Friday 29 April 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of April 22-24, 2022):

1 (3) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
2 (2) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
3 (1) The Lost City (12A)
4 (5) Operation Mincemeat (12A)
5 (6) The Bad Guys (U)
6 (4) The Northman (15) **
8 (9) The Batman (15) ***
9 (10) Morbius (15)
10 (8) KGF: Chapter 2 (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Cries and Whispers

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) Sing 2 (U)
2 (1) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
3 (new) Jackass Forever (18) **
4 (4) Death on the Nile (12)
5 (6) Belfast (12) **
6 (5) Dune: Part One (12) **
7 (7) The Matrix Resurrections (15)
8 (2Scream [2022] (18)
9 (10) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
10 (11) No Time to Die (12) ***

My top five: 
1. The Souvenir: Part II
3. Cow

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Die Hard with a Vengeance [above] (Monday, five, 11.05pm)
2. Speed (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
3. Passport to Pimlico (Friday, BBC2, 1pm)
4. Four Weddings & A Funeral (Sunday, C4, 11pm)
5. The Secret Garden (Saturday, five, 2.25pm)

Caged heat: "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent"

Tom Gormican's The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a stellar example of a film where the idea proves stronger than the execution, and even the idea is less original than it initially appears. In the postmodern era, numerous stars - figures as diverse as Pauly Shore (in 2003's Pauly Shore is Dead) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (2008's JCVD) - have appeared on our screens as loosely fictionalised, slightly down-at-heel versions of themselves, struggling to navigate the vagaries of fame and to find renewed purpose in an indifferent-seeming universe. Everyone, it now seems, fancies a go at being Larry David, whose Curb Your Enthusiasm hovers over most of these projects; even Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt from Status Quo, whose 2013 oddity Bula Quo! attempted something similarly self-referential on a Fijian island. Unbearable Weight..., which I realised halfway through is Nicolas Cage's Bula Quo!, is fan-fiction born of that line of online thought that insists everything Cage does - even the crap he does for cash to pay for his comic-book collection - is somehow compelling and hilarious at the same time. It's a film constructed almost entirely out of old Cage tics, riffs and routines, notionally freshened up by having the star play not a fictional character, but himself (or "himself"). Given the risks taken elsewhere in this career - and there aren't that many A-listers who can claim a Vampire's Kiss, an Adaptation. and a Mandy on their CVs - the surprise is how tame the resultant construction is: another Hollywood tale about a naff, mansplaining dad - a middle-aged man surrounded by images of his past - who has to learn how to be less self-involved for the sake of his cringing ex-wife (Sharon Horgan, overqualified) and estranged teenage daughter (Lily Mo Sheen, Michael's daughter in reality). Finding comparably iconic images might have been a stretch, but the underlying narrative would function at around the same level had the entire project instead been centred on Tim Allen.

After being slapped down for half an hour in the kind of L.A. industry satire that invariably generates better writing on TV (Curb, Episodes, this month's Chivalry), meta-Cage is shipped off to Spain to make an appearance at the birthday party of superfan Pedro Pascal, the CIA turn up in the form of Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, and the film transforms into a moderate action-comedy that looks like a lower-budget version of what the studios used to put out in Cage's Nineties pomp. (The cars in the chases get beat up, but don't explode as they would have done in The Rock or Con Air.) Along the way, the script (by Gormican and Kevin Etten) throws up nerdy asides on Guarding Tess and the National Treasure making-of; one stretch is predicated on watching Nic Cage on acid, which again promises more than the mild sitcom chuckles it actually yields. There's not much the star can do except be himself (or "himself") and go along for the ride, yet passivity is no real basis for comedy, and the film yields no new iconic images to set alongside those Gormican has rented for the occasion from the Cage back catalogue. Coming so soon after last year's Pig (and Cage's first fully-dimensional performance in years), this merely feels like a victory lap at the end of what's been a rocky, VoD-adjacent decade for its main attraction: you'll snicker sporadically when you finally get around to watching it on a plane, but the complacency factored into it - that the fanbase will show up and laugh at any old shit - prevents it from being anything like as funny as it might have been. It's amiable, and it's bringing something slightly different into a dour and depressive multiplex, a crumb for which we're meant to be pathetically grateful. But the funniest bit was in the trailer, and only tangentially Cage-related: Barinholtz's pottymouthed outrage upon being asked to consider The Croods 2 as a 44-year-old man. I share his rage, but one of this merrily mediocre endeavour's weakspots is that it implicitly believes voicing Croods movies is a perfectly worthwhile way for Cage to be exercising that talent.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Bigger business: "K.G.F.: Chapter 2"

2018's first chapter in writer-director Prashanth Neel's blockbusting K.G.F. saga was a tangled, tangent-prone tale told by a doddery author (Anant Nag) in such a way that you began to wonder whether the dodderiness wasn't, in fact, a significant plot point. Did this story sound in any way credible or coherent? Should the author have been sectioned for his own health, rather than interviewed for broadcast on primetime television? "Could be the work of a madman," the author's own son (Prakash Raj) notes early on in K.G.F.: Chapter 2; sensitivity protocols prevent me from adding to that judgement, but Chapter 1 often resembled Tristram Shandy with an elevated bodycount and more port (and other stimulants) in its veins. As we join this sequel, the author is being rushed to the ICU after suffering a brain haemorrhage - Nag apparently declined a sequel payday - so it's lucky we have son around to pick up dad's fraying loose ends. This time, we're getting the story of what happened after vengeful mobster Rocky (Yash) assumed control of the Kolar Gold Fields, and the enemies he scattered in the course of film one regrouped. It will be a deeper dig both narratively and industrially, what with the reopening of a long-sealed mineshaft unleashing more conflict, and the author's son vowing to reveal "the biggest secret in the history of India", lest you were worried Neel would struggle to raise the stakes. If that line sounds trumped up, let me reassure you it registers as among the quietest elements in the movie. I watched Chapter 1 at home, and it struck me as forceful enough; Chapter 2 may be the loudest film I've ever experienced in an auditorium. Rocky is reintroduced with the assistance of a thousand drummers; he has accumulated three different theme songs on his rise to the top, all of which sound like something Limp Bizkit might have rejected at the mixing stage for being a little de trop. A tall tale - a big heap of nonsense on stilts - just got taller and wilder and noisier yet. K.G.F.: Chapter 2 is nonsense on stilts with rollerskates and prayer bells attached.

