Saturday 29 October 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of October 21-23, 2022):

1 (new) Black Adam (12A)
2 (new) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
3 (1) Lyle Lyle Crocodile (PG)
4 (3) Smile (18)
5 (2) Halloween Ends (18)
6 (new) Decision to Leave (15) *****
7 (4) Ticket to Paradise (12A)
8 (6) The Woman King (15) ***
9 (5) Don't Worry Darling (15)
10 (7) Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (PG) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. The Thing [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
2 (1) Bullet Train (15)
3 (2) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
4 (4) When the Crawdads Sing (15)
5 (5) Elvis (12) **
6 (7) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
7 (6) Thor: Love and Thunder (12) **
8 (9) Sing 2 (U)
9 (10) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
10 (8) DC League of Super Pets (PG)

My top five: 
1. Top Gun: Maverick

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Exorcist (Saturday, BBC2, 11.55pm)
2. Singin' in the Rain (Saturday, BBC2, 2.50pm)
3. Curse of the Cat People (Saturday, BBC2, 1.55am)
4. His House (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
5. Beetlejuice (Sunday, five, 5.05pm)

Someone to watch over me: "Decision to Leave"

For fullest appreciation, you may need two or three viewings of Park Chan-wook's
Decision to Leave, so dense is it with narrative information. Within the opening ten minutes alone, the following elements are ushered into view: a pre-existing (and ongoing) murder case, interrupted when a businessman and amateur climber falls to his death from a cliff; a detective (Park Hae-il) suffering from a bad case of insomnia; his stable-bordering-on-inert marriage, immediately suggesting one possible reading of that title; and the cop's growing attraction to the dead climber's Chinese girlfriend (Wei Tang, from Lust, Caution). Park redoubles the trickiness by dissolving the boundaries separating characters and subplots, such that the cop and the suspect can be seen to appear in the same room during a phone call, a sign of a growing, troubling closeness. (In its most elegant expression, he holds an ashtray under her untended, ash-heavy cigarette.) Furthermore, the suspect is no mere passive object of desire, for once: she tails the cop as he goes about his job, intervenes in the other murder case, listens to case notes compiled on the nights he spent watching her. Kim Sang-beom's editing is similarly restless, topping and tailing scenes and yanking us ever onward. There is a lot to squeeze in, and much of that is complicated: Park's tamped down the baroque production design of his Stoker and The Handmaiden, but Decision to Leave presents as busier than both films combined. Everything from an app on a phone to the ghostly band left on a finger removed of its wedding ring is a clue or a signifier; everything on screen matters. You may not mind watching Decision to Leave two or three times, because even a first watch reveals it as a modern classic.

Some context. 2022 was meant to be Year Zero for the American cinema: after two years, it finally had a full twelve months to flood the multiplex with delayed or new product and thereby reassert its previous dominance. Yet with the exception of the solid-gold Top Gun: Maverick, it's been another sorry bust - and an illustration of how the American cinema has been comprehensively outthought and outfought by Eastern creatives. Post-pandemic cinema has picked up where Parasite left off in winning the Oscar at the start of 2020. March's RRR was embraced as the rock-'em-sock-'em crowdpleaser the American studios now seem incapable of licensing; the playful worldbuilding of the recent Tamil epic Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1 proved vastly preferable to the leaden nerdery of Dune: Part One. Decision to Leave enters this new, reoriented canon as a thriller operating at an often astonishingly high level, and further proof of a shift in the balance of movie power, demonstrating that Asian cinema has expanded and accelerated where its American counterpart has retreated and shrivelled. Given its abundance of doubles and rhymes (there are two ghostly bands where wedding rings used to be), it feels apt that Park's film has two modes, both more dynamic than the modern American event movie's modes of exposition and action: hard-nosed, relentless clue-hunting, and something more languorous and reflective as the leads begin to circle one another. (Here are the two sides of the Park filmography, unified: the tangled plotting and kineticism of the Vengeance trilogy and OldBoy, and the keen eye for beauty Park revealed in Stoker and The Handmaiden.)

At the film's centre is a relationship that is simultaneously an investigation, one that - even after appearing to have reached a natural point of conclusion - keeps being reopened and revisited. Those clues I mentioned invite interpretation (and reinterpretation) as tokens of love, signs of affection; but they could also be damning evidence, and the considerable uncertainty Park instils in the viewer is whether anything more than a heart is going to be broken here - if the characters can escape this dangerous liaison intact. Around the halfway mark, I became convinced that someone in America would even now be thinking about the remake rights; yet that project is already doomed, because Decision to Leave, forever circling back on itself, serves as its own remake. Park has almost visibly absorbed an entire canon of American cinema - from Vertigo to Basic Instinct, shown up over these two-and-a-half hours as the crudely superficial gruntwork it perhaps always was - and found new ways of doing it all; even a by-the-procedural-playbook scene like the cop's wife making her own decision to leave doesn't play out as it typically would. Amid that hectic procedural framework - which eventually accommodates multiple murders, suicides, and a soft-shell turtle heist the script connects to our hero's midlife slump - Park never loses sight of his leads, who feel like mixed-up, unpredictable, often self-sabotaging people rather than genre-movie clichés; for once, a director appears exactly as fascinated by his characters as they are with one another. Park Hae-Il has the uprightness of a David Strathairn, but the fringe of a Mads Mikkelsen, hinting at the possibility of unravelling; Tang, meanwhile, tops a gorgeously attired cast with soft sweaters and shy smiles, masking a migrant's steely core of self-preservation.

