Monday 30 October 2023

Beasts of the Southern wild: "Leo"

Out East, the Tamil hit Leo has been drawing eyes as both the latest vehicle for rumpled, bedheaded matinee idol Vijay and a further extension of the so-called Lokesh Cinematic Universe, now a trilogy of loosely connected films - directed by hip young gunslinger Lokesh Kanagaraj - pitting cops against drugrunners. In the West, the film might just raise a cinephile eyebrow or two as a new take on the John Wagner/Vince Locke comic book previously adapted by screenwriter Josh Olson for 2005's A History of Violence. Not for Kanagaraj the slowburn David Cronenberg approach to this material: Vijay's hero Parthiban is introduced singlehandedly rescuing a school full of moppets from a ravenous hyena, in what instantly presents as a strong contender for 2023's most leftfield setpiece. Having thus established the normally mild-mannered proprietor of the Wild Beans Café as a figure with a certain set of skills, this camera sticks around to watch as Parthiban does much the same to spare his small, snowy, mountain-adjacent town from the vanload of hairy ne'er-do-wells passing through, and then himself and his family from druglords following the bloodtrails left behind. Kanagaraj isn't interested in the ambiguities and perversity Cronenberg located in the source. Wagner's plot has been straightened out into the latter-day Western the earlier film only gestured towards, driven by a hero who is absolutely a hero - a man who walks out of the courtroom hearing his self-defence case with not just a pardon but a National Bravery Award to boot - doing at every turn what a hero, which in this cinema is almost always a man, has got to do. This version is vastly more expansive and explosive than the tautly simmering Cronenberg film, 
which possibly explains why Leo opened Top 10 in the US and Top 5 in the UK, but its internal workings and politics are also notably more conservative. For one reason or another, I spent much of it with the phrase just say no bouncing around inside my head.

The movie runs a marathon 164 minutes, but you don't have to look far or long for signs of that conservatism. Trisha, an active participant in Mani Ratnam's magnificent Ponniyin Selvan diptych, is here reduced to the status of brow-furrowing wife and inevitable damsel-in-distress. (Unlike Maria Bello in the Cronenberg History, she doesn't even get to bust out the cheerleader garb: it's the direction that most aggressively shakes its pompoms for our guy.) Anirudh Ravichander's songs are so on-the-nose they practically constitute a clip round the ear: bellows of "I'm shit-scared" to establish the threat facing the family, while the revelation of Parthiban's secret identity cues the almost admirably primitive couplet "Mr. Leo Das is a badass/He's gonna kick your sad ass". A further show of basic-bitch intent comes with the arrival of the film's ultimate big bad: Kanagaraj sends on no-one so sly as William Hurt, rather the brute force of Sanjay Dutt as a tobacco-growing Satanist. (Transferrable skills, maybe?) To be fair, having straightened out the central conflict like a wet locker room towel, Kanagaraj gives it a fair flick for his setpieces: a colossal fist fight that comprehensively does for the fixtures of the Wild Beans Café, a cavalry charge home that sees Parthiban mount a gleaming white stallion (told you he was a hero), a genuinely inventive warehouse set-to viewed from the POV of a hawk circling the action. What's been lost in translation is Olson/Cronenberg's stealth and guile. Where the earlier film found ways to metabolise its hero's backstory, Leo's second half grinds to a halt with a flashback that briefs latecomers and opens up a strain of filmi self-reflexivity (including a jokey Anurag Kashyap cameo) but never feels anything other than superfluous. Its presence ensures Leo fits the template of the needlessly overextended multiplex actioner: while bigger and longer than the Cronenberg equivalent, this history of violence is also notably thinner, somewhere between stirring and lumbering on a scene-by-scene basis and forgettable thereafter. Amid its punchdrunk final act - taking in CG pile-ups, gardens full of mantraps and ugly cuts to ensure the 15 certificate - I began to wonder whether this wasn't one of those remakes compiled with exhausting enthusiasm by a fanboy who'd completely missed his inspiration's point.

Leo is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 28 October 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of October 20-22, 2023):

1 (new) Trolls Band Together (U)
2 (new) Killers of the Flower Moon (15) ****
3 (1) Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (12A) ***
4 (new) Leo (15/18 [note: two different cuts on release]) **
5 (2) Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie (U)
6 (3) The Exorcist: Believer (15)
7 (4) Sumotherhood (15)
8 (6) The Great Escaper (12A) ***
9 (5The Creator (12A) **
10 (7) Saw X (18)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. Peeping Tom [above]
5. I Know Where I'm Going!

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (15) The Meg 2: The Trench (12)
3 (3) Barbie (12) ***
5 (2) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12)
6 (8) Insidious: The Red Door (15)
7 (21) Practical Magic (12)
8 (6) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
10 (new) The Nun II (15)

My top five: 
1. Talk to Me
2. Barbie
5. Sisu

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Gravity (Saturday, BBC2, 7pm)
2. Summer of Soul (Tuesday, Channel 4, 2.15am)
3. Hope (Monday, Channel 4, 1.05am)
4. Beetlejuice (Saturday, Channel 5, 3.30pm)
5. The Nest (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)

Roots: "Killers of the Flower Moon"

