Friday 31 May 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten
 (for the weekend of May 24-26, 2024):

1 (new) The Garfield Movie (U)
2 (new) Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga (15) ****
3 (1) IF (U)
4 (2) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
5 (3) The Fall Guy (12A) **
6 (4) The Strangers: Chapter 1 (15)
7 (5Challengers (15) **
8 (new) Turbo (15)
9 (new) Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In (15)
10 (7) Back to Black (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Trainspotting
4. Mr. & Mrs. Mahi

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
2 (2Dune: Part Two (12) **
3 (5) Barbie (12) ***
4 (new) Abigail (15) ****
5 (8) Wonka (PG) ***
6 (10) The Equalizer 3 (15)
7 (4) Anyone but You (15)
8 (14) The Batman (15) ***
9 (7) Migration (U)
10 (6) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)

My top five: 
1. Monster

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Meet Me in St. Louis (Saturday, BBC2, 1.40pm)
2. Four Weddings & A Funeral (Sunday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
3. The Others (Friday, BBC1, 11.10pm)
4. God's Own Country [above] (Wednesday, Channel 4, 1.05am)
5. Goldfinger (Sunday, ITV1, 2.50pm)

Thursday 30 May 2024

On demand: "M"

Overshadowed by Fritz Lang's pre-WW2 original - a film that really knew how to cast a shadow - Joseph Losey's post-War American translation of
M remains taut and pointed, guided as much by its maker's dissident tendencies as by anything in the source. Losey's most subversive idea was to haul his child killer (David Wayne, winner of 1951's Bob Odenkirk Lookalike Prize) out of Lang's swampy underworld and have him run amok in an L.A. barely protected by its flimsy veneer of respectability: the business attire Wayne wears as he approaches kids in the street, the dozy and ineffective or overreaching and authoritarian lawmen on his trail, the TV spots stoking paranoia and fear, the mobs dobbing in or duffing up the innocent and guilty alike. The material is thereby connected to emergent A- and B-picture trends (you could run this M back-to-back with 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and hardly notice the join), but also the United States at the moment of Joe McCarthy. This wasn't, in Losey's eyes, an Over There problem, or an issue confined to the past, something GI Joe had seen off in the years between Ms; rather, it was an ongoing and highly immediate concern, happening right here, in Tinseltown's very backyard.

What ensues suggests Hitchcock with the leavening humour supplanted by bright, sundappled horror. Scenes of skipping moppets being pursued down Main Street by creepy men (of whom Wayne's anti-hero is only the most prominent) retain a real chill; direct sunlight gives the actual transgressions a far harsher edge. No less unnerving is the wider vision of so-called civilisation unravelling into lawlessness and barbarity. The somewhat stock casting (no big names, but tremendous faces) adds to our sense of a society of equals turning against one another and ripping itself apart. Sure, the ending's plain blunt, spitting us out onto the sidewalk, and it can't quite match Lang's overall visual flair. Yet Lang never had the Bradbury Building to play with - that 3D Escher sketch, laying bare the inner workings of capitalism, indistinguishable from those of a prison - and Losey and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo make equally suggestive, vertiginous use of the slopes of a funicular and a parking garage: however high up these characters scrabble, it's all downhill from where we're looking. Certainly far from what one might dismiss as a complacent remake, it takes nothing for granted, least of all liberal American values.

M is now streaming via and YouTube.

Wednesday 29 May 2024

A peeling: "Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet"

Here's a digital-era resurrection of an artefact that, upon its first release in the late 1970s, likely slipped out as the lower half of a double feature: a 70-minute snapshot of the up-and-coming Glaswegian comic Billy Connolly, caught just after his early breakthrough appearances on TV's
Parkinson, as he begins to pivot away from the musical cabaret that launched him, towards full, arena-pleasing, career-defining stand-up. Every performer (and their management) wanted one of these post-Don't Look Back: a chance to explain, over feature length, who they were, what they do, and why an audience might enjoy following their progress. Yet where Connolly's American contemporaries Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor decided their routines would be best showcased in conventional concert-movie format, Big Banana Feet - an access-all-areas record of the Irish leg of its subject's 1975 tour, named after the mocked-up Fyffes Connolly wore on stage every night - operates very much in the Pennebaker mode. We spend as much time backstage and offstage as on it, time enough to notice a distinct lack of glamour. For starters, Connolly still has to carry his own bags, and there are endless rounds of introductions to and negotiations with local functionaries. There is a lot of smoking, and consequently a lot of rheumy coughing that threatens to obscure the dialogue in built-up areas. (In true fly-on-the-wall fashion, the sound appears to have been the last element anybody attended to - though the BFI's admirable restoration has taken steps to correct this.) You can't even get a good night's kip, because there's a camera crew poking their heads around the hotel-room door, and early morning radio slots to be filled. Dylan was already a global megastar at the time of Don't Look Back, so maybe the latter isn't quite the right reference point; Big Banana Feet would make a pungent double-bill with 1979's Arrows, an odd but evocative short (recently revived on BBC Four) following the young Eric Bristow around the UK exhibition circuit at around the same moment. If Connolly himself weren't so garrulous and curious - if he wasn't so clearly enjoying being out and about in the world - we might start to note ennui, exhaustion, even despair setting in.

