Tuesday 30 January 2024

At play in the fields of the Lord: "Days of Heaven"

Back when I first started thinking seriously about cinema in the early 1990s, Terrence Malick's 1978 drama Days of Heaven was presented to me, not unjustly, as among the most beautiful films ever made. (It was certainly framed that way in the influential 1992 doc Visions of Light, an overview of the cinematographic art, which devoted an entire section to Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler's Oscar-winning photography, as well as stealing off with Ennio Morricone's spellcasting main theme.) This is a film where the images do the most expressive talking: a full 94 minutes of sunkissed, windtossed Andrew Wyeth-like scenes from the lives of an itinerant 1910s farmworker (Richard Gere), his young sister (Linda Manz), his beloved (Brooke Adams) and the moneyed landowner who provides friendship, shelter and romantic rivalry (Sam Shepard) - and yes, you spotted it, it's some index of handsomeness when the two men duking it out in period costume are the 1978-model Gere and Shepard. Returned to UK screens this week as it approaches middle age, it strikes you as somewhat amazing it should have taken so long for Days to have received the digital restoration treatment - but here they are again: the big blue skies, turning purplish after the sun goes down, the golden wheatfields, blackening to infernal red in the final reel. Striking out beyond magic-hour commonplaces and into the realms of genuine photochemical sorcery, it remains as close as any American motion picture got to resembling a rapid succession of masterly canvasses; at a time when most contemporary studio movies appear variably ugly, newcomers may well start to feel overwhelmed by the movie's sheer physical beauty. Stendhal syndrome would seem a legitimate response.

Is the beauty anything more than skin deep? Back in the early Nineties, Malick was regarded as a recluse who seemed unlikely ever to direct again: little could we have known that he'd return with a run of films that, depending on your perspective, have either secured or chipped away at his legacy. (These have proved so airy that a consensus view has been all but unobtainable: I write as one swept away by The Tree of Life and the much-reviled Knight of Cups, but who found To the Wonder and Song to Song, composed in the same vein, blowing right past me.) Days has the outline of a noirish plot (a fugitive, a deception, a betrayal, a manhunt) relocated from city to country and reset to a different pace, but - all ellipses between small dabs of scenes - it's the work of a filmmaker who already appears far less interested in narrative unity and continuity than he is in evocation. Evocation of work: the equipment, the noise, the long days, the isolation (all those Jack Fisk houses on the hill), the exposure. And evocation of transience: the shifting around of labour, seasons, affections, fortunes. (Malick would later shoot endless reels of nature photography, and never come remotely close to matching the drama and horror of Days' Biblical climax.) So there is beauty here, but also an awareness of the ways in which beauty fades and sometimes withers on the vine. It's there in the Gere character's shrugging "we'll all be gone in a couple of years"; it's there in the film's slightly hurried quality - the result of colossal edit-suite deliberation - which makes you want to cling even tighter to each passing glimpse of paradise. It's both giddying and moving to think we are now almost as far removed from the film's first release as Days of Heaven was from the period it was depicting - but it has endured nevertheless, and become only more vivid with time: a shimmering dream of life as it was once lived, and of cinema as it was once made.

Days of Heaven returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 29 January 2024

Negative space: "The Zone of Interest"

Right from its opening montage of an eye being manufactured, the writer-director Jonathan Glazer's last feature, 2013's
Under the Skin, was primarily engaged with the act of seeing. His latest, The Zone of Interest, is notable for what you don't see - but which you sense or imagine regardless. Glazer has set about Martin Amis's 2014 novel in much the same way he previously adapted Michel Faber, extracting a central idea, disregarding much else, and using that saved time and energy to find the images and sounds that best do that idea justice. The new film opens on a period idyll of sorts - a Teutonically blonde family sunbathing on a riverbank, the very picture of liberty and leisure - before following its subjects back to their well-furnished, amply staffed abode, so papa (Christian Friedel) can set off for work on horseback. A reverse angle, confronting us with a watchtower in the near-distance, fills in some critical context. This is the Höss family as they were in 1943, and work was Auschwitz, where dad served as the camp commandant; the family's home and flourishing gardens back directly onto the walls of the camp itself. We never see over those walls - the film is rated 12A for a reason - but Zone effectively fictionalises key points made by Claude Lanzmann and Marcel Ophuls in their landmark Holocaust documentaries Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity: how close the worst atrocities of World War Two came - and how close they necessarily had to be - to ordinary lived reality; how that proximity led certain members of the human race, people who in some respects were not unlike you and I, to turn a blind eye to what was going on in the world beyond their garden gate.

Glazer, of course, wants us to notice what his characters don't, because if we didn't - if we just walked in off the street with no idea of the context the film was operating within - we'd walk out somewhat baffled by this austere drama about an odd, fussy German family to whom nothing major really happens. The bigger story here, accordingly, is told through sound. I spent Zone's first few minutes wondering whether the screening-room Dolby had packed up; the sound of at least the first reel has been recorded and rendered as though in a bubble, not unlike what you hear after getting water in your inner ear while swimming. Gradually, we tune in to what the characters have long tuned out. Listen closely enough - really tilt your head - and you should be able to discern shouts (instructions to halt? cries for help?), gunshots, barking dogs, screams. More prominent and unnerving of all - a sound that induces a tensing physical effect - is a low ambient rumble not unlike a hotel air conditioner unit, the kind of sonic prompt that reminds you of being kept awake at night. Whatever sound designer Johnnie Burn and his team wrangled into the mix here, it's an inspired choice, because it goes to the question that sits like a thorn at the heart of Glazer's film: how did any of these people sleep? Behind the shutters of the Höss retreat, the action is scarcely more reassuring. A birthday party is juxtaposed with the visit of flunkies arming Herr Kommandant with more efficient means of gassing several hundred Jews at a time. As night falls, the Höss boys play with tin soldiers while dad takes time out on the back lawn, the glowing tip of his cigarette rhyming with the fire in the incinerator's smokestack. At this point, it was all no more than a nasty habit.

