Tuesday 28 February 2023

The heart asks pleasure first: "Joyland"

There have been signs of a long-overdue maturing within Pakistani cinema for some while. 2018's familial drama Cake came out of nowhere, and suggested at least one emergent writer-director was willing to tackle adult themes in an intelligent fashion; last year's brawny action hit The Legend of Maula Jatt represented a meshing of wide-reaching ambition with skilled technique. Yet ever since its Cannes debut last summer, Saim Sadiq's Joyland has been positioned as the real breakout: equally beloved of critics and festival audiences, not to mention Malala Yousafzai (who signed on as an executive producer and general cheerleader), its only pushback thus far has come from Pakistan's Ministry of Information, who got cold feet after local censors initially passed the film for exhibition. Challenging ideas about patriarchal societies are present, granted, but you have to sit with Joyland before they become apparent. For a while, what Sadiq presents us with is a portrait of a fraught extended family crammed beneath the same roof: a gruffly aging, widowed father (Salmaan Peerzada) watching over his two offspring, the older of whom, serious Saleem (Sohail Sameer), has just fathered his third child, thereby earning the title of Good Son. By contrast, his junior counterpart Haider (Ali Junejo) tends to be regarded as a lovable loafer, despite a wife and child of his own. An early inkling of the tensions in play comes after Haider informs the clan he's landed a job as the manager of an erotic revue bar, rather than the truth, which is that he's stumbled into the role of backing dancer. Even more perturbing, within the context of such a staidly traditional familial framework, might be the fact Haider has fallen hard for the revue's resident prima donna, the unapologetically fierce Biba (Alina Khan), who is trans. This is a newish dramatic wrinkle, but what unfolds isn't so far removed from the business of a thousand and one South Asian melodramas: good people following their hearts into a tangle.

That this tangle proves supremely absorbing is down in large part to the richness of the worlds Sadiq and co-writer Maggie Briggs describe. There is Lahore's erotic cabaret scene, for starters: tamer than any Western equivalent, reliant on suggestive lyrics and gyration rather than rampant flesh-flaunting, but every bit as jostling with salty characters and big personalities. For Haider, it's an escape from an oppressive norm, a chance to unwind; Sadiq has affectionate fun watching this squarish straight-edge trying his utmost to fit in. (His dancing needs, uh, some work.) The romance between Haider and Biba, sincere and true, progresses from fascination via allyship to something deeper still, without a wayward script beat or false emotional note. And yet Joyland never completely loses sight of what's waiting for - and who's missing Haider - back at the family ranch. Yes, it's the stern father, who finds it shameful enough that his boy should have left a cardboard promotional cutout of Biba on the roof overnight for all the world to see. (Not for the first or the last time in the film, Biba towers above everyone.) But it's also Haider's loving wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), growing understandably frustrated at being left behind to cook, clean and look after the kids, and increasingly aware she's carrying around within her the growing agglomeration of cells that will lock her down only further. Sadiq's boxy frames - which the Lebanese cinematographer Joe Saade sometimes pushes gradually into, like a pressure on the chest - heighten our sense that everyone really needs room to move and breathe; even the father, old, infirm and horribly lonely, winds up wetting himself after jamming his wheelchair in a corridor on the way to the bathroom. It's no way to live.

There is life here, all the same, and the great force of Sadiq's film lies in its keen-eyed pursuit of pleasure; that title is far from wholly ironic. Admittedly, it remains a realist's idea of pleasure: the cabaret's opening night, which might have yielded a lavish, Bollywood-like setpiece, instead begins with the performers having to negotiate a blackout, and ends with a sweaty close-up, emphasising the strain of performance. But each of the main characters is yearning, longing or aching for something, whether or not they get close to it. Sadiq's most radical idea - doubly so within the generally coy context of South Asian cinema - is to reach for lust as a great leveller. He makes these characters properly hot to trot, even as he then notes their horniness isn't likely to be alleviated by sleeping three, four or five to a bed with their own oblivious offspring. (How those children were conceived in the first place is one of the film's mysteries. If it holds anything so obvious as a moral, Joyland's would be take your pleasures where you can, especially in societies set up to reward sacrifice and separate the sexes.) These characters spring to life as recognisable flesh-and-blood, at once frisky, frustrated and fragile; they're played with an uncommon sensitivity by these largely unknown performers, such that you know from a very early juncture that their dilemmas and decisions are going to linger in the mind long after the closing credits have rolled. Junejo is touchingly puppyish in his pursuit of warmth and softness, and if we come to share his predicament, it's because we, too, wouldn't want to have to choose between the very different women of the piece. Sadiq doesn't, either, which results in an arguably too open ending. Yet after two hours of carefully maintained and observed containment, this is understandable, and there's something characteristically buoying about the way Joyland circles back to a treasured memory of happier times. Even in the wake of tragedy, this camera - and the profoundly promising filmmaker stationed behind it - resumes the hunt for consoling moments of tenderness.

