1 September 2014-09-01

Ilias Stothart as the young Benigno in Painless


Out in the UK This Week



The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Sony, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Marc Webb’s reboot of Spider-Man in 2012 was artistically unnecessary but Webb did at least inject a welcome note of young love into it – he directed indie weepie 500 Days of Summer, let’s not forget. This even more unnecessary sequel sees Andrew Garfield’s Catcher in the Rye webslinger taking on an unnecessary plurality of villains – Electro and Green Goblin. Electro is a nice bit of racist stereotyping for Jamie Foxx, who starts off as a mild mannered janitor and winds up as “angry nigger” Electro, all exaggerated features and steroidal rage, capable of bringing a city to its knees by rampaging through downtown (the big showdown in Times Square is the film’s highlight). Dane DeHaan is the preppy rich kid who becomes Green Goblin. And though DeHaan was good as the snot, I can’t remember what Green Goblin did apart from skim about on a shield for a while and cackle. This is not DeHaan’s fault. He’s probably the best thing in it. I can’t remember because ultimately the whole film is totally forgettable. We have literally seen all of this stuff before, though someone’s decision to go for comic-book looks in the action sequences, that’s something we haven’t seen before, or at least we haven’t since the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man – those really crappy SFX. As for the decision to pre-load TAS-M3 into the back end of this one, with the arrival of Paul Giamatti’s villain Rhino… is Marvel trying to piss us off?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – at Amazon




Next Goal Wins (Icon, cert 15, DVD/digital)

This is a fantastically simple and simply fantastic documentary about the world’s worst football team, American Samoa – who we see being beaten 31-0 over the opening credits – and the Netherlands coach who arrives to kick some fight into them. On the one side we have the guys – smiling, part-timers, religious, strikingly handsome men from a tiny island, population: 65,000. On the other we have mid-50s, wiry, gruff Thomas Rongen, a guy who’s played with George Best and Johann Cruyff. His mission is to take the team ranked last in FIFA’s tables and see if he can improve them to the point where they win at least one game. Though, to be honest, everyone would be ecstatic if American Samoa could score even a goal. So we’ve got a classic underdog story with mismatched buddies for protagonists, with some shading around the edges – the light of Jaiyeh Saelua, the team’s “fa’afafine (Samoa’s “third gender”) player, the dark of the story of Rongen’s daughter, whose recent accidental death has clearly made him open to life-re-assessment. And off we go with them, into the World Cup qualifiers, a little bit of one rubbing off on the other, and vice-versa. Air-punching, Mexican-waving stuff.

Next Goal Wins – at Amazon




Painless (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

This Spanish film opens strikingly – with a child who can feel no pain encouraging her sister to set fire to herself. The sister dies horribly and the insensible one (Insensibles is the original title, its translation into English missing its target by a whisker) is locked away for the rest of her life with the other local kids who are similarly cursed. This all in extended flashback, while a doctor in the here and now tries to find out the missing details about his parentage – Who Do You Think You Are style. And as the film tracks forward from the 1930s, through the Second World War and into the 1960s, the children growing up and being subjected to one indignity after another, our doctor is digging backwards, until the two strands inevitably meet in a fabulously operatic finale. I wouldn’t recommend the story, which is a bit of a plodder, and the back and forth of it doesn’t help matters much either. But I do recommend this visually arresting film, which has dark looks of Pan’s Labyrinth and all the appurtenances of the gothic drama – sickness, torture, incarceration, madness, deformity, freaks, Nazis, mutilation, weird children and more. All a handy smokescreen for its real intent, which is to tackle the subject of Franco, and his aftermath. Very nicely done.

Painless – at Amazon




Killers (Lionsgate, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

There’s a lot of brutality in this film, thrillseekers. It kicks off with a woman being hammered to death and stays pretty gnarly right to the end. It’s an Indonesian/Japanese co-production (The Raid’s Gareth Evans is an exec producer) and plays out as a story set in the two countries – in Japan as a proper serial killer (Kazuki Kitamura) lures girls back to his place, where he sets about them with hand tools before dismembering them and turning them to organic goo in an acid bath. In Indonesia a righteous journalist (Oka Antara) starts out as one of the good guys but becomes increasingly drawn to the dark side after he takes revenge on the local Mr Big who has ruined his career. Directing duo the Mo Brothers (of Macabre fame) bring the two stories together in the end and I suppose they are prompting us to ask the question “who is the bad guy” – the one who does it for fun (but who can’t help himself), or the one who does it because he’s morally weak. That’s a crass question, but while we’re pondering it, if we are, we’re treated to a beautifully shot film whose cool, leisurely pace is interrupted by repeated stabs of brilliantly choreographed frenzied violence, often to a stately bit of classical music (Haydn?) on the soundtrack. Did someone say John Woo?

Killers – at Amazon




A Perfect Plan (Icon, cert 15, DVD)

A French rom-com with an “only in a rom-com” set-up – a woman needs to marry a man, then divorce him pronto, because in her family it’s always the second marriage that turns out to be the happy one. Enter Diane Kruger as the woman, Dany Boon as prospective husband number one – a loudmouth with poor prospects who she meets on a plane. Apart from the endless fascination of Kruger herself – perfect features and yet somehow not beautiful – there’s the added academic interest of watching the film trying to keep us onside with this woman who is deliberately duping an innocent and rather nice guy. Hence the frantic scene changing – France to Copenhagen to Kenya to Russia back to France (I lost track around here). Taking it as read that a good looking woman has her entitlements, it’s an ugly film trying to act cute. Though I enjoyed Boon’s performance, a pantomime Geoffrey Rush, and the impeccable acting round the edges, this is actually one for the shitbags.

