6 May 2013-05-06

Naomi Watts in The Impossible

The Impossible (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The Spanish have an appetite for mutilation. Look at bullfighting, or the bloody effigies of the crucified Jesus Christ in their churches. And though this film is entirely in the English language, it has a Spanish director, writer and production money behind it. It’s very much a Spanish film.

So, parking my misgivings about a drama wrought from the 2004 tsunami in the bay marked “Anglo Saxon squeamishness”, let’s turn to the story of the nice family who copped the big wave while on holiday in Thailand.

It’s based on a Spanish family’s true experiences and does at least put a human face on the tragedy. Though human faces are pushed to one side when director Juan Antonio Bayona unleashes the monster wall of water after the film has only been running a scant number of minutes in scenes that completely eclipse Clint Eastwood’s tsunami drama, Hereafter.

Ewan McGregor and, particularly, Naomi Watts work like donkeys to keep this from being an exercise in shouting and, against all expectation, they succeed. The Impossible, bizarrely, successfully, is more an actors’ film than you might expect, more than your standard disaster-movie SFX spectacle.

 The Impossible – at Amazon

 

The Facility (Momentum, cert 18, DVD)

A bunch of people who don’t know each other spend the weekend at an isolated clinic where they are to be guinea pigs in the trial of an unknown drug. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it happens, and much of it is memorably nasty in the debut by writer/director Ian Clark, whose variant on the aseptic white room thriller (see Cube) gabbles through its set-up but then settles down nicely for the running-around screaming bit that these sort of films invariably work their way towards.

The Facility is well cast, knows how to play with genre expectations, has a couple of amusing thoughts about the older generation and their bloody recreational drug-taking – kids these days, eh – and marks Ian Clark out as a man to watch.

The Facility – at Amazon

 

Gangster (High Fliers, cert 15, DVD)

A Canadian film about one of the country’s more notorious hoodlums, Edwin Boyd (the film’s title in some areas), a WWII veteran driven by some shellshock and a fair amount of greed into becoming a bank robber.

Scott Speedman is Boyd, Kelly Reilly is his wife, Brian Cox barrels on to lend a bit of much needed weight, and the whole thing has been shot in that vaguely sepia tone achieved by turning the colour knob down a bit (ok, a lot).

Which is pretty much a metaphor for the whole film – an efficiently told tale, nothing more.

Gangster – at Amazon

 

Midnight’s Children (Entertainment One, cert 12, DVD)

Sneaked out with no fanfare as if it were a guilty secret, and on DVD only, tellingly, this adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel about the birth of modern India says a lot without saying very much at all.

The story – two children, one rich, one poor, switched at birth – is familiar enough. Its preoccupations – race, class, gender and the return of the empire – mark it out as a cultural product of the 1980s, as does the literary style, with its digressions into magic realism.

Which possibly is making it all sound much more interesting than it is. Because what is strange about this film is that it manages to have it all – charm, humour, breadth, budget, depth, politics.

It’s an epic, in other words, or should be, but its fleetingly episodic nature makes it impossible to get a handle on it. Perhaps the decision to get the book’s writer to do the screen adaptation wasn’t such a wise one.

Midnight’s Children – at Amazon

 

The Tower (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Now here’s a nice little curio, a complete crib from The Towering Inferno, done in Korean, set in a huge double skyscraper on Christmas Eve, where a succession of well introduced characters – the cute kid, the pretty young woman, her nervous beau, the stuck-up bitch, the dodgy builder, the fireman – are subjected to disaster movie mayhem.

The acting is about as over the top as it gets, particularly among characters further down the cast list, but this is a highly effective film, beautifully made, with some fabulously staged set pieces. There’s even a “die you callous bastard” Richard Chamberlain moment, which warms the cockles.

Tower – at Amazon 

 

Quartet (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut isn’t quite what you’d expect from one of the world’s most famous Method actor mumblers. Unless you expected a drawing-room drama peopled by British actors of cut-glass diction.

The trailer had me reaching for a noose but the film itself, set in a home for retired musicians, is a guilty pleasure. But then it has Maggie Smith in it, and her gift for comedy is well to the fore in a script about an ageing diva (Smith) being coerced into performing Rigoletto by three other residents – Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly.

