Saturday 30 September 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of September 22-24, 2023):

1 (1) A Haunting in Venice (12A)
2 (new) Expend4bles (15)
3 (2) The Nun 2 (15)
4 (3) The Equalizer 3 (15)
5 (new) Dumb Money (15) **
6 (5) Barbie (12A) ***
7 (6) Past Lives (12A) ***
8 (7) Oppenheimer (15) ****
9 (4) Jawan (15) ***
10 (re) Beauty and the Beast [1991] (U) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Batman
4. Jurassic Park

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Barbie (12A) ***
3 (14) The Flash (12A) **
4 (4) The Meg 2: The Trench (12)
5 (5) Fast X (12)
7 (6) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
8 (new) The Exorcist (18) *****
9 (12) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)
10 (11) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****

My top five: 
One Fine Morning
5. Sisu

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Exorcist (Monday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
2. The Fugitive [above] (Sunday, Channel 5, 1.30pm)
3. Alien (Wednesday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
4. Selma (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
5. Mari (Sunday, BBC2, 12midnight)

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Devil in the detail: "The Exorcist"

Creeping back into cinemas to mark its 50th anniversary, not long after the passing of its director William Friedkin and just ahead of the possible atrocity of next week's
The Exorcist: Believer, 1973's The Exorcist remains one of the more divisive New Hollywood texts. I know of at least one esteemed colleague (you can guess) who considers it the greatest film of all time, and at least half a dozen more who've raised objections, over the years, to the hammering quality Friedkin's film keeps up even before the arrival of Satan himself. (Don't get any of them started on the sequels.) All parties agree on the movie's extraordinary, thumping force; the argument, which in the largely secular world of film criticism practically passes for a theological debate, concerns how that force was applied in this particular case. Did Friedkin use his unquestionable filmmaking powers for good or evil, or something in between?

Revisiting the film for the first time in twenty years this week, I was chiefly struck by the extent to which The Exorcist has endured as a template: you can see its influence on even the recent Talk to Me, made by kids whose parents might not have been old enough to see Friedkin's film on first release. Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty saw the value in defining their characters before they begin to toss them around like ragdolls; it ensures we feel the trauma all the more when it starts, but it also allows for odd little shivers of predestination, like the way Ellen Burstyn's Chris crosses paths with Jason Miller's Father Karras twice before the main possession plot binds their fates forever. It could just be Friedkin's famously robust directing style, but all these characters appear suggestible and on the edge from an early stage. Chris dresses like Shirley MacLaine but seems only a few pills away from going full Cassavetes on us; Karras, who seems far older and wearier than Miller's 34 years, crumbles when confronted with his ageing mother's frailty. Gradually, it dawned on me: this may be one of those once-in-a-generation films where, by accident or design, a brattish creative (Friedkin was only in his late thirties) embraces the entire range of human experience, and in so doing makes a film that hits differently each time you see it. 

Newcomers drawn here in search of sleepover thrills and spills will continue to be thrown by the fact we get forty minutes of dinner parties and MRI scans before the truly weird shit goes down, and that it's ninety minutes before we arrive at the image on the poster. (At the turn of the millennium, there emerged an alternate cut subtitled The Version You've Never Seen; there should probably also be The Exorcist - The Version You *Think* You're Going To See.) New parents will doubtless share Chris's fears for her daughter Regan (Linda Blair), though they may also be getting early inklings of what Karras is going through in his domestic life, and may wish their parents were still as upright as Max von Sydow's Father Merrin. Amid all the decay and despoilment the film describes, you spy a crisis that is arguably more existential than spiritual: how hard it is to retain one's faith in the world, let alone gods of any kind. Subsequent shockers would take sharp knives to this philosophical framework, the better to get to the blood and thunder, but its presence here gives the lie to the notion this director was solely concerned with bashing his audience around the head. As late as eighty minutes into a two-hour film, Friedkin gives us a scene that shows us no more - and yet no less - than Chris quietly ironing a sweater for her stricken child.

Occasionally The Exorcist sounds a hokier, more generic note, like the passing suggestion the portal to hell may have been opened by a Ouija board, and some of its effects now look a touch quaint. (The rattly bed is right out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: it'd be a fun ride in different circumstances.) But there's tremendous narrative skill evident in the way this wide-ranging plot gradually contracts, as the characters' worlds collapse in on themselves and each other, to show us the cosmos in a child's bedroom; we surely feel that contentious force all the more for being in a confined space and obliged to look all these demons squarely in the eye. (Friedkin and Blatty have to crack a window in a bid to banish despair and let in some air and hope.) 

Little monsters that they were, the New Hollywood directors, certainly, were keeping a beady eye on one another, to see what they could get away with. The Exorcist may be the first blockbuster-as-compendium, a film that would subsequently be spoofed and strip-mined for its constituent parts. It's just possible the emergent Steven Spielberg saw the archaeology prologue (and the sensation the rest of the movie became) and thought: yup, I'll have some of that. It's possible Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader watched the intense discussions of faith and took up their own pens with renewed purpose. And I suspect more than a handful of tyros had their interest piqued by the element of self-referentiality - the fact Chris is not just Generic Horror Mom, but a Fonda-like working actress introduced filming a drama (the resonantly titled "Crash Course") on the turbulence of America at the turn of the 1970s.

