Still Alice

Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore in Still Alice

 

 

A super confident woman, top of her game, a linguistics professor, one day discovers herself grasping for a word while she’s giving a lecture. This being the movies, where a cough in one scene leads to coughing up blood in the next, we automatically suspect she’s got Alzheimer’s. The title providing another nudge (why Still?). And so it turns out, in a movie that seems determined to put a polish on the disease of the week movie, and largely succeeds.

 

Polish number one is that it’s not just any old Alzheimer’s but familial Alzheimer’s, in which the gene – should you have been unlucky enough to have inherited it from an affected parent – means you have 100 per cent chance of getting Alzheimer’s yourself.

 

But really the claims for genre transcendence are made by the quality of cast that writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have attracted to the project. Julianne Moore plays the unlucky Dr Alice Howland and in the scenes set in the doctor’s consulting room, where the camera rests entirely on her face as she told one awful truth after another, the wisdom of that casting decision becomes obvious. Matching her in strength and subtlety is Alec Baldwin as her uxorious but never sappy husband, Kate Bosworth as her prickly daughter, Hunter Parrish as the largely superfluous son and Kristen Stewart, clearly making a decision to step back from the spotlight, as the youngest daughter, who finds herself promoted to more of a caring role as the rest of the family quietly shuffle backwards.

 

It’s also an unusually nuanced film, and gives its victim far more agency than we’re used to in this sort of thing. So, alongside gruesome scenes like the one in which Alice pisses her light grey joggers – not a good look – and fails to recognise her daughter, there are others where she clearly uses her advancing condition to her advantage, ducking out of a dreary dinner party, or reading her youngest daughter’s diary and putting it down to “my illness”.

 

They’re an unusual duo, Glatzer and Westmoreland, who you might remember as the names behind 2001’s The Fluffer, a well acted, quirky gay rom-com. And might not remember as the names behind 2013’s The Last of Robin Hood, which cast an excellent Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn in his final skiddy years (and, incidentally, gave a small role to Errol’s grandson, Sean). That’s when they’re not working as producer/consultants on America’s Next Top Model.

 

That TV background will count against them in some quarters, where this film will be pegged as a disease of the weeker not worthy of even a first look. It’s irrefutable: that is exactly what it is, and the plaintive piano and string quartet soundtrack isn’t trying to deny it either. But no matter how mangey and emotionally manipulative, every dog has its day. And this, ladies and gents, is that canine.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Annie

Quvenzhané Wallis and a cute dog

 

 

Annie is the “turn that frown upside down” musical seemingly custom-built for stagestruck kids. But in writer/director/songsmith Will Gluck’s updating, it breaks out of the greasepaint shuffle-step limbo it’s been consigned to and makes a bold dash for the spotlight. Gluck opens with a swerve, showing us a precocious and stagestruck young ginger Annie holding her classmates to ransom with a show-and-tell delivered with weapons-grade winsomeness. Then swivels to reveal that this isn’t the titular Annie, but another one. The Annie we’re interested in is played by Quvenzhané Wallis, the cute kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

 

And god is she cute. A bright little button who is the making of this singing, dancing entertainment that is to the  Little Orphan Annie comic strip what Oliver! was to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.

 

The plot remains the same as it was in the 1982 filmed version starring Aileen Quinn and Albert Finney, with Wallis as the spunky orphan kid who is treated heartlessly by Cameron Diaz’s foster-parent Hannigan, and then cynically taken up as a vote-catching gimmick by Jamie Foxx’s billionaire running for mayoral office, the kid winning through by sheer pluck, optimism and can-do spirit and melting the heart of the businessman en route.

 

It could easily make you sick, this relentlessly upbeat tone, delivered with boosterish stage-school enthusiasm by a cast heavy with brats, and ickle orphan brats at that. But the cast largely pull it off, Diaz the only one who seems out of place as the overly pantomime Hannigan, while Foxx does a nice line in machiavellian cape-twirling, Bobby Cannavale similarly sulphurous as one of the magnate’s wonks, an ugly sister role.

 

Everyone knows at least one number from Annie – Tomorrow, perhaps, or Hard Knock Life, or I Think I’m Going to Like It Here, and if this production reminds us of anything, it’s how good Strouse and Charnin’s original songs are, and how chirpilly similar to Lionel Bart’s for Oliver! too. And the couple of new additions ease in neatly alongside the old ones, no problem there.

 

Updating is evident in other areas – this is a film very keen to point out how Twittery/YouTubey it is, which is going to look very old very soon, but it’s also full of single disappointed women who, you can’t help feeling, just need a good man to sort them out – Rose Byrne as the another of Foxx’s aides, with a pash for the boss, Stephanie Kurtzuba as a dried up social-services drone, Diaz’s disappointed, spinsterish Hannigan, who was once “almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish”.

 

In this respect it’s a very old-fashioned Hollywood movie, but it does at least know how to deliver old-school Hollywood tingles, as when Annie gets on stage and delivers an impromptu song, the orchestra magically falling in with her, Fred Astaire style.

 

The “black Annie” this has been called. And, for sure, Wallis is black, so is Foxx, and doubtless producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith had an agenda when they were doing the casting. But why shouldn’t they? It’s their money. The bigger questions are does it matter and does it work. No is the answer to the first, yes to the second.

