Sunday 27 December 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of December 18-20, 2015:
1 (new) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A) **
2 (new) Sisters (15) **
3 (2) The Good Dinosaur (PG)
4 (new) Dilwale (12A) **
5 (1) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (12A)
6 (3SPECTRE (12A) ***
7 (new) Bajirao Mastani (12A) ****
8 (5) Christmas with the Coopers (12A)
9 (4Bridge of Spies (12A) *****
10 (re) It's a Wonderful Life (U) *****


My top five:   
1. Bajirao Mastani
2. Audition 
3. Hector
4. By the Sea
5. Grandma

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Inside Out (U) ****
2 (2) Ant-Man (12) ***
3 (3) Jurassic World (12) **
4 (4) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) ****
5 (6) Joe and Caspar Hit the Road (12)
6 (9) Pitch Perfect 2 (12) **
7 (re) San Andreas (12)
8 (7) Amy (15) ****
9 (5) I Believe in Miracles (12)
10 (re) Fast & Furious 7 (12) ***

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Wizard of Oz [above] (New Year's Eve, five, 3.55pm)
2. An American in Paris (Monday, five, 10.50am)
3. Mary Poppins (Sunday, BBC1, 1.50pm)
4. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Wednesday, ITV1, 12.30pm)
5. From Russia with Love (Boxing Day, ITV1, 11.25pm)

Wednesday 23 December 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of December 11-13, 2015:
1 (1) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (12A)
2 (2) The Good Dinosaur (PG)
3 (3SPECTRE (12A) ***
4 (4) Bridge of Spies (12A) *****
5 (5) Christmas with the Coopers (12A)
6 (7) The Lady in the Van (12A) ***
7 (6) Black Mass (15) **
8 (9) Krampus (15) ***
9 (10) Carol (15) ****
10 (8) Victor Frankenstein (12A) **


My top five:   
1. Bajirao Mastani
2. Audition 
3. Hector
4. By the Sea
5. Grandma

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Inside Out (U) ****
2 (2) Ant-Man (12) ***
3 (new) Jurassic World (12) **
4 (4) Mad Max: Fury Road (15) ****
5 (new) I Believe in Miracles (12)
6 (3) Joe and Caspar Hit the Road (12)
7 (7) Amy (15) ****
8 (new) The Bad Education Movie (15) **
9 (5) Pitch Perfect 2 (12) **
10 (6) Ronaldo (PG)

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Wizard of Oz (Christmas Day, five, 3.10pm)
2. Finding Nemo (Christmas Eve, BBC1, 3.50pm)
3. It's a Wonderful Life [above] (Christmas Eve, C4, 2.15pm)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Monday, BBC1, 1.45pm)
5. Back to the Future Part II (Christmas Eve, ITV1, 11.25am)

"Bajirao Mastani" (Guardian 23/12/15)

Bajirao Mastani ****
Dir: Sanjay Leela Bhansali. With: Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Mahesh Manjrekar. 158 mins. Cert: 12A

Since the millennium, the writer-director-composer Sanjay Leela Bhansali has fashioned a series of ornate wonders from mythological and historical material. He broke through with 2002’s Shah Rukh Khan-starring Devdas, then delivered 2005’s affecting Black – an expressionist The Miracle Worker – before going for broke on 2013’s Ram-Leela, casting Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh as the eponymous star-crossed lovers. With Bajirao Mastani, another epic tableau scattered with jewels and rose petals, Bhansali retains his Ram-Leela leads and channels David Lean – albeit a Lean with something far spicier than starch in his underwear. The result may be the cinema’s most seductive monument to marital infidelity.

Singh’s Bajirao – warmonger-in-chief of the 18th century Marathan regime – is introduced playing away: leaving decorous wife Kashi (Priyanka Chopra) at home, he’s sent to liberate the besieged Bundelkhand region, where he falls into stride with local warrior princess Mastani (Padukone). Victory assured, they repair to hers to compare scars – “Your wound is deep, let me see it,” Bajirao insists, a line more Geordie Shore than Mughal Empire – but it appears a one-time thing; once the blood cools, our hero returns to family life. For Mastani, however, this battle isn’t over: soon, she’s riding into court, demanding further satisfaction from the man she loves. Uh-oh.

