Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Imposter: cuckoo clocked

There’s a pattern emerging here. None of the last few regular movies I’ve been to see have made much of an impression on me, all of them feeling both overly contrived and stalely predictable as well as being at least half an hour too long. The feature-length documentaries I’ve caught recently have on the other hand all been fantastic, as gripping as Hitchcock in his prime, and to round off a month in which I’ve already been floored by Searching For Sugarman and Ai Weiwei – Never Sorry here’s another scarcely believable true story: The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton.

The Imposter is told from the point of view of a wily 23 year old chancer who in 1997 improvised his way out of a possible prison sentence by impersonating a teenager who went missing from his Texan home three and a half years previously. Incredibly, the fact that the conman was in custody in Spain, spoke English with a heavy French accent and looked nothing like the missing boy didn’t stop both the relevant authorities and the boy’s family accepting him as who he claimed to be, though you’d think that his insistence on wearing sunglasses and hooded clothing might have been a clue that something was up. As it turns out, it’s possible that the family might have had an ulterior motive in being so willing to believe that their boy had returned in a twist that, if true, would test one’s suspension of disbelief if you encountered it in the slickest of Hollywood thrillers.

The director’s decision to present the imposter’s deception upfront is a sound one, as what he sacrifices in terms of keeping the audience in suspense he more than makes up for in the extraordinary interview footage with the seemingly completely candid and highly articulate confidence trickster. He’s clearly an intelligent and resourceful individual and capable of expressing complicated and conflicting thought processes, though how he hoped to evade eventual detection is beyond all understanding. We also hear about events from the family’s point of view and see  home video of the missing boy, as well as reconstructions of key episodes in the story using actors. It’s a sad and wrenching chain of events, and it’s to the director’s credit that it’s been rendered so fascinating without ever seeming unduly voyeuristic or exploitative. Towards the end we start getting startling new perspectives on both the family and the hitherto surprisingly sympathetic cuckoo in their midst, and while the film ends with certain key questions unresolved it certainly feels anything but anti-climactic. Truth can be much stranger than fiction, and this another documentary that’s much more intriguing than your average Summer blockbuster.


Brave: brave, worthy and slightly too bitty

Digital animation studio Pixar (or Disney-Pixar as they seem to be billed as these days) have been putting out high quality family movies for not far off twenty years now, though it’s been a while since I caught one. I seem to remember Toy Story being a bit of a classic, as much for its wit, compassion and well rounded narrative as its cutting edge CGI craft, setting the bar high for future projects, including those released by competing studios, such as ShrekMadagascar and the delightfully surreal Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I’ve been vaguely meaning to go see what the state of the art is with this kind of thing so when I found myself with a slightly unexpected free afternoon on my hands the other day I shambled over to my handy local multiplex to take in Pixar’s new effort Brave*.

I guess the title might lead you to believe this is something to do with native Americans, but in this case we’re talking Brave as in Braveheart, as in plucky medieval Scottish clans residing in castles located in or near highly scenic glens and lochs and forests. The central character is the flame-haired teenage daughter of one of the clan’s lord and lady, and she’s plucky and feisty and good with a bow and arrow, and also naturally fairly aggrieved when her prim and proper mother and gregarious but kindhearted father tell her that they need to marry her off to the heir of one of the other clans in the interest of preserving the peace. You can probably tell where this is going…

…although, actually, you probably can’t, and therein lies my problem with Brave, which is otherwise a perfectly acceptable bit of product, with as much imagination and care put into its beautifully rendered characters, locations and action setpieces as you’d expect. There’s absolutely nothing amiss visually here – the various clan members are lovingly designed and characterised in a manner that reminds me of the Asterix comic strips with a dash of Aardman – and the dialogue’s perfectly serviceable, even if the funny bits run along fairly well-worn grooves, but there seems to be something wrong at a much more basic storytelling level, as if the scriptwriters couldn’t decide which of the three or so main plotlines they were playing with was the most important, so they ended up stitching them awkwardly together Frankenstein-style. There’s nothing wrong in principle in introducing narrative left-turns and confounding an audience’s expectations, and it has in the past been one of Pixar’s greatest virtues that they make a point of sometimes straying from the formula (I’m thinking particularly of the completely unpredictable Up, the unguessable shape of which is one of its main delights), but it really helps if someone takes the trouble to get everything to tie up satisfactorily by the end. The makers of Brave spend a lot of time in the first half of the film setting up a big old family conflict that has major repercussions in the wider community, but then seem to lose interest and get distracted by a new story about the misuse of a kooky witch’s spell, before dragging in elements of an ancient legend that provide a reasonably exciting finale but don’t cast a lot of light on the original dilemma faced by the central character, which by this point has been undramatically diffused via a bit of friendly chat about the value of tradition and unity.  It all feels a bit so-what, really.

