Thursday 29 February 2024

Happiness is easy: "Perfect Days"

The Wim Wenders filmography has grown rather wild and woolly over the course of the 21st century: several dramatic misfires,
lots of non-fiction free-roaming, much of that worthwhile in some way. Right from its opening image of a woman brushing fallen leaves from a path, Perfect Days is Wenders tidying up, the authorial equivalent of bonsai. Neatly composed Academy frames, occupied mostly by the one performer; a wispy narrative line; an editing strategy in which each shot is inserted seamlessly into the next, like a key in a lock; a quiet but insistent emphasis on everyday pleasures, scored to a handful of old familiar rock songs; a pacifying sense of everything in its rightful place. In its diligent neatness, Wenders' direction mirrors the film's protagonist Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), a Tokyo toilet cleaner observed as he goes about his daily rounds. The first revelation here is that public toilets would appear far more salubrious in Japan than they generally are elsewhere: architecturally striking, emblazoned in bold colours, boasting state-of-the-art privacy features, Ozu-like sliding doors, and a dedicated support staff - including Hirayama, on this evidence the most assiduous of them all - polishing each surface and checking under every rim 24/7. This camera's yen for tidiness means the film often resembles last year's stealth blockbuster Godzilla Minus One, albeit translated into a becalmed arthouse idiom. If Wenders deigns to identify an antagonist at all here, it's not a 50ft mutant sea lizard, but that which floats up from the bottom of the bowl - though these frames are kept so militantly pristine we never see the worst of it. Back at Hirayama's apartment, meanwhile, we start to get an idea of why the film has inspired the five-star responses it has. Looking around at the stuffed racks of yellowing secondhand books, cassettes and VHS tapes, any self-identifying culture vulture's dream, one realises Perfect Days is at heart a fantasy of having just enough resources (financial and spiritual) to get by, and of leaving the messes of this world behind us when we shut the door for the night. It's well-scrubbed escapism, where a charmer like Kaurismäki's Fallen Leaves - with its puncturing bulletins from the Russia-Ukraine war - had a dash more salt, grit and shit in the mix. (Perfect Days got the Oscar nod; Fallen Leaves didn't.)

Still, since globalisation has exported on-your-knees drudgery to the four corners of the Earth, the fantasy is apparently a universal one; Perfect Days has handed this most cultured of directors his first real round-the-world crowdpleaser since 1999's Buena Vista Social Club. Coming along some while after the film received its first bouquets on the festival circuit, I was struck by just how little there is to it. Minimalist to the max, it feels like Wenders' response to the hypercomplicated worldbuilding so prevalent elsewhere in the contemporary cinema - some kind of fresh air in the context of so much boysy braggadocio and BO. (Dune: Part Two opens in cinemas everywhere tomorrow.) What it has above all else is Koji Yakusho, foursquare in his solidity, showcasing a politesse we can't help but admire in our moviestars because we so rarely witness it elsewhere, and a twinkle in his eye that is sometimes revealed to be a tear of either grief or gratitude. Beyond him, the rest is mostly minutiae. Around its supporting characters, Perfect Days keeps lapsing into Zen baby talk (now is now), as if adapting Spiritual Contentment for Dummies (with Dunnies), its ricepaper script resistant to anything that might disrupt its hero's carefully tended inner peace. (I make no attempt to synopsise the plot, because the film doesn't really have one: it makes Hirokazu Kore-eda's famously sedate dramas seem like rollercoaster thrill rides.) With the grand romantic gestures of Wings of Desire now long behind him (another country), Wenders keenly encourages us to take refuge in the simple things - a good book, friendly faces, the morning coffee - though these particular examples can't sustain a two-hour running time, and everything is wrapped up with another of awards season 2023-24's Clangingly Obvious Soundtrack Cues. What's going on here? Has even the arthouse sector decided its halls have been overrun with nuance-missing idiots? Much as Andrew Haigh resorted to "The Power of Love" to underline whatever points All of Us Strangers had to make about, you know, the power of love, Wenders means to send us out feeling good by turning to - yes - Nina Simone's "Feeling Good". At the last, Perfect Days demonstrates all the complexity and profundity of a fortune cookie - but then I guess folks can't resist gobbling those down on a night out, too.

Perfect Days is now playing in selected cinemas.

Sunday 25 February 2024

Dream kitchen: "The Taste of Things"

Future historians will have a quirk to ponder when revisiting this year's Oscars: how France ended up with a strong Best Picture nominee, but rien to show for itself in Best Foreign Film. The faintly banal answer is that the national committee responsible for nominating titles for consideration in the latter category plumped for another film altogether, and their choice found itself crowded out in what proved an ultra-competitive year for subtitled items. The element of surprise is that where the determinedly slippery
Anatomy of a Fall, the aforementioned Best Picture contender, might once have been considered too ambiguous for Oscar recognition, the film that reaches UK screens this month as The Taste of Things would seem exactly that baity treat Academy voters used to gobble up: an exquisitely appointed, elegantly sedate period drama in which top-dollar dishes, more common to an awards lunch, are lovingly prepared and set down before the camera. (Foremost hors-d'oeuvre in this field would be Babette's Feast, which took home the Foreign Film Oscar back in 1988.) A comeback of sorts for the elusive Vietnamese writer-director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo, Norwegian Wood), the new film intends us to rethink our idea of stars along Michelin lines. For a long time - the duration of several courses - flesh-and-blood leads Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, cast as late 19th century chefs and occasional lovers, are deemed of less note than a well-turned omelette, vast steaming pots of vegetables, a sizzling rack of veal, and the greatest baked alaska ever conceived for the screen. A warning to anyone who made New Year's plans to eat more judiciously in 2024: once again, the movies have cancelled those plans for you.

