Sunday 30 April 2023

Wedding crashers: "Polite Society"

It happens. TV director (in this case, Nida Manzoor) makes show that goes around the world several times over (
We Are Lady Parts), then gets invited in to talk with studio chiefs (Working Title, Universal) about making something equally crowdpleasing for the big screen. The creative thinks for a moment, before gabbling out a full half-hour's worth of ideas they've been tamping down for the better part of two decades. The suits, who have seen this happen many times before, smile and nod politely, then afford the creative budget enough to make precisely one (1) motion picture. The creative, undeterred, goes ahead and pours all their ideas into that one (1) motion picture regardless. So it is with this week's Polite Society, an EpiPen of unruly energy thumped into the multiplex's stuttering heart, wherein Manzoor at once fashions her lavish Indian wedding movie, a Gurinder Chadha-like coming-of-age movie, a wild kung fu actioner and a statement of female self-determination not dissimilar to her small-screen breakthrough. On being presented with all this - and Polite Society can sometimes seem a lot - you could well understand if at least some of the suits were initially taken back. The creative, however, can always point to the fact that she's taken the suits' money and given them and the cinemagoer several movies for the price of one. In this economy, that's the kind of rationale that gets you places.

The movie (to consider it as a single, pulsing whole) begins in familiar Working Title territory: light, bright and unfolding around comfy West London homes and institutions, only now with a conscious diversity of personnel that illustrates how far the producers have come in the years since 1999's infamously Caucasian Notting Hill. Gradually - slyly, you could say - Manzoor imposes herself. For starters, she makes it both a badge of honour and a neat running gag that heroine Ria (Priya Kansara), an aspirant stuntwoman expected by her family to go more meekly into medicine, flat-out refuses to back or settle down; the dialogue, too, has its own rat-a-tat, idiosyncratic rhythm that may speak to time spent among a large and voluble family unit. Certainly, the onscreen siblings - Ria and Lena (Ritu Arya), the sometime artist Ria seeks to rescue from arranged marriage - bicker and bond like actual sisters, not like actresses who've only just been introduced. It's the same with Ria's immediate friend group - and here Manzoor and casting director Aisha Bywaters reveal a Sturges-like eye for cartoonish fresh faces, funny even before they open their mouths to say anything. Robbie Morrison's editing has been honed on Manzoor's TV work: as in those early Edgar Wright endeavours, sometimes just a cut is enough to get a laugh. ("She's so pretty," says the groom's mother of Lena; cut to Lena at the dinner table, retreating under a hoodie, limp asparagus stalk dangling from downcast lips.) And yet, in several respects, Manzoor pushes way beyond Wright: there's a rowdiness in play throughout Polite Society that surely owes more to South Indian commercial cinema than it does Britcom PLC's trademark cosiness and civility. It's almost always a good sign in a British film when you begin to worry about the integrity of the furnishing; Manzoor's movie gleefully sends masala flying all over the Chesterfields.

That inbuilt whiplash effect - the violent interplay not just between characters and scenes, but tones and genres, too - is further borne out in this script's relatively complicated relationship with its own heroine. Ria is introduced as a scrappy underdog - bested by boys at the dojo, bullies at school - who embarks on her rescue mission with good intentions. Yet she too has fixed and limiting ideas of who and what those around her should be; she's still somewhat out of her depth in the adult world, which is why she feels a need to fortify herself. We're won back around by Kansara's smashing, jumping-bean performance, athletic not just in its relentless physical activity but in the actress's sparkily agitated line readings. Even the Carnatic dance moves Ria busts into as a diversion at the climactic wedding have an edge to them, swan-like only in the sense she could probably snap your arm if you got too close. (Again: it's a relief to encounter a screen presence who hasn't had all the life RADA-ed out of them.) Charging along in the wake of its headstrong protagonist, the film fully slips the shackles of expectation late on, taking a wild imaginative leap so as to justify getting a few more kicks in. Here, I think you can feel Manzoor's control wobble a touch, although it's sort of set up by the heightened property damage no-one mentions for the first couple of reels, and it keeps generating original, funny situations. (Leg-waxing as Bond-like torture, for one.) I've been keeping an eye out for the film that best bottled the heightened, slightly manic energy of mid-to-late 2021, when the world came bounding out of lockdown with renewed purpose, and this may just be it. A spectacular calling card, not least for suggesting multiple directions in which Manzoor might now travel, Polite Society goes beyond the merely feisty, towards goofy, gobby, handsy and stroppy. It's what its slang-slinging heroine would call "really extra" - and an entertainment that was surely almost as much fun to make as it is to watch.

Polite Society is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 29 April 2023

The big bang: "How to Blow Up a Pipeline"

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
 is Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves retooled for more immediate thrills, and the possibility of bigger, louder bangs yet. Falling in stride with a rainbow coalition of concerned young Americans as they descend on West Texas - oil country - with direct action in mind, Daniel Goldhaber's film initially comes off as a touch diffuse and withholding. We join the group in the middle of enacting their latest, ambitious counterattack, and only get flashes of backstory - how each of them got here, why they're doing this - at critical junctures in the operation. These are brisk and to the point; there's always a clock somewhere, ticking or counting down. One activist (American Honey's Sasha Lane, the most recognisable of these fresh faces) has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and so has arguably less to lose in making a mark or a stand. About the buzzcut-sporting, military-looking dude (Jake Weary), we learn even less, save that the oil company has been threatening to occupy his farmland, and that he really seems to enjoy expectorating into bottles. (His loaded holster, at least, betrays him as someone with access to the heavy-duty weaponry one might need to overturn the status quo.) A scattering of names across the screen; no pack drill. Yet the film has been shrewdly adapted, appearing to have internalised a non-fiction book (by the Swedish author Andreas Malm) that might in other hands have served as the basis for documentary. I wouldn't advise seeing How to Blow Up a Pipeline if you were looking for specific, step-by-step instruction on how to assemble a bomb. (It's false advertising, in that respect.) Yet the characters here all seem to have read, absorbed and clung to the information Malm was disseminating. It feels like the kind of well-thumbed tome the authorities might find among these kids' belongings, stuffed down in a badly charred backpack, should things not go according to plan.

