Friday 28 June 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 21-23, 2024):

1 (1) Inside Out 2 (U) ****
2 (new) The Bikeriders (15)
3 (2) Bad Boys: Ride or Die (15)
4 (new) Doctor Who: The Two Episode Finale (12A)
5 (new) Ghost: Rite Here, Rite Now (15)
6 (4) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
7 (5) The Garfield Movie (U)
8 (3) IF (U)
9 (new) The Exorcism (18)
10 (new) Something in the Water (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Dune: Part Two (12) **
2 (3) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
3 (2) The Fall Guy (12) **
4 (4) Back to Black (15)
5 (5) Madame Web (12)
6 (7) The Equalizer 3 (15)
7 (8) Oppenheimer (15) ****
8 (13) Meg 2: The Trench (12)
9 (6Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
10 (9) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)

My top five: 
1. Close Your Eyes

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. North by Northwest [above] (Sunday, BBC2, 3pm)
2. Little Women (Sunday, Channel 4, 3.20pm)
3. A Hard Day's Night (Saturday, BBC2, 3.35pm)
4. On the Waterfront (Sunday, BBC2, 1.15pm)
5. The Sisters Brothers (Tuesday, BBC1, 11.20pm)

Shoot the pianist: "Kinds of Kindness"

After the creative and commercial renewals of last summer, the movies are reverting to recent type: everything much of a muchness, nothing new at the multiplex, scant attempt to reach out to those who've been sent fleeing over the past decade in the direction of the couch. Granted, in the instance of Inside Out 2, the audience would seem (disproportionately?) thrilled to be getting more of the same, though there "the same" equates to Pixar on something close to their old form. I'd be surprised if that enthusiasm transfers across to Kinds of Kindness, Yorgos Lanthimos's second release in six months, which is More of the Same (Indie Edition). After the success of The Favourite and Poor Things, Lanthimos has apparently reached the point where he can get quick and easy financing for even his bottom-drawer ideas: here, a tripytch of loosely linked shorts rotating the same core cast (Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Jesse Plemons, Hong Chau) in a notional variety of roles. It is at once an old touring-company trick, a gimmick, and an obvious marketing boon. Much as Wes Anderson realised a heavyweight A-list ensemble might help defend his films against charges of childish tweeness, Lanthimos has learnt that the right performers can mitigate against the angular weirdness the mass audience has traditionally found alienating. Weirdness is what we're getting here again: unlike Ryusuke Hamaguchi's 2021 compendium Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, where each tale revealed something new about the filmmaker and his worldview, Kinds finds Lanthimos ploughing on regardless, recycling blank-faced actors, flatly delivered absurdist dialogue and the spare piano stabs that signify Something's Afoot. If you enjoy this sort of mannerism, as you may have done in The Favourite and Poor Things, you'll likely like this. If you don't, then you won't. What Kinds of Kindness ultimately suggests is that even what we used to classify as arthouse cinema has fallen subject to algorithmic thinking. Here, from the Yorgos Lanthimos Cinematic Universe, are three more tales of the utterly expected.

Their combined total of 163 minutes - count 'em - at least offer ample time to study the methodology and pathology at play within this universe, and to wonder at length whether this filmmaker is anything more than a tic developed by an enfeebled artform. If the movies now struggle to make the elevating four-quadrant crowdpleasers that once came as standard, why shouldn't they default to simply giving the malcontents among us what they want to see? (The crisis in the cinema has the same root cause as the crisis in our politics: an absence of any bettering or sustaining vision.) The Lanthimos methodology is where these films are at their simplest, reliably pushing human behaviour to a (generally unlovely, often brutal) extreme. So it is that in Kinds' solid enough opener, "The Death of R.M.F.", Plemons plays not just a corporate lackey but a sap whose entire existence falls under the control of his boss (Dafoe), down to the time he eats, sleeps and makes love to his wife. In the second story, "R.M.F. Takes a Flight", which makes a laborious chore of a Rod Serling-like set-up, Plemons' cop succumbs to monstrous appetites upon convincing himself his wife (Stone) is actually an imposter. The question that arises is where all these funny-peculiar parlour games get us. Not for one moment watching Kinds of Kindness do you believe these are human beings behaving to some degree as human beings do in the real world. No, they're plainly just human beings behaving as human beings do in a Yorgos Lanthimos movie: eternally shifty and suspicious, sometimes murderous, incapable of joy, bound for defeat. (Story three, a total dead zone titled "R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich", clogged up with weird people doing inexplicably weird shit and one especially egregious example of Arthouse Rape, starts and ends in a mortuary, which feels more like Lanthimos's natural home than the multiplex, devoid of life though the latter often is nowadays.)