From the comedian's interactions with press - an essential part of the post-Pennebaker showbiz doc - we intuit that Connolly wasn't quite yet the national treasure he would become, but instead regarded, perhaps unnecessarily warily, as a live wire or diamond in the rough, a definition of a cult turn. With alternative comedy still some years away from going mainstream, Connolly has to explain himself at every turn: his language, his fondness for (schoolboy) vulgarity, his political and footballing allegiances. It's noticeable, from the clips we get of the live show, that this act at this time featured a higher-than-typical percentage of snot, fart and knob gags; in his younger guise, Connolly was giving an audience what they wanted, rather than taking a line for a comic walk, as he later would, thereby giving us what we weren't expecting. Even so, there are flashes of a razor-sharp mind, as with his response to a heckler's shout of "Up the IRA" - a reminder of the sorry world beyond the concert hall - and his backstage justification for not doing explicitly political material. Late on, during a performance in Belfast, Connolly broaches the then-contentious subject of the critic Kenneth Tynan using the F-word on live TV, and you can see him beginning to work up a routine with a clearly defined start, middle and end, to think about jokes as more than bits of business with which to break up the songs. (Though, of course, he also has a song about it, too.) The directors Murray Grigor and Paddy Higson offer us more of this gig than any other, possibly because Connolly appears to talk more than he sings: with the benefit of comedy hindsight, we sense he wants to step out from behind the guitar and banjo he has wielded (far from unskilfully) as crutches, to use his hands, as wavily expressive as that wild mane of hair, to reinforce a punchline, to play the audience as he once did his instruments. Only his shaggy likability remained a constant, offstage as on. From Don't Look Back, you retain the memory of miseryguts Dylan sulking behind shades; Big Banana Feet's lasting image, by contrast, is of Connolly chuckling away with his fellow acts, airport security, the tea ladies in the club. His folk music days were almost behind him, but a new folk hero was about to emerge.

Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet is now showing in selected cinemas, streaming via Prime Video, and available on DVD via the BFI.

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Rust in the dust: "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga"

George Miller drove deep into the Namibian desert to film 2015's 
Mad Max: Fury Road, in part - as the director later admitted - to swerve the executives and their pettyfogging notes. By contrast, the new Fury Road prequel, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, parks up among us trailing whiffs of diesel and dull corporate logic, two of its directives being to reclaim the IP and expand the universe. Fury Road's quiet genius (if anything about that headbanger could reasonably be labelled quiet) was that it was an action movie conceived along clear, straight lines - the characters haring from A to B, before pulling a mid-film u-ey to race one another back again - which allowed it to achieve the velocity it did. By contrast, Furiosa spends its two-and-a-half hours casting around. Five highfalutin chapter headings bear witness to the evolution of our wronged heroine (played by Alyla Browne as a child, then Anya Taylor-Joy) into the character Charlize Theron played so fiercely in the earlier movie; plucked from an Edenic paradise in an apple-picking prologue, Furiosa thereafter bounces like a pinball between the sites of earlier Mad Max films, pursued at most points by the demagogue Dementus, played by Chris Hemsworth with a prosthetic proboscis and a motorbike-driven chariot. Yet from the word go, we are once more struck by the precision with which Miller loads and fills his frames. A seeker's binoculars leave behind perfect hemispheres on the crest of a dune. A cut back to the vantage point where a sniper has shot two men dead from distance reveals a gleaming pair of spent rifle cartridges in the sand. Everything here has been engineered to square up, with the exception of the topsy-turvy angle one of the assassin's victims is left at: head buried in silica, boots sticking in the air, exactly how a corpse might be drawn in a comic strip for greatest visual effect. If this is Hollywood business as usual, it's uncommonly nifty, attentive business. Miller, now 79 and as energised as ever, may be the Platonic ideal of a summer blockbuster director: a vulgarian with supreme technical smarts. Few creatives have been as keen to get a movie's engine running, and then been as enthusiastic about generating deranged spectacle for us to gawp at in passing.

The original Mad Maxes - cheap, grubby, exploitation-adjacent - marked a break from what had become the action movie norm in the wake of the wipeclean, family-friendly Star Wars. Fury Road, when it came along, marked a break from the blockbuster norm in the early MCU era: its single, continuous movement went against the profitable box-office trend of a setpiece every twenty minutes, separated by lumpen exposition. Furiosa sometimes feels structurally closer to the Marvel model than it does to Fury Road; it's not reinventing the wheel so much as giving it a more forceful kick, and there are what (in a Mad Max context) feel like pauses for breath and water. But it's not the speed that astounds us here, rather the density of stirring, evocative, perfectly placed detail, and how much of it survives even into frames where Furiosa is attempting to throw her pursuers off. My best guess? Whatever Miller and his cohorts put onto the storyboards at 3am, in some flurry of nocturnal inspiration, has made it onto the screen unopposed. (The suits were among those thrown off - again.) Some of it is literal worldbuilding, as when Furiosa, having hacked off her locks to pass as a boy, is appointed a foreman charged with the construction of Immortan Joe's lair. Yet it's worldbuilding with an elevating flexibility - multiple parts set in giddying motion, very different from the construction-set dourness of Villeneuve's Dunes - which reflects that of the series' prime mover, who went from Mad Max to Babe and Happy Feet and came right back again. Miller, too, has pivoted, for where those first Mad Maxes delighted in the ultra-20th century sight of a lone male hero, Fury Road and Furiosa are far more attuned to the horrors of patriarchy: the unchecked ego (Dementus, a Trump of the desert), the violent need for dominance and control (Joe and his pallid Warboys), the women locked up in a vault to be impregnated, milked and worse. For all that, Furiosa is never pious in its positioning, and often too off-colour to pass for conventionally woke; Miller has a residual fondness for the grizzled, sun-baked or just plain bald character actors who do his villainous bidding, fellas too wormy, scuzzy or otherwise terrifying to have passed the Home & Away audition.

