Saturday 31 October 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 23-25, 2015:
1 (1) Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
2 (4) The Martian (12A) ****
3 (new) Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (15) *
4 (2) Suffragette (12A) ***
5 (new) The Last Witch Hunter (12A)
6 (3) Pan (PG)
7 (6) Sicario (15) ***
8 (5) Crimson Peak (15) ****
9 (7) Legend (18) ***
10 (9) The Lobster (15) ***


My top five:   

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12) **
2 (4) Tomorrowland: a World Beyond (PG) ***
3 (3) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
4 (new) Mr. Holmes (PG) ***
5 (6) Home (U) **
6 (7) Insidious: Chapter 3 (15) ***
7 (8) Man Up (15)
8 (re) The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (U)
9 (new) Howl (15) ***
10 (10) Get Hard (15)

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Horror Express [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 1.40am)
2. Arachnophobia (Sunday, five, 8pm)
3. Thirteen Days (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
4. Cemetery Junction (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
5. The Core (Sunday, C4, 3pm)

Friday 30 October 2015

"The Vatican Tapes" (Guardian 30/10/15)

The Vatican Tapes **
Dir: Mark Neveldine. With: Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michael Peña, Dougray Scott, Kathleen Robertson. 91 mins. Cert: 15

Hallowe’eners should emerge tickled if hardly spooked by this daft, zeitgeisty artefact, in which the Devil expands into new media by possessing a bodacious blonde blogger (Olivia Taylor Dudley), whose symptoms – instigating bird attacks, apostrophising the possessive “its” – have the Pope’s men jetting into L.A. Crank’s Mark Neveldine puts the camera in unusual, diverting places – his found-footage scraps display a freshness the recent The Visit lacked – but everyone’s working from diabolically thin material: concerned dad Dougray Scott utters a dozen variants of “I don’t understand this!”, while priest Michael Peña has only to lay out the Eucharistic knick-knacks before the inevitable Exorcist-rehashing finale. There, Taylor Dudley levitates, briefly vanishes, and produces a series of eggs from her mouth: she resembles the Antichrist far less than she does Debbie McGee.

The Vatican Tapes opens in cinemas nationwide today. 

"Under Milk Wood" (Guardian 30/10/15)

Under Milk Wood **
Dir: Kevin Allen. With: Rhys Ifans, Charlotte Church, Julian Lewis Jones, Lisa Palfrey. 87 mins. Cert: 15

Is it significant that, in Dylan Thomas’s centenary year, more effort has been made to dramatise the life – A Poet in New York on TV, Set Fire to the Stars in cinemas – than the work? On the plus side, Kevin Allen’s new take on Thomas’s great radio fantasia of 1954 – emerging in simultaneously shot English- and Welsh-language versions, with Charlotte Church singing torch songs as Llareggub’s town sweetheart Polly Garter – proves more rooted in place, and less literal-minded than its 1972 Burton-Taylor predecessor, a project born of a vanity denied the begrimed, dishevelled character actors gathered here.

Still, it soon becomes apparent Allen hasn’t the sweeping vision or budget to deliver anything more than eccentric odds and ends. Only early on, with the trippy, seaweed-strewn memories of Rhys Ifans’ Captain Cat, does it find anything like a cinematic analogue to the text’s pagan strangeness; elsewhere, it assumes the air of a strained community theatre project, nudging and winking its way around anything remotely phallic. Decking out local battleaxe Mrs. Ogmore Pritchard (Buddug Verona James) in S&M gear recalls Allen’s spirited work on 1997’s Twin Town and TV’s Benidorm, but also typifies the reduction of a lusty poetry to baser, end-of-the-pier ribaldry.

Time and again, you catch all those behind the camera overcompensating for the absence of any unifying idea: production designer Marie Lanna stuffing every frame with doll parts and dildos, cinematographer Andy Hollis turning somersaults with his camera in a bid to keep up with the dexterity of the language. As the effort cuts against any considered appreciation of the text, suspicion grows that the material cannot function in this medium: where the words power ahead, unbowed by time, the images – here either manic and gurning, or hamstrung by their poverty-row origins – simply cower in their wake.

Under Milk Wood opens in selected cinemas from today. 