In order to get the joke - in as much as there is a joke to get - you will, then, have had to have put yourself through the trouble of watching Lanthimos's previous films, and possibly even reading the press interviews in which the director chuckles his way around the core theme of those films: humans suck. Humans suck, Lanthimos giggles, and just when you think they can't suck any more, they generally come up with a way of sucking even harder. It's a theme hammered away at - within the filmography, and in each of these non-variations - in much the same way Kinds composer Jerskin Fendrix repeatedly bashes away at the extreme ends of his piano. Artless keyboard abuse aside, Kinds proves less aggravating than the performative provocation of Poor Things: wherever they can, the cast try to bulk out their director's reed-thin worldview, and Plemons, in the first story, gets closer than anybody in this filmography to embodying a character who looks and sounds like quivering flesh-and-blood. The Cannes Best Actor prize was deserved - but it can't quite make up for Lanthimos's ongoing insistence on leaving Stone wan, bashed-up and/or otherwise degraded, or the more general substitution of out-there poses and quirks for funny, revealing, enlightening gags. But it's easier to dash the former off; nihilism means never having to consider your position. Lanthimos already has his next project - a rehash of the Korean hit Save the Green Planet!, with Stone once more attached - lined up and dated. All I can say, at risk of giving you More of the Same (Criticism), is that the culture is granting a lot of leeway, money and column inches to someone who feels less like a major contemporary filmmaker than a glitch we just need to endure until the movies have finished working through their issues and start making sense again.

Kinds of Kindness opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Thursday 27 June 2024

On demand: "Fancy Dance"

She broke the world's hearts in
Certain Women and Killers of the Flower Moon; now here's what Lily Gladstone did next. Fancy Dance is an old-school regional indie - picked up by Apple after a successful launch at last year's Sundance - which takes us somewhere we've likely never been so as to tell us a story that could only be told this well by folks with close ties to the blue-collar Cayugan community it describes. Erica Tremblay's film is organised around an absence: with her mother missing, wide-eyed 13-year-old Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) is being dragged up by her boozy, criminally inclined aunt Jax (Gladstone). Early scenes establish community concerns: the whereabouts of the missing woman, primarily, but also the residents' simmering resentment at being abandoned by the powers-that-be. With the oil that lubed Flower Moon's narrative having long been successfully tapped and piped out - bringing scant financial benefits even to those Cayugans who work the pumps - these few square miles of Oklahoman flatland have been left to fall into barely managed decline. Yet Tremblay and co-writer Miciana Alise are also keenly alert to those tensions within this one misshapen household. For one, we note how Jax hasn't been entirely honest with her young charge, who retains hopes of dancing with her mother at the annual powwow (still a thing, apparently, only now with admission fees and refreshment trucks); we also discern how alienated Jax is from her people, most notably her father Frank (Shea Whigham), who's white, comfortably appointed, living off-reservation with his new wife and the man to whom the authorities turn when they tardily rehouse Roki, leaving Jax with nothing. Everything's broken; everyone's left fighting over the pieces. Yet one look at Gladstone's form, at the forearms suddenly loosed from period dress, and we know immediately that Jax is up for the scrap that ensues.

The role is a gift not just for the actress, but for all those who felt she wasn't allowed to be as proactive as she could have been in the Scorsese film. Jax is no easy martyr or mark; in the course of Fancy Dance, she will assume the roles of undercover PI, butch lover to a local stripper, and fugitive in the eyes of the law. Given all that, it's almost no surprise she hasn't time to be the ambassador her community would like, nor the stabilising presence Roki sorely needs. Yet in Gladstone's scarcely suppressed frustration, it's possible to infer the many hardships Jax's generation of natives have had to endure, and she's well-matched with Deroy-Olson, who suggests a newly curious mind, cognisant of far more than she lets on. The film Tremblay and Alise construct around this pair can seem foursquare and prosaic; one reason Apple must have been drawn here is that it tessellates easily with that glut of missing-woman dramas that have become a feature of streaming television. (Among them, the recent Under the Bridge, starring Gladstone herself: our creatives have apparently decided en masse that one way to right the representational wrongs of the past is to stage and perform hunts for that which went AWOL in the first place.) Fancy Dance is at its strongest and most distinctive on the reservation, where Tremblay and Alise paint a vivid, Winter's Bone-like picture of a community collapsing into mistrust. Once our girls go on the lam, sourcing Chekhov's handgun in a department store changing room, it starts to feel rather more Sundance-labbed - although, even here, there haven't been all that many manhunts that have paused so fleeing parties can pick up sanitary towels. That's one of several smart writing choices that gently refine our relationships with these characters. The title, for starters, refers both to the climactic powwow and the gentrifying ballet classes Roki's guardians invest in for her; it's also grimly telling that Jax's breakaway with the girl attracts more attention from the cops than the mystery of the missing mother. The movies themselves feel a little broken and worn down right now: there would be worse recovery strategies than revisiting semi-familiar narratives in underfilmed locales with deft new shifts in emphasis.