Suffice to say that the success of the first instalment hasn't made this series any less backwards about coming forwards; the immense swagger of Neel's filmmaking is still present, and impressive up to a point. Within the first half-hour, Rocky has been compared to emperors and saviours past; watching him descend from the heavens in his helicopter to cheers from the local orphans and the soot-faced K.G.F. miners (all of whom Rocky has kept on to maintain his growing personal fortune), the mind briefly drifted to Hitler hitting Nuremberg at the beginning of Triumph of the Will, but that parallel may be unintentional on Neel's part. What's clear is that the underdog of film one is now firmly and defiantly on top. Although he's kept the facefuzz, Yash now gets to rock a variety of expensive, Scarface-y outfits rather than the dusty rags he previously sported, and he looks all the better for it. It's just Rocky's chosen business model that invites question. "Greed is good, greed is progress," he tells a board meeting early on in Chapter 2. (Uh-oh.) "The sky is my limit," he affirms, sounding like any number of 21st century tech bros plotting their getaway to other galaxies. Could... could Rocky be the real villain here? Well, there are worse people in the film's universe. Rival mobsters send in the heavies in the form of the none-heavier Sanjay Dutt - Munna Bhai himself, 62 years old now, but an actor who fits this world as, say, Ray Winstone fits any film set in and around London's East End. (He rightly savours his own personal introduction, a setpiece involving a flaming rope bridge.) And there's another threat to Rocky's throne: a new, reformist Prime Minister, Ramika Sen (Raveena Tandon), who frankly makes Priti Patel look a bit of a pussycat.

The endlessly revolving power games that follow make for a confounding and disarming evening's entertainment, the kind of juggernaut-blockbuster you cling onto with a broad grin on your face even as blood and brain matter begin to leak from your ears. These films work superbly as a delivery system for action on and around the gold fields, and it's the best action South Indian cinema can presently buy: amped up to the (mad) max and cut like cocaine, but with a connoisseur's eye for strikingly absurd details, like the Tony Manero-like white suit Rocky somehow manages to keep pristine throughout a dust-up in a coalfield. And again, Neel uses his wraparound scenes to provide a layer of knowing authorial commentary - to acknowledge that what we're watching is all just story, prone to distraction, misdirection, embellishment and exaggeration like any other. It's rare to encounter an action movie that's this upfront about the mechanics of storytelling, and how the narrator gets his hero from A to B. "Don't dramatise it so much," the author's son tells his interrogator, advice that goes comprehensively unheeded by everyone sitting around Neel's monitor. Just after the intermission, Rocky offers a prediction of his future trajectory: "There will be ups and downs, U-turns and dead ends. But the speed will never decelerate." For once, a movie conceived on a grandiose scale winds up making good on its own onscreen promises.

The self-referentiality has doubtless been heightened by the fact Rocky's and Neel's stories have meshed to some extent. Both are former underdogs wondering what to do now they've achieved their initial goals (overthrow the mining bosses, launch a successful franchise). Both are forced to think beyond the local and towards the international: the battle here isn't just for control of India's gold reserves but the entire global market (for which we might read box office). Both are inevitably drawn to the wealth capital of Dubai, where both display a pragmatic ambivalence around the film's one prominent Muslim character: a cleric Rocky pulls a gun on before deciding to enter into business with. There are already signs this series might be settling into a similar formula to Bollywood's Don films, with an anti-hero who will return time and again to duel with guest villains against a new backdrop. (Yash, more expressive this time than he was allowed to be in Chapter 1, actually resembles Shah Rukh Khan in places - never more so than when miming opening fire on Dutt's troops at the start of the second half, like a hyperactive child.) And Neel's steering can sometimes be wayward and brusque: between all the men bellowing at one another, there's still not that much space for women in this world, save as arm candy, damsels in distress and mourning mothers. (There are plenty more of those here as the bodycount skyrockets; we only sense Rocky isn't a complete lost cause because he holds onto flashback-memories of his own late ma.) Yet this filmmaker's instincts for an arresting, screen-filling, jawdropping sequence remain exceptionally strong, and that's enough to carry us to Chapter 2's conclusion. Corruption; mythology; turbo-capitalist brutality. What are these movies ultimately saying about 21st century India? We may only know when K.G.F.'s ledger is closed for good. But they're not just sound and fury signifying nothing while grossing everything; there's more going on here than mere volume.

