Friday 29 October 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of October 22-24, 2021):

1 (new) Dune: Part One (12A) **
2 (1) No Time To Die (12A) ***
3 (2) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
4 (new) The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (PG)
5 (4) The Addams Family 2 (PG)
6 (new) The French Dispatch (15) **
7 (3) Halloween Kills (18)
8 (5) Ron's Gone Wrong (PG) ***
9 (new) Dear Evan Hansen (12A)
10 (8) Honsla Rakh (12A) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Scream [above]
4. The Seven Samurai

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Fast & Furious 9 (12)
2 (8) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
3 (2) Jungle Cruise (12)
4 (3Free Guy (12)
5 (6) Venom (15)
6 (14) The Forever Purge (15)
7 (5) Black Widow (12) ***
8 (7) Old (15)
9 (9) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
10 (new) Injustice (15)

My top five: 
1. Limbo
5. Pig

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Exorcist (Saturday, BBC2, 10.40pm)
2. Beetlejuice (Sunday, five, 5.35pm)
3. The Addams Family (Saturday, ITV, 1.55pm)
4. Widows (Sunday, C4, 9pm)
5. What We Do in the Shadows (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)

"The Football Monologues" (Guardian 29/10/21)

The Football Monologues

Dir: Greg Cruttwell. With: Emma Amos, Samuel Anderson, Siobhan Bevan, Brian Bovell. 94 mins. Cert: 15

A big season, this, for Greg Cruttwell. Next month, the BFI revives Mike Leigh’s Naked, in which Cruttwell landed his most indelible acting gig as the yuppie scumbag Jeremy. This week, however, he resumes writer-director duties with a genial indie that casts Leigh alumni and TV stalwarts as football-crazed individuals, pouring their hearts out to a mostly static camera for 90 minutes plus injury time. It’s an innately theatrical proposition: forever more talk than action, like a fringe play that’s snuck in through the Odeon fire doors. (Formally, it resembles those single-actor patch-ups that proliferated during lockdown.) Yet this is pretty sound talk, engagingly performed: if not a resounding triumph for one medium over another, then the kind of honourable draw that sends everybody home reasonably happy.

Its tactics derive from the Alan Bennett playbook, revealing what first seem like eccentrically heightened passions – whether for Spurs or the fictional Sadlers Brook’s under-12s – as cover for deeper, more personal struggles. Up in the boardroom, Emma Amos’s non-league chairwoman mulls the ethics of an affair with her married manager over glasses of Chardonnay; superfan Stephen Boxer (The Crown’s Denis Thatcher) splutters sausage roll while over-investing in a juniors’ team (with reassuringly wholesome reason); hotshot Samuel Anderson has his status challenged by an influx of academy kids. Inevitably, referees get some stick: Mark Hadfield provides comic relief as an official who refers to the pitch as his “kingdom”, only to see himself royally dethroned.

The editorial is a generalised sigh about money that never trickles down to grassroots, and Cruttwell’s niche punning (“No way, José Mourinho”) can’t match Bennett’s Messi-level wit. Yet he’s good at drawing out distinct personality types: Brian Bovell is a picture of affability as a cabbie-turned-scout, while Candida Gubbins proves a mid-film dynamo, essaying a late convert drawn by her Dulwich Hamlet-supporting beau into barracking “the Tooting scum”. Like Leigh, Cruttwell affords his players time and space to run a mile in these boots, further shaping this credible chatter with judicious cutting between workaday locations. Refreshing, too, to see a football-themed Britpic that swerves the overworked territory of hooliganism; as Gubbins’ Amelia insists: “There are no hooligans at Dulwich”. 

The Football Monologues opens in selected cinemas from today.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Young fathers: "Honsla Rakh"

The presence of middling romcom
Honsla Rakh in the current UK Top 10 can be put down to its leading man Diljit Dosanjh, beturbanned prince of Punjabi cinema, and one of surprisingly few contemporary movie stars who might even be recognisable in silhouette form. 2019's Hindi comedy Good Newwz - one of Bollywood's last major hits before lockdown - indicated Dosanjh was entering the fatherhood stage of his career; Honsla Rakh is effectively his About A Boy, albeit with a semi-clever structural hitch that invites our hero to take a second shot at finding domestic bliss after the first comes to all but naught. (The film's subtitles translate the title as Be Patient; other sources suggest it's closer to Keep Your Spirits Up, but you get the picture.) Dosanjh's Yanky Singh is a restaurateur by day and a party animal by night who lives in one of those improbable movie mansions on the leafy outskirts of Vancouver with Honsla (Shinda Grewal), the young son he's raised since winning a custody battle with his ex. In the first half, Yanky's chance reunion at an airport with said ex (Shehnaz Kaur Gill, dressed like she's heading to an awards ceremony) cues a long flashback to how everybody got here, and we understand just why the film has been titled as it has. In the second half, Yanky attempts to move on with upright yoga teacher Jasmine (Sonam Bajwa), with the kid - who's now reached a Noah Jupe level of precocity - deployed as a weapon so secret our hero consciously omits to inform his new flame he is, in fact, a father. Dramatic tension, moderate farce and sporadic chuckles ensue.