This filmmaker is so palpably caught up in both the macro and micro of this world that there were points where I found myself questioning what the lunatics on screen were doing and why they might be doing it. During the extended running highway battle that introduces Tom Burke as a kind of Max Rockatansky tribute act, I began to sense some element of mission drift, the dangers of a wholly unchecked vision. Here, the motivation gets blurry (where are we going? why is everybody on this guy's case?) and the exhilaration prompted by such high-calibre imagemaking is tempered by a vague sense of exhaustion. (Too much of one kind of information, not enough of the other: Furiosa is mindboggling, but having your mind so relentlessly boggled can also be fatiguing.) Yet those images prove the solution to almost every last one of Furiosa's storytelling problems: their clarity and legibility amply demonstrates the benefits of shooting your summer movie outdoors, rather than on a soundstage, and they interlock in ways the images in big studio movies rarely do nowadays. Keep a close, sustained eye on it, and the film begins to resemble a colossal machine, showing us its inner workings while carrying everybody to a desired destination - the inevitable rewatch of Fury Road - at speeds of up to 150mph. If this Mad Max saga is more expansive and expensive than what has come before - and thus more vulnerable to criticism and, yes, commercial risk - it's nevertheless been fashioned with the same dazzling underlying skill: the "purposeful savagery" Burke's character notes in Furiosa is exactly the film's best and most succinct review. In any apocalyptic scenario, there will always be those elements that struggle to be fully articulated, or defy rational explanation: for example, why Immortan Joe has saddled his wastrel progeny with the names Scrotus and Rictus Erectus. (Told you Miller was a vulgarian.) But Furiosa still has madness in its blood: as much madness as it has kerosene in its nostrils, it turns out, madness enough to keep dull corporate thinking at bay for a few hours more.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Monday 27 May 2024

On demand: "Band Baaja Baaraat"

One of the last blessings producer-deity Yash Chopra bestowed upon the Indian film business before his death in 2012 was handing breaks to two newcomers who would re-energise the industry in the immediate wake of his passing: director Maneesh Sharma and leading man Ranveer Singh. Allocated one of those always eyecatching "Introducing" credits, Singh begins 2010's
Band Baaja Baaraat as he meant to go on, making generally idiosyncratic choices: he delivers his first lines of dialogue through a mouthful of food, and still demonstrates the instant magnetism certain people are lucky indeed to possess upon being set before a camera. A star was well and truly born here. The film around him, directed by Sharma from a Habib Faisal script, now looks somewhat like a response to the Hollywood wedding comedies of the preceding decade (deep breath: The Wedding Planner, Wedding Crashers, Wedding Daze, plus a dash of Bride Wars, if we must), albeit one articulated with greater smarts and visual zest and far fresher sexual politics. Singh's barber school dropout Bittoo fumbles his way out into the world by supporting the ambitious Shruti (Anushka Sharma) in her aim to become the #1 wedding planner in all India. Towards the end, for reasons of plot (and movie love), Bittoo is obliged to replicate Shah Rukh Khan's iconic open-arms gesture, a nod - or an extension of hands - to the illustrious tradition into which Singh was being launched. For the best part of BBB, though, Singh can be seen working towards a slightly different kind of characterisation: not a hero per se, but an ally - or, rather, a hero and ally simultaneously, a man whose heroism derives chiefly from his attention/devotion to a winning partnership.

Teamwork makes the film work, in other words. If BBB's narrative ups and downs would be guessable from an early stage, the first half also offers the conspiratorial pleasures of watching two plucky kids building something from scratch - a business, a relationship, maybe even a future together. We get more of a sense than we did from those American movies of the sheer effort involved in staging the 360-degree spectacle of the wedding ceremony (the Indian work ethic dies hard) while the director, who went on to make 2016's mega-meta Fan, initiates some discourse on/defence of traditional Bollywood forms via the rivalry Bittoo and Shruti enter into with a successful snob in the same line of work. The latter dismisses these upstarts as loud and tacky; yet the editorial line the film advances is that even if you dismiss what the pair do as kitsch, you cannot deny the industry (and, yes, love) that goes into it. (And besides, as Bittoo insists, "not kitschy, stylish". No wonder Karan Johar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali would subsequently race to sign Singh up.) Yet as a cineaste, Sharma also comes over as the type of moderniser the business might have needed in a post-Chopra universe. He lets his scenes and players run loose and free, and not forcing the plot allows him time to feel out truthful intimacies, as well as neat symmetries and reversals that suggest a creative mind scanning a century's worth of romance plots to see what still works. Better yet: it allows us time to hang out with people whose aspirations, hang-ups and mistakes we recognise, and to note how two lovebirds can sit side-by-side and seem so right for one another and still be in very different places. In this task, he found his own allies. Anushka (no relation) combines the expressivity of the classic Bollywood heroine with a newly game determination, making such a strong case for Shruti's independence in the final reel that the conventional happy ending no longer feels such a foregone conclusion. Singh, meanwhile, pours himself into every scene with the effervescence of a Coke, and may be just as much the real thing: these weddings weren't the last movie parties he would help go with a swing.

Band Baaja Baaraat is now streaming via Prime Video.

Saturday 25 May 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of May 17-19, 2024):

1 (new) IF (U)
2 (1) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
3 (2) The Fall Guy (12A) **
4 (new) The Strangers: Chapter 1 (15)
5 (3) Challengers (15) **
6 (new) Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil (12A) ****
7 (4) Back to Black (15)
8 (new) 42nd Street - the Musical (PG)
9 (6) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
10 (8) La Chimera (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Trainspotting [above]
5. Rome, Open City

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
2 (1) Dune: Part Two (12) **
3 (16) Wicked Little Letters (15)
4 (11) Anyone but You (15)
5 (12) Barbie (12) ***
6 (3) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
7 (4) Migration (U)
8 (9) Wonka (PG) ***
9 (18) The Super Mario Bros. Movie (PG)
10 (7) The Equalizer 3 (15)