Bhansali’s dramatising an ugly business, yet long stretches confirm this director is incapable of framing anything other than an entirely captivating shot: this is a film that plays out to the forgiving flicker of candlelight, and knows full well the pleasures of letting the eye roam. After Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, it’s this year’s second Hindi film to construct a glittering Palace of Mirrors, although Bhansali can’t resist adding extra layers of polish: surfaces so reflective they beam a prototypical cinema into adjacent suites, a lilting song, “Deewani Mastani”, in which Padukone makes pop culture’s greatest use of a mandolin since R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and Bhansali paints the screen Indian Ivy.

The director handles his performers with similar sensitivity and intelligence, and all three offer real star turns, thereby avoiding fading into some singularly lavish scenery. Padukone’s Mastani, a Mughal Alex Forrest, displays a steely determination in the face of her hosts’ contempt that proves oddly ennobling. Chopra never allows Kashi to become an afterthought: those eyes register a wife’s hurt every bit as vividly as they have happiness elsewhere. And Singh’s bullet-headed Bajirao, forever charging into uncharted physical and emotional terrain, marks another fine showing from one of Bollywood’s most versatile leads: we spot exactly why this bad boy commands the loyalty, even lust he does.

The second half rests upon this sympathetic idea of the hero as akin to a buff, dreamy Henry VIII – not some love rat, but a man of appetite, spoiled for choice. Here, Bhansali details Bajirao’s attempts to reconfigure his household to better reflect the contours of his heart, chiefly by insisting these women – one Hindu, one Muslim – be treated as equals. It’s typical of the dignity Bhansali lends to this triangle’s points that the women aren’t set to catfighting, rather dancing together; no matter whether this is historically accurate, as filmed it provides a model of flexible sisterhood, not to mention as harmonious a setpiece as anything Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe shared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (Evidently Bajirao begged to differ.)

There’s perhaps no dressing up the downer ending – which at least reflects the era’s limited tolerance for forward thinking – and the once-torrid energy relents a little as the leads suffer in solitude. Yet overall, Bajirao Mastani sounds many more progressive notes than most recent Western costume dramas: it’s the work of a filmmaker recruiting in-every-sense hot leads to cast off their traditional garb and attempt something that feels very modern. In so doing, Bhansali has thrown down a sapphire-studded gauntlet to established chart-topper Shah Rukh Khan’s rival Christmas release Dilwale; that it lands so delicately, and yet so potently, is the surest sign we’re in the hands of an artist.

Bajirao Mastani is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

"Dilwale" (Guardian 21/12/15)

Dilwale **
Dir: Rohit Shetty. With: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Varun Dhawan, Kriti Sanon. 158 mins. Cert: 12A

2015 was the year the commercial cinema stepped up in the matter of monetising nostalgia. In the West, the Spielberg/Lucas copyism of Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens raked in megabucks by cosying up to established fanbases, as did SPECTRE by extracting 007 from the real world (and real-world peril) Skyfall placed him in and instead returning the character to those fantastical lairs he’d escaped a half-century ago. With Dilwale, Bollywood follows suit. In its title and casting, Rohit Shetty’s film trades heavily on fond memories of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the 1995 landmark that was still enjoying regular rotation in one Mumbai cinema as late as this February.

What’s initially so discombobulating here is that that film’s stars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol should be reunited in a very different movie. Where the original was a lush, keening romance, the new one foregrounds elements of those pulpy crime stories about one sibling getting inextricably drawn into another’s risky business. The good brother here is Raj (Khan), a former tough who reformed upon opening an auto repair shop. Yet one of the hot-rods parked under his roof is trickier to handle than most: this is younger brother Veer (Varun Dhawan), who – while attempting to impress the winsome Ishu (Kriti Sanon) – crosses a fearsome drug dealer.

An extended pre-interval flashback clarifies matters a little. Here, we learn that the beardless Raj only turned thug after he, too, stepped in to assist a damsel in distress – and after the thoroughly boysy beginning, it’s something of a relief when Kajol shows up, still possessed of the best eyebrows in the business (chief rivals: Camilla Belle, Lee Pace, Eugene Levy), as Raj’s beloved Meera. Thus can Shetty make a narrative point of having history repeat itself, and for at least its first half, Dilwale provides functional enough holiday entertainment.

