Friday 30 September 2022

"Vikram Vedha" (Guardian 30/09/22)

Vikram Vedha

Dir: Pushkar & Gayatri. With: Saif Ali Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Radhika Apte, Yogita Bihani. 156 mins. Cert: 15

2017’s Tamil hit Vikram Vedha was a twisty, semi-subversive thriller that set a bad-ass Chennai cop and a wily criminal to swapping stories rather than blows or bullets; mashing up mythological, procedural and rhetorical elements, it circled fresh genre territory before a dead-end payoff in an abandoned factory. Its makers, the married narrative strategists billed as Pushkar-Gayatri, now relocate to Lucknow for a Hindi remake with major Bollywood stars. Nothing about VV v2.0 refutes the idea India’s best movie ideas are bubbling up from the South, but the filmmakers have taken the money and really run with it. Longer and rangier, this version is also far more relaxed and enjoyable in its taletelling, scattering swag with every plot swerve.

Replacing lived-in original leads Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi, who looked like they’d prefer a chinwag over indulging in sustained fisticuffs, we get Saif Ali Khan (as lawman Vikram) and Hrithik Roshan (Vedha, the hood): visibly ready to rumble and nifty dramatic players who make their mutual interrogations zip and zing. In a further upgrade, Radhika Apte’s sceptical air makes Vikram’s lawyer wife Priya – entering this battle of manly wills as Vedha’s counsel – a more forceful presence. It’s crucial to Pushkar-Gayatri’s mischievous project that the cop gets it from all sides, and Roshan – easily Bollywood’s most improved – displays such phosphorescent, screen-torching charisma our sympathies are regularly redistributed.

The finale hasn’t been overhauled, exactly: after the inventive leaps to get us there, it still feels like the conclusion of a more conventional, even derivative crime story. Yet souping up the narrative engine makes for a smoother ride through the falling bodies; the directors’ cutting and framing, sharp enough first time out, is only more so here. The prominence of Vikram’s motorcycle seems a tell: like their debatable hero, Pushkar-Gayatri are keen tinkerers, and there’s genuine pleasure in watching a Saturday-night spectacle where all the nuts, bolts and pistons are operating more or less as they should. A likely hit for an industry that sorely needs one – and a story that bears, even improves with, repetition.

Vikram Vedha is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

On demand: "Vikram Vedha"

There's nothing especially novel about the set-up of the 2017 Tamil thriller Vikram Vedha: once again, we're invited to observe a badass cop's obsessive pursuit of a mocking master criminal. In the hands of emergent narrative strategists Pushkar-Gayatri, however, the movie finds appreciably different routes through the labyrinth of yore. An animated prologue, for starters, recontextualising this time-honoured tale within ancient mythology (while also illustrating the dangers of jumping headlong into the void so as to battle monsters). This cop, Vikram (played by local star Madhavan), also proves to be notably less heroic than the cinematic norm, introduced humiliating a junior colleague, being framing the unarmed suspect he's just shot dead and being an absolute git to his lovely lawyer wife (Shraddha Srinath). Ominously, this dude hasn't unpacked his belongings in the marital home: as per the De Niro character in Heat (some precedent), he's apparently all set to do a runner at any moment. (The good guy, folks!) The scene is right for a takedown, then, or at the very least a shake-up. This duly follows when Chennai's most wanted Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi) surrenders to police custody barely a third of the way through the picture and proceeds to tell a long and convoluted story - thereby preventing Vikram from carrying out the asskicking that is the preserve of cops in Saturday-night crowdpleasers such as this. Suddenly, we're watching an authority figure losing control of their own carefully constructed narrative, the foundation stone of their own heroism. But that's what you risk upon entering into a dialogue: you risk being interrupted, redirected, corrected.

An altogether self-reflexive affair, then - an exercise in long-form, big-picture yarnspinning that also encompasses a fair amount of running, jumping and those tremendous open-handed slaps that are the signature move of the Indian action hero. The discourse starts in the opening sequence, Vikram insisting one hood tell him a joke at gunpoint; it develops - festers, maybe - back at HQ, the cops swapping legends that shore up what would otherwise be fairly tattered reputations; in the interview-room scenes, it explodes into a full-on battle of wills and philosophies. What Pushkar-Gayatri are themselves interrogating is what we want from stories such as these, and what the men's self-glorifying tales tell us about the tellers. At its most radical, Vikram Vedha gestures towards a procedural that is above anything else rhetorical, where talk replaces action - or talk becomes a kind of action in itself, the villain tying the hero up in knots with his tongue and giving everybody the runaround. More conventional forms of thinking hold sway elsewhere. It's fun to see Srinath's lawyer getting drawn into these cat-and-mouse negotiations (as Vedha's counsel, no less, in a further slap to her man's ego), but this broadly remains a boys' town, the leads making light work of this chatter while suggesting the growth that comes from reflecting on the words of others; it's an actioner where the hero and villain are chastened by one another.

The final act struck me as disappointingly rote, almost like something a money-grubbing, risk-averse, trailer-conscious producer would have insisted on filming: a shootout in an abandoned factory, where the conversation is finally halted, loose ends are tied up at length, and nothing really gets as subverted as it is in the first two-thirds. It's ultimately a playful film rather than an especially deep one, an entertainment above all else. But it is entertaining for the most part, scouting out characterful locations that prove very nearly as lived-in as the premise and therein unlocking unexpected lines of entry and exit for each scene; Pushkar-Gayatri also pay a high level of attention to exactly that character development and plot detail now missing from a lot of high-profile Bollywood (and Hollywood) scripts. You can tell someone behind the camera has spent late nights getting all the structural nuts-and-bolts in place, and making sure everything else lines up as it should. It proved as much a statement of creative intent for its makers as The Usual Suspects (another touchstone of some sort) was for Christopher McQuarrie: within five years, this pair would be running their own Amazon streaming show (Suzhal: The Vortex) and remaking Vikram Vedha in Hindi with major Bollywood stars. You can still go a long way with the gift of the gab.

