Thursday 31 October 2019

Scrap metal: "Terminator: Dark Fate"

As overseen by the emergent visionary James Cameron - like him or not, one of the half-dozen most significant filmmakers to debut in the final quarter of the 20th century - 1984's The Terminator and 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day were forward-facing sci-fi landmarks, as engaged in their own way with determining the future of the cinema (not least in their facility with increasingly elaborate digital effects) as their plots were with the future of mankind. The once-promising Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown) gave 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines an expensive B-movie heft (and raised the enduring idea of a lady Terminator, combining the strengths of the characters played in the first movies by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton); yet subsequent sequels - 2009's noisy Terminator: Salvation and 2015's needless Terminator: Genisys, directed by whoever happened to be passing - served no greater purpose than spinning wheels, the movie equivalents of the cursor on a Mac indicating some glitch or internal system error. 

This week's Terminator: Dark Fate looks decisively back to where this series began, taking a casting cue from the recent Jurassic Park and Halloween reboots in reuniting the series' most memorable players. Its trailer made much of a scene that brings Hamilton's Sarah Connor face-to-face once again with Schwarzenegger's hulking Eurobot, the merciless killer of the first movie rewired to serve as a protector in the second, and a prologue in the new film explains why the pair have kept a wary distance in the intervening years. (Clue: it isn't pretty.) Yet this reunion proves but a very thin sliver of what is, on the whole, a pretty thin two-hour runaround. Returning to first principals [sic], in this instance, hasn't given the series' underlying mythology any greater heft; it merely generates yet more flimsy, studio-funded fan fiction, a retreat offered up in the absence of any better or more original ideas. The rise of the machines Cameron's movies warned us about turns out to have been sponsored by Xerox.

Behind the multiple writing credits, there remain traces of a compelling pitch - the kind of brainwave that might well get a sixth Terminator film into production after the conspicuous underperformance of entries four and five. That pitch would be Mr. and Mrs. Terminator: mirrored, mixed-gender pairs shooting, pitting next-gen robots - "enhanced" (i.e. conscientious) Mackenzie Davis and kill-crazy Gabriel Luna - against one another and seasoned franchise survivors Linda and Arnie. The trouble, as so often once the budget drifts north of a certain figure, is indifferent story development. Anonymous stretches of South America provide incoming director Tim Miller with a relatively fresh backdrop, but elsewhere he keeps falling back on the familiar: recycled music cues, lines that throwback to or chime with what's gone before ("I won't be back"), metallurgic CGI that proves far less striking than it was back in 1991.

Repeated exposure has revealed the Terminators themselves to be humdrum, nuts-and-boltsy antagonists, essentially ambulant variations on the personality-free gadgets in the Bright Ideas catalogue: it took an uncanny screen presence such as Arnie or Robert Patrick to flesh them out and make them any more interesting to watch than, say, an especially rebellious trouser press. (Luna is too bland.) The ruthlessness of the Cameron-era Terminators - in many ways their most admirable attribute, as their scarcely less ruthless creator understood - has long since ebbed away: Dark Fate racks up a lot of discreet, just-off-camera carnage, allowing the kind of bystanders Arnie made mincemeat of in the original to walk away unscathed. Perhaps we forget the first movie was a nasty slice of 18-rated exploitation welded together by the mad genius behind Piranha II: Flying Killers; as early on as the gleaming, mega-budgeted Judgment Day, the franchise was looking for mass acceptance in those multiplexes which now have to keep their lights on during films for health-and-safety reasons.

There are one or two elements we might still root for. A potentially great actress - something like a steelier Brie Larson - who's had lousy luck with her career choices, Davis gives the action more backbone than it might otherwise have; she's a notable upgrade on the decorous Kristanna Loken of T3. And Hamilton - appreciably lined and lived-in, with a smoker's growl that lends much-needed character to terribly so-so dialogue - really does look as if she's spent the best part of the past 35 years fending off killer robots. Yet the film that's been thrown up around her doesn't possess the wisdom or the dramatic tools to give weight to Sarah Connor's ongoing trauma. Instead, Miller - arriving here after launching Fox's snarky Deadpool franchise - keeps succumbing to a glibness that is the mark of so much of our bigger-budgeted audiovisual content; he's well aware this particular history can and will be rewritten in Terminators VII-through-IX, so in some way none of it really matters. 

When asked what she's doing here, Davis's best response is "future shit"; a detour through a roomy border detention centre feels terribly opportunistic, verging on the suspect; by the time Davis is confessing "some man killed my dad over a tin of peaches" and Arnie is lumbering on to share interior decoration tips, we seem to be bordering on the parodic. The crisis facing Hollywood right now is that half of its directors (the Nolan-Snyder-Phillips faction) are taking their pulp way too seriously; the other half are incapable of taking anything seriously at all. Miller, for his part, presides with a dull competence over what feels like a near-final dismantling of the Terminator mythos: if Judgment Day launched the modern event movie, then Dark Fate is no more of an event than taking a cursory nose around a breakers' yard to see what one might get on the cheap. This franchise was once central to the operation of the movie summer season; it seems telling its latest venture should limp out into the greys of October, to be trounced at the box-office by a cruddy Batman spin-off.

