Friday 25 November 2022

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (from November 18-20, 2022):

1 (1) Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (12A) **
2 (new) The Menu (15)
3 (3) Lyle Lyle Crocodile (PG)
4 (2) Black Adam (12A)
5 (5) Living (12A) ****
6 (4) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
7 (new) Aftersun (12A) ***
8 (new) Listy Do M. 5 (15)
9 (new) Drishyam 2 (15)
10 (new) Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Living

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
2 (4) Elf (PG) **
3 (5) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
4 (6) Elvis (12) **
5 (11) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
6 (32) Nope (15) ***
7 (2) Top Gun Double Pack (12) ****
8 (8) The Batman (15) ***
9 (7) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
10 (13) The Grinch [2018] (U)

My top five: 
1. Top Gun: Maverick
5. Fall

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Titfield Thunderbolt (Sunday, BBC2, 1pm)
2. The Elephant Man [above] (Wednesday, BBC2, 11.50pm)
3. McFarland, USA (Tuesday, BBC2, 12.30am)
4. The Wife (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. Mogul Mowgli (Sunday, BBC2, 10.15pm)

Thursday 24 November 2022

From the archive: "Casque d'Or"

Since taking over the UK's Optimum Releasing, the French-owned distributor StudioCanal has done its very best to restore the films and reputation of Jacques Becker, one of the directors all but swept away by the New Wave, after which he came to be regarded - somewhat sniffily - as a poor man's Renoir. First to emerge on DVD was Becker's granite-hard prison-break movie Le Trou from 1960 - prosaic Bresson, to adopt the Godard party line. There now follows 1952's Casque d'Or, itself staking out a criminal underworld of some kind, which ventures that even during the Belle Époque, les citoyens were still capable of some ugly, cutthroat behaviour. What distinguishes the film is the balance Becker finds between masculine and feminine elements. On one level, this is a semi-conventional love story, with Simone Signoret as the moll in the process of working out where she fits in Parisian society. Arriving on the scene on the burly arm of possessive thug Roland (William Sabatier), she soon catches the eye of the honest, dependable Manda (Serge Reggiani), an ex-con carpenter who represents the emergent petite bourgeoisie. All three characters will have their fates decided by Félix (Claude Dauphin), the gang boss who hides his dirty deeds behind the respectable façade of an import business, and treats everyone around him as items to be bought and sold. The latter's presence suggests how the film also functions as a crime story, filling its frames with monobrows in sharp hats, jostling and screwing over one another to get their hands on this world's money and women.

It's true Becker was no soaring visual stylist - that foremost New Wave criterion - but then his feet were always very firmly on the ground. Rejecting, say, the opulence of his contemporary Max Ophüls, he instead took his camera to cobbled working-class neighbourhoods, enabling Signoret and Reggiani to take a memorable waltz around a beer garden where the patrons turn their noses up at these louts with flick-knives, and their tarts, who don't appear to know their place. These lovers prove to be every bit as trapped by their circumstances as the prisoners looking into the deep, dark hole of Le Trou; the narrative motor is a series of heartbreaking breaches of the honour code that now look like both a continuation of the romantic Carné/Prévert tradition, and a glimpse of colder-blooded Melvillian betrayals to come. (Conclusion: Becker was bang in the middle of 20th century French film.) This one is a form of heritage cinema, as the Cahiers critics spotted and (in part) decried, but it's also more modern and broader-minded than that description/dismissal implies - a sort of cinéma de papa, fils et fille. Bonuses are that rueful, reflective worldliness that came as standard in French romances of this period - and in which Becker here proves very nearly the philosophical equal of Renoir - and the fact this is the movie in which every lighting choice has been engineered to make one fall head over heels in love with Signoret: the high watermark of the knowing, mocking, utterly sensual courtesan, the kind of woman absolutely worth fighting over so as to spend even one evening with.

(May 2013)

Casque d'Or returns to selected cinemas from tomorrow, ahead of its 4K Blu-Ray reissue on Monday.

On demand: "The Good Nurse"

Another battle-hardened veteran of world cinema heads West and takes the Netflix coin. To be fair, Tobias Lindholm's cool, calm procedural eye - honed on TV's Borgen, polished in the course of two features, 2012's A Hijacking and 2015's A War, and further sharpened by his recent small-screen return The Investigation - is far from the worst feature to have brought inside the tent at a moment when the American cinema often seems to have taken its eye off the ball altogether. The true-crime material of The Good Nurse, meanwhile, makes an easy fit with the Netflix algorithms. 1917 screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns has adapted Charles Graeber's non-fiction account of mysterious deaths in a New Jersey hospital in the first years of the new millennium: Jessica Chastain is the tireless ICU nurse and single mother whose own health offers cause for concern over the course of her night shifts, Eddie Redmayne the newbie brought onboard to lighten the workload at exactly the same time the ward's elderly patients begin expiring unexpectedly. The killer's identity, you may have surmised, is hardly in doubt, which allows the film to remain restrained in most respects, broadly resistant to the sensationalism lurking inside its own material. Lindholm dims the lights, hushes the voices, and keeps moving the plot sideways into offices - this filmmaker's natural milieu - where we find a pair of detectives (Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich) digging around and the hospital administrators (led by Kim Dickens, eerily placid in power suits) trying to minimise any liability.

