Friday 27 May 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of May 20-22, 2022):

3 (2) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
4 (4) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
5 (6) The Lost City (12A)
6 (7) The Bad Guys (U)
7 (8) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
8 (new) Bhool Bhulaiya 2 (12A)
9 (9) Firestarter (15)
10 (new) Benediction (12A) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Psycho [above]
3. Vampyr

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (5) Top Gun (12) ***
2 (1) Uncharted (12)
3 (2) Sing 2 (U)
4 (3) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
5 (new) Dog (12)
6 (4) Dune: Part One (12) **
7 (6) The Matrix Resurrections (15)
8 (7) Belfast (12) **
9 (10) Encanto (U) ***
10 (9) Marry Me (12) 

My top five: 
1. The Souvenir: Part II
2. River
4. Cow

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Wooden Horse (Saturday, BBC2, 12.25pm)
2. Brooklyn (Jubilee Thursday, BBC1, 11.40pm)
3. Suntan (Jubilee Thursday, C4, 2.30am)
4. The Rock (Wednesday, five, 10pm)
5. Cast Away (Sunday, five, 3.55pm)

Up where we belong: "Top Gun: Maverick"

Top Gun: Maverick succeeds at the box office in the weeks ahead - and all early signs would suggest it's destined to become a massive hit - it may well be because of the distance it puts between itself and its predecessor; it's a rare case of a late-in-the-day sequel being just tardy enough to have wiped the slate clean for itself. Arguably, there wasn't all that much to wipe away. An unusually indifferent Tony Scott movie, 1986's original Top Gun was both a triumph of Reagan-era packaging (buff young stars, access to actual military hardware, a bestselling soundtrack album) and, from a dramatic perspective, a hot load of nothing: a recruitment video with better abs, greater firepower and wider reach, the film has come to occupy a disproportionately prominent position in that odd video library that is the collective cultural memory. (This week, it became the oldest title to top the UK home entertainment charts, indicating that a whole new generation is presently finding out it ain't all that.) 

Maverick's opening sequence insists upon some residual continuity with the past: a credit marking this as "a Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production" (despite Simpson dying in 1996), a title card (reprinted word-for-word from the original) explaining the genesis of a school for elite fighter pilots, familiar silhouettes of jet fighters taxiing for take-off, even a reprise of Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone". But what follows enjoys a loose, only noddingly friendly relationship with what's come before; it's too canny for fan fiction, and there's none of that damp-eyed pedantry that did for last year's Ghostbusters: Afterlife. We get a mostly all-new cast, for one; what homoeroticism there is now plays out in passing on a cellphone screen; and Miles Teller debuts a moustache as one of the kids being put through their paces by Tom Cruise's Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. Maverick proceeds from the assumption that all that's really required to revive a franchise is Tom Cruise and a need for speed - the same fuel blockbusters have been running on for the better part of two generations.

That the results prove dramatically satisfying - stirring, even, in a way no blockbuster really has been since the resumption of normal cinemagoing business - can be attributed to how much it also functions as a treatise on how much Cruise needs these particular, hands-on event movies, and by extension, how much we need them, watching on from Row F. Squeeze Cruise between the green screens of latter-day fantasy - as Universal did for 2017's non-starting The Mummy - and the result's a dingy disaster. Glue him on the side of an actual skyscraper or into the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat, however, and suddenly anything and everything seems possible again. The spectacle connects not just to those entertainments you and I were raised on, but an entire history of cinema: well over a century of the actors we see on screen performing a version of the stunts we goggle at for real. So the new film is about the cinema, and about Cruise, and about Cruise now, at 59, versus Cruise as he was then, at 23; the franchise has been rebooted into self-awareness, and self-reflexivity, which is another way of saying... human? Consider the prologue: eminent human Ed Harris, drafted in to play the kind of crusty, confoundable CO who became a caricature in the 80s and 90s, telling Maverick (and thus Cruise) that his kind is "set for extinction".

But Maverick's flashbacks are also our flashbacks: pumped-up muscle memories of the blockbusters of yore, vast logistical undertakings that involved no small measure of strain, yes, but also, on our livelier Friday evenings, some semblance of intelligence and wit. It makes sense that Maverick should see Cruise ascending to the rank of teacher, because in many ways this is a film on what the movies have to learn from Tom Cruise. (Even the mission Maverick and his rookies puzzle over here - dropping their payload in difficult terrain at the exact right moment to wipe out the competition - speaks to the challenge of positioning an event movie in an uncertain post-Covid marketplace.) "He's the fastest man alive!," gasps one of Maverick's underlings at an early juncture, and we're clearly being encouraged to share that awe. You might not countenance such idolatry, but there's no denying Cruise has the best business brain of his generation of actors, and arguably the surest feel for what an audience wants to experience through him. The movies have allowed this star to live out this fantasy - fastest man alive, biggest daredevil of the lot - for two decades now; and we've been allowed, in that time, to marvel at the spectacle of Cruise, a famously tiny man, living out his fantasy of becoming larger than life, too big to fail. Everybody wins.

It is, of course, preposterous. Maverick includes a sequence where, to establish his maverick credentials, Maverick literally tosses a thumping great Air Force rulebook in the bin, and it's extraordinary how many scenes in this script (credited to Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) circle back to alpha males tailing one another, on the ground as in the air. But you'd take these things being preposterous over pompous, pretentious or ponderous, and there are a heap of genuine surprises here besides. For starters, the kids are good-looking but likable, and they can act, too. (From 1983's Flashdance to 1998's Enemy of the State and beyond, Bruckheimer's mega-productions have often functioned as vast, pulsating clearing-houses for emergent talent and disparate personalities, like Law & Order reruns with bigger bangs.) Cruise grants them all their close-up (albeit typically of faces distorted by High-G), and even permits the film to jostle his own can-do persona with a scene that finds him ill-at-ease on the back of a fishing vessel ("I don't sail boats; I land on them"). It's a lovely moment, in a big movie that knows what a grace note looks and sounds like: the rigorous self-critique Cruise submitted to in 1999's Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut - the career path not pursued, owing to mass audience disinterest - suddenly re-emerging, softened by the oceans of time, in an entirely new context. I think Cruise has himself spent the past twenty years learning: he knows his strengths and limitations, which may be essential wisdom for any action hero approaching his sixties, and one reason his projects continue to get the insurance coverage they do.