Fancy Dance is available to stream on Apple TV+ from tomorrow.

Tuesday 25 June 2024

TV hell: "Network"

Increasingly, it seems 1976's much-laurelled media satire
Network - reissued this weekend to mark the centenary of its late director Sidney Lumet - is destined to be remembered for one speech, and for one line from one speech ("I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this any more"), which falls perilously early in the film's two-hour running time. Upon release, this was a clear case of the New American Cinema trying to have it both ways: taking a passive-aggressive swipe at its rival television, while tempting viewers with the prospect of the inside scoop on how TV really operates - the meetings, the lunches, the bad decisions that somehow make it to air. What's surprising is how shaky and inconsistent its line of attack now appears: the movie at once wants to go off at the younger upstart medium for being ruthlessly corporate while attempting to persuade us on a narrative level that this ruthlessly corporate enterprise would keep Peter Finch's veteran newsman Howard Beale on air even after he goes rogue, turns the air blue, and threatens to top himself. Perhaps it's the fallout that is meant to concern us - perhaps we're just meant to go with some of this and see where it all leads - yet even here, there's a jarring contrast between Lumet's typically low-key, hands-off realism and the booming theatricality of Paddy Chayevsky's script, the most illustrious example of those splenetic splurges writers thrash out when striving to nail the zeitgeist with each punch of the typewriter keys.

Historically, only a certain species of writer has been sanctioned to bash these things out for a studio paycheque, and you can still feel the sway Chayevsky held within Hollywood circles in this script's indulgence of unkillable repeated lines ("crusty yet benign", "an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times"). If his best-known phrasing retains some potency as a shout into the void, there's not much else here worthy of praise or salvage. The second hour gets bloated and hysterical with lowest common denominator programming that never came to pass (soothsayers on the news, a reality show about a Symbionese Liberation Army knock-off) and then there's the altogether icky relationship between William Holden and Faye Dunaway's grasping, neurotic exec (who only gets off when she's talking ratings, a musty locker-room joke). The warning that corporations weren't doing much to protect the mental health of their employees might have been revelatory at the time, but seems way too overblown in this framing - all that BELLOWING - to merit close heeding. Finch got the Oscar posthumously, having stuck in there for so long; he is, granted, the one actor in this ensemble who does seem to have got their head around the levels of muttering and spluttering Chayevsky demanded. More telling, I would argue, is the number of performers - Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty - who, having been subtly terrific in other New Hollywood ventures, look terribly awkward, even outright hammy when asked to channel the playwright's relentless, bilious logorrhea.

Network returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday 24 June 2024

On demand: "Kokomo City"

The crossover success of Sean Baker's
Tangerine and Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman - the first a spry, on-the-fly comedy centred on trans sex workers, the latter an Oscar winner in 2018 - appears to have liberated the cinema, or at least the American independent cinema. Kokomo City, debutant director D. Smith's feature-length documentary study of four trans sex workers and the men who adore and pay for them, opens with an anecdote that sets something of a conversational bar. Liyah Mitchell's account of an unpredictable encounter she had with one client first hooks us with the promise of sex, then throws violence into the mix (her john was carrying a concealed weapon, and not the good kind), and powers on towards the working girl equivalent of an M. Night Shyamalan twist ending. (Despite the evening's turbulence - not unlike the neighbourhood-waking palavers Baker filmed in Tangerine - the pair still ended up fucking, because a girl's got to get paid.) Within mere minutes, Smith has established both her film's gossipy tenor (everything's up for discussion here, nothing deemed taboo) and also the risks involved in pursuing this way of life. It's not just that Liyah and her fellow interviewees - Dominique Silver, Daniella Carter and Koko Da Doll, the streetname of one Rasheeda Williams - are trans sex workers; they're Black trans sex workers, and moreover Black trans sex workers plying their trade in an America subject to infamously lax gun laws. Furthermore, their livelihood is dependent upon men who may well be uncomfortable about what any transaction says about them, some of whom are indeed likely to be armed. "This is survival work... this is risky shit," we're told, a state of affairs only underlined by a despairing post-credits reveal. Yet that danger is one of several facets in play within Smith's film - something that just bubbles up in the course of some wildly lively conversation.

