Friday 26 August 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of August 19-21, 2022):

1 (1) Nope (15) ***
2 (2) Bullet Train (15)
3 (3) DC League of Super-Pets (PG)
4 (4Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
5 (new) Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero (12A)
7 (8) Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
8 (6) Elvis (12A) **
9 (5) Thor: Love and Thunder (12A) **
10 (new) Orphan: First Kill (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Nope
3. The Harder They Come

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
2 (2) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
3 (1) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
4 (5) The Batman (15) ***
5 (12) Sing 2 (U)
6 (new) Downton Abbey Double Pack (PG)
7 (8) The Lost City (12)
8 (15) Top Gun (12) ***
10 (4) Grease (PG) ****

My top five: 
1. Memoria

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. North by Northwest (Saturday, BBC2, 1.45pm)
2. Gladiator (Sunday, ITV, 10.20pm) 
3. The Queen (Tuesday, ITV, 8pm)
4. Monos [above] (Bank Holiday Monday, C4, 1am)
5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Saturday, five, 12.40am)

Fumble in the Bronx: "Queen of Glory"

The actress Nana Mensah earned herself a deserved career boost last year as the overlooked lecturer Yaz in Netflix's enjoyable campus satire
The Chair. With no second season forthcoming, here is Mensah's debut as writer-director-star, about which I have to confess I'm far less enthusiastic than the majority of my colleagues. With its Columbia University backdrop, Queen of Glory unfolds not a million miles away from the milieu of Mensah's former day job, but it's hamstrung by an inherently static scenario - doctoral student Sarah holes up with her difficult father upon her mother's death - which forever feels like a sitcom pitch (maybe an elevated sitcom, along Atlanta or Ramy lines) that's taken a wrong turn at some stage in the development process, stranding everybody in dusty, poky, nondescript interiors.

To parse Mensah's input: she can hold the screen and garner our sympathies, even in a shellshocked-and-listless characterisation such as this, but then this is nothing we didn't already know from her earlier work. As a writer, the jury's very much out. This script has gouts of well-observed, personal, specific material - like the auntie who insists on reciting absurdly long prayers upon decanting soup for dinner - but mostly proceeds with middling-to-low comic energy. The supporting roles are altogether sketchily defined, particularly when set against those of a comparably budgeted indie like last year's Shiva Baby, and too often Mensah reverts to having everyone on screen run around shouting when there's nothing funnier for them to say or do.

As a director, however, she barely earns a passing grade. The bulk of Queen of Glory is a hash of rudimentary longshots and bluntly televisual close-ups, connected by some curious blocking choices, interrupted by largely anonymous studies of Bronx streetcorners. (Sarah's married lover is played by Adam Leon, the writer-director who gave us the glorious Gimme the Loot and Tramps, and I wished he'd taken over.) The most striking material in a very mixed bag is some passing archive footage of mid-20th century African life, which has a texture and emotional heft Mensah's scrappy fiction doesn't. There may well be a great doc to be made about the sons and daughters of New York's diaspora, but even to consider that is to admit one of the major problems with Queen of Glory: it would surely be more engaging and enlightening in any form other than the oddly shrugging, utterly indifferent-looking one it presently takes.

Queen of Glory opens in selected cinemas from today.

Crazy horses: "Nope"

Jordan Peele has taken vast sums of studio money to make big-screen entertainment out of his own doubts and ambivalence, that which keeps him awake at night. In the guise of a multiplex horror-thriller, 2017's
Get Out worried away at the issue of where America was really at as the Obama era gave way to the time of Trump. 2019's Us was a popcorn movie predicated on the growing gap between rich and poor, and its maker's own status as a newly moneyed Black creative. Now comes Nope, a summer-season alien-invasion movie that also doubles as a state-of-the-industry address. Its title is a funny little mantra clung to by horse-wrangling refusenik hero OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as a survival mechanism of sorts, but it also seems to be coming from behind the camera, out of the mouth of a filmmaker who's taken a long hard look at the business in the course of his rapid, half-decade rise to prominence, and tried to fathom out what does and doesn't work at a time when there is a lot that doesn't work. Perhaps that makes Nope sound a bit too much like inside-baseball, or stocktaking. To be clear, there is spectacle here: alien craft descending from the heavens, a chimp running bloodily amok, a final-reel chase between a lonesome cowboy on horseback and that nefarious UFO. But it's set within an awareness of what it is to have to operate in the corporate theme park of 21st century Hollywood, with its unprecedented ability to construct ever-bigger dreams and nightmares. What Peele has brought to these three films is a keen critical intelligence, a Kaluuya-esque side-eye tracking the shifts, good and bad, in the world beyond the soundstage. In doing so, he's brought about what feels like an entirely new subgenre: the event movie that invites, nay demands, further reading.

