Sunday 31 March 2024

TV hell: "Late Night with the Devil"

In the 2024 horror-premise stakes, doomed chatshow sure bests haunted swimming pool. Late Night with the Devil, a fair US calling card for Aussie siblings Colin and Cameron Cairnes (100 Bloody Acres), offers an American variant on the BBC's Ghostwatch or certain episodes of Inside No. 9, a series that has already given us cursed daytime quiz shows and a Satanic director's commentary. What we're looking at here is notionally the mastertape of one especially fateful edition of "Night Owls with Jack Delroy", a nightly gabfest broadcast out of New York with suave yet personally troubled Chicagoan Delroy (David Dastmalchian, not so far from Peter Serafinowicz's Wogan impersonation), perennial runner-up to ratings king Johnny Carson, at the helm. On Hallowe'en 1977, with viewing figures bottoming out altogether, "Night Owls" generated what the narrator in a scene-setting prologue describes as "the live TV event that shocked a nation", though it's a miracle anyone was still tuned in, given the laboured bits of comic business between Delroy and his bald sidekick Gus (Rhys Auteri), the hacky, date-specific monologue gags about President Carter's brother and baseball star Reggie Jackson, and the conveyor belt of bargain-basement guests, cranks and goofs to a man, where Carson presumably had Burt Reynolds and Carol Burnett the very same night. Frankly, it's a format that invites rejigging if not diabolical goosing - and it gets it, after Delroy makes the mid-show executive call that communing with the dark side will be a Nielsen winner.

It is, all in all, a very 21st century attempt to magick up the look and feel of downmarket 1970s broadcast television, assembled not with period tech but digital cameras, relatively sophisticated computer effects and controversial AI-generated show interstitials. The hair and wardrobe departments excel themselves - the sideburns and pantsuits are among the most convincing elements in play - and it's evident the Cairnes have studied hours of YouTube clips of Carson, Dick Cavett, Letterman et al., which is one way to get yourself on the radar of American horror studios. (The film was shot in Melbourne, with a mostly Antipodean cast; a lengthy pre-credit sequence of independent funding agency logos provides an early clue as to how the film was cobbled together.) What Late Night lacks is that nasty element of surprise its British predecessors had in spades. The episode of "Night Owls" we're watching goes downhill in more or less the way seasoned horror viewers will expect, and towards a writhing, taunting possessed-girl setpiece familiar not just from The Exorcist (whose Captain Howdy has an echo here in one "Mr. Wiggles") but from such recent knockoffs as The Pope's Exorcist. The glitzier context doesn't entirely help the Cairnes's cause, if unsettling us was among their ambitions. Unlike the domestic spaces and abandoned properties of other genre fare, the brightly lit chatshow set, with its fancy-dressed audience, cuts to adbreaks and words from the show's sponsors, proves too artificial (and, as viewed through the "Night Owls" cameras, too distancing) a location for anything unduly disconcerting to creep in. Very obviously a construct - though far from an unclever or wholly artless one - Late Night struck this viewer as a vessel primarily for the worst fears of showbiz people that the show might go wrong. A useful positioning role, nevertheless, for newly crowned supporting actor's supporting actor Dastmalchian, who demonstrates he can carry a film while playing slick and upright or rattled and chastened - only in the coda does he get to cut properly loose in the manner of his more effective, brooding-to-malevolent impact-sub roles.

Late Night with the Devil is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 29 March 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of March 22-24, 2024):

1 (new) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12A)
2 (1) Dune: Part Two (12A) **
3 (new) Busty Nun (18)
4 (2) Wicked Little Letters (15)
5 (3) Migration (U)
6 (4) Bob Marley: One Love (12A)
7 (new) Late Night with the Devil (18) ***
8 (new) The Motive and the Cue - NT Live 2024 (15)
9 (5) Imaginary (15)
10 (new) Romeo et Juliette - Met Opera 2023/24 (PG)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Mary Poppins [above]
2. The Lavender Hill Mob

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (23) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)
2 (1) Wonka (PG) ***
3 (new) Mean Girls (12) **
4 (2) Oppenheimer (15) ****
5 (3) Migration (U)
6 (new) Argylle (12)
7 (4) Barbie (12) ***
8 (7) The Equalizer 3 (15)
9 (30) Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12) **
10 (11) All of Us Strangers (15) **

My top five: 
1. Anatomy of a Fall
5. Wonka

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Wizard of Oz (Easter Sunday, Channel 5, 4.20pm)
2. Apocalypse Now (Easter Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
3. On the Waterfront (Saturday, BBC2, 2.30pm)
4. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Easter Sunday, ITV1, 12.25pm)
5. Con Air (Easter Sunday, Channel 4, 10.55pm)

Tuesday 26 March 2024

On demand: "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom"

A surprise Oscar nominee in 2022, eventually losing out to
Drive My Car in what was a strong foreign-language field, the wistful Bhutanese comedy Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom floats an air of the exotic, but it's actually far more universal in its concerns, and narratively not a million miles away from School of Rock hauled halfway up a mountainside. Protagonist Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is a slackerish twentysomething city boy with dreams of moving to Australia and starting a new life as a pop idol, but he's stuck teaching on year four of the country's five-year national service program. For his final year, he's transferred to the titular Lunana, a remote community in the hills that, suffice to say, offers neither the travel nor the upward mobility for which he was hoping. It's here, however, that those universal concerns start to kick in. Writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji (no relation to his leading man) is getting at that feeling, far from exclusive to the Bhutanese kingdom, that you aren't where you're supposed to be in life, nor doing what you feel you're supposed to do; yet this universe works in mysterious ways, and sometimes the scenic route is exactly the path we're meant to be on. Following that path yields a film that starts out reassuringly, even pleasurably predictable, and then nuzzles its way somewhere close to your heart.

