Tuesday 30 April 2024

On demand: "Drift"

Anthony Chen's contribution to the huddled masses of 21st century cinema's migrant movies 
is a smaller, more intimate affair than most of its predecessors. Drift's heroine, Liberian girl Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), has already got where she's going: a sunkissed Greek isle where others travel for leisure and pleasure, while she beds down in a cave, a shaven-headed citizen of nowhere, with only the clothes on her back and scraps of official documentation to show for herself. The issue facing Jacqueline is what's next; it's a migrant movie that dramatises a different kind of transitional period, more psychological than geographical. Chen joins her as she begins to address and process the tumult she's already endured: helpful flashbacks describe her life in Liberia and London, where Erivo sports longer locks, a Stockwell accent, and signs of prior privilege. Back in the present, there's a relationship of some kind with an American tour guide, who represents an easy-breezy freedom and is embodied by Alia Shawkat at her most relaxed. (Practically her first onscreen act is to offer Jacqueline a stick of chewing gum, a gesture that assumes a greater poignancy once we realise it's the closest the latter has received to a free meal for some while.) Amid the rubble and ruins of various fallen civilisations - first ancient bathhouses, then what's been left of an abandoned apartment complex - Drift begins to show us gradual and often haphazard rebuilding, first of a life, then of a trust in our fellow man.

For a while, I wondered whether the film was in fact being too easy-breezy to do full justice to its protagonist's experiences. With good reason, we are suckered by the idyllic scenery - but then you wouldn't have to look too far along the horizon, most immediately to the Lampedusa to which the migrants clung in 2016's documentary Fire at Sea, to see such narratives playing out on golden shores such as this. Within the context of this film, it allows Chen to play with notions of tension and release. The flashbacks capture a slow creep into bloody civil war, the walls closing in on Jacqueline's well-to-do, once-untouchable family, where the present-day action permits the camera (like the heroine, like us) to pause, breathe, relax, take stock. Drift is at its most effective in these quieter, more reflective moments: scenes involving Jacqueline's English contacts (including Honor Swinton Byrne as an upwardly mobile pal who won't for a moment have to worry about armed men invading her back garden) land somewhere between sketchy and soapy - Chen hasn't the budget to fully flesh these characters out - while the dialogue that washes in like the tide in the second half is a touch plain and utilitarian, a means of closing any remaining gaps. Yet the film remains persuasive - and quietly moving - so long as it stays close to two performers you'd probably follow to the ends of the earth, and simply lets them be. With her Tim Roth-like internality, Erivo is particularly adept at suggesting degrees of hurt and pain without saying a word; yet handed a restaurant's complementary bread basket, she turns visibly childlike, and her rare smiles feel like hard-earned rewards. Shawkat, meanwhile, infuses a slightly underwritten part with a spirit - a liberated, adventurous warmth - you might well want to find waiting for you at the end of a long, winding and dangerous road. Drift's essential modesty appears to have counted against it - it lands on streaming off the back of a surprisingly cursory theatrical release - but in the company of its two fine leads, it nudges towards an understanding of what and who we need to heal and move on, and how, in even the clearest of conditions, that progress isn't always as easy as it might first look.

Drift is currently available to rent via the BFI Player.

Monday 29 April 2024

On demand: "Laapataa Ladies"

Given the ideological violence, codified or otherwise, which has set audiences running from the cinema in their droves over recent months, it's a relief to be confronted with a Hindi film that still feels capable of gentility, that isn't merely thumping us around the head with a recruiting manual for the better part of three hours. Kiran Rao's
Laapataa Ladies is a deft and endearing fable, set in a 2001 that seems like tangible ancient history, and founded on an amusingly simple muddle involving nervy newlyweds who've barely tied the knot when they unknowingly stumble towards partner-swapping. Bumfluffed groom Deepak (Sparsh Shrivastava) gets the shock of his young life when the bride he's dragged off the midnight train to meet his parents lifts her veil to reveal a face he's never seen before; the mix-up, it transpires, was the result of a surfeit of veiled brides travelling on the same cross-country service, and some decidedly suboptimal seating arrangements. Such a breach of nuptial decorum would probably in itself be enough to sustain a feature-length comedy-drama, but screenwriter Sneha Desai, working from a story by Biplab Goswani, also explores complications involving the other corners of this accidental love quadrangle. The other woman, the progressively minded Jaya (Pratibha Ranta, who presents with something of Sonam Kapoor's poise), realises this snafu might actually work in her favour, swiftly torching the SIM card connecting her to her betrothed as if she were Jason Bourne; it's thus no real shock when we discover said betrothed, the brooding Pradeep (Bhaskar Jha), is a possessive drunk who's been accused of burning his first wife. And then there is the hardly small matter of Deepak's abandoned beloved, the spooked, unworldly, doe-like Phool (Nitanshi Goel), who descends from the fateful train in an unfamiliar part of the countryside, and finds herself at the mercy of complete strangers.