UFOs, of course, offer an opportunity for a tremendous, all-encompassing overview. Here is a list of some of the things Jordan Peele has seen, heard and hoovered up these past few years, all of which factor into Nope to a greater or lesser degree: the catalogue of alien-invasion movies and those endless cable shows on UFOlogy; the marginalised place of Black creatives within the studio system, and the indifferent-to-dismissive attitudes shown towards Black creatives by certain Caucasian creatives; the eeriness of a blackout (so common to California) and the eeriness of empty sets; schoolboys' tales of dropping a penny from the roof of the Empire State Building, or a franc from the top of the Eiffel Tower; the viral video "Too Many Cooks"; industry tittle-tattle about cursed projects and onscreen deaths, injuries, psychological trauma, the kind of unnerving shoptalk to make you never want to work in this town again. It is a lot, in other words, and Universal, doubtless persuaded by the healthy budget-to-profit ratios of Get Out and Us, have been nothing if not accommodating to Peele's requests and concerns, forking out for the construction of the isolated New Mexico ranch OJ shares with sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), a studio complex reconfigured into a literal theme park (perfect setting for a big finale), an office with a secret chamber built into its walls, stories within stories within stories. For much of its two hours, Nope resembles a portmanteau film like Twilight Zone: The Movie (surely another influence, given its own chequered production history, and Peele's work on the rebooted series) turned on its head and vigorously shaken before us: everything comes tumbling out.

This will likely throw anybody led by the trailers to expect another Independence Day. (Different film, less neurotic times.) Nope requires patient sifting, some critical intelligence on the viewer's part. The good news: as in his first two features, Peele gets the micro stuff right, nimbly sketching a credible sibling relationship between the taciturn Kaluuya and the outgoing Palmer, and their place in the long grass on the Hollywood fringes. As late as the finale, Nope is generating detail delicious enough to light up the Spielberg who made Close Encounters: clock the imminent alien incursion signalled by the sudden slowing of a Slurpee machine, one of those throwaway inserts that gains in potency from the cinemagoer's proximity to such dayglo dreamweavers. Yet the bulk of Nope's scenes are subject to deeply eccentric rhythms. Chapter headings pop up out of nowhere, underlining the sense of scrambled portmanteau. Supporting characters drift in and out of focus, occasioning one expert gotcha - the suggestion this alien invasion is under way twenty minutes before it actually is. Here, you feel Peele stretching his arms and legs and taking advantage of the leeway writer-directors get when their first two movies have sailed past $100m at the domestic box office. (When you bring in that kind of money for your employers, you earn the right to say nope to notes.) The bigger question mark hovering over Nope is whether the attempt to connect this alien invasion to the bigger picture of an industry in flux and turmoil is anything more than a wild, Richard Kelly-like swing for the fences.

Peele continues to excel with setpieces, as illustrated by the events of the sitcom-within-the-film: a heightened vision of a notionally controlled environment spiralling out of control, supremely well marshalled by Peele himself. (An aside: Nope is the film that explains why, unlike his erstwhile comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele has never appeared on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) What such a setpiece connects to, precisely, is up for grabs. The screenplays for Get Out and Us were tighter, certainly; Nope feels rangy indeed in comparison, forever dismissing the idea of settling into recognisable or reassuring narrative shape. It may be telling that this is the first Peele film to have been specifically made for IMAX (which entails some glaring product placement come the final reel): everything feels spaced out, and sometimes a little hazy with that. I couldn't recap exactly how our heroes see off the invaders, for one, although this rearguard action yields several of the most extraordinary mythopoetic images of the season. (Obvious observation: this is also the first Peele film where the storyboard got more work than the script.) Points for being a studio movie that, even before setting Michael Wincott to singing "Purple People Eater", moves in odd, idiosyncratic, sometimes mystifying ways; points, too, for being a summer movie actively engineered to provoke post-screening discussion. (Overheard in the foyer after I emerged: "What was the significance of the chimp?", a question more movies should prompt, really.) Even if Peele can't quite lasso his wilder ideas into place, and some of his thought bubbles escape the film entirely, it is still cheering to see a big Hollywood movie that has this many ideas on the loose - and a great deal of fun watching its prime mover at least trying to wrangle them into submission.

Nope is playing in cinemas nationwide.