K.G.F.: Chapter 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Takes a pillage: "The Northman"

Three films into Robert Eggers' directorial career, and we're no closer to knowing who he is, or even whether he's as good a thing as the film bros and A24 fetishists are claiming. 2015's
The Witch was an enveloping, atmospheric folk tale, all the more effective for having been allowed to sneak up on us. But 2019's The Lighthouse was sniggering and sophomoric in every sense, a shaggy mermaid's tale pitched squarely at those excitable 23-year-old blokes who, two pints into another truly epic sesh, would readily declare it the greatest film ever. (If they're lucky, they'll grow out of it all.) Now we have The Northman, which - as you've doubtless read - is Eggers doing Hamlet, or at least the Scandinavian legend Shakespeare appropriated so as to get to Hamlet. The Lighthouse indicated that Eggers has a sense of humour, albeit of a fairly outré variety. The Northman, a morose plod that turns out to be Hamlet without the jokes, signals that this filmmaker has no sense of humour whatsoever. If it demonstrates anything of significance, it's that Eggers is another of the contemporary American cinema's meticulous world-builders; it's just that his worldbuilding is a little further out there than the average Marvel movie, and less given to ready explanation. 

Early on, the camera briefly alights on Nicole Kidman (in the Gertrude role) attempting some 9th century loomwork; Ethan Hawke (as the King) is observed dipping what looks like a primitive wristwatch into a cup filled with blood of indeterminate origin. After the latter's demise at the hands of bad brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang, with incongruously puckish Billy Connolly goatee), young Amleth grows up to be Alexander Skarsgård (lucky break), vowing revenge with the help of a special sword with a special name and special rules. (Briefly, this world overlaps that of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.) In the 136 minutes that follow, there are occasional outbreaks of action - Sealed Knot-like historical recreations punctuated with the odd gory flourish (noses severed, guts unloosed), hairy men doing heinous things to one another under deathly, slate-grey skies. But there's an hour or so in the middle which finds Eggers doing nothing more interesting or edifying than rearranging the corpses amid his vast Viking Lego set. It's the first screen Hamlet I've seen that entirely gives into its protagonist's tendency for gloomy procrastination.

Which brings us back once again to the issue of what passes for spectacle in the modern American cinema. By chance, I saw The Northman in the immediate wake of catching up with K.G.F.: Chapter 1, South India's breakthrough blockbuster of 2018: more men doing what certain movies have always sent men to do, more retributive violence, another badass hero who willingly enters into shackled slavery while he plots his revenge. That film had few of Eggers' aspirations to art - if anything, it was pure commercial calculation - but it was big and flexible enough to both recognise and accommodate the fun that might be had in the process of making (and watching) a screen-filling multiplex movie. Despite its Björk cameo and a full panoply of arcane Viking rituals, The Northman is the work of a narrower, more rigid imagination, and the blood running beneath the surface of these images is cold to the point of frozen. 

The other week, a young woman got into trouble on Twitter for assuming - without troubling to see the film - that anyone of Eggers' hue who spends his days filming Vikings putting one another to the sword must be a white supremacist, or an apologist for white supremacy. It was a silly thing to say, though arguably no sillier than 90% of what gets said on Twitter on a daily basis. (Congrats on your new purchase, Mr. Musk.) Yet unlike the final draft of Hamlet, which paused only to consider how its protagonist got from A to bloody B, this boneheaded tale really has very little going on between its ears beyond violent thoughts and impulses; even amid the leaden dullness of its second act, it never stops clenching its jaw, flexing its muscles and pounding its own chest. (Its idea of half-time entertainment is a game that combines the heavy sticks of hurling with the ethics of Rollerball. Like almost everything else here, it doesn't end well.) After the larky aside of The Lighthouse, Eggers clearly wants to be taken seriously again, but hiding out in worlds like this without offering a single wink to your audience that lets us know you know you're trafficking in overwrought macho bullshit does risk opening your film up to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. 

In every other respect, Eggers is smart enough to have done his homework, coming over as a unique combination of sociopath and swot, like S. Craig Zahler with a library card. Maybe that's why The Northman has received such admiration from the same onlookers who took Dune: Part One as seriously as Denis Villeneuve wanted. But post-Dune, it's becoming clearer than ever that there is currently a battle raging for the American cinema's remaining, tattered fragments of soul. On one side: nerds who want their every movie to function like an encyclopaedia, four inches thick, weighed down with entirely the wrong, obsessive detail, something that requires anywhere between two and eighteen hours to get through, because nerds have nothing else to be doing with their days. On the other: those of us who just want the motion pictures we go to see on our rare nights off to, y'know, move - or, god forbid, elevate - a little. It's been obvious for the better part of fifty years that the American cinema would eventually be overrun and taken over by children. But did it have to be the stubborn and unsmiling ones, the ones most likely to be discovered torturing the family pet?

The Northman is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Rebellion: "Navalny"

Exemplary timing, this. The world mobilises almost as one against Vladimir Putin, and we get a very sharp documentary profile of Putin's chief political rival, the lawyer-turned-opposition-leader Alexei Navalny. The Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher (best known, oddly, for 2019's
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band) got the exclusive interview, and access to Navalny's inner circle during an exceptionally fraught six months at the end of 2020 that saw the subject poisoned by FSB operatives in an apparent assassination attempt, flown to Germany for life-saving medical treatment, and then returning to his homeland in the certain knowledge that he was facing imprisonment at the very least. (The hardships of many during the first lockdown are here set in stark relief.) Early on, Navalny can be heard imploring Roher to make a thriller, not some pious tribute-movie to be screened in the event of his murder. Navalny benefits from a sense of urgency, of being at the centre of a political storm: it processes a breadth of info in its ninety-odd minutes, changing course repeatedly as major events break, while never losing focus on the individual whose resistance to Putin's tyranny inspired the project in the first place. All eyes are on - all eyes have to be on - Navalny himself; even the structuring interview that connects the various threads, unfolding in a tactfully anonymous location, looks to have been shot on multiple cameras simultaneously. As Volodymyr Zelenskyy demonstrated in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, visibility is crucial in the modern world. Roher appears to have redoubled his surveillance of Navalny so as to gather as much usable material as he can before anything else happens. You never know nowadays.

