forces that shape the national temperament, particularly in times of war or struggle.) There are few laughs to be had – alright, none – this is a fable of death and punishment and separation and hardship. An early scene has one partisan emptying his boots of water and squeezing out his sodden socks, which seems to sum the film up.

Sushenya’s wife, from whose comfort he is taken early on in the film (he also leaves behind the carved wooden animals he made for his young son and the warm bathwater), begs him to take food when he is called in for questioning by two partisans after a fatal misunderstanding. She suggests some lard, or an onion (“Everything tastes better with an onion”); again, this sets the tone of humility and gratitude for only the bare basics of subsistence living in occupied Belarus. It’s hard going. Between the occasional bursts of action, it’s largely men in hats murmuring in a forest. But it feels oddly poetic and certainly measured and sincere, and although the Nazi occupiers are clearly the “baddies”, the internecine conflicts between partisans and collaborators make it morally ambiguous. My favourite kind of cinematic morality.

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For the far more conventional but no less stimulating White Elephant, writer-producer-director Pablo Trapero, who made last year’s memorable ambulance-chasing thriller Carancho (released in Argentina in 2010 but released here last year, and also Cannes-selected), returns to Buenos Aires and to the two excellent stars of that film for a more socially conscious piece about “slum priests”. Ricardo Darín, a big star at home and familiar to international audiences from Nine Queens and The Secrets In Their Eyes, is a likeably crumpled presence with a twinkle in his eyes, here playing what we would call a “community leader” in a shanty town that has grown, like mould, around an abandoned hospital project. (I think I’m right in saying that this is the Ciudad Oculta in real life – it’s clearly a genuine location and the shell of a hospital makes a striking image throughout, a hollowed-out symbol of civic failure and economic collapse – instead of making people better, it houses self-destructive drug addicts.)

We first meet Darín’s Father Julián, a selfless, tireless beacon of commonsense and charity among the dispossessed who live in the slum, when he fetches the younger, Belgian priest, Fr Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) back from a horrific paramilitary massacre at a jungle mission. His own mission is to train up the junior to eventually take his place. It’s a nice touch to show the real-life memorial to Fr Carlos Mujica, shot – and martyred – in 1974; his sanctified spirit lives in Julián, although he cannot perform miracles and make the inevitable drug war go away.

If you’ve seen the Brazilian film City Of God, set in Rio, you’ll know the fatal, bullet-riddled milieu and will not be surprised to see young kids at the centre of it. One school-age addict, Monito (Federico Barga), forms a focus for the priests’ efforts to stem the body count, although their techniques differ: the older priest wants to stay out of the politics of the drug trade, the younger wants to get his hands dirty. Disaster this way comes.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot. The director’s wife and co-producer, Martina Gusman, who was so vital as the flawed emergency-room doctor in Carancho, plays a dedicated but non-Catholic social worker trying to get new housing built, a key player in the conflict between the priests. White Elephant has the same liberal, do-gooder feel as any number of white British or American films about aid workers in Africa, but without the colonial guilt. These slums are local problems on the doorstep of Buenos Aires, and there is something terribly old-fashioned about the Church having to solve society’s ills. The easy banter of the volunteers, and the law-abiding citizens (many of whom must be non-actors) stops it being too earnest or grim, although the conclusion feels a little bit Hollywood.

Still, another important glimpse of life during wartime.