The Reichardt film was finally defined by the characteristic ambivalence of its maker: she was sympathetic to her activists up to a point, but even then tended to regard them as muddled, overly suggestible, more than a little lost. Goldhaber, by contrast, never doubts his protagonists' motives; he takes them for given, which is one reason the new film is both more straightforward and more immediately involving. (Reichardt's film was surveillance; Goldhaber's is embedded reportage.) Several years further down the line, climate action is now a pressing enough concern that it can draw in not just the Trustafarian crusties of eco-warrior stereotype, but passing thrillseekers (represented here by Lukas Gage and Kristine Froseth as a post-Greta Bonnie and Clyde, so turned on by their task they make out at one extraction site), online malcontents, and even grown-ups as diverse as Weary's terse homesteader and Léa Seydoux's mum in the recent One Fine Morning; it may be the one issue on which bipartisan consensus remains possible. (Whether you want to plant seeds or a flag, you still need a planet.) Goldhaber's collective want to do the right thing, and have the energy, resources and willingness to do it, but they're up against a system that has long known how to minimise disruption, even as it maximises destruction. They also display an enforced restlessness that can only make us jittery whenever they're found mixing chemicals or transporting drumfuls of ammonia. The film around them is quietly efficient, establishing personalities and schisms in the ranks without undue showboating or speechifying, and gradually converting one small act of resistance into a matter of life and death. With each lurch towards the objective of the title, Goldhaber lays out his own carefully articulated position on activism. It can be haphazard, yes, and often as messy as loosing soup on a Van Gogh or powder paint on pristine Crucible baize. It may also be the most urgent thing any of us ever do as the world burns.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is now showing in selected cinemas.

Friday 28 April 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of April 21-23, 2023):

1 (1) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
2 (new) Evil Dead Rise (18) **
4 (3John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
5 (4) Air (15)
6 (new) Missing (15)
7 (5) Renfield (15) **
8 (new) Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan (15) **
9 (7) The Pope's Exorcist (15) **
10 (new) The Three Musketeers: D'Artagnan (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Three Colours Red

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
2 (new) Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12)
3 (6) M3gan (15) ***
4 (new) Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend (12)
5 (new) Plane (15)
6 (2) Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
7 (3) Elvis (12) **
8 (5) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
9 (10) Dune: Part One (12) **
10 (new) Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey (18)

My top five: 
1. Saint Omer
3. Living
4. M3gan

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Beetlejuice (Sunday, five, 4.05pm)
2. Shadowlands (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
3. Moana (Sunday, BBC1, 3pm)
4. The Wife (Sunday, BBC2, 10.45pm)
5. Face/Off [above] (Friday, ITV1, 10.45pm)

Wednesday 26 April 2023

The girl who leapt through time: "Suzume"

The anime nuts' persistence has paid off, judging by last weekend's box-office figures, giving the Japanese writer-director Makoto Shinkai the biggest UK opening of his career with his latest film
Suzume. We're still playing catch-up, of course, and part of that process has been trying to establish whose footsteps Shinkai might be following in. Despite multiple nods and references dotted throughout the new film, it may not be Hayao Miyazaki, the industry legend to whom Shinkai was initially positioned as a worthy spiritual successor. Instead, he increasingly strikes me as one of those directors who makes their name and fortune by working subtle-to-negligible variations on a similar set of ideas and themes - a felt-tip equivalent of Hirokazu Kore-eda, maybe, or Hong Sang-soo, at a stretch. (I bring in Hong, because Shinkai's work to date has seemed a comparably niche concern, where Miyazaki's was always too imaginative not to cross over.) To those who caught the recent revivals of 2016's Your Name and 2019's Weathering with You, much of Suzume will seem familiar. Again, we have a snub-nosed teenage protagonist; again, they're caught up in a dire environmental crisis tethered to the realities of 21st century Japan, in this case a series of earthquakes caused by a rip in the space-time continuum. Again, the efforts to halt disaster are scored by late-period emo kids Radwimps, practically Shinkai's house band at this point. But the canvas has expanded: rather than a small town or city centre, our heroine Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara) and her companion, a time traveller magicked into the form of a three-legged children's chair, have to traverse the whole of Japan, pursuing a talking kitten who may also be the key to closing this loophole.

