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Intersectionally In Stitches: Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick (2017) – Blu-ray review

November 27, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A film that is all the funnier for the realism of its wide-ranging look at gender, culture and religion.  For once, Hollywood gets to be ‘intersectional.’

1 Big Sick

The Big Sick
(Michael Showalter, 2017)

There’s a useful rule of thumb – best proved by Howard Stern in Private Parts – that people should never play themselves in a lead role.  The movie becomes a pseudo-movie, a big-screen echo of ‘constructed reality’ shows.  Yet, surely, it all comes down to the person.  If there’s a decent reason why nobody else could play the part, then it becomes far more than a vanity project and instead captures the emotional core of the situation being depicted.

So it is that stand-up comedian – and perennial supporting player – Kumail Nanjiani gets the lead role of his lifetime.  On the Blu-ray extras for The Big Sick, producer Judd Apatow explains that they’d been looking for the right story for Nanjiani for a while… and then it turns out that he’d already lived it.  So the tale of how the star/co-writer fell in love with Emily Gordon, only for the latter to fall so ill she was put into a medically-induced coma, becomes the putty for a rom-com of unusual depth and range.

That’s down to Nanjiani’s status, one which he’s cultivated in his stage persona, as a Pakistani comedian.  The comedy pivots delicately on the differences in his personal and professional lives, pushing the autobiographical slant that Apatow has long favoured in his ‘Funny People.’  But there’s an extra layer provided by Gordon as co-writer.  Her involvement gives a female perspective often denied in Apatow’s laddish comedy, just as Nanjiani’s cultural background informs the meet-cute in a way that, say, Lena Dunham in Girls, could never pull off.  Every character has a distinctive voice and worldview; just imagine how most films would demonise Nanjiani’s parents and see how delicately this portrays their conservative attitudes to marriage.

The result pinballs between subjects, finding space to dissect arranged marriages, cricket fielding positions and 9/11 (Nanjiani gets a brilliant joke at the expense of well-meaning liberals asking for his stance) even as it effortlessly captures the romance at the heart of any good rom-com.  And then, when Emily is stricken and bed-bound, the arrival of her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the in-laws you never knew you wanted) adds further complexity, as Nanjiani becomes the witness to a sort of ‘Ghosts of Christmas Future’ of how his own relationship might turn out.

There’s a certain bagginess, customary to Apatow-produced films, but it’s no bad thing here.  It doesn’t feel like an extended improv session, more that director Michael Showalter is gently coaxing the comedic – and, just as often, dramatic – potential from the story.  And, at the heart of it is a brace of star-making performances.  Gordon’s real-mZoe Kazan is more screwball zinger-slinger than Manic Pixie Dream Girl, while Nanjiani brings a smart blend of easy-going charm and gentle, non-judgemental sarcasm.  In one sight gag, he reveals he modelled himself after Hugh Grant in his teenage years, and you know what?  He could be in the Hugh Grant class provided Hollywood can create parts on the same level as his own life story.

The Big Sick is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.

King of Comedy: Three Films by Buster Keaton on Blu-ray

November 2, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Masters of Cinema has delivered possibly the box-set of the year, a trio of the finest comedies made by Buster Keaton – which is another way of saying, a trio of the finest comedies made by anybody.  The Blu-ray restorations are frankly astonishing, adding a sharpness of detail unseen for decades.  It’s hard to believe these films aren’t far off their centenaries.  The package is bolstered by plenty of extras, the pick of the bunch being a rare video essay on Keaton recorded by Orson Welles in the 1970s.

Buster Keaton

Sherlock Jr
(Buster Keaton, US, 1924)

Silent comedy gets a bad reputation (largely from people who have hardly seen any) of lacking sophistication, being merely a bunch of quaintly old-fashioned slapstick. Sherlock Jr – despite resorting in its opening minutes to that old standby, the banana skin – remains the best case for the defence.

At forty-five minutes it barely qualifies as a feature film: indeed, it could be argued that it is two ideas for shorts, one involving a cinema projectionist and the other about a detective, that got spliced together. But in this process, the ideas merge and transform in complex ways, without all the fuss about plot and character that a longer film entails. It’s arguably the birth of Buster Keaton, already a fiercely inventive creator of comedy routines, as a truly great filmmaker.