Terminator: Dark Fate is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Sienna calling: "American Woman"

American Woman is two comebacks for the price of one. The headline story is that this is a proper star vehicle for Sienna Miller, the once-reviled It girl who repositioned herself by way of committed stage work and doing far more in stock wife/girlfriend roles in major studio releases (Foxcatcher, American Sniper) than many better placed actresses would have. Here, pursuing the indie route, she makes an altogether assured transformation into and out of a hot mess: Deb, a blowsy Pennsylvanian supermarket cashier and single mother introduced taking her pleasures where'er she can - most notably, via an affair with a married man - with scant regard for the consequences. Some form of responsibility will be conferred upon her, however, when her teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes AWOL, leaving Deb holding her own grandson. Initially, American Woman seems to be heading in the direction of a missing-persons thriller, possibly with an element of the psychological, or possibly even time-travel: we wonder whether finding Bridget - which Deb sets out to do with more or less the same delicacy she applies to her lovelife, swiftly totalling her car while mascara streams down her face - will allow our heroine to save some younger version of herself. In fact, the resolution of the Bridget crisis is delayed as the film instead takes the backroads and winds in a very different direction. By far the most impressive aspect here is the insistence that life isn't straightahead - so why should our movies be?

That the parallel between mother and daughter occurs to us is largely down to one deft character beat, inserted in the very first scene, in which Bridget watches her mom head out for a date, then mimics her performative hairtossing. The other comeback here is that of Jake Scott, son of Ridley, returning to the director's chair nearly a decade after 2010's Welcome to the Rileys and two after 1999's Plunkett & Macleane, the much-reshot, much-recut highwayman dud that might well have necessitated a long spell in the movie wilderness. Throughout American Woman, Scott proves unusually alert to the tension Deb's behaviour causes in those around her, be that her married, upwardly mobile sister (Christina Hendricks), their exhausted mother (Amy Madigan), or the neighbours who take one look at this bottle-blonde homewrecker coming up their driveway and immediately dive for cover. The movie doesn't look like much - it's going for a washed-out ordinariness someone thinks suits these lives, with occasional digital smears that bestow the mark of corner-cutting content - but Scott is a far calmer filmmaker than he was twenty years ago, and wiser to the ways people impact upon one another. There are passages in American Woman that set me to thinking of Kelly Reichardt's recent portraits of blue-collar striving, which is not what I was expecting from the director who once set Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller to exchanging geezerish wisecracks in what looked like an over-extended Adam Ant promo.

If a question mark remains, it hovers over the script. Brad Ingelsby is one of the few American writers around capable of getting scripts centred on working-class communities into production; this one's subtler than 2013's Out of the Furnace, but its structure takes some figuring out, and its transitions needed finessing by a more experienced filmmaker than Scott. Sporadic leaps ahead are good for Miller, who gets to rethink and refresh her heroine, showing how Deb pulls herself together and kicks out the bad (abusive wretch Pat Healy) in favour of something better. It's not entirely helpful for the film at first, shutting down the promising mystery Scott has carefully set up; the midsection is so oddly directionless it could be a filmed record of an actors' workshop, the result of creatives setting up camp in some out-the-way location in order to make up scenes on the hoof. (Again, it's a little bit Reichardt, but there are also signs that Scott has been studying that New American Cinema that came along in the wake of John Cassavetes.) Those actors are on fine form, though, and the absence of firm narrative developments clears a space for everybody to dig into the theme of development - arrested, belated, haphazard or otherwise. American Woman is good on growth: the kind of growth Miller and Scott have in common with Deb, the kind of growth most lives are founded on, that quiet, subcutaneous growth the movies don't often deal in, in part because it is so quiet and subcutaneous, so very unspectacular. That alone makes American Woman worthy of cautious recommendation - it may just require you not to expect anything as declamatory or definitive as that title.

American Woman is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Arab fling: "Tehran: City of Love"

The momentum Iranian cinema had in spades at the start of the century has ebbed away over the intervening years, which may just be what happens when a country's filmmaking luminaries die (Abbas Kiarostami), go AWOL (the many Makhmalbafs), are placed under house arrest (Jafar Panahi) or head out of town on starrier business (Asghar Farhadi). Tehran: City of Love, the second feature of the director Ali Jaberansari, may not quite be enough in itself to reverse the trend, but it offers a little nudge that suggests there may be drolly observational life in the industry yet. Jaberansari and co-writer Maryam Najafi introduce us to a trio of crisscrossing lonely hearts who could scarcely be less like the harried, windswept citizens put front-and-centre in Kiarostami's films. They're on What's App, for starters, and are comfortably established in respectable professions; they have the time and freedom to go looking for love rather than, say, friends who've disappeared in earthquakes, or someone who might assist in euthanising them. We rapidly understand the country - or Tehran, at least - has stabilised in recent times; were it not for Panahi's well-documented troubles, we might conclude that its cinema has been gentrified to some degree. One of the characters here comes this close to appearing in a film with Louis Garrel: Jaberansari fashions a nice running gag out of the fact nobody in Tehran really knows who Garrel is, but that joke depends entirely on the film's own audience recognising the tousle-haired Gallic sulker as a talismanic figure in upmarket arthouse circles.