 

And talking of race, the only mis-step the film makes is in its race (feeble-play-on-words alert) to the rushed big finale which is really the only thing that takes the gloss off this zippy, peppy, bright and occasionally tear-jerking film whose out-takes (over the end credits) suggest everyone making it had a hell of a good time.

 

 

 

Annie – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

The Interview

James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview

 

 

Like an Inspector Clouseau party that’s forgotten to invite Peter Sellers, The Interview has a gigantic gaping hole where the comedy should be. Unsure if it’s a satire on modern entertainment or a Get Smart-style caper comedy set in the People’s Republic of North Korea, it squats uneasily between the two, leaving its game bromantic stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, mouthing like beached fish in one unfunny set-up after another.

 

The film arrives after the most brilliantly organised bit of internet brouhaha since The Blair Witch Project. First, Sony’s servers were hacked by the North Koreans, angry at the prospect of a film about an assassination attempt on the Dear Leader. The film was shelved by Sony, after it found distributors taking seriously the threats of cyber armageddon against them. Then President Obama got involved, criticising Sony for being chicken and invoking the Constitutional right for cinema chains to refuse to show a film if they so desired. No, hang on, I think I might have that wrong. Then there was a counter cyber-attack against the North Koreans which, if it was ordered by Obama, must be a rare example of the US going to war to protect a Japanese company’s interests. Then Sony called in favours to cobble together a limited release. Then the film made a day/date online/theatrical debut, a rare example of the cinema chains feeding the hand that bites them.

 

You could not orchestrate a better advertising campaign. If only it had been lavished on a better film. Because The Interview really really stinks. It’s written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and repeats the mistakes they made in two earlier films. The Green Hornet was another tin-eared piece of writing which, like an over-caffeinated breakfast radio DJ, mistook a “comedy” tone of voice for humour. And with This Is the End an initially funny film was run into the ground by Rogen and Goldberg’s dry-humping of the material. And to think these two wrote Superbad.

 

The plot is scant – airhead TV interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco) and his ambitious producer (Rogen) head to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un, having been co-opted by the CIA (in the shape of Lizzy Caplan) into assassinating him while there. The “entertainment guys as stealth operatives” structure resembles Argo, and the film would have been a whole lot funnier played a whole lot straighter. Missing its open shots at the wide open goal that is entertainment TV – watching Eminem on the Dave Skylark show admit that, yes, he really is gay, might have raised a titter ten years ago – it then proceeds to take such weak pops at totalitarianism that in comparison Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator is Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

 

To Kim Jong-un, a man responsible for the death of how many hundreds of thousands of people, and whose vainglory is another open goal, entirely missed. He speaks in “fuck yeah we can” argot, admits to a liking for Katy Perry and margaritas, even though they’re a bit sissy, in scenes where he bonds with Dave Skylark and they drive a tank about shooting at stuff.

 

It’s screwball comedy as written by the CIA, taking its propaganda cues from the “Hitler has only got one ball” ditty. However, none of this would matter if the interview itself, between Dumb and Kim Jong-Dumber, delivered the goods. It is, however, spectacularly inept. First it does that Hollywood thing where the “hero” has a sudden moment of clarity and does the right thing, Dave here suddenly veering off the script and pitching hardball questions at Kim, who counters with the observation that the US has more people incarcerated per capita than North Korea does. This is a blast so unexpected – because it actually connects with a fact out in the real world – that you want to applaud. Until you remember that this is a film about a totalitarian dictator that has managed to land not one single punch.

 

The Interview – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

22 December 2014-12-22

Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in The Killers

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Are You Here (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Here’s a strange formless bromance from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, a midlife crisis dressed up as a movie and sold winningly by its two stars – Owen Wilson giving off gigawatts of charm as the ladies man TV weatherman and stoner escorting his bipolar toking buddy (a typically whacked out performance by Zach Galifianakis) to his dad’s funeral, where he cops an eyeful of the dead man’s grieving, hot wife (Laura Ramsey). Weiner writes to a TV rhythm, and there’s the strong feeling with Are You Here, as all the characters and backstories start bumping into each other and yet never quite connect, that this feature would be a lot better on the small screen, stretched out over several episodes. There’s also, in its strongly emotional sell of the simple things in life – smelling the air, living a bit more like the Amish (who co-exist in the local neighbourhood) – the feeling that Weiner is telling us more about his own near-burnout situation than his characters’. However, it is charming and frequently funny, in a mournful Woody Allen-ish way.

Are You Here – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Guvnors (Metrodome, cert 15)

There seems to be London gangster film out on DVD every Christmas. This year’s is a good one, thanks to the two central performances – Doug Allen as the superannuated football hooligan and Harley Sylvester (of the band Rizzle Kicks) as the young punk whose feral doings are upsetting the natural order of things in a scummy corner of London, thus forcing the old Mr Big to make things right. Some critics seemed unhappy that Allen’s character is almost depicted as a King Arthur – returning in glory when he is most needed – but The Guvnors’ ambivalence towards violence is precisely what gives it its power. And you can’t deny that director/writer Gabe Turner never makes kicking the shit out of someone, or razoring them, look attractive, especially when meted out by Sylvester, who is excellent as a nasty little shit. Turner also carefully builds his drama, borrowing themes from the Ancient Greeks – to say more would be spoilerish – that will provoke chuckles, or groans, or admiration, or all three. Yes, a very tidy film – nicely packaged with an angry ambient/British hip hop soundtrack, and with a couple of other performances (David Essex, Charlie Palmer Rothwell) that lift it above the run too.

