Sunday 30 July 2023

Hand on your heart: "Talk to Me"

Danny and Michael Philippou are Australian siblings who apprenticed on YouTube and Jennifer Kent's
The Babadook, a recent horror landmark on which they clearly learnt a valuable lesson - that it remains possible to push stock-seeming material into darker, more interesting waters yet. What The Babadook did for the haunted-house movie, the Philippous' debut Talk to Me does for the teen-seance-gone-wrong set-up that has felt like a staple of the multiplex since its inception. One defining feature of these films is their Aussieness: their casual disregard for the usual delicacies, the same DNA-encoded urge that pushed Sia to hit the notes and extremes of emotion she attained in 2014's "Chandelier" (a song that pointedly turns up on the soundtrack here, waved like a national flag). Talk to Me opens with an example of lethally bad behaviour at a generally raucous house party, before introducing us to a set of bratty, beat-up, authentically funny-looking kids who think nothing of abandoning a kangaroo they've injured while driving (told you we were Down Under) and whose idea of a friendly greeting is to thrash one another about the torso with a heavy pillow. One among their number has the Crazy Frog as her ringtone - in 2023! - which suggests she deserves more or less everything that might befall her. Still, gradually, this ragbag claw back our sympathies. They'll need them, given their party game of choice: daring each other to hold a disembodied ceramic hand, liberated from a local medium, which apparently opens the door to an adjacent dimension - and, if you hold on long enough, to full body possession. The more fucked-up their experiments get, the more heroine Mia (Sophie Wilde)'s crowd holler and hoot, and try to record events on their phones; in some way - and the Philippous were surely aware of this - they're a mirror image of the kids watching Talk to Me from the back row of Screen Five.

That should tell you how much the brothers get right - and they do get a lot right here, from domestic detail and relationships to attitudes and vernacular. It's a weird metric to wonder whether a film such as this would hold the attention even without its grabby horror hook, but I'm fairly certain Talk to Me would, because it's not exclusively about the mechanical generation of jumpscares. Instead, it reveals a personality all its own: funny in an early possession montage (flickers of Beetlejuice here: communing with the dead seized upon as a giddying high), touching when Mia makes contact with her late mother (Alexandria Steffensen) and genuinely horrific whenever these kids push too far. From Beetlejuice, we veer into Flatliners territory - though where hackier sensibilities would resort to picking their teens off one by one, the Philippous visit the bulk of their traumas on one half-formed body (that of Joe Bird's hapless Riley), only intensifying the violence. The framing, granted, is a little Heartbreak High: school carparks, teenage bedrooms, suburban homes that appear that much more cramped than they would in any US equivalent. Yet there's something insightful in the deployment of that spooky hand: it is as much an escape from unhappy lives as the alcohol powering that Sia song - another cheap thrill with mortally expensive consequences. The brothers do good work with their performers, especially Wilde, who gets turned every which way by this plot and still has us hoping for the best going into the decisive final movement. (I also enjoyed Miranda Otto as a no-nonsense den mother: informed her daughter's new beau is a committed Christian, she retorts "He's still got a dick".) Demonstrating a surprising maturity, the Philippous know real horror is watching someone you care for self-destruct. What's truly disarming about Talk to Me, though, is that it's also somehow inseparably the work of YouTubers with a fresh understanding of three simple facts: that left to their own devices, and in the absence of any better guidance, teenagers will do the dumbest, most damaging shit imaginable, will delight in doing the dumbest, most damaging shit imaginable, and - even after they've seen how dumb and damaging the shit they're doing can be - will go back to doing the dumbest, most damaging shit imaginable. The flamin' galahs.

Talk to Me is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 28 July 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of July 21-23, 2023):

1 (new) Barbie (12A) ***
2 (new) Oppenheimer (15)
4 (2) Elemental (PG)
6 (4) Insidious: The Red Door (15)
8 (6The Little Mermaid (PG)
9 (9) Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken (PG)
10 (re) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. The Virgin Suicides [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (new) The Flash (12) **
3 (3) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
4 (10) Evil Dead Rise (18) **
6 (12) Renfield (15) **
7 (5) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
8 (6) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
9 (7) Fast X (12)
10 (8) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****

My top five: 
1. Godland

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Schindler's List (Thursday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
2. The Silence of the Lambs (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
3. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Saturday, BBC2, 1.25pm)
4. Brief Encounter (Saturday, BBC2, 5.25pm)
5. Memento (Sunday, BBC2, 11pm)

Tuesday 25 July 2023

Hollywood squares: "Asteroid City"