The very great skill of the film lies in how that framework - and the weight of narrative expectation it imposes - is allowed to fade away, effectively leaving us to watch two people ready to follow one another to the ends of the universe: up a mountain, through the night, until the sun goes down. The investigation begets a romance, which in turn begets an adventure - but more seasoned viewers may start to worry whether a love this blinding can only lead these lovers towards a deep, dark, deathly hole. So we look out: at a preponderance of loaded looks and glances, at a hero whose use of eyedrops marks him as vulnerable from the off. (He can barely keep his eyes open, let alone keep one on the ball.) And Park, in turn, looks out for us. In a recurring, idiosyncratic tic, this camera often aligns itself directly behind one character, obscuring our view of the person they're addressing - what textbooks would have down as an egregious blocking error - before correcting itself, as if to remind us of the importance of clear lines of sight, in love and policework both. Consider, too, the film's twin POV shots, first from a dead man's perspective - ants scuttling over the lens - and then from the perspective of the fish laid out for sale at a farmers' market at which cop, wife, other woman and new man accidentally intersect. By this point in Decision to Leave, plot framework has given way to a comprehensive network of surveillance, the film's every gaze - however furtive or fleeting - eliciting meaning. Keep an eye on those you love, Park counsels, and watch while you still can - once, twice, a dozen times over, if what you cherish demands your attention as much as Decision to Leave does.

Decision to Leave is now playing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday 25 October 2022

From the archive: "The Babadook"

Here’s a test case for you: in the year of our Lord 2014, is it still possible for a movie to make scary the long-careworn tropes of monsters in the closet and under the bed? The rattling Aussie chiller The Babadook reckons yes, but then its methods go back somewhat further than the current cycle of Sinisters and Conjurings: there’s a crafty hint of Val Lewton lurking somewhere in its choice Expressionist shadows.

Jennifer Kent’s debut turns on one of the cinema’s most fraught mother-child relationships since The Exorcist. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mum juggling an already demanding care home job with an even tougher after-hours gig – mothering oft-expelled pre-teen Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Sam’s hyperactivity extends to his imagination: one night, after a bedtime read-through of a mysterious pop-up book, he becomes convinced its caped, top-hatted protagonist – think Jerry Sadowitz via Tim Burton’s Penguin – has stationed himself somewhere around the house.

You might not realise it at first, but we’re actually getting three books in one here: not just a horror story, but a mental health treatise (“I’m heading to the dementia ward,” says Amelia to a colleague, jokey foreshadowing that seems increasingly likely) and a parenting text – actually not so far removed from Christos Tsolkias’s novel The Slap – on how having kids can destabilise your relationship with the rest of the world.

Kent turns the mother-son business into a compelling topsy-turvy. Initially, Kent seems to be directing Wiseman merely to be obnoxious – kicking the driver’s seatback, pushing a contemporary out of a treehouse – summoning the memory of that immortal couplet by Half Man Half Biscuit, Birkenhead’s foremost social observers: “Is your child hyperactive/Or is he perhaps a twat?”

As The Babadook proceeds, however, the real threat to this household becomes unclear. The tightly strung Amelia is beset by a nagging toothache, apparently the result of nervy comfort-food binging; even when attempting to find sexual release, climax has to be deferred after a sleepless Sam walks in on her. With her insomnia-enfeebled gaze and gait, her hair perpetually at wits’ end, the impressive Davis sure looks the part, and her tension and stress become those of the film: soon, both image and audience are quivering in sympathy with her.

She’s just one among Kent’s subtly unsettling effects; elsewhere, ground glass appears in soup bowls, cockroaches scuttle, while the book at the film’s centre – a properly haunting artefact, superbly designed by Alexander Juhasz – keeps returning with new pages and new threats. I missed Mister Babadook’s first appearance, having blinked; a collective frisson among those around me, however, suggested that something was in the air.

Even Alex Holmes’s spare, insistently grey production design undercuts the prevailing suburban realism: by the final act, this more than faintly institutional residence has become a prison or asylum, beset by demons more potent than any children’s book can magic up. Tell yourself it’s only a story by all means, but you’re still going to have to kiss the kids goodnight and then switch off the reading light.