The debate in critical circles - and, unlike many of its awards-season rivals, the film is certainly potent enough to have prompted serious debate, as opposed to the usual Twitter factionalism - is whether The Zone of Interest amounts to more than a very clever exercise in not showing, a single tactic (keeping the pits of the Holocaust firmly at arm's length) stretched arguably thin over two hours. I can only report that I found more variation and development than I was possibly expecting going in. (Certainly more than there was to behold in the flatly weird, pseudo-provocative child's play of Poor Things, for one.) Much of it hinges on what the film itself borders on: obscenity, for one thing, or at least a nod or two towards the comedy of warped priorities present in Amis's source. Frau Höss (Sandra Hüller) fusses over her lilac bushes while half of Kraków burns; her visiting mother (Imogen Kogge) tuts at being outbid for a pair of curtains belonging to a Jewish client who's been sent to the camps. I type this quietly, and with all due historical reverence, but The Zone of Interest is often a confoundingly funny film - confounding in just how far it goes beyond that yellowing critical standby "mordantly comic". How else to respond to the revelation that Casa Höss came complete with its own guestbook for passing functionaries? (Sample comment: "Thank you for your National Socialist hospitality.") 

That we're watching something far more rounded - and far more complex - than a mere stylistic exercise is surely apparent from the outbreak of domestic farce around the film's midpoint. Here especially, I think, the images and sounds recede a little, the better to highlight Glazer's exemplary work with his actors, asked to return to the realms of the credible (and credibly human) figures who might from a distance resemble no more than monsters. The set-up for this farce has its basis in historical fact: that in 1943, as part of the great Nazi merry-go-round of implausible deniability, Rudolf Höss was on the verge of being transferred out of Auschwitz, and the life of luxury to which his family had become accustomed. The gag is a pretty solid one: that even this man of fearsome, life-and-death power was finally an untermensch of sorts, deemed replaceable by the most horrible of bosses, perpetually nagged at by his other half. An image-hoarding Brit of a certain age, Glazer has to have been aware of this notorious one-episode wonder; I would swear it's lurking in the film's DNA. Either way, in a performance that far surpasses her walking question mark in Anatomy of a Fall, Hüller commits decisively to making Hedwig Höss - on this evidence, one of the 500 worst people ever to have set foot on the planet - a comically hateful figure; she does this first and foremost through a distinctive walk, a rolling complacency in the hips and rear that immediately conveys the presence (and privilege) of someone who's had it far too good for far too long at the expense of those around her.

Yet much as the house abuts the camp, this sly knockabout sits side-by-side with multiple unsettling disruptions of film form, Glazer's way of ensuring we never get that comfortable: thermocam footage redolent of an infernal Hansel and Gretel; a slow push-in on a flower until the redness of its petals fills the frame to the point of abstraction; subtitled resistance poetry, pronounced in its entirety. I detected a marked lessening of intensity in the film's second hour, as we leave Auschwitz behind to follow Höss's passage into Nazi high command, and witness the apparatus being expanded and greased in greater detail. (Suddenly, we seem too far away from palpable evil and too close to the banally bureaucratic, although one overhead shot of the commandants crammed in around the boardroom table cannot fail to poke you into further recognition of the scale of this operation.) A final drift into documentary of a sort - a peep through space and time into the gas chambers as they are today - indicates Glazer is in debate with himself about how best to conclude this story-without-an-ending, as you might say he (and, by extension, we all) ought to be. The whole is more variable than Under the Skin, which felt of a piece and more powerful and profound for that, but at its very best, which is often enough, Zone provides an astonishing demonstration of an aging medium's apparently still extant ability to compel, provoke and shock us anew. Stay seated through the closing credits, not for anything so trite as a sting, but to allow your chilled blood to recirculate as it should.

The Zone of Interest opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday 26 January 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of January 19-21, 2024):

1 (new) Mean Girls (12A) **
2 (1) Wonka (PG) ***
3 (2) Poor Things (18) **
4 (3) Anyone but You (15)
5 (4) One Life (12A)
6 (new) The Holdovers (15) ***
7 (5) The Beekeeper (15)
8 (9) Wish (U)
9 (new) Queen Rock Montreal (12A)
10 (7) The Boy and the Heron (12A) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) The Marvels (12) **
2 (re) The Creator (12) **
3 (1) Trolls Band Together (U)
4 (2) Oppenheimer (15) ****
5 (4) The Equalizer 3 (15)
6 (3) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12)
7 (7) Anatomy of a Fall (15) ****
8 (37) Five Nights at Freddy's (15)
9 (5Barbie (12) ***
10 (20) Killers of the Flower Moon (15) ****

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Babe (Sunday, Channel 4, 2.05pm)
2. The French Connection [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
3. The Florida Project (Wednesday, Channel 4, 2.25am)
4. Wildlife (Saturday, BBC2, 2.20am)
5. Moonlight (Tuesday, BBC2, 12.05am)

Thursday 25 January 2024

Happy now: "The Color Purple"

