Thursday 18 July 2024

The wind rises: "Twisters"

Hollywood's blowback summer continues.
Twisters is a sequel we might have expected to see some time between 1997 and 1999, in the immediate wake of the $500m success of 1996's original Twister. That film - co-written by Michael Crichton, exec-produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Speed's Jan de Bont - was one of Amblin's post-Jurassic blockbusters, designed to wow us anew with the growing sophistication of digital technology. (We can do T-rex scaled weather now.) It's been a while, then, but if there's one thing the studios know and know what to do with, it's hot air, and Twisters duly gives full, destructive physical shape and heft to what a film like the Fall Guy movie was constructed from and sold on. This being a 2024 variation, there is no inclination to pander to those adults who've abandoned the cinema in favour of the couch: the new film's stormchasers aren't the down-home grown-ups who populated the original (Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Alan Ruck, Jami Gertz), rather perky kids who barely look qualified to be operating a Bunsen burner. Representing Team Science (Magnus Pyke voice: science!): meteorologists Daisy Edgar-Jones and Anthony Ramos, striving to scan tornadoes using new, military-grade equipment, so as to predict their movements and mitigate against future destruction. Representing the thrillseekers among us: Glen Powell (a.k.a. Pin-Up Limmy) and his shit-eating grin, who rocks up in Storm Alley blasting "Ghost Riders in the Sky", aiming for hits on his YouTube channel much as the movie wants bums on seats.

Right through to the country-inflected Hot 100 contender plastered over the closing credits, that movie is a blockbuster built the way blockbusters used to be: pure formula, in its essence, but an abiding, pleasurable one, confidently executed and delivered. (If Twisters whips up a storm at the box office in the days ahead, we'll know why.) There's a high chance of town-trashing CGI, yes, but it never entirely wipes out the human interest; the script, credited to Mark L. Smith, has almost audibly been through multiple rewrites, and yet someone has preserved exactly the right level of workable summer-season nonsense. The headline news is the long-overdue return of expository science (science!), dumbing things down a little for the layperson in the cheap seats. Nothing here reaches the Dadaist heights of Aaron Eckhart in 2003's The Core, blowing a trumpet into a lump of granite to illustrate Some Principle or Another, but Ramos seizes upon the chance to teach Tornado Tracking 101 in a coffee shop using a glass of water and three pats of butter. It's maybe pushing it to then parallel tornado triangulation with developments among the central trio (sensible Daisy, cocky Glen, conflicted Anthony), no matter how much talk is thrown up about rising pressure and moisture in the air. But there's something quietly stirring in the vision of rival schools of American thought - the pros, clinging to their equipment, and the vibesurfers, going on intuition - coming to learn from one another. Carrying us beyond Kansas, and far from the political storm raging outside the multiplex door, here is a big studio movie that (doubtless with one eye on profit margins) seeks in its own small, goofy way to bridge the divisions in our society, to present good old boys and college-educated elite in an equally heroic light. That, surely, is the reason the phrase "climate change" is never once spoken: too contentious for some. Instead, Twisters takes a turn for the politically abstract, engineering a series of problems, bound at high velocity for red and blue states alike, which demand fixing through close cooperation.

Your director for the occasion is Lee Isaac Chung, who ports over much the same eye for the natural wonders of the American Midwest as he displayed in 2020's Oscar-nominated Minari. Twisters isn't a venture that cries out for an acclaimed humanist filmmaker, if truth be told, but Chung rolls up his sleeves, and plants his feet firmly in this territory, as if they were the retractible screws Powell uses to keep his ute upright in the middle of a Category 4 hurricane. He displays a fondness for every last player in his expansive ensemble (another golden-age blockbuster trait: there are fun one- or two-scene contributions from the likes of Maura Tierney, as Daisy's mom, and Paul Scheer as an airport parking jobsworth), and a Spielbergian way of amusing himself amid the maelstrom, and thereby amusing us. Clock the early scene that concludes with a pullback to reveal the ceiling fan rotating over our heroine: a domestic twister, a premonition of tumults to come. (I also enjoyed the super-cute Joe 90 glasses everybody now dons to combat flying debris, where Hunt, Paxton and co. presumably got through several million dollars' worth of Optrex.) Elements of repetition, at least early on, explain why we didn't get a sequel 25 years ago: there really are only so many ways anyone can shoot an off-road vehicle driving up to/away from an extreme weather front and keep it interesting. Like one of M. Night Shyamalan's infamous airbenders, Chung has to reroute his storms through a rodeo, a petrochemical plant, a little-league baseball fixture and finally the most evocative location of all so as to expand his field study and collect fresh data. In the end, it's still chiefly hot air, whistling at a high rate of knots between the ears, but it's been carefully shaped: it flows as it should for maximum viewer enjoyment. This is one of those projects you could well imagine the Hollywood of 2024 fumbling terribly. It feels a minor accomplishment that Twisters blows literally and frequently, but never figuratively.

Twisters is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 17 July 2024

Mama, we're all crazee now: "Longlegs"

Longlegs' box-office success comes as a surprise for at least two reasons. Firstly, from a distance - and, in fact, fairly close-up - it has the look of yet more of that VOD-bound serial-killer filler Nicolas Cage has been addending of late to his bran tub of a CV. Secondly, this is a horror film that intends to be horrific, offering none of the playful winking and gleeful splatter of the recent Abigail; its insistent coolness of tone serves as a contrast to the overt emotionality of A Quiet Place: Day One. (One reason for American horror cinema's current commercial hot streak may be that its creatives have figured out what's gone missing from the multiplex in recent decades: the element of choice.) We're transported back to the Clinton years - some time post-Silence of the Lambs and pre-Se7en, two likely (and sound) reference points - to observe a cat-and-mouse game between characters who don't quite fit the usual description. Our heroine (Maika Monroe, from It Follows and Watcher) is a hypersensitive young FBI agent classified in the opening reel as part-psychic. Cage's sociopath - who's been taunting his pursuers for thirty years with missives penned in Zodiac-killer code - deploys an unusual MO: turning the patriarchs of innocent families against their own wives and children (and eventually themselves), essentially delegating the butchery. This shift away from procedural norms has two effects. First, it makes us shift uneasily when our gal's boss (Blair Underwood) invites her home early on to meet his wife and child. (Introducing... Chekhov's nuclear family!) Second, it establishes Longlegs as a contender in the field of messing-with-your-head horror, more cerebral than visceral, dependent for its ultimate success on the suggestibility of characters and audience alike. Maybe the crowds have come out for it knowing that, however fucked up things get, they can always sneak into an adjacent screen and have any scattered mind marbles reset by the chiropractic Inside Out 2.