(MovieMail, October 2014)

The Babadook screens on BBC2 at 12.15am tonight, and will be available on the BBC iPlayer thereafter.

Core strength: "The Legend of Maula Jatt"

For decades, Pakistani cinema has had to operate in the shadow of its more illustrious Indian neighbour. Yet it now has internationally recognised stars, a quantum leap forward; couple those with widely known source material, and they get you a movie that will play in multiplexes, make the Top 10 in key territories, and make money enough to fund a hundred further features. Newly crowned as the #1 Pakistani film of all time at the international box office,
The Legend of Maula Jatt presents as a fairly hefty foundation stone - and it's the kind of movie you could well imagine restructuring an entire industry around. From the outset, Bilal Lashari's film demonstrates a purpose and confidence lacking from the last Pakistani blockbuster to arrive on these shores, 2015's tissue-thin Bin Roye; its core strength is a barrelling momentum that effectively yanks us through what is, at heart, a simple good-versus-evil fable. Lashari isn't messing around, has no interest in testing the water. He has his protagonist witness his parents being slain in the prologue; tosses in a childhood scene that reveals a talent for fistfighting (and a zero tolerance approach to bullies); then introduces us to the wild-maned, wilder-gazed adult Maula Jatt (Fawad Khan, from Kapoor & Sons and streaming TV's Ms. Marvel) as he embraces his nominative destiny, a sullen slugger fighting sandpit duels that split the difference between Gladiator and MMA. Unlike its tentative predecessors, Maula Jatt comes out swinging, flaunting expansive, often vertiginous production design, swelling crowd scenes and Fincher-ish camera darts, and bellowing in the general direction of the Cineworld cheap seats. Are you not entertained? For two-and-a-half hours, we are.

We have Lashari to thank for it, a one-man army serving quintuple duty here as writer, director, producer, cinematographer and editor. That may account for the galloping unity this Legend quickly settles into - its vision has been translated into images before anyone else could get in the way. Lashari cannily steers his film down the path pursued by those other recent South Asian megahits Baahubali and RRR on their way to occupying a field sadly abandoned by the American mainstream in recent times: that of the well-spun yarn. There are few major plot beats here you couldn't guess within the first ten minutes: yes, Maula will have to kick the hooch he uses for post-fight self-medication; yes, he will swap this for the love of foremost sandpit groupie Mukkho (Mahira Khan, from Bin Roye and Shah Rukh Khan's Raees); and yes, he will eventually exact bloody vengeance on those who did his folks wrong. Yet the world Lashari constructs around this narrative is rich enough for the film to still feel lively rather than preordained; if there's nothing wildly new under this sun, the film once more demonstrates that need not matter so long as you do right by the old stuff. 

Lashari does that plenty right, committing not just to the fight scenes - which look further East, to the choreographed carnage of Hong Kong - but to the wider familial feud, exemplified by one yowser overhead of a baby being buried alive. (Panic not: the infant survives to become one of the most murderous characters on screen, and the film gains some sort of depth for grounding its carnage in comparable childhood traumas.) Such ruthlessness would be striking in itself, but Lashari also bejewels his action with Rajamouli-like poetry. Sometimes it's verbal, as with Mukkho's early sigh upon seeing Maula brawl: "How I wish I could wipe the anger from your eyes in return for a look of love." Sometimes it's just simple enough to qualify as crowdpleasing, such as naming the rival clans the Jatts and the Natts. Most of all, it's cinematic, as in the delight Lashari takes whenever his hero throws his cape over his shoulder, or pauses to screw the gandara blade onto his late father's staff - a sure sign battle is once more about to commence. (I was reminded of the snooker player Rex Williams, methodically attaching the extension to his cue ahead of attempting a tricky red.)

The picture is so big and so busy with such detail you may just overlook the fact the two stars - the two Khans, with whom Pakistani cinema may yet come to push back against the many Khans of Bollywood - have taken on by far the least interesting roles, those of grudgebearer and woundtender. Both get stuck under silly period hairstyling, and the movies have yet to figure out how best to employ Mahira Khan's lofty beauty, which is that of a salon owner looking down a perfect nose at her clients: casting her as a small-town sweetheart, as Lashari does here, can't be a sustainable option. Still, by way of compensation, the leads get the loveliest scene, atop a stalled Ferris wheel: an acapella rendering of the movie's one and only song, which then opens up into a Magnolia-like piece for chorus. (Here, as elsewhere, Lashari does the old - the obligation musical number - in a way that's bold, if not entirely new.) And the supporting cast is first-rate; the film unlocks a treasure trove of valuable players who - due to Pakistani cinema's low-profile in the West - we simply haven't had the pleasure of seeing. The singer and YouTube star Faris Shafi adds welcome levity as Maula's joshing, peaceable stepbrother Mooda, but inevitably it's the heavies who command the most forceful attention. Hamza Ali Abbasi is astoundingly expressive as Noori Natt, a brute who appears far older than the actor's 38 years, and thus enters the fray wearier than most; Humaima Malik, as Noori's kohl-eyed schemer of a sister Daari, scuttles spider-like around a role that connects this Legend to the success of Game of Thrones; and Gohar Rasheed seems to be channelling Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat as their cackling, gold-toothed yet ultimately weak-willed sibling Maakha Natt, who gets what he deserves after Maula drags him facefirst through a market stall's selection of spices. Amid a globally-scaled event movie, some cherishably local seasoning.

