Tar (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Editor wanted to stop self-indulgent director sabotaging his own work. Normally, this would be a producer’s job but there’s so many of them (I counted 14) in this co-production that I doubt any was at the wheel of the ship, trusting the director wouldn’t do something so guaranteed to alienate an audience as stick in four minutes (or more) of credits on a blank screen at the start. Credits that, virtue-signalling gone mad, list every Tom, Dick and Harry (and potentially their dog) who so much as pushed a pen for any of the production companies involved.

That won’t erode much of the mighty 158 minutes but it will make it appear several minutes shorter, assuming the audience bolts at the end. The cinema audience I saw it with wasn’t so courteous. Some were bolting long before the end. The sound of clacking chairs could be heard on a regular basis from halfway through the film.

You what!!! But this is an acclaimed picture, 92 Metascore on Imdb! Are we going to have start screening audiences now so that only people with the taste to sit to the end are allowed in?

To be honest, I shared their pain. Absolutely terrific Oscar-worthy performance by Cate Blanchett, pretty good work too from Nina Hoss as her long-suffering partner, but boy does it go on. And on. Was the director assuming the audience was too thick to get that the eponymous lead was a bit of a fitness freak without sticking that in endlessly? It’s not like it builds tension a la Vertigo with James Stewart’s apparently endless driving.

I enjoyed quite a lot of this even though at times it felt like one of those Classic Albums documentaries where those involved dissect their work, explaining how they married a riff here with a riff there, except given the composers are all dead the only creative force available is the conductor, otherwise those pesky musicians will just go off and do their own thing.

The problem is a lot of the dialog is “dead.” It doesn’t enhance our understanding of character, build character or (God forbid!) narrative or tension. One way or another it’s just intellectual discussion of classical music. Which is fascinating – but only for a time.

The story itself is told with subtlety in some places and with a sledgehammer in others. You couldn’t have telegraphed more an impending problem with an unseen musician than have Tar (Cate Blanchett) delete email correspondence. And the minute cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) appears on the scene with her come-to-bed eyes, you know this is a femme fatale on the prowl, and expect speedy unfair promotion is on the cards at some point.

That power corrupts, whether in male or female hands, appears to the driving point of the rest of the story but you have to wait a good 90 minutes before that assumes any real significance, plus social media is presented here in its best guise as an instrument of truth.

It’s a rise and fall tale, although the climax doesn’t ring true, the director either dodging the true climactic scene, a confrontation with Tar over an enforced change in her professional status, or that didn’t take place and the first thing the conductor knows about what has occurred is when she’s about to take her place on stage. Neither decision makes much sense.  

So, onto the good parts. Blanchett puts in a riveting performance, not just in her sense of her own superiority, but in managing so effortlessly to make a conversation just sound like a conversation rather than a string of points making dramatic emphasis. She leaves most of the parenting of their child to partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) only stepping in when someone needs to put a bullying girl in her place. That this relationship is long past its best is obvious from the off, and that Tar has a wandering eye is plain once Olga appears.

And although Tar seems to have a fine grasp of orchestral politics and can drive a hard bargain with those seeking financial gain, she is blind to consequence, needlessly making enemies of long-standing supporters, failure to provide promised promotion triggering betrayal.

What the film does get right (I guess, since I’m no expert) is the role of the big-name music director/conductor in the classical world, ferried across continents in private planes, knowing how to bend the rules in a business where, it transpires, the orchestra wields a great deal of power, and with a genuine genius for imbuing listeners with her enthusiasm for music.  

Her interpretation of “Mahler’s Symphony No 5,” initially fascinating, soon lost its hold because I had no idea what she was up to (so I hold my hands up on that one) but you’d have to be intimately acquainted with the work to get so much out of it given the time spent exploring it. This isn’t about a composer of course and lacks Peter Shaffer’s instinct with Amadeus (“too many notes” and the scene where the ill  Mozart describes his music to his arch-enemy) so quite a lot of the music stuff went over my head, leaving me with no interest in large sections of the film.

Cut down to two hours plus, okay, those four minutes of credits back in their proper position at the end, and you would have a very satisfactory movie that explored the classical musical world while detailing the downfall of a female tyrant.

Director Todd Field (Little Children, 2006) carries the can on this one.

But I would also point out to him that if you’re appealing to an adult audience and a largely arthouse one at that you’re trying to target generations that have seen all the best stuff, that respond to unusual films that take them to new places dramatically or stylistically and will not stand to be bored rigid.

People slapping down £14 to see it in their local Odeon aren’t going to be as inclined to tell people to go see it than critics watching it for free. And anybody who thinks a streaming audience isn’t going to be reaching for the switch-off button during the marathon opening credits is asking for further financial misery.

A Man Called Otto (2023) ****

Heart-warming tale of a suicide wannabe. Yep, the studio didn’t know how to sell it either, and the trailer had originally put we off, a gurning Tom Hanks and the annoying neighbor from hell. And it just shows what a sick character I must be that I was chuckling all the way through. Because, yes, and without any attempt at black comedy, Otto (Tom Hanks) spends the first half of the picture trying to commit suicide, depressed, we later discover, at the death of his wife.