Here's what I mean by reassuringly predictable. When the guide sent to accompany Ugyen tells him the hike to Lunana involves "a little climb", we know this is comically understated shorthand for an exhausting, days-long yomp. (The gag is nicely set up by an earlier scene in which an exasperated administrator tells our feet-dragging hero his "altitude problems" are, in fact, attitude problems.) While there is some mud to stomp through, the scenery soon neutralises Ugyen's wanderlust; the locals are absolute sweethearts who don't spend all their time whining and texting, unlike some people; and of course there's a demure beauty on hand as a prospective reward once our guy commits to making the sacrifices required of him. One big surprise is that the yak enshrined in the title isn't some coded reference to our shaggy, huffing hero, but an actual yak - a gift from the villagers to honour Ugyen's service. The film's simplicity is its charm, and the simpler it gets (having the snorting yak interrupt a singalong to a local variant on "Old McDonald Had A Farm", say), the more charming it becomes. It's an escape from the wearying complications of ground-level life - framing Lunana almost as a latter-day Shangri-La - though Dorji also gestures in passing at urgent local concerns: receding snow on the mountaintops, an evident lack of teaching resources. By the time Ugyen is introducing his young charges to the concept of teeth-brushing, the film has started to seem like a record of a valuable outreach program - its own form of national service, undertaken by a film crew determined to do good in this world. (Oscar recognition is the least they could have expected.) Lunana is blessed with vistas from which you'd struggle to fashion an ugly-looking film, yes, but it's the people hereabouts who register most forcefully, which is why you may find yourself blinking back tears through the final movement. Lead Dorji makes Ugyen both familiarly brattish and childlike, increasingly open to the possibilities of this world, while the non-professionals found atop this mountain hold the interest and have much to teach us in turn. I learnt two new words - cordyceps (a type of fungus, apparently) and Dzongkha (the official language of Bhutan) - plus how to start a fire with the help of yak dung. How useful this knowledge will prove in my life to come is uncertain, but as this lovely, clarifying film illustrates, every day really can be a school day.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is now streaming via the BBC iPlayer, and available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, YouTube and the Peccadillo Pod.

Monday 25 March 2024

On demand: "Road House"

Like much else about 1989's Road House, it sounds implausible. But yes, it's true: after becoming the world's pin-up via Dirty Dancing
Patrick Swayze really did sign on to play a hard-brawling bouncer in a down-and-dirty, hard R-rated actioner that featured an abundance of boobs, admiring glances at the Swayzeian derriere, and a fellow being crushed by a stuffed polar bear. Within two years, Swayze would be signing up for the elevated genre fare of Point Break, a film critics were meant to go wild for (action plus subtexts plus a director clearly going places). But there was nothing elevated about Road House: here, in all its neon-lit, beer-soaked glory, was the kind of crash-bang-wallop, mind-in-the-gutter B-movie studios like MGM once had both the resources and inclination to toss out as a bone to the Saturday night and home rental crowds. The remake our new germaphobic overlords at Amazon have just issued is, by contrast, 15 rated and decidedly wipe-clean, its aspiration towards relative respectability signalled first and foremost by the architecture of its primary location, being part tiki bar, part Anglican cathedral. (For UK readers: think seafront Wetherspoons.) New Dalton (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes complete with one of those backstories they have nowadays: he's a former MMA fighter with non-committal suicidal tendencies, such that he's taken to parking the car he's been sleeping in on level crossings in the hope fate will intervene. Yet the world he passes into, upon assuming his post on a scenic strip of the Florida Keys, is again recognisably that of the Western. Bad guys come to town, looking to tear down the road house as Lee van Cleef's men once tried to torch saloons; Dalton duffs them up; and then, having duffed the bad guys up, Dalton rides off into the sunset. The guarantee Amazon appends to that happy ending is that this is the first Road House that won't leave you needing a long, hot, possibly chemical shower afterwards. This does not, however, speak to the more complicated matter of whether Road House '24 is really any good.

I suspect it will depend on how your expectations were shaped by the original. If you venture this way anticipating something comparably wild, you will be disappointed. (The nudity is the first thing tossed out the door.) You will be happier if you're just hunting functional meat-and-potatoes fodder, something to stick on of an evening because it's at the top of the menu and you can't be arsed scrolling: it's Road House as gastropub, a film in which there are jokes about calling your road house 'The Road House' and houseboat 'The Boat'. (This latter is where Dalton sporadically retreats to have visions of where his erstwhile career went awry - or "fucking boat dreams", as he labels them.) The highest praise one can bestow upon this Road House is that it never remotely looks like a film intended to go straight-to-streaming. (For that call, we have Amazon boss Jeff Bezos to, erm, thank.) As recently as 2017's American Made, director Doug Liman demonstrated he knows how to fill a frame with interesting spaces and faces. Here, in a notably more expansive take on Dalton lore, he offers Joel Silver-bought yachts and boats cruising over crystalline blue waters, because this is apparently now Road House on the high seas; and more of that intensely close-up, hand-to-hand physical combat that was a feature of Liman's The Bourne Identity, only now with POV camera flourishes, computer-enhanced editing trickery and a ZZ Top tribute band twanging their guitars in the background. Again, it's all been conspicuously cleaned up and watered down: the film remains discreet in its gore, even when one goon is set upon by a crocodile, and it feels heavily ironic - given the film's status as An Amazon Studios Production - that Dalton should now split his time evenly between the road house and protecting a local family-run bookstore, perhaps motivated by an early script reference to Ernest Hemingway. ('The Road House' is just spacious enough to conceal one of those Prime click-and-collect lockers in the back.)

