Monday 28 February 2022

Balls of steel: "Jackass Forever"

I wasn't wild about the
Jackass movies first time round. The devil-may-care attitude of its prankster subjects fed into some indifferent, largely televisual imagemaking; the glib cruelty of their pranks chimed a bit too closely for me with the humiliations of first-wave reality TV and the gurgling crassness of the Final Destination franchise. The bottom line was this: you really had to enjoy seeing actual pain inflicted on your fellow man to get any kind of a kick out of those movies, and it wasn't always clear what (or who) its creative prime movers - braying, sniggering imps of the perverse - were getting at. Using airhorns to piss off golfers at a swanky members club may have seemed a wholly commendable way for these young men to spend an afternoon, but even here any laughter was dependent on the responses (often the annoyed responses) of innocent bystanders who are still referred to in the credits as "marks". And as the phenomenon got bigger, it generated a lot more mess that its multimillionaire man-children were almost certainly never going to clean up. (Not least as they were being rushed away in ambulances to the ER.) Anyway, last year there was a reunion, one of many that took place between old friends in 2021: the now middle-aged elder statesmen Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Wee Man et al. joined by a new generation of Jackasses, kids brought up on the original series who disregarded the disclaimers and took to Twitch and Tik-Tok to document their own shits and giggles. The underlying rationale of Jackass Forever is that having survived a deadly global pandemic, the threat posed by rattlesnakes, vultures, scorpions, spiders and a middleweight UFC champion ought to be as nothing. Our heroes have had their shots; now they line up to take shots to the head, body and balls. Oh my goodness, the shots to the balls.

If ever there was a film to mark the so-called "return to normal", Jackass Forever would be it. Despite the new additions and circumstances, this is absolutely Jackass business as usual; it's a franchise that plainly cannot evolve, because everyone involved seems to have had their development arrested in the mid 1990s. A vaguely ambitious prologue - a monster-movie spoof, introducing the main players as horrified onlookers in a metropolis being terrorised by Chris Pontius's cock and bollocks - blows the budget, after which we settle in for ninety minutes of slipshod, scattershot sketches that would have done for any series of the show, and which ideally require several pints of multiplex lager to bond them together. Somewhere in there, my initial hardline anti-Jackassism softened to a bemused tolerance. Some caveats: I still think watching these things is like being present at some bizarre cult initiation ritual, and never more so than whenever Jeff Tremaine's camera pans from a stunt to the Knoxville entourage guffawing among themselves or screaming in one another's faces, often at material that isn't strictly funny. Though the relentless roughhousing occasionally yields something cinematic - there's a simple, bruising sight gag involving a moving treadmill and the gang dressed as majorettes - the framing remains artless and arbitrary, like watching random YouTube skits on autoshuffle. And sometimes this algorithmic direction tosses up things no-one needs to see: close-ups of a ballsack blitzed by a beard of bees, or a splayed anus straining to force out a fart underwater. (Sure, non-porno cinema's never shown us these sights before, but there may just be a reason for that.) For all that, there is more warmth and camaraderie evident in Forever than there was in earlier instalments: they are a team, even if their day job requires them all to take one, two or a whole faceful of mousetraps for said team. When Steve-O finally succeeds in forcing out that fart, the other Jackasses go up as one at the breakthrough, as if they were scientists at the Large-Hadron Collider: you reeker! My theory is that Jackass now stands or falls entirely on the degree to which you'd want these dipshits and dirtbags as your friends; call me old-fashioned, but my feeling is I'd still far rather my pals respond to any suffering of mine with plasters and Savlon, rather than honking like geese. (And then attempting to taser my rectum.) Each to their own, I guess, and in comedy more than most. I still don't understand why they're doing this to themselves, beyond the fact there's money in it, and I don't really know why anyone would pay good money to watch them doing this to themselves. But fuck it: the end is clearly nigh. Knock yourselves out while you still can, fellas.

Jackass Forever is now screening in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 26 February 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office
 (for the weekend of February 18-20, 2022):

1 (1) Uncharted (12A)
2 (2Sing 2 (U)
3 (3) Death on the Nile (12A)
4 (new) Dog (12A)
5 (4) Belfast (12A) **
6 (7) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
7 (5) Jackass Forever (18) **
8 (6) Marry Me (12A)
9 (11) Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG)
10 (12) Encanto (U) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. The Godfather: 50th Anniversary [above]
4. Flee
5. Jules & Jim

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (6) House of Gucci (15)
2 (1) Encanto (U) ***
3 (4) The King's Man (15)
4 (2) Dune (12) **
5 (5) Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12) **
6 (7) No Time to Die (12) ***
7 (3) Eternals (12)
8 (9) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
9 (14) The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (PG)
10 (12) Fast & Furious 9 (12)

My top five: 
1. Annette
4. Censor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Apartment (Saturday, BBC2, 1pm)
2. Clueless (Sunday, five, 4.25pm)
3. Brief Encounter (Saturday, BBC2, 3pm)
4. The Lost City of Z (Saturday, BBC2, 11.50pm)
5. Memento (Saturday, BBC1, 11.45pm)