My top five: 
1. May December

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Do the Right Thing (Saturday, BBC2, 12.20am)
2. Clueless (Sunday, Channel 4, 3pm)
3. Memento (Sunday, BBC2, 12.20am)
4. From Russia with Love (Sunday, ITV1, 4.15pm and Thursday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
5. The Prestige (Wednesday, BBC1, 11.40pm)

Top gun maverick: "Hit Man"

What we're dealing with here is a clear divergence of sensibilities. When David Fincher made a hitman movie for Netflix - last year's
The Killer - he centred it on a depressive loner weirdo who kept banging on about techie shit, and didn't much care whether we warmed to him or not. Richard Linklater, for his part, keeps on keeping on: his Netflix hitman movie centres on a total sweetheart for whom even premeditated murder is only ever a means to a meet-cute. Hit Man emerges from the same strange-but-true file as Linklater's 2011 film Bernie - the journalist Skip Hollandsworth takes another prominent story credit - in riffing on the diverse life and work of one Gary Johnson, a New Orleans high-school teacher who, in the course of providing part-time tech support for the city's police force, was recruited to pass as a contract killer during an undercover sting operation, and wound up massively overstepping his jurisdiction. (The real Johnson died in 2022, which to some degree explains the dramatic licence that has been taken; Linklater sportingly cops to this amid the closing credits.) 

As a movie character, Johnson presents as a streamlined version of Jack Black's enthusiastic amateur in School of RockEmbodied by the chiselled Glen Powell, cockiest of Top Gun: Maverick's new-wave flyboys, he seems as surprised as anyone when he displays some facility for this after-hours sidehustle. The movie's first half-hour whizzes us through the sorry shower of blue-collar suckers Johnson's alter ego "Roy" helped put behind bars; but this being a mainstream entertainment, and a Linklater film, what Hit Man is most interested in is how this spin-off character helped Gary Johnson fill the pronounced void in his personal life, and it broaches the subject via the introduction of a married sylph (Adria Arjona) who approaches Roy with an eye to getting her abusive husband offed. We know this is something new because her gifts for roleplay are shown to match his, during the pair's first encounter; seasoned Linklater fans will recall Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's dorkily cute imagined phone calls to one another in Before Sunrise. Gary-as-Roy is duly beguiled to pursue the role (while refusing the dame's blood money) to see where this leads, and whether he can't just take the husband out of the picture by conventional romantic-sexual means. The result is as good a definition of what we might call Linklaterism as any: a film in which a hit man never once pulls the trigger in the interests of shooting his shot.

It is also, and the early reviews have noted as much, the kind of proficient light entertainment Hollywood used to trade in before the fall: a well-turned script with decent actors assigned to it. (Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when we got one or two of these per week.) Hit Man is perhaps most effective as a starmaking vehicle for Powell, who gets to try on personas and thereby seduce us as Gary-as-Roy did his clients. The wigs and costume changes required to convert this nerdy, Honda Civic-driving civics teacher into a pistol-packing renegade are only one part of the actor's artillery, which otherwise extends to a jawline it may be impossible to photograph badly, a smile as shy as it is sharkish (one early appraisal: here is the Tom Cruise who can still do humility), and self-aware line readings, tipping us the wink that this is an actor playing the role of a nobody playing a series of roles. Powell, who co-wrote this script with Linklater, knows exactly what he's up to: he's conceived Gary Johnson as a knight in shining armour, outnumbered by men in the grip of a murderous misogyny. An increasingly brusque rivalry with a disgraced stationhouse colleague (Austin Amelio) is the film pitting the McConaughey of, say, A Time to Kill against the McConaughey of True Detective, figures who represent our better and worse selves. 

Diverting though much of this is, Hit Man can't entirely disguise its limitations, which struck me as closely tied to its maker's personality. Framing this as Linklater's sexiest film, as several first responders have, feels a bit like slapping a Parental Advisory sticker on a Rick Astley album. (Some no-nipple bath-and-bedroom activity further underlines how sorely sex-starved the American cinema remains, even when a noir-adjacent plot allows for some.) The mild feeling of narrative anticlimax the film leaves us with, meanwhile, is down to the lack of a third gear behind the camera. As written, this plot develops nicely - the husband hires Roy to kill his wife, then ends up dead himself - but at a crucial point, just where matters might intensify and accelerate, Linklater cuts away to Gary-as-Gary guiding his teenage charges through the quirks of the legal system in a sundappled park. Even when he's not specifically looking for teachable moments, Linklater tends to shrug amiably through fraught conversation and mortal fallout, going not for tension or suspense - as Fincher, for instance, would - but for goofy laughs instead. (There's a big one, granted: just how quickly Gary Johnson's imposture falls apart when confronted.) As a consequence, Hit Man has everything in its favour except a certain oomph. As a comedy, it's collegial and likable, qualities we shouldn't undervalue in this day and age; but - and it doesn't matter how Netflix sell it - it's also very much a thriller in a Honda Civic. We cannot hide our true natures from the world, though there's a certain fun to be had in dressing them up.

Hit Man is now showing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via Netflix on June 7.

