Thursday, 27 January 2022

On demand: "ear for eye"

debbie tucker green's follow-up to her underseen feature debut Second Coming returns the playwright to her theatrical roots. An adaptation of her own 2018 play, ear for eye pokes around inside the post-Eric Garner moment on a soundstage occupied by a predominantly Black ensemble. The structure is tripartite. In the first, we eavesdrop on conversations tucker green's representative characters have with their family, peers and themselves on the subject of how to present to the world - chiefly a matter of going out with enough confidence to get you through the day, but not so much as to appear cocky or confrontational to those who would take you down. The second part is a Neil LaBute-ish dialogue between a Black student and an arrogant white professor in the wake of a high-school shooting; the third - adding an element of documentary - invites non-actors to read out those laws by which American states discriminated against its Black citizens. (There follows a mysterious coda, which will depend heavily on personal experience and interpretation.) It's exactly the kind of project the BFI has been backing since the 1970s (and we might see it as more than a little damning of society that the BFI still needs to back a project such as this, a half-century on): a small, self-contained unit of resistance to the abiding cultural and political status quo, relatively cheap to produce but abundantly rich in ideas.

tucker green's spare staging - people in a darkened space repurposed by the odd prop and the occasional lighting switch - keeps the focus firmly on those ideas, and especially on the words via which they're expressed. "We still having to have the damn Talk," one character laments early on - a reference both to the set of survival tips one generation passes down to the next, and the wider conversations around race that often appear circular, stuck like a back wheel in mud; that never seem to get us to the higher ground. This is the tucker green work that seems most caught up with language as a means of self-expression in a society where some parties get to express themselves more freely than others. The opening section - which occupies over half the running time, and proves pretty relentless in its talk, as if the playwright were making up for lost time, bringing us up to speed on two thousand years of race relations - forms an attempt to define not just the terms by which Black citizens enter into society, but the terms of the drama itself. The "ear" part of that title is fully covered. tucker green extends her frame of reference to include characters who communicate using sign language; she also proves one of the very few working playwrights who know how to write about social media - today's most prominent discussion forum - without making the toes curl. (Her kids talk as kids do when you hear them at the bus stop.)

The second and third sections, by marked contrast, are case studies, honing in on moments where the possibility of lasting, positive change - not least a fairer conversation - was snuffed out, where the dialogue ran straight into a brick wall. In the second, nervy formalities (such as the student's use of "sir") give way to something more informal; a facade drops - literally, in the instance of one effective coup de théâtre - and the student is left speechless. In the third, which makes exemplary use of split screen, there is no Black voice at all: we're carried back to a time when those facades, those separators and segregators, were first set in place, written into the very laws of the land. (And it's not just a handful of laws, either: the sequence occupies a full ten minutes of screen time.) As described, it may sound piecemeal, and it is - but that's tucker green's way of breaking down these issues, and of making every last one of her full stops count. You want these conversations to end on a happier note than they do; when they don't, you realise the extent to which the playwright has weaponised silence. In places, you may even gasp, much as you take a breath before starting a sentence; and indeed the whole ear for eye project, if it can be reduced to a single sentence, conveys something along the exasperated lines of "here, I'm done: now it's your turn to talk". That may alienate some who feel they don't know what or don't have anything to say, even after all these atrocities, all this time. Yet in the UK, at least, the film became a cultural event on a par with the launch of Derek Jarman's Blue thirty years before, simultaneously launching at the London Film Festival, in arthouses across the land, and in a prime Saturday night slot on BBC2. Somebody out there was listening, and maybe that's cause for slim hope. Bristling and provocative, forever setting the ball bearings in one's head to clicking anew, it's certainly something to talk about; for all its theatricality, it is finally cinema.

ear for eye is currently streaming via the BBC iPlayer.