There's an even bigger surprise here, too: that Joseph Kosinski, the effects whizz who made his directorial debut with the strikingly empty one-two of 2010's Tron: Legacy and 2013's Oblivion, should have developed a newfound appreciation and eye for life. He always had a facility of some sort with ambience, and Top Gun: Maverick keeps setting us down in places that are a pleasure to inhabit: you feel the warmth in the afterhours bar the flyers frequent, and can't fail to spot the beauty of the world above the clouds. (Nor the hard work required to maintain the altitude.) He aces the spectacle, but also pulls off a love scene - so parodically PG-13 it becomes enjoyable again - between Cruise and Jennifer Connelly as old friends whose chemistry is so easy they keep falling on top of one another. (It's telling that the generally sexless Cruise should be the one to remind the blockbuster what intimacy is.) Some of the reviews have all but positioned Maverick as a second coming, and it's not quite that: there's a mission beyond the mission that tacks on twenty minutes the film doesn't need. (Cruise may know his limits, but Bruckheimer - honouring the ghost of Simpson, perhaps - never has; as with Con Air's Vegas coda, you may be having too much fun to mind.) Yet it's a blockbuster where you feel the majority of the creative choices were made by those close to the camera rather than faceless suits on the 37th floor, and that alone would make it special in the modern movie marketplace. By committing to the kind of excellence that can apparently still be achieved at this level of filmmaking, and learning lessons from the many, many reboots that have crashed and burned over the past decade, Top Gun: Maverick sets a very high bar for itself - and everybody else this summer - before soaring over it at supersonic speed. Takes your breath away.

Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 26 May 2022

Little monsters: "The Innocents"

The Innocents, the second directorial outing for Joachim Trier's regular co-writer Eskil Vogt, forms a bracingly eerie challenge to our expectations around the portrayal of children on screen. As with Vogt and Trier's 2017 collaboration Thelma, the new film starts out in a broadly realist mode, following nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) as she explores the social housing block to which her family has just relocated, and starts to make new friends. But then matters take a turn for the uncanny, as it becomes clear that several of these new friends have special powers; the pitch might have been the Dardennes do Scanners or Village of the Damned. Falling under the ambiguous influence of telekinetic neighbour Benjamin (Sam Ashraf), Ida begins to act out in a most disturbing way, possibly in a bid to pull focus from a sister with learning difficulties who needs extra care: she deposits broken glass in her sibling's trainers, and does worse things still to a missing cat. After building her a friend group via such communal atrocities, Vogt sets them turning against one another almost arbitrarily, as kids do; and our primary concern, looking on from behind the sofa, is whether this wave of tweenie cruelty can be confined to the adventure playground, or whether the wider world is somehow in grave danger.

To work, the premise needed an exceptionally sensitive director of children, a creative ready and willing to purge his performers of any cuteness while reassuring their keepers that no harm could come of this process. The kids here don't act like kids in a conventional horror movie so much as kids in your immediate vicinity, and that's why they're so terrifying almost from the off: they're ultra-credible threats. Vogt locates in them a giggly, conspiratorial energy, and halfway through you realise he's fashioned an entire film out of a particular feeling: the one you get when you walk in on your little darlings and immediately sense they've been up to no good. The uncertainty here lies in not knowing to what end this energy is being gathered and redirected; it isn't stilled any by the midfilm domestic incident that will seem as horrific to your adult self as the opening sequences of Casualty and certain public information films did when you were younger. Vogt proves a limber shotmaker: after an early hat tip to the British film of the same name (a longshot of a sketchy figure on the other side of a body of water, reprised amid the finale), he sets the experienced cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen out on several dreamy, free-floating Steadicam tours of their unnervingly sunny, whitewashed location. And he may be more agile yet in post-production. With editor Jens Christian Fodstad, he uses montage to tether psychic bonds between youngsters in four or five different flats, and oversees one cut so icily unforgiving it might cause even Michael Haneke to gulp: a scene that ends with one character screaming for an ambulance is juxtaposed with a punishingly long shot of the tower blocks going entirely untroubled by the emergency services. The suffering persists.

What can it all mean? The Innocents can't really be a Greta Thunberg-era parable about one generation rising up to give their complacent elders the kicking they deserve, because that would require more authorial relish than the generally cool-blooded Vogt lets slip, some sense the grown-ups deserve their fate, which these characters don't. (In a reversal of generic and societal norms, it's the gathered parents who may actually be the innocents of the title, clueless to the murderous turf war being waged around them, in the air and beneath their feet.) What else can it be, then? A We Need to Talk About Kevin-like expression of paedophobia from a creative who doesn't want kids and can't see any good coming from anybody else having kids? Maybe. It seems more likely to me that this is just a brilliant concept pushed skilfully and inexorably towards an extreme, a nasty little tale of the unexpected told by a cineaste who's had quite enough acclaim for his nice, well-behaved arthouse pictures over the past decade and now wants nothing more than to unsettle his audience, or fuck us up. But - boy - does The Innocents unsettle the audience and fuck us up. No film has more completely dramatised the sentiment - and the suspicion - behind that hall-of-fame Half Man Half Biscuit lyric "Is your child hyperactive/Or is he, perhaps, a twat?"

The Innocents is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and Prime Video.