Dosanjh is credited as producer as well as star, and Yanky Singh has evidently been seized upon as a potential transitional role: he gets to act the dashing young blade in the opening nightclub number, lining up women like shots, before creeping back into Yanky's mansion in the early hours and spending the rest of the first half up to his elbows in Pampers and formula. (One good, goofy sight gag early on: Yanky tries wearing a mask of a woman's face to reassure the newborn while feeding, starting with the mother's own, before graduating to Scarlett Johansson and Gal Gadot.) Yet it's a showcase built on flimsy foundations, and the longer one sits with them, the flimsier they seem. I'm not sure director Amarjit Singh Saron and writer Rakesh Dhawan (who penned the Chal Mera Putts) have troubled to do much research into the specificities of Canadian custody arrangements, the adoption system, childcare provision, or even what people wear when boarding intercontinental flights. A lot, then, depends on Dosanjh's easy charm, and in fairness, the star does know how to milk a laugh from basic business: humming to himself while walking into a restaurant, or lobbing his phone number in Bajwa's general direction. (In a momentary subversion of Indian cinema norms, Jasmine initially has the persistent Yanky arrested for stalking - but he still goes back to interfere with the running of her yoga class.) 

The problem is that charm has to stretch a long way here. Good Newwz recruited Dosanjh to play something like a mixed doubles match with capable colleagues; though he has some funny-sweet scenes with Grewal, Honsla Rakh mostly finds him going solo for 145 minutes, and stuck in the same mode for much of it - that of the big kid who barely seems more mature than the child he's raising. (Only the gods know how the judge ruled in his favour.) Like its protagonist, this male-authored film also manages to be clumsy, sometimes careless around its women. A couple of fatshaming non-jokes would be ungallant in any circumstances, but they play as especially misjudged in a film that regards women as babymakers. Kaur Gill is such an interestingly melancholy screen presence you wonder if the film will properly broach the sadness of that first, failed relationship at some point, but no: she's shunted offscreen to make room for Yanky's quest for renewed happiness, and only recalled amid the chaos of the wedding finale, at which she arrives dressed like she's popping to ASDA. At the time of writing, this broadly amiable yet immediately forgettable fluff boasts a 9.1 user rating on IMDb - higher not only than Good Newwz, but also The Godfather Part II, GoodFellas and The Seven Samurai, which suggests either its audience are cock-a-hoop to be back at the Cineworld, or that someone's had a go at the algorithm. Either way, in time, that will surely come down. Be patient.

Honsla Rakh is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday 25 October 2021

Titbits: "The French Dispatch"

You spend half your weekend berating modern American cinema for beating an exasperating retreat into ever more niche and nerdy microverses, and how do the studios respond? By putting out a new Wes Anderson movie. On paper, The French Dispatch might be one to win back the (quietly sizeable) contingent of Anderson sceptics and naysayers within my profession: its organising principle is journalism of an older, pre-Internet school, and it has the cute idea of relocating the New Yorker offices to a recreation of workaday France - a transposition that allows Anderson to riff on writerly habits, typical subjects of the upmarket magazine, and French cinema en tout. (Were the boutique arthouse chains showing The French Dispatch to hand out copies of the I-Spy Book of French Movie References with every ticket - as I really think they ought - you would be able to tick off Andersonian allusions to Playtime, Breathless and Zéro de conduite, and then give yourself a gold star for being a very good cinephile.) It's even been assembled in the manner of a city final or other late edition, being an assemblage of vignettes of various shapes and sizes (there are aspect-ratio gags) with illustrations and animations to fill in the gaps. Owen Wilson, en bicyclette, provides a sightseeing tour of Anderson's fictional Ennui-sur-Blasé; there's an artworld anecdote involving Adrien Brody, hulking asylum inmate Benicio del Toro and a symmetrically nude Léa Seydoux (and which, entering into the spirit of the picture entire, could do with a little editing); a column Frances McDormand files about student rebel Timothée Chalamet; a bit with Jeffrey Wright doing a pretty good James Baldwin impersonation (and which is worth sticking with for one priceless Willem Dafoe reveal); then the Dispatch's crack team assemble to pay tribute to the journal's late editor (Bill Murray), before Anderson flashes up a list of his literary influences, much as Edgar Wright used Baby Driver to foist a certain playlist upon us. As both fans and detractors have observed this weekend, the whole is very much of an Anderson muchness: prolix in its narration, stocked deep with its maker's preferred players. Hotel Chevalier, the short Anderson made to accompany The Darjeeling Limited on its travels in 2007, would slot easily into this Frenchiest of portmanteaus, suggesting the director hasn't developed unduly over the past decade-and-a-half - that he's content to pootle round within his carefully curated, cosily recognisable rut. When you announce yourself as a prodigal talent, where else is there for you to go?