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

On demand: "Lapsis"

 is an American indie with a genuinely original sci-fi premise, and the wherewithal to work it through - the sort of thing that in the pre-streaming era you'd stumble across on TV in the middle of the night, wonder what on earth it was, and why it was you'd never heard of it before. In order to get his sick younger brother expensive clinical care, out-of-shape stiff Ray Tincelli (Dean Imperial, whose fatigued rasp so recalls James Gandolfini the script eventually has to make winking reference to it) takes a gig laying metres of fibre-optic cable for a tech firm in the forests of upstate New York. Like almost any other genre movie that nudges its characters towards the woods, it gets unsettling from there, but what's unsettling proves altogether fresh. There are schisms in the labour force, creepy little cockroach-like robots scurrying about everywhere (played by actual conglomerations of nuts and bolts, rather than VFX), and growing doubts around the identity ("Lapsis Beeftech") Ray has been assigned on his handheld GPS device. It's clear writer-director Noah Hutton has integrated a decade's worth of news stories in writing this screenplay - about the erosion of workers' rights, the humiliations of the gig economy, and the way certain tech firms have imposed themselves on small towns as the Nazis once did on Paris. Yet this real-world savvy comes out in surprising places, and in surprising ways. The cablers may be obliged by their handheld devices to stay on a particular route, but the film they're in thinks nothing of stepping off the beaten path every once in a while.

For one thing, Lapsis stops entirely in the middle for quite a lively debate about free-market economics between the dumbly conformist Ray and co-worker Anna (Madeline Wise), a blogger who's taken this job to both finance and inform her ongoing inquiry into the inequalities of the system. Once revolution has been plotted and achieved, our heroes stage a raid on an organic wellness centre; and it ends with a pillow fight, some indication of how good-natured the film remains throughout. I could raise an eyebrow or two over the extent to which Hutton really seems in control of his plotting - the ending doesn't entirely satisfy every question this snaking narrative raises - but Lapsis is a lot of fun to watch, easily the most impressive sci-fi calling card since Vincenzo Natali drifted onto (and then off) radar. There isn't a single duff note among these performances - doubly surprising, given the budgetary level Hutton's working at. (The only immediately recognisable faces - and you'd have to have been watching a lot of television to recognise them - are Arliss Howard and James McDaniel, once of NYPD Blue; yet Imperial is such a great galumphing personality to encounter you wonder where he's been hiding out all these years, and why nobody's thought of taking a camera to film him before.) Best of all, Hutton succeeds in doing something breezily unexpected with the woods as a kind of overgrown Wild West - a new frontier, not so very far from the tech-cluttered civilisation in which we sit looking on.

Lapsis is currently available to rent via Prime Video.

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

On demand: "Censor"

I'd been briefed going in that
Censor was a film steeped in modern movie lore. I don't think I'd realised just how much it would be steeped in modern movie lore. Prano Bailey-Bond's debut opens with an early variant of the Film4 logo, before its credits offer a potted history of the "video nasty" debate that gripped Britain in the early 1980s. (Those same credits list Kim Newman as an executive producer, so rest assured the film's reach is encyclopaedic.) The main feature forms the latest iteration of the cursed or snuff film subgenre that has yielded items as varying as Theodore Roszak's cult novel Flicker and the Nic Cage vehicle 8MM. The novelty is that said film is here chanced upon by a figure of some official standing: Enid (Niamh Algar), the youngest of the censors milling around a subterranean rabbit warren that looks like the horror-flick version of the BBFC's Soho Square offices. More conservative and buttoned-down than her colleagues, Enid will also prove more susceptible than the hardened gorehounds whose eyes she aims to spare in her day job cutting the likes of (the wholly fictional) "Cannibal Carnage" and "Rat Brothel". Her Achilles heel - a childhood trauma involving a sister who went missing in the woods - is exposed once a sleazy producer (Michael Smiley) shows up with a back-catalogue item from the director of "Asphyxiate" and "Blood Red Summer". Around Enid, Bailey-Bond fills in the dank detail of a Britain left to rot under Tory rule; on a square telly, we see the party's iron-willed then-leader at conference, deflecting accusations of decadence, pointing the finger of blame elsewhere. As a vision, it's grimly familiar, to say the least.

