3 November 2014-11-03

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

 

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

The US TV show Diners, Drive Ins and Dives seems to be the inspiration for Jon Favreau’s warm-hearted comedy – which is simple, fun and just works. The story of a jaded high-flying chef who rediscovers his mojo working on a food truck, it’s put together with Favreau’s usual under-estimated skill (he writes and directs as well as stars), and he drafts in a few famous names (Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt) for what look like “I promise you, one day’s work, max” appearances. Though welcome, none of them are essential. Dealing incidentally with our culture’s internet-driven “always-on-ness” and its risk aversion, as well as the quantity theory of child-rearing (the chef has his neglected son in tow as he drives his truck around the country), it drops in its smart observations the same way it uses its name cameos – like tastebombs. A familiar feelgood recipe served with a flourish.

Chef – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mystery Road (Axiom, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

This is an excellent and very old school “down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean” film noir, which once upon a time would have starred Bogie or Mitchum or Dick Powell. Now it stars Aaron Pedersen as the aborigine copper in a very white Outback who is on the case of the murder of an aborigine girl, and none of the locals (including Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten and Jack Thompson) could care any less about it, on account of her colour. Mystery Road‘s excellence stems from this simple, driving set-up, the economy of Ivan Sen’s writing and direction, and Pedersen’s precisely measured, typically Marlowe-esque performance as the detective whose head is not turned by either threat or promise. Though he dresses like a cowboy, complete with white hat. The Outback’s big, open landscapes are used to great effect, Sen stages scenes within aborigine townships – rarely glimpsed on film – which add an extra flavour, and he even gives us a finale that puts a remarkable spin on the old shootout finish. This is genre served neat with a twist. Can’t wait for Sen’s next.

Mystery Road – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Fault in Our Stars (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A film that falls into the “this one really isn’t for you” category, because I’m not a teenage female virgin. If I were, would I fall swooningly for this story of two teenagers with cancer falling for each other? I think it would depend how much I identified with its stars, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort (who played brother and sister in Divergent). Woodley is clearly the better actor, though Elgort has the harder role, of the swaggering cock whose brash exterior hides a heart of gold. And for others reading this who also fall into the “it’s not for you” category, its story – of the two meeting, falling, going to visit their favourite author in Amsterdam and on to a tragic end, I can say no more – is just enough to keep the interest up. At heart a self-help homily, The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t quite have the emotional authenticity of The Spectacular Now (which also stars the gifted Woodley and which has still amazingly not been released in the UK) but it’s a tender and sincere film and less mawkish than Now Is Good, which covered similar territory.

The Fault in Our Stars – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Wolf (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

This slightly self-consciously (shot in black and white!) down-and-dirty Netherlands drama about a kickboxing Moroccan petty thief running into girls-gangs-guns trouble threatens almost at every turn to become a running cliché. In fact that’s the way I saw it. So, I stopped watching because I realised I was tired, and I came back the next day. And with a fresh eye open to the nuance of the performances, appreciative of the pacey writing and the tight editing, I could see that it was riding the clichés, not drowning in them. Following two friends – the wayward but possibly decent-at-heart fighter Majid (Marwan Kenzari) and his sneaky motormouth mate Adil (Chemseddine Amar) – it is suffused with a sense of impending doom, which periodic eruptions of violence and sex only heighten. Kenzari is a charismatic performer, Amar a fine actor and they’re joined by Bo Maerten, all Bardot lips and Loren curves, as the va-va-voom in Majid’s life.

Wolf – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

God Help the Girl (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Re-calibrate your movie settings before watching this lo-fi musical, the feature debut of Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. Because, as you might expect from a man whose Scottish band’s name references a 1960s French children’s book and TV show, we’re spiritually five decades back, Murdoch’s film being full of the impishness of A Hard Day’s Night and the austere beauty of the French New Wave, with hints of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s thrown in for wistful colour. Emily Browning is Murdoch’s Catherine Deneuve, a young woman who’s run away from treatment in a mental health facility and who we follow as she gets a band together in the neglected social spaces and rehearsal backwaters of Glasgow. In keeping with its influences, Browning and fellow travellers have the habit of bursting into song every five minutes – which also takes some re-calibration. But give it a while… it’s a sincere and sweet affair and its songs and coltish almost-optimism do eventually strike a root into the soul. In the interim, its fetishisation of Browning face, her lips in particular, give you something to look at.