Our mindmangler-in-chief is writer-director Osgood Perkins, son of Anthony, and yes, that must have been some childhood. ("That messes a kid up," the detective is told after confessing her younger self's dreams of becoming an actress.) Perkins Jr. has a real facility with screen space and architecture, immediately setting about conjuring dread from shots seemingly purged of human life: an anonymous suburban retreat, a library corridor, an abandoned farmhouse at twilight. More generally, he opens up his frames by blocking his actors front and centre, as if they were bugs trapped under the glass of the camera: the depths of the frame, with their sudden, shadowy intrusions, equate to the dark recesses of the imagination and the depths of humanity. Who knows what's lurking back there? Some of this is effective, but elsewhere Longlegs betrays a flatness that suggests a jaded soul taking a black marker pen to back editions of Homes & Gardens. The film's strengths are atmospheric rather than narrative: if you were feeling in any way generous, you could call the pacing considered, but this is a frustratingly stop-start investigation that permits its heroine time to go home and unpick her own past family trauma. Here, Longlegs begins to suffer terribly in comparison with the looming memory of the fully dimensional, palpably felt Lambs: where Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally took care to humanise their characters, even making a figure as monstrous as Hannibal Lecter such a franchisable joy to be around, Perkins looks on askance, all too aware of the carnage he has planned.

Monroe gives an especially terse and unhappy sketch of someone messed up beyond easy recognition from the word go; the performance is never allowed to extend past an eternally twitching, clenching jaw. Cage, meanwhile, in what seems likely to prove the most divisive (because ripest) turn of his mid-career renaissance, is busy making a mockery of the plot: not for a single minute do we buy that someone who looks this way (like Jim Morrison pulled from the Thames after thirty years) and acts this way (shouty glam-rock flourishes) would have escaped police attention for the best part of three decades. The trouble with Longlegs is that for all its unsettling ambience, its characters feel like a weird kid's doodles rather than convincingly perishable flesh-and-blood. The reason the teens at my public screening gathered in the foyer afterwards to list the ways in which the film wasn't scary is that none of the deaths in the final half-hour seem to matter; like the killer's familiars, these people are hollow dolls filled with sugar syrup, posed in place and bashed around, and their eventual passing is but the inevitably grim icing on a generally sorry, desperately thin cake. Clearly, in our post-Ari Aster universe, there's a demographic hungry for this type of sour-patch confection - and, crucially, ways of marketing it to them. I'll concede that in its stronger stretches - the first hour in particular - Longlegs is distinctively odd in its depiction of everyday, back-garden American madness. But it proves an awful slog towards a far from rewarding payoff, and a movie that gets monumentally less assured and convincing once Cage's monster is drawn out into the spotlight: here, at the last, is nothing so terrifying as a big old ham who's been let loose on the propbox.

Longlegs is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday 16 July 2024

In memoriam: Shannen Doherty (Telegraph 14/07/24)

Shannen Doherty, who has died from cancer aged 53, was a film and television actress who struggled to outgrow the tempestuous reputation she gained in her early twenties while working on the hit teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000).

Produced by TV mogul Aaron Spelling but the brainchild of Darren Star, who would later create HBO’s Sex & The City (1998-2004), 90210 was a glossy fantasy describing the progress of the Walsh twins – Jason Priestley’s boy-next-door Brandon and Doherty’s flintier Brenda – as their family relocated from flatland Minnesota to sunkissed California. 

Initially scheduled against the hallowed Cheers (1982-1993), the series advanced in the US ratings after pivoting away from its early, issue-led plotlines towards photogenic afterschool soap; it also became a minor sensation after launching in ITV’s Saturday teatime slot.

Yet the distance between carefully curated onscreen aspiration and troubled show reality could be measured by a sliding scale of supermarket-tabloid headlines. In December 1991, Teen magazine declared Doherty “90210’s Coolest Co-Ed”; by March 1993, US magazine was running with “Shannen Doherty: ‘I Don’t Know How Much Worse It Can Get’”.

Suffice to say Doherty had taken to stardom altogether chaotically; indeed, at one point, her bank intervened after the actress reportedly wrote $32,000 of bad cheques. More damaging were the bad vibes emanating from on set: there was open enmity with resident “good girl” Jennie Garth, who later admitted the pair “wanted to claw one another’s eyes out”. After continually reporting late for work, and eventually confounding continuity by cutting her hair mid-shoot, Doherty finally left 90210 in 1994, her image digitally purged from a subsequent flashback episode.

Interviewed in 2000, Doherty reflected on the circumstances that led to her departure: “It wasn’t like I walked out one day and said, ‘I quit’. It was a very long process. Aaron got as fed up with me as I was with the show, and I think it was because the notoriety was too much. People were hating the character, and I couldn't take the abuse that came with that… It was all very hurtful.”

For a while, Doherty threatened to become no more than a pop-cultural punchline. In August 1996, she was sentenced to anger management counselling after throwing a beer bottle at the windscreen of a motorist with whom she’d rowed; she was parodied as demanding diva “Hunter Fallow” on the WB series Grosse Pointe (2000-01) – the show that happened to be Darren Star’s network follow-up to 90210.