The recent history of Iranian cinema seems to have been less influential on Jaberansari's thinking, all told, than TV sketch shows and the output of certain YouTube channels. This is a skittish film, zapping back-and-forth between the romantic misadventures of comfort-eating receptionist Mina (Forough Ghajabagli), lovesick muezzin Vahid (Mehdi Saki) and hapless personal trainer Hessam (Amir Hessam Bakhtiari), though within these slices of life, Jaberansari's generally fixed camera allows us time to study some spare, choice mise-en-scène. Nothing in the film is sadder and more revealing than the four biscuits - most likely Rich Tea; plain digestives at best - sitting untouched on a plate in Vahid's bachelor pad. The comedy works through accumulation - it grows on you - steered by actors with sharply defined, contrasting presences. Jaberansari has a real asset in Bakhtiari, who sports the hangdog features of Tex Avery's Droopy atop the marbled body of a Charles Atlas model, an unlikely mix-and-match that sustains the film through its lowest-key strand: Hessam's mooning over a fellow bodybuilder, where you wonder just how much musclebound longing a filmmaker can sneak past the Iranian censors nowadays. Saki is never funnier than when moping his way through the mosque's phys-ed program, although Vahid's midfilm effort to relaunch himself as a wedding singer with a repertoire of exclusively downbeat standards runs it a close second. Such turns explain why the film has performed modestly well in those cinemas that have so far booked it: it's at once more accessible than the Iranian cinema of yore, which demanded patience, where Jaberansari cuts freely around, goes for laughs, and insists on looking on the bright side even as his perennial singletons pass into another long, dark night of the soul. Nothing revolutionary - it's too blithe for that - but it has spark and character, which are appealing qualities on a movie night, as they would be on any other date.

Tehran: City of Love is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

On demand: "Beanpole"

Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole, which has just landed on the streaming site MUBI after meeting with great acclaim at Cannes over the summer, arrives as further proof of the renewed strength of Russian cinema - big enough, it now seems, to accommodate voices as questioning and sometimes openly critical as Kirill Serebrennikov (Leto), Andrei Zvyagintsev (Leviathan) and the 28-year-old Balagov. The latter, still in the infancy of his career, presents as the most guarded of these three, yet Beanpole succeeds in painting a vividly unpretty picture of a particular historical moment - late 1945, after World War II - and addressing the state of the Soviet Union as it then was. The emphasis is firmly on the state. Balagov shows us a bruised and battered populace emerging gingerly from cramped, ill-tended social housing; the crumpled cigarettes they roll to get themselves through the day seem like especially telling extensions of their being. Standing head and shoulders above everybody else in her Leningrad neighbourhood is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a gangly nurse tending to a ward overflowing with scarred and traumatised combatants. A more conventional feature might have positioned this upright citizen as a symbol of the healing that needs to take place in the wake of any conflict. Balagov, however, regards Iya as a genuine oddbod, introducing her in the midst of a concussion-induced fugue state, and going on to witness her smothering the adorable young boy who's been left in her care, less angel of mercy than bringer of death.

Thus does Beanpole present its audience with the first of many challenges: spend two-plus hours in the company of a child killer. What makes that task slightly easier is that the film around Iya keeps changing shape. It's impossible to predict where scenes are headed, and right through to the closing moments, we cannot be sure whether matters will conclude on an up or down beat. What Balagov and co-writer Aleksandr Terekhov nail is the uncertainty that followed the ceasefire: the doubt that anything could last, or that life could ever be the same again. Was the USSR getting healthier, or - as the queasy Jean-Pierre Jeunet-green walls of the sanatorium seem to indicate - sicklier still? Once the shrapnel is removed from the wound, is there not still a chance of infection? Hard to arrive at anything like a positive prognosis from the subplot involving one of Iya's patients, a sniper paralysed from the neck down: while a reunion with his wife fills us with temporary hope, soon the couple can be seen pleading with the senior doctor to help put the invalid - who considers himself as much a burden on a society struggling to move forwards as Iya maybe did that boy - out of his misery once and for all. Iya, meanwhile, is palling around with a colleague, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), the pair presenting as an Eastern Bloc Thelma and Louise, two good-time gals stealing a measure of time for themselves after long days in the service of others. It's a film of odd couples, and people who don't easily fit together - the big girl and the little man, the murderous guardian and her broody sidekick, the worldly Masha and her boyish suitor - which keeps us involved, because we sense this unlikely tessellation will be vital to the reconstruction of a country blasted to jagged bits.

