2 March 2015-03-02

Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple in Horns

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Leviathan (Artificial Eye, cert 15)

Not to be confused with the clankingly atmospheric 2012 documentary about trawler-fishing, this Leviathan is something like a retelling of the story of Job – a man who has the lot being tested in his faith as he loses it all. As we open, Kolya has a beautiful wife, a lovely beachside property, a teenage son and is respected in his community. Over the next two and half hours we watch most of it being stripped from him – in fact as Andrey Zvyagintsev opens his film there’s already trouble hemming Kolya in on most sides. The question is: which faith is it testing? The answer seems to be his belief in President Putin’s Russia, increasingly a mini-me version of the Soviet Union. We see plenty of the workings of the legal system as Kolya tries to prevent the parcel of land he owns being compulsorily purchased by the local mayor. But we also see plenty of the workings of the local mayor (a brilliantly sleazy Roman Madyanov), a bullyboy gangster who drives around in a convoy of black 4x4s. Leviathan has been heaped with awards at festivals, but for my money his previous feature Elena worked better, having a touch of humour missing here and a central character (a former nurse who has clearly married an old rich man for money) who was both allegorical and entirely human. Here, the relentlessness of the vision of modern Russia – vodka-sodden, relying on tough old industry, sunless, bleak, corrupt, pitiless – recalls the British kitchen sinkers of the early 1960s, as does its story, about a man trying to escape his milieu but held back by his status and by those around him.

Leviathan – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mr Turner (E One, cert 12)

This is Mike Leigh’s second entire departure from his usual territory – modern Britain – the last being the fabulously entertaining serio-comic caper Topsy-Turvy, about Victorian composing double-act Gilbert and Sullivan. But he’s gone back even further this time, to paint a portrait of JMW Turner (1775-1851), one of Britain’s true greats, the artist who signalled art’s shift from the portrayal of external reality to the representation of mood. Timothy Spall presents Turner as a bluff cove with little time for social nicety, an exterior erected to prevent his heart of gold from being tarnished by time-wasters, flatterers, bores, pedants, spongers and the usual pilot fish of success. And Leigh then plonks this rather gauche figure into a situation strongly reminiscent of The History of Mr Polly – Turner finds a woman of simple, good nature (Marion Bailey) who loves him for what he is, and he opens up like a flower. They are never married, and in the era this was a problem, but it doesn’t impact the film much, which cunningly ducks the issue for the most part. Leaving it as a series of observations of Turner as he goes about his business – how he (or his doting father) prepares his paints, how he meet prospective buyers, how he does research for the Fighting Temeraire picture by strapping himself to a ship’s mast in a storm, how he puts the finishing touches to a painting even as it’s hanging in a gallery ready for exhibition. Unusually, a film about the work, not the life, closer to Martin Provost’s 2008 biopic Séraphine than Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life. Refreshing, that, especially the way Leigh keeps reinforcing what he’s up to by regular juxtapositions of sublime art with mundane reality (Turner spitting on his canvas to gain an effect, or asking his housekeeper Dorothy Atkinson to get rid of some dead bluebottles). There’s a touch of panto about it all, as there was with Topsy-Turvy (and often is in Leigh’s work) but a lightness of touch which keeps the pathos at bay and Spall’s Turner this side of caricature.

Mr Turner – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Pride (Fox, cert 15)

Since The Full Monty in 1997, the UK has churned out likeable feelgood comedies in which the benighted occupants of one blue-collar region or another would regain their self-worth by various means, often accompanied by a symbolic affirmation of a sort of personalised boutique socialism (see Saving Grace, Lucky Break, Calendar Girls, Greenfingers, On a Clear Day just for starters). So the heart sank a little when Pride fell onto the doorstep, the story of how a metropolitan group of gay and lesbian activists in 1984 reached out to miners during the yearlong strike in Thatcher’s Britain and forged some sort of uneasy alliance with them. Double sinking at the sight of the name Matthew Warchus, another theatre director, and so doubtless heading in the same direction as Stephen Daldry, who turned his back on the boards to direct Billy Elliott – self-worth, regional, socialism, affirmation… and dancing.

