Friday 30 June 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 23-25, 2023):

2 (1) The Flash (12A) **
3 (new) No Hard Feelings (15)
4 (new) Asteroid City (12A)
5 (3) The Little Mermaid (PG)
6 (4) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12A)
7 (5) Greatest Days (12A)
9 (8Fast X (12A)
10 (9) The Boogeyman (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Hairspray
5. Le Mépris

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Fast X (12)
2 (1) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
3 (3) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
5 (new) The Pope's Exorcist (15) **
6 (7) 65 (12)
7 (4) Shazam: Fury of the Gods (12)
8 (28) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
9 (6) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
10 (re) Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)

My top five: 
1. Godland

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Die Hard (Sunday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
2. In Which We Serve (Saturday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
3. Bridge of Spies (Sunday, BBC2, 9pm)
4. A Knight's Tale (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.55pm)
5. The Program [above] (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)

Wednesday 28 June 2023

And the pan: "The Flash"

The first DOA blockbuster of summer 2023 can lay some claim to being a victim of circumstance. Restructuring at host studio Warner Bros - and the announcement that James Gunn would be jumping aboard to oversee a complete overhaul of DC Comics' sputtering cinematic universe - meant
The Flash arrived on screens already feeling like yesterday's news. The new regime hardly helped the movie's cause by sending it out at the same time as Marvel's squeaky-clean, carefully polished, glowingly reviewed Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. And anecdotal evidence suggests audiences have been uncertain how the film connects (if it connects at all) with the recent streaming series of the same name. (These universes and multiverses have now expelled so much content it was perhaps inevitable they should start tripping over themselves.) In the meantime, star Ezra Miller has been using DC's paycheque to go on an all-but-kill-crazy tear across America, like some sociopathic Chris McCandless. (Enter any number of We Need to Talk About Ezra headlines here.) Given the forces levelled against it, one might nurse some measure of sympathy for Andy Muschietti's film - I took up my notebook and pen half-expecting to write one of those rounding reviews, taking the edge off the harsher, less temperate online responses - were it not for two things. One: The Flash is still likely to surpass the $100m mark in the US (if not go much further, one yardstick of failure when your budget is $200m-plus). And two: The Flash is expensive garbage, riven with bad choices in everything from storytelling and visualisation to the manner in which the actors have been coached to express themselves on a scene-by-scene basis. At its worst, which is way too often for a 144-minute feature, The Flash succeeds in being aggressively terrible, in ways even the flatter, more mediocre Marvel spin-offs have never quite been.

Block out all this noisome extratextual interference, and Muschietti's film might still betray signs of creative insecurity - foremost among them the decision to drag a Batman on every fifteen minutes to reassure us we're still within touching distance of the comic-book heavy hitters. To their credit, DC haven't yet greenlit a film about a talking raccoon - this may be where Gunn comes in - but Muschietti has been handed the fool's errand of fashioning a major event movie about a figure who largely presents as a sidekick or stand-in, someone who forever appears less superheroic than so much small fry. Some of this, granted, was factored into the original character. Among DC's second-string IP roster, The Flash is the nerdy, speedy one (where, say, Deadpool was the snarky one); in the early non-action scenes, Miller's yammering research scientist Barry Allen bears an unexpected resemblance to Bruce McCulloch's precocious Gavin character from Kids in the Hall. His superpower is the ability to stop time dead - or, rather, coat time in carriage-clock amber so as to prevent, allay or redirect developing chaos, an effect that on screen can't help but recall the "bullet time" of The Matrix, or that one X-Man who could run up and around the walls of a room in the time it took his contemporaries to blink. (So much for the novelty these movies used to trade in.)

This power is first illustrated in the course of a setpiece that sees our guy juggling two dozen swaddled tots loosed into mid-air as a result of a collapsing maternity ward. (That's a fun, semi-subversive image, one you suspect the play-it-safe MCU would never have arrived at; "Baby... shower?," a quizzical Allen wonders, a characteristically tentative flicker of wit.) Yet these supernatural gifts apparently arrived too late for the younger Allen to save his mother (Maribel Verdú, oddly), murdered in a curious, unresolved domestic episode seen in flashback. Psychologically, it makes sense that The Flash gravitates towards Batman. Victims of familial trauma, they're both stuck in a moment, superpowers notwithstanding. (What is the Batcave if not a well-stocked surrogate womb - somewhere to retreat whenever maternal care crumbles?) The set-up is familiar but intriguing - not least because it centralises and threatens to work through the arrested development to which the movie mainstream has itself fallen subject in recent years. Yet this being a mega-budget multiverse movie, it's soon overwritten by Any Other Business; mom's murder is relegated to sidebar status. Muschietti comprehensively muffs the multiverse stuff, whipping up a dull fug of asterisks and footnotes, and rendering the onscreen string theory as ugly computer code. (The multiverse equivalent of Spaghetti Junction looks as if AI has been asked to imagine a Brueghel redesign of the Sgt. Pepper cover.) Back in play: Superman's nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon, fighting a losing battle with financially beneficial boredom). New to the scene: Superman's daughter (Sasha Calle). Any one of these turns might have sustained a pithy two-hour diversion, but we've reached the point where these movies would rather flap at three plots than do one story well.

