Out in the UK This Week
12 Years a Slave (E One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
After Hunger and Shame, Steve McQueen advances into Hollywood properly with this very Spielbergian film following free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into slavery down in the antebellum South, where he is passed from one slave owner to another – this one bad, the next one worse – until a deus ex machina rescues him. This year’s Best Oscar gong went to this film which looks the real deal, disports itself like the real deal, has all the necessary support acting (Pitt, Fassbender, Giamatti) that you’d expect. But there’s a strange emotional lack at its core. This could partly be a problem in general for films about slaves – films are about people with agency, and Northup has none at all, from beginning to end. He’s a victim, not a victor. And it could have something to do with the fact that John Ridley’s screenplay is less interested in how this particular man found his way through the horror, more concerned in showing how the modern African American was forged in the crucible of the slave experience. Or, to put it another way – how the white man made the black man. So that’s a double lack of agency. This is not a hateful film, it’s not torture porn posing as slave narrative, as the critic Armond White has suggested. It is this year’s “film it’s impossible to admit you don’t really dig”, like a beautifully made Holocaust movie whose agenda is in the way of its storytelling
The Canyons (Lionsgate, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)
Starring Lindsay Lohan, the car crash. Co-starring James Deen, the porn star. Written by Bret Easton Ellis, the Less Than Zero one-trick pony. Directed by Paul Schrader, a busted flush decades past his Taxi Driver pomp. There’s four reasons right there why The Canyons should be approached with extreme caution. And what is the director Gus Van Sant doing acting? Why is Lohan billed as a producer? Even the tagline – “It’s not the hills” – is kind of odd. Well, it’s an odd movie too, but a very good one, with a sensational performance by Lohan as the strung-out girlfriend of a douchebag Hollywood trustafarian (Deen) rekindling an old affair (with Glee‘s Nolan Funk) much to her controlling sex-obsessed boyfriend’s ire. There’s more than a touch of Raymond Chandler in both the plot and the feel of this modern-day noir whose real purpose is to portray the emptiness of people who don’t so much work in the movies as suck like parasites at its scabs. Though Schrader does make the Hollywood lifestyle look as attractive as it is repellent – there’s cocktails on the sunloungers one minute, before cock and cocaine the next, with Lohan regularly getting naked in furtherance of her role as the girl who’s given up almost every shred of decency in return for the security offered by a rich man. Except she’s really chosen the wrong guy. No matter what you’ve heard about this film, ignore it. Ignore also the ludicrous imdb rating it’s currently getting. In terms of what it’s trying to do and what it’s achieving, as well as Lohan’s sobbingly brilliant and possibly autobiographical turn, it’s almost a perfect sleazy classic.
Back to the Garden (Drakes Avenue, cert 12, DVD)
Old friends, mostly actor buddies, meet to scatter the ashes of one of their gang in British Big Chill kind of affair, a film that does something you don’t see very often – it looks death right in the face. Starring a bunch of homely looking thespians who you probably won’t know, filmed in long single takes, shot mostly in someone’s back garden (director Jon Sanders’s, probably) in Kent, the “garden of England”, it’s largely improvised, and watching it feels like being dropped into the middle of a long running soap opera – everyone seems to know everyone else very well. In the case of Jack (Bob Goody) and Stella (Tanya Myers) probably better than Jack’s wife, Julia (Anna Mottram) would like. Mottram is the axle around which the film revolves, and gets a co-writing credit thanks to her catalytic turn as the member of the group whose slightly busybody-ish lines of enquiry force each person in turn to open up, starting with the widow of the man they’re seeing off. If I’m making this sound flat as warm beer, in fact Back to the Garden gets its grim hooks in very early and very well, catching exactly that moment in life when you realise that your parents’ generation are all dead, you’re not going to live forever and it’s your turn next.