Joyland is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 24 February 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of February 17-19, 2023):

1 (new) Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12A)
3 (2) Magic Mike's Last Dance (15) **
4 (4) Avatar: The Way of Water (12A) ***
5 (9) Epic Tails (U)
6 (5) Knock at the Cabin (15) **
7 (3) Titanic 3D (12A) ***
8 (14) Women Talking (15) **
9 (7) Plane (15)
10 (6) The Whale (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Roman Holiday

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
3 (3) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
4 (15) Minions: The Rise of Gru (U)
5 (6) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
6 (2) Black Adam (12)
7 (7) The Woman King (15) ***
8 (11) Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (PG)
9 (9) Bullet Train (15)
10 (8) Elvis (12) **

My top five: 
1. Armageddon Time
5. Bros

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Rain Man (Tuesday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
2. A Hard Day's Night [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 3.05pm)
3. The Sisters Brothers (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. The King's Speech (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
5. The Rock (Friday, ITV1, 10.45pm)

"Selfiee" (Guardian 24/02/23)

Selfiee ***

Dir: Raj Mehta. With: Akshay Kumar, Emraan Hashmi, Nushrratt Bharuccha, Diana Penty. 143 mins. Cert: 12A

After the monumental success of Pathaan, something a little more low-rise. Director Raj Mehta has emerged as Bollywood’s best-placed continuity candidate, landing one of the industry’s last pre-pandemic hits with 2019’s babymaking romp Good Newwz, before resuming with post-lockdown marital farce Jugjugg Jeeyo. His latest expands upon the 2019 Malayalam hit Driving Licence, with its copper-bottomed premise: movie star driven nuts by the superfan schooling him in three-point turns. Another broad, sitcom-bright crowdpleaser, prone to abusing the wacky sound effect button, this latest Mehta comedy (as it were) has nevertheless been packaged with a professionalism that’s hard to deny or dismiss.

Crucially, Mehta gets his scripts right. Regular scribe Rishhabh Sharrma ensures this feud, between unsmiling action hero Vijay Kumar (Akshay Kumar) and moustachioed jobsworth Om Prakash Agarwal (Emraan Hashmi), develops organically from an early misunderstanding around the former’s surrogacy plans. It flares, wildly but not implausibly, into a 24-hour media storm encompassing weaponised hashtags, cancellation cries, and terribly angry mobs. Fixing one eye on the madness of moviemaking in modern India possibly explains why stretches are played with an oddly stiff bat: Sharrma’s sharper satirical barbs risk drawing blood too close to home. (In an opening, out-of-character address, the actual Kumar nervily maintains no slight is hereby meant on his real-life superfans.)

Still, it is well played, within certain parameters. Other halves Diana Penty and Nushrratt Bharuccha are left looking on in cowed awe as the leads go mano-a-mano; here, Mehta appears fustily traditional. Yet Kumar and the ever-sly Hashmi spar appreciably, and Abhimanyu Singh is hilarious as a rival thesp plotting Vijay’s downfall while making the world’s worst celebrity endorsements. A moderate timekiller, it earns goodwill with the sheer daftness of its final act, featuring a televised theory test and pro-celebrity parallel parking. But it may be time to reassess 2016’s Fan, one of Shah Rukh Khan’s pre-Pathaan flops, and a film that proved far more daring in pitting superstar against stan.

Selfiee opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday 23 February 2023

All the smol things: "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On"

Filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp and comedian Jenny Slate (formerly the infamous Mona-Lisa Saperstein on TV's 
Parks & Recreation) were a married couple when they began work on a series of YouTube stopmotion shorts centred on a tiny souvenir seashell with a single, googly eye and two even tinier feet. In the intervening years, during which Marcel the Shell became a suitably small Internet craze, the pair broke up, but they've reunited - at least creatively - for a big-screen expansion of the shorts, which usefully folds in some of its makers' own backstory. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On presents as the most personal-seeming American animation since the stick-figure masterworks of the great Don Hertzfeldt; Fleischer Camp appears on screen as a version of himself, but even when he's not there, you sense tender hands and concerned faces are only just out of shot. The animation doesn't erase the palpably strong human elements and emotions in play. As we join or rejoin him, Marcel (again given voice by Slate) is pottering round an empty AirBnB rental, having seen family and friends move on. (Its owners emptied the home of anything non-generic after parting ways.) The house seems even bigger for being inhabited by two tiny seashells; Marcel's sole remaining relative is a frail grandmother (Isabella Rossellini) whose tumbles and bouts of memory loss suggests she's not long for this world. His only non-shell confidant is Fleischer Camp, who's moved into the property after a break-up of his own and suggests making a documentary about Marcel's life to pass the time. Both the actual Fleischer Camp and the character of "Dean Fleischer Camp" see in Marcel a symbol of life's fragility: the shell's as much a vessel as any young child, and a lot of time, love and energy has evidently been poured into these tiny shoes. As a result, Marcel - like a hardy child - has endured his creators' real-life break-up, whatever backlash the Internet can throw at a stopmotion conch, and the enforced separations of the past few years. I started sobbing five minutes into Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and remained damp-cheeked throughout much of what followed.

Some of that, granted, was cry-laughter; the movie's as funny as it is quietly profound. You come this way expecting gags of scale, and certainly you get them: here's Marcel sobbing under a mansize tissue that fits him like a winter duvet. The script, by Fleischer Camp, Slate and Nick Paley, gets comic mileage out of our tiny hero's idiosyncratic way of expressing himself. (On his Italian-sounding grandmother, for example: "She's not from here. She's from the garage, hence the accent.") Mostly, you spend the film marvelling at the invention of its worldbuilding - how Fleischer Camp finds another world within our world, something akin to a doll's house or a Womble's den. Working to shell scale, an asthma inhaler can stand as a slide, a pillbox as a row of cupboards; a china teacup serves double duty as a mollusc hot tub. So far, so Aardman, you might say. What's completely new - and very clever - is an extra layer of postmodern media-savvy that doesn't obscure the film's depth of emotion. Fleischer Camp layers those initial YouTube clips into the action, allowing Marcel to both register astonishment at the online interest and, later, to parlay this new-found celebrity into a 60 Minutes profile. (In the meantime, there is passing debate over the extent to which Dean the documentarist should intervene in his subject's life.) It feels like a lockdown phenomenon: domestic, introspective, the result of much housebound tinkering, a certain sadness visible in the corner of its eyes. (One reason Marcel and Dean get along so well: they've both seen loved ones disappear.) Yet what it's getting at - and it's going for more than surface cutesiness, clearly - is vast and universal. I spent a good hour trying to figure out what Slate's voicework, with its lazy SoCal drawl, reminded me of, and it's the girl-narrator of The Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds": it has the same dreaminess, the optimistic openness to the elements. "There's fountains in the lakes!," Marcel gasps, on an afternoon drive around humdrum L.A. parks. This is a far bigger world than we generally allow ourselves to consider on a daily basis, and there is much within it that bears marvelling at. I'm very glad Marcel has finally arrived on these shores to remind us of that, even if the film bearing his name often feels too delicate, too special, to bear screening in the sorry heart of the modern multiplex.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 18 February 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of February 10-12, 2023):

