Friday, 5 February 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 29-31, 2015:
1 (1) The Revenant (15) ***
2 (new) Dirty Grandpa (15)
3 (3) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A) **
4 (2) Ride Along 2 (12A)
5 (new) Spotlight (15) ***
6 (4) The Big Short (15) ***
7 (new) Capture the Flag (PG)
8 (6) Daddy's Home (12A)
9 (5) Creed (12A) ****
10 (new) Turandot - Met Opera 2016 (12A)


My top five:   
1 (1) Legend (18) ***
2 (new) Sicario (15) ***
3 (new) Stick Man (U)
4 (new) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (12) **
5 (2) Jurassic World (12) **
6 (new) Macbeth (15) ***
7 (4) Minions (U)
8 (5) Terminator: Genisys (12)
9 (6) 45 Years (15) ****
10 (8Pixels (12) **

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. We Dive at Dawn (Sunday, BBC2, 1pm)
2. In the Valley of Elah (Sunday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
3. Hannibal (Monday, five, 10.55pm)
4. Michael Clayton (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
5. The Green Hornet (Sunday, five, 11.20pm)

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Mountain high: "Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise"

He cuts a remarkable figure, this Lee Perry fellow: the beard dyed various shades of red, the personally reconfigured clothing, the proclamations about Jah and Satan and Satan's vampires, the tendency to chat to pigeons as he does to journalists, and to stash ceremonial swords around his studios in anticipation of some imminent, climactic battle between good and evil. If nothing else, the Scratch existence serves as proof of the importance of context when it comes to describing personality. If you were to encounter Perry unawares on the street, you'd surely be prompted to place a concerned call to the appropriate mental health professionals; yet in the realms of the music industry, he's been left to function as he pleases, variously acclaimed as a maverick, a genius, a visionary. The German documentarist Volker Schaner has been following Perry on his travels ever since he encountered the reggae legend at his Swiss retreat back in 1999. Who wouldn't be at the very least intrigued? Here was a man in various forms of exile, apparently cut off from his Jamaican roots, beavering away on artistic projects that ran the gamut from the arcane to the truly unfathomable. How did Perry get here, in this land of cuckoo clocks, having to dig himself out of deep snow to debut his new material before the palefaces of Lausanne? 

One of the achievements of Schaner's new profile Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise - made all the starker by the befuddling interviews we see the film's subject giving to representatives of the music press - is how it begins to make the movements of this so-called "space traveller" make some kind of sense. There are trippy animated inserts designed to school the uninitiated on black migratory politics; the subtitling of Perry's pronounced patois is throughout exemplary in its clarity, while respectful of the speaker's utterly idiosyncratic phrasemaking; producers - generally shrewder interpreters of a musician's material than the musicians themselves - are drafted in to winkle out meaning from Perry's zonked-cosmic lyrics. Soon, we're also spying signs and signifiers everywhere we look: faces inscribed in rocks, connections in airplane vapour trails, demons in the shadows cast by the late-afternoon sun. You'd be shouting from the rooftops, too, if you were seeing this stuff 24/7.

While celebrating Perry's ability to think some distance outside the box, Schaner retains a fascination for the boxes his subject has confined himself within - perhaps to preempt anybody locking him up. The camera approaches "The Secret Laboratory", Perry's Swiss bolthole, as though it were Tutankhamun's tomb, and well might Schaner tread carefully: before its destruction in a fire last year, this fragile shelter was a riot of collages (encompassing everything from Biblical passages to Disney video sleeves) and daubed slogans (the word "GANJA" recurs), a place where spiders were left to roam freely over decades of Perry paraphernalia. These scenes, while forming a felicitous rhyme with the illustrator's dishevelled workshop in this week's animated release Miss Hokusai, actually set me more in mind of the overstuffed Brighton hovel inhabited by the eccentric subject of Toby Amies' doc The Man Whose Mind Exploded. Once again, we're reminded how a certain level of hoarding, while a curse or a solace for the afflicted, offers nothing but a blessing for the passing filmmaker, who can point a camera in every direction and alight upon something of note, not to mention make concrete and literal what might be lurking inside their subjects' head.