That mini-synopsis hopefully gives you a sense of how much AFS (Arbitrary Fantasy Shit) Suzume requires the non-adolescent viewer to swallow: its mechanics recall the Gozer-and-Zuul business of 1984's Ghostbusters, but here they're centralised and approached dead straight - or as straight as one can, given that two key components are an ambulant chair and a talking puddycat. (Sidebar: it seems apt that only Suzume can see the bristling red vapour trail that denotes the tear in the universe, or the evil it looses, or whatever it is; it corresponds to a new, green generation who are vastly more aware of the threat now facing the planet than their jaded elders, but also the way anime fans have traditionally seen more at stake and of interest in these films than the general viewer. Another difference between Shinkai and the essentially universal Miyazaki: the former knows exactly the demographic he's targeting.) You will certainly require a tolerance for an identifiably Japanese strain of cutesiness: the cat becomes a social media phenomenon, making it easier for Suzume to track its whereabouts, while the chair briefly becomes the plaything of two wide-eyed, helium-voiced toddlers. An early dream sequence establishes our heroine has abandonment issues that need working through - though these yield the most Miyazakian (and most moving) material in the film, when it becomes clear there is an adult at the helm, looking back fondly and not a little wistfully upon the vulnerability of youth. Viewed askance, as I seem fated forever to do when confronted by Shinkai's wispily inchoate, sixth-formish plots, it's also clear he gets his pacing absolutely right this time: Suzume romps along by train, car, pushbike and foot, each bounding leap forward both a nod to the anime form's serial roots and a gift to characters and viewer alike, reassuring us that the closure we seek will arrive sooner rather than later. I still think Miyazaki would frown at Shinkai's beautifully detailed studies of McDonald's hamburgers and Uber Eats couriers; this is an animator from another, more brazenly commercial universe. (Artistic purity may be a privilege nowadays; those pastels don't pay for themselves, you know.) Still, for the most part here, Shinkai does exactly what the eco-activists would have us do: tread lightly while moving urgently in the right direction.

Suzume is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday 24 April 2023

Trouble in paradise: "Pacifiction"

One way of approaching Albert Serra's
Pacifiction - perhaps the most useful way of approaching Albert Serra's Pacifiction - is to imagine what Apocalypse Now would have been like had it spent the entirety of its 160 minutes upriver with Kurtz. We find ourselves in latter-day Tahiti, under skies the colour of dubious tiki bar cocktails, as guests of one Monsieur De Roller (a High seems to have gone missing in transit), French High Commissioner of Polynesia. This is a role in which you instinctively feel Gerard Depardieu would have excelled, before the actor became too problematic to work with; in his place, we have Benoît Magimel, a little more filled out than usual as the robust image of neo-colonial privilege, lording around the island in a Del Monte suit and floral shirts, looking for all the world like someone who was big (or maybe just acceptable) in the 1980s and was asked to leave town in a hurry shortly thereafter. Instead of a plot, Serra initially lays on a series of official engagements, floating a persuasive sense of an idyll heading towards stagnation, a paradise despoiled: De Roller spends his spare time backstage, hitting on the staff or redirecting ceremonial dances, at a nightclub that operates somewhere between Rick's in Casablanca and Studio 54, allowing visiting dignitaries and passing sailors to rub up against the locals' exposed flesh. The ambient beats therein help cover up other rumblings: rumours the French are to resume nuclear testing in the area, a slow-burning kerfuffle involving a Portuguese diplomat who claims to have had his documents stolen. In both cases, we are invited to wonder how much De Roller knows about these things. At all points, you wonder how long it will be before bodies start washing up on these golden sands.

We have a fair bit of time to wonder, all told. Pacifiction proceeds at the pace of a resort caught in the off-season and falling lazily into disrepair, as cliffs do into the sea; even when it becomes apparent that the Portuguese diplomat, found spark out on a sunbed, requires medical attention, five or ten minutes pass before De Roller deigns to summon the doctor. Life and death go on here, side-by-side, mostly indifferently. As in 2016's The Death of Louis XIV and 2019's semi-notorious 18th century dogging saga Liberty, Serra is apparently engaged in a form of widescreen portraiture, using this extra time to take in the full extent of the scenery, the crime scene within it, and the rot and decay within that. The funny thing is - and I should underline that Pacifiction is a funny old film, in many respects - he's a portraitist who allows his subjects an unusual degree of freedom. It most often seems to be the actors who are organising what any given scene is about, determining among themselves where the characters go and what they say; it may not have been the case on set, but in the film Serra appears more interested in the shadowy figures lurking at the margins of his frame, while his delegation of responsibilities to the performers yields surprising turns of conversation. Consider the character referred to throughout only as "the Admiral" - an old soak (Marc Susini) connected in some way to the submarines that pop up in the bay like alligators sensing weakness - suddenly confiding to the shirtless young man next to him that he's a big fan of recreational substances. Loose lips may or may not sink ships; either way, it's clear that in De Roller's Tahiti, as in the film, anything goes.

What's truly unexpected - confounding, even - is that, despite its hefty running time and deliberate air of listlessness, Pacifiction is riven with tension and intrigue. In its idiosyncratic way, it's actually more involving than recent commercial endeavours in this field (The White LotusTriangle of Sadness) because from a very early stage Serra establishes the threat facing Tahiti comes from every direction: you don't feel you can let your guard down and relax into the scenery, because you sense something dreadful could happen at any moment. (Doubly so after relations between De Roller and the understandably anxious locals take a turn for the chilly.) Diffuse as that threat might sometimes seem, the film benefits not inconsiderably from retaining Magimel as a focal point, albeit a more than faintly elusive and slippery one. Bloviating and mansplaining, scattering pocketfuls of empty promises where'er he goes, wasting vast amounts of time and resources doing anything but the job of protection he's been put here to do, his De Roller is a mightily accurate sketch of power gone to seed; he reacts to the mildest complaint against him as if - you've guessed it - he's the real victim here. Serra knows he can always cut away to that scenery whenever the rot threatens to get too sickly (as the infamously nocturnal and squalid Liberty couldn't): his overviews of the island's rolling hills and waves speak not just to great natural beauty, but to the powerhouse this Tahiti could be under stronger leadership, or just left to its own devices. Elsewhere, the film's vision of a political class drifting entirely out of touch with the needs of a people begins to feel almost needling in its familiarity. Make the skies greyer, and Pacifiction could easily be set on an island far closer to home.

