Tuesday 31 January 2023

The spy who came in from the cold: "Pathaan"

Over dinner just before Christmas, my esteemed friend and colleague Asim Burney - no-nonsense ringmaster of
the Khandaan podcast - hit upon a definition of what we want to see when the lights go down that will do us as well as anything to be found in the pages of Bresson's Notes on the Cinematograph. What we ultimately long to witness on our nights off in the dark, Asim argued, can be boiled down to just five words: hot people doing cool shit. As suggested by Pathaan's spectacular opening-weekend returns - a sign Bollywood might just be bouncing back after an uncommonly rotten 2022 - no-one has better understood that than writer-director Siddharth Anand, who signed off on one of the Hindi cinema's last pre-Covid megahits (2019's War). The new film is Anand picking up where he left off before the germs blew in, with more money, bigger stars yet, and the organising idea of the Yash Raj Films Spy Universe, a throughline that connects Pathaan not just to War but to Salman Khan's Tiger movies. Yet crucially, for any latecomers to the YRFSU, this is also a movie in which Shah Rukh Khan can be seen surfing a helicopter's blades, a movie in which Khan and Abraham beat seven bells out of one another on the roof of an articulated lorry speeding through downtown Dubai - Abraham simultaneously holding onto a helicopter's guyline as if the chopper were a kite - and a movie where Deepika Padukone wears a swimsuit so hard it causes a cork to pop explosively out of an adjacent champagne bottle. ("The world has not seen my true colours," trills the song playing over this formative moment for an entire generation of teenagers. With only a half-inch less material, we'd see a whole lot more than those.) No need to overthink things. Hot people; cool shit. Life's complicated enough, in the main.

It's been complicated for Shah Rukh, certainly, who's spent the past few years having to square the vast affection felt for him in his homeland with a run of movies that, while often inventive in re-examining his star persona, hardly set the box-office alight; as if these professional setbacks weren't enough to have to process, there were external political developments within a country making life difficult for anyone with a surname like his. So Pathaan has been positioned - profitably - as a comeback as much for Khan as it has been for Bollywood, and having set out that equation, we might further calculate that Khan is Bollywood, his versatility essential to the kind of masala movie where a star has to fire a gun, sing a song, and cover a lot of ground in between. The spy role he assumes here affords him narrative licence to shuffle between personas: his Pathaan is introduced as a bloodied, lank-haired political prisoner (his opening growl "zinda hai" - still alive - both a reference to earlier films in this universe and a barely coded message to the actor's detractors); he loses his shirt to play action hero in the pursuit of Abraham's renegade Jim; and then, faced with Padukone's double agent Rubina, turns into an awestruck swain. If there's any real difference between Pathaan and a Western formulation like James Bond, it lies in the star's altogether boyish, non-predatory sexuality. Pathaan appears understandably intimidated by the coltish goddess towering over him; after Rubina proposes the pair spend the night together in a Moscow hotel suite, he uses the time to fill her in on his adventures in Afghanistan, which might seem something of a missed opportunity. Politically, Pathaan struck me as no more or less than pragmatic: its hero's final line is a patriotic "jai Hind". But it's elevated by the lightness of touch Khan brings to the clunkiest stretches of event-movie exposition, and his Cary Grant-ish ability to strike up chemistry with even those scene partners who wouldn't look so dashing in a saffron bikini. (Stick around after closing song-of-the-moment "Jhoome Jo Pathaan" for a droll coda in which Khan and a fellow aging warrior compare wounds and speculate who, among the next generation of leads, could do what they do better. You know a film has done its job when such self-reflexivity doesn't come over as total hubris.)

Imagination has been applied to the setpieces, which are all anybody seems likely to remember by the time the inevitable sequel comes around. A motorcycle chase across a frozen lake to retrieve scattered smallpox vials reveals that Deepika has also remembered to pack her Wilf O'Reilly outfit; and Khan and Abraham eventually set about one another in a collapsing wooden shack bolted altogether optimistically to the side of a mountain. Still, even with two megahits under his belt, I don't think we can claim Anand as any great innovator. War allowed him to crank the homoeroticism up to 11, but as there, Pathaan keeps defaulting to a familiar commercial shape. The male leads compete for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Trophy, seeing who can grow the most stomach muscles on their stomach muscles, while Padukone - whose packing for this project demands a separate, possibly Congressional inquiry - forever seems to be wearing more layers of clothing indoors than she does outside, and the rumbling between India and Pakistan over Kashmir carries on regardless. As with the MCU and DCU, I suspect the Spy Universe may limit what creatives can ultimately do with their characters, beyond having them set up the next cycle of running around. (Franchises like these are a way for insecure industries - possibly even insecure countries - to reassure and restabilise themselves: no deaths, only the promise of box-office glory.) Yet Anand knows the least he can do with hokum like this is get the basics right, and thereby treat his audience with a level of respect. He not only ensures this dovetailing plot marries up, but finds strengthening rhymes and parallels within it; he keeps the action spatially coherent, thus often thrilling; and he makes time for all his stars - yes, even the late arrivals - to shine as only they can. Many theories have been aired these past few days as to why Pathaan posted the biggest one-day take of any Hindi film, and why it's come closer than any title to unseating Avatar 2 at the head of multiple domestic markets. There is some truth to most of them. But it's also possible audiences wanted to see hero and villain go after one another on next-generation handgliders, and the scene in which Deepika gets her hands on a really big gun. Very hot people. Very cool shit. What more does anyone need on a Friday or Saturday night?

Pathaan is now playing in selected cinemas.