Thankfully, this remains an enjoyable headspace to spend any time in: the Perry philosophy, such as we can derive from these 100 minutes, involves banishing demons, fighting the good fight, and taking the edge off with a nice big spliff come sundown. We're left to consider the extent to which music, and being given free rein to create, has helped to stave off any darkness in Perry's life - which is why Vision of Paradise might well provide pertinent viewing not just for longtime aficionados, but also those aforementioned mental health professionals, pondering new courses of treatment. Certainly, the scenes that find Perry wandering the London tourist trail, or swimming under stormclouds back home in Jamaica ("I am a fish!") evince an uncomplicated, in-the-moment joy, one rarely noted elsewhere among contemporary performers. Devotees may gripe there isn't enough of the music, but Schaner's film finally arrives at, if not the grand vision of paradise promised by its title, then at least one of attainable, earthly happiness. Lee Scratch Perry may just be the cheeriest vampire hunter the movies have ever put on screen.

Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 22-24, 2015:
1 (1) The Revenant (15) ***
2 (new) Ride Along 2 (12A)
3 (2Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A) **
4 (new) The Big Short (15) ***
5 (3) Creed (12A) ****
6 (4) Daddy's Home (12A)
7 (7) Room (15) ****
8 (5) The Hateful Eight (18) **
9 (new) The 5th Wave (15) **
10 (6The Danish Girl (15) **


My top five:   
1 (new) Legend (18) ***
2 (1) Jurassic World (12) **
3 (2) Ant-Man (12) ***
4 (3Minions (U)
5 (4) Terminator: Genisys (12)
6 (6) 45 Years (15) ****
7 (5) Ted 2 (15)
8 (7) Pixels (12) **
9 (9) No Escape (15) **
10 (10) Absolutely Anything (12) *

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Incredibles [above] (Sunday, C4, 5.20pm)
2. My Brother the Devil (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
3. Hitch (Sunday, five, 5.15pm)
4. The Hole (Saturday, C4, 11.15pm)
5. True Grit (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

"Airlift" (Guardian 26/01/16)

Airlift **
Dir: Raja Menon. With: Akshay Kumar, Nimrat Kaur, Feryna Wazheir, Inaamulhaq. 130 mins. Cert: 12A

In August 1990, an estimated 170,000 Indians were stranded in no-man’s-land after Iraqi tanks rolled into their adopted home of Kuwait. Frantic backroom negotiations followed between the Indian and Iraqi authorities; eventually, 488 Air India flights were cleared to leave for Bombay from neighbouring Jordan. To this day, the action remains the biggest civilian evacuation in aviation history, and a source of great – if underreported – pride to the parties involved. New movie Airlift, however, simplifies this incredibly complex operation to become little more than a vehicle for one man’s redemption.

That man is Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar), fictional composite of several businessmen then operating in the Gulf. Early scenes in Raja Menon’s film go out of their way to ensure even the most dunderheaded of multiplex nacho-guzzlers will understand just what a wretch he is. He ignores his wife’s pleas not to drink too much; he upbraids his driver for listening to backward Bollywood hits. We get the idea pretty quickly: Ranjit is the picture of the bad Indian who’s forsaken his homeland in pursuit of bigger bucks – a sharp-suited mercenary who needs shaking from his complacency.

He will be, and the writers sound their cleverest note as the Iraqis invade. Generally keen to self-identify as a forward-thinking Kuwaiti – the pal of princes, a chum to CEOs – Ranjit is only too quick to wave his Indian passport, and thus claim immunity, when the invaders threaten his upward mobility. As this retelling has it, seeing their underlings shot was just the jolt callous penny-pinchers like Ranjit needed to redirect their resources towards getting their countrymen home. Yet while Menon has time to finesse this transition – for two hours, we’re watching characters getting nowhere by boat and bus – it’s never remotely convincing.

As such, Airlift continues its leading man’s topsy-turvy year. Kumar gave his most mature performance yet in a film nobody much cared for (August’s Brothers) before reverting to gurning, crowdpleasing type for October’s Singh is Bliing. With his salt-and-pepper stubble, he lends Ranjit undeniable authority – if he can resist the lure of franchise cinema, he’ll someday give a great performance in a worthwhile film – but he’s ill-served by this flimsy material. “I don’t want to be the Messiah,” Ranjit insists, but the film absolutely wants him to be, which renders Kumar’s subtler responses moot: Ranjit’s arc was settled long before the actor stepped into shot.