A Perfect Plan – at Amazon




When I Saw You (New Wave, cert 15, DVD)

A big festival favourite about life for a sparky Palestinian kid in 1967, and how he progresses from life in a refugee camp to becoming one of the “Fedayeen” fighting to free Palestine of the Israeli yoke. Mamoud Asfa plays the illiterate kid with a gift for mathematics (a trait the film picks up and puts down when it fancies) and is a fabulous young actor who can express naughtiness and wide-eyed wonder extremely well. And I loved Ruba Blal as his earthy, common-sense, loving mother. Director Annemarie Jacir has a good eye for a nuanced visual, and the cinematography is sharp and clear and beautiful, though the same can’t be said of the picture painted of the Fedayeen, who are so one-dimensionally upright – surely fellowship and good cheer hasn’t been this unalloyed since Errol Flynn’s Merry Men disbanded – that it just drains the life out of the entire enterprise. The film isn’t without incident – we’re watching a bright kid inculcated into something potentially dangerous (though you have to pinch yourself to remember that) and the camp that boy and mother originally lived in is bombed – but thanks to When I Saw You’s propagandistic MO it manages to be almost entirely without drama.

When I Saw You – at Amazon




The Longest Week (Signature, cert 15, DVD/digital)

Tony Roberts used to turn up in a lot of Woody Allen films, back in the 1970 and 80s (Annie Hall, for one), and he plays a shrink and provides voiceover in this film about the relationship of a babbly Manhattanite (Jason Bateman) with a kooky female (Olivia Wilde). Something to do with Bateman being locked out of his trust fund, and not being able to tell her he’s broke, because then she’ll leave him, or something. The sort of problem we all have. It starts with a scene on the shrink’s couch, which ends with the supposedly killer line “but I’m a Jungian”. Later, when Bateman quizzes Wilde as to why, as a vegetarian, she doesn’t eat fish (!), she replies, “I’m a Pisces… I don’t eat my own kind”. And continues in this vein right to the end, with its non-joke jokes, its conversations in front of paintings, its hypochondria, its references to French cinema and postmodernism – the full shtick of a lobotomised Woody Allen. Billy Crudup turns up, as Bateman’s louche, gallery-owning (natch) old buddy and love rival, and he’s really rather good. In fact they’re all rather good, though I felt sorry for Roberts having to provide that knowing voiceover the entire way through, which was like trying to help a man who’s having a heart attack by running up and puncturing his lung.

The Longest Week – at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2014





Askhat Kuchencherekov in Tulpan


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



31 August


Princess Diana dies, 1997

On this day in 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash in the Pont D’Alma road tunnel in Paris. Also in the car were Henri Paul, the driver, and Dodi Fayed, her boyfriend. The accident happened after Fayed and Diana had spent the evening at the Ritz in Paris, owned by Fayed’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed. At the end of the evening they had got into a Mercedes S280 and driven off from the rear entrance of the hotel, a decoy car having already drawn off a sizeable number of journalists by leaving from the front of the building. Their driver, Henri Paul, having said to one photographer, “You won’t catch us tonight,” accelerated to escape the pack, which followed behind. Driving at over 100kph on a road with a 50kph limit, and drunk (he had been prescribed the alcohol dissuader Acamprosate), he lost control of the car and it crashed into one of the support pillars of the tunnel. No one in the car was wearing a seat belt. Three of the four of its occupants died, the only survivor being Trevor Rees-Jones, the bodyguard, who was saved by the car’s airbag.




Tulpan (2008, dir: Sergei Dvortsevoy)

We’re out on the wide open steppes of Kazakhstan, where camels stampede and the locals live in a way they have done for centuries. Inside a rough but cosy yurt a father is negotiating with another family for the hand of their daughter. Eavesdropping out the back, delirious with excitement at the idea that he might soon have access to this beauty, is Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov). So excited, in fact, that he’s jigging along to Boney M on his radio. Here we are, in this traditional land, where sheep are a resource, camels are transport, dogs are a domestic necessity, donkeys do the work of lorries and a radio is a thing of glamour and promise. But a new life is jostling up against the old. Asa also is part of that glamour and exoticism, newly back from a stint in the navy and full of stories of the deep – gigantic octopuses and the like. This allure doesn’t help him get what he wants, though. His prospective bride rejects him out of hand. She doesn’t like the way his ears stick out. We’re about seven minutes into this unique film and already director Sergei Dvortsevoy – an old hand at documentaries about lives under threat – has told us who these people are, what makes them special, and why we should be interested in them. So don’t worry about this being a recommendation to watch some dry ethnographic disquisition; it isn’t. Instead it’s a love story about a young man with a big heart, who lives in place where there are no other women left to marry, apart from the woman he has set his heart on, and in any case he has no real social position to woo her from – he has no flock, no wealth. But Asa is an optimist. Sustained by pictures of the good life in magazines, and buoyed up by the sight in them of another man with big ears, Prince Charles, who has managed to bag a beautiful wife, he sticks at it.
Meanwhile, there is trouble in his brother-in-law’s sizeable flock – the new lambs are coming out stillborn. If this carries on it could spell disaster and destitution. How these two stories will play out forms the twin axis on which this amazing film spins. It has a documentary veracity, though it obviously isn’t a documentary. Which means that these people must be acting. In which case, how does Dvortsevoy get such natural performances out of them? The answer must be some combination of documentary approach and staged reality. Certainly when Dvortsevoy shows us a lamb being born it’s being done for real. But Tulpan (it means Tulip, the object of Asa’s affections) doesn’t suffer from a documentary’s superfluity of data – we’re up close with people whose characters slot like jigsaw pieces into the lives of those around them, and into the story that Dvortsevoy is telling us, as if written that way. Dvortsevoy’s camera works in a similar way, largely handheld, and giving the impression that it’s done on as “as we find it” basis. It simply can’t be – there must be artificial light in some of these interior scenes otherwise we’d not be able to see what’s going on. And though digital goes places celluloid could only dream of, this is something else entirely. The nearest film I can think of to it in terms of its quality of eavesdropping is The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Ermanno Olmi’s Palme d’Or-winning 1978 drama about Italian peasant life. Olmi’s film also, confusingly, won the Documentary Award at Bafta the same year. Tulpan could easily have pulled off the same trick.



