Friday 31 March 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of March 24-26, 2023):

1 (new) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
2 (1) Shazam! Fury of the Gods (12A)
3 (2) Creed III (12A) ***
4 (3) Scream VI (18)
5 (4) Allelujah (12A)
7 (5) 65 (12A)
8 (new) Louis Tomlinson: All of These Voices (n/c)
9 (new) 80 for Brady (12A)
10 (7) Rye Lane (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Pearl
4. Three Colours Blue [above]
5. The Big Lebowski

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (5) A Man Called Otto (15)
2 (3) Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
4 (1) Elvis (12) **
5 (8) Black Adam (12)
6 (new) Babylon (18)
7 (7) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
8 (re) John Wick: Chapter 2 (15) ***
9 (re) John Wick (15) ***
10 (4) Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (12)

My top five: 
2. Living

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. High Society (Saturday, BBC2, 10.55pm)
2. Bridge of Spies (Sunday, Channel 4, 12.05am)
3. Children of Men (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
4. Gremlins (Saturday, five, 4.40pm)
5. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Good Friday, Channel 4, 11.05pm)

Double dip: "Infinity Pool"

The critics have got
Infinity Pool about right. It's not as potent as its writer-director Brandon Cronenberg's breakthrough, 2020's jolting Possessor; indeed, it feels as if two half-as-potent ideas were stitched together at a crucial juncture in the project's development. Yet it gives it a fair old swing, and of all the eat-the-rich screeds that have washed up on these shores in recent times (TV's The White Lotus, Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, the one with Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain nobody much bothered with), it's the one where you feel something truly, irreversibly awful could befall its main characters at any given moment: it gives good dread. Once again, we find Cronenberg overseeing a violent scrambling and reconstitution of the self. Creatively and emotionally frozen writer James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård, at his most frostily handsome) numbly observes the resort vacation designed to revive his flagging bond to wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) turning into a nightmare after he a) falls into the clutches of fellow guest Mia Goth and her spectral eyebrows, and b) finds himself behind the wheel of a car involved in a late-night hit-and-run. Taken in by the local authorities, he discovers one of the perks of being a moneyed white Westerner: paying for the creation of a physical double who will then be subject to a form of capital punishment, in this instance being stabbed to death by the eldest (though still pre-teen) son of the real Foster's victim. This is Clan Cronenberg's equivalent of watching on at your own funeral, and (for Foster) a neat way out of a terrible snafu - except that it also marks our hero's entry into an international elite of degeneracy, all too aware they can roam from place to place, commit the most heinous crimes, and use their vast personal resources to buy their way out of any trouble. The film is at once beyond the pale and aggravatingly close to 21st century reality.

It's also a mindfuck, but it's one of the better contextualised mindfucks in recent cinema history: the right architecture is in place to guarantee a bad trip. Cronenberg is both careful and clever about (de)positioning the resort, with its Far Eastern name and entertainments and its Mitteleuropan accents and scenery. (The film was mostly shot in Croatia; the insinuation is that dystopia is everywhere now.) Cinematographer Karim Hussain gathers up unnerving images: a sea resembling TV static, covert glances at the rusting infrastructure necessary for a privileged few to keep on living the life of Riley. Narratively, however, Infinity Pool bogs down, partly because Cronenberg's screenplay starts to pen itself in. For a while, at least, the film appears open to the possibility that this macabre experience will awaken something positive in the heart of our altogether glazed protagonist. (You wonder whether Cronenberg has his sights set on David Fincher, and delivering an X-rated rethink of The Game.) Yet the second half comprehensively shuts that possibility down, instead coming at you in ever greater waves of depravity. The more Foster realises he's got away with something, the more he realises there's more to get away with: homewrecking in multiple senses, orgies, self-abuse, self-annihilation. Possessor presented as a future key text in gender studies, observing as it did a deathly battle of the sexes taking place within the one body. Infinity Pool may end up on the final-week schedule of Psych 101, but it's much harder going, deadening where its predecessor was electrifying. (One issue: Skarsgård is so convincingly zonked in his sociopathy that it's like trying to empathise with Grant Shapps.) And you keep catching the director struggling to make room for himself amid a crowded field: one especially unbridled free-for-all reminds you of the shunting setpiece in Brian Yuzna's Society, only without the yucky glee, while Foster increasingly resembles the rootless Tim Roth character in the recent Sundown. Cronenberg is committed, unlike the many jokers and smirkers who've broached similar material of late, but the movie gets mired in its own dissolution.

Infinity Pool is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday 30 March 2023

On demand: "Hatching"

Another in the recent run of very odd, oddly memorable Finnish fables, Hatching is founded on a contrast between human nature and your actual nature, interiors and exteriors. It begins with an eerie anecdote: the perfectly ordered home of a lifestyle vlogger and her identikit family is thrown into violent disarray after a crow flies in from the outside world, shattering shelves of glassware before having its neck broken by the remorseless matriarch. Her pre-teen daughter Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a promising gymnast, takes in the bird's abandoned egg, stores it safely under her pillow with a hot water bottle, and then begins to notice cracks both literal and figurative: mum, for one, is having an affair with a neighbouring handyman, and hiding the scars on her heart from view in her eternally sunny videos. The egg, meanwhile, throbs and grows, eventually becoming bigger than its pint-sized protector herself. Somewhere in that relentless growth sits an acknowledgement on the part of writer Ilja Rautsi and director Hanna Bergholm that the world is neither as straightforward nor as perfectible as we might hope; that it is, in fact, almost always a little... well, off. You should see what comes out of the egg when its top pops open.