Wednesday 25 May 2022

In the mood for lolz: "Everything Everywhere All at Once"

The responses to
Everything Everywhere All at Once within my social circle and on my social-media feeds have been 98% wildly enthusiastic, with an intriguing 2% margin of bemused bafflement. I suspect this is because the film itself runs on excitability, a splurgey, indiscriminate, fanboyish enthusiasm that insists on leaving it all up there on the screen. Faced with a live-action Lego Movie such as this, one that depends upon the viewer finding its every competing image and reality awesome, anybody taking a wrong turn - not quite getting on the film's wavelength, or not quite being in the mood for it - is liable to find themselves lost and left behind, and/or wondering what all the fuss has been about. The finale - or one of its finales, I should say - unfolds in a vast workspace caught amid a minor whirlwind of papers being tossed into the air, a more or less unimprovable visual metaphor for the film's own scattershot conception and realisation. Here, the filmmaking collective known as Daniels - writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert - make one last attempt to gather up and gather together the approximately 1,001 skits that have somehow ended up in the same movie, in much the same frantic manner as contestants chasing the confetti in The Crystal Maze's climactic geodesic dome. Your own mileage cannot fail to vary - scene by scene, reality by reality - but no matter how well you think Everything Everywhere All at Once works, it shouldn't work nearly as well as it does.

That it does - or that it did for this viewer, at least - is down to two focal points. In its eternal favour, the film has Michelle Yeoh, literally leaping at the kind of role the movies denied her for twenty years after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and a really good, anchoring joke, about a woman who keeps getting distracted from the humdrum reality of doing her taxes - or one who would rather go anywhere and do anything (save the universe, even) than sit down and do her taxes. Even in the film's early, notionally sensible monoverse, it's clear Yeoh's Evelyn has A Lot On: running a laundromat, caring for an aged father (James Hong), fielding divorce papers from her ex Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and hosting her slightly estranged daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her new partner Becky (Tallie Medel), not to mention dealing with an unexplained infestation of stick-on googly eyes. (The implied gag, and this too is a good one, is that nobody is better prepared to deal with the strains of entering the multiverse than a working mother.) This opening stretch has the feel of 2019's The Farewell on fast-forward (literally, in the case of a montage showing how these characters got here): a fond if frenetic portrait of a fraught, in some places visibly frazzled Asian American family dynamic. (The Daniels even lean into the manic quality of the Mandarin and Cantonese their characters converse in; that sense of too many syllables being crammed into too short a space of time.) Then, with a boom and a pop and a fizz, Evelyn enters the multiverse, the film starts scrambling, and the mind begins to boggle, on its way - the filmmakers hope - to being blown.

Mine was in places, though my rational self also feels compelled to note that Everything Everywhere All at Once might actually be a more conventional movie than the Daniels' 2016 breakthrough Swiss Army Man, which had Paul Dano trying to escape off a desert island, using flatulent corpse-turned-human lilo Daniel Radcliffe. That was as out-there as it still sounds, for better and worse; EEAAO proceeds according to the multiverse concept that was floated in such millennial landmarks as The Matrix and Run Lola Run, and became familiar long before Marvel's Doctor Strange sequel, with which the Daniels find themselves competing for multiplex space. Where the mind starts expanding at least is that the new film, made for a relative pittance, shows us so much of its multiverse. A universe where Michelle Yeoh is effectively being Michelle Yeoh (replete with footage of real-life red carpet walks). A universe where the leading lady has no fighting skills whatsoever; one where she does exactly what you want to see Michelle Yeoh doing on a big screen, including beating up on Parks & Recreation's peerlessly annoying Mona-Lisa. There is a universe where these characters have hot dogs for fingers, cueing a rethink of Kubrick's 2001; another where there exists a film called Raccacoonie, which is Ratatouille with a raccoon; another populated solely by talking rocks. One universe suggests Yeoh and Quan have passed into a Wong Kar-wai reverie; another a Tarsem Singh movie, a reference destined to be picked up by even fewer folks in the back row of the Cineworld.

This, too, is A Lot, but it's also a familiar tactic, the handiwork of emergent cineastes (and cinephiles) showing off just what they can do across a variety of different genres, and on a fraction of Doctor Strange's catering budget. The Daniels appear to have some kinship with MAD magazine's Scenes We'd Like To See feature, frequently spitballing for no greater reason than shits and giggles: we've all seen the scene where some evil mastermind manipulates one cop into shooting another, but only EEAAO has the scene where the cop shoots a colleague who's dressed like Carmen Miranda. Why? Well, why not? It should be said that, on a first viewing at least, the connections between the film's universes appear arbitrary in the extreme; we have to take the rules of this multiverse on faith. One reality is accessed by swiping a document in the gaps between your fingers, as one would a credit card in one of those old card readers, but this is one of several ideas the Daniels throw at the screen without returning to it or following it up. When, amid the chaos of the third act, Evelyn tells one unknowing manifestation of Waymond "it's going to be so hard to explain any of this to you", she's clearly speaking on behalf of the filmmakers to their intended audience.

And yet, purged of any gassy exposition, the film stands as a pretty dazzling demonstration of what's still possible when a movie isn't taking itself ultra-seriously, when everything is temporary and no explanations are necessary. The overwhelming joy (and relief) I felt when sat before Everything Everywhere All at Once stems from the fact it can't get bogged down, because there's nothing really for it to ever get bogged down in; forsaking the phoney depth of the modern blockbuster, the Daniels instead fill their characters with streamers and bound from one inspired surface to the next. (Note how much meaning is conveyed by simple changes of costume: the film's closest DNA match isn't with the dourly dogged worldbuilding of franchise cinema, but a playbox classic like Mr. Benn.) One thing I don't quite understand about the 2% of negative responses has been their faint tenor of grumpiness: even if you do get lost here - and I did, frequently - this is such a fun movie to get lost in, because you never know what's coming up around the next corner, and even its non-sequiturs and dead ends number among the most inventive you'll witness in a multiplex screen this year. 

