Friday 1 December 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of November 24-26, 2023):

1 (new) Napoleon (15) **
2 (1) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12A)
3 (new) Wish (U)
4 (4) Saltburn (15)
5 (2) The Marvels (12A) **
6 (new) Cliff Richard: The Blue Sapphire Tour 2023 (U)
7 (5) Trolls Band Together (U)
8 (6) Thanksgiving (18)
9 (3) Tiger 3 (12A) ***
10 (re) Love Actually (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Saving Private Ryan [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Oppenheimer (15) ****
2 (1) The Creator (12) **
3 (new) Trolls Band Together (U)
5 (4) Barbie (12) ***
6 (re) The Nun II (15)
7 (7) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
8 (2) A Haunting in Venice (12)
9 (6) Gran Turismo (12)
10 (20) Violent Night (15)

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Hell or High Water (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
2. Ordinary Love (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
3. Enemy of the State (Friday, Channel 5, 11.05pm)
4. Booksmart (Sunday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
5. Clear and Present Danger (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.25pm)

Separate tables: "The Eternal Daughter"

A neatfreak might consider
The Eternal Daughter a souvenir of The Souvenir. From the autobiographical diptych that marked a notable leap forwards for this filmography, the writer-director recalls two key characterisations, as well as a dog and Tilda Swinton, the latter now cast in a dual role: as both a daughter (the role Swinton's own offspring Honor Swinton Byrne played in the Souvenirs) and a mother (the role Swinton herself played) dispatched on a fateful birthday-weekend break to an isolated hotel that naturally sets us to thinking of The Shining. (For Scatman Crothers, Hogg swaps in Joseph Mydell, adapting rather better to these underpopulated corridors than his fellow guests.) Around the twin Tildas, the screen comes to fill with phantoms and spectres, sometimes mere tricks of the light. In the opening scene, the minicab driver transporting our gals to this awayday reports seeing a ghost in the vicinity; the mother hazily recollects her younger days growing up on or around this land; and, throughout, The Eternal Daughter - recognisably a film made by the earnest cineaste who grew up before our eyes in the Souvenirs - only leans into reminiscences of and resemblances to films past. As the fog descended over the hotel gardens, I started to wonder whether opportunistic producers hadn't encouraged Hogg to make a horror film that might build on her previous films' critical and commercial success. Yet instead of another Conjuring, she's come up with something that remains distinctively Hoggish: deeply personal, awkward in its means of expression, fair bristling with passive-aggression. It's not a film where things go bump in the night; the horror evoked by The Eternal Daughter is that of people rubbing one another up the wrong way.

It's a funny one, in short, at once funny-ha ha and funny-strange. A big part of what's so odd is a technical limitation: Hogg simply doesn't have the budget to digitise Tilda - as, say, David Fincher did Armie Hammer for The Social Network - and so mother and daughter have for the most part to interact from adjacent shots and frames. It isn't only the characters who pass into a sort of limbo; the film does, too, coming to resemble a lowish-budget horror flick from an earlier age. The question that arises is how intentional this is. Hogg's technique strikes the eye as sophisticated enough, in the main. The cutting between the two women (by Helle Le Fevre, a holdover from the Souvenirs) is sharp, drawing us into their tricky dynamic; Swinton, proven ally of experimentally inclined directors, does exceptional work in differentiating between the two main characters, and never once misses an eyeline. Hogg even permits herself the odd deft formal gag, such as the reveal that the ominous music heard over one transition is actually a tune hummed by the hotel's receptionist/resident dogsbody (Carly-Sophia Davies, a bolshy hoot) as she idly curates her Insta grid. Yet where the Souvenir one-two knew exactly what it was and what it wanted to communicate, The Eternal Daughter has an inbuilt rawness, even raggedness that struck at least this viewer as somewhat double-edged: it absolutely matches the emotions mother and child are seen circling and working through, but it also might just rub you too up the wrong way from time to time. I think I mean it as a compliment when I say the last thing Hogg wants to be here is slick, but then I couldn't be entirely sure of that.