This will be a complicated process - like I mentioned, two-hours plus, including an attempt to rebuild the Soviet family unit along 21st century lines that might have seemed incongruous were it not for Balagov's commitment to this vision. What's startling is how much messy, haphazard life Balagov and Terekhov squeeze into every frame. There's no easy sympathy for the child killer, but it would be impossible to sit in the same room as Beanpole and not gain some form of understanding for why Iya does what she does. What these new Russian directors have brought to our screens is a valuable sense of realpolitik: they move us away from the comforting illusions cast by so much cinema to confront us with the flinty facts of daily human existence in hard times and cold climates. In this, you could say Moscow has taken a lesson or two from Bucharest: though more visually dynamic, these films build on the strengths of the Romanian New Wave that emerged last decade, chiefly an awareness of the tough choices people are forced to make as a result of decisions taken by the state, and a marked reluctance to dress those choices up as anything other than what they are. 

This, of course, is all critical dressing-up of the unarguable fact that, for an hour or more, Beanpole is not a hugely pleasurable experience: its nadir is a midfilm threesome initiated more out of desperation - to fill a howling void - than genuine affection. Still, hang on in there if you can: some good eventually comes out of that glum throupling, and just as the film's drab apartments are seen to flood with midwinter light, there's something very striking in how that viral shade of green turns more verdant the longer the film goes on. The green of surgical scrubs is painted over first by that of the Christmas tree (which the lanky Miroshnichenko rather resembles in her emerald knitwear), then by that of springtime and renewal. Balagov is wise enough, even in this darkest hour, to keep an eye out for glimmers of tenderness, promise and hope - those moments of life-giving human connection - which might just keep you going, as they do these characters over this especially long, cold winter. 

Beanpole is now streaming on MUBI UK.

Monday 28 October 2019

In memoriam: Mardik Martin (Telegraph 16/09/19)

Mardik Martin, who has died aged 84, was a screenwriter of Armenian descent celebrated for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese on the director’s breakthrough films of the 1970s.

Their enduring if sometimes turbulent friendship began when Martin, newly arrived in the US, enrolled on the same screenwriting course as Scorsese at New York University. Journalist Peter Biskind painted an evocative picture of the pair’s early years in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: “[Martin] could barely speak English, and Scorsese was the only kid who would talk to him. They were both short and manic – outsiders. They became friends… The two young men sat in Martin’s Valiant and wrote. In the winter, in the cold and snow.”

Their efforts generated first an acclaimed student film, It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964), then several major works of American cinema. In the decades that followed, Martin made significant contributions to the screenplays of Mean Streets (1973), New York, New York (1977) and Raging Bull (1980).

Mean Streets, a punchy crime drama that began life as a script Martin and Scorsese had written in the 1960s titled Season of the Witch, was striking for the contrast it sketched between the roughhousing energy of Robert De Niro’s motormouthed punk Johnny Boy and the diffidence of Johnny’s repressed friend Charlie (Harvey Keitel).

The onscreen duality mirrored the creative dynamic offscreen. Propelled by Scorsese’s cartwheeling camera and singular ability to marry image to music cues, Mean Streets could have been no more than a stylistic exercise. Instead, it was grounded and given depth by Martin’s skilful writing of credibly conflicted, volatile characters.

New York, New York, Scorsese’s widescreen update of the Technicolor musicals he mainlined in his youth, operated in a more stylised register yet, enthusiastically embracing melodrama in its depiction of the fraught relationship between a singer (Liza Minnelli) and a jazz musician (De Niro).

Rushed into production without a finished script and further complicated by widespread cocaine use and the director’s tangled lovelife, this was a less harmonious collaboration. As Martin later reflected, “It was a nightmare. I was writing up until the final frame. You don’t make movies like that.”

Raging Bull, too, overcame its fair share of obstacles. Scorsese – uninterested in boxing – repeatedly ignored the obsessed De Niro’s pleas to film the biography of washed-up prize fighter Jake LaMotta. Eventually he fobbed the book off onto Martin, who was barely more enthusiastic about the story’s careworn rags-to-riches arc.

Only when Martin drew a parallel between boxing and gladiatorial combat, describing a scene in which fur-clad ringside spectators are splattered with blood, was Scorsese’s interest piqued. Martin crafted the film’s inventive structure, but soon found the distractible Scorsese’s notes so irrelevant he happily stepped down when it was suggested Paul Schrader be brought in for rewrites.

The film that emerged – boldly cinematic, but also uncompromisingly tough – was one of the New American Cinema’s last landmarks before the market flooded with the blandly upbeat messages of self-realisation typical of Reagan-era cinema. Overnight, Martin’s screenwriting fell out of step with the times: “To me, the message is less important than the story… My main concern is to communicate with my audience by creating interesting characters in conflict.”