God Help the Girl – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tony Benn: Will and Testament (Praslin, cert 12, DVD)

“I got a death threat the other day. I have haven’t had one in ages. I was so chuffed…” says Tony Benn, the British politician once dubbed “the most dangerous man in Britain” by one of the tabloid papers. Benn is speaking as an old man, towards the end of the filming of director Skip Kite’s project to record Benn’s life story, which ended with his death earlier this year. It is, in essence, an extension of Benn’s own diaries, which give his version of events. It follows Benn from service in the Second World War, to parliament after it, to ministerial office in the 1960s and 1970s, to his post-parliamentary career as a left wing firebrand – “I’m leaving parliament to devote more time to politics,” he famously said, with typical wit. There are touching glimpses of Benn’s personal life – his devotion to his wife – his verdicts on various leaders of the Labour party (he never understood why Kinnock denied his own beliefs, is harsh on Blair for turning Labour into a Thatcherite party). But no mention of the European Union – which Benn was against as an undemocratic organisation. No dealing with the charge that it was Benn and his ilk who made the Labour party unelectable in the 1980s and forced the Thatcherite turn of his party. No analysis of Benn’s ability to back into the spotlight, cup of tea in one hand, pipe in the other, “who, me?” look of surprise on his face. In fact the modern politician Benn most resembles is Ukip’s affable, blokeish Nigel Farage. I wonder what he’d make of that? A lovely eulogy.

Tony Benn: Will and Testament – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Killing Fields (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray)

A Blu-ray digital restoration of the most British (director, producer, writer, cinematographer, supporting stars) of the war films from the Vietnam era. The Killing Fields pulls two dummy moves. For a start it isn’t about Vietnam at all, but about Cambodia, though from the way director Roland Joffe marshals his characters and scenes – the evacuation of Phnom Penh looking much like many cinematic evacuations of Saigon – you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Vietnam movie. And it’s not really about its lead character, Sam Waterston, as the New York Times reporter still trying to get stories out of the wartorn capital as the Khmer Rouge advance. It’s about his translator/fixer Dith Pran (played by Haing S Ngor) and what happens to him after the Americans leave and he is left behind as the Khmer Rouge start on their regime of cultural renewal (ie destruction). This double feint – essentially an attempt to sell a film about one thing/person as a film about another – does The Killing Fields no favours. However, Bruce Robinson’s screenplay gives the film a newsreel urgency, which Chris Menges’s cinematography replicates. But these can’t prevent a high-minded stodginess setting in, and there’s the distinct sense that Joffe has set out to show that the Brits are every bit as good as the Americans at this sort of large-scale film-making. They’re not – and it’s obvious in every mass crowd scene and even in the sound design when the bullets start flying (was that really a ricochet from a John Wayne movie?). Quibbles, perhaps, because this is still an important film, powerful in individual scenes, impressively played (a young John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Spalding Gray and Craig T Nelson) and it’s worth remembering that Haing S Ngor was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and only agreed to make the film so the world would know what happened in Cambodia.

The Killing Fields – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kon-Tiki

Trouble down below in Kon-Tiki

 

A festival regular in 2012, but scared from the wide-release ocean by the presence of a great white Life of Pi, the estimable Kon-Tiki finally gets a release two years later. Potential viewers include anyone interested in Thor Heyerdahl’s intriguing thesis – that the Polynesians had sailed to the islands from South America. But also anyone who likes watching half dressed blond men, or a rollicking sun-drenched adventure on the high seas.

 

The 33-year-old Norwegian Heyerdahl set out on his crackpot 4,300-mile journey across the Pacific in a balsa-wood boat in 1947. This film about his adventure quickly dispenses with his backstory – the reckless child who became an ethnographic adventurer, the searcher for truth whose thesis of trans-Pacific migration was laughed out of court. The film’s lack of real interest in whys and wherefores is clear in these early scenes, in the way New York, where Heyerdahl is hustling for sponsors, is bathed in the sepia matt finish of low-budget CG. It seems to barely matter, since this “getting the gang together” segment is just a warm-up for the main event, which is the journey across the ocean.

 

How do you lash a balsa boat together? Why balsa in the first place? Where did Heyerdahl get the plans for his boat from? Questions which go unanswered, and which show that deep down, someone at the planning stage in its production was as unsure about this film’s broad appeal as Heyerdahl’s detractors were about his quest.

 

This matters because, later on, after encounters with whales, buffetting by storms and an OMG of phosphorescent beasties, it’s the boat itself that starts to become the problem, and Heyerdahl’s increasing intransigence too. Why won’t he tackle running repairs with modern materials? From where does he get his great confidence that the South Americans/Polynesians did it this way too? Is the boat going to fall apart? Is Heyerdahl? We have no idea.

 

But what it lacks in technical grounding or a “relatable” hero, the film makes up in set pieces. And here you can really see why first Life of Pi, then All Is Lost and finally even Captain Phillips might have given Kon-Tiki pause. Though it does hit back with a few Hollywood moments of its own, as when one of the guys falls into the water and the sharks line up for dinner. Or when another of the guys literally wrestles a shark onto the raft itself – heart-in-mouth stuff, and all shot under a mercilessly bright sun in the very crispest of defs.