Complete stories: "Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time"

Before enjoying great success as a producer-director on HBO's
Curb Your Enthusiasm, Robert B. Weide wrote the screenplay for Keith Gordon's 1996 film Mother Night, the one fully satisfying screen adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut - albeit one of a number of small, erratically distributed indies left for dead amid the Miramaxisation of the movie marketplace. What we didn't know at the time was that Weide was a Vonnegut nut: a bright spark who discovered the author's writing as a student, went on to teach it as a bushy-haired professor in the 1970s, and spent several decades prepping a definitive documentary overview even as life (and Larry David) led him astray. We presumably have lockdown to thank for giving Weide one last, crucial nudge back in the direction of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, the model of a passion project, in that it's been in the works for the better part of forty years. As the finished film (co-directed by Rock School's Don Argott) makes clear, if you came of age in the 1970s, and if you were possessed of an attitude that fell somewhere between irreverent towards and openly contemptuous of authority, Vonnegut could only serve as a tantalising touchstone. His best-known novels - from 1969's Slaughterhouse-Five onwards - were, by the author's own admission, "mosaics of jokes". ("He made literature fun," as one early testimony here puts it.) Yet they were also the work of a mischievous middle-aged man blessed with an eminently accessible writing style, opening a door to the adult world and letting slip all those things the grown-ups weren't telling you - about history, politics, religion, life, war, sex. (There were also hand-drawn representations of vulvas and arseholes, which no 17-year-old boy on this planet could resist.)

The success of Weide and Argott's film lies in the way it throws a friendly arm around the shoulder of fans and novices alike, ushering us all inside this secret society of refuseniks and malcontents. Just as the author's writing is said to expand impressionable young minds, so too the film describes a process of discovery. Weide befriended Vonnegut in the early 1980s, and the pair remained close until the writer's death in 2007, so we get not just the home movies but the story of how they passed into the filmmaker's hands; not just the (hilarious) lectures and public appearances, but the tale of why Weide can be observed over Vonnegut's shoulder as everybody packed up and went home for the night. Here is an intertwining of lives, interests, spirits, fates; a rare doc where the credited director did the lion's share of filming what now presents to us as archive footage, even if the image grain and certain wardrobe choices date that footage to roughly 1988. There's an obvious advantage in having one drolly comic mind working in tandem with another: Weide knows exactly where the funny (and thus humanising) is in what must have been several thousand hours of material. But the film also intuits where these laughs came from: the bedrock seriousness instilled in Vonnegut when, as a young man, he witnessed the bombing of Dresden firsthand. His critics damned his books as "aggressively extreme", yet having seen just how far Man could push it with planes and bombs, Vonnegut knew a few words on a page or brushmarks on a canvas (one discovery: his paintings, spiritually and stylistically aligned with the Picasso of Guernica) were mere spitballs at the back of the classroom. A parallel is drawn, between Vonnegut, endlessly rewriting Slaughterhouse in the knowledge this will be his defining text, and Weide in post-production, endlessly restructuring his film to reflect developments in the pair's friendship and the wider world. A third key participant emerges: time itself.

That subtitle derives from a passage in Slaughterhouse-Five that scrambles the protagonist's timeline and gestures towards Vonnegut's core belief that chronology is bunk, another lie we've all been told (and which less adventurous documentarists have internalised). Just as there existed several versions of that text, there have apparently been multiple cuts of Weide's film over the years, and part of the scholarly pleasure of Unstuck in Time lies in wondering what it might have looked and sounded like had it been delivered to deadline, or composed in some other form. Twenty years ago, with its subject still extant, Unstuck in Time would surely have been more deferential and dry, something like the feature-length Woody Allen study Weide turned in for PBS's American Masters. (The readings, by Sam Waterston, seem like a relic of this earlier version.) The film now playing in 2022 feels recognisably post-pandemic, which is to say richer for being more emotionally open, alert at every turn and reshuffle to the trauma encoded in Vonnegut's prose, and the faraway look in the author's eyes whenever he came within touching distance of discussing his wartime experiences. It's not hagiographic, confessing its subject's precariously aloof approach to domestic duties, folding in outside perspectives that help round its portrait of another lionised literary figure who could occasionally be at least a little difficult with those who knew him. But equally Weide gets a lot out of digging into his personal archive (and the morass of experiences it represents), the better to establish not just a personality but a philosophy, and to test how enduring that philosophy might be against the rigours of the 21st century. Having witnessed 9/11, another war in Iraq and the environmental damage being inflicted on the planet in his final years, the once-jovial Vonnegut reportedly told Weide "it's over"; a career initiated amid the apocalypse of WW2 is thus reassessed with the world once more on the brink. As it goes, so it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is still playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Prime Video, YouTube, the BFI Player and

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Catch me if you can: "Anaïs in Love"

What's the collective noun for messy women? 
Anaïs in Love follows hard on the broken heels of March's The Worst Person in the World (whose box office the new film surely hopes to emulate) and its Parisian sister Jeune Femme in describing the misadventures of a twentysomething not-quite-girl-not-yet-woman, the better to illustrate the tricky passage from carefree studenthood to adult responsibility as it now is. We find our heroine (Anaïs Demoustier) playing permanent catch-up: late for everything, running from one messy situation to the next, unlikely ever to give herself the time she clearly needs to sit down and have a long, hard think about what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Oh, and she's pregnant, too - accidentally, of course, news she breaks to her notional beau several minutes after she's turned up late to the movie they had plans to see, and an inconvenience that doesn't stop her from going on to sleep with Daniel (Denis Podalydès), an older married man she stumbles into at a party. Debutant writer-director Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet would seem to have set herself the very great challenge of filming a character who would be a patience-trying nightmare in real life - someone so flighty you could only ever wave her on, or away - and seeing how long an audience will stick around. 