Mardik Martin was born in Iran on September 16, 1934 to wealthy parents who moved to Baghdad when he was in his teens. A cinephile from a young age, he found employment in the local office of the distributor MGM when he was sixteen, only to flee for New York when served with draft papers.

Arriving penniless, he originally enrolled at NYU to study economics, supporting himself by washing dishes in Greenwich Village restaurants, but he switched to screenwriting after a year. Upon graduation in 1968, he stayed close to his alma mater, teaching classes while working on various writing projects.

His first produced screenplay was Revenge is My Destiny (1971), a B-movie directed by fellow NYU alumnus Joseph Adler. Though set in Vietnam, it was mostly shot around the Florida Everglades; Martin remained honest as to its shortcomings (“It’s kind of awful”).

The response to Mean Streets enticed him to Los Angeles to start work for independent producers Chartoff-Winkler on New York, New York and Valentino (1977), Ken Russell’s biopic of the silent-screen idol. This, too, would be poorly received, not least by its director, who dubbed it “the biggest mistake of my career”.

After Raging Bull, Martin struggled with cocaine addiction and found his rigorous realism chafing against Hollywood’s demands for escapist fantasy. Nevertheless, reissues of his earlier work kept his name in circulation, and he returned to teaching, becoming senior lecturer in screenwriting at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 1990.

In 2005, Raging Bull made number 76 on the Writers Guild’s list of the 101 greatest screenplays, renewing interest in Martin’s body of work. He was the subject of the documentary Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood (2008), and won the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute Award in 2012 for “the mastery of his pen”.

His final screenwriting credit – his first since Raging Bull – came on The Cut (2014), the German-Turkish director Fatih Akin’s account of the Armenian genocide. Though it met with tepid reviews, it brought about a reunion with Scorsese, who deemed the film “a genuine handmade epic of the type people just don’t make anymore”.

It was Scorsese who led the tributes upon Martin’s passing: “For a time, we were inseparable. We went to see movies together, we talked about them endlessly, and then we started dreaming up the pictures we were going to make — in diner booths and on benches in Washington Square Park, walking the streets of lower Manhattan or driving around the city, in hot and cold weather, in sunshine and in rain and snow, by night and by day… that was me and my old friend Mardik Martin.”

Mardik Martin, born September 16 1934, died September 11 2019.

Saturday 26 October 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 19-21, 2019:

1 (1) Joker (15) **

2 (new) Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (PG)
3 (new) A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U) ****
4 (new) Zombieland: Double Tap (15)
5 (2) Abominable (U)
6 (3) Gemini Man (12A)
7 (new) Official Secrets (15)
8 (4) Judy (12A)
9 (5) Downton Abbey (PG)
10 (6) Hustlers (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Singin' in the Rain [above]

2. Hoop Dreams
3. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
4. The Shining
5. The Dead Center

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (new) Toy Story 4 (U) ***

2 (11) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)
3 (2) The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)
4 (3) Rocketman (15) ***
5 (4Aladdin (PG)
6 (1) X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12)
7 (5) Men in Black: International (12)
8 (6) John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (15) ***
9 (7) Avengers: Endgame (12) **
10 (8) Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (PG)


My top five: 
1. Photograph

2. Transit
3. The Chambermaid
4. The Dead Center
5. Toy Story 4

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Leviathan (Saturday, BBC2, 12.10am)
2. Frankenweenie (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30am)
3. Pain & Gain (Saturday, C4, 12.15am)
4. Veere Di Wedding (Thursday, C4, 1.55am)
5. King Kong (Thursday, BBC2, 2.55pm)

From the archive: "Leviathan"

If the recent London Film Festival is anything to go on, something fascinating is happening in what used to be known as Soviet cinema. In titles as diverse as the tough institutional drama The Tribe, Ukraine doc Maidan and the pointed slasher The Man in the Orange Jacket, the spirit of rebellion hangs in the air; a power struggle is apparently underway – on screen, as in the regions – for the heart and soul of Mother Russia.

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan positions something of that titanic struggle upfront in its title, although the ocean remains just out of shot, a supporting presence in a drama that otherwise moves in similar domestic circles to this director’s previous Elena. In the very heart of the Russian heartlands, two middle-aged pals are reunited: handyman Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) has called in his old Army sparring partner Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer in the city, to assist in appealing a verdict that handed his coastal property over to the town’s Putinite mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov).

This David-and-Goliath throughline might – at an optimistic push – have made for a rousing crowdpleaser, but Zvyagintsev’s concerns are very specifically Russian: every scene is infused with equal parts vodka and philosophy. It’s a particular stroke of genius on the filmmaker’s part to stage one early confrontation between aggrieved and aggressor while all parties are in their cups: suddenly everyone’s swaying, swaggering – the film boasts some of the most convincing drunk acting you’ll see – and spilling over with empty threats.