2 (new) Magic Mike's Last Dance (15) **
3 (re) Titanic 3D (12A) ***
4 (2) Avatar: The Way of Water (12A) ***
5 (3) Knock at the Cabin (15) **
6 (5) The Whale (15)
7 (6) Plane (15)
8 (4) Pathaan (12A) ***
9 (new) Epic Tails (U)
10 (7) The Fabelmans (12A) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Roman Holiday

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
2 (2) Black Adam (12)
3 (4) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
4 (new) Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (12)
5 (1) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
6 (6) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
7 (3) The Woman King (15) ***
8 (5Elvis (12) **
9 (14) Bullet Train (15)
10 (17) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)

My top five: 
1. Armageddon Time
5. Bros

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Gravity (Saturday, BBC2, 7.15pm)
2. Collateral (Friday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
3. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Sunday, BBC1, 2.15pm)
4. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Sunday, C4, 11pm)
5. Moonstruck [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 10.40pm)

In darkness: "Women Talking"

In the ten years since her last directorial outing, 2012's Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley has been busy wrestling - very publicly, in a series of characteristically thoughtful newspaper articles, and then at greater length in last year's memoir Run Towards the Danger - first with what happened to her as a child actor on the chaotic sets of Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, then with the wider questions thrown up by the recent #MeToo discourse. Some of that thinking would seem to have found its way into Women Talking, in which Polley adapts a novel by Miriam Toews set in the aftermath of a series of coordinated sex attacks by men on the women of an isolated Mennonite community. With the men departing en masse to bail out one of their own, the women are left to decide among themselves which is the best course of action to follow: do nothing, stand and fight, or leave the encampment altogether. Over two hours, we watch a debate that ebbs and flows, as heated in places as, say, the collectivism confab at the heart of Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. There are women who insist the group should stand their ground, as this is their home and their right; there are women who reason that staying put is guaranteed to turn one or two of them into murderers, armed with everything they now know. There are those whose anger at these atrocities blazes outwards, to sear any and every man who crosses their path; there are, too, those who maintain there are still good men in this world, and that even bad men can show sincere remorse for heinous crimes. (Polley, who has been admirably patient in her interactions with the still-brusque, ever-devil-may-care Gilliam, tips her own hand somewhat in casting Ben Whishaw - cuddly Paddington himself - as the women's loyal, supportive notary, a model of allyship.) The basic material is fascinating: it's a #MeToo debate taking place in an alternative dimension, one where nobody's heard of Miramax. You can see why so many critics have responded as they have, which is to say that Women Talking confirms Polley as among the most intelligent and sensitive filmmakers currently working in North America.

Another legitimate response, however, would be "what the hell am I squinting at here?" That more critics haven't logged this response - that they've instead been caught softpedalling around or judiciously avoiding discussing the look of the film - ranks among the most egregious failures of the critical corps this awards season. A caveat: critics generally get to see films in optimal conditions, whether at festivals or in studio screening rooms, where the projection equipment has been calibrated to produce the best possible image. I caught Women Talking at the Picturehouse in Liverpool - far from a fleapit - and it was clear within minutes that something had gone very wrong indeed, either at the point of production or in the film's subsequent reproduction. Polley and her DoP Luc Montpellier have chosen to film this material in the lowest light, using desaturated colours, doubtless intending to paint a broadly representative picture of the grim situation these women have found themselves in. The problem is that the film's medium shots become almost entirely illegible, and you can't tell who's talking in certain close-ups; one of the starriest casts of the year gets reduced to thick grey smudges. (I think Frances McDormand is in there somewhere, but I'd have to check IMDb to be sure.) Whatever debate that script opens up, the oppressive gloom shuts right back down again; even the most compelling ideas are drowned out by your frazzled optic nerve screaming up to the projectionist's booth. Why on earth does it look like this? Given that the film's internal debate is geared to finding the right, forceful nuance, perhaps we might put it like this: Polley is an intelligent and sensitive filmmaker who, this once, has made a regrettable aesthetic blunder. (She's not infallible: setting the end credits to the strains of The Monkees' "I'm a Believer" betrays its own kind of inexperience.) What's frustrating - viewing Women Talking in the light of the cautious She Said and standoffish Tár - is that this script represented the movies' best opportunity to re-energise the wider public debate. But that's the dysfunction now baked into North American cinema: a fundamentally unwatchable work gets praised to the rafters for what it's saying (rather than actually showing), and is thereby elevated onto several Best of the Year lists. Other opinions are of course available - a production this polyphonic isn't letting us forget that - but how can any film be considered a must-see when 90-95% of it is a can't-see?

