Friday 29 July 2022

For what it's worth...

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

1 (2) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
2 (1) Thor: Love and Thunder (12A) **
3 (new) Where the Crawdads Sing (15)
4 (3Elvis (12A)
5 (4Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
6 (new) Prima Facie - NT Live 2022 (15)
7 (5Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
8 (6) The Railway Children Return (PG)
9 (7) Lightyear (PG)
10 (8) The Black Phone (15) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Donna
3. Paris, Texas [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (5) The Northman (15) **
3 (1) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
4 (3) The Batman (15) ***
5 (9) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
6 (10) Sing 2 (U)
7 (12) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
8 (11) The Bad Guys (U)
9 (7) Operation Mincemeat (12)
10 (13) Top Gun (12) ***

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Some Like It Hot (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
2. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Saturday, BBC2, 3.55pm)
3. Thunderball (Sunday, ITV, 4.05pm)
4. Le Mans '66 (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
5. Young Adult (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)

In memoriam: Paul Sorvino (Telegraph 29/07/22)

Paul Sorvino
, who has died aged 83, was an industrious actor who amassed over 170 credits in a career that spanned from 1970s “New Hollywood” to latter-day cable TV. Heavyset and Italianate, he was inevitably called upon to play men with close ties to organised crime. Yet a handful of his wiseguys were unforgettable, notably Paulie Cicero, the most avuncular of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), schooling Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in the finer points of cooking behind bars.

Sorvino accepted the part with trepidation, anxious that he wouldn’t be able to summon the threat required to play “a really tough guy”: “Then I was going by the hall mirror to adjust my tie… I looked in the mirror and literally jumped back a foot. I saw […] a deadly, soulless look in my eyes that scared me and was overwhelmingly threatening. And I looked to the heavens and said, ‘You’ve found it.’”

Even upon seeing the film, Sorvino admitted severe reservations: “I thought I was boring, I thought that I had hurt my career, I thought that this movie should not have been made and it’s not a good movie.” Yet he soon changed his mind, persuading himself “that’s not a boring movie, that’s a good movie, that’s a great movie maybe, and I’m really good in it!”

Several prominent roles followed. Oliver Stone knowingly cast Sorvino as Henry Kissinger for Nixon (1995), and he reappeared, bejewelled in glitter, as Fulgencio Capulet in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). For all Luhrmann’s razzmatazz, this may have been the role that most closely resembled Sorvino himself: the doting father, proud and protective of his offspring, forever on the brink of song. 

Several months earlier, Sorvino made his highest-profile appearance of the decade: caught in the audience on Oscar night, tears streaming down his cheeks, as his daughter Mira won the Best Supporting Actress prize for her role as the straight-talking working girl in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995). Rarely has a single camera cutaway so rapidly overturned an established screen persona.

Two decades later, a New Yorker report revealed that Harvey Weinstein then had Mira Sorvino blacklisted after she rejected his advances. In a widely circulated TMZ video, the actress’s father expressed his feelings about the disgraced mogul in a way that spoke for many, while rekindling memories of the old Paulie fire: “[Weinstein]'s going to go to jail. Oh yeah… Good for him if he goes, because if not, he has to meet me… If I had known it, he would not be walking. He’d be in a wheelchair.”

He was born Paul Anthony Sorvino on April 13, 1939 in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst district to Italian immigrant parents: his father Ford Sorvino was a foreman, his mother Marietta (née Renzi) taught piano to local children. A childhood Mario Lanza fan, he attended Lafayette High School, where his inherited passion for music grew; he claimed vocal breathing techniques helped him overcome asthma.

Sorvino studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and under the influential Stanford Meisner, supporting himself with copywriting work that offered an alternative career path: “They were going to give me a third of the agency. I would have been a multi-millionaire in no time at all, but I said, ‘I have to be true to myself. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

He appeared on Broadway in the 1964 musical Bajour, and made his film debut in the black comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970), before appearing in several notable titles of the New Hollywood era: alongside a pre-fame Al Pacino in junkie drama The Panic in Needle Park (1971), as James Caan’s bookie in The Gambler (1974). 

He won a rare lead role as a maverick NYPD detective in the Streets of San Francisco spin-off Bert D’Angelo/Superstar (1976); after its cancellation, William Friedkin cast him among the thieves in The Brink’s Job (1978) and then as the blunt police chief in Cruising (1980). 

Warren Beatty recruited Sorvino to play Louis Fraina, founding member of the American Communist Party, in Reds (1981). He played Bruce Willis’s father on a 1986 episode of Moonlighting, reunited with Beatty for Dick Tracy (1990), and portrayed a rather more heroic Mafioso (“I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi!”) in Disney’s fond throwback The Rocketeer (1991).

GoodFellas led to a regular gig on primetime hit Law & Order, but he quit after two seasons, blaming a punishing schedule (“I felt like I was in the Russian gulag”). Movies kept him busy, however, and he even found outlets for his singing voice after socking over “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” as a heroin-addicted crooner in Vegas-set indie The Cooler (2003). 

In 2006, he released his debut CD “Paul Sorvino Sings”, featuring covers of “Hava Nagila” and “Danny Boy”. Two years later, he essayed the trilling villain in Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), an adaptation of a cult fringe musical featuring Sarah Brightman and Paris Hilton among its ensemble.

Thereafter, he worked mainly in video-on-demand fare: he played Santa in Santa Baby 2 (2009), the Mayor in Jersey Shore Shark Attack (2012), Jake LaMotta’s brother in The Bronx Bull (2016), and the Shah of Iran in Price for Freedom (2017). His final substantial role came as real-life mobster Frank Costello in cable TV’s Godfather of Harlem (2019-21).