This is where Lindholm's interest in this story lies - in how this case was managed or mismanaged, rather than how it was eventually resolved, and thus in what we might all learn from such an episode going forwards. "It's been seven weeks," sighs Dickens in response to a police request for information. "Eight," corrects Asomugha. Later, the roles are reversed: she informs him that the hospital's electronic dispensing system - which the killer effectively hacked - is called PXYIS and not "PIXIE", as the detective has it. It's a movie for sticklers, in other words; throughout, Lindholm makes a concerted effort to get the details right, avoid trumping any of this up, and thereby honour the dead. What's interesting is that, by avoiding the route-one trajectory, Wilson-Cairns gives herself time and space to investigate other lines of inquiry: her writing is forever alert to the links between work and health, and between healthcare and big business. The Lindholm touch, meanwhile, manifests in the determination to view the leads not as characters in a movie, but individuals caught within an exasperatingly labyrinthine system that sometimes appears as every bit as responsible for these deaths as any one killer. The editorial line - and perhaps only creatives hailing from countries with socialised healthcare might dare to set this out in the context of an American feature - is that a system notionally established to save lives has instead by compromised by money, and now provides easy prey and shelter for monsters. It's not quite a thriller, but it might just qualify as a horror movie.

The big question The Good Nurse raises is whether or not this is what the studio system - as it now is, beset by multiple investigations into its own ethics and working practices - really wants. We might draw a less than positive conclusion from the fact that, after the film's festival bow at Toronto in September, Netflix didn't bother to afford The Good Nurse even the cursory one-weekend theatrical showcase some of their other recent productions and pick-ups have enjoyed. There's a certain corporate logic in that. The tension within the movie is chiefly ambient rather than explicit: a note of disquiet in Morten Green's sound design, say. (Viewers led to expect another Coma or Extreme Measures will likely get fidgety after the opening half-hour.) But it's there, nevertheless, and it comes back to the surface around the midpoint as the Chastain character realises she's not just working alongside a killer, but to some extent at his mercy. The glamorous star isn't slumming it here; rather, she disappears inside a character with worries enough even before an outright sociopath comes calling. And Redmayne reminds you what an effective actor - and unnerving presence - he can be outside of movie fantasyland: quietly controlling, pass-agg in scrubs, feeling potential victims out for signs of dependency. All the red flags are there in this performance - you'd have to be truly negligent not to spot them sooner or later - but Lindholm turns the colour down on them, and prevents them from flapping as loudly as they might. One quality Tobias Lindholm may yet restore to the American cinema: subtlety.

The Good Nurse is now streaming on Netflix.

Tuesday 22 November 2022

What we did on our holiday: "Aftersun"

 is a small, wispy film - a textbook illustration of the semi-promising debut - which has been talked up as a very big thing by people whose job depends on getting you to believe that the cinema has more life in it than it presently has. If Charlotte Wells' debut proves anything, beyond that festival reviewing is now largely a matter of finding the right hyperbole to match the demob-happy mood, it's the influence of Lynne Ramsay on the next generation of Scottish filmmakers. Twenty years on from Morvern Callar, here's another ultra-allusive account of a Mediterranean package holiday, grounded by sporadic notes of realism: the hotel that's subject to noisy construction work, the messed-up booking that ensures father-and-daughter pairing Calum and Sophie (Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio) have to share the same bed - doubly uncomfortable, given the unexplained cast on dad's wrist. It's not paradise, then, but it'll do. On the surface, the film is almost pedestrian in its ordinariness: some sightseeing, rather more lounging around by the pool, punctuated - come sundown - by that dreadful all-inclusive entertainment that has traditionally driven British holidaymakers to the drink. What my colleagues seem to be responding to so ecstatically is what lies a quarter-inch below the film's surface, suggested by these characters' determination to make the most of it, and to take care of one another (e.g. applying the titular lotion, one dad-daughter bonding ritual) while doing so. Something's going on here, undeniably; it's just that someone, be that dad or director, isn't immediately letting on what. Weirdly, this Caledonian production turns out more withholding and more stiff-upper-lipped than the broadly English Living.

