Friday 30 July 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 23-25, 2021):

1 (1) Black Widow (12A) ***
2 (2) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
3 (4) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
4 (new) Old (15)
5 (3) The Forever Purge (15)
6 (5Fast & Furious 9 (12A)
7 (6) Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (15)
8 (8) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
9 (7) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
10 (new) Off the Rails (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
2 (new) Peter Rabbit Double Pack (U)
3 (3) Space Jam (U) ***
4 (new) True Romance (18) [above] ****
5 (1) Mortal Kombat (15)
6 (2Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
7 (4) The Croods (U)
8 (5Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
9 (7) Promising Young Woman (15)
10 (8) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)

My top five: 
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
2. Aviva
3. Minari

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Pride & Prejudice (Saturday, BBC2, 6.30pm)
2. 2 Fast 2 Furious (Saturday, ITV, 10.50pm)
3. Grandma (Wednesday, C4, 1.25am)
4. The Deer Hunter (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Dirty Dancing (Saturday, five, 6.30pm)

Thursday 29 July 2021

From the archive: "Suicide Squad"

Suicide Squad was DC's reactionary response to Marvel's inclusive, wipe-clean, family-friendly universe: bust a rogues' gallery of antiheroes out of the back catalogue, then splatter them across the screen in a film that casually badmouths North Korea and Iran, leers at its one lissom blonde character, and just loves its knives and gunplay. (Trump right-hand man Steven Mnuchin served as an executive producer, as he has on several DC projects.) It's an origin story, so Viola Davis - as the Government employee handed the fool's errand of rounding this Squad up and putting them to work - gets to deliver seven comicbooks' worth of exposition and a collectors-card briefing on each of the main players, before pitching them forward into urban action sequences, patched together in the edit with variable skill, relentless soundtrack cues, and a lot of gaffer tape. The film has been framed as a notable flop (albeit one of those very modern flops that succeeds in taking $746m at the international box office), but a postmortem reveals there were elements here you'd perhaps have paid to see, and which suffered in the attempt to squeeze a baker's dozen of protagonists (and putative franchises) into the same two hours. Will Smith demonstrates a measure of his long-AWOL star power in the role of no-nonsense assassin Deadshot, although it's a sign of his reduced circumstances that he has to share screen time and space with a talking crocodile-man-thing no-one on this production quite knew what to do with; a sparky Margot Robbie makes the mocking Harley Quinn - beloved, I'm told, of fanboys and girls alike - more than the walking Halloween costume she first presents as.

Other elements, however, got exactly what they deserved. You can tell Jared Leto's emo Joker, all preening pose, was meant to be the breakout character/franchise banker from the way in which the first hour points towards some climactic confrontation between him and the Squad, but he's so annoying to watch you can hardly blame the producers for effectively grounding him and thereafter bringing in Joaquin Phoenix to have a go in the forthcoming standalone Joker. (It'll be your turn next week.) Really the only performer who doesn't appear to be at the mercy of postproduction is Ike Barinholtz as the skeezy prison guard making flailing attempts to keep everybody here under lock and key, but that's because he's an accomplished second banana who's realised he doesn't have to angle for a spin-off or meet frothing fan expectations, and is therefore free to do his own reasonably funny thing. It remains a critically underacknowledged fact that, with select exceptions (Logan and Thor: Ragnarok spring to mind), these new-wave superhero movies are almost all working from the same narrative playbook, so Suicide Squad didn't feel any less of a timesuck to me than, say, the first Avengers movie; its second half is visibly more assured than its first, thrown together as that seems in blind panic at the thought of having to get a multi-million dollar franchise on the road, although it still winds up with two vast conglomerations of pixels bashing seven bells out of one another. Whenever it stops to concentrate on anything even vaguely human, it's just ugly people, with especially ugly tattoos, doing mostly ugly things: hardly super, only fleetingly heroic.

(October 2018)

Suicide Squad is available on DVD through Warner Home Video; a reboot, The Suicide Squad, opens tomorrow, and will be reviewed here next week.

Saturday 24 July 2021

From the archive: "Marguerite"

Do we blame the strenuous warblers of TV's The Voice and The X Factor? Either way, it would appear that lousy singers are set to enjoy a cinematic moment, all their duff notes fired at us in Dolby surround. In a few months, we'll see Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears' tale of the tonedeaf socialite who tormented early 20th century eardrums, with Meryl Streep building on the, ahem, success of Mamma Mia! in the lead role. By way of an opening act, we have the recent French hit Marguerite, with Catherine Frot as a fictionalised Gallic variant of the wayward chanteuse. 

Here is a costume drama with a tongue that's never too far removed from its cheek. The tenor (as it were) is set during the opening setpiece, a lavish 1920s soiree raising funds for war orphans. After soaring performances of pieces by Handel and Delibes, Frot's Mme. Marguerite Dumont steps up to the mic to stun a captive audience with her unique take on Mozart's "Queen of the Night" - within seconds demonstrating that not only can she not handle a tune, she barely sounds capable of picking it up. (The character's name, with its echoes of the Marx Brothers, may not be entirely coincidental: here's another screwball wreaking havoc on high society.)

The gag is that Marguerite's yelping, as with Jenkins's, should be met with amused tolerance and polite applause; somewhere in this story, there lurks a parable of undue deference. Very quickly, our heroine's house floods with white lilies from admirers and euphemistic newspaper reviews she seizes upon as proof of her genius. As a character, Marguerite could have been no more than a joke herself: a cossetted, self-deluded mediocrity possessed of the money to have bought Puccini's handwritten score for Tosca, but not the talent to do it justice. Yet the writer-director Xavier Giannoli - who pulled off a similar feat with Gérard Depardieu's contemporary lounge lizard in 2006's The Singer - works hard with Frot to humanise his heroine.