Sorvino directed twice: reunion drama That Championship Season (1999), a made-for-TV update of a Pulitzer-winning Broadway success in which he had himself appeared in 1973 (earning a Tony nomination; he also appeared in the 1982 film), and The Trouble with Cali (2012), a family drama written by his daughter Amanda.

Offscreen, he was a keen figurative sculptor, specialising in bronze, and he published Pinot, Pasta and Parties, a cookbook co-authored with his third wife, the former Republican strategist Dee Dee Sorvino.

In 2014, Sorvino reflected on his screen persona: “My goal in later life is to disabuse people of the notion that I’m a slow-moving, heavy-lidded thug… Most people’s impression of me is that – because of the success of Goodfellas – but they forget a lot of things that I've done. It would be nice to have my legacy more than that of just tough guy.”

He is survived by Dee Dee (née Benkie) and three children from his first marriage to Lorraine Davis: Mira, Amanda and Michael. His second wife was Vanessa Arico.

Paul Sorvino, born April 13, 1939, died July 25, 2022.

My robot friend: "Brian and Charles"

Brian and Charles
 is a very British contraption. Actors David Earl and Chris Heyward have expanded a 2017 short into a feature-length study of one Brian Gittins (a pre-existing character in the Earl repertoire, and a fixture of the stand-up circuit), here an eccentric inventor who lives by himself in a small Welsh hilltown, where he eats a lot of cabbage. (Cabbages will play an unusually large role in the action; their aftereffects might also explain why Brian lives alone as he does.) The early scenes in Jim Archer's film form a brisk sketch of a scrappy sort of life, and describe a process of making-do and mending that may well resonate with audiences in our post-austerity, mid-cost of living crisis moment: Brian's almost entirely useless inventions include an egg belt ("a belt for eggs") and trawler nets for shoes. From a discarded mannequin head and a hollowed-out washing machine, Brian eventually fashions a seven-foot robot that bears some resemblance to the late TV scientist Heinz Wolff; initially a non-starter, this towering creation is brought to life one thundery night - an apparent nod to Mary Shelley - and insists on taking the name Charles Petrescu. Knocked together as Charles is, he's the kind of marvel a movie needs: clearly analogue - something a real-life Brian has actually built out of actual bric-a-brac - while retaining some sort of mystery as to how he's operated. There could be hydraulics involved; equally, it could be a man with big shoulders hidden under a sheet. (Hayward is credited as playing Charles, though he may just be responsible for the robot's perfectly plummy voice: that of a semi-retired actor flogging commemorative coins on afternoon television.) Either way, Charles comes alive - as a character, a companion, a sight gag, a secret.

It is, I think, another of our film industry's Covid creations: small and manageable, easily knocked up in a shed, or Brian's "invention pantry". Even at its busiest, it presents us with no more than three characters in a room, and one of those is typically a robot. Earl broke through in sitcom - he was Derek's carehome bully, the village perv in After Life - and Brian and Charles feels like an actor's attempt to escape Ricky Gervais's shadow and try something more endearing. Endearing this is - a 21st century update of the Children's Film Foundation fave Egghead's Robot - while also a little sitcom-adjacent. Mockumentary framing makes the camera a co-conspirator in the efforts to conceal Charles from the outside world, and you can imagine a half-hour spin-off taking up Brian's nervy flirtation with a stay-at-home neighbour (Louise Brealey) and his conflicts with the village troublemakers. Yet the tone is gentler than Earl's previous work. It feels like a set-up when a TV announcer is heard introducing Gary Barlow; Gervais would doubtless have inserted something abrasive, but Archer cuts away on Brian's "Ooh, I like him". I wonder whether the film isn't too gentle (and too localised) to really sock home its wider points about intolerance, but it snuck up on me nonetheless. It has lovely cutaways (to a book titled The Hammer Annual, paired pyjamas on a washing line, sheep on a hillside) and images that get funnier the longer they stay in the mind, such as Charles's tendency to jig on the spot, like a toddler who needs the toilet. (The robot helpmates he most closely resembles aren't the gleaming CG creations of Pixar and co., but Silent Running's lived-in, oddly childlike droids.) Spin-offs and other such career boosts may follow, but Brian and Charles operates pretty well as a standalone item: at the very least, it should plaster a big grin across your face for the duration, and it may even leave you in stitches or tears.

Brian and Charles is now playing in selected cinemas.

Wednesday 27 July 2022

Scavengers assemble: "The Gray Man"

Although Netflix's production arm has lavished the bulk of its attention on the end-of-year awards corridor, its elite projects (Roma, The Irishman, Mank) have thus far failed to grasp the perceived brass ring of the Best Picture Oscar - the kind of gewgaw that lends sheen and prestige to otherwise sterile corporate lobbies. The Gray Man, which won't be winning any Oscars, has the distinct look of a fallback plan, an attempt to muscle in on a newly animated summer market. It has the budget of a blockbuster ($200m, reportedly the highest for any Netflix release to date), directors with a track record in crowdpleasing action (Anthony and Joe Russo, hot from their Avengers endeavours), and a light smattering of bankable, desirable stars (Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas). Its fatal flaw has been to hitch all these elements to a script (by MCU workhorses Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) which feels like the first action movie screenplay ever written, and allows no acknowledgement that Netflix is turning up late in the game. Consider the first act of this big nothing about a CIA assassin (Gosling) obliged to duel with a murderous private-sector rival (Evans) while trying to expose Agency corruption: sub-Tarantino badinage between Gosling and weary mentor Billy Bob Thornton; lightweight jetsetting, stretching a teeny story thinner still; a nightclub shootout that indicates that the small part of the budget that didn't go towards stars, airfares, CGI and ironic soundtrack cuts has instead been blown on extras, filters, glitter and balloons. A stall is hereby set out: in 2022, Netflix wants us to be wowed by the 14th highest-grossing release of 1997.