Sensibly, Hoffman at no point lets us see the stars singing or even miming – since there is no way in hell that they would be plausible – and has packed the supporting cast with real singers of a certain age. Which really gives this gentle wallow an air of authenticity, an ideal accompaniment to Ronald Harwood’s script, which examines age, decay and death in a genteel unfussy fashion. Cocoa probably mandatory.

Quartet – at Amazon

 

Billy Liar (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tom Courtenay again, in one of the films that first made his name, and the reputation of the British New Wave of the early 1960s.

An adaptation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s play about a penpusher at a funeral business whose fantasy life both helps him escape the daily grind and prevents him from properly breaking free of it.

The film gave a breakthrough role to Julie Christie, as the free spirit Billy is fixated on, and this 50th anniversary restoration also reminds us of the beauty of John Schlesinger’s widescreen, deep-focus cinematography, which dresses the drab industrial settings with a wash of monochrome glamour.

Billy Liar – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Human Traffic

Shaun Parkes and John Simm in Human Traffic

 

 

 

Human Traffic made a hell of a feature debut for its writer and director Justin Kerrigan at the back end of the 20th century. A pill-popping tale of a mad weekend among McJobbers in Cardiff, Wales, it’s a film unashamed, delighted in fact, to bring us drug-taking as it is experienced by those who do it most – from Friday night euphoria to Sunday comedown – as fun, an escape, a lark.

We’re talking about ecstasy, this being 1999, and the film was so of the moment that the UK newspaper The Guardian called it “the last great film of the nineties”. The paper was rushing on its own euphoria but there is an undeniable freshness to the film. Kerrigan wrote it when he was 23, living the life, and it has the urgency of despatches from the front line. As to the “great” label, there’s nothing that ages as quickly as a film about youth culture, May’s “block-rocking beats” being staler than “Hep cat daddy-o” by December. Ah yes, “block rocking beats” – the soundtrack, includes Underworld, Fatboy Slim and Orbital and was supervised by Pete Tong, a DJ so famous at the time that his name had become rhyming slang.

But there is timelessness in here too. Look no further than the performances of the cast. John Simm and Shaun Parkes are the real standouts, and I think this was the film debut of Danny Dyer, who’s managed since to parlay that druggy hangdog thing he delivers here into an entire career.

Kerrigan is, if anything, a better writer than he is a director. Among the inspired scenes in Human Traffic is one in which a TV news reporter does a drugs expose speaking in jive-talk he reckons is “street”. It is a piece of grade A observational comedy. Which brings us to the real reason why the film hangs together – it wrings comedy, pathos and drama out of character, rather than soap-style psychological exposition or the standard set-up/pay-off gag structure. Which is very unBritish, almost French even. And it does, quite unashamedly, love its drugs.

A word on versions. For authenticity, go for the UK original version. The US retread doesn’t do terrible things to the language, merely clearing up a few chin-scratchers that just don’t translate, but it does make some visual cuts on moralistic grounds, which surely is just plain wrong. As for the 2002 rehash, Human Traffic Remixed, this has been disavowed by Kerrigan and his star John Simm.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Human Traffic – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Breed

Taryn Manning and Michelle Rodriguez in The Breed

 

 

Five horny college kids head off to an idyllic island for a weekend of booze and death in this tiredly formulaic horror film which subjects the isolated 20somethings to violent interaction with dogs – German shepherds, to be precise.

To spend more time on the plot than is strictly necessary, it seems that someone has genetically fiddled with the dogs’ minds, making them super-intelligent and super-angry. Though not, it would seem, constantly so. Which gives our buff crew time to get drunk, have a laugh, and get into their bikinis (not the boys, obviously). After wondering when the black guy (Hill Harper) is going to die, you might also ask yourself what function exactly executive-producer Wes Craven served. I’m guessing he’s on the payroll for connecting up the South African makers of this film and the Hollywood production machine. And while we’re on “what is so-and-so doing here?”, what is Michelle Rodriguez doing in this – it’s way beneath her pay grade. Unless she’s using it as a way of demonstrating her raging heterosexuality. There have been rumours.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

The Breed – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Hacking Democracy

Hacking democracy screengrab

 

 

 