Pacifiction is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player. 

Repossessed: "Evil Dead Rise"

Call it the luck of the Dead, if you will, but here's a franchise that appears to have been especially well-managed, in the main. Since Sam Raimi's original trilogy concluded in the early 1990s, the
Evil Dead series has given us a solid 2013 reboot, running through a similar neck of the woods with fresh faces and an improved budget, and - better yet - the gloriously splattery Ash vs. Evil Dead for cable TV, catching us up with Bruce Campbell's series talisman. Evil Dead Rise, which presents as a further reboot, hews closer to the former than the latter (it's not really going for laughs, which is both its strength and a limitation/flaw), but what it actually suggests above all else is what an Evil Dead movie might have looked like had the series been initiated within the studio system in that window of time separating The Exorcist from Poltergeist. It's some way slicker than anything Raimi signed his name to, the money it saves on actors having been spent elsewhere on sets and state-of-the-art sound design, but it's also more of an ordeal, in a way I fear is likely to scare newcomers (and possibly even some long-term fans) off. The lakeside opening is but mere feint, frontloaded action; the bulk of the movie takes place indoors, around an expensive-looking recreation of a tumbledown apartment block marked for imminent demolition. The focus is now on a tight but lopsided family unit: two sisters (Alyssa Sutherland, who could pass for Olivia Wilde, and Lily Sullivan, who could pass for Parker Posey), three kids, one of whom stumbles across that book with the Ed Gein cover and the outré illustrations (and, in this iteration, Venus flytrap-like binding, a del Toro-ish organic flourish) while exploring the basement in the wake of an earthquake. Of course opening it proves ill-advised: the wind redoubles, the camera does that low charge across the ground that Raimi encoded in the series' DNA, and we wind up with an Evil Dead movie in a setting just different enough from what's gone before to get at least the suits interested.

The writer-director is the Irishman Lee Cronin, and the film is at its strongest early on, when demonstrating what Cronin learnt on his impressive 2019 breakthrough The Hole in the Ground. The opening half-hour sets up a promisingly gnarly, fraying set of relationships - and that earthquake generates another, literal rupture - while pulling the franchise in the direction of a new dynamic. Instead of Raimi's solitary, indomitable, overburdened and underqualified hero - and don't forget Campbell was just about all the series could afford back then - we now have a group of concerned women of various ages attempting to pull one another out of the void. Pity, then, that the second half only makes one wonder what the point of this extended set-up was. The film doesn't get any deeper for it; the women are allowed flickers of personality, but mostly remain empty vessels, to be possessed, bashed about and finally reduced to offal. Carnage takes priority over character development. If you're showing up purely for that, you'll be fine, but even here, it's clear there's been some kind of trade-off. Bringing the Evil Deads indoors ups the intensity, while losing the wildness and fun. Cronin evidently has the technical clout, keeping his widescreen frames busy, and his details (flies on eyeballs, cheesegraters on legs) suggest very precise storyboarding. Yet he hasn't as yet got Raimi's flair and showmanship. Instead, Evil Dead Rise finds itself possessed by a deadening fanboy seriousness that expects to elicit applause for having the characters chant "dead by dawn" at a pivotal juncture, and for engineering the kind of slavishly obvious Kubrick homage for which critics used to deduct stars back in the day. Points for spraying multiplex screens with more grue than they've witnessed for many years; points off for being so grimly mechanical about it.

Evil Dead Rise is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 21 April 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of April 14-16, 2023):

1 (1) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
3 (3John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
4 (4) Air (15)
5 (new) Renfield (15) **
6 (new) Suzume (PG) ***
7 (5) The Pope's Exorcist (15) **
8 (6) Mummies (U)
9 (7Shazam! Fury of the Gods (12A)
10 (new) Der Rosenkavalier - Met Opera 2023 (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Three Colours Red
4. Raging Bull

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
2 (2) Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
3 (3) Elvis (12) **
4 (6) Hop (U)
5 (5) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
6 (4) M3gan (15) ***
9 (28) Ticket to Paradise (12)
10 (14) Dune: Part One (12) **

My top five: 
1. Saint Omer
3. Living
4. M3gan

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Back to the Future (Sunday, ITV1, 3.30pm)
2. Stand by Me (Saturday, five, 12.35pm)
3. The Secret Garden (Saturday, five, 4.10pm)
4. Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.30am)
5. The Personal History of David Copperfield [above] (Sunday, Channel 4, 12.05am)

Wednesday 19 April 2023

The lost boys: "Renfield"

 has one very sound, pretty funny idea close to its centre, which is to redo Bram Stoker's Dracula as a workplace comedy. Its Robert Renfield - the realtor the vampire turned into a bug-munching familiar, memorably embodied by Tom Waits in the '92 version, and here by Nicholas Hoult in the gap between seasons of The Great - is now fully cognisant of the abuses rained down on him by his murderous employer, and seeking some form of redress. This Dracula, repositioned as literature's oldest Horrible Boss, is played by Nicolas Cage under varyingly elaborate layers of latex as the character recovers from an early immolation that doesn't seem to humble him any: still the Count treats Renfield like crap, before reeling him back into the corpse-snatching fold with the odd insincere compliment. The disappointment with the altogether hectic film that follows is that, at a crucial point in its genesis, someone clearly decided this promising idea wasn't in itself enough to sustain the movie. Instead, Cage and Hoult find themselves dropped in the middle of a non-canonical gang war, initiated by Mob boss Shohreh Aghdashloo and her useless, posturing offspring Ben Schwartz against a trio of ska-fanatic coke dealers, with Awkwafina waving her arms around in the middle as the traffic cop attempting to restore public order. Only in the closing reel does the movie start to work through the Renfield-Dracula dynamic; most often here, the two leads resemble bystanders caught in somebody else's crossfire. Did everyone involved go into this expecting sequels that might develop the central relationship (and which now look unlikely to appear)?