We'll get to what's being tamped down in due course, but it's quickly clear that Wells has picked up good marks for her filmmaking grammar, which is all in place and carefully thought through: very precise, potentially revealing close-ups of her leads, stroboscopic inserts that introduce some darkness amid all the sunlight, choppy, handheld camcorder footage that underlines our growing suspicion that all parties are here to make memories. It's possible the film is at least in part autobiographical; if so, then it would appear Wells has spent a good fifteen or twenty years thinking about how best to retell it on a big screen. (One curveball: odd little flashforwards to the adult Sophie, now an artist of some kind revisiting that camcorder footage for personal and/or professional reasons.) The grammar needs to be in place, not least to persuade us to stay the course, because this is (and this is what those adulatory reviews don't tell you) one of those films where nothing of vast import - nothing you wouldn't ordinarily see sitting around the hotel pool - is unfolding before the camera for long stretches. (For a while, you may even wonder whether Wells hasn't made the arthouse equivalent of those movies where Adam Sandler packs his pals off to a resort for a good time on the studio's dollar.) If the reveal - why this holiday is especially poignant - even counts as a reveal, then it too is no big thing, a reveal of very ordinary, commonplace circumstances. While I was watching Aftersun, I kept flashing back to this summer's sleeper hit The Quiet Girl, which was equally precise in its composition, but found an actual story to fill its frames, where Wells turns in a What I Did On My Holidays essay. The leads are likable, which has also clearly helped. Corio is sparky and unmannered; casting director Lucy Pardee deserves credit for finding one of the few child actors in the country who hasn't been Sylvia Younged, and therefore can't hold a tune when developments demand it. And Mescal won't do his emergent heartthrob status any harm by playing a 21st century update of Athena Man; it's nice that this girl should have someone looking out so attentively for her. The film is nice, too, in the way some holidays and some festival stints are nice. But Aftersun often seems so concerned with being nice that it forgets to be especially dramatic, or even really that interesting.

Aftersun is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Monday 21 November 2022

One last thing: "Living"

Remaking Kurosawa seems a fool's errand, but
Living has at least three elements in its favour. Firstly, although much admired, 1952's Ikiru has fallen out of circulation in recent years, revived far less regularly than Kurosawa's action movies, and therefore arguably less sacrosanct. (Even within its maker's filmography, it remains something of an outlier.) Secondly, Ikiru's themes were always essentially universal. This story is founded on the understanding that every day, across the world, people go to their graves, or just their beds, with a sense of having failed to accomplish all that they could have or wanted to; the emotion is just as applicable to a Japanese bureaucrat as it is to a commuter-belt mainstay stuck in a London borough's civic planning department. Thirdly - and most obviously - it has fallen into the right hands at the right moment, by which I mean that eerie post/mid-pandemic lull where we're all perpetually on the verge of tears anyway, having failed to fully process the events of the past few years. There is no time, we're told; we have work to do, economies to rebuild. 

The new film is produced by the ultra-cinephile Woolley-Karlsen pairing; Stephen Woolley's former Palace Pictures cohort Nik Powell gets a posthumous exec-producer credit, and the film may indeed owe its existence to the latter's premature passing. The screenwriter is the hallowed Kazuo Ishiguro, who finds appreciable parallels between the English and Japanese psyches, their shared bent towards sacrifice and duty. The director is the sensitive South African Oliver Hermanus (Beauty), who comes at this material as an outsider, and finds British office life - more specifically, the British office life of the immediate post-War years - to be odder and more drably confounding than typically presented. And the star is Bill Nighy, who just seems to have been waiting for a great legacy role that hasn't been thought up for him by Richard Curtis. This is the first time since 2001's marvellous Lawless Heart that the actor has been called upon to play anything more demanding than Bill Nighy: National Treasure, and the difference is striking, to say the least. 

In his first scenes as mid-level planning chief Mr. Williams, Nighy drops his voice and mumbles his lines into his collar, partly because the character knows he has nothing of world-changing import to say (indeed, his desk is where new projects go to die), partly because he's been wearied by decades of paperwork. He's Rob Brydon's Man in a Box made sorry flesh - it's just the box is the suit and tie that will someday provide his funeral garb. (And we realise businessmen everywhere are dressed for their own demise.) Williams has a built-in arc: given six months to live, he commutes anew from despair and denial (suicidal ideation, a lost weekend in Brighton involving another terrific Tom Burke cameo) to acceptance and renewed resolve. Part of the appeal is that we're watching Bill Nighy being returned to something like life, snapped back into shape by a realisation of what he can still achieve and the proximity of Sex Education's Aimee Lou Wood, all colour and cheek as an office girl called Margaret, a defibrillator in human form. (If a man can't perk up around her, then there truly is no hope.) 

Gradually, the whole film becomes Nighyesque: angular, eccentric, perfectly tailored to its leading man's peculiar strengths. Living isn't quite the Well-Made British Film it looks, nor as sedate as one might expect; instead, it's all sudden movements and odd, affecting pauses, which may well be what happens when you fashion a miniature from a 143-minute near-classic. That eccentricity is clearest in Living's chancy, structurally bold second half, which assumes a new narrative tack, the better to take fuller measure of its protagonist's perilously narrow existence. Only a master storyteller could zigzag around so without losing the audience or the emotional effect, but then both Ishiguro and Hermanus are less beholden to their source than they are to the singular lifeforce ebbing and flowing front-and-centre of shot. More delicate than Ikiru, Living remains a very human achievement, and it may see out the coming winter as the one awards-season contender you instinctively feel is over far too soon. But such is life.

Living is now playing in selected cinemas.

