Wednesday 29 June 2022

On demand: "Kannathil Muthamittal"

Much about Mani Ratnam's 2002 film is remarkable, not least the ruthless economy of its opening stretch. We're introduced to Nandita Das as a blushing bride being married off, with evident reservation and trepidation, in the rural backwaters of Sri Lanka; in the forest, we see her finally starting to bond with her rugged other half when those fighting the country's civil war enter the frame; we then see her pregnant and alone as bombs rain down on her family home; then - and it's the last time we will see the character for some while - on a boat overloaded with her fellow refugees. In its first ten minutes alone, Kannathil Muthamittal (mildly inadequate translation: A Peck on the Cheek) has described just how quickly the bottom can drop out of some people's world. Any despair is countered by Ratnam's assured feel for the contours of this narrative - we're in safe hands, we're being led somewhere, albeit forcefully - and his eye for visual pleasure. Those forest scenes propose what the later Raavan would confirm: that this filmmaker is to sylvan greens what Almodóvar is to Iberian reds. There is still beauty in this world, even as it tilts towards despoilment. T
his prologue is all the more remarkable given what Ratnam's film reshapes into in the immediate wake of its opening credits: a peppy, bright-as-a-button family drama, centred on one Amudha (P.S. Keerthana), beloved child of doting parents Thiru and Indra (local stars Madhavan and Simran), introduced tearing through the Chennai school system. How did we get here? The film raises and answers that question for us. On her ninth birthday, Amudha has to absorb some long-withheld, life-changing news: that she was the Das character's war baby, given away by her birth mother and subsequently adopted by these good-hearted replacements. Once again, we find Ratnam - who announced himself as a major Indian filmmaker with his Nineties "terrorism trilogy" (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se...) - using the popular form to worry away at a key theme of his: the consequences of conflict for those unlucky enough to have to live alongside it.

A mainstream melodrama is thus invested with a jittery, nervous energy; the film's fight-or-flight reflex has been embedded uncommonly close to the surface. What you first notice about Kannathil Muthamittal is its relentless movement: that's there from its opening musical number, in which the camera literally turns cartwheels while the lyrics set about comparing Amudha to drifting clouds. Our young heroine's restlessness, a double-sided inheritance, is both intensely cinematic and intrinsic to the film, a necessary condition to connect that prologue to the rest of this girl's life and Sri Lanka's past to its present in two hours. What's distinctive is that, for much of it, Ratnam is working backwards, first reversing into a vaguely postmodern flashback that establishes how engineer-turned-writer Thiru made Amudha the subject of a short story he wrote while volunteering at a Red Cross camp. (His wife-to-be confronts him with a question Ratnam may have asked himself at one stage or another: "Are your ideals limited to your writing?") Then it's off to Sri Lanka once more, where a decade on we find Amudha's mother barely better off and the crushing cycle of violence and retribution gearing up all over again. (To precisely measure the ground the film has covered, think back to that first song, which resembles an outtake from Matilda.) Our girl's quest to reunite with her flesh-and-blood tests credibility in places - certain officials are more helpful than you suspect they would be in reality - and cues at least one scene of overt, clunky editorialising. Yet the film's strengths outweigh those weaknesses: several genuine (and quite nasty) surprises, as the universe is prone to throwing up; a quietly astonishing performance from the fierce-eyed Keerthana (later Keerthana Parthiepan), yearning for a homeland she was never old enough to see; a typically diverse and dynamic A.R. Rahman score, gilding and finessing every curve of this plot; and a properly widescreen deployment of beaches as a liminal space between one world and another, offering a few grains of peace with which to offset the murderous chaos elsewhere. Those bombs keep landing close to home, but then all wars fall too close to someone's home, and the movie never lets us forget it: certainly, Ratnam's shots of refugees huddling on shores or padding over mountains haven't got any less evocative, representative or haunting over the past twenty years.

Kannathil Muthamittal is available to stream on Netflix. I'll be in conversation with Nandita Das at London's Ciné Lumière tomorrow night as part of the London Indian Film Festival - details/tickets here.

Friday 24 June 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of June 17-19, 2022):

1 (1) Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
2 (2Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
3 (new) Lightyear (PG)
7 (5) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
8 (6) The Bad Guys (U)
9 (7) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
10 (8) Vikram (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Wings of Desire [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) The Batman (15) ***
2 (new) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
3 (1) Top Gun (12) ***
4 (new) Morbius (15)
5 (7) Dune: Part One (12) **
6 (12) The Duke (12) ****
7 (4) The Matrix Resurrections (15)
8 (8) No Time to Die (12) ***
9 (3) Sing 2 (U)
10 (6Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Casablanca (Saturday, BBC2, 1.20pm)
2. God's Own Country (Sunday, C4, 11.55pm)
3. Bad Boys for Life (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
4. Labyrinth (Sunday, five, 3.45pm)
5. Monsters, Inc. (Sunday, BBC1, 2.55pm)

Nanny McPhee and the big bang: "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"

This pandemic won't be over until every movie in the Top 10 involves more than two people trysting in a room.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is exactly that: the kind of small indie venture that would have been easier to turn round during a moment of risk, centred on two people trysting in a hotel room. But it's also notable as a rare British movie about sex and sex work that doesn't succumb to the usual coy nudging and winking. (The director is the Australian import Sophie Hyde - following up 2019's Animals - who sees possibilities in this project a homegrown filmmaker may not have.) Granted, it's not as free and easy as any comparable French enterprise on this subject would be, and it still contains the odd sop to middle England: the casting of Emma Thompson (albeit a Thompson who proves more game, vulnerable and naked than she's ever been on screen), a glutinous Stephen Rennicks score, some early trappings of fairytale. Yet Hyde never shies away from the fact Katy Brand's script is founded on a transaction between consenting adults; the film's high placing at the UK box office this past weekend tells us there is clearly an audience keen to eavesdrop on a grown-up conversation about sex. If this was a production brought into being by lockdown restrictions (narrow-focused, manageable, cautious about introducing its handful of supporting characters come the third act), it's also one that meets the mass horniness lockdown brought about - that outbreak of hormones that made momentary hits out of otherwise skippable Netflix trash (365 Days, Sex/Life), and produced a localised outbreak of monkeypox once frotting recommenced - head on and full frontally.

