Friday 26 May 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of May 19-21, 2023):

1 (new) Fast X (12A)
3 (2The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
4 (new) Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (PG)
5 (new) Beau is Afraid (15)
6 (4) Book Club: The Next Chapter (12A)
7 (5) Evil Dead Rise (18) **
8 (6) 2018 (12A)
9 (new) Don Giovanni - Met Opera 2023 (12A)
10 (8) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Three Colours Red

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Scream VI (18)
2 (2Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
3 (9) Fast & Furious 9 (12)
5 (new) Renfield (15) **
6 (18) Knock at the Cabin (15) **
7 (re) Cocaine Bear (15)
8 (4Creed III (12) ***
9 (8) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
10 (28) What's Love Got to Do With It? (12)

My top five: 
She Dies Tomorrow

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Casablanca (Saturday, BBC2, 2pm)
2. GoodFellas (Holiday Monday, BBC2, 10pm)
3. The Death of Stalin (Wednesday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
4. Galaxy Quest [above] (Sunday, Channel 4, 3.55pm)
5. Hellboy (Saturday, ITV1, 10.20pm)

Sunday 21 May 2023

A common Bond: "The Other Fellow"

The Other Fellow
 is a documentary with a strong concept and a fair bit of human interest to recommend it. For the past decade, the filmmaker Matthew Bauer has been touring the globe interviewing those who go by the name of Bond, James Bond. (In this, he's clearly been inspired by the fictional character's origin story: Ian Fleming half-inching the name from the cover of a guide to birdwatching - a borrowing that, as Bauer records, the original James Bond was initially none too happy about.) It's a common enough name to yield a representative cross-section of the planet's male population: in the course of the film, we hear from lawyers, theatre directors, a soldier (who looks as though he could handle Bond's stuntwork), politicians, a retired oilman (who confesses he doesn't much care for the franchise), a preacher, a doctor and an ex-con, plus an entire dynasty of J-Bonds (who've allocated themselves different middle names by way of a distinguishing feature) and those who've changed their name to James Bond for various reasons. (Foremost among them: the former Gunnar Schäfer, a tuxedo-sporting Scandinavian who runs a James Bond museum in the snowy wilds of Sweden.) There are gay Bonds and straight Bonds, black Bonds and white Bonds, Bonds who look as if they'd know their way around a gun and Bonds who look like they'd run a mile if an engine backfired; the only limitation in Bauer's sampling is that there are visibly more Americans and Brits than there are, say, Slavs or Asians. Most agree the name is at once a blessing and a curse: it's instantly recognisable, and yet it means putting up with the same jokes from strangers, four times a day.

It makes for a scattershot 80 minutes, but there are interesting pockets of information and wrinkles in the narrative. One is historical: the bulk of Bauer's interviewees are men of a certain age, born in that 60s/70s moment when parents could still imagine this Bond thing was a novelty that would eventually wear out. (In the meantime, any playground teasing would toughen the mites up.) Two demographics are chiefly notable by their absence: women, obviously - presumably Bauer felt including Jamie Bonds would be a cheat - but also the under-18s, doubtless as the cultural baggage attached to the name is now considered too burdensome. Yet both groups are central to the film's most compelling stretch, couched as an 007-like getaway plan: the testimony of an anonymous British woman who renamed her son James Bond so her abusive ex could no longer track the pair down online. Here, as elsewhere in The Other Fellow, Bauer does a workable Errol Morris impersonation: he sits his subjects down in front of a neutral background, lobs questions from behind the camera, and reserves his creative energies for recreations of key moments in his subjects' stories, converting anecdotes into Bond-adjacent spectacle. He even happens across one very Morrisian coincidence: two James Bonds living in the same small American town, one of whom ended up wanted for murder. (Bauer tracks them both down, which is a coup; speaking from behind bars, the wanted James Bond shrugs that no-one much objects whenever his fictional namesake kills.) The Bond thing, you soon realise, is really just a commercially appealing hook, a pretext to go out and talk to people from relatively diverse backgrounds, using a widely shared touchstone to break any ice. As the New York theatre director Bond puts it, wearily waving off another comparison to Daniel Craig: "He has a six-pack, and I have a keg." A useful calling card for Bauer, who gets to traverse a whole spectrum of stories, it's also an enjoyable diversion for the rest of us, even if the film can't finally move us past what we already knew going in: that the human experience is vast and varied, whatever name you go under.