Friday 24 May 2024

Bananas: "Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil"

We last saw the Malayalam star Prithviraj Sukumaran but a month ago, giving one of the performances of the year so far as the everyman sold into modern slavery in the very fine but exacting epic 
Aadujeevitham. So Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil clearly presents as light relief, for him as for us: a romcom that, for once, has some major com to it. From the word go, in fact, as writer Deepu Pradeep and director Vipin Das magic three laughs before the title appears. First, everybody on screen finds that title - a reference to a Gretna Green-like temple that hosts populous family wedding ceremonies - impossible to get their mouths around. (Too many syllables - and if the locals struggle with it, we palefaces stand next to no chance.) Second: a superbly silly cutaway involving a motorcyclist only tangentially connected to the main plot. Third, and biggest: the suggestion that this will be a romcom where the bride-groom pairing matters far less than the relationship between the groom and his future brother-in-law. Ahead of his long-planned nuptials with the darling Anjali (Anaswara Rajan), genial beta Vinu (Basil Joseph) has been seeking life hacks and top bants that Anjali's burly alpha bro Anandan (Sukumaran, on what we might call full Affleckian form) has been only too happy to provide. The heavy implication is that Vinu may even have spent more time on the phone with Anandan than he has discussing future happiness with Anjali: as the characters' phone IDs flash up on screen, we note Vinu has entered a big red heart emoji next to Anandan's name. (And Anandan, for his part, has put two next to that of Vinu.) I love you, man: the two are so psyched to hear one another's voices and be in one another's company that becoming part of the same family seems a wholly welcome development. There's only one problem: they're also so in synch in their tastes and outlook it's almost no surprise when we learn the ex Vinu has been mooning over and cursing out is Anandan's on-off missus Parvathy (Nikhita Vimal).

Now: yes, it's a contrivance, and yes, surely this simple fact would have come up at least once in the boys' midnight-hour telephonic check-ins. But there is ground to be gained from swallowing it and cracking on, as the film does, making a decisive entry into one of the funniest of all subgenres: the Men Are Such Idiots comedy. Vinu makes his way to Parvathy's place in the hope of a reunion, love theme keening away in the background, only to be greeted at the front door with a bearhug from his clueless compadre. (The love theme persists.) The guys subsequently sit around trash-talking Vinu's ex, neither aware just who the other is talking about. Pradeep and Das get a lot of comic mileage from the sight and sound of men who are such idiots they're prepared to expend seemingly limitless energy and effort on blowing situations in which they would appear to have it made, up to and including trashing their own pre-existing relationships. Our (frequent) guffaws shouldn't distract us from the filmmakers' sure handling of what is a wildly complicated plot: Das has to resort to frantic crosscutting and split screen to get it all done and dusted in a shade over two hours, and for much of that duration, the fates of multiple hearts hang in the balance. The evidently suggestible Vinu is just idiot enough to waver upon encountering Parvathy again, and to employ his wastrel friends, who may have nothing more pressing or constructive to be getting on with, to sabotage the wedding party in the days leading up to the event. (One subversion, or perversion: it's a romcom where the bride and groom are mostly being prised apart.) The achievement of Das's direction is to carve out time amid all the tumult to check in with those feeling the knock-on effects: the women, who plainly deserve better men and lesser idiots than these, and the massed ranks of in-laws, most notably the huffy patriarch (Jagadish) who throws a disproportionate strop upon learning his precious protein powder has been baked into the wedding-party oatcakes. (Men are such idiots, and some of that idiocy is handed down to us.)

Yet the real triumph here may finally be attributable to Pradeep, and to a script where both the storytelling and gagwriting is of an uncommonly high standard. The title proves but the first of Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil's prolix, rat-a-tat jokes, only some of which have found their way into the otherwise excellent English subtitles. Here is a romcom so abundantly stocked with gags it can lose 15-to-20% of them in translation and still qualify as a tremendously fun night out. (If you speak the lingo, it may just be the funniest thing you'll have seen for a long while.) Of course, it all resolves at the wedding, a final reel that encompasses not just a standout musical number - a vision in pastel, indicating Das has an eye and ear to go with his funny bone - but the world's worst wedding photographers, a machina ex machina, and what looks like half of Kerala (most of them eating bananas, an inexplicably funny touch). Shot like an ambush in a Mob movie - or the spiralling funeral rites in Lijo Jose Pellissery's - it's seemingly chaos, and yet it's deftly controlled chaos, even contriving a resonantly satisfying hero moment for Prithviraj as Anandan realises he alone has the power to stop the nonsense and bring about the happy ending we all seek. (Men are such idiots, but some of us learn.) As with everything else, it's achieved with that casualness by which the Malayalam industry has made crackerjack entertainment look like the easiest thing in the world to pull off. The Hindi cinema, by contrast, has gone ominously quiet: it's election time, and there are box-office wounds to be licked. But I would hope its more open-minded creatives have themselves been watching this recent run of solid-gold crowdpleasers from the South - as remarkable, in its own way, as any number of European new waves - taking notes, and learning in turn. This, my friends, is how you pack 'em in, and how you get them coming back for more.

Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil is now playing in selected cinemas.

Thursday 23 May 2024

On demand: "Yeelen"

Had the film industry originated in Africa - rather than mainland Europe or the west coast of America - it would obviously speak a different language, but would also have had a new set of myths to draw from and images with which to work. This probably explains why Souleymane Cissé
's great 1987 film Yeelen remains as jolting as it does: for a little over an hour and a half, it offers nothing less than a portal into an alternative reality. Narratively, what we're watching could reasonably be described as a chase movie, and a power struggle between a crazed warlock and his estranged son, who's inherited some of dad's spellcasting but resolved to use it only for good. (Several introductory title cards recall the long scroll at the start of the first Star Wars, so we're not in a galaxy so very far, far away.) Yet the events that play out within this framework have been thought through and shot with an entirely fresh imagination. There are many more chickens being set on fire, for starters, but also: a whole new landscape to consider, from the caves the characters call home to the twisted, sawn-off trees marking the horizon and the parched flats underfoot; a midfilm pause for several rounds of millet beer (or Millet Lite, for those driving); a man in a hyena mask who may represent a trickster of some kind (i.e. just a man wearing a mask) or a fantastical creature (i.e. an actual talking hyena), and whose presence is all the more magical for going unexplained by a paragraph of exposition; and some sort of ritualised fight that involves the unarmed combatants pressing their foreheads together, like stags without antlers. Here is a film that, at every turn, illustrates how little the movies have thought to show us - and how much more of this world there is to explore and document.