While Team Navalny await their man's full recovery, Roher lays out the essentials of this career with a brisk clarity: Navalny's passing flirtation with the far right (dutifully followed up in interview, coherently answered to as coalition-building pragmatism); his emergence as a serious alternative to the Putin regime; his playful, youth-courting social-media presence. Running parallel to this, we're introduced to the Bellingcat journo Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian based in Vienna, who spotted that the investigation into Navalny's poisoning was likely to fall between two stools - the Russian authorities unlikely to investigate, the Germans unable to investigate - and personally stepped into the breach, sourcing data online at an expense he admits is vast enough to have been withheld from his wife. As an interviewer, Roher seeks complete candour, encouraging his subjects to confess any suspicions and misgivings they may have had about one another; he even works in B-roll footage of the just-rehabilitated Navalny conferring with his assistant as to how he's coming across in the main interview. ("Angry eyes," she cautions. You can't exactly blame him.) We quickly grasp that a case is being made on two fronts: an investigative one against those individuals responsible for Navalny's poisoning, and an ideological one in favour of exactly the kind of openness and truthtelling President Putin would prefer to have shut down.

How is Navalny? The phrase lawyer-turned-opposition-leader might conjure a stoutly Starmerite picture for UK viewers, but Roher's subject proves surprisingly larky and sparky: a man with the gift of getting those around him to relax, even at moments of high tension, in a way that instinctively feels oppositional. (He has no gulags to send anybody to, and gives no indication that he would if he did; I suspect the lawyer in him would still rather see Putin put on trial than cast into the void.) As demonstrated by the Simpsonian cadence of one imagined call to the Kremlin ("Hi, this is Navalny - you may remember me from Trying To Kill Me"), his defining characteristic, both in interview and on the move, is a bullish sense of humour - a sense of a life beyond the desk that you just don't get from his political opponent. (You certainly can't imagine Putin lipsynching to OMC's "How Bizarre" in a TikTok video, as Navalny does here.) The centrepiece is a terrific sequence - documentary gold, as Roher surely realised - in which Navalny, with Grozev's assistance, calls up his suspected poisoners, either to confirm their participation or simply to ask what they have against him personally; it's a prank at heart - the prankers' delight when it pays off confirms as much - but one with extraordinary, foundation-shaking ramifications. Here, as elsewhere in Navalny, Roher seems to be offering a record of how one might expose and fight tyranny, and it's one that will only increase in value as more dark money sloshes through the financial sewers of London and out into the wider world. The message Navalny gives his supporters as he finally touches back down in Moscow - "I urge you not to be afraid" - is but the start of this resistance; it chimes with an anecdote he tells earlier in the film about the Russian intelligence top brass who, having had "moscow1" and "moscow2" hacked, reset his security-clearance password to "moscow3". Roher's film is also making a vital third case, one that establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Putin is not at all the mastermind he wants us to believe he is - a finding since firmed up by his army's dismal showing upon arrival in Ukraine. They should airdrop Roher's film into Kyiv and Lyiv - and, indeed, into Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Navalny is now showing in selected cinemas, available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and Dogwoof on Demand, and available to stream via the BBC iPlayer.

Thursday 28 April 2022

On demand: "KGF: Chapter 1"

The Kannada cinema's highest grossing film to date, 2018's 
KGF merits consideration as a triumph brought in at long odds - not least because this insanely involved, awesomely over-inflated actioner suggests what might have happened had John Woo or Johnnie To been brought in to oversee reshoots on John Sayles's Matewan. In a wraparound story, a hardnosed female journalist (Malavika Avinash) grills an author who claims to have uncovered a story that climaxed on the Kolar Gold Fields (hence the title) in the second half of the last century. What writer-director Prashanth Neel gives us from there is the build-up: the long and winding saga of one Rocky, a young man born into acute poverty (and thus someone acutely attuned to the injustices of this world) who grows into a bad-ass gangster bhai (played by local pin-up Yash, or "Rocking Star Yash", as he's billed on screen); having made his bones, he's sent to assassinate the mining company bosses who've been using conscripted labour to bring about their ill-gotten gains. That's the throughline, at any rate. Around it, Neel is busy spinning his own yarns about a spiralling countrywide gang war and the fluctuating price of gold in them thar hills. We're introduced to roughly 40,000 characters in the opening twenty minutes; we only ascertain Rocky is Rocky because he's the one being pummelled by nogoodniks while suspended from warehouse ceilings by chains. There is, it turns out, good reason for these restraints. When they're slipped, Rocky has a tendency to reduce everybody around him to dust with his bare hands, spiking one early unfortunate on an anchor like a just-paid invoice. It's the well-worn one-man-against-the-world trope, expanded and re-energised via the kind of leftfield premise that could perhaps only come from outside the Bollywood box; a beat-'em-up informed with a streak of self-reflexivity that would defend it against charges of mindlessness, while also raising the possibility of heightened commercial calculation. The whole project set out panning for gold. In this instance, it struck paydirt.