It may even be too much of a muchness. For the first time watching an Anderson film from the front row, I became aware of just how much detail was passing me by. Every scene is stuffed with blink-and-you'll-miss-it signs, signifiers, handbills and tchotchkes, and I'd only have been tempted back to take a second look - as one is inclined to do with the detail in the better Pixar movies - if the narrative lines on which these paper dolls are pegged out were more compelling than they are. As it is, it's just so much scattered design: a kaleidoscope of free-floating trivia. The French Dispatch has the advantage on the weekend's other major release, in that its trivia is at least colourful, and sometimes even funny: I did chuckle at the Chalamet brigade's makeshift revolutionary slogan "les enfants sont grognons" (the children are grumpy). Yet, as elsewhere in this filmography, the archness of the framing works against any closer, deeper, more lasting engagement. I might just about have dug the Brody-del Toro business, but at a crucial stage Anderson cuts away to an art historian (Tilda Swinton, with those joke-shop teeth she occasionally pops in for a giggle) providing her own ironic commentary on it; I would certainly have been down for the unexpected McDormand-Chalamet romance, but it proves incidental to a wider turf war involving Lyna Khoudri in sidecar helmet-and-goggles (for no immediately apparent reason). In Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (which stands as Anderson's most complete endeavour), this doodling and detail coalesced into sharp, genuinely poignant observations on the human condition. Here, however, the only visible goal is for Anderson to outclever himself - and the cleverer and more convoluted the formatting gets, the further the film deviates from emotion, meaning or any real point beyond exhibiting its essential Wes-ness. If that still does it for you, then have at it. Over the past week, my social media feeds have been flooded with photos of friends and colleagues having a marvellous-looking time at the French Dispatch exhibition running at 180 The Strand - and that show would appear entirely of a piece with the film, which often resembles no more than a procession of filmed props and sets through which camera and characters can tear. Unlike Dune's lifeless installation art, this really is a motion picture, and moderately diverting with it, but the exhibition would have the advantage of allowing the invested viewer to stop and stare at the assembled collectibles. Quibble as you will about Anderson's place in the filmmaking pantheon, but his brand (Branderson?) is clearly in full effect: exit par le gift-shop.

The French Dispatch is now playing in selected cinemas.

Sunday 24 October 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of October 15-17, 2021):

1 (1) No Time To Die (12A) ***
2 (new) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
3 (new) Halloween Kills (18)
4 (2) The Addams Family 2 (PG)
5 (new) Ron's Gone Wrong (PG) ***
6 (new) The Last Duel (18)
8 (new) Honsla Rakh (12A) **
9 (4Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
10 (new) Arracht (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Scream

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (4) Fast & Furious 9 (12)
2 (1) Jungle Cruise (12)
3 (2) Free Guy (12)
4 (3) SPECTRE (12) ***
5 (5Black Widow (12) ***
6 (11) Venom (15)
7 (new) Old (15)
8 (6) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
9 (new) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)
10 (7) Skyfall (12) ****

My top five: 
1. Limbo
5. Pig

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Zodiac [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.25pm)
2. The Italian Job (Sunday, five, 1.20pm)
3. Wildlife (Wednesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. Eighth Grade (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
5. Yentl (Saturday, BBC2, 2pm)

Saturday 23 October 2021

On "Dune: Part One", and Why Movies Now Suck

With Denis Villeneuve's
Dune, we arrive at a new apex for the cinéma du nerd. At the end of the last century, Frank Herbert's long, arid, none-more-niche saga of sandworms and spice trading - think The Fountainhead with more silica, or a less fun Tremors - was all but untouchable within movie circles, a consequence of the disastrous 1984 adaptation, rapidly disowned by its young director David Lynch. (Its folly status is such that even Film Twitter's contrarian faction couldn't do much to reclaim it upon its recent UK rerelease.) Twenty years of dour, pernickety worldbuilding have since reodorised the multiplex, however, installing the conditions necessary for someone to give it another crack: business-grad execs struck dumb by charts, graphs and storyboards, a generation of filmmakers who've monetised their childhood fetishes, viewers re-educated by the mainstream to marvel at the stories they were first told at ages seven and twelve, and an emergent critical class, made up of shameless fanboys and cheerleaders, prepared to wave through anything that presents as remotely big or ambitious in return for set access, boxes of studio freebies and the occasional red-carpet selfie. (At the back of this Dune's glowing festival reviews: a strong sentiment of "isn't it great to be back at the movies?" Well, yeah, but there are other ways of getting out of the house.) So we go again, this time with the book handed to a filmmaker who's been elevated to the pantheon of major contemporary directors even before he's directed a single great movie. Arrival was foursquare multiplex sci-fi that kept the teens in Row D quiet for two hours, and Villeneuve did the best job he could with Sicario's thick-eared script and prejudices, but this remains the filmmaker who made the risible Incendies and bored half the world senseless with his Blade Runner sequel. Even Christopher Nolan has a better track record. Top-heavy with design, big on capital-V Vision, Villeneuve's Dune may be the ultimate film made by geeks for geeks. But, really, where's a wedgie when we need one?

Some effort has been made to broaden the material's appeal, granted; Warners wouldn't have spent this much money without learning a few lessons from that ill-fated predecessor. Contra Lynch, this is a 12A-rated, Young Adult Dune, the suits intuiting that there's likely a higher proportion of nerds among that demographic, and that this group carries with them the kind of disposable income that has traditionally sustained franchise filmmaking. So we get Little Timmy Caramel as the archetypal (read: bogstandard) hero gathering his newfound powers to overthrow an oppressive regime; and, as his future love interest, Zendaya from the MCU, whose opening bout of narration warns viewers of a non-nerdy disposition that they're in for a very long night, and who thereafter spends this first film walking the dunes in her own private fragrance commercial. ("Boredom: for a man or a woman.") Still, Villeneuve can only sex things up so much. Why is everything dun-brown or slate-grey? For what's been trumpeted as Very Great Spectacle, the film is wilfully subterranean; 75% of it is murmured meetings in what looks like a Polish municipal car park, and even the spaceships look to be built of concrete and crushed dreams. (It's a miracle they ever get off the ground.) Also: why is everybody dressed - and, in the case of a newly beardy Oscar Isaac, actively styled - like the Ewoks? I suspect this is far more deliberate, subconsciously evoking Star Wars, still a sacred text among the nerd brigade, despite the Special Editions, the prequels, the toxicity of their fellow fan-travellers. Swap in spice for the prequels' taxation business, and you have the measure of Dune as a narrative, but Villeneuve gets nowhere near that franchise's buoying, boyish spirit. From the off, Dune is overbearingly pompous, its every line of jargon loaded with unearned portent; that's when you can hear the dialogue under Hans Zimmer's honking score, designed to batter the credulous into five-star submission. Estimable colleagues of mine have praised Villeneuve for porting the solemnity of his earlier art movies into the blockbuster realm, and they're almost right: what he's actually done is turned the event movie into a Haneke-like ordeal. Not a single flicker of humour is permitted in a film about a teenager who uses his psychic powers to revolutionise the spice trade - utter bunkum, in other words, and something's gone badly wrong with the dominant storytelling mode when our movies (and fellow moviegoers) are taking this hooey this seriously. "We didn't make this movie as adults but as teenagers," Villeneuve confessed in a recent BFI onstage. Boy, does Dune ever bear that out.