Elsewhere, though, Bailey-Bond works her way towards something relatively original. For starters, Censor is a very specific, non-dressy period movie, allowing itself a measure of fetishistic fun with flickering tube TVs, VCRs (ask your parents) and lurid VHS cover art. Meanwhile, the script - penned by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher - explores the unusual, sometimes outright perilous position the censor once occupied in British society, as both a moral arbiter deciding what was fit for the populace to see and a tabloid whipping boy whenever real-world atrocities were traced back - almost always tenuously, as Censor acknowledges - to a contentious horror movie. (There hasn't been any real censorial fuss since the Daily Mail's failed campaigns to halt the release of Crash and Lolita at the tail-end of the Nineties; even the New Extreme Cinema of the early Noughties, whose whole deal was pushing at the boundaries of what was acceptable to depict on screen, landed a free pass on these shores, possibly as so much of it was in another language.) Context is key here: the movie works because Bailey-Bond gives Enid reason to crack up long before the cursed film ("Don't Go in the Church") triggers memories of that missing sibling. 

Algar, a standout of recent Channel 4 productions (Pure, The Bisexual, The Virtues), visibly relishes the opportunity to do something altogether nervier than her self-assured small-screen roles; one of very few young performers with a palpable inner life, she's a boon to any scene that simply observes her face bathed in the light coming off a screen. Lots of that here, and Bailey-Bond enhances Enid's inner turmoil with her own imaginative dreamscapes, smartly designed and lit to chime with the censor's daily viewing material. In the second half, images and reality are comprehensively blurred; no sooner has Enid imagined the worst than it starts to unfold before our eyes, allowing Bailey-Bond and Fletcher to pull a nifty last-reel bait-and-switch. Such stealthiness benefits from the film's propulsive narrative economy: at 84 minutes, Censor cuts to the chase before we have time to notice we're anywhere in the vicinity. Bearings are skilfully scattered. "She's losing the plot!," chuckles Enid's debonair colleague Sanderson (Nicholas Burns) as our heroine flees the office and fatefully ventures into the woods for herself. Censor immediately elevates itself over the bulk of the video nasties to which it tips its bloodstained cap by having a plot to lose.

Censor is available to stream via MUBI UK, Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player; the DVD is released through Second Sight this coming Monday. 

Monday, 24 January 2022

Uneasy virtue: "A Hero"

Streaming an Asghar Farhadi film is like getting scripture off Twitter: it feels wrong somehow, a mismatch between the flimsiness of the delivery system and the complexity and gravity of the content involved. Yet that's where we are in 2022, and that's where Farhadi is with regard to getting his work in front of as many eyes as possible.
Everybody Knows, this director's first European-set feature, was a good film that didn't quite take off as its backers might have liked; for A Hero, Farhadi has returned to his native Iran while striking a deal with Amazon that will deliver the results around the world. The title of Farhadi's 2011 breakthrough A Separation was on the level: it summed up what the film described. A Hero is more slippery, speckled with irony; like its protagonist, it begs further investigation. Rahim (Amir Jahidi) is an at best unlikely hero: a charming swindler granted two-day leave from jail to pay off some of the substantial debt that saw him locked up in the first place. As is typical with Farhadi protagonists, he soon has his hands full. Aside from balancing the books - a task made trickier by the understandable, once-bitten-twice-shy recalcitrance of his creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) - Rahim has to spend these 48 hours rekindling a romantic relationship, steering his delinquent son back towards the path of righteousness, and dealing with relatives concerned he's more likely to use this furlough to drag the family name further into the mud. His quick fix for all these situations is to reunite a handbag that's fallen into his possession by shady means with its rightful owner, the better to paint a picture of himself as the kind of upstanding, reformed citizen who deserves to be discharged from prison full time, debt-free. At first, everyone makes the most of the resultant photo opportunity: "We have things to learn from you," the warden beams when Rahim returns to prison. We do, but they're not necessarily the lessons our boy's cheerleaders seem to think. We have things to find out about Rahim - and on that semantic wrinkle hangs the movie entire.