That it did is surely down to the way KGF: Chapter 1 convinces us of its own urgent importance - that this story not only has to be told, but has to be told like this - from the very outset. There's a marked element of Michael Bay on EPO here. Everything on screen has been cranked up beyond 11: the thumping drumbeats and frame shakes, the heightened performance style, the frenetic editing strategy that clues us in to the idea we have a lot to get through. And we do: the film isn't quite empty spectacle, because it soon unfolds into wrinkles, tangles and sidebars, all manner of convoluted narrative business. For much of its duration, KGF looks like an effort on Neel's part to sublimate centuries of mythology, decades of gangster films and real-life labour struggles, and several years of study as to what makes a movie fly in the modern marketplace. If this blockbuster suffers from anything, it's an excess of story; it needs its action sequences to straighten itself out again. In certain stretches, it resembles Slumdog Millionaire, if the protagonist's harsh life experience were prone to resurfacing not in the form of handy quiz-show pointers but bloody, retributive violence. In others, it's pure video game, dispatching Rocking Avatar Yash on one mission after another. After Rocky cleans up the ports of Bombay, it's off to Bangalore, where he woos rich girl Reena (Srinidhi Shetty) and gets involved in a plot to pick off a politico; only after that do we get to El Dorado, where Neel reveals a familiarity with TV's Prison Break by having Rocky offer himself up for conscription so as to militarise an entire underclass. More so than most cinematic forms, the masala movie has been patched together over the years, dependent on the availability of personnel, the vagaries of the production process and the ideas being tossed into the script pot. Here, that approach seems in part deliberate, and every one of its pieces could serve as a standalone movie in itself. It's unarguable value-for-money, even as it risks overkill and defies rational analysis. As I watched KGF: Chapter 1, my left brain kept tutting "this is nonsense on stilts", only for my right brain to counter: yes, but what nonsense. What stilts.

The movie is so big and so broad that it almost inevitably totters into tricky territory from time to time. It's a funny idea to have Rocky get extra-peeved when a battalion of goons interrupt his courtship of Reena - he uses one newly unconscious foe's hand to sweep back his hair mid-rumble - but the underpowered romantic subplot hinges, a little ickily, on her being turned on by his aggression. And sometimes the self-reflexivity tips over into outright smugness. "At a very young age, he decided to become a brand," observes one of Rocky's coterie, the inference being that just as Rocky bhai sells himself to the world, so too will the KGF franchise and Rocking Star Yash. It can, in short, get a bit too much. You scoff at the beginning of the film's third hour when our narrator insists "we can't rush and rewrite history", because elsewhere KGF is characterised by an extreme excitability. I haven't seen a breakdown, but I'm willing to wager the film has more shots per minute than any other released in 2018, and Neel can barely bring himself to linger on any one of them for longer than two seconds. Even KGF's prettiest and most densely populated spectacle gets scattered before us like rice at a wedding; it's one of those movies that absolutely looks like a trailer for itself, though I'll concede that it makes a pretty great trailer. For fullest enjoyment, you may require a pre-existing fondness for Yash himself, who might appear interchangeable with a dozen other South Indian leading men (beard, bulk, glowering gaze) were it not for his somnambulant line delivery. (At times, he makes Robert Mitchum seem like Chris Tucker.) That may not matter so long as he sells you on the force of his punches and kicks - and Neel is plainly more interested in the choreography of his fight scenes than he is that of his token musical numbers. In the end, it probably boils down to whether KGF: Chapter 1 passes a crucial test: whether you come away thinking "yeah, I want to see even more of that". Swelled by repeat business, the box-office receipts would indicate a healthy proportion of its audience went away thinking not just yeah but hell yeah. But even your correspondent, who's had cause to wonder how good this swaggering, steroidal form of filmmaking is for the cinema in the long run, could well be tempted back for KGF: Chapter 2 - if only to see for how long Neel can keep up this extraordinary level of willy-waggling.

KGF: Chapter 1 is available to stream on Prime Video; a sequel is now playing in cinemas nationwide, and will be reviewed here imminently.

From the archive: "Man of Steel"

Sometimes deciding what to see when you’re stood at the ticket counter of a Saturday night is a trade-off. More so than ever with the Superman reboot
Man of Steel: anyone getting excited at the input of executive producer Christopher Nolan, the filmmaker responsible for the Batman revamp, may be given pause by the Kryptonite presence of Zack Snyder, whose Watchmen, 300 and Sucker Punch were products of that leeringly adolescent yet highly bankable sensibility that’s effectively blocked the mainstream from making movies for grown-ups.

In fact, even Nolan’s presence might be seen as a double-edged sword: the Superman we’re getting here is one of those origin stories that effectively tells us what we already know – only, y’know, at greater length, in gloomier colours, and with more digital whistles and bells. An interstellar prologue seems particularly garbled: something about how noble Jor-El (Russell Crowe) shuttled away his infant son after their native planet Krypton fell subject to a coup by angry military advisor Zod (Michael Shannon), everybody dressed in those silly costumes that sunk much of the Green Lantern movie.

Yet some indication Snyder has here been pointed in a marginally different direction – one equally interested in physical and virtual forms – can be inferred from the film’s early effects work: underwater baby farms that resemble medical diagrams of haemorrhoids, thrusting, tapered prison cells that square the penal with the penile. Even the S-shaped memory stick Jor-El slips into his offspring’s escape pod is fashioned out of a skull.

The film finds its feet when the kid – Kal-El, assumed name Clark Kent – lands in the kind of small town where a guy might reasonably expect to have Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as foster parents. Yet growing up great in nondescript flatland is no easy task. Kal’s persistent heroism – heaving a schoolbus from a lake, for instance – only shows up his contemporaries as weak and muddling; he grows into a bearded drifter (Henry Cavill) whose good deeds attract as much opprobrium as they do acclaim – like a really, really buff Jesus.

It should be noted that the cape fits Cavill pretty well. He's just blank enough to pass unnoticed in large crowds, and capable of demonstrating sensitivity as well as strength when set in close-up. His biceps are, frankly, out of this world: away from bending girders to put out an oilrig fire, you suspect he’d make an exceptionally satisfying cuddler.