As if a riff on The Marriage of Figaro, we first encounter Otto when he is measuring rope for a noose with which to hang himself. But being a truculent nit-picking type of guy – the Everyman you would cross the street to avoid – he gets into an argument with the store manger on account of not being to buy exactly the length of rope he wants. Suffice it to say that this homespun guy who otherwise can fix anything and has every tool known to man can’t grasp the mechanics of suicide. He’s one foot in the grave when he would clearly prefer two.

The more ominous original – note the noose.

While he’s failing at this one simple task he’s getting annoyed to pieces by the new pregnant neighbor Marisol (Mariana Trevino) and her hapless husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) who can’t fix anything and by virtually everyone else in his universe who can’t follow simple rules like displaying your car sticker in the proper position. He’s an artisan trapped in a world controlled by idiots, blasting away at the inanities and inequities of modern life.

It takes such a long time to warm up you think it’s never gone to manage the switch into feel-good movie, what with so many numbskulls getting in the way, and Otto being the kind of guy who will fall out with his best friend because he bought the wrong kind of car. And it takes so long because it’s hardly gentle stuff, instead mostly biting, or inexplicable especially when Marisol takes off on a great riff of Mexican words.

His past opens up, courtesy of mementoes, and we realise he wasn’t always this kind of walking rulebook keep-off-the-grass poster boy.

Critics have been pretty sniffy about this but audiences know better and are turning out in bigger droves than for Tar, Babylon or The Fabelmans because it’s what audiences have been crying out for for so long – a good well-made drama that touches on some pretty awful feelings and doesn’t take the easy way out. Otto is made to work pretty hard to find community among people he automatically despises.

I’m not sure we need the flashbacks where a younger cuter Otto (Truman Hanks, yep even here, nepo abounds) romances his wife, because Otto gets over the line on his own within his grumpier shell without reverting to the nicer, shy guy he once was, cute as that tale is. And there’s an equally unnecessary nod to contemporary tropes, what with Otto showing his kinder side by taking in a trans and social media demonstrating how much it can be a boon – rather than a menace – to society when Otto decides to take up the cudgels against real estate villains.

Cutesville – for the book.

The characters are all so – what’s the word I’m looking for – real. Even the dumbest of them, initially portrayed in somewhat cartoon fashion,  turn out to be just human.

As I said, I was chuckling or straight out laughing all the way through and I’m glad to say that Marisol and I connected on the sickest joke of all, the one about the big heart (I’m not going to give that one away).

Given I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, all advertising having carefully avoided any mention of the S-word, and was really only squeezing this into my weekly triple bill because of limited choice, and the trailer did it no favors, my heart sank as that esteemed outfit the British Board of Film Censors stepped in where Hollywood marketing persons feared to tread and announced, in its apparently regulatory slot, that this movie contained “suicide theme.”

That certainly got my attention, but did nothing for my confidence in a piece of entertainment, wondering if I had been mis-sold or misled, but within a few minutes Otto’s antics had me in stitches.

Tom Hanks (Elvis, 2022) is back to his best after a few dodgy characterisations and in too many films that seemed to disappear into the maw of the streamer. And it says a lot for his creative juices that he chose a part that played very much against type. But Mariana Trevino (Polvo, 2019) is the bonus here, a comedienne of genius.

Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, 2001) is back on form, too, totally in command of a movie that could so easily have slipped sideways into a vat of treacle or the other way into the outer space of black comedy. David Magee (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) wrote the screenplay based on Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove which had been turned into a film in 2015.

Ignore the critics, go see.

The Enforcer (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

After pulling double worthy duty with Empire of Light and Till as the starting points for my Monday multiplex triple bill it was something of a welcome relief to finish with an unpretentious pretty serviceable actioner that traded on Taken, The Equalizer and The Mechanic.

Ex-con Cuda (Antonio Banderas) has taken up his old job of debt collector/enforcer for bisexual mob boss Estelle (Kate Bosworth). Through happenstance he acquires streetfighter  protégé Stray (Mojean Aria). Cuda’s daughter won’t speak to him so he’s partial to coming to the aid of homeless 15-year-old Billie (Zolee Griggs). To get her off the streets he puts her up in a motel. But, of course, no good deed goes un-punished and the motel manager arranges for her kidnap by Freddie (2 Chainz), a rising gangster who threatens Estelle’s dominance.

Meanwhile, Stray falls for dancer/hooker Lexus (Alexis Ren) who works for Estelle and may well be her main squeeze, though the consensuality of that relationship may be in question.

There’s none of the pavement-pounding hard-core detective work or even nascent skill undertaken by the likes of Taken’s Bryan Mills before Cuda tracks down Billie’s whereabouts and it doesn’t take long for the various strands to coalesce, resulting in a variety of fights and shootings.  Given it’s a perky 90-minutes long, there’s very little time for subplots anyway or to find deeper meaning. That’s not to say there aren’t patches of clever dialog – Estelle compares the blood in her veins to that of the marauders in ocean depths whose blood has evolved to be extremely able to withstand parts of the sea where the sun never shines. (She says it a bit neater than that).

And there’s no time wasted on sentimentality either. Neither Cuda’s ex-wife or daughter want anything to do with him and thank goodness we’re spared a scene of him emerging from jail with nobody to greet him. The movie touches on the most venal aspects of modern crime, paedophilia, webcam pornography, kidnap, sexual violence, and of course Freddie bemoans the fact that Estelle is so old-fashioned she wants her tribute paid in cash not cryptocurrency.

