Monday 30 August 2021

Oops upside the head: "Second Spring"

The latest eccentric misfire from Britfilm's Poverty Row, Andy Kelleher's 
Second Spring, arrives riddled with missing scenes, plot and character info, and with so much dead air in the front and sides of those scenes that are there that matters inadvertently take on a vaguely experimental, avant-garde feel. If I'm reading it right, some of the disjointedness is a choice on Kelleher's part: this is, after all, the story of a greyhaired university lecturer, Kathy (Cathy Naden), whose relationship with the college gardener (Jerry Killick) is cut short by growing signs of dementia. (That would explain why she's also seen picking up strangers on a street, and why she wakes up on a cycle path at one point. It doesn't, however, explain the scene in which Kathy's grown son watches her in the shower.) Much of the bafflement it prompts, though, is a consequence of demonstrably indifferent direction, edit-suite woes, or the money draining out frame by frame. What's especially batty is that, given a rare opportunity to dramatise a late-life romance, screenwriter Martin Herron gives neither of the leads anything interesting to talk about. Instead, they shag a lot, before our heroine gets distracted by the Heathrow expansion, and we're shoved towards a shrug of an ending. Plus points: nice, out-of-the-way Thames Estuary locations (it's a case of four-star scouting, one-star movie) and a fleeting cameo from Eric Richard (The Bill's Bob Cryer) as another of the half-dozen characters who drift into shot with suicidally scant introduction. Otherwise, it's another of those oddities where you start wondering whether everyone behind the camera is OK, because a lot of what's up on screen just looks concussed.

Second Spring opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday 27 August 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office
 (for the weekend of August 20-22, 2021):

1 (1) Free Guy (15)
2 (2) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
3 (new) People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan (15)
4 (1) The Suicide Squad (15) *
5 (4Jungle Cruise (12A)
6 (new) Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (12A)
7 (5Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
8 (6) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
9 (new) The Night House (15)
10 (8) The Courier (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Pig

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) A Quiet Place: Part II (15)
2 (new) Cruella (12) ***
3 (1) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
4 (12) Spiral: From the Book of Saw (18)
5 (8) Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
6 (3) The Croods (U)
7 (new) Those Who Wish Me Dead (15) **
8 (6) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
9 (7) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
10 (11) Mortal Kombat (15)

My top five: 
1. It Must Be Heaven

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Clueless [above] (Saturday, five, 3.05pm)
2. Election (Saturday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
3. The 39 Steps (Monday, BBC2, 2.20pm)
4. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Saturday, BBC1, 6.20pm)
5. Thunderball (Saturday, ITV, 2.20pm)

Disconnection: "Souad"

The first image in the Egyptian writer-director Ayten Amin's second feature Souad is that of a female face on a mobile, a nervous self-regard. Notice is hereby served of Amin's intent to monitor the fragile self-image of a group of young Arab women - sisters, literal and figurative - living in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig. Time and again, Amin's heroines return to their screens: checking their Facebook photos, to see how many likes they've clocked up (and, more crucially, who's liked them); checking their contemporaries' photos, to see how they compare; checking their instant messages, to see if they've been read and/or responded to. You should see how antsy they get when a phone gets misplaced. This is the urbane, cosmopolitan end of the Middle East - some distance from the renewed terrors of the Taliban - but it's still besieged by doubts, worries and neuroses, as well as the old, patriarchal assumptions that women were made for marriage, to sweep floors and make tea. (There's only so much content to be gained from that.) Compiled some ten years after the Arab Spring, Amin's thesis is that social media has been revolutionary on many fronts, in several respects: these platforms have opened up new paths, new images and a new way for Egyptian women to look and think about themselves. Yet as with so many revolutionary movements, it's also brought on new waves of unhappiness. Political concerns have given way to more personal insecurities: we carry these ones around in our own back pockets.

The film's look is traditional arthouse-observational, DoP Maged Nader tracking the girls' progress with a varyingly wobbly handheld camera. Set against certain American features on the dangers posed by smartphones - Jason Reitman's 2014 dud Men, Women and Children, most infamously - Souad feels authentic, its virtual fretting grounded in mundane, everyday activity (bus journeys, trips to the market, household chores; a near-constant hum of traffic noise). So real is the action, in fact, that the film risks seeming underpowered dramatically. Throughout the first half, Amin's girls don't seem badly off - certainly not when compared (as it's hard not to) with the young Black protagonists of Céline Sciamma's Girlhood, who were far more marginalised, and found themselves pressured into uncomfortable, risky situations. (At risk of sounding like everybody's dad, these girls' troubles would surely dissipate if they just stepped away from the laptop.) Perhaps this is why Amin and co-writer Mahmoud Ezzat contrive a mid-film tragedy - literally while the camera's back is turned - in order to raise the stakes; from nurdling along, the movie suddenly veers towards an extreme. The second half - in which one of the girls sets out to confront the man she blames for the tragedy - returns to the earlier, quiet assurance, and benefits from a different dynamic: from an all-girl safe space, we're suddenly on unfamiliar streets with potentially dangerous company. There's a clearer tension here, but also a wisdom, applied towards finding solutions for the problems the first half diagnoses. (Notably: that men and women would get along better if they didn't interact through screens, if they escaped the tendrils of the social networks that have done so much to demonise the opposite sex.) It's another film entirely, and a worthwhile one - it's just a slight pity it should require such a lurching, melodramatic misstep to carry Souad there.