By all accounts, Renfield flopped last weekend, which is understandable, but it's a funny sort of fuck-up: a major studio comedy that troubles to find its own visual aesthetic (shoutout to Rob Renfield's multicoloured comeback sweater, early frontrunner as 2023's Most Desirable Wardrobe Item), but also labours through far too many competing ideas than is healthy for a 93-minute picture. Director Chris McKay adopts much the same approach as he did in 2017's The Lego Batman Movie, spitballing frantically and lobbing whatever's to hand at the screen, only to a point where the new film quickly begins overwriting itself, and losing sight of what's funniest. The A, B and C plots in Ryan Ridley's script are at least semi-diverting, but they don't criss-cross gracefully, as they would on TV, so much as stumble repeatedly over one another, jamming up any hope one might have of getting on this precise wavelength. Granted, McKay's live-action animation approach pays off in the stunt sequences: here, you feel the film cracking its knuckles, and having the fun it wants us to have. (It also allows us to witness Hoult doing extraordinary things with a man's severed arms.) But what's in between can't fully work itself out: it's like some awkward crossover episode involving characters from The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and What We Do in the Shadows. (And it's too busy rushing through its multiple narrative pile-ups to allow its actors to be properly funny, as Awkwafina is on Nora from Queens and Hoult really is on The Great.) It gives good, imaginative splatter, but the issue isn't with arterial spray as with the chaotic framework it's been hosed over. You come away with a renewed appreciation for the brisk clarity of plotting and hyper-efficient gag delivery of our best sitcoms; set against those, Renfield seems... well, clotted.

Renfield is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Found in translation: "One Fine Morning"

After several years on her travels (2018's Maya, 2021's Bergman Island), Mia Hansen-Løve comes home. One Fine Morning, the French writer-director's eighth feature, represents such a continuation of what's come before that it could just as well be titled Child of My Father: it's another featherlight drama, apparently with autobiographical elements, and unfolding around the same airy, bright Paris the movies have been selling us on (and Denis Lenoir has been shooting) since the year dot. What's new is that 
Hansen-Løve returns to these boulevards with a greater sense of responsibility; she's reached that age where she's had to think about the provision of care for ailing parents, even as she's still trying to figure out how to live a life for herself. OFM takes its cue from an early, incidental encounter with its protagonist's grandmother, whose first line is a sighed "it's quite difficult, living". She's not wrong.

So it is we're introduced to a deglammed Léa Seydoux as Sandra, a freelance translator whose professor father Georg (Pascal Greggory) has reached such an advanced state of degeneration that, as we find him, he can barely think to unlock the door of the apartment he's in. Yet as that door remains closed, and Sandra does her best to meet the mounting family obligations, another suddenly opens, in the form of a declaration of love from married friend Clément (Melvil Poupaud). The job of the translator, we soon intuit from scenes of Sandra at work, is to find a balance, to come up with new words for old that possess a comparable meaning and weight. Hansen-Løve sets herself the task of translating personal experience into images, and of putting something of that balance up on the screen: to set the old man's slow decline against the new guy's renewing passion, and equally to get the measure of Sandra, the single mother in the middle, trying to interpret developments as best she can.

Much of that achievement lies in the writing, and the way Hansen-Løve finds seesaw-like scenes that you feel could pivot either way. Sandra retreats in tears after a kindly student approaches her on the street to tell her how fond she is of our girl's father; conversely, that dread drive to visit a hospitalised loved one is enlivened by tales from Sandra's feisty mother Françoise (Nicole Garcia), late-life recruit to eco-activism. (Note how the film never dwells on her separation from Georg: the world turns, things change, people move on.) One of the things Hansen-Løve is very good at conveying is a sense life doesn't stop in times of crisis: in her films, as in reality, it carries on to the left and right of her characters, in ways both welcome and painful. Here, she's especially sharp on how her two main storylines connect emotionally. One of the reasons Sandra is attracted to Clément, an astrophysicist (or, as he insists, "cosmo-chemist") who spends his days surrounded by rocks, is the opportunity he provides for escape, to think and talk about something more vast and cosmic than she has to in the role of dutiful daughter. (He has only to show her his spectrometer to seal the deal.) But even he has other things going on. Rather than some great release of unresolved sexual tension, the first time the lovers sleep together is a curiously brisk sequence, brief respite before Clément returns to his wife and Sandra to the hospital, and a befuddled father upsetting himself further in trying to describe his own symptoms. He can't find the words; she, therefore, is helpless; the mood swings again.

