Sunday 27 June 2010

Sanctuary: "White Material"

Property and propriety are the rhyming themes of Claire Denis' new drama White Material, a fresh breeze passing through cinemas that have come to resemble mausoleums in recent months. The territory under dispute here is a coffee plantation in a nameless African state: the Ivory Coast, in actuality, though cineastes will recognise some elements - chiefly, the child soldiers - from the Liberia of Johnny Mad Dog and others - the constant threat of trespass and worse - from the Zimbabwe of Mugabe and the White African. The plantation is named for and overseen by Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) and her ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert); with civil war breaking out around them, and André threatening to sell his share, Maria strives to keep the business running, ignoring the advice of the departing French peacekeepers to leave and instead recruiting workers sympathetic to the rebels' cause.

There's another prominent arrival at the plantation gates, too: The Boxer (Isaach de Bankolé), a near-mythic figure commemorated in murals depicting his pugilistic prowess, and characterised by the jamais k.o. (never defeated) tattoo he sports on his inside forearm. The Boxer has dragged himself onto Maria's land, hoping to give himself time to recover from the bullet he's taken to the gut. When one of his fellow rebels says of the plantation "it's just white material", we grasp just how easily Café Vial can be reclaimed or ripped asunder, sent up in smoke: no film has ever managed to make Huppert appear this tiny and blanched, this vulnerable within the frame. With her golden tresses and cotton frocks, her Maria has as much right to be here as Alice does being in Wonderland, and the dramatic heft of White Material derives from this rencontre between worlds that might at first seem irreconcilable.

Denis's storytelling remains one of the foremost acquired tastes in international cinema. Again here, she plows a furrow every bit as singular and single-minded as that of Maria Vial, taking snapshots of what lies to the left or right or just behind her characters; her cinema, sensory and experiential, concerns itself less with narrative niceties than with what it might be like to be in these particular spots at these particular times. A certain level of going with the flow is required, which can be a struggle for anyone as rigid and linear in their thinking as I am: I felt bad about not liking 35 Shots of Rum - Denis' previous film, which made many critics' year-end lists - but not nearly as much as I felt restless during the film itself. These movies tend towards the nebulous, and you could argue that one of White Material's failings is an inability to nail down what the rebels are fighting for - or who they're fighting against, exactly.

Still, perhaps because of its origins - Denis first planned to adapt Doris Lessing's novel "The Grass is Singing", and the script for White Material was co-written with the African-born French novelist and playwright Marie N'Diaye - the new film displays greater urgency and progression, more cause and effect, than this filmmaker has been accustomed to. In novelistic fashion, White Material sets out the differing reactions of its central family unit to this state of siege. While Maria attempts to keep the plantation functioning, and André does his best to appease the locals, venerable old Henri Vial (Denis regular Michel Subor, the embodiment of tubby colonial indifference) sinks further into his bathtub, and the couple's son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is reborn as a shaven-headed, shotgun-touting avenger.

What Denis brings to the material (pun intended) is an entirely cinematic sensibility: one sequence towards the end - which finds Maria and the remaining workers settling in on the ranch as night falls, all of them aware they may yet face the possibility of violent death before dawn - could, subtitles aside, be lifted wholesale from any Howard Hawks Western. If you feel you know where you are with White Material, it's because you feel Denis knows exactly where she is, too: the director grew up in Africa, and the continent's colonial past formed the subject of her 1987 debut Chocolat. I like her resonant deployment of 80s pop standards (the Commodores' "Night Shift" in 35 Shots; Gregory Isaacs' "Night Nurse" here), and her casting here is as assured as it's been in years: Maria Vial provides another great role for Huppert, in part because it gives this great actress, weathered and beautiful in a fashion beyond the ken of Californian plastic surgeons, such scale to operate on.

At points in White Material, Huppert is essentially playing an action heroine, one who gets to drive scooters and wave away passing helicopters before leading a one-woman assault on the patriarchy, like a petite version of Martin Sheen's Willard in Apocalypse Now. (By the end, we're left in little doubt Maria Vial has failed in her attempts to maintain her independence from the violence encircling her.) Yet at others, she's obliged to give bedside pep talks to the slacker Manuel, or reproach the errant Andre for making financial arrangements without her say-so - in brief, engaged in the sort of domestic business that could be taking place in any Parisian suburb. It's in this way that Denis and N'Diaye avoid exoticising or slandering Africa unduly; in the end, the continent is no more heart of darkness than a home, a refuge, like any other. The question this searching and engrossing film poses is: whose home?

White Material opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Saturday 26 June 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of June 18-20, 2010:

1 (new) Killers (12A) **
2 (1) Sex and the City 2 (15) **
3 (3) StreetDance (PG) **
4 (4) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12A) **
5 (2) Letters to Juliet (PG) **
6 (6) Death at a Funeral (15) **
7 (new) Wild Target (12A)
8 (7) Tooth Fairy (PG)
9 (8) Robin Hood (12A) **
10 (5) Brooklyn's Finest (18) **

(source: UK Film Council; and - OK, yes, this is the most mediocre Top 10 in living memory.)

My top five:
1. Breathless [above]
2. Wild Grass
3. Raavan
4 Shed Your Tears and Walk Away
5. The Girl on the Train

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (6) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
2 (1) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
3 (new) Edge of Darkness (15) **
4 (new) Crazy Heart (15) ****
5 (3) Brothers (15) **
6 (2) A Single Man (12) ***
7 (9) Up in the Air (15) ****
8 (4) The Book of Eli (15) ***
9 (8) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
10 (5) A Prophet (18) ***


My top five:
1. Father of My Children
2. Double Take
3. Samson & Delilah
4. Crazy Heart
5. Ponyo

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Escape From New York (Saturday, ITV1, 11.15pm*)
2. Carry On Up the Khyber (Sunday, C4, 2.55pm)
3. Prime (Sunday, BBC1, 10.55pm*)
4. Rooster Cogburn (Saturday, five, 12.05pm)
5. Wimbledon (Sunday, ITV1, 10.20pm*)
(*Films are subject to World Cup scheduling.)

"Villa Amalia" (Metro 25/06/10)

Villa Amalia (PG) ***
Running time: 94 mins

You wait ages for a film in which Isabelle Huppert strives to maintain her independence from the chaos surrounding her, and then two arrive at once. Cheekily opening a week before the superior White Material, Benoit Jacquot’s funny-peculiar drama casts Huppert as a secretive concert pianist born Eliane Hidelstein, but now playing under the punning stage name Ann Hidden. After encountering a childhood sweetheart (Jean-Hugues Anglade), Ann-Eliane is inspired to quit her husband, tour and swanky pad to seek another life elsewhere: practically every scene in the first half finds the lead looking pensive, then tearful, and then scurrying out of shot.