The opening hour suggests farce slowed down to the pace of an Ealing comedy, the better for us to savour this script's generous story and character beats, and the jokes that bubble up organically from its premise. Phool sees her name inscribed in an exasperated stationmaster's lost-property ledger, alongside the umbrellas and spectacles; an openly corrupt police chief (the terrific Ravi Kishan), who accepts bribes in the form of banknotes or songs, commends Deepak on managing to throw off his other half mere days into wedlock ("I've been trying for years"). In the span of attitudes and personalities it describes, Laapataa Ladies qualifies as a triumph of casting: even the walk-on roles are filled perfectly, and some cosmic matchmaking is evident between the leads. We're never allowed to believe Shrivastava's shy, sleepy Deepak stands a chance with Jaya - not when he's so felicitously paired with Goel's Phool. If the film eventually shades into seriousness - towards notably higher stakes - it's led there by the women. Not just the brides, forced to make their own ways in a society offering them scant encouragement, but those around them, like Manju Maai (Chhaya Kadam), the lived-in chaiwalli who takes the hapless Phool under her wing, telling her the greatest con ever pulled on the fairer sex - limiting their potential in one fell rhetorical swoop - was the notion of "the honourable woman". In a better world, one so wise and so pragmatic with it would be running her own country; here, she's frying bread pakora and hoping things work out for the best. Rao and Desai wear their feminism lightly, setting out characters rather than statements, but those characters' interactions do serve as a rallying call for women to be more forceful about who they are and what they want to be, where they're going and what they say and do there. (The better not to be so interchangeable - or, worse still, dispensable.) The point gets underlined by the elegant, outgoing Ranta and the adorable, homely Goel, giving the most skilfully differentiated and affecting performances in the entire film. "Learn to keep your eyes down," Phool is instructed by her family early on, the kind of dyed-in-the-wool, long-in-the-tooth non-wisdom that proliferates in stagnating societies. Rao's eyes remain open, alert to change and forever forward-facing, which is why Laapataa Ladies works so well as entertainment, but also - particularly in its home stretch, which gifts us the gleeful, Shakespearian spectacle of justice being properly served - as a vision of how India might well better itself, far away from all the flags and guns.

Laapataa Ladies is now streaming on Netflix.

In memoriam: Vincent Friell (Telegraph 27/04/24)

Vincent Friell
, who has died aged 64, was an actor whose career describes an entire history of Scottish film and television, beginning with the cult indie comedy Restless Natives (1985) and proceeding to appearances in Danny Boyle’s era-defining Trainspotting (1996) and Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share (2012) via episodes of Taggart, Rab C. Nesbitt and Still Game.

In Restless Natives, directed by the American import Michael Hoffman from a script by Ninian Dunnett, the dark-browed, 6’3” Friell – a gangly, shrugging presence in the John Gordon Sinclair mould – starred as the lovelorn Will, one of two underemployed chancers who become unlikely, Dick Turpin-like folk heroes upon holding up tour buses with toy guns. Set to a stirring score by Big Country’s Stuart Adamson, it echoed Bill Forsyth’s beguiling, better known efforts at modern Scottish mythmaking; much like Gregory’s Girl (1982), it lingered long in the imagination. 