Souad opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of a major BFI Southbank season devoted to Arab cinema that begins next week.

"Demonic" (Guardian 27/08/21)

Demonic **

Dir: Neill Blomkamp. With: Carly Pope, Nathalie Boltt, Michael J. Rogers, Terry Chen. 104 mins. Cert: 18

After the mega-budget blowouts of 2013’s Elysium (which had some tried-and-tested ideas rattling around inside it) and 2015’s Chappie (which had Die Antwoord), this so-so shocker finds mooted multiplex saviour Neill Blomkamp recalibrating his disk space and career prospects. Operating with TV-movie production values and nary a single familiar face among its ten-strong cast, it’s a small, manageable, patchily inspired genre piece that unpicks the fraught relationship between a daughter, her convict mom, and a medical tech firm instigating an altogether unhappy reunion. Much of it suggests a sometime “visionary director” turning to VoD-bound work-for-hire to make ends meet; while it’s cautiously compiled, competent work-for-hire, the wild swings and grand designs of this filmmaker’s earlier output are badly missed.

It’s at its most Blomkampian early on, with the integration of effects into plot: our heroine Carly (Carly Pope) submits to “volumetric capture” (essentially mo-cap 2.0) so as to enter the simulation that will allow her to interact with her comatose mum. Inevitably, this passage into a digital wonderland is preceded with dire warnings as to what might happen if memories slip out of synch; inevitably, the simulation doesn’t run as smoothly as hoped, partly due to the vast reserves of anger Carly ports into this virtual realm, partly due to the proximity of a giant skeletal hellbeast. These scenes have a distinctive, hyperreal look (and presumably blew the budget), rotoscoping over all those uncanny-valley glitches that have blighted countless blockbusters. This once, the glitches are deliberate: the aim is to unsettle.

After that initial binary bath, though, the film gets less striking by the frame: Carly starts poking around inside her past, while the demonology sideline yields only yellowing situations and imagery. The “real world” the final act returns us to is very ordinary indeed, pointed towards an abandoned research facility where the striplights are on the fritz. (You want Blomkamp to fire up the modems again.) Pope has the right look for this kind of pulp, something like a phone-app mash-up of Famke Janssen and Noomi Rapace, and there’s a good, albeit throwaway sequence in an Escher-like refit of the heroine’s family home – a sketch one of Blomkamp’s studio endeavours might have developed into a setpiece. Yet the connective circuitry’s too identikit for it to be recommendable.

Demonic is available to rent from today via Prime Video.

"Handsome" (The Guardian 27/08/21)

Handsome **

Dir: Luke White. Documentary with: Nick Bourne, Alex Bourne, Amber Maillard, Armond Maillard. 98 mins. No cert.

On the rare occasions the cinema has engaged with Down’s syndrome – and really only 1996’s The Eighth Day and 2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon spring to mind – it’s been in the form of sweetly sentimental road trips. It travels far wider, but Luke White’s meandering, naggingly superficial and sometimes outright misjudged doc hews to a similar path, dispatching Nick Bourne and younger brother Alex, who has Down’s, to swap tales with similar support networks around the globe. Narrator Nick has Louis Theroux’s specs, crossed-arm stance and stop-start syntax down pat. What he lacks are Theroux’s generally sure journalistic instincts: the sense of where the story lies, the ability to cut to the chase, and the good grace to remove himself from the picture as and when the narrative demands it.

The film’s strongest suit is its fond observation of the brothers’ interactions – larking around Central Park, cleaning up after underwear-soaking accidents – which speaks to a great love and tenderness. In itself, this would be instructive. Elsewhere, White betrays the influence of constructed-reality TV: a scene of Nick and Alex roughhousing looks to have been captured by multiple cameras simultaneously – or replayed for one camera – and their progress invokes the dread word “journey”. Yet their jetting-off raises questions of privilege that are only patchily answered on screen, and Handsome becomes excruciatingly naïve the further it travels; as the brothers poke round Mumbai’s slums and visit palmists in Hanoi, both the film’s gaze and its editorial take a pronounced turn for the touristic.

A fundamental problem is that wherever the Bournes go, the conversations they initiate aren’t deep enough to generate the lessons the film goes hunting. We see lovely scenery in Cornwall, and meet lovely people in Brooklyn, but there’s nothing on this itinerary to make viewers stop and think. Worse: there’s way too much of one brother, and nowhere near enough of the other. Nick seems semi-aware of this failing – “I’m talking about you as if you’re not here,” he apologises to Armand Maillard, a young New Yorker with Down’s – but Alex remains a largely mute background presence, left looking bored in mid-interview cutaways. In Vietnam, he appears to go into outright foot-dragging revolt, possibly fed up with being hauled round as baggage on a middling Gap-year project.

Handsome opens in selected cinemas from Monday.

"The Pebble and the Boy" (Guardian 27/08/21)

The Pebble and the Boy **

Dir: Chris Green. With: Patrick McNamee, Sacha Parkinson, Christine Tremarco, Patsy Kensit. 101 mins. Cert: 15

Quadrophenia love dies hard. After July’s ill-fated cast reunion To Be Someone, there follows this humdrum standalone from the sentimental end of British cinema’s Poverty Row, again seeking to capitalise on residual fondness for all things Mod. The star’s a scooter: a nifty runaround in Man City colours with two dozen rear-view mirrors sprouting from its front end, it’s a worthy steed for Patrick McNamee’s callow latter-day knight John Parker (geddit?) as he retraces his late dad’s tyretracks from Burnhamland to Brighton. This journey – and the rite-of-passage it represents – encompasses legends of old Jam gigs, 1980s songs picking up where the first Mods left off, and cameos from associate producer Patsy Kensit and Eldorado’s Jesse Birdsall. Those mirrors prove symbolic of an entirely backward-looking enterprise.