Vikram Vedha is now streaming on Prime Video.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

On demand: "Village Rockstars"

It's a stilled prologue, and an extraordinary way to launch both a film and a career: a young girl at large in a wide-open Assamese field, queen of all she surveys, turning away from the camera - from us - and appearing to close her eyes so as to envision a future for herself.
Village Rockstars, the self-taught writer-director Rima Das's breakthrough feature, unfolds around a quiet backwater where the youngsters spend their days reading comics (the girls) or getting into scrapes (the boys) or picking betel nuts from the trees they loll around between (everyone). Our heroine Dhunu (Bhanita Das, the filmmaker's cousin, and one of a number of close associates called out to play here) has ambitions of forming a band, although - in a region-specific twist on those School of Rock narratives so beloved out West - she hasn't the money to afford actual instruments, nor really access to the kind of shops that sell them. Instead, the kids fashion their own replica guitars and drums out of cardboard, scrap metal and discarded polystyrene, so as to mime to popular hits; they're even playing at playing, caught rehearsing for the adult world. In an opening caption, Das asserts the film is "a tribute to the people and places I come from", and you can't help but sense she is that girl on the screen - somebody with a dream that begs to be realised - much as François Truffaut was once Antoine Doinel. The guitar, after all, swaps in easily for the camera, as a means of expressing yourself, a way of amplifying your voice, and carrying it from here to there. Art can take you places you otherwise couldn't imagine.

The real delight of Village Rockstars is that this story should be told so organically - there's really no other word for it. Guided by Das's patient, attentive direction, we collectively feel out this place, and the way these people spend their time: the first act has no more pressing narrative concern than watching the kids try to make off with a local bully's bike. Before we know it, we find ourselves up to our knees not just in story, but in an entire way of life. What's more, the film continues to proceed at the same, becalmed pace as this life, with none of the sudden lurches or accelerations you find elsewhere in world cinema, in the films of first-timers so desperate to make an impression they can't resist putting pedal to the metal at some point. (You hope against hope that Das avoids the clutches of the Sundance Lab, with its one-size-fits-all approach to storytelling.) One major boon: these are a great bunch of kids to tail around after. From the blithe way they shimmy up trees - with the ease you and I might demonstrate popping to the Co-Op on a good day - we observe they're entirely at one with the landscape they pass through; even when monsoon season rolls around, they adapt, picking up vast leaves to use as umbrellas, and staging a joshing, ad hoc march in a bid to ban the rain. When they finally avail themselves of that heartless bully's bike, they charge off into the long grass like actual kids, tumbling in one another's wake; they haven't had the vital energy trained or rehearsed out of them.

If their mischief translates easily, so too does their lowly status: we're left in no doubt by a poignant episode in a shop where a real, fully-stringed guitar hangs tantalisingly out of reach. (They can look, but not touch.) After their village is submerged, wiping out both agriculture and the bridge connecting these youngsters to an education, the vision of that prologue looks more than ever a pipe dream; it's hard enough keeping one's head above water round here. (Somewhere in the background, like a painful memory: the story of Dhunu's father, who drowned in an earlier flood.) Yet Das is never sentimental about her subjects, as someone who's lived out this way could never be. Her camera displays a warmth and fondness, even love, for those who pass before it, but it also knows deep down that this can be a hard, cold, wet life. As a party thrown to mark Dhunu's passage into womanhood, half the guests show up emptyhanded; "people are useless", shrugs one of her world-wearier contemporaries, reflecting on the state's failure to protect the village from flooding. Increasingly, the film comes to seem even more like non-fiction than fiction, a production that had to adapt to the seasons and elements, to the way the very landscape altered. Even the fake instruments get swept away, leaving behind people in a place getting by, making do. Das was surely tucking all of this away for future use - the shrugged-off tragedy, the hard-earned triumphs, banked in the memory like the coins Dhunu secretes in the joists of her home. As Village Rockstars draws toward a finale every bit as unforgettable as that prologue, it becomes clear: there are some visions you just can't let go of.

Village Rockstars is now streaming via All4.

Heroes: "Moonage Daydream"

If the movie mainstream has succeeded in anything this past decade, it's been making fan service feel like a special event. No longer willing or able to grasp the universal, our filmmakers now routinely reach out to ultra-specific, ultra-enthusiastic cliques and groups, hoping against hope for the review that adopts the formulation "if you like
Star Wars/Marvel/DC/whatever, you'll love this". (Precedent is profitable.) The documentary Moonage Daydream is that, but for David Bowie; it's been as carefully curated from the official Bowie archive as the touring exhibition David Bowie Is.... You'll look in vain for any sign of the teenage groupies from one end of this career or the midlife crisis of Tin Machine from the other, the material a more critical sensibility might feel obliged to work in somewhere. Instead, the director Brett Morgen (who did something similar for Robert Evans in The Kid Stays in the Picture, and for Kurt Cobain in Cobain: Montage of Heck) engages in two hours of energetic, often imaginative, yet generally wide-eyed cheerleading for Bowie the artist, the thinker, the free spirit, the shapeshifting stage persona. It's the best of Bowie, from start to finish. 