All the elements are there in spades in Pride. But what I wasn’t expecting was such a sharp script, such likeable performances, and jokes, funny ones. The casting is very good too, with names like Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy passing themselves off very nicely as members of the Welsh mining community opening their arms, with varying degrees of affection, to the ragtag group of screaming flamers who descend upon them offering money they’ve collected in London – one oppressed group to another. The arc is absolutely obvious – lessons learnt on both sides – and the film never sets up a conflict that can’t be solved with a snappy comeback, a cup of tea or a dance breakout (see Dominic West as the most flamboyant gay in the village and grin from ear to ear). It wears its politics, sexual and otherwise, lightly, as if it weren’t just mainlining The Full Monty, but also the Carry On tradition (Staunton’s bustling, matronly dispenser of beverages and wisdom could so easily have been played by Joan Sims in a different era). And a word about Ben Schnetzer as the activist-in-chief, name unknown to me, but who is in fact the star of the piece, a performance so right it could have come straight out of the 1980s, from militant trouser length, to agit-prop flounce and a fast mouth that’s given the film’s best lines.

Pride – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Horns (Lionsgate, cert 15)

After December Boys, The Woman in Black and What If, among others, I have more or less lost any interest, if I ever had any, in seeing a film starring Daniel Radcliffe. But he’s got a lot of money and could probably finance his own movies (don’t, Daniel, don’t) so we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of him until he decides to give up. At least in Horns he’s in his comfort zone, since it’s a supernatural-flavoured lightly comedic film that’s more Joss Whedon than JK Rowling, with a plot about a guy accused of murdering his girlfriend who suddenly sprouts horns. Are these an indicator of his guilt? Not exactly. Instead they exert a devilish truth-telling effect on anyone he comes into contact with – the local doctor admits he wants to get off his face on oxycontin, his mother tells him she doesn’t want him to be her son any more, and so on. All slightly shocking and very amusing. Our hero decides that this bizarre development might help him get further in finding out who killed his girl (Juno Temple, in flashback, once again waving her breasts about in an “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” performance) than the police, who have already decided Dan is their man. At this point the whole thing morphs into a detective procedural, with Radcliffe as an unlikely though winning investigator. It’s directed by Alexandre Aja, who is closer to the pop cultural zip and wink of 2010’s Piranha 3D than the overt horror of 2003’s Switchblade Romance, but even he can’t stop the third act of reveals and explanations from bogging down into one damn thing after another. In total, though, it’s  impressive how well the film plays both to and against the Potter aspect of the Radcliffe baggage, with a lot more wit than you might expect.

Horns – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

School of Babel (New Wave, cert E)

After the slightly overcooked 2010 movie, The Tree – Magic Realism 101 – Julie Bertuccelli returns to familiar territory with a documentary covering similar thematic ground to her thoughtful 2003 drama Since Otar Left – ethnicity, identity, cultural assimilation and the effects on individuals of what future ethnographers might call “the great migration”, which is transforming Europe and the world right now. But with such a light touch that it’s perfectly possible to watch this film without any of the issues intruding. Because all we see is a Parisian reception class full of children of all sorts of ethnicities – Wolof, Ukrainian, Arabic, Susi, Portuguese, and that’s just the start of it. And coaxing them towards proficiency in French a barely seen teacher of heroic patience and immense pedagogical skill. To encourage them to talk, and therefore to learn, Brigitte Cervoni – to whom the film is dedicated – gets the kids to tell stories of life back home, how things are different in France, or the same. And interspersed with these glimpses of the class lessons we meet the parents, at a parent-teacher evening, almost all of them desperate for their kids to be up to speed in the language of this new country, to fit in. So much for communities keeping to themselves, you think, as you also wonder to what extent Bertuccelli’s editing is making a political point. A passing thought, because the kids are so engaging, so delightful, and often so sad – “Miss, he’s crying” is a refrain you will get used to hearing. This is a gorgeous and uplifting film, and Bertuccelli introduces us so stealthily to the kids that when they go in to an exam to see if their French is good enough for them to join the big school, you’re entirely rooting for them. And a few scenes later, as Mme Cervoni bids her class farewell, you, too, may well be the focus of the “Miss, he’s crying”.