No denying the film is strong on the perils of proximity. The whole narrative thrust comes from the daughter, already jittery over the state of play between her and mum, becoming freaked out upon glimpsing her mother's ghostly appearance at a darkened window, and realising that's both who she is and who she's destined to be. The hotel's plump-cushioned emptiness permits an extended study of enforced intimacy; there's barely anybody else around to distract from the central bond-slash-bind. (Even the Davies character, caught bunking off from her desk for unhappy trysts with a passing boyracer, scarcely wants to be here.) We learn more about this family's backstory than we did from the Souvenirs, but we also can't miss how mother and daughter irk and irritate one another, as the characters did in Hogg's breakthrough films. They're pieces in a puzzle that, like Hogg's two-shots, tesselate altogether uncomfortably; they occasionally reach out for a hug or some other reassurance, only to recoil with hands full of splinters. (One reason Tilda has never gone full Downton: her upper-middle class characters come with spikes as standard.) Thus does Hogg dig into our push-pull relationship with our elders, turning up and examining the little resentments and grievances that threaten to poison any groundswells of love and gratitude: what makes the eternity of that title seem at once gift and punishment. If the result is a trickier one to parse than the Souvenirs - contingent as it is on whatever was on its maker's mind scene by scene, shot by shot; the hotel operates as a bricks-and-mortar analogue for the Hogg headspace - it remains plenty atmospheric, and an unmistakable example (still rare within the British cinema) of filmmaking as therapy, a work that prints a consciousness on screen without apparent mediation or interference. My advice? Take an analyst pal or at the very least a thick notepad. If Hogg pursues this line of thought any further, we're all going to have to start billing her by the hour.

The Eternal Daughter is now playing in selected cinemas.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Let 'em in: "Totem"

Lila Avilé
s is the Mexican writer-director who enjoyed a surprise crossover hit in 2018 with her sharp social satire The Chambermaid. Her follow-up Totem presents as cutesier on the surface. As in Carson McCullers' novel The Member of the Wedding or Claude Miller's loose film adaptation An Impudent Girl, a family gathering is observed from the kneehigh perspective of one of the younger invitees. Gradually, however, the film reveals a depth of purpose and observation. The occasion is a birthday party organised for an ailing, stick-thin young father, Tonatiuh (Mateo García Elizondo, grandson of Gabriel García Márquez, no less), whom we quickly intuit may not have many more birthdays left. Yet it's the location we're shown round by his seven-year-old offspring Sol (Naíma Sentíes) which first grabs the attention: an overstuffed bohemian retreat, crammed full of animals and antiquities, and now a ramshackle group of people who don't obviously or easily fit together. (The bathrooms are always engaged whenever someone really needs them.) They're a kooky bunch: by way of clan patriarch, a therapist with a voicebox who conducts counselling sessions with his study door wide open; three daughters with markedly disparate looks and attitudes; a medium invited in by one of the latter to purge the house of evil spirits, a process that apparently requires the burning of a bread roll on the end of a long stick. (You wonder if she didn't just mishear "barbeque" for "birthday party".) And then there are the kids, not old enough (yet) to be quite this doolally, but alert enough to sense undercurrents, shifts in mood; left to their own devices by grown-ups with plenty on their plates and minds, they roam, sometimes scurry from room to room, picking up insects, cutting up banknotes, slurping from abandoned bottles of wine, and brightly asking Siri when the world is going to end. (No answer.) Two films into this career, and it's clear: here is a director who doesn't recoil from the mess of life so much as revel in it.

