Thursday Till Sunday aka De Jueves a Domingo

Santi Ahumada plays Lucía in Thursday till Sunday




London Film Festival, 2012-10-22 

Dominga Sotomayor’s remarkable debut feature is a sotto voce drama about a family on a road trip. Proceeding by suggestion rather than assertion, it is in some respects similar to Pablo Trapero’s early, soapy drama Familia Rodante. There are faint hints of the work of Carlos Reygadas in there too, as well as more than a touch of Claire Denis. This is not bad company to be mixing in.

If the long opening locked-camera shot through a bedroom window into a courtyard, where a family is loading a car with baggage and sleeping children, recalls Reygadas’s amazing up-comes-the-dawn opening to Silent Light, then the Claire Denis element is supplied by what follows, as we strain to work out just what sort of film we’re watching.

Mum and dad sit up front, the two kids sit in the back of the car clearly packed for the long haul. Bored car games like I Spy are played, the kids ask for stuff; the parents say no. It’s all very familiar.

But what sort of film is it? A road movie, it seems, with the family coming to some sort of new awareness of something or other by the end of the trip, perhaps. Then the camera gives us a nudge towards young Lucía in the back, long of leg and budding of breast. A girl just on the cusp of young womanhood. We look again at the parents in the front. He’s still handsome; she’s as pretty as she looked before – but on this second glance, having been nudged, we notice the her lips are pursed, and the husband isn’t quite looking at his wife. Something Is Up.

And then Sotomayor pulls right back and throws us back again into the interminable car journey. The sun is out, the roads are long, this is long-distance travel South American style, on big new roads that didn’t exist a generation before.

As the family travels from Santiago to the north the viewer is now with them but on a different journey, scavenging for clues. Suddenly everything looks like a metaphor – when the husband from out of nowhere makes the statement that the “sea belongs to everybody” is that something to do with his marriage being in trouble? What of the two pretty female hitch-hikers he unilaterally decides to pick up? And when young Lucía hits the hand-dryer in the restroom of a roadside pull-in and it delivers only a second of hot air. Another push, another second, and so on. Is that a metaphor too?

It probably isn’t. We’re being teased, in a film that has infected us with an idea upfront, and then left it to replicate. And here’s the thing, now it’s almost as if we’re generating the drama in this superficially featureless film, rather than Sotomayor or her actors. So when a VW Camper enters the scene and there’s a man on board whom the wife seems happy to see but the husband less so, we’re leaning forwards hungrily. Not much has actually happened but in dramatic terms the arrival of this old hippie wagon seems equivalent to the warm-up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

No, there are no CGI armies in this odd, small, in many ways very slight film. Big statements are nowhere to be seen. There are no acting gongs to be handed out either. Though they’re all faultless (particularly the kids, Emiliano Freifeld and Santi Ahumada) this is not an actors’ film – it’s almost Noh theatre in the functionality of its characters. Nor does the cinematography reflect inner mood, like it might if Wong Kar Wei were in charge – it’s sunny out the window when the film starts and that’s the way it stays, pretty much.

Indeed, the vast Chilean landscapes are apt – there’s really not much out there apart from sand and scrub. There’s also really not much going on in the car. Or on the face of Lucia the daughter, who is taking everything in nonetheless. Or at the campsites where they pitch their tents. Or in the river where they bathe.

Except there is. Claire Denis, mistress of deep emotional undertow, has a disciple.

© Steve Morrissey 2012


Thursday till Sunday – at Amazon




In the House

Claude and Esther

If you’ve seen 5X2, you’ll already know that François Ozon makes immensely clever and highly entertaining films, and that there’s a point to the cleverness; he’s not just showing off. In the House, aka Dans La Maison, is Ozon to the bone, another very clever piece of work. This time, however, the point he’s making is far less immediately obvious.

5X2 was a love story played out backwards, the point being that, “forearmed” as we were with the knowledge that the relationship would crumble, we saw the couple in question’s first stirrings of love, courtship, marriage, honeymoon and so on through entirely different eyes. Here Ozon plays a similar trick, taking a Cuckoo in the Nest plot and wrapping it up in an examination of fiction and truth.

Fabrice Luchini plays Germain Germain, a jaded teacher of French who is wading through the marking of “what I did at the weekend” essays one night when he comes across something submitted by one of his pupils. It’s a startling story of how Claude, one of his teenage charges, courted fellow pupil Rapha, so he could gain access to the boy’s house, where he seems to have been leering after the kid’s mother Esther, (played by Emmanuelle Seigner). Unsettled, the teacher shows his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) the unusual and seemingly confessional essay. She is as intrigued as he, but also appalled. Next day the teacher upbraids the boy for his stalking, who instead of backing down hands him the next instalment of the story, which ends, like the first one, with “A suivre…” (to be continued).