Yet at its best, when it's really pumped and going for it, Liman's Road House reminded me of those preposterously entertaining, much-rewritten studio blockbusters initiated by the likes of Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer back in the 1990s. More so than the often haphazard original, this one knows exactly what it's peddling, and the sense of humour with which it does so suggests at least a handful of the gathered creatives understood what made those earlier movies such fun to watch. Gyllenhaal's goofier, gabbier Dalton sidles casually into conversation with his adversaries: these include a goon who admits he only got into thuggery because he really liked motorbikes and wanted to be in a gang, Joaquin de Almeida as a corrupt sheriff who insists on being called Big Dick, the amusingly wormy Billy Magnusson in what was once the Ben Gazzara role, and your actual Conor McGregor as the latter's wholly understandable weapon of choice. McGregor is handed an introduction any Bollywood hero or villain would kill for - if they had the balls to try - before somehow cornering Dalton within the confines of a motorised dinghy. "Lookie here, our own little Octagon," the brute sneers, cracking his knuckles. "Who taught you shapes?," is Dalton's response. There may not be a funnier exchange in either Road House, nor in any movie released this side of Con Air; the surprise is finding something so precisely, nay, so exquisitely worded tucked away in a movie that is otherwise so big and dumb. (Maybe all that time in the bookstore paid off.) Elsewhere, corporate lassitude holds sway. If the earlier film gave us a dive bar, this is plainly more of a hangout spot, inviting local covers and blues bands and actors of varying calibres to a sunkissed beach so as to let the alcohol flow and the notional good times roll. (Two drink maximum, as per the HR memo.) The '89 Road House, also conveniently streamable on Prime Video, remains a night that keeps threatening to get entirely out of hand. Liman's film is more like witnessing a starrily appointed, scrupulously surveilled launch party for a new line of flavoured vodkas. There is a certain fascination and enjoyment involved - and it's obviously easier to gawp when the event is being pumped directly into your living room. Yet with a simplicity not untypical of the general Road House experience, it may finally all boil down to this: whatever else he is, Lukas Gage is no Sam Elliott.

Road House is now streaming via Prime Video.

Sunday 24 March 2024

In memoriam: M. Emmet Walsh (Telegraph 22/03/24)

M. Emmet Walsh
, who has died aged 88, was a steadfast character actor adored among cinephiles for the notes of scuffed-up life he gifted American film over his six-decade career, most memorably in Ridley Scott’s
Blade Runner (1982) and the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple (1984).

Heavyset and amenable to dishevelment, with flyaway hair, a squint and a quavering voice, he could perhaps have only broken through amid the New Hollywood of the 1970s, geared as the movement was to unvarnished explorations of the human condition. Dubbing Walsh “the poet of sleaze”, Roger Ebert linked the actor with Harry Dean Stanton – a forlorn beanpole to Walsh’s burly scrapper – in what he called “the Stanton-Walsh rule”, decreeing “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be entirely bad”.

Walsh was nearing middle age when he broke through, initially playing blue-collar types. Yet extended scrutiny revealed a glint in his eye that invited interpretation as either mischievous, murderous or both simultaneously. He was the oddball sportswriter Dickie Dunn in Paul Newman hockey comedy Slap Shot (1977); Dustin Hoffman’s scuzzball parole officer in Straight Time (1978), a character described by critic Mike Clark as “a cesspool in a flowered shirt”; and the sniper pursuing Steve Martin with such taunts as “Die, milkface!” in The Jerk (1979).

In Blade Runner (1982), he was Bryant, the LAPD chief who pulls Harrison Ford’s replicant hunter Rick Deckard out of retirement, although the film’s grander designs left the actor bemused. Required to smoke through multiple takes, non-smoker Walsh began feeling nauseous, eventually telling director Scott “you ought to be hung by your balls off the ceiling and twisted from left to right”. Producer Alan Ladd Jr. overheard, and promptly dropped Walsh from another movie he was preparing.

A more rewarding experience followed with Blood Simple (1984), the low-budget neo-noir that announced the Coens as emergent prodigies. As private eye Visser, poking through the weeds of a marital murder plot, Walsh demonstrated a layered seediness; the force of the film’s blackly potent punchline was largely down to the chuckle in his gurgling voice. As Pauline Kael observed: “Walsh lays on the loathsomeness, but he gives it a little twirl – a sportiness.”

It landed Walsh the Best Male Lead gong at 1986’s Independent Spirit Awards, but he continued to regard himself as chiefly a team player: “My job is to come in and move the story along. I’m a character man. The stars don’t do the exposition… so I come on with a Redford or Newman or Dustin [Hoffman] or somebody, and I throw the ball to them, and they throw it back.”

Michael Emmet Walsh was born on March 22, 1935 in Ogdensburg, New York, the son of customs agent Henry Walsh and his wife Agnes (née Sullivan). The family relocated to Vermont shortly thereafter, where the three-year-old Walsh lost the hearing in his left ear following a botched mastoid operation. He attended Tilton School in New Hampshire and studied marketing at New York’s Clarkson University, where he also appeared in stage productions.