One reason Martin Scorsese has been installed as a great American artist is that his work has persistently returned to a most American theme: the circulation and protection of capital. One reason Scorsese has been obliged to operate outside of the studio system in recent years - reverting to the status of independent artisan, albeit one with the might of Netflix and Apple behind him - is that he's retained an eye (and sharpened his eye) for the terrible things done in the name of capital; he's a hard person to enter into business with when you're chiefly concerned with preserving the status quo. Filmmakers need money to show the full worth and allure of money: how it catches the eye, dazzles, seduces, drives men crazy. They also need money to show the full extent of the atrocities committed for money, and to turn ugly spats and petty squabbles into tableaus that illustrate something about the world in its entirety.
Killers of the Flower Moon, a 200-minute riff on David Grann's non-fiction tome funded by Apple to the tune of a reported $200m, opens as the landgrab of the interwar years is just starting to accelerate. Silver-tongued, none-too-bright shagger Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo Di Caprio) hops off a train in a once-unpromising Oklahoman backwater reordered overnight by the discovery of oil on native American land. As Burkhart settles into his new home on the ranch of his cattle-baron uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro), Scorsese eases us into his confrontational project: showing the myriad ways by which white men like Burkhart and Hale drove the Osage tribe down. They robbed them, as per Burkhart's brief career as an out-and-out jewel thief. They screwed them out of a fortune: Burkhart takes up with native Mollie (Lily Gladstone, from Certain Women) for reasons that seem dubious at best. Sometimes, they took the natives out of the picture altogether. Around the two leads, the bodies start dropping like flies, some in mysterious (read: underinvestigated) circumstances, others in broad daylight, like the young mother shot by her husband in an incident deemed to be suicide. When - at Hale's urging - Burkhart starts tampering with Mollie's insulin, the picture is complete and clear: this was an attempt by one group of people to write another out of history - out of existence - for good.

We are, then, a very long way from the romanticism of Dances with Wolves, the last major three-hour study of American tribal relations - and, not coincidentally, the film that beat Scorsese's GoodFellas to the Best Picture Oscar a little over thirty years ago. Scorsese is old enough to remember the brutalities of 1970's revisionist, Vietnam-influenced Western Soldier Blue, and to recall what went awry with 1980's Heaven's Gate, the right film released into the wrong historical moment. Killers is not without lightness, deceptive as it seems in retrospect: its gently hushed first hour, unfolding to the late Robbie Robertson's keening, bluesy score, sketches a prelapsarian vision of American potential, gesturing towards peaceful co-existence in the cornflower fields of a country beginning to arrange itself along recognisably modern lines. Scorsese even floats the intriguing possibility that some part of Burkhart - north of the groin, south of his largely empty head - might sincerely be in love with Mollie: we sense that, because this camera is visibly enamoured of Gladstone's grave beauty. (How could anybody not honestly fall for her?) Yet at a crucial point, a select group of men took control, and got their hands around the nation's neck. What the film describes, over its three-and-a-half hours, is the beginning of a chokehold, and a long, slow death. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth adopt an identifiable and reliably effective tactic, disrupting every other handsome, sundappled period set-up by having something as besmirching as oil erupt in the middle of it. Sometimes it's merely condescension (two white oldtimers discussing the genesis of mixed-race children) or crassness (Hale offering a reward for information on crimes he knows full well about) or pettiness (Burkhart haggling over the price of a coffin); often it's plain racism and/or violence. If the movie creeps rather than dashes through this takeover bid, it's the better to describe and fully inhabit a moment, not so far removed from our own, when this barbarism - ethnic cleansing, before we had the words to describe such horrors - sat side-by-side with genteel domestication. Some part of America was easing slippered feet under the table, even as the hands up top were covered in blood.

For much of this century, I've wondered if we weren't beginning to take Scorsese for granted - whether as a figurehead of film history, a bulwark against the Marvelisation of pop culture, or a semi-baffled walk-on in his daughter's TikTok videos. 2019's The Irishman found him back on home turf, albeit doggedly covering as much of that territory as he could, and perhaps closing the book on the Mob film for now. But Killers is something new entirely: both a refinement of the foundational epic Scorsese attempted twenty years ago with Gangs of New York - a film cut down at the knees by a producer with things to hide - and an expansion of a historical vision to implicate anybody who's ever taken refuge in capitalist ideology. Its technical assurance is as striking as its moral probity: if its narrative shape feels a touch predictable - a straight downward line, not unlike any graph of Oklahoma's native American population over this period - Scorsese and his collaborators have constructed around it a world so rich, busy and detailed one is compelled to see exactly where it leads. (Here is where film and streaming television begin to merge: Killers bears every sign of what Scorsese learnt while working on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.) From the grizzled oldtimers to the late-arriving G-men, everyone looks the part, and the leads - sensing they're working within touching distance of greatness - rise to the occasion absolutely. Di Caprio, in particular, lends Burkhart an almost palpable veneer of greasy privilege, perfect for the kind of doltish mediocrity who could only ever get anywhere in a society organised in his favour; he can be funny with it, as when pursuing a hitman who's vanished on his watch, but he's a terribly compromised human being. Opposite him, De Niro, quietly, unflashily putting his foot down on scenes, reminds us of the gravity only Scorsese now gets from him. The objections raised by Anthony Lane among others - that the movie defaults to the white man's perspective - are not wholly detached from what's on screen, but they strike me as a slight misreading of Scorsese's purpose: beyond a certain point in this narrative, there's hardly anyone else left. Capitalism was the only boogeyman in town, Mollie its final girl, bearing silent witness to the terrors visited on body, kin and land. (Here is late October's most appositely haunting release: a film constructed on actual burial ground.) Scorsese, for his part, has spent the money on the fullest imaginable diagnosis of America's - and likely the world's - present woes, going out into the fields where the bodies were indifferently interred, digging back a century, and exposing the tangled roots of today's racism. A rare contemporary multiplex option to prove at least as bracing as it is absorbing, Killers of the Flower Moon is the work of a born historian who's also seen enough in his own time to know there's no quick fix for what lies deep in the hearts of men and some way down in the ground. Still, Scorsese insists, we owe it to ourselves, and all those who lie there, to keep digging, and never look away from what it is we find.

Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday 23 October 2023

Remote control: "Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour"

So this is it: movie capitalism's last dance. I've made
my thoughts on the unique circumstances of The Eras Tour's release known elsewhere; all I'll add is that no ultimate good can follow from millionaire megastars arriving at ticket-pricing formulae derived from their own back catalogue. (One dreads the release of Ed Sheeran's Squared.) What of the film itself? Clearly - if not quite overwhelmingly - effort has been made to replicate the glories of a wildly successful arena tour. We get a full three hours of spectacle, one hit after another; a lightshow that dazzles while never fully eclipsing the all-American sweetheart centre stage; passing glances at screaming, lipsynching, openly weeping fans, each cutaway a nudge as to how to respond when in Ms. Swift's presence; built-in crowd participation, a zillion glowsticks, and entirely unnecessary pricegouging. (If Ticketmaster doesn't get you, Taylor will.) At least artistically, the current #1 movie suffers from releasing Swift on the heels of the Stop Making Sense reissue, reminding us as that film did of a moment when Jonathan Demme elevated the concert movie to the standing of rare popular art. The Eras Tour is adroitly managed commerce: like those operatic and theatrical simulcasts that have clogged the multiplex for several years now, it's an extension of a pre-existing revenue stream, a facsimile of an event. The direction, by the unimprovably named Sam Wrench, has by the very nature of that event to be unobtrusive: while assiduously catching every last cute legkick and tush shake, these cameras have been placed under strict instruction not to come between Tay-Tay and her adoring fans. The overall impression is of a lot of cutting around, for reasons that are as much to do with momentum as they are with what's being peddled here: escapism that depends on no-one seeing the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. Yes, you will hear, in pristine Dolby Surround, the 2014 hit "Blank Space" - the most disturbing confession to have made the Top 10 in a long time, pop's equivalent of Catherine Breillat casting Rocco Siffredi as her ideal man and then wondering why she wakes up bruised and alone. Otherwise, this is not a show that gives anything away easily, far less for free.

In large part, this is down to the way The Eras Tour has been constructed in the image of Swift herself, an eerily poised presence; more than once - and particularly whenever her image is projected onto the giant screens either side of this stage - I was reminded of S1m0ne, the computer-generated starlet invented by pop Frankenstein Al Pacino in Andrew Niccol's Truman Show follow-up. Beyoncé, a previous wearer of pop's Little Miss Perfect crown, let her mask slip briefly when she allowed herself to be filmed hyperventilating at the end of the "Single Ladies" video. (Here was the work Kelly Rowland was singing about.) Swift, by contrast, steps through a trap door, mascara intact, at the end of each song, and proceeds onto the next change of costume and era. Every pose gives the impression of being pre-rehearsed; in the middle of a stadium filled with this many people, and a show made of this many moving parts, the singer never loses track of where the cameras are. (Somewhat ironically, her sole detectable idiosyncrasy is her insistence on pronouncing "Eras Tour" as "errors tour".) She is all of the following: a fascinating amalgamation of Julee and Tom Cruise; the Britney who did not, who would not break; and something like a Barbie made of Terminators. (In her universe, John Connor stands not a chance.) The songs, reassuringly, remain pretty solid, if inevitably polished and standardised to stadium norms. The keychange in 2008's "Love Story" stands unsurpassed in 21st century pop music, propelling us all at lightspeed towards a blissfully happy ending; though it's less effective when Swift tries the same trick towards the end of the lockdown-era "Betty". By the time she's doing the hits from her 16th and 17th albums, it all became a shade too showbiz-robotic for these tastes: the kind of identikit empowerment pop fashioned for use on the end credits of a Hunger Games sequel, prequel or reboot. Watching The Eras Tour is to realise fame is a process whereby certain performers turn themselves into machinery so as to generate that which the public - and the marketplace - demands.

Two-thirds of the way through the night, Swift pauses the son-et-lumière to give a goofy, heartfelt speech in which she thanks her fans for allowing her to experiment with sounds and genres - it's heartfelt because she clearly means it, but it lands as goofy because it comes at exactly the point everything has started to sound samey; it's not as if we've heard from noisecore Taylor or John Zorn Taylor. This (evidently very successful) formula permits for as many variants as Coke (Mountain Dew country, Tab Clear acoustic, Diet folk) - and in the case of 2014's irresistible "Shake It Off", original Coke in a chilled glass bottle - but it's all still carbonated sugar water, the runway the show unfolds on coming to resemble a well-lit production line. Some of what gets turned out there absolutely hits the spot, but having to gulp down three hours of it is a lot for anybody who doesn't already have shares in the company. (For those who do, don't forget to pick up your tie-in Eras Tour cup, just £14.89 at your local Odeon.) It may well be that Swift is young and ambitious enough to eventually plunge through a trap door and re-emerge in her Tin Machine era, one that leads her audience places they're not sure they want to go - but then I remember saying something similar about the Harry Potter films when they started to get "darker", and look how that series finished up. Taylor is giving fan service for now, which makes her both a perfect fit and a safe bet for the strenuously risk-averse modern multiplex, and at a time when so much about this world appears hopelessly broken, there is comfort to be found in seeing and hearing a machine that still works as it should, that delights in gifting the public what it wants and longs for: a fantasy of aspirational slickness, sold by someone in complete control of her body and business. The pre-teens two rows behind me didn't just sing but shrieked along, excelling in the shoutier bits of "I Knew You Were Trouble"; they fell ominously silent during the roughly 1600 break-up songs, and went berserk when Taylor made the heart symbol down the camera lens. Just one solitary slip of the thumb on Spotify, and they may yet discover the late Richard Swift.

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour screens in cinemas nationwide Thursday to Sunday until November 5.

