Snowpiercer

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer

 

That sound? The plane taking off from LAX taking a great Asian director back home, sobbing with disappointment. It happened to John Woo, who did at least manage to crank out Face/Off, but his sad run of Hollywood films include Windtalkers, Mission: Impossible II and Hard Target. To the Pang brothers too, whose The Eye was one of the attention-grabbers of 2002. They came to Hollywood, made The Messengers for Sam Raimi, then put their tail between their legs and went home.

So what about the latest Asian import, the great South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, whose uniquely flavoured movies include Memories of Murder, a killer-thriller-whodunit whose cops get their man more by brutality and naked luck than sleuthing. Or The Host, a monster movie in which the hero doesn’t so much step forward, as find that everyone else has taken a step back. How is Mr Bong going to go down in a town where irony is a dish best served not at all?

The answer is Snowpiercer, an adaptation of the 1982 cult French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, a post-apocalyptic thriller set on board a train of 1,001 carriages that has been travelling non-stop for 17 years through a world that is entirely frozen. Outside, the passengers are told, everything is extinct. Inside, the train is run on feudal Orwellian lines, with the bosses at the front, the proles at the back, and a massive system of repression, propaganda and eventism keeping everyone, but mostly the proles, on-message.

The uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Curtis (Chris Evans) and sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), emboldened by ragged spiritual mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) to make a break for the front of the train and either overthrow the Big Brother-style leader Wilford (Ed Harris) or convince him at least of the need for a little more gravy down the back end.

Post-apocalypse, little men against a corrupt leader, steampunk technology, a quest: we’ve seen films like this a lot over the decades, often starring Arnie or Will Smith or Tom Cruise, films that pause to crack a wry one-liner but are otherwise propulsive, fairly humourless and full of action and dead bodies.

The first sign that Bong isn’t quite making that sort of film comes early on, with the arrival of Mason (Tilda Swinton), one of Wilford’s henchpeople, who has come down from the front to the back to the train – and looks very unhappy about it too – to nip rebellion in the bud. In a convoluted speech Mason contemptuously tells the rear-dwellers that they should be happy with their lot, that everyone has their role and, pushing an ill-chosen metaphor beyond breaking point, that “I am the hat; you are the shoe”, all this while a miscreant is having his arm frozen off by exposure to the outside elements, pour encourager les autres. It’s the sort of scene you can imagine being in Total Recall, except that screenwriters Kelly Masterson and Bong Joon Ho have other ideas: Swinton comes equipped with a comic northern English accent, a face full of big teeth and her coat is constantly slipping off her shoulders.

The whole film is like this – familiar sci-fi tropes undermined by Bong’s oblique strategies.

I’m not going to explain the film’s entire plot, except to say that Curtis, Edgar, their ragged-trousered team and a couple of South Koreans (Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung) they’ve woken from cryo-sleep do indeed make a dash for the front, each carriage a marvel of Wachowski-esque set design (one’s a classroom teaching elite kids, another is a vast glass house hydroponically growing crops, another is a bespoke tailor’s, another a dentist, a nightclub, a cocktail bar), through a train whose metaphorical purpose couldn’t be made more explicit if the word “allegory” were flashing up on screen every few minutes.

It is a fantastic, fabulous, ludicrous and lovely film to look at, and as Curtis and crew battle forwards they are assailed by bullets, bombs and even a medieval axe attack in one entirely blacked-out carriage. But one great, breathtaking and fanatically detailed scene followed by another doesn’t necessarily equal a great film. And that’s the case here. Partly this is Evans’s fault – he’s likeable but lacks heroic charisma. But mostly it’s because I think Bong wanted it that way. For example, in the middle of the medieval axe fight the combatants pause to wish each other a happy new year. Bong is deliberately subverting the heroic action blockbuster with little human touches (the slipping coat) at almost every turn.

But this deviously ironic film insisting on nuance where the genre generally goes for broad brush isn’t helped – is undermined, in fact – by its blunderbuss approach to satire. In particular the final long rambling “explains it all” speech by Wilford that more or less throws away the claims to specialness that the film has carefully wrought. Is this Bong’s doing? Masterson’s? The studio’s?

Snowpiercer isn’t boring, and there’s really nothing to touch it for production design and world-building. File it next to the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas in the drawer marked Mad Brilliant Messes with a Thumping Message.

Bong’s next film is being made in South Korea.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Stations of the Cross aka Kreuzweg

1. Jesus is condemned to death – Lea Van Acken and Florian Stetter in Stations of the Cross

 

A powerful and formally austere German drama that does exactly what it says on the label, Stations of the Cross charts the sad journey of one vivacious Catholic girl to an early grave in 14 grim instalments which echo those of Jesus Christ on the way to Calvary.

The Catholics also knew the Stations as the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Sorrows, the Latin name doubly appropriate here since devout, cusping-on-puberty Maria (a remarkable Lea Van Acken) is being prepared for her confirmation by the charismatic Father Weber (Florian Stetter), a priest in a breakaway part of the Catholic Church that still uses Latin. This branch of the Church is also positively medieval in its theological outlook. The world is sinful, abnegation is a virtue, things denied down here count for something up there, the charismatic and creepy Weber making something of the fact that he’s not going to have that bar of chocolate, not going to listen to “that beautiful concert on the radio”. Things are similar at home, Maria’s mother a bright-eyed zealot, father cowering in near-silence while Maria’s four-year-old brother Johannes hasn’t spoken since birth. Is it autism? Is Johannes touched by God? Traumatised?