Its Britishness is there in the fact the problem Brand's script sets out to solve is one of frustration, its point of focus not a nymphomaniac but a spinster. Thompson's "Nancy Stokes" (a pseudonym, we learn) has been driven by widowhood to seek the orgasm her sexually indifferent late husband failed to provide her with in his lifetime, employing twentysomething escort Leo (Daryl McCormack) for three sessions that correspond more or less to the film's three acts. So we reconvene in the same hotel room time and again, where nervous Nancy - a R.E. teacher by trade, further reassurance for the worriers of the Home Counties - over-thinks and over-verbalises, vacillating on what she actually wants ("it feels controversial, suddenly"), and her endlessly patient, gently buff swain tries to get the job done one way or another, realising his client may well need conversation - and some long-overdue attention and consideration - far more than she does the D. (A skilled tongue is hard to find.) The real D in Hyde's movie is dialogue: its extended chatter aims to initiate - and would appear to have succeeded in initiating - a wider societal conversation about the sexuality of the older woman. Nancy has been created to speak for an entire generation whose sex lives predated Bumble, Lovehoney and those VHS tapes presented by Margi Clarke, and who've thus known only functional, unexciting, drably British sex. The good news for the rest of us is that, thanks to Brand and Thompson, both graduates of TV sketch comedy, much of this talk is funny. Struck anew by the age gap between herself and Leo, Nancy blurts "I feel like Rolf Harris all of a sudden", only for the fresh-faced lad to have no idea who she's talking about. (A bit of a stretch, this, given that Harris was a fixture of primetime telly until well into the Noughties and a staple of the tabloids thereafter, but the timing is sharp enough to get the laugh.)

The Covid limitations are readily apparent. For a long while, the only real movement on screen is the not terribly long walk to the minibar and back. (Hyde betrays an awareness of this during her opening sequence, the last time until the finale we see Leo out on the street: you get the peculiar sensation of a movie dragging its feet before the title has even appeared.) Yet within those limitations, everything in GLTY, LG works rather well. It's actually more effective (and affecting) the closer Hyde's camera gets to the players: in its shots of trembling, tentative hands on flesh, the film seems to memorialise the touching that a lot of people have had to put on hold for the past two years. It almost goes without saying that Thompson, who's absorbed the great lesson of the Meryl Streep career in giving herself to every kind of role at least once, is very good here. Her Nancy is a convincing depiction of someone led to believe she's more moribund than she really is, and who never looks as old as she sounds. (Notice how rejuvenated she appears after the pair's first meeting: this is a woman who's been reminded of what's still possible in the bedroom.) Her eventual orgasm is the ultimate crowdpleaser: everybody gets what they want. McCormack has a tricky assignment, as a less experienced performer called upon to inhabit what first appears a female fantasy. ("I'll just change," Nancy says, heading into the bathroom with her nightie. "Don't change too much," Leo retorts, the smoothie.) Yet his attentiveness grew on me, and he has the relaxed poise you might indeed want from someone in his profession, giving Leo a sense he knows what he's doing, while remaining open to suggestion.

Here's some idea of what Hyde's film preserves. The bland Working Title version of this script would almost certainly have ironed out one kink: that Leo also services male clients, or at least one male client who gets him to dress up as a cat and ignore him. (Desire: ever irrational, ever inexplicable.) Even more subversive: the character's mid-film monologue about the benefits that might follow from the eventual legalisation of sex work - this, you'll remember, in an Emma Thompson vehicle that went Top 5 at the UK box office this past weekend. The script makes one false move, a third-act crisis that's so rotely by-the-screenwriter's-manual you're reminded you're watching a movie (in which such fallouts have become a commonplace) rather than folks in a room (who fall out less easily). Yet Brand redeems even this slip with a very endearing coda, one in which she returns to her most rewarding idea: two people feeling out what the other one is comfortable with, a scenario that meshes with the internal dilemmas and external hesitations of two actors hired to impersonate intimacies at a moment when everyone bar the current inhabitants of 10 Downing Street was doing their bit by staying apart. "As well as the blowjobs, it's also quite nice to get to know one another," Leo observes at one point in his and Nancy's courtship ritual. That equivocating "quite nice" - reframing a paid hook-up in terms Paddington might use to talk about the weather - marks Good Luck to You, Leo Grande as inescapably British. Yet at its sharpest, Hyde's film views sex as more than a matter for sniggering over, rather a conduit for getting to know someone, intimately. It's a basic truth, but many bigger British films have been far less honest about the complex business of human want.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is now playing in selected cinemas.

In memoriam: Philip Baker Hall (Telegraph 20/06/22)

Philip Baker Hall
, who has died aged 90, could lay strong claim to being the supporting actor’s supporting actor. With his hangdog features and rasping voice, he was never conventional star material, and he was late to the screen, debuting at 39 after years of stage work. Yet over 185 credits, he became a talisman for major American directors, his presence on a cast list reassuring cinephiles and critics alike.