Even the Russos' most consistently achieved film, the 70s-inflected Captain America: The Winter Soldier, wasn't much more than a patchwork of old ideas; it's just that no-one had thought to recycle those ideas for a while, meaning they felt fresher than they were. The brothers' newfound prominence within the theatrical/streaming sector suggests it's now possible for A-list directors to build a career like scrap merchants, scavenging the studio system for long-discarded material, or like welders, assembling basic nuts, bolts and tropes until they have something saleable as a feature-length entertainment. (No surprise the pair should have made their reputations within the MCU, with its piecemeal approach to story.) They would doubtless love for The Gray Man to be filed alongside the John Wick series' action revivalism, but the latter was informed by recent developments in Asian genre cinema (Gareth Evans's Raid movies, in particular), and thus had newish-seeming ideas to scatter across the screen of the Odeon. With its fingernail-focused torture, MacGuffiny memory sticks, Black M figure (Alfre Woodard, in what was previously the Viola Davis and Angela Bassett role), fistfights on public transport, and endless shots of characters leaping full-bodied through plate-glass windows, The Gray Man merely feels like the most illustrious of those derivations that have shambled along in John Wick's wake: movies like Atomic Blonde, Red Notice and something I'm told was called The Old Guard, which I may have seen and is apparently set for a sequel, but about which I cannot remember a single thing. Like those titles, several of which Netflix itself financed, The Gray Man is the kind of aggressively mediocre content that has to be heavily colour-corrected and edited into 10,000 tiny pieces - given a surface illusion of life/style - so as to throw us off how little of substance and meaning is actually being conveyed by its frames.

Well, maybe it's Friday night and you've been led this way by the stars - or whatever sorry excuse for stars Hollywood has left to tout this far into the 21st century, individuals who aren't as compelling in their own right as scripts this weak require them to be. Evans at least seems to be having almost as much fun beneath his stick-on moustache as he did in the white sweater of Knives Out, but he still seems more accessory-horse than actor, a 25% improvement on, say, millennial pin-up Freddie Prinze Jr., but someone who doesn't represent anything beyond the slightly blah fact of being the world's best-known Chris Evans. Gosling has worked with Nicolas Winding Refn often enough to know he can survive empty exercises in so-called style unscathed, but is here caught reverting to his factory setting of mopey-faced blank: Markus and McFeely have to insert a subplot about our hero's protective relationship with Thornton's teenage daughter (Julia Butters) for him to show anything in the way of vital signs, and these scenes play like defanged, PG13-rated variants of the much funnier encounters between Gosling and Angourie Rice in Shane Black's The Nice Guys. De Armas, the childproofed Elena Anaya, continues to demonstrate the willingness to play third-wheel to the actions and desires of men that will doubtless serve her well in the less reconstructed corners of modern Hollywood. (Next up: her own Oscar shot, playing Marilyn Monroe in the Netflix-sponsored Blonde.)

No-one comes out of it well, all told: one of its newer (but dumber) ideas is to obscure Regé-Jean Page, oft-shirtless breakout of Netflix's Bridgerton, under wonk suit, nerd specs and unpersuasive American accent as the film's monodimensional villain. What are the meetings behind the scenes of these films like? Is there anyone with creative instincts around the boardroom table, or - and this would explain the films' leaden dullness of thought - is it just beancounters only? The business model of this new Netflix - as opposed to the old, DVD-renting Netflix, which more and more starts to seem like a quaint mom-and-pop operation - has sought to resolve the myriad problems of the contemporary cinema (unpredictable demographic shifts, the grimness of the exhibition space encouraging audiences to stay at home, a shortage of good ideas passing through the studio system) by throwing money at everything that moves. Yet the failure of the company's winter endeavours to clinch the Oscar has shown you can't buy the X factor that makes a disparate collective of Academy voters lean in your favour. The failure of The Gray Man - and however many eyes were drawn to it this past weekend, no matter that we're apparently set for a sequel and perhaps even a "Gray Man universe" (for shame), it does represent a near-total artistic failure - boils down to this: $200m can buy you a lot of scrap and spare parts. What it can't automatically get you, self-evidently in the case of this utterly anonymous, disposable, forgettable non-event movie, is even the thinnest sliver of personality.

The Gray Man is showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Netflix. 

Saturday 23 July 2022

For what it's worth...

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

1 (1) Thor: Love and Thunder (12A) **
2 (2) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
3 (3Elvis (12A)
4 (4Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
5 (5Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
6 (new) The Railway Children Return (PG)
7 (6) Lightyear (PG)
8 (7) The Black Phone (15) ****
9 (8) London Nahi Jaunga (12A)
10 (new) Kaduva (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Donna

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
3 (3) The Batman (15) ***
5 (6) The Northman (15) **
6 (1) The Lost City (12)
7 (2) Operation Mincemeat (12)
8 (7) Morbius (15)
9 (11) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
10 (10Sing 2 (U)

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. All the President's Men [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 12.20am)
2. Escape from Alcatraz (Saturday, BBC2, 12.35am)
3. The Secret Garden (Saturday, five, 5.30pm)
4. The Florida Project (Friday, C4, 1.15am)
5. Goldfinger (Friday, ITV, 4.20pm)

