Sunday 29 November 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of November 20-22, 2015:
1 (new) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (12A)
2 (1) SPECTRE (12A) ***
3 (2) The Lady in the Van (12A) ***
4 (3Hotel Transylvania 2 (U)
5 (6) Brooklyn (12A) ****
6 (5) Steve Jobs (15) ***
7 (new) The Dressmaker (12A) ***
8 (7) Pan (PG)
9 (4) Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (12A) ****
10 (new) The Perfect Guy (15)


My top five:   
1. Bridge of Spies
2. True Romance
3. Carol [above]
4. All About Them
5. Radiator

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (new) Inside Out (U) ****
2 (new) Joe and Caspar Hit the Road (12)
3 (4) Amy (15) ****
4 (1) Pitch Perfect 2 (12) **
5 (2) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) ****
6 (new) San Andreas (12)
7 (3) Nativity 3: Dude, Where's My Donkey?! (U)
8 (5) Fast & Furious 7 (12) ***
9 (7) Spooks: The Greater Good (15)
10 (8) Mr. Holmes (PG) ***

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Little Mermaid (Sunday, five, 3.35pm)
2. Easy A (Saturday, C4, 12.15am)
3. Gran Torino (Sunday, five, 9pm)
4. Bullet to the Head (Sunday, C4, 11.10pm)
5. Papadopoulos & Sons (Saturday, BBC2, 9.55pm)

Chips on his shoulders: "Steve Jobs"

2015 was the year in which mainstream American movies - increasingly sustained by towering entertainment conglomerates - became fascinated by the way major corporations go about their business. This bent towards self-examination, whether neurotic or just plain narcissistic, could be observed in a mini-wave of mild, office-centred comedies (The Internship, The Intern) premised on the kind of entry-level drudgery most cinemagoers will have had to suffer through at some time in order to make rent; it was all that passed for subtext in the year's biggest hit to date, Jurassic World. Yet the issue of whether boardroom drama holds lasting appeal for those of us without blue-chip stock portfolios remains very much open to question. There's a measure of irony in the fact that Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs, a film about a man whose products regularly have punters queuing up around the block in the dead of night should open to largely empty cinemas in the US - but then one of the film's themes is the profound disconnect that presently exists between the way things are made and how they're sold, between who we are and the people (and consumers) we aspire to be.

Aaron Sorkin's script proceeds with the aim of leading us deep inside the Apple empire to examine its pith and pips: here are three tranches of time - slices, if we must continue the metaphor - which, taken collectively, purport to give us some, if not all, of a bigger biographical picture. It is in 1984, at the moment of Reaganomics, that we first meet Jobs (Michael Fassbender), a floppy-haired techie beset by problems of communication in the minutes before the launch of the hallowed Macintosh. On a micro level, the damn machine won't say "hello" to the assembled press corps as Jobs hopes, necessitating some frenzied last-gasp programming, while others prove only too vocal in clamoring for our hero's divided attention: chiefly, his sometime girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), who arrives backstage trailing a six-year-old daughter to whom Jobs has repeatedly denied all claim. A technical aside reveals the Mac has been specifically designed in such a way as to be incompatible with anything else, a ploy intended to boost sales: we are, at the end of this section, led to wonder to what extent it was created in its maker's own image.

In the 1988 section, we find Jobs 2.0 - now with sleek Patrick Bateman styling - in exile after a falling-out with Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), trying in vain to summon up enthusiasm for his new project, the NeXT Black Cube. (Nope, me neither.) This second act is where you start to hear Sorkin's framework groaning and creaking: it's the inevitable downtime between personal and professional triumphs, dependent for its conflict on such contrivances as Jobs learning from a handily placed magazine article that Sculley is buying his new enterprise out. Finally, we jump ahead to 1998, and the launch of the iMac: having established a measure of dominance over the marketplace, Jobs can be observed making nice (or as nice as Jobs made) with his colleagues, and making a belated investment in his now college-age daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine); the moral, which may only come as a surprise to anyone in the higher tax bands, is that personal and commercial growth need not be mutually exclusive.

Boyle makes this three-act play cinematic by seeking out different stages (a theatre, an opera house, a concert hall) with different acoustics and resonances for each part, and rendering each backdrop in a different, era-appropriate visual style, but all this moving around - the walking-and-talking familiar from the Sorkin oeuvre, the kinetic shotgrabbing that's been a Boyle trademark ever since the opening of Shallow Grave - doesn't get us any closer to knowing Steve Jobs the man. Instead, Steve Jobs the movie circles frenetically around in the manner of someone conducting a trolley dash through an Apple store or theme park. The experience is diverting and well-staffed, certainly - at every turn of the clock we encounter the kind of performer smart enough to get their heads and tongues around Sorkin's linguistic chicanery - but the cold, hard mechanics of the Apple business empire get concealed, rather than laid bare, by Boyle and Sorkin's relentless, rat-a-tat show business. 