A greatest hits package for Huppertphiles, Jacquot’s film would veer surprisingly close to conventional getaway fantasy, were it not for its discordant notes; anyone expecting genial, Letters to Juliet-like escapism should know there’s an hour of the pianist struggling to offload her worldly goods before the Italian sun comes out - and even then Ann cramps up while swimming. Tapping the common contemporary desire to start over from scratch, it allows Huppert to shed layers of identity with some skill, but you’d perhaps need Pascal Quignard’s source novel on hand to make complete sense of a heroine who remains much like the titular property: remote and boarded up.

Saturday 19 June 2010

"MacGruber" (Metro 18/06/10)

MacGruber (15) **
Running time: 90 mins

The A-Team hasn’t even opened, and already it has much to answer for. By way of pre-Hannibal spoilers, the summer has so far brought us the threadbare The Losers and now this throwaway spoof, which labours the obvious point that 80s TV action serials weren’t especially credible. Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte - whose 2007 vehicle The Brothers Solomon sunk without trace over here - plays the eponymous explosives-loving dimwit, a bemulleted Richard Dean Anderson-alike pulled from early retirement in a small Ecuadorian village to once again face his nemesis: one Dieter van Cunth (Val Kilmer, joining The Losers’ Jason Patric among the ranks of former leading men resigning themselves to jowly villainy), who murdered MacGruber’s bride on her wedding day, and is now threatening Western civilisation with a nuclear warhead.

Director Jorma Taccone has the generic dialogue, warehouse shootouts and misty Tony Scott lighting down pat, yet as his antagonist’s surname suggests, few of the gags venture much above waist height: frankly, you may just not need to see Forte inserting celery in his rear to distract Kilmer’s goons, or love interest Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) removing bullets from the MacGruber crotch. A modest handful of chuckles may make MacGruber more appealing as a DVD option - it’s hard to take too harshly against a hero whose first act back on the job is to retune his car stereo to Toto’s “Rosanna” - but these are game-changing times for American comedy, and this here’s the C-team at work.

Friday 18 June 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of June 11-13, 2010:

1 (1) Sex and the City 2 (15) **
2 (new) Letters to Juliet (PG) **
3 (2) StreetDance (PG) **
4 (3) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12A) **
5 (new) Brooklyn's Finest (18) **
6 (4) Death at a Funeral (15) **
7 (6) Tooth Fairy (PG)
8 (5) Robin Hood (12A) **
9 (8) She's Out of My League (12A) ***
10 (7) (15) *

(source: UK Film Council; and that concludes the most mediocre Top 10 in recent memory.)

My top five:
1. Wild Grass
2. Raavan
3. Shed Your Tears and Walk Away
4. The Girl on the Train
5. Please Give

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
2 (8) A Single Man (12) ***
3 (new) Brothers (15) **
4 (2) The Book of Eli (15) ***
5 (new) A Prophet (18) ***
6 (re) Sherlock Holmes (12) *
7 (5) Avatar (12) ***
8 (6) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
9 (3) Up in the Air (15) ****
10 (4) Daybreakers (15)


My top five:
1. Father of My Children [above]
2. Samson & Delilah
3. Crazy Heart
4. Ponyo
5. The Last Station

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Reservoir Dogs (Monday, five, 11pm)
2. Cadillac Man (Saturday, ITV1, 11.30pm)
3. Land of the Dead (Sunday, ITV1, 11.45pm)
4. Black and White (Sunday, C4, 2.50am)
5. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Saturday, C4, 7.10pm)

The demon: "Raavan"

The first thing to be said in favour of Mani Ratnam's Raavan is that, after the cultural firesale of last month's Vegas-set, Brett Ratner-remixed Kites, it returns Hindi cinema to an India we recognise and may or may not love: one of bloody violence and the preternatural turquoise of Aishwarya Rai's eyes. The film's dramatic masterstroke is in setting these two potent forces against one another. Rai plays Ragini, wife of a feared and corrupt police inspector (Vikram), and one of the many spoils her husband has taken home from his day job with no intention of sharing - a policy violated when Ragini is kidnapped and dragged into the jungle by a notorious bandit, we assume for ransoming purposes.

Her captor Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) is a legend in the region: "a ten-headed demon", according to his detractors, spoken of in the same breath as Robin Hood - and the lush, verdant greens Ratnam and his gifted cinematographer Santosh Sivan (The Terrorist, Asoka) locate in this part of the country certainly put Ridley Scott's muddy exercise in peasant-pedantry to shame. Yet Beera, too, is a brute, one who hears a ticking in his head; his favoured method of dealing with those who betray him is to leave them holding in their right hand the severed remains of their left. Quick to violence, he's ready to dispose of the needling and troublesome Ragini when - like Cora Munro in The Last of the Mohicans - she throws herself off a cliff, landing (safely, if unconscious) in the river below; at which point Beera feels obliged not only to roll up his sleeves and rescue this dame, but confront an unanticipated existential dilemma: what do you do with a hostage who fears death not?

From here on in, we may be expecting Raavan to develop along The African Queen lines, with the male and female antagonists developing a mutual dependency and affection as they head upstream in monsoon conditions, and certain scenes between Ragini and Beera hint at this, yet the film is subtler, more lyrical than that: even the rotund border guard guiding the inspector and his men through the jungle on Beera's tail (played by the comedian Govinda, toning down his usual schtick) speaks in a verse of his own creation. Ratnam, for one, has fallen for slow motion in the same manner the directors of the World Cup preliminaries have: as a way of isolating and accentuating the grace and beauty in movements that might merely appear prosaic at normal speed. Take the early song sequence (music: A.R. Rahman, lyrics: Gulzar) in which Beera sees Ragini in her flowing orange sari repeatedly tumbling through the trees - an image he just can't shake.

At first glance, Bachchan - brooding, bestubbled son of Hindi legend Amitabh, and the leading lady's real-life leading man - looks to be giving a Bollywood-broad performance, all wild eyes and teeth, but it soon becomes clear the actor has been directed with some care. When Ragini lashes out at Beera with a sharp slate, we catch the glint in the latter's eye - this is a man who relishes a fight, whoever the opponent, whatever their sex. As Ragini's soothing words start to pierce the bandit's thick skull, Ratnam shoots Bachchan on the prow of a conicle circling round and round, and we see how someone who has cast in his lot with a band of violent outsiders is beginning to lose his moorings, cast adrift between the bloodshed awaiting him on one bank, and the more peaceful path suggested by Ragini's presence on the other.