That's a surprise of some kind, so all I'll note here is that the movie's middle act plays like an ickier, stickier E.T., and that Henry Thomas had it easy: he never had to hide a creature raised to regurgitate half-digested food into his mouth in the middle of the night. (Worse follows when we learn exactly where said food came from.) Suffice to say teenage viewers are going to love Hatching, partly because it's full of gross stuff for them to flinch and giggle at, but mostly because it's about keeping secrets from squarely uncomprehending parents. Rautsi and Bergholm speak their language fluently: Tinja must wrestle with the ugly, smelly, noisy, generally unlovable creature within, while also managing the expectations placed on her, more elevated than ever in an age of social-media brandbuilding. Seasoned horror observers will spot the influences: there's something of Lynch in the uncanny family home and Angela Carter in the fairytale trappings, and this is also clearly the work of creatives who saw both The Exorcist and those Charles Band/Albert Pyun monster movies at an impressionable age. But they're mostly sublimated in an assured job of storytelling - and they're really not bad influences to fall under in the first place.

Hatching is available to stream via Prime Video, YouTube and the BFI Player, and on Blu-Ray via Picturehouse Entertainment.

On demand: "Temple Grandin"

It was a multiple Emmy winner for HBO's telefilm division at the start of the last decade, and yet even just 13 years later, you find yourself wondering whether they could make
Temple Grandin in this manner today. It is, as that title suggests, a biopic of Temple Grandin, the inventor and activist who was inspired by her own experiences of autism to design a comforting device that enables users to shut out intrusive and upsetting thoughts. (She got the idea after seeing how cattle were treated on her aunt's farm; the memoirs from which this screenplay was adapted saw Grandin bearing witness to a period - the mid-to-late 20th century - when those with autism were treated worse than livestock.) In the title role, Claire Danes is as impressive as she's ever been outside TV's Homelandalways present and switched on beneath Grandin's wild tangle of curls, and capably suggesting this subject's unique way of thinking and talking, she makes the character's sporadic breakthroughs especially touching. What's around her, however, can seem very blunt in its construction; it's an unusually insensitive biopic of a hypersensitive figure, audibly and visibly geared towards the non-autistic viewer, and thereby prone to hammering home with every cutaway and insert just how autism reorders the thoughts.

It can be very funny in this, as with the illustration of how Temple hears and understands the phrase "animal husbandry". Yet the first half feels more than a touch brusque, doubtless because there are only so many biographical bullet points a film can squeeze into a two-hour timeslot. In the second half, however, you see exactly what director Mick Jackson - he of the most idiosyncratic career, from Threads to The Bodyguard and this - has been racing towards: it develops into a wonderful, one-of-a-kind story, as having learnt from cattle to help herself, Temple effectively repays the favour, a process that involves mucking in and going to war with the cowboys on John Wayne's ranch. (Implied subtext: why can't someone with autism be the protagonist of a Western?) Never as pious as, say, A Beautiful Mind, it's fortified by a fine supporting cast: Julia Ormond as the mom at the end of her tether, Catherine O'Hara as the aunt who helps pick up the slack, David Strathairn - of course David Strathairn - as the kindly teacher who finds a way of communicating with an altogether singular student. Whatever the delicacy of the film's choices, most of them prove effective: I emerged royally entertained, moved and knowing more about autism than I did going in. The kid-glove treatment, clearly, only gets you so far.

Temple Grandin is available to stream on NOW TV.

Wednesday 29 March 2023

Wild at heart: "The Five Devils"

It could be that French writer-director Léa Mysius
 is two-thirds of the way through a trilogy on the theme of the senses. Mysius's 2017 debut Ava, a coming-of-ager that collapsed under the weight of more ideas than one film could coherently handle, centred on a teenager losing her sight. Follow-up The Five Devils takes as its young heroine a girl equally blessed and cursed with a supernaturally heightened sense of smell. It opens in social realist territory: the title is the name of a sports centre in Grenoble, at the very foot of the Alps, where gymnast and beauty queen turned swim instructor Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos) works, sometimes with her pre-teen daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé) in tow. From the attention paid early on to the wedding photo fixed at Joanne's workstation, we intuit her marriage to local fireman Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) is in some kind of trouble, a situation hardly improved when, against Joanne's wishes, Jimmy installs his dipsomaniac sister Julia (Swala Emati) in the couple's spare room. Soon, everyone's coming to terms with a bigger problem yet. You know how certain smells are said to take you back, like Proustian madeleines for the nostrils? In Vicky's case, that nostalgia is made literal: the odd potent whiff slingshots her into a moment where all the grown-ups in her life were still working out who they were going to be. I'm reluctant to tag a work this pointedly eccentric with anything so conventional (or reductive) as "it's X meets Y" formula, but the film that results may be best approached as Back to the Future with scent-fostering Mason jars instead of a DeLorean, the kind of creative gamble that could only have been greenlit in a country where sniffing wine inspires the same concentration as chugging it.

In essence, it's a neat literary conceit: hypersensitive child intuits something's amiss between her parents, ventures back into their history to see where they went wrong, and comes to intervene in ways both helpful and unhelpful. Yet it's never filmed so neatly as that. If Ava was tiddly on its own ideas, The Five Devils is openly drunk on them. Two films into this career, it's become clear that Mysius is drawn to wildness. That's why the new movie makes a fetish-song out of Bonnie Tyler's ever-elemental "Total Eclipse of the Heart" ("Bohemian Rhapsody" for girls); why a confrontation between Joanne and Julia ends with an octopus being beaten to death over a kitchen unit; and why the headmistress of Vicky's school can't be more than 3'1" in heels. (Dwarves, mountains, a half-blind character called Nadine: I'm guessing there's an element of Twin Peaks in the mix, and that's before some of this town's secrets are exposed by cleansing fire.) Elsewhere, Mysius appears to be amusing herself playing thematic games with extremes of warmth and cold, reds and blues, age and stature. Even with their hair tugged tightly back, the grown-up actors don't much resemble teenagers in the flashbacks, but the idea made me wonder if Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills ever got as far as Grenoble, and - much like David Bennent in The Tin Drum and Aleksei Kravchenko in Come and See - Dramé is one of those rare child stars who looks considerably older and wiser than their tender years. (Listen to how she consoles Jimmy in the closing moments: "petit papa".) It doesn't all coalesce or straighten out. A cue of sorts has been taken from Dramé's explosively natural hair and the incorrigible queerness written into those flashbacks; the impression I took away was of a film tottering a wobbly path towards an unexpectedly harmonious ending. Yet if you were looking for a counterpoint to the tidiness of Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman, The Five Devils would serve you well: there's plenty here to suggest Mysius may just be the wayward Lana del Rey to Sciamma's hallowed Taylor Swift.