The Guvnors – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Nurse (Lionsgate, cert 18)

The spirit of John Waters hovers over this slice of bouncy cheesecake trash, which stars the frighteningly sensual Paz de la Huerta as an unfeasibly hot nurse who is taking bloody revenge on scumbag males wherever she finds them. It’s a refreshing throwback to 1970s sexploitation which insists that it’s about women getting payback for the relentless objectification of their bodies while relentlessly objectifying their bodies. So, fine ladies in short skirts, a deadpan voiceover, a soundtrack of twangy guitar, breathy vocals and mariachi horns, some unnecessary lesbianism, delivered in the deliberately bad style that’s a great smokescreen for genuine crapness. But the TV cast and crew, the obvious sets and the library music is frosted with something urgent and demented and, if you can pretend you’ve never seen anything like this before, it’s actually quite a lot of fun. And in 3D too.

Nurse – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

As Above, So Below (Universal, cert 15)

There’s a disturbing Australian horror film called The Tunnel, set in the tunnels beneath Sydney. And from the claustrophobic feel of As Above, So Below, director John Eric Dowdle has almost certainly seen it. To shake things up a bit he adds a waft of The Da Vinci Code to the basic Blair Witch formula of handheld pov. And for about two thirds of the film, which follows an Anglo-French gaggle of good looking young people into bone-strewn Paris catacombs in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Dowdle succeeds. But after a while the inventiveness – odd, almost surreal plot developments, that wouldn’t be out of keeping in an episode of the 1960s TV series The Avengers – starts to flag and a “one damn thing after another” feeling sets in. Incident and drama are not the same thing. However, Dowdle is an efficient genre director (see Quarantine and Devil for other decent low-budget shockers directed by him) and he’s aided here by Perdita Weeks as a feisty lead in the Indiana Jones mould and a sound design that keeps things urgent and visceral.

As Above, So Below – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Killers (Arrow, cert PG)

“If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s a double-crossing dame.” Ernest Hemingway’s original story is strongarmed into a classic noir, now spectacularly restored so the most important thing about it – its stunning cinematography – can be admired properly. Burt Lancaster fans will object that, since this is his first film, it’s notable for that reason too. And the Ava Gardner lobby will doubtless say the same, since this is her first big role in an A movie, and very dangerous she looks too. But it really is Elwood “Woody” Bredell’s brilliantly composed and lit images that should have you seeking this out: Robert Siodmak’s direction is fine if a bit slow here and there; the plot (a heist banjaxed by Lancaster’s infatuation for boss’s moll Gardner) is standard-issue. Perhaps that verdict is a little unfair on Miklos Rozsa, whose score is all adenoidal dragnet fanfares, and Anthony Veiller’s script (with a bit of help by John Huston and Richard Brooks) which hits the occasional noir bullseye. This, after all, is the film that also gave us the ultimate femme fatale line, “I’m poison… to myself and everybody round me!” No prize for guessing who uttered it.

The Killers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Keeper of Lost Causes (4DVD, cert 15)

Scandinavian noir peaked as a phenomenon probably a couple of years ago with the US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the two follow-up films in the trilogy are painfully late, notice. Non-Scandinavian fans of the genre are now familiar with the murk, the muted colour palette and the slow-dissolve title sequences, and they’ve got over the initial shock of seeing a society that is clearly richer and fairer than their own – maybe the Scandi-noir thing was fuelled in part by a gloating over the fact that even in such a clean society, things can go wrong. Be that as it may, director Mikkel Nørgaard, of  TV series Borgen, elicits all the old familiar feelings in a well paced story of a woman who is abducted by a madman, leaving her mentally traumatised brother behind as the lone witness to what happened while a pair of low-status cops from the cold-case unit try to do what they can. What develops from this is a very well constructed though achingly familiar race against time, with Nikolaj Lie Kaas (of The Killing aka Forbrydelsen) and Fares Fares making a neat chalk-and-cheese cop duo, the former saddled with the “troubled taciturn cop” role, leaving Fares to be quietly impressive, which he always is. If it looks like the pilot to a series, that’s because it is – two more have already been made as I write. And if it’s half the success of UK TV’s cold-case series, New Tricks, then it’ll run for years.