It's a low bar to clear and we're very much splitting hairs here - hey, welcome to 21st century film criticism - but as films based on musicals based on films based on books go, the new
The Color Purple is far more certain of itself than the new Mean Girls. As directed for the screen by Blitz Bazawule, who broke through with 2018's very striking Netflix find The Burial of Kojo before overseeing Beyoncé's batshit "visual album" Black is King, this is an unapologetically full-throated musical, such as the studio system once routinely produced; it unfolds on sets that must have been several times more expensive to build than anything its characters could afford; and it stars performers who look as though they could well carry a tune, supported by hundreds of extras leaping into terpsichorean action so as to sell us tried-and-tested jazz, soul and gospel-infused musical numbers. If I nevertheless emerged with reservations, they concerned whether Alice Walker's serious, sombre account of Black suffering and endurance in the American South of the early 20th century was really asking to be Disneyfied in this way; the entirely unresolved mismatch between the material and how it's presented to us made me wonder if we haven't collectively lost the plot as storytellers and consumers, and why some part of the American cinema insists upon sanitising and childproofing American history. Steven Spielberg's (I think honourable) adaptation of 1985 drew flak, not least for being directed by someone far removed from the milieu Walker was writing about, but it was never caught attempting to jolly the worst of the novel up, as Bazawule's putative crowdpleaser has to. The Spielberg approach was gravely sincere and empathetic, a tryout for later work in Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List and beyond. Bazawule's tone, confoundingly in places, is that of the builder on the scaffold, imploring the downtrodden women shuffling beneath his gaze to cheer up and crack a smile. Oppression?! Might never happen, love.

What's semi-intriguing is the attempt to use one two-hour film to digest not just Walker's novel and the Broadway extravaganza it inspired, but a whole array of 20th century Black art and experience, from Josephine Baker to Julie Dash. It's unarguably a big swing, but also as much moodboard as it is movie - the same issue that beset Bazawule's previous features. Dramatically, this Color is scattered and largely weightless. The performers of note (Taraji P. Henson as Shug, the newly Oscar-nominated Danielle Brooks as Sofia) are presented as if guest stars in a sitcom or soap, treated to thumpingly big introductions that the rest of Marcus Gardley's script cannot match; in large part, that's because this script flees in terror from Walker's darker material, much as the innocent young Nettie (Halle Bailey) flees the family home after her father abuses her - a scene this version doesn't dare visualise. For a long time, it seems as though almost as many atrocities will happen off-camera in this 12A-rated film as in the upcoming The Zone of Interest, but that's through evasiveness rather than conceptual choice; it toughens up a little towards the end once the execs have been persuaded the audience is staying seated, though even here, there's something a bit cowardly in the way God is called upon to dispense last-reel justice. Our heroines are largely spared, instead rerouted down picturesque backroads to songs with lines like "Life can never break your soul". Bazawule is demonstrably happier here - we all are - because he's moving back in the direction of Queen Bey music videos with their zippy rhythms and peppy energy; still, even these appear symptomatic of the prevailing urge to boil down and make nice. We get a beat or two more lesbianism than Spielberg filmed, albeit in a number involving a bathtub so thick with bubbles it'd be two weeks before either party saw any action; Walker's ideas about resistance are reduced to a three-minute song titled "Hell No". Clearly, Color Purple '24 is more ambitious than the money grub of Mean Girls '24: it wants to be taken seriously. Yet without this text's former wallop, too many of its scenes resemble those parodies of awards-season miserybait that showed up on 30 Rock, Family Guy and Key & Peele. After a while, I half-expected Jenna Maroney to dance on as Token Caucasian Lady.

The Color Purple opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

On demand: "La Ronde"

I'm amazed it's taken so long for me to get round to 1950's 
La Ronde - this may be the last of world cinema's Golden Age titles to come my way - but better late than never. As is clear from its wholly seductive opening gambit, a brisk spin around a stage on a set representing Vienna's backstreets in the dapper company of Chevalier-aping narrator Anton Walbrook, the spell Max Ophüls' film casts remains a potent one. In its form, it's something like the portmanteau films that were coming into vogue as the world made its peace and its creatives worked together anew, but this is a portmanteau accentuated by exquisite tailoring, on set and in postproduction: a dreamlike flow of encounters, couplings, hook-ups and near-misses - encompassing everyone from a lady of the night (Simone Signoret) to a carousing count (Gérard Philipe) - which collectively represent subtle variations on the theme of desire. Some of these are as tentative as the fumbling lovers at their centre; others tempestuous; others still a dream-within-a-dream. The whole is like spending ninety minutes inside a mind wandering off in different erotic directions: the most sensual of diversions.

It would merit study as a film without a plot in the established Hollywood sense of the term. Ophüls fires off his characters as if they were Cupid's arrows, some sticking in the heart of the screen, others disappearing off into the night; what this sinuous camera really wants to record - with only one eye on the era's censors - are the cruelties and hypocrisies of love, and also its consoling kindnesses, the full gamut of ways in which we rub up against one another, and sometimes, if we're lucky, nudge one another along. In so doing, La Ronde also illustrates the advantages to be gained from the abandonment of conventional plotting: more room for an easy-come-easy-go philosophy, a sense of how the world turns beyond the stories we tell, a lightness of touch that proves as alluring on film as it can be in life (and, indeed, in the boudoir). It is the fate of all of us in our lifetimes to play the roles of pursuer and pursued, jilter and jilted; yet whenever their liaisons don't pan out, Ophüls and the film shrug their shoulders in unison, and try their luck elsewhere. To the millions of words of commendation La Ronde has inspired over the years, I can add only these: had I seen this film in my youth, it would have spared me a lot of unnecessary pain and tears.

La Ronde is available to rent via Prime Video and the BFI Player.