It’s clear Khan’s rare, Cary Grant-like ability to strike up a chemistry with anyone placed in front of him hasn’t diminished over the past two decades. With Kajol, it’s a given, and a joy – and, for this lovestruck Raj, something of a liability – but there’s also a warmth to his interactions with Dhawan that steers the garage scenes away from flimsy Fast & Furious-ism. (The Khan-less scenes, full of grown men wailing like kids, overdo the wacky sound effects, and the less said about Dhawan’s impromptu Love, Actually homage the better.)

Shetty keeps his end up by ensuring the action scenes remain coherent: the punches land with uncommon force for a 12A-rated movie, and the crisp editing is such you can see the drivers in the cars flipping over at 80mph. While it’s transitioning between genres, you ride along. Trouble arrives, however, once Dilwale enters its ultimate destination: the dud second half feels copied-and-pasted in from some Big Bollywood Book of Star-Crossed Lovers, tossing out one implausible, indigestible chunk of melodrama after another. It’s not just the stars who’ve been reunited, but all those narrative and visual tropes that have curdled into cliché.

The lovers’ fringes still blow up as they turn towards camera in slow-motion; tragic developments occasion torrential rainstorms. Shetty’s clinging at numbing length to what’s worked before, and this of all seasons, that may prove as much limitation as consolation. The 1995 Dilwale’s title translated as The Bravehearted Will Take the Bride, and the boldly beautiful Bajirao Mastani surely has that prize sewn up this Christmas. The new Dilwale has the star power to pick up those unlucky bridesmaids shut out of adjacent screens, but everybody’s evening, everybody’s legacy, might have been better served by returning the original to circulation.

Dilwale is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

"The Ridiculous 6" (Guardian 16/12/15)

The Ridiculous 6 **
Dir: Frank Coraci. With: Adam Sandler, Terry Crews, Jorge Garcia, Luke Wilson. 119 mins. No cert

And so does the universe correct itself: in the week of the most anticipated film ever made, a new Adam Sandler release trickles onto Netflix. Depending on temperament, spoof Western The Ridiculous 6 will mark either a seachange or merely a plumbing adjustment – it’s the first feature Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions has pumped directly into living rooms, a breakthrough that recalls that scatological Stewart Lee aside about paying towatch E4. Despite production line troubles – several Native American extras quit in protest at the project’s insensitivity – the final cut still features characters named Beaver Breath and Never Wears Bra, played by Caucasians in brownface. For Sandler, it’s business as usual.

Though the title suggests a Barron Knights-style takedown of The Magnificent Seven or The Hateful Eight, the jokeless prologue hints Team Sandler really wanted to ride horses as they did the rubber rings of the Grown-Ups series. Matters turn notionally comic only after Sandler’s outlaw Tommy “White Knife” Stockburn assembles a gang to spring kidnapped pop Nick Nolte. A low-rent pub quiz answer in waiting, these are: Rob Schneider in orangeface as a Mexican whose burro has explosive diarrhoea; Taylor Lautner as a gap-toothed yokel; Jorge Garcia as a man-mountain mountain man; Luke Wilson as a gunslinger driven to booze by his part in the Lincoln assassination; and Terry Crews as a pianist compelled to come out as black.

Sandler’s go-to story guy Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer, Click) at least returns from New Mexico with a widescreen-looking movie. Yet the lax two-hour running time is the only other sign anybody’s stretching themselves in the new medium; the material canters along in that mild, PG-13 groove Sandler’s been stuck in for a decade. Its less-than-blazing campfire scene sees Lautner reheating Andy Samberg’s “cool beans” catchphrase from 2007’s Hot Rod; Never Wears Bra (Sandler’s wife Jackie) gets leered at in longshot. Among the cameos, John Turturro’s baseball-improvising pioneer garners chuckles, as does Vanilla Ice’s jive-talking Mark Twain. Yet while avoiding A Million Ways to Die in the West’s smugness, Sandler rejects anything so energetic as Seth MacFarlane’s taboo-goosing in favour of cheery inanity.

Peer through this dopey haze long enough, and you can’t fail to notice the cavalier racial attitudes, the endlessly pliable women; you’d have every right to be outraged, were it not now par for the Sandler course. The Ridiculous 6 sees a cannily advised operator giving his fanbase what they want, this time without the hardship of having to leave their La-Z-Boys: a brand has been expanded, with no more effort than is required to open a bag of Cheetos. More troubling is what this collaboration says for Netflix, first positioned as an alternative production-distribution model, now apparently throwing money after the same pointless-to-questionable content as every other studio. In 2015, orangeface surely isn’t about to become the new blackface, is it?