As with most myths, the film required some degree of legerdemain, particularly in the scenes that required Will and sidekick Ronnie (Joe Mullaney) to make a high-speed Highland getaway on a motorbike. “I don’t drive, and I have an aversion to any form of speed,” Friell later admitted. “The first time we were on the bike, Joe revved the engine. He went one way, I went the other, and we were never let on the bike again. In the film, it’s not Joe and me on the bike.” 

Friell was born in Glasgow on January 17, 1960, one of five children for the actor and Labour activist Charlie Friell and his wife Mary. He made his screen debut among the suspects in Killer (1983), the ITV miniseries that first introduced audiences to the character of DCI Jim Taggart, played by Mark McManus. Such was Friell’s dependability and versatility that, after spin-off Taggart (1985-2010) became a ratings juggernaut, he returned to the show, playing three further, entirely new roles. 

The close-knit nature of the Scottish industry meant Friell repeatedly worked with the same performers in different contexts. He appeared with Gregor Fisher on the period miniseries Blood Red Roses (1986), before taking two separate roles on Fisher’s breakout vehicle Rab C. Nesbitt (1988-2014) and playing a landlord in the BBC’s fondly remembered, Fisher-led revival of The Tales of Para Handy (1994-95), based on Neil Munro’s books. He appeared alongside stage colleague Robert Carlyle in prison drama Silent Scream (1990), and then watched Carlyle become a star as Begbie in Trainspotting, where Friell played Kelly Macdonald’s baffled father.

More TV work followed, in Jack Docherty’s adworld sitcom The Creatives (1998), as a detective alongside Adrian Dunbar and Ray Winstone in ITV’s Tough Love (2002), and as a developer trying to take over the Clansman pub in Still Game (2002-2019). Friell belatedly returned to film in the indie Fast Romance (2011), which won BAFTA Scotland’s public vote for Favourite Scottish Film; in a marker of how far he’d come since his Restless Natives days, he played the Procurator Fiscal sentencing the wayward young hero of The Angels’ Share to community service.

Friell’s final screen credit came with the comedy short Jim the Fish (2015), although he remained a bedrock of regional theatre. In 2013, he toured Scotland in Paul Coulter’s one-man play Linwood No More, playing a worker laid off from the factory that produced the Hillman Imp and the Talbot Sunbeam; in 2017, he played a crime novelist confronted by harsh reality on the London-to-Glasgow train in Simon Macallum’s Late Sleeper.

Restless Natives – which remained a mainstay of the BBC Scotland schedules, lent its name to a popular podcast presented by the actor Martin Compston, and even spawned a stage musical, currently touring the UK – achieved a newfound prominence in the 21st century after being reissued on DVD. Among the bonus material was an interview with the now middle-aged Friell himself: “It’s a lovely feeling to think […] there’s going to be a whole new generation who are going to see it. I hope it stays around for years, so that it can become a nice novelty factor, that there was this wacky little Scottish film made in 1984 that’s going to stay the course.”

He is survived by his wife Alana Brady and two children, Connie and Jude.

Vincent Friell, born January 17, 1960, died April 14, 2024.

Sunday 28 April 2024

Bad babysitters: "Abigail"

With original ideas apparently at a premium, the movies have taken to smashing pre-loved concepts together, much as prehistoric Man did flints, in the hope of creating sparks. The process is being prominently demonstrated by Adam Wingard in Screen Three's Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire; over in Screen Five, however, we find arguably the process's nimblest practitioners, Wingard's V/H/S shooting buddies Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, collectively known as Radio Silence. This pair previously gave us 2019's Ready or Not, which had a lot of fun mashing up the meet-the-parents comedy with the slasher-splatter movie; their latest Abigail sees them and writers Stephen Shields and Guy Busick splicing the heist movie with an altogether different horror genus. It's the old story of criminals who get more than they initially bargained for, in this case a ragbag of muttering oddbods first seen in balaclavas - the best medium-budget Universal money can buy: Melissa Barrera (survivor of the directors' iffy Scream reboot), Dan Stevens, Kevin Durant, Will Catlett, Kathryn Newton and the late Angus Cloud - who've been contracted by third-party Giancarlo Esposito to kidnap a pre-teen ballerina (Alisha Weir) with the aim of squeezing a ransom out of the girl's millionaire father. If you've seen the trailer, an example of producers spoiling their own movie, you'll already know young Abigail is plenty capable of defending herself, which means the film's opening half-hour plays as slick preamble with a side order of set-up. Yet smart playing ushers us past the clanking of plot mechanics, while also fanning out - like cards on a table - a set of personalities you're almost sad to see getting torn up. Torn up they must be, though - that 18 certificate's not for nothing - because Bertinelli-Olpin and Gillett rightly understand their best chance of striking sparks is to give these elements a resounding ketchup-bottle thump: the red stuff goes everywhere, with one particular effect that bears repetition and never gets old or tiresome or any less marvellous to behold.