The result is a gabble, the kind of tangled, logic-deficient yarn a hyperventilating six-year-old might try to spin around you at the breakfast table, and that trying-to-tiresome childishness begins to permeate almost every other aspect of the film. Watching the recent reissue of 1978's Superman - the original DC movie - I was struck anew by the 26-year-old Christopher Reeve and 30-year-old Margot Kidder, utterly convincing as grown adults given gainful employment in a Gotham City newsroom. By contrast, I didn't believe for a moment that anyone would trust the twitchy Miller with a position in a research lab; and as the reporter on the trail of Barry Allen's double life, Kiersey Clemons can only be working for a sixth-form magazine. This is weird on several levels, especially as The Flash clearly wants to appeal to viewers nostalgic for earlier DC properties. Even the grown-ups Muschietti nudges on screen seem to be playing at being grown-ups. Listening to the gravelly drawl Ben Affleck affects as Bruce Wayne, you wonder: is this how actors wearied by a decade-and-a-half of relentless dress-up convince themselves they're still doing serious work? The big lure for nostalgics, of course, is an earlier Batman still, unveiled with a mid-film flourish and a Danny Elfman-inflected ta-da, like a dusty item retrieved from the furthest reaches of the memorabilia display cabinet. Michael Keaton is the one actor in The Flash permitted to play lived-in and interesting, and it helps the film's cause that he continues to look better in his Batsuit than Affleck has ever done in his. (Certain mummified corpses would look better in that Batsuit; Affleck is the first Batman to have made me thankful for the renewed visibility of defibrillators in public spaces.)

Yet it's a measure of the vast imaginative failure The Flash represents that Old Batman is finally turned to as not all that much more than this universe's Doc Brown: a straggly-haired near-loon allowed to air a few desultory regrets of his own while nudging a pipsqueak hero onwards. Back to the Future references abound here: this script, credited to Birds of Prey's Christina Hodson but almost certainly the result of multiple hands, flogs a running multiverse gag premised on the many actors linked with the Marty McFly role - but, really, how different is that from the abiding confusion over whether Miller, Grant Gustin or Gunn's pick is the definitive Flash? More than by any of the rushed, slipshod effects, you come away struck by the colossal waste involved in producing such trivial fluff: the waste of time (theirs and ours), of money and human resources, of characters who once stood for something before they became the playthings of competing venture capitalists. I spent much of the closing hour - and almost all of the nonsensical final runaround, a teachable example of anti-climax - daydreaming about using The Flash's powers to go back to 2008, steal off with the budget for the first Iron Man movie, and redistribute this wealth among the twenty previous winners of the Sundance Grand Jury prize. Barry Allen is told, with wearying repetition given the idea's prevalence in contemporary pop culture, that no good can follow from meddling with the past. But the evidence currently on display at a multiplex near you would suggest my fleeting thought experiment could in no way leave American filmmaking in a worse state than it is right now.

The Flash is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 23 June 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 16-18, 2023):

1 (new) The Flash (12A) **
3 (3) The Little Mermaid (PG)
4 (2) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12A)
5 (new) Greatest Days (12A)
6 (new) Adipurush (12A)
8 (5Fast X (12A)
9 (6) The Boogeyman (15) ***
10 (7The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Hairspray
4. Le Mépris

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
3 (4) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
4 (2) Shazam: Fury of the Gods (12)
5 (new) John Wick: Quadruple Pack (15)
6 (7) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
7 (5) 65 (12)
8 (new) Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero (12)
9 (6Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
10 (35) Plane (15)

My top five: 
1. Joyland
5. Pearl

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Searchers (Saturday, five, 1.20pm)
2. God's Own Country (Sunday, Channel 4, 1.10am)
3. Air Force One [above] (Saturday, Channel 4, 10pm)
4. The Heat (Friday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
5. Pitch Perfect (Saturday, ITV1, 10.20pm)

Friday 16 June 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 9-11, 2023):

2 (new) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12A)
3 (2) The Little Mermaid (PG)
5 (3Fast X (12A)
6 (5) The Boogeyman (15) ***
7 (6The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
8 (new) Chevalier (12A)
9 (new) Maurh (15)
10 (new) War Pony (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Hairspray
5. Le Mépris

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
2 (31) Shazam: Fury of the Gods (12)
4 (2) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
5 (8) 65 (12)
6 (4) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
7 (10) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
8 (6) Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)
10 (9Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12)

My top five: 
1. The Night of the 12th

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The African Queen (Sunday, BBC2, 1.30pm)
2. The Magnificent Seven (Saturday, BBC2, 12.45pm)
3. Hannibal (Friday, five, 10pm)
4. Ocean's Eleven (Sunday, ITV1, 10.20pm)
5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Tuesday, ITV1, 10.45pm)