Aagainst his better judgment, the teacher reads on, and becomes completely, becoming not just an avid follower of the boy’s increasingly lurid exploits (is he going to seduce the mother? the son? surely not the father?), not just his literary mentor, but also, bit by bit, an agent provocateur. Ozon symbolises this brilliantly, by having Luchini suddenly popping up inside the boy’s retelling of his story to offer pointers.

Claude and Germain
Claude and Germain?

Inside this vicious circle or feedback loop, on the one hand there’s a Damien tale of a monster inside a humdrum middle class family’s life. On the other there’s the teacher’s reactions to that story, and the effect his reactions have on the development of the boy’s story. And all the while the boy’s story is progressively taking over the teacher’s life. Fact and fiction become hopelessly intertwined, with the only seeming certainty being that, as is said several times, “the world needs stories”.

There is a student essay in here for someone with an interest in structuralism or deconstruction (both of which more or less take the view that nothing is certain or natural and that everything is made up – it’s all a big story).

For those of a more pragmatic, empirical nature, this is also a highly entertaining bit of farce, with Luchini perfectly cast – all hangdog one second, raised eyebrow the next – as the teacher in beyond the elbow, an invert of the Lolita figure of Humbert Humbert having rings run around him by an “innocent” kid. Ernst Umhauer plays the teenager, cleverer by far than his teacher, an inspired bit of casting – creepy, smooth skinned, attractive, with a hint of a smile that could be amusement or malice. Bisexual? Maybe. Unsettling is Ozon’s intention, I suspect, and Umhauer is certainly that.

Everyone else, including Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner, is a footnote. Apart, that is, from the father of the dolt, also called Rapha, played as a man so charged up with manly testosterone by Denis Ménochet, as so “natural” and unmediated in his actions and reactions that he stands in complete contradiction to the fey “everything is fictional” posturing of everyone else. And that, surely, is the point of Ozon’s film – there is fiction, there is fact and if we lose the distinction, we’re lost. French philosophers of the post 1968 tradition take note.

In the House – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

A Hijacking

Pilou Asbaek as Mikkel

London Film Festival, 2012-10-22

Stories of Somali pirates hijacking ships and holding people hostage for months regularly make the news bulletins but rarely seem to make it to the big screen. Which is odd considering that foreigners waving guns about in front of frightened innocents’ faces is a staple of cinema.

Enter A Hijacking (original title: Kapringen), a Danish offering that welds a cast familiar to viewers of Danish TV sensation Borgen to a twin-track plot – one half takes place on the high seas, the other back at base where negotiations for the hostages’ release are taking place. The result is a drama so involving that, though I’d dragged myself to the cinema with a heavy cold, for just over 100 minutes I didn’t care a bit.

The writer/director, Tobias Lindholm, also has Borgen previous, and he’s working to his strengths. A Hijacking is a strongly procedural drama in which human interaction and the divination of character is the driver. It’s probably best to say right now that there’s no Steven Seagal Under Siege business, just in case you were hoping for a knock-off Die Hard with eyebrow-raised “I also cook” payoff dialogue.

The plot is simple. Out on the Indian Ocean a ship is preparing to head back home when it’s boarded by a gang of gun-happy pirates. With them they’ve brought a negotiator who can speak English. Back in Copenhagen company boss Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) – a ball-breaking businessman with take-no-prisoners negotiating skills – is suddenly presented with a situation he has no experience of. Except, in his estimation, he has. He’s a deal-maker, after all. So, ignoring advice to get in a go-between who does this sort of thing for a living, Peter decides to go it alone and get his men out alive, but at a price that won’t hurt the company.

As I said, the film has a double focus – out on the high seas, where the ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), an affable bear, is our increasingly faltering surrogate, and back at base, where Peter is trying to screw down the price without screwing up entirely.

The double-focus procedural is a tricky act to pull off – Apollo 13 does it memorably, but most films that try it fail doubly. A Hijacking succeeds because it decides early on which of its two locations is key – and it’s the boardroom. This puts all concerned in familiar Borgen territory, of personal drama, procedure and millimetre-precise acting, rather than running, gunplay and “move, move, move!” dialogue.