The film's biographical elements are secondary to the setpiece spectacle of the singer at and on various stages: the live performances he gave in his Ziggy and post-Ziggy pomp, the more reflective appearances of the 1980s, once he'd left the Spiders from Mars behind to pursue his own path through musical space. By way of punctuation, we get cutaways to fans visibly moved by their idol's lyrics, presence, aura, each shot of an awestruck face its own little nudge in the casual cinemagoer's ribs. As produced by concert promoters Live Nation, the whole often resembles one of those one-night-only simulcasts that now get beamed into otherwise moribund multiplex screens, only with the difference of featuring a musician who's already taken his final bow. Morgen waves his pompoms hard, and makes such a noise, in the hope of bringing Bowie back to life before our eyes; his is fan service with a distinctly American element of religious revivalism. I was stirred and swayed by a lot of it, if never quite fully converted.

It helps that Morgen begins his order of service with "Hallo Spaceboy", being Nineties Bowie looking back at Seventies Bowie and marvelling at how far he'd travelled: a song that sets the parameters for the following two hours. (Full disclosure: I come this way as someone who most admired Bowie for being Pet Shop Boys-adjacent, the man who emboldened the strange and shy creatures creeping out their bedrooms and up the pop charts towards the end of the last century to express themselves.) Of course, Bowie is a worthy subject of extended cinematic study, in large part because, pre-Prince, pre-Madonna, pre-Gaga, Bowie was the pop star more obsessed than most with image - it's what landed him on the radar of filmmakers from Oshima to Lynch. It's just conceivable that the conclusion the young David Jones drew from the first phase of his career was that he simply wasn't being photographed often enough, or in the right way, at a moment when the look of pop was becoming every bit as significant as the sound. 

Morgen scatters a few monochrome snapshots of this whey-faced, Mod-about-town Bowie - the skin that was quickly shed, or rather thickened up with pancake - but the bulk of the footage here stems from that era when Bowie had colour on his cheeks and all the world's cameras pointed quizzically in his direction. Your correspondent was too young even to recall Boy George's sensational, tabloid-alarming debut on TOTP, so a lot of this was new to me - and the film is at its strongest in evoking just how staggering it must have been to have this extraterrestrial figure appear on your TV set in a drab front room in the middle of the 1970s; and more specifically, how staggering to have him appear amid the cosy prime-time squareness of Harty and Parky - the shows your mum and dad watched - suggesting by his very being another, less square, markedly more fluid and bohemian way of going about one's business. Chatshow Bowie really does seem like an emissary, thinking beyond the dull flatness of 1970s Britain, and encouraging the open-minded onlooker to do likewise. One choice, typically droll statement: "The imagination can dry up in England". To Berlin!

Thereafter, Moonage Daydream falls a bit too readily into the ill-defined rhythms of the New Documentary, so determined to avoid staid chronologies and singular points-of-view that it risks turning circles, chasing its own tail, cancelling itself out. As is the post-Kapadian norm, this is Bowie in his own words, often Bowie in conversation with himself, allowing Morgen to cut freely between the middle-aged man confronting death and the young punk playing dress-up, between the junkie and the artist, the mime and the philosopher. Sometimes this mix-and-match approach pays off: Morgen consistently finds new routes into and through the music, typically by sourcing alternate versions of songs made familiar by heavy radio rotation. (It's a stratospheric improvement on 2020's unauthorised biopic Stardust, which couldn't afford the rights to anything.) Sometimes, however, it misses the mark, starts babbling, gets het up over nothing much. We get two goes at the paintings - a Sunday sideline - which are only interesting as paintings by Bowie, while a brief interlude on the singer's Broadway stint as John Merrick only underlines the limitations of his creative range. When he opened his mouth to sing, Bowie could transcend anything and everything; when he did so to speak the words of others, it all became oddly self-conscious.

Fans - for it is that point in the review - will likely be delighted to find themselves immersed in what's effectively been constructed as a Bowie flotation tank; the wilder you are about Bowie, the more you're bound to love Moonage Daydream, largely because it, too, is wild for its subject. At around the sixtieth insert of Dave riding Japanese escalators, however, I started longing for at least a little more sifting and structure, something beyond a fanzine's cut-and-paste. Unmoored from its original context, some of this footage is merely free-floating; and while the interviews give up a fair share of wisdom, there's also the odd whiff of lofty musician BS. You don't spot these things when you're desperate for another glimpse of your idol, and hanging on his every word; Morgen is operating from the perspective that all this material is gold, doubly so now that the individual who generated it has left us. That's understandable, but the sense of Bowie the film leaves us with is naggingly superficial. It orbits the loneliness, the alienation, the damage and despair, as in a great interview with the late Mavis Nicholson that catches DB in a mid-Eighties transitional phase, with his guard partway lowered, and gets close to the source of his restlessness. But it can't ever touch down on Bowie the man, because it's too in thrall to Bowie the unknowable enigma, the Buddha of suburbia, Bowie-as-lifestyle-accessory. It wants Bowie to be what any fan wants Bowie to be, which is why the film plays as more consolidatory (consolatory, even) than revelatory. It's very Major Tom - indeed, it's the film you could well imagine Bowie directing about himself, had his ambitions extended into this field. But even Major Tom had to check in with Ground Control from time to time.