Wednesday 14 June 2023

Web 2.0: "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse"

With a flurry of inspired pen strokes, 2018's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse made the multiverse concept that had baffled the mass audience circa 1988's A Brief History of Time seem like child's play; in a reality not dissimilar to our own, it likely had something to do with Everything Everywhere All at Once winning the Best Film Oscar in March 2023. (All that theoretical physics had a conclusion.) Into the Spider-Verse ran two hours; its follow-up, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, runs to two hours twenty, as per superhero sequel norms, and those extra twenty minutes may be the crucial difference between a fun time at the movies and a somewhat exhausting chore. Two hours is just long enough to don the romper suit that has become as de rigueur for modern moviegoing as 3D glasses were a decade ago, toddle around inside the mnemonic remnants of somebody else's childhood, and get back home in time for the nightly news. At two hours twenty, it starts to feel as though you're being pinned down at Comic-Con and sandblasted with this stuff. It also, in this case, gives us time to ponder how the multiverse provides the perfect cover for creative indecision and insecurity. In ruling everything in, there is no longer a need to rule anything (or anyone) out; the old, adult responsibilities of making movies - making firm, clear, decisive choices - are no more. The films are so much more inclusive for that, their cheerleaders argue, and there are certainly points to be argued and maybe won there. Yet the laws of this universe mean the gains of franchises becoming more inclusive have to be weighed against the losses of their becoming less exclusive (in the old sense of special). Thick and fast these things now arrive, offering more and more and yet much of a muchness, Tipp-Exing asterisks next to anything fateful lest subsequent instalments seek to take that action back. "Let's do things differently... so differently," murmurs Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) in Across the Spider-Verse's opening narration. But how different can it be, when you're doing it all over again?

A concession: much like its predecessor, Across the Spider-Verse collates a dazzling gallery of images while functioning as a repository of zippy, dynamic action scenes. One complaint commonly sounded against live-action superhero movies is that their constituent spectacle knows nothing of gravity. (I'm still not over the flying he-men of the recent Black Panther sequel, elevated by dainty, serviette-thin wings on their ankles.) What producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, presiding spirits of this spin-off, have reassured their directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman for film one; Joaquim dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson here) is that a cartoon has no real need for gravity. The first movie offered the thrillingly great liberation of watching a free hand moving over a blank canvas: you felt the animators and characters could really take off and go anywhere, and there was something buoying in seeing a major studio animation that rejected the prosaic, grounded model of a Madagascar or Minions and instead reached out towards the more ambitious animes of our times. (Lord and Miller's point was surely that there is more to animation than generally rocks up at the Odeon in half-term week with a tie-in popcorn promotion: the boundaries were literally being redrawn.) Yet settling in before Across the Spider-Verse, you soon realise no Japanimation has yet moved at this velocity - doubtless because few Eastern production houses have the resources to gather and process this much data, and thus to cover this much ground. While reintroducing the established Spideys (Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen, the middle-aged one voiced by Nick from New Girl), the new film also tosses into the mix glimpses of the old comic-book avatar, a Lego Spider-Man (nodding to a past Lord/Miller triumph), a Spider-Cat and even a Spider-Horse. The action unfolds in mixed media over multiple locations and realities, connected by space-time wormholes through which pass people and props shifting shape and/or shade as they travel. Miles (Shameik Moore) and Gwen enjoy a swoony, breathless catch-up swinging through New York at sundown, but even conventional scenes of exposition pulse with a jittery energy: you can both see and somehow feel the ink itching to jump from one spot on the screen to another. Everything is awesome. Everything is ADHD in HD.

And yet it's pure sugar rush, scattering its ideas like a seven-year-old after a heavy afternoon on the Skittles; you can but brace, awaiting the crash. This Across the Spider-Verse does around the 90-minute mark, but even before then, this thoroughly agitated multiverse starts wearing itself thin: the colour comes off in your hands, and you spy the duller corporate condescension in the webbing underneath. My Spidey senses for market-driven BS began tingling upon the arrival of an Indian Spider-Man, Pavitr Prabhakar, introduced replaying one of the most memorable setpieces in Sam Raimi's 2002 movie in his hometown of "Mumbattan" ("Let's do things differently... so differently"). For all this setpiece's relentless toing-and-froing, you never for a minute lose sight of the memo hanging out of the characters' back pockets: a Spider-Guy for every territory the film will play! Everyone gets a lollipop! (Maybe I'm just resentful that the British Spider-Man is a dated punk archetype, no fun and no use to anyone at all: we don't quite get "London Calling" on the soundtrack, but we can only have been one or two realities off.) By the time one Spidey broke into an extended lecture on The Significance of the Canon ("the events that bind our lives together"), I was no longer having fun; superficial thrills - the good stuff - had given way to solemn self-absorption. With its doors thrown wide open to actively bad ideas, the film's final hour offers the sight of a franchise fighting with itself (or among its selves), unwilling to kill either its darlings or its demons because there's a third instalment coming down the line. The free hand these animators were gifted back in 2018 now comes with a heavy cost: being tethered to a machine that prints money, and obliged to paint over the cracks in the studio system. They're some of the best painters in the business, granted - and, man alive, you should see the colours. But it may now be too big a job for even a team of superheroes to successfully pull off. "I don't know how to fix this," sighs Spider-Gwen, shortly before taking possession of the trinket that admits her to Team Multiverse. "Yeah, well, join the club," shrugs Latino Spidey (Oscar Isaac). For a brief pause in the middle of arachno-chaos, we set down in a reality not so very far from home: that of creatives faced with a self-sustaining crisis of storytelling.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Monday 12 June 2023