Still, there are plenty of individual scenes that make Brave worth a look (I particularly liked the Julie Walters-voiced witch, with her wicked customer service send-ups), even if the whole doesn’t add up to much. Kids will probably love it, but Pixar used to have the gift of making entertainments that kept parents satisfied too. Let’s hope it’s just a blip.

* or Brave 3D, as it’s being advertised as. I duly shelled out for the glasses for this showing, but this feels like a gimmick that’s really run its course now – as in the case of Prometheus or the last Harry Potter film I didn’t even notice the third dimension here. Save your money and go for the flat version.

Jon Ronson: The Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson’s new (ish) book The Psychopath Test is subtitled “a journey through the madness industry” and contains, amongst other things, accounts of a seemingly completely sane man who has been detained in Broadmoor mental hospital for twelve years, a number of extreme and ill-advised psychiatric experiments, some of their subjects which later went on to commit murders, the harrowing direct and indirect effects of the London 7/7 bombings on an eye-witness and the heartbreaking suicide of a vulnerable woman betrayed by the callous producers of a reality TV make-over show. Bizarrely, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.

Ronson makes no pretence at being an objective, or even particularly organised, observer of the disturbing and unconventional individuals and phenomena he writes about. He’s got more in common with the Hunter S. Thompson school of journalism than the peer-reviewed academic journal approach, though his anxious, uber-self-conscious mode of investigation couldn’t be more of a contrast to the fearless pharmaceutical-fuelled gonzo style. His previous books Them (on political and religious extremists) and The Men Who Stare At Goats (about top secret and fairly unbelievable psychological techniques being pioneered by special sections of the US army) were essentially loose collections of interviews and encounters with shadowy fringe figures that were often pretty tangential to the books’ ostensible themes but always made for compulsive reading due to Ronson’s skill at empathising with the unlikeliest of characters and conveying his unease and sense of ridiculousness at the situations he found himself in. The Psychopath Test is very much in this mould, although this time most of the people he interviews are, on the surface anyway, respected members of society: the psychologist who came up with a handy 20 step checklist for identifying psychopathic tendencies, a bestselling popular science author, the bigshot business executive who made millions while ruthlessly downsizing long-standing local companies. Typically Ronson contrives a meeting and then plays the klutz, artlessly pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in his subject’s carefully massaged life story and then hurriedly backtracking and dissembling. Sometimes he doesn’t need to do anything to get someone to expose their own absurdity other than turn the microphone on – the former MI5 whistleblower David Shayler comes across as a ludicrous attention-seeker who latches on and noisily champions any conspiracy theory the internet can throw up.

All of the above is not to say however that the whole book is played for laughs. Ronson is clearly very interested in and concerned about his subject (to the point that he notices himself getting slightly obsessive over his new-found skill as a psychopath-spotter), and when he’s talking about the people who have become victims of bad science or irresponsible authority figures his writing is as clear, passionate and affecting as the subject deserves. It’s pretty informative as well, and presents as balanced a view of competing theories as you could wish for (one of the author’s most endearing qualities is his acknowledgement that he tends to change his mind a lot, based largely on who he was last talking to). Anyway, after a period of struggling with the effort of finishing a book I raced through The Psychopath Test in a day or so – highly recommended.

Jo Nesbø’s Jackpot: splitting the winners

A few months ago I posted a review of Headhunters, a gripping, funny and startlingly bloody adaptation of a novel by Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbø. I liked it a lot. Today I saw Jackpot, also sourced from a Nesbø book, and guess what: it’s also gripping, also funny and also features copious amounts of the red stuff, and again I found it tremendously entertaining. At this rate I might even have to read one of the books.

The two films are pretty similar in a lot of ways, what with the strokes of good fortune that curdle into desperate and vicious struggles to stay alive and the delicate webs of possibly feigned loyalty that keep the viewer guessing, and the elegant last minute revelations that up-end your assumptions, but the main point of difference I guess is that, whereas Headhunters starts off in the lofty world of big business and fine art dealing before charting the plight of a would-be high-flier who bites off more than he can chew, the events of the new film take place among people with crappy lives and nothing to lose. The Hitchcock-style MacGuffin (ie thing that drives the plot) is a large sum of money that a group of three hardened ex-offenders and their lowly supervisor unexpectedly win on an accumulator football bet. Clearly the sensible thing would be shake hands and split the money four ways – unfortunately (or, fortunately for an audience in the mood for some ill-considered violence) some of these men wouldn’t recognise sensible if it threatened them with a nailgun. Betrayals, retaliations, panicky clean-up jobs and late-night trips to the forest ensue, and when a menacing local heavy turns up to collect on a debt it doesn’t exactly have a calming effect on the general emotional temperature. All of this is told from the point of view of the sole survivor of the episode who is discovered at a strip joint surrounded by corpses, and while this framing structure removes some suspense as to how things eventually pan out it does afford the opportunity for some bleakly comic interrogation scenes between the nervily submissive Oscar (Kyrre Hellum) and the preening detective inspector Solør (Henrik Mestad).