On demand: "Balloon"

, co-written and directed by the marvellously named comedian-turned-filmmaker Michael Bully Herbig, finds the German film industry once again reckoning with the country's not so distant past, and more urgently than the film's kooky-airy premise would suggest. Its first dramatic coup is to pitch us headlong into what feel like pivotal, if not indeed climactic events: a defection attempt planned by a family of four from Pößneck, East Germany in 1979, using as their unlikely escape vehicle a homemade hot air balloon. There's very little exposition, save to determine that anyone seen looking even remotely shifty by, near or over the border was typically shot on sight; Herbig touches on the GDR's widespread monitoring and surveillance program (already amply covered in The Lives of Others), but is keener to flag up the issue that a giant balloon illuminated from within might be no more than a moving target in the night sky, and its passengers sitting ducks in a basket. The journey time from Pößneck to safety in the FRG was only just shy of an hour, and for a while, you might wonder whether the film is going to play these events out in fraught real time. Here, though, Balloon stages its another coup: having what feels like a one-shot, make-or-break getaway attempt fail spectacularly, thus allowing official suspicion to redouble as our dishevelled heroes regather themselves and their belongings and rally for a second pass. To paraphrase an English song of a far older vintage, there are some ups, some downs, and - in between those - some understandably nervy flying around.

The downtime allows Herbig to feel out the attitudes of an era. The Army official poking through the (abandoned) wreckage of that first balloon is a grizzled functionary of the State (Deutschfilm veteran Thomas Kretschmann), but also a pragmatist who reckons the so-called "riff-raff" ought to be allowed to leave without undue penalty if they so desire. A neighbour who has the look of a conformist stooge wants his TV tuned to a Western signal so he can watch Charlie's Angels. We hear a joke East Germans were telling one another about Erich Honeker, albeit not in public. Yet the abiding atmosphere is tense, coiled rather than cosy; there's none of that latent cuddliness that ensured Goodbye, Lenin! crossed international borders, because the stakes appear vertiginous from the off. (An opening title card suggests some 400-plus prospective defectors were shot on sight under the GDR's border policy.) At every turn - on a shopping trip, and again during a few days away in East Berlin - the family threaten to give themselves away; there's no easy way out of this place, and the net is rapidly closing in. Though the expected period signifiers are all in place (wide collars, Bakelite phones, longwave radio sets), there's nothing unduly flashy about the filmmaking. Instead, Herbig proceeds smartly and efficiently from a strong script, not bullying exactly, but ruthless in the way he splits up teenage lovers and leaves even kindergartners liable as potential informants. (Those were the days.) Pro tip: don't read up on how the second attempt turned out, and the final half-hour will play as excruciatingly tense. Either way, Balloon is finally what any escape from the East Germany of the late 1970s had to be: expertly strategised and marshalled.

Monday 30 January 2023

How we used to live: "The Fabelmans"

By his own admission, Steven Spielberg has long unpacked elements of biography into his movies: the chaotic but broadly genial West Coast childhood (
E.T., Close Encounters), the Jewish lineage (Schindler's List, Munich), the abiding love of popular culture (Ready Player One, West Side Story). Advance word on The Fabelmans has been that it marks a final unburdening - the most personal film yet by the most commercially successful filmmaker of all time. This claim turns out to have the ring of truth about it, but it's ironic that Spielberg should have undertaken his most personal work at a point where his commercial track record has, for the first time in a fifty-year career, started to look a shade wobbly. Parsing the past decade's receipts, more than one industry observer has been led to wonder whether Spielberg has lost touch with the audience who, once upon a time, helped crown him box-office king. The version of The Fabelmans now playing in UK cinemas is preceded by a short introduction from Spielberg himself, thanking us for leaving our homes and coming to see his little movie - an extraordinary state of affairs, given that this is the man behind Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park. (By contrast, James Cameron, the filmmaker who seems most likely to inherit Spielberg's crown, didn't appear to care if you liked Avatar 2, just that you bought a ticket for it.) The history books will eventually show that, among its many other legacies, the novel coronavirus humbled the cinema, obliging even Steven Spielberg to put himself before a camera and sing for his supper anew. But this prologue isn't just about advocating for the primacy of the theatrical experience; it's advocating for a particular type of cinema, one that allows space for creatives whose fortunes are bound up with the American studio system to broach quieter, more personal, more human stories, that isn't just spectacle, brand consolidation or an extension of pre-existing IP. There's another irony here: Spielberg only gets to do this - to insert himself in your scheduled multiplex programming - because he made more money through spectacle than anybody else, and in so doing became a brand himself.

The Fabelmans, then, finds both Hollywood and its foremost representative wrestling with themselves, in ways that prove largely absorbing and occasionally fascinating. Part of its project is to evoke a certain way of life: as its title and 151-minute running time imply, it's far more of a sprawling family saga than, say, James Gray's similar but essentially anecdotal Armageddon Time. What it evokes, though, is the stifling conservatism of the post-War years. Heading into his first movie - 1952's boxy The Greatest Show on Earth, with its all-star cast and enlivening train crash - boy scout-in-waiting Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) is given two definitions of how the cinema casts its spell. Engineer dad Burt (Paul Dano, with his now perfectly round face) is all scientific rationalism, citing lights and lenses and frames per second. The kid's mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), an aspirant concert pianist to whom Sammy is already painfully close, instead compares the medium's effects to the way we dream. From the off, Spielberg and his regular writing collaborator Tony Kushner (the Angels in America playwright who wrote Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story) clock that everyone on screen is playing the deeply gendered roles society expected of them in 1952. (If we take Sammy as the half-pint, the Fabelmans even have 2.4 children.) Having discovered the movies, with their plots, tropes and formulas, Sammy is about to get a lesson in human relations, understood here as far trickier to get a read on. Mum, it transpires, is straying from the family home with her upright husband's more spontaneous best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen, weaponising that Fozzie Bear laugh); Sammy accidentally catches evidence of this betrayal on camera, graduating from filming model trainwrecks in his parents' basement to documenting the derailment of a once-happy marriage. Everyone's running on such straight and narrow lines you spot how easily things could go awry. Our next, sliding stop: Unhappiness Parkway.