This may only count as a qualified triumph, but I stuck around physically for all of it, and mentally for three-quarters of it. Bourgeois-Tacquet has an ally in Demoustier, prominent demoiselle of new French cinema (Elles, The New Girlfriend), who at least possesses the creative intelligence to put some satirical distance between Anaïs the actress and Anaïs the role. Authentically looser than the headgirlish Renate Reinsve in her summer dresses and defiantly mix-and-match underwear, she's a Rohmer heroine trapped in the city and the wrong century, around a bunch of people who mostly remain baffled by her. (For a while, only the camera and an ailing mother are in full sympathy with her movements and motives.) Anaïs is manic, and prone to saying yes when she means no, mouth forever outrunning mind and heart, but she's not without charm - witness her gabbling out her fears about the Métro in broken English to two Korean tourists - and Demoustier steadies the film during its second-act lurch into cringe comedy, wherein Anaïs further complicates her own situation by developing a girlish crush on Daniel's other half Emilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi at her most womanly, underlining the distance between these two perspectives).

Here, Anaïs in Love starts to become more conventional - more conventionally melodramatic - than the screwball first half leads us to expect, which comes as a slight disappointment. We're headed towards the learning of lessons, the getting of wisdom, which may just be what follows naturally when you're locked in a closet with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and a haul of rare erotic prints. It does strike the eye as one of those films its maker approached with the very specific aim of getting Demoustier and Bruni Tedeschi to make out at some point - which is fine, not least as it bears out an old Suzanne Vega lyric ("When you lie on the ground in somebody's arms/You'll probably swallow some of their history"). Still, it's a bit of a shame that this should entail making Podalydès' Daniel the bad guy, just because, you know, girls rule and boys drool. (The worldliness behind the camera extends only so far.) If it's not the grand sociological statement The Worst Person in the World implied from its title on down - more a broadly agreeable late-summer sorbet - I chuckled often and fondly while Anaïs in Love was still funny: at the look on Podalydès' face when he realises he's being cuckolded by the girl he failed to perform with, at the fact Anaïs's meanderings become entangled with the fate of a sick lemur, the movie's second most pressing loose end after that unplanned pregnancy. Bit random, bit of a mixed bag, but that may just be what life's like when you're pinballing through your twenties.

Anaïs in Love is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema, YouTube and the Peccadillo Pod.

There goes my everything: "Elvis"

Elvis gets right about Elvis Presley is the excitement. Few contemporary filmmakers are better equipped to deliver sensation than Baz Luhrmann, no-one more inclined to throw everything at the screen and leave it all up there on the screen. The new film underlines Luhrmann's status as if not our greatest showman, given his altogether haphazard collection of credits, then certainly our busiest and most relentless. Helicopters sweep in over a recreation of 1970s Vegas; a radio DJ plays "That's All Right" 27 times in a row, cuing some kind of early Elvis remix - a sonic stroke - on the soundtrack; every hip thrust in the 1968 Comeback Special is studied and replayed from multiple angles, sometimes in split-screen. Editorially ADHD - where the HD stands for high-definition, hyperactivity disorder and Hound Dog - Elvis forms a recognisably 21st century take on one of the 20th century's foundational showbiz legends, rapidly plugging itself into the electric thrill of witnessing The King at his peak, and then inviting us to crowdsurf alongside it for in excess of two-and-a-half hours. It is at once more imaginative and cinematic - visibly more motion picture - than its immediate predecessors in the pop biopic subgenre (the staid Bohemian Rhapsody, the timid Rocketman); it knows how to keep a wall in your local multiplex busy - with close-ups of Austin Butler's big, made-up, mumpy face, not quite Presleyian, but somewhere between young Val Kilmer and Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede, so that's all right; with close-ins on spinning records and headlines, clichéd and fun at the self-same time - the way its subject filled stadia and jumpsuits alike.