That’s a wise decision. In the film’s favour, is the fact that as viewers we’ve no problem at all working out where we are, hairy Norwegian sailors in vests being instantly distinguishable from suited-and-booted steel-haired chaps in wire-frame spectacles. The natural colour palette – tweaked by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s unshowy filtration – makes things doubly obvious. All is cool and Nordic back in Denmark, bright and warm out in the Indian Ocean.

One odd bit of casting turns out to be in the film’s favour too. Gary Porter playing Connor, Peter’s advisor in Copenhagen is, it turns out, not an actor at all but a real-life negotiator in “hostage situations”. I’m not sure he intended this to be the case but he’s killingly believable early on in meetings when he’s gleaning information from the ship, intel which he then translates back to Peter and his team in management-speak, having, in the process, added no value whatsoever.

Søren Malling as Peter
Søren Malling as Peter

There’s a parallel advisor/negotiator, out on the ship, a shifty Somali (possibly) named Omar who is all wide-eyed claims that he’s as much a hostage as the crew, that he’s a man brought in by the pirates to do a job. Whether he is or isn’t is one of the real masterstrokes of the film, and the acting of Abdihakin Asgar as Omar is also one of the film’s real joys – what a plausible silver-tongued piece of work he is.

This film works because it avoids the Seagal-style stuff entirely, opting instead for realism which would verge on the boring – men lying on bunks, sleeping and so on – if it hadn’t set up its tense throughline so well.

You could take issue with the passing of time in A Hijacking. Some people on the way out of the screening I was at certainly did. We’re at three days into the hijacking, then a couple of weeks, then three months, then six months and so on, without any real sense of time passing. The men’s beards don’t seem to grow much, for instance.

It didn’t bother me. I was too tightly held by the film’s basic coin-flip premise – will Peter, by playing hardball with his insanely low offers of ransom money, get his men killed? Or will the Somalis take a much much lower price than they’re asking for – they want $19 million, Peter’s offering $250,000?

On this question of the price of men’s lives the whole film turns. And what a tense, realistic turn it is.

A Hijacking is released in the UK on Friday 10 May 2013-05-10

A Hijacking – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

29 October 2012-10-29

Out in the UK This Week


The Hunter (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

There’s a totally immersive sense of place in this engrossing thriller starring Willem Dafoe as the titular hunter in kill-or-be-killed Australia. He’s some sort of badass eco-transgressor working for a rapacious global megacorp and he’s after the mythical and possibly mystical Tasmanian Tiger. Or is that a metaphor? Or is he actually not the hunter at all but instead the hunted? No spoilers. I will just say it’s a thriller and it’s structured like Apocalypse Now – one man, a quest, lots of delicious jeopardy.

 The Hunter – at Amazon

Your Sister’s Sister (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Grown-up mumblecore, a briskly paced love-triangle drama set out in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, where indie darling Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and the stratospherically excellent Rosemarie DeWitt indulge in some high-octane improv. The pace is brisk, it doesn’t wallow in the moments of emotionality where it could and it has the kind of folksy/indie soundtrack you’d kind of expect. Quietly excellent.

Your Sister’s Sister – at Amazon

London: The Modern Babylon (BFI, cert 15, DVD)

Michael Gambon narrates – and that’s reason enough to pick up this DVD – Julien Temple’s collage of archive newsreel, voiceover, feature film footage and interview going back to the dawn of cinematography. It’s part of a current fashion for mythologising London and it sits comfortably in what you’d call the modern orthodox view – London as melting pot, London as a welcome port for “the world and his wife” as one Cockney geezer puts it. Though a lot of the footage is familiar, Temple’s editing skills are formidable, and he has an ear for a song, old music hall favourites like “A Bit of What You Fancy Does You Good” sitting snugly alongside Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden”.

London: The Modern Babylon – at Amazon

Cockneys Vs Zombies (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Much more than just a title in search of a film, this British zom-com is an admirable addition to the genre and a right old laugh. It’s not going to rival Shaun of the Dead but there are a couple of good jokes (rival football-fan zombies choosing to have a go at each other rather than the available humans). And you get to hear Honor Blackman – now in her 80s but still able to stir a memory of Pussy Galore – use the F word. And there’s Richard Briers using an Uzi 9mm. And the gore is pretty funny too – as long as you don’t plan on eating a kebab anytime soon.