 

Yes, “guys”. There are six men on the boat, though apart from Heyerdahl (a steely Pål Sverre Hagen) and the plubby refrigerator salesman-cum-engineer Hermann Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) they play as variations on a theme of blond, in various keys of gingery beard. Even the strikingly handsome Torstein (Jakob Oftebro) who is introduced early on as the ladies man, eventually sinks into the facial hair and bronze skin anonymity of the rest.

 

As for wider context, this being the 1940s when the world was getting back to normal after the Second World War, and might have been less keen on adventure than Heyerdahl had anticipated, little of that. Little too of a sense of 101 days passing, though of the claustrophobia of being half a dozen men on a bit of floating wood with a shed perched atop, plenty.

 

Apart from those early New York scenes, Norway’s most expensive film is technically highly accomplished, and uses striking cinematography to retell a story that has become part of the cultural DNA. And like the boat itself, it swamps, it sways but it gets there.

 

 

 

Kon-Tiki – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

27 October 2014-10-27

Joel Edgerton and Tom Wilkinson in Felony

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Felony (Solo, cert 15, digital)

Like an Australian End of Watch, a detective drama that shows cops as “just guys”, guys who get themselves into trouble by over-relying on the privileges of the job. In this case a brave and decent cop with a few drinks inside him, who knocks a kid off his bike on the way home and believes he can cover it up. But the kid ends up in a coma in hospital, and the cop is eaten up with remorse, guilt and indecision as to whether to fess up. Joel Edgerton plays the cop as a flawed tragic hero, and also wrote this flavoursome and complex script. He’s backed up by another blinding performance by Tom Wilkinson, complete with wandering Aussie accent, as the senior cop being encouraged to take down the errant knight by his chippy, ambitious subordinate (Jai Courtney). Edgerton hasn’t quite worked out if the film is about his character or Courtney’s and gives Wilkinson more screen time than the drama requires (though it’s always a pleasure) but it’s refreshing to see morality portrayed as a murky business, and Edgerton also remembers that this is a story, not a lecture on ethics, and throws in a few neat twists just when they’re needed.

Felony – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Godzilla (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The follow up to Monsters – which was more an indie remake of the 1934 rom-com It Happened One Night than a real monster movie. And writer/director Gareth Edwards at first tries to pull off the same trick – a monster movie masquerading as a romance, between Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston, then between their son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Elizabeth Olsen. However, Godzilla, massive, impressive and with an awesome bellow, will keep getting in the way. In this film the humans – often in fetching old-school rubbery, rivetty nuclear-radiation suits that are a nod to the Toho Studios original – are there to look vulnerable, not heroic. Which gives Taylor-Johnson very little to do, Olsen even less, while Binoche and Cranston… I hope they were well paid. Godzilla is a triumph of really good special effects used intensely well; but even more so of intelligent sound design that knows how to impress. Watch it with the sound turned right up and blow out the speakers.

Godzilla – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

All This Mayhem (Koch, cert 15, DVD/digital)

A documentary about two skateboarding brothers from Australia, Tas and Ben Pappas, who came from a fractured family background, but whose innate ability bussed them to the top of international skateboarding stardom. Or would have done, if their lack of preparedness for the big time hadn’t undone them. This is classic rags-and-back stuff, set against a backdrop of the 1990s, when Tony Hawk was king of the half-pipe and cocaine was the drug of choice. Or acid. Or booze. Tas Pappas, wild-eyed with natural gnarliness – “He was just a natural asshole” says one of his peers – is the talking head linking a lot of footage from back in the day. The Pappas story is well told, no excuses are made for their appalling, and eventually criminal conduct, though under it all is the tacit explanation as to why Hawk is still a name but the clearly more naturally talented Pappas boys barely register – they might have known kickflips backwards but they didn’t know how to play the game. Gripping.

All This Mayhem – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Le Jour Se Lève (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

For its 75th anniversary, a restoration of Marcel Carné’s drama which was nominated at the 1939 Venice Film Festival for the Mussolini Cup – wonder what happened to that? Telling in flashbacks the story of a murderer (Jean Gabin) at bay, the two women in his life, and the efforts of cops to take the man dead or alive, it’s an astonishingly modern looking film, full of the sort of bravura camera shots which Orson Welles would make his own two years later in Citizen Kane. Gabin’s highly naturalistic performance as François, a sandblaster blown off course by the swish of a skirt, is brilliantly offset by Jules Berry’s exquisite confection of old world manners and stagecraft, as Monsieur Valentin, the ageing vaudeville dog trainer who becomes his nemesis. Any plot involving a sandblaster and a dog act has got to be worth a look, but you could happily also watch this film just for the clothes – Berry’s fabulous dogtooth overcoat, Gabin’s fashion-forward leather jacket, Jacqueline Laurent’s beautifully tailored white dress (she’s the good girl) as well as bad-girl Arietty’s “come up and see me” outfits. As for the restoration, it’s obvious when we move from first to second generation material, which happens not too often, because the image blurs away from total gorgeousness, with all the tones distinct and discrete, though I could do without what looks like faux grain, which seems to be a fashion. This film was in the top ten of Sight and Sound’s Best Films list when it was first compiled in 1952. Now it’s not even in the top 250. That can’t be right.