Some way into One Fine Morning, you realise how much of its gently swaying effect is rooted in language: it may be around the time Sandra, in the grip of reignited lust, rearranges her Scrabble hand to spell out the phrase "SEX BITE". (Or as the subtitler helpfully translates: "SEX COCK".) Hansen-Løve knows she can always juxtapose the heavier medical shit with the levity of her lovers' pillow talk, or with the lighter medical talk prompted when Sandra's daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins) assumes a limp; Sandra and Clément broach the subject of euthanasia in jest during a leisurely stroll after a nice meal in a bistro. It's good for the actors, who - not unlike translators themselves - have to stay focused yet flexible, to recalibrate, scene by scene and line by line, so as to pull off the exact tonal fluctuation their director requires. It's very good for Seydoux, for once neither a muse nor a fantasy figure, getting to play something closer to a lived-in, worn-out human being. Sandra herself is a phrase in translation: introduced as her father's daughter, independent but not autonomous, she eventually emerges as a parent in her own right, matured by her experiences, and goes from carer to being cared for in the film's most affecting passages. One Fine Morning can't match Father of My Children's freshness or the euphoric highs of Eden - it's more measured than those, tempered by life - but it has wisdom on its side, and an optimism, enshrined in the title, which never once seems phoney or forced. If it bears out any more specific worldview, it's that life has a way of handing us not just a problem, but the solution(s) to that problem. The student who unwittingly provoked such upset in Sandra will eventually provide consoling shelter for the professor's books; the astrophysicist meets the daughter's insatiable curiosity regarding interplanetary matters. Whatever it takes to shoulder the weight of this world.

One Fine Morning is now playing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday 18 April 2023

Frozen: "Godland"

Think back, if you can, to that odd extended prelude with which the Icelandic writer-director Hylnur 
Pálmason opened his 2019 thriller A White, White Day. Not many emergent filmmakers would think to announce themselves with a wordless, locked-off shot, charting in timelapse the effects of nature upon a weather station in the middle of nowhere - but then there are clearly very few filmmakers keener to nail down the specifics of time and place than Pálmason, something his latest Godland confirms from the outset. Operating on an altogether grander period canvas, this exceptional follow-up claims to be in the business of extrapolation, an opening title card insisting that the film we are about to watch was inspired by seven wet plate photographs taken of Iceland's southeastern coast by a Danish priest in the late 19th century. Instantly, we wonder what story they have to tell, how they were captured, and how they were stumbled across again. That the photographs never existed outside of Pálmason's imagination hardly matters; both the mind and camera are set racing. 

As the film's own cleric, the upright (and, as it proves, damnably uptight) Father Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) heads north to scout the territory on which a new church is to be built, Godland shapes up as pure adventure movie, as well as a reckoning with Iceland's myriad idiosyncrasies. The lashing rain, and the many local words for it; the deranging, near-permanent daylight; the active volcanos, bubbling away on a distant horizon. One wrinkle is our non-rugged, hardly dashing hero. Philosophically at least, Lucas bears some resemblance to the pompous Stig Helmer, the Swedish surgeon driven to distraction by Danish mores in Lars von Trier's The Kingdom. Like Helmer, Lucas arrives an outsider on foreign shores, where he proves baffled and exasperated by the locals' earthy rationality; like Helmer, he will eventually be found bellowing his native language into the void in a desperate, not to mention comical attempt to impose himself and his faith on a place that was ticking along perfectly fine without him, and will continue to do so long after he's departed this earthly realm. Yet crucially, for Pálmason's purposes, he's a fresh pair of eyes, through which the film can survey this land anew. What it finds there, as signalled by an early cutaway of an earthworm taking root in some horse droppings, is a funny, ripe, primordial sort of life.

Godland goes on to highlight several of the most astonishing vistas you'll see inside a cinema all year, but it views them askance or in passing, following the gaze of a lofty protagonist who can never quite bring himself to acknowledge what these Icelanders have on their front doorsteps - it's not cine-tourism in the conventional sense. For starters, the movie's shot in an Academy ratio with curved corners, forcing Pálmason and hardy cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff to think photographically. (Everything's a potential snapshot, but Lucas only has the silver to preserve seven.) You sense Pálmason filming the north as Kelly Reichardt did the West in Meek's Cutoff: as perilous uncharted territory, with room enough to develop (here, in multiple senses) but also unseen threats out of frame and underfoot. The early scenes, largely dialogue-free and reliant on Alex Zhang Hungtai's fearlessly atonal score, also set me in mind of There Will Be Blood, with its sense of a gradual descent into a very specific mire: Pálmason holds his shots, and holds back anything so banal as a plot, long enough for the chill, the damp and the isolation to start seeping into our bones, too.

That said, though this camera is fond of executing such movements as a slow pull back to reveal Lucas's travelling party as dots (or blots?) on the landscape, and a 360-degree pan that shruggingly notes these figures trudging into and then out of the frame, we do find ourselves intrigued by the film's human elements. (Even if, at first, it's just to fret that these actors, wringing glacier water from their boots and socks, will surely catch a death of cold.) It's Crosset Hove's unhappy traveller, tamped down inside his cassock and sent out on what anybody with a working knowledge of religion in Iceland will know is a fool's mission, helplessly watching as one of his party is swept away by a rapid current to their death; it's his grizzled guide Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, held over from A White, White Day), doing shirtless morning calisthenics, and appearing for all the world as if he's been carved from the same granite as the mountains around him. Like figures in a photograph, these characters quickly become inextricable from their surrounds. When Lucas and Ragnar come to blows on a craggy, tide-slicked shore late on, they are as fish who've only just found their feet.