A faculty advisor urged Walsh to apply for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his assigned roommate was William Devane. Upon graduating, he spent a decade working in regional theatre, making his TV debut on NBC soap The Doctors in 1968, and taking his Broadway bow alongside Al Pacino in the 1969 premiere of Don Petersen’s Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?

He felt his prospects in theatre were limited, due to his thick Vermont accent (“I wasn’t going to do Shaw and Shakespeare and Molière – my speech was simply too bad”), although he made a belated, one-off comeback in the National Theatre’s 2004 revival of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Variety noted “the veteran of 101 movies and counting turns out to be a no less astonishing theatre animal”.

Mostly, he dug in at the movies, reuniting with the Coens for Raising Arizona (1987), where he played Nicolas Cage’s loudmouth co-worker, billed in the credits as “Machine Shop Ear-Bender”. He took a rare upstanding role as Michael Keaton’s sponsor in alcoholism drama Clean and Sober (1988), then found himself fighting back-to-back with Dolph Lundgren in Red Scorpion (1988). It was the Walsh career in a nutshell: you never knew where he would turn up, nor what he’d be doing there.

In the 1990s, he was a millionaire’s goon in indie fable The Music of Chance (1993), Tim Allen’s father-in-law in Home Improvement (1994), the Apothecary in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and a fleeting but significant presence in The X-Files (1999), advising conspiracy nut Fox Mulder to “start paying a little less attention to the heart of the mystery and a little more attention to the mystery of the heart”. There was also an appearance in summer dud Wild Wild West (1999), which even Ebert admitted contravened the Stanton-Walsh rule.

More recently, he was seen – greyer and shaggier of brow – on TV in Sneaky Pete (2019) and The Righteous Gemstones (2019-22) and on the big screen as the security guard Mr. Proofroc in Knives Out (2019). His final appearance was in Mario van Peebles’ Western sequel Outlaw Posse (2024).

He lived alone in rural Vermont, insisting “I’m content without having to get on the Johnny Carson show every other night [to] say how wonderful I am. I’m a low-profile guy.” It was, finally, the characters who got him out of bed: “I approach each job thinking it might be my last, so it better be the best work possible. I want to be remembered as a working actor. I’m being paid for what I’d do for nothing.”

M. Emmet Walsh, born March 22, 1935, died March 19, 2024.

3am eternal: "After Hours"

When the definitive Martin Scorsese biography is written, someone will surely have to make a more forceful case for the run of films the director completed between his totemic passion projects Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1982's The King of Comedy, 1985's After Hours and 1986's The Color of Money, Scorsese lent heavily into the showmanship present in his filmmaking DNA ever since the poolhall scenes in his debut Mean Streets - and without that useful deviation, the pure movie highs of GoodFellas and beyond might never have been possible. Much like The King of Comedy, After Hours provides a frazzled sort of entertainment, granted: these ninety-odd minutes invite frustration and exhaustion as much as they do, say, exhilaration, and you can see why some viewers of the time (and critics since) have peered quizzically at it. It's a film that invites different readings from different angles. The set-up is pure screwball, but it yields only the flattest, most deadpan laughs. At its centre is an errant knight's quest, but it steadfastly refuses to bestow any nobility on its protagonist. (Humiliation would be more accurate.) Certain sequences suggest an expressionist rag on the pre-Craigslist New York dating scene - a romcom that gets derailed as everybody succumbs to their worst impulses. In pursuit of Rosanna Arquette at her most doe-eyed and unavailable, gauche Everyman Griffin Dunne is driven from pillar to post, in the company of assorted weirdoes, freaks and loons (Linda Fiorentino, Dick Miller, Will Patton, John Heard, Teri Garr, Catherine O'Hara, Cheech and Chong: a bizarro-world A-list) who collectively confirm the Big Apple of the mid-1980s as a veritable human zoo. Mostly, it's strange people telling themselves and one another strange stories so as to get through the one very wild night; a relic of the days before New York and American movies alike were meekly gentrified.

It is also, I think, the kind of fugue at which only an artist with first-hand experience of narcotics might have arrived. The cocaine mania is baked in, as is the dreadful comedown, which is why After Hours somehow plays fast and soporifically slow at the same time. (No film has better caught the existential terror of what it is to be awake against your will at three in the morning, and I think I still mean that as a commendation.) Also lurking: the paranoia that someone may be talking about you behind your back or lying in wait around the next corner, that this unfair world has started to conspire against you at every turn. (One possible pitch: what if Hitchcock had poked his camera into the shadows of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks?) Clad in a white suit that either nods to Cary Grant in North by North-West or offers a mocking parody of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Dunne's Paul Hackett is far from a spotless individual: a creep and a pussyhound, he gets only tetchier as the night wears on, and may just deserve some of what befalls him. His primary redeeming feature is that he's not a burglar, rapist or killer, as some of the other characters apparently are. So if After Hours starts in the realm of male fantasy - with a cute girl in a diner admiring our hero's taste in books - it rapidly turns into a film about male insecurity, what it is to feel you don't have what it takes to last until dawn. It's a conservative film in some respects, a great advert for getting to bed at a reasonable hour. But on a scene-by-scene basis, it never feels like it: Scorsese gives even the more straightforwardly farcical interactions an edge, and you never quite know where anybody's going to end up. The surprise is that this genuine curio was a (modest) box-office hit, and oddly influential with it, its plot, mood and look factoring into several notable indie films that saw madness beneath the sedate surface of Reagan's America: most notably of all the following year's Blue Velvet, which replayed this trajectory in suburbia, but also Something Wild, which swapped in Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith for Dunne and Arquette and ran off down Florida way, and 1988's remarkable Miracle Mile, which had to nuke the entire West Coast to top the carnage Scorsese lays out here.