But Satan comes clothed in a variety of guises. Whether it’s the family’s French au pair Bernadette, a Cafeteria Catholic – pick what you want, leave the rest – or Christian (Moritz Knapp) at school, who is keen to get Maria to sing in his church choir, where as well as “lots of Bach chorales” they sing soul and gospel. He may be keen to get at more of Maria than her vocal cords, and for her part Maria admits in the confessional to the smooth, wheedling Father Weber that she might have dreamt about Christian putting his arm around her.

The poor chaste lamb needs it. She’s pale, thin, wears hardly any clothes when it’s clearly cold out. And after mother hears of the “gospel… soul… jazz…whatever”, sinful devil’s music, things erupt and what in most families would be a rites-of-passage row about new feelings for members of the opposite sex becomes for the mother a crusade against a new darkness, for the daughter a new opportunity to demonstrate her self-denial (which might well be a sinful expression of pride, she confides to Bernadette).

A powerful story, then, especially as it progresses from this point, but it’s the manner of its telling that has been winning the film awards at festivals all over the world. Director Dietrich Brüggemann and co-writer/sister Anna Brüggemann plot Maria’s story in exact parallel with Jesus’s journey to Calvary, each of the film’s 14 chapters being marked as a different “station of the cross” – from 1. Jesus is condemned to death, to 14. Jesus is laid in his tomb. If that’s spoilerish, take comfort from the fact that it won’t be to anyone familiar with Christianity. Given the title of the film, once we’ve seen that first intertitle, there’s really only one way this can go. Though the Brüggemanns do have a little fun on the way. Stage 5 (Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to the cross) and stage 6 (Veronica wipes the face of Jesus), as well as being intensely powerful individual scenes, both work at 180° to what their chapter headings suggest.

And festival juries have also been falling over themselves with admiration for the Brüggemanns’ shooting style, each station a single flatly lit locked-shot, inside which there is some movement, though not much.

In the tradition of “from the inside out” films such as Hans-Christian Schmid’s 2006 German exorcism shocker, Requiem, rather than more conventional “outside in” horrors such as Pascal Laugier’s 2008 French/Canadian gorno Martyrs, it’s the movie equivalent of the sort of static stations of the cross you might find in almost any church. Except here a girl called Maria is taking the part of Jesus, and men are for the most part either passive (Maria’s father) or pulsing with dangerous power (Father Weber). Someone is turning the tables on gender relations in Christianity, it would appear. But Stations of the Cross is so muted in its modus operandi that it can be read a number of ways. As an argument against any sort of fundamentalism – religious or, this being Germany, political. As a starting point for a discussion about multiculturalism, and how we accommodate belief systems who don’t want to be accommodated. Or it can even be taken at face value – if you ignore all of the Brüggemanns’ inducements not to – as the story of a pious girl in a secular world who becomes, through rejection of the blandishments of the devil, a saint.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

1 December 2014-12-01

Dwayne Johnson in Hercules

 

 

Home entertainment releases this week in the UK

 

The Inbetweeners 2 (4DVD, cert 15)

Four go mad Down Under in the “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” follow-up to the British box office hit of 2011. The initial idea behind writer/director Damon Beesley and Iain Morris’s TV series was that the four misfits were the kind of nerdy guys who aren’t cool enough to be cool, not dumb enough to be losers – they’re just inbetween. Normal. But Beesley and Morris’s great skill, as well as jokes involving sex and bodily functions, is in locating these lads socially. So when we first meet them this time around, striving Will (Simon Bird) is at Bristol University, nice Simon (Joe Thomas) is at Sheffield University, borderline-retard Neil (Blake Harrison) is “earning” (ie not at Uni) and sexually aberrant Jay (James Buckley) is in Australia on a gap year, getting a “blowie” off a different bird every day. Or so he says. Perfect. Later, after the script has reunited the guys in Oz with admirable speed, it subjects them to ordeal by social belittlement, on the beach, at a water theme park, in the Outback, as they’re outcooled by “travellers” (our four are clearly “tourists”) – a buff guy with white man’s dreads, a clearly socially superior girl (Emily Berrington) who’s hot as hell. Somewhere just after the point where Will is trying to woo said hottie in one of the film’s standout scenes – singing Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in a trembling falsetto – the film hits a 15-minute lull, and there’s a sense of time being filled. But things picks up at the end, though it’s clear the Beesley and Morris have run out of places to take these characters. And the guys, now wandering towards 30, can’t really get away with the “we’re teenagers” act any more.

The Inbetweeners 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Soda, cert 15)

Ben Rivers collaborates with fellow Ben, Ben Russell, who also shares his interest in experimenta and edge-dwellers, in a structured-reality drama that moves slowly in three acts. Act 1 plays out at a modern day commune, in Estonia (I think), where many of the conversations seem to hint that the collaborative ideal is under strain. Act 2 takes one of these communards, who rows out into the middle of a lake, in a segment strongly reminiscent of the silent watchfulness of Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, and sits in the boat fishing. In Act 3 the same guy is now a member of a death metal band. The camera floats about among them as they play in a club, not in the slightest interested in the rhythms of the music, and it becomes clear, sort of, that Rivers and Russell are interested in the group, the individual and how the two relate, how the identity of one is forged to some extent by the loss of identity of the other. It is intensely meditative – there’s no voiceover and long periods of silence – but is it more a documentary or a drama? That seems to be something else that the two Bens are exploring. Fascinating.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Hercules (Paramount, cert 12)

Somewhere around halfway through Hercules, I suddenly remembered that its director, Brett Ratner, made those Rush Hour films starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. The tone is pretty much the same here – a jokey pantomime full of action, with Dwayne Johnson absolutely perfect, if possibly a bit old, as Hercules, a very strong man with a stout chivalric code and saddled with the burden of being considered a demi-god (touches of Life of Brian here). It’s a well crafted sword-and-sandal caper, with well choreographed battle sequences and well drawn supporting characters, some of whom are the usual suspects – Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Peter Mullan (doing Anthony Hopkins), though the much of the heavy dramatic lifting is done by Reece Ritchie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Aksel Hennie (all great). And  John Hurt gets to shout “unleash the wolves” at one point. Does that not sound appealing?