Primitive painting: "She Will"

Preceded on our screens this weekend by an ominous "Dario Argento Presents", the title of Charlotte Colbert's heavily touted debut
She Will invites interpretation as both pronoun-verb and hyphenless noun. For a long while, we're not sure what either of those meanings applies to. What's certain is that we're deep in slowburn horror territory, our travelling companions a veteran actress (Alice Krige) making a Highland retreat to recover from a mastectomy, and a young American nurse (Kota Eberhardt) assigned to dole out the painkillers and keep an eye on the scars. Once everybody's in place and unpacked, it becomes clear we're here to witness a disinterring of one kind or another. A gravestone on the outskirts of the pair's country cottage bears the prominent date of 1722, or just after quarter past five as the old joke goes; there are warnings of peat in the water supply, and a muddy ooze swelling up from the ground everywhere else; and there are sudden, jolting flashcuts to guest star Malcolm McDowell - always trouble in films such as this - as a filmmaker who directed our heroine when she was a child and is now doing the press rounds with talk of a remake.

The self-reflexivity of that strand may have been a factor, but really there's only one reason Argento had to have jumped aboard: uncanny atmosphere, with which She Will fair spills over. An opening montage, the first of several eyecatching juxtapositions here, rhymes life-changing surgery with reparatory make-up; a succession of vivid dream sequences - set up narratively by the heavy medication the actress is rattling around on - hint at past witchery, to the strains of Clint Mansell's Goblin-echoing score. (I suspect the frustrated architect in Argento would also have relished a couple of overhead plan shots in which some version of our heroine stalks McDowell around the angular footwells and circular stairways of TV studios and private members' clubs, a harpy in boystown.) Yet She Will deviates from the essentially urban Argento in its earthiness. As Krige's vengeful Gaia reconnects altogether forcefully, indeed lethally, with nature, we're set to watching what looks very much like an expansion of that folk-horror tradition that - from Robin Hardy to Ben Wheatley - has typically been the preserve of men. (This mud has an element of Lars von Trier's The Kingdom about it, a bubbling-up of something historical and long-repressed.)

Sometimes that expansion comes over as a little clumsy. The mood and framing are much more convincing than the storytelling, which tends towards the obvious. There's no mystery whatsoever about the McDowell character, and equally you wouldn't be wrong if you sensed no good can come from the nurse's liaison with a hunky, mushroom-carrying local swain. Expansion it may be, but She Will is also a continuation of that post-#MeToo strain of popular culture that remains paranoid indeed about the state of play between the sexes. Colbert's heroines are oddly passive, forever done unto while we wait for this narrative to open up. I also wasn't wild about the rather slaphappy social satire featuring Rupert Everett in furs as a group therapist, scenes that demonstrate only that screening procedures aren't what they used to be. (They waste the great Ken Collard, seen sat at the back with nothing to say.) Still: half an hour in, while set to painting a loch, Krige's Veronica grabs a handful of that ooze and smears it across her canvas. In the film's most effective stretches, that's what Colbert herself seems to be doing. It's messy and primitive in some respects, but also textured, striking and full of life. Something might just be taking root here.

She Will is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and YouTube. 

Wednesday 20 July 2022

On the record: "Donna"

In a week that saw Tory Prime Ministerial candidates taking turns to hem and haw over all things trans, some reminder that trans people have long been among us - and that if we can collectively reassure those with disproportionate doubts and stave off those leaning into fascism, trans people will surely always be among us. For the documentary
Donna, the Welsh filmmaker Jay Bedwani has travelled to San Francisco to profile a figure who presents as a living legend in her community (and an evident blast to be around): Donna Personna, lipsynching cabaret star and veteran trans activist, as she closes in on her 75th birthday. As she informs us early on, Donna was once Jesse, the son of a preacher man, sneaking off to SF on weekends in search of teenage kicks; then Gus; then - upon discovery of some Latin roots - Gustavo; and finally Donna, dragged-up queen of the Castro scene. Bedwani's here to record who she is and what she does now, but is also keen to note what happened along the way - namely that, as Donna blazed a trail, she scattered those (including close members of her own family) who didn't have the empathy, patience or sheer stamina to keep up with her. There's an especially poignant interaction at a Christmas ice rink, where a group of strangers approach Donna and ask her to snap a family photograph; moments later, we watch the film's subject dropping by a food bank to pick up a Christmas dinner for one. It can be a lonely life when you have to go your own way.

It has been a life, though, and part of Bedwani's project here is to get that life down, perhaps before Donna passes on to her next life. This is a film specifically geared to the collection of testimony, keen to put something noteworthy on the record. So we get Donna's childhood memories, yes; but we also hear her in conversation with Mark Nassar, a playwright researching a dramatised account of the 1966 riot at Compton's Cafeteria, an incident that predated Stonewall; and we see Donna passing on what she's learnt to representatives of a younger generation who - though they might not always feel it - enjoy far greater freedoms than any trans person growing up in the 1950s and 60s. There's a touch of the Zeligs about her, and also something of a West Coast Fran Lebowitz - someone who, more by accident than design, has inherited the mantle of historian of post-War American nightlife. (Although Personna presents as a Lebowitz without the privilege, having forever existed at street level, close to the margins. Her rather cramped living quarters tell their own story of this life.)