If there's anything about The Exorcist: Believer that intrigues, it's how it handles Burstyn's return and answers the question of where Chris went from here. Did she keep acting upon leaving Georgetown? Was "Crash Course" even completed, given its director's sorry fate? What the new film probably won't do is allow itself time to mull the mysteries of the universe as Friedkin's does, be they general (how life goes on even as lives hang in the balance) or more specific (what the vile-seeming Burke Dennings was doing in Regan's bedroom, where the girl gets her riper language from, whether the two are in any dreadful way linked). Long before the bit with the crucifix and the help me lesions, these characters are buffeted by fate, which is why The Exorcist exists as both horror movie and something more besides. All human life is here, however disconcerting, sickening or (yes) hammering some of that might be - and only a filmmaker who really badly wanted it all could have caught so much of it on camera.

The Exorcist returns to cinemas nationwide from Friday; The Exorcist: Believer opens in cinemas nationwide on October 6. 

Monday 25 September 2023

Zeros and ones: "Dumb Money"

When they're not busy reading comic books and their own stock returns, the nerds presently invested with the power to bankroll movies have their heads buried in the financial pages. Only this could explain the current Forbesization of the American cinema, which has already resulted in a run of films on subjects as pressing as the development of a Nike trainer (Air) and the evolution of the humble Cheeto (Flamin' Hot). Our moneyed overlords now treat us to Dumb Money, a rapid-response retelling of the 2021 GameStop kerfuffle, in which a ragbag of nickel-and-dime financial dayplayers, contrarian TikTokkers and snarky Reddit users, rallied by "recreational YouTuber" Keith Gill (embodied here by Paul Dano), handed the hedge-fund suits and assorted NASDAQ experts their collective ass, simply by making the market work in their favour for a matter of months. The recreation of this landmark moment in North American history* (*online) has been assigned to Craig Gillespie, the director who made his own fortune with mildly zesty ensemble comedies (I, Tonya; Cruella) that felt like Diet Coke versions of whatever Michael Lehmann and Mark Waters were getting away with in the Nineties and Noughties. The new film, alas, finds Gillespie approaching his material as if it were the basis of a profound, wide-reaching Moneyball or Social Network-like parable. Much of the action (such as it is) plays out on screens of one kind or another, the visual palette remains resolutely muted throughout, and - after an early misapplication of Cardi B's "WAP" - the soundtrack is given over to a derivatively ambient score that suggests the hum of a thousand overburdened computer processors making a brisk trade in binary code. The prevailing editorial assumption is that the ups and downs of the stock market make for an inherently fascinating movie subject rather than just, say, astrology for dudes.

The script, adapted from Ben Mezrich's non-fiction account The Anti-Social Network by the Orange is the New Black duo of Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, has one solid organising idea: introducing all its characters with an onscreen estimation of their total net worth. This not only lays out a very American hierarchy, tapering down from traditional power brokers (Nick Offerman as a hedge-fund chief who works mostly from the golf course, Seth Rogen as his increasingly jittery underling) through thrusting tech bros (Dano's Gill; Sebastian Stan and Rushi Kota as the founders of trading app Robin Hood) to blue-collar workers using their two pennies to buck the system (America Ferrera, Anthony Ramos) and students mired in six-figure debts (Myha'la, Talia Ryder); it also allows money-conscious viewers to effectively tag themselves on this sliding scale. Elsewhere, though, the writing proves far spottier: Dumb Money shrugs listlessly between its investors, sporadically stumbling across facile parallels and ironies, while comprehensively failing to make the business of latter-day trading - i.e. people repeatedly tapping at their phone - involving or cinematic. You can feel desperation setting in behind the camera whenever this script gets the two students to feel one another up, at which point the slapdash, anything-for-a-laugh approach Adam McKay brought to 2015's The Big Short suddenly seems like a triumph of the creative imagination. Gillespie keeps pounding the buttons nevertheless, bringing up established facts, actual news bulletins, social media posts of the time, and - bleurgh - an Elon Musk cameo. Eventually, like a monkey typing Shakespeare, he even accesses one legitimately funny scene, forcing the wildly disparate energies of Dano and Pete Davidson into the same confined space as man-boy brothers squabbling in the back of their parents' car. It's not a dead loss, in other words, but at its best, Dumb Money is a TV movie that's strayed inside the multiplex, and at its worst, it unspools as a dystopian vision of a world where films are 90% meme and all human interaction is carried out through an app. This may well be the kind of infotainment the drones in charge would now prefer we show up for: a dull ode to a brief period when capital circulated in a marginally less predictable fashion, one that might as well have been churned out overnight by AI for all the personality it displays. But as the onscreen GameStop investors are so fond of saying: fuck 'em.