It’s amazing what a bit of solid investigative journalism can turn up. Hacking Democracy is essentially an interim report on the work of the Black Box Voting (BBV) organisation, a group of public spirited US individuals who were set up by activist Bev Harris after she discovered that a US senator had been the CEO of the company that counted his votes. BBV started asking awkward questions about the nation’s “impregnable” electronic voting system after cock-ups and/or fixes (delete according to political allegiance) at both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Couching questions so cautiously that you suspect that legal departments might have had a hand in writing the script, the documentary nevertheless zeroes in on the uncomfortable nub of the matter – why can’t the “infallible” computers which rely on touch-screens and optical scanning get their sums right? The machines in question are made by Diebold Election Systems, an outfit whose CEO publicly supported George Bush at the 2004 elections. So, is something or someone fiddling with the figures? And if they are – one scene shows a hacker having an easy time of rewriting voting tallies without leaving any trace that he was there – is the USA in fact not a democracy at all?

Occasionally rambling, more one-sided than the average open-minded believer in democracy might want and struggling to approach the magic 90 minute mark, this is nevertheless a remarkable example of citizen power, an indictment of the power of big business and of political inertia at the highest level. If it asks a lot more questions than it effectively answers, it’s at least a stark warning – governments all over the world trying to save money are rushing to implement similar electronic voting systems too.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Hacking Democracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

Pathfinder

Karl Urban in Pathfinder

 

 

A Viking orphan is raised by American Indians in Newfoundland, circa 1000AD, only to be confronted with the mother of all identity crises when the warlike Norsemen return years later, and set about raping and pillaging their way through the villages of his adoptive nation. Which call is he going to obey – blood or upbringing? Offering the viewer the supposed delights of the clash of two of the world’s ur-peoples – the Viking and the Native American – Marcus Nispel’s follow-up to his fairly pointless remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre proves he’s still more at home with pop promos for Janet Jackson and Billy Joel than as a big screen director.

To be slightly fair to Nispel, the dead hand of the studio is all over Pathfinder, which was delayed again and again as bits were hacked off it until preview audiences lost the will to bitch. Whether it started out as a protracted chase back and forth – Conan goes Commando – I don’t know, but that’s the way it has ended up. Karl Urban plays Nispel’s hero Ghost – I say Nispel’s hero but this is in fact a remake of Nils Gaup’s better Norwegian original from 1987, Ofelas. No, Urban isn’t bad as Ghost, he’s chunky at least, substantial. But Nispel hobbles his potentially buff lead – hair and make-up inspired by Viggo Mortensen in Lord Of The Rings – with a production design based on the colour of mud, a visual cue which the drama obediently follows.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Pathfinder – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Prick Up Your Ears

Alfred Molina and Gary Oldman in Prick Up Your Ears

 

 

A re-release of Stephen Frears’s 1987 drama about Joe Orton, the blackly satirical and dead funny writer of Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane who was battered to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in their rundown London flat in 1967, just as the big time arrived. It’s a study of a relationship skidding towards the brink, with Gary Oldman a chirpy, cocky Orton, Alfred Molina working hard at the much less sympathetic role of Halliwell, the older man whose tutorial services were no longer required once Orton’s star started to rise. Meanwhile Vanessa Redgrave puts in to-the-manner-born performance as Orton’s imperious, patrician, rather scary agent, Peggy Ramsay.

The film seemed almost daring when it debuted in 1987 – the accent being on Orton’s homosexual behaviour. It seems less so now. In fact it threatens to dissolve here and there, so one-ply does Alan Bennett’s screenplay become at times. But you can’t deny the fruitiness of Bennett’s whimsical, playful excursions into Ortonese, and the two main performances are stonkers – this was the era just after Gary Oldman had erupted in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy; whereas Molina is so endlessly versatile that his acting ability is often overlooked. Together the pair flesh out the bare bones of the scandal of Orton’s death (and life, for that matter). There was more to the man than where he chose to park his private parts, after all. So yes, the “Ears” of the title is probably an anagram.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Prick Up Your Ears – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Catch and Release

Jennifer Garner in Catch and Release

 

 

Having written the entirely acceptable Erin Brockovich and the entirely terrible 28 Days, Susannah Grant makes her directorial debut with a dog of a rom-com starring Jennifer Garner as the girl mourning the death of her fiancé, learning that he wasn’t as perfect as she had thought, and turning to his friend (Timothy Olyphant) for succour and much else besides.