After Hours is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 22 March 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of March 15-17, 2024):

1 (1) Dune: Part Two (12A) **
2 (2) Wicked Little Letters (15)
3 (4) Migration (U)
4 (3) Bob Marley: One Love (12A)
5 (5) Imaginary (15)
6 (new) Drive-Away Dolls (15) **
7 (new) Monster (12A) ****
8 (14) The Zone of Interest (12A) ****
9 (re) Oppenheimer (12A) ****
10 (8) Wonka (PG) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. Origin

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Wonka (PG) ***
2 (7) Oppenheimer (15) ****
3 (2) Migration (U)
4 (8) Barbie (12) ***
5 (3) Dune: Part One (12) **
6 (4) Anyone But You (15)
7 (30) The Equalizer 3 (15)
8 (6) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12)
9 (5) Poor Things (18) **
10 (9) Napoleon (15) **

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

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Gagarine (Monday, Channel 4, 1.55am)
2. Die Hard with a Vengeance [above] (Good Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)
3. Galaxy Quest (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.45am)
4. Top Gun: Maverick (Saturday, Channel 4, 9.10pm)
5. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Sunday, BBC2, 11.50pm)

Automaton and on: "Robot Dreams"

Easy to understand why
The Boy and the Heron swept this year's major animation prizes: venerated artist, emotive backstory, penhand flourishes vivid enough to overwrite an increasingly tangled and fraying narrative line. Given that it must in each case have been a close-run race, with no one outstanding title for voters to get behind, it's a shame there wasn't more love along the way for the Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger's hand-animated take on Sara Varon's graphic novel Robot Dreams, charting the waxing and waning friendship of a dog and a robot in a New York populated exclusively by animals of one description or another. What awaits you here are far simpler pleasures than the Miyazaki film permitted. Berger recreates Manhattan as it once was, or a Manhattan of the mind, where the Twin Towers never fell and Woody Allen wasn't around to woo his teenage date on a bench beneath the Brooklyn Bridge; an early bonding sequence plays out to Earth Wind and Fire's deathless "September", practically the one song guaranteed to turn even the most stubborn frown upside down. (They could - and should - prescribe the brass section free on the NHS.) Relative simplicity - clear, unfussy lines, familiar brandnames, Bob's Burgers colour - allows the film to find its own semi-distinct identity: that of a Zootropolis with much of the clutter and all of the chatter cleared out, leaving more room for socially awkward Dog and his lovelorn Robot to register and grow on you.

They do, even amid a necessarily static centre stretch in which, with its main characters separated by circumstance, this relationship literally cannot go anywhere. (And actually begins to dwindle.) It's the movie that shifts, unpredictably and charmingly, with the help of fourth-wall breaks, sunflower Busby Berkeley numbers, snowmen who come to life (but not in the Aled Jones way), and a chorus of birds tweeting "Danny Boy". The pacing gets a bit deliberate hereabouts; Berger is having to work overtime padding out to feature status a wispy narrative that might have felt happier still as a short or mid-length proposition. (I fear very young children, otherwise well-placed to embrace these characters, are going to get restless.) Yet there are plenty of deft, funny touches - I liked the way the snowman takes on the colours of the slushie he gulps down at a bowling alley - and by the conclusion you realise what a range of emotions Berger has expressed without recourse to gabbling celebrity voices, or indeed any of those voice cameos from YouTube luminaries you're supposed to know and love. It's the work of an animator (or animators) going their own way and amusing themselves: in forsaking the usual prods and demands of frenetic digimated content, Robot Dreams allows itself time to slap a big, dumb smile on your face, and then sets you to wondering just what else its makers might be getting at here.

Robot Dreams opens in selected cinemas from today.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Hide and seek: "Monster"

Following excursions to France (for 2019's
The Truth) and Korea (2022's Broker), Hirokazu Kore-eda has returned to Japan for a story that really needs to be told in a native tongue. Monster is an exceptionally nuanced and layered drama, written in a way that demands both precision and delicacy, rooted as it is in subtly divergent perspectives on the same series of events. It opens with a fire in an apartment block, as observed from a safe distance by a single mother (Sakura Ando) and the secretive pre-teen she's struggling to raise (Soya Kurokawa): an early illustration of this narrative's guiding principle, which is that it all depends where you stand. Yet even as a fire crew puts the conflagration out, other mysteries blaze on. Why is the building on fire? Why does the boy later throw himself out of his mother's car? And what does it have to do with the young teacher (Eita Nagayama) rumoured to be spending his nights with a hostess at the bar that was ground zero for the towering inferno we witness in reel one? That fire provides something of a smokescreen we will spend the next two hours peering through, yet as the smog lifts and clears, we start to notice a shift in this filmmaker's own perspective. In earlier Kore-eda films, children were typically regarded as angelic joy bringers. Some of those cherubs can still be spotted on the margins here, but Monster is the first Kore-eda to centre a youngster who appears as complicated, difficult, sometimes as outright cruel as the rest of us are capable of being. The M-word shifts around - it's heard in a song, and later used in a card game - but there are reasons for that title, expertly revealed as the film goes on.