There's a jolting admission at the heart of The Fabelmans, and it's this: that Spielberg first shot (at least a version of) this story six decades ago, but can only now bring himself to share it. That confessional quality is the new film's strength. Whenever The Fabelmans threatens to become too cosy or middle-of-the-road, it digs just a little deeper, and invariably pulls out something that goes against the genteel grain. Yes, we get reassuring reminders of Spielberg the virtuosic imagemaker, the Spielberg we've known all our lives: when Mitzi snatches up her brood to chase a tornado - moving in sympathy with a fellow hurricane - her station wagon is brought to a careening halt by an out-of-nowhere snake of supermarket trollies, loosed into the wild. (And we realise the real world has the potential for wrecks, pile-ups, smash-ups.) Mostly, though, Spielberg can here be observed undertaking the hard work of revisiting past, ugly behaviour, roughly as painful as that Gray depicted in Armageddon Time - an acknowledgement that the people closest to him in his formative years didn't always conduct themselves perfectly, and that - furthermore - neither did his teenage self. There's still fondness and joy in the mix: watch how the gentrified Fabelmans are thrown into renewed disarray with the arrival of the old-country Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, lending his wonderfully abrasive rasp to the juiciest of awards-season cameos), a sequence in which you feel the teenage Spielberg's fascination with this distant-bordering-on-extraterrestrial relative meshing with the adult Spielberg's fascination with Hirsch as a screen presence. But it's cut with vividly remembered shock and pain. Shortly after discovering the affair, Sammy tells Mitzi he wishes she weren't his mother and turns an unclothed back to her; we feel her clumsily misdirected slap - square between Sammy's shoulder blades - as surely as Spielberg himself must have done at the time. Few moments in recent American film have struck me as more therapeutic in their methods: show me exactly where and exactly how much it hurts.

Dismiss Spielberg as a sap or sentimentalist if you like, but such scenes only work as drama with a substantial investment in their human elements, a fundamental curiosity about the people positioned front and centre. At some point, the cinema became more than just a train set to this filmmaker: it's why Jurassic Park operates some level above and beyond its largely mechanical sequels and reboots. Yet for the first time, towards the middle of The Fabelmans, Spielberg seems to be working towards a full recognition of how complex human beings, human lives, human emotions can be. (His partnership with Kushner looks to have been key to this process.) I suppose once they've filmed and confronted some small part of the Holocaust, a filmmaker might feel they've made all the statement they need to with regard to the darker side of human nature. But there are shades of grey, lesser indiscretions and misdemeanours, points where even a nice, normal middle-class family takes a turn for the regrettable. The Fabelmans is not without its own flaws: Williams gives a very odd performance, varying her level of spaciness from scene to scene, and all we can do looking on is defer to her director's judgement that this is true to the spirit of his mother. And I have reservations about the film's shape: the high drama of the affair dissipates after the halfway mark, leaving Sammy to endure high-school anti-Semitism, the ministrations of a thirsty Christian girl, the arrival of a monkey in the Fabelmans' household, and a fun cameo from one of Spielberg's peers. All of this may well be true, but the combined effect of the last hour is to throw a consoling arm (and a few John Williams tinkles) around us after the strongest and most affecting material. We know this story turns out all right - that Sammy Fabelman turns into Steven Spielberg - but something of its maker's crowdpleasing muscle memory takes over. We're left with a rare Spielberg movie that allows itself to have flaws, to show weakness - charmingly so, in its closing seconds - but also a very good movie stuck within a very sweet movie, as if Spielberg were still reconciling the two sides of his personality, the instincts that led him to make Schindler's List and Jurassic Park in the same twelve months. Still, for an hour or so, for a few miles of bad road in the middle of memory lane, we get to watch Steven Spielberg - the great pop artist of our age, the Peter Pan of the modern multiplex - growing up before our eyes, on screen as behind the camera. If we can't rally an audience to buy tickets for that, we might as well pack up and stay home for good.

The Fabelmans is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 27 January 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of January 20-22, 2023):

1 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12A) ***
2 (2) M3gan (15) ***
3 (new) Babylon (18)
4 (4) I Wanna Dance with Somebody (12A)
5 (5) Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)
6 (6) A Man Called Otto (15)
7 (3) Empire of Light (15)
8 (8) Tár (15) **
9 (11) Strange World (PG) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. Till

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (re) Black Adam (12)
2 (21) Halloween Ends (18)
3 (1) Elvis (12) **
4 (3) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
5 (2Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
6 (19) Bullet Train (15)
7 (4) Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (PG)
8 (5) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
9 (new) The Menu (15)
10 (14) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)

My top five: 
1. Decision to Leave

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
2. Get Out (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.10pm)
3. Hustlers (Saturday, Channel 4, 9pm)
4. Phantom Thread (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. True Grit [above] (Saturday, five, 2.45pm)

Thursday 26 January 2023

The Nan movie: "All the Beauty and the Bloodshed"

Via such projects as 2010's
The Oath, 2014's Citizenfour (on Edward Snowden) and 2016's Risk (on Julian Assange), the documentarist Laura Poitras established herself as a keen observer of world affairs, if not always a reliable judge of character. Her latest, the newly Oscar-nominated All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, appears to mark a sidestep into the realm of the blue-chip artworld profile, although its subject has proven barely less engaged with the state of things. Nan Goldin is the American photographer who's found renewed artistic purpose by taking up arms against the Sacklers, the family who've pumped millions into the world's galleries and museums - money largely gained from pumping opioids manufactured by their pharma manufacturing arm Purdue into millions of Americans. Goldin was among those who got hooked - she knows whereof she protests - but then Poitras's film frames its subject as someone who's long borne close personal witness: to the unhappy household in which she grew up, to the suicide of a depressive older sister, to spells in foster homes, to acute teenage shyness, to the community of boho outsiders she fell in with in 1970s New York, and how that community was all but abandoned to the ravages of AIDS by the prevailing powers-that-be. Poitras flexes her reportage muscles filming those sit-ins by which Goldin and her activist associates have confronted Sackler-backed institutions over the past decade, and there are fleeting, sometimes spectral clips of the work of those fringe and experimental figures Goldin travelled with along the way (John Waters, Bette Gordon, Amos Poe, Vivienne Dick). Yet the bulk of the film's two hours is made up of photographs kept very much like receipts.

