Monday 31 August 2020

On demand: "Host"

It had to happen: in the middle of lockdown, with millions around the world becoming increasingly reliant on the video conferencing platform Zoom for any kind of social interaction, some enterprising sod went and made a horror movie over the video conferencing platform Zoom. That enterprising sod was the director Rob Savage, and together with his co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, he's made a nifty technohorror, updating the point-and-click methods of 2010's Chatroom, 2014's Unfriended and 2018's Searching. What Team Savage must have realised very early on in lockdown is that, like all aspects of modern life that arrive tethered to a stock price, Zoom instils its own fears and insecurities. How do I look? What do my bookshelves say about me? What expression should I wear? What if I really, really need a pee mid-call? What do I say when it's just me and that friend-of-a-friend to whom I haven't been properly introduced? How much mindnumbing small talk do I have to sit through before we get onto the reason for the call? Host compounds all this built-in anxiety by having a group of six friends hold a seance that inevitably goes awry when the medium's wireless connection goes down, and the group succeeds in conjuring up a malevolent spirit; the idea is to ground that technohorror in the more traditional business of a film like Ouija and its sequel. (Oddly, this means that the dry coughs of coronavirus itself play a decidedly minor role in proceedings; it's a shot that's been shot in a wifi hotspot, but one at some remove from any at-risk areas. I guess you'd have to be to be even thinking about making a film in the current circumstances.)

The result has a roughness that works in its favour. British TV leapt into the lockdown fray by commissioning a sanitised-handful of short, shot-on-the-hoof dramas that gestured towards broadcast quality, without having the conditions in place to entirely polish them: social distancing meant they couldn't be filmed with the usual crew numbers, and there was no-one in the office to patch everything up in post. (Our television thus became a metaphor for our lives: we've had to accept a poorer quality than that to which we've been accustomed, knowing full well that the alternative is death.) Whether directed in or not, Host features the sound drops and awkward pauses that are part of the Zoom experience; it's not trying to be anything other than a faithful reproduction of a daily or weekly commonplace. (It lasts just under an hour, as per a typical chat session.) Within that limitation, the film demonstrates a certain narrative savvy, seeding the idea one participant might already have a ghost in her house, and that another is cohabiting with someone who's not wild about being there. If there's any profound wisdom to be gleaned from it, it's that we're all now trapped inside our own windows, unable to reach out and help (or be helped) as we might want. That understanding pulls Savage's film through some of its implausibilities - the fact no-one thinks to switch a light back on once the spirit kicks off, the fact one participant thinks it's wise to lug their laptop into the loft - if not quite past the distancing effect of watching a series of screens-within-a-screen, possibly on the screen of your own laptop. A film of its moment and for its moment: at the very least, you have to admire Team Savage's ability to get up and create anything in the present circumstances, let alone something with this degree of internal coherence.

Host is now streaming via Shudder.

From the archive: "Lincoln"

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has the advantage over Zero Dark Thirty in that it is, plainly, Old History: these facts are 99.9% set in stone, and we’re meant to feel their weight. After the flimsy kidlit of War Horse, the new film is a mightily worthy addition to this director’s canon, shrewdly rejecting the standard biopic’s rushed overview in favour of honing in on the pivotal moment of January 1865, when Honest Abe pushed through the amendment that would abolish slavery, and end the Civil War for good.

In drawing from this one month’s activity all those virtues the man in office is claimed to have stood for, Lincoln treads not lightly – both its subject and its aim, in this awards season, is vote-gathering – yet, even at its most thunderous, the film’s underlying love of democracy, fair play and common sense proves touching in a way a Spielberg film hasn’t properly been for some while.

“I’m used to going at a deliberate pace,” this Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) announces at an early juncture. The film goes no quicker, decked out as it has been with studious brows, stovepipe hats and mutton-chop sideburns, and set out in a series of very talky scenes extrapolated from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tome Team of Rivals by the playwright Tony Kushner. Any other director would be under pressure from the studio to lighten these scenes up, but as Spielberg’s DreamWorks is the studio, free rein has been given to Kushner’s oratorical flourishes: put bluntly, Lincoln is one damn speech after another.

In their defence, these are persuasive, epoch-changing speeches, and Kushner is alert to the potential dangers of all this talk, in a way the no less logorrheic Django Unchained wasn’t: “No! You’re going to tell another story!,” yelps Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), haring out of the telegraph office as the lawyerly Abe opens his mouth in a manner that becomes increasingly familiar.

Such fervent debate shouldn’t be an issue for audiences schooled in TV’s Deadwood and The West Wing – shows where speech was an integral part of the pleasure – and it’s revealing indeed on the intricacies of Civil War-era party politics. Here’s what is effectively an inverse America: in 1865, it was the Democrats worrying that passing any amendment would grant the incumbent dictatorial power going into his second term. At a time of constitutional deadlock in the States, Spielberg’s film pointedly dramatises the giant steps forward a nation can take when its factions listen to one another and allow themselves to be surprised, rather than clinging to the old certainties, out of fear of what might lie ahead.