The pandemic launched a flotilla of thinkpieces wondering whether the American cinema would soon re-enter a wartime footing and provide beleaguered filmgoers with uplift and escapism, seeing in Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and Spielberg's West Side Story a ready parallel with those entertainments the studios laid on for audiences emerging from WW2. For whatever reason, those movies came and went without trace, leaving us instead with Dune: Part One, The Batman and the ongoing threat of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, major motion pictures that suggest the world is (not without reason) depressed as all get out. Against the entrenched misery of this backdrop, Everything Everywhere All at Once appears more than faintly radical, as a light in the dark sneaking in from an adjacent movie-universe. If we can take anything of significance away from the Daniels' first two films, it's that they are utterly committed to their own silliness - to pursuing a larky idea for the sake of pursuing a larky idea, as so much cinema did during its golden age. EEAAO's sleeper success, which may only have been possible at a time when the bulk of our studio releases present with po-faced pomposity, leaves this duo better placed than just about anyone to slap googly eyes on the screen and - at long last - make movies fun again.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday 23 May 2022

Child's play: "The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin"

Squeezed between the multiverses and the mavericks, some bona fide, old-school summer counterprogramming. (Counterprogramming that would appear to be paying off, too, if the three-quarters full house I saw
The Quiet Girl with on its second weekend of release is anything to go by.) Adapted from Claire Keegan's 2010 novella Foster, Colm Bairéad's Gaelic-language drama is another of the cinema's becalmed miniatures about childhood: the films it immediately recalls are those of Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur) and Carla Simon's more recent Summer 1993, although it may ultimately be stealthier than any of those, creeping up on the unsuspecting viewer and only hitting us with the full, cumulative impact of its choices in the closing scenes. Summer 1981 might have been an alternative title. It's here we begin, with a deft sketch of an overstretched household in rural Ireland, observed from the POV of mournful pre-teen Cait (Catherine Clinch): dad (Michael Patric) an inveterate gambler and ladies' man, mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) pregnant and put-upon besides, multiple sisters and an infant brother's cries milling around in the gloomy middle distance. For at least half of its running time, The Quiet Girl is made up of what Cait sees but cannot yet understand: the narrow Academy frame, suddenly back in vogue, is here a perspectival choice. We're getting child-sized fragments of a bigger picture, glimpses of a sadness that extends beyond our field of vision.

The cause and extent of that sadness is brought into sharper focus when Cait is packed off to stay with a foster mother, Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley), and her gruffly agricultural hubby Sean (Andrew Bennett). Dad drops Cait at the couple's gates with no particular tenderness, tearing away in his crappy old banger without even troubling to unload the suitcase of possessions his child has packed in the boot. In the foster home scenes that follow, Bairéad works up an acute sense of what it is to be cared for - to be bathed and clothed and fed, to be included rather than overlooked or marginalised. (One especially lovely image: the Kimberley biscuit the farmer surreptitiously deposits on the breakfast table for his young charge, the kind of run-of-the-mill treat that would have been unthinkable in Cait's previous existence.) Yet nothing is ever laid on too thick; Bairéad has stripped back even that identical-twin trickery that was a feature of last year's broadly minimalist Petite Maman. His images remain frontal and steady, and while he pushes his soundtrack hard (work going on in the surrounding fields, families at war, a radio giving notice that even this respite must come to an end), part of the pleasure here is encountering a filmmaker who appears determined not to forcefeed or overcomplicate his frames, the better to centre the understated emotions in play, and connect with his audience. A major third-act incident, which would likely seem horribly contrived elsewhere, is instead insinuated through montage, becoming an almost Roeg-like matter of reawakened intuition; more generally, Bairéad adheres to the farmer's philosophy of keeping his trap shut and getting on with the job ("Many's the person who's missed an opportunity to say nothing, and lost much because of it"). The Quiet Girl's silences are resonant, and moving in the extreme.

The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

On demand: "Pad Man"

Pad Man is two things at once: a social-issue masala movie about women's health - more specifically, the fight to provide affordable sanitary pads to those in rural areas - and a vehicle for Akshay Kumar in his new guise of Mr. Uxorious, The Housewives' Choice. Here, the star is playing a Hindified fictionalisation of the real-life Tamil entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, going by the name Lakshmikant Chauhan: a welder and tinkerer who, upon learning that his bride Gayatri (Radhika Apte) uses an old washcloth to soak up her monthlies (and the high price of sanitary products), sets out to tailor his own Lil-Lets. It's a dreamer narrative - one man going his own way in the face of widespread indifference and sometimes outright opposition - albeit predicated on a wholly humdrum, matter-of-fact, domestic dream; an account of an especially haphazard but ultimately successful R&D process - or as Lakshmikant dubs it, "T&F: Try and Fail". At least he's trying, which sets him apart from most husbands in his neck of the woods, and even his failures will carry him somewhere. I take some of the criticism about a film on feminine hygiene being so centred on a man (yes, this is based on a true story; yes, there were doubtless other stories that could have been told). But I also see the value in a film in which an established Bollywood action hero schools Indian men - men everywhere, indeed - to become more actively engaged in their partners' welfare. To quote Lakshmikant himself: "If you can't protect a woman, how can you call yourself a man?"

The one danger, from a dramatic point of view, is that Pad Man makes its hero such a sweetheart you can't ever imagine a jolly, 12A-rated crowdpleaser such as this ever letting him down with an unhappy ending. Good news, then: the director is the experienced R. Balki, who not only knows a feelgood story when he sees one, but also how to put one together. (By point of immediate contrast, check out last year's straight-to-VOD Helmet, a film conceived in Pad Man's image by mere kids, which tried to initiate a similar conversation about condom use but quickly fell apart, sniggering as it went.) Pad Man is that rare modern Hindi film that gets more satisfying as it goes along, which is probably one reason it became the runaway hit it did: you come away from it beaming, and keen to impress its virtues on others. Its depiction of a superstitious rural community - a place with one foot stuck firmly and stubbornly in the past - is irreverent but largely fond, never as mocking or condescending as it could have been. (Balki senses the audience he really has to reach.) Upfront, meanwhile, we get another demonstration of Bollywood star power, and Kumar proves rocksolid in a role that depends on his being dogged, humble, in many ways unheroic. A more subversively minded film might have made a big joke or talking point out of the scene where Lakshmikant dons pink panties to test the efficiency of his prototype; Balki is insistent that it comes with the job, just a pad man doing what a pad man has to do. Kumar gets one obvious "hero" moment - a long third-act speech at the United Nations - and he's so charming with his faltering English that you wonder why he's wasted the past two decades on substandard scripts and directors.