For as with many of the Nineties indies Smith's film harks back to - not least in its monochrome, traditionally an indicator of filmmakers who hadn't the resources for colour - here is another disarming example of film as hangout: hits on the jukebox, the kind of choice language that abounds in chilled company (notably several of the most explosive C-bombs in recent screen history), regular laughs, and frequent segues between the trivial and matters of high, life-or-death significance. Kokomo City is, above all else, radically relaxed - I say radical, because in easing up so, in allowing its subjects to inhabit these frames as they choose, it distinguishes and disentangles itself from the uptight and often limiting discourse on gender widely available elsewhere in the media. As the talk circles around and sometimes back on itself, some may find themselves longing for a little more in the way of conventional documentary structure; even in the sit-down interviews, you catch Smith's camera roving restlessly over these bodies. Yet the approach allows the filmmaker to cover an extraordinary amount of thematic ground - these women's lives, their clients' peccadilloes and the fluctuations of male desire, trans women's relationship to cisgender women, the processes of transitioning, the politics of passability - without ever seeming to strain. It's a triumph of documentary casting, first and foremost. Like trans equivalents of the Sex and the City girls, these four women occupy and represent discernibly different positions, both inside the boudoir and beyond it. Some have become more materialistic, audibly hardened by their experiences in and around the marketplace; yet each has their own relationship to work, men, their family and their own Blackness and transness. Cutting between her subjects permits Smith to mirror the recognisably zingy, free-ranging back-and-forths of offscreen conversation; the movie gets intensely into it for a stretch, and then allows us to wind down and cool off. Nobody's getting dangerously overheated, but you may just find yourself being enlightened, surprised, perhaps even moved. In Smith, who is trans herself, these women found not just a director and an advocate, but a friend and confidante: she sees them, hears them all out, and frames them as not merely desirable but cherishable and irreplaceable. "I've been wanting to tell my story for a long time," Koko confesses late on. For the 73 touchingly tentative yet often profound and dazzling minutes of Kokomo City, that time is now.

Kokomo City is now streaming via Channel 4, and available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player, YouTube and Dogwoof on Demand.

Friday 21 June 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 14-16, 2024):

1 (new) Inside Out 2 (U) ****
2 (1) Bad Boys: Ride or Die (15)
3 (2) IF (U)
4 (4) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
5 (3The Garfield Movie (U)
6 (5) Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga (15) ****
7 (6) The Watched (15)
8 (7The Fall Guy (12A) **
9 (new) Wilding (PG)
10 (new) Freud's Last Session (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. The Matrix

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Dune: Part Two (12) **
2 (3) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
3 (2) The Fall Guy (12) **
4 (4) Back to Black (15)
5 (5) Madame Web (12)
6 (7) The Equalizer 3 (15)
7 (8) Oppenheimer (15) ****
8 (13) Meg 2: The Trench (12)
9 (6Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
10 (9) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)

My top five: 
1. Close Your Eyes

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Pan's Labyrinth [above] (Sunday, BBC1, 12midnight)
2. Loving (Saturday, BBC2, 12.15am)
3. Licorice Pizza (Tuesday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
4. Face/Off (Saturday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
5. The Damned United (Monday, BBC2, 11.15pm)

Tuesday 18 June 2024

In memoriam: Tony Lo Bianco (Telegraph 16/06/24)

Tony Lo Bianco
, who has died aged 87, was an American actor whose Italianate looks served him well in the post-Godfather cinema landscape. Yet he spent much of his 60-year stage and screen career striving to evade mob-movie stereotyping after playing Sal Boca, the low-level criminal placed under rigorous surveillance in the Oscar-winning The French Connection (1971).

Violence figured prominently in Lo Bianco’s filmography. He exploded on screen as Ray Fernandez, the conman who seduces a murderously possessive older woman (Shirley Stoler) in the pulpy true-crime indie The Honeymoon Killers (1970). Even here, though, he was more versatile than many assumed: “They wanted to cast a guy with a Spanish accent. I’m Italian-American, but I took on a Spanish accent and landed the role. Everybody thought it was genuine, then they heard my real voice one day on set, they couldn’t believe it.”

But he could project vulnerability, too. Memorable as the detective cracking up while investigating random murders in cult thriller God Told Me To (a.k.a. Demon, 1976), he also earned a Tony nomination as Eddie Carbone in the 1983 Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge.

Interviewed in 1973, Lo Bianco cited his theatrical grounding as the secret of his initial success: “I’m not worried about becoming stereotyped. I’m the kind of actor who has trained well, and I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. Crime is popular now, it will establish me, so that one day, hopefully, I can say ‘Okay, now I want to play Little Orphan Annie.’”