Once again, a Farhadi film proves entirely dependant for its effects on the close scrutiny of conflicted characters' actions: that's why you come this way, to watch the camera being quietly, assiduously trained on its subjects' consciences, like the lens on a microscope being lowered onto a slide. It's not the only camera in play here, either: shortly after Rahim's elevation to the pantheon of latter-day Iranian folk heroes, a TV crew shows up at the prison gates to make a documentary about his salutary altruism. The bind this guy finds himself in, however, is that the more of a public figure he becomes - and he's eventually offered a job in public office as a reward for his act - the more likely his virtue-signalling will be exposed as a sham. But is it a sham? For whatever reason, however long after the fact, Rahim did do the right thing at a pivotal moment - and for the bulk of the running time here, Farhadi invites us to weigh up the extent to which his quote-unquote hero merits a second chance. I'd say the lengths he goes to back up his story when it inevitably falls under question - enlisting everyone from his stuttering son to the taxi driver who picked up the bag's owner as character witnesses, to insist there's been no fraud, harm or foul - is just desperate enough to pass for heroic, and to make for properly involving and stimulating drama. Gradually, a thought forms: is Farhadi using actors to play out conversations we have online whenever fingers are pointed, accusations are made, and reputations are at stake? The second hour revolves around the recording and possible circulation of a damning video clip, yet even before then Farhadi appears to be using analogue resources to enact an ever more familiar snafu in the digital realm. Maybe streaming isn't such an inappropriate forum after all: you can try and cancel someone as the drama unfolds.

Such a quasi-experimental leap demands rocksolid technique, and there are few wobbles to be observed: again, we're drawn in by performers who barely seem to be performing, rather making the sort of choices (and negotiating the same ethical dilemmas) you and I are faced with every day, testimony to the good screenwriting and good casting that went on before a single frame of film was shot. Yet at this end of the line, A Hero does present as a little less rigorous than this director's very best films - or it may be that the stakes have been reduced somewhat. The drama here is never as life-and-death as it was in A Separation, The Salesman or Everybody Knows; it might only feel life-and-death to its characters, as such petty squabbles do whenever you're caught up in them on Twitter. (As ever, the solution to that is to unplug, step away from your laptop and stick your head out the window: for better and worse, nobody much cares in the real world.) The tone seems lighter, suggesting this might just be the closest Farhadi has made to a social satire along the lines of a Hail the Conquering Hero or Jim Cummings' recent The Beta Test (with which A Hero would make an apt double-bill): as the situation spirals, it becomes faintly absurd, pulling in even neutral observers who surely have better ways of spending their time. (And once more demonstrating Farhadi's sure handling of ensemble casts.) Occasionally, the dialogue reaches out to connect with the wider political sphere, as when Bahram sniffs "they big you up to make this country look a paradise" - an unusually jolting line, in that it suggests Rahim is becoming as much a semiotic signifier as, say, Captain Tom, someone over whom rival factions can wrestle. Mostly, it's a small yet appreciably well-turned parable of exactly that image management we all find ourselves involved in from time to time - that hall-of-mirrors ratrun in which even those of us still trying to do the right thing have cause to wonder whether we're doing it so as to do the right thing, or because it's now more important to be seen doing the right thing.

A Hero is showing at the Ciné Lumière and Peckhamplex in London, and is also available to stream via Prime Video.

Saturday, 22 January 2022

On demand: "My Brother... Nikhil"

The 2005 film My Brother... Nikhil raises two immediate questions: would the Hindi cinema of 2022 be capable of making this? And even if it were, would it feel inclined to make it? This version now seems a little clunky in places, possibly as much as the previous decade's Philadelphia now seems within the context of the American cinema: it's a first, occasionally fumbling gesture towards some greater tolerance. But more often than not - and, crucially, in every scene where it really counts - it plays as heartfelt, serious, even (that dread word) brave in broaching the inspired-by-true-events story of a promising young swimmer made a pariah at the turn of the 1990s after his HIV+ diagnosis becomes public knowledge. (Rather than ushered gently towards medical care, the film's real-life inspiration Dominic D'Souza found himself
 met by the police, who detained him on suspicion of deviancy and threw him into solitary confinement.) The focus is on the Kapoor family, a household that doesn't know how to address the issues their son raises, standing in for a country that appears at an equal loss. While this Nikhil (Sanjay Suri, excellent at every stage) is getting concerned faces from the docs, his clueless mum and dad (Victor Banerjee and Lillete Dubey) are making plans to marry him off to a (female) childhood sweetheart.