Thursday 29 October 2015

On demand: "A Syrian Love Story"

A Syrian Love Story is another of 2015's many reminders of who refugees - in this case, those Syrians pouring into Europe to escape the turmoil wrought by the Assad regime back home - really are: breakable hearts, vulnerable souls, perishable flesh and blood. It derives from a story told to the British documentarist Sean McAllister in a bar about a love born in captivity. The storyteller was Amer, a sometime Palestinian freedom fighter who met his wife-to-be Raghda, a Syrian revolutionary, when they came to share adjacent cells in a holding block; a small hole in the wall allowed them to gaze upon one another's bruises. As we join Amer, just before the Arab Spring of 2011, Raghda was back in prison for writing a book deemed critical of the Assad regime, leaving her husband to raise their sons alone.

What's so compulsive about that which follows is that we witness the effects of the next few years of dislocation, with its changeable parenting arrangements and palpably growing marital tensions, on those self-same kids as they pass into adolescence. We could be watching Boyhood, if its subjects had been raised somewhere other than a haven of white western liberalism: the eldest goes from shyly ambivalent on the subject of Assad to openly denouncing him, and then - as news of the deaths of several friends filters in - to wishing none of this had ever come to pass in his lifetime. (How do you process that much loss at so young an age?) The film will prove more vivid yet in observing the effect of this chaos on the parents - particularly on Raghda, who looks to age thirty years in just five: nervily ramping up her cigarette consumption, she visibly loses weight, and is frequently caught in a depressive haze. In a mere matter of moments - and the film compresses an awful amount of lived experience into its 74 minutes - this woman loses the light and fire in her eyes. 

McAllister gets us in close to see it. He goes out to eat with his subjects; he's there, leaning in, as Raghda makes illicit calls home from jail; and then again as the marriage starts to sour. (His often blunt questions, delivered from just off-camera in a Northern burr, are those only a trusted family friend might get away with.) Everyone appears to be living in a permanent state of separation anxiety: McAllister himself was arrested by Assad's security forces, and it was when some of his footage was confiscated, notionally incriminating his subjects further, that Amer and Raghda elected to flee the country for the relative safety of Lebanon. You could, I suppose, argue that McAllister got so close that he endangered his subjects' lives - providing you don't suppose these lives were already endangered. Equally, it's evident that he needed to get this close to tell this story as emotively as he has.

It becomes sadder still in its latter stages as the family passes through Paris - "the city of love", as McAllister points out - to the South of France, where the film enters its most painful configuration yet as a portrait of a separation. Many couples have married young only to find co-existence harder than it looks - but here, it's as though the unified political position the lovers once occupied has broken up like tectonic plates. Amer, visibly hardening in exile, attempts to embrace cosmopolitan European life by starting an affair, while Raghda sinks into a spiral of self-loathing at having left her comrades behind. The quality that brought these two together - resistance - is gradually broken down; the rubble of Palmyra is as nothing compared to what they're carrying around in their hearts. By its very nature, A Syrian Love Story makes for devastating viewing, but there could hardly have been a better illustration of how hard it is, when your homeland is no longer your home, to hold it together: marriage, family, friendships, your general happiness and well-being.

"Shaandaar" (Guardian 25/10/15)

Shaandaar ***
Dir: Vikas Bahl. With: Alia Bhatt, Shahid Kapoor, Pankaj Kapur, Niki Aneja Walia. 144 mins. Cert: 12A

First the Tour de France, now a big fat Bollywood wedding: everything gravitates to Yorkshire in the end. After so many spectacular monsoon weddings, there is undeniable novelty in seeing one conducted under the auspices of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council in no more than a passing drizzle; likewise in seeing a fleet of gold limousines emerging from behind dry stone walls to traverse the moors while a steam train toots in the distance. Welcome to the world of Vikas Bahl’s Shaandaar, where there’s a high possibility during the musical numbers that everybody on screen is dancing just to keep themselves warm.

The geography is but the first quirk in a broad crowdpleaser that replays the high-stakes family gathering of June’s Dil Dhadakne Do on dryish land for goofy laughs. The pairing of gentle Eesha (Sanah Kapoor) with preening nitwit Robin (Vikas Verma) is a power move, engineered by the bride’s chilly gran to offload the family debt onto their crass industrialist in-laws-to-be. As that partnership founders, Cupid looks elsewhere: upon the bride's adopted, insomniac sister Alia (Alia Bhatt) and Jagjinder (Shahid Kapoor), the unflappable wedding planner. Their affinity is such they can see inside one another’s fantasies, a kind of penetration so few lovers enjoy.