Anthony Lo Bianco was born in Brooklyn on October 19, 1936, second of three sons to cab driver Carmelo Lo Bianco and wife Sally (née Blando). An athlete from a young age – he boxed to Golden Gloves level – he discovered acting at William E. Grady High School: “Two students were performing a scene from Julius Caesar between Brutus and Cassius. I had no idea what they were saying, I couldn’t understand a word. But I was fascinated by the sound… the pitter-patter of the speech.”

Upon graduating, he enrolled at Erwin Piscator’s New School-affiliated Dramatic Workshop, where his tutors included Stella Adler. He briefly taught drama himself, before co-founding the Triangle Theater, an influential company that specialised in cerebral leading men. (Alumni included Lo Bianco’s French Connection co-star Roy Scheider.) 

Lo Bianco debuted on Broadway in 1964 in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy; he took an inauspicious movie bow as an ineffectual boyfriend in Doris Wishman’s The Sex Perils of Paulette (1965). Yet authority soon settled on these squarest of shoulders. 

In 1984, Lo Bianco won a New York Emmy for playing former mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the TV filming of Paul Shyre’s play Hizzoner! The play became a passion project: after buying the rights, Lo Bianco rewrote the text as “a vehicle to express my concerns for the public and political mess that we’re in”. He performed the original and his self-penned variations – La Guardia (2008) and The Little Flower (2012-15) – in Moscow, Rome and across the US.

Funding came from playing brutes of various stripes in films of varying quality. In Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), Lo Bianco was mafioso Johnny Roselli, dispatched by the CIA to poison Fidel Castro; he helped spoof Scorsese in Jane Austen’s Mafia! (1998); in the Cleveland-set Kill the Irishman (2011), he jostled for space with Christopher Walken and Vinnie Jones.

His final role was as the patriarch in Ray Romano’s directorial debut Somewhere in Queens (2022), a fond portrait of Italian-American life. In 2023, Lo Bianco summarised his career in the newsletter of the Sons of Italy in America, the fraternal order for whom he was once a spokesperson: “I’ve worn a lot of faces, and to me, acting was always about human connection – it’s the only thing that matters.”

He is survived by his third wife Alyse Lo Bianco, two stepchildren, and two of his three children from his first marriage; his daughter Anna died of breast cancer in 2006.

Tony Lo Bianco, born October 19, 1936, died June 11, 2024.

Saturday 15 June 2024

On demand: "Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky"

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky
 is how the worker ants at Hong Kong genre specialists Paragon Films saw 2001 from the perspective of 1991: as a dystopia of privatised prisons (not too far off, then) where if the effete lags calling themselves the Gang of Four don't get you, the brutal screws and corrupt warden surely will. Our hero Ricky (Louis Fan, in his days as Fan Siu-wong) is a long-haired antiauthoritarian with a killer stare, rock-hard abs and a burning sense of injustice, plus - and this is crucial, given the cruel and unusual punishment he and his fellow inmates are facing - the rare ability to punch clean through those who would oppose him in eruptive gouts of gore. Anyone whose brain refuses to slip into neutral when faced with such entertainments may begin to ponder whether Riki-Oh could only have been arrived at in a colony that has known more than its fair share of oppressions in its time - and wonder whether fists that punch through flesh and bone might also provide a chance to punch through the bricks and mortar of institutions. That superpower is, however, deployed altogether selectively here. The movie's primary purpose is exploitation: what it finally suggests is if The Shawshank Redemption had been produced by Roger Corman twenty years earlier, immediately after the success of Death Wish and Caged Heat.

The film's limitations are as obvious as any bop on the nose. It was shot for tuppence-ha'penny (or local equivalent) on a handful of easily redressed, easy-to-hose-down sets: in the prison washroom, the urinals and showers are too close for comfort, while the staircases are the wobbliest since TV's Crossroads. The overemphatic American dubbing of the international release print makes it hard to take wholly seriously, because a film where a punched head explodes like a watermelon really doesn't need further emphasis. Tune all that out, however, and your bounteous reward is a pacy run of ever more inventive and energetic scenes: a cemetery flashback where an uncle trains Ricky by hurling gravestones in his general direction (bit disrespectful to the dead, but a useful marker that anything goes here); a hook-handed deputy warden, occupying an office where the sole bookcase is apparently filled with VHS porno, chugging the water from the receptacle his glass eye is soaking in; Ricky performing midfight surgery on himself, shortly before his foe commits seppuku and uses his own intestines to try and strangle our boy. Evidently, little of it was meant for the Ladies in Lavender crowd, but your inner 15-year-old cannot help but thrill to the accumulation of cool, freaky and/or lurid shit. One reason for Riki-Oh's semi-occasional revivals - in repertory, on DVD, and now on streaming - is that it is in its own way as oppositional as Ricky himself, its every baroque turn showing up the listlessness and imaginative shortfalls of both the lumpen van Damme/Lundgren thumpers the studios were peddling at the time, and the superhero movies that followed in its wake. Even on a shoestring budget, it says, all this is possible in the cinema - and yet the movies have persistently settled for that instead. Which is the real dystopia? You be the judge.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is currently streaming via Prime Video, and available to rent via YouTube.