By then, Doherty had found herself a second home amid a coven of suburban witches on a rival WB show. The Spelling-produced Charmed (1998-2006) was one of the cosier fantasy series to be greenlit following the success of The X-Files (1993-2002) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), blending photogenic leads, supernatural misadventures and a light dash of sisterhood.
Yet the show’s positioning as Gothy comfort viewing was undermined by reports of more unrest, this time between Doherty and co-star Alyssa Milano. Possibly sensing history had started to repeat itself, Spelling sided with Milano, and replaced Doherty with Rose McGowan before season four; yet Doherty was savvy enough to retain her percentage as the show rolled on into syndication, and later reconciled with Milano amid a 2013 Twitter thread floating the idea of a Charmed reunion movie.

While promoting her 2010 self-help book Badass: A Hard-Earned Guide to Living Life with Style and (the Right) Attitude, Doherty reflected on her often acrimonious career: “I have a rep. Did I earn it? Yeah, I did. But after a while you sort of try to shed that rep because you’re kind of a different person. You’ve evolved and all the bad things you’ve done in your life have brought you to a much better place.”

Shannen Maria Doherty was born in Memphis, Tennessee on April 12, 1971, the younger of two children for banker Tom Doherty and his beautician wife Rosa (née Wright), who raised the family in the Southern Baptist faith. The clan moved to Los Angeles seven years later, when Doherty’s father was appointed to head the West Coast arm of the family transportation business.

Hitting the auditions circuit hard alongside her mother, Doherty landed two episodes of the Western series Father Murphy in 1981, impressing actor-turned-showrunner Michael Landon so much he found Doherty roles on the final season of the much-loved Little House on the Prairie (1974-83) and Highway to Heaven (1985); juggling acting with studies, she also appeared in such primetime mainstays as Magnum, PI (1983) and Airwolf (1984), and played Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen in the miniseries Robert Kennedy and His Times (1985).

Doherty was lucky to hit adolescence amid the mid-Eighties boom in teen-themed entertainment, driven by such blockbuster successes as Back to the Future (1985) – and she had the advantage of not having to play markedly younger than she was, unlike Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt, her twentysomething co-stars in Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985).

She landed her most prominent big-screen role as one of the titular mean girls in the cult black comedy Heathers (1988), although it was unclear whether she entirely knew what she was getting into at the time. According to co-star (and senior Heather) Lisanne Falk, the 17-year-old Doherty emerged from a test screening giggling “I didn’t realise we were making a comedy”.

In the wake of her TV breakthrough – and subsequent notoriety – Doherty made a haphazard bid for maturity, stripping for Playboy in 1993 and the thriller Blindfold: Acts of Obsession (1994), where she met, fell for and briefly found herself engaged to co-star Judd Nelson. Her tenacity impressed William Friedkin, who cast Doherty as a wild child in Jailbreakers (1994); revisiting her roots, she also played Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell in the tepid telefilm A Burning Passion (1994).

Full movie stardom, however, proved far harder to attain. She landed a rare lead in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (1995) – ominously beating Alyssa Milano to the role – and recurred as a valley girl in Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997), alongside her Charmed replacement McGowan; but she turned down roles in Smith’s subsequent Dogma (1999) and postmodern sequel Scream 3 (2000), instead seeing her CV fill up with direct-to-DVD titles.

TV welcomed her back, first tentatively, then with greater trust. Amid the perhaps inevitable Beverly Hills, 90210: 10-Year High School Reunion (2003), Doherty confessed she found it hard pretending pin-up Priestley was her brother, on account of his “being so hot”. She hosted two seasons of prank show Scare Tactics (2003-2004), and was first off the tenth season of Dancing with the Stars (2005).

Yet a third dramatic success was beyond her. Upmarket soap North Shore (2004), on which her character was introduced stepping out of a limo with the line “It beats the hell out of Beverly Hills”, was cancelled after one season; she was replaced on the sitcom Love, Inc. (2005) after shooting the pilot. By 2006, she was being harassed by Leigh Francis’s alter ego Avid Merrion on the Channel 4 comedy Bo! in the USA.

She remained a tabloid focal point, not least for her turbulent love life. Marriage to George Hamilton’s son Ashley at the height of her 90210 fame, when she was 22 and he was 18, lasted only five months; there were subsequent engagements to cosmetics heir Dean Factor (who filed a restraining order against his fiancée in May 1993) and real-estate developer Chris Foufas. A second marriage, to professional poker player Rick Salomon, was annulled after nine months.

Doherty was at least game enough to make a joke out of this merry-go-round, signing up to host the hidden camera dating show Breaking Up with Shannen Doherty (2006). And she eventually found love with photographer Kurt Iswarienko: married in 2011, they remained together until a divorce prompted by his infidelity in 2023. “Listen, Elizabeth Taylor still has me beat as far as husbands and divorces, so I’m good,” she rationalised. “There’s no reason to be negative about it. S**t happens.”

By then, though, she’d become a fixture in the press for health reasons. Doherty announced a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2015; it went into remission after a mastectomy in 2016 before returning in 2019. In 2020, she revealed the cancer was now stage IV; by 2023, it had spread to her brain and bones.

Tenacious to the last, she worked throughout her treatment, appearing in both the TV reboot of Heathers (2018) and BH90210 (2019), a knowing comic riff on her breakthrough show in which she and her sometime co-stars reunited playing themselves, renegotiating fallouts that had long been a matter of public record; despite good reviews, it was cancelled after one season.

In 2023, she launched her own podcast, Let’s Be Clear with Shannen Doherty, which mixed personal recollections with campaigning for cancer research and activism on behalf of her fellow patients: “People just assume [cancer] means you can’t walk, you can’t eat, you can’t work. They put you out to pasture at a very early age – ‘you’re done, you’re retired.’ We’re vibrant, and we have such a different outlook on life. We are people who want to work and embrace life and keep moving forward.”

Shannen Doherty, born April 12, 1971, died July 13, 2024.