As that development suggests, Bahl and screenwriter Anvita Dutt pursue a strain of logic-less comedy that nine-year-olds might describe as “random”, and it can feel tinny within the lavish stately-home setting – like a small boy tearing around Downton making fart noises with his armpit. Eesha’s younger sisters communicate solely in text-speak acronyms. The groom’s gun-toting father, himself prone to mangled syntax (“Please call me The Harry”), claims the Windsors as honorary Indians: “She’s pushing ninety, and her son’s still living at home with her”. There are talking chickens. All I can say is that it grew on me.

Bahl, hosting his second successive nuptials after last year’s Queen, has twigged that making a movie is akin to throwing a wedding party: you spend enough money, invite the right people to make speeches, and trust those who show up will relax and enjoy themselves. The itinerary Dutt provides – you couldn’t call it a plot – is so busy that it scarcely matters that some gags fall flat, or that the issuey bits (notably Eesha’s low self-esteem, sensitively described by Kapoor) come and go. Instead we’re whisked off skydiving, or to a black-and-white ball, then a Mr. & Mrs.-style game hosted by megastar director Karan Johar.

Dramatic focus is achieved only once, in an electric battle-of-the-sexes number – the best I’ve seen in 2015 – which features the first recorded Bollywood use of the phrase “misogynistic prat” and cares to rhyme “trousersnake” with the multi-layered lyric “Men are mistakes that women make”. Here, as elsewhere, Shahid – his winning smile enhanced by the three consecutive scenes he’s required to play with a mouthful of toothpaste – and Bhatt, one of Hindi cinema’s most spirited up-and-comers, display a nicely conspiratorial chemistry, born of cadging cigarettes and felt-tipping moustaches on one another.

Shaandaar will eventually side with this generation over their overbearing elders, but then – unlike DDD, which might have passed as a credible portrait of modern Indian relations – it’s coming from an inherently childish place, all animated backstory and lengthy tickle fights. Bahl and Dutt treat this wedding as a youngster might a dolls’ tea party, attentively passing out sweets and filling everybody’s cups with imaginary chai: there’s something naively charming about it, even as it reduces Temple Newsam to a fairytale backdrop. I can’t say I didn’t giggle – I did, often – but as any Yorkshireman would doubtless declare: it ain’t half daft.

Shaandaar is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 23 October 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 16-18, 2015:
1 (new) Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
2 (new) Suffragette (12A) ***
3 (new) Pan (PG)
4 (1) The Martian (12A) ****
5 (new) Crimson Peak (15) ****
6 (2) Sicario (15) ***
7 (4) Legend (18) ***
8 (5) The Intern (12A)
9 (new) The Lobster (15) ***
10 (6) Everest (12A)


My top five:   

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12) **
2 (4) Cinderella (U)
3 (2Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
4 (3) Tomorrowland: a World Beyond (PG) ***
5 (5) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12) **
6 (6) Home (U) **
7 (8) Insidious: Chapter 3 (15) ***
8 (9) Man Up (15)
9 (10) Child 44 (15)
10 (new) Get Hard (15)

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Witchfinder General (Friday, BBC2, 12.35am)
2. The Quiet American (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
3. Killing Me Softly (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
4. The Broken Circle Breakdown (Wednesday, C4, 1.25am)
5. The Shaggy Dog (Sunday, five, 3.40pm)

"The Queen of Ireland" (Guardian 23/10/15)

The Queen of Ireland ****
Dir: Conor Horgan. With: Panti Bliss. 82 mins. No cert.

Where the recent Dressed As A Girl tailed a variety of drag artists, Conor Horgan’s documentary pursues just one – stand-up/activist Rory O’Neill, a.k.a. Panti Bliss – in order to describe a wider, often haphazard push for acceptance: as late as January 2014, O’Neill’s prime-time chatshow appearance sparked a major public row that engendered Panti’s most outspoken incarnation yet. Although Horgan catches a few rueful-reflective backstage moments, what makes O’Neill such an effective figurehead is his cheery, show-must-go-on equanimity: on living with HIV, he’s heard shrugging “I made my AIDS-y bed, now I must lie in it.” It takes time to get beyond the make-up – and for the salty putdowns to reformulate into impassioned speeches – but once there, Horgan’s film shapes up as a most pleasing portrait: watching Panti perform an inclusively ribald hometown gig after May’s affirmative gay marriage vote, we witness a once small, grey part of Ireland being dragged forward into what looks a kinder, funnier, more colourful future.

The Queen of Ireland opens in selected cinemas from today. 