Why Watch?


  • The fabulous Kazakhstan vistas
  • The entirely believable performances
  • Multiple award-winning
  • Jolanta Dylewska’s amazing cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Tulpan – Watch it now at Amazon






François Cluzet in 11.6


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



30 August


Warren Buffett born, 1930

On this day in 1930, the business magnate Warren Edward Buffett was born, in Omaha, Nebraska, the second of the three children of a father who was a US congressman and stockbroker.

At age 11 Warren bought his first shares. He filed his first tax return aged 14, on income earned from delivering newspapers and selling door to door. The following year he bought a pin table and installed it in a barber’s shop.

On leaving school in 1947, his report read – “likes math; a future stockbroker”. After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln he went to Columbia Business School, where he came under the influence of Benjamin Graham, author of The Intelligent Investor, one of the key works in the “value investing” canon.

By the age of 26, having worked in various stockbroking companies, he had started his own partnership. By 2008, after careful buying of unsexy stocks, he was the richest man in the world.




11.6 (2013, dir: Philippe Godeau)

I’m a big fan of François Cluzet, who seems to be able to do comedy (see Untouchable aka Intouchables) as well as more muscular thriller fare, which is what he’s dabbling in here.

He plays the security guard who has worked for a company for ten years, is now one of the riders on an armoured truck that does bank runs. A safe pair of hands.

11.6 tells the true story of what happened when, after years of loyal service, this guy Toni Musulin suddenly snapped and decided to heist a whole load of money – €11.6 million, in fact, in November 2009.

This is a strange kind of heist movie for several reasons. For one, it doesn’t see the heist itself as an extreme example of capitalist enterprise (see Soderbergh’s Oceans films, for example) but as part of the French revolutionary tradition of taking down institutions when the institutions no longer work for the benefit of the people.

There’s also Cluzet’s performance, as the guy just coming into the last straight before retirement, just on the verge of being treated as an old man by his joshing and very jockish colleagues, permanently seething because he, and his fellow guards, are treated as worthless pieces of shit by the employers.

It’s the story of the guy who, in the words of Freddie Mercury, wants to break free, but might have left it just a touch too late.

And all this hesitancy and doubt is etched across Cluzet’s features, who makes this a film about the loss of virility, potency, youth, the arrival of old age, just as much as one about a guy who steals a huge load of money, kind of justifiably.

The heist itself is simplicity itself, and I won’t go into it. What’s fascinating is the way that we have been primed for something by the fairly unlikeable Musulin’s increasingly odd behaviour. Where, for example, did he get the money to buy a Ferrari F430? Is it just so he can take his girl out for the night of her life, so he can feel like a man again? Little explanation is given. In fact here and there the sheer impenetrability of the film is a bit of problem, inscrutability being bearable only in small doses.

There are many compensations beyond Cluzet himself. Michel Amathieu’s stygian cinematography for one (you might remember 1997’s Dobermann, which he also shot way down in the dark register). And the soundtrack of modern chillout, club vibes, electro beats, adds a mocking layer to Cluzet’s portrait – is this the oldest swinger in town?

No, it’s not perfect, but it is worth holding out till the end of this film, because it gets around to airing the suspicion, which still exists, that the real Musulin didn’t just plan the heist, he also planned his own capture and imprisonment – Musulin received a maximum term of only three years because he pulled off the robbery without guns or violence. Which makes him a very clever man indeed, and doubly the folk hero that he became.



Why Watch?


  • François Cluzet’s performance
  • Michel Amathieu’s cinematography
  • A great story well told
  • Add to the list of “we hate the banks” dramas post 2008




11.6 – Watch it now at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2014







The meet cute: Paul Walker and Genesis Rodriguez in Hours


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



29 August


Hurricane Katrina, 2005

On this day in 2005, Hurricane Katrina touched down for the second time in Louisiana, USA.

The seventh most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded up to that point (three of the other six were also from the 2005 hurricane season), it was the costliest natural disaster the country has ever had to bear.

The hurricane had formed to the south east of the Bahamas on 23 August 2005, at which point it was termed a tropical depression. By the next morning it had developed into a tropical storm, and was given the name Katrina. As it moved towards Florida it gained in intensity, becoming a hurricane just two hours before it arrived between Hallandale Beach and Aventura.

It weakened over land, but once it was back over the Gulf of Mexico it picked up strength, growing from a category 3 to category 5 in nine hours. This unusually rapid speed of development was down to the unusually warm waters in the Gulf at the time.

At its peak, on 28 August, Hurricane Katrina was producing sustained wind speeds of 175mph (280kmh).

Its second touchdown was its most destructive. In all it killed 1,833 people. Many of the deaths happened in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the levee system designed to keep flood water away from the city failed, resulting in around 80% of the city flooding.




Hours (2013, dir: Eric Heisserer)

The saddest thing about Hours is that it came out just after its star, Paul Walker, had died. Sad because he’s very good in it, a revelation after becoming an increasing irrelevance in the Fast and Furious films, especially once Dwayne Johnson had arrived, a more obvious opposite number to Vin Diesel, giving Walker little to do except mutter “what he said” now and again.

Hours shows a between-projects slightly paunchy Walker trying to regain control of his career, in a small film that probably cost buttons to make and which requires him to actually act. He pulls it off. And in case you think this is fanboy talk, I never really rated him.