Women Talking is now playing in selected cinemas.

That sinking feeling: "Titanic 3D"

After the colossal success of
Avatar in 2009, James Cameron exercised droit de seigneur and had his previous #1 movie of all time retrofitted as Titanic 3D. This version was first floated in 2012 to tie in with the 100th anniversary of the events the film described, and now returns to us - not long after the box-office triumph of Avatar 2 - to mark the film's 25th anniversary. (Constitutionally unable to miss a commercial beat, Cameron ensured the UK reissue also coincided with Valentine's Day.) I first saw the 2D Titanic the day before it opened in 1998, in a packed preview screening at what was the Apollo cinema in Leamington, with my immediate family, my best friend, and the then Coventry City manager Gordon Strachan and his wife. (We arrived separately, I should point out.) None of us knew going in whether the film would hold water, but even those snot-nosed brats among us who spent the entire second half cheering on the dastardly Billy Zane - myself, best friend, younger brother - were forced to admit the film wasn't a disaster, and in fact sort of worked as a night out. In 3D, Titanic still works, although that 3D has nothing very much to do with why it still works; it's all just slightly dimmer than you remember it being, because what was bolted onto it was Avatar-era 3D rather than shiny new Avatar 2-era 3D. 

Strangely, though, the movie itself - conceived in that late 20th century moment of anything's-possible studio optimism - may have assumed an even greater resonance for 21st century audiences as a cautionary parable about failing structures: it's a film in which people learn the hard way that capitalism can carry them but so far, and can only offer so much shelter from the elements when the shit/ice hits the fan/ship. You could claim it as a rare Marxist blockbuster, were it not also premised on a working-class lad sacrificing himself so a posh girl can go on to lead a full life. (Cameron, to this day, contains multitudes, which may be one reason his films appeal to such a broad spectrum of viewers.) Either way, these aren't ghosts from the past, but vibrant-seeming avatars - more vibrant, I'd argue, than the state-of-the-art creations in Avatar itself. The whole film's an act of cinematic necromancy. Cameron shows us the corpse of the ship in that prologue everybody forgets about, and then raises it from the dead; the image is first blue and chilly, then suddenly golden and warm. As transitions go, it's up there with the monochrome-to-colour movement in The Wizard of Oz; for a while, this Titanic appears so alive you could convince yourself it will make it to New York on sheer razzle-dazzle, moxie and chutzpah alone. Thus can Cameron break our hearts all over again with that hard, brilliant final hour - a still staggering logistical feat, and one far less reliant on CG trickery than my teenage self had remembered.

The trouble remains that this is a film with a perilously soft centre, stuck with marshmallow where the dramatic ballast should go. That initial transition not only eases our passage from the late 1990s to the 1910s, but from a gleaming late 20th century superproduction to a form of melodrama that might even have struck 19th century onlookers as dusty or thin. The film has almost everything at its disposal - and much of that it puts on screen for us to marvel at - but it never quite matches that magic combo of spectacle and intimacy Spielberg hits upon in his best crowdpleasers. Cameron knows what folks want (the figures bear him out on this), but he retains a far shakier grasp on how they act, think and talk. (Is this why he wound up filming giant Smurfs a thousand light years away from planet Earth? I'd pegged the Avatars as an ongoing demonstration video for cinema, such as they once put on in showrooms for electrical goods. Revisiting Titanic made me wonder whether the later franchise isn't also a resignation letter of sorts - its maker's final leavetaking from reality and gravity.) Titanic is good on construction: it's alert to the class system and its strictures, beautifully dressed and appointed, with a smashing guest list. (Hello, David Warner! Hello, Bernard Hill! Hello, Hornblower Gruffudd!) Yet, even 25 years on, I'm still not sure it launches the interpersonal fireworks required to make it a keeper.

It made stout business sense to cast Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, the hottest young stars in the world at that moment (and the hottest young stars in the world prepared to spend long nights clinging to a door in a freezing water tank). Yet they're here almost as investments, part of the film's portfolio - the shiniest stars aboard the biggest ship in the number one film in the world! - and any fool can see there's a mismatch between them: she's a young woman, while he's still a kid, and a kid, one might add, who resembles an American Apparel model far more than he does a penniless bohemian. (I grant you the enduring novelty of watching Leonardo DiCaprio courting someone who appears ten years older than him.) The one scene where everyone looks to be aiming for something deeper, funnily enough, is the now-infamous "draw me like one of your French girls" interlude. Here, Cameron pauses his action, melodrama and conspicuous wealth-flaunting in favour of close-ups, stilled faces and bodies, a stripped-down piano circling theme songs to come. In context, however, it's James Cameron Attempts High Art Before the Big Ship Goes Smashy-Crashy: sweetly intentioned, but also a little clunky and naff, not least as artist and sitter seem more like siblings than they do nailed-on life partners.

The drawing, of course, is what survives - a glowing portrait of youth that Cameron enlarged with his own artistic project, thereby changing the course of the entire American film business going into the 21st century. Everything in Titanic is secondary to these kids: the actual deaths of 1500 passengers over April 14-15, 1912 are afforded far less narrative significance that the passing of the entirely fictional Jack. 25 years on, the tragedy appears more than ever the grown-ups' fault. The ship is largely populated with Bad Grown-Ups (Zane, Warner, Frances Fisher as Rose's mum) who keep getting in the kids' way or reducing their chances of happiness; at the very last, the action stops again for an oddly fanciful scene in which one of the few Good Grown-Ups (Victor Garber, as the ship's architect Thomas Andrews) personally apologises to Rose and Jack for not building them a stronger vessel for romance. (For not building The Love Boat, basically.) You can see why the teenagers of 1998 went so wild for it, but one thing Cameron remains broadly uninterested in is what Rose Dawson was doing in the seventy years that separated Kate Winslet from Gloria Stuart. The movies, sniffing a profitable formula, followed suit in turning their back on this fuller range of life experience, leaving American movies in particular where they are a quarter-century later: with tiny-seeming people rattling round inside crashingly hollow superstructures. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is in cinemas this weekend.