"A Sicilian Dream" (Guardian 23/10/15)

A Sicilian Dream ***
Dir: Philip Walsh. With: Francesco Da Mosto, Alain de Cadanet. 74 mins. Cert: PG

This feature spin-off from Francesco Da Mosto’s small-screen primers on Italian life documents the Targa Florio, formerly the world’s longest-running road race, deploying a double-pronged approach. The genial, silver-haired Da Mosto – more Rod Liddle than Clarkson – potters around the Sicilian villages the cars once hared through; his interviews are intercut with reconstructions centred on Vincenzo Florio, the race’s founder and Bernie Ecclestone of his day. An early scene of Da Mosto and co-pilot Alain de Cadanet poring over the dashboard of a vintage Peugeot suggests it’s been compiled with specialist audiences in mind, but it stays lively, interrupting its archive material with trips to a Targa-themed model village and a self-appointed, somewhat self-aggrandising race cobbler. Comparable characters and legends pop up out of the scrub on the route’s every bend: there’s a juicy anecdote about Enzo Ferrari, a baroness and a stuck lift, although it doesn’t turn out quite as you may imagine.

A Sicilian Dream opens in selected cinemas from today. 

"My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - Friendship Games" (Guardian 23/10/15)

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Friendship Games **
Dir: Ishi Rudell. Animation with the voices of: Tara Strong, Rebecca Shoichet, Ashleigh Ball, Andrea Libman. 72 mins. Cert: U

Shock news: our harsh corporate climate means the fey horses that dominated 1980s subcultural discourse have been quietly taken out back and “disappeared”, like their pit-pony predecessors. Their new, sleek embodiments are the Equestria Girls, an aspirational-representational band of prep schoolers who retain the flowing manes of the franchise’s martyrs, but otherwise resemble angular anime princesses. This third EG instalment, pitting our heroines against a rival academy, remains obvious product, and its shrill voicework may place key friendship developments beyond the range of anyone older than nine. Still, some effort’s been made to offset the craven commercialism: it’s not unattractively designed, and its peppy collegiate spirit trumps the sappiness of Disney’s Tinkerbell spin-offs.

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - Friendship Games is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

"Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension" (Guardian 23/10/15)

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension *
Dir: Gregory Plotkin. With: Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Ivy George, Dan Gill. 88 mins. Cert: 15

The horror perennial’s sixth film adds a third dimension: unspooling over a family Yuletide, its found footage catches stereoscopic flickers of spectral activity around a house once occupied by the cult now central to series mythology. Again, it’s a test of one’s tolerance for watching predominantly empty frames – the anonymous performers scarcely count – in the hope something will jolt us from mounting tedium: for over an hour, the action highlight is a slight adjustment in the camber of a see-saw. 3D opens up new, inevitably darker-looking corridors, but we’re basically being asked to pay a surcharge for much the same downtime and blank space. A marketing advance, maybe; a dead loss as a night out.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Sunday 18 October 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of October 9-11, 2015:
1 (1) The Martian (12A) ****
2 (new) Sicario (15) ***
3 (new) The Walk (12A) ***
4 (2Legend (18) ***
5 (4) The Intern (12A)
6 (3) Everest (12A)
7 (5) Macbeth (15) ***
8 (6) Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (12A)
9 (new) Regression (15)
10 (10Inside Out (U) ****


My top five:   
1. Crimson Peak [above]

Top Ten DVD rentals:
1 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12) **
2 (2) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
4 (3) Cinderella (U)
6 (5) Home (U) **
7 (6) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
8 (new) Insidious: Chapter 3 (15) ***
9 (8) Man Up (15)
10 (re) Child 44 (15)

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Lavender Hill Mob (Saturday, BBC2, 9.40am)
2. Skyfall (Friday, ITV1, 9pm)
3. A Knight's Tale (Sunday, C4, 3.05pm)
4. Metro Manila (Sunday, C4, 12.45am)
5. Chennai Express (Wednesday, C4, 12.30am)

"Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2" (Guardian 18/10/15)

Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 **
Dir: Luv Ranjan. With: Kartik Aaryan, Omkar Kapoor, Sunny Singh, Nushrat Bharucha. 136 mins. Cert: 12A

Although Luv Ranjan’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy Pyaar Ka Punchnama (off-putting English translation: Postmortem of Love) opened to some commercial success back in 2011, it generated much the same mixed critical response The Hangover had received two years before. Introduced to three young bucks who swore, partied and displayed the dismayed reactions to women common to many young men, plenty simply relaxed into its company. Equally, though, there were those who found the casual denigration of the fairer sex as scolds, teases and worse besides suspect in the extreme. If Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2, a more-of-the-same sequel, isn’t a Hangover II-style atrocity, it nevertheless perpetuates a similarly divisive, problematic worldview.