Violence lurks in the background here, taking in both Kolya’s playfighting with his son and a set-piece shooting expedition in which empty bottles of grog are replaced as targets by portraits of deposed Soviet leaders, then – less amusingly – by other members of the expedition. As the appeal gets more complicated, this blokey roughhousing will tip over into actual bloodshed, although internal pressures will eventually prove Kolya’s downfall: we sense he may not be alone in needing to get his house in order.

Zvyagintsev’s usual eye for the Russian landscape is evident throughout, but it’s in the detail of narrative and mise-en-scene that Leviathan reveals itself as a portrait of a deeply conflicted nation. Within these frames, trace remnants of comradeship exist alongside self-serving capitalism, like the triptych of religious saints we see stuck to the same dashboard as a trio of topless pin-ups. Vadim’s confabs with the local Orthodox priest, meanwhile, only go to suggest how the most venal are often the most pious. (Perhaps they have more sins to atone for; perhaps faith is a luxury others can’t afford.)

In this director’s earlier films – 2003’s The Return and 2007’s The Banishment – the people seemed secondary to the landscapes they were passing through; since then, however, Zvyagintsev has clearly thought long and hard about the way he writes and casts roles. In both Elena and Leviathan, the characters are just as vividly lived-in and complex as their surroundings, maybe more so for the way they bash up against one another. He has a particular gift for writing tough, unsentimental women; we feel the loss of their bedrock stability whenever the macho men resume control.

For if it’s the property battle that first draws us into Leviathan, we soon begin to notice the carnage piling up around the edges of the frame: the wrecked hulls of old boats, the abandoned church the town’s youth gathers in, the skeleton of a whale Kolya’s son finds himself confronted by at one point, all precursors to the broken homes and vulnerable communities Zvyagintsev eventually centres in on.

In the eyes of this absorbing, expansive picture, this is what all this chestbeating and dickswinging results in, and what dooms even the humblest and best-intentioned of citizens. In Leviathan’s final moments, the camera returns to those same snapshots of the heartlands we saw in the opening minutes. This time, they’re frozen over, coldly indifferent; you might call them uninhabitable.

(MovieMail, November 2015)

Leviathan screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.10am. 

From the archive: "Hoop Dreams"

Hailed upon its first release as a landmark documentary, ten years down the line Hoop Dreams seems less immediately striking, but then the documentary form has undergone a rapid development of its own over the past decade; the film's quietly observational methodology is almost bound to appear comparatively basic nowadays, even if what it describes is never less than compelling. It's the rise and fall and rise again of two contrasting black teenagers in late 20th century America, united by their love of basketball. Arthur Agee Jr. is a terrifically confident youngster from a tricky, troubled socioeconomic background: faced with a one-and-a-half-hour commute to high school every day, and a drifting father who shows up at an inner city basketball court to score crack from his dealers while his son looks on, it's perhaps no surprise his big-match temperament should prove so shaky. Agee's contemporary William Gates has the support of a loving, stable family, a high-school scholarship, and the President of the Encyclopaedia Britannica herself, but he's prone to recurring injuries and a deep-rooted personal insecurity apparently inherited from his father, which threatens his academic career ("Sometimes you have the right answer, and then you change your mind," a tutor tells him) as well as his progress on court.

Made originally for public television, Hoop Dreams' great virtue is a patience that allows director Steve James a time and space to choose from over five years of material that a work originated for the cinema probably wouldn't have. Playing the long game, in this instance, pays off in such striking developments as Agee's first transformation from combative, serious-faced street kid to a giggling slacker barely able to look people in the eye. What's interesting, from a cinematic perspective, is how the "circle of life" motif evident in such urban dramas as Menace II Society manifests itself (or is made to manifest itself) in the real life James films here. As the boys' high-school coach remarks, "One walks out the door, another one walks in the door"; at any given point, one of the boys is on the way up, while - on the other side of the American wheel of fortune - one is on the slide, an often painful dichotomy that makes you wonder how the filmmakers achieved such a clean and lucky break in the first place. While Gates and his illustrious teammates enjoy takeout pizza courtesy of the Nike summer camp, Agee is earning $3.35 per hour slinging slices at the Hut. Few films have better illustrated both sides of the coin via a single cut. A fascinating piece of evidence in the nature-vs-nurture debate, Hoop Dreams also offers a document of the changing face of ghetto fashion from the mid-80s onwards; a surprising, pointed cameo from Spike Lee, presumably invited to that summer camp to deliver a rousing speech, who instead reminds the players that they're no more than cogs in a machine (the American collegiate basketball system) designed to make money; and several moments of grace besides. It's there in James's filming of Gates's wife fast asleep, babe in arms, at one of the biggest games of her husband's season; in Agee's loafing about, shooting shadow hoops, as his mother does her hair ahead of a community-college graduation; and especially when Gates returns, alone, to his grammar-school gym - away from all the hoopla of coach, crowds and scouts, just a boy, a ball and a basket.