Kushner’s words, meanwhile, come as a boon to the actors, who shape them into very careful character studies. Freed by the limited timeframe from the usual biopic concerns of having to unite younger and older selves, they delve into these figures’ personalities and idiosyncrasies; you can practically see the research oozing through their pores.

John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader offer appreciable light relief as the lobbyists Lincoln sent into the field to win votes, but the real heavy lifting gets done at the top of the cast list. Tommy Lee Jones – an actor surely born to dismiss one of his co-stars as “a pompous nincompoop” – is on cherishably ornery form as Thaddeus Stevens, the wily, bewigged statesman who eased the amendment’s passage through the House of Representatives; his reward is what, in Kushner’s hands, comprises a lovely punchline, uniting the political with the political.

Yet the clinching vote, as so often, may go to Day-Lewis: oft shot in profile, lost in deep thought, he has the presidential bearing and timbre down pat, weighing each step, offering a word – and often a whole paragraph – for everyone, until that critical moment when talk must give way to action. Watching yet another Day-Lewis masterclass, you realise there was no need for Hollywood to have turned Abe Lincoln into a vampire hunter, as the real thing was stirring enough: here’s a leader with the capacity to put a stake through any lingering evil with just one look, considered phrase or sly chuckle. Modern politicos, students of history and acting alike: watch and learn.

(MovieMail, January 2013)

Lincoln screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1am.

Sunday 30 August 2020

The mourning forest: "Apiyemiyekî?"

Apiyemiyekî?, a half-hour short that continues MUBI UK's New Brazilian Cinema season, needs a bit of patience and puzzling out. You'll have, for one, to go along with the first ten minutes, and its mishmash of grainy black-and-white images: shots of the statuary outside the Congress building in Brasilia, seemingly random children's drawings, looped footage of the same stretch of road. At this point, you may just begin to wonder whether that title translates as something like What the Heck is Going On Here, Then?. Yet director Ana Vaz has a story to tell, and it's one that eventually links all three of these elements, plus the Amazon, the country's indigenous people, and its military dictatorship; it's a story that, while consigned to the past, bears some relation to a present where the Brazilian leader has - before the world's eyes - started selling off vast chunks of the rainforest, the world's lungs, to the highest bidders. A warning from history, then: the children's drawings are deployed as they would be in any horror film (as records of trauma, proofs of what kept them up anight), and Vaz achieves an unsettling, ghostly effect when she begins layering these scrawls over images of the Amazon as it is today. Here are the last remnants of a community, culture and ecosystem in the process of being forcibly, dramatically erased. In the film's closing moments, we learn that the question of the title has a very different meaning, that it's being asked of you and I, and that it has no easy or consoling answer. It isn't just Vaz's supremely evocative sound design that lingers on in the mind.

Apiyemiyekî? is now streaming via MUBI UK.

In memoriam: Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020)

Chadwick Boseman, who has died aged 43, was a thoughtful, charismatic actor who achieved overnight superstardom via his role as T’Challa in Black Panther (2018), a comic-book blockbuster that achieved uncommon cultural reach and impact.

In part, the film was conceived as a corrective to previous, predominantly Caucasian superhero narratives: it transported cinemagoers to Wakanda, a fictional, Brigadoon-like African enclave that had survived uncolonised, and thus grown rich in natural resources. In Boseman, director Ryan Coogler found an ideal figurehead. Tall and athletic yet stately in his bearing, the actor made T’Challa equal parts scholar and warrior, carrying the weight of a people on his shoulders – a burden only sporadically lifted amid the film’s frenetic action scenes.

Such spectacle helped make Black Panther an immediate hit – it grossed over $1 billion at the international box office – yet the film also earned seven Oscar nominations (winning three), and Boseman won both People’s Choice and NAACP awards for his performance.

The actor remained acutely aware of what T’Challa and Wakanda represented to millions across the globe, as his acceptance speech at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild awards underlined. “All of us up here know what it’s like to be told there is not a place for you to be featured, yet you are young, gifted and black," he said. “We know what it’s like to be told there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, nor a stage for you to be featured on. We know what it’s like to be the tail and not the head, to be beneath and not above. That is what we went to work with every day."

Beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Boseman drew acclaim for his performances in three diverse studies of groundbreaking African-Americans. In the handsome 42 (2013), he nimbly embodied Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in major-league baseball. Boseman then reinvented himself for the skittering musical biopic Get On Up (2014): too upright to resemble James Brown, he nonetheless approximated the singer’s unique sound, keeping up a rich flow of self-aggrandising patter.

Marshall (2017) found Boseman on more restrained form, playing the young Thurgood Marshall, the first Black judge on the U.S. Supreme Court. A keen student of African-American history, Boseman brought a heightened sense of responsibility to such parts, telling an interviewer at the time of 42: “[Robinson] started something – I would even say maybe he didn’t even start it, it started before him. But he carried the torch. And he carried it alone for a period of time before other people could help him.”

He was born Chadwick Aaron Boseman in Anderson, South Carolina on November 29, 1976, the son of upholsterer Leroy Boseman and his wife Carolyn (née Mattress), a nurse. He studied at TL Hanna High School, where he wrote a play, Crossroads, about the shooting of a classmate, and then attended Howard University in Washington, where he majored in directing.