He enjoyed few out-and-out lead roles, but his breakthrough was a doozy: Richard Nixon in Secret Honor (1984), Robert Altman’s adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man show. A bold historical speculation, shot in a week with students from the University of Michigan (where Altman was teaching), the film hinged on Hall’s colossal central performance, the definition of a tour de force.

Ranting and raving but vaguely sympathetic in repose, Hall’s Nixon ranks among the screen’s great portraits of compromised political power, suggesting – in Time Out’s verdict – “a sometimes lucid, sometimes lunatic incarnation of mediocrity, irredeemably tainted by fame and failure”. The New York Times called Hall’s performance “as astonishing as it is risky – for the chances the actor takes and survives”.

As Altman understood, Hall’s gravity could also be wildly funny. Further evidence presented during his guest appearance on a 1991 episode of Seinfeld as Lt. Joe Bookman, an officious detective tracking an overdue library book. Part of the episode’s joke is watching the show’s goofball star being confronted by a trained actor, playing a blowhard who seems unaware he’s stepped onto a sitcom set and can’t understand why these darned youngsters are causing him such consternation.

Casting directors were set on renewed alert, and Hall’s career was extended further after a young production assistant (and Altman devotee) named Paul Thomas Anderson approached the actor on the set of a TV movie with a script he’d written.

Hall was impressed by the twentysomething’s preternatural confidence, and found the screenplay justified his first impression: “I was wondering, ‘Who was the first actor in the 17th century to see a Shakespeare script, and did he know what he was reading?” The script became first a short, Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), then the basis for a feature, Hard Eight (1996), with Hall again playing the veteran gambler who takes a novice under his wing.

Showcasing stars-to-be Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Gwyneth Paltrow, Hard Eight was well-reviewed but little seen. Yet it cemented a profitable relationship between Hall and the most prodigious American filmmaker of the modern era. Hall would reappear as a moneyman in Anderson’s pornworld opus Boogie Nights (1997), and triumphed in Magnolia (1999) as Jimmy Gator, the gameshow host confronted with past abuses in a subplot anticipating countless 21st century scandals.

Hall was born on September 30, 1931 in Toledo, Ohio to factory worker William Alexander Hall and his wife Berdene (née McDonald). He studied at the University of Toledo before serving in Germany as an Army translator. Upon his homecoming, he taught and skirted the fringes of New York theatre, eventually appearing uncredited in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).

He spent most of the following decade in TV, logging episodes of M*A*S*H (1977), The Waltons (1980), Quincy, M.D. and Cagney & Lacey (both 1982). After Secret Honor, he became more prominent, showing up as a straitlaced mafioso in Midnight Run (1988), the IRS chief in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… and as Ghostbusters II’s police commissioner (both 1989). But his ethic was all-encompassing: that same year, he also completed thirteen episodes of soap Falcon Crest.

He worked tirelessly through the 1990s, in both TV – playing Woody Harrelson’s opponent for public office in a 1993 episode of Cheers – and film. In 1999 alone, Hall filmed Magnolia, Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, Michael Mann’s The Insider and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

In 2000, Hall and Magnolia co-star William H. Macy brought the New York revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo to London’s Donmar Warehouse. Thereafter, he settled into positions of authority, playing Aristotle Onassis in the TV movie Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (2000), a senator on The West Wing (2004) and the CIA director in the Oscar-winning Argo (2012).

His Noughties credits include the Tim Allen remake of The Shaggy Dog (2006), a 2008 commercial for Holiday Inn, a choice guest turn as Larry David’s physicist on Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004-2009) and roles in both David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and its direct-to-DVD spoiler The Zodiac (2005). His final credit was on the Netflix mystery-thriller Messiah (2020).

Revisiting Seinfeld during a 2012 interview, Hall remained sanguine about his longevity: “After Bookman, there was no door closed to me in the industry. My agent would say, ‘Everybody wants to see you. Everybody wants you to be in their movie, everybody wants you to be on their show.’ […] It was pretty amazing. So I’m not putting it down. It’s just that when people say, ‘I loved you as Bookman,’ I can’t help but think, ‘But what about the other 280 roles I’ve done?’”.

He is survived by his third wife Holly Wolfle and four children, two by Wolfle and two by his first wife Mary Ella Holst; his second wife was Dianne Lewis.

Philip Baker Hall, born September 30, 1931, died June 12, 2022.

Thursday 23 June 2022

In memoriam: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Telegraph 18/06/22)

Jean-Louis Trintignant, who has died aged 91, was a thoughtful French leading man who worked with many leading international directors over his sixty-year career. He will be most vividly remembered, however, for the two roles he himself cited as his very best. Marcello Clerici, the ambivalent assassin of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), was a stark evolution of the hesitant provincial types the actor had previously sketched, deftly insinuating how susceptible callow masculinity can be to fascistic impulses. Four decades later, Trintignant re-emerged to more heartbreaking effect as Georges, the agonised husband tending to a stricken wife in Michael Haneke’s unsparing Amour (2012). A late-career triumph, it won the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Generally, Trintignant ducked the limelight. He had been burned by celebrity while making Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman (1956), one of his first major credits, where his on-and-offscreen affair with co-star (and Vadim’s then-wife) Brigitte Bardot generated such furore that the actor entered military service to clear his head. Elements of personal tragedy may have added to the reclusiveness, not least the loss of two daughters: Pauline, a victim of cot death in 1969, and Marie, a gifted actress killed by musician boyfriend Bertrand Cantat in 2003. In a 2018 TV interview, Trintignant admitted Marie’s death left him “completely destroyed”. He threw himself into his work, while insisting – with typical self-deprecation – that a hundred of his credits would be better forgotten.