Like a lot of non-fiction character studies, Donna can feel a bit of a swirl, bearing only the loosest, lightest-fitting narrative structure. Its subject apparently has to try and fit in a reunion with her suburban sister - and resolve the issue of what immediately becomes the Western world's most fraught Facebook friend request - while fulfilling a dozen other daily appointments. (She's clearly not getting paid anything like enough for it, but Donna may be more in demand now than she's ever been.) Still, that's life, and - as a film with some especially evocative photography of the San Francisco Bay makes clear - there are advantages to going along with the flow of it. There's an evident closeness between filmmaker and subject, carrying us from mere observation to genuine understanding, yet Bedwani also carves out room for rich, moving slabs of first-person experience. This may, I think, be the most effective way of combating scepticism and prejudice: by keeping it simple, and finding material that is essentially unarguable - that states that for all the different strands, impulses and pathways of a life, this finally is who I am. To give Donna herself the last word, as Bedwani himself is wise enough to do: "When you're free to be, you can be magnificent."

Donna is showing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Bohemia Euphoria until August 14.

Tuesday 19 July 2022

Algorithmic Austen: "Persuasion"

Netflix's new
Persuasion follows Autumn de Wilde's pre-lockdown Emma in deciding the way forward for Jane Austen adaptations is overwriting the authorial voice that has meant so much to readers, whether to give the impression of freshness or to make life easier for those who may be unfamiliar with the conventions of this form. You don't have to wait long in Carrie Cracknell's film - scripted by the intriguing pairing of Hollywood veteran Ron Bass (My Best Friend's Wedding, Stepmom) and newcomer Alice Victoria Winslow - to hear our heroine's sister described as "fashion-forward" and her sister-in-law declare herself "an empath"; we also learn that this Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) left his lovelorn Anne (Dakota Johnson) a playlist, which would seem a particular feat in a movie that otherwise takes place before the invention of the gramophone, let alone Spotify. Asked whether Wentworth ever listens to women, Anne dreamily responds "He listens. He listens with his whole body. It's electrifying." Once again, we are reminded of the extent to which these texts have served as a repository for women's hopes and fantasies, and how they remain a better education for young swains than any dog-eared copy of The Rules.

He has a fair bit of listening to do, especially as Johnson's Anne has a tendency to break away from conversation to address the camera sotto voce - you know, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. This last initially seems a touch modish and lazy - a means of opening up a heroine's internal dilemmas for any thickos who need telling - but there's nothing automatically wrong about any of the above alterations. By way of evidence, I once more refer the jury to Amy Heckerling's Clueless, still the solid-gold of modern Austen adaptations: a film that pitchshifted Emma into an entirely new and distinctive idiom and register, and committed to its choices throughout. By contrast, Cracknell's more timid endeavour soon finds itself stuck in the period-movie equivalent of uncanny valley: it looks like a costume drama, and mostly sounds like a costume drama, but every now and again comes up with a phrase that strikes the ear as out of place and spoils the illusion. It's a bit like tentatively opening up a first edition of Persuasion with gloved hands, only to find some wag has already scribbled LOLZ and SMH in the margins every few pages; you can see why Austen purists kicked the movie from pillar to post when it opened theatrically last weekend.

Even so, it didn't irritate me in quite the same way the aggressively vapid Emma did, partly because we get a clearer sense of where it's coming from. If this Persuasion is a little slaphappy around the language - which, granted, feels something of a misdemeanour in Austenland - you sense at least one of these screenwriters was trying to honour the text's underlying emotions and truths. (Those LOLZ and SMHs have been inserted lightly, with pencil, where de Wilde splashed out with a day-glo Sharpie.) And it has one element worthy of a much better Austen adaptation. I don't follow the gossip columns, so I tend to forget about Johnson between projects - but this also means I forget what a sensitive and expressive presence she can be on screen. (She functions as a very modern movie star in the way her contemporary Emilia Clarke doesn't, or hasn't yet.) Here she not only looks the part, but amply describes Anne's simultaneous capacity for independent thought and romantic longing; she makes a joke about Byron funny, ensures the first-person address is never quite as annoying and derivative as you might fear it's going to be, and all while wearing the hell out of period millinery. Who could ask for anything more? Except for, well, a better film.

In truth, no-one else here is operating at Johnson's level. 2016's Lady Macbeth hinted that Jarvis could be an effective, rugged period lead, but here - alas - he's been shoehorned into gentleman's clothing and had the cutglass accent of a 50-year-old admiral shoved so hard down his throat that he seems to choke on it. (A recurring failure of the British film industry: we dig out leftfield, non-RADA-schooled talent, then force them into playing the same old RADA roles, rather than developing new material.) A figure of reputedly great assurance thereby comes to look and sound wholly awkward, and this script hardly helps Jarvis's cause, offering next to no sense of what made its Wentworth such unforgettable fun or why he continues to inspire such fascination in Anne. (Maybe it's just the listening; he does seem more appealing whenever he belts up.) As it is, Henry Golding runs away with the personality stakes as Mr. Elliot, and everybody else gets crumbs. Richard E. Grant is underused as Anne's preening father; Cracknell's fellow theatre alumna Nikki Amuka-Bird makes the most of her two substantial scenes as Lady Russell; and the remaining space is filled by so-so youngsters who gabble their dialogue as if it really were textspeak, lolz.