While noting her absurdities (posing for publicity shots as a Wagnerian Valkyrie), the script positions Marguerite as a woman using music as an escape from a husband (André Marcon) who's plainly embarrassed by her exhibitionism. Their Marguerite is a champion of free speech, partly because only in a truly free France would anyone be allowed to caterwaul as she does; her self-expression is regarded, perhaps a shade too fondly, as a positive rather than a grotesque indulgence or waste of everybody's time. Frot, tucking into this oblivious diva's all-white diet, even succeeds in suggesting how the Marguerites of this world might be dottily eccentric fun to be around, for a bit.

In this process, you can spy the softening that has traditionally guaranteed solid box-office returns. The chandeliers in the Dumonts' palatial estate are lit and gently rocked rather than brought crashing down, which sets Marguerite in opposition to the revolutionary urge in French cinema. (It remains to be seen whether the generally iconoclastic Frears will make more mischief with this set-up.) As it is, the incongruous jolt provided in Giannoli's film by one of Michael Nyman's Draughtman's Contract cues only points up how cosy the surrounding material is.

Siding with the performer over the rest of the world means framing those bad reviews kept from Marguerite by her faithful manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) as acts of cruelty rather than, say, public service or an encouragement to do better, and you can't help but think Giannoli is relying upon the broadly uncritical dynamic of reality show and reality-show consumer. Ultimately, the film wants us to give the old girl a big hand for trying - to politely defer, as audiences of the time did. (Once again, a costume drama reminds us of the conservatism of the era.)

For all that, Marguerite is handsomely turned out within its monochrome palette - production designer Martin Kurel and cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert displaying a discernment absent in Marguerite Dumont's closest admirers - and the performance setpieces are reliably amusing, Frot belting something out like a sham-dram Liza or Barbra while Marcon tersely clutches his hunting rifle in the wings, primed to put either the poor woman or the assembled crowd out of their respective miseries. Those actors, intuiting the proximity of a much tougher film about the power of truth to wound or crush the sensitive soul, elevate the material and really do merit our applause - though I still wouldn't go near the soundtrack album, if I were you.

(MovieMail, March 2016)

Marguerite screens on BBC2 at 12.55am tonight.

Friday 23 July 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 16-18, 2021):

1 (1) Black Widow (12A) ***
2 (new) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
3 (new) The Forever Purge (15)
4 (new) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
5 (1) Fast & Furious 9 (12A)
6 (new) Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (15)
7 (4) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
8 (3Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
9 (5In the Heights (PG) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Mortal Kombat (15)
2 (2Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
3 (4) Space Jam (U) ***
4 (6) The Croods (U)
5 (3) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
6 (9) Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
7 (new) Promising Young Woman (15)
8 (5) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
9 (new) Snatch (18) **
10 (7) Nomadland (12) ****

My top five: 
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
2. Aviva
3. Minari

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Die Hard with a Vengeance [above] (Friday, ITV, 11.05pm)
2. This is England (Sunday, C4, 12midnight)
3. Lady Bird (Saturday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
4. The Fast and the Furious (Saturday, ITV, 11.15pm)
5. Marguerite (Saturday, BBC2, 12.55am)

Wednesday 21 July 2021

King of the mountains: "Phil Liggett: The Voice of Cycling"

For any newcomers out there, Phil Liggett is to cycling what Murray Walker was to Formula One or Henry Blofeld is to cricket. In conjunction with Paul Sherwen - the analyst's analyst - Liggett provided the commentary on Channel 4 and ITV's expert Tour de France coverage from the 1980s onwards, giving shape and context to this most extraordinary of sporting spectacles, before shipping out to NBC Sports (and a presumably generous retirement plan) in the latter half of the last decade. Affectionate to the point of indulgence, the Australian-produced tribute doc 
Phil Liggett: The Voice of Cycling converts tried-and-tested anecdotes from the touring show An Evening with Phil Liggett into well-illustrated cinematic form: it's Liggett in his own choice words, now 75 going on 76, and attempting to reconnect with the great passion of his life in the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong affair (during which he was very much on the wrong side journalistically) and Sherwen's unexpected death in 2018. His keynote remains that paternal gentleness that became a feature of those long Tour stages where the only thing going on was a gradual reshuffling of the peloton. I warn you now, there will be dad jokes; an early flick through the Liggett scrapbooks sets out young Philip's own achievements on a bike, first as a successful day racer, then as a rolling reporter. Yet even for seasoned Tour viewers, surprises emerge. Liggett and his wife Trish, a sometime administrative assistant on the Milk Race, spend the offseason on a vast nature reserve in South Africa (as Sherwen made a second home for himself in Uganda), and the old commentary-box calmness resurfaces whenever the film's subject finds himself face-to-face with elephants, giraffes and his beloved rhinos. He's a keen birdwatcher, too, setting us to wonder whether a heightened eye for colour and line of flight has made it easier for Liggett to differentiate between the swooping forms of, say, Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan in a sprint lead-out train.