Jackpot (directed and adapted by Magnus Martens) is certainly not terribly original, but it’s crisply efficient, holds your attention even when it’s not making you squirm in your seat and comes in under ninety minutes, which is always a plus. If you’re up for some good old-fashioned pulp involving household tools, artificial Christmas trees and sports bags stuffed with bank notes you need look no further.



Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

The United Kingdom has no shortage of conceptual artists specialising in attention-grabbing, confrontational or challenging works that claim to pass comment on modern society, but it’s difficult to imagine what Damien Hirst or The Chapman Brothers would have to unveil in order to match the stakes raised by the fearless Ai Weiwei, whose refusal to toe the famously repressive Chinese government’s hardline led to his mysterious, but thankfully temporary, disappearance for ten weeks last year. Ai is the subject of Alison Klayman’s excellent new documentary Never Sorry, which shows us something of the artist’s working methods (he comes up with the ideas and then gets a team of underlings to assemble them. One of them when interviewed likens himself to an assassin: “He tells me who to kill, and I kill them. It’s not my place to ask him why”) and his gradual alienation from Beijing’s art establishment, the turning point of which is his disowning of the work he did for the 2008 Olympics after both native Chinese and migrants were forced to leave sections of the city to make way for the Games’ infrastructure. Ai subsequently got under the skin of the authorities via such seemingly innocuous and well-intentioned acts as trying to definitively identify the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, information deemed by the state as classified, and daring to turn up to testify at the show trial of an activist trying to find out exactly how shoddy the government-built school buildings in the quake zone were. Ai never got to the trial, due to the police detaining him in his hotel room the night before. This incident provides a throughline for the film, as Ai seeks to get formal acknowledgement from the state for the head injury he suffered at the hands of an officer.

Ai comes over as a canny operator, fully aware of the risks he’s taking but safe in the knowledge that his prolific blogging and videoing and seemingly constant use of Twitter will ensure that his activities will be fully documented and instantly broadcast to the world. He’s a cult figure with an adoring fan-base and you sense that the powers-that-be haven’t really worked out how to handle him – certainly, almost every authority figure we see him encounter seems to treat him with respect and courtesy, his hotel assailant being a notable exception. His work has come to fully reflect his struggle, with many of his recent video pieces being blatantly provocative towards his motherland, but as he says “if you don’t push, you get nothing”. At time of writing, Ai is free and still tweeting, though the scenes in this film showing him immediately after his release issuing bland, if apologetic, “no comment”-style statements do make you worry that he may finally have been tamed. If so, it would be a tragedy – the campaign for freedom and transparency in China badly needs champions this brave, smart and articulate.

The Dark Knight Rises: if I could just bat this one back to you…

I seem to have lost the taste for big-budget, all-action, things-exploding block-busting extravaganzas of late (I didn’t even catch the Olympics opening ceremony), although my spies tell me there have been a few worthwhile superhero reboots of late that have been worth a look (Avengers Assemble, which didn’t appeal as the title made it sound like it was going to be a documentary about how masked crusaders come flatpacked, and The Amazing Spiderman, which I turned down because I seem to remember watching a perfectly adequate Spiderman re-telling only about five minutes ago). I thought I should probably make an effort for The Dark Knight Rises, however, as I did really approve of Batman Begins, the first part of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of angst-ridden Gotham City based vigilantism, even if I found its follow-up The Dark Knight overlong and awkwardly structured, and unbalanced by Heath Ledger’s showboating performance as The Joker – it was electrifyingly watchable whenever he was on screen, but seriously draggy when he wasn’t.