Sunday 20 November 2022

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office
 (from November 11-13, 2022):

1 (new) Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (12A) **
2 (1) Black Adam (12A)
3 (2) Lyle Lyle Crocodile (PG)
4 (3) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
5 (4) Living (12A) ****
6 (6) Prey for the Devil (15)
7 (7) Smile (18)
8 (8) Triangle of Sadness (15) **
9 (5) One Piece Film: Red (12A)
10 (10) Ticket to Paradise (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
2 (2) Top Gun Double Pack (12) ****
4 (26) Elf (PG) **
5 (3Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
6 (4) Elvis (12) **
7 (6) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
8 (8) The Batman (15) ***
9 (7) Bullet Train (15)
10 (9) Sing 2 (U)

My top five: 
1. Top Gun: Maverick
5. Nope

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Babe (Sunday, ITV1, 12.45pm)
2. Surge (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
3. The Football Factory [above] (Friday, five, 11.05pm)
4. Grandma (Wednesday, C4, 3.05am)
5. Ready Player One (Thursday, BBC2, 11.15pm)

Wednesday 16 November 2022

On demand: "My Father's Dragon"

Advance word posited that
My Father's Dragon was the jolliest animation yet from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish artisans who previously blessed us with The Book of Kells, Song of the Sea and Wolfwalkers. The description is not entirely inaccurate, but this big-screen treatment of a 1948 picture-book by Ruth Stiles Gannett opens with a brisk sketch of financial privation likely to chime with anyone using Netflix as a babysitter during the winter cost-of-living crisis. Removed to poky digs in a cold, wet, anonymous city after the failure of his single mother's grocery business, young Elmer (voiced by Room's Jacob Tremblay) finds a form of escape and uplift with the aid of a sardonic talking cat (Whoopi Goldberg) and then - after a voyage by sea to a tropical island - the cuddly firebreather of the title. What follows thereafter is a little less organic - and more generic - than what's come before; it may be what happens when a studio who've hitherto been left to their own devices enters into partnership with a streaming giant and finds itself competing for eyeballs with the collected might of Disney and Disney+. To get to this fantasy island, Elmer hops aboard a chatty whale (Judy Greer) who could have swum straight out of the Finding Nemo universe, and once in place, he's soon surrounded by a furry menagerie with illustrious vowels, chief among them a gorilla with the voice of TV's Lovejoy. (Doubtless because he, too, has been brought to speaking life by Ian McShane.) It's a nice gag that the reportedly fearsome dragon, Boris, should turn out to be a pushover in sweater stripes; he resembles Barney the dinosaur facially, proves terrified of fire, and broadly comports himself like a draught excluder. I foresee a range of plush toys coming down the production line: Boris makes even Cressida Cowell's eminently cuddly Toothless seem like Jeffrey Dahmer.

All the same, it's rather a pity that the screenplay (by Meg LeFauve, one of the megabrains behind Inside Out) should default to quest-narrative standard: the film is essentially a lively walk through the jungle in search of life lessons. The source material may have been dusted down now because of its vision of a child handed the unenviable responsibility of warding off disastrous ecological collapse; fleeing the mainland with the world already weighing heavy on his shoulders, Elmer winds up having to play structural engineer with Boris so as to try and prevent the island from sinking into the sea. Again, it's not Madagascar-jolly, exactly: the jolliness is mixed in with a certain degree of pedagogy. Part of me actually itched to get off the island, which in 2022 feels like a pretty stock if not archetypal location for an animated children's film, and back to that city, which feels richer in narrative possibility and sources of potential tension. (We may do yet: Gannett's book was the first in a series, and I'm eager to see how Boris tests the no-pets rule in Elmer's apartment building.) Still, at every stage, in every corner, there is undeniable art in the presentation. As in her earlier work under the auspices of Cartoon Saloon, director Nora Twomey draws big, pleasing effects from what look comparatively simple, cut-out-and-keep character designs; there's none of the clutter, gratuitous flashiness or draining overcomplication that have dogged Pixar's digimations in recent years. The relief and charm My Father's Dragon inspires lies in encountering an animation that looks (skilfully) handturned rather than 3D printed, that finds some equivalent in its method to Aardman's fingerprints-in-the-plasticine approach. Ruth Stiles Gannett is still with us, at the grand old age of 99: if she sees Twomey's film, and you hope she does, she'll surely observe that her creations have been treated with the utmost care and delicacy.

My Father's Dragon is now streaming on Netflix.

Saturday 12 November 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of November 4-6, 2022):

1 (1) Black Adam (12A)
2 (2) Lyle Lyle Crocodile (PG)
3 (3) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
4 (new) Living (12A)
5 (new) One Piece Film: Red (12A)
6 (4) Prey for the Devil (15)
7 (6) Smile (18)
8 (10) Triangle of Sadness (15) **
9 (8) Barbarian (18) ***
10 (12) Ticket to Paradise (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. The Thing
5. The Draughtsman's Contract [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (8) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
2 (new) Top Gun Double Pack (12) ****
3 (4) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
4 (5) Elvis (12) **
5 (2) Terrifier 2 (18)
6 (3) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
7 (1) Bullet Train (15)
8 (6) The Batman (15) ***
9 (9) Sing 2 (U)
10 (11) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)

My top five: 
1. Top Gun: Maverick
4. Nope

Daft and dolorous: "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever"