How awful a rom-com premise is that? Such was your love for someone, so impactful was his death, so stricken are you by the news that he might well have been a scumbag, that you decide to start making big eyes at the nearest available sexy guy. True, it might happen in real life, but that still doesn’t make it a great rom-com premise.

Worse than that there’s the distinct impression that everyone working on this film has taken one step back from the whole enterprise. For example, no one has pointed out to Grant – probably tearing her hair out with the thousand and one things that plague a first-time director – that her star is clearly pregnant, though Garner’s character certainly isn’t in the screenplay. Nor has anyone had a word in Grant’s ear about Olyphant’s spectacularly wooden performance – he is normally a lot better than this. Further down the cast list there are good people doing good work – Sam Jaeger, Juliette Lewis, Fiona Shaw. Most particularly there’s a comic performance by Kevin Smith (director of Clerks) who decides that he might as well have some fun and is almost energetic, fresh and funny enough to save the movie. I said almost.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Catch and Release – at Amazon

 

 

 

29 April 2013-04-29

Richard Parker the Tiger and Suraj Sharma in Life of Pi

Out in the UK this week

Life of Pi (Fox, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Reminiscent of those special-effects-driven Alexander Korda productions of the 1940s starring Sabu as an Asian boy in a world of phantasmagoria, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” novel about an Indian teenager and a tiger adrift in a lifeboat is like painting on silk or black velvet – slickly beautiful though hardly profound. Mind you, when images are this lush – a phosphorescent sea full of jellyfish, a doomed hulk of a ship going under with all lights blazing, a sea as reflective as mercury, then maybe profundity can take a day off.

Life of Pi  – at Amazon

 

The Collection (Entertainment One, cert 18, DVD)

The guys who did Saw IV-VI (it must be guys, surely, though we live in a world inhabited by the Soska sisters) return, having assimilated The Human Centipede’s lessons in eeew, with an ingeniously worked through array of death in a big old house – by hound, nailgun, descending spikes, iron maiden, bomb, blade and plenty more. Plot? Character? Maybe next time.

The Collection – at Amazon

 

Being Flynn (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Adapted from Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, this heartfelt drama about a dad heading for Skid Row, where his son happens to work, gives us a chance to see Robert De Niro putting in a powerful performance as the delusional alcoholic dad and Paul Dano, in a less flamboyant role, as his peevish son heading vaguely the same way. Watching Being Flynn it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that it was designed with box-office hugeness in mind. The fact that Julianne Moore and Olivia Thirlby are members of the very solid cast suggests that too. That it doesn’t attain hugeness is down to the script, which never quite works out what to do with the authorial voice, so keeps it in as voiceover, along with unnecessary scenes which replicate what the narrator is telling us.

Being Flynn – at Amazon

 

White Tiger (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

A Russian film about the Second World War, made in the epic Soviet style – lots of extras, plenty of explosions – about a tank commander who sets out on a mission to rid the Eastern Front of a German tank so agile and deadly that it has acquired mythic status. There is much to like in this film – seeing villages laid waste by tank ordnance is viscerally thrilling, plus there’s a nimble cat-and-mouse plot which really helps tug even the most combat-fatigued viewer through. But, and this is initially more of a mystifier than a bar to enjoyment, the tank plot on which the entire film turns is junked about 15 minutes from the end, and we cut to an entirely different story about the German high command signing the capitulation documents that ended the war. And then, right at the last second, we return to our tank commander who makes a little speech about the German – “He’s waiting. He’ll wait 20 years, 50, maybe a hundred but he’ll crawl out. He must be destroyed.” And we then cut to Hitler, foaming away in a schloss somewhere. Even though everyone knows Hitler was dead before the end of the war. These departures from both original plot and historical record are deliberate, and possibly say something about the Russian empire’s view of the world that’s as worth hearing as the film is worth seeing.

White Tiger – at Amazon

 

You Will Be My Son (Drakes Avenue, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

Shot in the Dordogne, almost entirely in the golden hour, which drenches everything in the most beautiful side-lighting, this French drama is about the fractious relationship between an old vintner (a lionlike Niels Arestrup) and his milquetoast son (Lorànt Deutsch). Which only gets worse when the taller, more confident, handsome and successful son (Nicolas Bridet) of the big fella’s estate manager returns. There’s a great plot to this film, and it is peopled by actors who force an emotional investment. And any film that deals in wine and vineyards clearly has an in-built advantage. But the script is an exercise in over-obviousness and by the time of the father’s umpteenth belittling of the son, the son’s lack of balls is severely losing him sympathy. Verdict: nuanced actors hung out to dry by the script. Still, there’s always that sunshine.