Actually, Abigail is relatively sparing with the grue up until the point all hell breaks out - it gets stored up, for a more spectacular splurge - and that time allows us to see just how attentive these filmmakers have been in matters of construction: they both need and want their bricolage of old-movie odds and sods to withstand even the fiercest of hammer blows. There are precedents here. Abigail shares something of From Dusk Till Dawn's wriggly, borderline serpentine shape, but crucially not its winkingly ironic tone, allowing it to land some emotional beats involving the Barrera character's relationship for her son; for a while, I also wondered whether we were watching Home Alone re-envisioned from the perspective of the Pesci-Stern characters. Yet its most apparent virtues are those of the stronger Saw films: inescapably tight plotting that gets only tighter still upon the revelation of who exactly all these strangers are, and some quietly excellent and unnerving production design (by the versatile Susie Cullen). The so-called safe house to which our anti-heroes escort the girl turns out to be deceptively cushioned, with a whole host of dark spots, secrets and shadows lurking behind the artefacts. (Trust me, you don't want to see what's in the basement.) In confining itself to the one big house, Abigail is visibly operating within the same parameters Ready or Not did - not necessarily a limitation, given how enjoyable the latter film was - but it also holes up with an even better ensemble, who quickly win us over in the guise of weary capitalist footsoldiers, screwed over by management and eviscerated by the job in hand. It's a rare horror movie where you sort of want everybody to survive for potential sequels, notably the spacey, suggestible Newton, the dimly uncomprehending Durant - Elon Musk x Hulk - who gets major laughs just from being more outwardly terrified of his pipsqueak charge than anyone, and the cherishably sarcastic Stevens, who in a parallel universe would be enjoying Bradley Cooper's career, but in this one appears ecstatically happy to have become the thinking person's Jeff Fahey. If the Screen Actors Guild had an award for Best Doomed Souls, this shower would win at a canter.

Abigail is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 27 April 2024

For what it's worth...

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

1 (1) Back to Black (15)
2 (2) Civil War (15) ***
3 (3Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
4 (4Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12A)
5 (new) Abigail (18) ****
6 (5) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12A)
7 (6Dune: Part Two (12A) **
8 (7) Monkey Man (18) ****
9 (27) Varshangalkku Shesham (12A) ***
10 (8) The First Omen (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Dune: Part Two (12) **
2 (28) Dune: Part One (12) **
3 (4) Oppenheimer (15) ****
4 (3) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)
5 (13) Argylle (12)
6 (2) Wonka (PG) ***
7 (6) The Holdovers (15) ***
8 (new) Dune: Double Pack (12) **
9 (5) Barbie (12) ***
10 (1) One Life (12)

My top five: 
1. Fallen Leaves

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Trading Places (Friday, Channel 4, 1.25am)
2. Cape Fear (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.40pm)
3. The Shop Around the Corner (Saturday, BBC2, 2pm)
4. Step Brothers [above] (Friday, Channel 4, 11.05pm)
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Saturday, Channel 4, 11.35am)

Double faults: "Challengers"