It is also, it should be noted, wildly inconsistent. Elvis is ninety miles wide and a half-inch deep, actively terrible when not merely mediocre, the span of a thousand-page biography hammered aggressively into 150 minutes, which explains why the spots between the thrills fall so disastrously flat. There might be a great Elvis movie - or at least one blessed with more detail than Luhrmann's feels obliged to take on - which spoke to the audience fantasy of what it would have been like to be Elvis for one night, at either his highest or lowest. Luhrmann, maximalist to the last, takes as his field of study the 1,001 nights the singer spent under the control of predatory manager Colonel Tom Parker. As played by Tom Hanks, acting his way out of layers of latex and a chewy Mitteleuropan accent that suggests he really, really enjoyed his time shooting Cloud Atlas (bless), Luhrmann's Parker is introduced skulking around the margins, waiting to pounce; the arc is how this carny-schooled conman, cigar-puffing avatar of showbusiness's basest urges, stole our hero away from band and family, fed his appetites, and then worked him into an early grave. If Elvis comes over as exceptionally tinny entertainment in the main, it's because of the vast gulf between its operatic framing and the childlike simplicity of its storytelling, its abundant technical sophistication and the noise it makes when it actually approaches the mic, which is that of a nervy fifth-former giving his first presentation on Elvis Presley, and concluding this was a talent crushed by the wheels of industry. Is this thing still on? Make no mistake: Elvis is Elvis for teenagers the way Romeo + Juliet was Shakespeare for teenagers and The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald for teenagers, and while it's nice that our youngsters have such a friend in Uncle Baz, telling them to read the right books and play the right records and always - always - wear sunscreen, it does also indicate that neither Luhrmann nor the studios have developed any in 25 years.

Or, if anything, that they've devolved further. Every so often, the film betrays flickers of a more insidious modern influence. "I watched that skinny kid transform into a superhero," Hanks-as-Parker mutters to us in his role as narrator, and Luhrmann and his co-writers evidently conceive of Presley as another regular boy blessed with special powers he has to master, faced with a corrupt handler and politicos trying to shut down his project for good. In 2022, it would appear that even a figure as singular as Elvis Presley isn't safe from the Marvelisation - which is to say infantilisation - of the Western world; it wouldn't surprise me to learn Luhrmann had compared Presley to, say, Wolverine while doing the promotional rounds, the same way Tom Hiddleston said that 2011's first Thor movie was basically the Bard. Passing justification is offered in the young Elvis's love of comic books, but this warping worldview also emerges in the way Luhrmann approaches this life as scarcely more than a series of setpieces, gigs taking the place of punch-ups, and especially in the film's fairytale ending, which seeks to reposition this martyr-Elvis as a figure somewhere between Jesus and Superman, rather than - you know - an actual, flesh-and-blood human being who could sing and dance a bit (or a lot). This, I'm afraid, is real swivel-eyed cult-of-Elvis stuff, and I was wondering why it left me feeling so uncomfortable rather than stirred or moved. Then it struck me: with these two-and-a-half hours, Luhrmann has done for Elvis what Michael Jackson did for himself around the time of "Earth Song". (And there aren't Jarvis Cockers enough to push back in every screen showing it.)

What precedes it, less objectionable, is no better or worse than Elvis for Dummies, each scene a Wikipedia header grabbed by the throat and forced to swallow down fistfuls of rhinestones and glitter: the re-education on Beale Street (sparking a Gatsby-ish mash-up of Big Mama Thornton and Doja Cat), the accusations of obscenity, the spell in the army, a deeply perfunctory appraisal of the movie career, and onward onto the fitful late flourishes. It flies past, a berserker rush of scenes topped and tailed of their dramatic content and often crassly juxtaposed, never more so than when confronting Elvis with the revolutionary chaos of the 1960s; absolutely nothing lingers, challenges or inspires any sort of reflection or reassessment. Excitement - the kind of excitement that jabs true believers into giving up their panties and cash - is what Luhrmann has his eye on, and in a few isolated flashes here and there, excitement is what he gets. But that's what Parker had his beady eye on, too, and excitement without any grounding experience wears off quickest of all, leaving behind nothing but an empty wallet and a hollow ringing in the ears. A weightless evocation of a heavyweight cultural figure, beamed in from an adjacent reality where gravity doesn't appear to be a thing, the whole movie is its own spinning headline, almost exactly what popped into your head the first time you heard Baz Luhrmann was making an Elvis biopic: part showstopper, part gaudy embarrassment. It is unarguably a vision realised, which is far from the worst aspiration the studios could enable in their current flop era. But it's also a vision with glaringly obvious limitations, one that was only ever going to give us the flashier parts of this narrative, rendered in a house style as flimsy as taffeta.

Elvis is still playing in cinemas nationwide, and available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube.