Cockneys Vs Zombies – at Amazon

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (StudioCanal, cert PG, DVD)

“I rode a lot with Buffalo Bill. He was very sweet.” It’s lines like that, uttered by Diana Vreeland, which get you immediately hooked into this documentary about her life. Who? The hard act that every fashion editor since has had to follow, Vreeland edited Harper’s Bazaar from 1937-62, then Vogue 1962-71. This access-most-areas documentary captures her glamour, pizzazz and quixotic progressive spirit. The name, incidentally, is pronounced “Dee-ahna”. Of course it is. And if you arrive at this homage clueless and faintly sniffy about fashion people, you might well leave better informed and extremely impressed, as I did.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel – at Amazon

A Royal Affair (Metrodome, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Mads Mikkelsen plays the doctor introducing Enlightenment ideas into the court of the 18th century Danish king, and himself into the queen, in this well cast, sumptuously appointed period drama with a tendency to replay history from the point of view of the winner, presenting the baddie as a silly old silly, the goodie (the winner, our man, ie us) as the repository of all wisdom. “You could be an amazing king,” says Mikkelsen’s earnest, noble, do-gooding doctor to the fey, possibly gay king who doesn’t know what to do with his queen and her fancy progressive ideas. On the one hand magic and monarchy, on the other democracy and rationalism. We’re in no doubt which is superior. Plus points include all of the cast, Mikkelsen especially, who are so much better than the script, also the cinematography, which is a thing of beauty, and Nikolaj Arcel’s direction, which, particularly towards the end of the film turns some of the exchanges into a tragic partita.

A Royal Affair – at Amazon

The Five Year Engagement (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A Judd Apatow production that makes you wonder if he’s losing enthusiasm for comedy. Ostensibly a romcom, it stars Emily Blunt and Jason Segel as  a couple who for one reason or another just can’t seem to make it to the altar. The stars mug gamely in what looks at first like an experimental rehash of When Harry Met Sally but on closer inspection is more like Forgetting Sarah Marshall but minus Russell Brand. And no, that’s not a good thing.

The Five Year Engagement – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

White Elephant

Fathers Julián and Nicolás patrol the shanty

London Film Festival, 2012-10-21

At a certain point in the career of a successful film-maker who isn’t working in the English language, you expect him or her to make a “breakout” film, the one that gets them noticed in the global multiplexes, the one that makes them some money. At this point in the career of Pablo Trapero, the Argentinean who gave us Familia Rodante, Lion’s Den and Carancho – all critical hits – you’s expect White Elephant to be that film. It isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s a disappointment. Quite the contrary.

Instead of taking the money and selling out, Trapero has taken what budget his status as a film-maker now entitles him to and he’s put it up on the screen. White Elephant is a big film aimed squarely at the domestic Argentinean market. It addresses Argentinean problems, though with a universality that means it translates. Does it top Carancho as his best film? I don’t know. But it is by a long way his most ambitious.

An epic drama set in the shantytown of Buenos Aires, it has a big cast, a wide geographical field of operations and mighty themes. It kicks off with two scenes that use immense sound – in one a man is in an MRI scanner as it clicks and bangs away. Scene two cuts to a boat growling ominously as it heads up river. And in comes Michael Nyman’s soundtrack, a beautiful plaintive Morricone-esqe thing faintly tinged with the mournfulness of the brass band.

White Elephant has proper actors too. If you’ve seen Carancho (and if you haven’t then you’ve missed an amazingly flavourful piece of South American noir), you’ll be familiar with Ricardo Darín and Martina Gusman, its stars. They’re back here, Darín playing a kind hard-headed priest working the shantytown that surrounds the abandoned hospital (the white elephant of the title) sitting like a metaphor for the stalled social projects of Argentina’s recent decades. Helping him in his Spencer Tracey efforts to house the homeless and wrest the drugs from the skull-faced youth is Luciana, a local volunteer (Gusman), a woman as selfless as she is beautiful.

Nicolás and Luciana
Nicolás and Luciana

Into the world of Father Julián and Luciana enters Father Nicolás (Jeremie Renier), a refugee from the up-river village we’ve seen wiped out by banditos. He’s in a state of shock, angry, confused, aware of the fact that Darín’s way, the Lord’s way, of turning the other cheek has just resulted in the extermination of an entire village of his flock.

And around these three the whole film turns – Father Julián the pragmatist, Father Nicolás the hothead, Luciana caught between the two. It makes for a brilliant recruiting campaign for the Catholic church, the selflessness, the fixity of purpose, the fighting of the good fight even when doubt is stalking the alleyways. “It’s easy to be a martyr and a hero,” says Julián to Nicolás at one point. “The hardest thing is working day after day, knowing your work is meaningless.”