This tendency manifests above all else in Avilés' often funny framing. A cherub is plonked atop a fridge so mama can get on with baking a cake. ("It's dirty up here," the kid notes, busy lacing a pet cat's coffee with tuna.) Sol's assiduously constructed pillow fort collapses after the patio door she's used as a rearguard is suddenly opened. There's a hilarious reveal around the half-hour, as our heroine breaches a hitherto unexamined room of teenagers playing video games with a giant, Digby-like sheepdog for a companion; in the context of this household, they are as the Japanese soldiers who manned the trenches long after WW2 concluded. Where The Chambermaid made its mischief in a necessarily sterile environment, Totem parachutes us into a place where there is a lot going on, not all of it visible to the naked eye. Crucially, Avilés doesn't force any of it, adhering instead to the chaotically precise conditions of a shoot that had to have been semi-improvised going by the results, with the adults snatching serious conversations about the patient's condition behind the little ones' backs. (It's one of those films I suspect you could put on and persuade an older relative was actually a documentary.) There are limitations with this particular style of looseness: Totem never quite gathers the narrative force of The Chambermaid, nor of Carla Simón's similarly framed dramas Summer 1993 and Alcarràs. Yet you might still be touched by the film's underlying generosity, and Avilés' efforts to allow each member of her ensemble a moment or two to cherish. Totem has the distinct look and feel of a post-lockdown project: inviting just about everyone in its maker's address book to turn up and give a toast before the end credits, it's a reminder of the joys of togetherness, and how important it remains to celebrate and commemorate certain milestones. The bonus is that, along the way, Avilés also captures something that hasn't often been caught on film: the distraction and displacement activity that goes on whenever we know one of our tribe is not long for this world. The true subject of Totem, it turns out, is people making the very best of a regrettable - and unavoidable - situation.

Totem opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Not tonight: "Napoleon"

We saw not a single frame of Stanley Kubrick's long-tended Napoleon project, and yet cinemas across the globe are currently exhibiting two hours and thirty-eight minutes of Ridley Scott's
Napoleon; the question that arises is whether or not the latter constitutes adequate compensation. Certainly Scott - too restless and erratic to have approached the pantheon of great filmmakers, the ad man-turned-businessman director forever looking for the next deal, ready and willing to squander the credit of an Alien on a Prometheus and then an Alien: Covenant - has given us a rowdier, more raucous romp than Kubrick likely would have. Sir Ridley first revealed his hand in the course of a pre-release press tour during which he told historians objecting to his movie's deviations from the established record to "shut the fuck up". Laugh at that all you like, but it strikes me as not so far from chuckling at Michael Gove's pre-Brexit remark about Britain having had enough of experts. In what proves a decidedly post-Brexit Napoleon - two fingers stuck firmly up in the vague direction of the continent - Scott gives us the Emperor as viewed from the perspective of a gruff Northeasterner who grew up on Viz and made a point of only skimreading the official biographies, giving us lots of rutting à la chienne and a devil-may-care attitude to the facts. Initially, at least, the film seems to be proposing some defence of history's Great Men (and Women): a prologue - one of Scott and writer David Scarpa's imaginings - shows the younger Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) watching on disdainfully as a regal Marie-Antoinette is led to the guillotine by extremely revolting peasants. An early sequence in which our hero retakes Toulon from the Brits - by turning an occupied fort against the ships in the harbour it overlooks - betrays some measure of admiration for Napoleon's tactical nous, and reminds us of Scott's gift for onscreen strategies and logistics. Many more big battles lie ahead: there's a reason your dad and everybody else's dad is just itching to fall asleep to Scott's magnum opus several Bank Holidays from now.