On either side of him, two women, representing two different Indias. There's a funny supporting role for Sonam Kapoor as the altogether elegant guinea pig for the Pad Man's prototype - funny, because pre-eminent brand ambassador Kapoor initially seems both amused and bemused at being called upon to promote a homemade sanitary towel. Her appearance in the second half is the point at which Pad Man actively starts pushing back against some of the anticipated criticism: if it still feels like a sop to the leading man's ego that her worldly character should eventually fall for this schlub, equally she has the best idea of what to do with the Pad Man's technology. (And we concede that invention is nothing without application.) Back on the homefront, Apte - typically cast as the modern metropolitan woman - is effectively yokelling down, swapping pantsuits for saris as a traditionalist who appears genuinely aggrieved and ashamed by her husband's interventions in the status quo. It's in the domestic scenes that Pad Man starts to up its stakes, in a way that marks it as a very savvy evening's entertainment: we're set to wondering whether this relationship can survive one man's determination to breach a taboo subject. Given the menstrual blood the New Extreme Cinema splashed around the screen at the turn of the century - thinking of you, Anatomy of Hell - it seems peculiar that some are still having to tiptoe around the subject two decades on. Yet that may just be where some squeamishly conservative part of India is still at this far into the 21st century; in that context, a gently radical, inherently likable proposition such as Pad Man - a film looking to nudge or nuzzle the needle in the right direction - has to be worth something.

Pad Man is available to stream via Netflix.

Friday 20 May 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of May 13-15, 2022):

2 (2) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
4 (3) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
5 (new) Little Mix Live - The Final Show (For Now...) (12A)
6 (4The Lost City (12A)
7 (6) The Bad Guys (U)
8 (5Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
9 (new) Firestarter (15)
10 (new) Sarkaru Vari Pata (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Vampyr [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Uncharted (12)
2 (2) Sing 2 (U)
3 (3) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
4 (4) Dune: Part One (12) **
5 (26) Top Gun (12) ***
6 (9) The Matrix Resurrections (15)
7 (8) Belfast (12) **
8 (6) Turning Red (PG)
9 (11) Marry Me (12)
10 (15) Encanto (U) ***

My top five: 
1. The Souvenir: Part II
2. River
4. Cow

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (Sunday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
2. Jason Bourne (Saturday, C4, 11.15pm)
3. 2 Fast 2 Furious (Friday, ITV, 11.40pm)
4. The Kid Who Would Be King (Sunday, C4, 2.10pm)
5. Whisky Galore! (Saturday, BBC2, 1.40pm)

In memoriam: Michel Bouquet (Telegraph 19/05/22)

Michel Bouquet, who has died aged 96, was a dedicated, much-laurelled French actor who took to the stage in post-War Paris, achieved movie fame in middle age as the New Wave dissipated, and completed his final film roles just last year. Mastering the theatrical canon as a youngster, he embodied the weak, compromised “modern man” in Claude Chabrol’s thriller
The Unfaithful Wife (1969); in later life, he lent his patrician bearing and sonorous voice to several notable figures in French history.

In Robert Guédiguian’s The Last Mitterrand (2005), a lightly fictionalised riff on actual events, Bouquet played the former French president, coaxed by a journalist into addressing his Vichy past. Bouquet’s rascally turn elevated a scholarly, slightly dry endeavour: Le Monde noted the way the actor “slipped into [Mitterrand’s] coat, put on his hat and, with astonishing charisma, composed a mischievous portrait… showing how a sacred monster could consume the soul of another.”

That Bouquet was unrecognisable from the octogenarian who returned to our screens, bearded and fierce of gaze, as the subject of Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir (2012), testament to the actor’s ability to disappear fully within the contours of a role. Nothing unduly dramatic happens in this absorbing, visually rich study of Pierre-Auguste Renoir in his Riviera dotage; Bourdos centred Bouquet’s finely-honed ability to hold an audience’s attention through craft alone.

Both in and out of the limelight, he was prone to self-effacement. He once described himself as “dull, banal, a little flat”, adding “the roles flesh me out.” As an aspiring thesp, he confessed to feeling too short (at 5’7”) for dramatic roles, and too serious-minded by nature to play comedy effectively.

In her memoir Le roman de ma vie, the actress Bernadette Lafont detailed how she once saw Bouquet explode at a script supervisor who’d claimed actors were overpaid, insisting “you have no idea what it means to carry the burden of a character who invades your life and haunts you even at night”. Bouquet later apologised, blaming the outburst on too much Burgundy. Nevertheless, he declared himself “too solitary for la vie de troupe”, maintaining that acting is “a very lonely job, just like painting. One does it in public, but the essence of it is secret”.

He was born Michel François Pierre Bouquet on November 6, 1925 in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, the youngest of four sons to winemaker Georges Bouquet and his milliner wife Marie. A WW1 veteran, Bouquet Sr. was a distant figure, quietly haunted by his wartime experiences. At seven, young Michel was dispatched to a Catholic boarding school for what he called “seven years of darkness and loneliness”.

He hoped to study medicine, but left school at 15 to support the family after Georges was held prisoner in Pomerania. During the Occupation, he worked in a bakery and a bank; following the Armistice, he juggled jobs as a warehouseman, dental technician and delivery driver.

Spurred by Marie’s love of the theatre, Michel signed up for acting classes, eventually studying at CNSAD, the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. He made his stage debut within six months, impressing Albert Camus, who invited the 19-year-old to play Scipio in his 1945 production of Caligula.