On demand: "Law of Tehran"

Roaring out of the Iranian indie sector - originally under the title Just 6.5 - 
Law of Tehran is a propulsive, brute-force crime picture with impressively dynamic and combustible crowd scenes, apparently fashioned for import by a thrusting young creative who's hoovered up Heat, Breaking Bad and The Wire and now seeks to reproduce their virtues closer to home. A two-hour shakedown for viewer and characters alike, Saeed Roustayi's film begins with a prologue that establishes a grim bottom line: a chase that results in a suspect being pursued into a ditch, never to emerge. The focus then settles on a cop who all evidence would suggest is just as merciless as his criminal quarry. Entering the frame with several black marks against his name, Samad (Payman Maadi, the husband in Asghar Farhadi's A Separation) has decided to build a case against a local drug kingpin by taking a succession of big swings up (and at) the supply chain; driving out first addicts and street dealers, then the mules bringing product into the country from overseas, he sets about exerting his authority at every turn, with all the force invested in him by the Iranian state, only to come unstuck once he learns his target isn't quite who he thinks it is.

What follows is the definition of arresting cinema, driven for the most part by Maadi's hurricane impatience in the lead role, the character's desire to get through each encounter as soon as possible so as to reach the next level in his pursuit. (A grabber with scant time for small fry, he yanks us all by the ear and collar, as if through a hedge backwards.) Yet in kicking up such a colossal fuss from the get-go, the film also looses certain procedural details that might be perceived as less than complimentary of this regime. Simply being related to a wanted party is here deemed a prosecutable offence; folks are thrown into prison even while their exact status is undecided (Roustayi has the sorry-looking extras to illustrate this point); and, of course, the spectre of execution hangs over them all, including the cop. (One way of approaching Law of Tehran, which also conveys the need for extreme caution when approaching Law of Tehran: what if A Short Film About Killing had been directed not by Kieślowski, but Mel Gibson instead?) If you're looking for comforting honour among the film's thieves, you'll be there all day; they, too, are very much in this game for themselves. This is a film you could show to disprove the creeping notion that movies require sympathetic or relatable characters to be involving in some way; Roustayi's men are volcanic hotheads who - despite the coordinated cool blue of their collective wardrobe, an odd, Michael Mann-ish touch - are prone to volcanic eruptions of self-serving bile.

While it's prowling Tehran's backstreets, the film is nothing short of electric, its growing narrative unpredictability turbo-boosted by the heightened naturalism drilled into Iranian creatives over the past few decades: here is real life with the edge restored, and sharpened to a deadly point. Whenever this camera moves indoors - as with a lengthy layover at central booking - you start to feel it bogging down, although even this seems a deliberate tactic on Roustayi's part, adding as it does to a sense of a too-neat line of inquiry stalling or snarling up. Penning everybody in at close-quarters, meanwhile, further ups the already fervent intensity and volume. It's always up-and-running soon enough, however, barrelling along robustly like a wide receiver who takes multiple explosive hits and still stays on his feet long enough to get the ball in the endzone. (Or, as here, the prisoners into the execution grounds.) A kick-bollock-scramble between bookending black holes, Law of Tehran's idea of justice is unyieldingly rough: its signature image is that of a suspect scouring his hands on the stippled walls of a police station in a bid to rid himself of usable fingerprints. But anyone who's had cause to wonder whether the Farhadi model of cinema might well benefit from a little more agitation should roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

Law of Tehran is now streaming on the BBC iPlayer.