The Legend of Maula Jatt is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 21 October 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of October 14-16, 2022):

1 (new) Lyle Lyle Crocodile (PG)
2 (new) Halloween Ends (18)
3 (1) Smile (18)
4 (4) Ticket to Paradise (12A)
5 (3) Don't Worry Darling (15)
6 (2) The Woman King (15) ***
7 (6) Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (PG) ****
8 (5) Amsterdam (15)
9 (new) The Legend of Maula Jatt (15) ***
10 (new) Emily (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. The Lost Boys

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Bullet Train (15)
2 (3) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
3 (4) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
4 (6) When the Crawdads Sing (15)
5 (5) Elvis (12) **
6 (1) Thor: Love and Thunder (12) **
7 (7Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
8 (new) DC League of Super Pets (PG)
9 (12) Sing 2 (U)
10 (10Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)

My top five: 
1. Hit the Road

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Queen of Katwe [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 10am)
2. Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Sunday, BBC1, 2.05pm)
3. The Babadook (Tuesday, BBC2, 12.15am)
4. Edge of Tomorrow (Tuesday, five, 11pm)
5. What We Do in the Shadows (Sunday, BBC2, 12.30am)

Thursday 20 October 2022

The grand tour: "Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1"

Bollywood had five years to capitalise on the audience desire for epic historical-mythological drama revealed by SS Rajamouli's
Baahubali diptych, and they blew it on narrow-minded, politically oriented flagwaving. It fell to the South to step up and fill the gap, first with Rajamouli's immediate follow-up RRR, which eventually became white people's favourite Indian film, partly because it met a demand not currently being met by the American cinema, and now what's become the #1 Tamil film of the year, the first part of revered director Mani Ratnam's long-gestating two-part adaptation of a series of Kalki Krishnamurthy novels centred on a power struggle in the 11th century Chola kingdom. Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1 redefines that oft-clutched critical descriptor "grandiose"; its generosity of spirit is such that it can afford to bill itself as "an A.R. Rahman musical" before the words "a Mani Ratnam film" appear on screen. (It's a twofer, and in this economy, that counts as an easy sell.) 

The wildly tangled tale of pillaging and politicking that follows has been constructed out of the following moving parts: an ailing Emperor (Prakash Raj); two princes, Adithya and Arulmozhi (Vikram and Jayam Ravi); their boyishly upright chief lieutenant Vandiyathevan (Karthi); a third, hidden prince with his own claim to the throne (Rahman); a scheming Aishwarya Rai Bachchan; a horse that makes off with ladies' clothing (perhaps it's a clothes horse); castles with secret passageways; scrolls written in invisible ink; a mysterious elderly woman who sees off bands of assassins while on the back of an elephant; and a beachfront battle scene, all but tossed away at the very beginning of the second half, which multiplies Lawrence of Arabia by Saving Private Ryan before signing off with an aerial shot of the casualties that rivals the conclusion of the Battle of Atlanta sequence in Gone with the Wind. This movie is big and then some: just on a basic narrative level, it's as though Ratnam spent lockdown powering through previously sealed boxsets of House of Cards and Game of Thrones and concluded he wanted some of that, six or eight times over.

Yet unlike RRR, with its broad-strokes, easily grasped characterisation, this is not Indian Cinema 101. The screen rapidly floods with a multitude of major and minor players, often interchangeably beardy men with florid, octo- or decasyllabic names who, with their long hair and jerkins, resemble Motörhead roadies or WWE wrestlers; as established by an early debate that turns into a dust-up, who they are is closely attached to the gods they worship. If you're anything like me, you'll spend the first hour of Ponniyin Selvan worried that you're only ever a scene or two away from being irretrievably lost. You may start to relax once you realise Part 1's business is positioning - or, more specifically, jockeying for position. (If you've kept abreast of events in the British Conservative Party these past few years, it should be a breeze.) The Emperor is not so unwell that his succession becomes a matter of urgency, and so this self-evidently big movie breaks down into a succession of sidebars, sidequests and sidehustles. With the possible exception of Vandiyathevan - characterised as a horny boy scout, upstanding in every department including his sword, and thus doing all he can to penetrate Aish's saris - everybody's busy plotting against everyone else.