These potent prints and Polaroids are an obvious focal point for any Goldin film, and - in this one - an obvious boon. This is another example of a doc where the filmmaker has had a lot of the investigation and documentation done for them; where the big creative choices concerned how to lay this story out. Poitras seizes upon Goldin's work as elegantly framed evidence - of a life, a career, and a natural empathy with those at the margins. There's an inbuilt artistic progression to be observed, from freewheeling early assignments (portraits of scenesters, glossy-candid depictions of the sex act and its aftermath) to what's positioned as the artist's mature work, highlighting the detritus and damage addiction leaves behind. For much of the first hour, the montage is simple and effective: plentiful rostrum camera (or digital equivalent) in the Ken Burns/Morse tradition, opening with some neatly engineered contrast between Goldin's images (subtext: this is life how it's actually lived, warts and all) and the glibly aspirational tone of those print ads the Sacklers placed in medical journals and checkout-counter magazines to hawk Oxycontin to the aching masses. Here is the cause; here, as documented by Team Goldin, are the deleterious, often deathly effects. This gallery stretch of the film is accompanied by a running commentary from Goldin (still with us, and approaching her 70th) in her raddled-scratchy, Patti Smith-like voice. We're forever aware we're getting Nan in her own words, as has become documentary convention in recent years - and as we discern what she wants to talk about, what she doesn't, and where she wants to steer our eyes and ears, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed starts to reveal its limitations as a piece of journalism.

You will come away from Poitras's film with no doubt as to Goldin's status as a notable artist, the hardships she's overcome, and her commitment to the marginalised. (The five-star reviews the film has engendered represent an understandable form of hero worship - for here is a woman who has battled personal demons, taken on some part of the Establishment, and triumphed on both fronts.) Yet for a long while it seems oddly content to skate over the surface of Goldin's images. The commentary keeps cueing potential lines of investigation - that sibling's suicide, Goldin's sex work, her drug dependency and eventual recovery - only to suddenly move on to the next image, the next phase of this life. Part of the trouble is that this is either two films in one (a retrospective and a campaign doc) or two-and-a-half films in one (retrospective, campaign doc, and an overview of the same opioid crisis Alex Gibney took many more hours to parse in HBO's The Crime of the Century). The title invokes the all-encompassing, yes, but I felt Poitras piling an awful lot onto the one plate - you keep wanting to stop so as to better unpack each segment's implications, or redirect the questioning altogether. The first half, surely, would benefit from a little more director-subject interplay, something to break up the metronomic flow of Goldin's words and images; in the second, Poitras and her hardy editors do begin to knit in some of the material their subject has been withholding, while building a belated momentum within the campaigning narrative. Was Goldin's personality - the force of will that sent the Sacklers packing from the National Portrait Gallery and elsewhere - too strong for the filmmakers to resist? Make no mistake, there is plentiful art in these two hours. (Art enough to win the Golden Lion in Venice, art enough for an Oscar nod in a so-so year for the documentary form.) My question would be how much of that is Goldin's art, and how much we can comfortably ascribe to Poitras. Provocative as it remains in places, there are stretches where ATBATB resembles merely the most illustrious of Goldin slideshows, placidly yielding the floor to its far spikier subject.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Wednesday 25 January 2023

Last gasp: "More Than Ever"

First, some notably sad extratextual business: nobody would have wanted this to be the case, but Emily Atef's More Than Ever marks one of the final screen appearances of Gaspard Ulliel, the French actor who died in a skiing accident last January, aged 37. It would be an emotional experience even without the closing-credit dedication "Pour Gaspard", because Atef's film happens to describe a sort-of love triangle where one of the points isn't going to be there for long: as we meet her, heroine Hélène (Vicky Krieps) has just been diagnosed with an incurable lung disease. While her docs work on the possibility of a life-saving transplant, her friends - busy making plans and babies - don't know what to say around her. By contrast, her other half Matthieu (Ulliel) leans towards saying and doing too much, forever jollying Hélène along so he can pretend things are as normal as they can be. What Hélène seeks, we quickly intuit, is someone prepared to acknowledge the reality of her situation - sombre, even grave though that is. A wits-end Google search for (nice, believable touch, this) "what do people do when they're dying" steers her to a Norwegian photoblogger who spends his days chronicling his own ups and downs with cancer. She's soon smitten, and I can't say how reassuring you'll find the moral of her story, which is this: no matter that the other organs may have more pressing - indeed, in Hélène's case, life-or-death - concerns, the heart retains priority, selfish to the last.

Some comfort can at least be drawn from the effort this intelligent, handsome film makes to see and dramatise all sides - to realise this is a difficult if not dire situation, and that everybody caught up in it has their own ways of coping. After last month's Corsage, it's another opportunity for we latecomers to study what others have admired in the newly eminent Krieps, and again she reveals herself as a close-knit, precise performer, blessed with unusually expressive locks (her characters visibly unravel, from the head down) and a general translucency: she looks legitimately weary, as if she has no more blood to give and sorely needs a lie down. (Here, she also gets to play a scene I can't remember seeing before: the attempted seduction derailed by a deathly coughing fit.) The more I see of Krieps, the more I understand how she represents a very familiar modern archetype: The Woman Who Wants to be Left Alone (But Just Can't Help Herself). She's a Garbo who signed up for Twitter, keeping her DMs locked (for now). Ulliel's Matthieu at least makes the mistakes he makes out of love, a need to keep his beloved close for as long as he humanly can; we understand why he's taken aback when Hélène announces she's heading off to Norway on her lonesome, but we also can't help but notice his way of making the conversation about himself. Granted, the character also benefits from the doubt the opening act casts over this triangle's third party. The blogger's most popular post involves an artfully posed shot of a handsome young man with his bum hanging out of his hospital gown, a morbid thirst trap; yet when Hélène reaches out to her new online friend via Zoom, he's unable to appear, claiming his camera is broken. When a middle-aged, craggy-faced fellow called Bent (Bjørn Floberg) picks Hélène up from the ferry, installing her in a dingy boathouse with no WiFi, we might wonder why our heroine doesn't immediately turn on her heel and retreat to safety. Then again, we might rationalise - as Hélène surely rationalises - that at this point she has nothing very much to lose.