He was born Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant on December 11, 1930 in the commune of Piolenc to food industrialist Raoul Trintignant and wife Claire (née Tourtin). It was an illustrious family – uncles Maurice and Louis were celebrated racing drivers – and an unconventional childhood. Claire Trintignant, longing for a daughter, initially raised her son in skirts; when Raoul disappeared with the Resistance and his wife was taken hostage during WW2, Jean-Louis and older brother Fernand spent four months hiding in a forest. A distracted student – more interested in cars and playing cards than books – the teenage Trintignant quit law school in Aix-en-Provence after a year, setting out for the national film school IDHEC in Paris with an eye to becoming a director.

Natural timidity made that an unlikely career goal, however, and tutors proposed he transfer to acting classes to help him overcome his shyness. It was here that Trintignant found his métier, training alongside such future luminaries as Delphine Seyrig, Michel Lonsdale, and – crucially – Stéphane Audran, whom Trintignant married in 1954. After several stage credits, he made a quiet screen debut in 1955 among the supporting cast of telefilm L’Assassin a pris le Metro, then suddenly found himself faced with Bardot amid Vadim’s succès de scandale. The subsequent affair scuppered his marriage, and while he avoided the Algerian conflict, conscription hardly helped his mental equilibrium: “I was a wreck when I got out… it was six months before I could talk to a normal person.”

Among those with whom he did converse was the editor Nadine Marquand, sister of his …And God Created Woman co-star Christian: the pair married in 1961 and had their first child, Marie, in 1963. By then, Trintignant was rediscovering his love of acting in classical roles: Vadim sportingly recast him as Danceny in his Les liaisons dangereuses (1959), and he was a well-received Hamlet in 1962. Shaded material started coming his way – he was a fascist hitman in Le combat dans l’ile (1962), and emergent Greek director Costa-Gavras nabbed him for The Sleeping Car Murders (1965) – yet it was A Man and a Woman (1966), that glossy, catchily scored meeting of bereaved souls, which made him a star. (This despite the fact Trintignant found co-star Anouk Aimée “aloof”.)

More challenging was the archly modernist Trans-Europ-Express (1966), the first of several collaborations with novelist-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, in which Trintignant played both himself and a drug-running sadist. By this point, Trintignant had become the go-to actor for cineastes looking to cast cultured yet somehow ambiguous protagonists. In 1968, he made the thriller Les biches, negotiating tricky love scenes with ex Audran beneath the eye of her new husband Claude Chabrol, and won the Berlin Silver Bear for another dual role in Robbe-Grillet’s The Man Who Lies. The following year, he toplined two of the nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, memorable as both the judge in Costa-Gavras’s Z and the self-deluding narrator of Eric Rohmer’s timeless Ma Nuit Chez Maud.

Professional triumph – Z won both in that category and at Cannes, where Trintignant won Best Actor – was soon tempered by personal tragedy. Within days, the actor suffered the loss of his mother and the nine-month-old Pauline while shooting The Conformist in Rome. That perhaps explains the numbness in Marcello Clerici; Trintignant acknowledged that Bertolucci “made use of my grief.” The two became close, collaborating on dialogue for the director’s follow-up Last Tango in Paris (1972), although the nudity dissuaded Trintignant from playing the lead role. He subsequently drifted around Europe, spending the shooting of Italian thriller The Sunday Woman (1975) failing to woo co-star Jacqueline Bisset. Divorce from Nadine followed in 1976, after the pair had made the autobiographical Honeymoon.

By the late 1970s, Trintignant had relocated to a medieval house in Uzès, close to his southern roots, where he turned down Close Encounters (1977) and Apocalypse Now (1979), preferring to collect mushrooms and ride his motorbike through the woods (“a marvellous existence”). He was occasionally tempted out of seclusion by old friends or directors with something to say – for Truffaut’s Hitchcockian last hurrah Finally, Sunday! (1983), as the director guiding a young Juliette Binoche in Rendez-Vous (1985), reteaming with a more approachable Aimée on A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later (1986). Yet he found himself bored of hitting the same old marks, prematurely announcing his retirement in a 1987 interview: “I’m tired of this profession… There are no more stories to tell.”

There were. He returned as an SS officer in Bertrand Blier’s Merci la vie (1991), then – more prominently yet – in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s late masterpiece Three Colours Red (1994), which made crafty play of Trintignant’s reputation by casting him as a reclusive judge drawn into the orbit of a fashion model. He went on to make two films that were instrumental in launching the writer-director Jacques Audiard – gangster pastiche See How They Fall (1994) and nimbly postmodern WW2 tale A Self-Made Hero (1996) – and capped this unexpected renaissance in 2000 by marrying his longtime companion, the former endurance driver Marianne Hoepfner, with whom the actor had driven during the Spa 24-hour race in 1981 and the Monte Carlo rally in 1982.

Marie’s death, months after father and daughter had appeared together in comedy Janis and John (2003), was followed by the announcement Trintignant would henceforth concentrate exclusively on stage work. It was Michael Haneke who persuaded him otherwise, first deploying Trintignant as the narrator on the French dub of his The White Ribbon (2009), then as Georges in Amour, a title only alighted upon after the actor suggested that love – in its many, sometimes difficult forms – was the film’s real subject. It was a vindication, winning Trintignant his first César award after four prior nominations, and led to Haneke reviving Georges in Happy End (2017) as the gruffly detached patriarch of a well-to-do family implicated in the migrant crisis.