The Five Devils is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 24 March 2023

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Shazam! Fury of the Gods (12A)
2 (2) Creed III (12A) ***
3 (1) Scream VI (18)
4 (new) Allelujah (12A)
5 (3) 65 (12A)
7 (new) Rye Lane (15) ***
8 (7) What's Love Got to Do With It? (12A)
9 (5) Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12A)
10 (6Cocaine Bear (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Pearl

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (3) Elvis (12) **
3 (2Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
4 (6) Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (12)
5 (new) A Man Called Otto (15)
6 (4) Living (12) ****
7 (5) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
8 (10) Black Adam (12)
9 (8) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
10 (13) Scream [2022] (18) **

My top five: 
2. Living

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Don't Look Now (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. Pretty Woman [above] (Friday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
3. Queen of Katwe (Saturday, BBC2, 10am)
4. Game Night (Saturday, BBC1, 10.35pm)
5. Mission: Impossible III (Saturday, C4, 11.35pm)

Thursday 23 March 2023

The long and winding road: "Rye Lane"

Raine Allen-Miller's
Rye Lane represents the intersection of several parallel projects and initiatives. Feeding into it from one direction: Film London's twenty-year battle to make the capital city look some distance more alluring and saleable than it did in those dreary late Nineties gangster movies. From another: the ongoing effort to give new and historically underrepresented faces and voices a leg up onto the big screen. In and of itself, the film hardly constitutes a radical break from the past. Writers Nathan Bryon (who cut his teeth on Sky Comedy's reliably amusing Bloods) and Tom Melia (a graduate of Hollyoaks) have turned in a script that hews to much the same walking-and-talking formula as sustained Richard Linklater's Before films, American indies like In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Gimme the Loot, our own Last Chance Harvey and Been So Long, and many stragglers besides. Romcom purists can be reassured our ambulant lovers are forced apart by contrivance at the start of the third act, before being reunited for a happy ending. And there's even been a site-specific dress rehearsal of sorts in Destiny Ekaragha's goofily enjoyable 2014 comedy Gone Too Far!, another Peckham-set endeavour that the majority of my colleagues seemed to have forgotten about when filing their largely glowing reviews last weekend. (There's a lot of films to keep track of nowadays.) What Allen-Miller succeeds in doing is applying a fresh lick of paint to much of the above. You see it almost literally early on, in the warm colours of the art gallery where the movie engineers its very British meet-cute: lovelorn Dom (David Jonsson), who's just discovered his gal has taken up with his best pal, being coaxed out of a gender-neutral toilet cubicle by Yas (Vivian Oparah), passing Good Samaritan who takes pity on this sorry sadsack, partly because she's experienced heartbreak of her own all too recently. Thereafter, this pair find themselves on the same route home - the extended thoroughfare of the title - so they fall even further into sympathetic synch: two complementing sets of Converse trainers, packed off on an 82-minute meander round some brightly coloured houses.

If the film that develops out of this set-up inevitably invites description as ambling, it has a nice sense of time and place, and you spy from the word go that Allen-Miller knows how to fill a frame. Prats on segues, nosy neighbours, young girls making Tik-Toks, city boys belting out grime tracks, a Levi Roots cameo: the director uses the extras afforded to her to bulk out a bustling expression of South London life, such that we come to think of Yas and Dom's growing affinity as but one story among many. This London contains multitudes; you may even wonder, as I did, how much control Allen-Miller exerted over the pigeons in the park these kids pass through. Her early exteriors - as Yas and Dom shuffle awkwardly out of the gallery - are sunny in an English way: i.e. tentatively sunny, a few rays of light relief from the prevailing greyness, to be seized upon, bathed in and taken advantage of before the clouds blow over again. We hasten past the magic hour to closing time - semi-shuttered shops, a feeling everybody's off the clock - and onwards into an evening out of which all parties vow (in Dom's case, reluctantly) to make a night. The direction, then, is as assured as it comes. The script, I think, is antsier, though this could just be a generational quibble. It's funny: it has several choice music-based jokes, including an aside that makes a belated comic case for the validity of the Artful Dodger's dreadful "Bo Selecta" track. But it's a touch overstuffed with zappy cutaways and wacky sidequests, when really you just want to settle in and fall in stride with two performers busy proving themselves the best sort of company. Jonsson (a regular on the BBC/HBO drama Industry) has the slightly tougher gig, loosening Dom up enough so that he slides out of his shell; he has a very sweet speech towards the end, bashfully hinting at everything Yas has taught him in a mere matter of hours. Oparah (until now best known for her stage work) is just a fizzing ball of energy from the start: I'm only partly exaggerating when I say there is more life concentrated in and around this actress's mouth and chin than there has been in the entire British cinema for the past decade-and-a-half. Rye Lane never lacks for personality, and its closing moments are going to get a lot of people laid; that's probably not the case with What's Love Got To Do With It?, and in the resolutely unsexy context of post-Brexit Britain might even represent a minor miracle.