It’s straight down to brass tacks, Cuda not seeing the betrayal coming. Thanks for bringing me fresh blood, Cuda, says Estelle, would you like one bullet or two with your retiral package. The only element that seems contrived at the time, that the battered and bloodied Stray can fix Cuda’s broken down car, actually turns into a decent plot point. And where Bryan Mills seems to be living on Lazarus-time, here it’s clear that the ageing Cuda is not going survive these endless beatings and shootings, so if there’s going to be a sequel it will be on the head of Stray.

I had half-expected Antonio Banderas (Uncharted, 2022) to sleepwalk through this kind of good guy-tough guy role but in fact his mostly soft-voiced portrayal is very effective, and his occasional stupidity lends considerable depth to the character.  Kate Bosworth (Barbarian, 2022) has been undergoing a transition of late and is very convincing as a smooth, if distinctly evil, bisexual gangster.

I’ve never heard of Mojean Aria though if I’d kept my ear closer to the ground I might have ascertained he was a Heath Ledger Scholarship recipient. He had a small role in the misconceived Reminiscence (2021) and took the lead in the arthouse Kapo (2022). Judging on his performance here, I’d say he is one to look out for. He has definite screen presence, action smarts and can act a bit too.

And just to show my ignorance I was unaware that Alexis Ren is one of the biggest influencers in the world. This is her second movie and she doesn’t really have much of a part beyond compromised girlfriend. Zolee Griggs (Archenemy, 2020) is another newcomer. But you remember that old Raymond Chandler saying that when the plot sags have a man come through the door with a gun. Well, here, there’s a different twist – it’s a woman, in fact both these women turn up trumps when it comes to rescuing the guys.

This is the directing debut of Aussie commercials wiz Richard Hughes and, thankfully, there’s none of the flashiness than would have drowned a tight picture like this. He keeps to the script by W. Peter Iliff who’s been out of the game for some time but who you may remember for Point Break (both versions), Patriot Games (1992), Varsity Blues (movie and TV series) and Under Suspicion (2000).

Undemanding action fare, for sure, but still it delivers on what it promises. It doesn’t have a wide enough release or a big enough marketing budget to even qualify as a sleeper but I reckon it will keep most people satisfied. I had thought this might be DTV but that’s not so. Although it’s not been released in the States it’s had a wide cinema release in Europe. However, this looks like it’s already on DVD but been thrown into cinemas to coincide with the launch of Puss in Boots.

Corsage (2022) **

I half-expected paparazzi to leap out from behind bushes such was the anachronistic tone of this tale of royal entitlement and female repression. But I’m glad the plagiarism issues surrounding Kris Kristofferson and The Rolling Stones have been cleared up now that it’s been revealed that “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “As Tears Go By” were originally composed in 1878 for mandolin and harp, respectively.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria lived such a hellish life it’s small wonder she committed suicide 20 years earlier than the history books dictated. Even the invention of the motion picture by an obscure photographer in 1878 – a decade before others made probably spurious claims to have come up with the idea – wasn’t enough to keep her going.

The Empress gives historical accuracy the finger.

The real Empress Elisabeth, now that I’ve had to go and look her up, actually did correspond somewhat to the character represented her. She was obsessed with beauty and diet, the exceptionally tight corsets of the title self-inflicted as she strove to keep a 16-19-inch waist. Quite where this kind of mania came from is never explained. Her general depression could have been traced to the death of a daughter but that doesn’t figure in this bold reimagining. I’ve got nothing against movie makers twisting facts for their own convenience, Hollywood did it all the time so why should arthouses audiences escape. But I spent half the time watching this wondering whether anything was real, which would make the whole enterprise some kind of dreamlike experience and would mean she didn’t risk a daughter’s life by exposing her to the freezing cold in the middle of the night because she, the Empress, had a penchant for darkness she wanted the child to learn to embrace.

In some kind of nod to Absolutely Fabulous, it is the child who appears the more grown-up, admonishing her mother for embarrassing her. And in a nod to whatever the Empress gives the middle finger. And naturally she gets hooked on heroin (don’t ask).

Anyway, enough of my moaning, let’s go back to the movie and assume it’s all got a point. Hating her empty life, the Empress exerts authority by feigning a fainting fit to avoid royal duties, keeps her devoted husband waiting, fancies like mad a cousin she doesn’t know is gay, is considered such a suicide risk by the prospective lover that he prohibits her from drowning in his lake.

She is indulged as much as is humanly possible, permitted to take off on her travels at a whim, but attempts to improve the welfare of institutionalised women – some committed for adultery – and visits wounded soldiers (all true, as it happens). While her husband is devoted to her (true), that is not reciprocated (true) and out of kindness she arranges for him to take a young lover (fiction).

This is a movie devoid of drama, determined, as if below the dignity of an arthouse filmmaker, to ignore some of the real facts of her life, namely the complicated politics of the era, clashes with her domineering mother-in-law, that her son Rudolf was the subject of the Mayerling tragedy and that she was assassinated by an anarchist in Italy.

If the point is to show she was an accomplished woman in an era when queens were doormats and submissive wives, that aim is certainly achieved. Elisabeth, beyond keeping her husband waiting at every opportunity, openly argues with him, is a very competent fencer, could have written a book on eating  (a Dieting DVD introduced into the proceedings would have been an anachronistic tour de force) as little as possible and the benefits of a healthy regimen.