One of his mentors there was the erstwhile Cosby Show actress Phylicia Rashad, who raised funds from fellow performers – including Denzel Washington – to send Boseman and several classmates to attend the British American Drama Academy’s midsummer acting program in Oxford in 1998. (Washington joked on a recent chat show that he was awaiting repayment: “Sure, yeah, Wakanda forever, but where’s my money?”)

Ian Wooldridge, the Academy’s former dean, remembers Boseman as “diligent, enthusiastic, with a great wit; generous and a joy to work with in the room. He was always smiling. He had a tremendous relationship with language and text. He knew how to use it and relish it… He was special.”

Upon returning to America, Boseman enrolled at New York’s Digital Film Academy, and began pursuing acting work. He was set to make his screen debut on long-running soap All My Children in 2003, but was fired after objecting to racist material; Boseman’s Black Panther co-star Michael B. Jordan was recast in the role.

His actual debut followed later that year on the procedural drama Third Watch, followed by parts in Law & Order (in 2004), CSI: NY (2006) and e.r. (2008). He made his big-screen debut in the American football drama The Express (2008), appearing in the Kevin Costner gridiron drama Draft Day (2014) and as the Egyptian deity Thoth in the flop Gods of Egypt (2016), before making his first appearance as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War (2016). (The character recurred in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers:Endgame (2019).)

He lent heft to the middling detective thriller 21 Bridges (2019) and was a haunting presence amid the Vietnam scenes of Spike Lee’s Netflix-bound Da 5 Bloods (2020); his final film, an adaptation of August Wilson’s stage success Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, will appear on the streaming platform later this year.

He directed two shorts, Blood Over a Broken Pawn (2008) and Heaven (2012), and saw his play Deep Azure nominated for the Joseph Jefferson Award for New Work in 2006. “I started out as a writer and a director,” he told one interviewer. “I started acting because I wanted to know how to relate to the actors.”

Diagnosed with stage-three colon cancer in 2016, he is survived by a wife, the singer Taylor Simone Ledward, whom he married in late 2019.

Chadwick Boseman, born November 29, 1976, died August 28, 2020.

Saturday 29 August 2020

In memoriam: Benny Chan (Telegraph 26/08/20)

Benny Chan, who has died aged 58, was among the most prominent directors to have emerged in recent years from the Hong Kong film industry’s genre sector, overseeing a run of high-octane action pictures that thrilled local audiences before tearing onto Western cinema screens.

His career was fashioned in the image of his restless mentor Johnnie To, for whom Chan worked as an assistant in HK television in the late 1980s. As To has, Chan worked skilful variations on the theme of law-and-order, habitually returning to the sight of good guys squaring off against bad, although he occasionally branched out into more unusual territory, with mixed results.

In interviews, he spoke often about his desire to develop beyond genre fare, but lamented that this ambition was continually thwarted by producers thrusting another policier script upon him: “When they come to Benny Chan,” he mused, “it must be about action.” Nevertheless, in his better projects, the bespectacled, mild-mannered Chan succeeded in imbuing his onscreen carnage with poetry and wit.

Born Chan Muk-sing in Kowloon on October 7, 1961, he became a cinephile as a teenager, attending matinees of the Shaw Brothers’ kung fu productions. Upon graduating in 1981, Chan found work as a clerical assistant at local broadcaster Rediffusion TV, but confessed he spent less time in the office than he did skulking around the station’s studios and pestering the directors.

He got his shot upon defecting to rival, Shaw-owned TVB a few years later, where he directed 37 and wrote all 40 episodes of the action serial The Flying Fox of Snowy Mountain (1985). After serving as an assistant on Raymond Wong’s cancer-themed comedy Goodbye Darling (1987), he made his feature debut with A Moment of Romance (1990), a star-crossed lovers melodrama starring local pin-up Andy Lau as a gangster who falls for an heiress (Chien-Lien Wu).

Balancing sweeping action with swooning drama, the film was a hit, and another sign of renewed confidence within the HK industry: it opened in the period between John Woo’s early successes The Killer (1989) and Bullet in the Head (1990), and just months before Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990).

Yet it was working alongside his namesake Jackie Chan – then in the process of cracking the American market – that the director achieved his biggest success, finding dynamic ways to showcase the star’s trademark “chopsocky” (a lighter, more comic form of kung fu, blending martial-arts with slapstick).

Who Am I? (1998) had a stock spy-movie plot – Chan’s amnesiac agent is pursued by shadowy forces – but it was energised and elevated by the director’s inventive staging: one sequence in Rotterdam saw the star repelling his pursuers while clad in traditional Dutch clogs. Recut by distributors for international release, the film performed well in Western multiplexes, doubly so on home video.

They would reteam for New Police Story (2004), named to remind the star’s fans of his wildly successful 1980s series, but otherwise a very different proposition: here, the now-fiftysomething Chan played the world-weary Inspector Wing, and attempted to flex his dramatic muscles. This rebrand barely took: local audiences preferred the Chans’ earlier, funnier work, and the film limped onto British screens two years later to mixed reviews. (The Observer’s Philip French damned it as “an addled affair”.)