Friday 14 June 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of June 7-9, 2024):

1 (new) Bad Boys: Ride or Die (15)
2 (1) IF (U)
3 (2) The Garfield Movie (U)
4 (3) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
5 (4) Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga (15) ****
6 (new) The Watched (15)
7 (5The Fall Guy (12A) **
8 (new) The Dead Don't Hurt (15)
9 (10) Challengers (15) **
10 (9) The Strangers: Chapter 1 (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [above]
3. The Matrix
4. Pride

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Dune: Part Two (12) **
2 (new) The Fall Guy (12) **
3 (re) Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (12)
4 (2) Back to Black (15)
5 (6) Madame Web (12)
6 (3Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
7 (8) The Equalizer 3 (15)
8 (13) Oppenheimer (15) ****
9 (24) Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12)
10 (22) Imaginary (15)

My top five: 
1. Monster

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Bonnie and Clyde (Sunday, BBC2, 10.30pm)
2. Lethal Weapon (Sunday, Channel 5, 10.05pm)
3. The Titfield Thunderbolt (Saturday, BBC2, 12.30pm)
4. The Duke (Sunday, BBC2, 9pm)
5. Thunderball (Saturday, ITV1, 6am)

Devs: "Inside Out 2"

Inside Out felt like a late Pixar flourish: amid a decade of sequels and spinoffs that saw the company's creatives coasting on past glories, here was a terrific, original-ish concept (using digimation to set out the inner workings of a child's mind), worked through with intelligence, confidence and wit. That film was smart, funny, visually inventive and quietly profound about the ways in which we learn how to function, as if it had been adapted from a behavioural development textbook rather than one of the usual Hollywood sources; yet its real genius lay in Pixar's capacity to make complex thought look supremely easy. (As with the studio's hall-of-fame product, it seemed almost too sophisticated to be left to kids.) One might, then, approach this tardy sequel with an emotion that begs characterisation within the universe of Inside Out itself: trepidation. But rest easy: Inside Out 2 is, from the off, entertainment every bit as assured as its predecessor. Development is its business, after all.

The three-person story team - original scribe Meg LeFauve, new director Kelsey Mann, and Dave Holstein, creator of the sociological HBO comedy Kidding - have used heroine Riley's passage into adolescence to work up new gags and ideas, while taking us all back to a moment where human beings are prone to developing bad habits that can persist into adulthood. The fantasy of how our minds and bodies should run is here set against the chaotic reality of how they actually do run: Riley has the builders in her inner world this time around, expanding her physical capabilities (a passing construction-site warning: "PUBERTY IS MESSY"), and new emotions on her roster (including Anxiety, Embarrassment and Ennui) set on staging a hostile takeover of her operating system. Only Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) stands in the way of these dark clouds and red cheeks, tossing Riley's bad memories onto some ever-swelling mental scrapheap, and at one point egging a cranial cavity's worth of agitated overthinkers into embarking upon a softening pillow fight. Once again, it's the body as a workspace, subject to different styles of management; it's not coincidental that several of the key voice artists held prominent positions on Parks and Recreation and The Office.

The other organising idea here, however, is Riley's beloved ice hockey, a passion that parallels the way Mann and team treat the big ideas they pluck from the air as the basis for sport. That sense of play - child's play, even - remains foundational to a franchise that depicts memory as visually analogous to the marble systems of our youth. Of the many levels Inside Out 2 operates on - coming-of-age drama at Riley's summer camp, power struggle inside our girl's head - arguably the most intriguing is how these events mirror Pixar's own haphazard transitions: as in the studio's breakthrough works, the toybox has been seized upon as a means of corporate self-expression. As we rejoin her, Riley is a dorky but sweet girl with loving parents who've ensured she doesn't have notably worse memories than waving back at someone who wasn't waving at her. (One possible criticism of these movies: they've clearly been fashioned by folks with Joy, rather than Despair, ascending.) Yet the narrative thrust is that Riley becomes more ruthless, discarding her equally sweet yet dorky childhood galpals in order to gain a new friend group, a stronger sense of self, and the prospect of success on the ever-competitive rink. Pixar, too, have become more businesslike over time, remonetising their bigger hits and thereby converting once-artisanal activity into ultra-modern IP, anything to keep up with the jocks who now run Tinseltown. (If we get Inside Out 3, I expect to see appearances from Avarice and Greed.) 