Yet Tran's true subject - what we're really meant to coo at and swoon over here - isn't consumption, rather the more delicate business of craft and care: what we learn when young, develop as an adult, and ideally pass on to others in our wake. (The scenes of food preparation will shame anyone who's ever reached unthinkingly for the Pop Tart and the Cup-a-Soup.) That sense of craft informs the film as much as it does the food the chefs whip up. Binoche and Magimel, erstwhile lovers in real life and ever-precise actors besides, spoon baby potatoes onto a plate as though handling radioactive material - but then that's what it takes, Taste insists, if you want your late 19th century dining experience to go as these do. It makes for a deeply finicky film, hung up on the bearing of chefs' hats, the sight of men drawing their napkins over their heads to better inhale the scent of freshly broiled game, and the sound of the birds and bees hovering just beyond an eternally open kitchen door. (The sound design here achieves the inverse of The Zone of Interest: it lulls us toward drowsiness, by underlining how everything Tran puts on this table is entirely natural.) Yet just as each dish lingered over proves finite, so too craft itself can disappear into thin air. One look at a suddenly breathless Binoche coming over all faint at the stove, and we know where tonight's menu is leading us: towards a last supper, and the baked meats of a funeral. At which point, having done everything possible to nourish us visually, Tran floats a piquant, emotive question: can there ever be anything left over that might warm us anew?

As a two-hour sit, The Taste of Things is equal parts gorgeous and preposterous, which may explain why it fell at the final Oscar hurdle: more or less completely detached from the modern world, it makes a bold reach for the infinite while still wearing pinny and oven gloves. Whatever you finally made of it, Anatomy of a Fall speaks to a moment when nobody knows what to believe, truth has become a moot point, and conspiracy theories abound. For all its fine, doubtless meticulously sourced detail and kitchenware, Tran's film puts up nothing so bracing, instead pitching itself squarely at the romantics and nostalgics among us; the nostalgia it evokes is for an era when some folks had nowt more pressing to do than cook and eat, to do one thing very well. Baked into this scenario is a poignant awareness that time is a luxury we so often lack: that those we love disappear from our lives before we've had chance to tell them how much we love them. Food here is offered as a sublimated form of affection - a small but sustaining gift to give - but the emotion has been kneaded in deep, and in his fussiness, Tran sometimes threatens to undercut his own argument. (You wonder how much more intimate the chefs could get if they weren't spending all day faffing around in the pantry with shallots.) The drama is at least well served by Binoche, to the end exquisite, albeit in a role that only ever asks her to be exquisite; and by Magimel, so compelling in last year's Pacifiction, and here just about managing to nudge us past his character's alarming physical resemblance to Noel Edmonds. (Like I said, some of it verges on the ridiculous.) It is finally a film about cooking that perhaps only the French could produce: lofty, snobbish (watching its gathered gourmands dissect the pros and cons of an eight-hour meal, you remember why normal folks find critics insufferable), reliably po-faced about l'art de la cuisine, lacking the gentle humour that leavened Big Night or the agreeable saltiness of Ang Lee's rarely revived Eat Drink Man Woman. I learnt one thing (omelettes are best eaten with spoons), sat before much of it as one would a Saturday morning cookery show (and the Waitrose and M&S ads that season them), and then treated myself to a bag of chips on the walk home.

The Taste of Things is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 23 February 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of February 16-18, 2024):

1 (new) Bob Marley: One Love (12A)
2 (1) Migration (U)
3 (new) Madame Web (12A)
4 (2) Argylle (12A)
5 (8) Wonka (PG) ***
6 (3) The Iron Claw (15) ***
7 (6) Mean Girls (12A) **
8 (5) Peppa's Cinema Party (U)
9 (7) Anyone but You (15)
10 (4) All of Us Strangers (15) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. City of God [above]
5. 10 Things I Hate About You

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Wonka (PG) ***
2 (1) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)
3 (4) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12)
4 (3Wish (U)
5 (5) Barbie (12) ***
6 (8) Trolls Band Together (U)
7 (6) Oppenheimer (15) ****
9 (7Five Nights at Freddy's (15)
10 (40) One Day (12)

My top five: 
1. The Royal Hotel

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Loving (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
2. In This World (Saturday, BBC2, 1.05am)
3. The Commitments (Saturday, BBC2, 10.15pm)
4. The Gift (Saturday, BBC1, 11.40pm)
5. Apostasy (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)

Friday 16 February 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of February 9-11, 2024):

1 (1) Migration (U)
2 (2) Argylle (12A)
3 (new) The Iron Claw (15) ***
4 (4) All of Us Strangers (15) **
5 (new) Peppa's Cinema Party (U)
6 (3) Mean Girls (12A) **
7 (6) Anyone but You (15)
8 (7) Wonka (PG) ***
9 (5) The Zone of Interest (12A) ****
10 (re) Dune: Part One (12A) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. It Happened One Night
4. 10 Things I Hate About You
5. Interview with the Vampire [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)
2 (1) Wonka (PG) ***
3 (2) Wish (U)
4 (10) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12)
5 (7) Barbie (12) ***
6 (6) Oppenheimer (15) ****
7 (3) Five Nights at Freddy's (15)
8 (4) Trolls Band Together (U)
9 (8) Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie (U)
10 (30) Meg 2: The Trench (12)