Rye Lane is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Out of the past: "The Age of Innocence"

To these eyes, 1993's The Age of Innocence remains Martin Scorsese's most purely beautiful film. In the three decades since its release, however, it's often been overlooked in favour of this director's more characteristic mature-period endeavours: 1990's canonical GoodFellas, 1995's Casino (with its still-rising reputation), even 1991's Cape Fear, if the the remote's out of reach and you're feeling trashy. For his adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, Scorsese rallied his creative A team (Jay Cocks, Ellen Lewis, Michael Ballhaus, Dante Ferretti, Gabriella Pescucci, Elmer Bernstein on score, plus Saul Bass on opening-credits duty and Thelma Schoonmaker in the edit suite) to fashion a film as rich in detail and texture as those better-known crime stories are in violent incident. A world of old money - 1870s New York - is here returned to vivid life by new Hollywood money; it's a film of top-dollar tapestries overlooking troubled-over table settings. Every location here is approached like the Copacabana nightclub, worthy of a sinuous tracking shot, and offering something seductive to gawp at wherever the camera winds and Madame Schoonmaker cuts. The characters may be bound by genteel good manners - tragically so, it transpires - but Scorsese just hoovers it all up, with much the same enthusiasm his younger self once demonstrated for cocaine. He can't get enough of it; neither, I think, can we.

The question floated by a small number of sceptics on first release was whether the actors could be fully felt though these multiple layers of finery (or, in Miriam Margolyes' case, the moving blanket of Mrs. Mingott's lapdogs). More so than ever, the performers' struggle seems to be the characters' struggle: to escape an intensely, oppressively formalised world, rather than submitting to and finally disappearing within it. (One issue the film raises with 19th century society: how difficult it must be to get intimate with someone when you're boxed in by fruit and flower arrangements.) No stranger to wayward appetites himself, Scorsese offers his forbidden lovers the occasional hand: whether irising in on Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the scandalous Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) at the interval of a play or granting them fleeting moments of gloveless passion in the back of a hansom cab, he's always alert to the advantages of creating a world of one's own - a new world, if you like. But the weight of the old world, and of the old ways, bears relentlessly down on the leads. Unable to do their bidding with baseball bats, tyre irons and expletives - to do anything half as eruptive as the mobsters in GoodFellas - they're instead forced to make do with coded words, telling gestures and longing looks. These are details, too - very human detail - and as the performers set about knitting them into the film's own tapestry, Scorsese finds dynamic ways to draw our eye and ear towards them.

From this wealth of detail, what do we gather? Chiefly that - a century on from the novel's publication, 150 years on from the period described - these characters remain closer to us in spirit than they might at first appear. They're not stuffed shirts; we see and hear their hearts beating. "All I really want is to feel cared for and safe," Olenska sighs on returning to America, and you wouldn't have to have been disgraced by your philandering count of a husband to share that desire. Newland, for his part, is caught between a girl considered by his peers to be a suitable match and a woman with whom he shares a deep and natural affinity. Infidelity and emotional betrayal didn't die out at the turn of the 20th century; Scorsese catches and senses the grubbiness of it, knows the regrettable scene it will make, and this is almost certainly a stronger film for having been made by someone who saw at close-quarters the reckless strip the movie brats tore through Hollywood in the 1970s. He was older and wiser (not to mention sober) by 1993, of course. As Newland's bride-to-be May, Winona Ryder is perfectly insipid (key phrase in Joanne Woodward's narration: "inexpressive girlishness") in a way that suggests active choices on the actress's and her director's part. Ryder is so sweetly doting that she complicates the central relationship only further. This May deserves better than to be cheated on, and Scorsese is touchingly protective of her, out of an informed fear that the leads are going to do her horribly dirty.

That risk still hovers over the second half, but the stars earn our sympathies anyway, a sign that Scorsese was at least as involved with the performances as he was with the décor. In retrospect, this now looks like a pinnacle for Pfeiffer; her subsequent vehicles never really understood how to use her angles. She's tough in a brittle way, inviting Newland into her confidences only to dash his hopes, and while she's a true match for Day-Lewis in their scenes of verbal jousting - the Dangerous Liaisons movie was mere warm-up - she's equally potent as an absence, setting both hero and us to wonder where the Countess is, what she's doing, and whom she might be doing it with. As for Day-Lewis, not at this point enshrined as a genius but heading that way, he does a fine sketch of an upright yet slightly uptight fellow heading for an awful fall: the realisation he may be far more of his time than he'd once hoped. To watch him here is to be reminded of a time when male leads could make a strength out of stillness and a heightened sensitivity: he makes visible Newland's vacillations, and you worry he might simply swoon at any moment. To watch him here is to understand exactly why Day-Lewis has sat out the largely insensate movies of the past decade: there's just very little for him now. The Age of Innocence stands as a great adaptation by a great popular artist, carefully porting a novel's wisdom into a new medium, but it also marks the end of a certain innocence in Scorsese's filmmaking - and the American cinema. The next time this filmmaker revisited 19th century Manhattan in Day-Lewis's company, the result was 2002's Gangs of New York: scaled up by computer, and getting nowhere near its predecessor's precision and intensity of emotion.

A 30th anniversary 4K restoration of The Age of Innocence is now playing in selected cinemas; the film is also available to stream on Netflix.