Friday 19 August 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of August 12-14, 2022):

1 (new) Nope (15) ***
2 (1) Bullet Train (15)
3 (2) DC League of Super-Pets (PG)
4 (3Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
5 (4Thor: Love and Thunder (12A) **
6 (5Elvis (12A) **
7 (new) Laal Singh Chaddha (12A) ***
8 (6Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
9 (7) Where the Crawdads Sing (15)
10 (9) Prima Facie - NT Live 2022 (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Nope
3. The Harder They Come

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (17) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
2 (1) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
3 (2) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
4 (re) Grease (PG) ****
5 (4) The Batman (15) ***
7 (new) Heat (15) [above] *****
8 (5) The Lost City (12)
9 (7) Dune: Part One (12) **
10 (new) Sonic the Hedgehog Double Pack (PG)

My top five: 
1. Memoria

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Searchers (Sunday, BBC2, 1.50pm)
2. Dirty Harry (Friday, five, 10pm)
3. Honey Boy (Friday, C4, 1.30am)
4. X+Y (Sunday, BBC2, 12.15am)
5. Diamonds Are Forever (Sunday, ITV, 4.20pm)

Thursday 18 August 2022

"Fisherman's Friends: One and All" (Metro 17/08/22)

Fisherman’s Friends: One and All
(12A) **

2019’s Fisherman’s Friends – essentially Local Hero with Cornish sea shanties – was one of the last homegrown sleeper hits before Covid pulled into port. This patched-up sequel/footnote feels like the British film industry trying to resume where it left off, even as half the original’s leads have jumped ship. 

No sign this time round of sympathetic A&R man Daniel Mays and love interest Tuppence Middleton (redirected to Australia), nor nefarious record exec Noel Clarke (designated unsafe for work). Instead, we greet the varyingly grizzled survivors returning from the tour that concluded film one and confronting the pressures that follow from late-life success. 

Tersely alcoholic frontman Jim (James Purefoy) starts talking to his late father’s spirit (David Hayman), an understandable response to being asked to dress up as a fish finger for publicity purposes. Conveniently, a lifebuoy drifts into shot: B&B guest Aubrey Flynn, an Irish singer “who had a couple of hits in the Nineties”; she’s played by the sporadically prominent Irish singer Imelda May, by way of (accidental?) self-reflexivity.

Promoted to the director’s seat, original screenwriters Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft are themselves wrestling with the idea of midlife course correction – and sending the Friends off for sensitivity training nimbly addresses criticisms that the first film was very pale-male-and-stale. (Purefoy even has a few lines in Cornish, in a bid to ward off charges of cinematic tourism.)

Again, though, the quality control varies scene by scene. The Jim-Aubrey sundown romance charms, but Leonard and Moorcroft get distracted by misadventures elsewhere, including a child stuck down an abandoned mineshaft, this script’s most bizarrely retro diversion. 

Only the music holds their interest, and then only as reassuring vibes. Stirring harmonies are inserted with the regularity of Fast & Furious pileups, but the Friends are apparently the only band who’ve recorded an album without ever entering a studio.

Mildly amiable and mildly amusing, it looks like a Doc Martin spin-off and still feels far more like a fun holiday for its makers than it does appointment cinema – but then we critics said the same about the first film, and look how that worked out.

The verdict? An afterthought, albeit one with flashes of the original’s confounding charm.

Fisherman's Friends: One and All opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

Monday 15 August 2022

On demand: "Fisherman's Friends"

One of the last homegrown sleeper hits before Covid came calling, 
Fisherman's Friends is a musical true story passed through the Britfilm cookie cutter: it means to beguile us with the tale of how gruff Cornish provincials touting ribald sea shanties (briefly) became the toast of the record biz. Lusty ensemble singing and playing are the order of the day. James Purefoy adopts chunky sweaters and a chunkier southwestern accent as the head of a fishing crew with a monetizable sideline in vocal harmonies. Noel Clarke (in the final months before he became persona non grata) attempts an American twang as the executive who suggests signing the Fishermen's Friends as a joke. His envoy, wideboy arriviste Daniel Mays, soon gets into an argument with local single mum Tuppence Middleton over parking. Elsewhere, Dave Johns and David Heyman compete to see which salty oldtimer is going to have to cork it so as to give the third act its inevitable pathos. There's nothing you can't see coming a mile off, and nothing Bill Forsyth didn't do better in Local Hero some 40 years before: scenery and songs are invited to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the quality control is all over the place, dependent more than anything upon who's on screen at any given moment.