Unhappier still was the pair’s reunion on Rob-B-Hood (2006), a leaden comic caper about a pair of thieves who find themselves minding a baby. The director confessed that adding an infant to his star’s complex (and often injurious) stunt sequences led to several of his darkest days; the film went straight-to-DVD in the States, and undistributed in Britain.

Chan returned to form with Connected (2008), a remake of the so-so Hollywood thriller Cellular (2004) in which an everyman hero (future Captain America Chris Evans in the original, director favourite Louis Koo here) takes a stray call from a kidnapped woman and becomes implicated in her fate. Chan added not just a climactic forklift truck rampage but believable characters to Larry Cohen’s original story: in his version, the debt-collector hero is overburdened even before he’s obliged to screech around town in a succession of amusingly midrange cars.

A goofy fantasy about circus performers given superpowers after coming into contact with a biohazard abandoned by the Japanese during WW2, City Under Siege (2010) received lacklustre reviews, and failed to make back its not inconsiderable budget. Shaolin (2011), a remake of Jet Li’s 1982 debut, similarly struggled to recoup its producers’ investment, in part due to its full-scale reconstruction of a 1920s temple.

Yet the director returned to surer ground with The White Storm (2014), his self-described John Woo homage, loosely inspired by the Pablo Escobar story. And he won glowing reviews for Call of Heroes (2016), a period actioner choreographed by Sammo Hung: Variety described it as “a glorious throwback to the rustic vigour of [the] Shaw Brothers”.

His weirdest credit followed with Meow (2017), a would-be summer blockbuster involving an outsized computer-generated feline. This calculated play for a family audience drew indifferent reviews (“the action veteran would be smart to stick to his day job”, advised the South China Morning Post); it opened on a single British screen, taking a mere £118 on its opening weekend.

During shooting last year on Raging Fire, a return to the crime genre starring Donnie Yen, Chan was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, and handed the film over to colleagues for post-production before undergoing treatment. (The film is scheduled for release later in 2020.)

Asked about filmmaking in 2014, Chan said: “I always feel very complicated when thinking about it. I feel everything – happiness, anger, sorrow, and happiness again – but I’ve never considered it a job. Maybe that’s why I’ve survived so many things... I hope that I can find my own world in the movies and pass that happiness onto the audience, just like the happiness I took from films when I was a child.”

He is survived by a wife, a son and a daughter.

Benny Chan, born October 7, 1961, died August 23, 2020.

Downfall: "The Trial"

What's been interesting about MUBI UK's summer season of New Brazilian Cinema has been spotting the points at which these diverse films tesselate and overlap, and thereby reveal shared concerns. The SF-inclined dystopia of last month's Once There Was Brasilia opened with audio footage describing the downfall of a president; turns out it may well have been clipped from the same raw feed Maria Augusta Ramos plugs into at various points through The Trial, her gripping documentary account of the downfall of Brazil's democratically elected Dilma Rousseff. A prologue describes the fractious vote in Congress by which Rousseff was made subject to an impeachment hearing: this chaotic political theatre concealed the first manoeuvres in what proved to be a drawn-out but ultimately successful coup. Some of it is eerily familiar: one pro-impeachment deputy harks on about that now-dread word "sovereignty". Some of it is specific to Brazil, but has implications for democracy everywhere else. When Ramos shows us crowds massing to watch the votes being cast on Jumbotron screens, as they would for a World Cup final, you realise the extent to which politics is becoming more and more like football: you pick a side, you stick to it, and you holler abuse in the loudest possible voice at all those who would oppose you. One deputy casts a vote in Rousseff's favour with the addendum "sleep with that, ya bastards"; I was going to joke that the hidebound processes of our own Houses of Parliament might be enlivened with a little more of that attitude, but if the past five years have demonstrated anything, it's that you have to be careful indeed what you wish for in politics. Don't we all miss the days when administration was a quiet, sleepy, dull business, when our politicians were largely anonymous, faceless, boringly competent drones?

From there, Ramos turned her cameras on the roster of committee meetings and pre-trial hearings held throughout 2016, doubtless reasoning that if her country was going to slide into fascism, it wasn't going to go unwatched or unreported. Her approach remains observational rather than confrontational, sensing this situation was heated enough. She appears to have snuck into the back of these crowded lawyers' offices and halls of power, going unnoticed in the vast and swirling media scrum. The footage she captured is often electric: it covers both major procedural turning points - those moments where the forces in play against Rousseff became clear - and telling details, like the failure of an electronic buzzer that causes one key committee meeting to enter into an unforeseen recess. (Inference: the whole infrastructure is rotten.) One potential hurdle is that we get scant briefing or guidance as to who's who, save the odd glimpse of a name plate on a desk. Yet that choice obliges us to take everyone on screen at face value, to evaluate their words, deeds and bearing, and decide whether these are the individuals we would want representing us at a watershed political moment: it's a documentary that intends its viewers to be active participants, rather than passive consumers. What's striking, possibly alarming is how many of the featured players seem to think they're here to put on a show: huffing and puffing, shamelessly playing up to the cameras, adding the odd crocodile tear for effect, and generally making a noise that drowns out any more sober appraisal of the stated facts. I fear this is a global consequence of the social-media age, when he who provides the grabbiest content, to be snipped, looped and circulated among the greatest number of people, invariably comes to enjoy the last laugh. That's how you end up with a singularly unqualified TV personality as President; that's how a small island votes to cut itself off from its largest trading partner. What Ramos wound up documenting - and plainly it has relevance beyond Brazil - is a slow divorce from reality.