Sometimes a death in the family is both a punch in the gut and a kick up the backside. I whisper this, given its universally beloved status, but 2018's Black Panther did little for me: look beneath its vibrant toplayer of Afrofuturist doodling, and it was still all too plainly Marvel Movie 101. (When I caught up with its writer-director Ryan Coogler's earlier Fruitvale Station recently, it seemed even more heartbreaking for being a road not pursued; fantastical doodling may be all the mainstream now has to offer those coming in from the fringes.) The film's colossal box-office inevitably gave rise to talk of sequels, yet planning would be confounded in 2020, first by Covid, then by the sad passing of star Chadwick Boseman, aged just 43. Two years later, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever raises an intriguing question: how does a vast, broadly unfeeling corporate superstructure - in this case, the now-labyrinthine narrative chicanery of Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe - even begin to absorb and process real-world grief and loss? The answer is it can't, ultimately, but you feel the question hanging heavy over at least the sequel's prologue, unusually hushed by event-movie standards, which begins with nearest-and-dearest being informed of King T'challa's sudden demise, and ends with an intricately carved coffin - continuity doodling - being sucked up into a spaceship. You wonder, at least for a moment or two, whether this superhero movie is going to take an existential cue or two from its urgently whispered opening line: "Time is running out." Gather ye Infinity Stones while ye may.

A parallel question, for anybody who isn't a fully paid-up Marvel fanboy, is whether your remaining time on this mortal coil is best spent sitting through all two hours and forty-two minutes of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Sure enough, it's soon MCU business as usual: Wakanda decried as a vibranium-stockpiling rogue state by one of those mock-UN committees Marvel movies specialise in. (One development for anyone keeping tabs on those actors who've sighed and taken the paycheque: Toby Ziegler, here promoted to the position of US ambassador/suspect paleface, is now Marvel canon. Also new to the canon: Robert John Burke, Fenty 440 make-up, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the struggles of indigenous Latin Americans. By 2030, they'll be joined by you, me, fidgetspinners and Duncan Norvelle.) And yet, even as the kingdom re-enters war with the wider world, grief keeps bursting out - first in a fireside chat between Queen Angela Bassett (who's gone grey for the occasion) and a never-more-fragile Letitia Wright (who spends the entire movie, even the car chases and techie stuff, on the brink of tears), then in sporadic spats and heart-to-hearts between the Wakanda ruling class. These scenes are touching, because they fall close to the conversations the actors themselves must have had between takes on the subject of their fallen comrade; it's just, as on set, they're continually cut short by explosions or sudden mermen invasions. The impression one gets of Wakanda Forever is of a production rerouted - ct. its slick, one-track predecessor - and that rerouting is where the film threatens to become halfway distinctive: it's like a Fast & Furious dispatch that pulls into a wake and momentarily passes for a funeral cortege.

Only threatens, though, and at 160 minutes-plus, there remains ample room for much that is not untypically throwaway, forgettable or otherwise plain silly. We get at least an hour of water-treading - literally - in an Atlantis-like seascape, where Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole again labour in wearying vain to bridge the gap between Stan Lee and Shakespeare. (Tom Hiddleston's desperate press-junket aside about 2011's Thor being no different from The Bard now seems more than ever comparable to Michael Gove's snide pre-Brexit crack about the British public having had enough of experts: not just demonstrably wrong, but damaging in its implications. Comic-book movies used to be a whole lot of fun before they felt a need to justify themselves as high art of great social relevance.) There's more real-world location work this time, but the Wakandan scenes retain that resistible air of shot-before-a-green-screen artlessness, while the stick-on African accents - also a feature of the recent, broadly admired The Woman King - are as the generic moustaches Caucasian actors used to don before playing Charlie Chan. All this is before the movie gets around to those mermen, who leap into frame as either market-stall knock-offs of DC's Aquaman creations, or spoilers for the forthcoming Avatar: The Way of Water. Like so many elements of the contemporary American blockbuster, they'd be a wow if we hadn't already seen them before and weren't about to see them again in the very near future.

Their arrival is the point where the sequel betrays the essentially infantile nature of these comic-book projects; it still seems utterly back-to-front that grown-ups will spend more hard-earned cash on this in the next few days than they will on any other film. The silliness of Wakanda Forever is different from the implausible escapism of, say, Speed or even Con Air, films that took place in some idea of the real world rather than inside a four-year-old's head, and were thus bound by some (albeit often tenuous) degree to the laws of physics. Here, we're meant to take everything on screen - even the burly men with tiny, delicate hummingbird wings on their ankles, apparently powerful enough to lift them a hundred feet into the air - at face value, and if we're really wide-eyed and credulous, to applaud it as some kind of vision, a forceful corrective to the myriad iniquities of our own universe. I really wish I could, but again the effect is largely superficial and acutely overstretched. Coogler introduces one surprising, moving storybeat at the end of another nothingy action sequence - the surprise is partly that something that feels so rotely insignificant could have such grave consequences - but the funeral party around it is hobbled by an intrinsic lack of gravity. After nearly three hours, Boseman's passing is marked with scarcely more weight than the death of the fictional Iron Man (soon to be overturned, if the rumour mill is to be believed), the end-credit nursery-rhyme that represents Rihanna's musical comeback (the voice is still there, the material isn't), or indeed of a coffin being sucked into a spaceship, never to be seen again. These movies keep reaching for the eternal - as in that optimistic subtitle, and the onerous running time - but reach is all they've got: it's hard to convey profound loss when your characters are recyclable meat in catsuits, and the films don't bear more than one hour's serious thought.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Exhibition: "Bros"