Moonage Daydream is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 23 September 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of September 16-18, 2022):

1 (1) See How They Run (12A) ***
2 (8) Bullet Train (15)
3 (5) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
4 (9) Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
5 (6) DC League of Super-Pets (PG)
7 (11) Elvis (12A) **
8 (4) Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva (12A) ***
9 (7) Bodies Bodies Bodies (15) **
10 (new) Moonage Daydream (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial - 40th Anniversary
4. Jackie Brown

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
2 (new) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
3 (2) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
4 (6) The Batman (15) ***
5 (3) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
6 (8) Sing 2 (U)
7 (5) Top Gun (12) ***
8 (9) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
9 (10) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (12) ****
10 (14) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***

My top five: 
1. Memoria

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Boyz N The Hood (Saturday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
3. The Day After Tomorrow (Saturday, C4, 5.55pm)
4. Mrs Doubtfire (Sunday, C4, 3.25pm) 
5. The Dam Busters (Saturday, five, 6.30pm)

Have a niche day: "Funny Pages"

Funny Pages
 is another example of the (sporadically fruitful) perversity that boutique studio A24 has begun to foster at the fringes of the American mainstream. Owen Kline - the son of Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline - has here come up with a study in youthful recalcitrance: a haphazard coming-of-ager about an artistically gifted teenager (Daniel Zolghadri) who insists on making his way in life via Robert Crumb-like pornographic cartoons and menial comic-store labour rather than the college route his exasperated parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) have in mind for him. As produced by the Safdies (Good Time, Uncut Gems) and their regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein (Frownland), a certain measure of recalcitrance has been baked into the film itself. Funny Pages is meandering when it's not outright shambling, feeling a lot longer than the 86 minutes cited; it looks like grainy, washed-out crap; and its dialogue is barely audible in places. It's a film that reminds you of one of the biggest failures of the US indie sector in recent years: the inability to develop an aesthetic in opposition to the MCU's glitzy pixelation that goes further than "half-assed student movie". (Those early Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Spike Lee ventures always had something to please the eye, and - hell - even Kevin Smith chose to shoot Clerks in black-and-white.) If this is the future of American film - as some small part of Film Twitter appears convinced - then it's no surprise audiences are fleeing cinemagoing in their droves. The film's UK distributors Curzon are currently offering Kline's movie for home viewing at a price of £14.99, and all I can say there is: good luck with that.

If my sympathies were engaged in any way, it was because the movie's an obvious underdog - or at least as underdoggy as anything written and directed by a nepo kid can be. 2003's American Splendor, the last indie project to be this engaged with comic-book culture, had a tough-sell protagonist in Paul Giamatti's whiny-grumpy Harvey Pekar, but it was made by solid pros with a run of potential crowdpleasers ahead of them: the savvy framing sold it. Here, the whole movie is Pekaresque - ugly, ungainly and uningratiating, obsessed with ephemera (the soundtrack's awash with novelty tunes, presumably easier to licence than actual hits), and full of people who would quickly be escorted from the average studio lot, being wild of hair and gaze, sweaty of brow, dubious in their motives. That's why I felt compelled to keep an eye on it; my instinct is still that the Safdies' influence on the cinema will be fleeting and minor - you cannot sell this shit to people who don't have a Letterboxd account - but they have opened the door to the possibility of a revolution in American casting. The bar is (re)set here by playwright and part-time Steve Bannon lookalike Stephen Adly Guirgis as the unkempt mentor who offers to pose naked for our boy; thereafter, the lad encounters folks whose sheer oddness demands to be recorded in some form, whether in charcoal or on celluloid. So if it looks like crap, it's sometimes funny-looking crap; and if you can barely hear it in places, what you can hear, from time to time, is something funny-sounding. American movies shamble onward in pursuit of nerdvana, but I wonder whether they're becoming so overrun with outcasts and oddballs that they've lost touch with the bulk of the audience. There's next to nothing left in them for normies; it's all niche activity, extreme marginalia. Those market-hogging MCU events are films for nerds made by the most powerful people on the planet about the most powerful people on the planet. I guess it's a step forward for Funny Pages to present as a film for nerds made by nerds about nerds. But we're talking baby steps, at a point when the vast majority have long moved beyond them.

Funny Pages is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

On demand: "Pebbles"

Over its 76 minutes, the Tamil film
Pebbles describes a world that stretches as far as the eye can see. Director P.S. Vinothraj takes a simple, there-and-back story - irascible father (played by Karuththadaiyaan) drags son (Chellapandi) out of school so as to travel to a neighbouring village and reunite with the wife who walked out on them both - and bestows the highest conceivable level of attention to its passing, revealing detail. A pole on the bus carrying dad and lad from here to there rattles, becoming another of the film's myriad loose connections. Mice are smoked out of their burrows and readied for eating - a tougher detail, but also one that situates us some distance from the usual social niceties. Two village women provide a running (or, more specifically, walking) commentary on the sorry state of this particular marriage. At every point, Vinothraj and his able directors of photography (themselves a pair: Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib) find new ways of reframing this familial split, its implications and repercussions. One overhead shot of a madonna-and-child descending from a bus is so astronomically elevated that you wonder how on earth they got it. (It's too steady for a drone, and cranes surely don't go up that high without gathering ice.)