In Kites - where the women were little more than cyphers, dangerous curves - the very maleness of the framing, the underlying love of violence and bling, left the characters with nowhere to go save towards mutually assured destruction, albeit of a transcendental kind. Here, Rai's beauty, too often decorative and cosmetic on screen, is tested (how could it not be, when the actress is smeared with mud and lashed with rain?) and serves to stand for something improving and worthwhile. I defy you not to fall at least a little in love with her during the musical flashback which finds Ragini at home, teaching classical dance to children and flirtatiously preparing breakfast; indeed, many of the film's best scenes show her working on the men in her life - not so much to ensure her own freedom as to shore up the guys' sorry souls.

Raavan is being distributed in both Hindi and Tamil-language versions by Reliance Big Entertainment, the Mumbai-based company that can count Steven Spielberg amongst its major investors, and in a summer where that mogul's chief Hollywood rivals Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver have thus far managed a weak videogame-derived runaround (Prince of Persia) and the self-summarising The Losers between them, it again demonstrates how on-the-money Spielberg tends to be in matters of screen storytelling. It's not perfect - dithering towards, then rushing through an ending that's not quite as effective as it needs to be - yet for the most part, Ratnam manages a tricky balancing act: lavish, action-packed yet thematically resonant, his film is suffused with a poetry all the Brett Ratners in the world couldn't entirely cut out.

Raavan opens nationwide today.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Comfort zones: "Please Give"

The writer-director Nicole Holofcener's previous films - Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money - marked her as one of the sharpest observers of modern mores to have survived the transition from independent to mainstream American cinema. (Whither now Whit Stillman, her closest male equivalent?) Please Give, Holofcener's latest, begins in rather scattered fashion before settling into some of the old, familiar, comforting rhythms.

Here are the inhabitants of two adjacent two-bedroom flats in the same Manhattan apartment block. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are married furniture restorers. She's one of life's givers, whose generosity is such that her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) has started to resent the money her mom routinely hands over to homeless strangers on the street; he, on the other hand, oblivious to the ageing process, sees himself as far younger and hunkier than any character being played by Oliver Platt perhaps has a right to. Next door, meanwhile, we find two sisters weighing up what they might do with their fragile grandmother, and her desirable living space. Older sibling Molly (Amanda Peet) is a permatanned beauty salon worker who can't wait for the old bird to die; younger Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a nurse in a mammography department, just wants to make gran's final days bearable.

As our introduction to Rebecca - the cinema's first mammography montage, and the most brilliant subversion yet of the common executive decree all movies should somehow work tits into their first five minutes - restates, Holofcener is acutely attuned to issues of body image and women's health; though her characters are relatively comfortable Manhattanites, they get frail, sick, vulnerable sometimes, are never too far from tears. The film displays a cross-generational empathy: the writing knows what it is, as a teenage girl, to feel like your nose is one giant zit, and catches the wearied tones of a fortysomething woman who's grown to live with (and accept her husband's mocking of) her odd-shaped toes, but Holofcener also knows how to write the horror growing on old dears who've come to realise their bodies are turning against them - and, not incidentally, offers many of the funniest lines to actresses in the twilight phase of their careers.

If Please Give is finally no great departure for its director, it nevertheless confirms Holofcener as a real boon for actors. Keener, as ever, remains a pleasure to watch, wracked with her own good intentions; Hall may be the most appealing and intelligent discovery the American cinema has made this decade; the sparky Steele is at least the equal of Raven Goodwin in Lovely & Amazing; and Holofcener even exercises such generally underused performers as Peet (tapping into the flinty notes that - as per 2002's Changing Lanes - are clearly this actress's strongest suit) and Platt (hilariously clueless as an idiot who somehow remains lovable even as he doesn't know what a fool he's being).

Granted, these characters tend to divide into the selfless and the selfish, givers and takers; only belatedly does the film accept you can watch Entertainment Tonight and still be an upright citizen. Still, there's something dramatically worthwhile in this opposition, and something heroic in Holofcener's insistence that women in movies can get beyond looking good to wrestle with the quandary of doing good. It remains an anomaly that Holofcener directed episodes of Sex and the City, albeit when it was at its televisual peak - or maybe a further indictment of the direction that series' big-screen spin-offs went in. Holofcener scarcely seems one to make a fuss over such things, but her work to date could legitimately qualify as the thinking woman's - heck, the thinking person's - alternative: far savvier on the topics of femalekind, property and clothes-buying, her cinema goes more than skin deep.

Please Give opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Monday 14 June 2010

Late flourishes: "Wild Grass"

Wild Grass, the latest film from Alain Resnais, opens with an extended, lingering sequence of shoe shopping that suggests the veteran French director has either been concealing a foot fetish all these years, or has become a late-in-life convert to Sex and the City. Emerging from the chicest, not to mention most accommodating Marc Jacobs boutique en tout Paris, red-headed aviatrix Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema) has her bag snatched by a passing skateboarder, and rather than report this theft to the police, she elects to let it go, inadvertently kickstarting the most haphazard plot of this, or any other, movie year.

Marguerite's monogrammed purse ends up under the front wheel of a car belonging to married oddball Georges Palet (Jacques Dussolier), whose first response, upon finding it, is to umm and ahh and generally wonder what on earth he should do with this artefact. When these two finally cross paths, they find they can't stop thinking about one another; and matters aren't helped by the fact their movements are being recounted by the film's entirely unreliable narrator (Edouard Baer), who scarcely seems sure himself what to make of this story, or how it's going to work out - a modernist uncertainty principle, cineastes will note, of a kind the Resnais of old delighted in.

You go to Wild Grass to hear a yarn being spun with all of the director's usual fluency and dexterity: it's a divertissement made up of a thousand tiny divertissements, a series of random events that keep changing the course of the lead characters' fate, right through to the film's confounding (and yet somehow perfectly apt) finale. These will include: the slashing of a smart car's tyres; the purchase of a WWII Spitfire; a revival of the 1954 feature The Bridges at Toko-Ri; and the ever-welcome involvement of Arnaud Desplechin regulars Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos as professionals - a gendarme and a dentist, respectively - who have the misfortune to find themselves caught between two tres scatty protagonists. (The denouement, meanwhile, will involve a major catastrophe brought about by nothing so minor as a malfunctioning zip: less butterfly than trouser-fly effect, you might say.)