Much as Le Tour typically strays into bordering territories (Andorra, this year), some of this material might be described as Partridge-adjacent. The archive yields footage of Liggett resplendent in blazer and tie, overseeing the Tour of Ireland through a car sunroof; one year, he introduced Tour of Holland coverage while surrounded by what tabloid editors would call "a bevy of blonde lovelies". A fond, hilariously bathetic episode finds Trish attending a ballroom dancing event while her husband sits in the car park reading his new cycling book. There's even a bit on a barge. Yet the figure who emerges from the broadcast truck is someone who's put the hours in, cares deeply about the sport, and has thought long and hard about its connection to the wider world. An event as all-encompassing as the Tour de France isn't just a race; it's also a tour of French landmarks, and - as borne out by the frequent cutaways to mares running alongside the main field or sheep dyed in the King of the Mountains colours - a three-week safari in its own right. The more experience any commentator can bring to describing all that and the day's pedalling, the better. The Voice of Cycling runs just shy of two hours, and towards the end, you start to feel as though it could go on for three, four, five, the length of an average day in the saddle, because Liggett has 50 years of stories to reflect upon: the LeMond/Fignon rivalry, the rise-and-fall of Armstrong (interestingly evoked, with observers daring to propose Liggett was blinded to the truth, either through innate human goodness - a need to believe what he'd seen on the monitors - or total naivety) and his relationship with his great pal - and onscreen "wife" - Sherwen. Cyclonuts will coo at the reams of varyingly faded race footage (look sharp for the promotional go-kart with the giant profiterole on its roof); there are cameos from Dickie Davies, Richard Keys and Arnold Schwarzenegger. As for the man himself, The Voice of Cycling confirms an impression first gained during those long afternoons as Le Tour wound its way through the Languedoc: that in any environment, Phil Liggett would be tremendously good company.

Phil Liggett: The Voice of Cycling will be available to book via Demand.Film UK from Friday - details here. It also screens at Saffron Screen, Saffron Walden on August 1st.

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Harlem shuffle: "Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)"

The first image in Summer of Soul is of a clapperboard bearing the film's working title "Black Woodstock Doc". Though blunter than the final title, that's pretty much what we have here. Questlove - frontman of The Roots, last seen DJing at this year's pared-back Oscar ceremony - has assembled two hours of broadly unseen footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts staged in the summer of 1969 by impresario Tony Lawrence with support from authorities keen to avoid a repeat of the previous summer's riots. The immediate selling point of this footage is the bill, which spans from the roots of R'n'B and gospel (BB King, Sister Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers) to emergent pop megastars (Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock) via such none-more-'69 phenomena as The 5th Dimension. DJ training at the fore, Questlove keeps the good times rolling - the acts keep coming, the music never quits - but his savviest creative decision was to get surviving performers not just to reflect on the events of these few weeks, but to sit and watch this footage, and to marvel at it, as we do. In making that call, Summer of Soul enters into emotive cinematic conversation with 1970's Gimme Shelter, where the filmmakers confronted shellshocked members of the Rolling Stones with footage of the Altamont set that ended in fan Meredith Hunter being knifed to death. Summer of Soul is the positive to that film's negative: it could just be the high prevalence of gospel acts - like the Edwin Hawkins Singers, offering a take on "Oh Happy Day" that gets markedly cheerier as it goes along - but here is the sanctuary Mick and Keith might just have been searching for at the end of a decade as turbulent as the Sixties. (In passing, the film repositions the Black Panthers as a far more effective security detail than the Hell's Angels could ever dream of being.)

It was a sanctuary for the people of Harlem, too, of course - and the frequent cutaways to the crowd may just be where the real history resides in Summer of Soul. A recurring observation in the testimony is that neither performers nor concertgoers had ever seen so many Black people in the same place, and you really do have to wonder who was left outside the gates, faced with the swelling crowd visible as Sly and the Family Stone take to the stage, instantly shifting pop into its Technicolor phase (while giving pallid white boys like S-Express's Mark Moore ideas). They might have been unaware of it - and perhaps it needed Questlove and heroic editor Joshua Pearson to cut and paste and punch this up - but the camerapersons installed in Mt. Morris Park on the afternoons in question were doing the job of social historians, scanning this morass of pop kids and village elders and describing diverse personalities on the fly. Youngsters either goof for the camera, or are observed starting to flag. A jolly veteran turns up with a (surely surplus to requirements) transistor radio under his arm. (Was there a baseball game on at the same time?) There's a lot of dancing, understandably given the line-up. Yet nothing is uniform. When a young Jesse Jackson starts bearing witness, in fairly graphic terms, to Martin Luther King's death the previous year, there are as many puzzled expressions in the crowd as there are shows of emotion. Some concertgoers have dressed up for the occasion - cueing a sidebar on the style of Harlem circa '69 - but many others have clearly just wandered in off the adjacent streets, drawn by the buzz and the promise of a few hours' free entertainment.

The crucial fact Summer of Soul documents is that they were there at all, a community, a people: together, unsegregated, still standing in the face of all those in America who would have spent the previous decade(s) purging them or knocking them down like ninepins. With the exception of a few scattered Caucasian interlopers, this crowd is still predominantly African-American, with all the cultural wrestling that entails, rather brilliantly evoked when a blazered TV news reporter drops by to vox pop concertgoers on the moon landing that took place amid these concerts. (Any professors out there looking for a teachable example of the cinema's capacity for articulating counternarratives should seize on these few minutes of rare gold: almost to a man, the Harlemites insist the money blown on this moonshot could have been better spent straightening out problems closer to home, a line of thought that has returned to prominence in summer 2021 as the Earth's richest take turns propelling themselves into the stratosphere for bored-billionaire shits-and-giggles.) Yet with the cops back on the other side of the barricades for once, it very much looks as though these concerts offered a day or two off from the struggle - a chance just to be, or to be Black, a concept then as new as anything the Family Stone brought to the stage. That's surely why Questlove makes Nina Simone his headline act, as Black-and-proud as you like, belting out "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" before initiating a call-and-response pop quiz on what any onlookers (in the park, and at the Odeon) have learnt from these festivities ("Are you ready to love Black?"). Ironically, the absence of crowd trouble may have led to the Harlem Cultural Festival being overlooked for so long; it passed without incident, a gathering of like-minded, law-abiding citizens that went off more or less as its administrators planned, something you couldn't quite say about Woodstock, and not at all about Altamont. This eminently valuable, effortlessly entertaining record of the event captures a lot of soul, yes, but it shows us even more besides: harmony, as much peace as towering speaker stacks will permit, and - above all else - love.  