Yet this company's saving grace has been its ability to rediscover its own sense of play - the innocent, childlike pleasures that helped make it such an appealing stock option - and Inside Out 2 is Pixar's most playful film in years: in places, we're almost watching a writers' room gleefully tossing fun ideas into a colourful hat. A yawning crevice referred to as the Sar-Chasm; a brainstorm rendered as lightbulbs coming down like hail; a riffy mix of 3D and 2D animation, just because we can, and the contrast is interesting, and it gets a laugh. All this entails some degree of sequel bloat, granted. Where the first movie had only to consider the brainspace and Riley's real life, the second spans real life, the brainspace with new personnel installed, and the old personnel (Joy, Anger, Sadness et al.) in exile, digging around at the back of Riley's brain. (One obvious point of comparison: those later seasons of The Office where it wasn't clear whether Steve Carell would be staying on, and the cited replacements were circling.) The simpler pleasures and tight narrative focus have dissipated, replaced by a more manic, busier form, less inclined to let its best ideas (and the audience) breathe; here and there, the storytelling feels subject to those processor chips that have sped up over the thirty-odd years of Pixar's existence. There are a lot more buttons on the consoles nowadays, and half the trick is knowing which ones to press and when. If Riley's development is enmeshed with Pixar's genesis, both are tied up with the rapid technological advances of the early 21st century, how we use computers to tell stories and generate art: nothing is as simple as it once was. If you sense nostalgia creeping in, well, she's in the movie, too - rendered as a cuddly greyhair with a twinset and pearls and the voice of June Squibb. You know Pixar are back on something like form when they toss in a gag that pre-empts their own critics.

Inside Out 2 opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Tuesday 11 June 2024

In memoriam: Janis Paige (Telegraph 10/06/24)

Janis Paige
, who has died aged 101, was an actress and singer styled under the Hollywood studio system who flourished in the 1950s on Broadway and television. For some while, her fate was linked with that of the more celebrated Doris Day. Paige was the female lead in Romance on the High Seas (1948), the Warners musical-comedy in which Day made her film debut, and the two women would vie for roles – with mutual affection – over the subsequent decade.

Paige had won raves as the spitfire union rep Katherine “Babe” Williams in The Pyjama Game, the big Broadway hit of 1954. Yet when the show came to be filmed by Warner Bros. three years later, the balance of power had shifted. After studio execs insisted the film needed an established name to sell it, Paige found herself bumped in favour of the newly stellar Day. “I wasn’t jealous of anybody,” Paige later said of her movie career. “I just felt like the luckiest kid in the world to be there.”

Much like Day’s, Paige’s career was one of perpetual reinvention. She was born Donna Mae Tjaden on September 16, 1922 in Tacoma, Washington, eldest of two daughters to George S. Tjaden and his wife Hazel Leah (née Simmons). A singer from the age of five, she moved to L.A. with her mother and sister after high school to study opera and was hired to perform at the Hollywood Canteen during WW2.

A striking, open-faced beauty, she was spotted by representatives of the MGM studio, who launched the renamed starlet – Janis after WW1 sweetheart Elsie Janis and Paige after her maternal grandmother – in the Esther Williams musical Bathing Beauty (1944). Only upon transferring to Warner Bros. did she win comparatively substantial roles: “They were far more diverse with me. I went from Hollywood Canteen (1944) to Of Human Bondage (1946), for God’s sake.”

She later returned to MGM to sing and dance alongside Fred Astaire in the self-reflexive “Stereophonic Sound” number of Silk Stockings (1957), which climaxed with Paige literally swinging from a chandelier: “[Fred] showed me and said, ‘You think you can do that?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ Not knowing if I was going to fall on my face or not. I didn’t.”

With that obstacle negotiated, she crossed paths with Day once more on Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960); now Day enjoyed top billing, while Paige settled for third behind David Niven. By then, her cinematic prospects were dwindling, eclipsed by her powerhouse work elsewhere.

The Pyjama Game earned Paige both a headline slot at the glitzy Cocoanut Grove nightclub and her own, Desilu-produced sitcom It’s Always Jan (1955-56), wherein Paige played a plucky chanteuse. On TV, she excelled in guest roles: as the waitress tempting the uxorious Archie Bunker on All in the Family (1976), as the ambiguous woman who may or may not have been the Fonz’s estranged mother on Happy Days (1981), and as the flasher trying to perk up male patients on St. Elsewhere (1983). 