In any English dictionary, mere inches separate mythic from mystification, and there are, granted, stretches here where the relative lack of contextualising information - Cissé's decision to toss the viewer headfirst into another culture - leaves us to puzzle out developments for ourselves. Most, however, lead to moments of brilliant clarity, as if a match had suddenly been struck before our very eyes. An example: the sequence where the son is pressganged into helping repel warriors from the village at which he's just arrived. It's something of a headscratcher that this process should involve a horse's shinbone, to be sundered, filled with sticks, bound with twine and then hammered into the ground - but, however we get there, either the hammering or the proximity of a foreign object looses a swarm of angry bees to be set on the invaders. Yeelen moves in comparably mysterious ways towards a final showdown between a man clutching a big log and a boy clutching a paddle with what now looks like an Infinity Stone at the end of it, and the payoff seems to connect back to the previous year's nuclear-themed The Sacrifice as much as The Empire Strikes Back. In an Afrocentric cinema, the conflicts and setpieces would be vastly more original, the reference points more diverse. For all that Yeelen belongs to a particular storytelling tradition, for all that it feels like a yarn passed down through a hundred generations or more, its words finally weigh less than Cissé's superlative images, which are burnished and handsome with regard to the people and the places they pass through, and richly unfamiliar with regard to what these people are doing there. Yes, many of these images require greater interpretation than those we've seen elsewhere, but the question to ask is not why the dog is walking backwards, but why can't the dog walk backwards? Why shouldn't the dog walk backwards? Why should our movies be bound by the same tired logic and rationale they've been bound by for well over a century now? Why can't the cinema, from time to time, go in a completely different direction?

Yeelen is now streaming via

Wednesday 22 May 2024

On demand: "Vidas Secas"

The temptation is to frame 1963's
Vidas Secas as a Brazilian Grapes of Wrath, as if writer-director Nelson Pereira dos Santos (adapting Graciliano Ramos) were confronting John Ford (adapting Steinbeck) before him. Wanna see a dustbowl? I'll show you a real dustbowl. A migrant family - mother, father, two children, dog - traipse across the barren flatlands, carrying their belongings (not much, all told), keeping eyes open for seasonal work, subsisting on handfuls of powder that may as well be sand. The sun beats down relentlessly. A pet parrot doesn't even make it out of the first five minutes alive, and barely seems worth barbequing, for all the meat it provides. Suffice to say, the Latin American experience of poverty proves altogether more bracing than its North American equivalent. For all the film's Cinema Novo credentials, for all that it translates the neo-realism of Bicycle Thieves to a more arid landscape yet, the prevailing editorial line is clear: how surreal it is that we allow our fellow man to live like this. Yet it doesn't have to be this way - and Vidas Secas owes its enduring classic status to dos Santos's alertness to resilient signs of life.

The dog chases after rodents (cuing some of world cinema's few canine POV shots); the buffoonish dad strains to pull his boots on and off; the dirt-smeared youngest treads proudly and defiantly in the old man's footsteps; the older child wraps his head around the idea of hell. It remains a struggle - particularly after dad falls foul of the law - and the genuinely infernal seems only ever a sunrise away. Yet the people filmed here are forever too busy and too spirited for Vidas Secas to slump listlessly into the realms of poverty porn. Instead, we are compensated with a richness of gesture and a real and rare compositional gift, the latter only the most visible illustration of the keenly cinematic intelligence at play. Where the father's landowner employer enjoys the playing of a professionally trained violinist, the family's progress is tracked by a single, unnervingly tenuous note of vibrato; and the closing stretch constructs a potent animals-only metaphor that predates Amores Perros by almost four decades. I wonder if one reason the film has dropped out of circulation in recent times is that the animals appear to suffer at least as much as the people trapped within these frames - but then any sentimentality would doubtless be considered a luxury hereabouts.

Vidas Secas is now streaming via

Tuesday 21 May 2024

In memoriam: Dabney Coleman (Telegraph 19/05/24)

Dabney Coleman
, who has died aged 92, was a comic actor renowned for his portrayal of blustering authority figures, typified by two choice early Eighties roles that sealed his image in the popular imagination: the corporate chauvinist outmanoeuvred by Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5 (1980) and the sexist, bottom-spanking director in Tootsie (1982).

Tall, balding and moustachioed, he became vulnerable to typecasting as an officious jerk – what fans called “the man you love to hate” – but Coleman always insisted he had no problems taking on such villainy: “I’ve played good guys and nice guys, but the truth is I’d rather be nasty than nice. The bad guys are always better written and more fun to play.”

He had been working in film and television for two decades before 9 to 5 pushed him into the limelight via the role of Franklin Hart Jr., vice president of the fictional Consolidated Companies – and living embodiment of every egregiously well-connected wretch to have occupied a corner office. “You’re a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Fonda’s Judy tells him, amid the turning of tables. “So I have a few faults,” Hart smarmily shrugs. “Who doesn’t?”

Despite the fractious onscreen drama, the shoot was harmonious: “[My recollection] is how great all three of those girls were to me, because they were several steps up the ladder from where I was in my career. All of ‘em were well-established… And here’s this guy coming off late-night TV. All three of them went out of their way to make me feel equal. There’s no other way to put it. Status-wise and talent-wise, they all made me feel extremely secure and were very supportive.”

Fonda even invited Coleman to play her fiancé in her next film, a passion project titled On Golden Pond (1981): “She said, ‘Well, look, this is just gonna be a little movie, no one’s gonna make any money… We’re not paying anything big, but I just want to do this because I think my dad might have a shot at an Academy Award with this part.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t care what your motives are, but I definitely want to do this. I disagree with you, though. I think it’s gonna make a lot of money. I think it’s a great movie. But whether it does or not, I want to do this movie.’”