Tuesday 21 March 2023

Call the whole thing off: "Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar"

The entire Indian film industry has spent the past week basking in the glow of the Academy Award newly (and rightly) bestowed upon those behind
"Naatu Naatu" from the global Telugu hit RRR. Yet the powerful glint coming off that gong has in some way obscured one of the many crises Bollywood in particular has been navigating of late: a pronounced dearth of what Deepika Padukone rather charmingly referred to on Oscar night as absolute bangers - the songs that have typically driven the best Bollywood productions forward, or revealed an even greater depth of feeling. Musicians and lyricists working in Hindi appear to have developed much the same creative yips as their screenwriter and director colleagues; the last chorus to truly lodge itself between my ears was that of "Radha" from 2017's Shah Rukh vehicle Jab Harry Met Sejal, an otherwise entirely middling timekiller to which few will have returned in the intervening years. Some good news, then: the new release Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar features a whole EP's worth of propulsive, expansive, radio- and chart-friendly songs, the prolific composer Pritam (the maestro responsible for "Radha") writing with the muse either close to his shoulder or draped across his piano like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. The breakout hit, wedding-party stomper "Show Me the Thumka", isn't anything like as rude as it sounds, sadly, but invites selling and listening as the new "Naatu"; even the obligatory sad song, "O Bedardeya", is well north of average in the sincerity of its keening. Yet the against-the-grain triumphs of these songs and their meticulously choreographed routines (thank Ganesh Acharya, overseeing a troupe of hundreds) only go to point up the multiple sorry failings of the film around them. The musical numbers represent the only time writer-director Luv Ranjan is able to pass some life - some energy, some electricity - through the limp, dead tissue that constitutes the bulk of these three hours.

I don't reach for that image lightly; there has, it seems, been some graverobbing going on. It's not acknowledged on screen or in the credits, but someone behind the camera has to have seen the 2018 Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers (widely streaming on Netflix), with its premise of an agency set up to ease cooling lovers into and out of romantic splits. In that film, the agency was staffed by women; Ranjan and his co-writer Rahul Mody have switched the sexes, which casts a very different light on their opening setpiece. Here, it's revealed that the agency in question has artificially inflated an oblivious young woman's self-esteem (having actors bat their eyelashes at her in the street, boosting her social-media followers) so she doesn't feel so bad after she's ditched by the sappy bloke who's called upon the agency's services. From the word go, TJMM isn't funny - it's making light of manipulation - and the set-up doesn't get any funnier after we find agency chief Rohan (Ranbir Kapoor) and his family bellowing about stock prices. It gets sunnier, but no better, after everyone decamps to Spain and Mauritius to demonstrate yet again that comedies in warm climates rarely function as they should. (However picturesque they may appear, bronzed beaches and clear blue waters aren't conducive to the hard work of generating laughter.) Here, at least, a plot starts to take shape. Rohan takes time away from his busy lifestyle of monetising misery to pitch woo at bikini-clad fellow traveller Nisha (Shraddha Kapoor), at which point Ranjan invites us to disregard the scattered red flags and believe this caddish protagonist is actually a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, heartbroken when Nisha resists his lovebombing and, indeed, in the big pre-intermission development, calls in Rohan's own agency to put permanent distance between the pair of them.

You'll have to overlook Rohan's failure to recognise his sweetheart's voice when she makes that call, but then the entire movie takes place in a moneyed bubble where normal rules don't apply. Ranjan visibly has more cash to dress this twaddle up than he did in his Pyaar Ke Punchnama days: Rohan has an underdefined second job that involves walking through a garage loaded with Mercedes-Benzes on a semi-occasional basis. Yet if his bank account is looking healthier, his filmmaking has fallen subject to arrested development. His interiors only ever look like sets; some of that location work has been poorly green-screened in; and I refuse to believe anyone took longer than five minutes to think through the characterisation. Rich twits have sustained plenty of romcoms down the years, but these rich twits don't talk or act consistently from scene to scene, so you can't get much of a handle on them and their motives, let alone start to care about their fates. It's even more baffling when, out of nowhere, two half-decent scenes crop up: a heart-to-heart where Ranjan pauses the wacky sound effects, instead allowing his stars to register as real people who've been hurt by love, and then an in-car phone conversation where the pair admit the extent to which their whole relationship has been a negotiation. This director can do it when he wants; he just prefers to trade in mindless inanity, either because that's where he made his money in the past, or because it's easier than checking he's getting the basics right. So you sit there, try to shut out the worst of this first-draft screenplay, wait for the next song to come along, check your watch between ten and fifteen times, chuckle at Ranjan's belief that the odd bleeped swearword makes any of this adult, check your watch another five times during the ridiculously overextended last-reel dash to (you guessed it) the airport, sigh at the unremitting maleness of its perspectives, and understand anew why certain film industries are making efforts to bring more women into the fold. Given he has not just one of the finest actresses of her generation but one of the best judges of scripts at his side, it couldn't hurt Ranbir to take a note or two from Alia. After all, another stinker like this might well constitute legitimate grounds for divorce.

Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar is now playing in selected cinemas.

Sunday 19 March 2023

On demand: "Vaathi"

The foursquare Tamil drama
Vaathi goes some distance around the houses to set up a plot that's not a million miles removed from 1995's Dangerous Minds. In the present day, a trio of slacking students start clearing out a shuttered video store, and - behind a row of dodgy DVDs - uncover a stash of VHS tapes. Recorded on the tapes are lessons given by a star educator of the 1990s, a period when teachers in India were being lured away from public schools to fill lucrative openings in government-subsidised private academies. This hero teacher, further inquiry reveals, is one Balamurugan, and he's played by Dhanush of Karnan fame; with his fresh face and sensible haircut, he barely looks long out of sixth form himself. Bala specialises in the teaching of maths and physics, but what with this being a massy entertainer, he's officially introduced laying waste to a mob of hulking volleyball players who've swindled his charges out of their allowances; later, he will see them off for a second time in a makeshift school playground, making a physicist's use of the resident swing set. His true heroism, however - the heroism that wound up enshrined on those VHSes, and now finds itself doubly enshrined in a 21st century streaming option - is revealed after he takes up a new teaching position in a rural backwater, where those families who have the money send their offspring to private schools, and those who don't prefer to send their kids into menial labour. Here, Bala has to fight to fill an otherwise empty classroom, and the film sets out its case for the importance of education as something that cannot - and shouldn't - have a price tag attached to it.