You're meant simply to switch off and go with it, but to think differently for a minute - in that phrase's original, pre-corporate sense, before it came to mean "queue up at 5am along with all the other suckers" - isn't there something perilously banal about Sorkin's insistence that all of Jobs's interpersonal issues could be traced back to his days in an orphanage? Isn't there something a touch soft in the film's insinuation Jobs can't really be all that bad if sensible Kate Winslet (as Apple press chief Joanna Hoffman) stayed by his side all this while? And isn't there something shameless and cutesy in the final act's conclusion that the iPod was manufactured for love, not for money? Throughout all this, I kept having flashbacks to the ways in which David Fincher's rigorous direction of Sorkin's script for The Social Network cut through the bullshit and flattery and - in doing so - got us closer to its varyingly vulnerable, wounded characters. By comparison, the people in Steve Jobs resemble at best avatars outmanoeuvring one another, Pac Man ghosts in a machine; at worst, they seem like actors cast as script delivery systems in a showy, self-satisfied stage or radio play. (The choice of locations, in this instance, hardly helps the film's cause: until the closing minutes, we're stuck inside a bubble and repeatedly reminded we're in a bubble.)

That the new film has been conceived, at the highest level, with at least one eye on winning over the suits who might finance it is evident in the reams of dialogue given over to stock prices and takeover manoeuvres (a niche interest, like fly fishing, only without the fresh air) and in the altogether forgiving portrait of its protagonist as handsome, charismatic, hyper-articulate, mercurial and finally unknowable, which is to say untouchable by the likes of you and I. For all their issues, Steve Jobs ventures, we're stuck with these absent, distant corporate fathers, and unlike the increasingly misanthropic Fincher, Boyle remains too much the crowdpleaser to fashion anything especially questioning upon being handed that scenario. He does, as ever, an energetic and professional job in bringing this script to the screen - it's an easy sit-through, and part of me immediately wanted to watch it all over again, as though it were an especially virtuosic trailer - but the result still feels more like a sales pitch than a serious, considered inquiry: for all Apple's reported objections to the idea of a Jobs biopic - protect the brand! - their investors can rest easy with the finished product, which will end up on iTunes soon enough.  

Steve Jobs is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Monday 23 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 20 November 2015

For what it's worth...

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


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

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

My top five:  

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

Monday 16 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 14 November 2015

For what it's worth...

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


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

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

My top five:  

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

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Gentlemen and players: "Warriors"

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

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

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

Warriors opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

Friday 6 November 2015

For what it's worth...

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


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

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

My top five:  

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

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

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

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

The Closer We Get opens in selected cinemas from today. 

"Green Day: Heart Like a Hand Grenade" (Guardian 06/11/15)

Green Day: Heart Like a Hand Grenade **
Dir: John Roecker. With: Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool, Mike Dirnt, Mike Pelino. 120 mins. Cert: 15

This deadeningly authorised cross-promotional item suffers from that lack of curiosity common among one-night-only rock docs. Embedded with the pop-punks as they recorded their American Idiot opus, filmmaker John Roecker soon fades into the furniture: the between-take downtime’s unrevealing, while sequences on the construction of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and others cut far too early to polished live performances to capture the intended craft. We get a passing sense of the band’s personalities – incorrigibly boyish, even as they head into fatherhood – yet there’s nothing of substance on the music, or its notionally oppositional slant. It’s almost as though it wouldn’t hold up to sustained analysis.

Green Day: Heart Like a Hand Grenade opens in selected cinemas from today. 

Monday 2 November 2015

"Naanum Rowdy Dhaan" (Guardian 01/11/15)

Naanum Rowdy Dhaan ***
Dir: Vignesh Shivan. With: Vijay Sethupathi, Nayantara, Parthiban, Radhika Sarathkumar. 139 mins. Cert: 12A

The big Tamil hit of the season, Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (I’m A Rowdy Too), opens with a lovely, small but crystallising image. A seven-year-old boy, Pondy, sits in an empty cell in the police station at which his mother works as an inspector, assiduously filling in a school worksheet. Under “what do you want to be?”, the boy scrawls the word “police” – but upon hearing a crime story told by the excitable rogue who takes his place, he alters the letters to read “rowdy” (i.e. thug). With appreciable economy, writer-director Vignesh Shivan establishes his own ambition: to make merry mischief on either side of the fine line between law and disorder.