Rarely can a title and a camera have felt more like an accusatory finger, hopping from subject to subject. Yet in many ways both have to hop around, simply to get a clearer bead on everything these characters seek to withhold from public view. Writer Yūji Sakamoto won the Best Screenplay prize at last year's Cannes for one of the strongest pieces of writing yet attached to a Kore-eda project, a script constantly attempting to pin down people prone to games of hide and seek. It also factors into Kore-eda's most Renoir-like undertaking, ascribing to everyone their reasons, and then doing its level best to dramatise them fairly and unsentimentally; this it does via three successive passes of the same points of conflict, gradually revealing the full extent of this story - and of its makers' concerns. The most readily apparent truth here is that all these characters become more complex as the film proceeds; the loss of innocence it describes in passing is really the gaining of an awareness that there are other points of view, that not everybody sees things the same way. Take the teacher who occupies the film's centre stretch, for one: initially presented as a strong candidate for monster status, shielded by stonewalling staff-room superiors, he comes slowly into focus as an impulsive young man - barely older than his charges - who gets pressurised into making a regrettable mistake, and then sees his life starting to fall apart. Kore-eda hopped around geographically for his last two films, possibly to capitalise on growing international recognition, possibly to prevent from repeating himself. (As ever, multiple truths are in play.) Yet it turns out all he really needed for a fresh start was an internal shift, a change in the way he thinks through his narratives. Monster isn't just a film about children (thus "in the Kore-eda style"), but a film about the rather more fraught and dramatically loaded subject of child protection; if it feels like an advance, that's partly because it's tied thematically to the often haphazard ways we develop.

At any rate, Kore-eda attains this narrative fullness and richness of characterisation with no visible strain whatsoever; the clunkiness of The Truth suddenly seems a very long time ago. He's always been a skilled director of children, able to reveal personality as well as nascent understanding, and it's highlighted again here in the script's third pass at these events - a more conventionally Kore-edan movement observing the growing friendship between two very different kids, one (Kurokawa) sullen and closed-off, the other (Hinata Hiiragi) more open to the elements. Each of these characters is linked to the others by subtly recurring motifs: fire, lost shoes, the threat of plunges from great heights. (Everyone seems to be headed for a fall at some point.) And the quietude that in earlier Kore-eda endeavours felt like the signature of a dreamer with a boner for Ozu and only so much to say for himself now seems very specifically directed in to help us reflect on the events we're seeing and revisiting, and connect one set of life experiences to another. We're helped by energised sound work: noises off - a clatter here, a French horn's parp there - which eventually marry up. Yet even when the narrative logistics - who's doing what to whom where - are hazy, the film's emotional throughline remains wholly graspable, clarified yet further by Ryuichi Sakamoto's final score. The whole is not unlike 2022's much-loved Belgian fable Close, as remade by a 60-year-old rather than a callow film student: we get three passes, yes, but we also sense we could review this story from the perspective of just about anyone on screen, even the day players, and uncover something revelatory about the human condition. Kore-eda has worked so consistently for so long that he can seem a relatively minor figure himself, part of the festival-circuit furniture: a workmanlike director whose cosily middlebrow crowdpleasers facilitate easy consensus and thus win prizes when more ambitious titles have proven divisive. But Monster is major: much as his young leads construct a new universe for themselves in the shell of a rusting schoolbus, Kore-eda finds the whole world, and its unceasing potential for both heartbreak and good, in the course of parsing a sad and sombre little anecdote.

Monster is now playing in selected cinemas. 

Monday 18 March 2024

O brother, where art thou?: "Drive-Away Dolls"

Drive-Away Dolls
 is simply trying too hard. For his first film since a (reportedly amicable) parting of the creative ways from brother Joel, Ethan Coen has paired up with writer-editor-spouse Tricia Cooke, and contrived a would-be romp about odd-couple young lesbians (uptight Geraldine Viswanathan and DTF Margaret Qualley) making their way across pre-millennial America in a hire car that - unbeknownst to them - contains sensitive equipment: a case full of dildos modelled on the members of the country's most powerful men. If you think that sounds forced, you ain't seen nothing yet. The girls' haphazard progress, pursued by goons, is set out in wonky camera angles and crash zooms even a first-year film student might find gauche; these are linked by clangingly wacky or pointlessly trippy scene transitions. Plentiful girl-on-girl activity, meanwhile, indicates this is the work of middle-aged creatives who've watched queer-themed material break out at the box office in recent times and hoped they, too, might get in on the action. One oddity - one area where Coen and Cooke really weren't trying hard enough - is that no attempt is made to situate the heroines' sapphism in the context of post-kd lang, pre-Peaches America; it's all tongues, no trousers, and given how cheap and naff much of the film looks, it forms the basis of a movie that often resembles the American equivalent of a British sex comedy made with National Lottery funding in 1999. Was it that the Coens operated their own, sibling-exclusive system of checks and balances? (The goofball Ethan grounding the higher-brow Joel, whose solo debut was that chiaroscuro redo of Macbeth; Joel conjuring memorable images from his brother's yaks and yuks.) Either way, there are no memorable images in Drive-Away Dolls, and the actors seem to have been left to themselves for the most part: Qualley affects a bouncy Southern twang that only ever strikes the ear as rehearsal-room put-on, while the supporting cast contains a one-for-the-ages rarity in a bad Beanie Feldstein performance. Tricked out to a flimsy 80 minutes, it isn't long enough to irk and irritate as it might, and I quite liked the flickers we hear of Carter Burwell's score, though I suspect these were sparingly applied, lest they remind us of all the worthwhile Coen endeavours we could be watching instead. It's bad enough that Hall and Oates have undergone a separation, but these guys too?

Drive-Away Dolls is now showing in selected cinemas. 