Clocking in at 155 minutes, Dune: Part One also arrives as the most illustrious example yet of how well-financed worldbuilding has corrupted basic cinematic storytelling. At least Lynch was trying to solve the problem how to convert a long, windy tome into a single sit. Villeneuve is operating within a system that has learnt from recent experience that there is $$$ in dragging these things out beyond their natural length. That's why this is only Part One, with the promise-slash-threat of more to come. Nothing climactic in these two-and-a-half hours, which is why it plays as so much rigmarole: just long, quasi-meaningful pauses, offering ample opportunity to admire every brick in its constituent walls (worldbuilding!); wholly underwhelming, bloodless fight scenes; shots that tease action to come, to be mistaken for visionary cinema; Stellan Skarsgård's floaty Brando impersonations (as close as anyone gets to having fun in this mausoleum); more Zimmer honking; and passing minutiae on the intergalactic spice trade. (Here, Villeneuve succumbs to the old Harry Potter problem: the source is so sacred he can't think to leave anything out.) There was a point in time - as late as the late 1990s - when major American movies moved, in a way that was often entertaining and sometimes thrilling to behold. Now they wheeze and sputter, their arteries clogged by this kind of agonised trivia; they don't need an Oscar so much as they need an enema. You can cling to the delusion that this stuff is good for the medium and good for cinemagoers, that American cinema is doing swell - in the same way there are still people out there who insist capitalism is the best system to be living under. You might even argue that Villeneuve has triumphed in translating a long, dull book into long, dull cinema. (Five stars.) Yet I think you could equally resent that a regressive, joyless sulk such as this is being positioned as somehow cutting-edge, that a project this fundamentally adolescent should have sucked up whatever oxygen remains in our arts pages and replaced it with BO, and that at the end of an especially ploddy two hours and 35 minutes, we still aren't through with this world and its pallid and uninteresting characters. Great, the nerds will cheer, more mirthless mythos coming down the tubes. The adults among us will just have to reach for another boxset, dig themselves further into the sofa, and console themselves with the following thought: that even if the movies have given up entertaining them, they at least won't have to expose themselves further to the new strain of Delta.

Dune: Part One is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 22 October 2021

"We Need To Do Something" (Guardian 22/10/21)

We Need to Do Something **

Dir: Sean King O’Grady. With: Sierra McCormick, Vinessa Shaw, Pat Healy, Lisette Alexis. 97 mins. Cert: 18

A decade ago, Jeff Nichols directed Take Shelter, a remarkably prophetic, big-picture drama with Michael Shannon as a construction worker alienating his loved ones with his insistence on building a bunker in readiness for gathering storms. It may be a sign of a withering US indie sector that this far scrappier genre item aims to generate comparably doomy vibes on a single set measuring barely forty square feet.

Adapted by Max Booth III from his own novella, Sean King O’Grady’s film unfolds primarily in a domestic bathroom, to which uptight corporate drone Pat Healy, put-upon wife Vinessa Shaw and the couple’s two children are confined after a felled tree dissects their Tornado Alley property. It’s soon clear this is one of those metaphorical bathrooms, representative of a much bigger space. Squandering any remaining resources and striving to reimpose control, dad insists “it’s not the end of the goddamn world”. Yet we’re clearly within touching distance.

With its circumscribed focus, this promising B-movie scenario proves a solid platform for the perma-game Healy, whose recent trajectory – from fresh-faced helpmate (The Innkeepers) via corruptible patsy (Cheap Thrills) to high-strung bully here – neatly parallels the arc of the white male in modern American cinema. There’s less for Shaw, passively observing as the image of maternal patience, but the Imogen Poots-ish Sierra McCormick gets a leg-up as the teenage cutter whose life is complicated enough before dad lobs her phone outside.

Around them, however, the dramatic limitations become swiftly apparent. Flashbacks to McCormick’s ominous liaison with a Gothy pal and an Ozzy Osbourne voice cameo provide a sketchy sense of the world beyond the bathroom door, but we’re mostly stuck gawping at ever more dishevelled shut-ins who – even amid the splatter-heavy finale – don’t entirely know what they’re up against, and remain uncertain what to do.

“I guess we wait,” shrugs Healy early on, which we do for long stretches as King O’Grady stretches his resources out. “Just hold on a little bit longer,” adds Shaw, as the hour mark ticks past. The whole might have assumed greater resonance mid-lockdown. Emerging now, it’s moderately diverting Halloween filler – earning points for reviving Taco’s electropop cover of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” – but still way too entrenched to become properly entertaining.

We Need To Do Something is released to rent digitally this Monday. 