Sunday 22 October 2023

On demand: "The Burial"

The Burial
 is another of those Nineties throwbacks engineered by creatives who spent their formative years browsing the racks at Blockbuster Video. Its primary model is the John Grisham legal procedural (definite-article, two-word title; characterful lawyers; progressive social outlook; final courtroom showdown), but it's a throwback that benefits from thirty years more reading and learning; it doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Certainly, this script - by Doug Wright and the director Maggie Betts - is nuanced about race in a way the oft-clumsy, proto-Sorkinian white liberal pieties of The Client and A Time to Kill weren't, and because it derives from a true story rather than one Caucasian millionaire's imagination, there's an element of journalism in the mix, too. A closing credit confirmed what I suspected all along: that the story hails from a New Yorker article, by Jonathan Harr. It's a story that, in passing, tells us something about subjects neither of us would likely have considered much: the workings of the American funeral business, and the kind of nuts-and-bolts litigation that passed through courts unexamined while the OJ trial's scurrilous three-ring circus was hogging all the attention. Yet in the hands of Nineties kids Wright and Betts, it also becomes a buddy comedy of sorts, charting the vaguely unlikely alliance between terse Jeremiah "Jerry" O'Keeffe (so terse he's played by Tommy Lee Jones), who agreed to sell his Mississippi funeral home to an umbrella company so as to find the cash he needed to repay the Government, and Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), the flamboyant, self-made legal eagle who flew in - aboard his private jet, known as "Wings of Justice" - to represent O'Keeffe after the corporation reneged on the deal.

As the film has it, Gary was hired because the case was filed in a predominantly black community and thus liable to be heard before a majority black jury. (The lawyer's credentials are established in the opening scene, showing the righteous Gary preaching from the pulpit of his local Baptist church.) O'Keeffe - a war hero active in the civil rights movement - insists this is by no means a discrimination suit, but as whipsmart defence lawyer Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) puts it around the trial's midpoint, "race keeps trying to come up". Betts has a nice, sure feel for the way her staid, formalised courtroom setting suddenly erupts with long-suppressed squabbles and spats: everything comes back to ownership, a subject the film defines as race-adjacent. Contract law is a matter who screwed who; it turns out O'Keeffe wasn't the only one the corporation cheated. The discovery process proves a little long and clunky, and you can feel Betts going through the gears as the prosecution's case gets comprehensively redirected. But this filmmaker visibly likes people, and she really likes actors, which is more than enough to keep The Burial on its own path of righteousness. 

You see it most clearly in Betts' decision to take a chance on Jones, despite his, uh, formidable reputation: her reward - which is also our reward - is this actor's most relaxed and likable showing in some while. Even if for no other reason, The Burial will go down in history as the one and only film in which Jones - wholly charmingly - hums along to Tony! Toni! Toné! (The combo's comeback cannot be mere coincidence.) Betts makes a good, longsighted pick in Mamoudou Athie as the earnest nephew who becomes an essential part of O'Keeffe's legal team; upright and foursquare, he offers an appreciable contrast to Foxx's (thoroughly enjoyable) showboating - the kind of showboating you can only get away with when attached to a shrewd legal mind. And the supporting cast is stocked Grisham-deep with folks you're only too happy to see: Bill Camp as the corporate fatcat going toe-to-toe with Foxx on the witness stand and nose-to-nose with Jones over the negotiating table; the wonderful Pamela Reed as Jones's wife, a final conscience-check for every major decision; Alan Ruck as the good ol' boy O'Keeffe associate trying to swallow down his prejudice long enough to ensure the win. Perhaps the film's biggest throwback is its optimism - its faith in the ability of diverse groups of people to talk through their differences, make the right call, and thus improve the world in some quantifiable way. The fatcats and bigshots have spent the thirty years since doing their best to ensure that doesn't happen, and accruing the wealth that allows them to make the payoffs that ensure that doesn't happen. The hope Betts's film rather touchingly exhumes and holds up is that the conversational corrective is still out there - that, unlike Blockbuster, it's not dead and buried yet.

The Burial is now streaming via Prime Video.

Friday 20 October 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of October 13-15, 2023):

1 (new) Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (12A) ***
2 (new) Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie (U)
3 (1) The Exorcist: Believer (15)
4 (new) Sumotherhood (15)
5 (2) The Creator (12A) **
6 (4) The Great Escaper (12A) ***
7 (3) Saw X (18)
8 (5A Haunting in Venice (12A)
9 (new) The Miracle Club (12A)
10 (re) Frozen (PG) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Mean Streets
4. Gravity [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (30) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (12)
3 (2) Barbie (12) ***
6 (6) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
8 (7) Insidious: The Red Door (15)
9 (8) Fast X (12)
10 (re) Elemental (PG)

My top five: 
1. Talk to Me
5. Sisu

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Apocalypse Now (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
2. The Addams Family (Sunday, Channel 4, 4.35pm)
3. Collateral (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.40pm)
4. Testament of Youth (Sunday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
5. Monster House (Sunday, Channel 4, 1pm)

Spy vs. spy: "The Pigeon Tunnel"

Given how rapidly we descended from
Barbenheimer (the movies are back!) to The Nun 2, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 and Expendables 4 (take them away again; we're done here), the return of not one but two American masters to our screens this weekend offers much-needed cause for cheer. Errol Morris might be considered the Scorsese of cinematic non-fiction: another garrulous New Yorker with a recognisable set of stylistic tics, he too has appeared to interrogate history and the human condition with even greater vigour entering his dotage, searching for illumination even as the light dims. If Morris's documentaries have become a little more sedentary with time - more dependent on the extended sit-down interview that was an essential part of this filmmaker's practice from the off - they've also come to benefit from the enhanced insight and wisdom that follows from keeping your eyes open and camera rolling for the better part of five decades. The Pigeon Tunnel is the Morris version of a celebrity exclusive: the sit-down and chinwag here was with John Le Carré (born David Cornwell, 1931), not long before the author's passing in December 2020. On paper, these are two very different men: the gabby American and the reticent, quietly aristocratic Brit. Yet the film reveals Morris and Cornwell as closely matched minds, perhaps even kindred spirits, set as they are to pondering a shared set of interests: subterfuge and yarnspinning, the slipperiness of truth, how the world really works, and the stories we tell to keep ourselves warm on long cold winter nights. In his writing, Cornwell positioned himself against the fantasy and glamour of Ian Fleming's 007 books. Morris has been doing something similar in his own line of work, trying to keep his colleagues - and, who knows, perhaps even mankind entire - honest.