Le Jour Se Lève – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Soul Boys of the Western World (Metrodome, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

In the 1980s, if you were British and interested in pop music, you were either a Spandau Ballet or a Duran Duran fan. That’s the idea behind this revisionist history of the Spands that makes great claims for their legacy. We follow the band on the time-honoured path – the East End boys who made it big on about their third go, having embraced the pantaloons and jackboots of the New Romantic movement, then went on to ride the 1980s with a succession of hits, before drugs and disagreement over royalties sealed their doom. This, and their subsequent regrouping in 2009, is all told with miles of archive footage. And it’s this that is the great strength of George Hencken’s clear-headed, plainly structured movie – the guys’ often wooden voiceover hardly helping dispel the suspicion that the movie and the reunion are more about pension planning than a renewed passion for singing Gold, Through the Barricades and True.

Soul Boys of the Western World – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Hide Your Smiling Faces (Matchbox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Three lads deal with the fallout from a friend’s fatal run-in with a firearm in this River’s Edge-ish drama suffused with death imagery and set in the American backwoods. It’s had very good reviews, though to be honest I didn’t feel it. Maybe my sense of poetry is dead, because it is an intensely meditative film, all wind and rain and dogs barking in the distance, with a properly gloomy soundtrack to match. Ryan Jones is effective as the audience avatar, while Nathan Varnson and Thomas Cruz’s performances are slightly overshadowed by the fact that they look like loans from an Abercrombie and Fitch calendar – stars of the future, no doubt.

Hide Your Smiling Faces – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

That’s the plot – a Swedish centenarian escapes from the old-folks home he has only recently been incarcerated in, and heads off on a semi-bewildered road-trip adventure, while the interwoven second strand of the film fills in his vital role in 20th century world history – meeting General Franco, President Truman, Stalin and Einstein, eventually becoming a double agent instrumental in ending the Cold War. The oldster looks like Benjamin Button when he was still a scrotal wrinkle, though the film is closer in tone to the idiot-abroad antics of Forrest Gump, though with an admixture of Amélie’s wilful kookiness. Robert Gustafsson, not quite 50 when this was made, is never a really convincing old guy, though he is a good deadpan, and without him I doubt I would have made it to the end. Whimsy makes me want to spit.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Holiday

Jude Law and Cameron Diaz in The Holiday

 

The rom-com has traditionally featured an alpha couple and a beta couple. This allowed the alpha couple do the serious mooning about, while the beta couple handled the comedy and dispensed sound, often snarky, advice. However, since Richard Curtis’s successful if frequently painful Love, Actually, there’s been an attempt to get more people in on the act. Which brings us to one of those transatlantic rom-coms with a couple of Hollywood stars and a couple of Brits, each side playing to the other’s stereotyped view of what an American/Brit is. The Brits are a journalist at the tweedy Daily Telegraph (Kate Winslet) and a book editor (Jude Law); meanwhile, from California, USA, we have an editor of film trailers (Cameron Diaz) and a composer of movie music (Jack Black). The back-of-a-napkin plot drops Diaz into chocolate-boxy England, where she quickly meets-cute with Jude Law, and Winslet into you-guys Hollywood, where she hooks up with Jack Black.

The Holiday is written and directed by Nancy Meyers, who with her husband Charles Shyer has been knocking out this sort of thing going back to 1980’s Private Benjamin. However, she’s on her own this time out and seems to be in nostalgic mood. Which might explain the presence of Eli Wallach, as an old Hollywood screenwriter Winslet strikes up a friendship with when she’s not making lukewarm eyes at Black. Wallach’s presence is initially mystifying, until the penny drops (nudged by clips of black and white movies, plus Wallach’s homilies) and it becomes apparent that, in among the love stuff, Meyers is making a point about old Hollywood versus new. How much better the old Hollywood was, because it was writer driven. And how The Holiday fits right in with that old Hollywood tradition. The first point (old was better) is debatable. The second (it was writer driven) is nonsense. The third (this is an old school film) is hooey – you couldn’t get more new Hollywood than this, the way it cannibalises old ideas and pays lip service to writing.