Don’t worry, this isn’t a film full of speeches like that. Instead Trapero gives us beautifully composed shots and scenes, bravura camerawork à la Scorsese (one tracking shot into a meth lab is straight out of Goodfellas). This is a good-looking film. And just to make sure we don’t get bored while the film expatiates on the nature of faith, goodness, religion (both official and magical), Trapero takes us ever further into the heart of the slums, all the while building on plot arcs straight out of Douglas Sirk. Julián is dying of some brain malignancy, we have learned early on. Nicolás, a young good looking man of Daniel Craig aspect, is increasingly tempted by the ravishing Luciana. Secrets. Melodrama.

And to top all that Trapero gives us the big finish that the film has by stealth been working towards – the budget spent on catching a conflagration in the slums that looks so naturalistic that it must have been shot at some demonstration that got out of hand, surely?

A slow-burner, White Elephant takes its times working up an impressive head of dramatic steam, examining faith and duty as it goes in an unusually non-snide (though not naïve) way. Put another way – how refreshing it is to meet priests in a movie who aren’t either exorcists or kiddy-fiddlers.

White Elephant – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

Simon Killer

London Film Festival, 2012-10-20 

Giving a film’s plot away in its title: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford did it. So, with a lot less fuss, did Snakes on a Plane. Here we have Simon Killer, about a guy called Simon, who’s a Killer. It’s a good thing we know this early on, because without the sense of “when’s he going to do it, and who’s he going to do it to?” Antonio Campos’s introspective follow-up to the nervy, pervy Afterschool might just die of a tension deficit disorder.

We’re in the sort of Paris that Americans with a Hemingway bent still hanker after – of cafes and night-time and fun, of bordellos staffed by pretty young things, not a pimp to be seen, everything’s warm, bohemian, nice. Into this milieu drops our hero, an “a-hero” in fact, an affectless lump of passivity, a premature ejaculator and mother’s boy who is mentally composing and recomposing the smackdown letter to the girl who recently dumped him, hoping to deliver a stiletto sleeved in “missing you so much” language.

He meets some girls, they give him a cool reception – partly because he doesn’t speak French too well; partly because he’s creepy. He ends up in a red-light bar, where he meets a pretty young woman. Before you can say “needy” he’s talked his way into staying at her place, and their relationship goes from being hooker and client to something resembling boyfriend and girlfriend. Meanwhile, unlovely Simon is now on the sniff after another girl, one whom he also charms, and also borrows money off, because being broke is another of Simon’s charmless attributes.

Campos shows his mettle in these opening introductions to Simon’s seedy existence, as does Brady Corbet, whose performance is the sort you’d never get out of a star – there’s really nothing to admire in Simon at all, unless you like feckless spongers. As his hooker/girlfriend Mati Diop (you might remember her from Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum) is possibly too gorgeous to be playing a low-rent sex worker but hers is also a performance of total commitment, by which I don’t just mean that she takes her clothes off a fair bit when she’s not plausibly shooting the improvisational breeze with Corbet.

So is Mati going to die? Or is it going to be the other girl? Or someone else entirely? As I said earlier, the title delivers the tension in this film, which does little to deliver it by other means. Simon Killer has lots to recommend it – the performances, the Kafka-esque slow reveal of Simon’s true nature, the claustrophobic Parisian atmosphere – but the film wanders off on plotlines that should simply be cut; it’s 15 minutes too long. For a character as slippery as Simon the windiness of The Assassination of Jesse James etc etc isn’t what you need, it’s a shorter, sharper Snakes on a Plane punch.

Simon Killer – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

Beyond the Hills/Dupa Dealuri

Cristina Flutur (centre) as the novice nun

The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s most well known film to date, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, followed a pair of student girls in 1980s Bucharest into a grubby hotel where a back-street abortionist first took their money, then demanded further payment, of a sexual kind. After he’d had his way, and then performed his grisly termination, the two girls went down to the hotel restaurant, where the only food on offer was a plate of all-too-reminiscent offal, blood sausage and cold cuts of meat.

Roll end titles, and up came a credit stating that the film was from the series “Tales from the Golden Age”. It’s this sort of gruesome black humour that marked out Mungiu as a man to watch, a director in the Billy Wilder vein who clearly had no truck with the idea that in the old days, which means under the iron regime of Ceausescu in Mungiu’s case, things were fun.

His latest film also follows two young women on a grim journey but this time his focus and intention are quite different.

It’s 2007 and a pair of girls who grew up together in a children’s home are reunited. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is visiting from Germany, where she’s being doing comparatively well paid barwork. She stays with Alina (Cristina Flutur), now a novice nun at a severe monastery where attitudes to life and the world don’t appear to have changed much since medieval times.