Saturday 13 July 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of July 5-7, 2024):

1 (1) Inside Out 2 (U) ****
2 (2) A Quiet Place: Day One (15) ***
3 (4) Bad Boys: Ride or Die (15)
4 (new) MaXXXine (18) **
5 (5) The Bikeriders (15)
6 (3) Kalki 2898 A.D. (12A) **
7 (9) The Garfield Movie (U)
8 (6) Kinds of Kindness (18) **
9 (10) IF (U)
10 (7) Jatt & Juliet 3 (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
2 (new) Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga (15) ****
3 (new) Civil War (15) ***
4 (6) Back to Black (15)
5 (2) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
6 (4) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
7 (7) Anyone but You (15)
8 (3) Dune: Part Two (12) **
9 (23) Challengers (15) **
10 (5) Wicked Little Letters (15)

My top five: 
1. Monkey Man

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Point Break [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 11pm)
2. BlacKkKlansman (Wednesday, Channel 4, 1am)
3. Fight Club (Sunday, Channel 4, midnight)
4. The Last Stand (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.40pm)
5. Law of Tehran (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)

Friday 12 July 2024

L.A. lore: "MaXXXine"

During the pandemic, Ti West shot two films back-to-back in New Zealand that benefitted from a tight focus: 
X was a slasher variant carving up an amateur porn shoot on a remote rural farm, while prequel Pearl dug memorably deeper into the tormented backstory of the earlier film's monster-in-chief. Everything you need to know about this trilogy's third entry, the sequel MaXXXine, can be deduced from its expansive opening credits. Firstly, West is back in the US; secondly, he now has actors clamoring to work with him, having seen a) those modestly budgeted horror ventures succeed at the box office, and b) the transformative effect this filmmaker had on leading lady Mia Goth, a once-drifting indie It girl thrust into the awards conversation for her tenacious performance as Pearl. Goth returns for the new film as Maxine Minx, bloodied survivor of X, rejoined in a transitional moment in mid-1980s Los Angeles, leaving the adult entertainment in which she first made her name behind in order to take up a scream-queen role in The Puritan II, theatrically bound sequel to a straight-to-video slasher hit. Around her, MaXXXine demonstrates far more ambition than its predecessors: Maxine's continued upward progress is framed within the moral panics of the 1980s entertainment industry (so-called video nasties, Tipper Gore lambasting Prince songs in Congress), dark rumblings of Satanism, the legends of the Hollywood Boulevard, and the murderous deeds of the real-life serial killer dubbed The Night Stalker, on the rampage here even before Maxine finds herself being pursued by a figure who knows exactly what our gal's done to get where she is. As a result, the focus is split and scattered. We spend what feels like three-quarters of MaXXXine hustling around town, taking meetings, being introduced to new and varyingly shady characters. Nothing is allowed to be as still or potent as the closing image of Pearl, which set a static camera running on a face riding a rollercoaster of emotions.

It comes as a slight letdown, because when he allows himself time to concentrate and carve scenes out, West again proves a better director of horror than most. MaXXXine's most unnerving setpiece arrives early on: the heroine freaking out after being covered with the liquid rubber used to make headcasts for make-up effects. (The scene may have had its genesis in the latex Goth had to don for her dual role in X.) And clearly West enjoys working with varied, capable performers: we get colourful supporting turns from Elizabeth Debicki as a horror tyro who takes a hands-on approach to gore, Kevin Bacon as a sleazy blackmailer, and Giancarlo Esposito as Maxine's rep at the amusingly named TNA Agency. (West is often funny with his details: witness Maxine stomping into work at an airport-adjacent stripjoint called The Landing Strip.) Yet you feel too many subplots jostling for prominence between the film's outsized quotation marks - you can practically smell the deleted scenes, the long nights in the edit suite - and the lacquered Eighties homage works against anything genuinely horrific: it's hard to be knowing (as MaXXXine is) and shocking (as MaXXXine wants to be) at the same time. Like Greta Gerwig, whom he directed in 2009's House of the Devil, West began his career on the fringes of the shuffling mumblecore movement. MaXXXine might be regarded as this filmmaker's Barbie, repositioning an established platinum-blonde heroine in a new and even more expensive doll's house. (For the Dream House, read the dream factory.) West has fun rerouting everybody to the Bates Motel and setting scenes to Frankie Goes to Hollywood à la Brian De Palma, but he's too often having to play traffic cop: his dialogue sounds newly hurried and on-the-nose, and everything collapses in a heap after a botched final-reel reveal. Goth, at least, continues to evoke the angelic and demonic simultaneously; her Maxine, at once American dream and nightmare, finally gets where she longs to be. Yet the intensity that so distinguished her work in Pearl dissipates here amid a surfeit of postmodern clutter. It often happens when folks go to Hollywood: they get distracted, and some lose their edge.

MaXXXine is now showing in selected cinemas.

Metal storm: "Kalki 2898 A.D."

Kalki 2898 A.D.
 is the Indian film industry turning itself into a machine - ideally, a machine to print the kind of money Indian films haven't been making in the course of the past few years. Though reportedly the most expensive film in Indian history, Nag Ashwin's exercise in escapist worldbuilding - announcing the launch of a so-called "Kalki Cinematic Universe" - has been fabricated largely from scrap metal: the spare parts of Dune, Blade Runner, Mad Max and the Star Wars series, residual nuts and bolts of Hindu scripture, and in its more thoughtful moments, few and far between though they are, sheets of Gattaca and The Handmaid's Tale. Everywhere you look, this multi-million-rupee recycling plant melds mythology, movie and metallurgy. Its primary location, for starters, is a series of interlocking, Escher-etching gantries on the edge of a vast desert wasteland, where rich and poor are segregated and women are valued exclusively for their fertility. Our hero Bhairava (the burly Prabhas, from Baahubali) is a dozy, goofy bounty hunter, basically Han Solo in an Iron Man suit. Several of his foes, meanwhile, the ones who really do look as if they've drifted over from George Miller's Fury Road, appear to have had their weapons welded onto their hands, like characters in one of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo films. The battle being fought over these three hours is the usual one, between the forces of good and evil, yet Kalki most often looks to be fighting a battle that speaks to where movies the whole planet over are at right now: between humanity and logistics. The final result is the movie equivalent of one of those confounding, chaotic, all-bets-are-off high-scoring draws you occasionally witness on a football pitch. Extra time will be necessary to decide the ultimate winner. Penalties of one form or another may also be required.