In the unlikely event this version endures, it may well be to flag up the dangers of pursuing youthfulness as an end in itself, especially when adapting this author. The secret heft of Austen lies in the lived experience encoded between the lines of these novels, yet there is a yawning, forever-visible chasm here between the author's characters - all of whom would have been through far more than you and I did before the age of 25 - and the fresh-faced millennials playing them, who would have endured no more than three years of drama school and at worst a few months on Hollyoaks. One of this Anne's sisters-in-law claims to be the matriarch of a household overrun with small children, yet the actress in question can't be more than 4'10" in heels and hardly seems too long out of the cradle herself. You can't really label this Persuasion weak beer when half its cast would get carded at the bar, but it's not far off weak lemon squash: mildly tangy, pallidly pretty, blandly digestible, stuck in the tepid middle of a lot of things, not least the modernisation process. It'll be there in the middle of your Netflix menu from here on out, and it'll slip down semi-agreeably on a hot summer's afternoon such as we are currently undergoing, but your best bet remains the BBC version of 1995, with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds as Anne and Wentworth, and the emergent Roger Michell behind the camera. That Persuasion was made by grown-ups who truly knew whereof Austen spoke, where Cracknell's film has been engineered by algorithms, informed chiefly by what's been on telly these past five years.

Persuasion is showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream on Netflix.

Monday 18 July 2022

From the archive: "Mahanagar/The Big City"

There are two problems – if, indeed, you’re inclined to view them as problems – with the career of the revered director Satyajit Ray. The first: the shadow Ray has come to cast over the rest of Indian cinema, far greater than that cast by, say, Nick Ray over American cinema. The second: how Ray’s early masterworks – the Apu trilogy, The Music Room – cast their own shadow over the three-decade career that was to follow.

One suspects part of the BFI’s rationale in staging its full Ray retrospective over the next two months – backed up by Artificial Eye’s upcoming raft of DVD reissues – is to shine renewed light on these later years, by which point the director had been elevated to the status of festival favourite; it’s why the season’s flagship re-release isn’t Pather Panchali or The World of Apu, but 1963’s lesser-known Mahanagar/The Big City.

This is a reminder of the extent to which Ray’s later work still chimes today: where 1965’s Nayak/The Hero – one of those Artificial Eye titles – constitutes an early excavation of celebrity culture, The Big City centres on a household representative of the squeezed middle class, or at least as it was in Calcutta at the turn of the Sixties.

The household is that of Subrata Majumdar (Anil Chatterjee), a blithe, rather complacent fellow who lives with his retired parents and two young children, and is therefore seeing his modest bank clerk’s income eaten away at both ends. His solution is to send wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) out to work as a door-to-door saleswoman, never mind the prevailing attitude that insisted a woman’s place was still in the home.

It is, perhaps, a localised form of the upheaval India was itself undergoing during this period, moving from traditional values to something more modern and business-minded, with both the rewards and risks this entailed. Ray was a dab hand at putting his fingers on these sensitive, sometimes sore spots, and seeing how his characters react: Subrata suffering the guilt and jealousy that comes with being usurped as the family breadwinner, Arati nervily entering the business class, becoming good at what she does even as every household she enters reminds her of what she’s leaving behind.

There’s an argument that Ray was almost too close to the (very personal, if not wholly autobiographical) material being dramatised in the Apu movies – that they meant too much to who he was both as a man and as a director, hence their towering reputations. The Ray of The Big City, by contrast, has learnt how to step back and view his characters more quizzically or amusedly.

There’s a certain wry, rueful humour on the homefront, where university degrees have suddenly become good for nothing better than solving crossword puzzles, while the scenes involving the gossipy shop girls – bouncing very different models of femininity off one another – are as zippy and peppy as anything in the era’s Doris Day comedies.

For though Ray is often set in opposition to Bollywood cinema, it’s clear from The Big City that he was making his own, socially engaged masala movies: films that balanced their critique with light, forgiving satire, that blended jokes and emotion with patience enough to draw out what a Calcutta bank clerk might do upon getting to his desk in the morning, or the atmosphere in an optician’s waiting room. Even in a slightly overstretched second-string film like this, there remains plentiful evidence of a master at work, forever sorting and sifting, and finally arriving at something close to the right, piquant mix of sugar and spice.

(MovieMail, August 2013)

Mahanagar/The Big City is rereleased in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 17 July 2022

In memoriam: Tony Sirico (Telegraph 15/07/22)

Tony Sirico, who has died aged 79, was an American actor who achieved televisual immortality as Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri, veteran associate of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, on HBO’s landmark
The Sopranos (1999-2007).

Amid a near-unmatched rogues’ gallery, this was a peach of a part, filled to tetchy perfection. A preening peacock with a vicious wit, Paulie Walnuts brushed up well enough to be companionable; there were endless, quotable retorts, and sly asides on his dyed hair and salon-buffed nails. Yet as the New Yorker critic Nancy Franklin observed, “[Paulie]’s angry comic flair is only one notch on the dial away from his murderousness.”

That threat was central to the Season 3 episode “Pine Barrens”, widely regarded as one of modern TV’s finest hours, in which Paulie and Tony’s similarly irascible nephew Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) become disoriented while trying to off a Russian rival in snowy woodland. Peaking with a scene in which Paulie loses one of his slip-ons, it was the show in a nutshell: gripping, stressful and wildly, blackly funny, even away from its main narrative throughline.

The role drew on Sirico’s own waywardness. He was arrested 28 times in his early life, the first time aged seven for swiping loose change from a newsstand. After military service, he left the mother of his two children for a new girlfriend and quit a steady construction job to become a hired gun for the Colombo syndicate: “I was very unstable. I wasn’t thinking right. So I hooked up with these guys and all of a sudden I’m a stick-up artist. I stuck up every nightclub in New York.”

He was convicted twice, once for weapons possession, the second time for extortion and coercion. A psychiatric report assessed Sirico had a “character disorder”; the judge deemed him “a danger to society”. He was sentenced to four years in Sing Sing, eventually serving twenty months. These proved a pivotal experience.