That's a rare burst of action here, foreshadowed by a far jollier midfilm wrestling bout after the pair finally arrive at their destination. Mostly, Godland charts a measured gaining of ground, voyaging from one photo opp to the next, and in so doing recalibrating the growing disillusionment of Father Lucas, bogged down in a kind of spiritual mission creep. That backdrop, as Pálmason must have realised growing up in this corner of the world, is almost all the drama one needs: haughtily indifferent to the continued survival of all those who set foot upon it, possessed of risk enough to send these Johnny-come-latelies a terrible cropper at any moment. Each turn of the road, however, serves to underline this filmmaker's mastery of various modes: the epic quest that occupies the first hour; the domestic dramas of Godland's midpoint, as women enter the frame, everybody wrestles mentally with what the church might actually bring to the locals' lives, and Lucas realises he, as much as anyone else, is covered in sin; and a final movement that returns us where A White, White Day began.

Any gaps or layovers en route have been finessed by considerable, immersive imagination. Evident thought has been applied to the matter of what life must have been like on a Tuesday afternoon in a small foothill community as the closing years of the 19th century played out: how people passed an abundance of time, got from here to there, and regarded themselves and others, their lives and prospects. Thought, too, as to how to avoid tepid period staidness; the jagged people and places help, but this roaming camera shows just as great an interest in dogs and bugs as it does folks and rocks. Godland confirms Pálmason as a major talent, because it goes some distance around and beyond its original brief, seeming to contain within it not just the origin of seven photographs (fictional as they might be), but the roots of all photography (a desire to see and show the world), and sublimated traces of several key imagemakers, from Muybridge and Dreyer to Herzog, Tarr and Snow. Pálmason could now, you sense, go anywhere and do anything and come back with something to marvel at; his film feels like a reinvention of the cinema, at exactly the point the cinema most direly requires reinventing. Godland has the thrill of discovery about it.

Godland is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

On demand: "Riotsville, U.S.A."

Go to Riotsville, U.S.A. for the archive. Director Sierra Pettengill has excavated an hour and a half of remarkable, revealing footage from the late 1960s, that time of immense American turbulence, but she begins with eerie shots of a chipboard Main Street, hastily constructed at a Virginia military base in 1967 for the purposes of training riot police in quelling civil disobedience and violent unrest. As the history books show, for at least the next couple of years, they well needed the practice. At first, the footage is funny: soldiers drafted in to play civilians on their days off, staging mock raids on mock pawnbrokers and liquor stores, like kids playing Cowboys and Indians, only they do so before a crowd of onlookers - military top brass, by the looks of it - who applaud at the end of every cleanly achieved, casualty-free mission. Sensing the proximity of the cameras (and thus the big time) or just a rare opportunity to let off steam and razz their superiors, some of the troops playing protestors give it the full Cagney ("I'll be back, officer!"). As theatre of the absurd goes, it's pretty much unbeatable. Yet the more Pettengill lingers on these images, the more they exude an uncanny chill: what we're really looking at, of course, is the extent to which the state was prepared to go so as to crush dissent, re-impose control, and thereby maintain at least the illusion of a fair and just America operating for the benefit of all.

For the authorities, such roleplaying was but the blueprint for what the film interprets as a latter-day police state: post-1967, more money was funnelled towards reinforcing the long and baton-taser-and-gun-wielding arm of the law than ever went towards narrowing the gap between rich and poor. (That's one reason it may be time to defund the police: like many of those they've been paid to defend over the years, they've had it very good for so long.) For Pettengill, however, the footage is the basis of a cinematic what-if: a considered pause for thought that asks what might have happened had the powers-that-be properly listened to what the communities of Watts, Detroit and Liberty City were saying, and acted to address the inequalities the rioters were railing against. (Underlying insinuation: that America today would look very different.) Crucially, this isn't some radical back-projection: many of the underlying issues were being thrashed out at the time by players who sensed the urgency and transformative potential of the moment. Pettengill has the clips of TV talkshows to prove it, stitched in here with all their interstitials intact, as if to demonstrate how genteel much of the discourse was, or how easily the media had fallen into bed with exactly that capital those goon squads were being drilled to protect. She has a particular eye for material that was surely commissioned as cosy-jolly One Show-style filler, but which now comes off as casually horrendous: a clip, say, of a room of exclusively white housewives being schooled in how to shoot rioters. (Again: different times, you might say, except that truly different times would be those in which Trayvon Martin still walked amongst us.) Some of Pettengill's other choices struck this viewer as a little less effective. Once again, we're left with one of those dreamily speculative voiceovers that are becoming a documentary tic (read: potential source of irritation); and the first half has been rather more punchily edited than the second, which pores at length over the political conventions of 1968, and - through billowing clouds of tear gas - spots how the theory of Riotsville was eventually applied to the real world. At their strongest, though, the film's images seem to leap fifty years in time: they speak for themselves anew.

Riotsville, U.S.A. is available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player, YouTube and Dogwoof on Demand.

Friday 14 April 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of April 7-9, 2023):

1 (new) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
3 (2) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
4 (new) Air (15)
5 (new) The Pope's Exorcist (15) **
6 (3) Mummies (U)
7 (4Shazam! Fury of the Gods (12A)
8 (6) Scream VI (18)
9 (5Creed III (12A) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Three Colours Red [above]
3. Three Colours White

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
2 (1) Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
3 (8) Elvis (12) **
4 (new) M3gan (15) ***
5 (3) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
6 (12) Hop (U)
7 (2) A Man Called Otto (15)
8 (9) Babylon (18)
9 (16) Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (12)

My top five: 
1. Saint Omer
3. Living

"Assassin Club" (Guardian 13/04/23)

Assassin Club

Dir: Camille Delamarre. With: Henry Golding, Daniela Melchior, Sam Neill, Noomi Rapace. 111 mins. Cert: 15

Some films don’t globetrot so much as globelurch and globeveer, steered by creatives wilding out on Expedia after a heavy night on the Kestrel. Pinging haphazardly and often nonsensically about Central and Eastern Europe, this rubbishy runaround sees French action specialist Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions, The Transporter Refuelled) emerging from sometime mentor Luc Besson’s shadow, for better and worse. Liberated from Besson’s more questionable fetishes but also untethered from a healthy line of credit, the results never rise above cheap, generic multiplex filler. Everyone’s travelling economy, with 2023’s tattiest script stuffed way down, out of shame, in their carry-on.