However, the performances. Well, Diaz’s gift for delivering energy doesn’t desert her, and Jude Law rises to the occasion, making their flirting and fornication – hey, new Hollywood – fun, funny, sexy and tender. Winslet and Black fare less well, their chemistry just not there, and perhaps they’re bridling slightly at the realisation that they are, in fact, the beta couple. Ultimately, the film’s minuses overwhelm its several pluses, the misinterpretation by Meyers of what exactly old Hollywood was about having led her to write characters who are all entirely without blemish – in fact you can watch The Holiday and imagine an indie film somewhere which features more credible versions of Cameron and Jack and Kate and Jude – drunk and sex-addicted, in therapy or rehab. Or you can watch The Philadelphia Story and see what Meyers thought she was heading.

 

The Holiday – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Co/Ma

Mike Figgis and the "steering wheel" camera he drove for Co/Ma

 

In 2004 director Mike Figgis led a “master class”, a five day workshop in Ljubljana, Slovenia, for some of Europe’s hot, upcoming talent. Co/Ma is the result of the collaboration, a film made by the members of the course and shown to them, and a few paying members of the public, at the end of the week. Co/Ma stands for Cooperative Marxists/Collaborative Masterclass, a name that seems designed to aggravate as much as the finished product. Which is… a dog’s breakfast, if we’re being brutal. Or a deliberately tricksy film playing with postmodern tropes, if we’re not.

In form it’s a documentary about a mockumentary about the making of a soap, and perhaps the best thing you can say about it is that Figgis has seized hold of the possibilities opened up by digital technology and laptop editing and gone for broke with his form-within-a-form-within-a-form format. Twenty participants, scant direction, barely a script. What do we learn from such a set-up, designed to take everyone involved out of their comfort zone? That actors need strong direction, that a film set can easily degenerate into a battlefield without it, that actors have fragile egos and are given to screaming and shouting when they don’t get their way. We also learn of the importance of narrative – by far the film’s most interesting element is the deliberately third-rate soap that the documentary-about-the-mockumentary is meant to be about, because it’s got a plot. And it’s precisely this soap element that most people involved are the sneeriest about. You have to applaud Figgis for this at least, that he’s showing what a boring, fractious, messy business film-making is. And it has to be acknowledged that Figgis himself, in early footage, makes no great claims for what they’re all about to do – the whole thing about experiments, he says, is that very often they’re abject failures. What someone does point out early on, albeit as an aside, as the various actors struggle to assert themselves but largely flail about, is that what we’re watching looks perilously close to one of those segments in a reality TV show where various housemates are forced to collaborate on some task dreamed up by the production team. In other words, “experimental” does not necessarily mean “new”. So is Co/Ma worth watching? Only if the sight of actors being goaded beyond endurance gets you going.

 

Co/Ma – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

20 October 2014-10-20

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Two Days, One Night (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A French factory hand (magnificent Marion Cotillard) has a weekend to persuade her colleagues to do without their cash bonuses and keep her on instead. As much a portrait of a woman battling depression and low self-esteem as a condemnation of modern employment norms – what kind of scumbag boss dodges a bullet by making his employees take those sort of decisions? – it has a high concept, a big name in the lead, clear heroes and villains and an “if you try hard enough you can win” throughline. In other words it’s the Dardenne brothers’ most Hollywood film to date. But it is a Dardennes film all the same – subtle and restrained, with the drama flowing from character rather than the diktats of some screenplay-writing guru.

Two Days, One Night – at Amazon

 

 

 

Cold in July (Icon, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The writing/directing duo of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici made Mulberry Street (aka Mulberry Virus on Zombie Street), a no-budget horror done with zip and flair. Cold in July hares off up a different avenue – two different avenues in fact. At first an essay in the mechanics of the dark sinister thriller, it kicks off brilliantly with Michael C Hall’s shit-scared householder confronting an intruder and accidentally killing him when his gun just goes off. Then it builds as the father (Sam Shepard) of this smalltime thief arrives on the scene to exact some retribution. Then gets more complicated as a few deft plot twists involving the local (bent) police are introduced. And then… it slides off to the left with the arrival of Don Johnson as a dandyish Southern cop called Jim Bob. Johnson is great and so is this character. Just not in this film. However, wobble absorbed, Johnson slightly back in his box, the film then swaggers (with an absolutely unforgiveable use of the slo-mo walk from Reservoir Dogs) towards an entirely satisfying splatter finale. Look out for Wyatt Russell, as the shitbag son of Shepard. We’ll be seeing him again.