The Keeper of Lost Causes – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

God’s Pocket (Arrow, cert 15)

God’s Pocket is a neighbourhood, one of those Scorsese places full of mini-wiseguys, drunks, dupe women, and some schmuck who runs into trouble. Except there are two schmucks here – the punk son (Caleb Landry Jones) with a wild eye, a loose mouth and a razor he likes to flash about, and the father (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a butcher who trades in knockoff meat and has the sort of resigned slouch of the gambler used to losing. Director John Slattery has filled this film with great talent – Christina Hendricks as the wife, Richard Jenkins as a local journalist, Eddie Marsan as the local undertaker, John Turturro, for god’s sake. Not to mention Landry Jones – who dies early (the film opens with a shot of him dead, so this is no spoiler) but whose punk nastiness can almost be felt, and whose death is the mainspring that brings Jenkins into contact with Hendricks, Marsan with Seymour Hoffman, and all sorts of unsavoury peripheral gangsters with everyone else. If there’s a problem with this in many ways highly enjoyable film it’s the way it refuses to own up to being part of the Scorsese universe and insists on little digressions into black comedy and whack romance. These don’t suit the overall downbeat tone at all. However, watch it for Hoffman, in one of his last roles, though in fact the acting generally and the sense of place – Hopelessville USA – is what you’ll probably come away impressed with.

God’s Pocket – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 December 2014-12-15

Scarlett Johansson has her Matrix Moment in Lucy

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Lucy (Universal, cert 15)

Young innocent Lucy gains access to the full potential of her human brain in one of Luc Besson’s now infrequent bouts of directing. A kissing cousin of 1997’s The Fifth Element, it’s a fun and funky affair, helped enormously by the seven barrels of spunk that Scarlett Johansson injects into it. She plays the innocent abroad who is first forced into becoming a mule carrying a seriously mind-expanding drug for a seriously life-threatening gangster, and then an uberbeing when the drug gets into her bloodstream after she’s given a damn good kicking by a henchman for rejecting his sexytime overture. Well, that’s the last time anyone fucks with Lucy in what is basically a warp-speed revenge flick tricked out with a welter of sci-fi, some nice visual effects and the odd stylistic detour. Morgan Freeman, in another “god role”, is the brainiac prof who provides a handy expostitory guide to what is possible as more and more of Lucy’s brain becomes available to her, Freeman the Laurence Fishburne to ScarJo’s Keanu, and if there is any disappointment in this vastly engaging piece of entertainment, it’s that Besson can’t quite shake off his B movie churn-em-out ethos – a car chase, Luc? And those slo-mo balletic bullets were looking a bit tired when John Woo was doing them best back in the 1990s. To recap: fun, fast sci-fi that looks great, the cast clicks, yet just, you know, one stop short of magical.

Lucy – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Into the Storm (Warner, cert 12)

So if I tell you that this is a film about stormchasers and features tornados wreaking terrible havoc on midwest USA, with awesome special effects, you’re likely to tell me that this is a remake of Twister. Into the Storm probably doesn’t care if it is, but it covers its tracks well, dividing the action up between a disaster-movie series of potential victims – the professional stormchasers, the way-too-old for Jackass drunken japesters hoping for YouTube immortality, and a pair of high school brothers making a time capsule video for their stern, schoolteacher dad – yes, that dad, the one who’s been so darned hard on the boys ever since their mother passed. It’s that sort of film, the kind you build a drinking game around, and it is a lot of fun as long as you’re in the mood for dumb heroics. I dare say it won’t advance the careers of any of its competent cast – though Alycia Debnam Carey appears to be lifting her rack at any casting director who’s watching, so who knows – but its special effects team should definitely be working until they drop. The repeated tornado strikes deliver a stupendous amount of mayhem and carnage, from trees coming through plate glass windows roots first, to the sight of grounded airplanes being lifted into the air as if they were made of paper. Much better than a flying cow (that’s a reference for Twister fans).

Into the Storm – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For (Lionsgate, cert 18)

The first Sin City got a lot of love from a lot of critics. Who, on realising much later on that, in fact, it was crap, came down hard on this follow-up. So some critics have been wrong about both films. Because, if you’re following my logic, Sin City 2 is a better film than the first one, for two reasons: first, it focuses on one main story, that of Josh Brolin and Eva Green, he the pussy-chasing dupe taken for a protracted and repeated ride by Eva Green, who obligingly takes her clothes off so we can see exactly what’s the cause of his woe. Whoaa! Anyway. Second, because Robert Rodriguez has clearly got the whip hand this time round, co-director Frank Miller providing the striking, almost entirely black and white film-noir/graphic-novel visuals, as before, while Rodriguez keeps the show moving along at a pace. The film’s problem is the same as in the first one: Jessica Alba table-dancing, Mickey Rourke growling, Bruce Willis smirking and Joseph Gordon-Levitt just standing there looking cool are as attractive as ever they are, but there is no mileage to be gained by aping or paying homage, if you will, to second-rate melodramatic material. And if it’s all meant to be funny, a comedy, where the hell are the jokes?

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Nas: Time Is Illmatic (Dogwoof, cert E)

A documentary about Nas, the rapper who found an accommodation between the anger of the NWA/Public Enemy axis and the more Daisy Age noodlings of De La Soul 20 years ago when he released his iconic Illmatic album. It’s a trad talk-n-archive affair, with plenty of contribution from Nas and his rheumy-eyed brother Jabari aka Jungle. And it is an interesting story, not quite the “music saved me from gangsterism” thing, though perilously close. Nas does come from the New York projects but he is the son of a pro jazz musician and was raised in a bookish household by a mother determined for him to get on. It’s a genuinely entertaining and informative documentary about a fluid and uplifting wordsmith, especially if you’re a Nas ignoramus, as I was, though the insights into friends and family, life back in the hood where Nas seems totally at ease with the old homies, will probably make this worthwhile for fans too. And the sight of Nas being addressed as Professor Nas Jones at the inauguration of a hip-hop archive at Harvard University sends the whole thing out on a sweet high note.