She finds a small, semi-comforting pocket of resistance in those gathering around Rousseff - a hushed, pragmatic brains trust headed up by senators Gleisi Hoffmann and Lindbergh Farias - who seem aware of the gathering storm, and seek to take corrective action rather than further stirring the pot. But it's evident the battle was being fought elsewhere: on TV, online, and in the offices of the Brazilian right, to which Ramos had only selective access. Team Rousseff's reading of this situation is nuanced, forensic, and the defence they put forwards both principled and spirited. (They actually make a better case than Dilma herself, who appears faintly remote and off-limits whenever she wafts before Ramos's camera; if she earns our sympathies, it's because we know she was preferable to what was to follow.) Yet however smart or considered the pushback they arrive at in chambers, they're continually outmanoeuvred, outshouted, out-Tweeted whenever this matter returns to the public sphere. The old certainties are no longer; the centre - represented in The Trial by a vociferous female member of the PSDB, seen receiving anti-choice Christian lobbyists shortly before her party leapt into bed with Bolsonaro - cannot hold. A coda shows the riot police entering the picture. What's chilling is that there's nothing shadowy or subterranean about this process: this democracy died in brightly lit rooms full of people, and in full view - often with the full support - of the press. If the Covid crisis has underlined anything, it's how much we can learn from other nations, provided we can set aside the blinkers of nationalism and exceptionalism. What The Trial confirms - and what makes it one of the most important documents of the present moment - is that there are now a lot of nations teaching the world how not to do politics.

The Trial is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Friday 28 August 2020

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK and Ireland box office (for the weekend of August 21-23, 2020):

1 (2) Unhinged (15)
2 (4) Onward (U) ***
3 (1) Inception (12A) ***
4 (5) 100% Wolf (U)
5 (3) Pinocchio (PG) **
6 (7) Trolls World Tour (U)
7 (9) Jurassic Park (PG) ****
8 (11) Dreambuilders (U) **
9 (re) The Karate Kid (12A) ****
10 (8) Babyteeth (15) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five films currently on release:
1. Away
2. Get Out
3. The Karate Kid
4. The Lost Prince
5. Anbessa

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Trolls World Tour (U)

2 (5) 1917 (15) ***
3 (7) Sonic the Hedgehog (PG)
4 (9) Dolittle (PG)
5 (15) Downton Abbey: The Movie (PG)
6 (12) Joker (12) **
7 (14) Birds of Prey, or... (15)
8 (8) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
9 (3) Onward (PG) ***
10 (11) Frozen 2 (U) **


My top five: 
Marriage Story
2. The County
3. Spaceship Earth
4. A Paris Education
5. The Whistlers

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Paddington 2 (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC1, 6.25pm)
2. Lincoln [above] (Bank Holiday Monday, C4, 1am)
3. Looper (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15am)
4. Logan (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. Molly's Game (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC2, 10pm)

"The Lost Prince" (Guardian 28/08/20)

The Lost Prince ***
Dir: Michel Hazanavicius. With: Omar Sy, Bérénice Bejo, François Damiens, Sarah Gaye. 101 mins. Cert: 12A

Few directors this century have suffered a more precipitous decline in their critical reputation than Michel Hazanavicius. It was less than a decade ago that – hot off his terrific O.S.S. spy spoofs, and newly flush with Weinstein Company support – Hazanavicius carried The Artist to Oscar glory; however, both his immediate follow-up The Search and Godard biopic Redoubtable were met with near-universal shrugs. This family-targeted fantasy sees the filmmaker returning to basics, possibly drawing on personal experience as a father and teller of bedtime stories: it’s very sweet, and quietly corrective not just in centralising a Black father-daughter pairing, but plugging them into the kind of storybook universe Western movies once deemed off-limits to performers of colour.

The plot turns on a feeling of being excluded. In a ramshackle tower block on the outskirts of Paris, we find mechanic Djibi (Omar Sy) bringing up Sofia (Sarah Gaye), a 12-year-old readying for her first weeks of big school. As she makes that transition – pulling away from papa, in the direction of classmate Max (Néotis Ronzon, dead ringer for the young Gaspard Ulliel) – Hazanavicius switches between this reality and the kingdom Djibi has traditionally conjured up for his charge before lights-out. This is a sprawling, American-style studio lot, presided over by Sy in tight, bright leggings as “The Prince”, strutting, Fairbanks-like star of the nightly show, who finds himself locked out of his dressing room once Sofia declares she’s too old for happy-ever-afters.