Hercules – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Patema Inverted (Anime, cert PG)

Now that Hayao Miyazaki has retired, you might expect a rush by Japanese animators to take his place. Yasuhiro Yoshiura is a likely contender, and this anime ticks many of the Miyazaki boxes. The animation is simple but delicate, the central character is a young person cast adrift from his/her parents – in this case a girl with the trad saucer eyes who discovers another world where gravity is reversed and a young man in that world whose father has gone missing in a flying machine – and there’s a sense of revelling in the simple things in life, the beauty of a blue sky, for example. Yoshiura’s style is more expressionistic than Miyazaki’s – backgrounds frequently bursting with the emotion the main character feels – and he’s keener on little camera-aping effects, such as drops of rain on, or light flare in, the non-existent lens. Most notably of all, Yoshiura is happy to drop animation entirely at key moments, relying instead on stills to do the storytelling. So, confident as well as talented, a gentle soul whose film will probably appeal to similar.

Patema Inverted – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Possibilities Are Endless (Pulse, cert E)

I once saw Edwyn Collins get up in a curry house and quickly deal with some belligerent guy who was making trouble for the waiters by punching him, quick and hard. Then he sat down again and got on with his meal. He’s a long way from that now, as this documentary about his brain haemorrhage and subsequent faltering recovery makes clear. Fascinating at one level is the story of a man going through a terrible personal ordeal, and how he starts to come back from that – though Collins is not what he used to be, he’s clearly a thousand times better than when we first meet him, mumbling incoherently with little idea that he was once in a band called Orange Juice, or that he wrote an infectious song called Never Met a Girl Like You Before. At another level, and in some ways like Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth, The Possibilities Are Endless reflects a shift in the zeitgeist – straight docs about rock stars just won’t sell any more. We need a “story”. At 90 minutes this story is a good 30 minutes too long, but it is worth watching, partly to see a man struggling to overcome a setback. But mostly to see a vindication of marriage (Collins’s wife, Grace, is a rock) and friendship, and Collins’s sheer doggedness.

The Possibilities Are Endless – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

A Hard Day (StudioCanal, cert 15)

A blackly comic South Korean thriller about a bad cop who has a very bad day – first he kills a man in a drunk hit-and-run, then we learn that his mother’s just died, the internal affairs guys are onto him, his wife’s divorcing him, his sister seems terribly annoyed with him, and all this in the film’s first 15 minutes. What plays out from this point is an ingeniously plotted cat-and-mouser kicked off by the revelation that the man Detective Ko (or Go, as the imdb are calling him) has killed was up to his neck in dodginess, and that there’s an even badder cop in the precinct who is determined to make Ko/Go’s life even worse than it already is. Remarkably, there is no US remake in the works for this potentially great film reminiscent in parts of Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder. Only potentially, because though it’s got the plot, great set pieces and the dialogue, Lee Seon-Gyun’s decision to play Ko as a salute to Jackie Chan is a mistake, though Cho Jin-Woong as the badder cop gets it just right. The pacing is a bit off too. Overlook those two irritants and there’s tons to enjoy – why not get busy with a Hollywood treatment?

A Hard Day – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

The Prestige

Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige

 

 

After Insomnia and Batman Begins, big Hollywood numbers taken on to show studio willing – or so it seemed – Christopher Nolan is back to being master of his own destiny, writing with his brother Jonathan and also producing this lavish smoke and mirrors cat-and-mouser. Clearly an attempt to “do another Memento”, it’s about a pair of Victorian magicians in a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” London, who once were bosom buddies but fell out after a trick went wrong and the wife of one of them died. And since that day they have gone on to different sorts of glory, but as deadly rivals, each trying to out-trick the other.

The title is explained early on, by Michael Caine, playing the Ingenieur, the backstage guy who devises and builds the magical apparatus for Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), the Prestige being the ta-daa bit of the trick when the lady is revealed as not being sawn in half at all. This has followed the Pledge (the lady is a lady) and the Turn (she is two halves of a lady), and, tricksy buggers that they are, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have a prestige of their own up their sleeves. But if you haven’t worked it out by about halfway through the film, a long, long, long way before the Nolans pull the rabbit out of the hat, then my name’s not Harry Houdini.

My gosh there are a lot of stars in this film. As well as Jackman as the more successful of the two magicians, there’s Christian Bale as his rival Alfred Borden, a more spit and sawdust character than the refined Angier, though with one devastating trick, The Transported Man, in his repertoire that baffles audiences and confounds Angier. There’s also Piper Perabo as the doomed wife, Scarlett Johansson, underused as the new lovely assistant. There’s Michael Caine, of course, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla – proving again that he simply can’t and shouldn’t act, though Bowie’s is just one of many terrible performances that populate this weary trudge of a film. In fact Caine is the only one to hold the attention, in a bit part so well played that you yearn for the film to be, in fact, about him.

That’s also because Caine gets to do the interesting stuff – explain how the tricks work. The backstage secrets. In front of the curtain, magic is about misdirection and wit, two missing ingredients in this film. Instead there’s plot, lots and lots of it. And baffling digression – for instance, Jackman’s visit to the scientist Tesla, considered to be a modern magician thanks to his myriad revolutionary patents and experiments with AC electricity. The Nolans also bang the narrative chronologically back and forth Memento-style, which muddies things even more, the suspicion creeping in about halfway through that what something this laden with “developments” should be is a TV mini-series. Not enough prestige, perhaps.