It's testament to the involving work Atef and Krieps do in that first hour that we stick around to see where all this is headed, for better or worse. The trajectory isn't so far removed from an Eat Pray Love-like voyage of self-discovery: Bent the Blogger's getaway lines the shore of an especially picturesque fjord, and there's some (literal) light comedy as our heroine struggles to get a decent night's sleep this close to the Arctic Circle. (Floberg, a veteran of 1997's original Insomnia, has no such issue.) Yet Atef staves off any vapidity via a Hansen-Løve-like equanimity; as Hélène puts it, during a FaceTime confession to an understandably rattled Matthieu, "It's weird: I'm sick, but I feel good at the same time". Within the film, such positive vibes have to be weighed against a discomfiting irony: that this adventurer is discovering herself perilously late in the day. Second-act Hélène snaps to - the bracing air and icy water reawakens something in her - but her newfound independence looks a horribly Pyrrhic gain when she's stranded on a mountaintop and coughing up blood. (Again: Krieps does not strike the eye as one of the cinema's more robust dead women walking.) Some of the conventional melodrama lurking within this premise rears its head in the final act once Matthieu, too, takes the ferry and re-enters the frame in person. (There may be no getting away from it, whatever altitude your film hikes towards.) But Atef and co-writer Lars Hubrich have clearly thought long and hard about not just their characters' narrative arcs but death itself - a process that imbues each gesture here, and especially those of the gorgeously choreographed final moments, with an appreciable depth and weight. Death's spectre may pull our living selves in radically different, unexpected directions, but even within the endgame there are still decisions and choices to be made. To the very last, it's your own time you may be wasting.

More Than Ever is now showing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema, HOME Manchester and the BFI Player. 

Tuesday 24 January 2023

Money heist: "Thunivu"

Early days, of course, but the Tamil heist movie
Thunivu boasts the most gripping first act of the year so far. After a prologue laying out the extent of the fraud being perpetuated within the Indian financial system, we're introduced to a stern-faced crew of Chennai bank robbers conspiring with a corrupt police chief to empty a vault stuffed to the rafters with people's savings. The crew duly storm the bank, do away with security and empty several rounds of ammunition into the ceiling, only to encounter silver-haired star Ajith Kumar embedded in a backroom; he promptly blows away a couple of the intruders, informing the surviving arrivistes that they are, in fact, cutting in on his carefully scheduled heist. "Tell me," goes a musical sting heard at this point, "Who da gangsta?" Assisted by the aptly named Vijay Velukutty's propulsive editing, writer-director H. Vinoth sketches a brisk yet appreciably detailed picture of a situation spiralling rapidly out of control, of floors littered both with banknotes and the remnants of everybody's best laid plans. It's not just that first set of robbers who find themselves outmanoeuvred; the rotten police chief is left powerless once outside agencies are drafted in to mediate, cranked-up TV news begins picketing the public to identify Kumar's ringleader/ringmaster, and the petrified bankers start pulling strings with paid-for political representatives. Our hero, meanwhile, further confounds the cops surrounding the premises by asking not for a car or a helicopter, but a getaway submarine, which really is a gangster move, however seriously you take it.

Vinoth, clearly, has discovered Dog Day Afternoon, and with it the idea of the mainstream thriller that also, in passing, offers a measure of droll social commentary. As early as a half-hour into Thunivu, he persuades us that this will be the most urgent, volatile and fast-moving situation we will witness all day; the movie goes beyond the rowdiness typically associated with Tamil cinema to become actively relentless in its momentum. There is talk of a third stick-up team lying undiscovered inside the bank; the building opposite, which the police commandeer as their temporary HQ, is found to have been comprehensively bugged; and in one narrative sidebar, some miles from the primary crime scene, we watch a small child being dangled headfirst over lethal-looking quarrying equipment. (The film has been recut by its UK distributor - visibly, and quite bluntly - so as to obtain a family-friendly 12A certificate, but many of Vinoth's harder edges remain.) The final act yields the terrific image of a fire truck loaded with plastic explosives; a subsequent oceanic pursuit, presumably where that submarine would have come in useful, instead deploys every last speedboat in Asia. It's not all blunt force: the great American critic Manny Farber would surely have savoured the feel Vinoth demonstrates for the street outside the bank, the relationship between two adjacent buildings, the softness of the Chennai light. But then some dolt triggers the explosives wired to the bank's entrance and it's chaos all over again, this time with a huge great crater in the middle of the road and sandbags scattered everywhere, like battlefield casualties. If you're hoping for light relief from the songs, think again: the first number ends with heavies in hoodies chanting the letters "AK", asserting not just our hero's initials but his character's weapon of choice.

Vinoth has to put his mayhem on hold at the start of the second half to explain how everybody's ended up at the same place at the same time; he defers on motivation and backstory the way some folks do on loan repayments. Yet even here there is invention to be treasured, in the dovetailing of two distinct narratives, and how the film deploys its leading man. This is, granted, the kind of role by which aging stars have traditionally sought to shore up diminishing cool: the bad-ass mastermind, forever a step or two ahead of the game. Yet it takes a star's supreme self-confidence to settle into a characterisation whose motives are obscured this long - who risks being written off as just as nefarious, as in it for the money, as everyone else on screen seems to be. There are elements that Kumar can't pull off: it doesn't matter that this character's alias is "Michael Jackson" - presumably as his methods are neither black nor white - any fiftysomething man is going to look a bit of a prat moonwalking in denim and trainers. (Kumar appears far more comfortable planting himself in one of the bank's swivel chairs and whistling "We Will Rock You". Who da grandpa?) Yet his broad-shouldered resoluteness becomes an asset in the midst in Vinoth's various firestorms: you buy him as someone who might put his foot down and refuse to leave even after the banking sector has triggered its alarms. Kumar's trying something sly and slow-burning here, but as a live TV interview late on punches up, his "Michael" is a burly repository for the Tamil cinema's latent Marxist tendencies, peddling the ever more potent fantasy of getting one over on our shifty corporate overlords. If that prologue is to be believed, enough Indian viewers will have been shafted by their financial providers to buy that for a dollar (or whatever's left to hand). For British onlookers, there's the draw of seeing a character who resembles Money Box's Paul Lewis as played by Ray Winstone, reconditioning a cruel system with a sockful of pennies.