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now playing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream on Disney+ from July 30.  

Monday 19 July 2021

Postcards from the edge: "Girlfriends"

The New American Cinema of the 1970s tends to be regarded, with some justification, as an almost exclusively male arena, in which a succession of angry or otherwise driven young punks wrung their hands or gnashed their teeth at the failure of the American project.
1978's Girlfriends might, then, be seized upon as a counterpoint, a small pocket of resistance: an indie comedy-drama, written by Vicki Polon and directed by Claudia Weill, which charts the vacillations and insecurities of a pair of creatively minded female flatmates, plotting divergent courses, at differing speeds, through a pre-gentrified New York. Would-be writer Anne (Anita Skinner) does the "sensible" thing in rushing into domesticity with no less a figure than Bob Balaban, only to find that motherhood can stifle the muse. She leaves behind aspirant photographer Susan (Melanie Mayron), who meanders from gallery to gallery in search of a show for herself, shrugging off the affections of nice guy Christopher Guest to commence an ill-advised fling with married fiftysomething rabbi Eli Wallach.

What follows is a series of flakily awkward passive-aggressive encounters, of a variety that would later be fleshed out by Lena Dunham over several seasons of HBO's Girls. (Unable to gain a lasting foothold in the movie business, Weill proceeded into small-screen work, overseeing episodes of Cagney & Lacey, Thirtysomething and Caroline in the City before directing a second-season episode of the Dunham show.) Collectively, these encounters suggest the effects the first wave of modern feminism had on two twentysomething women at street level, struggling to find any kind of space in the world for themselves. It's certainly episodic, but Polon and Weill are alert to many of the tensions that have been known to exist within all-girl relationships, and the charming performers tide you over: sharing post-coital conversation about the mumps, Mayron and Guest make a particularly sweet couple, and you can't miss the affection with which the film nudges them towards mutual happiness. Rough-edged but funny, and still a revealing document of its moment.

Girlfriends returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

Saturday 17 July 2021

My forbidden lover: "Two of Us"

You can see why Filippo Meneghetti's Two of Us elbowed its way onto the fringes of the awards conversation earlier this year, earning a Golden Globe nod for Best Foreign Film and winning the French César for Best First Film. This is a refined yet surprisingly suspenseful chamber piece, centring on a couple of long-time galpals - widowed Frenchwoman Mado (Martine Chevallier) and well-travelled German Nina (Barbara Sukowa) - who inhabit adjacent flats in the same Parisian apartment block. They're cosmopolitan enough for greying awards voters to see something of themselves in them, maybe, and possibly a little too comfortable to fire the imagination at first: as we join them, they're discussing selling up, pooling their resources and relocating to Rome to see out their days. Yet Mado and Nina are keeping a secret from the world, namely that while they present as friendly neighbours, they've actually been in a relationship for many years. Furthermore, they've been keeping secrets from one another, most pressing of all the fact that the meek Mado, who has children where the more imposing Nina doesn't, is reluctant to sell up and come out. This, we gather, is the generation the Pride parades passed by, playing out their affections in connecting rooms so dark and fearful that they might as well be closets. As Meneghetti and co-writer Malysone Bovorasmy turn the screw on their protagonists, this carefully managed co-existence begins to unravel. First, poor Mado succumbs to a silencing stroke; then, the lies and evasions necessary to maintain the lovers' happiness fall subject to a renewed scrutiny. We can't say we haven't been warned: the film opens with a haunting prologue - surely a dream or nightmare, though it's not framed as such - in which one party disappears during a game of hide-and-seek. What follows is imbued with a separation anxiety of its own.

Very quickly, Meneghetti identifies and hones in on the multiple sources of tension within what could have been a flat domestic set-up. A long, unbroken shot watches steak sizzling itself black on an untended stove. A restless Nina nervily taps a teaspoon against a coffee mug. And he stages arresting setpieces, too: the night after the pivotal medical emergency, Nina creeps into Mado's empty bed for comfort, and is almost discovered there the next morning by her soulmate's clueless children. We sense that any character played by Barbara Sukowa is going to be experienced enough to play the game - to duck in and out of her beloved's life when there's nobody else around to notice. What you perhaps wouldn't expect is Nina making efforts to nobble those standing between Mado and herself, at which point a film that looked as though it might well wind up in the same middlebrow rut as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or Amour reveals it has a healthy amount of Stephen King coarsing through its veins. It, too, has been hiding its true identity from the world: it's a thriller that's been passing, for half its length, as a respectable arthouse drama. The deceit entails the actresses playing their own extended game of hide-and-seek: Sukowa literally dodging an annoyingly attentive caregiver (Muriel Bénazéraf), while weighing up how much to let onto Mado's other visitors, Chevallier - a veteran of the Comédie-Française - quietly extraordinary in her suggestion that Mado's spirit is still somewhere within her debilitated physical form, that the woman Nina adores (and who adores Nina) hasn't entirely disappeared from sight. Meneghetti shoots them both in tight close-ups, searching each of these hugely expressive faces for signs of life and proofs of love - and realising this pursuit can be as thrilling to watch as any footchase.

Two of Us is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema, Prime Video, BFI Player and the Peccadillo Pod. 