A prolific writer-director whose Me, Myself & Di opened back in June, Chris Green is at least caught on more crowdpleasing form than he was circa 2018’s Strangeways Here We Come, one of the most aggressively off-putting films I’ve ever reviewed in these pages. It’s hard not to feel predisposed to something that opens with Secret Affair’s “My World”, sets a moped montage to the Style Council’s “Speak Like a Child” and stops the action dead so everyone can have a mini-mosh to The Chords’ “Maybe Tomorrow”. Yet the sounds far outstrip the sights. With clearance fees devouring his budget, Green resorts to shooting in cramped kitchens and overcast lay-bys. For a supposedly eye-opening travelogue, the scenery remains thoroughly middle-of-the-road.

The drama, meanwhile, is proving fairly callow itself, hamstrung by episodic plot construction and unpersuasive characterisation. There’s a fun Mani cameo, and it’s a nice touch that the biker gang bearing down on John are absolute sweethearts. Yet for most of the ride, we’re stuck with a sappy hero and a tomboy in a Tacchini top (Sacha Parkinson) who is all too clangingly Girl Written by Man, dropping everything else in her life for the prospect of Paul Weller tickets. (Weller’s title song plays over the perfunctory third-act crisis.) In years to come, this may wind up among some season of Brexit-era films that recognised Britain’s glory days were long-distant – but for now, it seems thin and overstretched, exactly what results when you make a movie out of nowt but nostalgia.

The Pebble and the Boy opens in selected cinemas from today.

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Bringing home the bacon: "Pig"

Even amid their creative prime mover's gonzo mid-career plunge into VoD-ready genre fodder, undertaken chiefly to help an actor accumulate the world's tallest stack of Superman comics, Nic Cage movies remain like snowflakes: no two are ever quite alike. Cage has become one of two survivors of the crumbling Hollywood star system whose work rate rivals that of certain Bollywood players, and where Bruce Willis has long settled for being a drained face on a poster, his near-contemporary has been enthusiastically ticking off all those ideas mashed up in the average masala flick, only spread out across four or five projects a year. (For all the actor's much-memed, much-mocked onscreen mania, this new career plan seems relatively sane.) The disarming Pig, co-written and directed by newcomer Michael Sarnoski, presents as a prime example of how Cage refuses to be caged. On paper, it sounds like a batshit hicksploitation knock-off of the John Wick series: Cage plays a truffle hunter in the Oregon wilds who sets out for restitution after his pig is snatched away in the dead of night. Yet it winds up in territory adjacent to Kelly Reichardt's recent First Cow, another heartfelt meditation on food, brotherhood, the predations of consumer capitalism, and the changing face of Portland. (And another early 21st-century film about characters trying to hold onto what little they have left.) You'll have to travel with it, and be ready to follow its sometimes pinballing plot logic; the underlying assumption is that, after Con Air, Face/Off, Mandy and that one in the desert with Russell Brand, the Cage fanbase is well placed to make those leaps. Yet the finished feature does the best thing a movie can do at this stage in the game: it surprises us.

Those surprises start early. A wordless prologue, for one, establishing the bond between Cage's solitary Rob and his prized porker, a bright-eyed, russet-hued snuffler named Wicky who resembles no less a sweetheart than a Babe fully grown. When the bacon is taken, it's all over in a flash, where a more cynical filmmaker might have amped up the brutality. Sarnoski has his own methods of ducking and diving. Digging its entrenched protagonist out of the woods, Pig then dispatches him into the sleekly callous indifference of the city, with its chi-chi New Age restaurants built over underground fight clubs. A characteristically leftfield (yet quietly rewarding) idea pairs Rob with a young middleman, Amir (Alex Wolff), who's profited from the system - he has the flashy car and the shiny suits - but held onto a residual sliver of conscience, born of a deep-rooted, personal understanding of where violence of any kind gets us. (One further surprise: this kid listens to opera in his car. Emerging from the quietude of the forest, Rob is less keen.) Then there is Cage himself, changing shape before us. As his bulked-up backwoodsman gets smacked around by one party or another, his face swells further, offering only more hurt and sadness for Sarnoski to photograph. (One definition of a star: someone who knows how best to occupy the frame at any given moment.) Why would Rob clean himself up? He'd seem a sorry mess, a man out of place in today's civilisation, even without his scars; better, surely, to keep them in place, as a badge of honour or proof of suffering. Rob wears his heart on a tattered sleeve, and his status on his face: here is a man badly beaten by market forces.