You  Will Be My Son – at Amazon

 

Girlfriend in a Coma (Springshot, cert E, DVD)

A feature-length documentary by Bill Emmott, the dapper former editor of the Economist, who analyses the decline of Italy, a country he clearly holds dear. This is a well-researched piece, opinionated, with the right talking heads (including cultural theorist/novelist Umberto Eco, and technocrat prime minister Mario Monti), though Emmott never got the interview with Berlusconi that was promised. What gives this heartfelt 90 minutes a wider resonance is Emmott’s broader application of his conclusion – “bad government is to blame for letting bad capitalism thrive”. As in Italy, so in the rest of the world.

Girlfriend in a Coma – at Amazon

 

Black Sabbath (Arrow, cert 18, Blu-ray)

Mario Bava’s 1963 horror is where Ozzy Osbourne and his Birmingham muckers got the name for their band. It’s a portmanteau affair consisting of three separate stories – The Telephone, The Drop of Water and The Wurdalak, the latter starring Boris Karloff. All are beautifully shot, theatrically ripe affairs, heaving with blood, bosoms and menace, making Black Sabbath a must-have for Bava nuts and a good place to start if you’ve never had any contact with one of the masters of horror.

Black Sabbath – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

Bridge to Terabithia

Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb in Bridge to Terabithia

 

 

Walden Media are the Christian folk who believe in films with tone, uplift and a bright message. They brought us the dreary Narnia film, you might remember, and are at it again with this resolutely nice adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s book about a picked-on schoolboy Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) who discovers the key to beating his fears after new girl in town Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) introduces him to the power of imagination. And as in Narnia, there’s a definite class component in Terabithia. Jesse is a blue-collar boy and Leslie’s parents are writers, which reinforces one of the tacit assumptions of nearly all imaginative literature and drama – the life of the mind is only for the well spoken. That said, I’m not sure what Walden are hoping to achieve by making a film telling us that it’s our minds that make the best pictures – they’re a movie production house, after all.

Tallying up the pluses and minues, Walden do come up with a lovely evocation of some of the simple joys of “race you to the end of the road” childhood and the film catches nicely the way young boys can fall badly for pretty female teachers (Zooey Deschanel in this case). It’s also strong on the disfiguring nastiness of bullying and the fact that the world of children exists almost invisibly right beneath the noses of adults. Debut director Gabor Csupo injects a bit of animation into the fabric of the film, as you might expect from someone who toiled long years on The Simpsons, though he never lets it gang up on the live action. On the downside Terabithia does contain some hideously drippy songs and the parents of Leslie are, in their sophisticated, aphoristic, coolly imaginative way, the sort of people you’d want to take out and shoot. At least in 13-year-old AnnaSophia Robb the film has a star. Give her five years and she’ll probably be the next Lindsay Lohan.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Bridge to Terabithia – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

El Topo

Alejandro Jodorowsky takes a dip in El Topo

 

 

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 movie is considered to be one of a handful that changed the way films were watched… and made. Signalling the shift into, and legitimisation of the hitherto critically rarely considered genre movie, El Topo simultaneously satirises and adds to its chosen area of operations. Which is the western, the spaghetti western to be more specific. Though Sergio Leone, or even Sergio Corbucci, never cranked out anything this sensationalist.

El Topo is the spaghetti western as travelling circus. It’s populated with cruel, cackling banditos, pinheads, armless and legless freaks, bare-breasted women, fly-covered corpses and even, at one point, spontaneously combusting rabbits. And all of the above are sewn into a plot that owes as much to mescal as surrealism, to which it owes a lot. And as surrealism is often the refuge of the artistic scoundrel – how can you reasonably set about critiquing a work that is said to spring from the unconscious? – El Topo is the sort of film that divides the critics. Its merits are many – though you can ignore the picaresque philosophical journey of El Topo (which translates as the Mole) from darkness towards light and still enjoy the film. And unlike many an experimental movie, it has the sort of production values that Leone or Fellini or Buñuel (all obvious influences) would be more than happy with.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

El Topo – at Amazon