So, the plot: Walker plays a guy in New Orleans who loses his wife in childbirth. Then Katrina hits, the hospital’s power goes out and everyone is evacuated. Except for Walker and his new premature child, too delicate to move and inside a respirator with its own power source.

Except that the power source goes out and the respirator is now on a battery backup. Then that starts to malfunction. And the baby’s drip runs out. And so on.

Jeopardy, in other words, one new challenge after another for the man to solve or else his baby dies. This is what they call “stakes”, I believe, and Walker plays it well and for real. And largely in semi-darkness. Though we have seen him in the full light of day – in flashback scenes that show him and the baby’s mother meet-cuting, courting, falling in love, and so on. They’re lovely scenes, between Walker and Genesis Rodriguez, and if the stories are true that they were an item, it’s easy to believe (and makes the film even more poignant).

A couple of doctors (until they leave), Genesis Rodriguez and enough people to make up a dinner party for one scene, a couple of bad guys who arrive later on to add more jeopardy when Walker’s travails with machinery, power supply and medication are threatening to yield diminished returns, there really isn’t a very big cast for this film. And the set – a couple of rooms and an empty corridor. Lighting – barely.

Which means that the onus falls on Walker, who rises to the challenge, occasionally being a bit actorly, it’s true, but behaving for the most part as you’d expect a man in the situation to do – taking on responsibility, trying to keep panic at bay.

Eric Heisserer’s script does something similar, getting a bit Hollywood-melodramatic here and there, particularly at the end (no spoilers) which goes all out for a big finish, which it has entirely earned. But on the whole it’s a clever and tight piece of work that does an awful lot with very little – a high concept piece, in fact.

Hours isn’t a big film, but it is a good one. And that, at the end of the day (particularly at the end of the day) is really all you want.



Why Watch?


  • One of Paul Walker’s best (and last) films
  • A fine directing debut by Eric Heisserer
  • A screenplay that builds jeopardy expertly
  • Jaron Presant’s low-key cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Hours – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate





Gösta Ekman as Faust


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



28 August


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe born, 1749

On this day in 1749, the writer, philosopher and German statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, in Frankfurt am Main, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire, to a local lawyer and the daughter of the city’s mayor. Home-schooled, Goethe learned a variety of languages, the liberal arts and the social niceties (dancing, riding, fencing). He went on to study law, but was writing copiously on the side, often love poetry to one of the various women he fell for. Falling under the influence of Johann Gottfried Herder after he relocated to Alsace, Goethe became fascinated with Shakespeare. In 1775 he published The Sorrows of Young Werther, a literary sensation in the Sturm and Drang genre which made him internationally famous. He became a member of the Duke of Weimar’s privy council, wrote a ground-breaking scientific work called The Metamorphosis of Plants, which pre-figured aspects of evolution, took part in a battle against revolutionary France and became a theatre director at Weimar. In 1808 he published his most famous work, Faust Part 1, following it two years later with his Theory of Colours, which influenced Schopenhauer and JMW Turner. Also fascinated by linguistics and mineralogy, he has a mineral (goethite) named after him.




Faust (1926, dir: FW Murnau)

It is one of the great oddnesses of people who watch films for a living that they insist that other people should be interested in silent movies. Most people are not interested in silent film, and on the whole they’re right not to be. But perhaps an exception could be made for a few of the great auteurs. FW Murnau is one such. Personally, I don’t think his Sunrise stands up that well to a modern viewing, historically important though it is. But Nosferatu does, and so does Faust, for broadly similar reasons. They show Murnau abandoning realism and concentrating on evoking emotion – fear in the former and awe in the latter, which he does with a skill that in some respects has yet to be equalled.
Faust sticks passably close to Goethe’s original story, telling the story of a learned old man (Gösta Ekman) bewitched by the beauty of the young innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn) and begging the devil Mephisto (Emil Jannings) to make him young again, in return for which the scholar will surrender his soul. All this while outside plague is raging, people are dying, the world is going to hell in a handcart. But not Faust. Now young again he entirely forgets his former concerns with healing the sick and finding a cure for the sickness, preferring to yield to physical pleasure, love, hedonism and all the rest of it.
So much for the plot. But look at how Murnau dresses it. This is his legacy. And as various critics have already pointed out, Murnau wasn’t making an arthouse movie for a select set. He was taking an already well known story and telling it with all the cinematic bells and whistles he had at his disposal – this is blockbuster cinema, 1920s style.
Take the scene where the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride through the sky. Or where Mephisto and St Michael are arguing about the moral weakness of the human species. Or minutes later the majestic sequence when Mephisto appears and hovers gigantically over a small German hamlet. Forget realism, this is high style, a kind of gothic expressionism. Later scenes, where Faust flies on Mephisto’s cloak, perhaps work less well, because a sort of realism is Murnau’s aim, and there’s no way that trees made of cotton wool are going to pass 21st century muster. But when we’re in the realm of smoke and fog (which could be the film’s subtitle) and Carl Hoffman’s majestic cinematography, all extreme blacks and stark whites, crazily tilting roofs, perspectives twisted way beyond the possible, the imagination can run wild.
As with the modern Hollywood blockbuster, none of this sort of special effects trickery and “look at this” showmanship is worth a hill of beans if there isn’t a love story at the centre of it. And though it’s true that the relationship of Faust and Gretchen can’t quite match that of Faust and Mephisto for screen power – the love stuff drags in the middle section, to be honest – Murnau brings it all to a terrible, heart-rending conclusion by the end, when the Mephistophelean chickens come home to roost for Faust, and more tragically for Gretchen, who is surely an innocent in all this.
A triumph of story-telling, of special effects, of German expressionism and of sheer theatrical bravado, Faust was the most expensive film ever made in Germany. It’s old, certainly, but watching it takes only a minute or two of adjustment and you’re transported, as if on Mephisto’s cloak, from the world of Michael Bay to the universe of FW Murnau.