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Haywire: "Ron's Gone Wrong"

As you may have already spotted, it's been a rare bad week for Disney at the domestic box office. The illustrious underperformance of Ridley Scott's
The Last Duel (too long? too medieval? too rape-based?) has made the biggest industry headlines, but looking beyond that, when was the last time a new Disney-distributed animation opened at number five? (And behind the universally shrugged-off The Addams Family 2, at that.) Ron's Gone Wrong was never going to have the might of the Pixar marketing machine behind it: it hails from a new UK animation studio, Locksmith, and it's ended up with Disney via the megacorp's new minions 20th Century Studios (formerly Fox). That we're witnessing a new animation model is evident onscreen from the decision to run credits for key creatives upfront, rather than in the closing moments - including one for the unexpected exec-prod alliance of Elisabeth Murdoch and writer-directors Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham (yes, that Peter Baynham). All parties may well be confident that the film will claw its way back to financial parity over the half-term rollout: if the marketplace has taught us anything, it's that kids' films, which can hold onto matinee slots several months after first release, are possessed of a longer tail than almost anything else around, such that a Croods 2 - a film to which no adult has willingly travelled - can presently stand among the year's biggest successes.

One factor in Ron's Gone Wrong going commercially wrong (at least as things stand) may be the old story of two studios landing upon the same idea simultaneously: our communal tech fetish has already been lampooned by Netflix's Sony buy-in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Smith and Baynham have boiled down mounting parental concerns over screen time and poured them into the vessel of a single must-have item: the BubbleBot, a sleek, wipeclean hybrid of Alexa and the Nintendo character Kirby who promises children a best friend "right out of the box". The film's first funny idea is that poor Barney Pudowski (voiced by Jack Dylan Glazer) - son of a single father, from Slavic immigrant stock - should wind up with what's effectively a BubbleBot knockoff, found in a skip, lacking the requisite software updates, and apparently on the verge of some terrible malfunction, a feeling only enhanced by Zach Galifianakis's voice work. This somehow feels like an innately British idea, arrived at by creatives who spent their formative years sat before Tomorrow's World watching America's cool kids get their hands on the shiniest bits of kit, and who then had to wait forever for the technology to cross the Atlantic or make do with the cheaper market own-brand variant.

There's an identifiable tension within these frames, and it stems from a difference of outlook high up within the chain of command, possibly even between Murdoch, Smith and Baynham; it's what happens when you invite silly Brits into an environment as solemnly businesslike as the modern American boardroom. (Smith and Baynham's last collaboration - on Arthur Christmas, an Aardman production released under the Sony banner - had much the same issue, torn between making something idiosyncratic and making something for easy global export.) The new film unfolds in a generic American Everytown, complete with generic junior-high corridors containing generic school bullies. But its funnier lines are funnier than the animation average - the kind of out-there suggestions that would likely be suppressed at the committee stage of bigger studio productions. Most of these go to Barney's exuberantly Russian grandmother Donka, voiced by Olivia Colman (who continues to bear out the new Spitting Images: she really is in everything nowadays). Informed there's a three-month waiting list for a brand-new BubbleBot, she's heard to mutter "what is this, Stalinist Russia?"; later, we learn she fixed her own hernia "with only a bread knife and vodka". The relationship between boy and toy develops goofily, too. There are traces of the enduring E.T. here, underlined when Barney and Ron (named for the first letters of his barcode) flee BubbleCorp heavies on a scooter; and the pair's rapport occasionally resembles that of toddler and older brother trying to stop sibling from running into traffic. 

But for the longest while, that central bond operates on the level of pure chaos; the childproof locks are well and truly ripped off, and for 45 minutes at its centre, the film becomes properly entertaining and surprising. Here again, Smith and Baynham look to be working with a far freer hand: there's a gag about babysnatching that I suspect the tightly regimented Pixar crew would have nixed on the grounds it might trigger onlooking guardians. Pity that the finale should revert to the generic: an overextended raid on BubbleCorp HQ that ditches the gags in favour of sub-Brad Bird action, and makes off with only sappy homilies on friendship. Locksmith are still in their R&D phase: they're testing how far they can deviate from the multiplex animation template, and how far they want to deviate from the multiplex animation template. That this is still, bottom line, studio product can be seen from the time, thought and energy expended on the broadly insignificant matter of who's running BubbleCorp - an entirely corporate subplot that's only here because the creative team want to please everyone, including their paymasters. There have been worse ambitions, but the best sequences in Ron's Gone Wrong - the scenes where Smith and Baynham really do seem to get it right - are those that take place beyond this bubble, in its digitised real world. It's here that the film spots the advantage of switching off the algorithms, recalibrating one's commercial expectations, and generally loosening up. These things can be daft inflatable lilos rather than machine-tooled juggernauts! And that's OK!

Ron's Gone Wrong is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 15 October 2021

For what it's worth...