Dumb Money is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 22 September 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of September 15-17, 2023):

1 (new) A Haunting in Venice (12A)
2 (1) The Nun 2 (15)
3 (3) The Equalizer 3 (15)
4 (2) Jawan (15) ***
5 (4Barbie (12A) ***
6 (5) Past Lives (12A) ***
7 (6Oppenheimer (15) ****
8 (7) My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 (12A)
9 (8) Sound of Freedom (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Jurassic Park

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Barbie (12A) ***
4 (3) The Meg 2: The Trench (12)
5 (2) Fast X (12)
6 (8) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
7 (10) The Equalizer 2 (15)
8 (4) Elemental (PG)
9 (17) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)

My top five: 
One Fine Morning
5. Sisu

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Psycho [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
2. Loving (Sunday, BBC1, 11.50pm)
3. His House (Friday, BBC2, 12.05am)
4. The Shop Around the Corner (Sunday, BBC2, 12.30pm)
5. Ocean's Eleven (Sunday, five, 4.15pm and Friday, five, 11.30pm)

American utopia: "Stop Making Sense"

Coming up on forty years old, and showing no signs of developing middle-age spread or embarrassing opinions, the great concert movie of our lifetime returns to cinemas, and takes a first bow in IMAX. 1984's 
Stop Making Sense showcases as much worldbuilding as any Christopher Nolan or Denis Villenueve venture, but its worldbuilding is achieved from the ground up: it opens with a bare stage, a pair of feet, and then the gradual reveal of a guitar, a sober grey suit, and the face of a handsome but intense-looking young man who reminds you who Cillian Murphy reminded you of in Oppenheimer, singing a song about getting no sleep because his bed's on fire, while publicly outing himself as a sociopath of some sort. What kind of world is this? An off-kilter one, for sure, populated by folks who seem likely to have absorbed the David Lynch movies of this era. (They would later generate the words that provided an epigraph for Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.) Yet it's not without tenderness, either. The second song ("Heaven") is a keening duet, possibly sung by the first song's victims; a later number ("This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)") still has the capacity to reduce grown men and women to tears, never mind its buoying sway. It's just that, like the singer, this world moves in strange ways, manoeuvred into place by unseen hands. As the band run through a tight hour-long set, something like an aerobics class gone wild, the world around them continues to grow: song by song, the band take on a bassist, a drummer, a second guitarist, backing singers, various hangers-on, and eventually the full son-et-lumière. The director sits in the control booth, monitoring how these elements relate, how they communicate and jive: the nods and winks between the musicians, the harmonies and the standoffs, because it wouldn't be a band without a certain tension and friction. He's thinking how to tell a story, which is in some way the story of a band, and in others the story of pop itself. Around the halfway mark, the grey suit jacket comes off, and - in the bit everybody remembers, the film's equivalent of a special effect - it gets replaced by a much bigger jacket you'd need a hell of an ego to try and fill. Pop starts out small and close-knit, a person or two scratching something out on an instrument; it then becomes the basis of gangs we want to join, whole shows, big nights; and - invariably - it threatens to become inflated, ridiculous, absurd. Some things get older, and stop making sense.

One poignant note, hidden among the onstage unity, is that this was as good as it got for Talking Heads. Thereafter, they really were on the road to nowhere: seduced by all the lights and cameras, David Byrne set off even more determinedly down his own path, following Sense with his own movie project (1986's True Stories) and forgetting to tell the rest of the band that was that. It's still a source of some pop-cultural fascination that Stop Making Sense didn't make this band any more commercial - but then they clearly would have been a tricky sell in the year of the route-one "I Just Called To Say I Love You", and an unthinkable presence at Live Aid. In that control booth, the still-emergent Jonathan Demme was less interested in selling this band than he was in celebrating their oddness, their left-of-centre way of thinking and expressing themselves. Even before Byrne met Brian Eno, the group might as well have called themselves Oblique Strategies: half-time turn the Tom Tom Club suggest what Talking Heads would have been like without the singer, namely a straightforward funk act who'd have enjoyed far more airplay and substantially bigger hits. I still wish Demme had left in "I Zimbra", so odd it was inspired by a Dadaist poem, but somehow more characteristic of Talking Heads at their peak than their cover of "Take Me to the River". (It's on the DVD, and Byrne acknowledged its significance by working it into the event's spiritual sequel American Utopia.) Yet it remains an inspired choice to keep the band in a darkness that represents the cultural margins, and to largely avoid cutaways to screaming fans: we're the audience here, trying to figure this lot out in the absence of backstage filler or contextualising biographical recaps. Even as the band do everything they can to shrug off the usual rules of musical engagement, Demme makes the film's moving parts connect: we're constantly aware of where the musicians are on stage, where the sound is coming from, and what makes that sound so joyous. But where most 1980s pop followed the hair and got big, Demme and Byrne swap in thought for bombast, and their movie consequently spills over with memorably precise gestures, peculiar human communication: the singer chopping his own arm on "Once in a Lifetime", bassist Tina Weymouth's goofy bowlegged dance on "Genius of Love". Given where Hollywood finds itself at the end of 2023, Demme now seems an even greater loss than he did at the time, but the band are still with us, at least, having negotiated the singer's eccentricities to take one more curtain call at the recent Toronto film festival. They're talking again. And nothing is better than that, is it?