Friday 16 July 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 9-11, 2021):

1 (new) Black Widow (12A) ***
2 (1) Fast & Furious 9 (12A)
3 (2) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
4 (4) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
5 (3) In the Heights (PG) ***
6 (5) Cruella (12A) ***
7 (7) The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (15)
8 (8) The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (15)
9 (6) Freaky (15)
10 (9) Another Round (12A) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Sexy Beast
3. Brassed Off [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Mortal Kombat (15)
2 (1) Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
3 (3) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
4 (new) Space Jam (U) ***
5 (6) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
6 (31) The Croods (U)
7 (5) Nomadland (12) ****
8 (new) Logan (15) ***
9 (8) Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
10 (10) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **

My top five: 
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
2. Aviva
3. Minari

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Memento (Wednesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. Jumanji (Saturday, five, 1pm)
3. Die Hard 2 (Friday, ITV, 11.05pm)
4. McFarland, USA (Saturday, BBC2, 12.25am)
5. Young Guns (Saturday, BBC1, 11pm) 

Cookie's fortune: "First Cow"

The cinema of Kelly Reichardt is full of unlikely alliances in the middle of nowhere. Think back to the housewife and the fugitive in Reichardt's 1994 debut River of Grass; to the yin-and-yang hikers of 2006's Old Joy; and to Wendy and her dog Lucy, and - more specifically - to Wendy and the people she encounters in the search for Lucy. First Cow, the latest of Reichardt's small-scale, eccentric yet not untruthful Western parables, rips from the pages of Jon Raymond's novel The Half-Life a pair of men who find and redefine themselves against the backdrop of the North American gold rush. Cookie (John Magaro) starts the film as the put-upon chef to a party of trappers, pilloried for coming back from his daily foraging sessions with more mushrooms than meat. King-Lu (Orion Lee) is the Chinese prospector Cookie finds shivering naked outside his tent one night, having apparently shot dead a Russian rival. The two men share a dream of improving their station in life, established in the tentatively cordial conversations that make up the bulk of the film's first half. The idea they might be permanently joined at the hip - made for one another - has already been floated by a prologue in which a latter-day dogwalker (bearing the immediately recognisable freckles of Alia Shawkat, clearly keen to do something, anything in a Kelly Reichardt movie) unearths two human skeletons in the woods, buried side-by-side.

While we wait for exact confirmation of the skeletons' identity, one thing becomes clear: for an ode to bonhomie and togetherness, First Cow is defiantly singular. The set-up proposes a sort of buddy comedy, uniting polar opposites in pursuit of a common goal, but the film's rhythms are unlike any buddy comedy you've ever seen. First Cow moves slowly, so as not to frighten the livestock; it treads softly, so as not to flatten the grass. It's often funny, but it's never caught reaching for its jokes; instead, it seems almost to stumble across its laughs (which are more like chuckles, really) in the film's occasional clearings. It's also obviously A Film About Something, but it doesn't immediately bash you over the head with what that Something is. At a time when the bulk of American movies have accelerated in speed and started giving up whatever goods they have from the off - so the thickos in the back row know exactly where they are, for once - Reichardt has dug in and held steady. Notice how content she is just to sit back and watch as Cookie and King-Lu bond and come up with a plan of action for themselves, in the log cabin they've appropriated as both a business base and a bachelor pad. Throughout, she displays a mapmaker's patience: she describes the lay of this particular land, leaving space for discovery; she sketches in the key details; and then - only then - sends her characters out into this world on the mission that might just make them their fortune. Those of us looking on get pulled in, because we want to know what's up ahead and round the next corner.

If you've cast even half an eye over Film Twitter in the past 18 months, you'll know what that mission entails, yet its placing within the film indicates that Raymond and Reichardt always intended it to come as a revelation or joke of sorts - a way of paying off the early, comic-Herzogian image of a cow being floated down river on a raft, and precisely the last thing you'd expect anyone to make money doing in a place this rough and ready. It will involve Toby Jones as a representative of the landowner class, although he's held back until hour two, the thespian equivalent of an impact sub. In the meantime, the main action makes a strong case for casting lesser known faces in lead roles: it gives the camera more to reveal, and the audience more to discover. Cookie and King-Lu aren't conventional Western heroes, rather men on the margins, so it makes sense to cast relative strangers; in a way, they occupy the same tight spots in 19th-century society as independent-minded creatives like Reichardt do in this century, trying to make enough dough to get by in a system that's been rigged in favour of an elite few, and which patently couldn't care less about anybody else. That struggle is all but etched into Magaro's downward-turned features - in a glance, we understand Cookie is a great worrier - but the actor also reveals an appealing meekness: for some while, he seems more comfortable around the cow than he does around his fellow bipeds. Lee is more forward-facing, as befits a character who's come all the way from over there to a locale as lawless as this; and the two leads work well together as comrades, co-conspirators, two men quietly building their own small empire. One of the film's slow-drip pleasures is watching Magaro bring Cookie out of his shell as the pair's enterprise takes off: money will do that to a guy, for better and worse.

Does Reichardt risk going a little too slow late on? Possibly. First Cow has the most conventional shape of any Reichardt film, in that it's heading towards a showdown, but it's being nudged in that direction by a filmmaker who isn't one for quickening the pace or the heartbeat. That gives us time to savour this world, and to think about what Reichardt means to convey about the foundations of the American dream, but when Magaro and Lee aren't sharing the screen - and events conspire to sunder them pretty decisively - the gaps between their fond words become apparent, maybe even yawning. (Bottom line: we want to see these dreamers together again.) Yet the miracle of this cinema, mostly sustained over these two hours, is how Reichardt conveys such a rich appreciation of American life, given her square frames and notionally simple images. Partly it's because those little boxes always feel fully inhabited, hinting at entire worlds beyond the corners of those frames; partly it derives from this filmmaker's understanding that America is as much the sum total of its people and personalities as it is of its places. She's a rare mapmaker with an eye for human interest (and human folly), which is why First Cow's community extends beyond Jones's amusingly fussy privilege to encompass Ewen Bremner as a muddy-faced enforcer, and a native American contingent headed by Gary Farmer and Certain Women's Lily Gladstone. Reichardt, too, is building - or rebuilding - an empire from scratch: in any future survey of the 21st century Western, this odd charmer wouldn't look out of place in a teatime slot before the ferocious post-watershed idiosyncrasy of David Milch's HBO masterpiece Deadwood. I can bestow no higher praise on First Cow than that.