Her final screen role was on the legal procedural Family Law in 2001, the year Paige was diagnosed with career-threatening vocal cord damage: “There were bits of skin hanging off my vocal cords. They told me to go home and not talk for three months.” Yet she recovered and was still performing as late as 2010 in a one-woman cabaret show. She wrote a memoir, Reading Between the Lines, in 2020.

She married three times: to the restauranteur Frank Martinelli Jr., to It’s Always Jan producer Arthur Stander and, most enduringly, to the songwriter Ray Gilbert, a coupling that lasted thirteen years until the latter’s death in 1976. In 2017, with #MeToo trending, Paige wrote a Hollywood Reporter column in which she recalled being assaulted in her twenties by the department store tycoon Alfred Bloomingdale: “Even at 95, I remember everything… Time is not on my side, and neither is silence.”

Janis Paige, born September 16, 1922, died June 2, 2024.

Friday 7 June 2024

For what it's worth...

UK box office Top Ten (for the weekend of May 31-June 2, 2024):

1 (3) IF (U)
2 (1) The Garfield Movie (U)
3 (4) Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
4 (2) Furiosa: a Mad Max Saga (15) ****
5 (5The Fall Guy (12A) **
7 (new) Haikyuu!!: The Dumpster Battle (12A)
8 (new) Sting (15)
9 (6) The Strangers: Chapter 1 (15)
10 (7Challengers (15) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. The Matrix [above]

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (2) Dune: Part Two (12) **
2 (new) Back to Black (15)
3 (1) Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (12)
4 (40) Bob Marley: One Love (12)
5 (3) Barbie (12) ***
6 (12) Madame Web (12)
7 (5) Wonka (PG) ***
8 (6) The Equalizer 3 (15)
9 (8) The Batman (15) ***
10 (9) Migration (U)

My top five: 
1. Monster

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Conversation (Wednesday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
2. Skyfall (Saturday, ITV1, 8pm and Tuesday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
3. Shiva Baby (Monday, Channel 4, 2.40am)
4. Goldfinger (Saturday, ITV1, 6.30pm)
5. Two of Us (Wednesday, Channel 4, 2.15am)

Monday 3 June 2024

"Mr. & Mrs. Mahi" (Guardian 02/06/24)

Mr. & Mrs. Mahi

Dir: Sharan Sharma. With: Rajkummar Rao, Janhvi Kapoor, Kumud Mishra, Zarina Wahab. 139 mins. Cert: PG

Hindi cinema has thus far spent 2024 in retreat, its commercial failures compounded by a successful run of South Indian crowdpleasers. Timed with Kohli-like precision to arrive at the conclusion of the IPL, this gentle cricket-themed romance may not be enough to overturn the prevailing industry narrative: it suggests a brisk middle-order fifty compiled after heavier hitters have gone for a duck. Yet director Sharan Sharma locates a palpable emotional heartbeat within his material – one welcome sign of life – while following a sound gameplan: deliver two hours of absorbing storytelling with admirable stars on solid form. Like the sport the film describes, this movie business is simpler than it often looks.

As with 2019’s sly charmer Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, everything starts with Rajkummar Rao and a bait-and-switch of sorts. It opens as just another boys’ story, with Rao’s petulant club player Mahendra blowing a crucial trial game by hogging the final-over strike. An equally nondescript career in sporting goods awaits, until his wedding-night recognition that Mahima (Janhvi Kapoor), the distractible med student he’s been offloaded onto by exasperated parents, knows cricket better than he does and – furthermore – bats far better than he ever could. What follows, as Mahendra pivots to coaching and nudges his wife towards the spotlight, is a small monument to partnership building. 

Sharma and co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra pause their training montages for properly knotty interpersonal business: between Mahendra and a father (Kumud Mishra) providing only bad coaching, and between Mahima and a husband unnerved by this marital eclipse. While Rao gamely works through some of masculinity’s pettier aspects, Kapoor emerges from the nets a very decent, committed player, touchingly hesitant when faced with both the short ball and the apparent pipe dream of a pro sports career. Sharma aces the cricketing detail – including the movies’ first concussion test – but also grasps sport’s human interest and poetry: one shot of the Mahis’ feet moving in training-pitch unison mirrors the stirring teamwork in which those recent South Indian hits traded. Might a fightback be on the cards?

Mr. & Mrs. Mahi is now playing in selected cinemas.