Most of all this murky-looking film lacks lightness of touch, legerdemain, as the French say. Magic, in other words.

 

The Prestige – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

The Salvation

Mads Mikkelsen takes aim in the western The Salvation

Anyone for a Danish western, a great one? Made by one of the Dogme boys? If you look up Dogme in the Wikipedia, it will tell you that this particularly austere style (no music, no lights, no effects) was founded by two Danes, Von Trier and Vinterberg, who were soon joined by two others, Kragh-Jacobsen and Levring.

And it’s possible to read this film as an announcement, shout, by the least known of those directors, Kristian Levring, that he doesn’t do that Dogme thing any more. Because The Salvation contains every big movie trick in the book – a lush score, arresting sets, cinematography snatched at the golden hour, melodramatic camera movements, sudden close-ups, varying depth of focus, operatic composition, fabulous landscapes, digital backgrounds, post-production colour tweaks, heavy filtration… and on it goes.

If Dogme aimed for some sort of puritan truth and simplicity, Levring is now aiming at high artifice, maximum referentiality, the mega-meta. Every scene, every shot looks like it’s been borrowed from another film, another director – Sergio Leone’s theatrical scale (reinforced by Kasper Winding’s Morricone-esque soundtrack), John Ford’s monumental locations, Peckinpah’s slo-mo gunplay, Aldrich’s codes of masculinity and concern with ageing.

The same goes for the plot, which is a man’s-gotta-do revenger starring Mads Mikkelsen as a husband welcoming his Danish-speaking wife to the New World in the opening scene. Within minutes the thick-tongued locals are eyeing the wife (Nanna Øland Fabricius), and scant but brutally tense minutes after that Mikkelsen is a man with blood on his hands and a price on his head.

Perhaps it is Levring’s Dogme background – which relies heavily on performance, since there isn’t much else to fall back on – but there’s a just-rightness about the acting throughout, everyone seeming to get that this is homage not pastiche, a serious film not a joke. The always underrated and almost infinitely versatile Mikkelsen’s talents for scowling and suppressed rage are brilliantly deployed, but it’s around the edges that some of the most satisfying performances can be seen. Douglas Henshall (where has he been?) is particularly good as the shifty local sheriff who’s also a preacher, Jonathan Pryce also playing with a familiar type as the cowardly mayor who’s also the undertaker, everyone being in the pocket of local badman Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who periodically rides into town to menace the locals and kill someone because he doesn’t like the tilt of his hat.

This brings us to Eva Green, the wife of the man Mikkelsen has killed, and sister in law of Morgan, whose tongue has to be rolled back into his mouth so he can speak whenever she’s around. She, by contrast, has no tongue at all, it having been cut out by Injuns. The wordless Green, actress to the last, responds by using the equipment left in her armoury to deliver a role that proves you can wring more nuance than you might expect using flashing eyes and a heaving bosom.

These two wrong ’uns, with Mikkelsen skirting round the edge, will eventually meet up in the sort of ghost town that hasn’t been seen on film for decades, in the sort of big shoot-out that eclipses even the one in James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma.

Familiar people, familiar locations, familiar plotlines. If Jens Schlosser’s cinematography weren’t so jaw-dropping magnificent, if everything else weren’t so composed and primped and placed and sweated over, and if it weren’t so full of real stuf – dirt and sex and death – you’d be tempted to think someone was having a laugh. But Levring leaves one reveal for his final shot, which not only fully explains what’s been going on, but historically re-situates the entire film, you could say the entire genre. As the hero rides off into the sunset – hell yes – it’s a brilliant way to finish.

The Salvation – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2014

24 November 2014-11-24

Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Ida (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s thematic follow-up to 2004’s My Summer of Love is a drama about a novice nun in early 1960s Poland, made in the style of a Polish film from the early 1960s – black and white, old-school Academy ratio (or close), bleak but pungent Eastern Bloc locations. The arthouse stylistics are really the only exception you might take to the film – brilliantly done though they are – because they introduce a barrier between the audience and what is essentially Sideways minus the wine and sunshine, a sometimes comic road trip about this young woman, who discovers she is not by birth a Catholic but a Jew, and who then heads off with her newly discovered slattern aunt (a former Party official who can switch into commandant mode when necessary) to find the family home. This, because they are Jews and it’s less than 15 years since the end of the Second World War, isn’t going to end breezily. Pawlikowski’s “wrong” framing, with significant objects cropped out of shot, fluorescent lights and the tops of trees often visible when the person who is talking isn’t, is a perfect visual analogue for the attempts by these two women to find out what happened to their family – the facts keep swinging out of reach. The actresses are a) magnificent (Agata Kulesza as the smoky, drinky older woman) and b) luminous (Agata Trzebuchowska as the nun with a face to stop pacemakers). So she’d be the Paul Giamatti one then? I knew that Sideways comparison wasn’t right, but Ida is at least as good a film. At least.