First Cow is now streaming on MUBI, ahead of its DVD release on August 9. 

Thursday 15 July 2021

Russian doll: "Black Widow"

The latest crash-bang-zoom movie for kids young and old picks up somewhere in the vicinity of an earlier crash-bang-zoom movie for kids young and old. Was the Black Widow - the alter ego of Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson - among those who perished at the bejewelled hands of arch villain Thanos in 2018's Avengers: Infinity War? Oh, I can't remember: that movie and its pendant-sequel Endgame were so long with so many takebacks, we're three years down the line now, and besides, there's been a lot going on out here in the interim. Practically the only thing this viewer could recall about Romanoff as a movie character going in was that brief flashback showing her being schooled in the dark arts by Julie Delpy, of all the people to show up in an Avengers movie for twenty seconds - and if La Delpy (who doesn't appear in the new film) has turned an elegant heel and moved past this juvenilia, there should be no reason you and I can't do likewise. Anyway, whether out of nerd completism or in an effort to convert a few more holdouts and heretics, Romanoff has been handed her own standalone showcase, titled Black Widow, which is the Marvel Cinematic Universe attempting to do Bourne. Cate Shortland's film watches its heroine go rogue, pursued both by the Russian heavies who raised and brainwashed her (represented by the not terribly Russian Ray Winstone, with stick-on 'tache) and the agents of SHIELD (headed by William Hurt) who claim Romanoff has violated some protocol or other. This means that wherever she and little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) go in the world - and though shot entirely Down Under, the drama unfurls a considerable carbon footprint, starting undercover in Ohio before heading East to Budapest and points beyond - they barely have chance to unpack before someone bursts through the door to shoot at them or engage them in close-quarters combat.

An entirely reasonable example of action-figure cinema, Black Widow hardly finds new positions to mould its action figures into, but that no-rest-for-the-wicked premise at least ensures the toys' constituent parts are kept moving for a couple of hours. As the first in a new phase of Marvel movies, staking out and inhabiting its own small corner(s) of this world, it has the advantage of not having to keep checking in on what Clark Gregg and boring old Captain America are having for tea. So we get a car chase in Budapest, and a prison break in the Siberian wastes that somewhat excitingly coincides with an avalanche, and the film wrings a modest amusement from the fact Natasha and Yelena have to undertake the latter mission in a rusty old Soviet-era chopper, rather than the gleaming military hardware that comes as standard within this genre, and the Avengers movies more specifically. The gag, and it's one that conceals a barbed ideological point, is that these tatty old Commies - microchipped and monitored by the State - have had to make do without the flashy kit and free-market benefits Tony Stark enjoys. No wonder Natasha has come to defect, but this is one of the odd things about 21st century studios stripmining the plots and themes of comic books conceived a good sixty years ago: the movies that result end up relitigating old conflicts that will likely mean as little to teenagers in 2021 as, say, York Fruits or Two-Way Family Favourites. The biggest mystery here, however, is why the film in front of us bears the name of Shortland, a director who's previously worked the indie festival circuit as a scholar of history, discovery and trauma (Somersault, Lore).

Sure, Black Widow gives up some unfinished family business involving the sisters, their burly jailbird dad (David Harbour, knuckles tattooed with "KARL" and "MARX"), deceptively domesticated ma Rachel Weisz, and the family's pet pot-bellied pig. Yet none of this cuts remotely deep; indeed, it's not allowed to cut deep, a) because it gets outlined within a safe, self-contained universe that remains impervious to real hurt (viz. the reduction of state-enforced sterilisation to plot point/fleeting joke), and b) because there are goons with guns coming through the windows on zipwires. Our sense of Romanoff as a character, hazy enough to begin with, never develops much beyond catsuited pawn in a much bigger game - which may explain why Johansson seems to get less out of her own star vehicle than either Pugh, Harbour or Winstone (on comparatively svelte form, adding an appreciable suavity to his usual heaviness). The most totemic character may be Winstone's chief assassin, a masked human-cyborg hybrid who resembles Star Wars' Darth Maul spliced with the chess computer Deep Blue, programmed as she has been to assimilate her opponents' fighting styles and signature moves. This textbook B-movie figure lodges in the mind because the film is operating with similar software: it's absorbed the lessons of those action movies that worked these past 20 years, recast the male roles with women in a mirror of recent societal developments, and then shoved its data back at the same audience that turned out for those films first time around. Black Widow is unarguably efficient in doing this, but it's also no more or less mechanical than its immediate Marvel predecessors, and allows for little in the way of human input: Olga Kurylenko - the film's sole naturalised Russian speaker - gets one line of dialogue as the cyborg, and that only ten minutes from the end. Stay tuned through the closing credits to learn which massively overqualified performer is the next to jump aboard the gravy train.

Black Widow is now showing in cinemas nationwide, and available to rent via Disney+.