That said, it may be a sign of the New Event Movie’s near-total lack of interest in anything like flirtation or romance – what fanboys generally have down as “girly stuff” – that this Kent reveals himself to his Lois Lane (Amy Adams) as Super from the off: happening upon her as she snoops around his crashlanded pod, he cauterises a wound on her torso with his eyes, while telling her “I can do things other men cannot do”, which is one way of piquing a gal’s interest.

Maybe it’s the presence of proper actors like Adams, Lane and Costner – some distance removed from the Ken and Barbie dolls who staffed this director’s earlier work – or maybe it’s Nolan’s steadying hand, but Snyder seems to grow up a little in this central section, finding at least an hour amid the usual blockbuster storm for something more reflective and human. He loses the smirk, rations the CGI, even packs the doubting Kent off to church in a scene that would have been unthinkable in 300 or Sucker Punch.

It gets serious, in other words, which fits the Nolan conception of comic-book capers as Terribly Important Modern Myths; some may miss the vein of chipper comedy that ran through the 1978 Superman. Still, at least we’re spared the morbidly self-involved mythology that played out on the cramped sidestreets of the Dark Knight movies. This is a Middle American story at heart, and Snyder seeks out wide open spaces (a cornfield, a salt flat, the galaxy) in which Man of Steel can at least gesture towards an exploration of what it is to be good, and do good – a theme even Snyder cannot help but make resonate.

Almost inevitably, the final hour gives into the kind of loud crashes and bangs market forces (and studio trailer-makers) demand, which lessens some of the impact; it’d take a filmmaker with a personality stronger than Cavill’s arms to pull away from that urge, one suspects. Yet it’s pleasing to be able to report that, for the moment, Superman has survived Zack Snyder. That ticket can be bought without undue fear.

(MovieMail, June 2013)

Man of Steel screens on ITV at 10.45pm tomorrow night.

Friday 22 April 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of April 15-17, 2022):

1 (new) The Lost City (12A)
2 (1) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
3 (2) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
4 (new) The Northman (15) **
5 (new) Operation Mincemeat (12A)
6 (3The Bad Guys (U)
7 (new) Beast (12A)
8 (new) KGF: Chapter 2 (15) ***
9 (5) The Batman (15) ***
10 (4) Morbius (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Cries and Whispers

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
2 (3) Scream [2022] (18)
3 (new) Sing 2 (U)
4 (new) Death on the Nile (12)
5 (2) Dune: Part One (12) **
6 (new) Belfast (12) **
7 (4The Matrix Resurrections (15)
8 (12) Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG)
9 (9) Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12)
10 (7) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)

My top five: 
1. The Souvenir: Part II
3. Cow

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Cape Fear [above] (Friday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
2. The World's End (Saturday, ITV, 10.30pm)
3. Funny Girl (Saturday, BBC2, 2.05pm)
4. Man of Steel (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
5. Iron Man (Saturday, C4, 9.15pm)

Thursday 21 April 2022

School of hard knocks: "Playground"

Some school stuff - mostly facts: alternatives to oxbow lakes, most of trigonometry, how to balance a chemical equation - disappears from the memory on contact with the real world and adult life. Some school stuff, on the other hand, stays with you forever. From the opening seconds of Laura Wandel's remarkable debut feature
Playground, we're completely onside with its pint-sized protagonist Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), in large part because the situation she's in is almost primally familiar: being dropped off at the school gates for the very first time. Her sense of confusion and abandonment stirs something in us; we are reminded of the myriad terrors that await her. The nervy search for someone to sit with at lunch. The stress of having to walk the highbeam in P.E. when you've barely learnt to tie your own laces. Swimming lessons. It all comes flooding back, as Wandel digs further and further into this transitional moment - a pivotal, sink-or-swim point where a child goes from having a parent or two looking out for them to being placed in the care of teachers busy enough with fifty other kids, all of whom have issues that demand close supervision. This camera does what it can. Essentially, Playground is the shoulder-level realism of the Dardennes, dropped down to first-grader height. The world it perceives there (and the original Francophone title Un monde identifies it as such, at least in microcosm) is as disconcerting and brutal as that of the beetles and bugs David Lynch stooped to film in the opening moments of Blue Velvet. Nora's brother Abel (Günter Duret) is initially supportive of his younger sis, cluing her in as to how the playground operates before tearing off to bully the newcomers. But within this ecosystem, he too is smallfry, a fact Nora only grasps a few days later when she spies Abel being pushed around by older boys. A properly dramatic reversal presents itself: sister now has to look out for brother, only as per the law of this jungle (or jungle gym) he doesn't want her to look out for him, because it might make him look wussy. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

Formally, the film is fascinating. Playground has the spontaneity of social realism, its youthful subjects - bored or sad or helpless, alighting on lines and obsessions only kids left to their own devices would alight on - coached to interact as they would on any actual playground. But the action chiefly takes place as foreground. This may have been a technical choice on Wandel's part, to keep tabs on one or two characters when there are 200 vying for attention around them. Yet it also has dramatic implications, leaving the world beyond these button noses a blur, as it is in one's early schooldays, when you don't know your way around. Classmates loom up on Nora out of nowhere, and we've no immediate idea whether they want to play or punch our heroine in the face. (Sometimes, it's a little of both: they blindfold her, and watch giggling as she clangs her head on a metal gatepost. They can be merciless little fuckers, kids.) Wandel is very deliberate, and supremely canny, in the way she withholds focus. Only gradually do we get a sense of this girl's family, and the world outside the schoolgates. It's her dad who drops her off and picks her up; there's no sign of a mother. "Dad, why don't you work like everybody else?," Nora asks at one point; when he turns up one lunchtime with a black eye, it's both a bleak vision of these kids' futures, and something like a prison visit, replete with desperate hands-through-the-bars moment. 