(January 2005)

Hoop Dreams is now playing in selected cinemas to mark its 25th anniversary.

"Saand Ki Aankh" (Guardian 25/10/19)

Saand Ki Aanth **
Dir: Tushar Hiranandani. With: Taapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, Prakash Jha, Vineet Kumar Singh. 134 mins. Cert: 12A

This would-be crowdpleasing Hindi project (title translation: Bullseye) drew fire over on home turf upon the announcement its subjects Chandro and Prakashi Tomar – real-life sisters-in-law who took up a successful competitive shooting career in their sixties – would be played by the altogether dewy-skinned pair of 32-year-old Taapsee Pannu and 30-year-old Bhumi Pednekar.

Viewed in the context of the film – easily the sunniest, least challenging feature to which maverick producer Anurag Kashyap has yet put his name – the casting seems unlikely to generate further outrage. It makes editorial sense, in a movie aiming for a mild form of social commentary, to retain the services of two versatile actresses as greying, latex-wrinkled fixed points as the world changes around them.

The real issue, as it can be within the biopic, is predictability: every scene, emotional beat and plot progression comes to feel entirely preordained. Writer Balwinder Singh Janiya and director Tushar Hiranandani know exactly the pushover crowd they’re targeting and shoot directly for them, rarely if ever disrupting the air of hand-me-down history.

The Tomars start out veiled on the sidelines, attending to their husbands’ washing and a growing army of children; it takes an unmarried doctor with a self-built rifle range (Vineet Kumar Singh, from Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz) to spring them from drudgery and coax out their talents, chiefly an all-conquering calm focus cultivated over many decades in their chaotic household.

Thereafter, with directorial newcomer Hiranandani failing to find much in the way of dramatic shape or rhythm, we’re offered one montage after another – albeit montages that boast the novelty of seeing women with silver-flecked hair being put through their paces – alternated with competition sequences that go much the way we expect.

Pannu and Pednekar fashion a bond you could easily cheer for, all sly sisterly looks that cut through long stretches of generally indifferent writing, and some attractive location work gives it the bare minimum of sweep. Still, it feels like a waste of rich narrative possibilities, as mechanically feelgood as those two dozen Britflicks that have cast Dames Dench, Smith et al. as old dears who shoot from the lip. 

Saand Ki Aankh is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 19 October 2019

At MAMI: "Last Headhunters of the Nagas"

The past few years have witnessed a steep rise in the number of documentaries settling in to listen to seasoned old warriors - usually from musical scenes: the blues, reggae, rock - trotting out their battle stories for the benefit of filmmakers palpably thrilled to be putting so much legacy on the record. The USP of Last Headhunters of the Nagas, screening this week at the JioMAMI Mumbai Film Festival, is that its interviewees are literally warriors; their stories speak not to a way of life, but death. In the opening moments, the director Aryan Biju Baruah introduces us to 81-year-old Chingchok and 83-year-old Mannyam, representatives of a once-lost tribe in the jungles separating North from North East Asia, men who wear frankly terrifying-looking bones through their earlobes, like the tribal avatars in old Beano comic strips; they caper and cavort as they recount for the camera how they routinely slaughtered any outsiders who strayed into their territory. (Rather than the soul survivors of Atlantic and Stax, then, they are closer - geographically, spiritually - to the Khmer Rouge hitmen of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing.) Two questions immediately present themselves. How on earth did Baruah find these subjects, who've spent most if not all of their lives in the wilderness, keeping civilisation at bay? Secondly, having been invited in for a spot of lunch, was he ever scared?

The evidence presented suggests the answer to the latter question was: probably not. Baruah instead finds these now frail, ever so slightly pitiful old men pretending to slay the surrounding trees, which is either a form of displacement (the headhunter equivalent of vaping, perhaps) or a sign of incipient senility. A tour of the men's village - converted into a cross between a heritage centre and a mausoleum, opening up its racks of animal skulls to curious onlookers like the filmmaker - gestures towards what's changed in this neck of the woods over recent decades. And from the silence Baruah allows to fill his frames, we gradually discern what's gone missing with that: the full-throated war cries, the bloodcurdling screams of the vanquished. In their place: peace, enough for a school to have been built for the village's youngsters on what was once a killing field, enough too for it to seem as though the community's elders have lost something essential to their sense of self. The wisened wife of the tribal king recalls how happy she was to see how happy her late husband was in the wake of any headlopping, before lamenting, with a sigh, "There's nothing to do nowadays. Just sitting." Chingchok shruggingly reports he's cleared the local cardamom fields, which is fine and all, but hardly an activity to set the pulse racing. He and Mannyam increasingly resemble men out of time, like those fusty enthusiasts who spend their weekends recreating WW2 land battles.