Nas: Time Is Illmatic – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Hockney (4DVD, cert 15)

A blond pop artist whose look is his brand, David Hockney could so easily have been the British Andy Warhol. That the label has never been stuck on him is probably for two strong reasons: unlike Warhol, Hockney has never been flippant about his work; unlike Warhol, he’s incredibly warm, chatty and engaging. This latter aspect has often obscured the former, to the point where it’s almost been forgotten that Hockney has devoted his life to looking at things and thinking about how he looks at things. “I’m interested in pictures, made in any way, and in the visible world.” This documentary biopic teeters close to being too much about the man and not enough about his work, and it really doesn’t feature much of Hockney at his most fascinating – when he’s talking about the visual arts at a theoretical level, of Picasso, or Ingres’s use of the camera lucida (nothing about this at all, in fact). But there is enough of the work – drawing and painting, iPhone and photograph, theatre sets and fax machines – to give us a grasp of what Hockney is about. And enough about his thought – his theories on the way human sight differs from the way a camera sees, for instance – to make this more than a celebrity dry hump. And the footage – here’s a man who has been followed by cameras from his breakthrough in the early 1960s to his long heyday from the late-1960s onwards – is really choice, whether it’s Hockney at home with his long-dead parents, cooling about on the West Coast in the 1970s, or painting trees in Yorkshire in the noughties. All in all a lovely portrait of a refreshingly unsnobbish artist who in his youth first rejected the fashion for abstraction and then the one for conceptualism and has been proved resoundingly right.

Hockney – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Nut Job (Warner, cert U)

Ice Age meets any one of a thousand other anthropomorphic cute animal animations in this comedy about urban critters raiding a nut store because their own supplies won’t get them through the winter. They’re unaware, however, that a gang of human criminals are also in there, tunnelling towards a bank. This straightforward animals v humans plot is complicated by a story involving a bit of skulduggery and backstabbing among the animals, the same happening among the ranks of the robbers. Nothing a good script couldn’t tie together and make enjoyable. But there isn’t one. As for the voice talent, it’s sound enough, with Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl the big names, though it’s Maya Rudolph who actually makes the most impression as a dog more likely to slobber the invading animals to death than keep them at bay. It’s a US/South Korea collaboration that seems to have been some time in the pipeline – Gangnam Style, on the soundtrack and over the closing credits – and the Korean animators are head and shoulders above the American writers, the visuals often beautiful, colour co-ordinated, a vision of film noir as seen through a bright pastel palette with well detailed backgrounds. Shame the whole thing is so dull.

The Nut Job – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Intolerance (Eureka, cert PG)

The Blu-ray debut of DW Griffith’s self-consciously epic three-hour marathon about human frailty down the ages. And it’s immediately obvious from the massive swings in image quality that some of the film is shot to shit, though the restoration – this is the 1989 Thames Silents version further restored in 2013 – has caught a lot of the magnificence of the original 1916 production. And it is hellishly magnificent, a deliberate attempt to knock the socks off audiences, which Griffith did by telling four interwoven stories of intolerance down the centuries, from Jesus Christ’s run-ins with the Pharisees en route to Calvary, the Babylonians on the way to defeat at the end of a Persian sword, the massacre of Huguenots in France in 1572 and the devastating effect of puritan busybodydom on a family in modern America. Enhanced by Carl Davis’s unobtrusively atmospheric score, it’s the Cloud Atlas of the silent era in many respects. Of the four eras, the Babylonian is the most stupendous – the sets are still off-the-scale awesome – and the modern one, with its murder, attempted rape and race-against-time finish the most dramatic, Griffith showing that he knew a thing or two about editing together a film to convey urgency, though his camera was static almost entirely throughout. Made when film language was yet to be formalised, it’s an important film but also a self-important one, one of the links that connect those early pioneers up with the likes of Michael Bay.

Intolerance – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The History Boys

Dominic Cooper (centre) in The History Boys

 

 

Mr Chips meets Dead Poets Society in Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play, and depending on how you approach it, it’s either a fairly satisfying or a slightly disappointing event. Personally, I was disappointed, but then maybe I’d expected more from a film which as a play had garnered such critical plaudits. Or maybe it was the play-iness of the whole thing that stuck slightly in the craw.

The story concerns a bubbly class of boisterous Sheffield boys in the 1980s being crammed for Oxford and Cambridge by a gaggle of teachers – Hector the advocate of the thirst for knowledge (Richard Griffiths), Mr Irwin the teacher to the test (Stephen Campbell Moore), and Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) the feminist teacher whose political agenda, she believes, enhances her effectiveness. Bennett does two things with the action that are interesting. First, he introduces what has become now a standard sexual trope – the enthusiastic and brilliant Hector accused of molesting one of his boys. But he flips agency here entirely, pointing out that middle aged men are as nothing in the predation stakes when compared to adolescent boys. In other words, Hector hasn’t got anything on the precocious teenage tease Dakin (Dominic Cooper, the film’s standout).