Older and greyer here than he's ever appeared on screen - bearing the worry lines of a late-period Mel Gibson, without the extratextual baggage - Cage assumes the burden of occupying three or four films simultaneously, and keeping Pig at least semi-coherent. That's some feat, given that Sarnoski is at once overseeing a lean, linear thriller (man loses pig, man sets out to retrieve pig), a satire on the vagaries of the Portland food scene, a tragedy about gentrification, and a keening study in grief and impermanence. Some of these stories come to trip over others, and the chapter headings that season the action - each a different meal - look like an affectation (as movie chaptering tends to be), an attempt to streamline the broader zigzagging between themes, moods and ideas. At least it has themes, moods and ideas to zigzag between, though, and most of those have been attentively compiled, enhanced by the autumnal look cinematographer Patrick Scola cultivates, and the mournful score by Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein. Pig winds its way towards one last surprise, namely the nature of the final showdown between our hero and the film's big bad (Adam Arkin): so unexpected that I may have given out a little "oh" as events drew to a close. The understatement may just throw the Cage hardcore, but Pig also has the potential to win back those viewers who'd long concluded this actor was no longer capable of such restraint. "We don't get a lot of things to care about," sighs Rob, at the point where he's started to size up the world to which he's been so reluctantly returned. Sarnoski does care, you sense, and what makes his film so striking and touching is this readiness to sound a note of sincerity we really don't hear often enough in American movies nowadays.

Pig is now screening in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and   

Tuesday 24 August 2021

The odd couple: "I'm Your Man"

The writer-director Maria Schrader has become quietly prolific in her native Germany, but
I'm Your Man is the first of her films to travel to the UK, a result of what's either heightened backroom commercial savvy or just a choice instance of laser-targeted stunt casting: dishy Downton Dan Stevens as Tom, an apparently perfect boyfriend who also happens to be a carefully programmed, algorithm-calculating robot. Tom's relationship with Alma (Maren Eggert), the unhappy, almost determinedly single curator with whom he's paired as part of a corporate test run, forms the basis of a film that almost entirely turns its back on SF tropes and instead positions itself, not unintriguingly, in the grey zone that separates romantic comedy from romantic drama. In adapting a short story by Emma Braslavsky, Schrader has made two bold choices. Firstly, she pairs up her prospective lovers in the first scene; thereafter, she keeps the focus unusually narrow, largely excluding any real sense of other relationships involving robot partners, or indeed how the wider world has been changed by this radical technological shift. (The assumption appears to be that humanity has evolved to the point where ambulant, fully articulate sex toys - a Rabbit with blue eyes who'll give you a cuddle after getting you off - have become a logical next step.) For much of the film, Schrader seems to be running her own research-and-development program with hyperselective parameters, puzzling over a handful of issues that may well be faced by women on today's dating scene. Would there in fact be downsides to encountering the perfect man? Is perfection in a partner the goal, or a chimera? And - this perhaps most of all - what good is perfection if you feel unworthy of it?

The basic set-up isn't entirely original. We're watching a markedly less horny Weird Science, or a subtitled redo of 1987's Making Mr. Right, the gender-swapped Weird Science that featured John Malkovich in the Stevens role. It's also slightly hampered by the fact that, for much of the duration, Eggert and Stevens have to display a reluctant, baffled chemistry: that of someone who doesn't cook and a top-of-the-range eggwhisk. (I think Schrader has to pair them up as quickly as she does to stop us asking how everybody got here.) If Stevens, speaking aptly flawless German, is here to get bums on seats, the downcast Eggert, who never seems too far away from tears, proves more emblematic of the overall picture. This is a curious film, in both senses of the word. Schrader sets out to interrogate her central relationship - where the robot works for her heroine, and where he/it doesn't - but she strikes an oddly muted tone in so doing: my fear is that people are going to show up for a laugh-a-minute robo romcom, and find themselves confronted by something in a far lower key, melancholy when it's not being outright philosophical. Granted, some comic elements are visible: a raucous homecoming, an impish Sandra Hüller as a CEO spouting couples-therapy truisms like code. Yet Schrader keeps backing away from these, and her interest drifts away into strange little sidebars and tangents: Stevens communing with nature and touring abandoned churches at twilight, a late-breaking crisis involving Alma's infirm father (surely a ragged remnant of the source material), which comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. If this is meant as romantic fantasy - and the ending suggests it finally might be - then it's the fantasy of a particularly morose kind of soul, exactly the type who might turn her nose up at the very idea of the Stevens Perfecticon 3000. "What does it feel like to have an orgasm?," our dashing android asks late on. Alma's response seems gloomily telling: "It feels like dissolving." Schrader's film remains striking and atmospheric, but it's held back by a refusal to have all that much fun with the opportunities put in front of it, and a marked tendency to overanalyse everything. Are there more women like this out there than we/I think?

I'm Your Man is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via the Curzon Home Cinema.  

Friday 20 August 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of August 13-15, 2021)

1 (new) Free Guy (15)
2 (new) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
3 (1) The Suicide Squad (15) *
4 (2) Jungle Cruise (12A)
5 (3) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
6 (4) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
7 (new) Don't Breathe 2 (18)
8 (new) The Courier (12A)
9 (6) Spirit Untamed (U)
10 (5Black Widow (12A) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Pig
5. Now, Voyager

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
2 (new) Batman: The Long Hallowe'en - Part 2 (15)
3 (2) The Croods (U)
4 (3) Space Jam (U) ***
5 (7) Birds of Prey... (15)
6 (8) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
7 (9) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
8 (10) Godzilla vs. Kong (12)
9 (11) Joker (15) **
10 (4) Peter Rabbit Double Pack (U)

My top five: 
1. It Must Be Heaven

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Lady Vanishes (Sunday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
2. The Titfield Thunderbolt [above] (Friday, BBC2, 2.30pm)
3. The Wooden Horse (Saturday, BBC2, 12.50pm)
4. The Bourne Ultimatum (Friday, ITV, 11.05pm)
5. Goldfinger (Sunday, ITV, 1.40pm)