From the siblings' wardrobe, malnourished air and perennially downturned expressions, we guess they're somewhere towards the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain. When Abel wets himself, it cues both outspoken disgust among his classmates - "Your brother stinks of piss," his classmates tell Nora - and the thought he is very much the Sean Maguire-as-Tegs of the Belgian education system. We want them to get out of the film in one piece - god, how we want them to get out of the film in one piece - but we also get so caught up in their moment-by-moment, lunchbreak-by-lunchbreak struggle for survival that we may overlook the arc Wandel sets in place here. The Nora we see towards the end of Playground is very different from the tearful young cherub to whom we're first introduced. Now she's independent, resilient, tenacious (watch her response to learning she hasn't been invited to a classmate's birthday party, surely the biggest snub any five-year-old can face), but also bruised and scarred. She's seen some shit, and that shit will likely stay with her, because it does somehow. (And if this mild, 12A-rated trauma does, heaven knows what it must be like for the kids who get into real trouble.) The assumption that great artists can fashion extraordinary art out of the smallest things isn't always a reliable one, because we've all seen plenty of trivial, flyweight, disposable art to the contrary. But the last filmmaker to direct children this attentively and this rewardingly was Celine Sciamma (first in Tomboy, more recently Petite Maman), and there's an argument she's kicked on to become just about the most vital filmmaker in the world right now. With Playground, Wandel graduates with honours as world cinema's Girl Most Likely.

Playground opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Sacred flesh: "Benedetta"

Fair to say the pandemic hasn't changed Paul Verhoeven in any way. The flies-open Dutchman's latest,
Benedetta, has so far been positioned in the press as an item of premium-grade trolling, taking aim at dual targets: audience expectations around the costume drama (it isn't the clothes Verhoeven wants us to goggle at) and the Catholic church (presented as a proto-capitalist racket designed to leech money from the same women it ensnares and turns against themselves). It starts comparatively mildly for a film from the director of Total Recall and Basic Instinct, with a one-eyed pillager getting bird poop in his eye, a fleeting glimpse of a Pétomane-like stage act featuring a man setting light to his own farts, and some passing anti-Semitism from cynical Abbess Charlotte Rampling. The main event, as you'll surely have gleaned from the lipsmacking pre-publicity, is some based-on-true-events girl-on-girl (more precisely, nun-on-nun) action, drawing on historian Judith C. Brown's 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italythe warm-up for this turns out to be some girl-by-girl, nun-by-nun shitting on a dual hers-and-hers commode. (You can only imagine the smile on Verhoeven's face when he first saw production designer Katia Wyszkop's handiwork.) We caper towards the kind of visions and fantasies, usually involving a hunky, blue-eyed Jesus (Jonathan Couzinié), which had protestors gathering in their multitudes for 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ and saw 1989's nunsploitationer Visions of Ecstasy banned outright by the British censor. If restraint (in the non-S&M sense) is what you're after, you're in entirely the wrong screen; heed the advice of the septuagenarian usher at the public screening I attended last night, who jovially cautioned her patrons that tonight's presentation was "quite pornographic", with a knowing chuckle. How far we've all come.

We might quibble with the usher's terminology - though 18-rated, everything on screen is carefully, attentively simulated - but Benedetta does at least adhere to porno rules. Once behind convent walls, Verhoeven spends a good while teasing hardened sensation seekers with cursory boobs and bums, typically obscured by shadows and curtains, before finally going all-in with the assistance of a crucifix repurposed as a dildo, a readymade talking point guaranteed to rival Basic Instinct's no-knickers interrogation scene. It's an hour before our virtuous heroine (Virginie Efira) enjoys her first orgasm, at which point it feels like a matter of life and death; only in the final moments are we presented with unabashed full-frontal nudity in the open air, and a liberation (albeit a temporary one). The net result is that Benedetta allows us to be seduced by the possibilities of a story before its clammy hands venture decisively below the belt. What do we notice? Firstly, that it represents Verhoeven's most obviously feminist undertaking in a long while: a tale of women trapped within a system that depends for its continued survival on their coming to hate themselves, one another and their own bodies. "Your body is your worst enemy," Benedetta is told upon entering the convent, understood here as a place where women are sent so as to let their flesh wither, the better to keep temptation at bay and preserve their spirit for the Son of God. (Verhoeven, inevitably, heightens this process to an extreme, by having one older Sister (Guilaine Londez) consumed by untouched, untreated breast cancer; she dies with the word "mensonges" (lies) on her lips.) The arrival of wild child Bartolomea (feral newcomer Daphné Patakia) offers Benedetta someone closer to her own age to bond with, but their sisterly solidarity - the new outspokenness it prompts, and the radical reinterpretation of Christ's teachings it represents - poses a threat to the sexless status quo. Given the slightly sniggering tone of the reviews, you may find yourself surprised - as I was - by how seriously Verhoeven takes the girls' affair, both as an engine for generating thrills and a challenge to the established social order.