If 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was political satire with a stone face, this is something more ambitious still – an attempt to get into the mindset of people we don’t understand and then to explain their actions from their own perspective.

I say actions because something happens to one of the girls while she’s there, something rather horrible and it keeps on happening, until everything has gone way too far to be justifiable, unless that’s God’s unequivocal intention.

The two rather charming young women have an almost animal attachment to each other which says more about the way they were mistreated as orphan children than any number of flashbacks might have done. Mungiu’s main concern, however, is less on Voichita and Alina than on the devout adherents of the simple strenuous life up on the mountain.

Cristina Flutur and Cosima Stratan
Cristina Flutur and Cosima Stratan

Powell and Pressburger did something almost similar in Black Narcissus in 1947, showing us from inside the nunnery how sexual frustration and its sublimation could bend a wimple way out of shape. Here it’s religious devotion itself that’s under consideration and the old Catholic idea that the life of the flesh isn’t just a pale echo of the life of the spirit but contrary to it. The life carnal belongs to the devil. So a girl who’s been working as a barmaid… maybe a bit of dancing…?

In this attempt to lock into the religious mindset Mungiu is close in tone to the powerful German film Requiem, from 2006, which followed a psychologically frail girl through a series of harrowing exorcisms.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers though there’s more to this film than the plot itself. Eloquently collaged in terms of mood, of slow static-camera shots, it’s a beautifully realised representation of a world few of us will be familiar with. In spite of the fact that it’s 2007, Mungiu’s intention is to explain the rationale of people who, to all intents and purposes, live in a pre-humanist world driven by religiosity. There is no 21st century insistence on civil rights, democracy or personal liberty.

It’s an ambitious thing to try to pull off and Mungiu gets most of the way there. But he has two problems. First, all that filigree description necessary to construct a world that really does need building for us, it’s the enemy of gripping drama. Second, Mungiu kind of cheats when it comes to the actual nub of the film – who did what to whom, and did they realise exactly what they were about? As in The Reader where we were never told just how much of a Nazi Kate Winslet’s character was – that way lies the death of sympathy for our “hero” – Mungiu does something similar here, withholding information that would otherwise allow us to make a decision one way or another, right or wrong, but a decision all the same. Without it, we’re groping.

I’m bending over backwards to stay out of spoiler territory, probably to the point where I’m making things totally confused. What I’m trying to say is that the director, one of the best in Europe today, does eventually grind himself to a halt. But it’s a hell of a halt, and a hell of film. At 30 minutes shorter it would probably be a masterpiece.

Beyond the Hills – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012


Caleb Landry Jones

What’s that, you say, Cronenberg? Surely not a relation of David? Indeedy, this is the son, Brandon, and, apples not falling far from tree, chips tending to fly from old blocks, he serves us up a rather lipsmacking portion of body-horror just like dad used to make. And the lips, as you might have guessed, are blistered with herpes.

We’re in a parallel world – it looks like today but the celebrity fever has got to such a point that people are happy, willing, desperate to be injected with herpes simplex virus harvested from rich and famous stars such as the Madonna-alike Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). That’s when they’re not buying and eating the cloned muscle tissue of the stars. These transactions, so the pitch goes, lets the star-obsessed get closer to the object of their fandom, a one-sided transaction that knocks a signature in an autograph book out of the park.

And into this slightly steampunky, dials-and-pistons world, Cronenberg injects the actor Caleb Landry Jones, a pasty youth – thin, odd-looking, intense, handsome in a drowned-body kind of way, a perfect piece of casting as it turns out, because he looks as vapid and unwholesome as the world he uneasily inhabits.

If you want to know what actually happens, check out this excellent, low-budget sci-fi thriller, it’s really worth it. All I can usefully, non-spoilerishly reveal about the plot is that Landry Jones plays a lab rat at a celebrity tissue clinic where there’s only one thing he really shouldn’t do. Which is take any bits of famous people home with him… so of course he does.

Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist
Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist

Nicely, Cronenberg Jr leaves quite a few things unexplained, which forces us to work out the dynamics of this world, the opaqueness adding to the sense of dread and mystery. In terms of visuals, Cronenberg has been heavily influenced by the science-gone-bad vibe of his dad (The Fly and Ringers, for instance) by Kubrick, by Philip K Dick, and by the Aseptic White Room Thriller genre (Vincenzo Natali’s Cube being the daddy).