True, the prologue, featuring a fully computer-generated Amitabh Bachchan, is less than promising. (Humanity goes one-nil down in the opening seconds.) Yet Kalki is often unexpected, and sometimes just plain weird, in a way the ploddingly rational and painstakingly planned worldbuilding of Villeneuve's Dunes, hamstrung by near-religious devotion to their source, simply wouldn't allow for. Though much of it is scrap and some of it just junk, those elements look to have been inserted within an overall superstructure that presents as largely improvised, moveable, made up. Most of the film's strengths and weaknesses can be traced back to the writing, and more specifically to Ashwin's resistance to exposition. After three hours, we're no closer to knowing where this world is (be it a future Earth, another planet entirely or some mythological third space), nor how everybody got here. What we're left watching is a succession of eyepopping sets populated by pan-Indian stars driven here on golf carts, extraordinary images that never marry up much. As visions go, Kalki is altogether unanchored. Yet this frees Ashwin to surprise or simply throw stuff at the audience. A stargate opens, and a giant tiger (possibly on loan from the RRR boys) emerges. An early action sequence turns into an airborne ballet. The Big Bad of this universe is revealed as a Rupert Murdoch-like wraith (the great Kamal Haasan, squeezed into thinning latex clingfilm, like deli sausage) who exists in a Lynchian flotation tank, from where he harvests uterine matter to bolster his personal reserves of anti-aging serum. Just when you think Ashwin is getting at the misogynist extremes of the patriarchy, along comes a scene of lowish comedy featuring Disha Patani in hot pants as the Lara Croft type Bhairava is boinking. For long stretches, there barely seems to be anyone in control of the machine, which at least makes a change from the deadening iron fists of certain wildly overpraised movie visionaries; the material gets reassembled in a different order, or tossed up in the air and left to see where it falls.

Going AWOL very quickly is any notion of intelligent design: it's raining junk, and maybe Kalki's best hope is that some of its freefalling debris - a rusting plot point, say, or a clanking reference to an even bigger and better Hollywood film - induces brain damage in the viewer. That way, at least, we wouldn't notice the peculiar mismatches in performance style. Prabhas goes about Bhairava with a massy-hero smugness that may be pitched at fans only; he's one of those Chosen Ones where you begin to wonder if there hasn't been a terrible mix-up at head office. Deepika Padukone, who's had to do a lamentable amount of onscreen suffering since reaching the height of her profession, plays her disputed baby-carrier Sumathi as if she were in hard sci-fi with Something Serious to Say about feminism. Meanwhile, the icon Bachchan, playing a dusty immortal with a hole in his forehead, has been paired with a sparky street kid who looks like he's about to get the old geezer to appear in his next TikTok video. Ashwin has a laudable fondness for schlubby, stubbly character actors to bulk out his womb-hassling cabals, but set this universe against the properly complex allegiances built up over the course of Mani Ratnam's recent Ponniyin Selvan spectacles - real movie art, where this is antsy, restless commerce - these characters retain all the heft of Playmobil figurines. It's not just that the film's tropes have been half-inched from diverse sources, the people playing them out seem to come from different movies: I half-expected Mel Brooks to show up as a street vendor, haggling over the price of chai. All of which is not to say Kalki is unenjoyable. It is fun to see an incredibly expensive machine that appears to be malfunctioning, doing things it's not meant to (tickling an audience, rather than hammering us into awed submission) in ways we can't fully predict. Yet the enjoyment Kalki elicits is much the same as that one gets from reading about Elon Musk's Cybertrucks. You can well imagine Ashwin's movie careening off the cinema screen and smashing into an adjacent wall at high speed; I was amazed it carried me as far as it did without throwing me entirely clear.

Kalki 2898 A.D. is now playing in selected cinemas.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

The trouble with Harry: "The Conversation" at 50

One thing the obsessive men of the New Hollywood knew and did well was male obsession; part of the newness was that the Scorseses and Schraders and Friedkins and De Palmas and Coppolas were pushing that old screenwriting maxim "write what you know" to a compelling extreme.
1974's The Conversation, which Coppola somehow managed to knock out in the same year as The Godfather Part II, is one of those masterpieces born of multiple influences: the corporate takeover of America (and the studio system Coppola was working within), the paranoia and surveillance culture that led to Watergate, and then-recent developments in arthouse and avant-garde cinema (notably Antonioni's Blow-Up and Michael Snow's Wavelength, from which The Conversation steals its closing shot). It's a film offering two obsessions for the price of one, even better value in 2024 than it was a half-century ago: that of a protagonist trying to make sense of a whispered heart-to-heart between people whose lives and motives (and - who knows - maybe happiness) he will never fully know, and that of a writer-director attempting to master sound and vision, to re-engage us with the very nuts and bolts of cinema, even as his narrative acknowledges it is possible to be too fussy about such things. It feels immensely personal, as much note to self as major motion picture, and even Coppola would forget its wisest counsel - on maintaining clear boundaries between one's professional and personal life - as the decade went on; it recurs now as a warning from history to a whole new generation of nerds and tech bros. All that arcane and specialised knowledge you've been gathering, it says, will be no substitute at the end of the day for a rich and fulfilling life.

So here again is Gene Hackman as private snooper Harry Caul, not so much God's lonely man as a figure God may have abandoned altogether. He's well regarded in his field, yes, but also square and stand-offish, guardedly anonymous, not someone you'd notice in a crowd. There are women in his life, sure, but the prospects of any lasting relationship would appear limited by a long-term bachelor's gruffness and an inability to open up born of underlying, existential trust issues. And so, aged 44 as the film finds him - just ten years older than his creator - he returns home from a long day's knob-twiddling to blow his own horn (jazz saxophone). Coppola nevertheless manages to locate sources of fascination within this small, shabby life: crucially in those scenes that endlessly fast-forward and rewind a keenly sought recording, where Harry tenses up anew on the verge of realising something, as much about himself as the couple he's taped at a distance in a city park. These scenes are a technical feat, pivoting on sound editor Walter Murch's ability to weaponise audio - to make what we're hearing seem at least as significant as anything we're watching. (In the context of the film's workaday, un-movieish San Francisco, such murderous words can't help but catch the ear.) But they're also a deeply human achievement: the quiet genius of Hackman - as distinct from, say, the vocal genius of Pacino, or the looming genius of De Niro - is to disappear inside the role while still communicating exactly what Harry is mulling over and wrestling with. A rewatch reveals a great film's only flaw: a midfilm dream sequence born of creative insecurity, designed to bring us closer to a character Hackman has already humanised. (The material reality of the film is enough; we don't need to go poking around inside Harry Caul's head for clues.) Coppola understands and shows that, like any technician, Harry has choices; that he'd make life far easier for himself if he delegated, talked, even if he just walked away from the whole affair. But some men can't. The Conversation thus strands him and us in an apartment that represents the tatters of this man's life, at once horribly empty and a terrible mess, the kind of rabbit hole you could spend the rest of your days falling down. Conspiracists beware.

The Conversation is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream on the BBC iPlayer until Saturday.

In memoriam: Jon Landau (Telegraph 09/07/24)

Jon Landau, who has died of cancer aged 63, was the film producer who both enabled and empowered James Cameron to see through three of the most logistically complex and financially successful films of all time. With Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), the bearded duo defied conventional Hollywood wisdom and mounting media scepticism to fashion three widescreen epics that, at their best, harked back to the glory days of Cecil B. DeMille.

The pair met when Landau, then a senior Fox executive, attended a marketing meeting for Cameron’s True Lies (1994), a putative summer blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As Landau later recalled, Cameron walked “right around to me, and he goes, ‘So I understand we’re going to get to be pretty good friends or bitter enemies.’ And I looked up to him, and I said, ‘Pretty good friends, I hope.’”

There was cause for wariness. True Lies had seen its budget soar, becoming the first film ever to cost $100m before topping out at $120m: “This was one of the two or three most complicated movies I’ve ever been involved with,” Landau tersely remarked at the time. Yet with the money channelled towards action as exhilarating as it was expensive, the film proved a box-office smash, taking $378m worldwide as the third biggest hit of 1994.

At once lavish period drama and old-school disaster movie, Titanic was a colossal scale-up. Born of Cameron’s lifelong fascination with the deep – and the doomed ship’s place in it – it necessitated an engineering project almost as vast as that undertaken by Harland and Wolff. (The $200m costs proved so great that Fox eventually entered into partnership with another studio, Paramount, to bring the film into cinemas.)

Yet despite a torturous shoot, a stand-off with the Fox suits over the three-hour running time and initial critical harrumphing, Titanic recouped $1.84bn upon first release, overtaking Jurassic Park (1993) as the highest-grossing film of all time, on its way to a lifetime total of $2.25bn (including subsequent re-releases). It won eleven Oscars from a record-equalling 14 nominations, including Best Director for Cameron and Best Picture for Landau.

An idea Cameron had been touting long before Titanic, waiting for technology to catch up with his own imagination, Avatar represented an even riskier gamble: an original fantasy, employing state-of-the-art motion-capture technology and the much-derided 3D format to generate an immersive environment that was, as critics noted, greatly more sophisticated than anything in the screenplay. 

A $237m budget offered some sign of the trust Landau had earned: “We asked Fox to support us for a year while we learned to walk. Most movies, you have to run right away. They sit there and say okay, we’re ready to greenlight the movie, here’s the release date, and try and make that date. And that’s where things go off-kilter. We said to Fox, let us learn to walk for a year, it’s not going to be a small sum of money… but we’re going to figure things out. Because we didn’t know, we didn’t have any of the answers.”

They soon had them. Opening over Christmas 2009, Avatar spent months in cinemas, racing towards a new box-office landmark of $2.7bn and a Best Picture nomination. Another followed for The Way of Water, which defied the theatrical sector’s Covid-era downturn, scooping $2.3bn worldwide: the third highest total of all time, behind its predecessor and Avengers: Endgame (2019).

“It’s phenomenal,” Landau told The Hollywood Reporter in early 2023. “Our film has illustrated that in this post-pandemic or pandemic era — whichever you want to call it — there still is that potential to draw people out of their homes to go to this incredible experience that is called movies. And I don’t believe there’s anything else like it... As producers, as directors, as studios, as exhibitors, we have a responsibility to continue to preserve that experience for generations to come.”

Jon Landau was born in New York on July 23, 1960 to Ely and Edie Landau (née Randolph), themselves impresarios of some note. In 1972, the pair founded the American Film Theatre, which beamed filmed plays into cinemas; their feature credits included John Schlesinger’s TV version of Separate Tables (1983) and the Michael Caine thriller The Holcroft Covenant (1985).

A graduate of the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Jon Landau began his production career with the nondescript teen caper Campus Man (1987). He was headhunted by Disney, overseeing effects-dependent family hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Warren Beatty’s troubled comic-book throwback Dick Tracy (1990), before ascending through the Fox ranks.

Though Cameron projects dominated his headspace, Landau occasionally branched out, producing Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), Cirque du Soleil’s Avatar-inspired Toruk, and Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel (2019), shot alongside The Way of Water: “People said to me, ‘Jon, how are you splitting your time?’ I said, ‘I’m doing 70% of my time on Avatar, I just have to. And then I said, I’m doing my other 70% on Alita.’ But that’s just the way it is. I can’t do anything unless I’m all in.”

By then, the Avatar universe had expanded, with plans announced for three further films, currently set for release in 2025, 2029 and 2031: “We are setting out to make standalone cinematic experiences so that people feel the movies fulfil expectations or exceed expectations no matter how long the gap was. People get into a trap when they say that just because this movie was successful we should make a sequel, without asking, ‘Is there a story here to tell? Is there a sequel worth making?’”

He is survived by his spouse Julie Lamm, whom he married in 1987, and two sons.

Jon Landau, born July 23, 1960, died July 5, 2024.

Tuesday 9 July 2024

On demand: "The Beast"

It winds up an only semi-interesting chore, but
The Beast inarguably qualifies as one of the bolder literary adaptations of recent years. Writer-director Bertrand Bonello has extracted the bitter wisdom from Henry James' The Beast in the Jungle and scattered it across three separate yet connected dramas involving the same leads, Léa Seydoux and George Mackay. To be more specific, it's three dramas bookended by a QR code in place of end credits and an odd, insinuating prologue: Seydoux, forever cast by male directors for her pliability, as either herself or in the role of an actress, being coached through her movements on a virtual set by an offscreen voice that proves (upon snapping the QR code) to be Bonello's own. Here, from the outset, is a woman firmly under the direction, if not yet the spell or control or yoke, of man. That, The Beast insists, is just a matter of time. The movie's first chapter, chronologically and spiritually closer to James than anything that follows, finds Seydoux's married musician pursued through the salons of early 20th century Paris by Mackay's old friend/flame: it's maybe what you expect upon hearing a prominent international director has been handed a half-decent budget to film Henry James, all dresses and paintings, looks, glances and reclining couches. Yet these scenes are, in fact, but a rehearsal for or premonition of things to come; turns out fearing the worst, as our society belle does, isn't an emotion we can neatly package up and confine to the past.

So Bonello flashes ahead to 2044, with a boxier frame that signifies limited horizons, and to an affectless world overrun by AI programmed to remove fear - among other emotions - from the equation. "Disasters lie in the past," one such computer informs Seydoux's troubled seeker, while making passing reference to "the tragedies of 2025" - a phrase guaranteed to set the overthinkers among us on edge. So many things could go wrong, from a 2020s perspective - and there, to some degree, is the existential terror James caught back in his day: those elements beyond our immediate control, the elephants in the room, the spectre in the corner of the eye. The process the Seydoux character undergoes to correct this, namely being medically purged of those emotions that make her uniquely human, hardly makes her life any easier; and if you were wondering how many ways a filmmaker can make this actress suffer, wait until the halfway mark, where we find ourselves in the L.A. of 2014, witnessing a collision between Seydoux's fashion model and Mackay's incel, purveyor of insufferable, self-pitying vlogs. It's around this point that The Beast comes to feel aggressively, even numbingly talky, although that talk serves Bonello's unifying themes: that every generation has its own insecurities, that fear, as much as love, is what binds us to our forefathers. That's why we keep turning back to James and his ilk: as a coping strategy almost, to see how they handled their demons, and where they didn't or couldn't.

Bonello's imagemaking is never in question: again here, he punctures architectural good taste (lots of lavishly furnished modernist abodes) with potent, oft-discomfiting symbols (sharp knives, dolls of various kinds). Even more striking is his narrative facility and fluidity: the film flows into and out of these three realities, each as plausible as the next, each offering a running commentary on what's around it. Is the period stuff a fantasy Seydoux's character has after being neutralised in the future? Or are the latter-day scenes a vision she has after submitting to a hypnotist's instruction? The director is smart indeed about deploying his name actors as fixed points and saleable features. Even as the drama veers towards the sedentary, both Seydoux and Mackay operate in subtly variegated modes, suggesting a world shifting under our gaze even before Bonello begins messing with the plasticity of the image. For a while, everything fits together in the same uncanny fashion as, say, the shards of Meshes of the Afternoon; an ominous mood is created. (The coda is pure Twin Peaks fan fiction.) But is the movie anything more than a mood, or just bad vibes only for an exhausting 146 minutes? The question has hovered over previous Bonello features; here, it all but crowds out the light in these frames, like an especially pregnant raincloud. The Beast struck me as so unyieldingly po-faced and self-involved (common translation: "up itself") that it's bound to be dismissed as pretentious by a percentage of those drawn here by the glowing reviews; it's adaptation as undertaken in some polished, sterile artfilm laboratory where lofty theory goes uncontaminated by anything so down-and-dirty as reality. But I'll give Bonello this: if you have known doubt, and if you've felt uncertainty, it may be a harder film than most to shake off so easily.

The Beast is now available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and YouTube; it becomes available to stream on MUBI from July 19.

Friday 5 July 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 28-30, 2024):

1 (1) Inside Out 2 (U) ****
2 (new) A Quiet Place: Day One (15) ***
3 (new) Kalki 2898 A.D. (12A) **
4 (3) Bad Boys: Ride or Die (15)
5 (2) The Bikeriders (15)
6 (new) Kinds of Kindness (18) **
7 (new) Jatt & Juliet 3 (12A)
8 (new) Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter One (15)
9 (7) The Garfield Movie (U)
10 (8) IF (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Dune: Part Two (12) **
2 (3) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
3 (2) The Fall Guy (12) **
4 (4) Back to Black (15)
5 (5) Madame Web (12)
6 (7) The Equalizer 3 (15)
7 (8) Oppenheimer (15) ****
8 (13) Meg 2: The Trench (12)
9 (6Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
10 (9) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)

My top five: 
1. Monkey Man

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Manhunter (Friday, BBC2, 12.05am)
2. Gravity (Tuesday, BBC1, 10.50pm)
3. Ordinary Love (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
4. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Sunday, Channel 4, 12.30am)
5. Anaconda [above] (Friday, Channel 4, 12.05am)

Thursday 4 July 2024

Silent sigh: "A Quiet Place: Day One"

The movies are going backwards again. The mass audience took umbrage at the summer's first prequel, George Miller's
Furiosa, possibly as it spun off from a franchise revered for its unyielding forward momentum. The Quiet Place films, though, have been so economical in their worldbuilding there's surely scope for a fuller explanation of why this world was plunged into silence, and where the beasties with the bat-like hearing first emerged from. (That Day One runs closer to ninety minutes than three hours - and can thus be squeezed in between the traditional summer pursuits of socialising, sports and sunbathing - has further helped its box-office cause.) Yet Michael Sarnoski's film also finds newly unnerving avenues to explore, this time on the once-deafening streets of New York. The characters in the original and sequel knew what was happening from the outset, and had accordingly developed coping strategies. Day One, by contrast, returns us to the initial shock and horror of finding the world turned on its head, and sets us down among people who simply have no idea why alien crafts have landed in their backyard, not what this invasion means for their fellow citizens, be they of robust health or pre-burdened in the case of terminally ill poet Samira (Lupita Nyong'o). As they all huddle, helplessly watching the unexpected toppling of the Manhattan Bridge, we realise American cinema is still, some twenty years later, working through the traumas of 9/11. One reason for the new movie's impact has to be that it makes its characters' insecurity and vulnerability more obvious and more immediate than the elaborate escapism of Furiosa; the safety net of fantasy has been tugged down, allowing Sarnoski to ask questions that may echo those already floating through cinemagoers' heads. What can we do when the structures around us are collapsing? Who do you turn to? Who, if anyone, can you trust?

If it's any consolation, the film - like much else about this series - proves to have been broadly well marshalled, once more forsaking the wearying quiet-quiet-loud rigmarole of so much of this century's studio horror in order to present us with what plays almost like silent cinema for significant stretches. Sarnoski's breakthrough movie, 2021's Pig, signalled a filmmaker more than ready to finesse and finetune a performance: if you can get anything like modulation out of Nic Cage at this point in his career, you're on something like the right tracks. He's made one inspired pick in Nyong'o, from the word go a more expressive performer than anyone in the first two films - and an actress who might even have been a major star in 1924, were it not for, you know, the general D.W. Griffithness of the industry. The best decision the movie makes is to stay tight on her: when Sarnoski isn't capturing the close-ups that convey Samira's dawning realisation of the full extent of this devastation, the knowledge life will never be the same again, he's at the character's side, resisting the sweeping panoramas of an I Am Legend in order to refocus viewer attention on the struggle to get from one side of the street to the other in a world so heavily and forcefully surveilled. Here is an unusually personal and intimate disaster movie; even the cat Samira cradles from pillar to post, the curious Frodo, seems to be there as a marker of domesticity. You've likely got a pet, Day One says to its audience: how do you intend to care for it when the sky comes crashing down, when you may have issues enough simply caring for yourself?

The results are not nearly as literal as one might have feared, and often intriguingly abstract. Amid this silent scrabble, it may in fact prove a source of some frustration that we scarcely understand where Nyong'o and Joseph Quinn, as the drowned-rat Englishman Samira pulls from a flooded subway, are headed, nor what they hope to achieve once they're arrived there. (Grabbing pizza is about the height of it, and that, in a city so conspicuously closed for business, has the air of an impossible dream.) At this stage in this universe, no-one seems to know; instead, the characters keep stumbling into the kind of run-for-cover setpieces the producers must have insisted upon. Yet if this isn't quite the full Turin Horse, Day One successfully sustains a mournful mood that is striking in a multiplex context - and which develops beyond our initial intuition that, as folks in a prequel to movies in which they will not reappear, Samira and her ilk are most likely doomed. We'd get as much just from the superbly distressed production design (by The Descent's Simon Bowles): a derelict church where prayer would serve no purpose, an abandoned library (replete with one clangingly positioned title, a novel called "Happiness Falls"), a ghostly Harlem jazz bar where any music or revelry would be fatal, all the wonders and marvels of civilisation razed to the ground. With its whispered poems that, within the overall picture of rainy desolation, reach our ears as eulogies, it's a popcorn movie that appears less concerned with engineering jolts and scares than cultivating a certain sadness - the sorrow we feel once we know a good run is coming to an end, when words fail us, or there are finally no words. Despite a jollying final cue, this is the feel bad movie of the summer, in what may be the last summer before Donald Trump and his cronies on the Supreme Court torch what remains of the social contract and force some Americans to live a very quiet life indeed. Sometimes our movies go backwards because society is going backwards, too; their current depression is really nothing compared to our own.

A Quiet Place: Day One is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 28 June 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 21-23, 2024):

1 (1) Inside Out 2 (U) ****
2 (new) The Bikeriders (15)
3 (2) Bad Boys: Ride or Die (15)
4 (new) Doctor Who: The Two Episode Finale (12A)
5 (new) Ghost: Rite Here, Rite Now (15)
6 (4) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
7 (5) The Garfield Movie (U)
8 (3) IF (U)
9 (new) The Exorcism (18)
10 (new) Something in the Water (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Dune: Part Two (12) **
2 (3) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
3 (2) The Fall Guy (12) **
4 (4) Back to Black (15)
5 (5) Madame Web (12)
6 (7) The Equalizer 3 (15)
7 (8) Oppenheimer (15) ****
8 (13) Meg 2: The Trench (12)
9 (6Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
10 (9) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)

My top five: 
1. Close Your Eyes

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. North by Northwest [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 3pm)
2. Little Women (Sunday, Channel 4, 3.20pm)
3. A Hard Day's Night (Saturday, BBC2, 3.35pm)
4. On the Waterfront (Sunday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
5. The Sisters Brothers (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.20pm)