Gradually, however, Napoleon shapes up as a diptych, setting its lavish portrait of the Emperor as a fighter against an altogether more withering sketch of Napoleon the lover. This Bonaparte's upward mobility in the military ranks contrasts with his rather more haphazard progress with the fabled Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby, in short, sharp locks that establish her as a comparatively modern gal): from peeping at her across a candlelit salon to pumping indifferently into her in the boudoir and retreating, wounded, as she takes another lover during his overseas campaigns. Even their pillow talk is combative. "I am the most important man in the world!," he bellows. "I am not built like other men!" "You are nothing without me," she retorts. This being un film de Ridley Scott, they're hardly subtle, but the points do land. Napoleon could command the loyalty of tens of thousands of men, but he hadn't the foggiest what to do with this one woman; Joséphine was one territory he couldn't fully conquer, to his eternal regret and chagrin. This ongoing battle of the sexes ensures there's at least one satirical note for every booming cannon. If we understand the bulk of Scott's filmography to have been in some way about the processes of business - starting with the blue-collar carnage of Alien - then Napoleon represents the filmmaker's idea of those moguls who oversee vast empires through a combination of vision, ambition and leadership, yet remain persistently hapless on the homefront. (This Napoleon's solution is to ditch the womanly Joséphine for a younger model, which in the early 19th century could be as #problematic as taking a child bride.) Napoleon is plainly the work of someone who (by Hollywood standards) has been broadly steadfast in marriage, and taken so confidently to fatherhood that several of his offspring have followed him into the family business. It is also, as a result, a rare period drama in which a director can been seen repeatedly and insistently pulling rank on his own subject: two-and-a-half hours in which the 85-year-old Scott, like a pub bore telling you What Gareth Southgate Has Got Wrong, informs us he'd make a far better general, husband and bedmate than his limp-dicked cuck of a protagonist. The prevailing air of hubris might only be admirable if the film were a better deployment of everybody's time and resources.

From its mishmash of accents to the unlikely casting of Miles Jupp as the Emperor of Austria (Brits do it better!), Scott's Napoleon is a hashjob, wilfully self-sabotaging and too restless to hold to any one editorial line for long; even the already much-memed sequence in which Napoleon whines "you think you're so great because you have boats" to the British delegation botches its own comedy by affording the bewigged posho recipient of that punchline the final word. (Here again is the Scott who bungled his way through 2006's singularly unfunny A Good Year. I mean, for heaven's sake Film Twitter: pick worthier heroes.) You spend much of these 168 minutes watching this flea-film leap around from place to place, year to year, between tragedy and farce. As with most Scott projects, there is a director's cut in the offing - some four-plus hours, headed to Apple TV+ in the near-future - and you will almost certainly be better off holding out for that than making do with the glorified trailer now playing on a screen near you: that version will almost certainly smooth the transitions, build up the supporting parts and allow more than the occasional scene to develop into actual drama. (As it is, we've been left in the same position we were in with 2005's Kingdom of Heaven and 2013's The Counselor: only a masochist could want more of what's been promised by the theatrical cut.) For now, Scott has turned in the assiduously lit auteur variant of one of those TV movies fashioned from a pre-existing miniseries: a work that charges onwards down the narrative line, jettisoning depth, weight and viewer engagement as it yomps along. Some of it (the grim spectacle of Austerlitz and Waterloo) still holds the eye, but a lot more falls flat (cf. the newspaper headline that refers to Joséphine ungallantly - and un-Gallic-ly - as "Boney's Old Bird") and the central performance never coheres because Phoenix is playing multiple Emperors simultaneously and can't connect the dots by himself. Nothing here overturns my conviction that the one masterpiece of Scott's late period has been TV's The Good Fight, to which he merely lent his name as executive producer. (Another day, another deal.) Despite his tipping of a tricorned hat, despite a lavish red-carpet premiere in Paris, it turns out even the French don't like this Napoleon that much - but then, set against Abel Gance's monumental 1927 telling of the same tale, a film such as this would only ever resemble pipsqueakery. Fuck 'em, Scott would doubtless growl. For better and in many ways worse, his Napoleon is a fuck 'em sort of movie.