As a portrait of a complex character it is certainly compelling and as the enigmatic is a tool of the artist, then little in the way of explanation is deemed necessary. But the problem, setting aside the anachronisms, is what we are presented with is a cross between Princess Di and Meghan.

Vicky Krieps (Old, 2021) plays the Empress. Marie Kreutzer (The Ground Beneath My Feet, 2019) wrote the screenplay and directed.

But you should be aware my views are very much in the minority and this has largely been acclaimed.

The Infernal Machine (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Enigma and irony are hard enough to pull off in a drama never mind an intellectual thriller that plays around with reality. So full marks for a terrific performance by Guy Pearce (The Seventh Day, 2021) holding together a relatively simple tale of paranoia, and writer-director Andrew Hunt (The Miles Between Us, 2016) for teasing it out.

Author Bruce (Guy Pearce) has written a bestseller that triggered sociopath Dwight Tufford (Alex Pettyfer) into carrying out a mass killing. Hiding out in a remote cabin away from any feeding frenzy, and drowning in alcohol, he’s nonetheless being stalked by obsessive fan William Dukent who sends him daily missives by post, conveniently attaching a contact number but infuriatingly never answering his phone. Aware how obsession can end (for example, in mass murder), he’s none too keen on meeting said fan, and is armed against intruders.

That his mental health is imperilled suggests some deeper psychological problem since beyond irritation there is no obvious threat. Ad bearing in mind he’s an alcoholic, there’s always a possibility his nemesis is himself. Before he achieved fame he was your standard creative writer teacher so we’re regaled in flashback or voice-over with some of the rules of writing, but what appears mere filler material takes on deeper meaning in the third act.

What makes this transparently different from your standard paranioa thriller is that Bruce is hardly equipped to hunt down bad guys, possessing none of the “particular set of skills” possessed by the likes of Bryan Mills (Taken, 2008), and no military background to call on. It takes him forever to even work out that the name of his antagonist is actually a clue.

Eventually, he is assisted in his endeavors by cop Officer Higgins (Alice Eve) but nothing makes much sense and he deteriorates further into an alcoholic haze. Even while every step forward turns into a step back, at least he is on the case. And then the twists come thick and fast.

I’m a pretty big fan of twists and because I generally watch twist-ridden pictures am inclined to go with the flow, though not without trying to figure the puzzle in my own mind. But when the final parts of this particular jigsaw unfold they are of the unexpected variety. If I tell you any more I’ll give the game away.

So, primarily, it relies on a somewhat incoherent fellow trying to find coherence in a world that has to all extents and purposes betrayed him. After years of rejection, he has finally grasped the brass ring (if that’s what you do with brass rings) filled with awards and a mass of cash (enough at least to fund this retreat and heroic alcohol consumption). Whatever his book has triggered in the mind of an assassin is never made clear; the novel is about a priest who disproves the existence of God. And given it’s impossible to understand the deranged mind, that could just leave him a victim of circumstance, in a perfect storm of angst, and all the while trying to determine how, as befits a writer, this chimes with his own personal narrative, every individual being the hero of his own tale.

Except for the title, this has got nothing to do with the film under review but I was stuck for another illustration and this came to hand.

As I said, it all hangs on the performance of Guy Pearce who’s been here before in Memento (2000) and he creates a believable contradiction, intelligent enough to try to make sense of his stalker but at the same time arguing with a telephone answering machine.

Only a couple of sections are questionable, how to engineer an escape from a super-maximum security prison and how Bruce would know the capabilities of a bullet when not fired from an actual gun. But by that time you’re already along for the ride.

Andrew Hunt doesn’t give much away until he has to and it’s to his credit that we care so much for an isolated character minus the standard wife or daughter there to generate  audience empathy. Given the hero is not a particularly likeable character, it’s no mean feat to get us on his side, especially when he dips into philosophy and tips on writing. Hunt devised the screenplay from a story by Louis Kornfeld, who originated the source material, the wonderfully-titled The Hilly-Earth Society, for a podcast.

Violent Night (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Just about hits the balls-eye (sorry, bulls-eye) but falls short through miscalculating its target audience. A little bit of rejigging in the inevitable sequel could see this shine. Roughly, Die Hard meets Home Alone. That’s putting it a bit crudely, but swap skyscraper for billionaire’s mansion and a little boy for little girl and you get the drift.

What gets this very much over the line are the little bits of magic, as appealing as they come, and Santa has a get-out clause (literally, and no pun intended) because in dire emergency he can vanish up any nearby chimney and though he’s aware there’s magic involved he has no idea how it’s done. Plus he has a scroll to hand, a cribsheet that separates the good from the bad.

Bad moon rising? Less of the ho-ho-ho and more of the bah humbug and it just goes to show that a man and his hammer should never be parted.

Home Alone defensive techniques have escalated since Macauley Culkin’s day, and though “You Filthy Animal” is referenced young Trudi (Leah Brady) has a mouthful of real cuss-words, plus nails her weapon of choice. It’s cleverly done how she links up with the inebriated self-pitying Santa (David Harbour) and there’s a grimace-inducing finale – the true spirit of Xmas and all – that sails close to the wind for a hardnosed thriller but par for the course for a soppy Xmas saga.