Monday 22 January 2024

Living in another world: "All of Us Strangers"

All of Us Strangers
 is both an adaptation and an intensely personal work. Returning home from the States after the cancellation of his HBO series Looking and the commercial failure of his racehorse drama Lean on Pete, the British writer-director Andrew Haigh has picked up a book - Taichi Yamada's 1987 novel Strangers - which centres on an immediately recognisable figure. Adam (Andrew Scott) is a sensitive fortysomething creative joined in the wake of bruising life experience, trying to tap out a screenplay in the mostly empty block of newbuild flats he now calls home, but most commonly observed distracting himself with reality television, junk food and long sessions of yawning while staring out the window. (Many freelancers will relate.) A sadsack recluse with the kind of troubled soul Scott is well placed to wordlessly conjure up, Adam is nevertheless presented with potential respite when a knock at the door reveals a boozy, garrulous musician (Normal Paul Mescal, with duff Northern accent) offering to invite himself in "if not for a drink, then for anything else you might want". Hardened Mescalites may well be amazed when Adam turns down this open goal - maybe the accent was a dealbreaker - but that's partly because he has another man in his life (Jamie Bell, with Seventies 'tache), whom he follows back to the wilds of South London, and some version of the family home he's hitherto been struggling to write about. Clearly, All of Us Strangers - presently a leftfield contender in the 2023-24 awards race - means to be puzzled over; clearly, boundaries both personal and temporal are being crossed in pursuit of the myriad delicacies, ambiguities and complexities of human contact. The question Haigh sets us to pondering, and may leave some viewers shouting at the screen, is a common one: what's going on?

Well, for starters: it's clear from the first words Adam sets down on the page that All of Us Strangers was Andrew Haigh's lockdown project, laboured over during those many long days when all of us had to be Adam-like shut-ins, company was largely limited to the ghosts in one's own head, nothing was certain, and everybody retreated in some way. This is the story of a writer who retreats down memory lane only to find himself stuck at an impasse or in limbo; whether or not this was Haigh's aim, his film brushes up against the ways memory and chronology got scattered by the pandemic. Hence the out-of-time Eighties soundtrack (Frankie, Pet Shop Boys) and AIDS allusions (another virus, different era); hence the repeated close-ups of photographs being shuffled, a visual analogue for editor Jonathan Alberts' dextrous cutting technique. Hence, too, the befuddling matter of casting actors visibly younger than Scott (Bell and Claire Foy) as Adam's mum and dad, and why these characters don't appear to have retained any information about their lad. Here, Haigh seems to be pushing beyond the rational to instead evoke certain states of mind: how discombobulating it is when people seem to grow up so fast, how heartbreaking it is that some scarcely get to grow up at all. The glowing reviews from damp-eyed first responders would indicate many folks out there are presently working through these issues - and that, as with 2022's Aftersun, a small film has become a charged lightning rod for those emotions we simply weren't allowed time to process in the hustle to get everything back to a pre-pandemic normal.

No issue there; that kind of emotional surrogacy is a service art has always usefully provided. My feeling remains that All of Us Strangers needs these extenuating circumstances, however, because on a scene-by-scene basis, it's wobbly storytelling to say the least, the kind of overambitious fumble-slash-muddle prodigious debutants sometimes turn in. Haigh's breakthrough feature, 2011's Weekend, was defined by its spontaneity: for long stretches, you felt you were watching events play out in some approximation of real time. Very little about the new film is real - unreal is the goal for much of it - and from the outset, a lot more appears frankly forced. Like his characters with those photographs, Haigh is turning over deeply personal material - what it was to grow up gay in the 1980s, what it is to be gay now, what it is to be a concerned parent and a loving child - and yet he's found such an odd and defensive means of bringing it to the screen; the genre-adjacent framing suggests a talent having needlessly severe doubts about his own capabilities, as if the fine line separating Adam from Andrew was erased altogether at a certain point in production. I was reminded of Haigh's near-contemporary Joanna Hogg, who took a quantum leap forward after she came out from behind the cover of her own characters, and - with the Souvenir films - began to frame her story as straightforward cine-memoir. Perhaps Haigh felt he owed Yamada (who died in November) a narrative debt, having riffed on his evocative title, but stuffing personal material into this flimsy supernatural framework muffles it; for much of the running time, I sat not blubbing, but wondering whether Haigh had decided to rebrand himself as M. Night Shyamalan now his stock has dipped.

The really strange thing is that, even amid a malfunctioning machine like this, Haigh's abundant gift with actors remains visible - it's just he's having to use them to conceal the peculiar mechanics of this plot in a thin skin of emotional credibility. Every now and again, an interaction approaches Weekend-like levels of honesty and intimacy; he's still good on ambience, those scenes that dim the lights and crank up the music, both to cover any clanks and to help persuade us these characters are the only people in the world who matter. (Another reason for the five-star readings: people really, really love these songs. But they're doing a lot of heavy lifting in this context.) Yet if you've clocked the framing, then any tenderness these sequences express can only be interpreted as tenuous, because we're pretty sure at least one of these characters doesn't exist on the same plane as the others. It is my least favourite kind of film, all told - the withholder, a work that keeps us waiting for the revelation of how all these strangers truly relate - and I'm still not sure whether we need to blame the Shyamalan of The Sixth Sense or the Alejandro González Iñárritu of Babel for its enduring popularity among cineastes. Either way, it's hard to snuggle up to a film, let alone embrace it, when it presents as so overthought and overwrought, and when a rug of some variety is so obviously going to be pulled from beneath our feet. Yet until it is, none of these interactions make complete sense - much as very little about the movies nowadays makes complete sense. It's strange to witness a boom in queer-themed cinema at a time when two of our foremost queer filmmakers (Haigh and Ira Sachs) should appear so creatively lost. But then, as All of Us Strangers - not a disaster, but a misfire - still seems on some level to intuit, it is a very strange time to be alive.