After retiring from theatre in 2013, Trintignant withdrew from movies in 2018 following a prostate cancer diagnosis, although he completed a third entry in the A Man and a Woman series, The Best Years of a Life, which opened in France in January. He directed two films himself: the black comedy A Fine Day’s Work (1973), about a baker murdering the jurors who sentenced his son to death, and comedy-drama The Swimming Instructor (1979). He retained that inherited love of speed, but elsewhere adopted a measured, whittling approach to his craft, insisting “I try to get down to basics… The best actor has to be the one who says the most with the fewest words and gestures. By working from the inside.”

Trintignant is survived by Hoepfner and by Vincent Trintignant, one of his three children by his second wife Nadine.

Jean-Louis Trintignant, born December 11, 1930, died June 17, 2022.

Eat the rich: "All My Friends Hate Me"

Since the millennium, the British creative industries have become especially adept at locating, mining and exporting the comedy of embarrassment. In some way, this may reflect who we are now, run as we have been by David Brent-style middle managers and Jeremy-and-Mark-like weirdos. We have started to make excruciating fools of ourselves, which may well be what happens when you have clowns as your leaders. Andrew Gaynord's All My Friends Hate Me is the comedy of embarrassment - the new C-of-E - with a dash of horror so as to bolster it for the big screen. It's also one of those projects jobbing actors write in the downtime between gigs as a potential showcase for their talents; and more era-specific yet, one of those projects self-contained enough to be filmed during a pandemic so as to give jobbing actors a healthy career boost. 
In this case, the actor in question is the semi-familiar Tom Stourton (late of the Horrible Histories team), who - along with co-writer and namesake Tom Palmer - has fashioned a nicely nasty tale of the unexpected about a reunion of now-thirtysomething university friends at a posh country house that goes horrendously wrong. Think Peter's Enemies, and brace yourself accordingly. 

For starters, there appear to be a thousand different ways in which this weekend could go wrong. Stourton's birthday boy Pete - only mildly mad for it; generally upright and well-behaved - pulls into the driveway blaring Sash's "Encore Une Fois" and clutching fizz to find nobody's home for the first few hours. (They've all gone to the pub: an unimprovably British touch.) Worse follows when the welcome party eventually returns and the alcohol starts to flow anew: gaffes and blunders, wind-ups that cut painfully close to the bone, a wholly inappropriate Jimmy Savile impersonation, as well as a wildcard in Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), a Bristolian oddbod, possibly even a rough sleeper, who demonstrates scant regard for the boundaries of others. If you squirm easily, enter the cinema at your own risk. The rest of us can at least be reassured by the fact Gaynord has now logged multiple episodes of the excellent Stath Lets Flats for Channel 4, and thus knows better than most how to manage rooms that sometimes seem to be loaded to the rafters with absolute dingbats. 

It may be a bit too sour, ultimately, but I half-wondered whether AMFHM, quietly sizing up its central personalities, might someday serve the same showcasing purpose for the emergent talents of Boris Johnson's Britain as The Big Chill and Diner did for those of Reagan's America. Joshua McGuire, the back-up Tom Hollander seen in BBC1's recent Cheaters, represents the respectable face of the ruling class (inherited wealth, aspirational girlfriend, affability masking spinelessness); Graham Dickson, mouth full of swan, suggests an especially dissolute Jeremy Irons as Archie, a toff who dresses for dinner only to ruin the elegant effect by getting off his tits on gak and ket. Some tolerance is required for the ways and speech patterns of those posh white boys who've come to dominate rooms, industries, countries. The girls (Georgina Campbell, Antonia Clarke) are chiefly here to point up the male partygoers' indifference, and there's not quite enough of TV heroine Charly Clive (Pure) in the role of Pete's Northern girlfriend. (Someday, she too will write a worthy big-screen vehicle for herself, and it'll be shepherded into production as swiftly as Stourton's was here.)

Yet Gaynord knows exactly where the tensions are between his characters, and what's lurking in the background of every scene. Conversations get interrupted, stomped on, go on the turn; relations sour and erode; and - particularly whenever Harry re-enters the frame - there are palpable shivers of class friction, if not all-out warfare. That's a result of a filmmaker sticking diligently to a well-turned screenplay; there are few real visual flourishes, although aptly-named DoP Ben Moulden does a deft sketch of a country estate falling into autumnal disrepair. We're left watching a British film set in the cosiest of surrounds, featuring the most well-to-do characters, which retains some kind of edge, right through to a proper climax: a drawing-room roast that warps into a vicious interrogation. If the net result feels more melancholy than the peerlessly silly Stath, that's because Gaynord spots these characters are tethered to their glory days like bricks to a sack of kittens; unable to move past their youthful indiscretions, these once-bright young things are doomed to mediocrity or worse. AMFHM may well occupy a central place in any future season of Brexit-era cinema, because it dramatises an existential dilemma - an existential threat - that will be awfully familiar to most Brits in 2022: what it is to share a room (for which we might easily read land or country) with the most dangerously irresponsible people in the known universe.