Stop Making Sense returns to selected cinemas from today.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

In memoriam: Sir Horace Ové (Telegraph 18/09/23)

Sir Horace Ové, who has died aged 83, was a trailblazing director and photographer of Trinidadian origin who migrated to the UK in the 1960s and made history as the first black British filmmaker to sign off on a feature-length film.

Co-written with the novelist Samuel Selvon, Pressure (1976) was a study of a young West Indian school leaver, Tony (Herbert Norville), caught between conservatively minded parents, the activism of an older brother, friends straying into street crime and the often hostile indifference of wider British society.

Given pulse by a light reggae theme song (co-written by Ové himself) and shot on the hoof around Ladbroke Grove, the film described a bustling multicultural community while remaining alert to the bubbling tensions in its midst. Invited to interview for an accountancy firm, Tony is asked questions no Caucasian contemporary would face: “How long have you been in this country?... Do you play cricket?”.

Getting the film made with limited resources was one challenge; getting it seen was another. Pressure’s release was delayed for two years, after its backers at the BFI objected to the depiction of police brutality. Ové insisted everything on screen was based on firsthand knowledge.

“I didn’t make the film sitting in my living room,” he told an interviewer in 2008. “I went out with Sam [Selvon] and we researched it… As black Londoners we were aware of what was happening but when the film came out people didn’t want to admit it was true. In fact, they wanted to ban the bloody film, but the critics saw it and insisted it be released and today DVDs of the film are still selling!”

Thereafter, Ové segued into the marginally more accommodating environment of television, directing episodes of the groundbreaking BBC soap Empire Road (1978-79), the Thames TV kids’ show The Latchkey Children (1980), starring his daughter Indra alongside future playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, two Channel 4 documentaries about India (Dabbawallahs and Who Shall We Tell?, both 1985) and the acclaimed miniseries The Orchid House (1991), set in post-WW1 Dominica.

Only one further feature reached British cinema screens: the genial culture-clash comedy Playing Away (1987), made for Film on Four, which dispatched the Caribbean Brixton Conquistadors cricket team – captained by Norman Beaton’s bristling Willie-Boy – to play a match in a sleepy Suffolk village with modest comic results. For Ové, it was the migrant experience in a nutshell: “They’re trapped and have to get on somehow in this dilemma of a multicultural Britain.”

“I’m not interested in just becoming a jobbing filmmaker,” Ové maintained. “I believe that film is an art and I’m interested in experimenting and taking it further, but I know that’s a problem because we live in a society where they don’t associate that sort of creativity with black people… White filmmakers are allowed to do this. [Yet] black filmmakers are not allowed to do these projects and are rejected when they go that way, and this is something we have to watch and try to change.”

He was born Horace Shango Ové on December 3, 1939 in the Port of Spain suburb of Belmont, where his parents, Lorna and Lawrence, owned and ran shops and cafés. He moved to the UK in 1960 to study interior design, supporting himself by working as a stevedore and at the National Temperance Hospital (“Sending me down to the mortuary was punishment for flirting with all the European girls”).

Upon graduation, he headed for Rome, where he found extra work on the set of Cleopatra (1963). He returned to Britain in 1965, and enrolled at the London Film School, where his classmates included Michael Mann. Around this time, he met and married Mary Irvine, an Irish immigrant who ran the Camden boutique Doudou’s.

His early shorts included the electric Baldwin’s N****r (1968), a record of a fractious Q&A with James Baldwin at the West Indian Students’ Centre. Yet efforts to broach key British institutions were met with some bafflement: “When I went for my first appointment at the BBC, the commissioning editor had a shock because he wasn’t expecting a West Indian and he didn’t know what to do or say. I always remember telling him not to worry, next summer he would have a tan, and we got along.”

His photography included portraits of such leading activists as Stokely Carmichael and Darcus Howe: “I’ve always been an active photographer – if there’s anything going on socially or politically, I want to know about it.” Ové made history again in 1984, when the Photographers’ Gallery afforded him their first retrospective dedicated to a solo black photographer.

He received the CBE in 2007, was named a Trinidad and Tobago National Icon in 2013 and was knighted in 2022. A restoration of Pressure plays at this year’s London Film Festival and serves as the flagship film of the BFI’s upcoming Ové retrospective.

Interviewed by the Black Film Bulletin in 1996, Ové said: “There is potential for something to happen here. I think, given the opportunity, black filmmakers could inject something into British cinema. Let me make a comparison: it’s like what has happened when they allowed black footballers to be part of British football teams. When black sportsmen got into sport here, what happened to sport? When black cricketers got into cricket here, what happened? We have enriched it, brought talent, and if that is an example, then the same thing should happen with cinema.”

He married twice, to Mary Irvine and the producer Annabelle Alcazar; both ended in separation. He is survived by four children from his first marriage.

Sir Horace Ové, born December 3 1939, died September 16 2023.