Still, Benedetta isn't quite the return to full form many were hoping from this director. Unlike 1985's free-roaming Flesh + Blood, it's limited - possibly by the pandemic - to a single location that assumes an air of self-reflexivity as the Black Death blows in. Narratively, it feels episodic, the selected, salacious highlights of one cloistered life flattening one another out: even Benedetta's reported possession by Christ is Just Another Thing, although it is quite a thing. The film is broadly entertaining, never boring, committed to its point-of-view and to filling its widescreen frames with the eyepopping and jawdropping; it does plenty to stir the blood. Yet - and this has long been a Verhoeven limitation - it never cuts deep enough to touch the soul. Just on an editorial level, it can't fully connect the hypocrisies and horrors of Benedetta's age to those of our own: it's all still walled off, another Verhoeven movie that seems to exist within heavily ironic quotation marks. Its strongest suit is Efira, one of the most daring actresses in world cinema, though I'm not sure I ever bought her as a potential bride of Christ. She was convincing as a nervy newlywed in 2018's An Impossible Love, but Verhoeven clocks the hot-to-trot woman in her from the off. (When Benedetta and Bartolomea fuck, they fuck like the characters in a Nineties movie - not necessarily an issue for those of us who like Nineties movies, but a further trashing of real period authenticity.) Yet as befits a movie bound for an appointment with the stake, you look upon Efira as you look upon Jean Seberg in Saint Joan: as a movie star, someone worth looking at, with a body that - doubtless to the Catholic Legion of Decency's alarm and dismay - simply never quits. (This camera works overtime recording that fact.) Is it sleazy? Or is it sex-positive? Verhoeven has spent his entire career collecting such perverse, double-edged responses. I'll say this for Benedetta: you wouldn't be able to guess from watching it that its maker had been away from the cinema for some while, nor that the movies had comprehensively lost their libido in that time. Verhoeven is still the same old horny fucker making horny films in a moment when everybody else is fiddling round with plastic action figures. In a sense Benedetta herself would understand more than most, this could be considered God's work.

Benedetta is now showing in selected cinemas.

Monday 18 April 2022

My Desert Island Movies

In September 2021, I wrote my 10,000th film review. I know this, because I've been keeping a handwritten record in a variety of notebooks since 1993 (starting with a brisk four-line appraisal of Sister Act: "instantly forgettable, but fun while it lasts"). Given that I'll be marking 20 years as a working critic in 2023 - and given that the last lockdown left me with very little else to be getting on with - it seemed a good time to try and assemble a representative canon: the best of what I've seen over that period, whatever that's worth. 1,001 movies; the top ten percent.

You can now download the list, in various formats:

Alphabetically (here)
Chronologically (here)
As an Excel spreadsheet, with director/year/country of origin info (here)
As a 10" flexidisc with exclusive Mike poster and stickers (here)

It's also available as a Letterboxd list here.

Going into this project, I entertained grandiose ideas of revolutionising or at least freshening up the established canon. I'm not so sure the finished list quite achieves that lofty aim: there aren't anything like enough films from Africa and pre-2000 India (even this far into the streaming era, accessibility and availability remain obstacles); though there are more films directed by women than there would have been 25 years ago, there aren't as many as there will be in another 25 years; and there are almost certainly too many films on there from 1993, foundational year though it was. (One of your first tasks as a critic is identifying your own blindspots and biases. I think it's fairly obvious I was a 90s videoshop kid.)

In shuffling titles in and out, however, I did succeed in explaining something to myself: my recent disillusionment with American cinema. Look at the films on there from the 1980s, 90s and early 00s - my formative decades as a cinephile - and clock how many of those hail from the American studio system. Then consider the great variety of forms, genres and styles within those films; and finally contrast that with the situation as it is in 2022, with the surviving studios going all-in on funding franchisable fantasy epics based on pre-existing/long overworked* (*delete as appropriate) material. We were raised to expect so much more from the movies; what's coming down the multiplex tubes nowadays can't help but seem thin gruel.

Still, the multiplex isn't (and shouldn't be) everything, as I hope this list makes clear. May it lead you towards many new and rewarding horizons in the months and years ahead.

(Photo: Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, F.W. Murnau, 1931.)

P.S. The list contains titles from 52 different nations, topped by the USA (656 films), France (157), the UK (137), Germany (57) and Italy (54). The countries represented by a single title are as follows: Armenia, Bulgaria, Iceland, Luxembourg, Mali, Monaco, Peru, the Philippines, Portugal, Senegal, South Africa, Syria, Thailand, Uzbekhistan and Zambia. (Told you there was more to life than the multiplex.)

P.P.S. Top directors: Alfred Hitchcock (12 titles), Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg (10 titles apiece), Woody Allen (9), Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard (8 apiece), John Ford and Preston Sturges (7). On six: Robert Altman, Tim Burton, Joel Coen, John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Ang Lee, Richard Linklater and Peter Weir. On five: Robert Aldrich, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Howard Hawks, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Leo McCarey, Satyajit Ray, Paul Schrader, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder. Top female directors: Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Nora Ephron, Mia Hansen-Løve, Amy Heckerling, Nicole Holofcener, Tamara Jenkins, Elaine May, Agnès Varda, Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (all 2 apiece).

Friday 15 April 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of April 8-10, 2022):

1 (new) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
2 (1) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
3 (3) The Bad Guys (U)
4 (2) Morbius (15)
5 (4The Batman (15) ***
6 (6) Uncharted (12A)
7 (new) The Outfit (15) ***
8 (5) Ambulance (15)
10 (10) Sing 2 (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Lost in La Mancha [above]
2. Cries and Whispers
5. Dr. No

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
2 (4) Dune: Part One (12) **
3 (2) Scream [2022] (18)
4 (3The Matrix Resurrections (15)
5 (new) Spider-Man Triple Pack (12) ***
6 (5) No Time to Die (12) ***
7 (10) Paw Patrol: The Movie (U)
8 (6) Encanto (U) ***
9 (18) Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12)
10 (19) Fast & Furious 9 (12)

My top five: 
1. Cow
4. Flee

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Lion King (Easter Sunday, BBC1, 5.45pm)
2. The Ten Commandments (Easter Sunday, five, 2pm)
3. Animal Farm (Thursday, C4, 2.40am)
4. Shrek (Easter Monday, ITV, 2.05pm)
5. Hot Fuzz (Saturday, ITV, 10.40pm)