It's now clear the marketing tactic of trumpeting
Bros as the first studio romcom with openly gay leads backfired spectacularly. The straights - to be more specific, the homophobes and non-curious - were sent fleeing; gay viewers, meanwhile, were pushed into analysing what this notionally totemic picture said about them, and were broadly indifferent to what they saw. I caught up with Nicholas Stoller's film in its second week on release, by which time it had been relegated to a (very) light smattering of lunchtime matinees, which can't possibly have been its creators' intention: does representation really count if you're representing to six people shuffling Greggs bags while checking their phones? The issue, I think, wasn't the representation per se, but the trumpeting, which feels self-satisfied at best, and is to some degree built-in. Writer-star Billy Eichner is best known for a series of viral videos in which he shouts at New Yorkers on the street, and to this viewer as the point at which TV's Parks & Recreation upped the volume and lowered its quality control. He starts out here yammering at 70mph, as Bobby, mouthy host of an LGBTQ-themed podcast, and rarely dials back anything thereafter. "You're very intense," observes his chiselled sweetheart Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), which is the polite word for it. And all this is just in the film's early stages: by the conclusion, a plot hike is offering us some jolting idea of what Billy Eichner might look and sound like on steroids.

The agitation central to Eichner's screen persona seeps rapidly into a film that already appears more than a little unrelaxed, so tangled up is it with the burden of satisfying hopes and expectations, and the trickiness of balancing fragile personal truth with the crushing demands of cinematic commerce. We join Billy-as-Bobby as he's appointed head of a trust overseeing New York's first LGBTQ museum, and the workplace scenes, which stand as some of the liveliest in the film, involve an ongoing discussion with fellow board members (including Community's Jim Rash and Glee's Dot-Marie Jones) as to the direction key exhibits should take - in other words, who to represent, and how to represent them. When Bobby and Aaron start dating, it's to movies that prompt discussions of the movies that came before; there are variably affectionate takedowns of Brokeback Mountain (straight actors play sad and gay), Bohemian Rhapsody (for framing a gay icon in terms of his heterosexual dalliances) and those recent cable TV movies skewed towards the pink pound. Nobody on screen gets any time off from thinking about gay representation - it may be the first romcom where the protagonist's heartache is secondary to what's weighing on his mind. And so we start to feel the stress, too. One of the reasons Bros doesn't wholly seduce as romantic comedy is that it never allows us to relax the way even a midranking hetero romcom like You've Got Mail did. That film is glimpsed in passing here, still blithely removed of any such representational burdens, its characters free to be and love. By contrast, there aren't enough poppers in New York for Bros, which comes over as clenched when it's not chaotic; even with its (quite funny) Debra Messing cameo, it's all will, no grace.

Much of that stress can be traced back to Eichner himself, who's written a series of monologues for the other performers to fleetingly interrupt - a break from the tradition of producer Judd Apatow, whose best comedies (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People) have been essentially democratic in their methods. This is mature Eichner, which means he's saddened by the scene he overlooks from a nightclub balcony, and disdainful of the generations partying in his wake (a nice, tart line: "We had AIDS, they had Glee"). But his self-pity is harder to take than Woody Allen's must have been when the latter was reinventing the hetero romcom at the tail end of the 1970s. You understand all too easily why the abrasive and irascible Bobby keeps being blocked on Grindr, and it has nothing to do with the quality of his ass pics. Bros works best whenever it wriggles out of the chokehold of tribal responsibility (even the film's jolliest sex scene involves wrestling) to present as just jokes. Some of these are scene-specific: I liked the idea of Zellwegr, a dating app where users gather to talk about actresses before going to sleep. Many more are blessed with pansexual comedy nous: a TV movie aimed at bisexuals called "Christmas with Either", a gender-reveal orgy, talk of a sex-positive Tiny Tim. (Novel, funny ideas, wherever you sit on the Kinsey scale.) And Eichner is plainly engaged on some level with the ins and outs of gay history - what's come before - in a way that feels valuable and educative. There are more references to Stonewall than I can remember there ever being in a romcom, and a cameo for Harvey Fierstein, who - in his current, silver-haired incarnation - really ought to be playing Ursula in Disney's upcoming live-action Little Mermaid redo.