What makes it so lasting is that it remains a really incisive study of the effect the movies have on our imaginations and habits, a subject that is arguably more pertinent and accessible today than it was in the medium‘s infancy. Keaton’s character is a gauche, clumsy daydreamer, incapable of doing his job properly because the stories he sees on screen have invaded his reality. Shored up on romance and thrillers, he attempts (badly) to court his girl and to solve a crime, in both cases being thwarted by a more worldly-wise rival. It’s no coincidence that the banana skin gag comes during this section.  It’s an intentionally lame gambit by the projectionist that falls flat, quite literally.

His failure manifest, the character falls completely into his fantasies, dreaming himself into the movies. An astonishing well-edited sequence sees him beset by an ever-evolving landscape as the film cuts from one scene to another (best of which is Keaton diving into the sea and landing in a hole in the snow). It’s both an amazing display of technique by a director learning what he can achieve with the movies’ sleight of hand, and a thoughtful reflection on how reality is shaped by the filmmaking process into something quite different.

It paves the way for the remainder of the film, which sees the projectionist idealising himself as a screen icon, the eponymous detective Sherlock Jr. In this film-within-a-film, Keaton is resourceful and quite indestructible even when things seem to be going against him: in other words, the not-quite Keaton character in “real” life has fully bloomed into Keaton’s regular screen persona only in the invented reality of the “movie.” So you can throw in a brilliant look at movie acting into the mix, along with the other astute observations about how films work.

Aptly, the bulk of the film’s finest gags appear in this section, showcasing the director’s abilities in composition (Keaton is about to crash into a car, which turns a corner to reveal a hollow chassis through which he can safely ride through) and editing (an extraordinary piece of trickery in which Keaton jumps through a disguise kit and instantly becomes an old crone, much to the confusion of his enemies). Not only is it relentlessly and consistently hilarious but, viewed against the relatively quaint, old-fashioned “real” sections, it’s also a lesson in how much thought Keaton puts into achieving the comedy. Sophisticated? There is more invention, to more purpose, than 90% of Hollywood comedies made this year – and if you‘re not too busy laughing, you‘ll remember why you fell in love with movies in the first place.

The General
(Buster Keaton, US, 1927)

If Buster Keaton is the greatest of screen funnymen – and he is – then The General remains the pinnacle of physical comedy. It’s the point where a master tactician raised the bar for crazily ambitious, technically demanding routines higher than anyone had gone before, and the film’s failure to turn a profit (coupled with today’s CGI-diluted homogenisation of stunt procedures) effectively means that it will never be matched.

Some of the scenes here are jaw-dropping, mainly because of Keaton’s insistence on the reality of the stunts. Forget about special effects – the threat of litigation would be enough to prevent anyone from replicating this stuff. Just when you think it can’t get any more extreme, Buster sends a train over a burning bridge, destroying both.

The result is that the comedy benefits from an inimitable sense of purity – any filmmaker with a decent editor can montage effective slapstick from a foot and a banana skin, but it’s not the same thing as actually seeing the stunt in long take. It’s all the more satisfying that Keaton’s banana skin here is a railway. The use of trains is endlessly inventive, with a nerd’s delight in the possibility of staging audacious gags from expensive – and dangerous – technology. The near-calamitous firing of the cannon is a miracle of logistical organisation that wouldn’t even occur to most comedians.

Yet it isn’t just the showstopping stunts that separate Keaton from the dated vaudeville of Chaplin – the man can do the simple stuff better, too. The lithe eloquence of Keaton’s movements is matched by the weirdly expressive impassivity of his features to transform a throwaway gag (such as Johnny losing his shoe in a big pile of shoes) into something sublimely comic.

Decent material helps. This is a structurally perfect comedy – simply two chases, there and back – and largely unfettered by emotional or thematic complications. If the initial pursuit is brilliant enough, the return journey (complicated by the more-hindrance-than-help presence of Marion Mack’s Annabelle) is arguably better. There’s a satisfying symmetry, too, in watching the villains derailed by the same tricks they’d tried unsuccessfully on Johnny.

Even the awkward realisation that the comedy stems from a real-life wartime event – and that Keaton’s hero is drawn from the Confederate South – can’t scupper the feelgood tone. It’s certainly the most apolitical Civil War film ever made, with Johnny’s allegiance scarcely a concern when judged against Keaton’s irreverent, absurdist worldview. Certainly, any battle decided by such an accidental hero can only leave both sides looking stupid, and the potentially uncomfortable image of Johnny charging to victory with the Confederate flag is, inevitably, undercut with one final pratfall.

Steamboat Bill Jr
(Charles Reisner, US, 1928)

Hindsight makes it obvious, but Steamboat Bill Jr – the final film of Keaton’s independent heyday – feels like a summation of his career, a playful riff on established themes and motifs, building to the mother of all endings.

