Film reviews round-up: City of Tiny Lights, The Boss Baby, Neruda, Raw

A London-based noir starring Riz Ahmed, Alec Baldwin's Trump-like Boss Baby, Pablo Larrain's follow-up to Jackie, and a female-driven cannibal film

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The Independent Culture

City Of Tiny Lights (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Pete Travis, 110 mins, starring: Riz Ahmed, Billie Piper, James Floyd, Cush Jumbo, Roshan Seth, Hannah Rae

City Of Tiny Lights is an atmospheric attempt at London “noir”, a crime thriller that borrows elements from old Philip Marlowe mysteries at the same time that it explores some very contemporary British topics: property scams, the tensions between the police and the Muslim community, the fear of terrorism, the divide between haves and have-nots, and the sheer richness and diversity of multicultural London life.

Largely set at night, shot in free-flowing fashion (with heavy use of hand-held camera, slow motion, and shots of trains or cars) by Felix Wiedemann, the film has a gritty lyricism. Riz Ahmed is well cast as the London private eye who charges £300 a day plus expenses, drinks a lot of Wild Turkey bourbon, and spends much of his time looking for clients’ “lost car keys and missing dogs.” He has that crumpled charisma you expect in any self-respecting private eye and even gets his own moody voice-over. “We’ve all got our stories, our lies, our secrets.”

The hitch here is an over-determined and clumsy storyline. In adapting his own novel, screenwriter Patrick Neate throws in so many sub-plots and digressions that the narrative very quickly stalls. This isn’t just a crime yarn about private eye Tommy investigating the whereabouts of a missing Russian prostitute or trying to work out just why there is a dead man in a hotel room. It’s also a story about friends and lovers trying to come to terms with betrayal and suicide in their past.

Every new scene throws in an extra piece of distracting information which takes us further and further away from the original case. In continual flashbacks, we’re whisked back to formative moments in Tommy’s life as a youngster, when he was in love with the beautiful Shelley. She was going out with one of his best friends. They’re still guilty about what happened. Shelley (played as an older woman by Billie Piper) is now the hostess at an upmarket restaurant. She has a teenage daughter who doesn’t know the identity of her father.

The flashbacks seem to belong to another movie. You wouldn’t expect to watch Humphrey Bogart or Jack Nicholson as a private eye and then be treated to long episodes about their adolescent love affairs. The back story about Tommy’s father, Farzad (Roshan Seth), a cricket-loving Ugandan Asian who once served in the army and who fled to Britain when Idi Amin came to power, is likewise distracting.

City Of Tiny Lights - Official Trailer

Seth gives an engaging, scene-stealing performance, pontificating about cricket as a metaphor for life, but he is yet another addition to a film already full of supporting characters. Hollywood noir tends to be very lean and plot-driven. Here, the filmmakers are so determined to give us a sense of the sprawl of the city that they risk losing track of the main story they’re trying to tell. 

At its best, City Of Tiny Lights has the same poetic, fatalistic mood found in such other London-set thrillers as Mona Lisa or The Long Good Friday. As Tommy, Ahmed makes an appealing anti-hero. He has a nice line in sarcastic repartee, shows that he knows how to use his fists when the need arises, and takes a beating with the same equanimity you’d expect of a Marlowe or a Sam Spade. One moment, he is lying battered and bruised in an alleyway and the very next he is rekindling his old romance with Billie Piper.

The sinister American secret agent who turns up (a little bizarrely) in Tommy’s local boozer hints that Tommy is about to stumble on some huge terrorist conspiracy involving property developers and mullahs. Slowly, though, we begin to realise that there may be less to the plot than meets the eye. The film can’t resist throwing in a few very stock types.

For example, Cush Jumbo’s seedily glamorous and kind-hearted prostitute Melody – who first hires Tommy – could have stepped straight out of some Victorian melodrama. Tommy’s childhood friend “Lovely” (James Floyd), the property developer who seems to have made a success of his life but has some surprising associates, is a character type we’ve seen many times before. It’s a convention of the genre that one childhood friend will be attracted to crime and easy money while the other is steadfast and honest.

In the end, City Of Tiny Lights loses its focus. Director Pete Travis excels at portraying London street life in all its bustle and contradictions. You could easily imagine a series being spun off based around Riz Ahmed’s character. As a self-contained story, though, the film is frustrating. There’s so much going on around the edges that the main investigation seems almost an afterthought.

 

The Boss Baby

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Tom McGrath, 97 mins, voiced by: Miles Christopher Bakshi, Alec Baldwin, Eric Bell Jr, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow

We’ve been so spoilt for animation features by Disney, Pixar et al. that we take it for granted that any big new project will out-do its predecessors in its wit and visual zest. The Boss Baby reminds us that not every new toon is a masterpiece. This adaptation of Marla Frazee’s 2010 book has its moments but its starting point is both derivative and feeble. After Baby Herman in Roger Rabbit, the idea of a tiny tot with snarling adult characteristics isn’t especially original, even if its main protagonist’s tendency to throw his toys out of the pram does remind us of the current incumbent in the White House.

In The Boss Baby, imaginative young lad Timothy Templeton appears to have the perfect life. He has two loving hipster parents who dote on him and sing him Beatles songs to get him to sleep. They’re a tight-knit unit. “Three is the perfect number,” Timothy proclaims. But then his world falls apart. The conveyor belt delivers him a brother, the “boss baby”. This little runt soon runs the Templetons ragged and steals all the affection away from Timothy.

Worse, he’s not really a proper baby at all. He drinks double espressos, carries a briefcase, and behaves more like a management consultant than he does a new-born. He has been sent by Baby Corps on a mission to stop puppies from stealing away the love from infants.