Sunday 11 June 2023

I can see the grass grow: "Master Gardener"

Paul Schrader has made his film again. (Look, we have a new Wes Anderson releasing in a few weeks; best I get such phrases out of my system now.) Master Gardener actually opens with what has become Schrader's signature image: a man in priestly garb with Christian-soldier hair (buzzcut back and sides, tamped down on top; a denial of something, worn as a crown) sitting at a desk and writing in a notebook. This image, which Schrader lifted wholesale from his beloved Bresson, reminds us of the following: one, where Schrader is coming from, as a critic and screenwriter turned imagemaker; two, that Schrader has almost certainly done more for old-school stationery (and actors' handwriting) than any other filmmaker this century; and three, why we critics, sat at similar desks with similar notebooks, respond to Schrader's work so. There are greener fingers gripping the pen this time, though, in a film that pivots on the idea of cultivation. Master Gardener (is that title an Ibsen allusion?) revolves around Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), an ex-con who now spends his days tending the ornamental gardens at a fancy-pants estate on the outskirts of an unnamed East Coast city. His employer is the formidable dowager Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, in a role she was literally born to play: scion of old money); and he has a promising new apprentice in Mrs. Haverhill's grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, so outstanding on TV's recent reboot of In Treatment). In the work of a more naturally optimistic filmmaker, the latter relationship would be cause for cheer. Blossoming in the estate's hothouse, Maya is visibly intended as the colour otherwise lacking from the small, lonely furrow Narvel has been ploughing: it's not just that she is of colour, but that she shows up in a tie-dyed "NO BAD VIBES" tee, with cornflower-blue eyeshadow that frankly gilds the lily. But Narvel has a past, revealed when he removes his shirt after hours to show the camera the white power tattoos lingering across his torso. "Given the right conditions," Narvel notes in his horticultural diary, "seeds can last indefinitely". Schrader here invites us to play the role of Alan Titchmarsh (or any other gardener): to consider what's already been planted, and what may be about to take root anew.

Within a reel or so, Master Gardener has reintroduced us to one of the perverse pleasures of a Paul Schrader film - and one that's only become more potent in an era of bland, wipe-clean movie superheroes: watching characters with traces of dirt under their fingernails, who present to us as somewhat besmirched or sullied, if not outright grubby. Narvel has turned to the soil as what he calls "an investment in the future", trying to coax the floral beauty that might grow over - and perhaps atone for - the ugliness of his past. "Am I in the clear?," he asks his parole officer after the flashback that describes what Narvel Roth did to end up as an ex-con. "That's never going to happen," comes the no-nonsense response, and by speaking these five words, the eternally underappreciated actor Esai Morales gets to put the Schraderian hero's condition in a nutshell. Damned though he appears, though, Narvel isn't alone. Mrs. Haverhill (who refers to her employee as "sweet pea"; any onlookers from the HR department will already be having conniptions) invites the gardener in for dinner and then up the stairs to bed, as if she were Constance Chatterley. And some tangled family roots make for an altogether unhappy reunion after she (con)descends to meet Maya after a long estrangement. "I'm not inadequate," insists the latter. "Of course not," Haverhill snaps. "You're impertinent." Does the older woman resent the proximity of a younger, riper bloom? At any rate, there's tension in this garden even before a squadron of aphids - and Maya's no-good druggy associates - come calling. One of the film's strengths is how it views gardening as both a source of fascination in itself - more so, I'd say, than the gambling in 2021's The Card Counter - and as a fruitful metaphor for human endeavour. Everyone here is trying to renew, to secure themselves a fresh start or room to grow; everyone is plagued by some form of mouldering resentment. There are things that bug and eat away at them.

Which is not to say that Master Gardener is a first-prize winner. This viewer found the film steadier and stronger than The Card Counter, but still nothing like as forceful as 2017's First Reformed, the movie that relaunched Schrader as a bankable indie presence. It has interesting characters, played by actors coached into giving something like their all: Edgerton lovingly tends the border where control and self-discipline mesh with something more selfless and nurturing, and the solitary smile Schrader affords him around the midpoint is a real gift to the audience. But try as everyone might, no-one can quite get the central relationship to bed in - more site-specifically yet, its redemptive sweetness carries with it the honk of dramatic manure. Swindell brings all her staggering maturity to the task, but Schrader's too distanced from the character to bring her into clear focus: as it is, Maya seems too wise to have slipped into drugs, and too resourceful to require the help that she gets. (Swindell is an excellent actress now, but she's going to rule the world once she leaves behind the troubled juvenile roles people keep casting her in.) The other issue is one of structure: I wonder whether Schrader has it in his head that his films have to take a turn, because that's why people come to a Paul Schrader movie, much as people go to an Almodóvar film for the decor and Penelope Cruz. There may be some truth in this, but here such self-conscious auteurism undercuts the (generally gentler) storytelling: we get a minor turn, in the cosmic scheme of things, where First Reformed's was wrenching. When Narvel confesses "I make these rules for myself", you wonder how much he's speaking to his creator's own rigorous inflexibility and resistance to positive change. Still, stick with it, and the coda fumbles its way towards grounds for optimism - the idyll of an old man left to watch the grass grow at a point others have been put out to pasture or laid six feet under. Both odd and serious enough to be worthwhile, Master Gardener at the very least gives rise to an intriguing pub-quiz question: what connects the writer of Taxi Driver to the protagonist of Voltaire's Candide? Dig in.