My top five: 
1. How to Have Sex

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Friday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
2. Benediction (Sunday, BBC2, 11pm)
3. If Beale Street Could Talk (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. In the Loop (Sunday, BBC1, 12.20am)
5. Eastern Promises (Saturday, BBC1, 11.55pm)

In memoriam: Don Murray (Telegraph 14/02/24)

Don Murray, who has died aged 94, was a seasoned American stage, film and TV actor who earned BAFTA and Oscar nominations for his debut movie role as Beauregard “Beau” Decker, the unworldly cowpoke who treats Marilyn Monroe’s singer Cherie like cattle in the grabby Fox melodrama
Bus Stop (1956).

Ripped from William Inge’s Broadway sensation, the story was just seamy enough to ensure box-office success, and the tall, athletic, conventionally handsome Murray found himself squarely at its centre. “Hollywood’s newest hunk of man!” boomed the film’s lustiest trailer. Yet it was fanciful casting, by Murray’s own admission: “No-one could have been less equipped for the job. I was a New Yorker who’d never ridden a real horse and had tackled football players but never a 500-pound steer.”

As Murray maintained, Monroe was “very supportive”, even while succumbing to nerves herself: “We did a bed scene, she was actually naked under the sheets, and I could see her body covered with this red rash. She got so nervous that she’d break out… and she had to cover it with make-up. She had done so many films, and yet she was so frightened.”

He worked consistently thereafter, earning his Walk of Fame star as early as 1960, without ever becoming a household name: “I came to Hollywood, and they said I needed to establish a persona that the audience could relate to and would be a reliable thing for them to get behind. I did the exact opposite.”

Initially, he sought out ambiguous parts in trickier projects: a morphine-addled veteran in A Hatful of Rain (1957), the student pulled into the Irish Troubles (and armed conflict with professor James Cagney) in Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), the closeted Senator in Advise & Consent (1962).

By the 1970s, Murray was settling into patrician roles, notably the authoritarian Governor Breck in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), the fourth in the enduring sci-fi series. As dealership owner Sid Fairgate, he was an early pillar of Dallas spin-off Knots Landing (1979-93), only to quit after two seasons.

In the Eighties, he played dad to prominent younger stars: Brooke Shields in Endless Love (1981), Helen Hunt in Quarterback Princess (1983), Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). He earned a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1994 for an episode of ABC’s issue-driven Afterschool Special strand, playing an ageing rancher resisting relocation to a nursing home.

Murray announced his retirement from acting in 2001, before a touchingly unexpected comeback as Bushnell “Battling Bud” Mullins, former prizefighter turned chipper manager of an insurance firm beset by supernatural forces in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). He’d travelled some way from Bus Stop: as the show’s detective hero Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) declared in Murray’s final scene, “You are a fine man, Bushnell Mullins. I will not soon forget your kindness and decency.”

Donald Patrick Murray was born on July 31, 1929, the second of three children to Fox choreographer Dennis Murray and his wife Ethel (née Cook), a sometime performer with the Ziegfeld Follies.

The following year, the family relocated to New York, where the young Donald attended East Rockaway High, excelling in gridiron, track athletics and theatre club. He studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan, making his TV debut as Biondello in a 1950 adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, opposite Charlton Heston as Petruchio.

After graduating, Murray made his Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, but his career was paused as military service loomed. As an Anabaptist Christian – guided by a strictly pacifist doctrine – he was spared the Korean War; he was instead posted to an internment camp in Naples housing those displaced during WW2, where he helped build a school and taught the locals basketball (“I had the toughest time getting them to use their hands, instead of feet!”).

Following honourable discharge in 1954, he founded the non-profit HELP (Homeless European Land Program) with his first wife, the actress Hope Lange; they raised $100,000 and bought a plot of land in Sardinia to establish a farming community for refugees. Murray returned to the region in 2013, when he was made an honorary citizen of Simaxis. One resident told Murray’s actor son Christopher “if it weren’t for your father, I’d be a grain of sand.”

Murray’s faith informed his directorial debut The Cross and the Switchblade (1970), a drama about the real-life bond between a pastor (Pat Boone) and a gang member (future CHiPs star Erik Estrada); later efforts – such as Elvis is Alive (2001), which found the King working as an Elvis impersonator in Paris, and Breathe! (2008), a subaquatic thriller written by another son, Mick – were less favourably reviewed.

With the passing of Tony Curtis in 2010, he became the last of Monroe’s leading men still extant. He signed off by returning to the range, cameoing in low-budget Western Promise (2021).

He is survived by his second wife Betty, whom he married in 1962, and five children, three from this second marriage, two from his earlier marriage to Lange.