After six months without his girlfriend visiting, Sirico realised his relationship was over. Despairing, he attended a performance by Theater of the Forgotten, a touring troupe comprised of ex-convicts. Coupled with his ability to win over fellow inmates (“I used to stand up in front of cold-blooded murderers… and make ‘em laugh”), it persuaded Sirico to consider a new, legitimate career path.

Upon release, he gained a mentor in playwright-turned-actor Michael V. Gazzo; during one early workshop, Gazzo advised his pistol-packing charge to “leave the gun at home”. Thus disarmed, Sirico landed extra work in two of Gazzo’s projects: B-picture Crazy Joe (1974) and then, more propitiously, The Godfather Part II (1974), for which Gazzo would be Oscar-nominated.

25 years later, Godfather buff David Chase approached Sirico to read for the part of Tony’s Uncle Junior in his Sopranos pilot: “An hour after I got home, I got a call from Chase. He said, ‘You want the good news or the bad news?’ I said, ‘Give me the bad news.’ He said, ‘You didn't get Uncle Junior. But… would you be willing to do a recurring role? I have a character called Paulie Walnuts’.” Sirico agreed on one condition: that Paulie would never become “a rat”.

Handed a single line in the pilot, he proceeded over six seasons to shape a character who was both representative of an entire criminal milieu and indelibly, idiosyncratically singular. “When I look in the mirror in the morning, I don’t know if I’m looking at Tony or Paulie,” Sirico reflected. “We got crosspollinated.”

He was born Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. on July 29, 1942, the third of three sons to Gennaro and Marie Sirico, Sicilian migrants who had settled in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of East Flatbush. (His older brother is Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who formed the libertarian Acton Institute.)

The movies were an early influence, for better or worse: “I learned how to walk and talk watching [James] Cagney. It’s that, it’s the power, it’s the glamour.” His own roles, inevitably, featured a high proportion of made men: his first onscreen credit came as Al Capone associate Frankie Rio in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell (1977).

He fell in with writer-director James Toback, meeting a bloody end at Harvey Keitel’s hands in Fingers (1978), before featuring in the filmmaker’s Love & Money (1981), Exposed (1983), The Pick-Up Artist (1987) and the documentary The Big Bang (1989), where Sirico denied killing anybody during his criminal years.

He could, however, be witnessed pushing a postman into a pizza oven in Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), and he bulked out seven roles for Woody Allen, starting with Bullets Over Broadway (1994). He was the boxing trainer in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), the escaped convict in Everyone Says I Love You (1996), and later appeared in Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), Café Society (2015) and Wagon Wheel (2017).

The Sopranos gave him renewed clout, two Screen Actors Guild ensemble wins, and the opportunity to mock his screen persona. He played a mobster in A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa (2008); reunited with Sopranos co-star Steven Van Zandt for Scandie comedy-drama Lilyhammer (2013-14); and he voiced the Griffins’ new attack dog Vinny on Family Guy (2013-16).

Dementia slowed him, but his final credits, on two long-shelved projects, reiterated his range: a hardnosed pawnbroker in Respect the Jux (2022) and a high-school coach alongside Christopher Lloyd in comic fantasy Super Athlete (set for release this year).

Offscreen, he practiced karate and did charity work; he also launched his own Sopranos-inspired cologne, Paolo Per Uomo (Paulie for Men), in 2008. As he told one interviewer: “I’m proud of what I do. I remember when I got that first part [in Godfather II], and Coppola told me I was a real character, with a line of dialogue and everything. Oh, let me tell you. I was strutting. I was thinking, ‘I got a name. I got a name!’”

He is survived by two children, Richard and Joanne.

Tony Sirico, born July 29, 1942, died July 8, 2022.

Friday 15 July 2022

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Thor: Love and Thunder (12A) **
2 (1) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
3 (2) Elvis (12A)
4 (3) Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
5 (4Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)
6 (5) Lightyear (PG)
7 (6) The Black Phone (15) ****
8 (new) London Nahi Jaunga (12A)
9 (new) Brian & Charles (PG)
10 (new) Dr. Who: Classic Movie Double Bill (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) The Lost City (12)
2 (8) Operation Mincemeat (12)
3 (3) The Batman (15) ***
5 (6) The Bad Guys (U)
6 (new) The Northman (15) **
7 (2) Morbius (15)
8 (5) Top Gun (12) ***
9 (4) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
10 (9) Sing 2 (U)

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. From Russia with Love (Sunday, ITV, 4.15pm)
2. Little Women [above] (Sunday, C4, 6.30pm)
3. Ocean's Eleven (Saturday, ITV, 10.50pm)
4. The Railway Children (Sunday, BBC2, 1.50pm)
5. Buried (Sunday, C4, 12.55am)

Allegories of the Cave: "This Much I Know To Be True"

A rumour circulated on social media earlier this year suggested Nick Cave had been spotted at a popular Brighton cinema ordering a glass of wine to take into his screening of Downton Abbey: A New Era. I can well believe that alcohol would be essential for fullest enjoyment of Downton Abbey: A New Era. What I struggle to believe is that Nick Cave would be heading in to see Downton Abbey: A New Era. I prefer to believe Nick Cave bought a ticket for Downton Abbey: A New Era to maintain a facade of respectability and then slipped into an adjacent screen, wine still very much in hand, to enjoy Benedetta instead. (Although this is to assume that Nick Cave gives two hoots about what anybody else thinks of him.) At any rate, apocryphal or not, the story confirms a general feeling that Cave has been keeping up-to-date with developments in the visual arts. Filmed in 2021 as the UK emerged from lockdown, the latest Cave doc This Much I Know To Be True serves as a companion piece not just to 2016's One More Time with Feeling (the director is again Cave's compatriot Andrew Dominik, keeping himself busy while waiting for Netflix to get back to him on his Marilyn Monroe biopic), but to 2014's excellent 20,000 Days on Earth and, indeed, to Cave's earlier collaborations with the director John Hillcoat (1988's Ghosts... of the Civil Dead, 2005's The Proposition), each new project an update on an artist's life, work and thinking, some further indication of where Cave is now at. 
From angry young punk to middle-aged family man and unlikely agony uncle: it's been quite the trajectory, and someday someone might stitch elements of all these projects together into a single, career-spanning tapestry or tribute. (They could call it Manhood.)