Like Baer's narrator, we simply never know what shape Wild Grass is going to take until it's over, and even then, we may not be entirely sure what it is we've just witnessed. At times, with Marguerite and Georges on screen, it plays like an off-kilter romance; at others, particularly when Devos's dentist comes to the fore, we could be watching a Marathon Man-style psychothriller. Resnais' preceding films - the run of Ayckbourn adaptations and musical pastiches began by 1993's Smoking/No Smoking - were marked by a certain cosiness: they knew exactly their audience, and went after them accordingly. There's nothing in Wild Grass to upset the core constituency unduly, but it displays far greater urgency and mystery - a playful score by The X-Files' Mark Snow helps - and a desire to subvert viewer expectation with each fresh new turn.

It may be the pressures of domestic life - the need to repaint the shingles and mow the lawn - that has led Dussolier's "type bizarre" to such erratic behaviour; if Wild Grass wasn't so theatrical in the now-familiar Resnais style - prefab locations and wildly stylised lighting predominate - we could be watching a Chabrol suspenser, premised on the suffocating properties of bourgeois life. (At one point, Palet tells the tale of a married neighbour with two young children who, having been laid off at work, returned home to blow his brains out - a very Chabrolian state of affairs.)

The variation in tone would be as bewildering as anything in Last Year at Marienbad or Muriel, if Resnais didn't set such faith in actors we're wholly prepared to follow from scene to scene, the better to see where all this is heading. The film stands on Dussolier's remarkable ability to synthesise funny-ha-ha and funny-strange, to do sinister and bumbling in the space of the same sequence; I spent much of the movie convinced Georges Palet would be exposed as a murderer, and that the corpse would turn up in one of the fields of grass Resnais' camera keeps cutting away to and sweeping over. (As it is, the character will be responsible for at least two deaths before the end credits roll, though - again - not in the manner one might expect.)

Meanwhile, Azema - the director's long-time partner, and acteur fetiche - is warm and sympathetically batty as a woman determined to guard her independence, her right to a long soak in the tub, from the men in her life, the tangled craziness breaking out around her, even her own wild Ronald McDonald-like mane. So scattershot and unpredictable are the signs and signifiers in Wild Grass that it may be the first film in history to take the majority of its cues from its heroine's hairstyle, but there the film is in a nut(ty) shell: daring, amusing, and - beyond a certain stage - quite gloriously out of control.

Wild Grass opens at selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 13 June 2010

Into the valley: "Shed Your Tears and Walk Away"

Hebden Bridge: a picturesque Yorkshire village "invaded", according to a Half Man Half Biscuit lyric, by "the chattering classes". Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, a desperately sad documentary from Jez Lewis, a collaborator with Nick Broomfield on 2008's Ghosts, reveals the location as something else entirely: "a drug town with a tourist problem", as one of the more intoxicated contributors has it.

It's also the site of a painful homecoming for the director, who was raised in Hebden, and has found himself returning to attend the funerals of many friends and acquaintances. Lewis finds his surviving schoolmates in the park, clutching (clutching to?) disability permits and cans of Special Brew. Here is Graham "Cass" Cassidy, a cuddly sort who falls somewhere between Shaun Ryder and Frank Gallagher from Shameless in looks and is wrestling, constantly and painfully, with alcoholism; next to him, Michael "Silly" Silcock, once a keen sportsman and putative Foreign Legionnaire, now a Mark E. Smith-alike who mixes yeasty foulmouthery with moments of savage clarity and sensitivity. Both men look older than they actually are; both, we come to conclude, are lucky to have made it this far.

For Hebden has been blighted by drink and drugs in recent years, and a spate of suicides among its youngest constituents. Dying young has become not just a way of life, but a logical consequence; what Lewis's film shows us is the enforced immaturity faced by the area's poorer residents. With few jobs available, surrounded by luxury apartments they'll never be able to afford, an entire generation has been obliged to live at home with the tattered remnants of their families. Parents seem reluctant to let their offspring fly the nest because there's nowt beyond it, save perhaps a momentary high, followed by a swift (and usually fatal) fall to earth. Lewis's friends hang out at the park because that's presumably where they went as children: it now resembles terrestrial purgatory in a place that offers tea shops and graveyards, with nothing much in between the two.

This could be Therouvian territory - Louis, not Marcel - were the filmmaking not so utterly raw and personal. Lewis - not Louis - tries to keep himself behind the camera, but he (like any viewer) can't help but feel the need to intervene: a hug here, a consoling pat on the shoulder or comforting phone call there. He uses the camera not as a way of keeping his distance, but to connect himself to his past, and his audience to a stratum of society that they might not have encountered (or might prefer to look away from); finally, as a way of keeping his remaining friends alive. (It's a typical stratagem that Lewis should himself turn up at the park, camera in hand, to ensure Cass checks himself into rehab, and typical of Cass that he should drink every mile of the way there.)

Shed Your Tears nonetheless locates telling contrasts and ironies amid the bleakness. You chuckle as Silly and Cass's stepson set about a municipal tennis court - to the strains of the BBC's Wimbledon theme - while the town's elders, engaged in the altogether more genteel pursuit of crown green bowls, look on. And you shiver as the great natural beauty surrounding Hebden gives way to the scary absence of reasons to live in these parts, the hate and regret lurking in the back of these individuals' hearts, the sheer cosmic bad luck dogging the area. (The most traumatic passing the film notes appears to have nothing to do with drink or drugs: just a bright, vivacious young woman killed when her house went up in smoke. Just how much misfortune can one community bear before its residents elect to go for one final walk in the woods?)

Lewis, for his part, retains his sobriety throughout, displaying an eye for evocative, suggestive detail: the slapdash wiring in Cass's family home, say, or the boxes of cigarettes piled up on his mother's sideboard. This could be Bridgend, or any other provincial town where the gap between the haves and the have-nots - those the universe permits to make a life for themselves, and those it doesn't - has become too great, swallowing the weak and the vulnerable whole. Shed Your Tears is undeniably bleak - I couldn't blame you, in this instance, if you chose to walk on by - and Lewis can't, finally, give us the closure both we and his friends and subjects so badly need, but he keeps the film honest and, above all else, humane. Here but for the grace of God, and a just society, goes every last one of us.