Napoleon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 24 November 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of November 17-19, 2023):

1 (new) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12A)
2 (1) The Marvels (12A) **
3 (new) Tiger 3 (12A) ***
4 (new) Saltburn (15)
5 (2) Trolls Band Together (U)
6 (new) Thanksgiving (18)
7 (new) Kevin Bridges - The Overdue Catch-Up (18)
8 (3) Killers of the Flower Moon (15) ****
9 (4Five Nights at Freddy's (15)
10 (5) Anatomy of a Fall (15) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) The Creator (12) **
2 (3) A Haunting in Venice (12)
4 (2Barbie (12) ***
5 (17) Blue Beetle (12)
6 (8) Gran Turismo (12)
7 (6) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
8 (4) Expend4bles (15)
9 (10) Fast X (12)
10 (re) No Hard Feelings (15)

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer
5. Barbie

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Passport to Pimlico (Saturday, BBC2, 1.45pm)
2. Benedetta (Thursday, Channel 4, 12.55am)
3. The Rainmaker [above] (Thursday, Channel 5, 11.05pm)
4. Whisky Galore! (Saturday, BBC2, 3.05pm)
5. Jack Frost (Sunday, Channel 5, 4.05pm)

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Predators: "May December"

The advantage
May December has in territories outside the US is that few will know the real-life events the film was reportedly inspired by. We are therefore free to give ourselves over to the twists and turns of what is, in essence, the Todd Haynes version of a Channel 5 afternoon TV movie: a knowingly soapy and sunny intrigue about the repurposing of life as art that - with a perverse elegance typical of this filmmaker - ushers us towards the conclusion that movies and moviemakers are trash and trouble. Their representative on screen is Natalie Portman's Elizabeth, a TV actress who's travelled to a quiet American backwater to stay with (and study) Gracie Atherton-Yoo and her husband Joe (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton), soon to be seen as subjects of the based-on-true-events feature Elizabeth is all set to star in. The thirty-year age gap between Moore and recent Riverdale graduate Melton hints at the film-within-a-film's sensational story: Gracie seduced Joe when she was in her mid-thirties (and married) and he was in his early teens, a source of understandable local outrage. Yet here they are, some twenty years down the line: married with children, in their own kind of love, living peaceably (despite the occasional box of shit put through their letterbox by vexed neighbours) and faced with an outsider hellbent on prying into their past. Elizabeth, for her part, is making a movie, but she's also making mischief - just playing, in two of that word's meanings: opening up old wounds, poking a well-manicured finger in, stirring things up. Long-suppressed emotions start to rise to the surface; it wouldn't be a Todd Haynes picture without them. We, meanwhile, are invited to consider what's most deplorable: the age gap between Gracie and Joe, or the vast chasm separating Elizabeth of Hollywood from messy everyday reality.

The spilling over of troubled hearts may be a Haynes commonplace, but in most other respects, this is an unusual project for the director to have taken on. May December isn't written by him (the credited screenwriters are Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik), which would normally indicate some distance from the material; and while thoughtfully framed by Christopher Blauvelt - especially so whenever mirrors come into play - it doesn't ever look like much, the movie's own way of siding with reality. What makes it seem far more than a work-for-hire is the deep engagement with the act and art of performance. Front and centre, exhibit 1a: the most assured performance of Portman's entire career, as a star trying her darnedest to make people fall for her wherever she goes. It's a performance with elements of Julia Roberts' recent public appearances in the mix - great personal charm poised atop unnervingly vast reserves of steeliness - but it's Roberts (and the stardom Roberts represents) pushed to a dangerous extreme: acting as insincerity, psychopathy and - in a case such as this - predation. Elizabeth comes this way to swallow Gracie, Joe and all of their experiences right up; she does so with a kilowatt smile, but there's still blood on her lips. Crucially, this isn't another Black Swan, where you felt the darkness being imposed on Portman by an overbearing director; instead, Haynes allows his leading lady to make choices - calculation is just what he's looking for here - and Portman makes exactly the right ones to throw us. (She and Elizabeth get their most accurate review when Joe tells them: "It's hard to tell what you naturally think about this.") Elsewhere, Haynes picks up on peculiar tremors of doubt undermining a central relationship you feel really could be interpreted any which way; what Anatomy of a Fall does for a mysterious death, May December does for a longstanding love affair/amour fou/grooming masterclass. Melton makes Joe a nice guy, but also heavy, slow and passive with it, as if still trapped beneath the puppy fat of adolescence: stunned by what happened to him at 13, and newly baffled at having to watch his own kids, who seem so much more mature than him, leaving a nest he cannot. (The caterpillars he keeps as pets appear key to his whole character: they get to evolve, where he hasn't.) The suspicion ghosting around within the film's frames thus leads us back to Gracie Atherton-Yoo: might she only have stayed with this (in most respects) mismatched partner - might she have only taken his name - solely to ward off the more unseemly accusations?