Saturday 16 March 2024

Devil's advocate: "Shaitaan"

Shaitaan finds the Hindi mainstream cribbing ideas from elsewhere again. In this case, it's from last year's Vash, a well-received Gujarati horror flick seized upon by producer-star Ajay Devgn as an opportunity to once more inhabit the role of hypervigilant patriarch with which he's enjoyed some success over recent years. In 2015's clever thriller Drishyam, itself a remake of a noted regional title, Devgn took extreme measures to protect his offspring's virtue; now he's a bejumpered paterfamilias trying to halt the malevolent force that gains entry to his household via a suggestible teenage daughter. (If any of this sounds overbearing, we should give Devgn credit for being one of the few Indian stars of a certain age who appears genuinely comfortable playing dad roles, rather than initiating onscreen romances with actresses young enough to be his granddaughter.) The set-up here is basically Pasolini's Theorem, with a dash of The Vanishing at the start, and a fiery Padmaavat flourish towards the end. Pausing at a roadside eaterie en route to a family break, Devgn's four-strong party - made up by wife Jyoti (Jyothika), daughter Janhvi (Janki Bodiwala, a holdover from Vash) and son Dhruv (Anngad Raaj) - is approached by one Vanraj Kashyap (R. Madhavan), a fellow traveller who appears personable enough until he slips Janhvi a sweet that is clearly some kind of gateway drug; soon, she's eating uncontrollably, letting this charmer into the family's well-furnished holiday home (uh-oh), and making novel use of a swing set to terrorise her sibling. At first glance, it's a standard-issue good-versus-evil fable with a moral as simple as never take sweets from a stranger or - for any onlooking dads - keep a close eye on those with designs on your daughters. Gradually, however, Shaitaan reveals itself as altogether more complicated, not least because this isn't just an Ajay Devgn star vehicle.

In 2018, Shaitaan's director Vikas Bahl was accused of sexual assault by a former employee of his production company Phantom Films; this allegation was followed by further accusations of sexual harassment by actresses Kangana Ranaut and Nayani Dixit, who'd appeared in Bahl's putatively feminist 2014 travelogue Queen. No charges were brought, but the ensuing furore resulted in Phantom Films' dissolution. (This process in itself proved messy: after Bahl's partners in the company, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, provided formal statements on the matter, Bahl threatened to sue for defamation.) The director has worked steadily post-lockdown - signing off on three films in three years - but Shaitaan is Bahl's first big hit since his return to action. You can see why: this is a proper horror movie, as opposed to the militaristic flagwavers currently being shoved down the mass audience's neck, and one with both a well-rehearsed premise and a sly, insinuating performance from Madhavan to recommend it. (The latter really is good, feigning sincere hurt whenever anyone accuses him of being the Devil incarnate. Compared to Madhavan, the other performers strike the eye as a little bland, mere puppets.) Without the backstory, Shaitaan might have stood as the kind of modest, manageable genre proposition by which a troubled creative might well rehabilitate himself within a forgiving industry.

Except something genuinely malevolent seems to be lurking beneath the film's inch-thick surface: it shows through not just in the name attached to the villain (no coincidence, surely), but in the numerous scenes in which Madhavan's seducer persuades the entranced Janhvi to slap herself, or dance for him, or cry harder and louder - giving this captive soul direction, as in an audition that's got completely out of hand. Here, Shaitaan appears to be openly mocking anyone who's been tracking its maker's progress. You want to see what an abuse of power looks like?, these scenes cackle, I'll show you what an abuse of power looks like. This is a reach, granted, but Bahl's film kept reminding me of those Bergman movies that centred conjurors and hypnotists because its maker realised they were an allegory for the control we can wield over our fellow man. Shaitaan isn't The Magician; at best, it's unusually potent hackwork, a B-movie that benefits from an A-movie budget and a metatext that pulses like a migraine. Yet it falls closer to the dark side than one might prefer from a Friday or Saturday night entertainment, leaving us with much the same queasy feeling we'd get from sitting through another Woody Allen comedy about a middle-aged man mooning over a teenager. It's certainly committed to what it's doing and showing - hellbent would be another word, its maker palpably more defiant than contrite - but if you come this way hoping to separate the art from the artist, or the undeniable force of a movie from its unseemly context, forget it: a director accused of sexual impropriety really has made a big hit movie that is unmistakably premised on the pliability and susceptibility of young women. Don't bring popcorn; take all available precautions.

Shaitaan is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday 15 March 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of March 8-10, 2024):

1 (1) Dune: Part Two (12A) **
2 (3) Wicked Little Letters (15)
3 (2) Bob Marley: One Love (12A)
4 (4Migration (U)
5 (new) Imaginary (15)
6 (new) Shaitaan (15) **
7 (new) Titanic: The Musical (PG)
8 (6) Wonka (PG) ***
9 (10) Sami Swoi. Początek (12A)
10 (5) Madame Web (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
4. Origin
5. City of God

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (4) Wonka (PG) ***
2 (new) Migration (U)
3 (5) Dune: Part One (12) **
4 (1) Anyone But You (15)
5 (3) Poor Things (18) **
6 (2) The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (12)
7 (6) Oppenheimer (15) ****
8 (13) Barbie (12) ***
9 (new) Napoleon (15) **
10 (16) Elvis (12) **

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

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Friday, Channel 4, 11.05pm)
2. Out of Sight [above] (Saturday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
3. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.10pm)
4. Phantom Thread (Sunday, BBC2, 11.40pm)
5. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Sunday, Channel 4, 12.50am)