Ida – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Everyone had some knowledge of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor when Marvel launched them as film franchises. The Guardians of the Galaxy are the ones that only the fanboys know about, a collection of oddballs whose line-up changed significantly in the mid noughties but was fluid even before then, their storylines designed to work the space operatics more than the earthbound heroics. Whether Marvel will ever get all the Avengers and the Guardians together, as rumours have suggested, seems fairly unlikely now, given that the current superhero wave is nearly spent. However, enough flannel – the film. Notice the casting of a bald Karen Gillen, Doctor Who’s one-time assistant, in a minor role, Dr Who’s running-this-way-and-that-shouting-exposition-as-we-go-blinking-furiously-and-wisecracking formula seeming to be what writer/director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman are after here. Doctor Who and Star Wars – the double act of grunting tree creature Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and voluble Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) being clearly reminiscent of R2D2/C3PO, while Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill aka Star Lord is a near-carbon of Han Solo, and Zoe Saldana as a green Princess Leia figure whom Quill is going to try and bed also ticks the tried-and-true box. Completing the line-up is Drax (Dave Bautista), a knucklehead with WWE wrestler physique and thesaurus English. Plot: some villain is collecting orbs, in an attempt to re-combine the six singularities that existed before the Big Bang, with the intention of destroying the universe. Bland enough, but there are little taste bombs, including Quill’s love of old 1970s music and Benicio Del Toro as baddie The Collector (Karl Lagerfeld will be flattered), though the cameos by John C Reilly and Glenn Close are disappointing and pointless. In fact there is too much that is disappointing – Tyler Bates’s second division score (a homage to John Williams’s Star Wars homage to 1930s space adventures, if you will), the film’s wildly variable CG, its lack of sexual frisson. But there is the odd good joke, the odd cute death. Worth a go, if you like this sort of thing.

Guardians of the Galaxy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Particle Fever (Dartmouth, cert E, digital)

Part of the BBC documentary strand Storyville, this excellent crash course in the Higgs Boson – and why it’s important – is dressed up as a documentary about the people who love and care for the Large Hadron Collider. In fact it tells us very little about the collider, apart from the fact that it’s a 17 mile circular construction beneath the Franco-Swiss border and that it fires protons travelling at near warp speed at each other, and then watches to see what happens as they tear each other apart. And that it uses magnets to give the protons the necessary velocity and guide them. Among the people we meet are Monica Dunford, a post-doctoral student who got a job at the LHC (as everyone calls it) just one year before they went for “first beam” in 2008, a chatty, likeable woman with a gift for simplifying – it’s Dunford who describes the entire experiment as essentially just smashing two things together and seeing what flies off. Two other characters are worth watching from their first appearance. There’s David Kaplan, a physics theorist, watching keenly as the experimental theorists (there’s a clear professional tension between the two groups) do their stuff, hoping that the Boson’s existence will be proven and that this will validate his entire life’s work on supersymmetry. And Nima Arkan-Hamed, a maverick theorist who’s been swayed by the notion of multiverses, who’s waiting to see what value the Boson has – if it’s where he expects it to be, then the experiment has told us something less concrete but potentially more chilling: that the laws of the universe might only hold true in our bit of it. But never mind that, you want to see physicists rapping and dancing at the celebratory party to launch the LHC, right? Indeed you don’t. A really superior documentary that will leave you feeling a whole lot more knowledgeable than you were before, put together with real skill (and yes, that Walter Murch in the credits is indeed Walter Murch the sound editor of Apocalypse Now).

Particle Fever – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The second in the rebooted series loses James Franco and Frieda Pinto, gains Jason Clarke and Keri Russell and is set five years or so after the first film, with most of humankind wiped out and humans and apes staring at each other, Cold War style. Will they go to war, that’s the thrust of it, played out as an internal struggle for power – on the human side it’s good Clarke and Russell versus necessarily nefarious Gary Oldman; on the ape side it’s noble Caesar (Andy Serkis, in simian suit) versus damaged, dangerous Koba (Toby Kebbell). No matter what you’ve heard about the wonderful, sensitive and surely Oscar-worthy acting by Serkis, it matters barely a jot that it’s him (or Kebbell), could be anyone in fact. What matters slightly more is the way that the plot seems bolted together just any old how – the humans are thrown into dangerous proximity to the apes when they set out to fix a hydro-electric dam in order to restore power, seemingly not having heard of solar. And what matters most is a tendency of old Apes films reasserting itself, with Dawn playing out as an extended civics lesson for those who’ve just learnt the meaning of the word allegory (see also The Hunger Games). What this means in practical terms is… apes on horseback. However, director Matt Reeves does know how to inject the grease of action into the driest of scenarios – he did make Cloverfield, after all.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mood Indigo (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Having the stakes, garlic, crucifixes and silver bullets ready for whimsy, when it turns up, and not being a member of the Eternal Sunshiner Church of Michel Gondry, I was ready to dislike Gondry’s return to his native France for an adaptation of Boris Vian’s cult novel L’écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream being just one of its variously translated titles). The plot is pure Love Story – attractive boy Romain Duris meets attractive girl Audrey Tautou, they have a delightful whirlwind courtship, then she gets terminally ill. The difference being that it’s Love Story with added Wallace and Gromit claymation cutes, Jan Svankmajer stop-motion grotesques, Jacques Tati physical farce, Magical Mystery Tour trippiness and Delicatessen disruptiveness. Pianolas that play themselves, a pet mouse that’s clearly a man in a mouse costume, knitted internal organs, cancer depicted as a flower. It’s entirely expressionistic, with every internal emotion bubbling up into an on-screen visual, and it avoids the charge that whimsy is a simulacrum of invention – the visuals are genuinely, fizzingly inventive. However, all that action and invention does tend to push the humans into the background, with the result that Mood Indigo comes across as more of a brilliant exercise than a touching human drama.