The Other Fellow is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 19 May 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of May 12-14, 2023):

2 (2The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
3 (new) Love Again (12A)
4 (new) Book Club: The Next Chapter (12A)
5 (3) Evil Dead Rise (18) **
6 (13) 2018 (12A)
7 (new) Eurovision 2023: Grand Final Live (uncertificated) ****
8 (4) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12A)
9 (5) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Local Hero [above]
5. Jodi

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Scream VI (18)
2 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
4 (7) Creed III (12) ***
5 (2) Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12)
6 (3) Dune: Part One (12) **
7 (5) Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend (12)
8 (18) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
9 (21) Fast & Furious 9 (12)
10 (8) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****

My top five: 
1. Saint Omer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Do the Right Thing (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. Great Expectations (Saturday, BBC2, 1pm)
3. The Remains of the Day (Saturday, BBC2, 2.55pm)
4. True Lies (Friday, five, 11pm)
5. School of Rock (Sunday, Channel 4, 2.50pm)

Thursday 18 May 2023

Home alone too: "Missing"

The art of trailering is now so debased that anybody who saw the trailer for
Missing - and it was heavily trailered ahead of its release last month - could turn up an hour late to the feature proper and still know more or less what was going on. They would know, for one, that this is a sequel to 2018's Searching, which means that the bulk of the action we see unfolds as if on apps, screens and surveillance cameras. They would know that this is a brand-new story, about a teenager (Storm Reid, from cable TV's Euphoria) whose mom (Nia Long) disappears in the course of a weekend trip to Colombia. They would know this teen goes online to track mom's movements, and thus hopefully crack the mystery. And they would know the mystery very likely has something to do with mom's shadowy new beau (Ken Leung). It's the little details those latecomers would miss: the revelation that the events of the first movie have since been turned into a Netflix true-crime drama our heroine has been distractedly watching, her evident affection for her late father. Even so, for that first stretch, you really wouldn't be missing very much: it's a PG-13 version of what teens get up to when their folks are away, including but not necessarily limited to firing up Spotify, buying in weed, making plans to party, drinking, throwing up, sleeping off a colossal hangover, and initially failing to notice your folks have actually gone AWOL.

As co-written by Searching director Aneesh Chaganty and directed by Will Merrick and Nick Johnson, Missing retains some of its predecessor's smarts. These films are good at showing us online thought processes being worked through in real time: pulling up Google Translate to make sense of an international phone call, doubling back to try established passwords on new sites of interest. It takes our heroine mere milliseconds to access info a PI like Philip Marlowe would need a full reel to dig up, and Merrick and Johnson can use the time saved to dive down disparate rabbit holes. Their film inverts Chaganty's original, which saw a digitally illiterate dad getting closer to his offspring, using her laptop as a map; here, daddy's girl Reid has to walk a mile in her mother's digital footprints, a trajectory that eventually involves sourcing and reading her guardians' online dating correspondence. (Be glad they kept it PG-13.) Yet for all the film's online toing-and-froing, and for all its polished cybersheen (websites bearing the name of actual websites, yay!), Missing perpetuates Searching's inbuilt conservatism; at heart, it's an afternoon TV movie rewired by tech bros. The messages stack up like spam email: keep your location settings toggled on at all times, trust the police, the FBI and Google (who are transparent and straightforward, unlike people), and don't go south of the border on your jollies, because - eek - men with guns. (Unlike, you know, North America.) It's busy enough to keep you from checking your own phone, which is a win of sorts, and Reid makes an engaging hub, but it visibly loses confidence in the all-screens conceit heading into the rote finale; once the novelty starts to wear off, you miss the heft of sustained interpersonal activity. These movies are fine for what they are - gimmicky distraction aimed at kids who can't leave their devices alone - but they're also something like The Fugitive if Tommy Lee Jones had tracked Harrison Ford via Find My Mobile and then sent an Uber to pick him up.

Missing is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

On demand: "L'Argent"

At the turn of the 1980s, the survivors of that mid-century golden age of world cinema began to ready their closing statements. Most had points to make. For Kurosawa, the biggest threat facing mankind heading into the 21st century remained war (Kagemusha, Ran); for Tarkovsky, it was the nuclear threat (The Sacrifice). Many of those points were valid. Yet it was Robert Bresson who arguably came up with the furthest-reaching final film of all, merely by taking a hard, unsparing look at the money in your pocket. L'Argent, Bresson's 1983 riff on Tolstoy's The Forged Coupon, opens with a vignette, and a prank: a schoolkid in hock to a contemporary takes delivery of a banknote forged by a pal to help settle his debts. In the subsequent succession of rapidly shuffled scenes, we lose track of where exactly the bent note is; it plays the same role as the ball in a street corner cup game. Instead, a kind of Invasion of the Wallet Snatchers paranoia takes over: suddenly, every note we see being palmed from hand to hand, hand to till, and till to hand in typically spare Bressonian close-up becomes an object of suspicion. And there's a lengthy run of knock-on effects: marital estrangement, descents into delinquency and crime and finally mass murder. The whole idea of currency - the trust we place in the papers we hand over for goods being worth exactly as much as the numbers printed upon them - gets undermined by one simple act of bad faith. Still to come: Black Friday, the dotcom bubble, Enron, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the credit crunch, and decade after decade of austerity and inflation. Right to the last, you feel, Bresson was right on the money.