He has fun with the framing, though, as he generally does. We're watching two wary oldtimers - giants in their field, like Smiley and Mother - feeling one another out, in what could be either a mock-up of or Cornwell's actual study (the truth remains slippery), but could as easily be a park bench in a country behind the Iron Curtain. That mysterious title gets explained away early on, as at once the working title for most of Le Carré's books, the actual title of his 2016 memoir, and a working metaphor for entrapment, how the powers-that-be ensure the outcomes they want. Seasoned peepers both, interviewer and interviewee take turns putting the other in their crosshairs. Comrade Morris arrives at this assignation aware that the author is carrying round not just his own secrets, but also those of his family: a serial conman father who lined up his moneyed son as a potential mark, a mother who saw through the imposture and went on the run herself. Cornwell cites the Graham Greene observation that childhood is the writer's credit account; Morris connects it to his subject's time in the intelligence community. According to Cornwell, institutions like MI5 prey on those "separated from the nest" - individuals who may respond best to close supervision, willing to gather and pass on information as a show of affection ("Now do you love me?") to handlers who assume the place of absent parents. There was a reason Mother was called Mother. Although he's one of those authors willing to entertain and engage with outside readings of his work, the Cornwell filmed here still seems capable of deflection or deception; he's a worthy adversary for any documentarist. We hear a lifetime's worth of stories about others, blessed with writerly turns of phrase: of Kim Philby, Cornwell notes "if you gave him a cat to look after for a couple of weeks, he'd betray the cat". Yet he's far more cautious around himself (or his selves); right until his final days, the old intelligence training held sway.

Which is not to underplay or undersell Morris's own achievements here. In some respects, The Pigeon Tunnel is nothing this filmmaker hasn't been doing for the past fifty years: listening, considering, posing the odd probing or leading question. Yet Morris keeps digging beneath Cornwell's well-rehearsed supper-club anecdotes; he seems re-energised by the opportunity to tape not just a great writer's last will and testament, but also his final confessions. (It makes sense that a career that began with 1978's Gates of Heaven should eventually point towards Morris effectively playing Saint Peter.) If external circumstances mean this is no ordinary celebrity interview, the form remains broadly straightforward: the kind of talking-head arrangement that has been a documentary stock-in-trade since the introduction of sound. Morris's real work - the real digging - comes, you sense, after the interviews and handshakes have been concluded; it lies in locating the double and triple meanings in his subject's words, and in pointing those up for the onlooker with the help of resonant images. This involves the usual, supremely skilful repurposing of archival elements: Cornwell family photos that inspire their own interpretations and counterinterpretations, clips of Le Carré adaptations for film and television, suggestive shots of Morris's own invention and making. (What's with the room filled with eggshells - or are they crushed skulls?) Nothing, however, may be as significant here as a close-up of a single sliver of text that reads "at a certain age, you want the answer" - the line that connects Smiley to Le Carré and Cornwell to his interrogator. Morris, siding with truth, demonstrates no great desire to dress this project and encounter up as anything other than what it is: two men who've had cause to consider the psychology of men sitting in a darkened room talking about why people do what they do, and leaving us to infer why the world turns as it does. Over ninety minutes, and to a score that cribs as freely from Mission: Impossible as it does from Morris regular Philip Glass, The Pigeon Tunnel argues that might just remain the most thrilling, rewarding and necessary pursuit there is.

The Pigeon Tunnel opens in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Apple TV+, from today.

Thursday 19 October 2023

In memoriam: Piper Laurie (Telegraph 18/10/23)

Piper Laurie
, who has died aged 91, was a three-time Oscar nominee who began her career as a vivacious, russet-maned starlet, before reinventing herself in roles that reminded an indifferent industry of her versatility and durability: as Paul Newman’s lover in The Hustler (1961), the unforgettably monstrous matriarch in Carrie (1976) and a sublimely scheming businesswoman in Twin Peaks (1990-91).

Born Rosetta Jacobs, she had been rechristened Piper Laurie by Universal execs; publicity material suggested this teenage discovery snacked on petals to maintain her rosy glow. Initially deployed to glam up such filler as talking mule comedy Francis Goes to the Races (1951), Laurie rebelled upon reading her desultory part in one Audie Murphy Western. She tore up the script in her agent’s office, telling him: “They can throw me in jail, sue me, I don’t care what... I’m never working again until I can do something that I have some respect for.” 

Extricated from contractual obligation, she demonstrated a new maturity in The Hustler, earning her first Oscar nod as Sarah Packard, the doomed alcoholic who catches pool shark Paul Newman’s eye – but warns him “I’ve got troubles and I think maybe you’ve got troubles. Maybe it’d be better if we just leave each other alone.” Laurie stayed home on Oscar night, wrestling with a longstanding amphetamine dependency; the award went to Sophia Loren for Two Women (1960). 

For a decade, she dropped out, moving to Woodstock with her family, kicking the drugs and supporting the civil rights movement (“Being an actor just seemed rather insignificant then”). A New York Times profile of 1972 caught her contentedly baking dill bread. But she would make an arresting comeback – landing her second Oscar nomination – as Margaret White, the heroine’s oppressively devout mother, in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. 