Small film roles followed, as an assassin in Criminal Brigade (1947) and a TB patient in the Jean Anouilh-scripted Monsieur Vincent (1947), an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. Yet the stage would be Bouquet’s primary home for the first twenty years of his career: excelling in Molière – despite those concerns about his comic chops – he also appeared in new work by Anouilh, Ionesco and Pinter.

An exceptional orator, he was hired to narrate Alain Resnais’ 32-minute Holocaust memorial Night and Fog (1955), from a script by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol. But another decade passed before Chabrol thought to cast him, first in the undistinguished An Orchid for the Tiger (1965) and The Road to Corinth (1967). The Unfaithful Wife was the pair’s standout collaboration, in large part due to Bouquet’s psychologically shaded turn as a cuckolded husband-turned-murderer.

Thereafter, he became a familiar arthouse face, often in supporting roles: as the detective in Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969), a Mob lawyer in Belmondo-Delon actioner Borsalino (1970), one of many oddbods in the Belgian curio Malpertuis (1971). On TV, he was Javert in Robert Hossain’s acclaimed Les Misérables (1982), Mozart’s father in Mozart (1982) and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1984), for which he won the French equivalent of an Emmy.

The awards kept coming. He won a European Film Award for his role as the despairing older Toto in Toto the Hero (1991) and his first Molière award – French theatre’s highest accolade – at 73 for playing a rowdy pensioner in Bertrand Blier’s Les Côtelettes (1998). A second followed in 2005, for playing King Bérenger – a role he would play 800 times in total – in Ionesco’s Exit the King.

By the millennium, he was more in demand – and more revered – than ever. He won his first César – the French Oscar – as the father in Anne Fontaine’s melodrama How I Killed My Father (2001); he earned a second for playing Mitterrand, and was nominated for Renoir. He received the Legion d’Honneur in 2007, and the Grand-Croix in 2018.

A perfectionist, he stopped directing after his revival of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (co-directed with his first wife Ariane Borg) flopped in the 1950s. But he remained an influential teacher, penning multiple texts (and a memoir, Mémoire d’acteur, in 2001). His students included Fabrice Luchini, Anne Brochet and Maria de Medeiros.

He initially retired from the stage in 2011, but was drawn back by several choice roles, claiming at one point he was “never going to stop”. As late as 2018, it was announced that Bouquet would be appearing as Albert Einstein in Le cas Edouard Einstein, about the relationship between the scientist and his schizophrenic son. Yet tired by the preparations, he withdrew from the cast and made his retirement official, insisting “I had done everything I could”.

He is survived by his second wife, the actress Juliette Carré, who played Queen Marguerite to his King Bérenger in Exit the King.

Michel Bouquet, born November 6, 1925, died April 13, 2022.

Thursday 19 May 2022

In memoriam: Fred Ward (Telegraph 18/05/22)

Fred Ward, who has died aged 79, was a dependable character actor who achieved familiarity, if not quite stardom, during the golden age of home video. Born of Scots Irish and Cherokee descent, he only found regular employment in his forties, after two decades of real-world slog, including spells as a cook, a lumberjack and a tomato picker. “My career has been a bit strange,” he admitted to one journalist. “I don’t think it took the normal route.”

Yet experience gave his work a grounded, lived-in quality to which audiences warmed. His specialty was grizzled, frowning, blue-collar types, men’s-men who peered at the modern world through sceptical eyes, but who invariably had the goods to save the day as the final credits neared.

Ironically, in his breakthrough role – Virgil “Gus” Grissom in Philip Kaufman’s stirring astronaut saga The Right Stuff (1983) – Ward was seen to come up short in the heroism stakes, which drew criticism from Grissom’s real-life NASA contemporaries. (Wally Schirra described the film’s Grissom as “a bungling sort of coward”.) Yet the crumpled machismo Ward evoked outside his spacesuit formed its own tribute to those left behind as the space-race heated up.

By complete contrast, there was Tremors (1990), a likable, enduring monster movie about a small Nevadan town (called Perfection) that finds itself undermined by giant killer worms. Kevin Bacon took top billing, but his joshing, affectionate relationship with Ward as fellow handyman Earl Bassett gave the film its heart. Upon learning of Ward’s passing, Bacon paid his co-star the fondest of farewells: “When it came to battling underground worms, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”

He was born Freddie Joe Ward on December 30, 1942 in San Diego, California to Fred Frazier Ward and his wife Juanita (née Flemister). It was an itinerant childhood: after his mother’s death, the teenage Fred was sent to live with an aunt in New Orleans. He served in the Air Force, during which he boxed at amateur level – breaking his nose four times – and eventually had a revelation about the life he wanted to lead.

“I was going [out] with a stripper in San Antonio, hanging out with some bizarre fringe people who considered themselves ‘show people’, including this 250-pound transvestite who designed costumes for strip joints, and a few gangsters… They weren’t role models in a strict sense, more like the old freaks in the freak show. When I was younger, I always felt like an outsider, and they said it was all right to be ‘the other’. They had a nice little society, a little culture, and they dealt with life.”

He headed for New York, studying acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio, while supporting himself with janitorial and construction jobs. Six months later, Ward departed for Europe, drawn by the new opportunities available to American performers. In Rome, he dubbed spaghetti Westerns into English before landing minor roles in Roberto Rossellini’s miniseries The Age of the Medici (1973) and Cartesius (1974).

Upon returning to the US, Ward dabbled in experimental theatre before landing more typical work as a trucker in hitchhiking drama Ginger in the Morning (1974). One-off episodes of Quincy (in 1978) and The Incredible Hulk (in 1979) followed before his first significant role as John Anglin, one of Clint Eastwood’s fellow escapees in Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

He met a sticky end in Walter Hill’s taut Southern Comfort (1981) and was often cast in tough, meaty, dramatic roles: The Right Stuff, Silkwood (1983), Uncommon Valour (1983), a suavely brutish club owner in Swing Shift (1984). But several of his choices revealed a wry comic streak. Few fortysomethings would have committed as hard as Ward did to Timerider (1982), a genuine curio (co-written by Monkee Mike Nesmith) about a time-travelling biker.