All My Friends Hate Me is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 17 June 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of June 10-12, 2022):

1 (new) Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
2 (1) Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
5 (4) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
6 (5) The Bad Guys (U)
7 (8) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
8 (6) Vikram (15)
9 (3) Men (15)
10 (new) Ante Sundharaniki (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Psycho

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Top Gun (12) ***
2 (2) The Batman (15) ***
3 (3) Sing 2 (U)
4 (7) The Matrix Resurrections (15)
5 (4Uncharted (12)
6 (5Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
7 (8) Dune: Part One (12) **
8 (18) No Time to Die (12) ***
10 (new) Drive (18) ***

5. X

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The African Queen (Saturday, BBC2, 2.45pm)
2. Moana (Sunday, BBC1, 4pm)
3. Philomena (Sunday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
4. Moon [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
5. Arrival (Saturday, C4, 12.40am)

On DVD: "X"

Horror tyro Ti West had been lying low since the failure of 2013's The Sacrament, a rare instance of this filmmaker misjudging his material. (His 2016 Western In a Valley of Violence, with Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, went direct-to-VoD in the UK, and West retreated into TV, overseeing episodes of the small-screen The Exorcist, among other shows.) But the Seventies-set X turns out to have the kind of pitch theatrical exhibitors and distributors typically sit up and beg for - a grabby collision of sex and violence that suggests what might have happened had the action in Boogie Nights been interrupted by characters from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. On some basic narrative level, the new film is a clash between two tribes: the tight-knit cast and crew setting out from metropolitan Houston to shoot a porno movie in the surrounding countryside, and the old couple whose ranch has been alighted upon as a suitable location for same. From the off, you can tell it's a West movie because he appears sincerely interested in his characters - on both sides of this divide - as flesh-and-blood people, not ready-made, cardboard victims. The porno crew are characterised as genial dreamers who (wrongly, it turns out) believe they have their entire lives in front of them; they're led into battle by a bestetsonned entrepreneur (Martin Henderson) who's clocked the oilfields around him and determined "I don't want to have to wear a hard hat to make a living". Between mock-porno scenes that surely provided the first real test for Hollywood's new on-set intimacy coordinators, we get unexpected sidebars: ingenue Mia Goth (more present and forceful here than she's so far been onscreen) wanders off to swim in a lake inhabited by alligators, a knowing suspense sequence - the violins recall Jaws - thrown in while we wait for the battle royale to kick off. It is, in short, a horror movie that largely refuses to assume the shape and positions you might expect from this set-up; it's certainly the only horror movie I've seen to feature a mid-film singalong to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide".

Inevitably, however, everything boils down to the fraught relationship between these thrusting young interlopers and the oldtimers in the creepy house over the hill: the bluffly conservative, shotgun-toting hubby (Stephen Ure) and his lonely former ballerina wife (Goth again, this time under latex). Here is another collision in the heart of America, between the hypersexed and the sexless; suggestive paralleling - punched up by West and David Kashevaroff's razor-sharp editing - leads us to the conclusion that the lusty kids down at the love shack are acting on desires and impulses that have either left their hosts behind or which their hosts are no longer able to act upon. That's an unusual hook to hang a movie on, because - again - it brings us back to flesh rather than fantasy. It also allows West to restart a conversation about the horror cinema's traditionally fraught relationship with sex - indeed, to put it on screen, in the form of an increasingly heated debate between Henderson, his uptight director (Owen Nicholls) and the latter's "nice girl" girlfriend (Jenna Ortega), here as a sound recordist but keen to get in on the filmed action herself. The tensions are many and varied, then; two-thirds of the way into X, you may be no closer to knowing who is destined to turn killer and who their victims will be. I have notes on that final third: it would have been more affecting had West cast actual septuagenarians rather than sending younger performers to the make-up trailer to be turned into monsters, and it's a pity it should involve the sniggery scenario of one character getting stuck under a bed. Somewhere in here, there's a properly confrontational and haunting film about American conservatism and the cult of youth, but it would have taken a more mature sensibility behind the camera to draw it out; laying on bouts of splatter and a late gimcrack twist, West just seems happy enough to be back inside the multiplex, giving audiences a wild ride. Wild it is, though: at its best, X demonstrates how this filmmaker is better than most of his horror contemporaries at shuffling the pieces and perspectives within his stories, and thereby keeping a suspenseful game alive.

X is available to buy on DVD through Sony from Monday.

Thursday 16 June 2022

Interiors: "Bergman Island"

After the rare wrong move of 2018's
Maya - the first of her films to go undistributed in the UK since her 2007 debut All is Forgiven - Mia Hansen-Løve has headed north, with another film that simultaneously feels like a pilgrimage and a quest for renewed purpose. Bergman Island uses the opportunity provided by a shoot on Fårö, the rocky outcrop on which Ingmar Bergman lived for the bulk of his creative life, as a means of thinking through such resurgently topical themes as the art's relationship to the artist, and the eternal dilemma of whether or not it's possible for a creative to have it all. An early exchange notes that Bergman signed off on fifty films in his lifetime, most of them noteworthy, several stone-cold classics; yet he was also an absent father to the nine children he conceived with six different women. He remains, and Hansen-Løve is wise enough to register this, an inspiration and a cautionary tale, not to mention an artist intensely aware of his own shortcomings as a human being.

In his wake, Hansen-Løve dispatches German filmmaker Chris (Vicky Krieps, from Phantom Thread), who despite the breezy presence of her older director boyfriend Tony (Tim Roth) - drawn this way for a screening of one of his films - arrives on Fårö restless, neurotic and unhappy. (A Bergman heroine in waiting, if ever there was.) In as much as Bergman Island contains a plot, it resides almost entirely within Chris herself: the changeability of the Fårö landscape, with its meadows, sandy beaches and sudden downpours, mirrors her own emotional landscape. The story she conjures up during her stay - which we see being played out on screen by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie - feels like an attempt to exorcise a few ghosts and think something through, much as Hansen-Løve is doing. With her light touch and outward-looking, benevolent gaze, you perhaps wouldn't expect the latter to have all that much in common with her world-weary inspiration, yet they're both drawn to interior states. Bergman Island finds Hansen-Løve wondering whether shame and torment, cries and whispers can meaningfully co-exist with the smiles of a summer night.