Master Gardener is now showing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 10 June 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 2-4, 2023):

2 (1) The Little Mermaid (PG)
3 (2) Fast X (12A)
5 (new) The Boogeyman (15) ***
6 (4The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
7 (new) Suga - Agust D Tour "D-Day" in Japan: Live Viewing (n/c)
8 (new) Die Zauberflöte - Met Opera 2023 (n/c)
9 (new) Reality (12A) ***
10 (new) Zara Hatke Zara Bachke (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Hairspray [above]
2. Le Mépris
3. Thelma & Louise

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
2 (1) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
4 (5) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
5 (4) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
6 (7) Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)
7 (12) Cocaine Bear (15)
8 (new) 65 (12)
9 (2) Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (12)
10 (8) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****

My top five: 
1. The Fabelmans
4. Broker
5. Close

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Meet Me in St. Louis (Sunday, BBC2, 1.30pm)
2. Clueless (Sunday, Channel 4, 2pm)
3. A Fistful of Dollars (Friday, Channel 5, 10pm)
4. The French Connection (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. Guys and Dolls (Sunday, BBC2, 3.20pm)

Shut that door: "The Boogeyman"

After the grabby, career-making Zoom chiller
Host and its too-abrasive-by-half follow-up Dashcam, The Boogeyman finds emergent Brit Rob Savage making nice and settling into the potentially rewarding multiplex horror space: PG-13 certificate, cosy-ish domestic settings, regular (not ineffective) jump scares, the sound design you get on even a moderate studio budget, somebody else's script. In-demand genre tinkerers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place, 65) have extrapolated from one of Stephen King's early, nasty short stories - essentially a few pages of dialogue between two people mired in grief - the tale of a lopsided family trying to right itself in the wake of the matriarch's death in a car accident. The two daughters - resilient pre-teen Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) and brooding high-schooler Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) - have hang-ups enough to be working through; their psychiatrist dad Will (Chris Messina) bluffly holds to carrying on regardless, until a hulking, pallid walk-in (David Dastmalchian, the darkside Paul Dano) confesses to having watched his own children die and promptly shuffles off to string himself up in an adjacent closet. If Host and Dashcam represented New Horror, 21st century in both their use of technology and framing, The Boogeyman is very much horror of the old school, familiar in everything from its scares to the structure Savage, Beck and Woods situate them in. These characters are established as being in a dark place; a midfilm shift to a secondary location sheds a little more light on what's bugging them; and finally everybody returns to the family fold for a climactic showdown between good and evil.

There's almost nothing new under this bed, in other words, but Beck and Woods do a solid job of both extracting and expanding the core theme of King's source material (how grief intrudes), and Savage has found economical and effective ways of making that theme cinematic. (Principally, a near-fetishistic attention to the doors that might let these characters' demons in and out, each threshold a potential scene of ultra-specific, highly localised bumps in the night.) It's not just a technical exercise, thankfully. Savage casts well, and he draws committed, involving work from his actors, especially Thatcher (from TV's Yellowjackets), who bears a spooky resemblance to the young Melissa George in places, and Messina, who - to this red-blooded heterosexual onlooker - would appear a far shrewder choice for the role of Post-Clooney Red Hot Silver Fox Zaddy than this Pedro Pascal fellow the Internet seems to have settled on. In an interview on the Kermode and Mayo podcast last week, Savage explained his aim with this first studio assignment was to make the kind of film that introduces horror to a particular audience - the audience that won't yet have seen, say, Jack Clayton's The Innocents, and who not coincidentally have the disposable income to have their popcorn rattled by Dolby surround sound at semi-regular intervals. The Boogeyman is no less upfront about what it's doing: it opens up a weighty, squeaky-hinged portal before the viewer, ushers us all into the darkness beyond it, and then slams it behind us with some skill and force. It's gateway horror, in more ways than one.

The Boogeyman is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

Friday 9 June 2023

Enemies of the state: "Reality"

That title looks a little careworn, but Tina Satter's new film
Reality can lay greater claim to it than, say, Matteo Garrone's 2012 satire of Italian influencers. For starters, it's the given name of Satter's real-life heroine: Reality Lee Winner (played here by Sydney Sweeney), a twentysomething translator specialising in Middle Eastern languages, who on the afternoon of June 3, 2017 returned to her Augusta, Georgia home to find two FBI agents in her front yard, keen to question her about a possible mishandling of classified documents. Satter first converted this self-contained encounter into verbatim theatre (2019's off-Broadway piece Is This a Room), using as her text the Agency's largely declassified transcription; now she and co-writer James Paul Dallas reshape it into a film that nonetheless retains an air of verbatim theatre. In this 80-minute précis of a 105-minute back-and-forth, the interrogation of Reality Lee Winner is replayed almost word-for-word, complete with seemingly irrelevant preamble (chiefly about the heroine's many pets) that wouldn't normally wind up in a movie, but is here offered as corroborating detail; also preserved are those deviations, stammers and circumlocutions by which the Feds (represented by Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis) wound up to their inquiries. One consequence is the most bizarre, least grabby opening half-hour of the year so far: lots of small talk and standing round on the kerb, very little of note happening on the surface, any immediate drama or tension dialled way down in the mix. Studio readers casting an eye over this script would likely have returned it to its authors with a single, dismissive note: too much reality. (Which would be as fitting an epitaph for the Trump years as any.)