I'm still not entirely sure whether it's a point of weakness or a source of fascination that PS - 1 has no immediately identifiable centre, because amid the mild panic it induces, it means every inch of Chola territory, and thus every inch of the screen, is up for grabs from the word go; your eyes and ears tend to go towards whoever the most charismatic performer is at any given moment. All I can say for certain is that when one longhair plants his flag and boomingly declares victory around the hour mark, the mind flashes back to George W. Bush's ill-starred "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" banner; the identity of the title character (literally "son of Ponni") is only revealed three-quarters of the way through a 160-minute movie. Denis Villeneuve's Dune: Part One - for better or worse, the pre-eminent American worldbuilder of the past twelve months - dumped impenetrable concrete blocks of exposition (sorry, "vision") on its audience, and invited us either to like it or lump it. Ratnam's approach is greatly more playful and engaging: he says allow these characters to run rings round one another - let them run rings around you - because the really important ones will come back around soon enough. (In the meantime: enjoy the grand tour of well-appointed 11th century palaces and the characterful company.) It's a big picture of a kingdom in a state of constant flux; it's never boring, and often highly exciting.

It comes together as it does - and, crucially, leaves you wanting even more - because the film hasn't been directed so much as insistently redirected: Ratnam knows full well that he risks losing us amid such tumult, but he's also seasoned enough to know the value of returning us to a familiar face whenever we start to look nervous or skittish. A few weeks back, I had dinner with a friend who told me Ratnam inspires such devotion in his employees - many of whom have gone on to enjoy prominent directorial careers in their own right - that they regularly return to serve under him as assistant and second-unit directors. You can clearly see how that arrangement pays off here: even when I wasn't 100% certain how a scene or sequence related to the overall structure, I could feel how important the film and its makers think it is. Everything matters on some level, all the subplots have been overseen by someone who cares, and the extent of the coverage - as in the closing naval battle, which expands outwards from small details (the first grappling hooks landing on a ship's bow) into a thunderous study of one vessel sinking to the ocean floor - is frequently jawdropping.

And everything is fully integrated: where the boysy RRR left its pan-Indian ambassador Alia Bhatt on the sidelines, looking sad in a field, the women have far more to do in this world, not least wrap the men around their fingers. It's megastar Rai Bachchan, crafty and cunning in patrolling her corridors of the film, and lit so attentively that certain scenes succeed in stopping time; it's the way the warriors are sincerely haunted by memories of the loved ones they've left behind, like their predecessors in Greek myth. Men and women, beauty and bloodshed: their fates intertwine decisively in the operatic pre-intermission sequence, cued by a Rahman composition ("Chola Chola") that may well end up serving double duty as the year's best love song and its loudest battle cry. I think one could fairly argue that, in going for such scope, Ratnam has sacrificed some of his usual intimacy: it does feel weird that, at the end of Part 1, we come away knowing more about the princes' sister Kundavai (Trisha) than we do about the princes themselves. (There may still be armour to peel away, more secret passageways to explore.) But no director in the post-lockdown era has exhibited a stronger sense of what the big screen can be used for. Early on, when asked which kingdom he represents, Vandiyathevan shrugs "the sky above, the earth below". Where all this worldbuilding is leading will only be fully revealed next year, but for the time being, Ratnam has given us all that and a comet to light the way.

Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 14 October 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of October 7-9, 2022):

1 (1) Smile (18)
2 (new) The Woman King (15) ***
3 (2) Don't Worry Darling (15)
4 (3) Ticket to Paradise (12A)
5 (new) Amsterdam (15)
6 (4) Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (PG) ****
7 (new) The Lost King (12A)
8 (5) Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1 (15) ****
9 (8) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
10 (7) See How They Run (12A) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. The Lost Boys [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (4) Thor: Love and Thunder (12) **
2 (new) Bullet Train (15)
3 (1) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
4 (new) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
5 (2) Elvis (12) **
6 (new) When the Crawdads Sing (15)
7 (3Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
8 (34) The Railway Children Return (PG)
9 (6) The Black Phone (15) ****
10 (5) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)

My top five: 
1. Hit the Road

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Loving (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
2. Bad Times at the El Royale (Saturday, C4, 1.20am)
3. Corpus Christi (Thursday, C4, 1.55am)
4. Shrek 2 (Sunday, C4, 4pm)
5. The Fits (Saturday, BBC2, 2.40am)

On demand: "Passenger"

Passenger exists as an extraordinary fragment, representing what was surely one of the cinema's great unfinished films. In the early 1960s, with the Polish New Wave firmly on the charge, the writer-director Andrzej Munk filmed a sort-of love triangle of the concentration camps, shot at Auschwitz itself and involving a warden (Aleksandra Slaska), the prisoner she takes a special treatment in (Anna Ciepielewska), and the latter's fiancé (Marek Walczewski). An adaptation of a Zofia Posmysz novel, it might have collapsed into melodrama were it not for the casual everyday cruelties being described, and the warden's self-serving narration, insistent she was only ever a passenger carried along by century-defining historical forces. Munk, just 40, then died in a car crash before he could complete work on the novel's framing device, set in the post-War period aboard a cruise liner where the prisoner unexpectedly reappears before the warden and her oblivious new husband, as good an illustration as any of that old maxim about the past not being through with us, no matter that we might be through with the past. These scenes had to be reconstructed using La Jetée-like snapshots and a linking narration from one of the team of Munk's contemporaries who assembled the hour-long version that was eventually sent out into the world.