Whenever Clarke's around, Fisherman's Friends appears makeshift and shopworn, as if the actual American actor the producers were hoping to land had dropped out at the very last minute. Yet in the company of Purefoy, Mays and Middleton, Chris Foggin's film at least nudges upwards in the direction of likable, and Purefoy in particular offers a near-teachable demonstration of the jobbing British actor's lot, forced as he finds himself to insert passing nuance, tiny insinuations of pride and hurt, into the yawning blank spaces between obvious plot points. (This script, by the individuals responsible for Finding Your Feet and - gulp - St. Trinian's, has next to no interest in detail: by the conclusion, the Friends have landed themselves a Top 10 album without being seen to spend one minute in the recording studio.) All a bit white, male and heteronormative, but otherwise as unobjectionable as the Radio 2 playlist, as cosily familiar as a Bank Holiday ITV special: its predetermined uplift doubtless provided some consolation for those real-world Cornishmen who trashed their own fishing industry by voting for Brexit, and it remains a mildly warming pasty, stuffed full of meat and potatoes, corn and cheese, for the rest of us. Stay tuned for the Eamonn Holmes cameo.

Fisherman's Friends is available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube; a sequel, Fisherman's Friends: One and All, opens nationwide on Friday, and will be reviewed here in due course.

Friday 12 August 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of August 5-7, 2022):

1 (new) Bullet Train (15)
2 (1) DC League of Super-Pets (PG)
3 (2) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
4 (3Thor: Love and Thunder (12A) **
5 (4) Elvis (12A)
6 (5) Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
7 (6) Where the Crawdads Sing (15)
8 (new) Westlife: Live from Wembley Stadium (uncertificated)
9 (9) Prima Facie - NT Live 2022 (15)
10 (8) Jurassic World: Dominion (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Donna
3. The Harder They Come

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
2 (new) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
4 (4) The Batman (15) ***
5 (2) The Lost City (12)
6 (7) Sing 2 (U)
7 (8) Dune: Part One (12) **
8 (6) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
9 (new) Get Carter (18)
10 (5The Northman (15) **

My top five: 
1. Memoria

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Conversation [above] (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. Point Break (Friday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
3. Rio Bravo (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
4. The Invisible Man (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
5. A Star is Born (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)

"Laal Singh Chaddha" (Guardian 12/08/22)

Laal Singh Chaddha

Dir: Advait Chandan. With: Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Mona Singh, Manav Vij. 159 mins. Cert: 12A.

Reviewing Secret Superstar, the 2017 collaboration between director Advait Chandan and Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, I made passing reference to the latter’s “Hanks-ish likability”. That quality is tested to the limit by the pair’s new project: a Hindi remake of Forrest Gump, late 20th century Hollywood’s foremost Marmite movie. Sending Gump eastwards opens new channels of history and culture, screenwriter Atul Kulkarni swapping in golgappa for chocolate boxes. Yet the source has largely been swallowed whole: the CG feather, the sappy score, the picaresque storytelling and parkbench philosophy, the running with and without callipers. Assiduously replicating its predecessor’s strengths and weaknesses, the one thing it risks is that a three-word summary – Hindi Forrest Gump – would tell you all you ever needed to know about it.

Tweaks of emphasis do become apparent. Unloading his frankly exhausting lifestory onto Chandigarh’s unluckiest commuters, Khan’s title character emerges as an even bigger momma’s boy than Gump, closer in spirit and relentless commentary style to Kids in the Hall’s precocious oddbod Gavin. With AIDS deemed so last century, a possessive-abusive sugar daddy conspires to remove Laal’s sweetheart Rupa (Kareena Kapoor, bringing great warmth to Xerox-flat characterisation) from sight. And there are more potshots at Indian militarism than expected: Laal’s forefathers fall victim to successive border disputes in a tonally jarring prologue, while our hero’s service prompts ultra-light chuckles, suggesting how easily unblinking conformism and sheer dumb luck are mistaken for heroism. This version is happier admitting to its (mild, peaceable) politics than the cagey, bet-hedging original, a positive of sorts.

Certain stretches work. The running is still funny; Khan remains supremely physically expressive; and making the amputee pal a reformed fundamentalist (Manav Vij) is semi-interesting, although the hands-across-the-temple-aisle editorial feels watered down set against Khan’s puckish religious satire P.K.. It’s just, as before, the connective tissue is narrative happenstance and by-the-yard melodrama, now with a so-so set of songs. Far from the worst Hindification of a Hollywood property, it consolidates the core competency Chandan demonstrated in Secret Superstar without achieving the genuine magic that film conjured from well-worn material. Few could blame Khan for playing safe faced with renewed personal attacks and weaponised hashtags. But his best films have taken stands of various kinds; here, he’s caught running a little scared.

Laal Singh Chaddha opens in cinemas nationwide today.

In memoriam: Joe Turkel (Telegraph 12/08/22)

Joe Turkel
, who has died aged 94, was a seasoned American character actor who began his career in the late 1940s before assuming memorable roles for Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott in the early 1980s. 