But the movie keeps circling back to its own hang-ups, and to a central relationship that forever feels like Eichner's fantasy, as a slightly schlubby fortysomething, of finding an adoring, endlessly supportive young hunk to stand by him while he gets his shit together. It boils down to the exact same flaw that's sunk so many straight-leaning romcoms in recent times, including several prominent examples from the Apatow school. And there is a lot of shit to get together. Billy-as-Bobby's midfilm monologue on how his self-loathing was drilled into him as a child is sensitively handled - or more sensitively handled than you'd perhaps expect from the director of Get Him to the Greek - but it also reminded me how wise Simon Amstell was to distance himself from the protagonist of 2018's Benjamin by casting someone else in the Simon Amstell role; there was a crucial opening-up of perspective (not to mention breathing space) in that movie that there isn't here. I still had a reasonable time with Bros: it's hard for me to object too vociferously to any film that features both the line "lesbians, disperse!" and a solid Yentl gag. There might even be lessons to be learnt from the film's commercial failure, if the studios were any longer interested in learning lessons that don't result in them printing money hand-over-fist. But chief among them would have to be that a film can't ever be entirely good for the gays if it's seen and widely perceived to be representing only one among their number. The trouble with Bros is that it barely seems to justify the plurality of its own title: in the end, it really is all about Billy.

Bros is playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 5 November 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office 
(for the weekend of October 28-30, 2022):

1 (1) Black Adam (12A)
2 (3) Lyle Lyle Crocodile (PG)
3 (2) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
4 (new) Prey for the Devil (15)
5 (new) Coldplay - Music of the Spheres: Live Broadcast from Buenos Aires (12A)
6 (4) Smile (18)
8 (new) Barbarian (18) ***
9 (5) Halloween Ends (18)
10 (new) Triangle of Sadness (15) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. The Thing

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Bullet Train (15)
2 (new) Terrifier 2 (18)
3 (1) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
4 (3Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
5 (5) Elvis (12) **
6 (16) The Batman (15) ***
7 (4) When the Crawdads Sing (15)
8 (6) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
9 (8) Sing 2 (U)
10 (7Thor: Love and Thunder (12) **

My top five: 
1. Top Gun: Maverick

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Spider-Man 2 (Saturday, ITV, 3.10pm)
2. Manchester by the Sea (Saturday, BBC2, 12.50am)
3. Minority Report [above] (Saturday, C4, 11.50pm)
4. The Addams Family (Sunday, C4, 3.45pm)
5. Spider-Man 3 (Sunday, ITV, 11.05pm)

"Watcher" (Guardian 02/11/22)


Dir: Chloe Okuno. With: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman, Madalina Anea. 91 mins. Cert: 15

Not to be confused with the recent Netflix hit, but a very solidly engineered Hitchcockian throwback, such as the Odeon used to lay on. Company man Karl Glusman and resting actress Maika Monroe are the upwardly mobile young Americans relocating to a Bucharest bolthole boasting a prominent picture window; with hubby out schmoozing clients, his better half has time enough to dwell on a gruesome local murder spree, and the silhouetted figure peering down from an adjacent property. Suspicion shifts and moves still closer to home, but on one point Chloe Okuno’s film remains resolute: these characters would have avoided a lot of grief had they invested in net curtains.

As late as Wes Craven’s Red Eye in 2005, we could take this species of medium-budget runaround for granted. Yet Watcher prompts not just relief that it exists, but actual, genuine, old-fashioned thrills. Striding confidently into studio terrain after contributing to last year’s V/H/S 94, Okuno works up a muted style and aces her setpieces, retooling passing extras as peripheral threats; her sound design goes right through you. She clearly punches up an underlying psychology in Zack Ford’s script, having the actress’s mounting fears compounded by frustration at a Rational Spouse seeking to explain them away as girly misunderstanding. (Glusman’s heroically regrettable moustache offers its own grounds for divorce.)

Practically the only novelty is that Okuno spots this gaslighting for what it is, though that permits us the rare privilege of a mainstream thriller heroine observed erring on the side of caution throughout. As in 2014’s It Follows, Monroe is no pushover, and her reward for persistence, amid the nicely unpredictable finale, is a “told you so” moment for the ages. Unimprovably brisk at 91 minutes, it’s not messing around – and probably won’t hang around long at a moment when the schedules are being primed with comic cuts and starrier awards fare. But a few more of these nifty diversions, and the multiplexes might once again be a viable night out. 

Watcher is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"The Last Heist" (Guardian 31/10/22)

The Last Heist

Dir: Coz Greenop. With: Terry Stone, Perry Benson, Michael Head, Sam Gittins. 86 mins. Cert: 18

You could find it reassuring that, even as the pound yo-yos and democracy unravels, there will forever be a corner of the British film industry that is grim-faced geezers in boozers toting shotguns and plotting shenanigans. This very late entry in a cycle initiated during the Blair administration attempts something a little more characterful than usual, as signalled by the presence of the great Perry Benson in the prologue as a bar owner who corks it before giving up his life insurance details to his son. Yet it still involves an hour of perilously muggy business, as the lad (co-writer Michael Head, sporting a marked resemblance to the young Frank Harper) recalls his old gang to Perry’s bar to work out where their raid on the recalcitrant insurers went bloodily awry. It’s a bit Reservoir Bodge: there’s much gruff talk of codes, and a liberal scattering of the other C-word, before the film pulls a loopy twist from an otherwise threadbare sleeve.