Thunivu is now playing in selected cinemas.

Devil doll: "M3gan"

The cinema isn't alone in having a silly season, but it may be the only form that runs its silliest material side-by-side with some of its most serious and heartfelt. This January, the already much-laurelled
Tár, Steven Spielberg's autobiographical drama The Fabelmans, and a movie about the lynching of Emmett Till will share multiplex space with an Antonio Banderas thriller that most observers agree should have gone straight-to-taped-over, Gerard Butler essaying a ruggedly heroic pilot in Plane, and Gerard Johnstone's killer-doll flick M3gan, which has hoovered up those few units of currency not already swallowed by the all-conquering Avatar sequel. This last is another of horror shingle Blumhouse's bright ideas: a Frankenstein variant for an era of widespread tech battiness. Gemma (Allison Williams), an inventor for a toy corporation, takes unexpected delivery of niece Cady (Violet McGraw) after the latter's parents are killed in a car accident; to cheer up her young charge, Gemma reassembles the prototype for a previously decommissioned Model 3 Generative Android (hence the title), a walking, talking therapy doll who looks uncannily like Elizabeth Olsen at her MCU glassiest. The idea is that M3gan will lock onto her charge's personality and walk Cady hand-in-hand through the storm of emotions prompted by her parents' deaths. This being the movies, however - where all technology is a bad idea, with the possible exception of the tech used to make said movies - this emotional-support Tamagotchi turns out to be a few patches short of the full security update. And you're not going to get a character like that in Sam Mendes's Empire of Light, are you now?

What follows is almost entirely the sort of film you can imagine, given that premise; the many M3gan memes that have proliferated online over the past weeks can't really count as spoilers, because there's nothing unduly to spoil here. Having come out of nowhere with his fun 2014 breakthrough Housebound, Johnstone now proves he can knuckle down and deliver a movie that delivers more or less what you expect from it: slickly engineered hooey. In the context of the modern multiplex, that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, but M3gan can feel a little low-stakes. Not much has been spent on recruitment (Girls alumna Williams aside, M3gan's the real star, given sleek presence by dancer-turned-actress Amie Donald), and this version was pre-cut to obtain a PG-13 rating in the US, so the carnage largely happens offscreen, and its devil-doll enabler often appears more waspish than chilling or vicious. (The whole is easily appropriated for camp, and will almost certainly provide the #1 look of Hallowe'en 2023.) I think there's something deep down in this script about unprocessed grief, which may explain why it's become a lightning-rod movie, landing after several years in which we've all been hustled past the fact millions of people disappeared off the face of the Earth overnight. But it's deep down, glossed over in favour of increasingly mean girl M3gan singing a Barneyfied version of "Titanium", or a midfilm diversion to summer camp designed solely to crank up a middling-to-low bodycount. It is fun: it's rare to catch yourself smiling and chuckling in a multiplex, and then chuckling again at the fact you're enjoying something this fundamentally daft. But it made me wonder anew why Leigh Whannell's visually and narratively wilder Upgrade - Blumhouse's great bad-tech thriller of recent years, more exacting in wondering what effect all this kit is having on our minds, bodies and souls - disappeared almost overnight commercially. Do audiences just want their movies to be Big Memes now?

M3gan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 20 January 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of January 13-15, 2023):

1 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12A) ***
2 (new) M3gan (15) ***
3 (new) Empire of Light (15)
4 (2) I Wanna Dance with Somebody (12A)
5 (3Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)
6 (4) A Man Called Otto (15)
7 (new) Varisu (12A)
8 (new) Tár (15) **
9 (new) Thunivu (12A) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Till

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Elvis (12) **
2 (1) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
3 (27) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
4 (9) Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (PG)
5 (4) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
6 (3) The Croods: A New Age (U)
7 (23) The Lovely Bones (12) **
8 (6) The Batman (15) ***
9 (5) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
10 (8) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***

My top five: 
1. Decision to Leave

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Schindler's List [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. The Fast and the Furious (Sunday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
3. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (Sunday, BBC1, 2.15pm)
4. Thelma & Louise (Friday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
5. The Railway Man (Saturday, BBC1, 11.50pm)

On TV: "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie"

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie slipped out without much fanfare on first release, which limited its profitability and the prospect of sequels, but it was DreamWorks Animation's liveliest offering for some while. Drawn up along Miller/Lordish lines, it's the playful-mischievous tale of two middle-school pranksters - Harold (voiced by Thomas Middleditch) and George (Kevin Hart) - who, in the course of railing against the strictures of their grim, glum institution, wind up hypnotising their overbearing headmaster Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) and persuading him that he's the entirely fictional hero of the title, a flying loon the pair first created for their self-drawn comic books. What follows is more Weird Science than Marvel: the untrousered Krupp is essentially an animated Frankenstein's monster the boys can get to do their bidding - until they can't control him any longer.

Still, the universe director David Soren and his animators create is fundamentally unstable. Just as Captain Underpants keeps reverting to his original identity and has to be repeatedly put under, so the film switches freely between hand-drawn artistry, digimation, sock puppetry and musical numbers. Whenever it approaches formula, Soren shakes everything up again: I haven't mentioned the rendition of the "1812 Overture" played with whoopie cushions and armpit farts, the giant toilet brought on by the villainous Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) to help mimic the citysmashing that now comes as standard with our superhero movies, or the bits with a raygun that scatter tremendous jokes of scale. Somewhere in the background, there's some editorial on how standardised learning clamps down on our youngsters' imagination; closer to the foreground, a sweet interracial friendship that cannot and will not be sundered. Yet Soren bounces through it all, giving no greater thought to any of this than Harold and George themselves, and thus allowing his ADHD-stricken camera to repeatedly relocate that material that middle-schoolers will find the most important. "Poopypants is a lot of fun to say," observes the digimated lady who oversees the film's Nobel Prize committee. It is, madam; it is.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie screens on BBC1 this Sunday at 2.15pm.