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

1 (1) No Time To Die (12A) ***
2 (new) The Addams Family 2 (PG)
4 (4) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
5 (5) The Many Saints of Newark (15) ***
6 (3) Free Guy (12A)
7 (8) Candyman (15)
8 (6) Chal Mera Putt 3 (12A)
9 (new) Deadly Cuts (15)
10 (9) Respect (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Scream

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Jungle Cruise (12)
2 (1) Free Guy (12)
3 (4) SPECTRE (12) ***
4 (3) Fast & Furious 9 (12)
5 (2Black Widow (12) ***
6 (new) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
7 (7) Skyfall (12) ****
8 (6) Casino Royale (12) ***
9 (11) Quantum of Solace (12) **
10 (9) Luca (U)

My top five: 
1. Deerskin

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. An Impossible Love (Saturday, BBC2, 1.10am)
2. The Death of Stalin (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
3. The Guilty (Monday, C4, 1.55am)
4. The Hate U Give (Sunday, C4, 11.35pm)
5. A Time to Kill [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.25pm)

Thursday 14 October 2021

Be cool: "Freshman Year"

Freshman Year's UK title is pegged to a particular nostalgic moment: the young scholar's first time away from home, when your life finally seems to be your own, and the adult pleasures of drink, drugs and fellow horndogs fall within suddenly easy reach. The film's US title may be in closer touch with collegiate reality: Shithouse. The central gag in this SXSW favourite of 2020, all but a one-man-show for writer-director-star Cooper Raiff, is that a rite-of-passage the movies have traditionally painted as just the wildest time is more often than not a squirmingly awkward mess, a maze of bad choices from which even the sharpest Fulbright contender would do well to extricate themselves. Raiff throws his emotionally dependent mother's boy Alex right in at the deep end. The homesickness and contemptuous wannabe stand-up dormmate would be plenty for any young man to have to negotiate in the first weeks of term, but then there's a drunken hook-up with the whipsmart Maggie (Dylan Gelula), which our boy comprehensively mishandles, because nobody's yet taught him how to handle such affairs. The movie gives this kid what teen movie lore would normally define as one perfect night, then spends its next hour cutting him down at the knees. Much has been made of Raiff's own youthfulness - he's currently 23, so makes one of the American cinema's more credible freshmen - but it may just be that he's just young enough to remember these humiliations more vividly than those filmmakers who make their breakthrough college comedy in their thirties or forties.

The rest of us will have to bear in mind that this is an indie production, and therefore not expect the buoying gloss of those American Pie movies that defined the college experience for a generation. (Those kids must have been so disappointed when they finally arrived on campus.) There are no comic setpieces involving eccentric or exasperated professors; instead, Raiff shepherds his characters between dorms and around the fringes of an anonymous university town, rightly sensing it's those off-campus aspects that tend to stay with you from your first year at uni, rather than anything nailed down on the curriculum itself. The scene is notionally set for a romantic self-portrait, but Raiff plays Alex as slow on the uptake - unworldly would be the kind word for the twit. Not only does he not clock that Maggie has her eye on him, he scarcely knows how to react once she leaps atop him. (The "The Time Is Now" T-shirt he reveals once Maggie asks him to remove his protective hoodie will likely endure as the most ironic item of wardrobe in any movie this year.) Gelula is a good foil in these scenes, but really comes through once Maggie - a year older, in a film that recognises how critical 12 extra months of life experience are at this stage - starts pushing back against this clueless young man's adolescent bullshit. She even gets the funniest line, telling the sappy Alex he's "like the girl from 13 Going on 30", a point of reference destined to make anyone over and above those ages feel ancient indeed.

Raiff notes and nurtures the pair's connection - even after a disastrously curtailed dryhumping session, their early interactions generate the mellow warmth of late-night conversations with a good pal - but he's also painfully aware of the hesitancy and difficulty that stems from any attempt to convert initial sparks into something more lasting besides. And that's why Freshman Year's closing moments are quietly special: in the face of the copious evidence this century has thrown up suggesting men and women really would be better off if they left one another alone, here's a filmmaker who remains guardedly optimistic. Were it not for the fact that, you know, the planet is set to become a blazing fireball inside fifty years and we keep electing the exact worst people to manage that or any other crisis, one might envy the youth of today. A film such as this, or a show like Netflix's Sex Education, unpicking the decades of misinformation movies and TV have instilled around matters of intimacy, could prove properly instructive, and spare some poor soul a grave embarrassment at a formative moment. If you were looking down the barrel of a UCAS form, and if you were able to watch Freshman Year's entire second half (through fingers, if necessary), I dare say you'd learn more about the extracurricular aspects of higher ed here than you would watching Seann William Scott chug down another man's semen from a red solo cup.

Freshman Year is now available to rent via YouTube and Prime Video.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

The urban spaceman: "Gagarine"

Once again, the French cinema finds an entirely new angle on the inner city. An expansion on a 2015 short of the same name, Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh's
Gagarine proceeds from an inspired juxtaposition: it sets memories of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut and image of stratospherically high aspiration, against the latter-day reality of the Cité Gagarine, the Ivry-sur-Seine housing estate that was named for the astronaut in 1963 (by the then-ascendant Communist Party) and subsequently run down by a half-century of municipal neglect. It's there we find our teenage hero, also called Yuri (Alseni Bathily), a mournfully eccentric amateur astronomer of African descent who lives apparently alone in one of the estate's flats, sleeping under a homemade diorama of the solar system and with a telescope at his window that allows him to keep an eye on his fellow residents. In the absence of any parental oversight, Yuri devotes himself to pottering about the estate's corridors, repairing whatever he can in an vain attempt to stave off the developers' wrecking ball. (One early improvement: replacing a lift's flickering fluorescents with disco lights.) The old place retains traces of its former futurism: during the opening credits, the pointed corner of one of its roofs pierces the frame like the 2001 monolith. Yet its days are numbered. As his neighbours are gradually rehoused, Yuri finds himself broadly as alone as his Soviet namesake, with only a fellow dreamer, Diana (Lyra Khoudri), the Tereshkova to his Gagarin, swinging by to provide sporadic company. A Romany girl who's secured some kind of future for herself as a trainee operator on the cranes knocking down such relics as Yuri's home, she confesses a desire to get out and live the life she really wants elsewhere. The question is whether an estate such as this is a launchpad or merely a scrapyard, and one of Liatard and Trouilh's triumphs is to set us to thinking seriously about a question residents of estates like the Gagarine must ponder every day.