As Coleman recalled, the shoot was “one of the most touching experiences I’ve ever had”: “Because there were several people going through stuff on that film, including Jane and her dad, who were literally going through exactly what the script was about… [Director] Mark Rydell was going through a bad time, I was going through a bad time, marital-wise, as was one of the key crew guys, either the cameraman or the assistant director. It was a very, very sentimental set... But then, lo and behold, damned if we don’t see Jane and Henry connect for the first time in their lives.”

The reviews were glowing, in a qualified way. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby labelled it “American cheese”, while insisting “its stars add more than colour to this pasteurized product. On Golden Pond now has the bite of a good old cheddar.” The film ran away with the Christmas box office, and at the following March’s Oscars, Fonda senior did indeed win his first acting Oscar.

Coleman returned to more familiar comic territory for Tootsie, albeit in a different role to that originally envisaged. Screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal had written the role of the crossdressing hero’s agent George Fields with Coleman in mind; yet after star Dustin Hoffman persuaded director Sydney Pollack to play Fields, Coleman was reassigned as the boorish onscreen director Ron Carlisle, who drives Jessica Lange’s actress Julie into the arms of Hoffman’s Michael.

By this point, Carlisle was a role Coleman could almost have played in his sleep, yet boosted by a behind-the-scenes array of comic savvy – including uncredited script contributions from Elaine May and Barry Levinson – the film became an even bigger hit than 9 to 5 and On Golden Pond put together, grossing $240m off a $21m budget; it was nominated for nine Oscars, with Lange the only winner on the night, but proved exactly the kind of zeitgeist-seizing project that boosts everybody’s visibility.

Including Coleman, who found himself set for a lengthy career playing the bloviating meanie, a persona he maintained was many leagues removed from his actual self: “I maintain that you have a head start playing the opposite of who you really are. Because you know what the opposite is. Somehow you know a little bit better. Especially if comedy is involved.”

Dabney Wharton Coleman was born in Austin, Texas on January 3, 1932, the youngest of four children to military veteran Melvin Coleman and his wife Mary (née Wharton). His father died of pneumonia shortly thereafter, although his influence continued to be felt. At 17, the young Dabney was packed off for two years of training at the Virginia Military Institute, followed by a spell in the US Marine Corps reserve, where he made lieutenant-colonel despite – by his own admission – using this European jaunt chiefly to play tennis.

He began studying law at the University of Texas, although a chance meeting with fellow Austinite turned Hollywood star Zachary Scott persuaded him to redirect his energies; the following day, Coleman flew out to New York to study under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. (Upon arrival, Meisner reportedly told him “You’re ideal for us. You’ve lived some.”)

He made his TV debut worrying about his waistline in a 1960 advertisement for Diet Delight canned fruit, before booking a role on crime anthology Naked City in 1961. Thereafter he was a beneficiary of American television’s tendency to recycle less recognisable actors: he played two different roles on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963-64) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-67), three on The Outer Limits (1964) and four on The Fugitive (1964-66).

His big-screen debut came alongside Sidney Poitier in The Slender Thread (1965), directed by a pre-Tootsie Sydney Pollack, himself debuting behind the camera: “He was my teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse… and we had become fast friends after that. When I got out of school, I said, ‘I want to be in every movie you make’. And he said, ‘Okay’, and we got off to a pretty good start.” Further roles followed in Pollack’s The Scalphunters (1968), as Robert Redford’s ski coach in Downhill Racer (1969) and alongside Elvis in The Trouble with Girls (1969). 

Yet the Coleman persona arguably only cohered after he grew a pencil moustache for his role as a police sergeant in a 1973 episode of Columbo; thereafter, he found himself cast in authority roles with greater regularity. He was a fire chief in The Towering Inferno (1974), a young Murr Arnold in Midway (1976), a hissable politico – sign of things to come – on TV’s Mary Hartman (1976-77), a judge in Jonathan Demme’s cult comedy Melvin and Howard (1980), and the knowingly named religious huckster Marvin Fleece in Pray TV (1980).

Having established himself as a certain type, Coleman worked regularly through the 1980s and 90s. He earned his first Golden Globe nomination as the outspoken talk-show host Bill Bittinger on the well-reviewed but short-lived NBC sitcom Buffalo Bill (1983-84); he sportingly allowed the Muppets to run rings around him as a Broadway huckster in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984); and he sparred with Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and Dragnet (1987).

He won his one and only Emmy as a washed-up lawyer defending Liam Neeson’s serial killer in the based-on-true-events TV movie Sworn to Silence (1987), and was nominated again the following year for playing the old-school sportswriter hero of sitcom The Slap Maxwell Story (1987-88); he lost out to Family Ties’ Michael J. Fox, but consoled himself with the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Series (Comedy/Musical).

Coleman fared less well on the big screen when playing leads: neither Where the Heart Is (1990), where he played a patriarch trying to teach his ingrate kids a lesson, nor Short Time (1990), a high-concept action-comedy about a detective trying to get himself killed for the insurance payout, took with the cinemagoing public.

Chastened but unbowed, he returned to supporting work, reuniting with Tomlin and Parton on the sputtering The Beverly Hillbillies (1993); he was the philandering dad in You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Chief Quimby in the live-action Inspector Gadget (1999); and he found a solid pension plan, voicing the principal in the Disney Channel animation Recess (1997-99) and its subsequent spinoffs.

Diagnosed with macular degeneration around the millennium, he shifted into television and immediately landed more shaded dramatic material. He was central to the success of the hit legal procedural The Guardian (2001-04), which he described as “absolutely brilliant, as good as any other 10 shows I’ve ever seen”; and he lent gravitas to the scheming Commodore on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-2011), despite filming being interrupted so he could overcome throat cancer.