Titanic 3D is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 10 February 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of February 3-5, 2023):

2 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12A) ***
3 (new) Knock at the Cabin (15) **
4 (2) Pathaan (12A) ***
5 (new) The Whale (15)
6 (3) Plane (15)
7 (4) The Fabelmans (12A) ****
8 (new) BTS: Yet to Come in Cinemas (U)
9 (5M3gan (15) ***
10 (6) Babylon (18)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Roman Holiday [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
2 (1) Black Adam (12)
3 (new) The Woman King (15) ***
4 (3) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
5 (4) Elvis (12) **
6 (6) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
7 (5) The Menu (15)
8 (new) Groundhog Day (PG) ****
9 (15) The Batman (15) ***
10 (7) Halloween Ends (18)

My top five: 
1. Decision to Leave

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. A Hidden Life (Sunday, C4, 1.05am)
2. The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (Friday, C4, 12.50am)
3. Notting Hill [above] (Tuesday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
4. Ordinary Love (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. Chicken Run (Sunday, BBC1, 2.15pm)

Cheap thrills: "Magic Mike's Last Dance"

However the film was received, no matter how it was celebrated, I don't believe for a moment that Steven Soderbergh set out to cater for the female gaze with 2012's Magic Mike. Another of its maker's sketchy, half-formed post-millennial experiments, it bore all the traces of filmmaking-as-compulsion, itch-to-scratch, no more vital or commendable in the grand scheme of things than any of the projects Woody Allen was shopping at the beginning of the last decade, no more sincere than 2009's The Girlfriend Experience, a Soderberghian doodle that had to be worked up into a premium-cable series to get in any way interesting. Soderbergh's evident lack of interest in the world of male stripping was underlined when he passed responsibility for the sequel, 2015's Magic Mike XXL, onto his sometime apprentice Gregory Jacobs; he then passed into temporary retirement, returning with the false dawn of 2017's Logan Lucky, the kind of easy-breezy Channing Tatum crowdpleaser the first Mike was hoping to be. (The world and its cinema being what they were by 2017, very few people had that pleasure.) Now Soderbergh has been persuaded by Warner Bros. to sign off on a concluding third instalment, Magic Mike's Last Dance, possibly to meet the studio's need for post-lockdown product born of immediately recognisable IP, possibly to cross-promote the spin-off live show that earns the holding company far more (at £30 a ticket) than any mere movie could in this day and age. What, after all, is sexier - what's more guaranteed to leave us all moist - than corporate synergy?

Last Dance thereby puts the tin lid on this series's ever-icky relationship with capital, but the tragic irony is that very little has been spent on it; the luxury budgets of its maker's Ocean's movies now seem a lifetime ago. (The new film was originally greenlit as another of Soderbergh's recent HBO Max-bound works-for-hire; Tatum's stardom appears to have earned it a theatrical run.) Soderbergh reassumes control of the franchise by tearing Mike away from stripping, and those oiled-up brothers-in-thongs who provided the joshing backbone of MMXXL. (They're seen here but fleetingly, in a cursory Zoom call.) Now our hero is packed off to London on the arm of sugar mama Salma Hayek Pinault, who promptly marches into the theatre she owns, fires those she finds rehearsing a staid drawing-room melodrama there, and announces her plans to open an all-male revue in its place: Magic Mike Live, essentially, complete with dancers from the actual troupe. As a narrative rather than a pretext for a promotional video, nothing about this is plausible, but if you've been upsold a glass of Pinot Grigio with your ticket, it may not matter. The idea, I think, is to give us, like wide-eyed Mike, a Rolls Royce ride from Liberty's to Fortnum's and back to the bright lights in time for curtain up. Soderbergh gets points for refusing to lay "London Calling" over the introductory montage, but wherever he stops, whatever action there is forever appears to have been hashed out on the spot. Last Dance has the sorry look of that least sexy thing: the cheap British film. (The poster should warn viewers: "From The Country That Gave You Sex Lives of the Potato Men".) With the arguable exception of the bump-and-grind opening that seals the Tatum-Hayek union, these images could have been recorded by any adult called Steven who happened to be living within a square mile of WC1 last spring and summer. Nobody's gaze is being catered to here.

Heading into Last Dance, I read some early responders - fans of the series - calling it out as among their gravest disappointments of 2023 so far. I can't confess to feeling that let down, but then I haven't been invested in this franchise as much as some. The new film is sort-of amiable in its shambling, although Mike's blank-faced passivity still strikes me as a liability in a motion-picture protagonist, and Hayek Pinault gives a very Hayek Pinault performance. Still, the whole can't help but feel like a badly missed opportunity. After two years of state-enforced quarantine and social distancing, the franchise's target demographic is likely to be horny indeed and hankering for a good time, yet Soderbergh returns this way only to shrug around the subject of desire - he's the wrong man for the job. (I'm assuming he stands to benefit financially from the live show, whether that will involve funding future experiments or easing him into a more prolonged and comfortable retirement.) Removing Mike from that fantasyland stripjoint and depositing him in cold, wet, emotionally frigid Brexitland feels like a misstep from the off: instead of "Pony", we get meandering scenes of rehearsal resembling those StreetDance movies where Frank Harper ran a youth club or some such, and some brief, forgettable shoulder-shaking on the top deck of the number 12 bus to Lambeth North. Not for the first time in this most eccentric and bewildering of careers, Soderbergh displays some funny-peculiar ideas when it comes to giving the public what they want. There are Marcus Brigstocke and Vicki Pepperdine cameos, if that's your kink, but whatever magic there was in this franchise has long gone - and I'm not so sure this filmography is ever going to get back in the black.