The answer, of course, is yes, just as the ABBA discography, landed on not so far from this locale, gave rise in its turn to both "Mamma Mia" and "The Winner Takes It All", a song which pops up in passing to underline the point. (Old Ingmar wasn't this Earth's only soul to have contained multitudes.) If it consequently never feels especially profound in its conclusions, Hansen-Løve's inquiry at least demonstrates the benefits of going with the flow wherever possible. This filmmaker is vastly more relaxed than her onscreen surrogate, keen to stretch her legs, feel the sun on her face and discover a little-filmed place location by location, scene by scene. She's relaxed enough to recruit actual employees of the Bergman estate, who dot the film with infobursts - and a certain amount of eccentric fun is conveyed at the idea of Bergman of all filmmakers inspiring the kind of tourist industry we generally associate with Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings series. (What next, the underpass in Irreversible getting its own blue plaque?) Anyone with an interest in arthouse film in general and Bergman in particular will likely find this leisurely walking tour engaging on some level - for much of Bergman Island's running time, it's just nice to be there - and there's an appreciable flow to the way Chris's narrative eventually meshes with the film-within-the-film.

Yet I still had the nagging sensation that Hansen-Løve needs us to be relaxed, so as to usher us past her more stilted and self-conscious English-language dialogue; and the story-within-the-story, though capably performed, may actually be even wispier than the framing device. (It's a stray thought or fleeting fancy, the kind of what-if impulse creatives scatter in the push towards a finished artwork.) As signalled by a recurring image here - that of a woman gambolling down a beach towards the sea - Hansen-Løve remains in the downtime phase of her career: having been acclaimed for writing what she knows best (a pen portrait of the French film industry in Father of My Children, overviews of a musical scene in Eden and the literary-academic sphere in Things to Come), she's started to be invited elsewhere, to festivals and residencies like those Bergman Island depicts. Her openness to the creative possibilities these opportunities might provide is admirable and rather charming - she's a graceful and grateful tourist - but her best movies have always sought (and found) magic, or some other form of escape, in the humdrum everyday. These holiday films - holiday films, as in holiday photos - can be pleasurable: they offer fresh faces and gorgeous scenery, a retreat from and overview of life typically experienced in relentless close-up. But it may now be time for Mia Hansen-Løve to repack her suitcase and knuckle down to it again.

Bergman Island is now showing in selected cinemas.

Monday 13 June 2022

On demand: "Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy"

After five seasons of their HBO show (a long-time fixture of Channel 4's post-pub programming here in the UK), the Canadian comedy troupe known collectively as The Kids in the Hall reunited for a one-off shot at big-screen immortality that remains among the most outré projects producer Lorne Michaels signed his name to in the Nineties. So 
outré, in fact, that 1996's Brain Candy has languished unseen in distribution hell for much of the intervening quarter-century. At some point in the last decade, a generous soul uploaded a workable print to YouTube for general viewing; one wonders if the recent Prime Video reboot has renewed interest in such an artefact. Later seasons of the show demonstrated a fondness for sequences rather than traditional sketches, trading in mini-narratives instead of the usual catchphrases and punchlines, in segments often directed by the Kids themselves. The movie extends that urge into a post-Ecstasy, pre-Prozac fable about the corporatisation of happy pills and science gone wrong, while playing squarely to the Kids' established strengths: markedly disparate personalities assigned to multiple characters, an easy facility with genre parody, an element of queerness that differentiated the Kids from their sketch-show contemporaries, and a viciously sharp eye for semi- or fully sociopathic men in suits. Having recently revisited the original series ahead of the reboot, I think it's evident that this gang were anti-capitalist before that was really a word - or at least wise to the fact absurdist comedy might provide a cheering alternative or counterpoint to the way the world was turning heading into the millennium. (It makes sense that these Kids should hail from the same country that would give the world 2003's The Corporation, with its assertion that corporate enterprise is inherently psychopathic.)

Michaels' Nineties slate was a scattershot selection that extended from the broadly adored Wayne's World series to the largely reviled Coneheads, but - as the new two-part Prime doc Comedy Punks underlines - the Kids were savvier script editors than most, a five-headed hydra with an eye and ear for what played, what didn't, and what was at least worth trying. Brain Candy benefits from a strong narrative throughline that also doubles as a joke about the checks and balances central to the North American worldview. For the evils of wonder drug Gleemonex to become apparent, what's required is a specific combination of corporate ruthlessness, scientific complacency and public distractibility; what the movie offers us aren't sketches that come and go but riffs on this theme, a series of societal observations that add up to a goofball vision of fin-de-siècle American life. Kelly Makin, a regular director on the series, does a lot with a modest budget. Scenes at a concert (underlining that very 90s idea that comedy was the new rock 'n' roll) get a bit familiar through repetition, but also yield one of the film's strongest gags: the effect of these happy pills on a certain grungy mindset. (Brain Candy was also post-Cobain, the work of outsiders coming in from the Canadian cold, while themselves wrestling with the perils of selling out.) 