Friday 15 September 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of September 8-10, 2023):

1 (new) The Nun 2 (15)
2 (new) Jawan (15) ***
3 (1) The Equalizer 3 (15)
4 (2Barbie (12A) ***
5 (new) Past Lives (12A) ***
6 (3) Oppenheimer (15) ****
7 (new) My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 (12A)
8 (4) Sound of Freedom (15)
10 (8) Blue Beetle (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Dazed and Confused [above]
2. Jurassic Park

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (6) Fast X (12)
3 (new) The Meg 2: The Trench (12)
4 (2) Elemental (PG)
5 (4) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12)
6 (3) No Hard Feelings (15)
8 (7The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
9 (13) Sisu (15) ***
10 (12) The Equalizer 2 (15)

My top five: 
One Fine Morning
5. Sisu

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Funny Face (Saturday, BBC2, 1pm)
2. Proxima (Saturday, Channel 4, 12.50am)
3. Blade of the Immortal (Sunday, Channel 4, 12.25am)
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Saturday, Channel 5, 12.30pm)
5. The Rock (Tuesday, ITV1, 10.45pm)

Out of the past: "Dead Man's Shoes"

Shane Meadows started out making knockabout comedies, before something in the knockabout triggered recollections of real-life trauma. The violence was formalised in the boxing of 1997's
TwentyFourSeven; it erupted halfway through 1999's A Room for Romeo Brass, a sweet coming-of-age narrative rerouted by the arrival of bigger kid Paddy Considine, making one of the great screen debuts in British film history. By the time of 2006's This is England and its televised spin-offs, trauma (more specifically, the traumas of hooliganism and domestic abuse) had become the central theme of this filmography; the vision suddenly expanded from the regional to the national, so as to show how a decade or more of Thatcherite neglect had left an entire country hurting. First released in 2004, Dead Man's Shoes is a film that lurks between worlds: it finds the living co-existing with the dead, and is funny and scary in equal measure. On some level, this was Meadows and co-writer Considine's riposte to those mostly worthless, ducking-and-diving Brit crime flicks that proliferated at the turn of the millennium, setting Considine's Army-trained Richard out to avenge the death of his vulnerable younger brother (Toby Kebbell); former boxer Gary Stretch, a mainstay of the straight-to-video form, plays the ultimate Big Bad, heading a supporting cast of whey-faced ne'er-do-wells in hooky leisurewear. But it's also a film made by someone who knew full well what it meant to throw or take a punch - and who was possessed of the filmmaking smarts to make the pain in this story stick. The results now look like the closing pages in an early chapter of this director's career, but they're still haunting, the images lingering in ways those arrived at by the average Guy Ritchie wannabe haven't. Larkish as this film is in places, it grasps that real-life violence can't be entirely laughed off; that it stays with you, and sometimes follows you around.

That this is Early Meadows can be grasped from its roughness of form: heavily improvised scenes, full of likely lads encouraged to spout bollocks by the yard. (I was reminded of the alarmed response to Meadows' recent BBC series The Gallows Pole, which set itself up in prime time as Downton-adjacent period drama, only to prove recognisably Meadowsian in performance and framing.) The brutality in the plot is countered, but never entirely seen off, by a streak of cartoonish comedy. After Richard breaks into his quarries' crashpad, one geezer is seen to grab a frying pan as a makeshift defensive weapon; another wakes up to find his pursuer has spraypainted the word "NOB" on the back of his Sunday best. The manner in which Richard toys with his targets is funny, too, but only up to a point. (That point may be a single line of dialogue: "He still is.") Visually, it's miles ahead of most of the tuppenny-ha'penny tinpot crime movies that emerged around this period, elevated by Meadows' Martin Parr-like eye for the everyday: lock-up garages, rusting swing sets, terraced houses in a state of disrepair matching that of the characters. While ace cinematographer Danny Cohen captures stray rays of sunshine piercing the East Midlands grey, the tone is generally despairing: the hope Meadows and Paul Fraser invested in the relationship between the young playmates in Romeo Brass is all but extinguished here. The film is at its least healthy in its insistence death is the only way these characters can find peace; yet its use of flashbacks intrigues, allowing even the must lumpen of these thugs room to demonstrate belated remorse, rethink their actions. Evidently, this was an attempt to articulate something in the filmmakers' own past - if not what had specifically happened to Meadows and Considine, then to people they knew, the kind of dingy bedsit atrocities you hear about in darkened corners of lifeless pubs in forgotten towns. The This is England project, made with the advantage of a few extra years' experience, would be the fullest and most eloquent expression of this hurt. Dead Man's Shoes is rawer, a kick up the arse of a movie. But you feel it, nevertheless.