It’s this worldview that connects PKP2 to its predecessor: in a vaguely daring conceptual coup, the original leads now play entirely new characters, though the basic game – fruitless tail-chasing – remains unchanged. Smarmy Thakur (Omkar Kapoor, an oft-shirtless cross between Captain Scarlet and Brittas Empire-era Chris Barrie) gets in a tizz about bankrolling artist flame Kusum (Ishita Sharma). Colourless Gogo (Kartik Aaryan) struggles to separate new love Chiku (Nushrat Bharucha) from her friends, female and male. And grouchy IT wonk Sid (Sunny Singh) finds himself working overtime to woo modern girl Supriya (Sonalli Sehgall) away from traditional parents who don’t consider him a suitable match.

The first film won over younger audiences by synthesising elements of popular US TV series: it deployed the skittish, A-plot/B-plot structure of mainstream sitcoms within the broader framing of those reality shows that cram attractive people in well-appointed lofts with not enough clothes to go round. There were, and are, truthful observations in Ranjan’s writing about the niggling passive-aggressive standoffs that can occur in modern relationships – over Facebook statuses and smartphone usage – and how new additions to social circles often upset established group dynamics. Despite Aaryan’s catalogue-model anonymity, the Gogo-Chiku strand yields the strongest material here, as he flails to keep up with her party-hearty pals, and she interrupts the boys’ communal cricket-watching like a lipglossed tropical storm.

The trouble – again – is that its perspective is entirely one-sided. There’s no sense of how these blustering, thrusting men might themselves be perceived as disruptive, and no attempt to understand the women’s tactics as a form of self-preservation: even Chiku, the most attentively characterised of the three, emerges as a spoilt princess whose actions are presented as first questionable, then actively hateful. The grievance extends beyond women to the very idea of relationships, and how they take us out of ourselves: in demanding such punishing hard work, such relentless second-guessing, they’re conceived of as an occupation fundamentally at odds with the film’s preferred pastimes of sport, shopping and selfie-taking.

That’s a lot of resentment for a work as flimsy as this to hold in, and eventually it bubbles up to the surface. Late on, Aaryan gets an eight-minute monologue – surpassing his four-minute rant in the original – that lists in funny-tedious detail the myriad things young men find frustrating about the opposite sex: it’s the film in a nutshell, but also all too clearly untempered editorial. More succinct is the slogan on a T-shirt Thakur deigns to put on at an earlier juncture: “In the end, it’s all about sex.” During the course of this second night out, Ranjan’s series reveals its true colours: those of a genial narcissist whose superficial charm wears off very quickly. Swipe left.

Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 is now showing in selected cinemas.

"The Diabolical" (Guardian 16/10/15)

The Diabolical ***
Dir: Alistair Legrand. With: Ali Larter, Max Rose, Chloe Perrin, Wilmer Calderon. 86 mins. Cert: 15

Though that title’s asking for trouble, this is, in fact, serviceable sleepover fodder in the post-Insidious mode, with bankrupt single mom Ali Larter finding the wolves at her door are as nothing compared to the suppurating demons crawling through her kitchen at regular intervals. Possessed tumble dryer aside, there’s barely an original idea in it – the big reveal cribs from an established sci-fi touchstone, offering the comparative novelty of a house haunted by the future – but writer-director Alistair Legrand fashions something brisk and modestly atmospheric, resisting the quiet-quite-loud mechanics of recent forays into paranormal activity to dig into the mystery of why this family’s underlit suburban home has become a portal for flesh-ripping spectres: here, Larter – joining Sinister 2’s Shannyn Sossamon among the ranks of millennial postergirls turned worryworn maternal presences – gives a strong and sympathetic performance. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it’ll keep anyone planning a Hallowe’en all-nighter awake and interested.

The Diabolical is now showing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release tomorrow. 

"North v South" (Guardian 16/10/15)

North v South **
Dir: Steve Nesbit. With: Steven Berkoff, Bernard Hill, Keith Allen, Freema Agyeman. 96 mins. Cert: 18

This week’s geezerfest has a semi-interesting premise – dividing up a bizarro Britain along Romeo and Juliet lines, as blossoming young love threatens the tenuous truce between regional heavies – but no sense of how to develop it. Instead, variably grizzled types (Bernard Hill and Freema Agyeman repping the North; Steven Berkoff and Keith Allen the South) sit around picking their teeth and casually lobbing C-bombs at one another, while a florid Elliot Tittensor voiceover strives to assure us the stakes are being raised. With writer-director Steve Nesbit preoccupied with delaying his under-budgeted action, an odd listlessness takes over: you just want Danny Dyer to stroll on and tell everyone to stop poncing about.