Friday 18 February 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of February 11-18, 2022):

1 (new) Uncharted (12A)
2 (1) Sing 2 (U)
3 (new) Death on the Nile (12A)
4 (3) Belfast (12A) **
5 (2) Jackass Forever (18)
6 (new) Marry Me (12A)
7 (5) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
8 (4) Moonfall (12A)
9 (6Scream (18)
10 (7) Parallel Mothers (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. The 400 Blows

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (5) Encanto (PG) ***
2 (1) Dune (12) **
3 (23) Eternals (12)
4 (new) The King's Man (15)
5 (2Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12) **
6 (new) House of Gucci (15)
7 (3No Time to Die (12) ***
8 (8) Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (15)
9 (6) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
10 (new) Boiling Point (15)

My top five: 
1. Annette
4. Censor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Notting Hill [above] (Saturday, ITV, 10.40pm)
2. The Program (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
3. Captain Fantastic (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Wednesday, BBC1, 10.35pm)
5. Top Five (Wednesday, C4, 2am)

Thursday 17 February 2022

In memoriam: Douglas Trumbull (Telegraph 16/02/22)

Douglas Trumbull
, who has died aged 79, was an effects virtuoso whose work in a run of films from
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Blade Runner (1982) vastly expanded the cinema’s capacity to visualise worlds beyond our own.

Movie magic was a Trumbull family business. His father Donald had been a technician in Hollywood’s Golden Age, rigging the flying monkeys on The Wizard of Oz (1939); in his later years, Trumbull Sr. won two technical Oscars for his innovations in the fields of matte photography and motion-control camera systems.

His son landed his big break assisting on To the Moon and Beyond (1964), a 15-minute short produced by Graphic Films for the World’s Fair that zoomed out from a sub-atomic view to observe the Earth from space. Among its admirers was Stanley Kubrick, who flew Trumbull to London, initially to provide animations for 2001’s computer monitors.

Quick to earn his famously circumspect employer’s trust, Trumbull assumed additional responsibilities as production wore on: “He would say, ‘What do you need?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, I need to go into town and buy some weird bearings and some stuff’ and he would send me off in his Bentley, with a driver, into London. It was great!”

For the climactic sequence in which the astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) passes through the Stargate, Trumbull invented Slitscan, a photographic process that sped the camera past illuminated backdrops with the shutter open so as to generate heightened flaring. The stroboscopic results were intercut with aerial views of Monument Valley and discarded footage from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) to produce one of the most strikingly original sequences in 20th century cinema.

It was a new frontier, in every sense: as Trumbull put it, “We wanted the audience to feel like they were actually going into space.” Yet creative freedoms were tempered by Kubrickian control; the two men fell out after the director assumed sole onscreen credit for the film’s Oscar-winning effects, with Trumbull vowing to work independently in future.

His freelance career began inauspiciously. Trumbull underbid for the effects work on Universal’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), leaving him with only $250,000 to generate the microscope-like close-ups of the titular virus. A distribution quirk saw that film jettisoned on an underpromoted double-bill with Trumbull’s directorial debut Silent Running (1972), an unusually emotive, eco-themed sci-fi about a lone scientist (Bruce Dern) tending plantlife on a spaceship orbiting a dying Earth.

Completed for a tenth of 2001’s budget, Silent Running allowed Trumbull to finesse a sequence involving Saturn’s rings originally visualised for 2001, but elsewhere the modest resources compelled him to improvise. College students – including future effects whizz John Dykstra – were hired to suppress costs, many set to assembling the 650 tank modelling kits used in the film’s miniature shots.

Though a commercial flop, Silent Running proved hugely influential on those who saw it. George Lucas approached Trumbull to work on Star Wars (1977); Trumbull turned the offer down, while approving Lucas’s plan to model the droid R2-D2 on Silent Running’s expressive drones Huey, Dewey and Louie. (Both Trumbull Sr. and Dykstra would work on Star Wars in various capacities.)

By that point, Trumbull was busy elsewhere, having been appointed VFX supervisor on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). This was an especially demanding production, entailing 200 effects shots that needed to inspire awe while meshing with Steven Spielberg’s completed live-action footage. Yet Trumbull found practical solutions to the film’s challenges: the ominous cloudscapes signalling the aliens’ arrival were formed by filling fish tanks with saltwater and paint. It earned him a first Oscar nomination, losing – in a field of two – to Star Wars.

Visual effects ingenuity sometimes resembles elevated child’s play, yet Trumbull’s experience on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was hard labour. Belatedly hired after another effects house failed to bring the U.S.S. Enterprise to cinematic life, Trumbull worked overtime so the film could hit its planned Christmas release date; it landed him a second Oscar nod, plus ten days in hospital with an ulcerated stomach.

Upon recovery, Trumbull was lured back to hired-hand work on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Drawn by the prospect of detailing a careworn Earth rather than something stratospheric, he contributed several elements to the stunning opening panorama, including the images projected onto skyscrapers and the refinery flames, recycled from explosions Trumbull had filmed for Zabriskie Point (1970).