Dead Man's Shoes returns to selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 14 September 2023

Another time, another place: "Past Lives"

One reason for the perceived crisis in screen romance is that most of our successful hooks and lines - those signals we deploy to get romance going, in movies as in real life - have already been seized upon, worked to death and worn thin. Yet the world seems unlikely ever to run out of what-ifs - those fragile contingencies and commonplace near-misses any half-sentient human occupying a seat in a cinema will have become aware of passing through this life. Right person, wrong time; right person, right time, wrong place. We may be more aware than any previous generation of the ships we pass in the night, given the elaborate sonar systems of social media; the ghosts and spectres that haunt us no longer fade away as they might once have done. All this provides the background to the Korean-American playwright Celine Song's feature debut
Past Lives, which actually opens with a string of verbalised what-ifs - a couple observing the three main characters from across a toney New York bar, and wondering aloud what their status is - before firming its relationships up to some degree. The three are thirtysomething Na-jong, anglicised as Nora (Greta Lee), who migrated here with her family from Seoul when she was younger, leaving behind a lovelorn childhood playmate; Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the playmate, with whom Nora has sporadically reconnected online in the intervening years; and Arthur (John Magaro), the beardy Jewish-American novelist Nora met at a writer's retreat and married in the meantime. One of the subjects that comes up in the trio's conversation - the topic that gives Song's film its title - is the Buddhist idea of in-yeon, the process by which reincarnated souls are reunited. Marriages, we learn, are the result of soulmates having rubbed up against one another over the course of 8,000 lifetimes. This sounds exhausting, to say the least, but it explains why people are so keen to sign up for Tinder.

As the many thousands of glowing-to-gushing words filed since the film's premiere in Sundance in January make clear, Past Lives has been designated one of this year's special ones - a film operating on a higher spiritual plain - and I see no reason to lodge a violently dissenting opinion. (I'm not looking to break anybody's heart here.) It is, unusually, a debut that makes an impression through sheer delicacy; at once featherlight and soul deep, it succeeds in making certain endeavours by Hirokazu Kore-eda, patron saint of tasteful middlebrow drama, seem lumpen and clumsy. Song's film is placid in a way that feels cleansing, and doubly so if you start to consider the narrative and emotional contrivance going on elsewhere in the contemporary cinema. In their place, this filmmaker offers the ambient pleasure of spending time in well-dressed rooms with people we warm to on some level - old friends and old souls, observed in the course of getting older and wiser still. Wherever her characters are, Song's camera is almost always in the right place. A break-up cues a gentle pan across to an open window, where we are consoled by the sight of the sun breaking through between two adjacent buildings. When Nora and Hae Sung reunite in person, they temporarily disappear into the greenery of a New York park, underlining the general idea this second-chance encounter might be the most natural thing in the world. And there's a neat, economical sketch aboard a subway train that finds Hae Sung fumbling his way through a text message he'll never send, dolefully spying a happy young pair of fellow travellers, and then exiting the frame, leaving us to study the lonely old sot in the seat next to him. (Call it The Three Ages of Man.) Song is also acutely sensitive in her handling of actors, especially Lee, a refugee from comedy (Sisters, Russian Doll), who glows with the assurance of knowing the two men either side of her - and a high percentage of the audience - must be falling head over heels for Nora.

Still: for much of Past Lives, I found myself not sobbing helplessly, but batting away a question that sometimes presents while watching lesser Kore-eda films (and even certain Ozu works, going further back in the same quietist lineage): is it possible for a film to be too nice for its own dramatic good? Song's film is light in many respects; it's lightest of all on earthly jeopardy. We quickly spy that these characters are possessed of the money and emotional resilience to absorb whatever this lifetime might throw at them; and while Song's fixated on her characters as spotless spirits, I don't think she quite makes them come alive as compelling flesh-and-blood. This is a very odd film to have been arrived at by a playwright: the dialogue favours a flavourless naturalism, the emotional pith tamped way down below a toplayer of fondly banal small talk and sporadic sociological signifiers. The only line I can recall to quote is the "whoa!" Nora and Hae Sung toss back and forth as the universe reunites them another time. These are undeniably nice souls, but they're not terribly complex or troubled ones - and, in its airiness, Song's camera has a tendency to drift past the few flickers of human behaviour that strike the eye as idiosyncratic or characterful. Having delivered Nora to this fork in the road, her family recede into the background; Arthur appears to have written a novel called Boner, a state of affairs that almost certainly deserves further elaboration. Only partly engaged, my mind drifted to reconsider the way Richard Linklater, in the Before films that remain the gold standard for cinematic what-ifs, allowed Jesse and Céline to do and say variably shitty things, to rub more vigorously against one another in the way real lovers do and Song's lovers don't. That may only be possible when your characters have two feet lodged in the real world, and aren't merely floating amiably around each other like a child's pristine soap bubbles. Past Lives retains a powerful central concept - powerful enough to have squeezed more tears from hardened critics than any other film released so far in 2023. It's just that the concept feels vastly more powerful and affecting than the elegantly composed yet strangely colourless stick figures Song invites us to fill in with our own experiences. It struck me that the couple we hear sitting across the bar from Nora and her two boys were having a far livelier conversation, whatever state their in-yeon was in.

Past Lives is now showing in selected cinemas.