One could easily imagine a director swamping this story’s human aspects with charmless CGI, but Hazanavicius staffs his fantasyland with character actors and grounds the action in the ups-and-downs of Djibi’s persuasively cramped flat. Sy gives an affectionate impersonation of a big goofball who might well embarrass his offspring, while young Gaye displays an unusual maturity and directness for a juvenile lead. (The sense of a family affair is bolstered by the presence of Hazanavicius’ better half Bérénice Bejo as a helpful neighbour.) It’s a little well-behaved – success has apparently deprived Hazanavicius of the mischief that made the O.S.S. films such a riot – but there’s imagination, heart and empathy here. Don’t close the book on this director yet. 

The Lost Prince opens today at London's Ciné Lumière.

"Love You Forever" (Guardian 28/08/20)

Love You Forever **
Dir: Yoyo Yao. With: Hong-chi Lee, Yitong Li, Chao Zhang. 115 mins. Cert: PG

Drawn from a Zhang Zhi novella, yet taking its behavioural cues from the much-reproduced photo of Einstein sticking out his tongue, this goofy Chinese Valentine’s Day release hinges on the link between ballerina Qiu Qian (Yitong Li) and Lin (Hong-chi Lee), a greying coot who collapses backstage after one of her shows. Her interest is piqued after she enters his dishevelled lodgings and finds what’s apparently a novel based on her experiences; ours by the fact the old man is visibly a young actor glued into whiskery latex. Could this stranger bear some relation to Lin Ge, ballerina girl’s childhood sweetheart, who once pulled a magic watch from a lake? Why are we all suddenly thinking about The Cranberries again?

For up-and-coming director Yoyo Yao, it’s an opportunity to stage a cutesy romance within the framework of an initially baffling spatiotemporal mystery, as per Groundhog Day or the recent Palm Springs. Her flashbacks fall on the bland side, offering twentysomething high-schoolers, gifts of plum-infused water, and a dog called Niam Niam. Yao also can’t resist the Bollywood trope of a mid-film jolly to Europe – here, the Czech Republic – complete with variable turns from the local day players. More assured are those scenes in which Qiu Qian and pals wonder whether reading A Brief History of Time, rather than cheating on their physics finals, might have better prepared everybody for this eventuality. Stay in school, kids.

If it weren’t so inherently loopy, the premise – man spends decades transcribing a woman’s every movement – might seem questionable; it’s another of those romcoms that has to stage a charm offensive to nudge us all past some extremely committed stalking. Some of that charm comes from the appealing leads, playing out variations on the same characters: doubtless some relief for Li, seeing as Qiu Qian is introduced as a wide-eyed simpleton with amnesiac tendencies. Heart-on-sleeve hooey, it can’t fail to slap a smile on your face at some point, although that smile runs increasingly thin as the film nears the two-hour mark. There are stretches of second-half sap where your own, non-magic watch seems to stop dead. 

Love You Forever is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"One Night in Bangkok" (Guardian 28/08/20)

One Night in Bangkok **
Dir: Wych Kaosayananda. With: Mark Dacascos, Vanida Golten, Prinya Intachai, Kane Kosugi. 105 mins. Cert: 15

Lacking much else, this VOD-bound actioner offers two unexpected comebacks for the price of one. The star’s Mark Dacascos, erstwhile straight-to-video stalwart aiming to convert his nifty John Wick 3 cameo into a second leading-man career. Behind the camera is Wych Kaosayananda, formerly just Kaos, the wildly overhyped Thai tyro exported at the height of Hollywood’s millennial Asian-cinema fetish to oversee 2002’s megaflop Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. His latest is a baby step up from that – cheap, self-produced tat being preferable to aggressively expensive corporate tat – but still feels underpowered: ironically, it’s the kind of B-pic a studio would have bulked up, cut tighter and transformed into a halfway worthy rental prospect.

The pitch would be Collateral updated for the age of Uber; it plays, alas, like Collateral with the handbrake on. Dacascos’s Kai is the mysterious stranger with a score to settle who jets into Bangkok at 4pm, hails the cab of fresh-faced Fha (Vanida Golten) and spends the next twelve hours shooting people clean through the forehead. Unusually for an action movie, there’s next to no real action for an hour: the plot sets Kai in front of his targets, and – pop – off we drive to the next location. We’re left with all the lowish-octane thrills that follow from watching a man ticking items off his to-do list, and Kaosayananda makes such a deathly plod of it that vast stretches appear to be proceeding in real time.

Always one of the more likable DTV stars, Dacascos brings a supermarket own-brand appropriation of Keanu’s Zen chivalry to Kai’s task; we just about buy why Fha doesn’t kick him out after he starts bleeding all over her backseat. His future employment isn’t in doubt. Bigger question marks, however, hang over our old friend Kaos. He gives the Bangkok sights a basic nocturnal sheen – even reviving the kind of stripjoint T&A safari we all thought went out with the demise of Nuts magazine – but also floods scenes with the deadest of dead air in a vain push for atmosphere, and seems to think two negligibly different angles of the same dull shot will make for a dynamic, DePalma-like split screen. Stick to the Murray Head song.