So that’s really the only problem. The picture can’t quite make up its mind in which direction it’s headed. Hard-ass with a soft center is clearly the aim, but there’s just too much gore to pull that off. Sure, some of the killings are comic, but they’re helluva bloody too. And there’s a weird backstory – even weirder than John Wick’s assassin commandments that shalt not be broken – involving (I think) something to do with Vikings and a guy who can’t die, not exactly a zombie because he’d already be dead, and thankfully he doesn’t need blood to slake his thirst, but still he’s been around for a millennium, though, truth be told, the actual date Father Christmas first appeared is not exactly set in stone.

On the other plus side, the family whose home is being invaded by villainous “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) – color and city pseudonyms all taken by previous fictional gangsters – are just plain venal, toadying up to ruthless matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) whose vault bulges with gazillions of illicit dollars. Her potential heirs, Jason (Alex Hassell) and Alva (Edi Patterson), are a cringe-worthy pair. While Jason at least is attempting to sever connections to malicious mama, Alva has named her son Bertrude in a bid to curry favour.  And when push comes to shove, most of that family will sacrifice every last one of their nearest and dearest.

So, basic story, family in the sh*t, drunken Santa and little girl to the rescue.

There’s some clever twists. Jason isn’t quite the dolt you think, Alva’s macho boyfriend-cum-actor turns out to have muscular chops while Jason’s partner Linda (Alexis Louder) is quite the vengeful one.  

Endearing to the last, Trudi channels her inner Macauley Culkin with a side-serving of her grandmother’s ruthlessness and, taking Home Alone as her template, effectively slices and dices her opponents. And my guess is that’s the vibe the producers were chasing – fun slaughter. They don’t miss by miles, but they do miss. And an audience that would have happily lapped up the outrageously vicious Trudi will probably not relish the rest of the gory goings-on while a John Wick audience will feel hard-done-by that even a sliver of cuteness has penetrated their hardcore world.

And it’s that rarity, an action comedy with a good few belly laffs rather than the usual situation where you see what they’re trying to do but don’t actually burst out laughing.

David Harbour (Black Widow, 2021) isn’t left to carry the picture but his cynical manner, catchphrases, and surprisingly gentle approach certainly bring it home. Leah Brady, graduate of the Umbrella Academy (2022), is New Wave Cute, soft with a hard center. Beverly D’Angelo (National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983) can;t believe her luck at sinking her teeth into such a vicious character.

Director Tommy Wirkola (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, 2013) just about gets it right, especially unusual to be able to marry action and comedy, working from a screenplay by Pat Casey and Josh Miller who co-wrote Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) which was also a matter of getting the balance right.

Great fun all round. Not sure what the title would be for a sequel but look forward to it.

RRR (2022) *****

It’s unusual for the esteemed New York Film Critics Circle to be taking a lead from me. But, happening upon this, my first encounter with Bollywood, on an otherwise quiet Monday cinema outing, I have been championing it ever since, though not always to an appreciative audience.  So I was somewhat astonished – and rather delighted – to discover that the New York Film Critics has just bestowed its annual Best Director Award to S.S. Rajamouli for R.R.R.

In honor of that achievement I am reprinted my original review below.

Easily the most extraordinary epic I have seen in a long time. Hitting every action beat imaginable, a stunning tour de force that ranks alongside the best Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg can offer. As if Rambo or John Wick had turned up a century ago. If films could go from 0 to 100 in ten seconds, this would be the prime contender. Astonishing sequences include a cop taking on a mob single-handed with only a stick for a weapon, a villager acting as bait for a tiger, wild animals leading an attack on a fort, a savage beating with a nail-studded whip, and the unforgettable image of one man mounted on another spraying bullets with two rifles. 

Following the virtual abduction of a native girl Milla, two friends are on a collision course in the oppressive British regime in India in 1920. Technically, it doesn’t count as a kidnapping because British Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) hasn’t, in his eyes, committed a  crime, merely taking the child as a gift for his wife (Alison Doody). Villager Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is tasked with bringing the girl back, ambitious undercover cop Raju (Ram Charam) with stopping him. The two men, befriending each other in Delhi, are unaware of the other’s plan. That both are immensely likeable, if quite opposite, characters, creates terrific charisma, and their bromance is entirely believable.

Everything in this picture is big and bold except when it is intimate and small. There is a beautifully-observed romance between Bheema and a kind British woman Jenny (Olivia Morris), the development of which, faced with the obstacle of neither understanding the other’s language, with Raju acting as matchmaker, could have been a film on its own. There are two brilliant pieces of screenwriting, phrases repeated throughout that acquire deeper meaning as the story unfolds. The British continually kill by brutal means rather than waste an expensive bullet; “Load. Aim. Shoot,” is a mantra taught the young Raju by his revolutionary father; both come into play at the climax.

The British are horrific. The Bheema-Jenny meet-cute occurs when the native is beaten for inadvertently embarrassing a British soldier. Lady Buxton is a sadist, determined to see a man whipped till he bleeds to death. By contrast, the two heroes are often far from heroic, Bheema unable to find the girl, Raju forced into terrible violence as a consequence of ambition. And in the midst of all this ramped-up violence perhaps the best scene of all, albeit one of conflict, is an energetic dance-off between the two men and the scions of the British upper class, the fantastic “Naatu Naatu” sequence.