Shed Your Tears and Walk Away opens at the ICA this weekend, then tours selected cinemas across the country from July.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Bubos in the woods: "Black Death"

Having purged his larky, laddish tendencies in his first two features (Creep, Severance) and made a real impression with last year's Triangle, the busy British writer-director Christopher Smith here tackles about as serious a subject as any budding horror filmmaker might: the Bubonic Plague, an epidemic so devastating no rapper ever tried to rhyme it with the word "dancer". Even the ominously vowel-less names of the German film funding boards involved in Black Death, upon their appearance in the opening credits, seem to serve as a statement of bleak, no-nonsense intent, a promise the subsequent feature mostly delivers on.

As a suitably medieval font announces, we're in the year of Our Lord 1348 (or just past a quarter to two, old joke fans): novice monk Eddie Redmayne is plucked from his monastery by sword-wielding bishop's envoy Sean Bean to guide his men through the surrounding forests to a village where, it is said, Man has renounced God. Bean's aim is to restore ordered religion to these heathens, although - with all the talk en route about the villagers' heinous practises, demons and necromancers - it's inevitably not long before superstition begins to get the better of the crusaders. Gorehounds, meanwhile, will note with mounting enthusiasm the arsenal of authentic torture implements Smith has assembled around the main characters, from the pocket-size misericorde (a dagger designed to get at your victim's heart via their armpit) to the Iron Maiden-like contraption Bean's army tow around with them like an ominous caravan.

Although the period setting marks Black Death as a break from Smith's previous work, in essence it's a return to the primal, into-the-woods terror of Severance by a director now four years older and wiser, who knows how easy it would be to break the spell he's worked so hard to cast, and not to mix up his yaks with his yuks. (The link with the earlier film is underlined by the recall of two key Severance personnel in Andy Nyman and Tim McInnerny; though instead of chirpy Danny Dyer, we have John Lynch, an actor who appears braced against the worst on a good day.) Sustained atmosphere is the order of the day. Bolstered by eerie chanting on the soundtrack and Sebastian Edschmid's misty cinematography, there's one truly Herzogian moment in the emergence of a group of flagellants carrying an outsized cross downriver.

In the second half - which offers Carice van Houten as a spooky vision of Godlessness, and proves slavishly in thrall to a couple of established British horror classics - does the strain start to show, principally because it's far less clear what Smith and screenwriter Dario Poloni are trying to say once the crusaders reach their destination. It makes sense these errant knights should suffer under their self-imposed culture of fear, but there's no reason for the film to have made the alternative equally repressive, unless Smith really just wanted to start pulling the limbs off his actors. A note of student nihilism starts to creep in, a throwback to the immaturity of a director whose early works trashed their best chills with cheap snickering; where Triangle kept reformulating itself, this latest does rather get stuck in the mire. It's a shame, as long stretches propose Smith as among the most original and versatile genre filmmakers working today: a horror director thankfully resistant to the easy shocks practiced by those American remakes, with a shrewd eye for weathered, grizzled and increasingly blood-spattered character actors.

Black Death is on general release.

"Greenberg": Patron saint of kvetchers

You might expect a film called Greenberg to be called Greenberg because it's about someone called Greenberg, yet we spend the opening ten minutes of Noah Baumbach's latest comedy-drama in the company of one Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), a housemaid for a rich L.A. couple, as she completes her daily tasks, seizing a few moments for herself while walking her employers' dog in the Hollywood hills. Enjoy the tranquility while you can: this prologue is as fluent and comforting as Greenberg gets.

Back at street level, Florence reveals herself to be a passive, subservient creation, mousily refusing to chase up her employers for the wages owed to her before they jet off for the holidays. It's Baumbach's inspired (or downright crazy) idea that the vacant house should be filled by Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a needling, passive-aggressive control freak recovering from a nervous breakdown. Quickly, we learn that Greenberg is called Greenberg because Greenberg himself comes to unbalance and dominate any space he comes to occupy; so great are the character's needs and neuroses (he spends his recovery writing petty complaint letters to the major corporations he feels have wronged him) that he barely has room for anybody else in his life.

"I'm kind of busy doing nothing right now," Greenberg mutters at one point, and that line, coupled with the presence of Gerwig and The Puffy Chair's Mark Duplass in supporting roles, suggests the film is a mainstream takeover or appropriation of a vibe carefully cultivated in a half-dozen or so of those ultra lo-fi "mumblecore" movies detailing the lives and loves of America's latest generation of slackers. Early scenes in Greenberg, certainly, hold to mumblecore's loose and easy rhythms, and there are certain details that chime: a party where - as the hero observes - "all the adults are dressed like children", or Florence's confession, when Greenberg starts poking around her tiny bedsit, that she doesn't read enough. In turning their attentions to individuals who seem too concerned with getting by to actually live, Baumbach and his wife and co-writer Jennifer Jason Leigh are pushing towards a very mumblecore understanding of our current freelance-convenience, hand-to-mouth culture.

Yet Greenberg is L.A. mumblecore, which doesn't work. The limitations of the lo-fi form would make sense applied to the lives of slackers eking out an existence in some anonymous mid-Western burg; presented with metropolitan types who've been granted the run of a relative's fancy-pants mansion (and his staff), we begin to diagnose a bad case of Paradise syndrome. (One of Greenberg's complaints is that whenever he goes into Starbucks these days, he only ever hears the music he likes: well, boo hoo.) Baumbach, the intelligent director behind The Squid and the Whale, knows his lead is constantly kvetching, and that this might not be the most appealing of traits; the problem is that the film, being a Universal Pictures presentation of a Ben Stiller vehicle, can't help but seek to make some sort of virtue out of this.

In the most divisive screen role since Sally Hawkins' Poppy in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky - a character sitting blissfully at the opposite end of the behavioural spectrum - Stiller is encouraged to play all the preening, controlling notes in his comic repertoire (those previously aired in Dodgeball and Tropic Thunder), only without the laughs: all we learn from Roger Greenberg is that characters this unhappy with life are no fun to be around. Gerwig, too, is asked to be slower and less sparky than the ingenue who lit up the negligible Hannah Takes the Stairs; it would seem ungentlemanly to note the actress appears to have put on weight for the role, were that weight gain not typical of the film's attitude towards the "ordinary girl" Florence: characterised as clumsy and snacking, easy to get drunk and to get pregnant.

Greenberg is at its most Californian here and in its final movement towards growth and resolution (where a true mumblecore auteur - a Swanberg or a Bujalski - would be perfectly content with stasis). If you are going to appropriate mumblecore, then for heaven's sake don't use it to attempt a noodly remake of As Good As It Gets, complete with a selfless madonna substitute throwing herself at the feet of (and thus saddling herself with) a martyr of the modern world. For all Greenberg's claims to indie authenticity, it's finally undermined by the epic egos at work behind the camera.