I'll confess to chuckling sporadically during 2021's The French Dispatch, a mid-period, mid-ranking Wes Anderson at which several of the most ardent Wesheads sniffed disdainfully. But don't get me wrong: I still regard this filmography as akin to the act of reconstructing cathedrals out of matchsticks, or carving Christ's face into a ham. I get what it's doing; it's just the intended effects remain mostly lost on me, and I can't see why people go quite as wild as they do over something that continues to strike these eyes as inherently marginal, bordering on trivial. Still, if all that's now left of American screen comedy is starry dioramas loaded with overrehearsed whimsy, perhaps we shouldn't be too down on them - and The French Dispatch featured enough leftfield performers to put hipster bums on seats and thereby enable Anderson to fashion another film-in-a-bottle. (Increasingly, I get the same feeling watching this director's films as I do sitting through Woody Allen's recent output: that this is filmmaking born of compulsion, subject to diminishing returns and laughs, and ever more reliant on the cast to do whatever heavy lifting there is.) With Asteroid City, Anderson has plainly decided what his work needs isn't greater depth, but more framing - that it needs to get fiddlier and more finicky still. At its centre is an orange-hued Panavision survey of life in a 1950s desert town - diner, motel, gas station; mechanic, schoolmarm, bugle boy, space cadet; pure Americana, in other words - as it experiences its first flashes of extraterrestrial activity. Yet this jolly little sketch is bookended and interrupted by square-framed monochrome bulletins from the preparations for and filming of a Marty-style play for TV, featuring many of the same actors in a variation of the same roles. By now, you'll know whether or not this frequency merits investigation; all I can add is that agnostics, sceptics and outright non-believers are unlikely to be won over by a Wes Anderson film that is 37.2% more arch than the norm.

Take a good hard look through those arches, and it becomes clearer how Anderson, the prep-school prodigy to Tarantino's enfant terrible, has been indulged by producers and critics alike. For starters, no-one's thought to push him on how all his moving parts connect. Whether or not you found it amusing, The French Dispatch was all of a piece: it took the form of a newspaper or some other digest, and set out to tell the stories that might fill that space. Here, there's no immediate way of telling how the colour and black-and-white elements relate, just a vague understanding we're watching the same story being articulated in two different styles. (One is boxy and urban, the other rural and expansive.) This is ambitious, certainly, and it may draw in anyone with an interest in the differences between American film, television and theatre in the 1950s - but even here we seem to be re-entering Jesus Ham territory, and again Anderson starts to resemble the child at a wedding, attempting to pull focus with a handstand. The framing is nothing if not considered, and unquestionably seizes the eye; but faced with the humdrum material within, the mind starts to wander. There are jokes tucked away within Asteroid City, like the daredevil witnessed devouring a hot pepper in one scene and dashing into the background of an adjacent set-up to avail himself of the watercooler. Yet they're forever too storyboarded to be as surprising - thus funny - as one would like them to be, and they're most often crowded out by tics, quirks, namedrops, rampant self-referentiality, familiarly Andersonian distant fathers, and characters penned into split screens or open windows like products on sale in a vending machine. (One place to which my mind wandered: considering the whereabouts of Jared and Jerusha Hess, who - in Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos - filled not dissimilar framing with character development and identifiable gags, and thereby circumvented Anderson's flatness of affect.) The craft is as on point as ever, and the performers as expressive as they can be within the straitjacket of playing characters in a Wes Anderson movie. (An area of residual fascination: watching Tom Hanks trying to bring some of his usual naturalism and humanity to bear on a film that has no place for them, that would prefer to trade exclusively in mannerism.) Yet the net result is that I tittered and snickered less at Asteroid City than I did at The French Dispatch, and came away confirmed in at least one core critical belief: how enfeebled American cinema must be in the 21st century, when its pre-eminent cheerleaders have felt obliged to talk this auteurist juvenilia up as a major aesthetic, worthy of endless praise, study and reiteration.

Asteroid City is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 23 July 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of July 14-16, 2023):

2 (1) Elemental (PG)
4 (3) Insidious: The Red Door (15)
6 (5) The Little Mermaid (PG)
7 (6) Asteroid City (12A) **
8 (7) No Hard Feelings (15)
9 (8Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken (PG)
10 (9) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Nimona

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

3 (6) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
4 (re) Scream VI (18)
5 (5) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
6 (3) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
7 (4Fast X (12)
8 (8) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
9 (12) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)
10 (new) Evil Dead Rise (18) **

My top five: 
1. Godland

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. His House (Thursday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
2. Braveheart (Sunday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
3. Ordinary Love (Monday, BBC1, 11.25pm)
4. Die Hard 2 [above] (Monday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
5. 22 Jump Street (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.45pm)

Thursday 20 July 2023

The Master: "My Name is Alfred Hitchcock"

What's left to say about Alfred Hitchcock? If you're Mark Cousins, quite a bit. The coronation last year of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielmann... as Sight & Sound's Greatest Film of All Time - toppling Hitchcock's Vertigo - had been interpreted by some as a decisive shift in critical tectonics: a sign we might now be done with discussing the life and work of certain canonical filmmakers. Cousins, marking the centenary of Hitch's debut feature with a two-hour essay, proposes that a filmography as vast, deep and frankly perverse as this one can't be so easily dismissed as stale, pale and male; that this might just be an oeuvre impervious to trends in gatekeeping; and - crucially and inarguably - that the films still speak to us. My Name is Alfred Hitchcock's USP is to have Hitchcock make the case for himself - hence the somewhat jolting "written and narrated by Alfred Hitchcock" with which the film opens, a full 43 years after The Master's death. It's Cousins, in fact, who's put these words in Hitchcock's mouth - or, rather, in the mouth of impressionist Alistair McGowan, enlisted to give a broadly convincing approximation of the director's wheezy-rheumy East End syntax. This Hitchcock - alternately chummy and wryly mocking - continues to challenge us: he meets our gaze head on, jabs a plump finger into our complacent bellies, and dares to question whether we are as sophisticated as we like to believe we are. Yet he also continues to entertain and dazzle. The film proceeds on the (correct) assumption that any time spent in the company of its subject's movies is time well spent; Cousins allows us to revisit these key texts with what DVD nuts will recognise as an especially informed director's commentary.