Director S.S. Rajamouli (Baahubali: The Beginning, 2015) makes as bold a use of narrative structure as Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, withholding until the last third of the movie a flashback which tilts the story in a completely different direction. But there is nothing lumbering about this epic, it has an incredible drive, an energy to set your head spinning. Even so, Rajamouli utilises a classic three-part structure and the three-hour-plus running time is anything but sprawling. In among a host of character-driven scenes he knows how to build a sequence, as the heroes successively triumph and fail with every passing minute, and among the introductory sequences for both main characters are some inspired images. Cleverly seeding the story creates a variety of twists, turns and reversals.

I was expecting not to like the traditional dancing sequences, which you would thought ill-fitting in a picture of this scope, but the “Naatu Naatu” sequence is treated as virtually a rebellion with tremendous dramatic impact. Although the two leads are muscular in the Schwarzenegger/Stallone mold it does not prevent them channelling their inner Gene Kelly.

Except that it is set a century ago, this has all the bravura hallmarks of MCU, an exceptional adventure told at top speed that does not put a foot wrong. 

N.T. Rama Rao Jr  (Janatha Garage, 2016) has the more difficult role, in that he switches from full-on action hero to romantic klutz. But the intensity of Ram Charam (Vinaya Vidheya Rama, 2019) should have Hollywood calling. The characters played by Ray Stevenson (Accident Man, 2018) and Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) are more one-dimensional but no less terrifying for that.

On energy and cinematic imagination alone, this would more than pass muster but S.S. Rajamouli has also created a brilliant piece of entertainment with greater depths than you might imagine.

This movie cries out to be seen on the big screen and maybe, in light of the NYFCC Award, your local arthouse might see fit to re-book it. Otherwise you will cn catch it on Netflix.

The Menu (2022) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Hitchcock would have adored the apocalyptic flavour of this quasi haunted house psychological thriller. Setting aside its intellectual pretensions this is pure pedal-to-the-metal material. You never know what’s going to happen next in a tense environment created by dictatorial celebrity Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) in whose eyes the entitled are likely to get their just desserts.

In most thrillers of this nature, the assorted bunch of potential victims usually attempt some kind of fightback, and they’re usually younger and sexier, but this crew are trapped in the headlights because they find it impossible to believe they could possibly be in the middle of a revolution.

The beauty of their dilemma is that Chef is trapped, too, by his desire for fame, suffocated by pursuit of perfection, but yet, as they soon come to realise, accepting punishment for his own sins (attempted rape for one). You might be fooled by the trailer into thinking there is a way out, if only a perilous one, but that’s a bit of a red herring, and as the tension grows you realise it’s heading for an incredible conclusion.

Only the rich can afford to visit this expensive restaurant on a secluded island. Most of the guests aren’t even interested in the food – that’s one strike against them – but for the experience of having said they’d been there or to, as is the prerogative of the wealthy, be pampered within a whim of their life, or to find something minute to complain about, a niggle guaranteed to cause grief.

Creepy though they are, Chef’s thunderclapping hands that demand guest attention, the cries of “Yes, chef” from his slave-like adoring workers, the detail of high-falutin’ cooking, history and ecology lessons, a ramrod sergeant-major of a maitre’d Elsa (Hong Chau), and occasional ironic twists – a bread course that contains no bread for example – are mere hors d’oeuvres for the main event.

Chef knows a tad too much about his guests’ peccadilloes – infidelity, financial irregularity – for their liking and as the evening out begins to turn into a cul de sac and shocking incident follows shocking incident, cowardice and lack of the kind of retinue that could come to their rescue, the guests can only watch as they are served up on a platter to a madman’s ideology.

Certainly, the format is exceptionally cinematic, sequences chapterized as menu courses, and the intellectual discussion that divides the world into the servers and the served well observed, but driving the thriller engine is the most refined nutcase this side of Hannibal Lecter, a thin-lipped specter at a feast of his own devising , a creator at the end of his tether, seeking revenge on those who quibble with his talent. And yet there is something  universal about this individual, a man scrabbling so hard to stay ahead of the game that he is almost on a par with Arthur Miller’s famed salesman. Is Chef doing much more than the culinary equivalent of “riding on a smile and shoeshine?”

The guests are the usual high priests of pamperdom, food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer), movie star (John Leguizamo) planning to revive his career by fronting a food show, simulating orgasm with every taste, a trio of young financiers, a couple who have come several times but can’t recall a single dish they’ve eaten, and foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) accompanied by a mysterious woman Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) who turns out to be in a different branch of the service industry.

British director Mark Mylod (Ali G in Da House, 2002, anyone?) has learned from helming episodes of Game of Thrones and Succession how to match reaction to incident. As much as Chef is in control in the restaurant, Mylod is in control of exactly what we see. There is none of the over-acting that appears to come with the territory, certainly no screams or titillation, not a whiff of cleavage, the usual recourse of a horror film run out of ideas, though, as with that genre, it is the sexually compromised who suffer first.

Mylod’s tight rein ensures shock is just an element of the overall effect, rather than its signature dish, and that all the ruffley-truffley culinary dialog only serves to heighten morbid  sensation.

Ralph Fiennes (The Forgiven, 2021) may well have delivered a career-best performance it is so constrained. Given equally little room to manoeuvre, little time for eye-rolling or exacerbated action, Anya Taylor-Joy is back to her The Queen’s Gambit (2020) best, while Nicholas Hoult (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2021) adds sly deviance to  a screen persona that plays on innocence. It’s an astonishing screenwriter debut for television writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy.