That worldbuilding was again Oscar nominated, again unsuccessful, but by then he was directing once more. Trumbull initially conceived the psychological thriller Brainstorm (1983) as a showcase for a new, high-definition photography process known as Showscan. When studio MGM balked at the cost, Trumbull ploughed on, only for the project to be comprehensively derailed when star Natalie Wood drowned in mysterious circumstances mid-shoot.

Studio bosses wanted to halt production and claim the insurance, but Trumbull persevered, recruiting Wood’s sister Lana as a stand-in for the remaining shots. That there was anything releasable was some achievement, but reviews were middling and box-office tepid, sending Trumbull into retreat: “I just had to stop. I had been a writer-director all my life, and I decided it wasn’t for me because I was put through a really challenging personal experience… I decided to leave the movie business.”

Douglas Huntley Trumbull was born in Los Angeles on April 8, 1942 to Donald Trumbull and Marcia Hunt, a commercial artist. A tinkerer from an early age, young Douglas built crystal-set radios and soaked up science-fiction movies; he studied illustration at El Camino College with the aim of becoming an architect, joining Graphic Films upon graduation, where he also worked on promotional films for the Air Force and NASA.

In later life, Trumbull moved to Massachusetts and into the less pressurised field of motion simulators and theme park attractions, most prominently directing a short film for the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios Florida, launched in 1991. He won a technical Oscar in 1993, for his work in the development of a new 65mm camera, and was appointed vice-chair of IMAX in the mid-1990s, as the corporation expanded worldwide.

In 2011, he pulled the old magic tricks out of retirement, photographing chemical reactions in petri dishes and injecting paint into water tanks for the eyepopping Creation of the Universe sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life: “It was a working environment that’s almost impossible to come by these days… Terry wanted to create the opportunity for the unexpected to occur before the camera.”

He continued tinkering, going viral in 2010 with a video that proposed a solution to the BP oil spill, and offering his Magi Pod, an immersive boutique cinema, as a cure for the modern multiplex’s projection ills. He won the Tesla Award in 2011, and an honorary Oscar in 2012. Thereafter he was an avuncular presence on the convention circuit, embracing fans beguiled by a groundbreaking legacy: “They reinforce some enthusiasm about my work. It’s very hard to keep me going, because the setbacks were really tragic and difficult.”

He is survived by his third wife Julia Trumbull (née Hobart), and by Amy and Andromeda, two daughters by his first wife Cherry Foster; his second wife, Ann Vidor, died in 2001.

Douglas Trumbull, born April 8 1942, died February 7 2022.

Tuesday 15 February 2022

On demand: "Cow"

The Andrea Arnold cinematic menagerie continues to expand. Thus far we've had the shorts Dog and Wasp (currently streamable via MUBI); aquatic life and white horses in 2009's Fish Tank; the various fauna of 2011's Wuthering Heights
. Arnold moved away from this she-bought-a-zoo approach in 2016's American Honey, distracted by the ready wildness of her young leads, but her latest Cow is nature in close-up: a 90-minute non-fiction study of the circle of bovine life on a commercial farm in Kent, from the birth of a calf (a gooier spectacle here than it was in City Slickers) to a final desultory feed, and a punchline straight out of Alan Clarke. (It's Cow as in Elephant.) The film thus trots along in the hoofprints of last year's critical fancy Gunda, which did much the same with a pig as a focal point, albeit at a respectful remove, and with far more evident artifice. Ever the realist, Arnold sets her camera at cow height (you worry for cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk's back and knees), following a dairy cow named Luma as she pokes forlornly around a darkened, muddy barn and surrounds. Seen front on, Luma sometimes seems to confront us quizzically, mooing sounds to the effect of "what are you looking at?" like an actress fleeing the paparazzi outside a divorce court. Whenever the camera tails in Luma's wake, we can't help but contemplate the pendulous udders swinging between hind legs that sporadically kick out at us, and the sheer amount of unidentified, unthinkable stuff hanging from her arse. If you're watching at home, I'd advise you to set your tea tray to one side whenever the vet shows up: within seconds, he's assuming what must be described as the James Herriot stance - gloved arm elbow deep in rear - to check on what we're informed is a twisted uterus. (A technical term: "Clean on vaginal.") You only hope this medical matter has been resolved by the time of the grimly funny setpiece in which Luma is mounted by the farm's prize bull to a soundtrack of the Annie Mac show and Bonfire Night fireworks. This is not, then, as pretty a picture as the gleamingly monochrome, sundappled Gunda, but then that plainly isn't Arnold's goal.