For a while, I was baffled as to why Baumbach should have attributed carpentry skills to Greenberg, a man otherwise reluctant to connect with or touch anyone or anything. Belatedly, the character's ability to hang a picture squarely on a wall comes to serve as a signifier of mounting stability, yet it was 45 minutes from the end of this generally joyless experience that I realised carpenter had become as symbolic a profession in Baumbach's film as those of architect or boatbuilder have in conventional romantic drama. Greenberg shouldn't be called Greenberg. For a variety of reasons, it should have been called: Christ.

Greenberg is on selected release.

Friday 11 June 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of June 4-6, 2010:

1 (1) Sex and the City 2 (15) **
2 (2) StreetDance (PG) **
3 (3) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12A) **
4 (new) Death at a Funeral (15) **
5 (4) Robin Hood (12A) **
6 (5) Tooth Fairy (PG)
7 (new) (15) *
8 (new) She's Out of My League (12A) ***
9 (6) Iron Man 2 (12A) ***
10 (7) Space Chimps 2: Zartog Strikes Back (U)

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Shed Your Tears and Walk Away [above]
2. The Girl on the Train
3. Black Death
4. Bronco Bullfrog
5. Women Without Men

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
2 (7) The Book of Eli (15) ***
3 (2) Up in the Air (15) ****
4 (new) Daybreakers (15)
5 (5) Avatar (12) ***
6 (6) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
7 (1) Precious (15) *****
8 (new) A Single Man (12) ***
9 (3) Did You Hear About the Morgans? (PG) **
10 (4) The Road (15) ***


My top five:
1. Crazy Heart
2. Ponyo
3. A Simple Man
4. A Prophet
5. Food, Inc.

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. American Beauty (Saturday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
2. Die Hard with a Vengeance (Saturday, BBC1, 11.10pm)
3. Scaramouche (Sunday, five, 1pm)
4. A Room for Romeo Brass (Sunday, BBC2, 12.25am; postponed from last week)
5. Somers Town (Sunday, BBC2, 11.05pm; again postponed from last week)

Sunday 6 June 2010

On DVD: "Ponyo"

How cute is Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki's freehand interpretation of "The Little Mermaid"? Almost immeasurably so. You could take the cuteness of Disney's The Little Mermaid and of Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro, and multiply them together - but then you'd also have to factor in the artistry that leaves the Mouse House's recent hand-drawn hopeful The Princess and the Frog looking doubly old-hat. Miyazaki has here reconnected his source text to the elements, turning his eye to the way storms blow in and waves break on the shore. An animation like Finding Nemo can dazzle us with sheer fluid motion, but Ponyo looks like an essay written in a gorgeous penhand about the poetics of water.

Ponyo is a little red goldfish with the face of TV's Pob (and a surprising number of Ponyo siblings swimming around her) who washes up in the pail of Sosuke, a rather lonely boy who lives with his mother on a cliff overlooking the sea. Before boy and fish can be properly introduced, Ponyo is reined in by her misanthropic father - but only after she's tasted human blood, which allows her to grow hands and webbed feet (and, presumably, lungs) and return to dry land in the form of an inquisitive little girl. "Sometimes we need to make a leap," Sosuke's no-nonsense mum insists; our plucky aquatic heroine certainly does that.

Once again, Miyazaki puts his green-leaning messages - take care of the oceans, look after your elders - across without hitting you over the head with them; he even makes using plug-in rechargeable lightbulbs and putting honey (rather than sugar) in your children's tea seem, well, natural. The sensitivity apparent in the filmmaking is all-encompassing: I saw the dubbed version - overseen by John Lasseter, with an English translation by E.T.'s Melissa Mathison - and didn't for one moment feel that the tale's essential innocence had been compromised by an eclectic voice cast that includes Tina Fey (as Sosuke's mom), Liam Neeson (as Ponyo's dad) and, most surprisingly, junior members of the Cyrus and Jonas clans (whose title song is, dare I say it, eminently downloadable) in prominent positions.

This is an animation that even remains eloquent in its silences - the sound design often seeks to reproduce the quietness to be found at the bottom of a swimming pool, or under the sea - and, from first to last, displays its creator's love of all creatures great and small, from Ponyo's mother (a Gaia figure rendered not so much as a cruel mistress as a beautiful fairytale princess) to the protozoic jellyfish emerging into the light in the film's prologue. It's on the head of one of these creatures that Ponyo rises to the surface in an early set-piece, racing against a trawler dragging a net over the sea bottom, its propeller at full pelt. Our eyes are drawn to Ponyo's progress, but perhaps only Miyazaki would take such care to ensure her jellyfish messenger avoids a nasty fate itself. How cute is Ponyo? Just about adorable, I'd say.

Ponyo is available on DVD from tomorrow.

Saturday 5 June 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of May 28-30, 2010:

1 (new) Sex and the City 2 (15) ** [above]
2 (1) StreetDance (PG) **
3 (2) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12A) **
4 (3) Robin Hood (12A) **
5 (new) Tooth Fairy (PG)
6 (4) Iron Man 2 (12A) ***
7 (new) Space Chimps 2: Zartog Strikes Back (U)
8 (new) The Losers (12A) **
9 (9) The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (18) **
10 (6) Four Lions (15) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. The Girl on the Train
2. Vincere
3. Lebanon
4. She's Out of My League
5. The Brothers Bloom

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (4) Precious (15) *****
2 (5) Up in the Air (15) ****
3 (new) Did You Hear About the Morgans? (PG) **
4 (1) The Road (15) ***
5 (2) Avatar (12) ***
6 (3) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
7 (new) The Book of Eli (15) ***
8 (re) Where the Wild Things Are (PG) ***
9 (6) Harry Brown (18) **
10 (7) The Men Who Talk to Goats (15) **


My top five:
1. Precious
2. Ponyo
3. Up in the Air
4. Lion's Den
5. The Unloved

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. A Room for Romeo Brass (Saturday, BBC2, 1.05am)
2. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Sunday, BBC2, 11.55pm)
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Saturday, C4, 7pm)
4. Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Thursday, five, 9pm)
5. Michael Clayton (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

Going off-track: "The Girl on the Train"

The Girl on the Train, the latest of director André Téchiné's intricate miniatures, makes an extrapolation from a real-life incident that had the French chattering classes chattering more than ever. In 2004, a young woman from the Parisian suburbs claimed she was beaten up by anti-Semitic thugs on a commuter train, only - after the incident had provoked howls of protest and outrage - to later recant and reveal she'd made up the whole story, including her non-existent Jewish origins; that she was, in fact, another of the modern world's mythomanes, seeking to bring attention upon herself by exploiting some of the cracks opening up within society. The case inspired a play (RER by Jean-Marie Besset, a co-writer here) and, inevitably, questions about the line said society was running on: bad enough to have actual religious and racial intolerance going on without people making it up.