The sanctification process reduces Ranjit’s wife (Nimrat Kaur, so affecting in 2013’s The Lunchbox) to a terrible bore, forever lecturing non-believers as to her husband’s virtue. Worse, it necessitates demonising all those who would clip Ranjit’s wings. The more depraved Airlift makes its Iraqis – having them hang folk from cranes, grope young women, even slit a teddy bear’s belly – the phonier it gets as drama: you wonder why Menon didn’t go the whole hog and give them little green antennae and ray guns. As it is, the soldiers provide blessed relief, marching into every other scene and thereby breaking up the pious speechifying.

It’s possible this episode was, above anything else, a logistical triumph: accounts suggest the Indian and Iraqi delegations enjoyed cordial relations, which made the airlift easier to facilitate. Menon pulls some of it off: he reproduces that dusty look now de rigueur for Middle East movies, repositions his extras efficiently, and finally allows the Indian flag to be raised again. Yet the warm wads of dramatic dung tossed into this sandstorm prove wholly resistible. Airlift transports its characters the 2500 miles back to their promised land, as history demands, but I wouldn’t trust its underlying nationalism as far as I could throw it.

Airlift is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday, 25 January 2016

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 15-17, 2015:
1 (new) The Revenant (15) ***
2 (1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A) **
3 (new) Creed (12A) ****
4 (3) Daddy's Home (12A)
5 (2) The Hateful Eight (18) **
6 (4) The Danish Girl (15) **
7 (new) Room (15) ****
8 (6) Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (U) **
9 (5) Joy (12A) ****
10 (new) Les Pecheurs de Perle: Met Opera 2016 (12A)


My top five:   
1 (3) Jurassic World (12) **
2 (2) Ant-Man (12) ***
3 (4) Minions (U)
4 (6) Terminator: Genisys (12)
5 (new) Ted 2 (15)
6 (new) 45 Years (15) ****
7 (8) Pixels (12) **
8 (9) San Andreas (12)
9 (new) No Escape (15) **
10 (re) Absolutely Anything (12) *

My top five:  
Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Walkabout [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 12.35am)
2. 48HRS. (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
3. Animal Farm (Saturday, BBC2, 6.55am)
4. Heist (Sunday, BBC2, 12.10am)
5. The Rookie (Friday, BBC2, 12.05am)

On DVD: "Star Men"

Star Men is a "let's get the band back together" documentary with a twist: rather than ageing rock stars, we're watching greying astronomers heading out on the road once more. The subjects of Alison Rose's film are four graduates of Cal-Tech - three Cambridge scholars, and an American chum - who come to be reunited in California, on a road trip touring the sites of many of their greatest discoveries a half-century before. As one of the English contingent says upon his arrival on the West Coast, immediately establishing a tone for the whole venture: "Jolly good".

Much of what follows is indeed just gentle enough for Silver Screen viewing. Interviewed separately, the astronomers rake over memories of their wartime childhoods, their college days, and the effects Hubble et al. had on their thinking; once bundled in the same car, these old boys engage in mild ribbing about the public school system, and there's a minor crisis as their vehicle gets stuck in the snow. It could have functioned perfectly well as no more and no less than a document of four duffers on wheels, and yet Rose - a more curious filmmaker than these initial interactions suggests - senses that astronomy is a science possessed of a spectacle and wonder that lends itself remarkably well to a cinema screen.

Roofs open to let light in on vast hillside telescopes; Rose's own camera pores over the colour maps of stars her subjects proffer by way of credentials; timelapse footage details the firmament shifting o'er our heads. Visually, the film is as in thrall to the heavens as the astronomers are themselves, but Rose also has an ear for the philosophy that lies behind that which the star men practice: she's happy, as we are, just to sit at her subjects feet and listen, a skill often undervalued in contemporary documentary. We're thereby offered an insight into how the astronomers linked up their data with what Darwin had observed on the ground a century or so before, the kind of innately fascinating proof that would justify the rental cost on its own; any Dawkins-ish militancy as to the supremacy of science over religion is tempered by the speakers' stout C-of-E upbringings: they politely suggest there's more than one way of seeing and seeking out higher things.