The film's limitations are of its maker's own doing. Even this far into his career, Bresson was directing his performers into anti-naturalism, as if they'd been told what to say and do seconds before the cameras started rolling, and their stiff, first-draft responses were what the filmmaker wanted. (Christian Patey, who plays the accursed protagonist Yvon, slurps at soup like no-one else on earth.) That leaves L'Argent a little more of an illustrated thesis than maybe it needed to be: the human elements here can seem like nuts and bolts rattling loosely around inside these frames. Yet these are otherwise great frames: you could teach the film (many have) as an object lesson in how much can be conveyed without dialogue, fuss, flash or other adornment. Bresson refuses to shoot conventional action - indeed, he cuts away from a car chase, a prison fight and a slap to the face - in order to emphasise its consequences, and these redouble as the film proceeds. Quietly accumulating meaning and power, Bresson's sliver-scenes come to describe what often resembles a low-key apocalypse: one you might not notice if you'd failed to check your credit-card statement, and then wonder why you'd ended up on the streets, in the dock or debtors' jail, or with an axe in your hand and a body at your feet. Fascinating, even thrilling in its intricacy, L'Argent careens towards a that's-yer-lot full-stop of an ending: no fanfares, cold comfort, and a bottom line to be reckoned with. Our arthouse movies got a measure more cushioned and cosy upon Bresson's retirement and passing, partly because money itself was pumped into them. They didn't necessarily get any more instructive or resonant.

L'Argent is now available to rent via the BFI Player and Prime Video, and on DVD through the BFI.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

United by music: "Jodi"

The last time we saw Diljit Dosanjh was in 2021 with Honsla Rakh, which offered the crown prince of Punjabi cinema the kind of transitional role all dashing movie swains have to attempt upon entering their thirties: the gadabout forced by circumstance into fatherhood and responsibility. Jodi, which stealthily entered cinemas and the UK Top 10 last weekend, actually predates the earlier film - it was shot at the tail end of 2019, and held over as cinemas and cinemagoers negotiated Covid - which possibly explains why it fits more squarely in the Dosanjh wheelyard: it finds the singer-turned-actor playing a struggling musician who's also something of a big kid, trying to make his way in the Punjabi recording industry of the late 1980s. It opens strongly, with a 1972-set prologue that introduces us to the cheeky pre-teen version of Dosanjh's Amar Sitaara: the kids are charmers, there's a nicely mischievous scene in which a teacher upbraids Amar for singing about domestic scuttlebutt rather than anything more uplifting (his choice response: "I write what I see around; the day I see patriotism, I will write about that"), and - in passing - an extraordinary song lyric in "Your dreams of high flying will be eaten by fire ants". (You hardly expect to stumble across such poetry in the multiplex.) 
When we join Dosanjh's older Amar, he's being underappreciated as a songwriter and backing singer for a gruffly arrogant provincial crooner, but he finds greater success in the duo of the title, paired with the outwardly meeker Kamaljot (Nimrat Khaira). She's introduced patiently hearing out a boorish record executive, who bats his eyelashes at her before insisting "people are not there to listen to a lady's songs; they are there to see her". Different times, as they say. Writer-director Amberjeet Singh reportedly began work on this script in 2011, but it's clearly been contoured both by the entertainment industry's recent efforts to address longstanding imbalances and the concurrent spiking in intolerance. The framing device has Amar and Kamaljot approaching a roadside ambush - armed men waiting in the wings - en route to one gig; they set out on this journey as the Punjab's own Sonny and Cher, and around the intermission scene start to remind us of the movie Bonnie and Clyde.

A broad outline suggests Singh may have had a sweeping musical epic in mind, perhaps something to set alongside The Bodyguard, A Star is Born or its tremendous Konkani equivalent Nachom-ia Kumpasar. Jodi doesn't really have the budget for that: even at its noisiest, it's more intimate backyard jam session than spectacular stadium gig. (I don't think Beyoncé's promoters have anything to worry about in the days ahead.) Yet that has the effect of drawing us in, and it's quite well written - at least, written well enough to withstand some pretty abysmal English subtitling. In their early duets, Amar and Kamaljot share a microphone but sound entirely at odds. She's lamenting the industry's injustices; he's still hymning the party-hearty bachelor life, resulting in some decidedly broken-backed bangers. (She's Taylor Swift; he's LMFAO.) One wedding-party gig ends in disarray after the flatbed truck they're performing on is driven off mid-song. Time and love will smooth their path and refine their sound, but Singh never lets us forget there's one more, potentially deadly obstacle in the road. The leads steady our nerves, up to a point. Dosanjh keeps Amar performing, relentlessly shooting his mouth off in the hope it might produce another lyric. (More typically, it gets him into trouble, although it also generates a funny aside, as a pal advises him to substitute the phrase "the moon and stars" for more risqué material so as to circumnavigate any censorship.) I hadn't seen Khaira before, and she appears a bit hesitant in her introductory scene - in retrospect, it may be deliberate, the reticence of any woman setting foot in the boys' club of the music/film business - yet when she opens her mouth, she's funny; she gives as good as she gets, and in repose, she has a face that reminds you of the great Indian actresses of the past. (You could easily imagine her playing an overlooked spouse in a late-Fifties Ray movie.) They work well together, which is the crucial thing. As a director, you don't need hundreds of cheering extras when you have such rhythm and harmony at your disposal - though Singh also notes these are fragile qualities in an unbalanced and less than harmonious world. For a pleasant couple of hours, Jodi gets the levels right.

Jodi is now showing in selected cinemas.