Don Murray, born July 31, 1929, died February 2, 2024.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

On demand: "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine"

The Man in the Machine
, Alex Gibney's made-for-CNN overview of the life and career of the Apple co-founder and holistic business guru Steve Jobs, comes from a place of appreciable scepticism. Why, Gibney asks, was there such a collective outpouring of grief upon Jobs's passing in October 2011? (As the filmmaker adds, it was the sort of outpouring he'd only witnessed twice in his lifetime, after the deaths of Martin Luther King and John Lennon.) But Jobs was that deeply embedded in our mental firmware and pockets; the grief his passing inspired - amply illustrated in the opening moments here - was much the same as the grief cult members must feel after their leader has burnt down the compound and hightailed it with everybody's life savings. What the public was mourning, of course, was the forward-facing Jobs: charismatic, eloquent, driven, visionary, the Jobs who assured us the 21st century was going to be all jetpacks and limitless leisure time. (Even we hardened Android users might feel a pang of sadness at how capitalism continues to deny us that future; instead, it's just neverending system updates and drawers full of leads that don't fit your technology.) Gibney, for his part, proves too smart and sharp - too much the seasoned investigative journalist - to be lulled by that carefully curated public image. The Man in the Machine pulls back the curtain and follows Jobs behind the scenes, asking such critical questions as "did he know what he was doing?" to those who knew Jobs, were impressed by Jobs and/or found themselves varyingly screwed over by Jobs. Some of these interviewees speak more euphemistically than others; yet their answers lead us towards the terrible grind, hurt and sacrifice required in the hyperaccelerated creation of our new digital gods - or iGods, if we must.

Gibney himself is putting in quite the shift, and while operating at a similar speed to that of his subject. In a little over two hours, he sets out the great tech leaps forward and gleaming design, but also the betrayals involved, the contradictions within this personality, and the mish-mash of Dylan songs and New Age belief systems that were always part of the sales plan. As ever, the Gibney net is cast far and wide: it hauls in testimony from a monk who accuses Jobs of misreading Buddhist doctrine and an unexpected Wim Wenders nod. Editor Michael J. Palmer's sly juxtapositions further underline the editorial assertion that this was a phenomenon with an element or two of the con job about it. As one associate says of Jobs, "he was the kind of person who could convince himself of things that weren't necessarily true". (And thus, we surmise, as much an architect of the 21st century as anyone.) The result is a greatly more complex picture than the Sorkin/Danny Boyle fiction that emerged around the same moment, even if it places the same piercing anecdote at the heart of the film: how Jobs spent more time fussing over a console he called Lisa than he ever did over a daughter with the same name. Arguably Jobs realised home computers are just easier to deal with than human beings: the former are sleek and clean, they can be switched off when they overheat, and sent away whenever something needs repairing. (We sometimes cry when they die too, irrationally.) The Jobs that Gibney reveals here emerges as a little of both, the kind of fundamentally weird, questionably wired nerd who now routinely hacks and reprograms society: a Musk or Bezos 1.0, a manbot who deserves fealty, worship and tears far less than he merits close and rigorous study. As Gibney frames it, acknowledging the compound of silicon and bullshit that took Jobs to the top, "He is one of those mythic characters." As Apple designer Bob Belleville responds: "And they're not that much fun on the ground most of the time. And they change us."

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is currently streaming via NOW TV, and is available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube. 

Monday 12 February 2024

Chewing the fat: "Your Fat Friend"

I don't know how she does it, given the British film industry's byzantine financing and distribution models, but the documentarist Jeanie Finlay retains vast reserves of patience, curiosity and empathy. The empathy is wide-ranging at that: so far within this filmography, it's been extended to the stressed proprietor and ragtag clientele of a County Durham record shop (2011's Sound It Out), assorted pranksters and famehounds (2013's The Great Hip Hop Hoax, 2014's Pantomime, 2015's Orion: The Man Who Would Be King) and a trans man giving birth for the first time (2019's Seahorse). Evidently, Finlay is a mighty shrewd judge of character: she picks subjects she senses she'll enjoy spending years following, and whom she's confident we'll enjoy spending at least ninety minutes with. The result of all this interpersonal groundwork has been a run of films that feel like records of real-world friendships, and that sit as distinct from the more transactional end of modern documentary practice, where established brands (feted filmmaker, famous interviewee) are paired by producers to polish some official record. Funnily enough, Finlay's latest Your Fat Friend centres on someone who's almost famous when first we meet her: Aubrey Gordon, the size-26 fat activist who came to online prominence while blogging anonymously under the handle @yrfatfriend and urging her fellow humans to embrace the three-letter F-word as a value-neutral state of being. Finlay caught up with Gordon as the latter underwent a very modern, recognisably haphazard rite of writerly passage, attempting to convert Internet fame into a viable publishing and media career. The peril is that she's doing so at a moment (2016 onwards) where the American political context meant women's bodies were falling subject to renewed scrutiny and public relitigation.

Like Seahorse's progressive figurehead Freddy McConnell, Gordon quickly proves an ideal match for Finlay's sensibility: someone in the process of overcoming whatever shame or anxiety they might once have felt about their physical form, who presents as determined to occupy the space they inhabit with neither fear nor apology, and yet is also vulnerable to backsliding into old patterns of thinking. (A Finlay subject typically has off-days, wobbles, doubts - as do we all, you might say.) It feels crucial that Gordon has a background in social activism: having campaigned on behalf of others, she now strives to make a case - and a better life - for herself. She knows as well as anyone how bound up food, diets and the swelling wellness industry are with corporate capitalism, ever-keen to set us to consuming or not consuming, and to pay through the nose either way. But Finlay is just as interested in who Gordon might be away from the blog and the keyboard; the film quietly binds the political with the personal in the hope of fostering a more forceful resistance. Some of this story is thus told first person, in Gordon's own, thoughtful words: upon hearing her hypersensitivity around flying, and airlines' anti-fat seating policies, you may well be persuaded those policies are good for neither the fat nor the thin, nor anyone save the company standing to make a packet by cramming as many paying customers as they can into the same finite space. More subtly revealing, though, are the candid chats Finlay records between Gordon and those in her immediate vicinity: her doting mum Pam, obliged to reflect on her previous devotion to all things Weight Watchers, and her old-school engineer dad Rusty, who may just provide 2024's greatest example of nominative determinism.