It is happening again. Every word printed under the sun is telling you the new Luca Guadagnino film Challengers is the greatest thing since sliced focaccia, and the film those words have been attached to turns out, like the majority of Luca Guadagnino projects, to be all of the following: tanned and sheenily watchable, not unhealthy for the wider cinema in its approach to the body and to the libido in particular, strenuously photogenic and saleable, and yet naggingly surfacey, fundamentally piffling, recording only a series of poses struck as they would have been in the filming of any tennis-themed promotional spot for a fashion, jewellery or fragrance line, its feet stuck on the baseline where sensuality tips over into outright decadence. In everything from its erratic understanding of oncourt code violations to a climactic whirlwind apparently fashioned from every last fast-food wrapper discarded through history on an American sidewalk, it is both too much and entirely unpersuasive: hot air at best, an overinflated, overpraised heap of nothing elsewhere. Who is the worst of this generation's so-called "great" directors, Guadagnino or Denis Villeneuve? It will all boil down to what you are most willing to endure in a cinema: the latter's flatly incontrovertible dullness, ambience as a substitute for character and life, or the histrionic hyper-exaggeration of the former, borne out once more in the tiresomely flailing limbs of Challengers' central, Jules et Jim Courier 
ménage à trois.

In one way, it's apt the film's organising slugfest should very nearly be decided by a time violation, given Guadagnino's tendency to overshoot everything, even the routine exposition setting up who's playing who and where. I suspect this is what people are misreading as Movie Art, but it's really just artfulness: you soon begin to miss the way a Hawks or similar could tell a story like this inside 100 minutes, with brisk wit rather than endless huffing-and-puffing. Il Maestro shoots the tennis in intensified single shots, so there's never any sense of court coverage or back-and-forth, the sudden variations of movement and pace that make watching actual tennis such an absorbing pleasure. His grabbiness reaches a nadir in the POV shots of the finale, complete with pumped fists entering the frame: it looks terribly naff for something being praised to the rafters as angular style, like a Lucozade advert you might have glimpsed in the breaks during Surgical Spirit on ITV in 1992. What back-and-forth there is here is built into screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes's ADD-inducing structure, which opens in 2019, flashes back two weeks, returns to the present, flashes back thirteen years, and proceeds in much the same haphazard way thereafter. It takes a full forty minutes just to get its central threesome in the same room, which in itself suggests something about the way our screenwriters have lost the ability to merge backstory and action with the deft hands of a Boris Becker drop shot. Instead, Challengers incessantly jerks its audience around for 131 minutes: it's Surf Dracula, done as a tennis movie.

If you're a die-hard stan of any of these players - as the younger reviewers seem to be - then you may emerge happier. In the course of 131 minutes, you'll witness two or three carefully choreographed, intimately coordinated makeout scenes; these knowing winks to a sex-starved audience are broadly as sexy as Tim Henman, because Guadagnino is trading in that coyly teasing, kit-on sex most commonly used to sell us on khakis and cola. If you come this way anticipating raw, authentic passion, forget it: the fact Challengers is being framed as some sort of boundary-testing erotic breakthrough strikes me as speaking only to the limited imaginations of most film critics. More regrettably, the Guadagnino "touch", such as it is, just opens up more time to ponder the aspects of writing and casting that make little-to-no sense whatsoever. Maybe I missed a memo along the way - maybe it was among the papers swept away in that whirlwind - but there is surely no way Zendaya, seventeen years young at last count, can reasonably be playing mother to even a small child: she still looks like she hasn't had breakfast yet, let alone a baby. (The movie guiltily admits as much by disappearing the kid after the opening fifteen minutes, the better to proceed with Uncle Luca's Polysexual Fun Times, no strings attached.) The boys, meanwhile, are exactly that: klutzy, sniggering nerds, rather than the whey-fed jocks they would have become on the actual tennis circuit. Not for the first time, a major American studio release points up what happens when you abolish the star system and elevate kids who've barely lived to positions of movie responsibility for which they hardly seem qualified. 