Swords of a thousand men: "The Three Musketeers Part I: D'Artagnan"

I'm slightly amazed to realise that, thus far in my lifetime, I've witnessed two teeny-bop takes on The Three Musketeers (the Disney x residual Brat Pack collab of 1993, and the Paul W.S. Anderson farrago of 2011), and even a Spanish-Japanese kids' animation with a fabulous theme tune and a talking dog D'Artagnan, but nothing comparable out of France. (One could say the same about The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo, both apparently deemed untouchable by French producers but fair game everywhere else.) Well, here comes the corrective. The Three Musketeers Part I: D'Artagnan forms the first half of a planned diptych, fulsomely backed by Pathé, and featuring a veritable qui's-qui of French acting talent. This is very much Dumas trad: scant CG swashbuckling, no end-credits duet by the Gallic equivalents of Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart and Sting, and - if it doesn't quite go the full Germinal on us - some measure of mud and grit with which to offset the abundant, pricey handsomeness of it all. If there's any concession to recent trends, it lies in a slight HBO-isation of the source material - a hint of fully dressed Game of Thrones or period Succession 
in its fleshing and thrashing out of the courtly intrigue surrounding weakling king Louis XIII (Louis Garrel) and his faithless queen Anne (Vicky Krieps). We need the upwardly thrusting mobility of the movie's restless D'Artagnan (François Civil, who has the bright eyes and shaggy look of the young Ethan Hawke) - charging out of the provinces to make a name for himself in the city and beyond, surviving live burial in the prologue only to be knocked out cold in a coda - to re-energise a film that threatens, at least in its early stages, to get bogged down in its own plotting.

The main achievement of Martin Bourboulon's film is to reconnect us with the pleasures of a good story, well told. Dumas gave screenwriters Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière the gift of a great opening: D'Artagnan pissing off all three Musketeers on his way into Paris and having to schedule successive duels with each. (It's the kind of meet-cute for which romcom writers would put an épée through someone.) Care, too, has been taken to differentiate between its swordsmen. Vincent Cassel plays Athos as a tortured old soak, stuck behind bars for much of Part 1, having been framed for murder; Romain Duris, typically vulpine, is a womanising dandy Aramis; and Pio Marmaï an openly bisexual, broadly companionable Porthos who insists "a thigh is a thigh". Running rings around them all in this first instalment: Eva Green, apparently channelling Musidora as Milady, forever shifting shape and burying items in her voluminous cleavage. There's an argument that earlier adaptations did rather better at parsing and streamlining the roster of supporting players, and there really are only so many ways a director can shoot a swordfight. (The action peaks early with a handheld approximation of a one-shot, doubtless requiring some digital trickery, which bears the influence of the Bourne movies and Roger Deakins' work on 1917.) What you're mostly watching here is the construction of a well-timbered machine that rolls along at moderate-to-fast pace, dispensing narrative with a modicum of style and unquestionable assurance. It's got Bank Holiday - or l'équivalent français - written all over it, but for the time being, you feel the text has been set down in honourable hands. Part 2: Milady opens in France later this year.

The Three Musketeers Part 1: D'Artagnan is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday 15 May 2023

Spaceballs: "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3"

A full eight hours of exposure over the past decade has revealed that the Guardians of the Galaxy and I are unlikely ever to exist on the same wavelength. Where the franchise's most ardent fans have seen the highest of multiplex hijinks, I'm afraid I've only witnessed a facepainted intergalactic sitcom, something like Mel Brooks's Spaceballs, only with a mile-wide streak of sap and substantially weaker gagwriting. (What cracks up the GOTG hardcore is a giant ambulant treebranch, voiced by Vin Diesel, saying the same three words over and over again. Yeah, I'm out.) This series has been instructive in one respect, however: it's proven how, at its commercial and creative zenith, the Marvel Cinematic Universe could popularise and monetise even its third-string characters. But to cheer that would mean buying into the mass delusion that this vast corporate superstructure has been nurturing worthy popular art rather than, say, the cinematic equivalent of knotweed. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 continues the series' drift away from the human and into the realms of expensively digitised but otherwise half-assed trivia; it's a finale (of sorts) that feels like an overextended footnote to what those fans would doubtless call a golden age of comic-book movies. At the end of a broadly dismal period for the American mainstream, during which it became clear money, imagination and viewer attentions were being systematically misapplied, this is what everything apparently now boils down to: an origin story for a talking raccoon. No wonder the writers have gone out on strike.

If you think that's depressing, you should see the state the characters find themselves in. Chris Pratt's Captain Blando is heartbroken because the girl he loves (Zoe Saldana, her Avatar blue retinted Gamora green) no longer recognises him, much as audiences barely recognise Pratt from the spirited, genuinely funny presence he was circa Parks & Rec. There is a general funk hanging over his fellow Guardians that has something to do with the end of Avengers: Infinity War, a cataclysm the MCU continues to invoke as a cross between 9/11 and the Fall of Man, never mind that three-quarters of its narrative strategies have subsequently been taken back. In short, everyone - not least writer-director James Gunn, bidding farewell to the MCU before decamping to head up DC's movie division - is looking for a reason to carry on, and to get the old band back together even as the series means to split them all up for good. This is why we learn Rocket, the gun-toting CG raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, has been fitted with an internal kill switch by an evil tech firm. (Funny that this ticking timebomb should only come up three movies in, but sequel needs must.) Captain Blah's efforts to save his furry friend is but one of several elements thrown together in a bid to persuade us this is a proper film with a proper story rather than, y'know, a bunch of arbitrary, free-floating stuff funded to the tune of $250m. There is also Captain Mid's efforts to get back in his grumpy beloved's good books, and thence her heart; a lot of inter-Guardian bickering that Gunn mistakenly thinks gets funnier the louder it gets; and the arrival of Will Poulter and Elizabeth Debicki, generally propitious signs, albeit with their faces sprayed gold, a far less promising sign. If there's one thing you take away from GotGV3 - and there may only be one thing you can take away from a film this forgettable - it's pretty much what you'd take away from a fourth birthday party overseen by a sociopath. Nobody - and I do mean nobody - escapes the facepainter.