"BellBottom" (Guardian 20/08/21)

BellBottom ***

Dir: Ranjit Tewari. With: Akshay Kumar, Huma Qureshi, Vaani Kapoor, Lara Dutta. 125 mins. Cert: 12A

In its native India, this Akshay Kumar vehicle has become the first major Bollywood production to enter tentatively reopening cinemas. (UK multiplexes reopened with Salman Khan’s Radhe, which suggested exhibitors were trying to wave us off.) Easy to understand why. Informed by multiple plane hijackings that disrupted India and Pakistan’s early 1980s impasse, Ranjit Tewari’s film is a reassuringly traditional masala mash-up that hands its enduring star a juicy lead role. Kumar’s NatSec nabob Anshul Malhotra bounds on screen to the loudest fanfare heard since John Barry, an illustrious intro only undercut by the revelation of his character’s codename: BellBottom, derived from Malhotra’s preference for circus-tent trousers. As a back-to-business proposition, it’s already one joke up on Tenet.

What follows is a teachable example of how Hindi films are routinely constructed to keep the movie gods on their pedestals. Malhotra is swiftly established as multilingual, a chess champion, a devoted son, and a virile husband. (“Don’t tell me you’re a priest as well,” yells a friend as he dashes to a wedding.) By the first song’s fadeout, there’s no doubting who our hero is, or why he’s the first call when a separatist group with ISI ties seizes control of an Indian Airways flight with 210 passengers on board. We might only question the long, extraneous flashback to Malhotra’s RAW training; the answer is that it allows the leading man to indulge his 007 fantasies. Still, there have been worse Bond pastiches of late, and a Kumar on this suavely precise form is worth indulging.

Though his foes are textbook action-pic nogoodniks – flushing hostages’ asthma inhalers down the loo – the script also taps into internal Indian politics; centred around Lara Dutta’s steely Indira Gandhi, the debate within the film elevates BellBottom over the facile flagwaving of the recent Shershaah. A playful ding-dong on the soundtrack, too, composer Kulwant Singh Bhamra conjuring proggy wigouts as Tewari leans into this yarn’s caperish elements. The finale is an amped-up Raid on Entebbe, as Akshay maps chess moves onto a Dubai runway and his trousers dodge a late-breaking sandstorm. Yes, it’s absurd, especially the last-reel Margaret Thatcher lookalike. But it always feels more movie than propaganda – a mission undertaken to offer audiences a good time after the longest and worst time. 

BellBottom is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Blow it all to hell: "The Suicide Squad"

I bailed in rage after an hour (triggered or what?), so a full, coherent response is beyond my means. But it was long enough to see:

a) The Gunn variant isn't any better than the Ayer variant, just bad in a hundred different ways, and:

b) Films like this are exactly the reason cinema as an artform has been left to die a long, painful death (whereas cinema as an empty, soulless business model, endlessly reconfiguring the same fistfuls of intellectual property to swipe disposable income off badly raised kids, is clearly thriving), and:

c) Given the 91% Rotten Tomatoes score, a certain school of film criticism - the cheerleaders with their pompoms (look at the big movie! It's! So! Big!) - really isn't helping in this respect, and:

d) With its relentlessly sick kills, Gunn's film may yet retain some educational value for future historians who want to know why the snarly incels who targeted people on the Internet were so snarly and unfeeling (ya know, beyond the whole "no sex" thing), so apparently devoid of the more appealing emotions. It's simply that they were conditioned to swallow down numb-and-numbing shit like this every few weeks - the sump left in the dream factory's pipes after all the good stuff was pumped out.

The Suicide Squad is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

On demand: "Nowhere Special"

Having made his name (and doubtless a fair old chunk of cash) as one of the producers of 1997's globe-conquering 
The Full Monty, Uberto Pasolini has gone on to compile an unusually shrugging, modest filmography as a writer-director; he is, at the very least, a refreshing change from all those multi-hyphenates whose every movie rolls in on a Hokusai-scaled wave of hype. Until I stumbled across an old review of mine a few weeks back, I'd almost completely forgotten about the existence of Pasolini's 2013 film Still Life, a drolly human bureaucratic comedy starring an especially downtrodden Eddie Marsan that I apparently rather enjoyed at the time. Eight years on, Pasolini has finally steeled himself to fashion a follow-up, albeit one that actually calls itself Nowhere Special, which assiduously dehandsomes sometime Bond prospect James Norton, and which - rather than offering a flashy or grabby opening - instead contents to lay out the daily routine of a single father and his preschooler son in an anonymous small town somewhere in Northern Ireland. Nits are combed from hair. Bedtime stories are read. The nursery run begins anew. This routine, we learn, is nearing its end, although the dramatic reason for that sneaks up on us, signalled first by an insert of a heaving bathroom cabinet. The father - John (Norton), a windowcleaner by trade - is dying, and attempting to make preparations for his death. His to-do list reads a) find someone who might adopt his boy, and b) break the news that, like the lad's long-departed mother, he's about to disappear from the surface of the Earth. These grave tasks are made only more burdensome yet by the fact John isn't the most naturally garrulous of individuals. (How might anyone find the words?) They also prove more than enough to keep a film occupied over the course of ninety-odd minutes.