All of Us Strangers opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Old school: "The Holdovers"

Advance word on Alexander Payne's 
The Holdovers has been that this is cinema such as your grandmother used to make and/or enjoy. One could quibble with the finer details of that assertion - it's unlikely that a textured character piece of 1971 vintage would have been allowed to run as long as two hours and 13 minutes - but there remains a good deal of truth in it. Not for Payne, however, the freewheeling Super Seventies cinema that Paul Thomas Anderson, for one, has been drawn towards. Instead, The Holdovers follows in the doughty footsteps of that strain of 1970s cinema that was always foursquare and TV-adjacent - resulting in a project you can easily imagine inspiring its own small-screen spinoff(s). Seasoned TV scribe David Hemingson (Just Shoot Me, How I Met Your Mother, Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23) has here bequeathed Payne a sitcom-ready premise: three varyingly unhappy characters left behind for the holidays in the snowy confines of an elite New England boarding school for boys. This secular holy trinity keep separating off into funny odd couples: the tweedy, mansplaining classics tutor (Paul Giamatti), the angsty student abandoned by his rich folks (Dominic Sessa), the doubly bereaved dinnerlady (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) through whom this script can gesture towards real hurt and pain, as opposed to the rankling boys' martyr complexes. Only gesture, mind, for nothing here is allowed to cut too deeply or sting too long: it's a film that plays even the agonies of a dislocated shoulder for cosy, crowdpleasing chuckles.

If you can detach it from the murmurings that have accompanied its maker for the past few years, you'll likely have a reassuringly good time during The Holdovers, offering as it does comfort cinema par excellence. These characters aren't going anywhere fast, and nor is the film, and so - eased along by Payne's MOR music cues - you find yourself settling and snuggling into it; it's not a movie that puts up or invites much in the way of resistance. Narratively, it proceeds on a straight line, as if on castors, and the more glowing critical responses seem in large part like a response to that simplicity. Hemingson writes the kind of droll, waspish, sometimes outright snarky dialogue Payne himself has been known to produce and thus knows exactly what to do with. And the actors make the most of it. No-one currently working is better placed to play the gruff, self-deluding misanthrope than Giamatti, and there may not be a more Giamattian moment in the whole of cinema than the one here where he rejects a passing streetwalker's euphemistic offer of "candy cane" on the grounds that he's pre-diabetic. This is the definition of a greatest-hits turn: Giamatti plays the fussy and grouchy notes that made him a pass-agg star of sorts, we snicker accordingly, and everybody goes home happy, the actor possibly with a career-recognition gong or two.

Still, I did wonder from time to time whether Hemingson's idea of character business isn't a mite too easy - too televisual? - for the film's own dramatic good. We know Giamatti's Mr. Hunham isn't quite the tyrant he appears to the boys from an early interaction where he tells Randolph's Mary that her late son was one of his more perceptive students ("He thought you were an asshole." "Like I said..."). Both Hunham and Sessa's Angus, viewed in parallel throughout, really just need the one thing - sustained companionship - and, felicitously, that's the one and only thing this script can think of trading in. To the last, The Holdovers is genial entertainment, which you couldn't say of many recent American studio releases; yet set it against the satire of Citizen Ruth and Election - still Payne's best films - and it's insistently cosy, a film that doesn't just reclaim the centre ground abandoned of late by American movies but burrows doggedly into it for two-and-a-quarter hours. Every awards season, one film comes through because it doesn't lose all that much from being watched at home on screeners, nor if you doze off for ten minutes in the middle. Ironically the product of an old-school movie studio rather than one of these fancy, flashy streaming services, The Holdovers is very much the contender to beat on this front: a well-made TV movie, not without its TV-scaled laughs and pleasures, but a TV movie nevertheless.

The Holdovers is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 19 January 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of January 12-14, 2024):

1 (1) Wonka (PG) ***
2 (new) Poor Things (18) **
3 (4) Anyone but You (15)
4 (2) One Life (12A)
5 (new) The Beekeeper (15)
6 (3) Priscilla (15) ***
7 (6) The Boy and the Heron (12A) ***
8 (5) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12A)
9 (7) Wish (U)
10 (new) The Boys in the Boat (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (10) Trolls Band Together (U)
2 (3) Oppenheimer (15) ****
3 (1) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12)
4 (4) The Equalizer 3 (15)
5 (2) Barbie (12) ***
6 (17) The Exorcist: Believer (15)
7 (new) Anatomy of a Fall (15) ****
9 (8) Paw Patrol The Mighty Movie (U)
10 (14) Elvis (12) **

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Schindler's List (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. Mary Poppins (Sunday, BBC1, 3.15pm)
3. The Piano [above] (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. This is Spinal Tap (Saturday, BBC2, 1.45am)
5. BlacKkKlansman (Sunday, Channel 4, 12.35am)

Thursday 18 January 2024

Fetch lives: "Mean Girls"

In the great 21st century IP merry-go-round,
Mean Girls has so far been a reliably entertaining 2004 comedy, written by Tina Fey, and an apparently successful stage musical with songs by Fey and her composer husband Jeff Richmond. Now it generates a film of the stage musical, as we got with Roald Dahl's Matilda, and as we're about to get with The Color Purple, opening next week. (And no, I can't believe anybody thought to turn The Color Purple into a musical either, but they did and so here we all are.) If the new Mean Girls has prompted anything in the way of pre-release buzz, it's been online chatter about a trailer that went out of its way to disguise the fact this version is a musical reworking rather than a straightahead reboot. As one after another of Fey and Richmond's not unpleasant but almost wholly forgettable B-/C+ tunes passes in one ear and out the other, you understand why the Paramount marketing nabobs took this decision: these songs are not in themselves going to inspire anyone to see Mean Girls again, or rather they matter greatly less than having Mean Girls as a title. The new film's musical aspect is only really interesting for what it reveals about the perilous place of comedy within today's studio system. Every now and again, the songs give rise to a witty, audibly Fey-authored line - I liked "watch me run the world in shoes I cannot walk in" - but they're not comedy in the way "Springtime for Hitler" or "Big Bottom" or "Blame Canada" are comedy; mostly, they serve to underline what we already know about these characters from the original script, or add unnecessary notes of explanation. They're afterthoughts set to music. Worse still, in terms of how the overall film functions, they delay the arrival of the next properly funny scene or joke. At a time when the cinemagoing public is crying out for light relief - to the extent of embracing even the by all accounts entirely mid Anyone but You - here is a studio proposition that insists a funny Mean Girls no longer suffices; that Fey and her cast and crew must now sing and dance for their supper.