Fastforward twenty years, and Pondy (Vijay Sethupathi) has come to set up shop as a strongman-for-hire, his prices set out in garish ghost-train day-glo on the walls of his underpopulated office: 10,000 rupees for leg-breaking, 15,000 for an arm. When he crosses paths with spirited deaf woman Kadhambari (Nayanthara), we initially fear sappiness, but Shivan is specific in describing the effect she has on our hero: Pondy is obliged to speak slower and softer, to use his hands to communicate rather than throw punches. I had fond flashbacks to 2006’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai, where a mobster found himself mollified by the pestering spirit of Gandhi.

After several weeks of Hindi movies trading in random gags and clashing tones, it’s a relief to encounter a film where every element feels integrated and thought-through: Kadhambari’s deafness connects to that prologue as well as the subsequent murder of her father. Even the musical numbers – all but one penned by Shivan – serve to push the plot on, or strengthen our sense of these characters; as the title song says of Pondy, “He doesn’t like violence/But he’s a rowdy anyway”. It therefore makes sense we should arrive at a point, just before the intermission, where gentle Kadhambari should turn Lady Macbeth and ask Pondy to help her slay her father’s killer.

This development instantly relieves Nayanthara of having to play damp-eyed damsel-in-distress; just as Pondy is evidently less of a tough guy than he’d like to project, so too Kadhambari proves far steelier than first assumed. Any US remake would have to pair, say, Seth Rogen with Angelina Jolie: we’d immediately grasp he’d do anything for her, while fearing his heart might give out in the process. The second half, essentially a men-on-a-mission movie, makes pointed the fact the pair’s target (Parthiban, shrewdly pantomimic) should now be standing for office – again, it’s a fine line – and funny the idea he should have upset so many folk that he’s tailed by rival assassins.

There are some rough edges and missed opportunities. Overbearing incidental music keeps threatening to drown out the dialogue, and Shivan doesn’t quite make enough of his fine supporting cast. (One key player vanishes for so long the end credits can joke about their disappearance.) Still, the narrative assurance is matched by a breeziness of tone. You feel everybody relaxing around the coastal Pondicherry locations; wherever queasy violence lurks, Shivan knows a good gag will leaven the mood. Unlike its protagonist, his film isn’t pretending to be anything other than what it is: far from a novelty, but well-written, carefully composed and very likably played – the kind of crowdpleaser that deserves its success.

Naanum Rowdydhaan is now playing in selected cinemas.

Sunday 1 November 2015

1,001 Films: "Harold and Maude" (1971)

At a moment when studio comedy has been reduced to shipping variably funny individuals out on location and having them spitball enough material - amusing or otherwise - for a two-hour feature, it's a joy to encounter one with a degree of precision factored into its writing and framing, and a sense of idiosyncratic detail being locked down for the ages. Industry lore connects Harold and Maude's enduring, lovable quirks with Hal Ashby's reliably shaggy direction, but it also surely stands as a tribute to Colin Higgins' fairytale screenplay, which must have offered its director something funny, off or otherwise unique on every page. What Higgins and Ashby pulled off here was essentially a Goth Graduate: the story of a smart, sensitive yet inexperienced soul - Bud Cort's Harold, seen floating uncertainly in a swimming pool as part of his roster of mock-suicide stunts - who comes to be brought out of his shell by an older woman. This is sexy septuagenarian Maude (Ruth Gordon), who proves as full of beans at the possibilities of life as her young swain appears sick of the moneyed existence he's been born into and grown trapped within.

You can, pretty much from the word go, see why the counterculture's kids went for it so: it's not just the often beautifully integrated Cat Stevens soundtrack, but the abiding sense of an America where everyone between the ages of 20 and 70 has been utterly compromised by money, politics and the way the planet turns, and of two bodies attempting to keep one another out of the ground. What possibly started life as a tiny, offbeam comedy now really does resemble a document of a moment when - thanks to TV reporting of Vietnam - most Americans were having to look death squarely in the eye for the first time in decades: the lovers meet over an open grave, and when the screen fills with white military tombstones at a critical juncture in their relationship, we know exactly the grain the pair are rubbing against. Still, Ashby was a savvy enough hophead to know there could be something funny and spiriting in the sight of two people at all turns defying social convention, and Cort and Gordon, a far more affectionate pairing than the satirical Hoffman-Bancroft hook-up, get us around the film's more extreme tonal fluctuations; they create their own world, and pull us through it. Annoyingly, it's become one of those films liable to be claimed retrospectively as "very Wes Anderson", but all its pieces move, and there's a lived-in, thought-through and sensitively verbalised philosophy underpinning its quirks: it would be impossible to say how many people the film has inspired, over the past four decades, to think, love and live differently.

Harold and Maude is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.