Nevertheless, from the off, Nowhere Special remains a film of small, spry observations: the boy (Daniel Lamont) taking a felt tip to his forearm in an effort to reproduce his father's tattoos, dad and lad eating 99s in perfect synch. The delicacy of these gestures comes to be matched by the delicacy of the filmmaking. At one point, John spots a toy dumptruck in the shop window he's squeegeeing; we then cut to the same lorry in the hands of the boy, transformed into an almost-holy relic, something to remember his old man by. Working with the editors Masahiro Hirakubo and Saska Simpson, Pasolini has a knack for eliding any fuss, anything that might be superfluous (dad buying the truck, dad handing the truck over) and leaving the emotion intact. This particular leavetaking will prove a tentative, stop-start process: both an encounter with a dead beetle in a park and the letting-go of a solitary red balloon are initially framed as missed opportunities for The Talk that John needs to have with his offspring. (Not your average precocious movie moppet, Lamont comes over as a little dozy and hazy, which is to the film's advantage: even when The Talk is had, we have no idea if its core concept - that daddy is going away somewhere, for good - will stick.) Yet even as we feel the film leading up to something - a horrendous, wrenching reality that cannot be avoided - we rest easy, sensing this departure will be as well-managed as everything else Pasolini puts up on screen. The film's level of care is on an exact par with that the protagonist takes; we're in safe, experienced hands throughout.

Not least those of Norton, who's very quickly developed a James McAvoy-like skill for landing on rewarding yet non-obvious projects, the scripts more nakedly ambitious performers would likely bin in the pursuit of bigger paydays. (Nowhere Special follows the actor's supporting appearance in Greta Gerwig's Little Women, and his leading turn in Agnieszka Holland's Mr. Jones, released just before the pandemic.) He meets this role's many precise technical challenges: the Ulster accent, playing working-class, playing ill and working-class. (One of the film's background sadnesses: that there clearly hasn't been anybody around for a while to lavish the same care on John as he does on his boy.) Any residual thespian ego might well have been sated by the knowledge the pressures of this plot fall squarely on his shoulders. He gets the lion's share of the close-ups, just pipping his junior co-star, though Pasolini makes a point of mixing them up. The wicked smile that plays on John's lips as he takes revenge on one of his gobbier clients - a welcome, Loachian moment of levity - is soon replaced by a pained expression as he spots new parents who have a very different life (indeed, a life) ahead of them. This is a man who knows his few moments of triumph in this world are coming to an abrupt end - but who's also acutely aware he needs at least one or two more wins before the game is finally up. He hasn't the luxury of resignation, and Norton accords this figure a very great dignity by playing him as such.

Pasolini's triumph lies in taking what would be an inherently complicated situation in real life, and keeping his focus on it simple enough for that situation to translate into affecting cinema. To this end, he effectively deploys Norton's face as an emotional geiger counter, watching John gauge the potential second homes he passes through, and the potential second parents he meets there, and seeing if anything clicks. (The radioactivity, in this instance, is love, its own form of chemistry.) The pay-off is that we immediately spot when a breakthrough is made - when John comes across prospective guardians who might be just right for his lad; the downside is that we also feel his frustration and disappointment whenever the situation sours, or isn't quite right to begin with. The tragedy is that no-one will love this boy as his father does; the consolation the film offers is that there are a few people around who will, all the same, approach that genetically built-in affection. It's a race-against-the-clock search that you could equally imagine underpinning a mid-Thirties Cary Grant vehicle, a neo-realist fable (à la De Sica or the Dardennes) or a tarted-up, doubtless terrible latter-day melodrama with some Hollywood megastar pushing the producers for the big deathbed scene that would finally land him that elusive awards nod. Resisting that awfulness, Pasolini stays true to the time-honoured virtues of calm, understated writing, playing and storytelling; he's an admirably old-fashioned, 20th-century filmmaker in many ways, which may be why he can show us John and son praying for better things without lapsing into cheap shots or winking irony. We still need these old-school storytellers, as we need films that present as nothing special - even as their every choice is quietly, unfussily nuzzling into and breaking your heart.

Nowhere Special is now available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

Sunday 15 August 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of August 6-8, 2021):

1 (1) The Suicide Squad (15) *
2 (2) Jungle Cruise (12A)
3 (3) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
4 (4) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
5 (5Black Widow (12A) ***
6 (6) Spirit Untamed (U)
7 (new) Stillwater (12A)
8 (7) Old (15)
9 (new) The Last Letter from Your Lover (12A)
10 (8The Forever Purge (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Limbo

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Peter Rabbit 2 (U)
2 (2) The Croods (U)
3 (3) Space Jam (U) ***
4 (5) Peter Rabbit Double Pack (U)
5 (10) Promising Young Woman (15)
6 (new) Luca (U)
7 (9) Birds of Prey... (15)
8 (4) Zack Snyder's Justice League (15)
9 (6) Tom & Jerry: The Movie (PG)
10 (7) Godzilla vs. Kong (12)

My top five: 
1. Two of Us
4. Aviva
5. Minari

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. From Russia with Love [above] (Sunday, ITV, 1.35pm)
2. The Bourne Supremacy (Friday, ITV, 11.05pm)
3. Upgrade (Saturday, C4, 11.45pm)
4. Midnight Special (Wednesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. The Wedding Singer (Sunday, five, 2.10pm)

"The Green Sea" (Guardian 13/08/21)

The Green Sea **

Dir: Randal Plunkett. With: Katharine Isabelle, Hazel Doupe, Michael Parle, Dermot Ward. 104 mins. Cert: 15

Who knows what this says about industry accessibility, but here’s a rare chance to see a genre movie directed by a certified peer. Randal Plunkett – 21st Baron of Dunsany, profiled in these very pages last weekend – has taken leave from rewilding his garden to turn out a literary chiller about the relationship between a boozy blocked writer and the itinerant waif she takes in after a drunken car shunt. It’s the kind of potential aristocratic folly that’s meant to have critics (and left-leaning critics in particular) sharpening their knives. In fact, though it’s not devoid of first-feature fumbles and stumbles, and carries over the movies’ traditionally wobbly sense of How Writing Gets Done, its stronger stretches invoke a wintry atmosphere that suggests Plunkett has spent his leisure time in the library with many of the right ghost stories.