Away from the camera, Coleman kept up the tennis, winning many celebrity and charity tournaments; he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014, and was the subject of the documentary Not Such a Bad Guy in 2017.

His last prominent role came with a poignant flashback in the second-season finale of the wildly popular Western Yellowstone (2018-present), advising onscreen son Kevin Costner as to the fate of the family ranch (“Don’t let ‘em take it away from you, son, not a goddamn inch”). Showrunner Taylor Sheridan, who’d acted alongside Coleman in The Guardian almost two decades before, told press: “He was such a gifted, giving actor and I was really struck by how good he was, and how kind he was to this kid who was guest starring on his deal.”

He married twice, to Ann Courtney Harrell and then the actress Jean Hale; both marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, and two daughters and a son from his second.

Dabney Coleman, born January 3, 1932, died May 16, 2024.

Monday 20 May 2024

In memoriam: Mark Damon (Telegraph 18/05/24)

Mark Damon, who has died aged 91, enjoyed two bites at the Hollywood cherry, first as a toothy B-movie performer, then as a financier and producer of several worldwide hits, including Das Boot (1981) and The Lost Boys (1987). His company Producers Sales Organization rethought the way films were sold internationally, initiating the now-standard practice of pre-selling titles to foreign distributors based on creative personnel and advance publicity materials. The tactic – securing funds often before a single frame of film had been shot – proved a game-changing success; in 1983, PSO did more overseas business than any of the major American studios. 

As an actor, Damon was one of the many stolidly pretty figures underwriting the post-War studio system. Signed to Fox in 1958, he often “played handsome leads in inconsequential films”, as the biographer Ephraim Katz summarised. Yet he found more notable work outside his contract, winning the Golden Globe for Best Male Newcomer as Philip Winthrop in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation The Fall of the House of Usher (1960). 

Upon moving to Italy in 1962, Damon – and his cerulean eyes, newly piercing in gaudy Eastmancolor – became a fixture of the emergent spaghetti Western genre. An agent blocked him from appearing in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), but he headlined Sergio Corbucci’s Ringo and His Golden Pistol (1966) and made an especially dastardly villain in Requiescant (1967). 

“I was surprised, because I had never ridden a horse in my life,” Damon later told an interviewer. “Cowboys had to be tall and blond, and I’m not that tall. I had very dark hair at the time, but they said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re American.’ I said OK and learned to ride a horse.” 

Yet Damon grew tired of typecasting, taking a job with an Italian distributor – “they really wanted me because they thought I knew everyone in Hollywood and could get them bigger pictures” – before returning to the US with a greater understanding of the hardscrabble involved in making low-budget pictures. 

His producing career began with the Pam Grier vehicle The Arena (1974), which bore the semi-irresistible tagline “See Wild Women Fight to The Death”. The rights for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) eluded him, but he assumed mogul status soon thereafter: Das Boot (1981) netted six Oscar nominations, while its director Wolfgang Petersen’s well-packaged follow-up, The NeverEnding Story (1984), yielded big box-office and a top ten pop hit.

Juggling such family fare with altogether more adult material, including 9½ Weeks (1986), Damon grasped what his legacy would be: “My claim to fame will be the fact that I basically […] became what they call the godfather of independent films… How did somebody do what I did? Because I didn’t know better. I came in with such a fresh viewpoint because I’d been an actor and didn’t know anything.” 

Damon was born Alan Harris on April 22, 1933 in Chicago, where his parents were grocers. A keen actor from his schooldays, he studied dentistry at UCLA – briefly rooming with Jack Nicholson – before switching courses, eventually emerging with a literature BA and an MA in business administration. He made his screen debut in a 1952 episode of true-crime compendium Gang Busters, and his feature debut in the union drama Inside Detroit (1956).

Much like Corman, whom he outlived by three days, he was both prolific and catholic in his tastes, negotiating deals for Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries (1992), the WW2 epic Stalingrad (1993) and Disney’s first live-action take on The Jungle Book (1995). Few projects achieved critical glory, although Monster (2003) landed Charlize Theron an Oscar for playing the serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

He worked well into his eighties, producing the Nicolas Cage actioner Willy’s Wonderland (2021), while his 2008 memoir From Cowboy to Mogul to Monster: The Neverending Story of Film Pioneer Mark Damon became a touchstone for independently minded creatives. Flexibility, he admitted, had been key to his success: “If you don’t succeed in the field of your dreams, you may one day succeed in the field you never dreamed of. That’s the story of my career.”

He is survived by his second wife, the actress Margaret Markov, and their two children; he was previously married to the actress Barbara Frey.

Mark Damon, born April 22, 1933, died May 12, 2024.

Saturday 18 May 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of May 10-12, 2024):

1 (new) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
2 (1) The Fall Guy (12A) **
3 (3) Challengers (15) **
4 (4) Back to Black (15)
5 (6) Tarot (15)
6 (5) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
7 (new) Nye - NT Live 2024 (15)
8 (new) La Chimera (15) ***
9 (new) Madama Butterfly - Met Opera 2023/24 (uncertificated)
10 (8) Love Lies Bleeding (15) ***

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. Rome, Open City [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Dune: Part Two (12) **
2 (new) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
3 (2) Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG)
4 (3) Migration (U)
5 (new) The Crow (15) ***
6 (8) The Iron Claw (15) ***
7 (5) The Equalizer 3 (15)
8 (4) Bob Marley: One Love (12)
9 (7) Wonka (PG) ***
10 (9) Oppenheimer (15) ****

My top five: 
1. May December

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Sunday, BBC2, 12noon)
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Saturday, BBC2, 12.50am)
3. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sunday, ITV1, 6am)
4. The Hate U Give (Monday, Channel 4, 12.55am)
5. Dr. No (Sunday, ITV1, 2.25pm and Friday, ITV1, 11.15pm)