The film attains another level entirely when, prompted by the frailty of one of their travelling companions, the men start to ponder the great beyond - what death represents to them, what it means to us all; whether, in the grand, galactic timescale of things, 'tis better to burn out than fade away. The result forms the sort of independently produced documentary no suit would commission - in its emphasis on empirical data and lived experience, it's not "sexy", in the pitchable sense - yet which actually proves immensely engaging and rewarding to watch: by not rushing to judgement and playing a cosmically long game, these guys have come to make sense of at least a part of what can often seem a pretty senseless universe. Men this naturally self-effacing would doubtless reject any term so dramatic as hero, but you do emerge from Rose's marvellously inquisitive, questing film convinced we could do with more of their wise, quietly profound kind.

Star Men is available on DVD through Verve Pictures.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

"Rajini Murugan" (Guardian 18/01/16)

Rajini Murugan ***
Dir: Ponram. With: Sivakarthikeyan, Rajkiran, Keerthi Suresh, Soori. 149 mins. Cert: 12A

The past weekend’s Pongal festival – marking the point at which the sun begins its six-month ascent through the firmament – has yielded a full crop of Tamil releases. For some while, it looked like the comedy Rajini Murugan might never appear from behind the clouds. The second collaboration between writer-director Ponram and stand-up Sivakarthikeyan fell subject to (not uncommon) production delays and then worse luck besides: its initial release date coincided with the Chennai floods, a moment when those cinemas not underwater were serving as makeshift shelters. Yet the film that emerges proves so spirited one concludes no deity could hold it back: certainly, the packed matinee crowd I saw it with appeared delighted it had arrived.

The choice of Madurai, Tamil Nadu’s third largest city, as a location opens up fresh locations for a filmmaker to explore, and new conventions to mock: as the opening voiceover establishes, this temple city nevertheless retains a reputation for harbouring all manner of rogues and thieves. While our narrator takes pains to debunk this notoriety, the film immediately undercuts him upon introducing Siva’s title character, a born loafer who spends his days pinching pennies from the administrators of the city’s endless festivals so as to avoid doing any real work. Very quickly, we sense we’re watching both a love letter to Madurai, and a spot of site-specific mischief-making.

Recounting our hero’s misadventures involves a measure of sketchiness: Western viewers may be reminded of any number of showcases for Saturday Night Live comics, a similarity underlined by the script’s copious in-jokes and leftfield references. This style can try the patience over two hours; at two-and-a-half, you might think Rajini doomed, but Ponram has a secret comic weapon: a hyper-frenetic approach that extends from the leading man’s machine-gun delivery to his agitated back-and-forths with best bud Thotathree (Soori) and beyond. A funeral ceremony unravels when the deceased rises from the dais; an aged bureaucrat gabbles so intently at a public meeting that his false teeth fly out.

No, it’s not subtle, but for an apparently simple slacker comedy, it’s working hard to entertain us, sustained by the kind of clever structuring idea the Tamil cinema now specialises in. In order to gaze upon his beloved Karthika (Keerthy Suresh), our Raj cobbles together a phoney teashop opposite her home – and, against all expectation, makes a success of this utterly impromptu, half-arsed venture. Though it follows a skittish route, some transformation is thus visited upon the protagonist: in the course of the only form of work he’s willing to commit to – getting into a young woman’s underwear – the planet’s least ambitious individual is reinvented as a wholly self-made man.

The consequences can be predictable – yes, our accidentally mobile hero rubs up against local gangsters – and the denouement, in which Raj has to close a deal on his grandpa’s property, feels less fun than the set-up: despite the film’s irreverent flourishes, it remains at heart conservative, a movie about the making of an estate agent. Yet Sivakarthikeyan breezes very likably through every transaction, gaining amusing support from Gnanasanbandam as his weary headmaster pa, and Achuthanand as the pompous prospective father-in-law. Like its dark-horse hero, it’s dragged its feet getting here, but Rajini Murugan finally comes through as a crowdpleaser that needed to reach its audience, come hell or perilously high water.

Rajini Murugan is now playing in selected cinemas.