Monday, 23 November 2015

"The Crow's Egg" (Guardian 22/11/15)

The Crow’s Egg ***
Dir: M. Manikandan. With: V Ramesh, J Vignesh, Iyshwarya Rajesh, Ramesh Thilak. 91 mins. Cert: PG

After the none-more-lavish escapism of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, the UK release of Tamil festival favourite The Crow’s Egg (Kaaka Muttai) returns us to reality with a bump. The debut of erstwhile wedding photographer M. Manikandan plays out around the margins of Chennai – its dumps, slums and wastelands – among a cast of thugs, drunks, urchins and goats who have neither the time, nor really the joy in them, to make a song and dance of things. No fairytale, then – but this committed latter-day parable mines both laughter and tears from the struggles of India’s poorest to put food on the table.

Our heroes are two young brothers whose shared nickname derives from an unusual dining ritual. Little Crow’s Egg (Ramesh) tempts birds from their nests with handfuls of his mother’s rice; while they’re otherwise engaged, Big Crow’s Egg (Vignesh) swipes the eggs that provide the pair with a rare source of protein. They’re quickly outmuscled by bigger boys: property developers who appropriate the lads’ preferred hunting ground before chopping down its trees. At this lowly level of the food chain, everybody’s preying on somebody: you’d call it dog-eat-slumdog, were there anything as luxurious as meat about the place.

Suddenly, however, there is. One flash-forward later, and a pizza parlour appears on the spot where the brothers once gleaned, serving 300-rupee pies that are some distance beyond their budget. Manikandan gently rubs their (and, by extension, our) noses in this disparity. The Ferrari-red moped of a misdirected delivery driver putters into view as though it were some alien craft; a sobering cut removes us from the mouthwatering toppings of a TV promo to the very small potatoes the brothers are peeling for their own supper. Stomachs rumbling, brains whirring, the Crow’s Eggs hatch a plot – to secure themselves a slice of the action.

Every subsequent obstacle encountered offers a reality check to any viewer blessed with the Domino’s app. Hidden coal deposits have to be located to cobble together a disposable income; even then, the boys’ tattered clothes stand between them and the pepperoni. Such hard knocks might have conferred a grimness on Manikandan’s film, but instead it proceeds with an optimism you’d call misplaced were it not so infectious, and so clearly what these kids rely upon to get through the day. We’re on their side from the early tracking shot that first follows them on egg-scrumping manoeuvres – swinging their arms in fraternal solidarity, like Ozu’s schoolkids.

Manikandan leans a touch heavily on montages to smooth the film’s passage, and throws in one heartstring-tugging contrivance as the boys approach their lowest ebb. Yet whenever he’s left to roam this scrappy patch, he spots a good deal of interest: the unintended knock-on effects of gentrification, the centrality of food among those whose fate in life is to do the heavy lifting (the film provides a blue-collar bookend to 2013’s crossover hit The Lunchbox) and, at the last, the many and varied ways social justice can now be engineered, even after all expectation and appetite for it has dwindled.

Wherever he places his camera, he registers people who really do seem to belong to this milieu: no slumming is tolerated, and young Ramesh and Vignesh in particular have a giggly, us-against-the-world bond you surely couldn’t direct into them. (Their eyes visibly widen upon witnessing the discarded crust one contemporary has enshrined in Tupperware, as though it were a holy relic.) Sandwiched between starrier Hindi releases, it’d be a shame if The Crow’s Egg slipped through the cracks: here’s a film that doesn’t merely observe India’s economic divide from the outside, but inhabits it absolutely.

The Crow's Egg is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday, 20 November 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of November 13-15, 2015:
1 (1) SPECTRE (12A) ***
2 (new) The Lady in the Van (12A)
3 (2Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
4 (new) Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (12A) ****
5 (new) Steve Jobs (15) ***
6 (3) Brooklyn (12A) ****
7 (4Pan (PG)
8 (6) The Martian (12A) ****
9 (7) Suffragette (12A) ***
10 (5) Burnt (15) **


My top five:   
1. True Romance [above]
2. Güeros
3. The Russian Woodpecker
4. Un Homme Ideal
5. The Crow's Egg

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Pitch Perfect 2 (12) **
2 (new) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) ****
3 (2) Nativity 3: Dude, Where's My Donkey?! (U)
4 (1) Amy (15) ****
5 (4) Fast & Furious 7 (12) ***
6 (7) John Wick (15) ***
7 (6) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
8 (5) Mr. Holmes (PG) ***
9 (8) Tomorrowland: a World Beyond (PG) ***
10 (9) Man Up (15)

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Field of Dreams (Saturday, ITV1, 3.45pm)
2. Shine (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
3. The Painted Veil (Saturday, BBC2, 12.05am)
4. Welcome to the Punch (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
5. Moon (Friday, BBC2, 11.35pm)

Monday, 16 November 2015

"Prem Ratan Dhan Payo" (Guardian 16/11/15)

Prem Ratan Dhan Payo ****
Dir: Sooraj R. Barjatya. With: Salman Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Anupam Kher. 171 mins. Cert: 12A

The nature of public accusation and counter-accusation may mean that Salman Khan can never appease his fiercest critics, but give him this at least: he’s trying hard. Khan owned the summer season upon pairing with an adorable child for July’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and he’ll surely maintain that box-office dominance with the postmodern fairytale Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. Here is both a sumptuous Diwali treat and another object lesson in the power of mediated fantasy to overturn anything so piffling or painful as reality: for three hours, this charm offensive successfully returns us to the company of the planet’s most likeable fellow.