One of the few openly gay Indian filmmakers, writer-director Onir is limited in what he can show in terms of man-on-man passion, but even choices that initially seem questionable turn out to be the right ones: smart, sensitive, affecting. Early on, I wondered whether we were going to get less of Nikhil than we do of his sister Anu, played by Juhi Chawla, the one major Bollywood star in the cast. Yet it's clear that, as well as being the project's offscreen guardian angel, Chawla was as good a pick as any to draw in hesitant or awkward viewers, even before she breaks into lilting song. (The actress would recur in 2019's Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, the film that brought lesbianism to the mainstream: in terms of allyship, she may just be the Dolly of Bollywood.) The structure, too, feels somewhat broken-backed at first, cutting between Nikhil's final years and reflections from bereaved family members, but gradually fills in the enormous burden of regret these characters share, not only at the fact Nikhil's no longer there, but also at how they responded to him while he was alive. It's a negotiation - between past and present, and between different sectors of the swimmer's friend group, those Nikhil could be himself around and those from which he felt compelled to withhold. The film's doing something similar with its audience: positioning itself within the realms of Bollywood trad (hence the emphasis on family) before attempting a radical redirection of empathy, finding ways into Nikhil's world that a single-screen crowd might engage with, aiming to prompt a conversation among others that these characters couldn't have at the time, to their eternal shame. If it can be seen making a few concessions and trade-offs here and there, it does finally succeed in those aims. As Nikhil's main squeeze Nigel (Purab Kohli, in the Antonio Banderas role) tells him: "My friend, it's important to take a stand in life." Its feet may now look a touch wobbly from time to time, but it is a film that very definitely takes a stand.

My Brother... Nikhil is available to rent via Prime Video.

Friday, 21 January 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office
 (for the weekend of January 14-16, 2022):

1 (1) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
2 (new) Scream (18)
3 (2) The King's Men (15)
4 (4) Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG)
5 (3) Licorice Pizza (15) ****
6 (6) West Side Story (12A) ***
7 (5The Matrix Resurrections (15)
8 (9) Encanto (PG) ***
9 (8) House of Gucci (15)
10 (7) The 355 (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. The 400 Blows

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12) **
2 (2) No Time to Die (12) ***
3 (1) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
4 (new) Eternals (12)
5 (3) Encanto (PG) ***
6 (new) The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (PG)
7 (16) The Addams Family 2 (PG)
8 (8) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
9 (re) Casino Royale (12) ***
10 (6) The Suicide Squad (15) *

My top five: 
1. Annette

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Westworld [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.25pm)
2. Coming to America (Friday, C4, 12.10am)
3. The Souvenir (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
4. Run All Night (Saturday, ITV, 10.30pm)
5. You've Got Mail (Sunday, five, 12.55pm)

On demand: "Pushpa: The Rise - Part 01"

People say the movies aren't sexy nowadays, but just before Christmas, the UK Top 10 played host to the first film since
Boogie Nights in 1998 to devote three solid hours to the smuggling of wood. The eponymous hero of the Telugu blockbuster Pushpa: The Rise - Part 01 makes his precarious living driving illegally felled red sandalwood from the forests of Tamil Nadu to the ports from where it's shipped further East. The opening credits rewind us through that journey with the aid of rudimentary computer animation; it has the look of a visualisation sequence for an epic, ocean-hopping prologue scuppered by Covid restrictions. That the rest of this production was completed without much evident compromise is likely down to the fact so much of it was filmed outdoors. The live-action camera scrambles uphill and down dale - sometimes in torrential rain - after a figure obliged to negotiate between off-the-books labour and corner-cutting management, and obliged to circumnavigate the attentions of the local police. The role demands a man for all seasons, one who's "as rare as sandalwood itself", to quote the booming opening voiceover. Enter local megastar Allu Arjun in plaid shirt, playing not so much a flesh-and-blood character as a running, jumping and frequently brawling definition of the phrase bad-ass, a "hardcore Telugu" (his words) introduced pulling one especially unfortunate patrolman into his cab through the driver's side mirror before propelling him, with even greater force, out the passenger side. I give it fifteen minutes before Western viewers of a certain vintage clock what Pushpa - Part 01 reminds them of: it's Smokey and the Bandit with song breaks. (Arjun even has something of Burt Reynolds' fuzzy-faced insouciance about him - if, sadly, very little of his predecessor's easygoing, self-deprecating charm.)