Once the initial shock of a confrontation with an old world wears off, a certain repetition sets in: to drive the point home, we too are left sitting, and waiting for the subjects' moment to pass altogether. The one subject that doesn't come up in direct conversation, but which hangs weightily over every interview Baruah conducts, is that of the law: do we take the headhunters' testimony - their enthusiastic recollections of savagery - as self-incriminating confession, as we did in the Oppenheimer film, and push for charges of some kind against these blithely unrepentant octogenarians, or do we put it down to the law of the jungle, and thereby let it go? There's not an easy answer to this question, and Baruah is reluctant to press his subjects too hard on the matter, for obvious reasons: frail as Mannyam and Chingchok are, they still wield a mean machete. The reason those blades haven't been raised in anger in some years is hinted at when the filmmaker sits down with the mayor of the village - a mild-mannered, plump-bellied fellow, son of the tribal elders, yet very much the council chambers type - and asks what it was that put paid to the prevailing tribalism; his one-word reply is "education". It has been hard won, with parts written almost exclusively in blood, yet there's a lesson etched into Baruah's film - a lesson that should travel far beyond the forests of India - on the evolutionary leaps required to spring this (or, indeed, any other) community from the clutches of barbarism.

Last Headhunters of the Nagas screens at PVR Icon tomorrow (Sun 20th) at 5.50pm, and this Thursday (the 24th) at 3pm. 

"Lost Lives" (Guardian 18/10/19)

Lost Lives ****
Dirs: Michael Hewitt, Diarmuid Lavery. Documentary with the voices of: Kenneth Branagh, Ciaran Hinds, Susan Lynch, Brid Brennan. 93 mins. Cert: 15

Few films released in 2019 have seemed this timely, this urgent. Documentarists Michael Hewitt and Diarmuid Lavery have come up with an immensely powerful adaptation of a remarkable artefact: the thumping chronicle written over seven years by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea, obituarising 3,700 of the lives taken during the Irish Troubles.

From the book’s first pages, Hewitt and Lavery pull the scene-setting example of nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, killed by an RUC bullet as he lay in bed during a riot in August 1969; in the final moments, they addend the name of Lyra McKee, the young journalist shot by dissident Republicans during rioting this past April. Entry by entry, the film constructs a sorrowful history of promise extinguished – and a pointed reminder of what lurks behind any rollback of the Good Friday Agreement.

That simple, effective conceit is given further heft by the who’s-who of Irish acting talent recruited to tackle the authors’ judicious phrasing. Ciaran Hinds lends the Rooney story new, tragic life; elsewhere, the likes of Adrian Dunbar, Susan Lynch and Kenneth Branagh sound understandably moved or appalled by the waste they describe. (Emotion, like the past, sits close to the surface throughout.)

That variation of voices staves off any monotony inherent in the list format, and each story opens up some revealing front. Collectively, they provide a renewed sense of just how widespread and all-consuming the Troubles were, how they caught up combatants and civilians, young and old alike.

Hewitt and Lavery wouldn’t have had to wander too far into the archives for visual evidence of the taut, fraught Ireland of yesteryear, yet be warned: there are images here that couldn’t have been shown on the nightly news, interrupting the detachment instilled in the original prose.

The filmmakers fashion jolting contrasts besides: with the enduring beauty of the Irish landscape, and with today’s gleamingly secure pleasure palaces, built after civil war was replaced by something like peace. Even here, though, Mark Garrett’s roaming camera detects a certain man-made melancholy, and those words and stories keep coming at us, their accumulated weight of detail socking the viewer in the gut and forcing tears to the eyes. Is this a book we really want to reopen?

Lost Lives screens in selected cinemas for one night only this Wednesday (the 23rd).

Saturday 12 October 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 5-7, 2019:

1 (new) Joker (15) **

2 (new) Judy (12A)
3 (1) Downton Abbey (PG)
4 (3) Hustlers (15) ***
5 (2Ad Astra (12A) ***
6 (8) The Lion King (PG)
7 (5) It: Chapter Two (15) **
8 (new) War (15) ***
9 (9) Dora and the Lost City of Gold (PG) ***
10 (4) Ready or Not (18) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. Midnight Cowboy

2. Honeyland
3. For Sama
4. The Farewell
5. The Climbers

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (7) 
Rocketman (15) ***
2 (1Aladdin (PG)
3 (8) X-Men: Dark Phoenix (12)
4 (2) The Secret Life of Pets 2 (U)
5 (3) John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (15) ***
6 (4) Avengers: Endgame (12) **
7 (5Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (PG)
8 (6) Godzilla: King of the Monsters (12)
9 (10) Bohemian Rhapsody (12)
10 (36) Mary Poppins Returns (U) ***


My top five: 
1. The Chambermaid

2. Eighth Grade
3. Only You
4. Booksmart
5. Rocketman

Top five films on terrestrial TV:
1. Mad Max: Fury Road [above] (Friday, five, 10pm)
2. The Spectacular Now (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
3. Moonlight (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. National Treasure (Saturday, five, 12.45pm)
5. X-Men (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)