So the good news, I guess, is that this third film is a definite improvement, at least in terms of pacing and coherence. It tells its story reasonably clearly, builds to some impressive setpieces which have real impact because the stakes have been properly prepared for the audience and while there are more subplots to keep an eye on than I’m completely comfortable with at least it doesn’t turn left into a completely different narrative two-thirds of the way through as the last film did. It’s efficient, even if it’s far from lean, what with all the heavy lifting required in the early stages to let us know what’s been going on with Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred the butler et al in the eight years since we last met them, and also establish a whole raft of new characters, a lot of whom just seem to be generic sleazy businessmen or police officers. Most eye-catching of the new guys are super-villain Bane, played behind a gimp mask by an unrecognisable Tom Hardy, who has an attractive if hardly original line in casual sadism and Nietzschean wisecracks, and Anne Hathaway’s feisty safe-cracker Selina Kyle, who’s never explicitly identified as Catwoman, although the ears are a bit of a giveaway. Also along for the ride are Marion Cotillard as entrepreneur and potential saviour of Wayne Enterprises Miranda Tate and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an idealistic young cop who you sense might be being set up for a more central role in the future.

You do need to concentrate a bit to keep up with how all these folk’s agendas fit together, and to be honest it’s not made any easier by the predominantly dark production design or by the way that a lot of Bane’s choice rejoinders are rendered indistinct by the distortion effect that’s been used on his voice, but I’m pretty sure the film plays fair and gives you all the information you need to make sense of it. By the midway point the nature of the baddies’ scheme has become clear and it’s certainly effectively realised on screen, with the various bangs and crashes and explosions coming over as satisfyingly physical and non-computer generated. A key to the success of these films is the vulnerability of Christian Bale’s Batman and he’s put through the mill good and proper here, suffering multiple reversals of fortune – he’s a much more interesting and rounded figure than any of the bad guys, whose motivation seems a little sketchy to me. Best of the new characters is Selina Kyle, who convinces as a properly conflicted human being and gets to deliver witticisms that are actually funny, while the holy supporting triumvirate of Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are as classy as you’d expect, Oldman excelling as the beating heart of the film. It’s a long movie, and in places a slightly wearying one, but I’d be surprised if I came across another action spectacular this…err…weighty…any time soon.

Searching For Sugarman: “Bob Dylan is mild compared to this guy!”

I’m still buzzing from all the great music I was exposed to at last weekend’s Cambridge Folk Festival, and in particular witnessing Nic Jones’s brilliant return to the stage, so I’m in no particular need of an adrenalin fix in the form of the heartwarming story of the adoration and intrigue inspired by a shortchanged, but formidably talented singer-songwriter. I got one anyway though, in the form of the wonderful new documentary Searching For Sugarman, the subject of which is the mysterious Rodriguez (first name indeterminate, but probably either Jesus or Sixto), a drifting construction worker from Detroit who in the late 60s was discovered singing self-penned counter-cultural songs in a local bar. He was signed up and two albums were released, Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming From Reality in 1971, and based on the extracts used in this film both would seem to be drop-dead classics, full of lushly but tastefully orchestrated, richly melodic anthems that stand out from the crowd due to their composer’s distinctive vocals and unusually intelligent, direct and anti-sentimental lyrics, which stand comparison with those of Dylan, or Gil Scott Heron. Neither album sold squat in America, and Rodriguez had his contract terminated in short order, whereupon he disappeared from view entirely.

Well…not entirely. Copies of Cold Fact found their way to South Africa, where its fearlessly anti-establishment vibe chimed perfectly with liberal dissenters to the odious and repressive apartheid-upholding regime then in power. Word spread, and the album started to get wide-scale distribution by RPM records, to the point where, despite getting hardly any airplay on the conventional media channels, it became a stock item in any self-respecting enlightened household – everyone had it, alongside their copies of Bridge Over Troubled Water and Abbey Road. By the 80s Rodriguez was indeed bigger than Elvis in South Africa, and his music and attitude were a pivotally important influence on radical upcoming musicians. Nobody, however, knew the first thing about him beyond the scant information on his record sleeves. The rumour was that he had committed a sensational on-stage suicide – there was certainly no evidence that he was still alive.

Searching For Sugarman, directed by Malik Bendjelloul,  tells this story through interviews with Rodriguez’s fans, former producers and Detroit co-workers (none of the latter had any idea that their mate even played the guitar, let alone had become a cult figure), before going on to relate what happened when a South African journalist decided to pursue the story of how the singer actually died. What follows is amazing, and while I wouldn’t want to spoil it, I’ve got to say I haven’t been moved in this way since the scenes of Anvil turning up to an stadium in Japan packed with adoring fans at the end of The Story Of Anvil. I seem to be crying quite a lot in front of people playing guitars on stage these days. Must be getting old. Anyway, this is a fantastic film – go see it at once if you need a dose of non-cheesy feelgood, or even if you don’t.