As with 2018's The Eyes of Orson Welles - where Cousins first had the idea of having a hallowed director address a 21st century audience - what strikes you first is the sheer density of material assembled here. My Name is Alfred Hitchcock again rounds up biographical info, an overview of a sprawling body of work (vastly more sprawling than Welles's, for one), judiciously selected clips from individual films, and a heightened level of critical engagement, prepared to double and triple back on itself or isolate details within the frame so as to underline and reinforce any given point. There's no denying the breadth of this survey: Hitchcock's formative silents are afforded as much air time as Vertigo and Psycho, Cousins intuiting that these fledgling efforts establish themes and obsessions that were lurking within their maker all along. (Similarly, this script unpacks the significance of Hitchcock's least typical undertaking: his non-fiction contribution to producer Sidney Bernstein's long-shelved German Concentration Camp Factual Survey.) Cousins retains his gift of making trenchant observations on these texts without spoiling the magic (you still come away wanting to rewatch entire films) or lapsing into academic jargon (here is film criticism freed from the tyranny of the Metzian paradigm). He remains committed to renovating the longstanding bridge the best critics have built between cineaste and cinephile, a task that looks ever more honourable at a time when a lot of critics often seem to be talking among themselves. (Which is what happens when arts coverage gets slashed across the board.)

His words have the knack of putting fresh spins on familiar images, noting and detailing, say, a thoughtful, poetic parallel between the ocean enveloping Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief and the cornfield doing likewise in North by North-West. Hitchcock always had our eyes, but Cousins here allows him to gain our ear, in the way the searching, close-miked narrations in this essayist's other films typically have us leaning in. In McGowan's interpretation, this Hitch is perhaps justifiably pleased with himself, confident in his reputation and legacy (you sense his household probably wouldn't take Sight & Sound), and keen to make us look again, to show us what cinemagoers may have missed first time round. Cousins is particularly strong on the spotty late-period films, which arguably require more of a case making for them than Rebecca or Strangers on a Train: Marnie, a film about which this viewer has always been slightly sceptical for narrative reasons, is here persuasively reframed as a collection of beautiful things, keepsakes only a truly sly pickpocket of a director might steal off with. (Do they become less beautiful, knowing that Hitchcock also laid hands on his leading lady?) There is, granted, a little mansplaining involved in all this, a fair bit of presumption and extrapolation, and there are points where McGowan's Cockney threatens to turn My Name is Alfred Hitchcock into My Name is Michael Caine - you can hear it loudest in the repetition of the fetish-phrase "Do you see?" Yet we do, indeed, see - and what we see proves very nearly as playful, stimulating and crafty in its execution as anything to which the real Hitchcock ever signed his name.

My Name is Alfred Hitchcock opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, and is also available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, YouTube and Dogwoof on Demand. 

Monday 17 July 2023

Cut!: "Medusa Deluxe"

Medusa Deluxe, the British cinema lays a malingering ghost to rest. Set in the notionally sidesplitting world of competitive hairdressing, 2001's Blow Dry was one of multiple unhappy interventions made locally by Harvey Weinstein in that millennial Cool Britannia moment, a Miramax-backed Full Monty variant now memorable chiefly for imported star Josh Hartnett's lamentable attempt at a Yorkshire accent. This new film approaches a similar set-up with visibly greater confidence. Debutant writer-director Thomas Hardiman drops us slap-bang in the middle of the action (backstage fallout from the discovery a stylist has been killed, and scalped to boot), fills his characters' mouths with vernacular as colourful as some of the barnets on display, and proceeds in a digitally-enabled approximation of a single, unbroken camera movement. It's not the obvious diversion Blow Dry was hoping to be - indeed, the crowd of real-world hairdressers I found myself sitting among emerged equally flustered and bewildered, with much to discuss as they set Mrs. Godfrey's perm in the salon tomorrow - but it has a strong, consistently funny conceptual gag in its back pocket: that all of the formal huffing-and-puffing one witnessed in Sam Mendes's 1917 or Sokurov's Russian Ark or Alan Clarke's Elephant or Hitchcock's Rope before that should now be applied to the aftermath of a suspected scalping at a competitive hairdressing contest. You can't fail to laugh, or at least titter, at some point.