One Night in Bangkok is now streaming via iTunes. 

Dreamcatcher: "Away"

At some point in the coming years, a hapless insomniac will switch on a hotel TV in the middle of the night, happen across the Latvian animator Gints Zilbalodis's Away without knowing what it is, and be intrigued, possibly a little disturbed, and utterly compelled to see it out. Here is one of those singular oddities that comes out of nowhere from time to time to grace our schedules: it has no particular production heft behind it (as the unusually scant credits reveal, Zilbalodis did most of it himself), and boasts no star voices, mostly because it unfolds in near-silence, some choice sound effects aside. It's a film you can pay to see this weekend, yes, but it could just as well be a dream someone's managed to project on the walls of a cinema near you. Or a nightmare. It begins as such: with a boy whose parachute has snagged on the branches of a tree in an unfamiliar landscape being approached by a hulking spectre - think Brad Bird's The Iron Giant gone to the dark side - which plainly has designs on swallowing him up. Only when the lad escapes and learns he's dropped onto an island do we get any sense of what he's doing here and where he needs to be going. For much if not all of its running time, Away throws itself wide open to interpretation; the silence means there's none of that expositionary waffle or literalmindedness that dogged that joblot of Euro digimation with which the multiplexes reopened last month. Is that coal-black wraith, relentlessly stalking its prey through this landscape, meant to represent depression of some kind? There's a lot of it about nowadays.

You could always just marvel at the film's look. Away really is the best kind of worldbuilding, opening up all kinds of imaginative possibilities beyond the camera, and ensuring even that which is front and centre gradually reveals hidden depths. The animation is computer-generated, so has no problem doing scale: vast desertscapes, rolling seas, salt flats, a tense setpiece involving a rickety wooden bridge, a final Evil Knievel leap off a cliff, tailed by an avalanche. Yet Zilbalodis makes what appear to be hand-drawn interventions that personalise the action. His characters are but eyes and noses (which explains the silence: no-one has much of a mouth to speak of), but they're remarkably expressive for that. As for the narrative they've been plugged into, well, it wouldn't surprise you to learn that the director is a keen gamer. Away shapes up as a series of side missions (rescue the bird, sink the bridge) within the broader mission of passing beneath the stone croquet hoops that mark our hero's path and thereby getting from A to B. But the influence is immersive gaming, not the superficial thrills-and-spills of a carnage-generating shoot-'em-up: the kind of involving interactive entertainments where you play ten minutes and feel as if you've absorbed three hours of information, or where you play three hours, and it feels like ten minutes have gone by. At 75 minutes, Away runs half the length of Tenet, yet it generates more genuine wonder with far less of the fuss. If you were to risk going to the cinema this weekend with the express intention of having your mind blown, this would be the best direction to go in: I guarantee there are images that will stay with you for a long time, whether you catch them now, or at 3am in a chain hotel several years hence.

Away is now playing in selected cinemas.

Heart of a lion: "Anbessa"

Mo Scarpelli's Anbessa comes as confirmation that you can simply follow a child round with a camera, and come back with some pretty captivating footage. The child Scarpelli follows round here is Asalif, an Ethiopian pre-teen who lives with his mother in a stone shack on the fringes of a new housing development in Addis Ababa. Asalif is a restless tyke, full of beans (and, as is audible in an early scene, the gas that goes with them). We first find him trawling a rubbish dump for the bulbs and wires that serve as his playthings; within five minutes, we see him playfighting with a pal in the fields and vaulting the branches of a tree, lord of all his surveys. You feel if Scarpelli kept her camera rolling long enough, she'd end up covering the whole of Ethiopia, several times over. Yet beyond the affectionate bond he shares with his mum, and his electronics skills (inherited from his absent father?), Asalif doesn't have much to his name, certainly not in comparison with his neighbours, who have heating and running water; you feel the chill whenever a storm blows in, carrying half the local litter with it, and again after Asalif identifies a hyena screeching in the surrounding forest at night. Are he and his mother waiting to be rehoused? Have they been left behind? Either way, they seem terribly isolated. As Asalif says to his best pal Kuba, shortly before a bust-up that leaves him all the more alone: "Especially in this place, you need security."

Quietly observational in its methods, Anbessa has some of the transporting quality of last year's documentary smash Honeyland: Scarpelli takes us somewhere we've never been, and tells a story nobody else has troubled to hear out. She's patient in this; she asks us to be, too. We only discover this lopsided family's precise situation after Asalif is allowed to sit in the local bar - bottle of phosphorescent orange pop in hand - where the patrons discuss the government's failure to provide for its poorest. In other words, we learn about this world as we learnt about our own worlds: in passing, amid all the tearing around that is central to childhood. There's an element of construction in play, at which documentary purists may sniff. Scarpelli shoots dream sequences in which her young subject imagines himself as the lion of the title ("the hyena's foe"); it's also a little on-the-nose that the first thing we hear coming out of the radio Asalif repairs is a government minister praising the development that clearly hasn't trickled down to the inhabitants of this underfurnished shack. Yet the points get made, and the kid is a delight: prone to acting tough - like a big cat - yet more vulnerable than he knows, or lets on. Here, in pipsqueak form, is the future of Ethiopia: inventive and adaptable, raised with an abundance of survival and practical skills, and possessed of spark and imagination besides. But who, besides this camera, is really looking out for him?