This, they duly and undeniably do. Only time will tell whether the new Mean Girls will enjoy the careers of their illustrious predecessors, but they hit their marks, give of their best, and hope this will be enough. (It's not their fault we're all sat there running permanent mental comparisons.) Angourie Rice is typically bright as Cady, and she works up a sweet normie rapport with Christopher Briney (who has the easiest gig here, on the grounds nobody remembers the boys in the first film); it's just she's understudying in a role that confirmed Lindsay Lohan as a solid-gold star. The vaguely somnolent Reneé Rapp makes this Regina George a drowsy queen bee, which is certainly a different approach to that the poised and perky Rachel McAdams took. As one of her underlings, Avantika has a spacey young Carol Kane/Kimmy Robertson vibe; and Moana's Auli'i Cravalho, as indie chick Janis, brought back pleasant memories of watching Vanessa Hudgens in 2009's underrated Bandslam. Again: they're only evoking other performances in other movies, but this might be preferable to the fate of the grown-ups present, who find themselves with nothing to do now the kids are Gleeing it up every five minutes. Busy Philipps, with her marvellously busy features, does a neat sketch of a mum who still believes she's as young as her daughter ("I'm @coooooolmom, with six Os"), but then disappears. Fey favourite Jon Hamm has a scene-and-a-bit as a gruff sex-ed coach, and then disappears. There are recalls for both Fey and Tim Meadows, who now seem like weary babysitters of both their students and the whole Mean Girls project, but as they're not here to sing and dance, they too start to appear surplus to requirements. The sociology that was a trace element of the original source material (Rosalind Wiseman's non-fiction handbook Queen Bees and Wannabes) has largely gone, replaced by tits and teeth; and Fey's generally confounding internal politics - her complicated relationship with feminisms old and new - becomes no less legible for having theatre kids bellow high notes over the top of them. At all turns, the human element looks to have become secondary to a prevailing Cowellisation of culture: the need to convert everything, even faux-edgy studio comedies, into conduits for MOR pop music that won't offend anyone but might persuade folks to pay $50 a pop in the theatre and fork over another $10 in the cinema. As history dutifully repeats and rhymes with itself, what we're really being invited to cheer here is a revenue stream sustained for the best part of two decades. Fey has done very well out of it all told, but this Mean Girls is like 30 Rock converted into Kimmy Schmidt: a longer sit, far more diffuse and dilute in its pleasures, and neither as funny nor as entertaining as its predecessor. It needed more Girls5eva.

Mean Girls is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Wednesday 17 January 2024

On demand: "3 Faces"

Here is the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, out of
the house he's been confined to in his previous film-dispatches, but still working within clear limitations on a story of containment. 3 Faces opens with the narrow frame of a video message self-taped by an aspiring actress: in it, she regales us with the sorry story of how she was accepted into drama school, only for her family to deny her that freedom, and why this has led her to hang herself in a cave outside a remote rural village. (It has the look of those truthbombs that rapidly circulate online in the wake of tragedy.) Thereafter, we follow Panahi (playing himself) and the actress friend who received the video (Behnaz Jafari) as they drive around in what may be the same car that carried this director through 2015's Taxi Tehran, trying to locate the source and establish the veracity of this distress call. Along the way, they stop to take semi-improvised contributions from passing locals, who redirect our seekers and add dashes of local colour, poetry and superstition, but also - through words and gestures - hint at the tyranny everybody's living under. As several of the men dismiss the actresses of this narrative as "empty-headed entertainers", we are reminded once more that the artist poses a particular problem to any overbearing regime, devoted as they are to self-expression, and to a wider acknowledgement of their circumstances. Panahi has oft been championed as an artist for his bravery in repeatedly putting himself and his work out there, but the fictional Panahi within the film is himself engaged in what automatically strikes the eye as outright heroism: even as his own status in the eyes of the authorities is unclear, he embarks upon a quest to save another life hanging perilously in the balance.

The film's mystery elements - is the tape real or fake? Is the girl alive or dead? - don't develop quite as we initially expect. (If anything, they lead us somewhere only more surprising and enlightening.) What we're driven to notice en route, however, is how this particular aesthetic has evolved to reflect the situation in today's Iran. Panahi and Jafari's inquiries carry them down the same long and winding roads Kiarostami once travelled along, and play out in the same realist, even self-reflexive key that was a feature of Iranian cinema in the late 20th century. But when Jafari brings up the screenplay about suicide Panahi once invited her to collaborate on, it's as if art has been superceded by harried reality - and that sense of threat and urgency is precisely what's new here. These fables are no longer as pretty nor as precious as they once were; they appear less interested in art than they do reportage. Panahi's characters may well be on the move, but they're still largely confined to the safe-ish space of the car - and they're on the move because someone or something is snapping at their heels. Panahi wouldn't be the first artist in late middle-age to start seeing death everywhere: his encounters here include a passing chat with an old woman testing the grave dug for her, and a pause caused by an exhausted cow who's laid down to expire in the very middle of the one road connecting this village to the rest of the world.

Yet the circumstances of living under suspicion in the Iran of 2018 means Panahi is left wondering what kind of death awaits him: where and when, how far or near, and whether it can possibly be of his own choosing. The good news, in as much as 3 Faces has good news to report: Panahi continues to counter these dire thoughts - and the suppressive iron fist of the powers-that-be - via the almost unthinkably light touch he himself demonstrates with regard to his performers. Again here, there are long stretches that could easily be mistaken for documentary investigation, but also a monologue about bull's testicles that reveals a stubbornly macho worldview, a comically absurd subplot about the transport of a foreskin removed during circumcision, and occasional explosions of rage to remind us exactly what's at stake. The approach extends to Panahi's carefully cultivated yet lightly worn onscreen persona: that of the bemused observer, fumbling his way haphazardly towards truth. Yet only a truly clear-sighted creative could arrive at a film this panoramic in its representation of a society, and 3 Faces's brilliant, deftly coded, wholly resonant closing images bear this out: a fleeting glimpse of the artist confined to semi-obscurity in a distant field, and a much longer shot of market forces - and what's already been established as a draining status quo - coming up the road to reassert themselves.