The smartest choice was made during casting, with the drafting of Katharine Isabelle, Canadian star of the Ginger Snaps trilogy. Lending heart and spirit to Plunkett’s troubled scribe Simone, a snarly recluse in death-metal T-shirts that scream “keep your distance”, Isabelle also fosters a credible sisterly bond with newcomer Hazel Doupe; her response to news that her houseguest-turned-home help is a boyband aficionado proves winningly tart. Plunkett needs her, because his plot is heavily backloaded. For over an hour, we’re puzzling over a sometimes indifferently paced character study, interrupted by jolting, decontextualised flashbacks, and brief cutaways to spooky figures spaced out along a distant shore (a possible crib from The Innocents), who represent either past trauma or nastiness lying in wait ahead.

This deferral tactic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means there’s a lot riding on the final half-hour, when someone asks “what’s going on?”, and Plunkett has to explain himself. What he lands on is surprising, more eccentric than the film’s immediate influences would indicate, a touch clumsy around a pivotal reveal, and bound to set some viewers asking questions the director doesn’t want to answer (or never asked himself). In the moment, however, it sorta-kinda works emotionally, bolstered by the leads’ growing rapport, and cinematographer Philipp Morozov’s big-picture exteriors. Plunkett may well have resources enough to give himself a second shot behind the camera; his debut, the image of a flawed-but-intriguing, two-and-a-half-star mixed bag, offers a fair bit to build on.

The Green Sea is now available to rent via Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play and Apple TV. 

"Shershaah" (Guardian 13/08/21)

Shershaah **

Dir: Vishnu Vardhan. With: Sidharth Malhotra, Kiara Advani, Shiv Pandit, Nikitin Dheer. 135 mins. Cert: 16+ (streaming)

Hot on the heels of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, last year’s biopic of one of the hardier combatants in the India-Pakistan flare-up of 1999, mega-producer Karan Johar offers a disappointingly generic tribute to Vikram Batra, shot down in the same conflict aged just 24. Batra’s passing was previously noted in 2003’s all-star LOC: Kargil, where he was played by Abhishek Bachchan, and an image of the soldier has clearly lodged in the Indian collective memory: as a model citizen, a straight arrow willing to sacrifice all for the motherland. Yet that very straightness proves an issue within a two-hour battle charge that shuttles its practically perfect protagonist (codename: Shershaah, or “Lion King”) from playground fisticuffs to fateful last stand. Its idea of conflict never develops beyond the childishly superficial.

For starters, this is the first time Batra has been played by someone who might pass for a model: Sidharth Malhotra, ever-handsome, mostly upright, sensing he needn’t flex too hard to emerge looking like a sweetheart. As the film chops between Batra’s personal and professional lives – fostering an illusion of multi-directionality – its star successfully runs the trickiest gauntlet: trying not to look too gawky in the signifying shellsuits of college flashbacks. Malhotra and an unusually deglammed Kiara Advani (as Batra’s beloved Dimple) can’t credibly resemble undergraduates, but they share a fond, tender chemistry. It’s a pity this service leave keeps being interrupted by rumbles from Kashmir – but that’s where this story’s destiny, and its most ordinary material, lies.

Here, Tamil recruit Vishnu Vardhan stages recces and shootouts with an unspectacular competence, the most distinctive touch applied by make-up: three stitches on Malhotra’s temple, so as not to obscure his features. The politics are far less delicate. This Batra begins as a diplomat (“If we don’t trust them, they’ll never trust us”), but the film makes him a warrior, throttling targets with their own headscarves. The avoidance of nuance should at least spare Johar any more of those loopy accusations of treason he attracted upon casting the Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in 2016’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. His latest is nothing but patriotic, but it’s also rote and uninspired with it, right through to the final-reel rallying cries and shots of the Tiranga fluttering unsullied in the wind.

Shershaah is now streaming on Prime Video. 

Thursday 12 August 2021

Manic M.C.: "Escher: Journey Into Infinity"

M.C. Escher, the world's most exasperating rapper: his every line doubled back on itself, before disappearing into a blind spot. The Dutch-originated biographical primer Escher: Journey Into Infinity has been compiled with a not entirely inappropriate dash of eccentricity. Its only celebrity talking head is Graham Nash, for some reason, although Stephen Fry's narration of Escher's letters and diary entries does a lot of the heavy lifting, establishing the artist, mathematician and printmaker as a considerable odd bod, at once a dreamer and a control freak, and finally something of a crank who couldn't understand why his trippier work was being seized upon by the longhairs of the counterculture ("How can they reconcile it with their addiction to narcotics?"). Its dottiness is part of its strength; rather than some dry, Wiki-level relaying of established facts, we witness a concerted effort to inhabit the Escher archive (with the blessing of the offspring who appear as character witnesses, the boys the spitting image of their father), and thus to reproduce a particular, leftfield aesthetic. Amid extensive location shooting - encompassing Tuscany, the Alhambra, the Swiss Alps, and a final, whirlwind tour of the United States - director Robin Lutz busily engineers trompe-l'oeil effects and generally idiosyncratic close-ups of striking architectural and natural phenomena. The film approaches the surface of the planet with the same curiosity and playfulness as Escher himself, which is much to Lutz's credit.