Anbessa is now streaming via MUBI UK.

Kicking back: "The Karate Kid"

For anyone who thinks of capitalism as an essentially infantilising force - one that values economic over personal development, works by instilling need and insecurity, and leaves our culture and politics open to armies of mewling, strapped-to-the-tit manboys who throw loud tantrums whenever they can't get what they want - our newly reopened multiplexes make for an interesting study. What's immediately noticeable is how many childhood favourites have been recalled to plug gaps in the still-patchy release schedule: various titles from the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series have returned to the box-office top ten in recent weeks, and the reissues continued last weekend with the original 1984 version of The Karate Kid. Easy to see why the chains are booking these tried-and-tested crowdpleasers. Most are aimed at a family audience, allowing the sale of multiple tickets in one transaction, which helps claw back some of that revenue lost during full lockdown. Yet these known narratives, going exactly the way we all remember, also contribute towards a reassuring idea of the cinema as safe space: they remind us How Things Were, even as the masked clientele and hand-sanitiser stations point up How Things Actually Are. You and I might question the effectiveness of a business model that exposes the customer to an enhanced level of risk, but that's what happens when you elect a Government that puts short term gain over any kind of sustainable future, that asks us to trust the likes of Grant Shapps and Matt Hancock when they insist everything's just fine and dandy. Our capitalists have long relied upon their marks to be as credulous as children; there are those who need us to believe in "the magic of the movies" now more than ever.

Anyhow: revisiting The Karate Kid for the first time since Mini-Mike sat before a toploading VCR back in the day, what Maxi-Mike noticed was how much care had been devoted to it, care all involved probably wouldn't have needed to take for it to be the hit it was. Back in '84, this was Columbia Pictures recruiting John G. Avildsen to remake his major late Seventies success Rocky for the burgeoning teen market. It seems a little undercast - the most prominent face, even at the time, would have been Elisabeth Shue, adorable from the off as a soccer-shorted all-American gal - but Avildsen let it run for two hours (grown-up length, not to mention almost exactly Rocky length), shot it in widescreen, and gave it a burnished Californian look that elevates it above a lot of fly-by-night teen fodder. It's not The Black Stallion - the high watermark of craft in early Eighties family entertainment - but clearly dates from the same period, when the studios were still working hard to cultivate a particular audience. Unexpectedly, the story appears more alive than ever in 2020. Its central conflict pits immigrants - Italian-American punchbag Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), recent arrival in L.A. from New Jersey (ultra-Eighties plot point: his mum has a new job in computers) and his Japanese mentor Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita) against the Teutonically blonde ranks of local karate academy Cobra Kai, such a death squad they literally dress as skeletons for the school Halloween ball. There may be a reason why the YouTube spin-off series Cobra Kai - overseen by Harold and Kumar's race-savvy Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg - launched in 2018, mid-Trump; we get a glimmer of things to come in the film when Miyagi is dissed as a "pet Nip" by a yahoo in a red baseball cap, played by Larry Drake, no less.

If it lacks the scrappy immediacy Avildsen (and crucially Stallone) brought to Rocky, very much a Seventies movie in its grit, that's because a chunk of the first half is stuck in the same colour-coordinated L.A. high school that featured in 70-75% of all Eighties teen movies. Avildsen has his hands tied with those sequences that oblige him to evoke teenage life: the montage that finds Macchio and Shue on a bouncy castle and playing crazy golf is a pre-eminent example of PG-rated kitsch, utterly detached from what actual teens would be getting up to after dark circa 1984. Still, he was a canny enough director to know he was onto something special with the relationship between Daniel and Miyagi, which is also to say the relationship between innocence and experience. I wonder what Japanese-American observers now make of this character, but Morita plays him with such dignity - and such joyful mischief - that Miyagi is a character, and not a stereotype. When he gets drunk and lets slip the sorry story of his late wife's demise, we bear witness to one of the few moments of Genuine Acting in an Eighties Teen Movie. (Another indication that everyone involved was giving of their best: Morita landed an Academy Award nomination for it.) Even more affecting, in the long haul, is the effect Morita has on his co-star. Macchio is no more than a saucer-eyed sweetheart in the high-school scenes, but he seems to grow physically under Morita's tutelage, becoming someone who could credibly kick Cobra Kai caboose, and someone almost worthy of the plainly-several-years-more-mature Shue. The reliably stirring spectacle of the final-reel All-Schools Tournament (and "You're the Best", in which Bill Conti does his best to match "Gonna Fly Now") awaits, but Avildsen and writer Robert Mark Kamen spend the run-up to it paring away all that is bland, trite, inessential: the movie still works because it works out what matters. One hopes that cinemagoers tempted back into the Odeon after the Great Pause of 2020 can do likewise.

The Karate Kid is now playing in cinemas nationwide, and streaming on Netflix; Cobra Kai is available to stream on Netflix from today.