Other leftfield influences begin to make themselves felt. For some while, I wondered whether Hardiman might be the first filmmaker in history to be inspired by Robert Altman's Prêt-à-Porter: another millennial Miramax flop, its access-all-areas camera set to roaming Paris Fashion Week in the wake of a suspicious death. Being a Brit indie, Medusa Deluxe proves altogether less starry - there's barely a familiar face on screen to reassure us - and its wit tends towards the droller, drier end of the spectrum: the hairstyles are like the fetishes in Peter Strickland films, a niche timesuck occupying disproportionate space in and on these characters' heads. (The centrepiece is a vast, Troll-like quiff, teased into a crashing ocean wave with integral neon schooner: it would have earned full marks from this observer, were it not such a conspicuous health-and-safety risk.) I suspect you'll spend some part of the film marvelling at Hardiman's logistical achievement: he gets everything up and running within seconds, keeps the camera moving through a grimy rabbit warren of mirrored rooms without once stumbling into shot, and finally arrives at some form of conclusion. But he also does subtler work with his actors, registering personalities on the hoof, and shifting audience suspicions between vaping organiser Rene (Rotherham-born Darrell D'Silva, more convincingly Northern than Hartnett ever was), the deceased's other half (Luke Pasqualino), a hulking security guard (Heider Ali), and a chorus of models and stylists rendered volatile after hours of inhaling Silvikrin. There's a particular pip of a role for Clare Perkins, a seasoned trouper (EastEnders, Holby City) who - as Cleve, the most vociferous of the stylists - comes on not unlike Terry Stone in those Rise of the Footsoldier movies: effing, jeffing and generally giving it large in a way female characters written by men tend not to. It presents as a funny-strange calling card, a little airless and subterranean, and so eccentrically singular you can't quite tell, even after the choreographed cast dancing of the closing credits, what kind of filmmaker Hardiman wants to be. He's certainly a promising one, though, and Medusa Deluxe is plenty encouraging as the type of gamble the industry that backed Blow Dry in 2001 wouldn't have considered. Signs of progress within the British cinema, and perhaps something even more appropriate to the hirsute milieu of Hardiman's film: growth.

Medusa Deluxe is now playing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via MUBI on August 4.

Saturday 15 July 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of July 7-9, 2023):

1 (new) Elemental (PG)
3 (new) Insidious: The Red Door (15)
5 (4) The Little Mermaid (PG)
6 (5) Asteroid City (12A)
7 (6) No Hard Feelings (15)
8 (3) Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken (PG)
9 (8) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12A)
10 (7The Flash (12A) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Nimona

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

3 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
4 (2) Fast X (12)
5 (3John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
6 (4The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
8 (9) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
9 (7) Dune: Part One (12) **
10 (6) The Pope's Exorcist (15) **

My top five: 
1. Godland

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Gravity (Thursday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
2. 99 Homes (Saturday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
3. Moon [above] (Monday, BBC2, 12.15am)
4. Rocketman (Sunday, Channel 4, 9pm)
5. The Guard (Saturday, Channel 4, 12.50am)

Holding on for life: "Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One"

Last year, Tom Cruise saved the cinema with 
Top Gun: Maverick. This year, he's set himself the notionally less onerous challenge of saving the movie summer, after what has felt like a perilously soft opening. (No backsliding on Tom's watch.) He attempts this by initiating the endgame of the long spy game that kept him prominent as an action star even as many of his peers succumbed to creaky, direct-to-streaming obscurity. It was the Mission: Impossible franchise to which Cruise defaulted after his longstanding box-office supremacy was threatened by the back-to-back commercial failures of 1999's Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, thereby changing the course of American cinema overnight: away from risky dramatic swings, and back towards safe-bet franchises. Few claims were made for 2000's M:I2, overseen by John Woo at the tail end of his increasingly unhappy flirtation with Hollywood, but it and the four instalments that followed - 2006's M:I3, with JJ Abrams and Philip Seymour Hoffman; 2011's Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird; and two subsequent films helmed by Christopher McQuarrie - made money enough to keep this train on track. Where the opening quartet (I include Brian de Palma's 1996 original, still to these eyes the most dynamic and accomplished entry of the lot) had distinct personalities, McQuarrie - previously best known as the writer of 1995's enduringly twisty The Usual Suspects - has standardised the look, form and personnel, ensuring the franchise has survived as a machine that generates spectacle without undue directorial flourishes. (Gone are the leather jackets and Limp Bizkit of the Woo film, for better or worse.) Essentially, McQuarrie has settled into the role of franchise logistics manager, turning a tidy profit for employers Paramount every few years, but he remains more screenwriter than director, a point underlined by Dead Reckoning Part One's thirty-minute prologue, easily the most windily verbose first act in living blockbuster memory. Faced with a procession of actors sitting talking in rooms, audiences coming in out of the rain with hopes of seeing Tom Cruise propel a motorbike off a cliff could be forgiven for wondering whether the summer was permanently on hold. 

Does the rest of the film get any zippier? It does and it doesn't. Much as the plot hinges on Russian-engineered artificial intelligence becoming sentient and threatening the world's integrity, so this instalment sees McQuarrie - until now, regarded as a dependable pair of hands - assuming full franchise control, or as much control as any director can assume over A Tom Cruise Production starring Tom Cruise. DRPO sports a full two hour 40-minute running time that apparently required no cutting whatsoever; the result, as with the recent Indiana Jones revival, is an action movie that thrashes around inside the baggy straitjacket of the 21st century event movie, to the point where it becomes more exhausting than exhilarating. Under McQuarrie's stewardship, these films have got ever bigger in their design: the new one has approximately 37 villains knocking around, several of whom survived earlier instalments, as well as an overriding force for bad (that nefarious AI, known as The Entity) that is both everywhere and nowhere at once. It's nice to see Hayley Atwell sprung from Marvel jail as a master thief with whom Cruise's Ethan Hunt crosses paths and wits, but she joins the franchise's already overstocked supply of mid-ranking British actresses (Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby) handed the truly impossible mission of trying to pull focus from Tom Cruise in A Tom Cruise Production. At every stage, the film proves indifferent on the level of performance, flogging the life out of the sprightly roleplaying that was a feature of earlier films. (The malfunction that affects the IMF team's mask-making is more symbolic than the film intends it to be.) McQuarrie regards his actors as exposition delivery devices; it's significant that the one performer who emerges with their reputation in any way enhanced - Pom Klementieff, cast as a silent assassin - is the one given the fewest lines to say.