47 Ronin (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)
Much panned but actually not too bad, 47 Ronin stars Keanu Reeves as the half-breed Japanese struggling to make his way in samurai Japan. This involves much fighting, much talking in heavily accented English, a lot of elegant clothes and a plot that’s about 50 per cent Crouching Tiger, 40 per cent Robin Hood and about 10 per cent helicopter shots lifted from what looks like New Zealand Tourism’s Lord of the Rings brochure – oh those mountains. The plot is complicated but can be stripped back to – Keanu and crew become outlaws, then fight back against evil King John, or whatever the guy’s name is. Part of the film’s problem is that Keanu plays a sidekick, not the main man (that’s a rather excellent Hiroyuki Sanada). Rivalling this problem is the fact that first-time director Carl Rinsch wastes all the good work done by his production design team – the bare bones of a spectacular looking film are in here somewhere – with some lousy camera set-ups, poor framing and weak direction of crowds. However, “not too bad” is what I said. And once it finally gets going – towards the end, admittedly – there’s a surge of pace, some good fights, the set design and direction start to mesh, even the FX start to look credible. There was even, I thought, a joke in there somewhere. I kind of liked it. I’m not a bad person.
An Inspector Calls (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)
An Inspector Calls is a 1954 adaptation of a stage play, by JB Priestley, about a well-to-do family who are each in turn grilled by a twinkling/glowering inspector, who accuses them individually and collectively of killing a poor young working-class woman. It’s set in 1912, just before the First World War changed life for ever, and our miscreant toffs mostly speak with the sort of accents that even the Queen would nowadays find de trop. It’s amazing to note that this was directed by Guy Hamilton, whose static camera gives The Importance of Being Earnest a run for its money, years before he’d get his hands on a quartet of Bond movies in the Connery/Moore era. Whether the play is a plea for a more socialist world or simply a more charitable one is arguable, but Priestley’s observation about the way the rich disregard the poor, except to endlessly moralise about them, seems as fresh now as when the play debuted in the Soviet Union in 1945. This 60th anniversary restoration is a handsome, affair, a touch soft here and there where the film has degraded beyond the skills of even the most accomplished digital prestidigitator but otherwise it sparkles – as do the performances by Alastair Sim as the inspector and the almost uniformly excellent cast.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)
Though there’s an official Paranormal Activity 5 in the works, The Marked Ones is in fact the fifth in the series. I think the idea is to spin off a whole new franchise. Surely not? How far can the “found footage” thing be pushed? The answer is: just a bit further than might be expected, The Marked Ones being a proficient demon-possession shocker with a lively and likeable, mostly Latino cast, who make the whole thing seem fairly fresh again. We hook up with Hector (Jorge Diaz), Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and crew as they are about to graduate – hence the camera being on hand – and follow them in the immediate aftermath as a murder is committed in their block. And being spunky kids, they decide to enter the crime scene, where there are more pentagrams and “medieval looking shit” than you expect in the average blue-collar household. No, there’s no way anyone would keep the camera running through the events that follow – as Jesse is possessed by a spirit and his friends try to banish it – but by now we’re all pretty ok with the idea that found footage is just another genre and to keep pointing out that “no way would you do that” has become the refuge of pedants. Instead enjoy the style’s pluses – the intense, often panicked, first-person point of view, the concentration on simple backstory-free storytelling and the way no-budget FX look entirely credible thanks to the lo-fi image quality. The Marked Ones understands all of these advantages; it’s not just doing it this way because it’s cheap.
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (Stones Throw, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)
Being hip is hard work but it’s also good fun. That’s why hipsters rarely smile. They don’t want to let on. This profile of LA-based Stones Throw Records, the independent label that put more hip into hip hop, before shifting its focus elsewhere, tells the story of how the gnomic Peanut Butter Wolf, aka Chris Manak, founded Stones Throw with his partner, Charles Hicks aka Charizma, becoming its sole proprietor after Charizma got killed in a carjacking in 1993. It’s the story of a record label that is for musicians who want to make music, rather than become famous – though the famous (Kanye West, Common, Snoop Dogg) do all line up to sing the praises of the porkpie-hat-wearing (of course) Wolf and his outfit. If artists such as Vex Ruffian, Homeboy Sandman, the Stepkids or James Pants mean nothing to you, join my club of oldsters who can spot a throughline back to Zappa, Beefheart or George Clinton in the way stylistic experimentation meets jazz and the established avant garde. A real plus in Jeff Broadway’s doc is that he includes enough music for it to be possible to come to some sort of conclusion about what these musicians actually produce – I have since checked out J Dilla and am looking forward to Madlib – and it makes some interesting points about the increasingly “post-racial” state of music culture too. “I’m so glad I’m with a label that’s putting out this nutty stuff that’s never going to sell,” says James Pants (surely not his real name). And I’m glad too that I watched a documentary that seemed to be about people doing the right thing for the right reason.
© 2014 Steve Morrissey