Friday 8 September 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of September 1-3, 2023):

1 (new) The Equalizer 3 (15)
2 (1) Barbie (12A) ***
3 (2) Oppenheimer (15) ****
4 (new) Sound of Freedom (15)
6 (10) Elemental (PG)
7 (3) The Meg 2: The Trench (12A)
8 (4) Blue Beetle (12A)
9 (7) Haunted Mansion (12A)
10 (new) Cobweb (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Jurassic Park

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (1) Elemental (PG)
3 (3) No Hard Feelings (15)
4 (2) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12)
6 (5) Fast X (12)
7 (6) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
8 (29) The Flash (12) **
9 (7The Little Mermaid (PG)
10 (9) John Wick: Chapter 4 (15)

My top five: 
One Fine Morning
5. Sisu

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Lady Vanishes [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 2.45pm)
2. Parasite (Sunday, Channel 4, 12midnight)
3. Captain Phillips (Thursday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
4. The Two Faces of January (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.45pm)
5. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)

"Jawan" (Guardian 08/09/23)


Dir: Atlee. With: Shah Rukh Khan, Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi, Deepika Padukone. 169 mins. Cert: 15

Chasing January’s crowdpleasing comeback Pathaan, here’s further confirmation of Shah Rukh Khan’s status as reigning, benevolent King of Bollywood. Where the earlier film expounded on established formula, Khan’s latest stretches its arms wider and demonstrates flickers of idiosyncratic vision. It’s properly pan-Indian: the emergent Tamil action stylist Atlee imports South Indian cinema’s characteristic rowdiness and social conscience, alerting the mass audience to pressing regional concerns, before apparently losing control over his material. A star vehicle that functions like a runaway train, Jawan covers a lot of ground in surprising fashion at full throttle – but that’s also a polite way of admitting it’s utterly all over the place.

Its surest organising principle is its lead, again shuffling knowingly and wittily through a range of personas. From his opening line (“who am I?”), Khan draws us into wondering what relation the bandaged warrior liberating a village in a prologue has to the gruff baldie laying siege to Mumbai’s metro and the prison warden clinging to a second chance at love. A one-man Cloud Atlas, it’s a puzzle movie where the star proves the puzzle, and a great showcase for Khan to play everything under the sun: godly, bad-ass, dandyish Army vet, total sweetheart with a prospective stepdaughter. There’s undeniably ego involved, but few stars in any cinema could model such radically diverse hats with this much flair.

Less smooth are the moving parts around him, a whirlwind of ideas good, bad and flagrantly pilfered that suggests this project would have benefitted from one script editor for every five Shah Rukhs. Atlee maintains a frenzied momentum – but he has to, lest we pause to consider the preposterous tosh this plot keeps pushing our way. Once our hero’s genesis is resolved, we’re left with another headscratcher: how a movie that features cinema’s lamest Matrix and Chris Nolan allusions could also generate a tremendous stretch of highway-bound carnage, as thrilling as anything Hollywood managed this summer. No more enduring than Pathaan in the Khan pantheon, I suspect – but a semi-fascinating display of star power, and a rollicking (if bumpy) Friday-night ride.

Jawan is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 6 September 2023

Back to class: "School of Rock"

It will be a rare and heartening sight for any Brits heading to the cinema this weekend: one school that remains 100% fit for purpose. To mark its twentieth anniversary, 
The School of Rock (to give it its full onscreen title) is being returned to our screens - somewhat prematurely in the UK's case, given that the film opened here belatedly, in the spring half-term holiday of 2004. Even back then, Richard Linklater's film struck the eye as the kind of universal crowdpleaser that had started to disappear from the weekly movie schedules: founded on a well-timbered, consistently witty script (by the upwardly mobile Mike White, post-Chuck & Buck, pre-Enlightened and White Lotus), and brought to further life by savvy direction and smart flesh-and-blood casting. (Its underheralded heroine: casting director Ilene Starger, who put its class of exceptional young talents and personalities together.) Built to last, as studio pics once routinely were, it also couldn't date, because it was always steeped in a residual nostalgia for rock itself - its sounds, its ephemera, its legends, its poses - a form perceived as being in a death spiral in 2003, the year of "Crazy in Love". (The same nostalgia prompted 1998's Still Crazy, 2000's Almost Famous and the entire career of The Darkness.) It's not strictly about teaching, but it understood teaching can be a kind of performance or orchestration, and that good teachers combine passion with organisation; they focus minds, then get out of the way, having hopefully filled those minds with the right ideas. The emphasis White and Linklater placed on in-class activity ensured the Noughties would be bookended with very different films on the processes of education: should you have the time for a double-bill, School of Rock would enter into leftfield but lively conversation with The Class, Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or winner of 2008.

In the years since its release, the Internet has identified one potential weakspot in the presence of Sarah Silverman as White's onscreen girlfriend: we can't blame Silverman (then only semi-known) for wanting to stick her head inside the multiplexes, but it's undeniably disappointing to see a proven, funny performer stuck in such a whiny, joyless role. (White may actually have invented the trope we've come to associate with Judd Apatow: the disproportionately hot girl obliged to play frowning second fiddle to schlubby boys.) The comic consolations, however, are considerable, whether Joan Cusack, expertly playing straight man as the school's buttoned-down principal (and we should note how White's writing allows her, at least, to undo a button or two as the film goes on) or the bouncy, buoying rapport between Jack Black's Dewey Finn and his young charges. This latter is pure Linklater: the teaching scenes are visibly looser and more spontaneous - more mischievous - than anything in the family films that had immediately preceded School of Rock, born of loosing a big kid on a classroom full of willing enablers and assistants, partners-in-crime, and seeing what comes to pass. School of Rock's secret is that, like most worthwhile Hollywood ventures, it's really a lesson in chemistry. The pay-off is a Battle of the Bands contest that looks legitimately grungy and doesn't make you want to swallow your own fist out of embarrassment - partly because White and Linklater realised that if rock can't change the world or do much to halt the decline of Western civilisation, it can still offer us smaller victories, such as a great night out. Both Black and Linklater (who started filming Boyhood around this time) have continued to bounce around energetically in the intervening years, but White broke decisively for TV, and producer Scott Rudin was discredited; the excellent title song (penned by White with - none more 2003, this - The Mooney Suzuki) peaked on the charts at #51, a TV spin-off left zero discernible cultural footprint, and the whole thing wound up as an Andrew Lloyd Webber/Julian Fellowes musical. Key teachings went unlearnt, all told. But the movie rocks on regardless.