True opens with a chapter you initially take to be false, or just some joshing around to warm up the cameras: Cave telling Dominik he's following Government advice - an automatically comical notion for British viewers - and retraining as a ceramicist, what with touring no longer being as practical or profitable as it was. Yet as the sequence progresses - with Cave talking us through eighteen pieces completed during lockdown, each figurine detailing a different stage of the Devil's misadventures here on Earth - you realise not only is there some truth in it, but that this truth bolsters what we already know about the film's subject: that Cave is a prolific, multimedia storyteller, and that his storytelling is almost always informed by a degree of hard-won personal experience. Elsewhere in the film, Dominik will himself appear on screen, brisk and bearded, hurrying everyone back to their marks or onto the next set-up. In this prologue, however, he pauses, altogether poignantly, to consider the significance and meaning of one of Cave's figurines, adorned with the stark title of Death Kills A Child.

Once we enter the church-like rehearsal space that serves as the documentary's primary location, your relationship to This Much I Know To Be True will largely be defined by your relationship to the kind of music Cave is now making: rich, sad, elegiac, ephemeral and evanescent in the way life itself can appear ephemeral and evanescent, and yet expansive beyond the boundaries of your typical pop song. The propulsive rage that drove The Birthday Party, Grinderman and early Bad Seeds recordings onto the fringes of the singles charts (and, I'll confess, rather scared off your correspondent in his younger days) has now largely burnt itself out; in its place, we find a quest for solace, consolation, harmony. This quest has been undertaken with the assistance of rogue Bad Seed Warren Ellis, seen here equipped with a fiddle and fiddling with the equipment, a wild-maned sidekick to his forever stoic and sombre liege. As Cave points out with characteristic dryness, the increasingly indispensable Ellis appears hellbent on replacing the other Bad Seeds one by one, and may even have his eyes set on the frontman gig: "He's singing a lot more, I've noticed."

Alternating between quivering croons and semi-strangulated howls, Cave's own vocals, and his free-associating, sometimes extemporised lyrics ("I am the Botticelli Venus with a penis", indeed), would seem ripe for parody. Except they're founded on a bedrock sincerity that meshes with the thoughtful, heartfelt responses we see Cave offering to fans' letters on his Red Hand Files blog; their wisdoms ("There's nothing wrong with loving something you can't hold in your hand") are hard to mock or flick off. When he goes full falsetto (or as close as a singing gravel-pit like Cave can get to falsetto) in the middle of one song, it naturally sounds absurd, until we understand that he's singing in character, and gently guiding us towards an extraordinary realisation: that, though it feels far worse, a child's death is no more or less tragic, in the cosmic scheme of things, than the death of anybody else ("Everybody's losing someone"). This is the thing with art, and this is what Dominik's film shows us: you take a gamble or two, see where it leads, and hope your audience follows you there.

That we notice is in part down to the film's stripped-back but supremely elegant presentation, which welcomes us into a muted space, adorned only with a few strobes that literally let light in on the darkness of both the creative process and the songs (and, on a practical level, presumably made it easier for the backing musicians to see their scores). This cloistered atmos connects True to yet another recent Cave document: Idiot Prayer, a self-directed record of a solo performance the singer gave at an empty Alexandra Palace as the UK first entered lockdown in early 2020. Now there are other people in the room, but only a select group; the mood remains intimate, the spectacle modest. (We're invited to peer in and share in the experience, but there's not so much of it that you could immerse yourself.) You start to wonder whether Cave really has abandoned touring for the foreseeable, because there's no way he could replicate this level of intimacy - an intimacy that feels wholly right for these songs - in a room stuffed with 2,000 sweaty gig-goers talking or holding up their phones.

And so Dominik's film redirects our gaze towards the much-fabled, still little-filmed process: towards sketches of songs, being firmed up before being released into the world, towards a performer of a certain sensibility, striving to give his music the desired depth and density of sound and thought. Does it need an extra microphone there, one more backing singer (with feeling)? Robbie Ryan's camera tracks, circles and scans in tandem with this experimentation and recalibration, yielding sequences that merit comparison to the studio scenes in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, the Scott Walker doc 30 Century Man, and the PJ Harvey profile A Dog Called Money: valuable glimpses of how a musician comes to refine their work, and thus redefine themselves. In Cave's particular case, we have to weigh the sadness of his personal life against the tenacious triumph of his artistic life, and consider that a figure who came of age on the fly-by-night punk scene has enjoyed a career of remarkable longevity and integrity; that he has been able to make the music (and movies, and ceramics) he has always wanted to make without ever having to do adverts for dairy products or appearing on Strictly. If Nick Cave wants to enjoy Downton Abbey: A New Era with a nice glass of wine at the end of days like these, who are we to deny him?

I Know This Much to be True is currently streaming on MUBI.