The sunken eyes and pallor he developed with age made him a boon for filmmakers requiring an otherworldly or oddball presence. In Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Turkel played Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the eccentric, heavy-spectacled android manufacturer who meets his maker at the hands of one of his own creations: Rutger Hauer’s rogue replicant Roy Batty. 

Beset by spiralling costs and creative uncertainty, the shoot was little-to-no fun. “It was pretty hairy,” Turkel later recalled. “There wasn’t much humour.” Yet the finished film became a landmark in movie design, as Turkel noted: “Flying cars, women doing crazy somersaults... and the sets were super. Oh, were they splendid! Oh, the creativity that went into that… It was a feast for the eyes!”

A Kubrick devotee, Scott had spotted Turkel (and what the director called his “polished ivory” skin) in The Shining (1980), where the actor played Lloyd, the spectral bartender who engages Jack Nicholson’s deranged author Jack Torrance in unnervingly genial conversation.

Turkel had been Kubrick’s second choice, after Harry Dean Stanton, busy with Scott’s Alien. Yet he knuckled down to his director’s typically demanding schedule, spending six weeks rehearsing with his equally committed co-star (“Jack worked his behind off”).

Turkel found Kubrick “as sweet as sugar”, rather than the gruff obsessive of lore, but then The Shining marked the culmination of a long collaboration dating back to the director’s earliest films. Kubrick first saw Turkel in the undistinguished B-movie Man Crazy (1953), telling the actor “the picture was terrible, but I liked you and what you did”.

Kubrick cast Turkel in The Killing (1956) as hired gun Tiny, disregarding the actor’s 5’8” frame, and then as Private Arnaud, the unluckiest of the three soldiers put on trial for cowardice in WW1 opus Paths of Glory (1957), Turkel’s favourite of his own films. Turkel and Philip Stone remain the only actors to have worked with Kubrick three times in credited roles, and his fealty outlived Kubrick’s passing in 1999. As he told one interviewer, “I cried for a month when he died”.

He was born Joseph Turkel on July 15, 1927 in Brooklyn, one of three sons to Polish-Jewish immigrants Benjamin and Gazella (née Goldfisher) Turkel. As a teenager, he joined the Merchant Marines, then the Army, serving in Europe at the tail-end of World War II. The experience marked him for life: “I saw things no kids should see… I saw things that made me grow up rather quickly.”

He moved to California in 1947 to explore acting, debuting alongside Tony Curtis in the juvenile-delinquency drama City Across the River (1949). Thereafter he reverted to the cinematic equivalent of gruntwork: uncredited as a Marine in WW2 drama The Halls of Montezuma (1951), as a Korean War combatant in Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets! (1951), as a character dubbed Poor Loser in Friendly Persuasion (1956).

Even after Kubrick’s intervention, he found himself in such B-movies as the Hungarian Uprising-inspired The Beast of Budapest and The Bonnie Parker Story (both 1958). More prominent roles eventually came his way: among the POWs in King Rat (1965) and Steve McQueen’s crewmates in The Sand Pebbles (1966), as gangster Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and a detective in The Hindenburg (1975). 

Yet his 1980s highpoints proved all but a sign-off: he guested on a 1988 episode of Miami Vice, before bowing out with straight-to-video sci-fi The Dark Side of the Moon (1990). Defying an industry rumour that he’d died in 1995, he lent his voice to the Blade Runner CD-ROM game in 1997 before officially retiring in 1998.

He spent his final years writing, attending fan conventions and campaigning, addressing the Occupy Seattle rally in 2011, aged 84. His memoir The Misery of Success is set for posthumous publication.

Reviewing his career in 1999, Turkel mused “I’ve done some great films. I know other actors that have done brilliant films. They still have to go out and audition and please [producers and directors], no matter what they've done. Which is one of the reasons I left the industry... However, [if] something comes along I leave the door open. 1948 to 1998. And I've been writing since then and enjoying every minute of it. But I’ve had a hell of a career.”

He is survived by Craig and Robert, his two sons by his late wife Anita Turkel (née Cacciatore).

Joe Turkel, born July 15, 1927, died June 27, 2022.

Friday 5 August 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 29-31, 2022):

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

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Donna
3. The Harder They Come [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
2 (15) The Lost City (12)
4 (4) The Batman (15) ***
5 (2) The Northman (15) **
6 (5) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
7 (6) Sing 2 (U)
8 (13) Dune: Part One (12) **
9 (10) Top Gun (12) ***
10 (12) Morbius (15)

My top five: 
1. Memoria

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Zodiac (Saturday, BBC1, 11.40pm)
2. Widows (Saturday, C4, 11.30pm)
3. Total Recall (Friday, ITV, 10.45pm)
4. Midnight Special (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
5. Pride & Prejudice (Saturday, BBC2, 6pm)