What's disarming about Passenger is how even this photo-roman stopgap works thematically, gesturing to how tentative reality must have felt after the Holocaust: in these stretches, conventional time stops, and basic causality looks to have been severed. The photographs are notable in their own right, sharing as they do Munk's keen compositional sense. The camp scenes are most notable for the vignettes (too delicate a word, maybe) caught in the background of the main action, the kind of atrocity you almost certainly have to overlook so as to function on any level in such a context. Prisoners are pursued by attack dogs; kindergartners are led by the hand into the gas chamber (played, remember, by an actual gas chamber); discarded belongings litter the muddy ground. Given the sacred status the camps assumed in the 20th century's final decades, you wonder how on earth they filmed it - even in this state, Passenger presents as a remarkable document of a period when the camps were still thought too radioactive with evil to be reclaimed as sites of tourism. It's not finished, which makes it hard to assess as a narrative: there are odd plot hikes, and certain subplots and characterisations appear diffuse in a way they might not have done over ninety or a hundred minutes. Yet it remains properly disturbing, not just for what it shows but what it suggests: a horror that, in 1963, was still too close to home, and which even before Munk's death was never going to be easily resolved or exorcised.

Passenger is currently available to stream via

Thursday 13 October 2022

On DVD: "Hit the Road"

The terrible irony of Jafar Panahi's recent house arrest and eventual incarceration by the Iranian authorities was that Panahi had long been one of world cinema's most mobile directors: consider 2015's
Taxi Tehran, in which the filmmaker effectively set himself up as his own Uber franchise. (Maybe he went too far for the authorities; maybe he saw too much on his travels. Mobility remains a grave threat to all those seeking to maintain the status quo.) Hit the Road, the breakthrough film of Panahi's son Panah Panahi, has clearly been informed by many long hours spent in the back of the family car, kicking the seat in front and plaintively inquiring "Are we there yet?" - where "there" perhaps corresponds to "a better place". The set-up is universal, which may explain why this became the first Iranian film in several years to make a dent internationally: a family embarking upon a cross-country roadtrip, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath or The Beverly Hillbillies. Within minutes, the film has sized these travellers up. There's the bearded, bear-like father (Mohammed Hassan Madjooni), confined to the backseat with a broken leg; his understandably concerned wife (Pantea Panahiha); and the couple's two sons, the eldest (Amin Simiar), obliged to drive with the grimmest expression imaginable; and the youngest (Rayan Sarlak), the kind of precocious moppet who allows foreign-language movies to break clear of the festival circuit and into cinemas proper. (There's also a dog in the back, for bonus ingratiation.) We've also found out something's gone awry, judging from the great fuss the family makes about discarding their phones and their creeping suspicion they're being followed from a discreet distance. Panahi Jr. demonstrates far greater patience than any of us did as a child, presented with even a vaguely comparable scenario. The reason for the family's flight is only gradually insinuated, as is their destination, and the mission they find themselves on. In the meantime, they remain their own worst obstacles, forever getting in one another's way - often on one another's nerves - in the cramped confines of a beat-up station wagon you fear will conk out at any moment.

En route, we gather that Panahi has prised loose a camera that was largely fixed rigidly to the windscreen and wing mirrors of his predecessors in the Iranian cinema. Hit the Road drifts from the nervy front seats to the chaos in the back, then to looking out the side windows at Kiarostami-like landscapes, before finally taking flight with one or two sequences that are all this filmmaker's own, that owe nothing to nobody; what it appears to underline is how each generation builds on the achievements of the one before, and - ideally - enjoys a greater freedom, too. This is undeniably an Iranian film, centred on characters facing up to very specific circumstances that may relate in some way to those of the filmmaker's own family. Yet where Panahi Sr., Kiarostami and the Makhmalbafs had almost to invent a new cinematic language - to communicate among themselves, out of the earshot (and beyond the immediate comprehension) of those who would clamp them down - Panahi Jr. allows Hit the Road a freewheeling quality not unlike that of Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers, perhaps the film's closest Western equivalent in its mix of careful character observation and broader, hard-earned life wisdoms. In short, it's very definitely the work of someone who has travelled, and seen the world and its movies. It also establishes Panahi as a fine director of actors, allowing scenes to play out long enough to fully reveal the disparate personalities obliged by external circumstance to occupy this same small space: the mournful older brother, wrestling internally with guilt over being the cause of this disruption; the quietly optimistic mother, trying to chivvy him through this transitional moment; the bluff patriarch, distant, sometimes difficult, but acutely human in his dishevelment (to that broken leg, add broken hands and a toothache, further signs of a body collapsing inward with all the stress); and finally the bright-eyed kid, who will - we hope - outlive them all, and have a happier life than any. Panahi keeps his eyes on the road, but he also maintains a stirring sense of what's around the bend and over the horizon.