Luma's is a decidedly limited life, for one thing: her days are spent being prodded from one metal pen to the next, occasionally being strapped into a vast industrial milking machine. Her calves - six, according to one onlooker - have their flanks branded with numbers, their ears tagged and, in the most distressing sequence, holes seared into their skulls for reasons withheld. As Luma was led into a separate area of the barn to nuzzle her offspring, the phrase "visiting hours" popped into my head - and, in its glum routine, Cow often resembles a prison movie, the kind of eyeopener filmmakers typically assemble to raise awareness of the conditions in which man pens others up. Arnold doesn't need to show any Kurt Zouma-like breaches of protocol - the farm workers we see are nice, surprisingly photogenic folks doing a job to the best of their abilities - because the stuff that makes you wince here has long been factored into the processes of commercial farming. Will Cow change the eating habits of a generation, as Bambi and Babe did before it? Unlikely, I'd say: if you're a vegetarian, it will confirm your choices, and if you like a burger every now and again, you'll again see exactly what you've always overlooked whenever you're peckish and passing a Wimpy. What the film has for sure is Arnold's nose for the dramatic - which immediately elevates Cow over Gunda's snuffling monotony - and her rare capacity to foster subjectivity and empathy. There's a brilliant sequence that shows Luma standing in a field (as if on overnight release) and looking up towards the tail lights of a plane passing over her. Pigs might, but do cows have any concept of what it is to fly? It helps that Luma is possessed of vast, reflective black eyes: you can read almost anything you like into them. But it looked to me as though these cows were as bugged by bluebottles as we are, and are as tentative crossing a muddy pasture as you and I would be. I'm sure that, like any other creature, they could do without the holes in their head - but, then again, would a cow necessarily be any happier sat on the sofa, puzzling over the day's Wordle? I'm still not sure they would; I'm not sure we're happy doing that, half the time. The quiet achievement of Arnold's film is that it at least sets us to wonder.

Cow is now streaming via MUBI.

Friday 11 February 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of February 4-6, 2022):

1 (1) Sing 2 (U)
2 (new) Jackass Forever (18)
3 (2) Belfast (12A) **
4 (new) Moonfall (12A)
5 (3) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
6 (4Scream (18)
7 (6) Parallel Mothers (15)
8 (8) Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG)
9 (new) Belle (12A)
10 (5) Nightmare Alley (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. The 400 Blows

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Dune (12) **
2 (1Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12) **
3 (3No Time to Die (12) ***
4 (15) Last Night in Soho (18) **
5 (5) Encanto (PG) ***
6 (4) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
7 (new) Ghostbusters Triple Pack (12)
8 (new) Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (15)
9 (6) The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (PG)
10 (7) Halloween Kills (18)

My top five: 
1. Annette
4. Censor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Conversation (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)
2. 20th Century Women (Saturday, BBC2, 11.10pm)
3. Rocky (Friday, ITV, 11.05pm)
4. Emma (Sunday, BBC2, 2.45pm)
5. Breakfast at Tiffany's [above] (Sunday, five, 1.05pm)

On demand: "Targets"

Peter Bogdanovich's first film and one of Boris Karloff's last, 1968's Targets was conceived as a quickie B-movie, but came to represent so much else: 
a changing of the guard, a street-level snapshot of America at the end of the Sixties/its collective tether, and a first-rank L.A. film, watching over deadly intersections on the fringes of the film business. Karloff's Byron Orlok is the horror-movie veteran planning one final public appearance before retirement at the drive-in premiere of his latest opus (footage recycled from Roger Corman's The Terror); Matt Damon lookalike Tim O'Kelly the gun nut with Orlok (and several other Angelenos) squarely in his sights. Sporting a lovely lemon sweater, Bogdanovich wafts suavely through the opening scene as a boy-wonder director keen to sign Orlok for his next project, but thereafter he's mostly busy offscreen; cutting between his antagonists as they go about their daily business, he defers the action while anticipating the subtly observed interactions of The Last Picture Show (which would work well as an alternate title). A film of two halves, then, and with its clever interpolation of other movies (Karloff watches his younger self in 1930's The Criminal Code), the light showbiz comedy - bolstered by superior turns from the doleful star and his boyishly exasperated director - does feel like an attempt to do something new: to acknowledge and re-evaluate a whole Hollywood history. Revisited a half-century on, this half positions Bogdanovich as a Tarantino avant l'heure - a movie buff who parlayed his enthusiasms into a career for himself.

Yet the other half may be even more revealing, suggestive as it is of what might have happened if Bogdanovich hadn't had the breaks he'd got. Like a West Coast premonition of whatever Scorsese and Schrader would get up to in the later Taxi Driver, this half introduces us to a sociopath - inspired by Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman - who lives at home with his mum and ever-tired wife, and only finds release from sexual frustration whenever he puts his finger on the trigger. (The movie feels like an extended play on the multiple meanings of the word "shooting".) What Bogdanovich saw through his viewfinder - as clearly as the sniper does through his sight - isn't just a clash between old and new worlds, one generation of horrors and the next, but something even closer to home: a clash between two sides, creative and destructive, of the same obsessive personality. Certain limitations remain visible: a TV production budget, which leave the interiors looking no better or worse than the average episode of Columbo, and artless overdubbing, only more conspicuous on the version currently circulating on streaming platforms. Yet they're comprehensively transcended by the time of the superbly marshalled, still ultra-tense finale, a hall-of-fame setpiece where the editing, shot selection and spatial continuity put the bulk of this century's major American releases to shame. A B-picture that develops into a vision of something more complex and troubling besides: Larry McMurtry, Cybill Shepherd and several wilder swings yet were only a few years around the corner.