The film proves no less alert and dynamic in its shooting of movement. The father is often followed handheld from behind, a tactic that proved so effectively in those early Dardennes films (before becoming an arthouse cliché elsewhere), which here allows us to bear witness to a character prone to walking away from the chaos he initiates. But then we see him from the front, barrelling towards us, an image of masculine brute force finally stopped in his tracks when the child strands them both in the middle of nowhere. Out on the plains, in a wilderness that is at once literal and figurative, the film becomes a study in body language, setting aggressive man against gentle boy - the latter evidently his mother's son, at least halfway tempted to walk away himself. Father, by contrast, ploughs on: wilful, stewing when he's not outwardly raging, ever more isolated and alone, not really looking where he's headed. An insert of a painful injury may just inspire a twitch - just a twitch - of sympathy for this headstrong lummox, but the closing moments offer a brilliant counterpoint: an entirely static tableau of women at a watering hole, demonstrating a patience the chumps back home don't possess. A simple film, then - a slice of life, expertly sanded down to the point where it becomes a parable - yet a richly imaginative and striking one: there aren't that many directors working in contemporary world cinema who've shown this much determination to use the full width of the frame, and every possible plane within it.

Pebbles is currently available to stream via All4.

Thursday 22 September 2022

Love in the time of Covid: "Both Sides of the Blade"

Claire Denis is another of our name directors caught looking backwards upon re-entry from lockdown. After the faltering interstellar exploration of 2018's High Life, Both Sides of the Blade marks a return both to terra firma and the kind of romantic runaround this writer-director came to master on her trajectory from 1996's Nénette and Boni via 2002's Vendredi Soir to 2017's Let the Sunshine In, once more reuniting with several of her preferred performers to fashion something intimate, close-up, manageable, a light stretch to get the blood flowing again after months in seclusion. Set aside the filmmaker's famously drifty, aerated house style, and you may be surprised at how closely Both Sides mirrors the love triangles that have formed the basis of French cinema since year zéro. We're introduced to a vision of bourgeois stability in Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche as a loved-up husband-and-wife returning home after a sun-drenched overseas stay. We get the destabilising episode: Binoche glimpsing old flame Grégoire Colin (here doing for cishetero marriage what he did for the esprit de corps of the Foreign Legion in 1999's Beau Travail) while commuting to her day job as a DJ at Radio France. And we sit back and await the fallout, which deviates from standard operating procedure by the fact the two men have a backstory of their own, something to do with sports and the Lindon character serving prison time, and thus a renewal of another fraught relationship. All of a sudden, everybody's competing for attention: Lindon also has a mother (Bulle Ogier), so overlooked she's become easy prey for credit-card scammers, as well as a teenage son by a previous marriage (Issa Perica), observed drifting into sullen delinquency.

In short, Both Sides gets more complicated as it goes along, and that lust for complication succeeds in keeping the conventional at bay for a substantial part of the running time. The Binoche character's day job allows Denis to fold in editorial on the crisis in Lebanon, and an interview with Lilian Thuram, the footballer-turned-race-relations-pundit; that the leads spend a notable number of their scenes masked positions the film as among the most illustrious records of a particular, fearful moment. One thing Denis plainly isn't afraid of is experience, be it harsh, sobering, instructive or otherwise. This camera hoovers up the everyday, breaking off from one conversation in a pharmacy to watch two drivers arguing the toss in the street, and rolling regardless as Lindon's attempts to reconnect with his son are temporarily drowned out by a neighbour's yapping dog. There's a real pleasure to be drawn from watching characters who scan (and behave) like actual adults rather than overgrown teenagers; it helps to make robust and involving drama out of what would likely have presented in English as an awkward muddle, as does another doomy Tindersticks score. (You increasingly feel you're watching not just the breakdown of a marriage, but the potential end of the world.) At its most potent, the film captures something of how Covid intensified everything, the already tricky business of human relations most of all: witness the mid-film sex scene, in a marital bedroom relit to resemble a morgue, which registers like an act of shared mourning for a relationship in its final throes.

Maybe the film could have done with a bit more of that intensification. At two hours, it can feel drawn out, with elements that aren't fully integrated. The Thuram interview is notable as the sort of pointed aside a smoother film in this vein wouldn't license, but also reads like a pre-emptive strike against the project's essential whiteness; the same goes for a bizarre scene that finds Lindon pacing back-and-forth mecsplaining The Discourse to his multiracial offspring. Denis, too, is seen to be working something through here, but her status surely means no-one's giving her notes on these scripts - and so, in both instances, Black lives matter for a minute before we resume the agonies of moneyed Caucasians. Still, there's also a lot that properly grips and fascinates, not least at a performance level. Denis continues to work well with Binoche, a relatively recent addition to her core ensemble, here offering a very persuasive description of a woman in knots, someone who can't bear the thought of seeing her ex, but equally can't bear not seeing him. I never believed Colin quite merited such fascination - the character's been conceived symbolically at best - but Lindon at least is typically rock-solid, oddly moving as a man who finds himself in the middle of a lot of unfinished business. And Denis makes the rooms as compelling as the people: it's such a great, simple effect to have the couple first reflected in, then divided by, the glass door separating living area from balcony. (At least one of them seems destined to end up out in the cold.) The pandemic, widely experienced through such shields and screens, left us never closer together as a species, and never further apart as individuals: that's at the centre of this complex, often confounding film, a comparatively middling entry in the Denis canon, but one that also serves as a major chronicle of its moment.