Magic Mike's Last Dance opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Splits: "Knock at the Cabin"

It's been quite the ride, worthy of one of his better scripts. Turn-of-the-millennium M. Night Shyamalan: promising to masterful. Mid-Noughties to late 2010s Shyamalan: disastrous, such that you could barely believe this was the same individual. Recent Shyamalan: rehabilitation, of a sort. This writer-director is the Cristiano Ronaldo of the contemporary cinema: capable of brilliance, not lacking in self-regard, and mercurial to say the least. As with studio chiefs, audiences have found out the hard way that you never know what you're spending your money on when it comes to this guy. After a run of medium-cost, high-reward B-movies (the continuation of the
Unbreakable saga with Split and Glass, the Twilight Zone-ish Old), Knock at the Cabin marks a return to the politics of 2004's The Village, Shyamalan's riff on American insularity at the time of the Second Gulf War. Its startpoint - from which the film reportedly then deviates - is a prime slab of Trump-era pulp fiction (Paul Tremblay's 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World); from it, Shyamalan has extracted the set-up of a forced houseshare in a house divided. A gay couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) are holidaying in the New Jersey woods with their adorable adopted daughter (Kristen Cui) when a pack of fervent believers, headed by Dave Bautista's Leonard, show up to inform them the end of the world is nigh - unless, that is, two of them sacrifice the other. Clearly these rival tribes are coming from very different places and positions; Groff's Eric initially wonders whether the intruders are here as part of some violent conversion-therapy program. The question the film is pondering is that America itself now seems to be pondering: is there any way of squaring these divergent perspectives that doesn't end in bloodshed or loss of life?

It's a nifty premise, granted - an inversion of Richard Kelly's The Box, where a couple were handed a device that killed complete strangers and - with it - a deathly responsibility few of us would ever want to have to consider outside the cinema. Shyamalan first sets his characters to having what apologists for right-wing quackery insist on calling "a conversation", trying to hear both sides out equally. The intruders aren't swivel-eyed zealots, exactly: they include a nurse, a gas company worker, and - in Big Len's case - a teacher. Were it not for the bizarre, medieval-looking armaments they've been encouraged to take up, and their willingness to sacrifice their own as a sign of their sincerity, they could be regarded as responsible citizens. Slowly, Shyamalan scatters the action with crumbs of backstory, plugging some of the holes in the picture: I enjoyed Eric's derisive "Messageboard?" upon learning where the intruders met. At the same time, you feel the filmmaker using whatever resources a studio is now willing to trust him with to re-test his yarnspinning abilities: he's seeing how long he can string this standoff out before he has to admit one side or another has it right, or - an outside bet you can't dismiss with this filmmaker - that both sides are so entrenched inside their echo chambers that they're very much mistaken. We're meant to be here to bear witness to a gradual fraying of the American social fabric, yet there's a niggling mismatch between the scope of the events being described and the scale of the production, because Shyamalan is still on probation. (Those apocalyptic events we see are framed as news footage on the cabin's flatscreen - and, in reality, some of that footage would be impossible to retrieve or unlikely to make it onto the airwaves.) It's a tense watch, but much of that tension isn't the tension Shyamalan wants to cultivate or remind us of - it's a tension that comes from us feeling this story could fall to pieces, The Happening-style, with one false move in the screenplay.

Perhaps the real story with Knock at the Cabin, then, is that it hangs together for as long as it does. There are flashes of the Shyamalan A-game, not least in his work with these actors: he coaxes a genuine distress out of Cui, and is quite clever about finding ways not to deploy Bautista's bulk. (The presence of Broadway regular Groff, and of the West End's own Nikki Amuka-Bird among Leonard's crew, suggests Shyamalan understood this project represents a form of fringe theatre - one location, words as weaponised descriptors, a concerted push to wring maximum resonance from a controlled scenario and a confined space.) Some good news: he's regained his ability to work the frame, to shift the viewer's eyes around from shot to shot. His extreme, angular close-ups allow us to scan each face here for signs of weakness, doubt or dissemblance, and there's some nice, macabre detail along the way. (Hitch would have chortled at the character who plants down in a rocking chair to slit their own throat, so the lifeless body bobs back and forth.) Yet again the camera has had to pick up the slack from a wobbly penhand, top-heavy as that is with its bearer's saviour complex (and fascination with same). In the final third, Shyamalan writes everybody into not just a tight spot but a dead end; his payoff begs for a credulity at least 50% of the audience isn't going to have. This viewer, certainly, wasn't buying it, and I'm not sure I can really even sell Knock at the Cabin as a fun time at the movies, exploiting as it does real-world neuroses and insecurities, a general feeling that everything's falling apart all at once. You leave the cinema with a sense that M. Night Shyamalan is working his way back towards the light, albeit in an America that finds itself in a most unhappy if not entirely hopeless place. I mean: swings and roundabouts, right?