Targets is available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube.

Monday 7 February 2022

Drawing it out: "Flee"

Maybe Danish cartoonists aren't such a bad bunch after all. Amid a crop of awards contenders throwing back to predecessors in their field - fresh thinking apparently being at a premium during this everlasting brainfog of a pandemic -
Flee presents as this year's Waltz with Bashir, a work of non-fiction that uses animation to steer, enhance and sometimes smooth over the bumpy true-life story its subject is telling. That subject is credited onscreen as Amin, a refugee who arrived in Copenhagen at the turn of the 1990s, having earlier seen his father rounded up and disappeared by the Afghan authorities. As the film opens, the animated Amin can be seen and heard briefing the filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen on his childhood memories of Kabul - most dynamically, running through the city's streets in his sister's nightgown while listening to A-Ha's "Take on Me" on his Walkman, a formative image of personal freedom that sits in stark contrast with everything that follows. Amin seems to realise as much himself - and that the process of revisiting the past may be more painful than he perhaps realised going in. Just as we're settling in, he breaks off, and we realise that Flee isn't just going to tell Amin's story, but document its own variably troubled years of making. Arguably, the result goes further in some respects than Waltz with Bashir, by folding in some explicit acknowledgement of the courage required to go back over a story as bruising as this with camera and sound rolling. In the interview scenes, we see an animated Rasmussen looking on as Amin lies flat on his back, the recollections pouring out of the heaviest of heads. It's testimony as therapy, really: how impactful you find the film may depend on how comfortable you are with eavesdropping on that process, though maybe a story like this isn't meant to make us comfortable.

We didn't realise back in 2008, but Waltz with Bashir was drawing up a whole new subgenre of confessional docufiction, films that melded the harsh, metallic, blood-in-mouth tang of lived social and political actuality with the sensibility and accessibility of a child's picture book. I found Bashir crushingly powerful at the time (with some caveats); have had no particular desire to return to it since (a natural reaction to a film that crushes you); and have since developed misgivings with hybrid forms as a filmic tool. There's a jarring disconnect here between the softness of the animated surfaces and the archive footage Rasmussen cuts in of bodies burning in tanks and refugees being brusquely stuffed into trucks. Arguably, those cuts are where Flee is most honest, because they're where Rasmussen admits to the limitations of his own project: that it's very hard to animate the dead, and to colour in the darkest corners of man's inhumanity. Yet Waltz with Bashir did, if I recall correctly; is that why I found the earlier film far more affecting, for all Flee's abundant good intentions and evident sensitivity? What Rasmussen's animation can do is pick out detail that has the specificity of lived experience and accentuate it in a way humdrum dramatic reconstruction probably couldn't. A border crossing is delayed by a child's light-up trainers; shadows roil around the inside of the hull of the cargo ship carrying Amin and his family to Sweden. Here is the vividness of memory; the stuff that's hard to forget. Same goes for Amin's eventual passage into a Copenhagen gay club, a few small steps that speak to the acceptance he'd long been stumbling towards. You'd be a grinch if you weren't happy to see him there, and to see him finally starting to overcome the trust issues his journey had left him with. Yet I'd be a liar if I claimed I found Flee more moving than either In This World or The Golden Dream, outright fictions that nevertheless spoke to the migrant experience with an even greater directness.

Flee opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and will also be available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

Friday 4 February 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of January 28-30, 2022):

1 (new) Sing 2 (U)
2 (2) Belfast (12A) **
3 (1) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A)
4 (3) Scream (18)
5 (4) Nightmare Alley (15)
6 (new) Parallel Mothers (15)
7 (6) The King's Men (15)
8 (5) Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG)
9 (9) West Side Story (12A) ***
10 (7Encanto (PG) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. The 400 Blows

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12) **
2 (2) Dune (12) **
3 (3No Time to Die (12) ***
4 (5) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
5 (6) Encanto (PG) ***
6 (8) The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (PG)
7 (4) Halloween Kills (18)
8 (7) Eternals (12)
9 (9) Nobody (15) ***
10 (new) Spencer (12) ***

My top five: 
1. Annette
3. Censor

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Collateral [above] (Saturday, ITV, 10.35pm)
2. Whitney (Friday, C4, 11.35pm)
3. Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (Sunday, C4, 2.25pm)
4. Dangerous Liaisons (Wednesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. Independence Day (Saturday, C4, 5.45pm)

My streaming gem: "Karnan" (Guardian 04/02/22)

Many of the Indian releases that pivoted to streaming over the past 18 months have deserved burial-by-algorithm, if I’m being honest. One that doesn’t is the Tamil melodrama
Karnan, an exceptionally vivid spot of latter-day mythmaking. You wonder whether writer-director Mari Selvaraj pitched it as "what if Baahubali" – the two-part SS Rajamouli epic that redrew the horizons of Indian commercial cinema back in 2015 – "but in the here-and-now?". Enter our eponymous young hero (local megastar Dhanush), introduced completing a ritual that involves leaping off a rock overhanging a pool and, while still in mid-air, bisecting vermillion-daubed fish with a flashing blade. Lakes, swords: British viewers may be reminded of Camelot. Here’s another green knight in search of a worthy cause.