Often framed against that most fraught of domestic spaces, the kitchen, these back-and-forths not only speak to the very great trust Finlay continues to build with her subjects, they also demonstrate how it is more than possible to have enjoyed a comparatively stable and loving upbringing and still feel - as Gordon once did, and may still, on those off days - that you are unworthy or too much. They also, I think, serve as a constructive contrast to a parallel online debate, permitting differences of opinion (and even the odd off-colour thought or sentiment) without descending into vicious sniping or doxxing. I sometimes wondered whether - again, like so many of us - Gordon was too online for her own good: this camera frequently alights on a woman staring at a phone heating up with shows of celebrity solidarity and naked aggression from passing trolls. Yet Finlay equally makes good contextualising use of Gordon's leafy part of Portland, a city several seasons of cable sitcom have already established as a refuge for refuseniks and free thinkers. Big, meaty, frankly super-fat themes - the body, the self, and their relationship to an insecure world - are here chewed over with the breeziness of an old pals' picnic in the park. (It feels unimprovable that Gordon's progress should draw towards a conclusion with the arrival of cake, imperfectly finished - the frosting's not gluten-free - yet offered with love.) As elsewhere, Finlay both opens up a new front of conversation and reasserts the power of film to gently recalibrate viewer perspectives, inviting us to change our mind fully, reconsider our words and actions or simply think twice - as any good and true friend might.

Your Fat Friend is now touring selected cinemas - details here - and is also available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema. 

Three falls and a submission: "The Iron Claw"

The writer-director Sean Durkin was a shade unlucky with 2020's
The Nest, a sinuous dissection of Thatcherite greed that found itself caught up in the bottleneck of post-lockdown releases; one of the strongest British-shot films of the past decade, it went largely overlooked at the time, but its doomy mood has lingered over and arguably intensified with every hamfisted cashgrab made by the current Tory administration. (If ever a film was a warning from history.) Durkin has picked himself up, dusted himself down and returned to the fight with a project that, on the surface, might appear a solid-gold crowdpleaser. The Iron Claw's subject is pro wrestling, and more specifically the von Erich dynasty, a real-life grappling empire of the 1980s headed by gruff patriarch Fritz (Holt McCallany), a former heel whose skullcrushing signature move lends the film its title, and extending to a clutch of brawny, blonde, distinctly all-American sons (played here by Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simons) obliged to jostle for pa's attention and affection. Yet if you're expecting another Fighting with My Family-style romp, as several patrons at the public screening I attended last night clearly were, think again. The Iron Claw could only ever be classified as a Sean Durkin idea of a crowdpleaser, its constituent elements these: a family who were tougher on one another than they ever were on their opponents; kids chock full of testosterone, with a sketchy sense of where fakery ends and reality begins; talk of a curse; brief, jolting establishing shots of a visibly unhappy family portrait, a crucifix mounted to a wall, and a fully loaded gun cabinet; and a pre-film BBFC card warning of strong language, drug misuse and suicide to come. The template, then, isn't the cheery, Stephen Merchant-directed Fighting - or David O. Russell's boisterous The Fighter of a decade or so ago - but Bennett Miller's stark, brooding Foxcatcher of 2014; you find yourself adopting the brace position long before Durkin drops "Don't Fear the Reaper" on the soundtrack twenty minutes in.

The first question here is what kind of tragedy we have been gathered to receive, and American audiences may have had the advantage of prior knowledge in this respect: here is a story that made barely a dent in the British news media at the time of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. I don't know how reassuring it is that Durkin has tamped down the overt stylisation that some found so alienating in his earlier work. Gone are those tics and tricks half-inched from Herrs Haneke and Tarr - the long, glacially slow tracking shots leading us inexorably towards some new and unexplored darkness - in favour of an approach that is more upfront formally; an opening credit reads "inspired by true events", and those events are broadly what Durkin films. Nevertheless, he does something interesting and distinctive (if possibly counterproductive) with his fight scenes. Rather than tossing us pell-mell into the middle of the ring - as, say, Darren Aronofsky did so effectively in the course of 2008's The Wrestler - Durkin stubbornly stands back from the off, the better to expose the pulled punches and prerehearsed smackdowns. This is a very strange way to make a living, The Iron Claw ventures, and an even stranger path to the American dream of self-realisation: actual, perishable flesh-and-blood recast as unstoppable he-men whose wins and losses are entirely arbitrary, decided by the toss of a coin or promoter's whim. I say counterproductive, because there are expectational dangers that follow from assembling a photogenic cast and then peering at them as though through a microscope. One is that The Iron Claw begins to feel like a film about sports made by a social-sciences major, albeit one who maybe knew monomaniacally focused jocks like this at college and had every reason to maintain some distance from them. Another risk is perhaps best expressed as a question: are we ever going to get close enough to these characters to feel their very real pain when it comes, as von Erich lore dictates it must?