After doing for an assailant sicced on him and his schoolmarm girlfriend, Henry Golding’s nice-guy assassin Morgan learns he’s been unknowingly entered in what’s effectively a hitpersons’ Champions League. On the positive side: it provides the perfect opportunity to deploy the improbably wide-ranging personal surveillance network he maintains in his shabby digs. Sam Neill is Morgan’s urbane handler, found tickling the harpsichord at one choice juncture; Noomi Rapace occupies a botched dual role, requiring her to alternate between big specs as the head of some security agency and blonde frosting as the most vicious of Morgan’s rivals. The casting is simpler elsewhere: grizzled ex-doormen abound.

The action is functional enough, even as it abides by combat principles worn out by the later Bourne movies. The obvious limitation is that Delamarre remains clueless faced with any scene that doesn’t involve guns, cars or fisticuffs; his best guess is to screw in eight gaudy lightbulbs, go handheld, and hope his actors can rescue him. (They’re sadly preoccupied with some of the most leaden dialogue ever transmitted in Dolby surround.) No attention whatsoever has been paid to the detail: the fingers severed to confirm kills have all the solidity of Percy Pigs, while one website headline looks like it was knocked out on the Notes app thirty seconds before camera rolled. Your appreciation for the artistry of the John Wick series redoubles frame by crummy frame.

Assassin Club opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 13 April 2023

On demand: "Never Rarely Sometimes Always"

The American writer-director Eliza Hittman filmed
Never Rarely Sometimes Always just as the freedoms enshrined in law by the Roe vs. Wade verdict were coming under renewed attack from the dingbat ultras of the Republican Party. After earning praise on the festival circuit in early 2020, the finished feature was shuttled to streaming as the world went into lockdown, and subsequently rather lost to the algorithms, months before Roe vs. Wade was overturned by a Supreme Court stocked irresponsibly deep by the Trump administration. Gut punch though that was, the real world had merely underlined the points Hittman makes here: that the freedoms we cling to and celebrate are tentative at best, largely region-specific and forever subject to renegotiation, and that pregnant women have almost always found themselves up against enemies both within and without. Taking its title from a medical form used to codify female behaviour, NRSA achieves all this not by grandstanding, but from paying close attention to a simple narrative: that of Everyteen Autumn (Sidney Flanagan), forced by unhappy gynaecological circumstance to leave behind coldly, forbiddingly conservative Pennsylvania, where juniors still require permission from their keepers to have an abortion. Like countless wide-eyed dreamers before her, Sidney sets out for New York, only Hittman is keen to show that (even before Roe vs. Wade was struck off the statute books) travelling out of state for a medical procedure isn't as easy as you might have thought, nor as it perhaps should be. In its low-key, unshowy manner, the film comes to describe a fraught, exhausting and painful quest, one that involves stealing away with money - this being the American healthcare system - and keeping one eye over your shoulder. In the eyes of Pennsylvanian law, Sidney is effectively a criminal, forced to adopt the fugitive status of one with no fixed abode, and with each scene Hittman shows us the weight of the world bearing down on this girl's shoulders and belly. It seems a terrible burden to impose on one so young.

The foremost achievement of Hittman's film is that we start to feel some of that weight for ourselves; the writing and direction attain a rare psychological depth. Practically the first action Sidney takes upon returning a positive pregnancy test is calmly, methodically using a safety pin to poke a hole through her nostril: anything, we gather, to regain some measure of control over a body swelling up with uncertainty. Here as elsewhere, NRSA deploys the big, expressive close-ups that have been a staple of this director's work to date, but now they're newly urgent and piercing, seeking out signs of our heroine's scared, confused, resilient inner life, the doubts and fears mixed up with the hormones and zygotes. (It's camera as ultrasound; direction as radiology.) Hittman hardly makes her own task easy, because Sidney is almost perpetually in motion, forever being referred or redirected, moved on or bounced, and obliged to carry her baggage (lit. and fig.) around with her wherever she goes. You begin to long for her to be able just to sit down and put her feet up on a sofa, if not in the stirrups. Some of that exhaustion comes out in the film's generally exasperated and unflattering portrait of the men in Sidney's world: the errant lover (never seen, barely afforded a moment's thought), her mom's insensitive asshole of a partner, the contemporaries casually sniping at her, the creeps at her workplace and in the bowels of the New York subway. This was plainly a film written in anger - understandable anger, given that it's men who've done so much to tear down this protective legislation - but it does mean NRSA sometimes strays from the considered equanimity of Hittman's earlier work; every so often, you catch it labouring to point out that this girl has problems enough without the men in her life being such dicks. The gaze is steadier and more persuasive whenever it returns to the ordinary bravery of its heroine, thereby distancing itself from the catastrophising cosplay of TV's The Handmaid's Tale. Hittman knows there is power and editorial value in showing this process simply as it is - or as it was, before this world got rougher and tougher still for the Sidneys of America.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube.