Friday 12 April 2024

For what it's worth...

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

1 (1) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
2 (2) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12A)
3 (3) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12A)
4 (4Dune: Part Two (12A) **
5 (new) Monkey Man (18) ****
6 (new) The First Omen (15)
7 (10) Migration (U)
8 (new) Seize Them! (15)
9 (9) Wicked Little Letters (15)
10 (new) Luca (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)
2 (2Wonka (PG) ***
3 (4) Hop (U) 
4 (3) One Life (12)
5 (7) Barbie (12) ***
6 (12) The Equalizer 3 (15)
7 (16) Meg 2: The Trench (12)
8 (11) Migration (U)
9 (6) Oppenheimer (15) ****
10 (17) Kung Fu Panda (PG) ***

My top five: 
1. Fallen Leaves
5. Suzume

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Nowhere Special (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. Monos (Wednesday, Channel 4, 1.50am)
3. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [above] (Sunday, ITV1, 6.30am)
4. Sorry to Bother You (Sunday, BBC2, 11.40pm)
5. American Pie: The Wedding (Friday, Channel 4, 11.05pm)

Fallout: "Civil War"

I'm so old I can remember when all the movies traditionally had to treat us to in an American election year was one of those tatty
Purge runarounds. (The strongest of those, 1908's Purge: Exegesis, directly led to the election of William Henry Taft.) Post January 6, the cinema has clearly decided it has to raise its game on the alarming spectacle front. Civil War presents as the Tesco Finest version of a Purge movie, brought to you by the boutique studio A24 and screenwriter-turned-fitful director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men), himself attempting to step up from genre tinkering to Serious Social Commentary. I say serious commentary, although it's a bit lowering to discover all Civil War's social commentary amounts to is really no more than a sighed "cripes, America's in a pickle nowadays". Still, there are compensations. Garland's film proposes a none-too-distant future where Texas, California and Florida have seceded from the wider United States due to irreconciliable political differences, leading to trouble on almost every street corner. We enter into this newly turbulent environment embedded among its journalists, principally Kirsten Dunst's battle-hardened snapper Lee, obliged to both watch and duck for cover as the kind of skirmishes her movie predecessors documented overseas in 1983's Under Fire and 1997's Welcome to Sarajevo suddenly break out on Main Street, in the vicinity of a J.C. Penney's. Lee's declared mission is to travel with her cohort from New York to Washington, where the nation's shit-stirring President (Nick Offerman, becoming as grimly typecast as bad ol' good ol' boys as Chris Pratt has been as bland action heroes) has lain uninterrogated for fourteen months. One of several obstacles, we're told early on, is that in this Washington, they now shoot journalists on sight, which must at least make a merciful change from being routinely laid off in favour of AI chatbots.

The strengths and limitations Civil War subsequently reveals can all be traced back to a discussion about this mission two or three scenes in: they're a gamer's vision of widespread social unrest. CW goes big on the spectacle of modern carnage - deserted streets, a Godardian logjam of abandoned vehicles, downed helicopters and fallen bodies, spurting wounds and freshly dug corpse pits - and Garland gives good siege, standoff and shootout. But he's forever more alert to movement than causality and consequence; "we're just passing through" is a phrase the journos proffer as a get-out-of-jail-free card, and that's exactly what the film is doing, en route to a finale that plays more like a technical flex (this is how I'd have stormed the White House) than a properly satisfying or challenging dramatic conclusion. In the end, everything passes through your ears, never to be thought of again. If the film nevertheless represents a step up on the various Purges, that's because a) low bar, b) better marshalled bang for your buck, and c) you're watching faces you recognise on appreciable form. Garland's getting better with casting and actors: piled into a bullet-strafed van, a tight-knit ensemble - Dunst and contemporary Wagner Moura, senior adviser Stephen McKinley Henderson, naive apprentice Cailee Spaeny - become a family of sorts. (The in-car bickering suggests Little Miss Sunshine: Death of Democracy Edition.) 

But what they're passing through proves less assured, and the framing is outright questionable at points. This was plainly one of the sunnier shoots of recent times; Civil War makes certain benign Nicholas Sparks films appear overcast in the memory. But I've no idea what Garland is doing setting a mass execution sequence to De La Soul, save reassuring the multiplex crowd that we're here for a good time. Only once, with the midfilm intervention of Dunst's real-life husband Jesse Plemons as a card-checking racist, does Civil War lean fully into the horror of its own premise; otherwise, again, we're just passing through. As a result, Garland's film begins to seem a bit mercenary in its motives, like watching someone opportunistically stripping our malfunctioning political machinery for saleable spare parts, or stealing the lead off the town hall roof. We're not far from the realm of the Purges - but those B-movies hadn't the chutzpah to appropriate news footage of real unrest, and shots of the blood spilled by actual American citizens, for the purposes of ultimately middling disruption tourism. Some are bound to enter big claims on Garland's behalf, much as they have done with his previous features, but Civil War is making no greater statement than a Quiet Place or Walking Dead spinoff that has swapped in senators for their regular boogeymen. You could do worse, this coming Friday and Saturday night. As with the governors who've brought us to this sorry juncture, you could also do a lot better.

Civil War opens today in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 11 April 2024

The eternal memory: "Close Your Eyes"

You can count on the thumb of one hand the number of directors who've spent fifty years making only very good or great films. Granted, those career stats have been juked to some degree by the fact the Spanish writer-director Victor Erice has made but four features in that period: 1973's
The Spirit of the Beehive, 1983's El Sur, 1992's The Quince Tree Sun and now - after a long absence, mostly spent making shorts and documentaries - his latest opus Close Your Eyes. The downside of this altogether measured rate of productivity is that we have less of a sense of Brand Erice, in a way there probably is an identifiable Brand Almodóvar: to paraphrase certain music aficionados, here's a filmmaker for the true heads. Yet Erice's artisanal methodology has enabled him to work outside the corporate-commercial norms, at his own pace, on his own material, to his own standards, without feeling the pressure of hastening new material to Cannes every two years so as to keep himself in the cinephile eye. The upside is that Erice's features have always felt distinctive; they've never been beholden to passing industry trends. You will be struck by or reminded of this in the course of the new film's prologue, which is much unlike anything else you will see in a cinema in the year of our lord 2024. Unusually extended (a scene that runs fully fifteen minutes) and intriguingly stagey in its framing, it introduces us to a wealthy, eccentric recluse (Josep Maria Pou, who has a touch of the Michael Lonsdales about him) and the grizzled PI he's summoned to help determine the whereabouts of his estranged daughter. It could be a stock expository scene in a Warner Bros. programmer of 1947, the year the action is set, but the detail hooks you: the recluse's kowtowing Chinese manservant (Kao Chenmin), the admission that the missing girl is "the only person in the world who looks at me differently", the eventual revelation that what we've been watching is in fact a fragment of an unfinished 1970s film within the film - La mirada del adiós, or The Farewell Gaze - and that our own gaze has been directed towards the middle-aged actor playing the PI, one Julio Arenas, played by Jose Coronado.

What follows is indeed a movie about the movies, and actually not so unlike the movies Brand Almodóvar has been peddling in recent times - an investigation into/excavation of the past, albeit one where the colours and melodrama have been toned down. The bulk of Close Your Eyes unfolds around the Madrid of 2012, where we join the director of La mirada del adiós, Miguel (Manolo Solo), now greying and somehow even more haunted-seeming than the actors in that prologue, as he's recruited by the producers of a true-crime TV show looking into the disappearance of Julio Arenas shortly after shooting. The mystery is a complex one - too complex for the show, it transpires - which may explain why it takes the better part of three hours for Erice to resolve it. It involves, among other factors, the political situation within Franco's Spain, the desires, sins and failings of the flesh, and how creative careers fluctuate in ways beyond the artist's control. Physically, it involves the weary but curious Miguel touring various kinds of archives: cellars piled high with rusting film cans, second-hand book depositories, homes with histories, even the Museo del Prado, where we encounter Ana Torrent, The Spirit of the Beehive's now-middleaged child star, playing Julio's archivist daughter. It is as though Erice has determined to make a film entirely out of movie bric-a-brac: the people, the myths and legends, the old songs, the memorabilia, the physical material that refuses to be neatly digitised away, containing as it does countless hopes, dreams and regrets. The footage of La mirada del adiós Erice mocks up is a compelling artefact in its own right, because it communicates something about the ways pictures correspond to lived reality. But it also stands for all those films that were never made or completed, the plans God laughed at, the gaps in a director's filmography - the times life or fate or some other external force intervened.

If Close Your Eyes itself begins to resemble a private-eye movie, it's out of a recognition that life is like a private-eye movie: a gradual gathering of pertinent, sometimes sorrowful information, where there aren't always easy or clear answers to the questions you've been carrying around. The impression one takes away is that Erice, now 83, has been too busy living to trouble himself unduly with the artificial business of filming; it shows through here in some deep-to-profound pockets of human interest. In conversation over coffee in the Prado, Torrent briskly describes a humble, unstarry woman's life, but also - as she broaches the subject of her father - appears to revert to the child within. (The same Ana we've seen grow up on screen.) Erice's immense gift for casting looms out in the decision to centralise actors who have visibly had lives, and who respond instinctively to the way these characters are trying to settle accounts before their files are closed for good. In this context, the running time feels a supreme act of generosity on Erice's part: it gives those characters longer to work through their investigations, gives the film time to move away from the movies and back towards life as it is more commonly lived (and then back again), and gives us pause to realise how - and how movingly - that choreographed prologue connects with the subsequent drama. Though the film has a rumpled elegance and offers a particular masterclass in the art of the close-up - the camera studying the actors' features for what's been etched there - Close Your Eyes is less visually striking than Erice's earlier films, with their painterly, often expressionist plays of light and dark. This director really wants us to see the faces, places and objects that pique these people's memories. (And as in life, it's weird what sets you off: an Italia '90 sticker album Miguel fleetingly turns up on his travels took this viewer right back to a partially misspent youth.) It's typical of what is, in most respects, a straightahead narrative feature, rather more of its moment than its maker's ageless previous work. (Like I say, that audience who've matured alongside Almodóvar should be in raptures.) Yet the emotional shading is considerable in a film that's been built to last, and to argue for a form of cinema we may have been in danger of forgetting about: one both unforgettable and in itself a shared memory, a way of preserving all that which may yet slip away from us.

Close Your Eyes opens in selected cinemas and will be available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema from tomorrow.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

On demand: "Hold Me While I'm Naked"

Imagine David Holzman's Diary as reshot by Vincente Minnelli. By 1966, the tropes and clichés of American independent and underground cinema had become manifest - and they were spoofed rotten in Hold Me While I'm Naked, a.k.a. Color Me Lurid, a fifteen-minute short about the shooting of a no-budget melodrama that's going for George Cukor (Technicolor flourishes within the frame, orchestral swells for a score) but for budgetary reasons has to settle for one George Kuchar, a prolific Bronx-based consumer of 8mm and 16mm stock caught edging towards something like artistic respectability after achieving early notoriety via such works as 1957's The Naked and the Nude and 1961's Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof. (I shit you not.) With his wonky smile and Ronnie Barker glasses, Kuchar is the image of a particular kind of film geek, spouting pretentious gobbledygook on the set and taking time out of his day to bathe in strips of celluloid. Yet the Kuchar overseeing the film-within-the-film has no real control over his comically horny actors, shown as too busy getting off with one another to take much in the way of sustained direction, while a final tug of the rug suggests his plaudits-gathering magnum opus may, in reality, be no more than humdrum showertime fantasy, possibly even literal masturbation. (Well, you shrug, movies have had far less salubrious origins.) If it now appears somewhat rough around the edges, even in digitally streaming form - its soundtrack a confounding mix of shoplifted pop songs and filmmakers' co-op dead air - it remains among the cinema's most colourful in-jokes, and good-natured in a way a lot of Sixties underground endeavours weren't; you can see why John Waters continues to cling to it. As self-deprecating as it is satirical, composed with far greater vibrancy than almost everything the arriviste Warhol was tinkering on for the movies at around the same time, and a guaranteed wow for both retro fashion and boob connoisseurs, it's a scene, and then some.

Hold Me While I'm Naked is now streaming via

Dirty old town: "Ratcatcher"

Lynne Ramsay's
Ratcatcher turns 25 this year, and remains every bit as striking as it did around the turn of the millennium. Shot in not-quite-monochrome, dirty-dishwater colour, it found this writer-director taking a distinctively poetic approach to 1970s Glaswegian streetlife, very different from the prevailing social realism of this moment. You'll emerge in no doubt of the grimness of the city as it was: this camera forever alights on rubbish-strewn estates, rats in the kitchen (and bedroom, and bathroom, and back garden) and endlessly squabbling children, foremost among them the mournful James (William Eadie), who spends no small part of the film believing he's drowned a classmate in a culvert that looks just as filthy at the time of filming as it would have been in the Seventies, and probably is again nowadays. Broken homes (one strange madeleine: kitchen drawers that don't open and close smoothly), dishevelled lives, squandered promise, bruised knees and itchy scalps: they're all here. But then so too is real wonder - even if that's just wonder at the fact any of us ever evolved out of this way of life. Ramsay understood that the default setting for a generation raised in post-War council homes wasn't automatically cruel indifference or a murderous sourness, but longing mixed with a kind of boredom - a desire, often frustrated, for something more to do and some place more interesting to go. The only way is up, or things can only get better, as a potent phrase of the late Nineties had it. Ramsay's gift to the British cinema was a craneshot elevating us there or thereabouts.

It's not unfair to say this career hasn't skyrocketed as one might once have hoped. While Ramsay circumnavigated the one-and-done, two-and-through industry restrictions that stymied her contemporaries Carine Adler (1997's Under the Skin) and Sandra Goldbacher (1998's The Governess), after 2002's Morvern Callar - still her best film, not least for being an exemplary job of adaptation - she struggled to find material worthy of her best images. Repeat viewings exposed 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin as every bit as preposterous in its paedophobia as the momentary literary sensation it grew from; 2017's You Were Never Really Here, which carried Ramsay to America, felt far too in thrall to Taxi Driver to be healthy for anyone. (At the same time, she was eclipsed domestically by Andrea Arnold, a creative possessed of a comparable sensibility, but warmer and cuddlier with it: all cats and dogs, where Ramsay's sympathies ran towards the verminous.) Yet with Ratcatcher, this director was still working towards a new vocabulary, cutting any last ties with the constraining dogmas of social realism: as when rewatching, say, The Terence Davies Trilogy, you find yourself marvelling that British cinema ever permitted an aesthetic as dreamy and delicate as this to flower. (But then this was post-Four Weddings and Full Monty, when confidence and lottery money were in the air: anything went, including - in the end - that same confidence.) In the presence of deprivation and suffering, Ramsay found mordantly funny images, flashes of defiant life (non-professional kids effing and jeffing, giving debt collectors the runaround and threatening the binmen with a kicking) and - vitally - forms of escape, whether via the frame of an unfinished window or a mouse that soared, a midfilm leap of the cinematic imagination that remains immensely charming and moving, in large part because it indicates Ramsay was herself thinking like a scrappily imaginative child to some degree. In 2024, her adult self is in the wilderness: too many projects that didn't click commercially, many more that didn't even get shot. Ratcatcher is as useful a reminder as any of the artistic benefits to be gained from bringing Lynne Ramsay back in from the cold.

Ratcatcher returns to selected cinemas from tomorrow.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

The good shepherd: "Aadujeevitham/The Goat Life"

The current Malayalam hit
Aadujeevitham/The Goat Life seems likely to finish among the more commercially successful titles in the recent run of migration movies. One likely reason for that is how it treats migration as an adventure: a trajectory with inherent risk and unavoidable uncertainty, but also a reward in the form of new horizons, and a guarantee of a good story or two at the end of the day - the sort of stories, indeed, that get so involvingly retold here. The hardy director known as Blessy has adopted a 2008 novel by the author Benyamin based in turn on the true-life experiences of some of the unluckier Indian worker ants who've set off overseas to seek their fortune. Here, we're travelling in the company of two unworldly country boys who touch down in Dubai with the promise of contracted work, but then contrive to miss their connection with their sponsor and instead wind up being appropriated by an irascible, less than scrupulous fixer who splits the pair up. Our hero Najeeb (local star Prithviraj Sukumaran) is driven deep into the desert, much against his will, and put to work as a goatherd alongside a grizzled oldtimer who's been trapped out this way for so long he's all but forgotten his own name, and who may now in fact have more in common with his fuzzy, smelly two-legged charges than he does with any two-legged co-worker. With none of these characters speaking the same language - Najeeb is Malayali, the goatherd Hindi, and their employers Arabs - the movie has to find other ways to communicate: these include expressive gestures, flashbacks to Najeeb's life at home in Kerala with his pregnant sweetheart (Amala Paul), and - most resonantly of all - an A.R. Rahman score that serves as an emotional guidetrack as our hero's experiences veer from the surreal and dreamy to the deeply, deeply grim. Rahman earned what was effectively joint authorial credit on Mani Ratnam's spectacular Ponniyin Selvan; his work proves even more integral here, in a story where the characters often don't have - and eventually cannot find - the words.

These carefully layered addenda might collectively be taken as a softening, were they not so urgently needed as grace notes. Aadujeevitham's first half is a sorry string of deprivations and humiliations, in which we witness Najeeb first kicked by a goat he's tried to milk from the wrong end, then headbutted by an angry ram. (Just when you think he's getting the hang of this nature lark, he blunders into a fight scene with CG vultures.) Najeeb is so profoundly useless at the tasks he's been pressganged into performing - it's like asking a software engineer to build a barn, or kiss a girl - that we might wonder why his ruthless employers don't just cut him loose: he can barely bring a jug of milk to table without spilling it, so he hasn't a hope of dodging hailstones the size of baseballs. Yet what Blessy shapes from his story is a secular parable of endurance: that of a hapless fellow who spends time enough in the desert to regain his bearings and achieve something between basic competence and enlightenment. His progress is aided by Blessy's ability to pick the most memorable images at each stage. A thin trickle of spilled water merges with a wide shot of a river. Fragments of a shattered mirror in the sand speak both to years of bad luck and an identity in the course of being atomised and reconstructed. A scrap of paper, on which a man's life may depend, is scattered to the desert winds. A shoe gets removed to reveal a foot that is now one big blister. Throughout, Sukumaran does compelling work as someone who isn't heroic in the conventional movie sense, rather a bumbler and a fumbler whose survival actually gives us only greater reason to cheer, because Najeeb's panic, indecision and ineptitude aren't so far from our own in unfamiliar surroundings. The whole constitutes one of those new and distinctive-feeling stories Malayalam cinema has been excelling at finding of late, not to mention a film that seems to fix all manner of problems with Western films that laboured through similar territory. (I'm thinking specifically of Herzog's Rescue Dawn, which did something roughly comparable with Christian Bale in the jungle, and Peter Weir's desert-set The Way Back.) Blessed as he is with the popular touch, Blessy gives us the discovery, wonder and action necessary to convert a taut and terse account of latter-day slavery into an epic that fully merits the term; his film is as if Lawrence of Arabia had focused not on a Great Man of History, but some bloke who took a wrong turn and stumbled into the back of shot, where he remained understandably petrified of the surrounding camels.

Aadujeevitham/The Goat Life is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday 8 April 2024

Travelling light: "Crew"

With their male counterparts being conscripted left and right to play soldiers, statesmen and other heroes of the state amid the newly agitated battle over Indian national identity, what to do with the strong women of Bollywood? Rajesh Krishnan's current hit Crew has the fun idea of casting three eminent examples of the form - Tabu, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Kriti Sanon - as air hostesses stranded in a Hustlers/Ocean's-like tight spot after their employers declare bankruptcy and their plan to smuggle gold ingots through customs goes awry. The pleasure here lies in being presented with a film so conspicuously light, that means only to provide genial, brain-in-something-like-neutral diversion for a couple of hours. The script, by Nidhi Mehra and Mehul Suri, contains no excess thematic baggage whatsoever; Crew makes even the blithe escapism of HBO's recent The Flight Attendant seem like a knottily plotted doorstopper by a multiple Pulitzer-winning author. There's a smattering of decent gags from the off, however - working the girls' safety demonstration into a song, having a nauseous Sanon reach for a sick bag and know exactly where to find one - and the sly reveal that, in the fragile gig economy the movie describes, everyone's having to be on the make and take, from Sanon's password-harvesting brother to a hotel manager who accepts bribes while assigning his maids their duties. (Here is where Crew comes closest to passing some form of social comment, but you'll have to look beyond an abundance of product placement to spot it.) Everything is held together by three leads who give off notably different energies - Tabu sensible, Sanon self-improving, Kapoor Khan endearingly cartoonish - yet gel quickly and work well together on a scene-by-scene basis; I won't make towering claims for Crew, but it does go to illustrate how a robust star system can flesh out and bulk up flyweight material so it resembles an acceptable night at the flicks. Beyond that, it remains naggingly cosmetic in its feminism, and barely one inch thick from start to finish; but it also earns goodwill for being a Hindi release of 2024 that doesn't feel like a citizenship test; it looks swell, the wardrobe department in particular having the most fun this side of Barbie; and it moves at a fair clip to one of the livelier Hindi soundtracks of recent times. Niche observation, I know, but the song "Kiddan Zaalima" has the strongest 80s synth drum fills since Stephen Duffy's Dr. Calculus side project. Oh, and one shot of Sanon devouring one of those Lindt Lindor truffles was just about the most delicious sight I've seen projected this week. I'm not made of stone, you know.

Crew is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday 6 April 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of March 29-31, 2024):

1 (new) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
2 (new) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12A)
3 (1) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12A)
4 (2Dune: Part Two (12A) **
5 (new) Aadujeevitham (12A) ****
6 (new) Mothers' Instinct (15) **
7 (3) Busty Nun (18)
8 (new) Crew (12A) ***
9 (4Wicked Little Letters (15)
10 (5Migration (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)
2 (2Wonka (PG) ***
3 (re) One Life (12)
4 (38) Hop (U) 
5 (25) Wish (U)
6 (4) Oppenheimer (15) ****
7 (7) Barbie (12) ***
8 (17) Anyone But You (15)
9 (3) Mean Girls (12) **
10 (re) Poor Things (18) **

My top five: 
1. Anatomy of a Fall
3. Suzume
4. Wonka

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. A Matter of Life and Death [above] (Saturday, BBC2, 1pm)
2. The Wizard of Oz (Saturday, Channel 5, 1.45pm)
3. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Saturday, ITV1, 7.30am)
4. So Long, My Son (Saturday, BBC2, 1.30am)
5. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Saturday, ITV1, 10.50pm)

In memoriam: Barbara Rush (Telegraph 05/04/24)

Barbara Rush, who has died aged 97, was a poised, versatile actress who enjoyed a long Hollywood career, winning a Golden Globe in 1953 for New Star of the Year before becoming soap royalty via ABC’s influential Peyton Place (1964-69). After working with several starrier male contemporaries – Brando, Newman, Clift, Sinatra – she outlived them all, tallying her final credit at ninety. As she joked in 1997: “I’m one of those kinds of people who will perform the minute you open the refrigerator and the light goes on.”

On Peyton Place – inspired by the 1956 Grace Metalious novel, its 1957 film adaptation and the initial success of Coronation Street – Rush earned $1,000 per episode playing Marsha Russell, a hardy single mother who spent the show’s fifth and final season navigating divorce from her husband Fred (Joe Maross), growing attraction to series regular Dr. Michael (Ed Nelson) and the vacillations of teenage daughter Carolyn (Elizabeth Walker).

The season built towards a cliffhanger – the jailed Michael awaiting trial for Fred’s murder – which went unresolved; with many original characters absent, ratings in freefall and critics decrying the show as an Eisenhower-era relic, Peyton Place was cancelled in June 1969. Rush later acknowledged how far the show had drifted out of touch with the times: “We did scream and carry on when we saw some of the lines.”

Though short-lived, the role established Rush as a fashion icon, to the point her name could be dropped as knowing shorthand for a casually worn Beverly Hills glamour: in Shampoo (1975), Warren Beatty’s gadabout hairdresser tries to impress his bank manager with a mumbled “I do Barbara Rush”. In reality, Rush’s streaky, much-coveted Peyton Place tease was a do-it-yourself job, requiring no more outside help than a bottle of Clairol, as the actress insisted to one reporter in 1971: “I can do my hair blindfolded… It’s like braille.”

Barbara Rush was born in Denver, Colorado on January 4, 1927, the middle of three children for mining company lawyer Roy Rush and his wife Marguerite. The family resided in Santa Barbara, California, where Barbara volunteered alongside her father as an usher at the Lobero Theatre; she studied drama at the University of California and the Pasadena Playhouse before signing to Paramount in 1950.

She debuted in the showbiz drama The Goldbergs (1950), before breaking through in science fiction: seductively leading humanity towards a new dawn in When Worlds Collide (1951), then bursting out of the screen, varyingly demure and shrieking, in It Came from Outer Space (1953), a 3D-appended Ray Bradbury adaptation.

Rush worked consistently through the 1950s and 60s, often alongside top-dollar stars. She was the stepdaughter who watches Jane Wyman fall for Rock Hudson in Magnificent Obsession (1954), and very good as the wife to a pill-popping James Mason in Bigger Than Life (1956). Cast as soldier boy Dean Martin’s love interest in The Young Lions (1958), Rush got a front-row seat as Method men Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift duelled on and off-camera.

After being jilted by Kirk Douglas in Strangers When We Meet (1960), she played Marian to the Rat Pack in Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), singling Frank Sinatra out for praise (“a wonderful, wonderful man”). Yet comparable stardom continually eluded her, as she noted with some regret: “I can safely say that every movie role I was ever offered that had any real quality went to someone else.”

Following Peyton Place, Rush returned to the theatre – winning the Sarah Siddons award in 1970 for her performance in Jay Presson Allen’s Forty Carats – and worked mostly in television thereafter. In a 1969 episode of Batman, she gave Adam West’s Caped Crusader the runaround as Nora Clavicle, a thinly veiled caricature of Gloria Steinem plotting to blow up Gotham City with TNT-loaded mice.

There were more conventional parts on Ironside (1971-72), The Streets of San Francisco (1973), Police Story (1974) and – by way of light relief – The Love Boat (1979) and Knight Rider (1983). Her one notable movie of the period – the Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music (1980) – proved a box-office flop.

She returned to soap, playing the overlooked wife of a paper mill owner on Flamingo Road (1980-82), grape-growing Nola Orsini on All My Children (1992-94) and granny Ruth on 7th Heaven (1997-2007). She was one of five actors to appear in both the original 1960s run of The Outer Limits (1963-65) and its Nineties reboot (1995-2002). In later life, she occasionally appeared with the Orange County Theatre Guild; her final screen credit was the short Bleeding Hearts (2017).

Her passion project, though, was A Woman of Independent Means, a one-woman show – premiered on Broadway in 1984, and toured thereafter – based on Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s novel about free-thinking Texan matriarch Bess Steed Garner: “I just admire someone who goes out and learns calculus at fifty, or learns, like Grandma Moses, to paint at seventy, or who goes to Greece and learns about archaeology. I would like to be that kind of person.”

Rush married thrice, first in 1950 to Jeffrey Hunter, the actor best known for playing Jesus in King of Kings (1961); then in 1959 to the publicist Warren Cowan; then in 1970 to the sculptor Jim Gruzalski. All three marriages ended in divorce. She is survived by two children: a son, Christopher, by Hunter, and a daughter, the Fox News journalist Claudia Cowan, by her second husband.

Barbara Rush, born January 4, 1927, died March 31, 2024.

Friday 5 April 2024

Quay text: "On the Waterfront"

Even without the 70th anniversary of the film and the centenary of its star, there would be reasons enough to revisit 1954's On the Waterfront. A major, socially engaged Hollywood work of its moment, it remains an Best Picture winner most would agree deserved its glory, an example of post-War studio filmmaking that internalised at least one of the lessons of European neo-realism in seeking out and shooting on actual locations, and a foundational text in the cult of Marlon Brando. In 2024, Waterfront also seems to enter into semi-enlightening conversation with the current chattering-class concern of so-called cancel culture. Brando begins the film in a cinematically familiar position outside a window, establishing his fallen boxing hero Terry Malloy as both an outsider and a man of the streets, even as the character lures a man to his death with the aid of a pigeon - an act Malloy spends the rest of the movie regretting. In this, Waterfront is inextricably linked to the biography of its conflicted director Elia Kazan; it's one of those films where it may be tougher than most to separate the art from the artist. The slight fudge the movie arrives at
 is to indicate it was the corruption inherent in society that made Terry Malloy do what he did: that in a world ruled by mob bosses and corrupt union leaders, there is only so much a priest like Karl Malden or the love of a good Eva Marie Saint can do for a guy, and only so much a guy can do without getting tainted or selling someone else down the river. Feel free to agree or disagree, or to dismiss that as self-justifying hooey - the film has provoked lively debate for seven decades now, and Kazan remained a controversial figure at least as late as 1999, when his honorary Oscar split the Academy crowd.

What's unarguable is that this is a great piece of writing by Budd Schulberg, practically a Casablanca of the New Jersey docks: a hero yanked from morose self-isolation, surrounded by salty pockets of life, deeper and wetter than they were in North Africa, the conviviality replaced by deadly self-interest. (The real cancellation, Schulberg reminds us, is being snuffed out.) Malden's Father Pete is easily the most compelling movie priest of the whole 1950s, surpassing both Monty Clift in I Confess and Claude Laydu in the Bresson film; one mitigating factor against hooey is that there is more life around Terry Malloy than there is left in Terry Malloy himself. Kazan builds a world without seeming to lift a finger, in large part because Schulberg did the heavier lifting at the typewriter - but it was the director who hauled this story off the backlots and out onto the streets, the most rewarding choice of all here. You hear the traffic passing whenever Leonard Bernstein's strenuous score recedes; we only ever seem three feet away from the nearest rat (or stool pigeon). A little of its grubbiness found its way into the New Hollywood of the 1970s - Sidney Lumet was surely among the movie's keenest students - but by then the movies had all but turned their back on Kazan; instead, the film seems to have been a bigger influence on turn-of-the-millennium television. (The pigeons came home to roost on NYPD Blue; the idea of docks as a permeable membrane, vulnerable to rot, was taken up by cable TV's The Wire.) As for Brando, his most radical contributions to the art of screen acting - the mumbling, the constant gum-chewing, the avoidance of eye contact - continues to strike me as mannerism; what must at the time have been thrilling to watch now looks like trouble up ahead. (Crucially, he never appears as credibly tough as this script intends Terry Malloy to be; set him against, say, the heavy operating the bar he storms into come the final reel, and he really is just an actor throwing poses, the first stevedore to have discovered contouring.) Yet there was a reason every hack impressionist for the next forty years had a Terry Malloy up their sleeve: at some point, the movies had lines that stuck with us, because of the vast depths of feeling the actors found hiding behind their words.

On the Waterfront returns to selected cinemas from today. 

Developments: "Evil Does Not Exist"

After the success of 2021's
Drive My Car - which spun off the festival circuit and up the red carpet to Oscars glory - the Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has retreated into the woods, although whether he means to bathe in nature or lurch into horror remains uncertain for much of Evil Does Not Exist. That title, for starters, isn't as definite a statement as one might want, given what we know of this world; chiselled into thin ice, it looks more and more like a theory being tested over the course of 105 minutes. Hamaguchi now sets us down in a forest outside Tokyo: a bit on the chilly side as we arrive - this apparently being late autumn/winter - but more often than not sundappled, and soothing when observed, as this camera often does, from the bed of a truck passing beneath the overhanging branches. And while we hear gunshots in the distance, we are reassured that these are from hunters several towns out of range. We traverse these trails in the company of a terse, self-contained single father, Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), and his free-roaming daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa), whom Takumi is teaching to identify trees by their bark and recognise the pawprints in the snow across a frozen lake. Yet this life of quiet self-sufficiency is under threat from a leisure conglomerate calling itself Playmode, whose representatives have come to the area from the big city with fancy PowerPoint presentations and vapid corporate speak, announcing their intentions to turn some small but valuable part of the forest into a glamping site. What Hamaguchi initially sets us to wondering is whether or not it is still possible to live in nature, when there are forces in this world keen to buy and tear it up, to turn it into something unaffordable, inaccessible, frankly unnatural.

Again, this filmmaker presents as a cinematic novelist, steadily accumulating a wealth of narrative and character detail paid off in the film's home stretch. Yet he's working more stealthily than usual here, as if the foliage of this forest was chosen to provide him with cover - time to think and breathe - after his international breakthrough. As late as ninety minutes into Evil Does Not Exist, we're unsure which direction the film is heading in; some viewers will likely exit the cinema wondering what just happened. In the meantime, Hamaguchi sets himself to covering as much ground as possible, as assiduously as he can. It's possible you won't ever have thought this long or hard about the environmental implications of glamping, or the precise placing of a septic tank, but then one of the reasons Hamaguchi's cinema has been so embraced is the corrective it provides to the careless, sketchy screenwriting going on elsewhere in modern movies. There is consequence here, demonstrable cause and effect. A poorly placed septic tank would seep into the local water table, and affect the taste of the spring water Takumi bottles to sell to nearby restaurants, so it's no surprise news of the glamping project leaves a sour taste in the locals' mouths. Yet their concerns only casually emerge, first over the dinner table, then - at greater length - in an expertly directed and performed school-hall meeting which lays out the many different hells that might be about to break loose. Even here, though, the situation is shown to be more complex than it would be in any comparable American feature. Playmode's representatives have a job to do, yes, but they're also polite, even deferential to their hosts, accepting feedback and offering jobs in return. Nothing about the film is a done deal; for a while, I wondered if some Local Hero-style osmosis was about to take place, with the outsiders themselves coming to bed down in this most abundant of settings. These characters are, after all, rooted in their environment, and could in theory be purified or polluted; and Evil is so non-prescriptive, so open to outside elements, that it often appears in active conversation with Better Call Saul and The Zone of Interest.

That slow-creep of causality seeps into the filmmaking elsewhere - which is to say Evil's achievement isn't solely one of words. Hamaguchi's clean, crisp, uncluttered frames both inspire mystery and invite development - even despoilment - of some variety; these images of contemporary Japan, familiar yet not necessarily aspirational, commonplace in most senses, look vulnerable to compromise or worse. Extended takes allow events to play out as they will, and for us to observe those compromises - and the fightbacks they inspire - in recognisable real time. And Hamaguchi does something very unsettling with his soundtrack, repeatedly switching off Eiko Ishibashi's gorgeous, lulling score with a sudden cut, lest we get too comfortable with what we're witnessing: the notes get snatched away, as trees and people sometimes do. All that noted, I think it would be inaccurate to describe Hamaguchi as a radical new voice in cinema. He still strikes me as broadly traditionalist in his methods, telling stories in a naturalistic key that, in turn, facilitates a clarity and coherence so often lacking in the corporate mainstream. (For Playmode, read Marvel, DC and those other recent polluters of the pop-cultural well.) His fortune is to have come along at the exact right moment for this kind of filmmaking to have the greatest impact - and we're still in that grace period where a creative is revealing himself without repeating himself. Drive My Car suggested Hamaguchi could travel anywhere, and find stories within stories; Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy set him down as a poet of the city. This Hamaguchi, by contrast, appears a nature boy, yet as Evil's jolting final movement proves, he's no pushover, either. Evil Does Not Exist represents Ryusuke Hamaguchi's really wild show: I would urge you to watch it, but also to mind how you go.

Evil Does Not Exist opens today in selected cinemas.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Eeb allay oof!: "Monkey Man"

The Dev Patel loosed onto the streets of India in this week's
Monkey Man is all but unrecognisable from the Dev Patel who appeared in Slumdog Millionaire fifteen years ago. Gone is the nervy Skins graduate, visibly wondering what on earth he's doing at the centre of a big (indeed, Oscar-winning) studio movie overseen by a name director. In his place: a newly confident writer-director-star - a multiple threat, in multiple respects - who proceeds to kick serious ass in a movie with the brass balls to riff on the John Wick series and the Ramayana simultaneously. More than that, this Patel is revealed as a creative touting a vision of India that ventures some measure beyond the tonally erratic, ultimately nice-making Slumdog. Patel's fighter-hero Kid - the name knowingly ironic, given the bearded warrior we observe taking names and breaking necks - passes through what appears from the off to be a failed or failing state, with a toplayer of elites in skyscrapers and helicopters floating over a people encouraged to fight among themselves, a political godhead scattering pious truisms in his wake, and everything else falling into grime and general decay. (One especially forlorn-looking TV, seen in the opening ten minutes, seems to have forgotten what better days ever looked like - no surprise, given the toxic news it's obliged to belch out on a 24-hour basis.) It looks infernal even before Patel invokes Apocalypse Now with an overhead shot of Kid as seen through the blades of a ceiling fan; it's going to require more than air con to clear the fug, we sense. Even with the flags in the film's political rallies reportedly toned down from BJP-hued saffron to a barely more soothing red, you can see why Monkey Man's Indian release is now in doubt this election year. Here is a movie to give the Indian Board of Censors severe pause, if not outright palpitations.

The light guiding us through this murk is Patel's confidence - there not just in the way he now holds the screen, but in how he and co-writers Paul Angunawela and John Collee structure their material. For all their byzantine worldbuilding and baroque art design, the Wick movies were inherently simple things, founded on the tale of a dude exacting vengeance on those ne'er-do-wells who did for a beloved puppy. With Monkey Man, Patel plunges us into a layered quagmire, leaving us to figure out for ourselves why Kid, a backstreet wrestler by trade, is so determined to inveigle himself into the life of society madam Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar). There's a clue of sorts in the title, and the monkey mask Kid wears while beating down his foes inside the ring: in the Ramayana, Hanuman was the simian-coded mortal punished by the gods for climbing beyond his station. Yet as our boy begins scrabbling up this treacherously slippery, ever more tenuous social ladder, his ascent also seems to mirror Patel's own scrappy progress towards the A-list, from rabbit caught in the headlights to someone who genuinely (and rightly) believes there is a place for him on the big screen. (As with the Kid's endeavours, it is a process; it involves patient watching and learning, and knowing when to make the odd big swing count.) What's new and distinguishing is Kid's trauma. He fights not like some well-honed automaton - Patel is too toothbrush-skinny and upright for that, and the Kid can't afford whey powder or weights - but as if he were a wounded animal: reluctantly, desperately, with whatever comes to hand and painfully intimate knowledge of how his kind have traditionally been treated by the powers-that-be. Like I say, if you're waiting to see Monkey Man in India, you may have to wait some time - its sense of injustice and its rage at that injustice are too deeply baked in for a few minor flag adjustments and any cuts to make much difference.

The risk is over-emphasis, that Patel might push this vision too hard. Every now and again, you wince at something that lands too squarely on the nose: when the Kid is told not to feed a stray dog on the grounds "it gives them hope", or when a working girl Kid crosses paths with (Sobhita Dhulipala, a major Indian star slightly buried amid the credits) is introduced to a tranced-out cover of The Police's "Roxanne". (In both cases, we get it.) Several POV sequences suggest the terrifying-to-malign influence of Gaspar Noé, which cannot be the case, as Patel is still only about twelve or something. Yet these more thumpingly obvious beats have to be weighed against Monkey Man's many deft, precise, even forcefully witty touches, which would indicate Patel is as much the entertainer as he is the politically motivated artist or action hero, that he's watched as much Jackie Chan as he has Anand Patwardhan. The kind of bathroom fight that is now de rigueur in these big-budget action endeavours (cf. Mission: Impossible whatever it was) is here nimbly reordered just by following the lines of a gun being booted around over the initially pristine, increasingly bloody white tiles. Another action-movie cliché (the bit where the hero takes a long run-up to throw himself through a window) is flipped on its head in a way Chuck Jones would surely have applauded. And the feminised weapon of choice Kid clings to in his final battle has enormous symbolic value, bigger than all the penis-cars in the Fast & Furious movies piled atop one another. Before that, however, there is a midfilm retreat to a temple staffed by an outcast collective (including several trans and third-gender performers), where the suddenly rocky Kid heals and regains his feet. Here is solidarity, storytelling, laughter, nature and music. (And another cliché repurposed: the hero starts to time his punches to a tabla drum's beat, giving Kathak dancing an extra whack.) Without this interlude, the film might just have seemed an especially dynamic action knock-off. With it, it gains considerably, setting its hellish vision of what India's become against a heavenly counterview of what it still could be. So if Patel the performer kicks ass here, that's as nothing compared to the achievements of Patel the writer-director. Pulled off with astonishing assurance and enormous style, Monkey Man is that rare studio movie that gets richer and weirder, more engrossing and propulsive as it goes along - and which doesn't have a single uninteresting shot in its whole two hours.

Monkey Man opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Bad neighbours: "Mothers' Instinct"

It presents as an intriguing case study, at the very least: today's Hollywood setting aside childish things for ninety minutes to attempt the kind of so-called women's picture at which yesterday's Hollywood routinely excelled.
Mothers' Instinct could scarcely be better appointed. Director Benoît Delhomme is the noted French cinematographer who's contributed to treasures of the arthouse (1993's The Scent of Green Papaya, 1995's Cyclo) and more mainstream pleasures (2007's 1408, 2014's A Most Wanted Man). Lead roles that might once have been occupied by Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, or Kate Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, are now filled by Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain. The tried-and-tested source material is Derrière la haine, a 2012 thriller by the Belgian novelist Barbara Abel, previously filmed as 2018's Duelles by Olivier Masset-Depasse. (The writing credits on both films are identical, suggesting a quick pass through Google Translate sufficed.) Delhomme's film has unimpeachably classy mid-20th century reference points, from Vertigo to Persona; and it exists as exactly that kind of medium-budget, non-fantastical, star-driven proposition, unconnected from developments elsewhere in the modern movie marketplace, for which one is naturally predisposed to cheer. Which is why it grieves me to say something has been badly lost in translation, or wasn't there to begin with. Even with all these elements in its favour, Mothers' Instinct doesn't work - it just shuffles listlessly before us, illustrating mainly that the multiplex movie and the upmarket subtitled drama still have very different, maybe irreconciliable aims.

The set-up betrays its own kind of squandered promise, describing the seesawing relations between two initially subtly contrasted neighbours in one especially gleaming, well-tended American suburb as it was at the turn of the 1960s. Celine (Hathaway) is sensual, carefree and happy, seemingly well placed to thrive in the decade ahead, with a young son and an upstanding husband (Josh Charles). Chastain's Alice, on the other hand, strikes the eye as more brittle and buttoned-down, not to mention controlling, trad wife status unhappily conferred on her by a condescending other half (Anders Danielsen Lie) who forbids her from returning to the journalism gig she had before becoming a mother. The two women start out as close friends - practically the only support they've got in this deeply paternalistic society - but their bond is complicated, frayed and finally severed completely by a succession of tragedies that set us to reassessing which of these characters is truly empowered, and who's merely trying to save face. It could well be that Alice's fear-the-worst pessimism and rough-and-ready backstory leaves her better prepared for the vicissitudes of life than her neighbour, a source of nagging disquiet that possibly isn't enough to sustain a feature of this magnitude, and in any event gets increasingly badly fumbled.

If Mothers' Instinct more or less retains curio status, that's for two reasons. One, it's semi-startling in 2024 to witness a film that luxuriates so completely in white privilege; there's not even a token Black gardener or domestic on hand to throw our girls' upholstered travails into stark relief. Two, this will almost certainly stand as the most stubbornly two-and-a-half star film of this calendar year, rarely rising above torpid mediocrity as its appetising ingredients fail to produce the desired cake. What anyone troubling to sit through it will glean is that Delhomme is at this point a far stronger imagemaker than he is a director of actors or generator of tension; and that there is a crucial distinction between the visual art of cinematography and finding the necessary angles, the right narrative points of view, to tell a truly enveloping and satisfying story. Hathaway and Chastain are intelligent enough to make their own choices, and you can just about spy what may have drawn them here. For Chastain, it's playing squarer than she typically would; for Hathaway darker and more troubled. Yet in the race to get to the novel's neatly symmetrical punchline, Alice and Celine are rarely seen as anything other than Quaalude-placid or comically worked up; the material that would allow the leads to move smoothly through the gears has gone walkabout, along with the necessary psychological motivation. (It feels like a cinematographer's film: all surface, no depth.) That's odd in itself, because Mothers' Instinct has broadly been steered along a very moderate path, resistant to the extremes of camp, tiptoeing instead between the wry ironies of Todd Haynes's recent period recreations (Far from Heaven, Carol) and the banal pieties of the average tug-of-love TV movie. Delhomme shoots even the more thriller-specific material like costume drama, as if we needed more time to admire the pantsuit Chastain wears while creeping about the Hathaway household. The more than faintly baffling result is a film with a mounting bodycount - a mother-in-law collapsing in the flowerbed; a young lad succumbs to Chekhov's peanut allergy; some nasty, old-school chloroform business - but no coherent idea of how to broach it, that doesn't seem to know whether these events are darkly funny, dramatic, horrifying, or anything other than the elegantly attired shrug they currently represent. It's not as simple as they don't make 'em like they used to, you conclude - it's that they're now more likely to get 'em sadly wrong.

Mothers' Instinct is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday 1 April 2024

On demand: "Hachi: a Dog's Tale"

Released theatrically everywhere but the US, where it was dumped onto DVD and then the Hallmark Channel, 2009's 
Hachi: a Dog's Tale was Lasse Hallström's 21st century update of the Old Yeller animal-weepie model, with Richard Gere as the somewhat unlikely professor of contemporary dance who finds a stray Japanese husky puppy on a railway platform and takes it back to the home he shares with wife Joan Allen. There, we're treated to innumerable loving close-ups of the increasingly big floof as he eats popcorn, stares winsomely at a steak sizzling on a barbeque and watches on, with apparent sadness in his eyes, as his master sets off for work each morning; these are interspersed with doggy POV shots in canine black-and-white. It's only some way in that Hallström and screenwriter Stephen P. Lindsey serve notice that the whole movie will be steeped in love and loss - that the Gere-Allen pairing have adopted this fuzzy new arrival as a replacement of sorts for a son who died young and a daughter in the process of flying the nest. The moral of the film turns out to be something like this: humans may come and go, but man's best friend remains loyal to the last.

The primary achievement of Hachi, by some measure the strongest film in this whole damp-eyed, wet-nosed cycle, is a rare delicacy of tone; that may be down to the source, a Japanese movie of 1987 (Hachi-ko monogatari) based on local doggo legend. (Hallström gestures to continuity of a sort by casting the Japanese-born Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a friend and colleague of Professor Gere.) Even in the early, sunnier stages - before grief begins to cloud the picture - Hachi is always more poignant than cutesy, largely dialogue-free, powered by the unspoken bond between its constituent creatures and a lilting piano score (by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek) that connects the professor's day job to Joe Hisaishi's work on certain Miyazaki films. Hallström directs his four-legged performers (Layla, Chico and Forrest) every bit as well as his two-legged stars, locating meaning in their every look, and real precision in the manner in which they occupy and cross the frame. The bear dog-poodle romance at the film's heart is a smashing job of wordless storytelling, although it's clear Hachi really only has eyes for Dicky G. And why not, given what a fine, expressive performer Gere had become by this stage: he works up an obvious chemistry with the pooch(es), but is just as good stood before class, setting out the film's other thesis about the finite and the infinite, and how love and art will always outlast us. In the wake of 1985's Oscar-winning My Life as a Dog, Hallström became equally renowned and derided for trading in insistently middlebrow crowdpleasers that saw their audience coming and took precious few risks accordingly. With Hachi, he takes at least one big gamble with regard to the way this story pans out, and finally makes it work rather beautifully. The result deserves to be better known as Hallström's stealth masterpiece - the one title in this filmography that even doglovers wouldn't expect to be both as well-executed and as affecting as it is.

Hachi: a Dog's Tale is now streaming via YouTube, and available to rent via YouTube and Prime Video.