Knock at the Cabin is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday 6 February 2023

Fear and loathing: "Blue Jean"

The writer-director Ron Peck,
who died just before Christmas, earned his place in British cinema history on the strength of a single film: 1978's Nighthawks, a rough-edged, naturalistic study of a gay geography teacher at an inner-London school, obliged to patrol the boundary he'd set for himself between his day job and his party-hearty social life. With her terrific debut Blue Jean, Georgia Oakley offers a refining of the same set-up, even as she turns it in the direction of the commercial thriller. Oakley's heroine Jean (Rosy McEwen) is a lesbian PE teacher in a North East coastal town ten years on from the Peck film, at a point when the Thatcher government had mandate enough to push through Clause 28, a legislative agenda specifically intended to root out and disenfranchise these nefarious queers Tory MPs felt were subverting British society. As someone entrusted with shaping the minds and bodies of the Red Wall's children, we sense Jean is tiptoeing on thin ice even before problem student Lois (Lucy Halliday) walks into the gay bar she's taken to drinking in. A scene evoking a familiar sixth-form weirdness - seeing a teacher during a night on the town - assumes an additional edge in this new context: now Jean's secret is out in the public domain, at a time where there are serious consequences for having such secrets to keep. "Not everything is political," Jean blithely retorts to on-off lover Viv (Kerrie Hayes) after the latter deigns to suggest Cilla Black's godawful Blind Date is a state-sponsored plot to batter the British public into heteronormative submission. Well, here's our Georgia with a quick - and very timely - reminder: it is, you know.

One of the surprises of Oakley's film is that it doesn't quite play out the way you suspect, which is to say it keeps a wise distance from Fatal Attraction. Instead, the tension manifests as a low-level, everyday disquiet; the girl gets inside the teacher's head, not her bed. Nevertheless, Jean can't sleep, and she can't relax, especially given the comments made by colleagues unaware they themselves have a lesbian in their midst. At the same time, a strange but perhaps not entirely unexpected bond develops between Jean and Lois, converting outcast Lois into the super-sub of the school netball team. (This is likely the only thriller you'll have seen where netball serves as a plot point, the girls' locker room proving as reactionary in its attitudes as the staff room upstairs.) That after-hours encounter reveals to Jean and Lois both that they're not alone; they are, instead, living parallel secret lives. Oakley, we sense, isn't just prising open Thatcher's crypt for the hell of it (though there the old bat is, taking up dispatch-box arms against what she dubs "the inalienable right of children to be gay"), and she's not here to prey on pre-existing fears or spark another moral panic. (Everybody's jumpy enough nowadays as it is.) Instead, quietly and rather brilliantly, Blue Jean begins to formulate its own counterargument in favour of gay teachers: that they might be able to share a measure of life experience, or the right words of encouragement, at a moment when it doesn't take much to make a kid feel like a pariah.

The film builds that rhetorical force in large part by getting the details right. It's recognisably 1980s, without going full dayglo legwarmer on us; there's a bit of "Blue Monday", but otherwise the soundtrack goes for less familiar (and thus presumably cheaper to licence) pop. All the while, Oakley reveals herself as an exceptional director of actors. McEwen, a newcomer to this viewer, has the same upright alertness Tilda Swinton has, and no less of an ability to loose a tell-tale tremor across a snow-white face, like a ripple on a lake. (I couldn't tell whether this was a make-up choice or mere subdermal serendipity, but the rash observed on her neck during a pivotal scene in the headmaster's office is uncomfortably persuasive.) She constructs a loving but intriguingly tentative bond with Hayes, here pierced and tatted and all but unrecognisable from the juvenile lead who energised 2009's Kicks; there's a deft sketch of a small but vibrant and defiant gay community; and, back at school, the teenagers are properly inchoate, not stage-schoolers who wouldn't be seen dead in Blyth. (No surprise, come the end credits, to see the name Shaheen Baig, the casting director who's done as much as anyone to shake up the look and sound of British cinema these past two decades.) Right through to a third-act crisis in which our sympathies are torn every which way, Oakley's deft, economical scripting puts her protagonist in a bind without ever appearing to force the issue; her raw materials are those unspoken but deeply felt pressures that follow from having to justify who you are, and why you have every right to remain in the room. It's identifiably a 21st century movie about identity. But it's also a really smart and gripping movie, however you identify, whether or not you can remember this grim period of recent British history.

Blue Jean opens in selected cinemas from Friday, with previews across the country from tonight.

Saturday 4 February 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of January 27-29, 2023):

1 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12A) ***
2 (new) Pathaan (12A) ***
3 (new) Plane (15)
4 (new) The Fabelmans (12A) ****
5 (2) M3gan (15) ***
6 (3) Babylon (18)
7 (5) Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)
8 (4) I Wanna Dance with Somebody (12A)
9 (new) The Wandering Earth II (12A)
10 (new) Billie Eilish: Live at the O2 (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Roman Holiday [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Black Adam (12)
2 (4) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
3 (5) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
4 (3) Elvis (12) **
5 (9) The Menu (15)
6 (8) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
7 (2) Halloween Ends (18)
8 (7) Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (PG)
9 (13) Prey for the Devil (15)
10 (11) Sing 2 (U)

My top five: 
1. Decision to Leave
5. Bros

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. A Matter of Life and Death (Sunday, BBC2, 2.45pm) 
2. The Lady Vanishes (Saturday, BBC2, 3.05pm)
3. The 39 Steps (Saturday, BBC2, 1pm)
4. Con Air (Friday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
5. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (Friday, C4, 12.35am)

Friday 3 February 2023

You be the judge: "Saint Omer"