The mystery surrounding the titular Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne, above) in Téchiné's film is that she seemingly has everything going for her. Though her father was killed in combat in Afghanistan some years before, she still has a doting mother (Catherine Deneuve) in her corner; indeed, the latter has pulled some strings to get her daughter an interview for a secretarial position at the firm of a top Jewish lawyer (Michel Blanc, foursquare and nicely matter-of-fact as the conscience of the piece) who has ties to the family. Jeanne has a new beau, too, in Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), an aspiring wrestler who endears himself to her (if hardly to us) by getting her an ask-no-questions courier job and jovially threatening her with gang rape the first time he invites Jeanne back to his place.

Téchiné's time capsules - films that document specific places, eras, moments - have sometimes been rather implausibly packaged, as I felt was the issue with 2003's WW2 drama Strayed and 2007's AIDS-themed The Witnesses. The Girl on the Train, on the other hand, sets out to dramatise a complex social system in which each character's behaviour impacts upon that of another: in a typical footnote, Deneuve has a smoking habit she confesses to picking up from an old flame. The scenario divides equally down the middle, into chapters marked "Circumstances" and "Consequences" (or, to put it another way, cause and effect), as we're invited to consider Jeanne as very much a product of her environment. Were her actions a mollycoddled girl's bid for independence? A shameless cry for help? Or something altogether more conniving: an attempt to cross from the position of the accused to the status of victim, as has been historically conferred upon the Jewish people?

That such a needling sociological study should emerge from the same film industry that gave us Jean Rouch and Two or Three Things I Know About Her is no real surprise; what may be is just how attuned (and sympathetic) the 67-year-old Téchiné proves to the follies and foibles of the young. The director makes filmable - even sexy - Jeanne and Franck's first encounters over the Internet, while their actual sex scenes are framed as lurid fantasies playing out in the heroine's head; even fucking, she's never quite in the room. Téchiné has always been a sucker for stars, and while we might quibble that Deneuve is a little out of place in a film this streetwise, he locates in Dequenne the same wild, compelling desperation the Dardennes found for their Rosetta; she's a very contemporary presence in her stripey tops and in-line skates, caught between provincial innocence and a more damaging metropolitan cynicism, between knowing too much of the world and knowing not nearly enough.

In the end, Jeanne comes to be defined by her rollerblades and headphones; like so many of today's youngsters, taking refuge inside their iPods, her aim is to escape from reality (and the responsibilities that entails) into a bubble of her own making. "Learn to your open your eyes," cautions the police officer who finally reveals Franck's criminal activities to her. A subplot involving Blanc's lawyer, his wife and her ex would appear negligible were it not that it gives us the one line that best sums up the insular thinking of many of the characters here: "I've got my life, you've got yours". And never the twain, they hope, shall meet: Jeanne's deception is finally exposed by the lawyer's refusal to invest in a particular item that passes for social currency. From a strict story point-of-view, these details aren't essential, but with them, Téchiné transforms The Girl on the Train into a salutary lesson: how to make penetrating, multi-dimensional and - most of all - cinematic subject matter we Brits would most likely have reduced to a storm in a teacup, or - worse - ITV primetime drama.

The Girl on the Train is on selected release.

Mind the gap: "She's Out of My League"

The young lovers in Jim Field Smith's teen comedy She's Out of My League - Kirk (Jay Baruchel) and Molly (Alice Eve) - meet at an airport, where she's boarding a plane bound for New York, and he's among the army of security staff sorting shoes and belts at a checkpoint. Their relationship, and the chief problem they will sooner or later have to address, is established with admirable economy. He's a minion, a nice, grounded, unassuming sort prone to spilling coffee all over himself; she, on the other hand, is the very definition of a highflyer. He can't quite believe it when she declares her fondness for him - and neither can his laddish friends and deadbeat folks, both in their own way obstacles to the couple's future happiness.

Though the screenplay, by Sean Anders and John Morris, addresses the very real issue of low male self-esteem - the disparity young men sometimes see between themselves and the objects of their affection, or to translate into blokespeak: how to woo a ten when you're a six at best - She's Out of My League could easily qualify as another of American comedy's recent nerd fantasies. As with Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary (the ur-text of this recent wave), Molly proves unexpectedly fluent in sports, and indeed all the girls here either talk like guys ("Dude, go shit in your hand!") or behave in ways guys would like girls to behave: Eve proves a smash-hit at the Baruchel family gathering by announcing her lack of underwear. Pity, too, the film should stray into less than chivalrous territory in the characterisation of Kirk's ex-girlfriend (Lindsay Sloane), underlining Molly's apparent perfection by making her chief rival a more or less total bitch.

Still, there are nerd fantasies and there are nerd fantasies, and while She's Out of My League confines itself to the mildly, sweetly raucous - as brought to the party by Kirk's airport buddies, most notably TJ Miller's aggressively loyal Stainer and his militant Hall and Oates tribute band - it's a very solid six; you may even be able to forgive its lapses into contrived and desperate gross-out. (Anders and Morris have form as the writers of Sex Drive and Hot Tub Time Machine, and their influence is most keenly felt in a scene involving premature ejaculation and the Eve family pooch.) As for Baruchel (making a promising bid for comic-lead status after support slots in the likes of Knocked Up and Tropic Thunder) and Eve (keeping most of her clothes on for once, and - paradoxically - establishing herself as the new Heather Graham): well, they make a very cute couple.

She's Out of My League is on general release.

Confidence games: "The Brothers Bloom"

The Brothers Bloom is a near perfect example of Second Film Syndrome. Having impressed some with 2006's taut, self-contained - and, to these eyes at least, somewhat arch - high-school noir Brick, writer-director Rian Johnson decamped to Europe with some of his regular cast (there are cameos for the earlier film's Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Nora Zehetner) and a handful of more prominent names, and arrived at something a good deal baggier and more divisive.

It begins as Magnolia meets Paper Moon (not a bad start, all told), as our narrator Ricky Jay spins the tale of two young siblings making their first moves in the con game: the downcast, girl-shy Bloom and the ebullient mastermind Stephen. Fastforward 25 years, and with Bloom (Adrien Brody) heading into the doldrums once again, his brother (Mark Ruffalo) hits upon another plan. Their new mark will be Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a reclusive heiress, and just the sort of doleful fairytale princess his brother has proved likely to fall for.