From the archive: "The Railway Man"

If there’s one emotion Colin Firth has always played supremely well, it’s barely repressed trauma. The actor’s capacity to sketch psychological scars beneath the thinnest of skins was properly showcased in 2008’s
Easy Virtue, where his Great War veteran lent some grounding and substance to an otherwise frothy and frivolous confection; and more prominently by 2011’s The King’s Speech, with its decidedly Pyrrhic conclusion: when King George finally strung a sentence together, it was to send another generation off to the battlefront.

It’s possible Firth, like any good Englishman, felt a degree of guilt about the wild cheering that project garnered, because his latest The Railway Man serves almost as an apologia of sorts: a serious evocation of those traumas incurred once Georgie got his words out. Nothing much appears to be wrong at first. Firth’s Eric Lomax, though slightly shambling in thick tortoiseshell glasses, is introduced using his expert timetabling knowledge to woo recent divorcee Nicole Kidman on a train heading through the Lake District in the early 1980s.

As Lomax points out Carnforth, scene of Brief Encounter’s stiff-lipped trysting, we may be expecting the film to turn into a genteel late-life romance – but the apparition of a Japanese POW camp officer in the couple’s honeymoon suite hints that all really isn’t well within the Lomax psyche. At this point Jonathan Teplitzky’s film, adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Patterson from the real Eric Lomax’s memoir, reveals its hand as a case study: both a diagnosis of a troubled mindset, and an attempt to becalm it.

Flashbacks detail the experiences of the younger Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) in a labour camp shortly after the fall of Singapore; there, he was involved in the brutal, back-breaking work of laying railway lines through the jungle. Thereafter, the film’s inquiries proceed on two tracks, wondering what happened to Lomax in solitary confinement to leave his middle-aged self in such an agonised, petrified state, and then what this older Lomax will do with the knowledge one of his captors is still out there.

What’s impressive is how Teplitzky navigates multiple shifts in time, tone and genre to somehow – as its protagonist had to – arrive at a convincing point of closure. What starts as a fusty love story develops into a River Kwai-style internment drama, then – as the elder Lomax transforms into a one-man truth-and-reconciliation commission, with a knife in his back pocket – boils itself down to a single, probing conversation (not unlike the centrepiece of Steve McQueen’s Hunger) in which the fate of the narrative and of Eric Lomax’s sanity hinges on two men sitting either side of a table.

It isn’t just Firth who’s on good form here. Kidman, too, works wonders in a role that amounts to a handful of understandably concerned glances. Irvine, so ineffectual in Spielberg’s War Horse, really steps up as the young Lomax, withstanding the bulk of the film’s punishments while convincing as someone who might grow up to be Colin Firth; and the moving final act relies on the contribution of Hiroyuki Sanada (The Twilight Samurai) as Lomax’s opposite, working through similar traumas in his own dignified, understated manner.

Though issued with the usual handsome period trappings, Teplitzky’s film remains far from an easy watch. Yet it puts us through hell so that we might better understand the choices its subject made, and the relationships he came to build. This story has here been told with honour and integrity – and I wouldn’t bet against the film having a profoundly cathartic effect on anyone who went through even a small fraction of the torments Eric Lomax endured.

(MovieMail, January 2014)

The Railway Man screens on BBC1 this Saturday at 11.50pm.

Thursday 19 January 2023

Reconstruction: "Enys Men"

Something stirs anew down Cornwall way. Writer-director Mark Jenkin is so far away from Britfilm's London epicentre that he's been allowed to get on with doing entirely his own thing. Bait, his surprise hit of 2019, was a key text of post-Brexit cinema, centred on a clash between the South-West's haves (tourists) and have-nots (local fishermen), but also scratchily artisanal, hand-turned, and at least notionally hard to sell. Follow-up Enys Men - pronounced "ennis mane", and the Kernow for "stone island" - ventures even further out there: it's striking folk horror, shot in the Academy ratio and once more using emphatic post-synch sound, about a middle-aged scientist in a bright red raincoat (Mary Woodvine) who comes to a remote isle to study flowers and inevitably discovers more besides. The year, we're informed by the scientist's journal entries, is 1973. The look - wet-paint Kodachrome, distressed in transit - is very 1973. The film could well have been engineered in the media studies department of an emergent polytechnic circa 1973: post-Performance, (just) pre-Wicker Man and Don't Look Now, blurring uncannily with Government public-information shorts of that period. You could retitle it Don't Go Picking Wildflowers. Or Don't Go Dropping Stones into Wells. Stop Poking Your Nose In Where It's Not Wanted. No good, clearly, can follow from our heroine's tramping around. A lot of interest, however, is coming out of Jenkin's fascination with long-abandoned movie technique.

Watching on from 2023, your head inevitably floods with the notes a latter-day producer would pass Jenkin had they the schedule and patience for the seven-hour train journey to Mevagissey. Doubtless, said producer would want someone younger and more conventionally sexy in the lead role, a name or cover girl of sorts; doubtless, they would want a slicker, tighter and tidier film, geared to reassure the nervy. Enys Men isn't completely removed from recent developments in British horror, though - it'd tesselate with Ben Wheatley's rural ventures - and it's not as though Jenkin's images are impenetrable or unreadable. Straight-ahead, static in their framing, with prominent primary colours, they're not unlike building blocks. For one, we take from them a sense that something unsettling is going on beneath the surface of this island, and possibly under our heroine's skin to boot. Yet the magic (and mystery) lies in how Jenkin shuffles and re-pairs them. The movie carries us somewhere and conveys information and meaning as it does, but it does so via a determinedly poetic and allusive path - it takes the scenic route. (Kudos to the film's actual producers at Film4, who must have been faced with a lot of baffling, unsynched footage early on, and then had to sit tight on restless hands while Jenkin cast his spell in the edit suite.)