This it does via a combination of familiar to-sir-with-love scenarios and local variations. Of course Bala outwits the scheming, sunglasses-sporting superintendent who's sent our boy out this way to fail. Of course he gets a problem student back on track. And of course he wins the heart of willowy biology-teaching colleague Meenakshi (Samyuktha Menon), although he does so by teaching two classes simultaneously, erasing the caste system by teaching half a lesson to one group, half a lesson to the other and forcing everybody to interact. This alertness to social structures is recognisably - and distinctively - South Indian. According to Vaathi, education in Nineties Tamil Nadu really was a gangster's paradise, run almost like a protection racket in which only those who paid got to play. In this context, Bala presents as a revolutionary, preaching learning for learning's sake; the convoluted framing is there to enshrine him in turn as a legend as enduring as any god or freedom fighter. (Those VHS tapes are as stone tablets.) It sort of works, but chiefly because - as in Karnan - Dhanush never overplays the saintliness. (He can't: after being cast out of the community, Bala opens a new study centre in a rundown porno cinema.) Instead, the star breezes through the film with characteristic casualness, looking as though he'd just shuffled onto set two minutes before the cameras rolled wearing clothes from his own wardrobe. Simplicity does look good on him: even in the action sequences, he falls back on a no-frills fighting style, or redeploys whatever's to hand (a stick, a rock, a volleyball net) to see off his pursuers. He's such a low-key star - so distinct from the brawny poseurs of Bollywood - that he can even turn a technical limitation like the flatness of his line delivery into a virtue in projects like this. A determinedly ordinary hero, Bala is constitutionally unable to grandstand - but Dhanush can make the rolling-up of sleeves seem like its own form of mission statement and, at the last, he turns the nondescript leavetaking "okay sir, thank you sir" into a colossal fuck-you. Pacily assembled by Venky Atluri, it arrives with its own Coolio-style banger in "One Life" (lyrics: Dhanush), the catchiest rap/country crossover since "Old Town Road".

Vaathi is now streaming on Netflix.

Saturday 18 March 2023

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Scream VI (18)
2 (1) Creed III (12A) ***
3 (new) 65 (12A)
5 (2) Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12A)
6 (4) Cocaine Bear (15)
7 (5) What's Love Got to Do With It? (12A)
8 (new) Champions (12A)
9 (new) Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar (12A) **
10 (9Epic Tails (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Vaathi
5. One Way or Another [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (1) Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
3 (5) Elvis (12) **
4 (3) Living (12) ****
5 (4) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
6 (re) Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (12)
8 (21) The Banshees of Inisherin (15) ****
9 (26) Violent Night (15)
10 (8) Black Adam (12)

My top five: 
1. Living

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Brief Encounter (Sunday, BBC2, 2.05pm)
2. Hell or High Water (Sunday, C4, 12.45am)
3. Philomena (Monday, BBC1, 11.45pm)
4. The Hurt Locker (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
5. Sister Act (Sunday, C4, 5.50pm)

Magnificent obsession: "Pearl"

Last year's Seventies-set shocker
X rose above the horror pack by demonstrating a fascination with characters on both sides of its murderous divide - such that, for a surprisingly long time, we couldn't be certain who the film's monsters really were. Writer-director Ti West and snub-nosed star Mia Goth evidently had such fun making it that they stayed behind on location and devised Pearl, a prequel that plays out as an extended character study, complete with credits and score that recall golden-age Hollywood melodramas. The presiding idea is that, back in 1918, with WW1 nearing its conclusion and the Spanish flu starting to do the rounds, Pearl (the character Goth played under latex as an octogenarian in X) was but a corn-fed farmgirl, with a husband away at the front and residual hopes of making it big in her beloved movies. Being in the middle of an American nowhere seems unlikely to stop her; however, those hopes aren't shared by her frowningly Teutonic mother (Tandi Wright) and mute, motionless father (Matthew Sutherland), whose filthy bathwater our gal unabashedly shares. We, of course, already know Pearl's dreams aren't going to pan out, and that her need for acclaim, affection and even just plain attention can never be met, so what follows shapes up into a kind of A Star Isn't Born, a lavishly appointed and lushly framed picture of murderously arrested creative development.

That's just one source of tension and fascination: given that the opening credits are barely through before we see Pearl kebabbing an innocent goose with a pitchfork, we immediately wonder who, beyond the heroine, is going to get out of these 100 minutes alive. But West and Goth (a co-writer here) have also found a whole new route through the careworn rags-to-riches showbiz narrative by centring a character who is at most turns more Wednesday Addams than Judy Garland, prepared to do extremes of anything to seize her chance in the spotlight. (Essentially Pearl makes good on all those waspish-to-murderous threats issued by more conventionally ambitious ingenues in stage-door programmers.) The irony is that, even as the character gets mired in her own carnage and finds her dancing feet stuck fast to bloodsoaked floors, a star is being born here. Goth took a big step forward in X, where she appeared more present than she'd been in her previous, airy-arty endeavours. In Pearl, she is every bit as committed as anyone in the recent Best Actress race - it's just she has to be committed while, say, dryhumping a scarecrow, or reeling off a long stream-of-consciousness monologue that recalls Cassavetes filming Gena Rowlands in her 70s pomp, or facing down the viewer in the film's truly deranged closing shot. (Pearl is finally ready for her close-up; the cost, however, has been all too much.) 