Both Sides of the Blade is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

Friday 16 September 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of September 9-11, 2022):

1 (new) See How They Run (12A) ***
3 (re) Jaws (12A) ***
4 (new) Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva (12A) ***
5 (1) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
6 (2) DC League of Super-Pets (PG)
7 (new) Bodies Bodies Bodies (15) **
8 (4) Bullet Train (15)
9 (3) Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
10 (6) Nope (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial - 40th Anniversary
3. Jackie Brown [above]
5. Jaws

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
2 (2) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
3 (5) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
4 (new) Star Trek: The Motion Picture (PG)
5 (3) Top Gun (12) ***
6 (6) The Batman (15) ***
8 (9) Sing 2 (U)
9 (8) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
10 (18) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (12) ****

My top five: 
1. Memoria

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Pebbles (Monday, C4, 2.20am)
2. A Quiet Place (Saturday, C4, 12.35am)
3. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Saturday, C4, 10pm)
4. Mughal-E-Azam (Thursday, C4, 2.50am)
5. Detroit (Friday, BBC1, 11.50pm)

Phones out: "Bodies Bodies Bodies"

Every generation gets one of these: only the faces, buzzwords and marketing spends change. Brought to you by boutique studio
du jour A24 - the non-handsy Miramax - Bodies Bodies Bodies is essentially Scream for and with millennials. The setting on this occasion is a well-appointed country house, the kind of bubble that (as was the case for the recent British comedy All My Friends Hate Me) enables production to continue more or less untroubled during pandemic-related shutdowns, and which serves as a usefully roomy location when a storm blows in, trapping your characters in place. We travel there in the company of nervy first-stage lovers Bee and Sophie (Maria Bakalova and Amandla Stenberg), still reeling after an unreciprocated declaration of affections, and quickly meet their contemporaries, some of whom - Rachel Sennott from Shiva Baby, Pete Davidson from SNL and Kim Kardashian - are more familiar than others. Thereafter, there is booze and weed and coke and 'shrooms, a creepy-ish older dude (Lee Pace) who turns out to be the stepfather with whom Davidson's rich jerk is involved in a near-mortal Oedipal struggle, and plenty of vitriol and passive-aggressive backbiting that turns into roughhousing, physical aggression and eventually deadly violence as the lights go off and the drinking games become ever more extreme. If you're over the age of 25, you'll very much know the drill.

The first Scream was a pre-Web 2.0 phenomenon, so the characters talked in old movies, thus underlining how dominant a mass medium the movies had become by the end of the 20th century; the film relied, to some degree, on a shared frame of references. By contrast, the characters in Bodies Bodies Bodies are very much online - right through to the closing moments, they can be observed scrabbling for their smartphones - and they communicate using phrases and memes circulated to the point of parody or meaninglessness on social media ("gaslighting", "toxic", "Max would never"). It's a less than flattering portrait of a generation who rush to judgement, find it hard to separate the real from the virtual, and can't ever quite tell what's a gag and what's serious. (The Internet will do that to you.) That's a new development, but the underlying framework of Halina Reijn's film, adapted by Sarah DeLappe from a story by Kristen Cat Person Roupenian dates at least as far back as 1932's The Old Dark House: spooked people stuck in an unfamiliar property trying to figure out who might be the killer in their midst. I should say that earlier iterations of this set-up possessed far greater charm. It's a bit perverse (if recognisably A24-ish) to cast highly promising young performers as the shrillest representatives of their generation; the movie can't function as the showcase it wants to be, because these kids spend half of it sniping at one another unappealingly, half of it stumbling round interchangeably in the dark. And DeLappe's writing tends to favour callousness over real wit, as in the mix-up over the word "vet" that gets one character offed, and the final twist that confirms everybody on screen as perilously silly sausages. (I'll confess to snickering at Sennott's deployment of the word "literally", and her bit on the stresses involved in podcasting - clear instances of a gifted performer transcending otherwise so-so material.) Scream featured a half-remembered song by a long-forgotten band with the lyric "say a prayer for the youth of America". Twenty-five years on, this far more cynical endeavour concludes the youth of America may now be beyond any and all salvation.

Bodies Bodies Bodies is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 14 September 2022

Replicants: "Crimes of the Future"

It's become increasingly apparent that the major North American directors spent lockdown looking backwards, uncertain as any of the rest of us as to their immediate future. Steven Spielberg redoubled his pre-Covid efforts to remodel a key text of his youth (
West Side Story), then made exactly that youth the subject of his next project (the upcoming The Fabelmans). Paul Thomas Anderson got his Chopper bike out of storage to freewheel around a peer's Seventies adolescence (Licorice Pizza). David Cronenberg, for his part, has been inspired by the viral nightmare of the past two years to revisit the body horror that was such an integral part of his earliest films - indeed, his new film Crimes of the Future recycles the very title of one of his first experiments in building a loyal fanbase of freaks while freaking out everybody else. Everything thereafter is new flesh. The future this COTF envisions is one where years of environmental despoilment has seen mankind not just adapting to the elevated levels of plastic in its bloodstream but actively hungering for it, such that certain bodies have themselves become plastic, sprouting new organs like the replicas formed in a 3D printer. The drama Cronenberg thrusts us into, likewise, has plenty going on beneath the surface. This is a film engaged with evolution, the directions in which the world and its citizens are heading, and with the fraught relationship between art and the body; it even circles the never-more-vital themes of boundaries and consent. (In a characteristically warped fashion, it may be as close as this most upright of filmmakers comes to issuing a definitive post-#MeToo statement.) But right through to its glorious closing images, it's also clearly the work of a septuagenarian who just wants his acid reflux to settle down and to be able to get a decent sleep at nights. It's body horror that goes beyond the bodily to the acutely, sometimes sublimely personal.