Even with its exasperating chicanery and insultingly rote characterisation (unimpeachably sensible head girl, silly-billy boys), Kuritzkes's script might have been pulled into functioning shape by the right personnel, by which I may mean credibly adult humans. As it is, it's just the kind of juvenilia that has to beg for an audience's indulgence: a Superbad-level sex comedy, with bust-ups like high-school tiffs, removed of anything truly amusing and replastered with logos and abysmal EDM meant to counter an inherent lack of propulsion and charge in the material. (The score is credited to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: both should have their Goth cards revoked.) Guadagnino, the Boris Johnson of cinema, proceeds with the relentless wiff-waff of any other hype man: Challengers builds to an inconclusive crescendo, offering empty highs but only a tentative result. Clearly, that's been enough for the more excitable first responders, but I can't in all honesty be that thrilled by a movie that so conspicuously bears out a crisis in screenwriting, a crisis in what's left of the star system, and that its maker would be better off throwing in his lot with the blue-chip brands he clearly longs to promote than trying to tell an involving or meaningful story. I wonder whether what's really being reviewed here is our collective memory of a time when the movies would have aced this sort of thing; but now they struggle to get past the first round of basic critical thinking, and go on almost as long as Mahut-Isner.

Challengers is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

In memoriam: Eleanor Coppola (Telegraph 22/04/24)

Eleanor Coppola
, who has died aged 87, was an artist, writer and director whose eye for the chaos and carnival of cinema shone through one of the foremost films about filmmaking:
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), an Emmy-winning documentary fashioned by directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper from the reels of footage Coppola shot behind the scenes of her husband Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary Apocalypse Now (1979). 

Filming partly to gather marketing material for United Artists, and partly to alleviate boredom instilled by a notoriously attenuated shoot in the Philippines, Eleanor caught scenes as dramatic as Apocalypse Now itself: a budget spiralling out of control, monsoon-strafed sets, and serious breakdowns in communication between the actors and their self-doubting director. “I tell you from the bottom of my heart that I am making a bad film,” Francis was heard lamenting. “We are all lost.” 

Such scenes articulated a heightened if fraught marital intimacy. Roger Ebert noted how Hearts of Darkness “strips [Francis] Coppola bare of all defences and yet reveals him as a great and brave filmmaker.” (Coppola himself half-jokingly retitled the documentary “Watch Francis Suffer”.) In his gossipy New Hollywood history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind suggested the shoot brought pre-existing tensions between Eleanor and the straying Francis to a cyclonic head. 

The pair had met on the set of Francis’s first film, the Roger Corman-backed, Irish-shot Dementia 13 (1963), where Eleanor, two years older, was the assistant art director. Eleanor became pregnant soon afterwards; the couple wed the same year in Vegas and remained married until her death. 

After furnishing Francis’s American Zoetrope studio in orange and royal blue when it opened in 1969, Eleanor reportedly inspired the characterisation of Kay Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Despite the turbulence of the 1970s – during which Francis took to introducing Eleanor as “my first wife” – she raised all three of the couple’s children while also proving instrumental to the success of the Coppola wineries. 

In her thoughtful 2008 memoir Notes on a Life, Eleanor reflected on the compromises entailed by marriage and motherhood: “Over the years I stopped whatever I was doing to go on location with Francis and the children. I sincerely tried to be a good wife and mother... For a variety of reasons, I haven’t created a body of notable work in my life when many around me have, and I haven’t yet made peace with that truth.” 

Eleanor Jessie Neil was born on May 4, 1936 in Long Beach, California, one of three children to political cartoonist Clifford Neil and his wife Delphine (née Lougheed). She studied applied design at UCLA before pausing her career as a tapestry maker. 

Yet in later life, after her children Roman and Sofia had established their filmmaking credentials, Coppola found a creative second wind, directing two semi-autobiographical features: Paris Can Wait (2016), in which Diane Lane takes a scenic French break from bigshot husband Alec Baldwin, and the portmanteau Love is Love is Love (2020) in which, asked the secret to her long marriage, a philandering producer’s wife (Joanne Whalley) replies “Don’t get divorced”. 

While promoting the former, Coppola told one interviewer: “I grew up in the Forties and Fifties, [when] a woman’s role was to support her husband and make a nice home for him. I was frustrated that I didn’t have much time to pursue my interests. Young women today have no concept of that. My daughter and her generation […] take for granted that they’re going to do whatever is their calling. There’s not going to be a question of their role or if they have to give it up because they’re a wife and a mother.” 