Even those who don't make that connection - and who haven't just set their brains in neutral, as the first rounds of fisticuffs seem to implore - may be struck by the idea Sukumar's film is a throwback, to a kind of cinema that can be made more expensive and expansive (the opening credits offer thanks to Baahubali's SS Rajamouli), but which cannot ever be fully gentrified because of the rough-edged rowdiness in its DNA. The drums in Pushpa's songs rhyme with the lumps and thumps our hero receives whenever he can't wiggle out of police custody; the hoofing in these pricey-looking musical inserts is that of a small battalion of elephants; and the narration, which starts out like someone standing too close to you bellowing directly into your ear, only increases in volume as the film goes on, I assume so as to make itself heard over the crash-bang-wallop that passes for spectacle here. (I watched the original Telugu version; it's possible some of these aspects have been softened for the other dubs currently streaming.) Subtlety never appears to have been an option: like its hero, who blows all his money on a car at one point just to make a more impressive entrance in the next scene than a tuk-tuk would allow, the film's watchwords are go big or go home. Yet its relentless stunts with logs and timber don't half start to resemble willy-waving after a while. The film actually ends with the sight of two men tearing their clothes off in front of one another, a logical endpoint for a project that demonstrates next to no interest in women save as sporadic set decoration. Pushpa is positioned as courtlier than a rival smuggler who flexes his muscle to exercise prima noche rights over the local maidenry, but it feels like a dramatic misstep to have our guy's brother buy him a look from blushing sweetheart Srivalli (Rashmika Mandanna), not least because it sets us to wonder what else these boys would splash their cash on.

A sort of vision - more than you could take away from any of last year's Western blockbusters - emerges from this brawny roustabout, but it's a pummelling one, especially at three-hour length: it says/yells that life is a merciless scrap for money, and harder still when you enter that arena towards the bottom of the heap. I was surprised by just how much of this script is taken up by petty haggling, usually as a precursor to some sort of ultra-choreographed slow-motion fisticuffs. That may well be true to life as it's lived in 2021, and specifically to how it's lived in the backwaters of Tamil Nadu in 2021, but the trouble is Sukumar clears no room for anything else. There's no real consideration of what these dishevelled lugs would be doing if they didn't have to lug logs for their lucre and fight off all those who want to lug their lugs for lucre; no sense of their hopes, dreams and aspirations. (Pushpa wants to reclaim a surname that's been denied to him by a nefarious relative, but that plot point is having to do a lot of heavy lifting, usually just to punch somebody square in the fizzog.) The scrap is everything here, which guarantees us a thunderous smackdown ever twenty minutes, but it makes for a grim idea of escapism, and there's no sign of this conflict winding down with Pushpa: The Rule - Part 02 to come. Maybe Sukumar will finesse as he goes: my interest picked up around the two-and-a-half-hour mark with the introduction of a bald-pated Fahadh Faasil as a gleefully corrupt lawman who looks set to pursue Pushpa through Part 02; it's a bit like having Robert Carlyle show up for a scene or two with Vin Diesel towards the end of a Fast & Furious movie. (At last, we cheer: someone who doesn't do all their acting with their fists.) I can admire the film's success at a time when getting folk into cinemas is harder than ever, and doubtless there's a certain audience who'll step right up to cheer Pushpa's progress going forward - but this remains a hard phenomenon to like at this stage.

Pushpa: The Rise - Part 01 is now streaming via Prime Video.