In fact, this is a tale of two Salmans. Old Salman is represented in the personage of Vijay Singh – not the golfer, but a brooding, moustachioed prince with forearms like bedside cabinets, set for an expedient yet loveless marriage with aid worker Maithili (Sonam Kapoor). Prince Vijay has his enemies, however. After an assassination attempt incapacitates him, the court turns to the one individual who resembles the Prince to ensure the match proceeds as anticipated: this is Prem (Khan again), a prancing flibbertigibbet with a modicum of acting form from his days in a theatre troupe.

If the plot’s familiar, no imagination or expense has been spared in mapping the kingdom it winds through. Writer-director Sooraj R. Barjatya has apparently spent the nine years since his last feature finessing this coherent, pleasurable screenplay, while saving a decade’s worth of budgets to blow in one go here. These tunics and saris give the lavish fabrics of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella a run for their money; the shimmering Palace of Mirrors – constructed, in defiance of all known health-and-safety guidelines, atop a waterfall – makes much of SPECTRE look like something on offer in Poundland.

Yet we get wit with the glitter. Perhaps inevitably, a princely stick-on moustache goes astray as Prem beds into his new role, and his good-natured yammering causes consternation for uptight courtier Diwan (a terrific Anupam Kher, scattering notes of worryworn humanity like rose petals). Barjatya has a sly, winning way of mixing mythology with modernity: the Prince’s horse-drawn carriage arrives with Forbes magazine in its reading rack, while there are nods to everything from the Ram-Leela legend to Game of Thrones via Roman Holiday.

Yet as the pre-intermission cliffhanger establishes, Barjatya has something more substantial on his mind – and it’s something he can use Khan’s considerable clout to address: the sorry fate of women in patriarchal societies. Since Prince Vijay is too busy waggling swords to notice his bride-to-be’s discomfort, the sensitive Prem sparks a minor revolution within court, opening up to his fake fiancée in ways the real Prince appears incapable of, and re-establishing diplomatic ties with the latter’s scorned sisters. Transforming one dreary state function into a footballing free-for-all, this political progressive puts girls and boys on a level playing field.

That it’s Khan who’s fighting for change makes this doubly special: we’re watching modern cinema’s most rapid and radical modification – mollification, even – of an established star persona. Where Bajrangi Bhaijaan identified maternal qualities in this previously hulking heavyweight, Barjatya’s film wonders whether the actor nicknamed Bhai – brother – could equally be claimed as a sister. In a rhapsodic courtship sequence early in the second half, you catch the star observing the newly liberated Kapoor with genuine awe, and with good reason: for one, nobody has ever appeared more luminous drinking directly from the tap.

Perhaps Khan has realised, as have so many action heroes over time, that he can’t play the tough guy forever; that, without some application of sense and sensibility, the relentless flexing of moviestar muscle can appear like so much posturing in the gym mirror. (Or the Palace of Mirrors: whatever it takes for a hero to take a long, hard look at himself.) Khan has surely made his mistakes, not least associating with filmmakers who were only ever interested in him for his biceps. Yet these last two movies – bringing the best out of this performer, and everyone around him – constitute a pretty wonderful form of community service.

Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of November 6-8, 2015:
1 (1) SPECTRE (12A) ***
2 (2Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
3 (new) Brooklyn (12A) ****
4 (3) Pan (PG)
5 (new) Burnt (15) **
6 (6) The Martian (12A) ****
7 (5) Suffragette (12A) ***
8 (new) Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (15)
9 (4) Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (15) *
10 (7) The Last Witch Hunter (12A)


My top five:   
1. Laurel & Hardy: The Music Box and Block-Heads
2. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo
3. Brooklyn
4. Brief Encounter
5. The Closer We Get

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (3) Amy (15) ****
2 (2) Nativity 3: Dude, Where's My Donkey?! (U)
3 (8) Home (U) **
4 (4) Fast & Furious 7 (12) ***
5 (5) Mr. Holmes (PG) ***
6 (9) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
7 (7) John Wick (15) ***
8 (6) Tomorrowland: a World Beyond (PG) ***
9 (re) Man Up (15)
10 (new) Song of the Sea (U) ***

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. What Richard Did [above] (Wednesday, C4, 12.35am)
2. Badlands (Friday, BBC2, 11.35pm)
3. The Inbetweeners 2 (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. The Red Shoes (Saturday, BBC2, 2.05pm)
5. Meet the Parents (Monday, BBC1, 10.45pm)