School of Babel – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Sound of Music 50th Anniversary (Fox, cert U)

As Lady Gaga’s medley at this year’s Oscars shows, The Sound of Music endures. The film, too, does go on a bit, being an entire act too long, as the Nazis arrive and the Von Trapps and Maria flee. But there’s no doubting its iconic status. This and the previous year’s Mary Poppins cemented Julie Andrews’s image as being primness personified and must have harmed her career. It certainly defined it, and more – there’s only one Mary Poppins and there’s also only one Maria, no matter how many stage revivals there are, Andrews having stamped her mark right through both films. If most hit musicals boast one good tune (Chicago), and timeless classic musicals maybe three or four (Singin’ in the Rain), The Sound of Music has between six and eight numbers whose very titles will almost universally bring the songs flooding back (The Lonely Goatherd, Climb Every Mountain, Edelweiss, Do-Re-Mi, Favourite Things). The two-disc set contains a new documentary about Andrews returning to Salzburg, Austria, though the film itself looks very much like the restoration from five years ago – great detail, lively contrast but a touch too much red in Andrews’s blonde hair for some tastes. So if you’ve already got that one, you’ve got to work out whether that new doc, an hour long, is worth springing for one more time.

The Sound of Music 50th Anniversary – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Dying of the Light (Signature, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A film about a CIA agent with the sort of dementia that’s liable to make him behave extremely erratically, starring Nicolas Cage as said man, directed and written by Paul (Taxi Driver) Schrader? This sounds like a recipe for brilliant, chaotic madness, and possibly a fine film too. Sadly, we’re not going to see that film, because the studio re-edited the entire thing, adding a rhythmic orchestral soundtrack to try and turn Dying of the Light into something more Bourne-like, destroying Schrader’s and Cage’s film in the process. Everyone involved had signed standard non-disparagement agreements which forced them to stay shtumm on the subject. But Cage and Schrader, co-star Anton Yelchin and exec producer Nicolas Winding Refn, got around that by posing in T shirts expressing their disgust.

 

Nicolas Cage, Anton Yelchin, Nicolas Winding Refn and Paul Schrader in the non-disparagement T shirts

 

Backstory over, is the film any good? In parts, though its plot – CIA guy with frontal temporal dementia goes in search of the crazed member of the Muslim Brotherhood who tortured him years before, only to find that he’s also mortally ill – invites easy metaphors. America is as sick as the people it’s chasing, and it has a nasty touch of amnesia too, and all that. And while it’s in this mode the film, shot largely in Romania, which has rarely looked so glam, is fascinating, intelligent and knotty, and justifies its looks and exotic cast (Irène Jacob, more at home in a film by Malle, Rivette, Antonioni or Kieslowski than a US spy caper). What the re-edit can’t hide is that it’s a very middle-aged film – Yelchin as Cage’s gopher notwithstanding – with themes that suggest Schrader is trying to address the boomer generation. How, 1960s people, did we let this last 20/30 years of constant warfare happen? How did we go from being the bright new hope to this interfering international bully? What happened? Well that’s what I think Schrader was going for, though you have to sieve the gloop to find the chunks in what is, as it stands, a fairly pointless film. As for whether the “original” would have been better, who knows?

Dying of the Light – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

Barnyard

Otis the cow in Barnyard

 

 

Otis, the barnyard bull, has udders. Because, kids, that’s what bulls have, isn’t it?

Voiced by Kevin James, and with a first name that is generally appended to a male, it’s clear that either Otis is a transgender animal or cowardice has taken hold somewhere at the design stage in the latest animal CG comedy off the conveyor belt.

This “me too” effort from Paramount also has a plot that seems determined to fit in, not stand out, it being a recycling of The Lion King.

Growing a pair, ironically, is what it’s about too. Otis is the young motorbiking cowlet (I’d call him a bullock but he clearly isn’t) about town who has to learn how to take over from his dad, king of the barnyard, after dad dies bravely defending the homestead. Until then, Otis has been a free spirit, living a dudeish lifestyle (Kevin James a good choice here). But suddenly he has to man up – with great udders comes great responsibility and all that.