Elsewhere, we get a deft, fun sketch of the high life head scientist Chris Cooper (Kevin McDonald) is uncomfortably thrust into; a musical number in which Scott Thompson's closeted family man Wally finally comes out as gay; and flashbacks to the latter's time in the Army which rank among the funniest origin stories American cinema has ever given us. (Ellen DeGeneres might disagree, but Thompson's contributions to the original show comprise one of the strongest arguments television has ever made in favour of diversity: his position and presence, as one of the few openly gay men on TV in the early 1990s, gave sketches a whole new inflection, voice and line of thinking. There was something of the cabaret about him, which there wasn't in, say, The Mary Whitehouse Experience or The Fast Show, notable as those shows were.) Maybe it's the creative freedom Michaels facilitated, but Brain Candy never quite goes in the directions you anticipate, and there are elements that don't fit the genre template at all. Chief among them: Bruce McCulloch's Cancer Boy, trialled in the final shows of the series (by which point the Kids had nothing to prove or lose), and now given fuller expression as the poster child for the kind of grisly, sickly exploitation the satire is getting at. Cancer Boy remains as close as this troupe got to 21st century edgelordery, but here, as elsewhere in Brain Candy, a point is being made beyond the initial, confrontational shock, about our desperate need to mitigate against the sadness in our midst; it's backed up by an exceptionally confounding "happy ending". (No sell out.) Still, laughter remains the best medicine, and there remains plenty here to chuckle and smile at 25 years on: the Big Pharma publication calling itself "Drug Variety"; the young Brendan Fraser, uncredited as a testy guinea pig; Thompson's impersonation of Elizabeth II; and a dash of Matthew Sweet (the Nineties one) over the end credits.

Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy is now available to stream on YouTube. 

Friday 10 June 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of June 3-5, 2022):

1 (1) Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
3 (new) Men (15)
4 (6) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
5 (7) The Bad Guys (U)
6 (new) Vikram (15)
8 (4Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
9 (5) The Bob's Burgers Movie (PG) ***
10 (8The Lost City (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Psycho
4. Pickpocket [above]

 DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Top Gun (12) ***
2 (1) The Batman (15) ***
3 (3) Sing 2 (U)
4 (4Uncharted (12)
5 (5Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
6 (new) Lancaster (PG)
7 (7) The Matrix Resurrections (15)
8 (8) Dune: Part One (12) **
9 (12) Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG)
10 (6) Encanto (U) ***

My top five: 
1. The Duke

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. High Society (Saturday, BBC2, 2.20pm)
2. Silence (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
3. Open Range (Sunday, five, 3.45pm)
4. The Gift (Wednesday, C4, 2.30am)
5. Two of Us (Monday, C4, 2.15am)

Happy meal: "The Bob's Burgers Movie"

In Fox's ever-swelling animation portfolio,
Bob's Burgers is the happy medium between The Simpsons and Family Guy. Grimier than the former, set as it is in a diner that's seen better days and plentiful health-and-safety violations, it's nevertheless sweeter and less snarky than the occasionally sour latter, content to be droll when it's not being outright goofy, and centred on a loving, mutually supportive family unit. All three shows offer comforting variations of the same familiar dynamic; their slovenly patriarchs have even crossed over to cameo in the other two shows, suggesting a level of ready interchangeability. (Bob's is the youngest franchise, but all three date from a moment before TV animators had the bright idea of trying something beyond converting the stock set-up of the primetime live-action sitcom into day-glo images.) As overseen by Loren Bouchard, the series has maintained an unusually high standard of writing over its 13 seasons. Unlike 2007's The Simpsons Movie, a spin-off that arrived some time after its show's so-called "Golden Age" (and some years before the Second Golden Age some of the more imaginative recent episodes have hinted at), The Bob's Burgers Movie has reached us at a point where its creatives are still happening across fresh ideas and new directions for their characters. So, if you haven't already, meet the Belchers (and no, the name is not an accident): put-upon, balding chef Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), his daffy wife Linda (John Roberts), and their three children - dreamy-dorky Tina (Dan Mintz), daredevil/pyromaniac Louise (Kristen Schaal), and my personal spirit animal Gene (Eugene Mirman), all untrammelled appetite and unexpected reference points, whose keyboard here achieves a screen first in inserting a fart noise amid the opening Fox fanfare. What follows, thankfully, avoids the several-episodes-back-to-back feel of many big-screen spin-offs; TBBM may actually be closer in form to those "summer specials" Whizzer & Chips used to put out to see youngsters through the long drives of family holidays.

From the off, movie is bigger than (artfully modest) show, scaled up by judicious use of the widescreen (look sharp for the hand-drawn "World's Smelliest Man" certificate now visible above Bob's grill), flourishes of digitally enhanced animation, and fuller versions of those musical numbers Bouchard (here co-directing with Bernard Derriman) has snuck into the series and its spiritual successor Central Park. The narrative stakes, too, have been upscaled: now the Belchers have seven days to avoid defaulting on their next rent payment, a situation hardly helped when a vast sinkhole opens up outside the restaurant, sending potential customers fleeing and reopening a long-buried local murder-mystery. Here, Bouchard and co-writer Nora Smith bring to the multiplex a version of that supremely flexible and free-flowing plotting The Simpsons turned into a new narrative artform, weaving A, B and C plots in ways that feel organic rather than mechanical or contrived, and while still finding the time and energy to trade in very funny throwaway jokes. (A personal favourite: a long hold on the closing door of a biker bar blasting out the Miami Sound Machine's "Conga".) The shift towards the kinds of plots and tropes our movies have conventionally traded in - the race against time, the earth-shaking disaster movie, the Bond-style lair, the final-reel chase - means there's scant time for the glorious, spitballing idiosyncrasy of individual BB episodes: nothing that quite matches the poignancy of Gene befriending a talking toilet in the woods (S03E15) or the connoisseurial thrill of watching a 21-minute show morphing into a re-run of The Most Dangerous Game with water balloons (S05E21). But all anecdotal evidence would suggest The Bob's Burgers Movie is serving a dual purpose in the early-summer multiplex: providing the warmest of welcomes to new customers, while offering seasoned regulars the pleasure of seeing a rare gem of a show being skilfully supersized for a whole new medium.

The Bob's Burgers Movie is now playing in cinemas nationwide.