That's partly down to the unique way these filmmakers set about visualising their characters' inner lives. We're travelling through similar territory to last year's British success Rocks: like that film's eponymous heroine, Yuri finds himself abandoned by wayward guardians who bequeath him with only a sorry note of leavetaking and a scattering of currency. Yet the British film was tethered to some degree by social-realist tradition, and our expectations of what a film about the inner city should look like. Liatard and Trouilh take an extra imaginative leap in establishing the estate as its own galaxy and setting out to explore its furthest reaches; they film Yuri's flat, with its put-through parallel walls, as Ridley Scott and Alfonso Cuarón filmed intergalactic space stations. With the camera circling, in a mirror of the zero-G footage Yuri watches at night, the second half delights in Marion Burger's production design and some charmingly handturned effects as Yuri transforms his immediate environment into an airlock in a last-ditch bid to keep the world below at bay. Yet it's still out there, in the sound of the construction workers' hammers and boots getting closer by the scene, and in the sight of Diana's caravan site being brutally dismantled. That's the impressive balance Liatard and Trouilh strike here. Gagarine is, bottom line, a movie about displacement and dispossession, the destruction of a community (we see the real Gagarine being torn down in the closing credits), all of which prevents it from toppling over into Michel Gondry-style whimsy. But even as it keeps one foot firmly on the ground, it never stops looking up, and its flights of fancy beam back big, bold, ever-resonant images. Curled up inside a tent in the capsule this most practical of urban spacemen constructs for himself, Yuri really could be a 21st century starchild: floating in the ether of modern multicultural France, barely seen, yet no less full of potential.

Gagarine is now playing in selected London cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

Tuesday 12 October 2021

Callbacks: "The Guilty"

The Guilty was a notably well-marshalled Danish suspenser that suggested the movies had started to take notes from TV's better bottle episodes: it boiled down to a man alone in a room, desperately trying to put the world to rights over the telephone, even as his certainties came crashing down around him. That film remains a great night's entertainment, but now we have a second, English-language The Guilty, adapted by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, directed by the never knowingly understated Antoine Fuqua, and starring a jacked-up Jake Gyllenhaal as the burnt-out 911 operator who fields a fateful call from a damsel in distress. Amazingly, given Netflix's involvement, the running time is roughly comparable - 91 minutes, set against the original's lean 85, one early sign that the source couldn't really be improved upon, and that everybody's working with much the same material. Yet elements here have clearly been buffed and upscaled. The new film opens with a panorama of L.A. at the height of wildfire season - helicopters cutting through smoke and infernal-red skies - which recalls nothing less than the Vietnam of Apocalypse Now. Gyllenhaal's Joe Baylor operates out of the kind of coolly low-lit yet extravagantly open-plan office space that has become familiar to viewers of American TV forensics dramas. And towards the end of these 91 minutes, just before the last caller hangs up, an extended coda carefully tidies away those ambiguities the original was perfectly content to leave hanging, the better to keep its viewers up past their bedtime.

If the Fuqua variation serves any real purpose beyond IP appropriation, it's that it once more highlights a difference between European and American storytelling norms. The Danish movie was all in your head and all the stronger for it, being the best radio play this century to have taken a left turn and ended up on cinema screens. The remake is mostly in your head, because its maker can't quite help himself: rendered a shade redundant by the project's medium-high concept, Fuqua sporadically takes to doodling little vignettes, not quite scenes, in the corners of the frame to hint at what might be unfolding out there on the road Joe's caller (voiced now by Riley Keough) is tearfully travelling. Furthermore, he sets his hero down in front of a towering bank of monitors showing the world (or at least this sprawling Californian part of it) burning up, as close as the filmmaker gets to his trademark pyrotechnics. Throughout the first act, there's rather too much visual noise: your eyes are too busy for your ears to take in critical details. (The original avoided that problem by being Scandinavian-sober from first frame to last.) It improves once it yanks the protagonist into a darkened sideroom, tightening the focus and removing Joe from the nightshift herd to prey more forcefully on his vulnerabilities. Gyllenhaal begins to lose it in sweaty close-up, and the narrative starts to exert a measure of the original's pull, even if those of us who've already seen this tale told will know exactly where we're all headed.

Second time around, the big narrative twist struck me as even more cynical-bordering-on-reactionary: the kind of fiendishly prickly provocation Danish filmmakers have felt liberated to trade in post-Lars von Trier, snickering wickedly as it overturns those assumptions we've been advised to make upon hearing stories such as that Joe hears coming down the line. Still, it's engineered and executed with flashes of Fuqua's usual expressive flair: in the pause that follows in this revelation's immediate wake, the gaping space in the frame around Gyllenhaal appears to reformulate itself into one giant, slack-jawed holler of "FUUUCCCCKKKKK!". That's sorta fun, but too much else here feels like an exercise. A wise musician once said the only point in covering a song is to do something radically different with it, make it new all over again. Judged on those terms, this version of The Guilty is a failure, no more than world cinema karaoke. One sad thing about modern Hollywood is that it's had far worse ideas than world cinema karaoke over the past thirty years - and many worse stabs at world cinema karaoke. (The heart sinks upon being reminded of George Sluizer's 1993 redo of his own 1988 film The Vanishing starring Jeff Bridges and a pre-fame Sandra Bullock, so disastrous that it not only sank without trace but buried the excellent original beneath a slew of complex rights issues.) Yet there surely have to be better ideas hidden towards the bottom of William Morris's daily maildrop. Don't there?