Wednesday 14 July 2021

Is she really going out with him?: "Jumbo"

Zoé Wittock's
Jumbo is world cinema fictionalising the true-life material of those Channel 5 documentaries about women who've formed unusually intense, in some cases overtly sexual attachments to the Forth Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. In this case, it's Noémie Merlant, the pallid painter of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as a fairground cleaner who confounds everyone by tumbling head-over-heels for a waltzer commonly known as the Move It, but which she fondly rechristens Jumbo. This unlikely courtship begins when Merlant's awkward, friendless womanchild Jeanne offers the attraction's lights a gentle buffing one night shift, then develops to Jeanne caressing Jumbo's underbelly and straddling its cogs while barefoot. A more obviously comic movie might have presented its heroine's affections as wholly unrequited, and thus framed Jeanne as even more of a fruitloop than she already seems. Yet in this telling, the cheeky mechanical minx actively leads our girl on, teasing the possibility of a free and unforgettable ride. Jumbo flashes a lone bulb at Jeanne; its toing-and-froing makes the ground shift beneath her feet; and Wittock eventually pulls back to show these mute pulleys and pistons communicating in some way with their devoted attendant, much as the spaceship did with Truffaut at the end of Close Encounters. In the vast and many-fabled history of mankind, people have fallen for less, I guess.

Nevertheless, Jumbo remains a pretty far-out proposition. If Collins and Maconie's Movie Club was still around to hand out its Rum Film of the Week, this would win at a canter, and its integral perversity will surely catch John Waters' eye at some point down the line. There are cinematic precedents: I was reminded in places of the relationship between the kid and the Iron Giant or the kids and the kindlier Transformers, films where expressive nuts and bolts provide a means of escape from dull, earthbound reality. (Here, that reality is represented by blowsily overbearing maman Emmanuelle Bercot and the fairground's resident bullies.) Jumbo, too, is quite childlike, even childish in its outlook, and you'd have to be fairly wide-eyed to buy it whole: while less intense than she was in Portrait, Merlant commits 100% to the role of a Martian fairytale princess. How that innocence squares with such images as Jeanne bathing topless in engine oil is anybody's guess, though, and I don't think even Wittock has figured it out. She compensates with nice, atmospheric shots of the ride in action, swathed in plumes of dry ice and apparently enjoying a life of its own, but Jumbo never permits us normies a clear enough line on the flesh-and-blood half of its equation. Is Jeanne a problem child, to be pitied, or a free thinker, to be cheered? As it is, she emerges as but a curious case; much like the film that bears her beloved's name, you'll either get her or you won't. Granted, there's nowt so queer as folk, but Wittock appears to be circling an even trickier point: that female desire, in particular, is turbulent, unpredictable, perhaps even unfathomable on some level.

Jumbo is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Tuesday 13 July 2021

From the archive: "Gravity"

It takes a while for the body, mind and eye to adapt to space. For at least half an hour of Gravity, you’re pinned to your seat in the dark, being spun around on your axis in such a way that it’s impossible to tell up from down, and a miracle your 3D goggles – essential kit, in this rare instance – remain attached to the bridge of your nose.

An open-access NASA simulator – available at the multiplex for just ten of your English pounds – Alfonso Cuarón’s film teaches us how to navigate its particular weight and weightlessness. Nerves are steadied and expectations raised from Gravity’s miraculous opening shot, setting the vastness of Earth as seen from the heavens against a tiny rocket doing the celestial rounds, then refocusing on a jetpacked astronaut – George Clooney, no less – propelling himself towards us. Already the film is as immersive as a flotation tank: for the next ninety minutes, we will be held in complete suspension, and absolute suspense.

As though to create space for the complexity of the visual design, the story – engineered by Cuarón with his brother Jonas – is simple, pared down, mythic. Clooney and colleague Sandra Bullock are making routine repairs to the exterior of their craft when they encounter a metallic shitstorm loosed by a collision between the International Space Station and a stray satellite; they’re sent spinning through the cosmos like billiard balls upon the roughest of breaks.

After the worst passes and it quietens down once again, we see this pair, stripped of their well-drilled levity and surety, for who they really are: a man and a woman, a million miles away from home, forced to confront the same issues of mortality and abandonment that might otherwise beset them – or you, or I – while sitting alone in a coffee shop as the leaves fall and late summer turns to autumn.

For all his evident mastery of visual concepts, Cuarón knows how to keep a tight grasp on his stories’ human elements: he did the 1997 modernisation of Great Expectations, you may remember, and one of the stronger Harry Potters. He’s a romantic, which perhaps explains the film’s somewhat traditional (if not entirely imprecise) gender roles: the man joshing and square-jawed, reaching for the vodka at times of crisis, the woman emotional and turbulent – plagued by multiple varieties of tummy trouble – and made subject to the most adoring zero-gravity striptease since Jane Fonda’s Barbarella.

Yet there’s something very poignant, possibly even symbolic, in the sight of Bullock and Clooney, two of the planet’s biggest stars, being reduced to the standing of helpless, indifferent specks, made subject to the same cosmic indifference as the rest of us, and doing all they can do not to break down in tears: Bullock, always a can-do kinda gal, here reaches beyond her usual screen gameness and into the realms of award-worthy endurance.

Individual temperament may determine this mission’s ultimate success: confronted by another late-2013 example of Hollywood ordeal cinema – playing out its peril in long takes, and in something that feels close to real time – not everyone will want to voyage this deep into space, just as I’m sure there are those who’ve so far avoided Captain Phillips because they didn’t fancy shipping into its decidedly choppy waters. (Both films narrow down their space, from floaty vastness to the cramped confines of palpably vulnerable escape pods; claustrophobes should approach with caution.)

The film’s front-and-centre emotionality – Cuarón’s attempt to find occasionally on-the-nose physical analogues for the ties that bind us, and sometimes hold us back – might be seen as both a weakness and strength: a humanist corrective to the gleaming voids of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or a shot at making Clooney’s Solaris remake play to bigger crowds by deploying fixes lifted from Pixar’s WALL-E, among others.