There was some confusion as to what role and project entailed: “I read the script and I thought it was just not very good. My husband said that Brian De Palma has a comedic approach to what he does. I thought, oh, I misread the whole thing... it’s satiric. It’s going to be a comedy.” The enduringly chilling results proved otherwise. 

Finding comparably dynamic parts few and far between, Laurie travelled to Australia to make Tim (1979), romancing younger co-star Mel Gibson on and off-camera. She also made strides into TV, playing Rachel Ward’s confidante Anne Mueller in The Thorn Birds (1983). The latter provided her with one of nine Emmy nominations: she won once, a Best Supporting Actress gong for the family drama Promise (1986). 

She gained her third Oscar nod as Marlee Matlin’s mother in the premium-grade tearjerker Children of a Lesser God (1986). But arguably her choicest role followed when David Lynch cast her as the devious sawmill owner Catherine Martell in Twin Peaks. 

The cult drama’s first season saw Martell cheating on her pushover husband and apparently suffering a fiery demise; in season two, Catherine returned in disguise as the mysterious Japanese businessman Mr. Tojamura. Lynch urged Laurie to make the role her own, and the deception was carefully maintained on set: Laurie’s co-stars were informed the newcomer with the Fu Manchu moustache was a revered Japanese performer who had previously worked with Kurosawa. 

Gleefully running rings around scene partners, Laurie earned the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, and a renewed sense of the possibilities that come from true creative freedom. Twin Peaks, she recalled, “was a period when I truly found myself in the craft I have always loved”. 

Piper Laurie was born on January 22, 1932, one of two daughters to Detroit furniture dealer Alfred Jacobs and his wife Charlotte (née Alperin). A shy child, she was enrolled for elocution lessons and plied with amphetamines in a bid to control her weight. Aged five, she was sent to a sanatorium alongside her asthmatic older sister Sherrye, an experience that “gave me the great gift of imagination”; upon leaving, she realised she wanted to “create, be brave, do something wonderful in the world”. 

She was signed to Universal in 1949 after screen-testing opposite Rock Hudson, and made her debut in the family comedy Louisa (1950), playing Ronald Reagan’s daughter. In her characteristically frank 2011 memoir Learning to Live Out Loud, Laurie described losing her virginity to Reagan (“completely without grace… no gentleman between the sheets”).

In later life, Laurie worked regularly, guest-starring on E.R. (1995-96) and Frasier (1999), and reuniting with Spacek for the big-screen adaptation of The Grass Harp (1995). She made her directorial debut in her seventies with the short Property (2006); she made her musical theatre debut at 81 in a 2013 production of A Little Night Music; her final performances were for the podcasts Carcerem (2020) and Around the Sun (2022-23).

Revisiting her contract starlet roots, Laurie reflected: “Nobody thought of me as an actress. They just remembered that publicity story about my munching flower petals for breakfast. I even thought of giving up the name Piper Laurie because I felt there was a stigma attached to it. I never could figure out just how many parts I lost and how many parts I won because of this name. I know some producers and directors said, ‘Well, maybe she can act even if her name is Piper Laurie!’”

She married the film critic Joe Morgenstern, whom she met while promoting The Hustler, in 1962; they divorced in 1982. She is survived by their daughter Anne Grace.

Piper Laurie, born January 22 1932, died October 14 2023. 

On demand: "The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain"

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
 is at once opportunistic and a work where the opportunism makes its own point. Presumably its backers - who include Morgan Freeman, serving as executive producer - saw the great acclaim and awards bestowed on Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station, and set out to tell a similarly heartrending story of an unarmed black man's death at the hands of the police. The point writer-director David Midell lands is that nobody had to look especially hard or wide to find a comparable tale. Former Marine Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. - old, weary, partially deaf, no immediate harm to anyone, and represented here rather magnificently by the veteran Frankie Faison - was killed in the course of a routine welfare check in late 2011, after cops were called to his apartment by a health monitoring service. From that, you will hopefully already have some sense of the tragic ironies in play here: Midell is very clear this wasn't the random collision of temperaments Coogler described, but a situation badly - indeed, lethally - mismanaged. On screen, it plays out as not unlike a John Carpenter siege: Chamberlain behind a double-locked door, as befuddled (and scared) as anyone might be upon being woken up at five in the morning by loud, percussive knocking; the cops on the other side, cranky at the end of another long night shift, no-one's idea of mental health specialists, busy fostering their own suspicions and fears. The near-complete breakdown of trust we subsequently witness comes to tell its own sad story about 21st century America.

Stuck with a visibly lower budget than the upwardly mobile Coogler, Midell doesn't budge much from his one primary location, but he uses the limited means he has to pin down an altogether damning set of circumstances: for starters, this grotty-looking apartment block seems no place for a seventysomething veteran with health issues to be living unsupervised in. The cops showing up there don't immediately strike the eye as hellhounds, and at least one of them - a former middle-school teacher, played by the film's editor Enrico Natale - seems the kind of level-headed problem-solver any community would want on its payroll. Yet there's only a few more years of service separating him from the ingrained cynicism of his colleagues, who spend the bulk of these ninety minutes jumping to tragic conclusions, and misinterpreting self-defence as resistance or aggression. A smaller, more self-contained proposition than Fruitvale Station, this Killing is fundamentally about entrenchment: everybody on screen is fighting a war they cannot win, and from which anybody would be lucky to emerge alive. What Midell impresses upon us as the film proceeds is that this is asymmetrical warfare. One side has all the force and resources; one has but perishable skin and bones. By the end of the movie, it's seven or eight against one, which is no odds at all, really. The story has likely been thumped up in translation: the sound design alone could give you PTSD, the relentless knocking on Chamberlain's door akin to cannon fire. Yet it was doubtless pretty thumping to begin with, and proves all the more concussing - even harder to get your head around - the closer we are to it. As it is, we're lucky to emerge from this telling with just a headache and a heavy heart, and a greater understanding of what people mean when they say "defund the police". What they're calling for - and it's not much, in the sorry scheme of things - is a fairer fight.