Yet the surprise Selvaraj has for us – one of the biggest curveballs in any movie released this past year – is that this cause should be a fully integrated public transit system. This is a tale of two villages, one of which (Karnan’s native Podiyankulam) is dirt-poor, the other (neighbouring Melur) rich enough to afford its own bus stop. When the residents of Podiyankulam hike to Melur to catch the bus, they’re regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright contempt as outsiders taking up valuable space – a source of ongoing tension between the two communities. Selvaraj has taken us somewhere very specific to tell a story that is broadly universal: a story about tribalism, and how it’s now often tied up with issues of free movement.

The film's first half, however, serves chiefly to define its warrior-in-chief – and thus to demonstrate that appearances can prove deceptive. Karnan initially presents as a nice lad with sensible hair, ticking the first box of Indian movie heroism by being good to his put-upon mother (Janaki). Yet the characterisation is soon complicated. A drinker and a gambler, Karnan is less your typical masala maverick than a punk-in-waiting. He’s a hothead who spends this first hour getting into scraps, pushing away the one gal who’s crazy about him, and – in a pre-intermission sequence that must have been tremendous fun to shoot – singlehandedly trashing one of those rackety old buses pootling between backwaters. (He does much the same to a police station just after the break.)

This is a kid with fire in his belly – that’s what makes him such a hothead – yet while Selvaraj grasps these flames can be destructive, he also knows that in certain cases they’re exactly what’s required to effectuate real and lasting change. Sometimes, the movie posits, you have to burn down the whole rotten system and start again from scratch. The blazingly unpredictable hero is one reason Karnan emerges as such an unpredictable watch – it’s a morality play hitched to a genuine loose cannon. In the course of the film, Karnan will alienate family members and the wider village; at points, all we can cling to is the knowledge our boy seems unlikely ever to take the shit the penniless farmers around him have been forced to swallow for generations.

Somewhere in the mix, there’s a standard-issue crowdpleaser: you glimpse it whenever Dhanush raises himself up to his full 5’5” (5’4½”, when wet) and sets about righting this world’s wrongs – wealth inequality, police brutality – to what you suspect would have been huge cheers from the cheap seats had the film’s theatrical run not been curtailed by Covid. But it’s been overlaid by an artistry and delicacy rarely observed in films of this scale: if not the full Rajamouli, then not a hundred miles away. Cinematographer Theni Eswar provides lustrous cutaways to the region’s flora and fauna. And his overhead shots are positively sculptural: men gathering in a field mowed to resemble a bull, lovers trysting by a heart-shaped pond.

The worldbuilding is elevated to the point where it begins to resemble cosmology, yet as we look upon this busy, tempestuous, hotly contested few acres of land, we realise it’s not so far removed from our own backyards. It could do with more lady in its lake, true: where the Baahubalis offered equal-opportunity mythos, the women here fall between spectators and damsels-in-distress. (It’s a Dhanush film, and some hierarchies may be harder to topple than others.) Yet Selvaraj makes enough genuinely bold, even radical choices elsewhere, not least amid the tense siege finale, to make one regret that Karnan got shuttled off to streaming mid-pandemic. This is a film that takes up a small, everyday struggle, then rides hell-for-leather to fill the screen entire with it.

Karnan is available to stream via Prime Video.

Thursday 3 February 2022

On demand: "Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project"

The bare facts of the matter are these: between 1979 and 2012, a moneyed Black resident of Philadelphia named Marion Stokes recorded multiple channels on US television for 24 hours a day, amassing an archive of some 70,000 VHS tapes. You wouldn't have to be a documentarist - you would only have to be a human being with a base level of curiosity - to ask why. In asking why, Matt Wolf's film
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project posits that this relentless chronicling was only the final, weightiest chapter in a remarkable life story - a story that might be considered instructive if it weren't also oddly troubling. A daughter of America's mid-20th century flirtation with socialism, the woman born Marion Butler in 1929 had unsuccessfully attempted to defect to Cuba with her first husband and young son in the early 1960s, convinced that the US was heading down the same road as Nazi Germany; upon returning home, she channelled those fears and her ongoing work as a community activist into a career as a panellist on a local TV channel's current affairs show. (The host was John Stokes, who would become her second husband.) It was shortly after this that she invested in multiple monitors and VCRs and began to obsessively hit record, initially to document the Iran hostage crisis - an event central to the downfall of the Carter administration, which Stokes felt wasn't being reported as straight as it might. From there, it was Afghanistan, John Hinckley, Iran-Contra, the Olympics, the Gulf War, impeachments, hanging chads, 9/11, Gulf War II, Obama, with several more lyrics from "We Didn't Start the Fire" along the way. Had the world calmed down in the immediate wake of the hostage crisis, would Marion Stokes have been able to stop, hit eject and unplug somehow? Perhaps. Instead, news went 24 hours, the news cycle accelerated, and Stokes and her remarkably diligent and loyal staff were themselves obliged to speed up, tearing around an increasingly overstuffed apartment to find fresh tape with which to capture the O.J. verdict and the latest high-school shooting.