As it happens, I’m very familiar with the lives of chefs, having spent three decades working with them, initially as a cossetted observer, as journalists often are, being the fawned-upon editor of Caterer & Hotelkeeper, the hugely profitable industry trade weekly in Britain, with massive sales at a time when print was the dominant media, so much so that during my time we produced a world record (for a weekly) issue of 524 pages. But when I later set up the Scottish Chefs Association, whose board comprised all the top chefs in the country, and its offshoots the Scottish Chef Awards and a cookery school for chefs, I became privy to the fears and wonders of the cooking business. So I can attest to the fear and loathing for some customers and most critics, who seemed determined in the days before social media to spoil anything they could, or demand preferential treatment.

Certainly, the restaurant is a unique kind of business, food being cooked to order, “a la minute” as the saying went, and customers disrupting a tight ecology by simply turning up late, or early, or not at all. Customers were prone to theft, teaspoons in particular replaced on a titanic scale, and the litany of complaints could outweigh a Bible. Then, as now, reputation was everything, and could be destroyed by a food critic or word-of-mouth. It wasn’t just chefs who sought perfection, but customers, any deviation from expectation harshly dealt with.

Successful chefs with investors would find that somehow they saw little share of the profits. Chefs minus investors lived a precarious existence. Good reviews would  bring in bad customers, the kind who pored over every detail, like Tyler wanting to share their paltry culinary knowledge with the expert, needed extra attention, and came to say they had been there. But I can sympathise with Margot who felt she was being experimented upon rather than fed and can recall several times buying fish and chips immediately after dining in a Michelin-starred establishment.

I remember, too, industry astonishment that celebrity-chef-du-jour Anton Mosimann began the day by walking round the kitchen shaking hands with every chef, no matter their rank, rather than starting off their day with a rant. Kitchens are organised on a brigade system, obedience imperative, no questioning of authority. But rather than derogating talent as occurs here, many top chefs proved apt talent-spotters. The Roux Brothers, for example, created a magnificent template, finding backers among their appreciative wealthy customers for the young talent in their kitchens, which resulted in a new generation of chefs setting up in business without the usual financial woes.

In Britain and Europe, however, perfection could be achieved. If you reached the highest standards set by the Michelin Guide inspectors and were awarded the coveted three stars, the highest culinary accolade that could be bestowed, you had reached the top of the tree. You couldn’t relax because one or more of the stars could be taken away, but the kind of personal obsession that afflicts Chef here would be lessened. However, since very few chefs hit the three-star mark you have hundreds if not thousands beavering away trying to achieve it.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Another triumphant entry in the casebook of Benoit Blanc, self-style world’s greatest detective and easily the most flamboyant in the genre since Hercule Poirot. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s invention offered Daniel Craig an immediate opportunity to shed the typecasting curse of James Bond and the actor rises splendidly again to the occasion, some hints of his inner life offered, signs of depression and a cameo by Hugh Grant as flatmate, helpmate, whatmate.

But in the main it’s another twisty picture that plays with audience expectation even though, if only we were as clever as its creator, the truth is in plain sight, beginning with the title.

Victims – or suspects – assemble.

You have to peel through layer upon layer of an ordinary onion, but a glass onion you can see straight through. It would not occur to the audience, lured by mystery, arriving with a different sort of anticipation, counting on this glass onion to be a mere architectural folly atop a majestic building on a remote island off the cost of Greece, that everything could be actually straightforward and that the need for complicated crime is a figment of our own imagination.

There’s only one twist you may guess and the movie certainly takes a while to spark into life as we are introduced to a variety of unlikeable characters, ideal candidates you might think to be a victim, through the device of them all receiving an extremely puzzling puzzle in an apparently impenetrable wooden box.

Right from the get-go, the audience is sucked in. Are they the  type of people who are determined to solve the riddle, with endless patience, or in collaborative effort expend energy and time on a fiendish enigma that seems to change shape every few minutes, layer by layer like a veritable onion? Or do we just work out that a box made of wood ain’t going to have no defence against something as simple as a hammer?

Anyway, enough with the philosophizing and on with the show. During Covid a bunch of disparate characters with no connection except a link to billionaire Miles (Edward Norton) are invited for a murder mystery weekend to his island home. Miles, being the show-off to top all show-offs, has invited Benoit on the basis that his mystery will fox the detective, score one for an  uber-clever magnate.

He is so unbelievably wealthy and ridiculously endowed with genius from thinking outside the box that he has managed to secure a loan of the Mona Lisa painting from the Louvre in Paris, paid through the nose for it of course, taking advantage of the museum’s lack of income from the paying tourists, Covid having dried up that moneywell. The artwork will form the centerpiece of his cleverness as he presents to a posse of investors later on his newest invention, Klear, an idea that, however dangerous and untested, will solve the world’s energy supply problems.

Anyway, Benoit is way too smart for him and solves the murder mystery in a trice, only for there, as you might have expected, to be another real murder or two, leaving the private eye with the unusual accent a classic closed room mystery.

Under suspicion are Miles himself of course, plus one-time model turned fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), the dumbest cluck in the coop, aspiring politician Claire (Kathryn Hahn), Miles’ former business partner Andi (Janelle Monae), macho male Duke (Dave Bautista) and girlfriend Whiskey (Madeline Clyne), Miles’ sometime lover, scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr) and Peg (Jessica Hanwick). What they share with Miles is vanity, an overweening sense of their own importance and entitlement.