So the franchise has got bigger, but it's also got blander with it, more diffuse and markedly less vivid than it was back in de Palma's day. (Ask anyone who isn't signed up to Film Twitter whether they can remember which film had the opera shootout, or the bathroom punch-up; it's all blurred into one.) Even with McQuarrie enlisting a co-writer (in Erik Jendresen) to help get this one over the line, that dialogue is more chewy than snappy, and instantly forgettable. (One exception: you won't hear a more secondhand-sounding line in 2023 than "You're playing four-dimensional chess with an algorithm!" Even Simon Pegg looks ashamed to have to say it, and he once signed on to play Toby Young.) As for the spectacle, well, it's funny that Dead Reckoning should open as the industry's creatives are taking a collective stand against the use of artificial intelligence, because - from its recycled title on down - much about it suggests the blockbuster as engineered by ChatGPT, its relentlessly restless content scraped from three decades' worth of post-Spielberg event movies. Here is a car chase that sticks the indomitable hero in an indubitably crappy car. Here is a fight in a nightclub. Here is a fight in a corridor. And here we crosscut between two or more fights taking place simultaneously. At one point, this franchise even seems to double back on itself: when Cruise, in full horseman garb and looking for cover, rides full-pelt into the kind of desert sandstorm he had to outrun on foot in Ghost Protocol. Throughout Dead Reckoning, I had the impression of watching the blockbuster eat itself alive, either repeating itself or - given how gassy it feels in spots - repeating on itself. At best, it's generic, what its cheerleaders would defend as "what a Mission: Impossible movie is meant to be". Yet stripped of the identifying features the series' previous directors brought to bear on similar material, it also feels wholly anonymous and impersonal: the kind of motion picture a computer could turn out by the yard. "Why do we always end up in these situations?," wails Pegg's Benji, as the script itself becomes semi-sentient. The demands of capital would be one answer for that; an industry-wide failure of imagination another; the enforced lowering of audience expectation a third.

Of course, there are the stunts - and more specifically the half a stunt you haven't already seen trailered to death everywhere else. You'll believe a Tom can fly, and the preamble yields one of Dead Reckoning's few grace notes: the way the rocky mountain road bounces the hero's motorbike, fleetingly bestowing Cruise with the giddy air of a two-legged, two-wheeled Zebedee. (Less elevating: the heartsinkingly clunky, visibly patched-in exchange between Cruise and Pegg that sets the whole stunt up.) And the grand finale - involving the derailment of a train carrying most of the principals - is worth some of the huff and puff involved in getting there. Even this will likely remind you of other shunts - particularly if you caught January's Bollywood juggernaut Pathaan - but here McQuarrie's yen for expansion (for dragging stuff out) actually works in the film's favour, as carriage after carriage disappears off the tracks and into the void where a bridge once stood, and Cruise and Atwell cling to the remaining fixtures. These are the real money shots, and why you may emerge from Dead Reckoning Part One feeling you've had your money's worth: I suspect Cruise would merrily pilot a motorbike off a cliff whether or not there was a camera nearby, but here he seems justifiably rattled. Yet those earlier M:I movies had notable stunts, too, and they didn't have to trail them so aggressively months in advance, because they were part of a package, engineered by directors who still had tricks up their sleeve. In the McQuarrie era, they've become the sole selling point, a literal diversion from the shortcomings, failures and copious mediocrity elsewhere. Like so many filmmakers now in regular Hollywood employment, McQuarrie has them running like clockwork - one every 25 minutes, which at least stops his characters flapping their gums for a bit - and that's why DRPO will do the numbers it seems destined to do: it's all some part of the audience has been trained to want. Yet that doesn't mean this is a good movie, or even a good M:I movie, and it certainly doesn't mean we can credit Cruise with rescuing anything else. I returned to the lobby drained and punchdrunk, and struck by a terrifying realisation: only Barbie or (gulp) Christopher Nolan can save us now.

Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 7 July 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 30-July 2, 2023):

3 (new) Ruby Gillman: Teenage Kraken (PG)
4 (5) The Little Mermaid (PG)
5 (4) Asteroid City (12A)
6 (3) No Hard Feelings (15)
7 (2) The Flash (12A) **
8 (6) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12A)
9 (new) Carry on Jatta 3 (12A)
10 (new) Satyaprem Ki Katha (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Hairspray

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (14) Avatar: The Way of Water (12) ***
2 (1) Fast X (12)
3 (2) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
4 (3) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
6 (5) The Pope's Exorcist (15) **
7 (22) Dune: Part One (12) **
8 (12) Titanic (12) ***
9 (9) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
10 (6) 65 (12)

My top five: 
1. Godland

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Rain Man [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
2. Brooklyn (Thursday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
3. County Lines (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. Nowhere Special (Wednesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. The Post (Thursday, Channel 4, 1.45am)

Thursday 6 July 2023

In memoriam: Frederic Forrest (Telegraph 05/07/23)

Frederic Forrest, who has died aged 86, was exactly the kind of actor who flourished amid the so-called New Hollywood of the 1970s: understated, unshowy, unconventional in his appeal. A long-faced late starter, he earned his sole Oscar nomination for playing Bette Midler’s limo-driving beau Dyer in the musical The Rose (1979), but was only rarely cast in romantic roles, to mild regret. Referencing earlier work in such Westerns as When the Legends Die (1972) and The Missouri Breaks (1976), he once told a journalist “I’d like to get the girl instead of a horse”.