Well, maybe. The objective reality May December presents us all with is that Joe and Gracie are comparatively happy at the start of the film, and less so at the end, and that this unhappiness is a direct consequence of the renewed battle for control of their narrative they find themselves caught up in: certain parties trying to protect themselves and their loved ones, others trying to get the juice and the dirt, others still - like opportunistic local musician Georgie (Cory Michael Smith) - using the arrival of the Hollywood circus to try and negotiate a better life (or role) for themselves. Positively thumped along by composer Marcelo Zarvos's riff on the Michel Legrand score for 1971's The Go-Between, it's another of this year's movies to feel informed in some way by the bruising tos-and-fros of online reputation management: gossipy, but not idly so; spiky; entertainment with an edge, well aware that one person's story is another person's life. Haynes, for his part, appears in complete control throughout. He accepts the seriousness of the allegations these characters make about one another - and you could easily imagine a more straightforward thriller retelling of this episode, leaning into the ominously cambered roof Joe sometimes hangs out on, and the shotgun we witness Gracie the hunter taking into the woods at one point. But as a gay man working in the field of showbusiness, he too can't resist making at least a little mischief along the way. Clock homemaker Gracie telling her offspring "you try going through life without a scale, see how that works out" - campest line of the year, by several spangled furlongs - or homewrecker Elizabeth inviting Joe in to fix her broken nebuliser. As Haynes has sensed, this is an odd little story that reflects on the odd creatures we are and the odd things we do in the name of love and self-preservation. People adapt, adjust, get quietly on with their lives - but the cinema doesn't and can't: it has to turbocharge it all, make a racket, make a scene. You may well come away from May December royally entertained, but also convinced that movies and many of those who make them are uniquely ill-qualified to document anything so modest as daily reality. Thank heavens we have creatives like Haynes around to keep them on the right track, and steer them in the direction of such complex, rewarding truths.

May December is now screening in selected cinemas.

Friday 17 November 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of November 10-12, 2023):

1 (new) The Marvels (12A) **
2 (1) Trolls Band Together (U)
3 (3) Killers of the Flower Moon (15) ****
4 (2) Five Nights at Freddy's (15)
5 (new) Anatomy of a Fall (15) ****
6 (new) Dream Scenario (15) ***
7 (5) Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie (U)
8 (4Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (12A) ***
9 (6) The Great Escaper (12A) ***
10 (8) The Exorcist: Believer (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (1) Barbie (12) ***
3 (2) A Haunting in Venice (12)
4 (new) Expend4bles (15)
5 (4) The Meg 2: The Trench (12)
6 (9) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
8 (5) Gran Turismo (12)
9 (new) The Exorcist: Believer (15)
10 (13) Fast X (12)

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer
5. Barbie

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. X+Y (Saturday, BBC1, 12.40am)
2. Only You (Sunday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
3. The Day After Tomorrow [above] (Sunday, Channel 4, 5.45pm)
4. Don't Breathe (Thursday, Channel 4, 1.50am)
5. Love & Mercy (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)