North v South is now showing in selected cinemas. 

"Rough Cut" (Guardian 16/10/15)

Rough Cut *
Dir: Owen Carey Jones. With: Stanley J. Browne, Angelique Joan, Matt Gras, Michel Benizri. 104 mins. Cert: 15

The Leeds-based Owen Carey Jones may be Britain’s answer to Ed Wood. Following 2009’s Wiccan-witches debacle The Spell, this cosmically overreaching shambles – so ineptly edited that its title appears a conceptual joke – is Carey Jones’s idea of a globetrotting caper, tracking knock-off jewels first to a shoddily green-screened New York, then Cannes, where France’s flattest performers mouth ripe dialogue (“Gilles, eet eez a diamond mine, not a chocolate factory!”) and literally walk into the furniture. Thereafter, it’s back to Otley for some wholly woebegone action. The prevailing amateurism is such that when Darren Day shows up for a half-day’s work as a perma-angry copper, it is as though Gielgud himself had entered the frame.

Rough Cut is now showing in selected cinemas. 

Saturday 17 October 2015

Peckham wry: "Superbob"

You can feel the modest indie comedy Superbob drawing upon all its reserves to trick out to feature length a central idea - superhero's day off - which might have sustained an ad campaign and, in fact, did sustain an earlier short film, again directed by Jon Drever and starring Brett Goldstein. The set-up's nicely brisk: after a meteorite strikes Peckham, special powers are bestowed upon perhaps the least likely (and suitable) recipient - a postman named Bob (Goldstein), a drippy dullard with no social skills who can barely end a phone call or Ministry of Defence meeting without feeling a need to apologise to someone. As a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew tail him, his interactions reveal a number of concerns that may very well tessellate with those of the writer-director: Bob has a weird obsession with finding the right gas provider, winds up - this being a very British superhero movie - having to do a lot more admin than Batman or Spider-Man had to concern themselves with, attends to a frail mother (Ruth Sheen) who wants to see him paired off with someone nice, engages in light flirtation with his Spanish cleaner (Natalia Tena), and betrays a nerdy anxiety around the gorgeous librarian he's somehow managed to land a date with (Laura Haddock).

There are limitations: maybe the mock-doc format is skewing it, but Goldstein's schtick lands at the midpoint of Office-era Ricky Gervais and Martin Freeman - the kind of wheedling that's become the default setting for performers who haven't entirely found their own comic voice - and there's a lot of improvisational watertreading in the hope the cast will stumble onto flickers of wit that aren't always present in the script. Likewise, it hasn't quite got the budget to deliver the finale it perhaps wants to, instead holing up in and around Sheen's care home for a stand-off that involves a whole lot of chatter and a Rob Curling cameo. For all that, it's very appealingly shot by Mattias Nyberg (Ollie Kepler's Expanding Purple World) in bright pastel shades, and Drever makes a good deal of both his bigger set-pieces (Bob makes an absolute hash of a senior-citizens' anniversary speech) and whatever special effects he has to hand (two lovers caught mid-dance, elevating a single foot off the floor). It's nothing to get the Marvel suits too worried, certainly, but a genial calling card for a filmmaker to be offering: all being well within the industry, we'll almost certainly see more from Drever, and perhaps more from Goldstein, too.

Superbob is now playing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on Monday.   

Wednesday 14 October 2015

For one knight only: "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

After the success of the television series, the Monty Python boys went on to indulge in a spot of Arthurian leg(end)-pulling with 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a film at once mocking itself, the conventions of historical drama, and the very idea of making a movie - much as that TV series kept breaking the frame to mock the idea of television. Strangely, you can still tell that Holy Grail was written by keen students of history. Graham Chapman's "King of the Britons" clippity-clops his way through a landscape that is muddy, bloody and almost completely backward in its ignorance and superstition: the very definition of unenlightened times. Along the way, he encounters Palin, playing one Herbert's father as another of his trademark dead-ahead Yorkshiremen ("You'll not go into a song while I'm here"); Idle, as Roger the Shrubber; and Cleese, as an Enchanter called Tim; in a comedy with a notably high bodycount, some of these even survive through to the truncated - or truncheonated - end credits. It's perhaps less satisfying in storytelling terms than Life of Brian was to be four years later - whole stretches between skits are recounted by a narrator, or via Terry Gilliam animations - but proves strong on silly and otherwise inspired gags. The budget-induced decision to replace horses with coconut shells remains surprisingly funny, and there are several of the best riffs and punchlines the Pythons ever arrived at: the much-quoted likes of "He hasn't got shit all over him", "All right, we'll call it a draw" and "It's a fair cop" can all be heard within the opening twenty minutes alone.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail returns to selected cinemas tonight; a 40th anniversary Blu-Ray edition is also now available.