He beat out the then-unknown Bruce Willis to land the title role in Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous (1985), the first of a planned trilogy of action films. But despite multiple magazine covers positioning Ward as a new, blue-collar James Bond and a memorable Statue of Liberty climax, the film nosedived commercially, recouping only $14m of its $40m budget.

Tremors steadied him, however, and two other 1990 parts demonstrated Ward’s range: careworn shamus Hoke Moseley in the blackly comic thriller Miami Blues and Henry Miller in Kaufman’s elegant period love triangle Henry & June, a role for which Ward shaved his head, adopted blue contact lenses and gamely watched Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros compete for his attentions.

One more notable lead role followed, as P.I. Harry Philip Lovecraft in made-for-cable horror-noir Cast a Deadly Spell (1991). Thereafter, Ward resumed supporting gigs, boosting the Robert Altman comeback (The Player, 1992; Short Cuts, 1994), threatening to blow up the Oscars (in Naked Gun 33, 1994), and even slotting between Brian Conley and Christopher Biggins (dire Britpic Circus, 2000).

He paused acting in the early Noughties, returning only for guest spots: on e.r. (2006-07) and True Detective (2015), as Ronald Reagan in retro potboiler Farewell (2009). Mostly, he devoted himself to painting, perhaps feeling the entertainment landscape shifting beneath his feet. His final credit remains unseen: a cameo in a Tremors spin-off, cancelled by the Syfy network before its 2017 pilot even aired.

In 1990, Ward was asked what he found most compelling about Henry Miller: “People are burdened by their futures, their jobs, their accumulating. Everyone says, ‘I wish I could do that, just take off, experiment with life’… [Miller] was 40 when he took that big leap. Most people are digging themselves deeper into their structures. He was a man who knew he had to follow that inner urge, the creativity and the passion. Or he would die bitter."

He is survived by his third wife Marie-France Ward (née Boisselle) and a son, Django, by second wife Silvia Ward; his first marriage, to Carla Stewart, lasted a year.

Fred Ward, born December 30, 1942, died May 8, 2022.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

On demand: "Hope"

Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl'
s Hope starts out as Aspirational Scandie Lifestyle Drama 101. Middle-aged theatre director Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) returns from overseeing her latest professional success to spend the Christmas break in her gorgeously furnished home with her eminently photogenic family. Then Sødahl hits us with the bad news: having survived an earlier bout with lung cancer, Anja is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, forcing her to rethink her entire approach to the holiday season and what remains of her life. Who to tell? When to tell them? The premise sounds vaultingly bleak, but the film starts to grip as something like a domestic procedural: an account of a woman navigating an already demanding period, and attempting to cling onto the resource locked into that title while simultaneously negotiating with the timebomb in her head. If that still sounds a hard-going, potentially punitive evening's viewing, then a) let me reassure you that it isn't, and b) consider the opening epigraph, which appears to serve as a director's note: "This is my story as I remember it." Maybe the heroine of a story such as this doesn't have to die. And maybe this is a spoiler - hopefully, an encouraging one - but you'd have to be a mean sonofabitch to call your film that if there was nothing to be hopeful about.

Granted, there's a level of privilege at play within this narrative, which - to her credit - Sødahl never thinks to hide. When Anja runs out of the kitchen to hide her upset from her family, she has a choice of three well-appointed bedrooms to escape into. (One set of bookshelves will likely have any bibliophiles firing up the roofrack and flooring it to their nearest IKEA.) But Hope also works in asides and observations that just wouldn't be in the literature typically handed to cancer patients. Look at Anja cramming her face with leftovers on Christmas morning: one advantage of knowing you may not have long for this world is that you no longer really have to watch your waistline. (Later, she will reveal that food is the only thing staving off the nausea caused by the steroids she's on.) Similarly, you may snort at the scene in which Anja tells the dentist's receptionist who keeps calling her in the midst of this crisis to delete her records, on the grounds "my teeth don't matter". Priorities shift. Much of the drama here has a lived-in, lived-through quality that goes some way beyond most afternoon TV movies on this subject. You see it most clearly in the depiction of Anja's cobbled together family, with its children and stepchildren, and Stellan Skarsgård on gruffly indifferent form as the type of bedmate some viewers won't be entirely certain they'd want to leave their offspring with. (I mean - jeez - one of them might grow up to star in The Northman.)

Because this is a Scandie drama, inevitably it has traces of Bergman in its DNA, stray muscle memories of Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage; and because this is a Scandie drama about theatre folk, Sødahl almost inevitably has to raise the spectre of infidelity, presented as one more thing for everyone on screen to be dealing with. But one of the miracles the film bears witness to is that Anja's plight touches something deep down inside Skarsgård's Tomas; if her condition remains in the balance right through to the film's closing seconds, we can at least be cheered - maybe even stirred - by the sight of a relationship coming back to life, either out of a fear of waking up alone or a sincere desire to right some previous wrongs. Sødahl makes canny use of Skarsgård's apparent impermeability: Tomas is weather-beaten and hard to crack, but that may also make him the kind of rock you need when every conversation you have is literally a matter of life and death. Still, there's no doubt he can be hard work. As Anja asks him, late in her hour of greatest need, "Did it take a death sentence for you to finally forget about yourself?" 