Even here, though, Reality invites study as an example of how much information a movie can itself pass on without really seeming to strain. Well before the agents usher Reality inside - and into the unfurnished space that functions as a surrogate interview room, a limbo between the domestic and carceral - we've found out not just about Reality's pets, but her stash of guns, and even her weekly Crossfit class. Some of this the Feds evidently knew in advance; some of it they only discovered on the day, as we do. Those who aren't 100% familiar with this case's particulars - anyone who skirted America's internal intrigues between 2016 and 2020, on the grounds investigating might mean having to hear a certain ex-President's voice again - will find a prickly tension beginning to rise. Reality Winner, it's clear, is in big trouble; but one of the many questions Satter raises is how a young woman with a Pokémon duvet and a Hello Kitty phone case could ever have found herself near classified material. Sometime TV It girl Sweeney (Euphoria, The White Lotus) makes Reality a smart cookie, obscuring her intelligence with a thin toplayer of disarming goofiness; this is duly abraded by her interrogators before they start to make her crumble. It's clever casting on Satter's part that neither Hamilton nor Davis present as clear Trump shills. Yet their characters remain weapons of the state, pointed squarely at an individual who seems far from an urgent national threat. It's no more than a dynamically reframed anecdote, but it remains a telling one, clocking that for just over the length of a football match on a sunny afternoon in June 2017, a blandly neutral domestic space witnessed a form of asymmetrical warfare, and a perversion of priorities not uncharacteristic of the moment Satter's film effectively describes and crystallises. The FBI, under Trump, could have pursued those responsible for Russian interference in the 2016 election. Instead, they went after a girl - and, not coincidentally, the girl who helped make that interference a matter of public record. Is that reality enough for you?

Reality is now playing in selected cinemas.

On demand: "Guy Ritchie's The Covenant"

I know: your first, snarky reaction is that the movies must be in a mess if they're now allowing Guy Ritchie - of
Snatch, Revolver and The Gentlemen infamy - to insert his own name in the title of his films as a selling point, much as Fellini did 50 years ago. Yet Guy Ritchie's The Covenant has clearly been conceived as - how to fathom such a concept? - mature-period Guy Ritchie, picking up where that Noughties run of brow-furrowing, mostly indifferent American studio movies about US intervention in the Middle East left off. Ritchie parachutes us back into Afghanistan as it was in March 2018, when hopes for lasting peace were rapidly dwindling or already abandoned, and centres the film on the relationship between Master Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his latest Afghan translator Ahmed (Dar Salim), who has pre-existing beef with the Taliban. This balancing formulation presents as an improvement of sorts on that first wave of Gulf War II movies, which were by and large undertaken by creatives who, for reasons of political expediency or domestic audience courting, were compelled to keep the Pashto-speaking population at arm's length and instead privilege the sufferings and trauma of (mostly) white military personnel. At a moment when Disney's blaxploitation Little Mermaid is causing consternation among the dunderhead division and the bigot brigade, it may be more surprising yet to find Guy Ritchie going woke. But this, it turns out, isn't the last of The Covenant's surprises.

It would still be identifiable as a Guy Ritchie war film even without that title, built as it has been not on the rigorous reportage of a Zero Dark Thirty but the thick-ear prose of someone who likely devoured Bravo Two Zero, and who maintains Johnny Mercer-like Mates in the Military. The Ritchie understanding of overseas service is inevitably homoerotic, from an early discussion of mess-tent dining options ("Nothing wrong with a little sausage") to the slang deployed for money paid to informers ("lube"). The opening half-hour struggles to get past one major script-imposed obstacle: that one of Kinley's right-hand men goes by the nickname Jizzy. (Gyllenhaal, amid one ambush: "Fuck, Jizzy! Jizzy!") Still, there remains a lot that works here: The Covenant stands as Ritchie's least worst film for some years, if not decades. It works within limitations, granted, and if you're looking for knotty or nuanced political argument, you should probably keep looking. Ritchie has alighted upon this narrative - and the real-world events that inspired it - as an opportunity to head into the desert with his boys, play with military hardware, and stage exactly that action American movies now routinely run on (because, presumably, a section of the audience demands it). What's crucial is that Ritchie's action here is vastly more coherent and involving than it was circa those abysmal Sherlock Holmes movies. In the central stretch, as Kinley and Ahmed are separated from their patrol and pursued through Taliban country, you both see and feel a once-slipshod and slaphappy filmmaker recalibrating his effects, and making something like the kind of pulpy B-picture he might usefully have cut his teeth on after swanking off to Hollywood on a cloud of scarcely justified self-belief.