The Ridiculous 6 is now streaming on Netflix.

For your consideration: my Critics' Circle Award votes

Best Actor
1. Jeremy Renner, Kill the Messenger
2. Ben Foster, The Program
3. Matt Damon, The Martian
4. Kamal Haasan, Papanasam
5. Paul Dano, Love and Mercy

(Honourable mentions: John Cusack, Love and Mercy; Jason Bateman, The Gift; Jean Dujardin, The Connection)

Best Actress
1. Brie Larson, Room
2. Louane Emera, La Famille Bélier
3. Sarah Snook, Predestination
4. Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
5. Adèle Haenel, Les Combattants

(Honourable mentions: Rooney Mara, Carol; Cate Blanchett, Carol; Regina Casé, The Second Mother, Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Toni Collette, Glassland)

Best Supporting Actor
1. Jesse Plemons, The Program
2. Domhnall Gleeson, Brooklyn
3. Michael Sheen, Far from the Madding Crowd
4. Jake Davies, X+Y
5. Peter Mullan, Sunset Song

(Honourable mentions: Ben Chaplin, War Book; Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road; John Turturro, Mia Madre; James Rolleston, The Dark Horse; Rafe Spall, X+Y; Alex Lawther, X+Y; Eddie Marsan, X+Y)

Best Supporting Actress
1. Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
2. Elizabeth Banks, Love and Mercy
3. Rose Byrne, Spy
4. Sally Hawkins, X+Y
5. Karin Viard, La Famille Belier

(Honourable mentions: Emma Thompson, The Legend of Barney Thomson; Jo Yang, X+Y; Maxine Peake, The Falling; Florence Pugh, The Falling; Rachael Sterling, Sixteen; Eva Green, White Bird in a Blizzard)

Best British/Irish Actor
1. Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
2. Tom Courtenay, 45 Years
3. Colin Farrell, Miss Julie
4. Richard Johnson, Radiator
5. Tom Hardy, Legend

(Honourable mentions: Michael Fassbender, Slow West; Idris Elba, Second Coming; Jack Reynor, Glassland; Peter Ferdinando, Hyena)

Best British/Irish Actress
1. Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
2. Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
3. Agyness Deyn, Sunset Song
4. Nadine Marshall, Second Coming
5. Maisie Williams, The Falling

(Honourable mentions: Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl; Emily Blunt, Sicario; Carey Mulligan, Far From the Madding Crowd; Rebecca Hall, The Gift; Olivia Colman, London Road)

Young British/Irish Performer
1. Maisie Williams, The Falling
2. Milo Parker, Mr. Holmes
3. Florence Pugh, The Falling
4. Jake Davies, X+Y
5. Kai Francis Lewis, Second Coming

Director of the Year
1. Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies
3. George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
4. Andrew Haigh, 45 Years
5. Todd Haynes, Carol

(Honourable mentions: John Crowley, Brooklyn; Mia Hansen-Løve, Eden; SS Rajamouli, Baahubali: the Beginning; Pete Docter, Inside Out; Miroslaw Slaboshpitsky, The Tribe; David Robert Mitchell, It Follows)

Best Screenplay
1. Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, Inside Out
2. Andrew Haigh, 45 Years
3. Nick Hornby, Brooklyn
4. Phyllis Nagy, Carol
5. Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria

(Honourable mentions: Matt Charman & Joel and Ethan Coen, Bridge of Spies; Edgar Reitz and Gert Heidenreich, Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision; Peter Landesman, Kill the Messenger; Andrew Niccol, Good Kill; Gerard Barrett, Glassland; James Graham, X+Y; Gregg Araki, White Bird in a Blizzard)

British/Irish Breakthrough
1. John Maclean, writer-director, Slow West
2. Morgan Matthews, director, X+Y
3. Gerard Barrett, writer-director, Glassland
4. debbie tucker green, writer-director, Second Coming
5. Harry Macqueen, writer-director, Hinterland

(Honourable mentions: Ivan Kavanagh, writer-director, The Canal; Rob Brown, writer-director, Sixteen; Rebecca Johnson, writer-director, Honeytrap)