Yet Forrest’s capacity for suggesting ambivalence and ambiguity left him much in demand among directors reassessing the American project. Arguably his most enduring role was as someone more heard than seen: one half of the couple recorded traversing a San Franciscan plaza in Francis Ford Coppola’s still-chilling The Conversation (1974). Its thriller aspect hinged on the actor’s ability to salt a single phrase – “He’d kill us if he got the chance” – with multiple interpretations.

He remained a Coppola favourite, returning as “Chef” Jay Hicks, the extravagantly moustachioed yahoo who meets a sorry end upriver in Apocalypse Now (1979). Chef’s colourful vocabulary helped light up the Conradian darkness, yet even Forrest couldn’t resist the prevailing entropy off-camera: “I became almost catatonic in the Philippines. I could think of no reason to do anything.”

Acclaim for The Rose was recognition for a robust showing against a forceful star turn. Yet at the Oscars, Forrest lost to Being There’s Melvyn Douglas; Douglas and Apocalypse Now co-star Robert Duvall made off with the Golden Globes. Never as bullish as Duvall, Forrest sensed his tenuous position on the spotlight’s outer fringes: “There’s always the possibility you’ll get cut; you have no control. If there’s a scene with a character who isn’t the lead and if it threatens the main story or detracts from it in any way, it doesn’t make a difference how good it is. It goes.”

Even leads could prove a tricky business. Forrest was front and centre in One from the Heart (1981), Coppola’s studio-bound folly about lovers separated in the Las Vegas night, although reviews were less than kind. In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael was especially scathing: “[Forrest] looks like a serious, deeply exhausted man… until he opens his mouth and talks like a sheepish dumb slob.”

One from the Heart’s commercial failure bankrupted Coppola and signalled the end of the New Hollywood era. Yet it stands as a phosphorescent fragment of the more fragile, personal American cinema obliterated by Star Wars (1977) – a stone-cold blockbuster for which Forrest auditioned unsuccessfully. The actor could but shrug at the industry’s vicissitudes, telling The New York Times: “This is a fickle town... By the time you go down the driveway to pick up your mail, you’re forgotten.”

He was born Frederic Fenimore Forrest Jr. on December 23, 1936 in Waxahachie, Texas to garden wholesaler Frederic Fenimore Forrest and his wife Virginia (née McSpadden). A keen sportsman, he was voted most handsome in his senior year at Waxahachie High School, but he found auditioning for plays so nerve-racking that he took to running from the room.

He persisted, however, taking theatre classes while studying radio and TV at Texas Christian University. A postgraduate fascination with James Dean carried him to New York, where he studied with acting guru Sanford Meisner and worked as a pizza chef to make ends meet. Theatre eased him into the movies. There were films of the musical Viet Rock (1966), an influence on the later Hair, and Futz (1969), an off-Broadway jape about a farmer’s unwholesome relationship with his prize pig.

Forrest worked consistently in the Eighties and Nineties without ever regaining the quality of material that served him best. He was good as Dashiell Hammett in Wim Wenders’ playful noir reimagining Hammett (1982) and reprised the role in the superior TV movie Citizen Cohn (1992), giving James Woods’ bloviating Roy Cohn the runaround as an exemplar of free speech. After reuniting with Coppola for Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), he played the prosecutor in Costa-Gavras’s Music Box (1989) and a white supremacist shopkeeper in Falling Down (1993).

TV provided him with his strongest late roles: he was the Cherokee outlaw Blue Duck in beloved Western saga Lonesome Dove (1989) and won favourable notices as a PI investigating the abduction of Miranda Richardson’s children in the Paula Milne-scripted Die Kinder (1990). He also took meaty roles in veteran director John Frankenheimer’s made-for-cable period dramas Andersonville (1996) and Path to War (2002), where he played the hawkish General Earle G. Wheeler. His final film was the remake of All the King’s Men (2006).

In 2014, Forrest reflected on his career: “I fell into movies… I didn’t feel like I had a talent. I wasn’t good at anything people considered important. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt if I could make a living doing something I liked, I’d be very blessed.”

He married twice, first to his college sweetheart Nancy Ann Whitaker, and later to Hammett co-star Marilu Henner; both ended in divorce.

Frederic Forrest, born December 23, 1936, died June 23, 2023.

Tuesday 4 July 2023

The outsiders: "Nimona"

Much of the coverage of the new animation
Nimona has focused on its convoluted route to the screen. To recap: it was initiated by animators Blue Sky (best known for their Ice Age series) under their exclusivity deal with studio Fox, only for the Fox-Disney merger to put production on hold. Disney reportedly objected to the project's themes, and - starved of love, oxygen and resources by their new corporate overlords - Blue Sky folded in April 2021. That the film exists at all is down to Megan Ellison's enterprising Annapurna Pictures shingle, who subsequently rehoused Nimona with the aid of emergent animation studio DNEG (Ron's Gone Wrong) and financial backers Netflix. The behind-the-scenes boardroom manoeuvring is not incidental, because this is a project that would appear especially vulnerable to regime change and corporate thinking, being engaged with race, class and power structures in a way most multiplex-bound animation simply isn't. To consider one element, protagonist Ballister Boldheart has apparently been created by the non-binary graphic artist ND Stevenson to give opponents of affirmative action conniptions. Dark-skinned and one-armed, Ballister is also openly gay, where previous animated characters (at Disney in particular) have at best been given one or two lines that possibly, maybe, if you tilt your head and squint, could arguably be construed as being a teeny bit queer. 