The Guilty is now playing at the Everyman Broadgate and the Rio Dalston, and is available to stream via Netflix; the 2018 original screens on Channel 4 this Monday at 1.55am.

Monday 11 October 2021

Girl erased: "The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão"

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão
 finds Karim Aïnouz, the Brazilian writer-director fêted on the festival circuit for his subversively queer romances, going epically long with an adaptation of a Martha Batalha novel; in doing so, he moves himself a little closer to the movie centreground. (The film was Brazil's official submission for the Academy Awards in 2020.) Told via a series of letters that never reach their intended recipient, this is a tale of two sisters raised within a reasonably well-to-do family in the Rio of the 1950s. Aïnouz's first triumph lies in casting personalities who contrast yet complement one another, and who so closely tessellate in the early scenes that it immediately feels like a tragedy when the fates conspire to rip them asunder. Our heroines are the tall, upright Eurídice (Carol Duarte), a gifted pianist with plans to study in Europe that require saving herself for marriage, and the shorter, darker, lustier Guida (Julia Stockler), who finds herself tarred with the brush of disgrace after she runs off with a Greek sailor and returns to the family home pregnant. It quickly becomes apparent that, although operating with a bigger budget and more heteronormative relationships than he has previously, Aïnouz is still working through his recurring theme of secret and forbidden, unruly or unseemly love. And the subversion is still there, not least in the drunken wedding night that involves poppers and gloriously smudged make-up, or a swoony nightclub tryst that throws back to the Fassbinder of Querelle. An in-all-senses pointed close-up of an erect penis suggests we're witnessing a rethink of the costume drama, one where the costumes will be far less prominent than the hearts - and other parts - throbbing beneath them.

To this end, Aïnouz has armed himself with more or less the ideal collaborator in cinematographer du jour Hélène Louvart (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). From the prologue, which locates the sisters in the natural world, this is a film far more interested in bodies and faces than it ever is in material things. The plot, to isolate one element, runs for an hour on desire alone: I fear this is going to sound like a blatant bid for pullquote status, but The Invisible Life... is a far hornier period drama than the much-binged Bridgerton, featuring characters who can't contain their hormones long enough to deploy the withdrawal method, and thereby come to suffer the consequences of unprotected sex in a country that can hardly bring itself to talk about abortion. Here, Aïnouz's film starts to assume a political slant, possibly inspired by the Bolsonaro regime's efforts to roll back the clock on women's rights. Batalha's book was published in 2016, but the film is quietly informed by ongoing debates, setting the pleasures of people coming together against the stern control required to keep them apart. The second half leans into an Almodóvarian narrative tension, as the shamed Guida is banished, Eurídice's correspondence starts to be withheld by the girls' tyrannical baker father (António Fonseca) and the sisters lose sight of one another while attempting to rebuild families on their own, greatly more accepting terms.

The key to the film's success is that Aïnouz and Louvart know exactly where to look - towards the margins and fringes. That's why the women here register so much more forcefully than their male counterparts, why a long shot of a housewife fruitlessly beating a carpet tells us more about mid-20th century Brazilian society than anything said or done by Eurídice's husband, for one. (That penis is a raised hand, erection-as-interjection; it's also where a good deal of the trouble starts.) Where he glides serenely through events, the women of this world - born just too early for the liberations of the 1960s and 70s - are fated to pair up, give birth, suffer and disappear as the girls' mother does. Assisted by high-calibre material, Aïnouz spies just what they're up against: a bold yet desperately sad coda erases decades from our heroine's life, and sets us to wondering whether it could have been better spent. It is an instructive life, nevertheless, and you should emerge after two-and-a-bit hours with both teary eyes and a feel for a certain time, place and mindset. You will hear no better definition of patriarchy in a film this year than Eurídice's soft, resigned shrug of a line "my mother is the shadow of my father", but even the small talk here is equal parts revealing and dismaying. Upon leaving the hospital after giving birth, Guida is accosted by a female neighbour who inquires as to the newborn's gender. "A boy," Guida answers, with an early hint of the exhaustion to come. "Lucky him," comes the wistful response.

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

Friday 8 October 2021

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office
 (for the weekend of October 1-3, 2021):

1 (new) No Time To Die (12A) ***
3 (3) Free Guy (12A)
4 (7) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
5 (2) The Many Saints of Newark (15) ***
6 (new) Chal Mera Putt 3 (12A)
7 (9) The Croods 2: A New Age (U)
8 (6) Candyman (15)
9 (5) Respect (12A)
10 (13) Space Jam: A New Legacy (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Scream

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Free Guy (12)
2 (1) Black Widow (12) ***
3 (new) Fast & Furious 9 (12)
4 (11) SPECTRE (12) ***
5 (new) In the Heights (PG) ***
6 (19) Casino Royale (12) ***
7 (24) Skyfall (12) ****
8 (2) Monster Hunter (12)
9 (18) Luca (U)
10 (4) The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (15)

My top five: 
1. Deerskin

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind [above] (Saturday, five, 3.15pm)
2. Dirty Harry (Friday, five, 10pm)
3. Zootropolis (Sunday, BBC1, 3.05pm)
4. Game Night (Saturday, BBC1, 10.35pm)
5. Frantz (Saturday, BBC2, 12.25am)