That's a good, incisive line - one of many in a generally unflinching screenplay - and yet another point where Bræin Hovig can be observed acing one of the year's most complicated acting assignments. Because Anja, finally, is a complicated woman, and it's only fleetingly clear how much that complication is inherent, how much is due to her situation, and how much is down to the medication. Scene by scene, Bræin Hovig gets the levels right. Heaven knows I've lamented the way the cinema has retreated from the real in recent times, and lambasted those filmmakers who've failed in their duty to come up with anything flesh-and-blood grown-ups can relate to on anything more than the most superficial level. A film like Hope arrives as a beacon, a genuine alternative, and an antidote to the 500 other movies released in the past twelve months that have had nothing whatsoever going on under their digital skin. Sødahl and her collaborators have done an exceptionally detailed and tender job with tough personal material - and my God, if you were unlucky enough to occasion a prognosis such as this, and felt up to the challenge, this would absolutely be a film to put on in your darkest hour. It really isn't called that for nothing.

Hope is currently available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and YouTube, and on Blu-Ray via Picturehouse Entertainment.

Monday 16 May 2022

Siegfried: "Benediction"

Since his overdue rediscovery with 2008's Of Time and the City, Terence Davies has busied himself with a run of long-nurtured literary passion projects. To 2011's The Deep Blue Sea (from Terence Rattigan), 2015's Sunset Song (from Lewis Grassic Gibbon) and 2016's A Quiet Passion (on Emily Dickinson), Davies now adds Benediction, his biopic of the War poet Siegfried Sassoon. Yet again, this filmmaker returns to the first half of the last century, on a quest to discover and describe what came before him to shape the Englishness on which he was raised. The danger, as ever, is stuffiness, but it transpires that Davies has good reason to revisit the past, and is prepared to make bold creative choices to carry us back there with him. The first of these has to do with authorial voice: he deploys Sassoon's own writings as a narrator, instantly lending his script an uncommon texture, richness and rhythm. The next is to do with time. This Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is dropped directly into the thick of the action: whisked off to the front within the film's opening ten minutes, he then has to argue his corner as a conscientious objector while wrestling internally with combat trauma and his own sexuality. We're just settling into this narrative when Davies throws us another curveball. To the accompaniment of "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky", a song that couldn't be much less 1910s England if it tried, he cuts from this young Siegfried to Peter Capaldi as a bitter elder Sassoon, hiding out in early Fifties suburbia and making plans to convert to Catholicism. Rather than a conventional, linear biopic, then, Benediction falls closer to a diptych, showing us Siegfried Sassoon in two distinct phases. The timeshifts that occasion this may be unexpected from a generic point of view, but they're recognisably Daviesian in their aims. We know from an early stage that the film's subject will survive not just one but two World Wars; the question Benediction means to address is what spiritual shape that has left him in.

Davies remains a stickler, and that very precision provides its own source of fascination: you keep scanning the frame to check if he's got the details and faces right, and invariably he has. From the very top: Lowden has been knocking around the British cinema without ever quite generating the buzz surrounding some of his immediate contemporaries. (He was happy to play second fiddle to Florence Pugh in 2019's Fighting with My Family.) Yet Davies appears to have seen in him an actor from another age entirely. Lowden has the dimpled chin of a young Richard Burton, but he carries himself in a way that harks back further still, to the Ronald Colman era of matinee idols. This truly is a performance that's had all the 21st century knocked out of it. At the Highland army base to which this Sassoon is sent for rehabilitation, Davies installs pariahs of the British film industry, performers who've sometimes found it hard to fit in: Ben Daniels as the doctor who has a deeper sympathy for his patient than most, Julian Sands as the CMO who has no time for anything less than maximum manliness. The screen gradually fills with melancholy men, weighing up whether it's better or worse to be out of the trenches and what to do with themselves now; whether they're ever likely to make their peace with a world that's battered them so brutally. Benediction shares with Davies's earlier work an eye for figures caught in a suspension of some kind: it's not trying to fit in the life and works entire, the eternal pitfall of the movie biopic, rather feeling out particular moments, and the people with whom Sassoon may have shared those moments. The camera keeps moving, however: it's how Davies counters the detachment and passivity of his protagonist. What it alights on are pockets of life, the first stirrings of a new and liberated world.

For one, Davies presents the younger Siegfried with a brilliant (and brilliantined) false start in Ivor Novello, played by Jeremy Irvine as a cross between Jimmy Carr and the Associates' Billy Mackenzie, while funnelling his director's waspish wit. (On Edith Sitwell's receding gums: "She's so autocratic I'm surprised she gave them permission.") The scenes between these two men carry us further into the 20th century, towards a situation Davies may himself have had to navigate, or at least one the filmmaker recognises and understands: the attraction felt by a sensitive, emotionally reticent young man (as Siegfried confesses to his doc, he's no risktaker) for a voraciously polyamorous, devil-may-care contemporary. The contrast between the film's Sassoon and Novello starts with their words - one man's as sincere as rocks, the other as fanciful as balloons - and extends outwards to their deeds, Ivor living out and proud, Siegfried retreating into marriage with Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, another whose features suggest Rank and Gainsborough before they do Film4) in a bid to meet polite society's expectations of him. (Gradually, those Fifties scenes, with the cranky Capaldi and Gemma Jones as the older Hester, start to come into clearer focus.)

Arguably, the emphasis placed on the poet's personal life means his professional accomplishments suffer a touch in the edit. (The narration counteracts that, to some degree, but we otherwise have to rely on sporadic walk-ons from Simon Russell Beale as the journalist and critic Robbie Ross to let us know how well the books are selling.) And it's clear that Davies, even now, is being allotted modest resources to play with, well away from the Crowns, Downtons and Bridgertons of this world. (Do producers still not trust him with the silverware?) We get but a sketch of Soho and a rather hemmed-in ballroom scene; there are limited numbers of battlefield casualties in the hospital and guests at the wedding. The closing credits indicate this was, at least in part, a lockdown production, which may well have had some impact on the scale of this shoot. Yet some of these limitations actually work in Benediction's favour: this is, after all, a story about a man in a self-made bubble - someone withdrawing from company, fearful of contact - and the prevailing tightness refocuses our gaze on bodies, faces, emotions. The result is small but intimate and absorbing: a period drama that, for once, you feel you really could reach out and hold in the palm of your hand.

Benediction opens in selected cinemas from Friday.