She is survived by her husband, and two of her three children, Sofia and Roman. Her eldest son Gian-Carlo died in a boating accident aged 22 in 1986. 

Eleanor Coppola, born May 4, 1936, died April 12, 2024.

Saturday 20 April 2024

For what it's worth...

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

1 (new) Back to Black (15)
2 (new) Civil War (15) ***
3 (1) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
4 (2) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12A)
5 (3) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12A)
6 (4Dune: Part Two (12A) **
7 (5) Monkey Man (18) ****
8 (6) The First Omen (15)
9 (new) Aavesham (15) ***
10 (new) Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (4) One Life (12)
2 (2) Wonka (PG) ***
3 (1) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)
4 (9) Oppenheimer (15) ****
5 (5) Barbie (12) ***
6 (re) The Holdovers (15) ***
7 (7) Meg 2: The Trench (12)
8 (new) Wicked Little Letters (15)
9 (6) The Equalizer 3 (15)
10 (10) Kung Fu Panda (PG) ***

My top five: 
1. Fallen Leaves

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. A Hidden Life (Sunday, BBC2, 12.50am)
2. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Sunday, Channel 4, 11.30pm)
3. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert [above] (Friday, BBC1, 11.35pm)
4. X (Friday, Channel 4, 1.10am)
5. Superbad (Saturday, BBC1, 11.10pm)

Friday 19 April 2024

Risky business: "Aavesham"

The collective galaxy brain that is the Malayalam cinema has figured out a way of making moviestars out of YouTubers, that species who - in the West, at least - have tended to present on screen as insufferable, airheaded twits. The surprise Indian hit of Eid weekend 2024 - outperforming several glitzier Hindi titles -
Aavesham is a college-kids-gone-wild comedy where the violent hazing rituals so closely resemble Mob manoeuvres it's scant surprise when an actual, grown-up gangster shows up to slap these kids about; the joshing action itself seems to manifest him. An online trio who trade under the handles Hipzster, Mithun and Roshan have been recruited to play boyish engineering-college students whose freshman parties are being stormed by motorbike-revving seniors; their unlikely protector, found stalking the fleshpots of Bangalore, is Fahadh Faasil's Ranga, a posturing hood who's covered his wiry frame in solid-gold bling, and thus suggests some unholy union between Robert Carlyle's Begbie and darts icon Bobby George. Given that Ranga introduces himself at the urinals, performing an aggressive variant of the Now, Voyager cigarette trick, we may justly suspect our heroes are playing with fire: sure enough, Ranga is soon keeping the lads up all night with grisly war stories, and installing them in their own dubious fraternity house stocked to the rafters with booze, cigs and working girls. It's not unlike the way writer-director Jithu Madhavan has slotted digital-age talent into an agreeably disreputable teen-throwback plot: Risky Business or Porky's, if our cherubic young seekers had gone looking to hire muscle rather than ass.

What follows works as entertainment because it anticipates the charges one might expect to see levelled against it: it's not obviously a film trying to get down with the kids by recruiting online personalities, rather a smartly scripted comedy about the perils of playing it cool. Ranga, who we learn posts self-shot dance videos on his Insta account, clearly regards the boys as a means of extending his empire and demographic reach. Yet at best he's a swaggering ponce, at worst a fraud, surrounding himself with an entourage of burly dupes to win the bulk of his fights for him and shore up a legend that is plainly bunkum. He is above all a terrific movie character, and Faasil, funny from the first moment he enters the frame, plays him with the same precision he's brought to more dramatic material, getting laughs whether trying to free a hand from the sheet he's wrapped himself in or conveying Ranga's internal confusion as he makes polite phone conversation with the sweetheart mother of the betrayer he's attempting to cut down with an axe. To some degree, Faasil serves as our onscreen director or ringmaster, determining the course of action and the speed Ranga's goons should go at, then applauding the minions who've just kicked seven bells out of one another, and stoking our enthusiasm for more of the same. After a while, everybody before and behind the camera seems to forget about the college backdrop, but the gangland knockabout is such fun we're as swept up as the kids in the excitement of the title.