You will formulate your own response; mine would be yes and no, a mixed result I put down partly to the still semi-clinical handling (forever eliding the worst of these events, perhaps out of respect to the von Erichs who survived) and a growing sense this tragedy was born out of a freak, near-unrepeatable set of circumstances, foremost among them the US boycott of the 1980 Olympics. (Try as you might to take this dive, it couldn't happen to you.) It's no fault whatsoever of this ensemble, a living-breathing redefinition of tightknit. We note how, despite their pronounced physiological differences, these brothers act and feel like actual brothers. We can't fail to spot the odd note of dissent in the ranks, like the aside from ma Maura Tierney (shrewdly cast for her resting sour face) about the music her husband used to play for her, a road not taken as Fritz backed the family into a corner that looks indistinguishable from a dead end. We may well notice Efron acting his heart out from beneath the dermal equivalent of a Ninja Turtles costume. But it feels like a stretch to claim The Iron Claw as some clinching treatise on performative masculinity when it retains such a slender grasp on the world beyond the gym, the locker room and the ring over there in the distance. (Durkin is so uninterested in the options represented by the Efron character's wife that she's ended up being played by Lily James.) What we end up watching is a ghostly, closed-off case study, as much a movie about a cult as was Martha Marcy May Marlene, even if its closing bout of sentiments suggest its maker is older, wiser and better prepared to express himself than the macho martyrs he's burying. Durkin remains an intriguingly oppositional imagemaker, celebrating a full decade of showing us what's wrong with the world without ever once letting slip what he's truly passionate about. There is undeniable fascination in encountering a work so obviously critical of the dads-and-lads axis that has dominated American cinema for decades - and also in seeing a film in the multiplexes that patently doesn't want to be there. But I could equally understand why certain cinemagoers were themselves beginning to shift so uneasily in their seats. A movie like The Wrestler sends us out into the night high on the scent of popcorn and embrocation. The Iron Claw arrives bearing only the deadening stench of embalming fluid. Enter the Undertaker.

The Iron Claw is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Friday 9 February 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of February 2-4, 2024):

1 (new) Migration (U)
2 (new) Argylle (12A)
3 (1) Mean Girls (12A) **
4 (2) All of Us Strangers (15) **
5 (new) The Zone of Interest (12A) ****
6 (4) Anyone but You (15)
7 (3) Wonka (PG) ***
8 (5) Poor Things (18) **
9 (6) The Holdovers (15) ***
10 (new) American Fiction (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. It Happened One Night [above]
4. 10 Things I Hate About You

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Wonka (PG) ***
2 (2) Wish (U)
3 (6) Five Nights at Freddy's (15)
4 (4) Trolls Band Together (U)
5 (3) The Marvels (12) **
6 (5) Oppenheimer (15) ****
7 (7) Barbie (12) ***
8 (12) Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie (U)
9 (9) Killers of the Flower Moon (15) ****
10 (8) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12)

My top five: 
1. How to Have Sex

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Notting Hill (Wednesday, ITV1, 10.45am)
2. Zootropolis (Sunday, BBC1, 2.50pm)
3. Selma (Sunday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
4. Photograph (Saturday, BBC2, 1.35am)
5. Thelma (Tuesday, Channel 4, 2.20am)

It happened here (and here and here): "Occupied City"

Last week I mentioned the critical debate that has sprung up around Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest. Steve McQueen's new WW2 doc Occupied City really is one tactic from start to finish - and one that, when stretched over a full four-and-a-half hours, becomes trying indeed. This was McQueen's pandemic project: in early 2021, the artist and filmmaker had just begun shooting around his adopted city of Amsterdam when the Dutch government announced the country was going back into lockdown. (For long stretches of the film, you imagine him pottering around town with his camera, trying to keep himself busy, as most of us were at that time.) What McQueen was filming, steered by his wife Bianca Stigter's non-fiction tome Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945, was any location with a story to tell; more specifically, the story of the Nazi occupation and the subsequent purge of the city's Jewish population. For a minute or two at a time, we bear witness to shots of these streets, shops and tourist hotspots as they are now (or were during 2021-22), some of McQueen's subjects (the Rijksmuseum, the canals) more or less the same as they were during wartime, others (the Prada boutiques, fun pubs and domestic spaces) new or notably different. These largely static shots have been assembled one after the other, with a voiceover (credited to Melanie Hyams in the English-language version, and Carice van Houten in the Dutch cut) set over the top of them like an audio guide, cluing us in to what happened, house by house, sidestreet by sidestreet, district by district. In its essence, Occupied City is Shoah without the onscreen presence to point something out, redirect the gaze or interrogate. Where Claude Lanzmann - for virtually his entire career - was involved in reportage, attempting to nail down the barbarous and banal detail of Nazism, McQueen comes this way as an artist, at every turn leaving the precise correlation of sound and vision, past and present, open to viewer interpretation. He believes the free hand offers the best resistance to the iron fist of tyranny; but as Occupied City demonstrates, this approach presents its own risks.