Hector et al might be said to be representative of 1980s teachers, and the odd snatch of New Order or The Smiths seems to locate us in the decade, but Bennett is also indulging in a compare-and-contrast exercise, the 1980s with the sort of teaching he got in the 1940s, the modern box-ticking exercise with the sort of classic teaching (of the classics) that didn’t think elitism was a bad thing, that set no store by a kid’s knowledge of popular music.

While the acting is beautifully ripe, particularly Griffiths, it can get a bit declamatory, and it’s no surprise to find that this is the cast who have performed the same thing on stage so often. But then the play is a bit declamatory too, each issue getting its own neatly rounded “essay” as person A steps forward to rail against subject A, while the rest of the cast do the filmic version of backing away from the spotlight.

This is down to Bennett’s screenplay, which seems at times more interested in pulling an “and another thing” on education today, it not being what it was in my day etc…

So it’s no Madness of King George, a Bennett play that translated majestically to film. But it does have that film’s ping-pong exuberance and furious love of language. To miss the film is to miss the joy of the verbal interchanges, between the boys, the boys and the teachers, the teachers among themselves, and boys and teachers with the driven headmaster (Clive Merrison). And to miss Stephen Campbell Moore doing remarkable things with a dog of a role. Give that man a gold star.

 

The History Boys – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed

Charles Berling as film director Georges Figon in I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed

 

 

Ben Barka was a prominent revolutionary activist from Morocco who was “disappeared” by the French authorities in 1965. Co-writers/directors Serge Le Péron and Saïd Smihi tell his story as a dramatic reconstruction of what probably happened and cast the suave Charles Berling as the crooked film producer who is persuaded by the secret services into acting as a decoy and luring Barka (Simon Abkarian) onto French soil. It’s probably of most interest to students of the politics of the era, so the question is whether it’s of any possible use to anyone else.

The answer is yes, if you enjoy stylish exercises in French noirist cool. Or if you’re a fan of Berling, who is a brilliantly drole actor, here easily giving the impression of a man trying really hard, for once, to do the right thing, and getting caught up in affairs beyond his experience.

If this film had been made maybe 30 years ago, you can bet it would have been an angry and possibly less entertaining affair. But in 2006 much water has flowed under many bridges and the tone is lighter, comedic here and there. For example the early statement that Berling’s Georges Figon makes about wanting to make a film called Bon Garçons (translated: Goodfellas) at precisely the point where he is starting to edge into a confrontation with gangsters.

This character of Figon – whose lines are all delivered from posthumous omniscience, Sunset Boulevard-style – is the film’s great triumph and its drawback. Cynical, apolitical, wanting only money, far too interested in celebrity, he can be seen as an avatar for the audience. But who got anywhere insulting their audience? Similarly, why assume that we all know the Barka story – do all French people who weren’t intimately caught up in the 1968 thing? – when it would take only a sentence or two here and there to bring the ignorant (of which I was one) up to speed. Similarly, we might or might not know who exactly the writer Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) and film-maker Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre Léaud) are but we probably don’t know how they fit into this jigsaw. A little elucidation wouldn’t have been that hard. Just a line… non?

Upsides include the decision to go pop art here and there – with surreal collages and abstractions taking over the screen in a film that is never less than glamorous.

And how do you, as Figon is teasingly asked at one point, “make a film about decolonisation around the world”? In a sense, this is how.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

8 December 2014-12-08

The cartoonised Robin Wright in Ari Folman's The Congress

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Congress (StudioCanal, cert 15)

With Waltz with Bashir, director Ari Folman used Tintin-esque animation as the visual clothing to a set of sober taped interviews between himself and the buddies he’d served with in Israel’s war against Lebanon. The Congress does similar unusual things, propelling Robin Wright – playing an actor called Robin Wright who has elected to have herself digitised and therefore immortalised – into an animated world when she attends “the congress”, the occasional gathering of other fictional figures. The real world looks like a workaday real world, as lived by rich Hollywood, leading to the suspicion that Folman is remaking Andrew Niccol’s digitised-actors dud S1m0ne. But the “congress” is a piece of animation where the Yellow Submarine and the Furry Freak Brothers, Robert Crumb and Banksy, Picasso and 2000AD comics all vie for space, where a never-named Tom Cruise (the only other surviving actor, apparently) rubs shoulders with Jesus, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali, while octopuses wave at passing Mississippi riverboats afloat on a crimson sea. Psychedelic? Just a bit. What Robin actually does in this place, and the way that plays out when Robin eventually returns to the real world, turns out to be something of a damp squib, sadly, but Folman’s concept and his technical achievement are breathtaking – and two out of three ain’t bad.