Cold in July – at Amazon

 

 

 

Welcome to New York (Spirit, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Abel Ferrara’s best film since Bad Lieutenant, Gérard Depardieu’s best in decades too, opens with some intertitles telling us that it isn’t based on the case of a certain French financier (ie Dominic Strauss Kahn). Then goes on to say that it is… that it isn’t… that it’s kind of exploring what happens when this sort of thing happens to this sort of man blah blah blah. It sounds like a bit of legal chicanery but in fact Ferrara and Depardieu are as good as their word and give us a psychological study hung on the story about a sexaholic French financier visiting Manhattan whose inappropriate dealings with “housekeeping” (the current nice term for a maid) land him in legal hot water. The film breaks into three parts – an extended opening orgy sequence, the central humiliation of the dead-eyed Monsieur Devereaux (Depardieu) being led through the admirably even-handed US legal system, then a bunch of scenes in which the until-now potential future president of France has to explain his behaviour to his ambitious wife (Jacqueline Bisset, a tigress who hasn’t been fed). A character seen from three very different angles, then, with Depardieu astonishingly good at each turn, though it’s only in the last Depardieu/Bisset scenes that staginess starts to creep in to a film that’s avoided the “you speak, I react” style of theatricality. It looks like Ferrara has shot it all on one camera, though this never feels like a gimmick, more the appropriate beady eye to observe an affectless sociopath at work. Brilliant.

Welcome to New York – at Amazon

 

 

 

Maleficent (Disney, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Perfect casting, obviously, Angelina Jolie as the wicked fairy who curses Aurora aka Sleeping Beauty. We get the backstory – how Maleficent became so narky. Nominative determinists might suggest that if you’re named Maleficent at birth then that might play a part. But it seems it was a man’s fault – Sharlto Copley playing the young swain who responds to a “whomsoever shall bring me the wings…” challenge from his dying king by cutting off Maleficent’s magnificent pair. At this point Jolie’s recent double mastectomy springs unbidden into the mind, at the same time as a sort of admiration for the clankingly obvious feminist imagery – men clip women’s wings, that’s what they always do. But these are crass thoughts and should be put back in their place by the most toweringly evil and awe-inspiring character to come out of Disney since Snow White’s wicked queen – the pre-publicity was certainly banging this drum. Instead Maleficent comes across as merely an angry woman who’s just a bit misunderstood. What a downer. And because of this chasm between expectation and delivery, and the read-across from the actress onto the character,  the amazing work done by armies of CG illustrators – who have given the Technicolor ambience of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood a Lord of the Rings tweak – passes by slightly unnoticed. As does Elle Fanning’s note-perfect pantomime turn as the gamine princess brought up in the woods by a trio of good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville being the thankless equivalent of Disney’s comedy animal sidekicks).

Maleficent – at Amazon

 

 

 

Watermark (Soda, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Watermark is a documentary lying at the intersection of two traditions. One is the “isn’t nature awesome” of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisquatsi, in which a series of high def images of Planet Earth pile up to create their effect. The second is the “isn’t humanity slightly sinister” of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, in which the human tendency to turn everything into an industrial process – in that case food production – is shown at its most mechanistic and frightening. As with food, so with water in Watermark, a series of astonishing (and astonishingly hi-def – shot at 5K resolution) images all to do with the way humans use and abuse this most basic resource. Switching from the Xiluodu Dam, to the desertified river bed of the Colorado river, to the tanneries of Bangladesh, to the tiered paddies of China, to the Kumbh Mela on the Ganges, to the disappearing Texas aquifers, it is a series of gob-smacking images one after the other. Climate change is soft-pedalled – “if the climate is changing, then we need to know how and what we can do and what we can do about it” is the line. But the tacit throughline, barely detectable, is of scarcity and value – prepare for war, in other words.

Watermark – at Amazon

 

 

 

Belle (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A bonnet-y drama dealing with slavery and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a “mulatto” girl brought up in the very highest British society at the end of the 18th century. And, what’s more, in the house of the judge (played by Tom Wilkinson) who will end up sitting in judgment on the Zong case – in which a ship’s captain throws his negro slaves overboard and then claims on the insurance for his loss of “cargo”. This ever-so-handy personal-is-political twin-track plot being gifted to writer Misan Sagay by history – Belle existed, the Zong case happened, and the high-court judge who tried it was indeed Belle’s guardian. This is top-drawer British costume drama, with visiting Canadian Sarah Gadon fitting in seamlessly among what you might call the usual suspects (Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson). The sets look as good as the people, the screenplay works hard to avoid the “Good-day-Earl-of-Plymouth-who-has-the-ear-of-the-king” dialogue. And it tries to stay true to the mores of the past as it follows Belle into the foothills of romance. And here, only here, it stumbles, as a modern love story and the “follow your heart” credo intrudes into a world determined by status.