School of Rock returns to cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Inner city lights: "Scrapper"

To anyone who spent some part of 2002 thinking how good it would be to hear
"Turn the Page", the opening track on The Streets' debut LP "Original Pirate Material", in Dolby stereo on the soundtrack of some gritty British inner city drama: Scrapper's opening credits have you covered. In a debut feature that wears its influences unabashedly on its sleeve, writer-director Charlotte Regan sets out to do more or less what The Streets' Mike Skinner did in recording that musical landmark, namely capture the life in the everyday, and counter any dourly black-and-white perceptions of the inner city with colour and cheek. As with her fellow emergent Charlotte, Aftersun's Wells, Regan comes this way with an eye to working through latent daddy issues (less scarring here, it should be noted, than in the earlier film); she's also another in the recent factory line of British creatives beholden to the pathfinding Andrea Arnold, panning for that poetry in working-class life that went mostly overlooked while the British film industry was the exclusive preserve of middle and upper-class men. Amid her searching, Regan reveals a goofy, occasionally outright scatty sense of humour: a running gag about spiders who communicate in RPG text is so off-radar I suspect only Regan fully gets it. With its zappy cutaways, broad knockabout and little-and-large central odd couple, Scrapper betrays a certain debt to TV comedy: if ever a character played by Daisy May Cooper needs a flashback to reveal some facet of a doubtless misspent youth, Regan's young lead Lola Campbell will almost certainly be called upon. Some of the film's grit, then, turns out to be sugar.

It's been applied like frosting to a sentimental story with roots that can be traced back further still, beyond the East End of Chaplin to the slums of Dickens. Campbell's constitutionally sullen 12-year-old Georgie is a child left behind: abandoned to her own council-estate devices after her mother's death, she sustains herself financially by stealing and reselling bikes with a fellow outcast (Alin Uzun's Ali) and keeps the social services at bay by pretending she's being cared for by her uncle Winston Churchill. (In any other time and place, this latter plot point might feel as wobbly as a loose tooth, but this is Britain in 2023, and how's that working out for you?) Things change with the reappearance of mum's sometime boyfriend and Georgie's biological father Jason, who comes tumbling over the back garden fence - that introductory pratfall, and the fact he's played with an Eminem dye job by British cinema's new poster boy Harris Dickinson, is enough to establish Jason as a rough diamond rather than any predatory threat. Dickinson's deal is blankly boyish charm; he doesn't bring those complicating notes of sexuality the vulpine Michael Fassbender (an executive producer here, coincidentally) lent to Arnold's Fish Tank, and his sweetheart status is officially sealed the minute he presents Georgie with a Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake. (Colin's own big-screen debut, if I'm not mistaken. Your move, Percy Pig.)

In other words, the film keeps getting brighter and lighter. It helps Regan's cause that these particular council houses are painted, inside and out, with the same pretty, Insta-friendly pastel shades you see on sidestreets in Notting Hill, and there's an odd but effective tic in Molly Manning Walker's cinematography: presenting us with an exterior apparently shot at dusk or night, before switching on an extra lamp to reveal this is actually the middle of the day. Lighting as mission statement. Such tactics serve to position Regan as a more optimistic Arnold, whose dreamy filmography has kept snapping violently to, as though becoming aware Ken Loach (and the tradition of realist filmmaking Loach represents) is bearing down on the camera. Regan, by contrast, allows herself to drift off and away: there are elements of the fantastical that go beyond the bored Georgie's imaginings and strike the eye as pure directorial reverie. A spiralling tower of scrap metal - first dreamt up as a means of escape, a fairytale beanstalk; later discovered in a spare bedroom - reminded me of the recent French film Gagarine, which similarly swung between social and magical realism. Regan's vision is smaller and more contained than that: narratively, we're bearing witness to the repair of a tiny tear in the national fabric, a paternal Band-Aid being lovingly applied to a grazed spirit. The film entire is like the bag of dolly mixtures a parent would hand you as reward for enduring a surgery appointment, and you may well require a sweet tooth for fullest enjoyment. But Regan's optimism does feel like a boon in the current moment - and who's to say dolly mixtures shouldn't have their place in British cinema, alongside the perennial humbugs and Werther's Originals?

Scrapper is now playing in selected cinemas.