All of which is to say Occupied City is a film riven with problems, some of which are interesting enough on a conceptual level to merit wrestling with. In The Zone of Interest, image and soundtrack achieved a brilliant parity: two distinct elements, telling two equally dreadful stories. In Occupied City, McQueen's sharply framed, crystalline imagery simply rolls all over Hyams' voiceover like a tank - and that is a problem, because so much of the film's rhetorical power is invested in the latter's words. Would it help to have a different narrator (or narrators)? We surely need something forceful from this testimony, someone capable of punching through the sensation we've been gathered for an artist's open-top bus tour of a major European metropolis; but Hyams has been encouraged to adopt a posh-adjacent, unvarying tone that suggests someone impassively reading a run of Tweets from one of those On This Day in 1940 accounts. And even if this ultra-engaged camera keeps moving forward, consistently alighting upon atmospheric, eyecatching material - a montage of shots from the upper decks of the city's gliding trams, kids taking advantage of a viral pause to go sledging - there's never much sense of how one shot relates to the next; for much of these 266 minutes, we appear to be bouncing around the city at random, scattering Lanzmann's formal rigour and geographic precision to the winds. In as much as McQueen looks to have worked up an editing strategy, it hinges on an unrelentingly facile contrast between, on one hand, the grim historical facts of territory that was once life-and-death and, on the other, the recorded sights and sounds of contemporary Dutch leisure and pleasure (coffee shops, nightclubs, etc.)

There's one final issue, and that's the complication of Covid. This part of the film is, I think, intended as the artist showing his working, which is to say the circumstances in which Occupied City was produced. (It is as the date a painter might sign in the corner of their canvas.) Yet early on in the film, McQueen introduces footage of an anti-lockdown protest, and the toing-and-froing that resulted. Are we meant to infer some parallel between germs and Nazis? Or between the onlooking police presence and the Nazi occupation Hyams has been telling us about - and thus to conclude that lockdown was its own form of tyranny? It could well be that McQueen intends to convey flux, the many ways in which a city and its people shift and lurch - how Amsterdam can find itself subject to fascism in one historical moment, mobilise en masse against it the next, and then elevate a wingnut like Geert Wilders to power a heartbeat later. But it's dangerously unclear and imprecise in this cut: these are vague gestures towards commentary and meaning, never once as powerful as Lanzmann's endeavours in a similar field, nor truthfully enough to hold the attention for four hours straight. What's semi-interesting here is that after several supremely assured, much-garlanded features that integrated elements of his erstwhile gallery career, McQueen is still visibly learning the difference between video art and cinema - notably that the latter requires even closer direction and greater shape, the better to prevent the viewer from wandering off either mentally or physically. There have been many less admirable and worthy lockdown projects than Occupied City, yet it has to count as both an artistic and ideological failure when the principal takehome from your lengthy film about the atrocities of Nazi occupation is how nice Amsterdam looks once the sun comes out.

Occupied City opens in selected cinemas from today.

Thursday 8 February 2024

How to get ahead in publishing: "American Fiction"

Among this year's Best Picture contenders, Cord Jefferson's American Fiction most readily tessellates with The Holdovers, and it isn't just the two films' shared backdrop of fraught academia. So primed is this comedy-drama for its eventual small-screen debut (on Prime Video, no less) that it comes as faintly surprising that it doesn't come with a closing-credit dedication to the recently deceased Norman Lear, who spent the 1970s and 80s perfecting a blend of sitcom and soap that, in the face of a wider indifference from white network chiefs, aimed to communicate something astute and non-prescriptive about African-American lives. Jefferson's film starts out funny, introducing Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, exasperated lit professor and blocked writer, as he struggles to come to terms with the kinds of stories the mass market wants Black authors (and, we infer, Black writer-directors like Jefferson) to tell. These are not the highbrow modern riffs on the classics Monk and his agent (John Ortiz) reliably fail to sell, but the crass misery porn being churned out, to great acclaim and greater riches, by a younger, camera-ready rival, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). Monk, in short, is a shade precious; the market merely wants another Precious. With this established, American Fiction shifts sideways, into a notably more sincere key. Jefferson relocates everyone to a Boston shore, where Monk's mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) is slipping into dementia without the necessary funds to pay for round-the-clock care; he does this in order to get Monk to take the desperate measure of bashing out another, more saleable manuscript - headed "My Pafology", heavy on the street slang - and assuming the new and wholly false identity of fugitive voice-of-Black-America Stagg R. Leigh. This mix of exaggerated literary satire and downhome drama has apparently been a tough sell itself in certain quarters, yet I felt the actors smoothing over most of the joins. Take
 the look Tracee Ellis Ross, as Monk's sister Lisa, shoots our hero as she realises he's been caught moving his books to a more prominent position in the bookstore again: a character beat that also happens to be supremely funny. You can hear Lear applauding from the rec room of TV Valhalla.

Jefferson, it turns out, both knows the kind of story he wants to tell and, crucially, how best to tell it. Even as "My Pafology" becomes America's foremost literary talking point - doubly so upon being retitled just "Fuck" - the writer-director never forces the shifts of scene and tone; rather than ramping up the action, he sets it on a determinedly low simmer and to a mellow jazz score, allowing time for Monk to eat ice cream in the dunes with widowed neighbour Coraline (Erika Alexander). He has an ally in Wright, who can nudge the material back-and-forth between its constituent modes subtly and thoughtfully, yet with a gravity all his own. His Monk is recognisable as a comically frustrated creative, both as a writer and the actor this plot requires him to become, but also as a weary citizen, and a loving, helpless son. The underlying assertion is that if a film can be multiple (perhaps sometimes contradictory) things at once, there's no reason we can't also appreciate that Black lives are many lives simultaneously, and that each of them matter. As a thesis-movie, it is, granted, far more writerly and inside-baseball than the broadly universal The Holdovers, careful plotting steering everyone towards a (choice) punchline about the lip service paid to "listening to Black voices", and beyond to the least demonstrative of its own multiple endings. As cinema, American Fiction is so anti-"Pafology", so insistently adult-oriented and MOR, that it can't deliver the gutpunch of a Precious, dishonest as that film might have been, nor the irrepressible bellylaughs of a full-on satire like Spike Lee's Bamboozled. (There are echoes of BlacKkKlansman in the subterfuge of this plot, but Jefferson isn't yet in a position to cut loose as Lee now routinely does.) The consolation prize, and it's an acceptable one, is a constant stream of chuckles and titters, and an understanding that, for once, an American fiction is pandering to what remains of our intelligence. Jefferson's playing a slow and steady game here, and his stealth pays off as often as not: for one, his supporting characters emerge as far better rounded and nuanced than the role for which Da'Vine Joy Randolph is surely about to win the Oscar.