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is now streaming via Channel 4 and Prime Video.

Tuesday 17 October 2023

One foot in the grave: "The Great Escaper"

It feels emblematic of the state of things that the traditional early-autumn release slot of the Little Britfilm That Could - providing back-to-school sanctuary for such well-upholstered yet vaguely pointed history lessons as
The Queen and Philomena - should this year be occupied by a film trading exclusively in nostalgia. The Great Escaper is nostalgia x nostalgia, perhaps even nostalgia x nostalgia x nostalgia, as if this were a formula that could be maximised for box-office gain. (Since retirees are the one group in Britain with a state-protected income, maybe so.) The nostalgia looms up at us on three fronts: it's nostalgia for the triumphs and sacrifices of WW2, which you suspect Britain and British cinema is never going to get over; it's also residual fondness for a pair of veteran performers who for one reason or another, retirement or death, are making their final appearances on the big screen after long, stellar careers; there may even be an element of nostalgia for that pre-Brexit moment when there was still room on the nightly news and the front page of the Daily Mail for a feelgood story with a relatively happy ending. Veteran film and TV scribe William Ivory (Common as Muck; Made in Dagenham) has handed director Oliver Parker (St. Trinian's, Dad's Army) a dramatised retelling of the tale of Bernard "Bernie" Jordan (Michael Caine), the octogenarian ex-Navy man who, in 2014, left behind his Hove retirement home and loving wife Irene (Glenda Jackson) so as to make his own way to the D-Day 70 commemorations in Normandy. As the film has it, Jordan achieved this armed only with a battery-powered walking frame, two wristwatches and some of that old Dunkirk spirit - i.e. much the same combination of pluck and modest technological resources that has been getting British films over the line since the days of In Which We Serve.

What's surprising and sort of interesting about the result is that this is far from the sunny against-the-odds romp promised by that punning title. (More WW2 nostalgia there, but it was also the hashtag used by Sussex Police while relating this benign incident.) The Great Escaper is as grey to look at as mortuary flesh, and as broadly as melancholy an experience as spending time in any underfunded coastal town during the off-season. Ivory and Parker's true subject isn't Jordan getting out, getting there and getting back; indeed, these details are treated indifferently, as much a done deal - and almost as widely reported - as the Normandy landings themselves. No, their true subject is getting on, and getting old; parts of the film would tesselate very easily with Fred Schepisi's adaptation of Last Orders, in which an elder statesman Caine showed up some twenty years ago. A large part of this is obviously circumstantial: you can't now film Caine's only partially heightened shuffles and Jackson's wonderfully jowly face without setting us to notice the effects, in some places ravages of time. (A third wristwatch is in play here: the camera.) As multiple observers have noted, watching Parker's film is like paying to see your own parents or grandparents aging; I'd go further, and say this is that rare Silver Screen shoo-in that actively confronts mortality, and invites its audience to look death squarely in the eye. Calendar Girls it is not.

No doubt cognisant of and open to producer notes and concerns, Parker tries to jolly it all along: Jackson's banter with the young nursing-home staff (teachable example of a wily performer raising herself up by her elbows and doing her level best to dig something sharper out of moderate material), flashbacks to when the lead characters were younger, more mobile and prettier (very Last Orders, this, although not quite blessed with the same calibre of acting personnel), the genial companionship of John Standing as the RAF-schooled headmaster Bernie meets and befriends on the ferry going over, stray cracks at the expense of the Jerries and the Yanks, Bernie letting the tyres down on a courier's bike in a pre-emptive strike against other people's freedom of movement. Yet there's finally no getting around it: the film doesn't represent some celebratory lap of honour, rather a last goodbye, a fond farewell not just to Bernie and 'Renie, but an entire generation who got out while the going was still relatively good, and before rapacious relatives could send them outside to walk lengths of the garden for cash. The Great Escaper trades in nostalgia out of an acknowledgement that - after four decades of misrule by Caine's beloved Conservatives - nostalgia may be all Britain has left to trade in: increasingly dim and distant memories of a supposedly glorious past when we stood upright, alone and did the right thing. Parker's film sounds the last post over these spectral reminders of yesteryear; tears will almost certainly be shed. Exactly for what, as with so much else in the Britain of 2023, remains unclear.

The Great Escaper is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

On demand: "Name Me Lawand"

The filmmaker Edward Lovelace is making communication his primary subject. Back in 2014, Lovelace signed off on
The Possibilities Are Endless, an equal parts moving and stirring overview of the singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins' efforts to recover from the stroke that robbed him of speech. The documentarist has spent the intervening years working on Name Me Lawand, a longform study of a boy similarly struggling to put two words together. In this case, this is partly a matter of geographic displacement: pre-teen Lawand is the son of Kurdish migrants who've ended up in Derbyshire, of all places. Partly, it's an internal battle: Lawand is deaf, which means he has no immediate way of knowing how his hosts' brave new words sound. From the off, Lovelace is determined that we should meet his subject square on; there's no condescension or special pleading. Over the opening credits, we hear Lawand's stuttering attempts to speak for himself, a choice that essentially appoints a narrator who has neither the tongue nor the vocabulary to articulate all that he's seen and been through. As an on-camera presence, Lawand is initially somewhat reticent, hiding out in school corridors while his louder classmates make merry; it's both charming and somewhat miraculous when a teacher gets him to blurt out the name of his adoptive hometown. Still, it's slow progress: Lawand visibly responds best to the sort of focused, one-on-one teaching that isn't always possible in the British education system of the 21st century. Your heart will sink a little when, by one means or another, all this kid has to convey to Lovelace's camera is a five-word bulletin: "I choose not to speak."