Yet the fact one feels compelled to make comparisons with Kubrick at all should suggest how notable Gravity is, and how significant it just may be: as a signal there may be life in the studio and star systems yet, as a technological development broadly comparable to the Apollo missions, and – perhaps most excitingly – as a giant leap forwards for the cinema of effects, both visual and visceral.

(MovieMail, November 2013)

Gravity screens on BBC1 tonight at 8.35pm, and will be available on the iPlayer thereafter.

Monday 12 July 2021

Camouflage: "Deerskin"

After annoying the hell out of the world's pop pickers in the guise of one-hit wonder Mr. Oizo, writer-director Quentin Dupieux announced himself as the French cinema's #1 ideas man, while ranking roughly #167 for execution. 2010's wonky road movie Rubber, concerning the misadventures of a homicidal car tyre, proved less funny over the long haul than it sounds; 2018's Keep an Eye Out! was an offbeam police procedural that conspicuously fell to pieces just as the case in question appeared to be closing. Now we have Deerskin, Dupieux's midlife crisis movie, which feels like a step in the right direction. It stars Jean Dujardin, that great farceur, as Georges, a just-divorced greybeard throwing off one element in his life for another, fresher model, in a manner both pathetic and invariably amusing. The conceptual twist is that the element in question isn't a mate, rather an item of outerwear. In scene one, we watch as Georges brusquely deposits his old corduroy jacket - perhaps a gift from his ex? - in a service-station toilet. In scene two, he takes delivery of a tasselled deerskin number, whereupon he checks himself into a mountain lodge and strives to reinvent himself as a hip young gunslinger. How obsessed is he with this new addition to his wardrobe? Put it like this: he bids a fond goodnight to it whenever he turns off the bedside light. Worse follows when the jacket starts talking back to him.

It's a relatively simple set-up, but there are fascinating ideas beneath the film's surface, not least the suggestion this might well be Dupieux's most personal work to date - the work of a creative envisioning the pitfalls lying in wait for him as he enters middle age. Along with the deerskin jacket - worn as proudly as the peacock wears its feathers - Georges inherits a digital video camera, which he begins to wield as the cowboy does his gun, as a means of reasserting his declining authority and potency. Dupieux smartly shifts this great weight of ridiculousness onto the broad shoulders of Dujardin, an actor with proven form in the field of playing narcissistic dolts (the OSS films, The Artist); the more money he's had to play with, the better this filmmaker has become at pairing up stars with concepts. Dujardin senses the absurdity in this one, and goes full throttle for it: he makes Georges' yarnspinning about entirely fictional encounters in the screen trade engaging enough for anyone to believe them, and he flat-out savours those shots of this doofus checking himself out in a mirror or shop window. The actor doesn't disappear into this role, as a Day-Lewis type might have done, so much as make a whopping great meal of it, and then sit there with a vast, self-satisfied, very funny grin on his face. You and I, however, might sense that this deerskin is but a cover-up, and it's that camo that Dupieux sees through over the course of these 77 minutes. Rest assured this is hardly the most triumphant reinvention, no matter that Georges soon acquires a deerskin hat and boots to go with his topcoat.

Which is to say the joke, this time round, has some structure to it; unlike Dupieux's previous film-skits, Deerskin is a doodle that develops, in pleasing, unexpected and finally rewarding ways. Georges strikes us as bad news when he checks into this lodge - with its vague echoes of The Overlook - but you really need to see for yourself what he does with a prong from his ceiling fan. That he gets away with it comes as more of a surprise, but in 2021, we may be more aware than ever that this is what some men do. (The presence of the no-nonsense Adèle Haenel, recently repositioned at the forefront of France's #MeToo movement, seems telling.) Still, Dupieux's primary ambition here is to less to make us think (a bonus) than make you laugh, and Deerskin made me laugh more than any other screen comedy in a long while. It's funny that, even when placed on a hanger, the jacket lurks in the corner of the frame, like a tarnished conscience or the Gallic equivalent of Annabelle; it's hilarious that Georges should at some point decide owning this jacket isn't enough - that he should, in fact, take all other jackets off the market, and to go to quite extraordinary lengths to achieve this. Dupieux's own, pleasurably musty cinematography suggests the essence of this desperate old man and his bloody jacket has started to rub off onto the world beyond them, though a killer punchline reasserts its own form of cosmic justice. Approach it as a good joke, well told - and that well told bit speaks to the progression that makes Deerskin Dupieux's most complete and satisfying film to date.

Deerskin previews in Cineworld cinemas this Wednesday, before opening in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday 9 July 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 2-4, 2021):

1 (1) Fast & Furious 9 (12A)
2 (2) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
3 (3) In the Heights (PG) ***
4 (4) A Quiet Place Part II (15)
5 (5) Cruella (12A) ***
6 (new) Freaky (15)
7 (6) The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (15)
8 (7The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (15)
9 (new) Another Round (12A) ***
10 (8) Supernova (15) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Sexy Beast
2. My Beautiful Laundrette
3. Brassed Off
4. Trainspotting

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
2 (new) Mortal Kombat (15)
3 (3) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
5 (new) Nomadland (12) ****
6 (4) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
7 (2) Batman: The Last Halloween Part 1 (15)
8 (8) Raya and the Last Dragon (PG) ***
10 (6) Wonder Woman 1984 (12) **

My top five: 
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
2. Aviva
3. Minari

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Gravity (Tuesday, BBC1, 8.35pm)
2. Collateral [above] (Saturday, ITV, 10.55pm)
3. Jumanji (Saturday, five, 3.20pm)
4. Matilda (Saturday, five, 1.20pm)
5. John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (Saturday, C4, 9pm)