In fact technically this is a very well accomplished film in every respect. The effects are done old-school, make-up and fake blood featuring heavily. This is merciful because CGI, in spite of all the Kraken-y, Hobbit-y things done with them, just aren’t good enough yet. The soundtrack is deliberately loud but not intrusive, builds tension brilliantly as the story works its way towards a grisly though entirely logical conclusion – there is no happy ending nonsense here.

Dad’s hand is everywhere but let’s give kudos to the son, who has made the sort of film that will be gulped down gleefully by the horror nuts, but also by anyone weary with the whole notion of “celebrity”.

A word about the casting in the minor roles, which is perfect throughout, all the support actors doing exactly what is required of them, which removes a layer of storytelling necessity from Cronenberg, leaving him to get on with the business of being nasty.

Antiviral – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

22 October 2012-10-22

Viktor Gerrat in Silent Souls

Out in the UK This Week

Silent Souls (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)

Two men from an almost extinct Russian ethnic sub-group, the Merja, take the dead wife of one of them to her final rest in this poetic, poignant drama which works brilliantly as character study and as a meditation on the notion of national identity.

After the rampage of Anders Breivik in Norway in July 2011, and in a world of multicultural cross-fertilisation, the positive case for ethnic separateness or uniqueness is rarely made without it sounding like the spit-flecked rantings of ultra-conservatives, die-hards or Nazis. Yet director Aleksei Fedorchenko has done it. That his film is mystical, full of half-remembered ritual and possibly imagined histories shows, perhaps, that Fedorchenko and his writers (Denis Osokin, Aist Sergeyev) understand they’re stepping out onto a cultural minefield.

Either way, this approach allows them to sneak a rather unexpected sub-plot under the radar, one which builds beautifully and solidifies to give this film’s second half more lean-forward appeal than the first half might prepare you for.

Silent Souls – at Amazon

The Arrival of Wang (Peccadillo, cert 15, DVD)

There’s really almost nothing I can say about this Italian film without entering spoiler territory. It is a raggy but highly ingenious drama about an interpreter called in by the government to do some translating out of Chinese into Italian for an alien who’s just landed on planet Earth. And that’s about as far as I can go.

Suffice to say it’s a sci-fi playing with the notion of the good alien/bad human and there is no way that Hollywood can remake it in its present form.

It’s terribly amateur in many respects, yet the concept is so strong it doesn’t matter. Highly recommended, it’s reviewed at greater length here.

The Arrival of Wang – at Amazon

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (ITV, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

This is aimed at those who haven’t seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece. If you have you’ll already know why it’s on all the “best British film” lists. Telling the story of Clive Wynne-Candy, a professional army man, from youthful campaigns in the Boer War to his being put out to pasture with the territorial reserve in the Second World War, it is the portrait of the making of a man and of a country.

Beautifully shot in the most vivid Technicolor, and with a subplot about Wynne-Candy’s lifelong friendship with a German (Churchill was apparently less than happy about that bit), it co-stars Deborah Kerr as the three different women in the military man’s life.

Funny, moving, informative and wistfully nostalgic, it’s probably the most finely nuanced propaganda film ever made.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – at Amazon

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

From the writer of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a similar joke, steampunk vampires versus a US president who knows how to swing an axe – political metaphor entirely accidental. Timur Bekmambetov, the director of vampire classic Night Watch who’s never quite fulfilled his potential in Hollywood, is in charge but hasn’t been given the monster budget that his mad, audacious ideas require.

That’s not to say there aren’t enjoyable moments in a film that actually looks at times more like a gay love story (between leads Benjamin Walker and Anthony Mackie), and threatens at almost every turn to morph from high concept zombie movie to low concept history dirge.

Here comes the big “however”. None of that matters, because in the finale, Bekmambetov pulls off a special effects sequence so brilliantly orchestrated, so dazzlingly cheeky, that you almost forget that he’s been used pretty much as a gun for hire in the rest of the film. Now if they’d only get him to remake Wild Wild West.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – at Amazon

Chernobyl Diaries (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A kids-in-the-woods horror with a “who croaks next?” structure. Plus radiation. The plot coalesces around a gaggle of daring tourists who go off the trail with a visit – organised from the shop doorways of wherever – to Chernobyl. What they find in there is the product of the mind of Oren Peli, of Paranormal Activity, who was clearly watching the Australian film The Tunnel before he sat down to write. No problem with that. The Tunnel has enough flavour to go around.