Sunday 11 October 2015

At the LFF: "Brooklyn"

The shifts witnessed in public, tabloid and political opinion over the past few months suggested we - or perhaps just those in charge of our gates and borders - needed to be reminded of who migrants really are: not strangers, leeches or vermin, nor political footballs, but living, breathing, yearning human beings, loved ones from far away. The cinema - lest we forget, an industry largely founded by immigrants - has its part to play in this process; the migrant theme has resurfaced in everything from The Grapes of Wrath to last year's beloved Paddington, and it receives a no less cherishable hearing in Brooklyn, a surprisingly successful and emotional big-screen take on Colm Toibin's novel, adapted by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley. 

For the cuddly Paddington, swap in Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actress whose cool intelligence has so often been squandered on mediocre material. Not so here: this may, in fact, be Ronan's coming out role, in that we witness the every step and stumble of Toibin's heroine Eilis Lacey - taking her from jobless small-town Fifties Ireland to upwardly mobile post-War Brooklyn - through the actress's fierce blue-green eyes. Whisked swiftly across the Atlantic, Eilis comes to put down tentative roots: first in the boarding house of Ma Keogh (Julie Walters), then via a relationship with a local, Tony (Emory Cohen, seemingly channeling the young Brando), himself the offspring of (Italian) immigrants. The roots take; the young girl we see at the start of the film grows and blooms before our very eyes.

That's about all Brooklyn can offer by way of scale, but in this instance it's plenty. Never quite as conventionally sweeping as one expects, the film's New York scenes were largely shot in catch-all Canada, where a lot of first-rate craft clearly went into recreating those recognisable walk-ups and intersections. Crowley keeps his camera more or less at street level, the better to observe a heroine finding her feet in unfamiliar territory - in this, he's helped by Hornby's economic yet characterful writing, which identifies the key moments in Toibin's novel and shapes them into lived-in setpieces: Eilis's first steps beyond the door at Ellis Island that leads into the New World, the arrival of her mother's first letter from home, the many damp-eyed leavetakings. Everything feels personal, intimate; nobody gets lost in a crowd scene.

Mostly, we're left in warm and welcoming company. As his multistranded crime comedy Intermission suggested back in 2003, Crowley likes actors: he spins comic gold from the fractious evening meals around Ma Keogh's table, where the resident shopgirls bicker with the old maids and arrivistes - a sniping temporarily halted so that Eilis can be schooled to eat spaghetti without splashing her new beau's parents with sauce. In stark contrast, there's an especially poignant Christmas lunch thrown by the Church for hunched ex-pat veterans, where a few words from the parish priest (Jim Broadbent) - "They built the tunnels and highways" - capture both how hard the immigrant experience can be, and how it gets easier for successive generations. We're all part of a continuity, reaping the benefits of that which preceded us.

You soon spot how Broadbent and Cohen are outnumbered by the fairer sex, a prompt that Brooklyn stands not just as a women's picture, in that faintly fusty, 1950s sense of the term, but also first and foremost as a portrait of a young lady - and in this latter, it might well count as one of the most gallant gestures that a male author, screenwriter and director have collectively offered inside a cinema in recent years. The bonus is the evocation of two distinct worlds - the hope and promise of post-War America, and the dream-stifling ordinariness of Ireland, the second half following the symmetrical contours of Toibin's novel in exploring just what a girl like Eilis might bring back to her motherland. (There's another useful contribution here from Domhnall Gleeson as the best rural Ireland has to offer.) In doing so, this deeply moving film allows us to feel twin, conflicting pulls: the need for independence, to strike out in search of a better life for ourselves, and the desire for the familiar comforts of home. Every year brings one quietly, expertly crafted literary adaptation against which the flashier awards-season contenders will be measured. In 2015, Brooklyn is that film.

Brooklyn screens as the May Fair Hotel Gala at the Odeon Leicester Square tomorrow at 7.15pm, then on Tue 13 at 2.15pm, and then on Wed 14 at the Curzon Mayfair at 9.15pm.