Make no mistake: Pearl's a weirdo, all right. But she's a fully rounded weirdo, and West's achievement in storytelling here - arguably the crowning achievement of his career so far - is to help us understand this mixed-up kid's desire for a better life, while ensuring we regret the way she pursues it, and actively cower whenever anybody rejects her. That really is prizeworthy writing and direction, but then the entire production is shot through with a rare blend of art, craft and midnight-movie savvy. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett opens up a wide frame, and finds within the film's rural setting the uncanny beauty of certain Andrew Wyatt paintings; the design teams, headed by Tom Hammock, Ben Milsom and Thomas Salpietro, play subtle riffs on the look and feel of a farmhouse location we've already explored once over; and there's a great (if agonised) supporting performance from Sutherland, who - though mute and motionless - suggests Pearl's father has long sensed that he and his wife have collectively created a monster. Even faced with a work couched as a Douglas Sirk film, the Academy weren't likely to go to bat for a full-throttle horror movie - not in the year of the peppy Everything Everywhere All At Once - and Goth is so convincing in her homicidal narcissism it's just possible folks were worried what might happen should the actress fail to convert any nomination into a win. Slaps are nothing; try getting blood stains out of a champagne red carpet. Fangoria Awards: it's over to you.

Pearl is now playing in selected cinemas.

Delivery hero: "Zwigato"

Nandita Das's third feature as director,
Zwigato, turns out to be a Loach-like slice-of-life centred on a driver wearing himself thin feeding others via a Deliveroo-style phone app. It opens, however, with a most un-Loachian prologue: a dream sequence in which our put-upon hero Manas (Kapil Sharma) finds himself aboard a driverless runaway train. Welcome to the gig economy, in India as it is elsewhere: relentless and only picking up speed, impressive to behold from a safe distance, but also surely heading off the rails, with potentially deadly consequences. You can see the fascination this subject holds for filmmakers, as an entirely new way of working - as new as, say, the automated factory line at the moment of Chaplin's Modern Times or the open-plan office circa 1960's The Apartment. Superficially, at least, becoming a Zwigato driver offers unprecedented freedom and choice. (As a corporate exec played by Sayani Gupta asks of Manas late on, "Do you know how lucky you are?") Time and again, Das's camera returns to the sight of Manas puttering around his native Bhubaneswar on a battered motorbike anyone who's seen certain neo-realist dramas will fear is destined to conk out at any second. The job gets this little man into the cavernous homes and offices of the rich and famous, offering at least the illusion of the rich and famous, a glimpse of the big brass ring. But it also demands Manas and his colleagues submit to an unprecedented level of control: an obeisance to the orders barked out by one's own phone, only a finite number of optouts and pauses, an inbuilt requirement to get from A to B within strict time parameters. In their black-and-yellow shirts, the Zwigato boys are at once marked targets and overexercised worker bees, zigzagging noisily around in the pursuit of finite resources of nectar. (And unless I've missed some groundbreaking new research, bees don't have to worry about star ratings.)

The film marks a new way of working for Das, too. For starters, this was a Covid-era shoot, contextualising the mask Manas has to don to enter certain drop-off points, and reminding us how essential delivery firms became to everyday life from March 2020 onwards. Despite the lingering spectre of Covid, the film remains a good deal lighter in tone than its maker's ambitious early works, which encompassed an evocation of the Gujarat riots (2008's Firaaq) and a biopic of a revered poet (2018's Manto). The new film is driven by the repartee, joshing but with an edge, which Manas shares with his fellow deliverymen as they hop from location to location, and by our hero's varied interactions with his customers, some of whom actually prove - gasp - grateful to have hot food brought to their doorstep in the middle of a pandemic. The Loach that Zwigato reminds you of is the Loach of Looking for Eric and The Angels' Share, gently, skilfully slipping any editorial in under the cover of an overriding empathy: at one point, Manas - who never strikes us as an especially deep political thinker - stumbles into a rally blocking his path, and is forced (as we are) to consider the jawdropping fact that just five people own three-quarters of India's wealth. As with India, we conclude, so goes the world: even a cursory glimpse at the business pages will inform you consolidation is the name of the corporate game nowadays. But what of those obliged by basic human need to do consolidation's grunt work?

Like its protagonist, Zwigato works incrementally, and only around the hour mark do you realise how deeply these genial scenes have touched you, and how attached you've become to the people Das puts up on screen. That's a tribute to the film's calmly unemphatic direction, the attention it pays to the stop-start rhythms of the new working day - and, indeed, of the new working life, underlined by a subplot involving Manas's wife Pratima (Shahana Goswami, who has something of her director's own sensitivity and warmth before the camera), quietly striving to find employment of her own. In the lead role, Sharma - the comedian who hosts one of Indian television's biggest light entertainment shows - is almost unrecognisable from his showbiz persona, his stubble (no time to shave) and sleepy eyes contributing to a general air of heaviness that counts against the character as he endeavours to deliver in thirty minutes or less. It's a heaviness that only lifts in Zwigato's final moments, as Manas and Pratima repurpose that sputtering motorbike for leisure and pleasure rather than grinding work, and Das and cinematographer Ranjan Palit arrive at an image that connects resonantly with the events of that prologue. The result feels instinctively like the most crowdpleasing film of Das's directorial career, but Zwigato will also likely wield a lot of soft power away from the multiplex: its expression of solidarity with the working man and woman can only make you think twice before hammering that "confirm order" button - and it's all but guaranteed to make you a better tipper.

Zwigato is now playing in selected cinemas.