Why Watch?


  • One of the great films, silent or otherwise
  • Carl Hoffman’s amazing cinematography
  • Emil Jannings as a superbly malevolent Mephisto
  • Murnau’s often in-camera special effects


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Faust – Watch it now at Amazon





Sounds of Sand

Isaka Sawadogo and Asma Nouman Aden in Sounds of Sand


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



27 August


Anglo-Zanzibar War, 1896

On this day in 1896, the shortest war in world history was fought, between the United Kingdom and the Sultanate of Zanzibar.

It lasted around 40 minutes and was caused by the death of the old Sultan, Hamad bin Thuwaini, who had been pro-British. According to a treaty of 1886, the Zanzibaris had to get British acceptance for any new sultan they chose. They didn’t. Instead they chose Sultan Khalid bin Barghash.

The British immediately issued an ultimatum calling on Khalid to yield to their authority. He refused and barricaded himself in his palace. At 9am local time, the ultimatum expired and the British attacked two minutes later, with three ships opening fire on the palace simultaneously.

The sultan fled at the first shot, leaving slaves and servants to continue the fighting until the sultan’s flag was cut down. In the 40 minutes of fighting (various sources suggest anything from 38 to 45 minutes), the British fired 500 shells and 500 Zanzibari men and women were killed or injured; British casualties amounted to a single British petty officer. By the afternoon the British had installed their preferred sultan, Hamud.




Sounds of Sand (2006, dir: Marion Hänsel)

Sounds of Sand is a remarkable film that plays out like an African version of one of those American droving westerns that’s about guys struggling against weather, distance, adversity and bad hats.

The bad hats declare themselves early on, seemingly, in the film’s opening sequence, during which a poor mother in tribal village who has just given birth hears overher husband and his mother talking. Smother the newborn child, says the husband’s mother, it’s for the best, what with the rains not being reliable, times being hard and the child being a girl.

The mother runs away. Having nowhere to go, she soon comes back. The husband hits her and she bleeds from the nose. He dabs the blood away and asks “What shall we call her.”

This opening sequence sets the tone for the whole film, which then cuts to nine years later, when the girl is bigger, the rains really have failed and the family is forced to up sticks, taking goats, camels, possessions, everything across the desert to where there is water, they believe.

It’s a gruesome journey of relentless harsh reality. Really grim stuff happens. The family come across a gang of rebel soldiers who hold them up and demand either a huge sum of money or one of their sons. One of the sons, knowing there is no money, instantly elects to go with the rebels. It’s that or they all die.

As I say, a droving western of journey and incident, though what marks Marion Hänsel’s film out is the fact that so many of the incidents are heart-stoppingly tense and that the film doesn’t rely on words: there is a fair bit of explicatory text early on to locate us in this arid milieu, but once it settles into its groove, Sounds of Sand tells its story through looks and gestures, visual cues, sound and the landscape.

Unlike many films set in Africa, this is no “plight of the African” drama. Well, it is, obviously, but it paints its small family unit as tough and resourceful humans rather than as a sociological problem, even when what’s left of the family wind up at a UNHCR camp. And they are stoutly individualistic – Rahne (Isaka Sawadogo), the father and his initially unwanted daughter, Shasha (Asma Nouman Aden), Mouna (Carole Karemera) the tender-hearted mother and her boys. And we understand by the end why the father’s mother – a heartless witch, or so it seemed – was being so hard-hearted. This is a tough place and sentimentality has to be saved for tiny moments, not splurged wholesale. A remarkable, powerful film.



Why Watch?


  • The fantastic performances
  • The brutal story it tells
  • Walter Van Den Ende’s cinematography
  • Africans as human beings making tough choices


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Sounds of Sand – Watch it now at Amazon






Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



26 August


Mother Teresa born, 1910

On this day in 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Albania (now in the Republic of Macedonia). Raised a Catholic, from an early age she was interested in the work of missionaries and by the age of 12 had decided to devote herself to the religious life. At 18 she joined the Sisters of Loreto, became a missionary and never saw her mother or sister again. After a stint in Loreto Abbey, Ireland, where she learnt English, she went to India, arriving there in 1929, aged 19. Twenty five years later she became headmistress of the school she taught at in Calcutta. Increasing poverty, a famine in 1943 and the outbreak of Muslim/Hindu violence in 1946 led her to believe that it was the alleviation of poverty, not the delivery of education, that was her true calling. In 1948 she moved into the slums of Calcutta, tending the sick, destitute and hungry. A small group of similarly minded women gathered around her and by 1950 she had received permission from the Vatican to start a mission to help “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” As the years went by, Mother Teresa (as she had become known) opened a hospice for the poor to die with dignity, a centre for the treatment of leprosy and a home for lost and abandoned children. Her Missionaries of Charity started to spread through India in the 1950s and internationally in the 1960s. Mother Teresa became internationally famous, travelling to war-torn Beirut in 1982 to rescue trapped children, to Chernobyl to visit radiation victims, to Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake. After suffering a heart attack in 1983, contracting pneumonia in 1989, breaking her collar bone and picking up malaria in 1996, she died in 1997 of heart disease.