Saint Omer
 marks the French filmmaker Alice Diop's transition into full-length fiction from acclaimed documentaries, and you can tell. For the last 105 of its 122 minutes, Diop's latest project offers a soup-to-nuts account of a trial held in the market town of the title, centred on a Senegalese student, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), who's been accused of murdering her 15-month-old daughter. Yet this courtroom drama is prefixed by an unusual prologue introducing us to Rama (Kayije Kagame), an academic looking on at the trial from the gallery. Diop shares a lot of information here that doesn't initially seem all that relevant from a narrative perspective: what Rama is teaching (Marguerite Duras, how female collaborators were treated after WW2), dramas within her family, what she saw out the window of the train that took her to Saint Omer, even what she does with her hotel bedlinen. As is apparent from the small handful of less than glowing reviews of Diop's film, one response to this scene-setting might be a restless "get on with it". What becomes clear is that this is Diop showing her working - as modern documentarists are encouraged to do - because it turns out she, like Rama, sat in on a real-life trial of this kind, and found herself negotiating certain issues as events played out before her. The film's insistently frontal framing represents an attempt on Diop's part to bring a renewed honesty and transparency to cinematic fiction - to meet the audience on the level, and from the off try and show exactly where everybody on screen is coming from.

This is important, because the case under discussion is an odd one, at once open-and-shut and far more complex besides. In a move typical of the upfront approach, Diop has her judge (Valérie Dréville) lay out the established facts in an early monologue for jurors and viewers alike. The dead infant was left to drown on a beach; after initially denying culpability, Laurence copped to the crime; and now, finally, here we all are. In her opening remarks, the accused maintains she has no clue what drove her to this heinous act, instead expressing a sincere hope the trial (the French procès feels more resonant in the context) will illuminate her motives; she then pleads not guilty. The implication is that there may well be extenuating circumstances, not unlike the extenuating circumstances that prologue entered on Rama's behalf. Thereafter, the uncluttered clarity of Diop's blocking and framing underlines the parallels between these two women. Both have spent time thinking about crimes and punishments. Both have issues with their extended family: in Laurence's case, she believes someone put the evil eye on her. Both are alert to the sore spots of race and gender that flare up during the trial, and such is the fierce directness of this camera that we too become attuned or reattuned to them: the all-white jury, the child's father - a befuddled older fellow - ducking out of taking responsibility for pre-natal care because "men didn't do that sort of thing in [his] day", the blithe racism of Laurence's PhD supervisor, who wonders why an African student would have any interest in an Austrian philosopher like Wittgenstein. Here, as elsewhere in Saint Omer, you can almost literally feel the air being sucked out of the courtroom; what Diop must have realised, sitting up in the gallery, is that a trial can recreate the perfect storm of indifference and insensitivity that leaves people in handcuffs and lives hanging in the balance.

She counters that indifference with thoughtful presentation; this isn't just a lesson in citizenship, but a richly rewarding lesson in film style. Saint Omer immediately distinguishes itself from movie norms by setting us down in the middle of the calmest, least fractious courtroom in screen history, overseen by a judge who barely raises her voice - it is a place, crucially, where you can hear yourself think. What you often find yourself thinking about, when you're not busy mulling the particulars of this case, is the assurance and elegance of Diop's camera set-ups. Laurence's testimony, to isolate one element, is recorded in a single medium shot, with no movement to stir false action, nor straining close-ups at moments of high emotion. Diop displays a documentarist's readiness and determination to let her camera run - to hear out her subjects without distraction, allowing them in turn to underline or undermine their own account of themselves. When the framing is this simple (by narrative cinema standards), any subsequent reframing - and any shift in the judicial balance - registers as doubly potent. There's an astonishingly effective (and suggestive) sequence late on in the trial, where we observe Rama zoning out as two white barristers argue among themselves on the topic of female genital mutilation; just by the sheer drift of its camera, the film shows us someone becoming alienated from language itself, in a way that might have inspired Wittgenstein to fill several more volumes. And yet the movement connects the characters, and connects those characters to the audience. Rama knows how Laurence feels; we know how Rama feels; ergo, we know how Laurence feels, in as much as anyone can ever truly know how anybody else feels.

Far from superfluous, then, that initial framing story represents the run-up in the leap of empathy Diop wants us to take: Rama is another of those onlookers who arrived horrified by this crime and then came to consider the plight of the accused, to walk a mile in shackled shoes. This is where, for all its perspectival clarity, Saint Omer gets actively tricky: it's a film offering a retrial to someone who was found legally culpable, so as to determine whether or not she can also be considered morally and spiritually culpable. Parsing that may require our reaching an understanding - uncomfortable as the process might be - that the circumstances as presented here meant the victim stood even less chance than the woman who rather shruggingly carried her into this world. When Laurence confronts the prosecution lawyer with the freighted question "So why did I do it?", she's asking everyone - Rama, the jury, those of us in the cheap seats - and there aren't easy answers, let alone comforting ones. At least one onlooker has arrived at the conclusion Saint Omer may represent the year's best advert for infanticide, but this is surely to overlook the implications of the film's closing images, which return Rama to everyday life, and show her persisting in the face of the horrors the trial brings up. There is still hope, but perhaps it now has to be cultivated from within. Diop, with her documentary grounding, trusts we can handle the truth - jagged, incendiary, awful though it often is. Saint Omer, the first great film of 2023, serves as its own kind of evidentiary proof - not least that the notion of a cinema for adults, a cinema of ideas and emotions, isn't as dead as we might have feared.

Saint Omer opens from today in selected cinemas.