American Fiction is now playing in selected cinemas.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Panda pop: "Turning Red"

Disney are giving a handful of their pandemic-era straight-to-streaming offerings a belated theatrical release in coming weeks, perhaps with an eye to picking up the commercial slack after the underperformance of Wish and the most recent Marvel spinoffs. The project begins this Lunar New Year weekend with the relaunch of 2022's Oscar-nominated Turning Red, one of Pixar's livelier digimations of late, and further evidence of that great boom in Asian-American creativity that in the past few years has given us the so-so Mulan redo, but also the excellent network sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, the much-garlanded Everything Everywhere All at Once, the bestilled Past Lives and the current Netflix fave The Brothers Sun. Yet in following up her weird and wonderful short Bao - a fully-fledged Oscar-winner back in 2019 - co-writer/director Domee Shi has been encouraged to find the difference within the difference; demographic representation isn't all the feature has up its sleeve. For starters, she alights upon a fresh-looking setting in the closeknit streets that make up Toronto's Chinatown (some wag has to have made the crack that even our entirely pixellated productions are now heading north for tax breaks), and a distinctively gawky and maladroit heroine in pre-teen high-schooler Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang): bespectacled, unruly of eyebrow, unable to sit still for a minute of screentime, and about to hit puberty in a spectacular way, after she wakes up one morning transformed into a giant red panda. It is at once the kind of batshit conceit - part manga, part Kafka - one might only film as animation, and even then after a long struggle to sneak it past the various straitlaced committees and moneymen involved. Yet as Shi must have realised while rendering sequences of the newly hirsute Meilin running across the city's rooftops, it would also be pitchable as a distaff variation on that Spider-Man legend the men of Hollywood have been profitably labouring over for two decades now - a film about finding one's power in menstruation rather than ejaculation.

The limitations here are down to Turning Red being PG-rated Disney product: there's only so much it can show and do. Meilin's transformation into a furry, growly, stinky mess is literally framed as, in large part, a reaction to the terse conservatism of her family. (An opening photomontage shows her and her parents clad in matching Mr/Mrs/Miss Entrepreneur T-shirts, defining a more stereotypical outlet for Chinese creativity.) Yet the alternatives the film presents us with aren't as radical as they might have been. Even the riled-up Meilin is still a cute talking critter, positioned in a long tradition of shapeshifters both within and without the narrative; her residual (and, it's implied, lifesaving) boyband worship is played straight (contra the more satirical "Boyz 4 Now" gags in Bob's Burgers), such that Turning Red often seems to be counselling not to let Mother Nature get in the way of being a good little consumer. There's some tail-off, then, the initial eruptions of transgressive energy proving more memorable than what follows: one of those knotty-plotty Act Twos that come as standard with mid-period Pixar, and a stompy showdown between rival pandas that was at least conceived with the big screen in mind. That visual dynamism is the consolation prize, and keeps the film engaging over its 100 minutes. These characters move like few others in the Pixar canon, equally uneasy on foot and paw; while a flicker or two of surrealism (like the forest dreamscape that suggests House of Flying Daggers redesigned by Dali) bodes well for future Shi/Pixar work. Even the Toronto scenes display that heightened sensitivity to light and texture that distinguishes the best Pixar films: the corrugated cardboard panda costume Meilin knocks up, Peter Parker style, to contain her outbursts is a wondrous, quasi-tangible object, while the roseate sundown glow of Shi's exteriors thoughtfully recontextualises the heroine's condition as a wholly natural state of affairs, a circulation change that may be an inconvenience but can also ultimately be endured and lived with. Such choices indicate Turning Red has been lovingly fussed over rather than simply knocked out; and its feminist elements ("my panda, my choice" and all) feel integrated rather than merely cosmetic. For youngsters approaching this pivotal moment, the whole would make a sound double-bill with the recent Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - the same underlying story, only paler and with a dash more storytelling assurance.

Turning Red is currently streaming on Disney+, and opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Friday 2 February 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of January 26-28, 2024):

1 (1) Mean Girls (12A) **
2 (new) All of Us Strangers (15) **
3 (2) Wonka (PG) ***
4 (4) Anyone but You (15)
5 (3) Poor Things (18) **
6 (6) The Holdovers (15) ***
7 (new) Fighter (15) **
8 (new) The Color Purple (12A) **
9 (5One Life (12A)
10 (7) The Beekeeper (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. 10 Things I Hate About You [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

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

My top five: 
1. Oppenheimer

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Don't Look Now (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
2. Mission: Impossible (Saturday, Channel 4, 7pm)
3. Nobody (Saturday, Channel 4, 9.10pm)
4. Northern Soul (Saturday, BBC2, 12.40am)
5. Sister Act (Sunday, Channel 4, 4.20pm)