Actually, one of them doesn’t qualify as a suspect because as you may have guessed that would be the victim. Two of them, since I’ve already kind of given away that there are two dead. Anyway, you’re not going to guess any of this since you’re all dupes to the infinite ingenuity of Rian Johnson.

Sure, the director takes pot-shots at the rich and the wannabe wealthy and the wannabes that trail along in their wake, but mostly he takes aim at the genre itself, turning the whole idea of the mystery picture on its head, that we expect something pretty intricate the moment we are presented with a movie puzzle, and motivation being the engine of all mystery start delving headlong into that morass without thinking the answer might be something a lot simpler.

Whatever Rian Johnson is doing he’s got the elan to carry it off. Sequels often disappoint. This won’t. Not quite the caliber of cast as Knives Out (2019) but that’s actually to the film’s advantage, no need for the star-stalking that afflicted the recent Death on the Nile (2022).

Thoroughly entertaining, ingenious and devious, what more could you ask for, apart from Netflix not having snapped up the golden goose, since this will be infinitely more enjoyable in the company of an audience responding en masse to the trickery, as I discovered when watching it on its brief foray to the cinema.

And there’s certainly a dichotomy here. What is the point of the Netflix sop to the movie theatre? Sure, it’s going to rack up a ton of reviews but they’re all going to be posted a month before the picture opens on Netflix rather than the weekend before. Anticipation may not last that long. Anyway, given all the turkeys Netflix has foisted on movie fans, this will be one Xmas when it delivers.

PS: Apologies for the goof on Behind the Scenes: “Bandolero.” That blog is coming on Saturday but I pressed the wrong button and sometimes when you press the wrong button there’s just no going back.

Deus (2022) ** / Watcher (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Luckily I had been fortified in my weekly cinema outing by the wonderful Living (2022) before entering dudsville for this double bill. Both Deus and Watcher have all the hallmarks of direct-to-DVD productions which have, to use the old parlance, “escaped” into cinema distribution.

I’m probably a bit rusty about the cost of making the kind of giant spacecraft shown in Deus, billions of dollars surely, so am assuming that big projects like this will encounter budget overruns which would account for the rationing of electricity on board, resulting in the  murky lighting. And there’s not an alien in sight unless you count the robotic crew who speak in strangely monotonous tones.

Like most sci-fi films this involves a crew on a mysterious mission awaking from hibernation to investigate a distant object, in this case a sphere. The title assumes this might be about someone playing God and so it transpires, taking a leaf out of The Avengers: Infinity War (21018) playbook with a plot to wipe out three-quarters of the Earth’s population in some kind of eco good deed.

Not only has an evil genius Vance (Phil Davis), who appears only as a hologram (natch), gone to all this bother and created a heavenly apparition but in order to achieve his ends he has had to go to all the clever bother of killing off the family of Karla (Claudia Black) in a car crash so that he can have the opportunity to insert a chip in her brain to infiltrate her imagination.

Former hitman Ulph (David O’Hara) forms part of the crew and the only measure of excitement comes when, mercifully, parts of the mother ship explode. Any action or suspense is purely theoretical with writer-director Steve Stone (In Extremis, 2017) responsible for this monstrosity.

It’s a terrible thing to say I know but I was praying for the serial killer to get a move on and wipe out dull lifeless heroine Julia (Maika Monroe) in Watcher. A former actress, now unemployed,  who has moved to Bucharest with advertising executive partner Francis (Karl Glusman) she spends all her time moping around crying wolf. Naturally, everyone ignores her if only for the fact that when she claims to be watched by a man from across the street she has facilitated such voyeurism by leaving her curtains wide open.

The serial killer is known as The Spider for obvious reasons – I guess he has either a hairy back, six arms, climbs up the outside of buildings, or is the type of arachnid who bites the head off his victims or all of the above or because newspaper headline writers had run out of murderer nicknames or were simply devoid of imagination.

As with Matt Damon in Stillwater (2021) her sense of isolation, what with hubby working all hours, is increased because only a tiny minority of the population have the courtesy to speak English.   Location-wise you know where this is going to end up because next door neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea) keeps a gun in a drawer in case her ex gets antsy, making him of course the first red herring.

For a time it looked as if this was going to turn into something a lot more interesting, a twist on a twist, for in fact she is as much a watcher as the man (Burn Gorman) – a cleaner in a strip club who stares out of the window in a break from the relentless task of caring for his aged father – accused of this crime. In a very foolish gesture she appears to be encouraging him.  

You begin to hope that, to redeem this picture, the upshot is going to be that a paranoid woman shoots an innocent man. Instead, the climax is straight of Hancock’s Half Hour, a legendary British television comedy series, where the heroine survives after losing more than a good armful of blood, probably enough to fill all arms, legs and the bulk of her body.

Maika Monroe (It Follows, 2014) has gone with the erroneous assumption that the less acting she does the more she will appear withdrawn. I felt sorry for Karl Glusman (Greyhound, 2020) in his first leading man role, given nothing to do. Oddly enough, Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim, 2013) has the best scene, demanding an apology from his accuser.

I’m not quite sure what debut director Chloe Okuna did to the original screenplay of the more experienced Zack Ford (Girls’ Night Out, 2019) to grab the main writing credit but it was far from enough.

Like The Banshees of Inisherin, too much appears to be expected of both writer-directors who might have benefitted from a stronger producer challenging their concepts and helping shape the finished material.

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