For while Aavesham is thumpingly violent - properly rowdy - in a manner not untypical of South Indian commercial cinema, Madhavan knows full well that, removed from reality and reframed in a certain way, violence can be extremely, intensely funny. He twists these frequent free-for-alls into unexpected, amusing, cartoonish shapes, like a performer fashioning balloon animals at a child's birthday party. To its slight detriment, the film calms down in its second half: after the conspicuous fucking around, there is some shruggingly rote finding out. Yet even here, Madhavan's script still succeeds in alighting upon some genuinely original and inspired ideas. Given the scope and volume of that preceding hullabaloo, it's a source of particular amusement when we discover the turf war Ranga is waging against a local rival, Reddy (Mansoor Ali Khan), boils down to a simple matter of image rights. (How 21st century is that?) As for the kids: they're alright! Sure, none of them is burning up the screen exactly, but in an age when that callow wisp Chalamet has been positioned and embraced as a major new screen idol, that might no longer matter. They're comfortable in front of the camera, and convince as nerdy naifs, bickering among themselves as if they were still in their bedrooms, livestreaming Fortnite shootouts - though it's another minor limitation that they've been asked to play this one straight; the non-FaFa scenes aren't quite as uproarious as they could be. Still, a diverting night out - and set in the context of the movies' other efforts to induce cross-platform synergy, Aavesham falls somewhere between object lesson and mini-masterclass.

Aavesham is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday 18 April 2024

On demand: "Archangel"

Archangel would have been many folks' first encounter with Guy Maddin, the singular Canadian auteur who ended the 20th century making films as they used to at the start of the 20th century: black-and-white, silent-ish (but with rudimentary overdubbing, music and sound effects), flickering, and full of tricks and tropes abandoned around the time the Nazis rode into Paris. The assertion of the Maddin filmography remains that these self-same tricks and tropes - the irises and intertitles, the flagrantly melodramatic turns of plot - still hold a certain value and power, even/especially when wedded to the most knowingly absurd of plots. Here, in a movie that mirrors the shapes thrown by those anti-war message movies that proliferated (and yet apparently went unheeded) between 1918 and 1939, we're introduced to a one-legged, recently widowed, amnesiac Canuck airman (the squarejawed Kyle McCulloch, later a writer for South Park), who finds new love and, indeed, a new leg after being redeployed to Russia to fight on behalf of the Tsar - the kind of rum narrative confection that passes for stock in Maddin's Acme-like plot factory.

This filmmaker's later works would benefit from more money, longer running times, name performers, even colour, yet it turns out the essentials were here from more or less the get-go. Archangel is Maddinism in its purest form, an artefact from a time when all its maker had to go on were the films that first inspired him and his own imagination. Even when its narrative line meanders and blurs, the composition and imagery (something like a party political broadcast on behalf of the Church on the subject of love; a wreath adorned with the odd, funny legend "dispatched by wounds innumerable"; several of the dirtiest Bolsheviks in screen history; a whole world fashioned from chiaroscuro) remain fresh and thrilling, not bad going considering much of it was first arrived at under George V. Even the dead air and clunkiness has the good fortune of seeming like a deliberate homage to that routinely baked into silent programmers; while the sniggering postmodern irony that would come to define Nineties cinema, and eventually result in Quentin Tarantino, is here offset against an abundant affection for all that the cinema had left behind. (Not to mention an at least semi-sincere message about the ways war disrupts lives and loves.) Nobody save Maddin became a star off the back of it, but it surely remains one of the coolest films for an actor to have on their CV, simply by going so far down its own peculiar path. No other 1990 film so completely captured the shellshocked, long-wintered essence of 1919; whether anybody else in 1990 was troubled to do so is almost a moot point. Sample dialogue: "It was my father's leg - I think she wants you to have it."

Friday 12 April 2024

For what it's worth...

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

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

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

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

My top five: 
1. Fallen Leaves
5. Suzume

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

Fallout: "Civil War"

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

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

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

Civil War opens today in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday 11 April 2024

The eternal memory: "Close Your Eyes"

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 10 April 2024

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

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

Hold Me While I'm Naked is now streaming via rarefilmm.com.