Wolf's film has the immediate advantage of access to these tapes, since preserved digitally by the San Francisco-based Internet Archive; he could likely have made several thousand versions of this story while never reusing the same material. Here it all is, bearing witness in flickering, static-laced pictures: clips of Star Trek (a Stokes favourite, for its egalitarian worldview), sitcoms, adverts, sports and special reports, and day after day of news bulletins. (If documentarists had to pay appearance fees, Ted Koppel would be sitting pretty in retirement.) Wolf and his heroic editor Keiko Deguchi sporadically fashion hypnotic montages that set out, say, the turbulence of the early 1990s, or what the various channels were showing in the gap between the first and second planes striking the World Trade Center, using these mediated images to cast new light on old facts. (I hadn't realised the final episode of The Cosby Show went out in the middle of the L.A. riots in 1992 - a happenstance of scheduling that becomes more fascinating the more you consider it.) Much of the material serves to back up one of Stokes's abiding beliefs, namely that the small box in the corner of your living room has the potential to contain it all, the best and worst of ourselves; that's why she felt it merited such close, attentive, round-the-clock study. What Stokes recorded proves of particular value when it came to studying the media's approach to race relations over the past half-century. Several decades on, we can see that points made recently about injustice and inequality were always present, always there - it's just the volume was lower in the mid-1980s, or that they were mediated in a far less committed and forceful manner. (And sometimes the newsmen weren't really listening.)

That reading positions Stokes as a benign watchwoman keeping an increasingly square eye on America, an arbiter of right and wrong. (As her son Michael Metelits reveals, she died in December 2012, on the afternoon of the Sandy Hook shootings; as with so many of us when faced with such atrocities, she may have felt she'd seen quite enough.) The trouble with that reading is that Marion Stokes was often eccentric with it; the film troubles to question of her suitability for the role of arbiter. For one thing, she wasn't just a recorder and collector but a hoarder, stashing everything from top-of-the-line Apple products to syrup dispensers half-inched from the neighbourhood diners. Her identification with Steve Jobs meshes with her determination to apply her moralism to her own extended family, a process that pushed away everyone bar her paid employees. (Which is one way of ensuring some peace and quiet while you're watching your shows, I guess, but it hardly feels healthy.) The film benefits from Wolf's ability (much on display in 2013's Teenage, and in the later Spaceship Earth) to sublimate his craft so as to set the viewer thinking more fully about the implications of this story - and it is a story that bears sustained consideration. How can someone with such easy facility around images of the world be so bad up close with people? In some respects, the Marion Stokes story is a dry run for a recurring modern media narrative. Either way, it's a perfect story for a documentarist, because there are at least two possible lines of approach. One viewpoint sees Stokes as no less heroic than Howard Zinn - a woman reaching for the Memorex to set down an alternative history of the United States. The other is only too aware of the loneliness and solitude required to keep these tapeheads spinning like plates in a variety act. Wolf, arguably a more balanced onlooker than anybody else present, leaves us on a stirring note, watching all this information go public for the intended benefit of future generations. But we've been given ample reason over the past decade to question where all this information really gets us. That's why Recorder also plays as haunting, poignant, sad.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is available to stream via MUBI and the BFI's subscription service, and to rent via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema.

Tuesday 1 February 2022

It's my life: "The Souvenir: Part II"

In her early features, the writer-director Joanna Hogg did a lot of hiding behind her characters. She was somewhere on the screen, so well observed were the worlds being described, but it wasn't always clear where, which could be exasperating, like a
Where's Wally? book with the answer pages torn out. 2019's The Souvenir, on the other hand, was something else entirely. A film-memoir centred on a doomed formative relationship, it was infused with rich, bitter, teachable first-person experience, a movie with the vividness of biting the inside of your cheek by accident; it was a piece of her, plain and simple. In a flourish of creative boldness, the British film industry immediately commissioned a second instalment, and now we have The Souvenir: Part II, which picks up where the first part left off, with Honor Swinton Byrne's pallid film student Julie Harte (the initials may look familiar) recovering from the shock of what's gone before and pushing on with a graduation film bearing the meta-tastic title of "The Souvenir". Continuity is ensured by the presence of recurring characters - posh mum Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade as a touchy director scattering clues as to his real-world equivalent - and Hogg's quietly observational style. Other elements soon mesh: Julie herself is so quietly observational, so recessive by nature - a walking fount of very British apologies - that she possibly needed a Hogg to watch over her and draw her out. (Thirty years on, the director can punch up everything her onscreen surrogate lacked the confidence or vocabulary to express at the time.) Yet this is also a rare sequel to have thematic reason to exist: it's about how we move forwards, make better sense of senseless things, and in the case of our heroine, make the art that helps make better sense of senseless things. This is Hogg showing her own working - how she got to the point where she got to roll camera and call cut on The Souvenir: Part II. This time, she's not hiding. This time, it really is personal.