The most conspicuous (and thus most telling) design elements on screen are what we might call bugbeds - insectoid sarcophagi apparently ported across from the adjacent universe of 1991's Naked Lunch so that sufferers like Viggo Mortensen's performance artist Saul Tenser, cursed with this subdermal sprouting, can get a few hours of kip. Tenser can at least channel his pain into art, and here's where Cronenberg the grisly showman steps up, staging gruey setpieces in which the artist's assistant/lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux) performs public surgeries to pluck these bonus organs from her man's gaping torso using a skeletal version of those grappling hooks used to pick up knock-off Minions in amusement arcades. Crucial to note, at this juncture, that Saul is positioned as the sane one here. Beyond the operating table, which affords him some measure of control over his condition, his oeuvre attracts all manner of kooks, weirdos and sociopaths, from Kristen Stewart as an awestruck National Organ Registry underling who insists "Surgery is the new sex" to Scott Speedman - continuing to atone for those bland choices forced upon him in his twenties - as the father of a young plastic-eater murdered by his mother in a subplot that recalls the gender wars of 1979's The Brood. Your heart soon goes out to poor old Viggo, who spends the entire film on the verge of coughing up a hairball that could be a second pancreas, retreats under a hood and mask into the corner of every other scene, and gives the impression of a man who sorely wishes everyone would stop trying to tear him to shreds. You might also wonder whether Saul Tenser is a stand-in for a filmmaker of a certain age, trying to make art while putting up with aches, pains, varyingly minor surgeries and - worst of all - people with their own strange ideas of what his art should be.

I stress the conditional because this Crimes is itself a work of uncommon plasticity, constantly shifting beneath our gaze: there's no one way of looking at it, and narratively Cronenberg gives himself four or five directions he could go in at any time. The dead-child business is something of a pretext, prompting Caprice to try and redefine the parameters of her relationship with Saul, and the camera to waltz off after two minxy assassins, hellbent on snuffing even those mutations of life that appear before us. Those beds look bespoke, but otherwise this isn't the most expensive-looking Cronenberg production - the money's gone on making these interiors appear as begrimed and murky, as besmirched by pollution, as the characters' bodies. We're back to the depopulated, underfunded worlds Cronenberg built early in his career, with one or two extremities that the master craftsman he became might have sheared off with extra drafts or cuts. (Some of its nudity struck me as gratuitous, but equally it offers the advantage of flesh that hasn't been pierced or gouged.) He's a funnier filmmaker now, though - more alert to the strains of perverse, sicko or just plain droll comedy running through his work - and the new movie incubates a handful of great Cronenberg images: a woman smiling ecstatically as what looks like a mini pizza slicer is taken to her foot, a man with a dozen ears dotting his chest like acne dancing to thumping techno. (It must be hell when Westlife come on the radio.) I was aware of some lukewarm critical responses going in, but Crimes of the Future succeeds in being properly weird when it wants to be. It's just possible another filmmaker would have an idea like this, but no-one else would have leant into it this hard, pushed it as far, or had the assurance to pursue it in so many directions at once. I was tempted to say Cronenberg seems on fine form coming out of lockdown - arguably better form than most of his contemporaries - were it not that Mortensen pays the same compliment to Stewart in the movie itself. Her response? "That's a very dangerous form to be in."

Crimes of the Future is now playing in selected cinemas.

"The Cancer Conflict" (Guardian 12/09/22)

The Cancer Conflict

Dir: Thomas Meadmore. With: Grant Branton, Surinder Paul. 87 mins. Uncertificated.

Coinciding with World Cancer Research Day, Thomas Meadmore’s tricky yet innately involving documentary follows two Brits going rogue in search of a better quality of treatment. Brighton’s Grant Branton is a sometime biologist reeling after early tests spotted tumours in his bowels while missing shadows in his bones; Surinder Paul, landed with breast cancer, hopes to avoid a mastectomy by leaning hard into oils, juicing and cravatted energy healers – what oncological voice-of-reason Rob Glynne-Jones calls “quackery”. Both have taken their lives into their own hands, which notionally affords them greater control but also obliges them to take critical decisions – even fashion their own suppositories – on ever-dwindling energy reserves.

It's tricky because Meadmore broadly detaches these subjects from any context beyond the rooms they’re in. (There’s nothing of Grant’s media career, for example.) Emphasis is thereby placed firmly on the individual, but many viewers will want more about Grant and Surinder’s precise relationship to the NHS, and – if they went private – how and how much they’re paying. (It’s unclear from what’s shown, possibly reflecting the blurred lines of modern British healthcare.) As carefully applied voiceover takes pains to establish, these two are outliers: Grant’s Facebook interactions and a troubling encounter with a self-appointed American guru illustrate how close we are to the fringes of anti-science conspiracy theory.

Yet both patients remain compelling figures, eliciting natural sympathy and concern as they eye the enemy within. (No melodramatic “fights” or “battles” here – just the humdrum reality of endless tests and meetings to reveal results of tests.) Alpha-adjacent Grant endures horrific coughing fits to reaffirm his love for wife Christine; while Surinder has the advantage of a large, loving, supportive family, she’s evidently determined to go her own way. For his part, Meadmore bides ever-more-valuable time, monitoring his subjects’ ebbs and flows, allowing them to make their own choices and us to form our own opinions, before finally ensuring the facts of these poignant case studies speak for themselves. 

The Cancer Conflict will be available to rent from Monday.

"Redeeming Love" (Guardian 12/09/22)

Redeeming Love

Dir: D.J. Caruso. With: Abigail Cowen, Tom Lewis, Eric Dane, Famke Janssen. 134 mins. Cert: 12A

The latest from evangelical Christian producers Pinnacle Peak – formerly Pure Flix, the money behind the surprisingly enduring God’s Not Dead series – is an adaptation of a Francine Rivers novel that remaps the Biblical tale of Hosea onto a Western goldrush setting. That synopsis suggests a level of creative imagination and ambition, possibly something like Michael Winterbottom hauling The Mayor of Casterbridge further West for 2000’s The Claim. Yet the movie landing here this weekend, thinly scattering a parable’s worth of plot across a 134-minute canvas, instead resembles HBO’s Deadwood recut for Sunday-school purposes: alternately pious, puzzling and punitive, with a sternly wagging finger never far from entering the frame.