3 Faces is currently streaming on the iPlayer, and available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and YouTube.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

In memoriam: Georgina Hale (Telegraph 15/01/24)

Georgina Hale
, who has died aged 80, was a British stage and screen actress whose ready, slinky sensuality might have made her a star in other countries. Her diminutive, smoky-eyed presence and Betty Boop-like voice were most memorably deployed by Ken Russell in his run of 1970s provocations, notably The Devils (1971) and Mahler (1974), for which Hale won a BAFTA.

To the maelstrom of The Devils, Hale added a wounded tenderness as Philippe, the local girl who falls pregnant before being abandoned by Oliver Reed’s gallivanting Father Grandier, helping to kickstart both narrative calamity and the controversy the X-rated film generated upon first release. Thereafter, Hale was central to Russell’s arrestingly fleshy cinematic vision.

In The Boy Friend (1971), Russell’s mischievous rethink of Sandy Wilson’s backstage musical, Hale sang while writhing on a park bench in stockings. Mahler opened with Hale, as the composer’s wife Alma, cocooned naked on a rocky shore, while a later dream sequence had Robert Powell’s protagonist imagining his muse stripping for a Nazi lover.

Hale was phlegmatic about such nudity: “I don’t mind having to take my clothes off. It’s a slice of life, after all. But I don’t really enjoy it.” Nevertheless, her full-bodied commitment helped secure the BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer at the 1975 awards, beating Blazing Saddles’ Cleavon Little and Badlands’ Sissy Spacek.

Further collaborations included Lisztomania (1975), Valentino (1977) and a gender-flipped TV version of Treasure Island (1995); Russell described Hale as “an actress of such sensitivity she can make the hair rise on your arms”. Yet her performance as Alma Mahler now seems to intuit what was to come: playing second fiddle to better known men.

She was born Georgina Hole [sic] on August 4, 1943 to Ilford landlord George Hole and his wife Elsie (née Fordham). It was an itinerant childhood, her education disrupted by the family’s relocation from pub to pub: “I couldn’t write, spell or read. There was a real shame in it, and you were the dunce of the class, always getting whacked around the head.”

She was training as a hairdresser in Knightsbridge when a friend passed her tickets for a production of West Side Story. Inspired, she signed up at the new Chelsea Actors’ Workshop behind Harrods, studying four nights a week: “Someone came down and said, ‘Can you read a script?’ I thought, God, I can hardly read, and I certainly didn’t know what a script was.”

Having tweaked her name, Hale successfully auditioned for RADA (“I just learnt the shortest bit of Juliet from a book of speeches and stood there like a petrified beetroot”), graduating in 1965. She made her RSC debut that year in The Comedy of Errors; by 1967, she was playing Juliet at the Liverpool Playhouse. Her West End debut came with a 1976 production of The Seagull, alongside Alan Bates.

Beyond her work with Russell, Hale worked steadily – doing episodes of Budgie (1971-72, as Adam Faith’s wife), Upstairs Downstairs (1975) and Minder (1980) – without improving her onscreen status. She was the typist fending off Keith Barron in Dennis Potter’s Play for Today entry Only Make Believe (1973); she was a salty switchboard girl in the TV spin-off Sweeney 2 (1978); she made breakfast for Roger Daltrey’s eponymous career criminal in McVicar (1980), clad only in an apron.

She enjoyed a notable stage hit in 1981 with Nell Dunn’s sauna-set Steaming, earning an Olivier Award nomination, only to see her role recast for the 1985 film adaptation. She returned to the boards in 1982 to play Mussolini’s mistress Clara Petacci – alongside Glenda Jackson’s Eva Braun – in Robert David MacDonald’s Summit Conference; and worked with Jackson again on a 1984 production of Phaedra.

More prominent screen work followed. In “The Happiness Patrol”, a Doctor Who three-parter of 1988, Hale’s Daisy K repainted the TARDIS as pink as her wig. She gained a younger fanbase upon replacing Elizabeth Estensen as the witchy lead in the CITV series T-Bag; while “Love and Death”, a seaside-set 1990 episode of One Foot in the Grave, reunited Hale with her RADA classmate Richard Wilson.

Wilson-level celebrity eluded Hale, however; she spent two years washing dishes to make ends meet. Entering middle age unabashed, she signed up for sex comedy Preaching to the Perverted (1997) and went topless as a Lithuanian princess in Brit indie AKA (2002); she returned to TV with episodes of Casualty (2000), The Bill (2002) and crime drama The Commander (2007), where critic Nancy Banks-Smith noted Hale “was able to do wonders with a mere sliver of a scene”.

In later life, she guested on Emmerdale (2006) and teen soap Hollyoaks (2011-12); she also teamed up with Richard Briers as veterans battling the undead in the lively B-movie Cockneys vs. Zombies (2012). Her final role came with a 2016 episode of Holby City.

In 2010, Hale was listed as one of the ten greatest British character actors by The Guardian, recognition for a career that mostly unspooled far from the limelight: “Once I reached 51, my life drastically changed. The parts aren’t there, the people you’ve worked for have retired or died… I tried to change my agent, and eleven agents turned me down. One told me they didn’t take actresses over 45 because it was too depressing to talk to them on the telephone. You felt as though you’d never been an actor. I had periods where I wondered if I’d actually done all these things, or whether it was somebody else.”

She married once, to the actor John Forgeham; they were divorced in 1969.