The world Stevenson and directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane open up around Ballister is a mad mash-up of Anglo-American signifiers, part-Blade Runner, part-Excalibur, a futuristic kingdom where knights are knighted on Jumbotron screens and inhabit their own reality TV series. Not poor, put-upon Ballister, however. He's set up for a fall in the film's opening moments: handed a laser-emitting sword that does for the queen in a room full of witnesses who know exactly what they've seen. At his lowest point - on the run, and on the brink of permanent cancellation at the hands of whiter knights led by his golden-boy ex - Ballister falls in with an attitudinous teenager, Nimona, who regards her running mate as a fellow outlaw. But what they are matters less than who they are; identity comes second to personality. Stevenson, Bruno and Quane have dodged the suits threatening to cramp this project's style, and gifted us with characters who are simply immense fun to hang out with, whichever direction the world and its writers drag them in. I suspect it's these characters that kept Nimona alive over the past few years: they've got a lot going for them, and even the squarest corporate gatekeeper couldn't resist or keep them out for long.

Cartoon characters need not necessarily correspond to the drab realities of our world, but it sometimes helps a film's cause if they do - if we can catch a glimpse of ourselves amid the frenetic, industrialised light and magic. (It's why all those digimations about talking animals wore out their welcome so quickly, and why - to parents' despair - very young children continue to respond to the childlike Minions.) The relationship between Ballister and the restless Nimona is a novel one, at least in animation terms. In the early stages, the heroine (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz) seems to represent those somewhat overzealous allies who see the LGBTQ+ community as status quo-defying radicals or anarchists just bristling for a fight, when LGBTQ+ folk, too, are citizens with ironing to do and taxes to file and maybe just want the time and the space to get on with them. (And not have to keep proving themselves or their intentions.) This script, by Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor, makes both a gag and a point out of Ballister's core stability (Riz Ahmed brings his usual quiet assurance to voicing duties), and an even bigger and funnier gag out of Nimona's status as a shapeshifter. 

No spoilers, but she develops in unexpected ways, while forever remaining that element of chaos - a properly loony 'toon - which can elevate a comedy to the hallowed level of screwball. (It's always a good sign when an animation reminds you of 2000's The Emperor's New Groove, the last time Disney allowed their animators to toss the rulebook out of the window.) Bruno and Quane match their conspicuous verbal fireworks with judicious deployment of the kind of visual flourishes that threatened to become overwhelming in the recent Spider-Verse films. Watching Nimona's backstory being thrashed out on elementary-school graph paper, you can imagine six- or seven-year-olds pointing at the screen and hollering "hey, I can do that!" (Again, the aim is recognition.) The final act goes for city-trashing scale, which is impressively achieved if a touch disappointing given the up-close, personal and very engaging work that came before it: some of the wit gets sacrificed for spectacle and seriousness. Yet Nimona is never as preachy as it could have been, and certainly not as preachy as it likely would have been had it emerged as a Walt Disney Studios presentation, as was once planned. Instead, Annapurna, DNEG and Netflix have given us a progressive family film that teaches by example - and mostly has a rockin' good time doing so.

Nimona screens at Curzon Camden and Curzon Victoria tomorrow lunchtime, and is also available to stream on Netflix.

Monday 3 July 2023

Stop the clocks: "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny"

The final Indiana Jones movie - or, more likely given Hollywood's current runaway mining cart of thought, the last Indiana Jones movie to feature Harrison Ford in the lead role - has the advantage of being delivered to cinemas by seasoned hands in the immediate wake of
The Flash. For everything that dud got wrong, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny gets something at least partway right; its instincts are good, even when its material really isn't up to much. It behoves you to get to your seat early, because its very best material has been placed upfront: a self-contained 25-minute prologue - by some distance the best Indiana Jones movie anybody's made for a good three decades - in which a digitally de-aged Ford hauls sidekick Toby Jones (and his cherishably unruly tufts of hair) away from Nazis, across the roof of a moving train, and into an optimistic post-War dawn. Though it clings stubbornly to the modern blockbuster palette - somewhere between one- and two-thirds drearier than these things were circa 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark - it has suspense and momentum and that rare, precious blockbuster wit that occasions a double chuckle: when you catch yourself laughing at some quip or near-miss, and giggle all over again at how a big dumb movie has suckered you. Fade to black. When the film recommences, we find ourselves in more conventional legacy-sequel territory, pondering the kind of writers-room spitball that has opened many a tightly guarded studio chequebook over the past decade. What if Indiana Jones had lived until the late 1960s, long enough to see himself become one relic among many at a New York university's archaeology department, Beatles-loving longhairs swamp his apartment block, a man put on the Moon, and Nazis re-emerge as just as big a threat as they were back in his youth?