Having spotted that the grand design is effectively piffle, you can start to relax and notice the occasional felicity amid the usual MCU bombast - those rare moments where some of the ridiculous moolah involved was at least diverted towards a temporarily pleasing effect. It's quite fun that the tech firm should have its HQ on the same planet as New Order's "True Faith" video: if the general air of juvenilia is hardly dispelled by the fact much of the early action looks to be unfolding within a vast soft play area (complete with Peter Simon-style vats of custard), it opens up a palette of colours and textures beyond the remit of the average DC drabfest. And I guess it's nice that Marvel-scaled royalty cheques should currently be dropping on the welcome mats of the Flaming Lips, Faith No More and Matt Johnson of The The. Yet Gunn's scratchy, scrappy B-movie sensibility, which once seemed semi-valuable (The Specials, Slither, even Super in part) when set in opposition to the mainstream, looks direly overstretched and, worse still, sorely neutered when repositioned at the heart of the multiplex: all fantasy violence, no more forceful than the click of a mouse. (A radio channel has to be switched off before Captain Meh can complete the phrase "piece of shit".) It may be Gunn's benefit - if not necessarily ours, thinking back to The Suicide Squad - that he's defecting to DC, a corporate enterprise that has traditionally afforded its characters and creatives alike a freer hand when it comes to douchebaggery.

Here, though, we're stuck with two-and-a-half hours of lurching between strands (and often individual shots) that don't smoothly connect, with frequent big explosions to help cover (or distract from) the joins, and a lot of talking CG animals that set me in mind of Tim Allen in and as The Shaggy Dog. (One credit really sinks the heart: "War-Pig: Judy Greer". And to think we could have had a second season of Reboot.) I've been unusually cheery entering and leaving the multiplex in recent months, because even the studio product that hasn't worked has been lively and diverse. (The period between Oscar night and May Day looks to have been designated Hollywood's R&D season: we've got screens to fill, may as well roll the dice and see what clicks.) A lot of that optimism ebbed away over these 150 minutes, however, and I spent much of that time ruminating on what was most depressing: the existence of a third Guardians of the Galaxy movie, its vast financial success, or the work of those critics who've written about Gunn's film with a wholly straight face, as if it were Animal Farm or Bergman or something that needed a case making for it, rather than an artless splurging of time and money, unduly rewarded with bums on seats. Well, maybe folks have been turning out for the ceremonial packing away of another childish thing. "The dog days are over," howl Florence and her machine over Vol. 3's outro, a hopeful thought almost instantly undermined by post-credit sequences that hold out the promise-threat of further misadventures featuring a decidedly D-list reserve squad. Speaking on behalf of the grown-ups in the room: can we have our cinema back at some point?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

On demand: "Creature"

We tend to think of Asif Kapadia as that documentary guy, which is what happens when a filmmaker's biggest hits (here, 2010's
Senna, 2015's Amy and 2019's Diego Maradona) can be traced back to the one specific field. Yet a closer look at this filmography suggests the flexibility our documentary guys and gals now have to demonstrate while waiting for green lights to be given or funding to come through. Over the years, Kapadia has signed his name not just to blue-chip non-fiction but widescreen epics (2001's The Warrior, 2007's Far North), superior streaming series (the late, lamented Mindhunter) and even a conventional Hollywood studio vehicle (2005's little-seen, Sarah Michelle Gellar-headed horror-thriller The Return). Further expanding this oeuvre, Creature invites framing as Kapadia's live concert movie, rocking up at the English National Ballet at some point post-lockdown to chronicle a performance of Akram Khan's dance-based reworking of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I warn you now, you may have to squint rather hard to see the Shelley in it, but that's not a failing so much as an indication of the imagination that has been applied to the task in hand. Creature struck me as more obviously another of the 21st century's colonialism narratives: we watch as a log cabin somewhere in the frozen wastes (Shelley's Siberia?), initially inhabited by a taut, shaven-headed male (Jeffrey Cirio) and his beloved (mother? wife?) Marie (Erika Takahashi), comes to be invaded by outside forces, apparently at the behest of Richard Nixon, heard on the soundtrack signing off on the Apollo missions. (For which, in the Musk/Branson era, we automatically read space colonisation.) This new regime involves an obsessive amount of cleaning, whether to mop up the blood spilled in the course of such occupations, or to maintain an illusion of purity, to ensure the entire undertaking remains as pristine to the onlooker as Conrad's mausoleum in the Congo. That's a provisional, maybe far-out reading, but either way you soon realise dance is an especially effective medium for chronicling one of the processes of colonialism: the bringing of bodies into line.