Philomena (2013, dir: Stephen Frears)

Philomena tells the story of two very different people. It’s a true story too. On the one hand we have a former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who became a spin doctor for the Labour government before being bum-rushed out of that position (essentially by fellow journalists in one of the UK media’s regular moments of breathtaking hypocrisy). On the other is a retired Irish woman whose son, born out of wedlock, was taken off her by nuns when she was a slip of a girl. Sixsmith’s book on which this film is based tells the story of how the cynical hack first took on Philomena’s story, reluctantly (“human interest story is a euphemism for weak-minded human interest story,” says Martin to Philomena’s daughter, who he’s met at a party). Then it goes into the detail of the uneasy confessor/penitent relationship of biographer and subject, before finally describing their journey together to the US to find the by-now middle aged man. It’s a real mismatched buddies road movie of a story and would remain as generic as that sounds if it weren’t for the fact that Sixsmith wrote a poignant, self-deprecating book, and it’s been so well adapted to a screenplay by Steve Coogan, who also plays Martin. And given Coogan’s well publicised battles with the British press, having him play one of its representatives would seem to guarantee an interesting portrait at the least. In fact Coogan plays Sixsmith as a nobber, the sort of guy who’s full of petty triumphs and little moments of self-aggrandisement. Opposite him is Judi Dench as Philomena, the dithery but inwardly independent Irish woman who’s familiar to anyone who has an Irish mother. So when Martin hires a car for them to do their preliminary scouting excursions, he gets a BMW, and is proud of its swankiness; to this party she brings some custard creams and a packet of Tunes cough sweets for the journey. When they check into a nice hotel, he’s all blasé; she’s phoning him from her room to ask “Martin, do you have a little chocolate on your pillow.” The film could survive perfectly well on the funny double act that these two do – and doesn’t it say so much about Dench that she can be 007’s boss one moment, and is wringing a laugh out of simple lines like “it’s fruit bread, Martin” the next?
“I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin…” she says later, as the film actually gets down to business and Philomena reveals the naiveté that led her to become pregnant as a young teenager, and then led her to accept the idea that her child should be taken from her. After a “fucking Catholics” by Martin, we’re off into darker territory and the destination of this film’s journey – the son, where he is now, the possible reunion, the explanations, tears and so on. I’m not going to reveal what actually happens, though plenty of reviews will, for reasons which are actually fairly understandable. Because though there is an emotional pay off at the end of the road this duo travel, first in Ireland and then in the USA, it’s the journey not the destination that is the joy of the film. Chalk and cheese (he wants to go to the Lincoln Memorial; she’d rather stay in the hotel and watch Big Momma’s House), with the obligatory “lessons learned on both sides” – but done properly.
Dench’s Irish accent drifts a touch, but it is an otherwise exquisite portrait of a resolutely fair, honest and optimistic woman, a perfect counter-balance to Coogan’s, his usual finger of Alan Partridge entirely appropriate here. I’d be happier without the pantomime evil nun Sister Hildegarde right at the end, but she does at least make the point that feelings run high on this issue, and that the nuns had a cogent worldview too, one in which “carnal incontinence” was something to be battled against. As for Stephen Frears’s direction, it’s a master class in old Hollywood storytelling – of Howard Hawks economy and lightness of touch. Invisible to the eye, all the hard work concealed.



Why Watch?


  • A great Steve Coogan script
  • A great Judi Dench performance
  • Manages to be funny and yet serious
  • Artful direction by Stephen Frears


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Philomena – Watch it now at Amazon





25 August 2014-08-25

Juan Antonio Palacios and Andrea Vergara in Heli


Out in the UK This Week



Locke (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A film set entirely in a car driving along a motorway needs a lot going for it to work. Locke has it. A tight, believable script, Tom Hardy as a methodical yet inwardly erratic concrete specialist (metaphor alert) who has spent his entire life trying not to be like his loser dad, and is now trying to avert the collapse of his entire life by making call after bluetooth call while hurtling towards London. That’s it – a man and a phone and the voices at the other end. Some you might recognise – Olivia Colman as the pregnant one-night stand Locke is trying to talk down from hysteria as she goes into the labour ward alone. Others you won’t – Andrew Scott as Donal, the feckless and perhaps drunk number two whom Locke is trying to brief back on the megasite he’s responsible for. It would work just as well as a radio play – no insult intended – except then you’d miss Haris Zambarloukos’s remarkable camera, which collages together the lights and colours of passing streetlights and headlamps and works clever shifts of focus and seamless edits to suggest the racing of Locke’s mind.

Locke – at Amazon




Ilo Ilo (Soda, cert 12, DVD)

This grim tale about a Filipina maid (Angeli Bayani) who is hired by a horrible family in late 1990s Singapore is the simple story of a woman who is just too good for her employers – she manages to get their vile little boy to behave, for example – and is a beautifully made human drama (dread phrase). But it also takes a beady look at a family that’s on the skids and doesn’t even know it. Apart from the fascination of the slo-mo car crash that’s playing out, you should watch it for the acting, which is exquisite – particularly Yann Yann Yeo as the snotty mother, who doesn’t do anything to make her character sympathetic. Actually, Tian Wan Chen as the useless, indolent father needs a namecheck for doing something similar, though Bayani and Jialer Koh as the tearaway kid are entirely brilliant too. Yes, I liked this one.

Ilo Ilo – at Amazon




Heli (Network, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

A drugs war drama set in Mexico, which got a lot of publicity because of the brutality of some of the images about halfway in – from the “we only like violence when it looks like fun” crowd – and the entirely affectless look on the faces of those carrying it out, the “banality of evil” and all that. Director Amat Escalante is a protégé of Carlos Reygadas – master of the austere, slow, majestic drama – but comes slightly unstuck in Heli about halfway in, after we’ve met a blameless brother (Armando Espitia) and sister (Andrea Vergara) and they have been kidnapped by the bad guys because the sister’s army boyfriend (Juan Eduardo Palacios) has snaffled some of their cocaine. The film – up till here taut and beautifully shot with big golden-hour vistas and perfectly contrasting small human drama concerned with what it means to be a man – suddenly bogs down, with Escalante suddenly giving us establishing shots that don’t need to be there, introducing backstory that isn’t necessary either. It goes from being a fast and furious tale of innocents and the mob to a glacial police procedural. It’s still good, still has some nutty twists, particularly when the female cop trying to find out who abducted Heli, and where his 12-year-old sister is now, discovers an interesting new way of getting the abductee to co-operate.