Chernobyl Diaries – at Amazon

Red Lights (Momentum, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Here is a potentially great film about two professional sceptics (Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy) who go around exposing spiritualists as phoneys. Yes, Weaver as a woman who busts ghostbusters is a bit of stunt casting. But she’s also the best thing in the film, or her bracing scepticism is at any rate, along with the moody direction of Rodrigo Cortés, who delivers plenty of Spanish haunted-house atmosphere.

Then, at the halfway mark, the duo enter the orbit of spiritualist Robert De Niro – is he the real thing or not? – and this enjoyably promising film dives away from the world of the rational and into the world of Hollywood nonsense, where clever people stop asking questions and turn their bullshit detectors off. And it falls right off the rails.

Still, Robert De Niro as a charismatic and possibly murderous mentalist might tick your boxes, though the cast is uniformly excellent (Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones, Joely Richardson) and they carry on being excellent even after the film has crossed over to the other side.

Red Lights – at Amazon

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Lionsgate, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

There are decent roles for women – though all of the females are on the toxic spectrum – in this girlcom about pregnancy that’s more expectation than delivery. Bum tish.

J-Lo plays the anxious adopter of an overseas orphan. Cameron Diaz is the TV celeb unexpectedly up the duff by her Celebrity Dance Factor co-star. Elizabeth Banks is the neurotic desperately watching the ovulation calendar. Anna Kendrick is the nice girl pregnant after a one-night stand.

It’s a committee-written comedy grown hydroponically in a studio tank and fed on misogyny, and it’s honestly difficult to find anyone admirable in here at all. The only half-OK female character – the tough, good-looking, upbeat, nice, not-a-victim Brooklyn Decker – is treated as something of a joke.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

Spike Island

The cast of Spike Island

There is a great film to be made about the whole Madchester/Stone Roses/Acieed moment of the late 1980s but Spike Island isn’t it. Fun but messy might be a fair way to assess it. Fatally flawed might be another.

This is a film clearly going for epic. It wants to be the Apocalypse Now of a particular youthquake, with a basic “journey” structure – four lads in a wannabe band are trying to get to Spike Island, scene of the Stone Roses’ most famous gig, a night that defined/ended an era. Onto this is grafted the story of the band itself, its attempts to record a demo, get it to the Stone Roses, maybe get a record deal. And springing off that we have the story of Tits (Elliott Tittensor), I kid you not, the band’s lead singer/leader, a supposedly charismatic teenager, a gob on a stick. And hanging off that story we have this guy’s coming to terms with the fact that his dad is dying. Plus his attempt to get off with a local hottie, Sally (Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones fame). And his strained relations with his flaky brother. And I didn’t mention the rivalry with a bigger local band (whose lead singer, played by Being Human’s Michael Socha, is clearly aping Liam Gallagher and is very funny).

Emilia Clarke and Elliott Tittensor
Emilia Clarke and Elliott Tittensor

A lorra lorra plot then. Flavour is this film’s real strong suit. It’s got loads of it, and whenever the camera wanders away from the underwritten Unfab Four, things really kick into life. Scenes set in pubs, outside the perimeter fence at Spike Island, among peripheral characters, who have names like Dave Famous, Keith Teeth and Uncle Hairy, all crackle with the sort of electricity that only those who were really there, who still walk with feet at ten to two, can provide.

Most notable of these is a great scene where the lads arrive at the gate to the gig and try to get the bouncers to let them in. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s full of banter and the two guys who play the Scouse bouncers (Jake Abrahams is one, I think, and if anyone can help with the other…) give a glimpse of what this film could and should have been – lively, lairy, mad for it.

Had Hollywood got hold of this, for sure it would have squeezed some of the juice and swagger out of it, and it probably would have added subtitles for key moments of unintelligible Mancunian banter, but it would also have insisted on a rewrite to correct a severe plot problem. The film keeps telling us that this story’s hero is Tits. In fact it’s the other guy, the band’s songsmith Dodge (Nico Mirallegro), a shy musical obsessive with a secret passion for the lovely Sally. It’s Dodge’s story that this film should be telling. And it looks as if writer Chris Coghill realised it halfway through shooting. Hence that strange scene once everyone is on Spike Island with their heroes still out of reach where Dodge’s hitherto blameless character is besmirched and he is effectively banished from the action. Wha?

It’s tasty, but there’s nothing in the centre of this donut of a movie. For people who were there, who are now more cheese and bics than E’s and whizz, Spike Island will ding a few dongs, raise a few smiles, lift hairs on the arm as the Roses soundtrack takes them trippily back in time. As for everyone else, those great one-liners, delivered in that flat Manc deadpan, probably won’t be quite enough.

Spike Island – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2012

Spike Island – at Amazon