Creature presents as a form of non-fiction, tracking highly trained, much-rehearsed figures in motion, the business of the cinema since the year dot. But it also stands as one of the most sophisticated treatments of dance for the big screen, precisely because its maker realised he had all the tricks of the cinema at his disposal. Kapadia is enough of a student of musicals to know we want to see the whole body moving in a full-length shot, to know these movements were performed for real; but he's also not so much of a traditionalist to turn his nose up at, say, inserts or heightened sound effects - i.e. all the artificial-seeming stuff a director might do in post. (Bottom line: his work on Creature didn't stop the night he left the theatre.) The overall effect has been to make a static performance space come to renewed life, much as Victor Frankenstein channelled lightning through the veins of graverobbed limbs: it's electrifying, and it owes as much to the individual dancers (who are phenomenal to watch close-up) as it does to the way this camera approaches them. The action is largely frontal, as per dance movie norms, but every now and then we get a reverse angle that is both counterintuitive and incredibly striking: from the back of the stage, looking out on what would be the audience, but - thanks to Under the Skin DoP Daniel Landin's expertly ambient lensing - now resembles a gaping void. Similarly, a sudden tilt up as the principals sway on a table reveals stars (or maybe just lights) in the firmament, connecting this earth to the heavens, and the space race with the race to occupy space closer to home. In both cases, we're shown more than initially meets the eye: not just props representing a room on a stage (non-fiction) but a whole hollowed-out world at the centre of a sorry, unsparing universe (fiction, albeit fiction that bears relation to the industrialised world as it stands in 2023). The thrill and triumph of Creature resides in this creation of angles, in Kapadia's pursuit of new lines of sight and thought that mesh organically - and rewardingly - with what Khan was looking at and thinking about. Combining the flexibility of both dancer and documentarist with a scientist's rigour and smarts, the consequences are often breathtaking to behold: a few small, carefully choreographed steps, and yet a giant imaginative leap for dance on film.

Creature is now available to rent via the BFI iPlayer.

Friday 12 May 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of May 5-7, 2023):

2 (1) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
3 (2) Evil Dead Rise (18) **
4 (3) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12A)
5 (6) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
7 (8) Air (15)
8 (4) Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2 (15) ****
9 (new) Jodi (15) ***
10 (new) Return to Seoul (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 (2) Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12)
3 (14) Dune: Part One (12) **
5 (4) Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend (12)
6 (3) Plane (15)
7 (new) Creed III (12) ***
8 (9) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
9 (11) Black Adam (12)
10 (5) M3gan (15) ***

My top five: 
1. Saint Omer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Trading Places (Friday, Channel 4, 12.10am)
2. Moonlight (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
3. Goldfinger (Sunday, ITV1, 4pm)
4. Total Recall (Saturday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
5. Enemy of the State [above] (Saturday, Channel 5, 3.30pm)

Succession: "Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2"

The business of
Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1 - first half of Mani Ratnam's adaptation of Kalki's historical novels, and one of the grandest cinematic spectacles of 2022 - was that dread word worldbuilding. But it was worldbuilding in a very specific, very distinctive way: worldbuilding by circulation, dropping the viewer into the middle of a kingdom thrown into renewed turmoil by news that its beloved Emperor had not long for this world. Unexpectedly, PS-1 felt like the kind of movie Robert Altman might have made had he troubled to make a movie set in the India of the 10th century - all overlapping plots, ambitions and desires, more mosaic than drably monolithic monument. Such was the immense skill with which Part 1 was constructed - such was the care taken over each of its constituent elements - that I must confess to a little trepidation heading into Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2. What if Ratnam had screwed up his conclusion in the race to deliver a sequel barely six months on from a crowning success? Worry not: almost everything within PS-2 connects with its predecessor, and often it connects so sublimely you're reminded how lucky we are that such a project should have fallen into the hands of one of the movieworld's great storytellers.

There is, granted, some admin to get through. After a brisk recap of the events of Part 1, the first half of Part 2 is chiefly concerned with the appointment of the Emperor's brother Madhurantakan (Rahman) as interim successor, when we all know that actual heir Arulmozhi (Jayam Ravi) is (just about) alive, having survived the shipwreck with which PS-1 concluded. Yet Ratnam's showmanship reasserts itself long before the elephant-based assassination attempt that precedes the new film's interval. (Cutting nimbly to an operatic pitch, the director here resembles another 1970s movie brat: Coppola gone wild.) From there on out, it's a full-on cavalry charge to the grand finale: the revelation of just who, among these approximately 1,001 characters, is going to inherit the Emperor's throne, set to a drumroll played by what looks and sounds like half of India. PS-1, you soon realise, was merely setting a considerable stage. PS-2 has the temerity to introduce new players - because more than grand design, more than CGI, Ratnam loves people and is fascinated by people. The risk, of course, is narrative overload, and a movie that becomes unfathomable. Yet like any artist worthy of the term, Ratnam takes the gamble, and not only gets away with it, but triumphs.