Heli – at Amazon




112 Weddings (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

If you’re a wedding videographer and you would like to make a documentary which somehow incorporates the material you’ve been accumulating over the years, you’re too late. Doug Block has gone and done it. Using 20 years’ worth of nuptials, the 112 weddings, as raw material, Block has then gone back and interviewed some of the participants, in an attempt to say something about marriage. What he says is actually fairly banal – you need to be compatible in the first place; you have to work at it; adversity can make you stronger. But by focusing on the individuals, rather than attempting too much to go for the big picture, Block succeeds in making a film full of flavour, whether it’s the car-crash couple who were both taking mood drugs on their wedding day, or the lesbians who did it more to say “we’re here” to the world, or the couple who talk about their daughter’s life-threatening disease in such a bright and positive that you want to hug them. Incidentally, none of those interviewed believe in a soul mate. Hollywood take note.

112 Weddings – at Amazon




Mindscape (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

Mark Strong plays a cop who enters people’s minds to find stuff out in this faintly The Others-flavoured Spanish drama (in English, subtitlephobes) that’s typically good on the places and spaces, tending towards the darkly melodramatic, threatening at every turn to turn into a haunted house flick with overtones of a 1940s Freudian regression drama. That it doesn’t is down to the interaction between troubled and useless-in-a-Jim-Rockford-way mindcop Strong and his latest case, played by Taissa Farmiga, who is remarkably good as a young woman who has stopped eating, for reasons to be established. All this good setup is slightly wasted by what plays out, in a film that looks like a pilot for yet another TV series about a psychic cop, in a story that isn’t sure if it’s about him or her – or even both of them together.

Mindscape aka Anna – at Amazon




Arthur & Mike (Arrow, cert 15, DVD)

Arthur & Mike is Bonnie and Clyde without balls. Colin Firth plays the loser dad and penpusher who disappears himself off a beach and drives off to start a new life as a golf pro, with the new name of Arthur Newman (oh my sides). Emily Blunt is the troubled woman he meets en route, who’s also hiding under a new name and on the run from her deranged twin sister, hoping to outrun mental illness. They meet, they fall for each other, they start breaking into the houses of other people where they take polaroids of each other, cavort on the owners’ beds and take on a further level of identity switcheroo by pretending they are the absent people. Firth is good at these defeated, tentative characters, and Blunt has decided to tackle her role by making like Jennifer Lawrence, which isn’t such a great idea because there is already one of those about. Against this we have the twin-track story of Arthur’s estranged son (Sterling Beaumon) and his girlfriend (Anne Heche) back home striking up a relationship too. Someone somewhere probably said “symmetry” and everyone nodded sagely. Nice enough if you like moral certainty and a “be true to yourself” message, though it always looks like actors playing roles rather than real people’s lives.

Arthur & Mike aka Arthur Newman – at Amazon




Transcendence (EV, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Let’s just get this out of the way: Transcendence is crap. It needn’t have been, though. Telling the story of a mortally wounded scientist (Johnny Depp) who has his brain uploaded onto a computer, from where he starts to worldwide web himself all over the planet, it posits the idea of a very bright man becoming even brighter as a ghost in a machine, thanks to the number of backlinks (or something) but whose every move seems to be that of a total numbnut. Like advertising where he (ie his server) is when everyone is after his blood, if that’s the right word. But the real problem here is a lack of basic storytelling skill. This is a horror film in which we’re meant to be on the side of the baddies, it seems. And then you realise that, no, we’re meant to be identifying with Rebecca Hall as Depp’s concerned and much more virtuous scientist wife. But her character is so underwritten that there isn’t enough there to provide an emotional hook. So all the other good work the film is doing – taking on the US’s ongoing culture wars, examining the philosophy of human consciousness, mounting some sort of an investigation into the new world the internet has wrought – is for nought. Somewhere there might be a director’s cut that makes something of this big-budget great-looking dystopian mess. But it would need to be about an hour longer to tie everything together, and to give other name actors (Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara) time to explain themselves.

Transcendence – at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2014




Broken English

Parker Posey and Melvil Poupaud in Broken English


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



25 August


Paris liberated, 1944

On this day in 1944 the German garrison in Paris surrendered and Paris was liberated, after a battle lasting six days. It had started with an uprising by the French Resistance on 19 August, who were augmented by General de Gaulle’s Free French Army of Liberation and Third Army troops under General Patton. France had been occupied since June 1940, but the allies had considered it a low priority for liberation; the thrust was towards Berlin. However, the issue was forced by the outbreak of a general strike and the uprising of the Resistance, and compounded by General Leclerc of the Free French Army disobeying an order by his American superior and sending a vanguard of the 9th Armored Company into Paris. The 2nd French Armored Division and 4th US Infantry Division followed. The commander of the German garrison, Dietrich von Cholitz, disobeying an order from Hitler not to give up Paris until it lay in ruins, surrendered.