My annual lists of the twenty best and ten worst films of 2015 will run in the final week of the year.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

"Judge Singh LLB" (Guardian 14/12/15)

Judge Singh LLB ***
Dir: Atharv Baluja. With: Ravinder Grewal, B.N. Sharma, Sardar Sohi, Anita Devgan. 137 mins. Cert: 12A

Legal minds are forever seeking precedent, yet the Punjabi indie Judge Singh LLB may stand as the first socially conscious courtroom drama to open on an image of two men noisily voiding their bowels into a ditch. It’s a leftfield set-up, to say the least: in the hunt for something with which to clean up, one of these lowly squatting souls uncovers the body of a woman apparently slain in an honour killing by her brother, the son of a prominent politician. From there, the situation develops quickly. The politico bribes police to frame the deceased’s partner; isolated defecation gives way to a broader constitutional mess. Soon enough, everyone’s got dirty hands.

Within these initial movements, there are surely the makings of a Grishamish potboiler, and – as early viewers have detected – the beginnings of a wry comment on Modi’s India. Such robes, however, cloak a Capraesque slacker comedy; some career-minded Western screenwriter might tidy it up to enable another Adam Sandler vehicle. Our hero Judge (Ravinder Grewal) – and yes, that’s his given name – is only passing as a legal eagle in order to impress the family of his bride-to-be. Naturally, he has the misfortune to initiate this pretence as the aforementioned case comes to trial; naturally, he winds up having to defend the patsy against the pitiless machinations of the state.

Of course, this is wildly implausible – so implausible, in fact, that writer-director Atharv Baluja doesn’t trouble to explain how this case gets assigned to this rookie. Corner-cutting prevails throughout the film: its handheld camerawork and occasional continuity blips suggest a production shot on the hoof during recesses in real-life chambers. Matters get especially frenetic around the intermission, as Judge’s deception is exposed, and you wonder whether Baluja can pull it back. Yet elsewhere the film proceeds with a wealth of enthusiasm and spirit: this is the kind of scrappy underdog production that wins us over early and – even through its muddle-headed stretches – keeps giving us reasons to cheer for it.

Partly, it’s the actors, who are skilfully cast and no chore whatsoever to watch. The gently nerdy Grewal builds a genuinely sweet relationship with B.N. Sharma as Judge’s father/landlord: the pride they take in one another’s achievements, even after we learn that dad has been borrowing his son’s underpants, remains touching indeed. And Sardar Sohi’s wily turn as state prosecutor T.S. Brar, whose pre-trial routine includes combing three strands of hair across an otherwise gleaming bonce in the Homer Simpson style, proves very effective in demonstrating the merciless attack dog our dreamy hero must either become, or overcome, if there is to be anything like a fair trial.

Editorially, Baluja’s film still verges on the pipsqueak, as naïve in its belief that virtue will out as any movie casting Jimmy Stewart as a plain-spoken public servant. Yet the stakes are certainly raised, not least when Brar – and this really is a precedent – urinates into our hero’s fridge. And one clever development involving mobile toilets suggests what might be achieved should the right resources be placed in conscientious hands: an end to all this public excretion, if nothing else. Time will tell whether the Judge’s rousing summation – delivered in a gleaming white turban – helps restore a measure of justice within India. As entertainment, however, Judge Singh LLB overrules most of one’s objections.

Judge Singh LLB is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 11 December 2015

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of December 4-6, 2015:
1 (1) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (12A)
2 (2) The Good Dinosaur (PG)
3 (3SPECTRE (12A) ***
4 (4) Bridge of Spies (12A) *****
5 (new) Christmas with the Coopers (12A)
6 (5) Black Mass (15) **
7 (6) The Lady in the Van (12A) ***
8 (new) Victor Frankenstein (12A) **
9 (new) Krampus (15) ***
10 (7) Carol (15) ****


My top five:   
1. Audition [above]
2. Hector
3. By the Sea
4. Grandma
5. The Forbidden Room

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

My top five:  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Con Air (Friday, five, 9pm)
2. Toy Story 2 (Sunday, BBC1, 2.45pm)
3. Toy Story (Saturday, BBC1, 3pm) 
4. Aladdin (Sunday, C4, 5.20pm)
5. The Prestige (Saturday, BBC2, 10.45pm)