The classic simplicity of the set-up allows this to get on with the task of being funny.  The feud plot is half-inched from Keaton’s earlier Our Hospitality, but by ensuring that the father is an actual character here, the film is more straight-forwardly comic, helped no end by Ernest Torrance’s great, exasperated performance.  It allows Keaton to develop an archetypal character, the naive college boy eager to impress but capable of causing inadvertent destruction through sheer curiosity.  Brilliantly, the he is introduced in an unusual ensemble of moustache and beret; the extended sequence showing Bill’s attempts to ‘man’ him up are a glorious in-joke, especially when Keaton – forced to try on a succession of hats – hurriedly hides his trademark flat hat before his father sees it.

The loose-limbed plot continues in a similar vein, as Keaton’s first tour of duty on the family boat (the latest in a long line of watery misadventures in Keaton’s work) leaves him bruised and the warring boatmen at even greater odds.  A would-be midnight tryst with his paramour goes awry; and a lovely sequence in which Keaton attempts to break dad free from jail with tools hidden inside a loaf of bread shows the master’s adaptability in Chaplin-esque humour, as well as one of the funniest, simplest gags in all of Keaton: the great man sneaking a surreptitious look inside the loaf to check that the tools, which are in plain sight on the floor, have fallen out of the loaf.

Of course, what Keaton does best is spectacle and here, too, he outdoes himself.  Visually this is one of the most stunning moments he ever achieved, the destruction of an entire town, with endless rain, gale-force winds and buildings coming apart.  Keaton rides through the chaos in a fluid succession of routines, so fast that the most audacious achievement – the collapsing wall, calibrated to a mere 2mm – is over before you can register it.  It’s daring but ever so playful: who else but Keaton would insert a surreal sequence in a theatre to vary the drama?

Sherlock Jr, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr are released on Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema on 6th November.

Jeopardy On The Job: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear (1953) – Blu-ray Review

October 18, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Clouzot’s masterpiece remains one of the great action films, largely because the intricate suspense is so cleverly established in mood, story and theme.

1 Wages Of Fear

The Wages Of Fear
(Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Alfred Hitchcock famously explained the difference between surprise and suspense – with the latter, the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table. To which Henri-Georges Clouzot obviously thought, “Let’s make the bomb as big as possible and stick it onto a truck.” In The Wages Of Fear, half the film consists of watching characters trying to drive these nitoglycerine-laden trucks along the world’s worst road. Now, that’s suspense.

This is a remarkable piece of action-adventure filmmaking, dripping in sweat and oil. It had an arduous shoot long before the likes of Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin (with his Wages remake, Sorceror) made such things fashionable. And it has extraordinary, agonising sequences of pure tension – a bumpy road, a dilapidated jetty, a rock blocking the road, a hellish oil pit. We’ve already seen that one drop of nitro will create a sizeable explosion, so each of these obstacles has to be navigated incredibly slowly. Every movement becomes a possible trip, stumble, fall or spill.

Why would anybody sign up for this ordeal? Well, that’s why only half the film is located on the road. Before that, there’s a brilliant hour of exposition to make it not only plausible but inevitable that these desperate men will agree to carry the nitro. Trapped in an unnamed South American village with no jobs and no money, the men drink, whore and gamble their way into an existential prison, so when the offer of $2000 bonus to transport the explosives to stem an oil well fire, they’ve got nothing to lose.

This could be dry, verbose filmmaking, except that Clouzot wields the same physicality he shows in the pure action ahead. Creating the decrepit village from scratch in a dustbowl in Southern France, he builds a world that is entirely convincing in its humid, slovenly languor. Shooting in deep focus and expertly choreographing the extras – including, at one point, a passing aeroplane – he lays out the tiny borders of the expats’ lives.

And this world comes with a worldview: pessimistic, misanthropic, nihilistic. These men have only arrived to get rich, and there’s a self-loathing in their realisation that they can’t even do that properly. Their masculinity in shreds, they form homo-erotic bonds, each trying to become the alpha male in this pathetic group. So they’re in no great mental shape when they start on the journey, and so Clouzot can anatomise the greed, hubris, cowardice (and occasionally, resourcefulness and skill) of the drivers.

That makes the film as much of an ordeal for the audience as for them – we’re not exactly rooting for anybody here, and the bleak punchline is satirical rather than traffic. The visuals emphasise the emptiness – monochrome has rarely been used as well, a world with all the colour drained out until we’re left with Yves Montand and Charles Vanel, drenched in oil and looking like walking corpses.