Literally scenic, yes: the major advantage Jenkin has working this patch is a landscape that - as those damn tourists likely wouldn't shut up about - invites its own fascination and contemplation, that in its olde-worlde odds-and-ends (stone pillars, crags, ruins, harbours) doesn't appear to have changed for at least a half-century. Still, this is not the cosy-sweatered tourist-trap cinema of the Fisherman's Friends franchise - the unthinking person's Bait, or the kind of intrusion Bait was warning us about. Somewhere in this knowingly rickety bricolage of images, there lurks a treatise on what it really means to set foot on this particular stretch of the English coastline, but we're never led there by the hand or nose; rather, Jenkin sets the viewer to a form of beachcombing. He lays his story out in rough-hewn, possibly incomplete fragments - like building blocks buried beneath the sand for several decades - and then invites us to see how they match up, where they make their own kind of sense. A toe on a tap begets a petrol can being unscrewed; a scar on a woman's torso parallels a crack in a windowpane; those stones plummeting down that well rhyme with a body crashing through a skylight. Our fictional producer hates all this, because this truly interactive cinema hands far too much power and responsibility over to the consumer: we're too busy turning all this information over to nip out for more nachos. A handful of films into his career, Jenkin is either broadcasting from an alternative timeline - one where Nic Roeg is still more celebrated than Richard Curtis - or reconstructing our own cinema singlehandedly from scratch. Either way, it remains quite the project.

Enys Men is now showing in selected cinemas.

Pick of the week: "Alcarràs"

Summer 1993, one of the standout films of its year, positioned Spanish writer-director Carla Simón as a potentially great director of children, in the tradition of Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur). Simón's follow-up Alcarràs, named for its Catalonian setting, opens with another scene of youngsters at play, and thereafter proceeds in much the same vein, finding ample time for bunks, breaks, runarounds and other goof-offs (one mite ends up several feet off the ground in the cradle of a JCB) in which the filmmaker lets the junior members of her cast just be. What's becoming increasingly apparent, however, is that Simón deploys her younger actors as teeny Trojan horses - a means of getting her movies (and thereby us) under the feet of the complicated adult world. These children, by way of example, are the offspring of a sturdy tenant farmer, Quimet (Jordi Puyol Dolcet, the physical midpoint between Sergi Lopez and Stephen Graham), who as we find him - as these kids skip back to him - is discovering the associate who owns part of his land has welched on a gentleman's agreement made many years before with Quimet's now-aged father Rogelio (Josep Abad), and now wants to install solar panels in a field Quimet is currently using to grow peach trees. If you're expecting the landowner to be some cigar-chomping tyrant, you're wrong: Simón makes him a mild-mannered neighbour who just happens to have drawn the conclusion there's more money in energy than there is in soft fruit. It's business, not personal; it's how the world turns these days. And so, once more, this director plants her camera to quietly observe the events of another pivotal summer in the lives of her characters. Pick ye peaches while ye may.

There would be superficial reasons for going to see Alcarràs this dreariest of British Januarys, first and foremost that it's a film set in a peach-growing climate; sit close enough to the screen, and you'll pick up your daily recommended amount of Vitamin D. (Contrast that with seeing Tár, which could only trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder.) But it's also an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with the methods of a filmmaker for whom fiction and documentary are apparently inseparable. Watching Alcarràs, you may well assume that the extended family on screen are an actual family, and/or that these individuals have close personal experience of growing on the land - that they could jump on any Massey Ferguson tractor and know how to operate it. Only the closing credits disprove this assumption - these are, in fact, unrelated, non-professional actors - while underlining Simón's notable achievements in direction. Establishing the characters' relationship to the soil entails an education in how to grow, maintain and pick not just peaches, but figs and tomatoes, too. (Bonus lesson: how best to cook snails al fresco.) It could so easily present as the usual neo-realist vegetables - the cinematic green leaves your elders and betters insist you chow down alongside the new Gerard Butler flick and that killer doll movie you've been dying to see. The Simón corrective is to invite those kids back on set at regular intervals, and have them hare around making their own forms of entertainment. Sometimes they collide with the grown-ups, as when dad snatches up the wooden pallets the kids have repurposed as dens, sending them off to tear up the farm's watermelon patch. But it means that - as was the case with Summer 1993 - Alcarràs functions on at least two levels simultaneously. Here we see the sorry, weary adults, fearful their time on this land is coming to an end. And over here: their blithe, adaptable offspring, liable to rustle up a similar mischief wherever they're eventually set down. They don't notice as we do, which is an extra poignancy - you don't at that age, unless it's something major, and even then it might well be unfathomable to you in your innocence.

As drama, the whole is almost miraculously organic. Given that Alcarràs has been rated 15 solely for bad language, you may wonder whether a two-hour film can sustain itself on the occasional swearword. Turns out it can, which seems doubly surprising once you've clocked how essentially nice and non-combative this family is. Simón taps pre-existing sources of tension (dad's smoking, a teenage son's illicit weed plantation and wastrel tendencies) that don't need punching up or underlining because everyone on screen has long lived with and endured them; she explores rifts, like that between Quimet and his brother over how best to work this acreage, rather than going around looking for fights. The developments and escalations that follow are never forced, and too localised to have been torn from the screenwriter's handbook: the stress of hauling down a solar panel does for Quimet's back, putting him out of action as the harvest gears up. For a while, Simón paints a fond picture of collectivity, as the remaining family members pull together to get the job done. But while the threat of the diggers doesn't recede entirely, the tension within the film isn't that of Quimet's lot versus outside forces; it's within the family itself, who start to buckle under pressure, like poor dad's vertebrae. This is a longer film than Summer 1993, and there are places where it feels it; it's as if in doing justice to this place, people, culture and terrain, Simón felt obliged to fall into the same leisurely pace with which the residents go about their business. Yet allow yourself to settle into its rhythms, and Alcarràs becomes properly transporting, right through to a closing shot that provides the best illustration yet of Simón's observational delicacy. Life hereabouts goes on. But everything will be different now. Sometimes only the sharpest of eyes can spot that.

Alcarràs is now playing in selected cinemas.