Belle – at Amazon

 

 

 

Filmed in Supermarionation (Network, cert PG, DVD)

An affectionate and, if you were around, warmly nostalgic documentary about the output of Gerry Anderson, the man who gave us Thunderbirds. It’s a clever collation of old footage, wistful reminiscence by the people who worked with Anderson and his wife Sylvia on various TV puppet shows – from Torchy the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls, to Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and The Secret Service. So many documentaries seem so uninterested in the nuts and bolts but Stephen La Rivière’s well researched film spends time on technique – how voice syncing worked, how the “puppets can’t walk” problem was circumvented, the high speed camera and its crucial role in filming special effects, rolling roads, rolling backdrops, Barry Gray’s superlative music (though it doesn’t answer the mystery of why Gray never worked for anyone else). And so on. We also get the behind the scenes wrangles over production, and constant reminders that Anderson’s drive towards realism was propelled by a disdain for puppets – he wanted to be a real film producer, goddamit – and that as soon as he could, he moved on to live action (which isn’t covered here). Would any of it mean much if the shows mean nothing to you? I doubt it. But if they do…

Filmed in Supermarionation – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in front of a version of the Stars and Stripes

 

 

Professional musician and amateur situationist John Lennon has always been an easy target for anyone wanting to level a charge of hypocrisy. “Imagine no possessions,” he sang, and the fingers started pointing at his lavish lifestyle – insert your own version of the story about the fur coats kept in a refrigerated room in the Dakota Building. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary will provide fuel for both the haters and the idolisers, it being the story of how the US authorities revoked the chippiest man in rock’s Green Card in the 1970s, in an attempt to get this dangerous dissident out of the country.

Well, that’s ostensibly what it’s about. In fact for a good while the film acts as a primer on Lennon’s pre- and post-Beatles life. Though gradually the pattern of political, media-focused “eventism” starts to take shape. More than most, Lennon understood how the media operated – that if they don’t get something they’ll just make it up. And so he gave them something. Often it was pranks, this being Lennon’s lifelong default – saying, while still in the Beatles, that the band was “more popular than Jesus” being one of the occasions when he couldn’t resist giving the dog a bone. So, in The US Vs John Lennon, we get the bed-ins, the bagism and the politically motivated concerts, notably the one for marijuana activist John Sinclair, who had been jailed for ten years for the possession of two joints. The concert was instantly successful in getting Sinclair’s conviction overturned but it made Lennon a target for FBI phone-taps and street surveillance, and encouraged the White House to ready plans to deport him. At this point Lennon did what all rich men do – he put a lawyer on the case and stonewalled until the political climate changed (which it did once Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon as President).

Made for VH1, and with the co-operation of Yoko Ono, the film goes no further than it has to in terms of revelation and analysis, though there is some interesting stuff in here for the Beatles completist. Not just the music. For instance, the footage from Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous bed-in (a jokey perversion of the hippie “be in”) at the Amsterdam Hilton is more complete than we’re used to, and includes Lennon’s defence of what the pair were doing as a protest against the Vietnam War. For once, seen in full and in their own words, the couple seem rational, earnest and politically engaged rather than sensation-seeking, dilettantish and rich to the point of foolishness. And it clearly details the moment when Lennon was later invited to put his money where his mouth was and take part in an anti-Nixon, anti-War concert outside the Republican convention in 1972. He declined. This marked the end of John Lennon’s political moment. Had his pranksterism burnt out, or self-preservation kicked in? Or was he just sick of being co-opted? The film has nothing to offer.

 

 

 

The US Vs John Lennon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Flushed Away

Roddy the Rat holds on tight in Flushed Away

 

 

Aardman, the animation house that gave us Wallace and Gromit, announced the ending of their collaboration with DreamWorks (Shrek) just as Flushed Away was released. And watching it, you can understand why. High on sentimentality and laden with backstory, it’s a DreamWorks movie with Aardman touches, rather than what Aardman probably hoped for – an Aardman movie with DreamWorks muscle behind it. A good movie that could have been a great one, in other words, though the good stuff makes it worthwhile. The over-complicated story tells the tale of Roddy St James, a privileged London pet rat (voiced by Hugh Jackman) who gets “flushed away” down the toilet and into the sewers, where he meets Rita (Kate Winslet), an attractive scavenger rat. And before you can say “mismatched buddies” or “unlikely lovers” the pair of them are being pursued by heavies (Andy Serkis, Bill Nighy) working for subterranean gangster The Toad (Ian McKellen). It’s around this point that Roddy calls for the help of his laidback French mercenary cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) and his team of crack ninjas to help him. Was this before or after they returned to Roddy’s gilded cage in Kensington, for some time-wasting to-and-fro between Roddy, Rita and Sid (a low-rent sewer rat voiced by Shane Richie)? I don’t remember.

As with Aardman’s Chicken Run and all their Wallace and Gromit output, film parody and film reference provide texture and a little something for adults to enjoy. And as well as an eclectic, well chosen soundtrack taking in Billy Idol, Elgar and Tom Jones, it’s got a perky script with salty highs – “I’ve got a bum like a Japanese flag” someone says at one point – which seems to have survived the rewrites that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’s original draft went through, presumably to inject the sort of brassy heroism and “follow your dream” ethos that Clement and La Frenais have not built a career on.