Mood Indigo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

You and the Night (Peccadillo, cert 18, DVD/digital)

A group of French people gather in an apartment – a beautiful woman called Ali, her partner Matthias, a woman referred to simply as the slut (la chienne), a man called the stud (l’étalon), a teenager (l’adolescent) and a maid. The woman’s partner is dead and has been brought back to life, we later learn, and the orgy this group have gathered for is part of a vitalisation process designed to keep him alive. As the group prepare for their evening of pleasure, they make small-talk, tell their life stories, while being served drink, MDMA, whatever they want, by the maid, who is actually an effeminate man dressed in a maid’s outfit. What we have here is some distant relation of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, played out as an camp arthouse joke. Pasolini’s eroticism, Bergman’s austerity, Argento’s operatics and Von Trier’s (Dogville period) obstructive playfulness are all hinted at, in a film that – like The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, which works a similar terrain – has some magical moments and some you just have to sit through. Whether you include the sight of Eric Cantona’s penis in the former or latter category is up to you – he plays “the stud”, and does it well, having clearly been promoted out of the Vinnie Jones Former Professional Footballer League. The penis is a fake, a funny one. Sums up the film.

You and the Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

White Reindeer (Matchbox, cert 15, DVD/digital)

A genuine oddity, White Reindeer has the looks, the lighting, the cast and the knitwear of a churned-out Christmas TV movie. But within a couple of scenes its focus, cute blonde realtor Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman), has crashed madly off into different territory, after her TV weatherman husband is murdered in the run-up to Christmas. She then discovers that the browser on his computer is full of “nasty chocolate teen” bookmarks, that he had a “nasty chocolate teen” girlfriend, too. So they meet, Miss Blonde and Miss Dark (played by beautiful, subtle, commanding Laura Lemar-Goldsborough – a genuine find), and they become Unlikely Afternoon Movie friends, shoplifting and getting drunk and snorting cocaine together. Suzanne takes to lying at home on the sofa, smelling her farts. “I just feel like I was in love with a made-up person,” Suzanne confides afternoon-movie-ishly at one point to Patti, another new friend, who is also hiding the sort of suburban secrets that the Lifetime Channel doesn’t deal in. Patti’s husband is played by Joe Swanberg, who is part of that Adam Wingard/Amy Seimetz/Chadd Harbold agglomeration of low-budget provocateurs/rising talents knocking out great stuff right now. However, stick me in the “undecided” camp on this one – it’s the glib emotional arcs of the movies churned out for Lifetime etc that irk me the most, not their white-bread settings, and White Reindeer isn’t offering an alternative to those.

White Reindeer – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

Pan’s Labyrinth

Doug Jones as the pale man in Pan's Labyrinth

It’s not every fantasy film that comes complete with a scene of a brutal fascist captain sewing his own face up, but that’s what you get in Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since The Devil’s Backbone (better, certainly, than Blade II and Hellboy). It’s a dark fantasy reminding us that the Grimm brothers’ original tales were cautionary and soaked in violence and full of the sort of dirty psychological motivation that Disney flirted with in Snow White and Pinocchio. However this youthful experimentation wasn’t to last, and as with the pot reefer and student politicians, Disney, it seems, never actually inhaled. More’s the pity.

No such cutes or evasiveness here, where things start off like some Iberian Alice in Wonderland suffused with the smell of boot leather and cordite, Ivana Baquero playing Ofelia, an 11-year-old stepdaughter (of said fascist captain) who is informed by a goat-faced faun one night that she is in fact not a poor semi-abandoned waif, but a princess. But to ascend to her underworld throne (if that isn’t a contradiction) she must first complete three tasks. The bonus is that she’ll also be re-united with her real father. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Franco regime has won the civil war but skirmishing continues, and even Ofelia’s household is politically divided. And her mother, heavily, hideously pregnant, is struggling in an airless upstairs room to propel the progeny of the remarkably unpleasant officer out of her uterus.

Menace hangs over everything – even the apparently benign faun comes equipped with horns. Some sort of a devil? An allegory of the choice being offered to the apolitical Spaniard, maybe, who was being asked to judge between the competing claims of falangists and republicans – both of whom have killed people? At another level, Del Toro is part of a trend against realism in recent film-making. The Dogme 95 boys Von Trier (The Idiots), Vinterberg (Festen), Levring (The King Is Alive) and Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune aka Mifune’s Last Song) until this point were one of the few shows in town when it comes to formal experimentation – Dogme 95 films being characterised by lack of artificial light, soundtrack, fancy editing.

Lack is the last thing you’ll get in Pan’s Labyrinth. It is exotic, heady and artful, unafraid of excess, a baroque fantasy informed by the overheated look of films by other Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) but also brushed by an almost extinct strand of European fantasy – Powell and Pressburger in the UK, Cocteau in France, Murnau in Germany, Švankmajer in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic or the work that Francesco Stefani did on the East German TV fantasy The Singing Ringing Tree. It’s this mix of the fantastical, the bloody, the vital and the terrifying that makes Pan’s Labyrinth what it is. And not a whiff of whimsy in sight, praise be.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

17 November 2014-11-17

Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor in Transformers: Age of Extinction

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

22 Jump Street (Sony, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Since the undercover cops went to high school first time out, this time they must go to college. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and boss writer Michael Bacall clearly know the Jump Street premise is exhausted. More obviously, they know they spunked their best jokes on the first film. So a good 50 per cent of 22 Jump Street is referential humour about franchise exhaustion, things never being quite so good the second time around, including the outro credits, which push this concept to beyond funny and then back again. The rest of it is jokes about the almost homosexual nature of the bromance between Channing Tatum’s dumb jock Jenko and Jonah Hill’s smart(ish) schlub Schmidt – when Jenko finds a football buddy he can chest-bump with till dawn. So, not funny? Not exactly – the jokes do keep coming and range from the “anals of football history” old chestnut to a sight gag about the guys being chased at speed past the Benjamin Hill School of Film Studies (Benny Hill, see?). However, however, likeable though it is, it never really rises above being a re-run lacking in inspiration, the mis/underuse of Ice Cube – their extremely abusive cop superior and one of the funniest things about 21 – pretty much saying it all.