Yet rest easy: if Name Me Lawand isn't quite the feelgood story of the year, it's not too far off. Over these ninety minutes, Lawand gains a whole new language, friends, allies, parents to whom he can talk, and abundant self-confidence. It's just we're aware that outcome couldn't always have been certain over the long years of filming, especially in a newly hostile environment for migrants. (One of the few benefits of deafness is that you don't have to hear the words falling from the lips of May, Braverman, Shapps et al.; still, Lawand has much to fear from the official government communications landing on the welcome mat.) Furthermore, Lovelace's immersive formal treatment muddies the dramatic waters in interesting ways; his film is to deafness what Black Sun and Notes on Blindness were to visual impairment, and what The Reason I Jump was to autism. Here is a film that fully understands the refocusing power of silence in a medium that now places such deafening emphasis on sound; one that also spots in passing the great eloquence of hands that talk. (A framing quirk: faces bisected at the top of the frame, so as to allow more room for dextrously signing fingers.) There are some especially magical classroom scenes, where under the tutelage of patient teacher Sophie Stone - at once vocal coach, playmate and psychotherapist; no pay rise could do her justice - this troubled student begins to connect with the landscape he finds himself in. Throughout, Lovelace does all he can to get his camera out of his subjects' way, the better to allow us to read faces, body language, thoughts, emotions. It's a model of proactive documentary practice, obliging us to intuit and empathise at every stage, and thereby doing away with the hierarchy of information to which more conventional non-fiction clings - that deadening emphasis on the tell part of show-and-tell. (I've not seen a film that more forcefully impresses on its viewers what sign language means to its users - why it's forever more than just a cool thing to learn.) Crucially, director, audience and subject proceed through this story together, on as level a playing field as an able-bodied filmmaker can provide for a mostly able-bodied audience. We spy this family have problems long before the Home Office start sniffing around; if your heart doesn't go out to them - if, for all Lawand and Lovelace's efforts, you fail to connect with the tousle-haired kid straining to express himself at a formative moment - then there might still be a slot for you in the present Cabinet.

Name Me Lawand is available to rent via Prime Video and the BFI Player.

Sunday 15 October 2023

On demand: "Alice"

The most imaginative Lewis Carroll adaptation of the modern era, 1988's part-live action, part-stopmotion
Alice reframes its source as the reverie of a bored girl (Kristýna Kohoutová), abandoned by her elders to stuffy rooms filled with inanimate objects that - in the hands of revered Czech animator Jan Svankmajer - come to unexpected, funny, sometimes horrifying life. A taxidermied, demonic-seeming White Rabbit - who looks like a vengeful relic of the Ladislaw Starewicz era of animation - pulls up the nails securing his paws to the floor of a display case, makes efforts to repair the sawdust leaking from a gash in his chest, and clicks his buck teeth together in such a disconcerting way it might well freak out adult onlookers, never mind their offspring. Alice, for her part, transforms into a beady-eyed doll attacked by birds, and is left to her own devices as these chambers slowly flood with water, suggesting the river of the film's idyllic prologue has been rerouted indoors. What's especially eerie is that much of the action plays out in near-silence, with no score and only heightened sound effects to fill the void. It's possible boisterous kids, warming to the curiosity and resilience of their onscreen surrogate, might start to provide their own soundtrack of oohs, aahs and surprised or terrified gasps. That said, though announced on screen as "a film for children" and still possessed of a PG certificate, the matter of how suitable Alice is for matinee or teatime viewing remains largely open to debate.

It would certainly be a formative experience for the very young, albeit in much the same way falling off one's bike and grazing your hands and knees could be considered a formative experience. One especially discomfiting reading this version offers up is that Alice's adventures come to describe the ways history is repeated and trauma perpetuated. Towards the end, the abandoned child picks up a pair of scissors abandoned by the Queen of Hearts and demonstrates her intention to cut off the heads of those around her; this Alice learns cruelty on her travels, and she gains her own desire for revenge. (See where indifferent parenting leads you?) I think it is a work for children, but in the same way Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies are works for children: it needs handing over with reassuring context, and no small measure of caution. Svankmajer certainly translates the "adventures" part of Carroll's original title, but he proceeds by his own idiosyncratic logic, every tangent (woodworm socks, pincushion porcupines, the absolute derangement-by-editing of the Mad Hatter's tea party) slotting precisely into place, a spellbinding discovery behind each and every locked door. Along the way, he attains the confounding, dizzying pleasures that come from merging a tour of a museum of antiquities with a visit to a contemporary art gallery; it remains a very great crime against the cinema that many more folks have seen those Tim Burton atrocities than have fallen down this particular rabbit hole.

Friday 13 October 2023

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of October 6-8, 2023):

1 (new) The Exorcist: Believer (15)
2 (1) The Creator (12A) **
3 (2) Saw X (18)
4 (new) The Great Escaper (12A) ***
5 (3A Haunting in Venice (12A)
6 (5) The Equalizer 3 (15)
7 (4) The Nun 2 (15)
8 (9) The Old Oak (15)
9 (6) A Little Life (18)
10 (new) BlackBerry (15) ****

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Mean Streets [above]
5. Friday the 13th

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

2 (1) Barbie (12) ***
5 (re) The Little Mermaid (PG)
6 (6) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
7 (new) Insidious: The Red Door (15)
8 (5) Fast X (12)
9 (3) Blue Beetle (12)
10 (4) The Flash (12) **

My top five: 
One Fine Morning

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Summer of Soul (Monday, Channel 4, 10pm)
2. Lady Bird (Saturday, BBC1, 12.10am)
3. Us (Sunday, BBC2, 9pm)
4. How to Train Your Dragon (Sunday, Channel 4, 2pm)
5. Flushed Away (Sunday, ITV1, 12.45pm)