Let us give Pinnacle Peak this: they’re getting mildly more sophisticated about delivering The Message. D.J. Caruso, a studio director around the mid-Noughties moment of Taking Lives and Disturbia, gives the courtship of soulfully bestubbled farmer Michael Hosea (Tom Lewis) and Pair-a-Dice’s star prostitute Angel (Abigail Cowen) a sunny, handsome, Nicholas Sparks-like sheen. (It’s the best-looking faith movie since 2014’s Dean Semler-shot Heaven is for Real.) And unlike the early, cheaper Pure Flix ventures, this one has proper actors. Famke Janssen enjoys herself as a brothel madam, while the leads – raised exclusively on wholegrain breakfast cereal – are sincere enough in their Best Little Whorehouse on the Prairie way.

Still, Caruso’s relying on this competency to smooth us past onscreen activity ranging from the not-quite-credible via the very bizarre to the openly warped. Sex-positive this is not; sex-petrified is closer to it. Angel’s abuse by various sketchily defined brutes is the only action in town while our virtuous hero resists her charms; ice-cold lakes, wood-chopping and banjo-plucking provide unintentionally amusing displacement activity. You keep imagining a Guy Maddin or John Waters version that uncoupled the chastity belt to revel in this script’s campier, schlockier, more wanton aspects. It’d doubtless spook the Pinnacle Peak faithful – but that's what separates art from diligently illustrated sermons such as this.

Redeeming Love opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 12 September 2022

Guess who: "See How They Run"

The success of
Kenneth Branagh's Agatha Christie adaptations and Rian Johnson's Knives Out means that the murder-mystery is enjoying another moment. Always a sucker for drawing-room revelations, TV was quickest off the mark, giving armchair sleuths two seasons of Only Murders in the Building (on Disney+), the supremely fun Miller/Lord variant The Afterparty (on AppleTV+) and the recent, heavier-going The Resort (on Peacock/NOW). Just ahead of the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, we now have the reasonably well-made British original See How They Run, directed by Tom George from a Mark Chappell script, set in London's theatreland, featuring an array of familiar faces, and that light period dressing our industry appears hellbent on applying to everything that passes in front of a camera. A newly re-energised Adrien Brody is the vulgarian American director murdered backstage at the Ambassadors Theatre in the first weeks of The Mousetrap's record-breaking run; boozy-grumpy Sam Rockwell (with wobbly English accent) and peachy-keen Saoirse Ronan are the inspector-constable pairing dispatched to investigate; and your suspects-potential victims for the evening comprise anybody with a BAFTA card who didn't get the Branagh call: David Oyelowo as a terribly precious playwright, Reece Shearsmith as the (real-life) producer John Woolf, Harris Dickinson (doing a great impersonation of the young Tom Courtenay) as the young Richard Attenborough, Charlie Cooper (whose This Country George directed) as a mirthless usher. It's a tombola-movie in its essence: having paid for a ticket, you sit back and place your bets on whodunnit and why.

Beyond those central mysteries, you detect telltale signs of an industry struggling to get back into the groove after a long, unprecedented shutdown. Rockwell and Ronan drive around eerily abandoned London streets, bound for underpopulated locations lit and dressed to look like sets even when they're not. Early on, the rhythms feel off: it's still funny, but almost certainly not as funny as a film like this would have been had it been put together in 2019 or 2015 or 2001 (when Robert Altman messed around with Julian Fellowes' script for Gosford Park, this particular subgenre's recent gold standard). It appears tentative, hesitant and spaced out where the pre-Covid Knives Out could be carefree and taut simultaneously: a TV director making his feature debut with a script rushed into production to fill a gap on a slate, a pencil sketch of a series that could run and run in the event that audiences take to it. (My guess is we're still a good six months away from movies starting to look and feel like they used to look and feel; I can well understand why cinemagoers continue to stay away.) Still, to George's credit, See How They Run improves as it goes along, settling down with a mid-movie setpiece that re-imagines the Ambassadors' backstage area as an Escher-like matrix of doors and staircases, while also confirming how invested we are in the very promising Rockwell-Ronan dynamic. And it assumes distinctively British shape in the final act, set in Agatha Christie's own drawing room, which pulls yet another This Country alumnus back into play and ends with cups of tea all round, one of which happens to be laced with arsenic. (Call it English roulette.) Not the knockout everyone was hoping, but not bad: if nothing else, it's the film that allows Saoirse Ronan to shout "stop in the name of the law". Franchises have been built on far less charming gestures.

See How They Run is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Sunday 11 September 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of September 2-4, 2022):

1 (6) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
2 (3) DC League of Super-Pets (PG)
3 (7) Top Gun: Maverick (12A) ****
4 (4) Bullet Train (15)
5 (re) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
6 (5) Nope (15) ***
7 (re) E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (U) *****
8 (8) Elvis (12A) **
9 (2) Beast (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial - 40th Anniversary
3. Jaws
4. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

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

My top five: 
1. Memoria

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Sunday, five, 3.10pm)
2. Braveheart (Friday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
3. Brooklyn (Saturday, BBC2, 9pm)
4. Upgrade (Friday, C4, 1.05am)
5. Mission: Impossible III (Saturday, C4, 10pm)