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

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

Spike Island – at Amazon