Punchdrunk love: "Fight Club" at 25

I saw 
Fight Club for the first time on the morning it opened in Paris in late 1999. Queuing up for a 9.30am screening in Pigalle: my fresher-faced self, a clutch of burly bruisers in leather jackets set to be palpably disappointed by the film before them, and an elegant, Deneuve-like older woman in furs who wafted down to the front row and spent the entire movie laughing like Juliette Binoche. It was a screening that more or less crystallised early responses to David Fincher's film, not least because the six of us were just about the only folks in the world paying to see it that weekend. After taking a notable box-office dive on first release, Fight Club would eventually be reclaimed, first by film buffs waving the DVD as proof as Fincher's emergent virtuosity, then by online edgelords, trolls and incels, reframing a black comedy as the bloodiest of red flags. The question of who should really be laughing at Fight Club abides. As Mme Deneuve doubtless understood, the varyingly grim jokes of the film, ripped from Chuck Palahniuk's cult novel, come at the expense of men; it's alpha lone wolf Fincher, a director who'd likely refuse to join any club that would have him as a member, seeking to skewer masculinity much as he'd done in 1997's underrated The Game and would do in 2010's The Social Network and the shortlived Netflix series Mindhunter

For any newcomers, this is the story of a perilously lonely boy (with "a house full of condiments, but no food", as Jim Uhls' script has it) who starts listening to an inner voice urging him to give into his worst instincts. (Fortuitously, this reissue lands between two high-profile films centred on protagonists with imaginary friends: we've been primed.) Beating himself and others up in underground gladiatorial arenas hardly improves his condition: he's soon homeless, bleeding, being cuckolded by his own subconscious and well on his way to becoming public enemy number one. His downward spiral allows Fincher to flag just how easily certain men are misled towards violent, (self-)destructive activity. Yet one reason this late 20th century endeavour has endured so is that it feels very much of the 21st century: simultaneously doomy and snarky while ambiguous and slippery, bound up with cults of personality (for Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden, the film's strutting imp of the perverse, read Tate or Trump), a broadly despairing view of the state of play between the sexes, and the misplaced anger that follows from our understanding that we need to shake off capitalism but haven't quite figured out how best to achieve that aim. And that's before the collapsing buildings the movie arrives at, a trailer for non-movie spectacles to come.

I think we might still concede Fight Club is less forcefully of a piece than it seemed a quarter-century ago, when the critic Alexander Walker was driven to declare its nihilism a danger to civilised society. Time and a clearer eye reveal the film to be composed of showoffy segments, overlaid with Ed Norton's droning voiceover and a pounding Dust Brothers score, which highlight Fincher's unarguable camera and editing prowess: the plane crash, the sex scene, the soap making, the fights. Nothing really connects; only in its final act does the film gather real momentum, rather than circling a drain while gurgling loudly. At this point, Fincher was still thinking in grabby setpieces, trying to make a name and a career for himself; we may all of us prefer the subtler, sublimated craft and guile of The Social Network and Mindhunter over these barely controlled explosions. Fincher's business here was provocation: though the twist ending loosely ties Fight Club to late 1999's runaway hit The Sixth Sense, for most of its running time, it feels closer to an American translation of Lars von Trier's The Idiots, another study of a fraying collective conducted with cackling intelligence. (Either that, or it's Drop Dead Fred rewritten by the Unabomber.)

All that said, it is often wildly funny, or howlingly inappropriate, its tossed-off wisecracks pushing some way beyond those of, say, South Park or Family Guy; you can see why the edgelords seized upon it, but also why Fincher wound up making the comparably distasteful Gone Girl, which I half-suspect may be Fight Club for girls. And Fincher was always good with actors, driving them to commit and subvert as befits. Incels seem to miss this, but wiggly Norton - one of the great worms of 1990s film - only becomes heroic late on after trying to take responsibility for his crimes; Pitt remains a pretty terrific articulation of a pose most men will have wanted to throw at some point, even if it stands for nothing and might get you killed. The bonus is Helena Bonham Carter at her most withering; you have to overlook her Marla if you want to appropriate Fight Club as an unapologetic push for men's rights. (Further down the callsheet, two from the funny-how-things-turn-out file: a TV news reporter is played by Lauren Sánchez, newly prominent as the main squeeze of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos; and it still strikes me as faintly ironic that our hero should be seen to bottom out upon beating Jared Leto to a pulp, "I felt like destroying something beautiful" et al.)

Even after 25 years, we haven't yet fully metabolised Fight Club - what it means, what it represents, where it ranks - which probably accounts for the ongoing arguments. Fincher pushed on regardless, but Uhls has had only one more script produced in the years since, 2008's bland Hayden Christensen vehicle Jumper. Like an off-colour joke, it might just be unrepeatable, although elements of the film seemed to factor into the following year's American Psycho (another droll rendering of a notionally unfilmable novel) and the Jackass series (first transmission: October 2000), which was - which remains, somewhat implausibly - Fight Club reenacted by clowns for shits and giggles. But extinction was where everything was heading: within ten years, and after a decade characterised by insecurity on various fronts, American movies had been reduced to childproofed superheroics and digimated cutesiness, with barely a single Tyler Durden around to splice a welcome transgression or two into the mix. Raw meat stuffed with gelignite, Fincher's film still requires marking as dangerous - I wouldn't take a date to it - but we'd do well to reclaim some of its swagger from the nuts on the Internet. Peer beyond its sloganeering and sixpacks, and you can spy a moment when our movies still took risks, and revolution of multiple kinds remained some sort of possibility.

Fight Club returns to cinemas nationwide from today.