The Wages Of Fear is released on Blu-ray by the BFI on Monday 23 October.

Glimpsing Ghibli’s Future: Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle (2016) – Blu-ray review

September 19, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

If you feared that Studio Ghibli might be marooned with Miyazaki, its first international co-production offers a fresh voyage into the future.

1 Red Turtle

The Red Turtle
(Michael Dudok de Wit, 2016)

Studio Ghibli has such a strong legacy that it’s hardly surprising it’s taken until now, following Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, for the company to put its imprint on an international co-production. Fortunately, Belgian animator Michael Dudok De Wit’s debut is a worthy addition to the Ghibli name as well as offering thrilling new possibilities for the studio.

Dudok doesn’t go kid-in-a-sweet-shop crazy knowing who is backing him. Instead, The Red Turtle is a small, contained movie, a quiet marvel of narrative clarity and sensual detail. It’s the story of a man shipwrecked on a tropical island, with only some impish crabs for company… until he tries to escape on a raft and finds his efforts hampered by the titular reptile.

To say more would like away the bulk of this briskly told fable of repentance, acceptance and the passage of time.  So let’s talk visuals: Dudok has an extraordinary graphic eye. For all the touches that pay homage to the Ghibli canon (Miyazaki-esque dreams of flight, the way the crabs’ behaviour recall the studio’s semi-regular soot-sprites) there are new elements.

The character design feels touched by Dudok’s fellow Belgian Hergé, while his skies are a tactile, chalky smudge where Miyazaki favoured pristine blues and whites. And Dudok excels himself in a thrilling tsunami set-piece that suggests there is plenty of promise for the future.

For now, though, what’s most impressive is the way the cleanness of visual style is met by the simplicity of story. This could have been made at any point of the past 50 years and will feel just as fresh in 50 more. It is sad, funny, tense (you’ll hold your breath during one sequence of peril in a cave-pool) but mostly it is struck with the same kind of awe you expect when the famous Totoro icon appears at the start of a Ghibli film.

The Red Turtle will be available on DVD and Double Play on September 25th

Sapphic Swoon: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) – Blu-ray review

August 2, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Here’s a Brit-lit adaptation you won’t mistake for the BBC1 Sunday night slot. Park turns up the heat on everything: sex, violence, subtext and style.

1 Handmaiden

The Handmaiden
(Park Chan-wook, 2016)

Park Chan-wook’s career has underdone one of the most interesting transition over the past decade, from the purveyor of brutal revenge thrillers to the consummate stylist of Gothic romances.  This isn’t as strange a shift as it might first appear: the likes of Oldboy show a keen knowledge of Jacobean tragedy, while his English-language debut, Stoker, was still steeped in blood.

For The Handmaiden, Park has adapted a bona-fide gem of English Literature, but rather than look to Austen or Dickens, he’s chosen Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ contemporary, subversive riff on Victoriana, with its taboo blend of lesbian sex and crime.  It’s a reasonably faithful adaptation, although one in which he’s made some cunning changes so as to emphasise the fusion of form and content he started in Stoker and perfects here.

This is a lush, ornate vision of affluence, with a rapt grandeur to the production design and costumes.  Yet Park is more concerned with what’s going on behind the trinkets and garments, and not only when it comes to the copious sex scenes.  Like the Japanese-style sliding doors, whose thin walls let people see shadows and hear echoes, it’s a film of deceptive surfaces, and his camerawork glides to gain the best vantage point.  In the knotted flashbacks of the second act, he literally shifts position to give a fresh perspective on supposedly familiar events.

By setting the tale during Japan’s occupation of Korea, Park adds to Waters’ critique of power.  He retains the device of a rich pervert cataloguing vintage pornography, but it isn’t just about patriarchy in this context but a wider vision of mastery and servitude, in which Korean genuflection to Japan is a moral failing.  Only when the servant becomes her boss’ equal can this be righted – and that’s where the ladies’ love affair comes in.

So the film becomes a neat balance between its own surface pleasures – the storytelling has a crisp, Hitchcockian precision – and its political subtext.  Inevitably, this being Park, there’s only so long he can hold the pose of an elegant period drama.  By the end, the fanbase he’s brought with him since Oldboy can delight in a Grand Guignol torture sequence (complete with a cameo by an octopus!) while fans of exploitation movies can thrill to just about the loveliest, most romantic ‘love beads’ sequences in cinema.

The Handmaiden is released on Blu-ray on Monday 7th August.  A special 2-disc set also includes Park’s extended cut.

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