Hit the Road is released on DVD through Picturehouse Entertainment from Monday. 

Tuesday 11 October 2022

To Sir, with love: "Sidney"

With the announcement of Sidney Poitier's passing in the first week of January,
Sidney - Reginald Hudlin's overview of the life and work of one of American cinema's most talismanic figures - became both an inevitability and a lock in year-end awards consideration. (It needed making, and if we know anything, it's that Hollywood loves nothing more than celebrating itself.) Hudlin's film - produced by Oprah Winfrey for AppleTV+, but receiving a limited theatrical release alongside its streaming debut - had been in the pipeline for some while, however. Much of it is structured around a to-camera address by Poitier himself, still remarkably well-preserved for a man heading into his nineties, and once more demonstrating the force and coherence of voice that helped make him a star over a half-century ago. To tell the story of Poitier's life, as Hudlin realises, is to reflect upon the recent history of American race relations, and run the gamut from "For Colored Only" signs to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. After a prologue in which Poitier recounts an idyllic-sounding childhood growing up on the predominantly Black island of New Providence in the Bahamas, the Klan make their first appearance around the ten-minute mark; and yet even that proves less chilling than the formative anecdote that follows. The worst thing about it isn't that the young Poitier was harassed at a bus stop by representatives of the Miami PD, nor that a gun was pointed at his head, nor that he was instructed, in no uncertain terms, to walk home without looking back - which could, after all, have been an empty threat issued by someone drunk on their own power. No, the worst thing about it is that these cops actually did follow the trembling boy every step of the way, daring him to defy their command. You can learn a lot about control and discipline from such an episode, but the sorry story also has much to teach us about the extremes to which some will go - and what Poitier had to overcome just to survive, let alone flourish as he did.

Of course, some element of luck and good timing is also apparent in this biography. Poitier arrived on the US mainland as America first began to renegotiate what it was and who it was really for, which enables Hudlin to evoke the jazzy spirit of 1940s Harlem, and set the stereotypes the movies traded in pre-Poitier against the greater realism of the immediate post-War period. One early sign of principled things to come: Poitier turning down a supporting role in Phil Karlson's highly regarded The Phenix City Story, on the grounds the character was scripted to behave in a way he couldn't personally sanction. (As he's heard telling Studs Terkel in a radio interview: "There are some things you have to say no to.") Like any true star, he was beginning to organise the cinema around him; as the late cultural critic Greg Tate observes, "the movies changed the day [Poitier] hit the screen". Poitier had made his debut in 1950's No Way Out, which became the first film his folks back in Nassau had ever seen: encountered from the perspective of an era when the movies seem more ubiquitous than ever, this may be the starkest fact Sidney turns up about where the young actor was coming from. After a while, the film fills with talking heads - and, no doubt thanks to Oprah, celebrity talking heads at that. Yet in its strongest stretches, Sidney demonstrates how effective talking heads can still be if you select interviewees who - like Poitier - actually have something in their heads and the ability to express it. The approach allows Hudlin to construct lively debate around, say, 1958's The Defiant Ones: Halle Berry is gushy, Nelson George far more sceptical, and Morgan Freeman splits the difference. There are aspects of this legacy that aren't yet set in stone, that invite discussion - amusingly, in the case of Spike Lee's passing takedown of 1963's Oscar-baiting Lilies of the Field, which proves almost as funny as Spike Lee's takedown of Green Book

As Sidney segues decisively from mid-century America into the movies mid-century America inspired, it begins to mirror the appeal of HBO's recent cinephile delight The Last Movie Stars: it's a reminder of an era when even the studio films that weren't as enduring as Poitier himself were assembled with craft and care and aimed squarely at adults. (There's some crossover in the shape of 1961's Newman/Poitier-pairing Paris Blues, its reputation surely higher at the end of 2022 than it has been at any time in the last sixty years.) Best known for his youthful adventures in comedy (House Party, Boomerang), Hudlin has fun with the career-long, largely friendly rivalry between Poitier and his contemporary Harry Belafonte, and late on with his subject's mid-career shift into directing crowdpleasers like 1980's Stir Crazy. (Nobody mentions 1990's Bill Cosby vehicle Ghost Dad, which may be for the best.) Yet the filmmaker, too, seems to have absorbed some of Poitier's essential seriousness: Sidney is good on the art of this life, and better still on how that art came to reshape and redefine the world at a critical moment. As authorised legacy product, it can be a touch coy on the actor's personal life, but it works hard to solve the mystery of why this career seemed to tail off at the turn of the 1970s. "Statuesque" (as one correspondent dubs Poitier) suggests a certain inflexibility, and Poitier certainly appears upright and uptight set against Shaft, Superfly and Soul Train, or the thrusting young heroes of Hudlin's New Black Cinema. The film usefully reframes its subject as someone who, with great gentlemanly poise, opened a door for others with vastly differing priorities to come charging through. Even before we get to To Sir with Love - and its attendant, somewhat unexpected Lulu testimony - Sidney has established Poitier as an educator in an industry that was increasingly being given over to children. Contrast the clip of the actor's interactions with Denzel Washington at the landmark Academy Awards of 2002 with your recollections of Oscar night 2022, and then ask yourself this: a half-century from now, will anybody trouble to make a similar film about Kevin Hart?