Broken English (2007, dir: Zoe Cassavetes)

Any film made by anyone called Cassavetes is always going to be judged against those made by John Cassavetes, indie pioneer, cinema verité exponent, improvisation champion. Which is why Nick, his son, gets a tough ride for making big romantic meringues such as The Notebook. So what of Zoe, the daughter? Well her debut feature frolics in the froth of emotion too, though this one is a car-crash romance that might just have made dad smile. It stars Parker Posey as Nora, a walking romantic disaster who wants nothing more than to be loved. Which is why, breaking her “don’t sleep with them on the first date” rule she does just that with a semi-famous actor (Justin Theroux) who comes into the hotel she’s working at. Later, when Nora is heartbroken after the guy turns up on a TV interview and gushes about his great girlfriend – and he isn’t talking about Nora – her gal pal Audrey (Drea De Matteo) advises her “not every guy you meet has to be a future husband.” But Nora’s DNA – and her ticking 30something ovaries – are advising her the opposite. Then Nora meets another guy, a Frenchman called Julien (Melvil Poupaud) at a party, and is again smitten. Julien is too, but after they have made the two backed beast he declares that he wants to be a free agent and in any case he lives in France and so… another disaster. Except that this time Nora decides not to take it lying down, so to speak, and persuades Audrey to go with her to Paris to hunt Julien down.
It’s at this point that the film becomes exceptionally double-headed. On the one hand it seems to be grounded in a reality that you don’t often get in films – for instance the fact that Nora regularly drinks too much but nobody says anything about it at all; it isn’t the harbinger of full-bore alcoholism. But on the other hand, in what version of reality does someone go off to Paris to find someone, without, for example, trying an exploratory email or Google search first?
You’ll just have to brush these concerns aside if you want to watch this film and enjoy it. Though it is worth watching, not least for Posey’s frazzled portrait of a woman so lacking in self-respect that she’s being tossed hither and yon by notions of idealised romance. You’re also going to have to avoid odd moments of psychological exposition delivered by random characters – a clichéd Frenchman Nora meets in a bar being a notable example, who opines that “first you must find love and ’appiness in yourself”. For god’s sake.
Does she find her Julien, find love? That would be telling. But it’s interesting to watch a gifted film-maker, which Zoe Cassavetes undoubtedly is, working in the field of the most reviled of genres, the romance. And it’s interesting to watch a gifted actress like Parker Posey playing a woman whose dizziness and silliness makes her the antithesis of screen portrayals of womanhood right now.



Why Watch?


  • A great Parker Posey performance
  • The support cast included Geena Rowlands and Peter Bogdanovich
  • A fine debut by an interesting filmmaker
  • A strange romance


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Broken English – Watch it now at Amazon





This Must Be the Place

Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



24 August


The Mainz pogrom, 1349

In the 14th century, the bubonic plague – aka the Black Death – killed between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population (20-30 million people) in the course of about six years. It arrived from Asia in 1346 and ran rampant. No one knew what the cause of it was, but one of the theories was that it was God’s way of showing his displeasure with humanity, either for waging war constantly (the 100 Years War was ten years in), failing to drive the Muslim out of the Holy Land, or, casting about for any handy excuse, for allowing the Jews to live unassimilated in Christian lands. This last was seized upon in Mainz, home of Europe’s largest Jewish community, in 1349, when the Jews were attacked by an angry mob. The Jews fought back, killing maybe 200 of their attackers, but they were eventually overwhelmed and 6,000 of them were burnt at the stake. The plague continued.




This Must Be the Place (201, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

Italian maestro Paolo Sorrentino’s English language debut was seen as something of a disappointment when it debuted in 2011. This must partly be because it seems to be offering one sort of film and instead delivers another.
The film it seems to be offering can be summed up in the many shots of its star, Sean Penn, in goth wig and smeared make-up, like Robert Smith of the Cure after a few weeks on a Hollywood paleo diet. A film that’s going to poke maudlin fun at pop culture. And for a while it does. We meet Cheyenne, the exiled pop star Penn plays, in his Ireland residence, being waited on by a comely assistant. It’s Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2’s Bono, which only reinforces the notion that pop culture is what this film is all about. Cheyenne drifts about, not doing particularly much, offering make-up advice unasked to a gaggle of women in a lift (always put some powder on before applying lippie, he counsels), behaving exactly as you’d expect a rich, indulged but essentially harmless man to behave who’s come to the end of his career without quite realising it – “Why is Lady Gaga?” he asks in exasperation at one humorous point, perhaps sensing that for him it really is all over.
Cheyenne’s character established, Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello then throw this least likely contender for Charles Bronson’s T shirt off on a Death Wish revenge jaunt, after Cheyenne’s father dies in New York and the withdrawn muso realises that the man who destroyed him in Auschwitz is still alive and kicking. The film suddenly changes direction, transforming into a picaresque road movie in which Cheyenne meets one oddball after another, though he himself remains the still centre in a performance that’s a sustained bravura one note fugue. Is Sorrentino overtly referencing David Byrne’s True Stories – a picaresque journey in oddball sauce? Probably, and here’s Byrne playing himself in one of the first encounters that Cheyenne has as he makes his way across the US in hangdog pursuit of what must be the last missing Nazi, surely.
You might have expected Sorrentino to become less arthouse for his English language debut but instead he’s gone the other way, telling his story through the rhythms of his editing and his colour palette even more than he had in his previous film Il Divo, his spectacular biopic about Italian political eminence Giulio Andreotti. His camera here is spectacular too, so elegantly gliding that it actually distracts attention from the story, which is sliding from the superficial to the profound as Cheyenne makes his steady way towards his quarry, one weird meeting at a time. Will he find this old Auschwitz guard? If so, what will a meek retired goth do with him? What sort of revenge is it appropriate to exact? Is revenge even the right way to go? Sorrentino keeps all the options in play to the last moment, his final shot of Cheyenne doing rubber-burning 360 degree donuts in his station wagon a grand, operatic finish to a film that started out more like a hooky pop song.



Why Watch?


  • Sean Penn’s performance
  • The cast includes Harry Dean Stanton and Frances McDormand
  • Luca Bigazzi’s remarkable cinematography
  • Because Sorrentino is one of the greatest directors alive


© Steve Morrissey 2014



This Must Be the Place – Watch it now at Amazon