This isn't the worst question the movies have asked in recent years, not least as it provides a whole new context for that air of cranky impatience that has dogged Ford ever since The Empire Strikes Back - an actor's awareness that existence means having to refight battles you thought were long won. (Hey, Indy: welcome to 2023.) His director here is James Mangold, who doesn't have Spielberg's mastery. (Who does?) Yet since emerging from the indie scene of the 1990s (Heavy, Cop Land), Mangold has successfully merged plot and character with crowdpleasing action (Logan, Le Mans '66). He has at least a facility around setpieces, demonstrated here in a nimble choreography of bodies within the frame, and a marked preference for tangible production design and analogue stuntwork over empty digital wizardry. Those early Indy movies weren't just an homage to the serials and comic strips of their maker's youth - they were also, for a long while, the closest American film got to the thrills and spills of the Bond franchise. That parallel is sustained and extended here by the casting of Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale's notorious Le Chiffre, as Nazi-in-chief Dr. Voller, obsessive-to-murderous in his pursuit of the titular Archimedean doohickey; one thematic model for Dial of Destiny - which opens to the sound of a clock ticking, and leans heavily into the idea this might be a hero's last stand - was clearly 2021's nostalgic-elegiac No Time to Die. The problem is that this raises a second question (what if we made an Indiana Jones movie in the 21st century?), and answering that requires everybody involved to disregard the evidence provided by 2008's Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull - namely that it might have to involve Shia LaBeouf, and might not be all that memorable, in the vast Archimedean scheme of things.

So what does a 21st century Indiana Jones movie look and feel like? Two-and-a-half hours, to give the illusion of an event or value for money. A staggering budget (reportedly between $250-300m) that enables all manner of globeplodding, and a frantic setpiece every twenty minutes, even if there's no particular narrative reason for a setpiece. It is more exhausting than exhilarating this time round; it is at once too much and not enough, both heavy-going and flimsy-thin. One of the reasons people have drifted away from the movies in recent years is out of a sense the movies no longer trust us. Arrived at by four illustrious scribes (Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Mangold and David Koepp), each striving to fix what cannot be fully repaired, Dial's plotting is so leaden and uninspired that it keeps trying to jolt us awake with bouts of action - and action that, whether good, bad or indifferent, keeps reminding you of other setpieces in other blockbusters that have had to come up with eight or nine runarounds to try and distract from their own enfeebled plotting. (Like Indy, the film is tangled up in history; the effort required to free itself drains everyone, and us finally.) I'm not sure when the movies got so hooked on these artificial stimulants, but there are whole stretches here that could usefully be cut: a midfilm meet-up with Antonio Banderas as "Spain's greatest frogman" that permits some sub-aqua footage but also the sight of a film literally treading water; some of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's flip-flopping in the sidekick role, born as that is of a very 21st century desire to give a female character "complexity". If history teaches us anything, it's that these movies don't need complexity to function well - and, in fact, they may actively suffer from having pretensions to complexity. Lose the double-crosses and loop-da-loops, and the narrative line is automatically straightened out and tightened up.

Heaven knows I'm no efficiency expert - I have the account books to show for it - but there are surely financial (as well as creative) benefits to cutting half an hour from these movies in pre-production: shorter means cheaper, for one, and it might also coax back those cinemagoers who have to pay their babysitters by the hour. As things stand, Disney and Paramount - an excess of studio firepower, to match the swelling excess on screen - look to have turned over the GDP of a small country to promote what often plays like a flabby rough cut, a film that hasn't really decided what direction it ultimately wants to take, that seems to be working itself out before our eyes. In blockbusters past, the script revisions refined one another, and worked towards a singular goal: the best diversion this agglomeration of material could provide. Here, by contrast, Mangold apparently had money enough to shoot everyone's scenes, wherever it takes him and the film, and no particular motivation to cut or reshape them in the edit suite. What's gone missing is the ruthless economy of the younger, shark-like Spielberg, the willingness or desire (or, given the modern blockbuster's tendency to make money hand over fist regardless, the commercial impetus) to cut to a well-staged chase. In retrospect, it's Crystal Skull rather than Iron Man that may be 2008's most significant event movie, because once even Steven Spielberg started bolting these things together with such yawning lassitude, the game was probably up.

In the circumstances, it's a small wonder that Mangold and Ford are able to pull the enjoyment and entertainment they do in passing from this material. The fun stuff here is some way stronger than the best stuff in Crystal Skull; it's just the bad ideas - including a third-act departure from Indy norms that already feels like this franchise's shark-jumping Fast & Furious-in-space moment - are so much worse. The 21st century blockbuster has doubled down and gone bigger on the assumption this will automatically make things better; it hasn't ever stopped to think - and has rarely had to stop and think, profitable as it has been - whether it might instead be getting badder, and that its abundant excesses only flatten whatever fleeting pleasures and emotions it can generate. If you shed a tear in Dial of Destiny's closing moments - and you might nevertheless - I'll venture it has little to do with Mangold's specific achievements and more to do with nostalgia: perhaps an awareness of what the summer event movie once was, and what it's been allowed to become, how old and tired and befuddled so many of them now seem. "This is not an adventure," Indiana Jones tells a former associate early in the new film, "those days have come and gone." I wish I could honestly say what follows proves our hero wrong, but instead the line serves as both advance notice to viewers and an epitaph for an entire, once-glorious genre. Dial of Destiny isn't the anticipated lap of honour so much as an overextended winding down, such as may now be indistinguishable from a death spiral.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is now playing in cinemas nationwide.