The Congress – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Goodbye to Language (StudioCanal, cert 15)

And talking of technique – Jean-Luc Godard shows that he’s been given Final Cut Pro for Christmas in his latest film, in many ways a return to the sort of film he made in the early 1960s (he’s just turned 84 as I write), A Bout de Souffle, for example. Except he’s taken a story so simple it’s barely there – a man, a woman, their little fights and love-making – and attempted to present it without resorting to standard filmic tropes, instead using different qualities of digital input, a tsunami of post-production techniques and an almost haphazard approach to editing. “Those who lack imagination take refuge in reality,” says the opening intertitle, and shortly after we see a man reading a book about Nicolas de Stael, the abstract pioneer being a clear indicator as to what’s going on here. Is Godard waving “goodbye to language” with this abandonment of film-making convention and embrace of lo-tech, laptop-editing? I think he’s trying hard to get outside the box – abandoning realism, going for expressionism. It’s a strange and remarkable film that’s best absorbed rather than watched and a stunning reform to maverick form.

Goodbye to Language – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Charlie’s Country (StudioCanal, cert 15)

If Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout took a couple of “civilised” white kids and threw them into the aborigine Outback, Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country takes the same aborigine (David Gulpilil, who co-wrote) and sticks him in the white man’s world. Gulpilil is now 60 rather than the 18 he was when he worked with Roeg in 1971, though still wiry and strong, his hellishly expressive face lending dignity to a story that hits all sorts of racist buttons – “blackfellas” being lazy, drunk, awkward, angry, sly etc. And that is the story it tells, of Charlie getting into scrapes, into trouble with the police, going on a days’ long bender, having little in the way of ambition and so on. Yet, slowly, and it is a slow (you might say elegiac) film, it puts us in the aborigine’s place, gives us some sense of his world view, without either condescendingly over-prioritising his “difference”, or indulging in too much liberal guilt. Sentimental, for sure, but not mawkish. Nicely done.

Charlie’s Country – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Expendables 3 (Lionsgate, cert 12)

By the end of Expendables 2, it looked like Sly Stallone had put together yet another franchise, like Rocky and Rambo, that was going to run and run, there being a never-ending supply of cheap ageing action heroes who, repackaged like sub-prime mortgages, can be sold on in bundles to yet another generation nostalgic for whatever was going on 20 years before. By the end of Expendables 3… it looks like he’s blown it. Why introduce Wesley Snipes as the latest member of the old crew – half looking as if he’s been on the crack pipe, which lends exactly the sort of demented gleam that makes this franchise such fun – only to dismiss him and the rest of them, only to bring in a younger crew of relative nobodies (apologies to Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Ronda Rousey and Kellan Lutz, but you’re not Jason Statham or Dolph Lundgren, not even Terry Crews, in fact). And then to get the new crew into trouble, forcing Sly to get the old team back together. The whole film reeks of this sort of time-wasting, from the endless montage sequences, to the relentless walky-talky sequences, to the unnecessary cameos by Harrison Ford and Arnie Schwarzenegger. Kelsey Grammer injects a bit of vim, as does Mel Gibson as a whacked-out bad guy, and Antonio Banderas overacts manfully as a 40something with painful adolescent enthusiasm to join the team. Yes, but what’s it about? Oh, you know, the usual – guys, guns and shitstorms that need sailing into. Except this time Stallone has accidentally sailed into Steven Seagal territory.

The Expendables 3 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Still the Enemy Within (Lace, cert 15)

A useful documentary about the 1984 UK miners strike. It’s pretty much a straight history, using archive footage and talking-heads testimony from those at the sharp end – the miners, their wives and the many people who supported them – taking as its starting point the strike in 1974 that prompted Prime Minister Edward Heath to call an election, foolishly asking the country to decide once and for all who ran the country, him or the miners. The country chose against him (which the miners perhaps took as a signal that it had voted for them). Fast-forward to the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979 and her decision to break the unions, starting with the miners, a campaign that the government mounted with military precision. Stocks of coal were built up in preparation, a tough new Coal Board boss (the industry was still nationalised in those days) was brought in, trouble was fomented, the miners went on strike, and stayed out for a year. And in the end, as history recalls, they lost. The title is from the mouth of Mrs T, who referred to the miners as “the enemy within”, and if there is one complaint against this film, which is admirable in the way it marshals its facts and its many eye-witness speakers, it is that it replays the strike from the familiar position – noble miners defending their communities on one side, the rapacious Conservative government on the other. Little mention of North Sea oil, which had just started coming onstream, little analysis of broader union relations, the solvency or otherwise of the country (its debt overhang from the Second World War, the loss of Empire), the shift from a Keynesian to a more Chicago-school economic model. Nor of the claim now being made by economist Thomas Picketty and others that strong unions, far from being a drain on a country, are in fact vital to its success. “We. Were. Right,” says the appropriately named Norman Strike, a former miner, sad and angry at the same time. “We lost. But we were right.”

Still the Enemy Within – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Diplomacy (StudioCanal, cert 12)

The last film I saw by Volker Schlöndorff’s was The Tin Drum, in 1979. So what’s the director of one of my all-time favourite films up to 35 years later? The answer is: making an entirely stagebound two-hander starring Niels Arestrup as General von Cholitz, the Nazi in charge of Paris, and André Dusollier as the French-born Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling. The film follows the one fateful night when, on Hitler’s express orders, Cholitz had all of Paris rigged with explosives, and Nordling tried to persuade him not to blow it to smithereens, using all the argument and oratory at his considerable disposal. This is an example of the well-made play, turned into a film in old-school style by Schlöndorff, who puts all his faith in his actors. Arestrup, usually brilliant, seems reluctant to play a tough Nazi who has been through a war as a successful warrior, while Dusollier is burdened with a cypher role as the representative of all that’s best about western civilisation. However, the story is true – though the disputes still rage as to whether von Cholitz was ever really going to give the order to detonate – and at this level at least, it’s a fascinating film.