Sidney is now playing in selected London cinemas, and available to stream via AppleTV+. 

Saturday 8 October 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of September 30-October 2, 2022):

1 (new) Smile (18)
2 (2) Don't Worry Darling (15)
3 (1) Ticket to Paradise (12A)
4 (new) Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (PG) ****
5 (new) Ponniyin Selvan: I (15)
6 (3) Avatar (12A) ****
7 (4See How They Run (12A) ***
8 (6) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
9 (7) DC League of Super-Pets (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Avatar

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
2 (1) Elvis (12) **
3 (2Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
4 (6) Thor: Love and Thunder (12) **
5 (5) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
6 (7) The Black Phone (15) ****
7 (9) The Batman (15) ***
8 (11) Uncharted (12)
9 (13) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
10 (new) Jurassic World: Triple Pack (12) **

My top five: 
 The Black Phone

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Lady Vanishes [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2.40pm)
2. The Lost City of Z (Tuesday, BBC2, 12.15am)
3. The 39 Steps (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
4. BlacKkKlansman (Friday, Channel 4, 12.10am)
5. Shrek (Sunday, Channel 4, 4pm)

Reigns down in Africa: "The Woman King"

By all accounts,
The Woman King bears as much relation to actual historical events in 1820s Dahomey as Braveheart did to actual historical events in 13th century Scotland. Initially, it seems above all else an opportunity for producer-star Viola Davis to act even tougher than she did in 2018's Widows, a pre-lockdown awards-season hope that found itself muscled out of the final Oscar line-up altogether. Yet the rise to power of her Nanisca, frontwoman of Dahomey's fearsome all-gal Agojie warriors, turns out to be but one thread in one of the movie mainstream's more ambitious exercises in world-building. The actress-turned-scenarist Maria Bello and critic-turned-screenwriter Dana Stevens have also weaved in court intrigue, with man-king John Boyega shrugging off the distraction of nine wives to combat a threat from a rival tribe, and the training of a wide-eyed young runaway (Thuso Mbedu, breakout star of Barry Jenkins' The Underground Railroad) in the ways of the Agojie. It sounds like at least a bit of a gamble - when was the last major American feature to be set in 1820s Africa? - but this screenplay has been thought through with an eye to providing something to engage everyone: political drama, some kind of history, a coming-of-age narrative, a sense of what a parable of Black self-determination like this might communicate to a 21st century audience - plus semi-regular bouts of action for any boyfriends who consider themselves to have been dragged along reluctantly.

The director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, finally landing a competitive theatrical budget after years of not quite getting the backing her talents merited. (Her work on Netflix's much-streamed actioner The Old Guard seems to have elbowed the moneymen in the ribs; her best film, 2014's sharply observed showbiz romance Beyond the Lights, went underpromoted in the US, and limped direct-to-DVD here.) Prince-Bythewood has a knack of rooting all of those disparate story elements firmly in character, and she's ably assisted by several of the most commanding performers to have emerged over recent years. Sure, sometimes they're stuck with that ever-chewy historical-epic dialogue - some business with soothsaying nuts occasions the line "for the first time, your nuts were right" - but this narrative is a broadly sturdy thing, constructed out of the interactions of sharply defined individuals who forever prove more than the usual movie action figures. If Davis at first comes on as standoffish, that's because Nanisca is fighting her own internal battles, and it clears room for the approachable pairing of Mbedu and Lashana Lynch as the Agojie's head girl; it's more ensemble piece than it is "Viola's Oscar shot", and all the players go full throttle, not just into combat with sticks, knives and spears, but into the turns of Stevens' plot. (It's a big picture that hinges on the world it builds being smaller than you might think.) Maybe the second half plays a tad conventional, with an oft-shirtless mixed-race hunk (Coventry's own Jordan Bolger) helping Mbedu escape the slave ships, and Viola finally going toe-to-toe with the brute responsible for her battle scars. But in its own right, it's a good yarn, involving and stirring and - thanks to DoP Polly Morgan - often beautiful to look at, even in the unpromising context of your local Cineworld. You come away glad the movies got round to telling this story, doubly so that they told it with such verve.

The Woman King is now playing in cinemas nationwide.