Still fighting it: "Creed III"

If 2015's Creed passed the smelling salts under the nose of a wobbling franchise, then 2018's Creed II was very much Rocky business as usual (dads-and-lads, East versus West). Creed III arrives bearing a certain novelty: for the first time, this franchise has passed into something like Black ownership - or at least into as much Black ownership as a Chartoff-Winkler production for Warner Bros. will allow. For starters, Sylvester Stallone - enduring (and not unendearing) relic of this franchise as it once was - has withdrawn his labour, caught up as he is in an ongoing rights dispute with the producers. (He fell into a prominent role on streaming TV, so he'll be fine; the great Wood Harris picks up any onscreen slack as the franchise's preferred cornerperson.) Star Michael B. Jordan, meanwhile, has ascended to the director's chair, formalising the strong claim for authorship he lodged as the poster boy of parts one and two. The story this time round hinges on a matter of Black identity, a development signposted as early as the prologue, a flashback to the late 90s, playing out on the streets Jordan's Donnie Creed emerged from. Our guest fighter for the occasion - and that's really what the antagonists in this series have been, much as William Shatner and Robert Vaughn were guest murderers in old Columbo episodes - is not some hulking Caucasian, but Jonathan Majors as an old friend of Donnie's, Damian "Diamond Dame" Anderson, plotting a comeback after serving prison time for his part in an incident the reckless young Donnie initiated. Donnie offers Damian a spot on his undercard, and gradually comes to regret it, making Creed III this franchise's Mean Streets, its Boyz N The Hood and its Frankenstein. In brief, we rejoin both Donnie Creed and Michael B. Jordan wrestling with success, and what success elevates you some way above.

What does that mean for we bums in the cheap seats? For the first hour, a slightly furrowed brow. On some level, Creed III is an extension of a process initiated by Creed II, where Donnie moved into a spacious L.A. property that everybody reading this review still wouldn't be able to rent even if we pooled our resources. The character is now further away from the streets than he's ever been, hidden away from rough-and-tough reality in an even roomier residence in the Hollywood Hills, with its own swimming pool, recording studio and see-through flooring. (The better to look down on where he's come from, one presumes.) Indeed, the very character of Donnie Creed looks to have undergone a makeover in the years between Creed II and Creed III. Less up-and-coming fighter than established sports-management suit, this Donnie is basically a ripped Jerry Maguire, who now wears designer beige jackets over his hoodies and has the power to bring a pariah like Diamond Dame back in from the cold. This speaks to a slight problem with the new movie. In its very set-up, Creed III is geared more towards dealmaking than duking it out; there's far more talk than there is training. And having emerged not just intact from but ennobled by the soul-searching of Creed II, Donnie is clearly now being positioned as a teachable example, if not an entirely saintly figure. Even when he briefs his adorable Deaf daughter (Mila Davis-Kent) on the fight game that made the family fortune, he can be heard lapsing into inspirational seminar speak: "Most people think it's about violence, but it's actually about timing, focus..." "And control?," the girl interrupts. They're talking with their hands (in ASL), but it's talk all the same, and newly pious with it.

The good news is the Creed franchise is still young enough to be learning from itself; it's not set in its ways just yet. These movies have never been as susceptible to the flagwaving the Rockys were prone to, in part because of an understandable ambivalence on the issue of what is to be Black in America. That ambivalence has been properly dramatised here: Majors' Diamond Dame makes flesh-and-blood - altogether swole flesh-and-blood - the largely internal struggles of Creed II, being a proponent of the heedless violence the upstanding Donnie looks to have left behind and, indeed, now preaches against. Busting out below-the-belt street fighter moves in the ring, crude in his pre-fight hustling and post-fight spending, Diamond Dame is as the leisure-suited Morlocks in Jordan Peele's Us: an avatar of everything the protagonist (and the filmmaker?) considers themselves to have evolved beyond. The last of the regular Rockys - 1990's Rocky V - took place just a year or so before the L.A. riots, and there's a sense in which the Creed movies have taken up the rhetoric that circulated around that rupture in American society. At critical junctures, Donnie, too, has to decide whether to continue quietly raising his family or instead take up arms against a murderously indifferent if not openly hostile world. (Or, as mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) suggests on her deathbed, "find another way": i.e. assert oneself on that world without recourse to brutalisation.) This is the fascinating and deeply personal core of an otherwise by-the-numbers production: for viewers of a certain vintage, there's something thrilling in seeing the themes of the New Black Cinema of the 1990s - the films Jordan may well have grown up watching - being smuggled into a major studio release playing in multiplexes across the globe.

As a first-time director, Jordan acquits himself fine; he's done just enough to sustain the franchise. Few of his shots would look out of place in the first two Creeds, with the exception of the computer-enabled mid-fight pauses that slow the action and punch up (or pin down) the damage the fighters are doing to their bodies. The mindset is largely integrationist: the movie knows full well the advantages of fitting in. These films still aren't terribly interested in Tessa Thompson as Donnie's other half Bianca, a symbol of domestication whose musical career seems to have come and gone with a fraction of the attention paid even to the guys' warm-up fights. (In the multiverse, the character would merit a series of sequels all her own, possibly fashioned after the image of Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights.) But Jordan comes up with a doozy of a montage as Donnie plots his Foreman-like comeback, and he brings visual invention to the climactic smackdown with Diamond Dame (pointedly billed as "the Battle for L.A."), paring back the action to what's essential: two men representing different impulses and lifestyles going toe-to-toe for the soul of Black America, much as Stallone and Dolph Lundgren once traded blows for control of the free world. He can't quite throw off this plot's nagging air of conservatism: Donnie is called out of retirement to pull up the ladder, making sure a barbarian like Diamond Dame never reaches the gated communities and clifftop mansions. Yet as a genial, graceful performer, he can lighten the tone of individual scenes, and he makes the responsibility we see Donnie taking on (wife, child, hard work, office hours) appear legitimately aspirational. We leave Donnie Creed clowning round the ring with his young family at his side, and we are led to consider whether, more so than the bejewelled belts and seven-figure paydays, that's the real prize in this economy, and with the world as it is: a happy life. The Creed movies are moving in their own direction while working through their own issues, and they can stir you without a second of Survivor on the soundtrack.

Creed III is now playing in cinemas nationwide.