22 Jump Street – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Human Capital (Arrow, cert 15, DVD/digital)

A chilly and stylish Italian film but an interesting one, which starts with a cyclist being knocked off his bicycle by a speeding car, and then spends the next 110 minutes or so in languid whodunit mode. Languid because it’s not really about the cyclist and it’s not really a whodunit. Instead it’s a veiled attack on the very rich, told as the story of a ghastly, vastly rich family from whose ranks the hit-and-run killer will emerge. Actually, you could argue it’s not even about them, but about the recent financial collapse that hit the world, and how, according to what we see on display, it was caused by all the unfundable lifestyles, the fecklessness, fear of old-fashioned hard work and greed abroad in the world today, especially at the top of the economic pecking order. This is most obvious in the first of four interlinked stories, which follows local estate agent Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) as he tries to inveigle his way into the family, and finances of Chapter 2’s focus, Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), the bimbo trophy wife trying to persuade her husband to finance a theatre restoration project, unaware that his short-selling deals are about to unravel spectacularly. Chapter 3 focuses on Dino’s daughter, Serena (Matilde Gioli), the only decent and non-avaricious person in the drama. And in Chapter 4 things are wrapped up neatly, and a touch of Brazilian soap histrionics is injected – the tone throughout has been arthouse pantomime until now. Wait for the very end, a little intertitle card which not only fully explains the film’s title, but forces a re-assessment of exactly what it is we’ve just been watching. I’m being unhelpfully vague because I don’t want to ruin it.

Human Capital – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Earth to Echo (E One, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

Someone has had the clever idea of rewriting one of Steven Spielberg’s most famous films. The one about youngsters on bikes finding a lost alien and befriending it. They call it Echo, ET being taken, and for the rest of the film they help it re-assemble its spaceship, Echo communicating with them through their smartphones. It does prove how robust ET is that it can be rewritten trope for trope and that it works entirely – and that it can be done as a handheld first-person pov, the conceit being that one of the gang is documenting the friends’ last summer together. But it’s all shot from a kid’s height, as ET is, and it’s got some beautifully observed moments showing us the world from their viewpoint – the few minutes they spend in a bar full of gargoyle drunks, for example. Director Dave Green, who made this unlikely success, surely for loose change but with bags of real emotion, must surely be on the way to big things.

Earth to Echo – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Purge: Anarchy (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

I haven’t seen the first one, but know that this sequel has been widely praised as being the better than the first. The premise, I do know, remains the same – on one day a year America’s citizenry can do what they like and no law will apply, no justice will be sought. I also know that the first film was a low-budget job, set in a house, and was a home-invasion movie. This sequel, with more money, heads out onto the streets on the night of “The Purge”, where two couples, mother and daughter Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul, husband and wife Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez, have been caught outside on the one night of the year you don’t want that to happen. Joining them is professional badass Frank Grillo, who doesn’t wear an eye patch – as Kurt Russell did in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, on which this is clearly modelled – but is handy with a gun. That’s it. They spend the night together, being monstered by 1980s-looking punkish thugs, learning how to use weapons and defend themselves. Its political message: if you’re right wing it’s that governments are definitely out to get you and shouldn’t be trusted; if you’re left wing it’s that they definitely have a role to play in the regulation of society. If message is what you’re after. File under guilty pleasure.

The Purge: Anarchy – Watch it/buy at Amazon

 

 

 

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Fox, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

The first film of this series – plot: Viking boy finds dragon and learns to fly it – was a bit of a trudge but its flying sequences were so well done that they gave me pit-of-the-stomach swoops and drops. Someone seems to have missed the memo about those bits being the best bits, the saviour in fact, of the first film. Because this second has largely abandoned them, leaving us at the mercy of the Celtic whimsy, raised-eyebrow non-humour and surging Spielbergian strings that sat all over HTTYD1. And whereas the first was a simple coming-of-ager, this is more like an instalment of Lord of the Rings, all massed armies, “they shall not pass” dialogue and digressive side characters. Plot: Hiccup the Viking kid, now five years older, stumbles over a plot to control the world’s dragons – and hence the world – at the same time as discovering that his supposedly dead mother is anything but. Two plots? Symptomatic of what’s wrong with the film, with Cate Blanchett’s mother character a brake on the more dynamic “sometimes even the peace-loving must fight” strand. Also, what’s up with the animation? I haven’t seen foreground/background separation this obvious since Cary Grant was driving Grace Kelly along the Riviera. More drag than dragon.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Monty Python Live (Mostly) (Eagle Rock, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