Again, it's not without inbuilt simplification, but it's a proven format - a Defiant Ones-like buddy movie - bolstered by performers who capably sell you on the growing bond between understandably suspicious men. Salim lends Ahmed a coolly level head vital for a character negotiating between his uniformed paymasters, fellow countrymen who see him as traitorous for assisting the occupiers, and fundamentalist goons who want that head on a pike. (It's a touch convenient Ahmed should also be a crack shot, but it generates the movie's most dynamic setpiece.) Fatigued in all senses, Gyllenhaal retunes those big eyes towards weariness, and lets the tiredness show through: when he's knocked out by his pursuers, an expression flickers across his face that almost registers as blessed relief. There's some Ritchie-ish overkill as the character returns home, juggling PTSD with Washington bureaucracy and trying to retrieve Ahmed from a similarly tight spot: the use of opium as pain relief cues trippily baroque in-country flashbacks. But the homefront scenes do burn with that anger surrounding the mismanagement of the Allies' withdrawal from Afghanistan, and - heaven knows how Ritchie and co-writers got here - they hand Gyllenhaal one of those radical, eloquently outraged howls Paul Laverty typically pens for Ken Loach ("Pay your debts"). Perhaps most unexpected of all is Ritchie's belated discovery of delicacy and emotion. Endure that early sixth-form sniggering (which is one way of hooking the post-pub viewer, I guess), and The Covenant reveals itself as an affecting love story between two men facing obliteration by the forces of hate - not far from a Brokeback Mountain with bigger guns. (Is it just coincidence it should debut here in Pride month?) I know, I know: by allowing Ritchie to make films for streaming platforms, the movies may have found an analogue for that old saying about monkeys and typewriters. But if I were Guy Ritchie, and I'd made a film this potent, I'd insist on putting my name in the title, too. Against all odds, Guy Ritchie's The Covenant really is one to be proud of.

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant is now streaming via Prime Video.

Thursday 8 June 2023

In Blume: "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."

The fact it's taken fifty years to get Judy Blume's widely read
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret onto film tells us a lot about the kind of material Hollywood has deemed worthy of adaptation: we can apparently have all the boysy Batman and Spider-Man movies we want, but anything relating to the inner lives of teenage girls has tended to be kicked into the long grass until recently. The greatest tribute Kelly Fremon Craig's adaptation pays its source is to film the book as it could have been filmed at any time in the last half-century - and thus to insist, in some small and quiet yet potent way, that Blume's words and characters are just as much worthy of study today as they were from the off. Fremon Craig preserves the text's early 1970s setting, and - doubtless encouraged by producer James L. Brooks, a sure, steadying hand for the better part of the intervening decades - refuses to apply any Brady Bunch Movie or Barbie-like postmodern irony. Her version is very much It's Me, Margaret as filmed by someone who grew up supplementing her reading with annual rewatches of A Christmas Story, Stand by Me and The Princess Bride, who learnt from an early age that there is value in a good tale, cleanly and correctly told. This filmmaker - who broke through with 2016's enjoyable contemporary teenpic The Edge of Seventeen - isn't blind to the fact there are differences between growing up then and growing up now. But she's also aware that some things are eternal: period pains, training bras, the awkwardness of broaching bodily changes with close relatives, stupid boys, the radio-friendly hits of an era when music was still being built to last, and (most crucially of all) sensitive, intelligent, hands-on writing, playing and direction.

That careful positioning allows It's Me, Margaret to live and breathe as a period piece: it remains clear-eyed from first to last, and it's not winking at you every fifteen seconds, which comes as some relief. Fremon Craig's direction does just enough to acknowledge that, for all the progressive second-wave feminism of its outlook, Blume's book was a product of a post-War conservative consensus - the type of book an author only gets to write (and see published) from a position of relative financial and emotional stability. This results in what may be the only studio release of 2023 to centre exclusively on a white, middle-class family: though there are nods to diversity in the casting, the film is mostly set to describing the way things were for a certain stratum of American society, when the worst that could befall a sixth-grader (Abby Ryder Fortson) was moving to a roomy house in the suburbs, and the biggest dilemma her mother could face was what furniture to install in the lounge. This, in turn, gives rise to a cheeriness and optimism that in the context of the modern multiplex feels almost radical: It's Me, Margaret may also be one of the few 2023 releases that isn't Actually About Trauma in any way. (But then I would say that: I've never had to wear a training bra.) At any rate, Fremon Craig's script retains the gift Blume's prose had for raising adolescent concerns in a sympathetic, conversational, lightly funny way; if it sometimes feels a touch episodic, individual scenes have the advantage of carefully chosen personalities who play this material as it lies, and with an ease and grace that might in itself be considered instructive. You too might some day pass through any transitional phase without undue Sturm und Drang; you too will find your place, and possibly become a can-do Rachel McAdams or wisecracking Kathy Bates type. (We boys must settle for an unusually relaxed Safdie brother by way of an onscreen role model.) The book has provided great help and comfort for millions across the globe; my sense was that whatever its final box-office tally - and this strikes me as a production with a potentially longer tail than most - the film will do likewise.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is now playing in cinemas nationwide.