Of course, he also has the considerable advantage of decades of visual material to play with: early schoolboy sketches, the Hergé-like apprenticeship illustrations, remarkably detailed studies of eyes and hands and cityscapes, as well as the later, mass-produced masterworks. They're all of an amazing, singular piece; even the artist's nudes are angular in their crosshatching, potential curves sharpened to iris-skewering points. At a whizzy 81 minutes, the film feels light on context: I'd have dropped Nash in favour of at least one art historian, who might have been better placed to connect Escher to other contemporary schools - or point out how and why he was doing entirely his own thing. Interpretation, meanwhile, is left to those of us in the cheap seats. Given that Escher's formative years coincided with WW1, and that his first years of success came during WW2 - and, furthermore, that he relocated his family from Italy to Switzerland so as to rescue one of his sons from a youthful flirtation with fascism - are the better known etchings an attempt to reimpose order on an especially turbulent world? Or are they the polar opposite: some acknowledgement of the limitations of order, where what looks to be an ordered environment finally eludes the grasp of the rational onlooker? (As that noted art historian Shaun William Ryder once put it: you're twisting my melon, man.) Lutz's own camera stays open to all possibilities: as alert to landscape and patterning as its eminent subject, it's a documentary that fills in the gaps in our Escher knowledge, but also sharpens the eye as it goes about it.

Escher: Journey Into Infinity opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Tuesday 10 August 2021

A separation: "Limbo"

By rights, Ben Sharrock's second feature
Limbo should have opened last year, the better to be grouped with that smattering of pre-pandemic works - the superb, short-lived sitcoms Home and Don't Forget the Driver, the smart Netflix pick-up His House - which suggested British creatives had finally grasped how to dramatise the migrant experience with compassion and wit in the place of didacticism and piety. Sharrock here pushes the fish-out-of-water trope to a geographical extreme, relocating a mixed bag of Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers to the Orkneys or thereabouts, where they are to be schooled by the authorities in the ways of the New World. The joke underpinning Limbo is that, to all outward appearances, this might as well be another planet entirely: remote, overcast, windswept-to-frozen, at every turn unpromising. Sharrock's ultra-Highlands have much in common with the Nord-Pas de Calais of Bruno Dumont's recent Quinquin projects - even the housing looks the same, set back upon slopes a distance from the road - but his travellers have been accorded greater voice and agency than those shuffling through the Dumont universe. Or, at least, as much agency as those caught in an administrative holding cycle, awaiting their ultimate fate, can have. They place phone calls to the loved ones from whom they've been separated; they polish their English by bingeing Friends on DVD (stopping to debate, as many have before them, whether Ross and Rachel really were on a break); and they stumble into flummoxing encounters with jovially suspicious locals. They are both left to their own devices, and caught in an absurd bind. Unable to seek employment, they have all the free time in the world; but because they're at the end of the world, they have nothing very much to do with that leisure.

Another useful point of reference might be Aki Kaurismaki's comedies of the last decade. As in 2011's Le Havre and 2017's The Other Side of Hope, the migrants here initially look to have been conceived as mordant sight gags, amusing anomalies. A musician back home in Syria, Omar (Amir El-Masry) insists on carrying round an oud he hasn't played for years, literal baggage; his pal Farhad (Vikash Bhai) sports a fulsome moustache grown in tribute to his idol Freddie Mercury. Yet Limbo proves funnier and more openly expressive than Kaurismaki's acquired-taste drollery. There's some priceless material about this community's sole tourist trap (dolphin tours), and you know Sharrock is on the right comedic path when he sends on TV funnyface Kenneth Collard (Detectorists, Cuckoo) to inform Omar that a man called Alan once won a goat for his open-mic night rendition of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies". Limbo is sadder, too, when it needs to be. Asked in class to deploy the past tense in a sentence, one migrant pipes up with "I used to cry myself to sleep at night, but now I have no tears left." (He gets a round of applause for it, which seems inappropriate.) Whatever first strikes the eye as quirky gets offset by Omar's own slide into depression, very affectingly described by El-Masry: a realisation that everything this man wants and needs is elsewhere, far beyond the scope of Sharrock's deliberately spartan, squared-off frames. (As it is, an abandoned farmhouse will serve as a point of communion between Omar and the memory of the brother he left behind, clinching evidence of Sharrock's commitment to furnishing his characters with an inner life.) If the camera initially appears standoffish - sniggering from the back of class as Collard grinds up against schoolmarm Sidse Babett Knudsen to Hot Chocolate's "It Started with a Kiss" - these frames are soon filled by close-ups of men in the middle of nowhere, uncertain what their next move will have to be. Via that slow push-in, and the accretion of detail that follows from it - not to mention a growing sense these lives have been put on hold, like the calls the asylum seekers put in to the functionaries who will determine their status - Limbo converts a perilously sitcommish premise into fully dimensional, wholly heartfelt cinema. The excited industry chatter around Sharrock is not for naught, one concludes: it takes real nous to sustain a tone as bittersweet as this.

Limbo is now playing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via MUBI UK next month.