A recording of the show at London’s O2, which was billed in all sorts of Sex Pistols-ish “only in it for the money” ways. And if you approach it with an arms-folded, OK-impress-me kind of way, as I did, you might be pleasantly surprised. In many ways it’s Eric Idle’s show – he seems to have been the most enthusiastic to get the gang back together (and with shows like Spamalot he’s been the most assiduous at milking the Python brand) – and he’s often in his alter-ego as a cheeky end-of-the-pier vaudevillian in boater and stripy blazer, heading song and dance numbers, pretending to hoof, full of energy. Which is more than you can say of John Cleese, croak-voiced, portly, world-weary, but even he warms up after a while. It’s essentially a bunch of the old sketches – kicking off with the Four Yorkshiremen – interspersed with footage from the TV show, which allows them to show missing Python Graham Chapman and gives old darlings Idle, Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam a breather. Add in the odd celebrity cameo, a bit of ad-libbing and corpsing by all concerned and it’s a pleasant reminder of a hugely influential comedy troupe – Footballing Philosophers (genius), Every Sperm Is Sacred (overdone), Crunchy Frog (disappointing), Argument Clinic (still brilliant), lots more. You will have your own list.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Paramount, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The appeal of the fourth instalment of Michael Bay’s shoutathon in an echo chamber is as much of a mystery to me as the first three. Orson Welles, who was the voice of Unicron in the 1986 animated version (the one with the wacky cast list – including Eric Idle, Robert Stack, Leonard Nimoy), referred to it as being about “a big toy that attacks smaller toys”, finding a coherence and significance in the entire Transformers thing that eludes me. I suspect director Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger also find the success a mystery, and are aware of the franchise’s defects, because there’s evidence all over the film of things having been tinkered with, fixed, finessed, reworked, amped up and dialled down. So, no Shia LaBeouf, instead we have Mark Wahlberg as the key human. So, a female (Nicola Peltz) who does a little more than the cleavage work that Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Megan Fox did in the earlier films. So, a lot more actual story for the humans to get busy with – Wahlberg being a junkyard inventor who comes into possession of Optimus Prime without realising it, Stanley Tucci as the megacorp boss trying to use Transformer tech to become even more megarich, Kelsey Grammer as a government wonk after the weapons value in the Autobots, or was it the Decepticons? Bay goes large on Americana – Dodge Chargers and gas stations, old power stations and rocking chairs on porches – yet another attempt to demote the robots to second place. But the problem remains that this is a film about Transformers, robots who not only seem to have no consistent relationship to physics – so there really is nothing for us to get hold of in terms of following any of Bay’s “frame-fucking” (his phrase) action – but they’re so dull it’s deadly.

Transformers: Age of Extinction – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

Leonard Coen and U2

 

 

For decades Cohen’s music has been misrepresented as the soundtrack to suicide. In fact the old (now 73) groaner is something of a comedian, though his wit is so dry it’s taken non-aficionados decades to catch on. He’s also something of a master of self-mythology, the sort of performer who seems to back into the spotlight rather than seek it out. His albums have titles such as Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969) and Recent Songs (2001), this austerity matched in real life by his decision to become a Buddhist and the subsequent five years he spent in seclusion from 1994 to 1999. In fact Cohen’s recent higher profile and workrate seems to be more down to necessity – his manager ran off with his pension – than a desire for the spotlight.

So much for the mythology. Lian Lunson’s documentary doesn’t mention Cohen’s financial woes, and is to some extent a missed opportunity to get an inside glimpse at the man himself. What we get instead is a lot of cool cats – Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Teddy Thompson, Beth Orton – singing Cohen songs and eulogising him, interspersed with an interview with the hipster’s hipster that again doesn’t want to go too far beyond fanboy idolatry. However, Mr Cohen is a an old hand, and gives good interview, even when it’s not asked of him. So he tells a series of stories that are as dry and impish as his songs. Of the real Suzanne, immortalised in his song of the same name, how she was the wife of a friend and how she did indeed feed him tea and oranges but no, he didn’t touch her perfect body with his mind.

Lunson keeps the camera discreet as various Wainwrights, Thompsons and McGarrigles line up to perform, and offers the visual equivalent of their interpretations. Nick Cave gets the lion’s share – his balladeering growl a good match for Cohen’s laments – while surprises include Rufus Wainwright and Antony (of the Johnsons fame), whose more operatic swoops you wouldn’t naturally expect to be a match at all.

It’s left to U2 to close the show, duetting Tower of Song with Mr C himself – who effortlessly outcools them – before he brings the curtain down with I’m Your Man.

All in all a respectful rather than revelatory tribute. Nothing wrong with that. Leonard Cohen wears it well.

 

I’m Your Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Hollywoodland

Ben Affleck and Diane Lane in Hollywoodland

Looking on paper like something better than it actually turns out, Hollywoodland is one of those films purporting to lift the lid on Hollywood, LA Confidential style. It tells the lightly fictionalised story of George Reeves (Ben Affleck) the man who played Superman on 1950s US TV, and asks the simple question – who done him in?

The answer is, at least partly, he did it to himself, this being a tale of an actor who’d appeared in Gone with the Wind and yet by the mid-50s was in a TV serial aimed at kids. The ignominy. If you need a lesson in counting your blessings rather than dwelling on what might have been, Hollywoodland is it.

To unpick the story of Reeves, we have Adrien Brody doing Citizen Kane-digging, as Louis Simo, a private investigator trying to work out the who and the what and the why. Was it suicide, which was the conclusion at the time? Or did Reeves’s mistress (Diane Lane) accidentally shoot him? Or did a Mob-connected studio boss (Bob Hoskins) order a hit on him? More to the point, do we as an audience care?

Director Allen Coulter asks us not to engage with the man, his plight and his fate, but with his own command of pastiche, and it’s here that the film’s stabs towards The Maltese Falcon, with Brody’s side-of-mouth gumshoe, start to get wearisome.

Affleck – only ten minutes ago the star of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor – is perfectly positioned to play a sad sack for whom things have not quite worked out, his hurt eyes telegraphing disappointment and a career that’s gone awry – could this be his attempt to hit the reset button after becoming better known for his private life than his screen work?

Brody’s detective Simo gets his own back story, which includes his own disappointments as a father and husband (several times over), and he’s a lively presence in a film that needs an injection of vitality, as is Lane as Reeves’s older-woman rich mistress, both shaking this often torpid essay in 1950s stylistics into something approaching life. Bob Hoskins does his usual quack/bark as the studio exec who is sharing his wife with Superman, though he doesn’t yet know it.

But they’re all distractions in what should be Affleck’s film, and the more lively they get, the further into the background the character of Reeves starts to slip. Something of a minor tragedy, because Affleck’s representation of flayed dignity, wounded ego, is well worth seeing.

Hollywoodland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2006