Georgina Hale, born August 4, 1943, died January 4, 2024. 

Monday 15 January 2024

On demand: "Maestro"

If you'd told me ten years ago that Bradley Cooper - permasmirking star of
the Hangovers and the A-Team rehash - would over the next decade direct not one but two of the most notable recent American films about music, you would in return have heard a scoff as loud as any sonic boom. (I refuse to believe that Cooper was touting anything more resonant than a Spotify playlist called "Sexy Grooves", featuring all the Chili Peppers he used to annoy his dormmates with.) Perhaps there is still room for growth and maturity in 21st century Hollywood, however, because Cooper has delivered just that, first with 2018's A Star is Born, and now Maestro, his biopic of the composer Leonard Bernstein. Star, with its breakout role for Lady Gaga and attendant hit single, was wholly pop. Maestro proves classical in both content and construction. It films the Fifties and Sixties in shimmering, oldie-movie black-and-white - not the last time it can be observed pandering to boomers - and the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties in colour; its screenplay, which Cooper co-wrote with Josh Singer, opens with a prologue in which an elderly Bernstein (Cooper under latex) confesses he's missing something from his life, then provides a two-hour flashback that explains who this missing piece was and how he lost her. It's an innately romantic take on this life. Along the way, we will hear snatches of the Bernstein canon - On the Town, West Side Story et al. - but the story Cooper and Singer want to tell is one about a girl. As Felicia Montealegre, Carey Mulligan steps into an adoringly framed Cinemascope close-up, and the movie begins to describe how man-in-motion Bernstein drew her in, turned her on, and finally, regrettably, shook her loose.

This brings us to one of Maestro's strengths: the film is handsome, absorbing, and nothing if not smooth (where last year's composer-driven awards contender Tár - in which the real Bernstein cameoed - was either thrillingly or alienatingly spiky), and yet it never once lapses into middlebrow inertia. Cooper knows he has a lot of ground to cover, and Maestro presents as a properly moving picture from the moment the fresh-faced Lenny is roused from slumber by a career-changing phone call informing him he is to deputise for an ailing colleague at Carnegie Hall. As he sprints across town to the fabled venue, half-panicked and half-elated, we're led to believe that, yes, this probably is what a half-century of stratospheric upward mobility must have felt like. To the pantheon, and beyond! Felicia, for her part, is conceived as just about the only person who could get the boyish Bernstein to sit still: lazing back-to-back with her man in the shade of a Central Park tree, or sharing a post-coital cigarette after temporarily exhausting him in the sack. Yet the history books will show Felicia Montealegre needed more than a few idle minutes in passing here and there to figure out what made her guy tick; and that, despite a late-life reunion, too many of their best years really were lost, scattered like pages of score in the wind. All this movement, the film posits, was in part a ruse to distract the casual onlooker from a sad, quiet, stubborn little secret: that, even without a baton in his hand, Lenny B swung both ways, and more energetically than most, not that he could acknowledge this publicly.

It should be noted at this juncture that Maestro represents an altogether straight filming of a prominent queer life. The tragedy framed here is that its subject wasted time he could have spent playing hetero happy families chasing young men around after dark; and the script shows next to no dramatic interest in Bernstein's male lovers, instead hustling us past them as if they were all bum notes. The treatment does, however, stir up that thunderous melodrama that was integral to the composer's music, the whirlwind of sound and emotion you hear whenever anybody slaps on West Side Story. This is a chaste film, but it's not a genteel one, forever seeking as it does to translate punchy clusters of notes into bruising scenes and conflicts (and vice versa). There's a reason everyone recalls the namecheck in REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" as being sung in upper case; it's quite possible that was the name - all caps, with optional exclamation mark(s) - Cooper and Singer set down at the top of their yellow legal pads before composing their first draft. Aggressively garrulous, forcefully convivial, forever pursuing some charm offensive, this Bernstein is a most seductive monster. If he comes over as mannered in Cooper's interpretation, he's no less mannered than Bernstein himself; and real thought has been paid as to how to age the character subtly and convincingly, not always the case with modern biopics. Best of all, the new Cooper is generous and gracious: the more his Lenny skulks or storms off frame left, the more space there is for Mulligan's Felicia. This is the film that confirms this actress has a superb mouth for close-ups, her fragile smiles only accentuated by the recesses either side of her lips; when she frowns, those dimples pull us down further into the character's sadnesses. We get a surfeit of both in Cooper's film, so closely were joy and despair linked in this relationship; as a union, it was in a very real sense complicated. Maestro shows us Bernstein the great man, and its musical setpieces underline how great he could be. Yet it also senses how greatness - the urge to throw one's arms wide open and embrace the world entire - could in itself be hurtful and problematic. This Bernstein is a man who leaves the bathroom door open for fear of being alone with himself and his thoughts. Some men cannot be contained; some are always looking for an exit strategy.

Maestro is now streaming on Netflix.

Friday 12 January 2024

For what it's worth...

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

1 (1) Wonka (PG) ***
2 (new) One Life (12A)
3 (new) Priscilla (15) ***
4 (5) Anyone but You (15)
5 (3) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12A)
6 (4) The Boy and the Heron (12A) ***
7 (6) Wish (U)
8 (2) Ferrari (15)
9 (new) Night Swim (15) **
10 (8The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12)
2 (3) Barbie (12) ***
3 (7) Oppenheimer (15) ****
4 (5) The Equalizer 3 (15)
5 (9) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
7 (16) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
8 (12) Paw Patrol The Mighty Movie (U)
10 (20) Trolls Band Together (U)

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Sleepless in Seattle [above] (Sunday, Channel 4, 3pm)
2. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sunday, BBC2, 12.15pm)
3. Ali (Saturday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
4. A Star is Born (Wednesday, BBC1, 10.40pm)
5. Who You Think I Am (Saturday, BBC2, 2.20am)