Trailer: The Boss Baby

Certain sections of the film work very well. There’s a memorably unpleasant nanny nicknamed “Scary Poppins”, a chase scene through the nursery involving a cassette that will blow Boss Baby’s cover that is very cleverly co-ordinated, and a bizarre interlude involving lots of Elvis impersonators on the way to Vegas.

The film, though, becomes as mushy and as shapeless as a baby’s rusk doused in too much hot milk. The “message”, rammed home in none too subtle fashion, is that the siblings need to learn how to accept one another. Boss Baby (voiced by that renowned Donald Trump imitator Alec Baldwin) is striking early on in the movie precisely because he’s so unpleasant.

He’s a cynical, hard-hearted executive. Inevitably, as the movie progresses, he loses much of his viciousness and learns to appreciate the wonders of family life. The plotting here simply doesn’t stack up. The story is an unholy mish-mash between saccharine family melodrama and anarchic Loony Tunes-style farce. It’s a big, gooey mess of a movie, without the gags or visual ingenuity to compensate for its infantile premise.

 

Neruda

★★★★☆

Dir: Pablo Larraín, 105 mins, starring:  Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Alfredo Castro, Pablo Derqui, Mercedes Morán, Emilio Gutiérrez Caba

The biopic is often seen as the most hidebound and dreary of genres. Too many films take us through their subjects’ lives in rigidly chronological fashion, ticking off their achievements and setbacks one by one. That’s why the brilliant Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s film about poet and revolutionary Pablo Neruda is so refreshing. Scripted by playwright Guillermo Calderón, this is a determinedly playful, magical realist-style yarn. 

In his recent Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie, Larrain concentrated on just a few days in the main character’s life, immediately after JFK’s assassination. Here, the time span is longer and the canvas is broader. The film is set in the late 1940s as Neruda goes on the run after making an inflammatory speech in Congress. The President wants the Communist poet to be arrested and humiliated. Gael Garcia Bernal is the dogged police officer Oscar Peluchonneau entrusted with the task of hunting him down.

The Chilean poet is a long way removed from the Che Guevara-like stereotype of the Latin American revolutionary. As portrayed by Gnecco, he resembles a slightly overweight provincial bank manager. He’s a glutton, womaniser, and a hedonist who takes an immense sensual pleasure in all of his creature comforts. There are plenty of Fellini-esque scenes here of him enjoying himself in brothels  and somehow managing to live the high life, even when he is on the run.

Calderón’s screenplay has a self-reflexive quality. There is a sense that the entire story has been conjured up as a game by Neruda. The police officer is one of Neruda’s most fervent admirers and reads Neruda’s poetry even as he arrests the poet’s accomplices. His investigations allow us to see Neruda’s personality in all its contradictions. The film touches on the feuding and oppression in post-war Chile. We even catch a brief glimpse of the future dictator Pinochet, who’s overseeing a prison camp.

However, there is an elegance and wry humour in Larrain’s approach that stops the film ever from feeling like political agit-prop.

 

Raw

★★★★☆

Dir: Julia Ducournau, 99 mins, starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners

Julia Ducournau’s Raw is both the most repulsive film of the year so far – and one of the most original. This Franco-Belgian drama shapes up early on more like a coming of age drama story told in a very arty way than like typical horror. That’s why it’s so startling when the flesh-eating begins in earnest.

As a little taster of what we are going to see later, we catch an early glimpse of Justine (Garance Marillier), the demure young heroine, regurgitating some mashed potato. Like her parents, she’s an ardent vegetarian and she is disgusted to have found a meatball on her plate.

There are certain elements in Ducournau’s screenplay that don’t make sense at any rational level. For example, given Justine’s disgust at meat, it’s a little strange that she has enrolled at veterinary school, where she is going to be surrounded by living and dead animals. The veterinary school itself is more like a decadent art school than anything you’ll encounter in James Herriot’s writing.

The students have all manner of bizarre initiation rituals. Newcomers are woken in the middle of the night and press-ganged into taking part in orgies. They’re forced to eat rabbit kidneys. They have to address the older students in reverential terms. Justine’s older sister Alexia (played in wonderfully anarchic fashion by Ella Rumpf) is already at the school - and is clearly one of the most hedonistic and rebellious students there.

Ducournau has a David Cronenberg-like fascination with the inner workings of her protagonists’ bodies. She can make even a scene of the two sisters brushing their teeth seem disturbing. Justine is such a pallid and ingenuous young “fresher” that her later behaviour appears all the more startling. The film is full of scenes that make you want to retch and laugh at the same time. One of the most memorable involves a Brazilian waxing that goes very wrong. It’s the presence of the friendly, floppy-eared dog that makes the scene all the more disconcerting.

As in any conventional coming of age film, Justine learns the usual lessons about love and sex. The difference here is her increasingly voracious appetite for blood. “An animal that has tasted human flesh isn’t safe,” she is told – an observation that most certainly applies to her.

Many moments here are intended to disgust us. It isn’t just the slurping of the blood of car crash victims or the snacking on severed fingers as if they’re Twixes or biting off of the bottom lip of someone who is trying to kiss one of the protagonists or the scenes in which everyone is doused in blood and paint. What makes the film so startling and uncomfortable to watch is the matter of fact way in which the director treats the most revolting moments.

Nobody behaves as if they’re in a George Romero zombie flick. In her own gore-filled way, Justine is experimenting, trying to work out what the adult world is all about and attempting to re-define her relationship with her domineering older sister. The shock tactics can verge on the prurient but even in the most extreme moments, the film never loses sight of character. Justine is surely the most sensitive and delicate cannibal heroine in movie history, someone who blushes even as she devours her choicest bloody morsels.

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