Diplomacy – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Finding Fela (Dogwoof, cert E)

Alex Gibney uses the documentary form to shine a light on people who bask in the shadows, whether it’s big business, with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, or Lance Armstrong in The Armstrong Lie. Finding Fela continues the tradition, though the shadows here are created by most of the world’s lack of interest in African culture, rather than any shyness on the part of Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer and political activist who lived life right out in the full glare of publicity and government disapproval in Nigeria. But hang on a minute. Gibney also seems to be making a documentary about the Broadway musical Fela! and how it is “finding” its way towards the staging of a show about this talented, charismatic and contradictory man. And Gibney continues in this vein – first archive and talking-head footage about how Fela, from a well-to-do family, took the prevailing Hi-Life style of West Africa, added jazz and good belt of Black Panthers politics and created Afrobeat. Then a bit of backstage at the Broadway show, where choreographer and artistic director Bill T Jones is trying to explore the truth of Fela, through Fela!. As Gibney flip-flops back and forth, the question arises – does one illuminate the other? And the answer becomes clear soon enough: not even slightly. The sound you can hear is not the exuberant free-form of Afrobeat, but of a ball being dropped. Kuti was such an interesting man too – a pipecleaner thin sexist, married to 27 women, politically brave, musically beyond talented, mother-fixated, charismatic, sex-driven, a believer in magic with a penchant for Elvis jumpsuits who declared his own compound an independent country, who stayed in Nigeria even though he knew it was dangerous, and paid the price for it. And no matter how good the Broadway show is, there is the ringing suspicion that it’s included here because Gibney simply believe that Fela on his own would sell. Bad faith.

Finding Fela – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

The Signal

Brenton Thwaites in The Signal

 

Well, I loved this. A confident exercise in genre and genre misdirection that has the balls to invoke The Matrix, Close Encounters, and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. So, yes, it’s about aliens and a gigantic conspiracy and there’s a lot of white light bathing its clinical setups, and it cost not very much at all.

 

And the first bit of misdirection comes at the very first shot – a boy, a girl, his buddy, dappled sunlight, a piano on the soundtrack. It looks like we’re in torridly romantic Nicholas Sparks territory and we can only be minutes away from someone coming down with a terminal disease, especially as Nic, our lead, is on crutches, as a result of some not-entirely specified mishap – an injury? Cancer? Is he a soldier?

 

No, Nic’s a computer hacker, we find out early on, who along with his buddy Jonah has been delving into areas he shouldn’t and has got someone somewhere out in cyberspace very angry. None of this actually matters much, or seems to, because only a couple of minutes after this, the gooey proto-romance which morphed into a wannabe Matrix has changed again, into a haunted-house horror as the two guys break into a deserted house, and director William Eubank shows he’s also adept at making things spooky.

 

All a preamble. The film proper starts with Nic waking up from loss of consciousness in some aseptic facility, where everyone is dressed in hazmat suits and Laurence Fishburne is looming over him asking questions about “the signal”. The gist of it is that Nic, Jonah and Haley have been abducted by aliens, possibly, and are now OK, safe and sound, being looked after by the government, who are dressed like spacemen just as a precaution. Possibly, though explanations are thin on the ground. All the better.

 

This nightmarish vision of loss of control works better than I’m able to describe it partly because its cast is so good: former Home & Away heartthrob Brenton Thwaites is perfect casting as the fiercely intelligent MIT student Nic, a slightly more feral Channing Tatum with soulful eyes, a perfect profile, yet approachably blokey. A star, I’d be willing to bet. Underused Beau Knapp is also just right as Nic’s wingman, and Olivia Cooke brings what dignity she can to even less of a role for her, as the largely passive girlfriend.

 

Out on the ring road of stardom is Lin Shaye, who’s now become something of a go-to actor for wingnut roles (see Insidious), and does a magnificent few minutes as a local Christian fundamentalist who picks up the gang when they make a break for it.

 

As for Laurence Fishburne, he seems to relish rehashing a version of Morpheus, the glacial, slightly amused delivery, and the boom, of course the boom.

 

The entire film revolves around the true nature of Fishburne’s Dr Damon character, it becomes clear early on. And of course I’m not going to tell you whether he’s the good guy or bad guy. In fact to tell you any more than I already have – or that most of the film takes place in this facility, where there are a number of shocking reveals – would ruin everything. What I can say is that to that basic Matrix/Close Encounters/Cube mood board, you could add a bit of Attack the Block attitude and some of the dipshit conspiracy theorising of The Banshee Chapter, and that Nima Fakhrara’s Mogwai-esque soundtrack of Theremin squawks and aortal rumbles hugely contributes to the dread atmosphere that Eubank keeps alive right to the last minute.

 

And if there’s a lesson The Signal could teach other films like it – apart from “make sure you’ve got a good story to tell” – it’s to use special effects sparingly. That way they remain special. As is almost all of this film. Prepare to be amazed.

 

 

The Signal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014