It's a triumph of structure above all else: boy, did they get this script right. Every unit in this story has or attains its own weight, and is set down in exactly the right place; as a result, Ratnam starts to find pleasing rhymes in his material and draw rewarding parallels between events. (Once more, Karthi's gadabout knight Vanthiyathevan is dispatched on a mission by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's scheming Nandini.) The end result is a sequel that doesn't just finish what PS-1 started, but actively complements it; that finds the characters retracing their steps (and, crucially, revisiting a painful shared past) with a life-and-death urgency befitting the newly elevated stakes. The Emperor has even less time to play with now, and the comet that soared over his deathbed serves to cast an unflattering light on the darker corners of this particular history. It's all now back in play, in other words, which is why every strand comes to feel like a source of perilous cliffhangers; our affections are split between characters who represent whole philosophies, worlds in themselves. The obvious fan favourite - and Ratnam was characteristically wise to deploy him as an entry point - remains Vanthiyathevan, very much the Pete Davidson of this universe, able to win any woman's affections simply by virtue of being the kind of horny goofball it might be fun to hang with for a while. (The rigour of his swordsmanship is but an added bonus.)

The surprise this time round is how closely this universe aligns with our own; it's not just the serendipity of the film's release coinciding with another coronation, and Ratnam's worldbuilding never feels hermetic, the way the worldbuilding in, say, Denis Villeneuve's Dune: Part One did. Even before the Emperor departs, a vacuum of power is created, and it's rapidly filled by suspicion, hostility and conspiracy theories, obliging each of the throne's main contenders to restate their position. (In what sounds a boldly loaded line for an Indian film released in 2023 to advance, the cuddly centrist Arulmozhi insists "Rulers who do not trust the people cannot rule over them.") Yet the PS films' struggles aren't just political but emotional: the war between and within kingdoms has often felt secondary to a far older conflict between the sexes. The strongest scenes in PS-2 aren't those involving military muscle, but those where Ratnam and his leads try to reconcile the two halves of a broken heart - and thereby seek to prevent past traumas from being perpetuated in the present. Having spent the first movie tossing his locks and angrily stomping his feet, Arulmozhi's warrior brother Aditha (Vikram, channelling peak-era Mel Gibson) is more closely - and tragically - defined here as a man who knows there may only be one cure for the poison agitating his blood; alongside him, Rai Bachchan is little short of extraordinary as one of those villains who's all the more compelling for having more going on than mere villainy.

The conclusion of their strand is where Ponniyin Selvan gets a bit too Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones-ish, in that Ratnam suddenly seems a tad unsure how best to end it all. (Maybe there is no best way to end it, because so much of it - the love, the war, the jockeying for power - continues today.) And though PS-2 gives us the priceless image of Vanthiyathevan undertaking one mission while disguised as a tigerskin rug, you might - as I did - miss the appealing levity and looseness of PS-1, essentially an amply budgeted getting-to-know-you session. PS-2's business, ultimately, is tightening up - it's a vision coming into sharper and more immediate dramatic focus. (That's why A.R. Rahman's songs are high-calibre incidental music this time out: there's no time for a setpiece as majestic as the first film's "Chola Chola".) It is a vision, nevertheless, and spectacularly well-realised with it. Several major filmmakers have taken big swings since the cinema reopened its doors post-Covid, but few have seemed quite this big, and fewer still have connected so completely with the ideal of how a mass movie should look, sound and - most importantly of all - move this far into the 21st century. The relentless churn of post-lockdown output means the movies may already be moving on - after a two-week run, PS-2 loses most of its screens from today - but a bar has been raised here, along with a thousand banners. Over to you, Fast X.

Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2 is now playing in selected cinemas; Part 1 is available to stream via Prime Video.

Friday 5 May 2023

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of April 28-30, 2023):

1 (1) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
2 (2) Evil Dead Rise (18) **
3 (new) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (12A)
4 (new) Ponniyin Selvan 2 (15) ****
6 (4John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
7 (re) Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (PG) ***
8 (5) Air (15)
9 (new) Polite Society (12A) ****
10 (6) Missing (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 (2) Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12)
3 (5) Plane (15)
4 (4) Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend (12)
5 (3) M3gan (15) ***
6 (6Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical (PG)
8 (23) A Man Called Otto (15)
9 (8) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
10 (7Elvis (12) **

My top five: 
1. Saint Omer
4. Living

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Shawshank Redemption (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. Edward Scissorhands (Saturday, BBC2, 6.50pm)
3. Con Air (Saturday, Channel 4, 10.50pm)
4. The Producers (Saturday, BBC1, 12.10am)
5. Carrie [above] (Friday, Channel 4, 12.10am)

Tuesday 2 May 2023

Oh brother: "Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan"