Fair play: that leftfield redirection provides a welcome jolt of energy, no matter that it may befuddle or shake off the Rise of the Footsoldier hardcore. (If nothing else, The Last Heist qualifies as the first geezer-pic to feature a sincere Terry Stone monologue on the toll ducking-and-diving can take on one’s mental health.) Up until then, however, Coz Greenop’s film is all too static and theatrical, stubbornly welded to its primary shooting location, and in thrall to less than scintillating banter that serves chiefly to set up the next flashback. While these at least give Benson more opportunity for effing, jeffing and plunging the occasional head in a deep fat fryer, it leads to a deathly lack of urgency. It’s overextended even at 86 minutes, and though fun, that cracker-barrel twist also propels Greenop towards what instinctively feels like the wrong choice of ending. Not the worst try at this sort of material, but you can already hear it circling the bargain bin. 

The Last Heist will be available to rent from November 14.

Three hours in a leaky boat: "Triangle of Sadness"

Ruben Östlund is going up in the world. As recently as a decade ago, the Swedish writer-director was making small sociological experiments with participants you didn't recognise (because they were often amateurs) and titles that needed explanation (Involuntary, Play, Force Majeure). These pointed, provocative investigations led to 2017's amusing artworld satire The Square, a self-consciously big picture that won the Cannes Palme d'Or the way undertaking certain research lands you the Nobel Prize. This, in turn, has unlocked a budget big enough for 
Östlund to retrain his sights, in his latest project, on the international yachting set, and to welcome a major American star (Woody Harrelson) on board as the captain of a gleaming ship of fools tossed suddenly to the elements. Triangle of Sadness runs 147 minutes to The Square's 151, but everything else about it feels more expansive - more inflated - yet. It opens with a recreation of a fashion event that demonstrates much the same verisimilitude as the artworld happenings in The Square, then settles in for a fifteen-minute argument between dim-bulb rich kids (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) over the payment of a restaurant bill. On and on it goes, at first excruciating-funny because so banal, then just banal, then plain dull, then duller by the second. Around minute five or six, I began to groan internally: here are characters you wouldn't want to spend thirty seconds in a lift with, let alone two-and-a-half hours on the high seas. As the pair settled their differences and the boat carrying them (and far uglier representatives of the 1%) finally cast off, I found myself glancing nervily back in the direction of the receding shoreline. Getting on for three hours, Ruben? With these fuckers?

I'll spare you some time and trouble by saying you could show up an hour late for Triangle of Sadness and miss absolutely nothing of significance. The first act is a further extension of Östlund's trademark cringe comedy - along the front row of that fashion show, among influencers, between moneyed passengers and overworked, underpaid crew. Yet the fieldwork on this particular voyage is newly imprecise, the methodology increasingly slapdash. In Involuntary and PlayÖstlund engineered situations that were flinty, revealing, discomfiting. Now, with a Palme d'Or in his back pocket and a newfound coterie of producers on hand to applaud his every choice, he contrives long scene after long scene without ever alighting on more than minor passive-aggression. The characterisation and dialogue's not as funny as it once was, it's nothing very much to look at (where The Square at least had that art to fill the gaps between its bug-like characters), and the editorial line is persistently obvious, pitched at great volume towards the idiots in the back. Those earlier films were often naggingly ambiguous, leaving its scenes as open to viewer interpretation as any other set of real-world data. Here, it's clear almost from the off that the director no longer trusts the audience to arrive at their own conclusions - that's presumably why he has the Dickinson and Dean characters buzzed by CG flies on the sundeck. (They're shit, ha.) There's no science left in Triangle of Sadness; and as art, it's iffy, to say the least.

Granted, Östlund is still good for a setpiece, and here's one area where the extra cash must have helped. To Force Majeure's avalanche and The Square's apeman interruptions, Triangle adds a turbulent captain's dinner, in which the waves lashing the boat's exterior are matched by the violent fits of vomiting inside. (Thematic rationale: with consumption this conspicuous, something's got to come back up.) It's not clever, and it sure ain't pretty, especially when the boat's overburdened loos get in on the act, but it's something, I guess - and you can sense the film's most fervent supporters clinging to this eruption of gross-out energy in the face of that nothingy first hour. In the grand scheme of things, however, it's no more than a pivot. Where it redirects us, as deflation sets in again, is a symmetrically dull third act: a Survivor episode with less compelling participants that attempts a simplistic overturning of the status quo, before the kind of non-ending you can get away with after winning the Palme d'Or. (Of course these characters survive the shipwreck - they're such hollow constructions they can only float - but now we're stuck on an island with the fuckers. It's Cast Away with no Hanks and seven volleyballs.) I can understand why Cannes, with its long history of indulging the indulged, went gaga for it; in France, remember, they hold La Grande Bouffe as dear as we Brits do the Paddington movies. Yet Triangle of Sadness washes up here as but 2022's most illustrious example of how cinema is being comprehensively outflanked by television: there's nothing in Östlund's film that wasn't offered far sharper treatment, in digestible 50-minute bites, by Mike White in HBO's The White Lotus. Now with two Palme d'Ors to his name, Ruben Östlund really is going up in the world. But at what cost to the rest of us?

Triangle of Sadness is now playing in selected cinemas.