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Gentlemen and players: "Warriors"

Perhaps it's the irresistible spectacle of the 20:20 format, but the sport of cricket, for so long entirely absent from our screens, has of late become a source of fascination for filmmakers looking for ways of uniting disparate audiences. There it is in the background of Bollywood movies, a modest proposal for channelling the fractious division of India and Pakistan into something like healthy competition; there it is again in a crusader doc like the past summer's Death of a Gentleman as a truly global concern, maligned by the parochialism of its administrators. Barney Douglas's new doc Warriors proves rather more of a celebration: this is the feelgood story of a team of underdogs - sourced from Kenya's Maasai tribe - who travel from the arid plains of their homeland (as good a batting strip as any) to Lord's, the home of cricket, to participate in the annual Last Man Stands tournament for amateur teams.

For two-thirds of its duration, however, Douglas's interest lies in a different kind of match-up: that between tradition and modernity. While the batsmen and bowlers of the Maasai Cricket Warriors hone their actions under the watchful eye of their female coach, South African Aliya Bauer, the elders - who donated the land for this wicket - sit around the boundary, discussing the matter of female genital mutilation. As one greyhair grumps, "You cannot touch a woman today. If you do, she says she has human rights." Gradually, it becomes clear that Warriors, like last year's excellent Next Goal Wins, is using its featured sport - with its laws and rules, its inbuilt sense of fair play - as a means of exploring a community, and its attitudes. Crucially, Douglas allows his subjects to represent themselves in their own words: the old men, trotting out wisdoms that were surely handed down to them; young girls, expressing a fear of going under unsterilised knives, or being married off for a bag of sugar; and the men out in the middle, who've travelled a little, and want to share another way of doing things. (What the film shows us is the process whereby sportsmen can become ambassadors.) 

Enough goodwill is banked in these Kenyan scenes for Douglas to get away with framing the team's eventual London trip principally as tourism - shots of the players, clad in full ceremonial dress, in the Long Room and outside Buckingham Palace - with the occasional sporting highlights package thrown in: here, by reducing individual matches to easily grasped wins and losses, you sense the filmmaker understandably angling for a bigger audience than seasoned TMS listeners. Still, the whole remains lively, buoying viewing: expressive animated inserts illustrate how the Maasai's skill with shield and spear has evolved into some facility with bat and ball, while Ben Wilkins' sunkissed cinematography points up the great natural beauty of the African landscape. Nothing, however, is quite as stirring as the sight of the spirit of cricket at large - allowing a dialogue to be conducted and concluded to everyone's satisfaction, first between generations, then with the world.

Warriors opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 30-November 1, 2015:
1 (new) SPECTRE (12A) ***
2 (1Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
3 (6) Pan (PG)
4 (3) Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (15) *
5 (4) Suffragette (12A) ***
6 (2The Martian (12A) ****
7 (5) The Last Witch Hunter (12A)
8 (new) Tannhauser - Met Opera 2015 (12A)
9 (re) Inside Out (U) ****
10 (8) Crimson Peak (15) ****


My top five:   
1. Brooklyn [above]
2. Brief Encounter
3. The Closer We Get
4. The Sweet Escape
5. Microbe and Gasoline

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12) **
2 (new) Nativity 3: Dude, Where's My Donkey?! (U)
3 (new) Amy (15) ****
4 (new) Fast & Furious 7 (12) ***
5 (4) Mr. Holmes (PG) ***
6 (2) Tomorrowland: a World Beyond (PG) ***
7 (new) John Wick (15) ***
8 (5) Home (U) **
9 (3) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
10 (6) Insidious: Chapter 3 (15) ***

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Insider (Wednesday, C4, 12.30am)
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Sunday, five, 5.10pm and Thursday, five, 10pm)
3. Looper (Sunday, BBC2, 9pm)
4. The Simpsons Movie (Sunday, C4, 4.50pm)
5. Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (Sunday, ITV1, 4.40pm)

"The Closer We Get" (Guardian 06/11/15)

The Closer We Get ****
Dir: Karen Guthrie. With: Karen Guthrie, Ian Guthrie, Ann Guthrie, Mark Guthrie. 91 mins. Cert: PG

This exceptionally candid documentary – perhaps the closest British equivalent to Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation – transforms the camera into a therapeutic tool to reassess a complex family history. Recalled home to Largs after her mother suffered a stroke, filmmaker Karen Guthrie encountered a surprise houseguest: her estranged father Ian, returning to the fold years after starting an affair while working in Djibouti. Given the relation between director and subjects, we expect the heightened intimacy, but the subsequent silences, awkward small talk and sudden emotional outpourings have been stitched into an epic chamber play; there can have been few more perceptive and empathetic non-fiction portraits of the hold a particular kind of patrician male can exert over those around them. Some scenes, inevitably, make painful viewing, but Guthrie proves fearless about peering into those interpersonal grey areas most clans shy away from: you can but hope hers receive the results in the conciliatory spirit in which they’re so clearly offered.

The Closer We Get opens in selected cinemas from today.