I barely know where to begin with
Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan, the kind of exhaustingly schizophrenic cut-and-shut destined to leave critics tossing their notes away in despair the moment they've made them. Ostensibly, this is Salman Khan spending two-and-a-half hours attempting to bridge North and South India, but also the two distinct aspects of his own screen persona, parsed out in that already somewhat wearisome title (translation: "Somebody's Brother, Somebody's Lover"). The star gives himself an action hero's entrance. After a brisk tour of a Delhi housing colony that looks suspiciously like a shopping mall somebody's minion has tried to tart up with pot plants, we witness Khan's Bhai leaping off a second-floor balcony and pulling on a leather jacket mid-air, all the while sporting the most preposterous hairpiece since Terry Stone rocked up in those Rise of the Footsoldier sequels. Yet the bulk of the first half depends on Khan, now 57, playing the same sort of mythic bachelor role he was playing thirty-odd years ago. Bhai's three brothers - in actual fact fellow waifs and strays he rescued from a burning orphanage (I know; I know) - have decided they can't marry until the man and the wig who raised them has also found The One. Bhai, for some reason, has never wed. I know what you're thinking: it's the hair. But it may also have something to do with the gang of stubbly randoms who keep attacking him out of the blue. Luckily, there's a new girl in town - Pooja Hegde's feisty southerner Baggy, not a nickname I would have given gently into - and once the brothers have got past their initial misunderstanding she might be a working girl, everyone agrees she's a suitable candidate for bachelor Bhai. Well okay, you tell yourself, it's a quaint Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-type ensemble deal, albeit one destabilised by the heavy thumb the producer-star puts on the scale. It's One Bride for One Bhai, really, and even then more about the Bhai than the Bride.

For starters, you might ask why are there cans and bottles of Pepsi scattered about the colony, even on the tables of physicians surely old and dental-wise enough to have left cola some decades behind them. Simple: it's because Khan currently serves as the drink's brand ambassador, reportedly for a fee in excess of what even megastars get paid to make motion pictures nowadays. Why is Bhai never seen without an item of clothing or merch bearing the legend "Being Human"? Because that's the motto of the star's charitable foundation. One late dust-up takes place before the colony's prominently positioned fitness centre - and, you've guessed it, this is one of a chain of gyms the star owns across India. It's not just that the colony increasingly comes to resemble a theme park - Khan's own Dollywood or Neverland. It's that the action taking place there demands its own star-specific variant of the Bechdel Test: see how long minor characters can go in any given conversation before bringing up their beloved Bhai. Suffice to say, if you've already had your fill of this star, exit swiftly through the gift shop. (As January's Pathaan demonstrated, Khan may now be most effective in small doses, because he's either unwilling or unable to surprise us.) The deal KKBKKJ dangles is to offer two Bhais for the price of one: the first half's burly goofball, and then, in the DEAFENINGLY LOUDER second half by which this Bollywood production attempts to mimic those South Indian roustabouts that have cleaned up at the box office of late, Bhai the mirthless thumper. The effect, almost inevitably, is overkill, literally so in the case of the Bonnie and Clyde-style ambush of Baggy's family that turns out to be... a dream sequence? (Which sicko dreams of offing his entire supporting cast in one fell swoop? Round up the usual suspect.)

The pity is that this violent switch-up also stomps out the residual charm of that cuckoo first hour, which at least stumbles across a couple of good gags. "That was a 400-year-old antique!," gasps a horrified Baggy, after Bhai backs into her at the colony's flea market, causing her to spill the tchotchke she was holding. "Thank God," Bhai drawls. "I thought it was new." (An oldie, but still a goodie.) There's even a joke about that bloody wig: the stars have to disentangle their locks after one mid-film rescue. It's understandable when Bhai submits to a haircut just after the interval: here, the film reassures the star's core fanbase, is the buzzcut action figure you know and revere. But it's also illustrative of how arbitrary the storytelling feels (determined, as it almost certainly has been, by the whims of a pumped prime mover). At every turn, we get glimpses of the more interesting directions the film might have gone in, before it reverts to its default mode of aggressively genial mediocrity. What if cutting off his hair had made Bhai more vulnerable, and not invulnerable? What if he'd set his cap at the original, age-appropriate Baggy - the actress Bhagyashree, Khan's co-star in 1989's Maine Pyar Kiya - with whom Bhai is briefly reunited in the first half? (We even get a clip of the earlier film, and a glimpse of the sweetheart Khan was once considered.)

To pull focus in a way a film as ego-driven as this wouldn't abide: Hegde, for what it's worth, isn't at all bad here. She can't make sense of a character who claims to come from "a very simple family" mere minutes after an extended tracking shot has determined the family home is prefixed by the world's longest courtyard. (It'd take you a week just to put the bins out.) Yet that's a fault of screenwriting and production design, and it does look as though an entire generation of Bollywood actresses has been schooled in the art of playing pliable plot points, deployed to pep up an aging action hero's flagging virility. There are plusses to this: you get top-dollar wardrobe and styling, because Bhai wants his girls to look nice. The downside is that you effectively have to enter into arranged marriage with a figure who, however much his own movies keep banging on about him, may not be the catch he seemed once upon a time. Given that Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan ends with concussing POV headbutts, and our hero singing and dancing to a rap version of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, I'm not even sure Salman Khan is as sane as he once seemed. Many colleagues apparently left the film disappointed or angry; I came away both drained and mildly concerned. Working title for next Salman Khan project: R U OK Bhai hun?

Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.