"Jazbaa" (Guardian 11/10/15)

Jazbaa ***
Dir: Sanjay Gupta. With: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Irrfan Khan, Shabana Azmi, Jackie Shroff. 119 mins. Cert: 12A

As Bollywood royalty, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan would have been forgiven for easing herself back in upon her return from maternity leave. It’s to her credit, then, that she’s instead taken on Jazbaa, an appreciably pulpy remake of the 2007 Korean thriller Seven Days. Granted, Hindi cinema’s usual maternal-love fetish is somewhere hereabouts, but it’s secondary to a recurring Korean concern: what happens when those with dirty hands let those they care about slip through greasy fingers. Every one of its characters – from the highest MP to the lowliest thug – is working the system; an end-credit card highlighting Indian rape stats repositions Sanjay Gupta’s film as a critique of a system that needs to work harder itself.

One of Mumbai’s craftiest defence lawyers, La Bachchan’s Anu Verma is introduced engineering the disappearance of crucial evidence at a mobster’s extortion trial. Her shaky ethical code will be tested shortly thereafter when her young daughter is kidnapped by a gang who dispatch her to do their bidding – by getting one of their number, recently convicted of raping and murdering a student, off Death Row. Given that her latest client tries throttling her at their first meeting, accepting said appeal appears an obvious wrong turn – but then the law, in this conception, is a labyrinthine grey zone in which even those trying to do right will incur not inconsiderable collateral damage.

There’s a certain clumsiness in setting all this up. Certain early scenes look very much as though they were drawn up solely so its producer-star can show off what supermarket-checkout magazines would describe as her toned post-baby figure: a spot of downward-dog on a harbour wall under the credits, running a poised relay leg at her daughter’s school sports day. Though Rai Bachchan proves a fierce courtroom presence, her agony at seeing her offspring spirited away is decidedly overstretched: witness her extended pre-intermission slo-mo charge towards the kidnappers’ SUV after her girl is spied in the backseat. (The relay suggests she’d have made it at normal speed.)

Gupta’s more assured around Anu’s sidekick Inspector Yohaan (Irrfan Khan), recently suspended but insistent that, in the scheme of things, he’s not so corrupt: as he points out, his going rate was 1.5 crores, where the average is ten. You accept, as you would in a well-penned airport novel, that he happens to have been Anu’s childhood friend; also that he’s been crushing on our heroine. Khan’s signature subtlety isn’t much required, but this chewy character part affords him countless gruffly louche flourishes: to one suspect’s pleas for justice, the Inspector snickers “You’ve been watching too much Hollywood; this is Bollywood”, before smashing a chair over the unfortunate.

Visually, it’s overwrought: all torrential downpours and yellowy-green filters the colour of nausea. Yet the byplay between Anu and the dead student’s mother is bolstered by Shabana Azmi’s commanding presence in the latter role; your sympathies do swing back-and-forth. And it’s a nicely ambivalent touch that the matter is resolved only as a result of an underworld powerplay; the moral, not so far removed from the moral of a show like House of Cards, is you make your deals where you can. For all the rot Gupta dwells upon, there’s something refreshing about Jazbaa within the wider Bollywood context: it’ll make for brisk, pacy, adult entertainment – whichever side of the law you’re on.

Jazbaa is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 9 October 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of October 2-4, 2015:
1 (new) The Martian (12A) ****
2 (2) Legend (18) ***
3 (1Everest (12A)
4 (new) The Intern (12A)
5 (new) Macbeth (15) ***
6 (3) Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (12A)
7 (new) Il Trovatore - Met Opera 2015 (12A)
8 (4) Miss You Already (12A)
9 (new) Singh is Bliing (12A) *
10 (5) Inside Out (U) ****


My top five:   
1. The Martian
2. Mia Madre
3. Older Than Ireland
4. Suffragette
5. Red Army

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Avengers: Age of Ultron (12) **
2 (3) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
3 (2) Cinderella (U)
4 (6) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (12) **
5 (8) Home (U) **
6 (7) Fifty Shades of Grey (18)
7 (new) Tomorrowland: a World Beyond (PG) ***
8 (new) Man Up (15)
9 (re) Taken 3 (15)
10 (10) Jupiter Ascending (12)

My top five:  
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. The New Girlfriend
3. The Treatment
4. The Tribe
5. Building Jerusalem

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Animal Kingdom (Sunday, C4, 1am)
2. The Count of Monte Cristo [above] (Sunday, five, 6.25pm)
3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Saturday, BBC2, 12midnight)
4. Predators (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
5. The Runaways (Friday, C4, 1am)