The stop-motion claymation is out too, replaced by bright, clean CG, that does pay lip service to the quirkiness of the original, and doesn’t disgrace itself in its big set pieces, particularly the finale when the final of the World Cup between England and Germany (another plot strand) threatens to wipe out all life in the sewers.

Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman do what they can with characters that aren’t all that memorable, symptomatic of the film itself – it’s minor characters such as McKellen’s Toad and Reno’s Frog who delight, vocal asides that amuse, throwaway details that enthral. When the best of Aardman is allowed to come through, in other words.

 

Flushed Away – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Night at the Museum

Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in Night at the Museum

 

 

One of Disney’s old standbys is the perky live-action comedy, of the sort they used to put out on the 1960s, invariably starring Dean Jones and a gaggle of pesky kids, plus a cute animal or two. These movies were cute and zippy and had a gee-whizz wholesomeness that was easy to mock but hard to hate. Night at the Museum drills right into that vein, and even gives a small part to Dick Van Dyke, king of Disney’s live-action magnum opus, Mary Poppins. But he’s not the star. Instead there’s an appropriately bumbling Ben Stiller fitting right into the Van Dyke mould, as the hapless, hopeless dad who takes a job at a Museum of Natural History, only to discover that at night the exhibits come to life, thanks to a magical ancient Egyptian tablet, or something. The support cast is strong: Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs as what must be the oldest security guards on the planet – they’re retiring, we’re told, but that still doesn’t quite explain how gents in their 80s are holding down jobs where they might be expected to get physical. Whatever. There’s also a bickering Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as a diminutive cowboy and a miniature Roman centurion, Robin Williams as a statue of Teddy Roosevelt back to boombastic life, and Ricky Gervais who, aware of the John Cleese rule, it seems (acclaimed British comics often killing US films stone dead), plays his tiny role as the dorkish museum boss as someone who can’t speak.

You won’t like this if you’re hoping for sophisticated comedy, but it’s a fun piece of lightheardedness, done well, with the CG creations – a dinosaur running amok being a high point – never too threatening or convincing. I’m going to make obvious what a lot of critics seem to have missed about this movie – it’s for kids. Sure, a couple of jokes are in there for beleaguered parents in for the long haul, but it isn’t for grown-ups. Not even vaguely. The kids might not know who Teddy Roosevelt is, and they might wonder why the film seems so insistent on the importance of reading, but apart from that and the obviously downplayed icky love stuff with Carla Gugino, it’s clearly old school Disney that’s the target, and director Shawn Levy and team hit it. You wouldn’t want another one, though, would you?

 

Night at the Museum – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

A Woman in Winter

Jamie Sives and Julie Gayet in A Woman in Winter

 

 

For a film-maker, Richard Jobson has an odd CV – a member of the new wave band The Skids (hit single: Into the Valley), a model, performance poet, actor, TV and radio presenter, Jobson arrived as a director with his partly autobiographical debut, 2003’s 16 Years of Alcohol, about growing up in a violent gang in Scotland. A Woman in Winter, his third feature, is also set in Scotland, but draws heavily on that country’s long alliance with France (anything but the English, eh) in its story of a quantum physicist (Jamie Sives) falling for a mysterious French woman (Julie Gayet) and simultaneously finding the parallel universes his theories have predicted. What we have here, you might suggest, is a metaphor for love as something out of this world, perhaps? More than that. With his story of two people who seem to leave the concrete world behind in favour of an increasingly dreamy one, Jobson seems in one film to be taking on the entirety of British film-making. He turns A Woman in Winter into a one-man plea for the Brits to abandon the sort of genre movies that Hollywood does better on bigger budgets, and also the period “bonnet” dramas, and instead turn more towards the French arthouse movie of character-driven chamber pieces. That surely is the thinking behind the moody script full of non-sequiturs and Jobson’s pretty cutaways to starscapes. It’s also surely behind his decision to film Edinburgh as a distinctly European modern city – this is no “red telephone” heritage production. The influences seem more eclectic, however, with the more space-flavoured moments seemingly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Darren Aronofsky’s doomy Pi also seems to be in there too, the way that the story seems to hover between here and there, and threatens at any moment to become an out-and-out horror story. A work of modern gothic. Jason Flemyng, Susan Lynch and Brian Cox help anchor it in the milieu of the professional production, but at its worst, and it has more than a few art-student moments, A Woman in Winter comes down with a bad case of film-itis: a condition in which a director exhibits the desire to be a director rather than get his hands dirty and direct a film. But perhaps this is more a case of a man’s reach exceeding his grasp – at its best this never-boring film is a love story set to a poetic beat, a “two people talking” movie in the tradition of Linklater’s Before Sunset/Sunrise. We need more of them.

 

A Woman in Winter – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006