The character names alone serve as notice of a director wearing his literary influences firmly on his sleeve; elsewhere, the boys stash their ill-gotten gains at a dry cleaners known as O'Henry's, while the cloaked fat man on their tail (Robbie Coltrane) takes on the name of Melville - though Penelope rather blows the magic by pointing out such a character also appeared in Herman Melville's novel "The Confidence-Man" ("That's weird"). One recurrent niggle with The Brothers Bloom is Johnson's fondness for describing his own effects and allusions, as though he couldn't be certain his audience was getting them; when Bloom is arrested for palming an apple from a roadside stall, the script has him tell Stephen "it was part of an epiphany", when it's long been obvious that was part of Johnson's masterplan all along.

Still, as the presence of not one but two magicians on the credits (Jay and our own Andy Nyman) suggests, this is a multi-disciplinary project, the work of a young filmmaker trying several new things out - a process dramatised in the film when Penelope sets out the list of arcane activities (juggling chainsaws, playing the harp) she's undertaken during her time in seclusion. Where Brick was deliberate, the new film revels in leftfield sight gags: Weisz driving a canary yellow Lamborghini into the side of her castle, Rinko Kikuchi's silent sidekick Bang Bang assiduously peeling an apple on a steamship - only to toss the fruit overboard and start nibbling on the peel instead.

There's a renewed, relaxed pleasure in storytelling, too; just perhaps - as the film lags towards the two-hour mark - a bit too much for its own good. Certainly, Bloom's youthful follies and indiscretions require some indulgence: its narrative lines aren't always clear, and the Brody-Weisz romance is just as often forced and excruciating as charming. (At the press screening, I could sense the grumpy old men in the critical contingent getting grumpier with each passing minute.)

Again, Johnson reveals himself to know more about books and films than he does about life - a characteristic common among many young American directors - yet The Brothers Bloom, vacillating as it does throughout between the high-functioning autism of Wes Anderson and the more expansive and generous filmmaking of Paul Thomas Anderson, finally tips its bowler hat in the direction of the latter; like its characters, it at least tries to follow its heart beyond the realm of the quotation mark. It could do with a tighter rein - or, given the film's prevalence of out-of-control vehicles, a better handbrake - but there's a directorial sensibility here worth travelling with a little while longer.

The Brothers Bloom is on selected release.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Cutting the strings: "Kites"

A UK Top Five hit and the first Bollywood film to make significant inroads at the U.S. box office, Anurag Basu's Kites begins as pure noir - Hrithik Roshan tumbles out of a railroad carriage down Mexico way, a couple of slugs in his back - before getting knotty, if not outright tangled, and a whole lot less arresting.

Roshan, perhaps overdoing the whole chewing-raffishly-on-a-toothpick look, plays an individual apparently called Jay Ray, a long-time Vegas hustler who woos a casino owner's daughter with an eye to snaffling her inheritance. Upon entering her household, he finds his target's brother is on the verge of marrying Linda (Barbara Mori, her presence enough to set a dozen Spanish guitars twanging on the soundtrack), one of the - count 'em - eleven immigrant women our hero married in his dog days to help ease their passage over the border. (In rather ungentlemanly fashion, he claims "I didn't remember the other ten".)

The pair bond again - over some remarkably cutesy shadowplay, turning one another's fingers into rabbits - and it's only when our hero's future brother- and father-in-law begin shooting in the face all those who've crossed them that Jay Ray realises he's in too deep; we, however, have long since derived his reunion with Linda isn't going to end well from the intermittent flashforwards - reminiscent of TV's Damages - that feature Roshan stumbling around the desert, bloodied and beaten, with Linda's would-be second husband on his tail.

In everything from the casino backdrop to the songs announcing Jay Ray as a - and I quote - "serious player" to the scene in which the lovers sit on the balcony of her well-appointed penthouse comparing the price tags on their possessions, it's clear the budget here is some way north of the norm: maybe not Yash Chopra lavish, but pretty pricey all the same. It's the strings that have been cut. "Goodbye poverty!," Roshan exclaims, as his character's stock rises, and what's most notable about Kites is how it bids a similar farewell to foreign climes. For perhaps the first time in an NRI drama, not one character expresses a yearning for Mother India, not even when they're reduced to selling popcorn on the Vegas strip or scrabbling through the desert dirt. (Of the two main characters, it's the Latina heroine who has the greater heritage.)

Of course, it may be that a generation of young Indians - the true slumdog millionaires, who went west and made their fortune - no longer feel the same pangs of homesickness and insecurity their forefathers did upon leaving home turf. Kites is nothing if not cinematically grounded and confident: there are car chases and old-school stunts; there is what one of the responding officers describes as a "shootout at Bonanza Creek ranch"; and you can only laugh when Jay Ray starts tossing down the vehicles from a moving car transporter in order to delay his and Linda's pursuers. Yet it's telling, and also somewhat sad, that the films Basu references - The Searchers, the Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet, Thelma and Louise - are American, rather than Hindi.

Kites may be the point at which the Indian popular cinema switches from a feminine model to a masculine model, which seems a shame at a time when the cinema is quite male enough as it is. The essential pleasures of a Bollywood film have here been struck out by efficiency experts with an eye on the bottom line. There is a wet sari number of a sort, although when Linda throws her shoes asunder in the bordertown rain, we can be fairly certain she will be able to afford another pair; the remaining dance sequences are as shamelessly au courant as those featured in StreetDance 3D. Roshan, anyway, has no time to dance, not when he has shirts to remove - and never in the history of cinema has one torso been flaunted so knowingly; the actor very nearly makes Gerard Butler look demure.

Several leading Bollywood figures - looking, perhaps, to further line their nests - have insisted that their cinema, to better compete with the West, needs to mature and earn its own way in the world. Yet as that world grows more commercial with every passing minute, surely we might find a place in our art for a little gentle, homespun naivety - the kind Kites only accidentally hits upon with the unexpected transcendence of its ending. (The producers had clearly already departed for the wrap party.) Instead, in a bid to double its money, a "remix" of Kites, overseen by the none-more-masculine Brett Ratner, has followed Basu's feature into cinemas a week after its release. Shouldn't there be some shame or indignity attached to being a thousand miles from home and having your film recut by the man who gave the planet Rush Hour 3?

Kites and Kites: the Remix are on general release.