One funny aspect of the new film is that there is a lot more space on screen, if Hogg had been inclined to hide. As per sequel tradition, Part II is bigger than The Souvenir; although Julie has (understandably) retreated into herself as the film begins, the worlds this camera passes into seem to expand with promise and possibility, as the world generally does through your twenties. Part 1 was all tearooms, flophouses and poky flats, but much of Part II plays out on studio sets that cinematographer David Raedeker approaches as mini-mazes or ever-shifting halls of mirrors. This is where we find Hogg reflecting on the British film industry as it was in the early 1980s, and fun has been had contrasting the glamour being set in front of the camera with the humdrum reality behind it: a half-dozen starving worker bees, bellies and mouths grumbling, waiting round on catering buses and listening to the rain spatter against the roof. You're reminded this was a moment when some small part of this industry - represented on screen by the Ayoade character - was straining to match the sheeny escapism of the French cinéma du look, and hoping the audience would forget it had all been shot on the outskirts of Leavesden. Somewhere in the distance of these scenes - in the back offices and film schools - Hogg drops in mementos of the battles being fought within the industry at this time, partly stylistic (expressionism versus the prevailing social realism, Jarman vs. Loach, nobody stopping to think a properly secure industry can support both), but also partly generational. I suspect a lot of heads will start nodding in recognition a few minutes into the scene that finds a room full of middle-aged white men tutting at the script young Julie has submitted for approval; Hogg gets the condescension in the air just right. (That stuff sticks with you.)

What's clear from this diptych is the extent to which this filmmaker had previously internalised that criticism. Despite their chichi settings, Hogg's breakthrough works were austerity cinema, of a piece with the kind of project the BFI and Film4 were backing back in the 1980s; their few stabs at comedy were nervy and awkward. The Souvenir films suggest Hogg has finally made her peace with the idea of film as entertainment. That's why she goads Swinton and Ayoade into digging into their eccentric characterisations; as in Part 1, she runs wild with a proper soundtrack budget, cueing up musical madeleines from the likes of Erasure, Talk Talk and Propaganda. These are the songs the young Joanna may well have heard for the first time sitting on that bus in Leavesden, but they're also a source of pleasure, reminders that even on the greyest, most depressive Mondays in Thatcher's Britain, there were still artists doing their level best to repaint the world the colour of spring. In some alternate timeline, there'd be a version of The Souvenir that's as dry as a careers talk, or as loftily theoretical as Sex is Comedy, Catherine Breillat's aside on the making of À ma soeur!; there would also be several versions that collapse into outright narcissism. Miraculously, the version we've ended up with never does, in large part because it feels multidirectional: there's something of interest going on almost everywhere you look, and many more notable developments beyond those Julie herself undergoes. Everyone feels right for their role, from the huffy bloke Julie enlists as cinematographer (to apparently ongoing regret) to the veteran therapist keeping our gal on the straight and narrow. (The pop star we see Julie directing at a late juncture is so perfect she's played by an actual pop star, Anna Calvi.) Likewise, Julie's graduation film, unveiled in the closing moments, hews so closely to the aesthetic of late-Eighties student movies it can only spark post-film discussions as to how good or bad Hogg intends it to be.

It is, at the very least, another reminder that this project is above all else a personal one, as heartfelt as the ever-earnest Julie's efforts to understand the events of Part 1. Part II sets her to piecing things together - a mystery, a film, a career, a broken Harte [sic] - which may just be the default setting for anybody still working in the arts in this country. Swinton Byrne was overshadowed by Tom Burke first time out, but she's perfect here as the kind of girl often spotted at the industry's fringes: undeniably privileged ("it's only a term's fees," shrugs her dad after she breaks one of the family's cherished Etruscan pots; fragility is everywhere) yet sensitive with it, and uncertain about expressing herself. She has a terrific scene in which Julie is obliged to turn down an actress friend hoping for a casting call; she's even more alert amid the intimacy of an edit-suite scene with an older chap to which Julie has taken misguided shine. This latter subplot's punchline is where you most clearly see the fondness with which Hogg looks upon her clueless younger self. Yet there's real pride here, too, because directing evidently forced some responsibility on this girl - to communicate with others in a way the naif of The Souvenir would have found impossible. (And to do so without lapsing into the withering abuse of Ayoade's tyro, a fun character to watch, presumably far less so to work with - an enfant terrible, if ever there was.) What Hogg has filmed in these two films is growth: that crucial evolutionary progression from not knowing what you want to knowing what you don't want, and thence being able to express what it is you do want, a small life-switch on which to hang an entire franchise, but a staggeringly significant one in the vast cosmic order of things. Early on in The Souvenir: Part II, Julie stammers out a sense of the sort of film she doesn't want to end up making: "something that people forget as soon as the credits roll". I can reassure both her and her creator that this version of The Souvenir is absolutely not that film.

The Souvenir: Part II opens in selected cinemas from Friday; The Souvenir is currently available to stream via the BBC iPlayer.