Seemingly designed for dim rednecks and terrified of upsetting anyone at all, Barnyard comes with the sort of bright, technically accomplished animation that only a couple of years ago would have looked exceptional. Buried behind the sort of prissiness that once drove Victorians to cover up table legs. there is some fun intelligence – the underused Jersey Cows with New Jersey accents, the zippy music and the pantomime sense of knockabout. And the voice cast is pretty good too. As well as James, there’s Courteney Cox as the heifer Otis has an eye on, plus Sam Elliott and Danny Glover.

But the Udders Issue isn’t the only conceptual problem with the film. There’s the fact that all the animals walk on their hind legs – if you’re going to go that far in humanising your beasts, why not go the whole, er, hog. And not a cow, hen or pig seems destined for the table – when Otis’s dad dies, he is buried six feet under, with a headstone, not chargrilled and served with mustard.

But it’s just for fun, I hear director Steve Oedekerk cry. Yes, but whose fun? The target age here seems to veer wildly from five to nine, to 15 to 27. But no matter how young or stupid the viewer, the film’s message – if only all the different animals could band together – is likely to be seen as bogus, only outdone for sheer lameness by the regular dumps of sentimentality. Yuk.

 

Barnyard – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

 

23 February 2015-02-23

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Serena


Out in the UK This Week

Serena (StudioCanal, cert 15)

After Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper clearly have decided they can do no wrong, and so overreach themselves with a Depression-era Gone with the Wind-level epic about a wilful woman and a powerful man thrust together against a backdrop of urgent social blah.

Susanne Bier directs, and it’s clear that the further this highly talented Dane gets away from the boilerhouse domestic dramas she’s so good at (Brothers and After the Wedding), the bigger her films, the less powerful they become.

There is a lot to like here – the mist rolling over the Smoky Mountains locations where the story plays out of the mad and ultimately dangerous passion between logging mogul Cooper and flinty feisty Lawrence (in the title role), the beautiful panoramic lensing by Morten Søborg, a great cast including an overacting Robert Newton-esque Rhys Ifans as the local man of the mountains who becomes Serena’s lapdog killer, Toby Jones as the proto-ecologist sheriff, and so on.

But look again at the story, where so many plotlines are started but never go anywhere (all the talk about Brazil, for example), characters (Ifans, Jones and Ana Ularu as the girl Cooper fathers a natural child with) who are picked up and dropped as and when.

And it’s not just Ifans who’s overdoing it – Lawrence has taken the bait and gone for a full-blown mad woman role, munching scenery in finest Barbara Stanwyck style, while Cooper is trying, I suspect, though failing, to be Clark Gable.

Hey ho, Cooper and Lawrence have another film in the works, Joy, with David O Russell (director of American Hustle and Silver Linings) so let’s see how that goes.

Serena – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Jack Strong (Metrodome, cert 15)

Jack Strong is unusual because it tells a classic Cold War spy story in classic Cold War style. No Bourne handheld here, or rhythmic speech to match the rhythms of the soundtrack music. This is old-school dolly shots and key grip movie-making.

And very good it is too, as the story of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, Poland’s most famous spy, is told against a backdrop of the decades when the Solidarity trade union started exposing a weakness in the socialism of the Eastern Bloc. That weakness being nationalism. Because Kuklinski’s story – the decent guy/family man/hardworking army colonel – is presented as one about a patriot who realises that the fortunes of his country and those of the Soviet Union are not necessarily aligned. And so, guilty at his role in the suppression of the Prague Spring and increasingly nervous about the nuclear build-up between West and East, Kuklinski starts to work for the Americans.

Though Patrick Wilson turns up as Kuklinski’s CIA control, this is a Polish film largely for Polish people – its portrayal of national leader General Jaruzelski as a more sympathetic character than is usual (his dark glasses always gave him a Strangelove aspect) surprised me. And I found this political aspect of the film – whether it is revisionist or just honest I really wouldn’t know – every bit as fascinating as the old cat and mouse/dead letter drops stuff that is the meat and drink of the old school spy thriller.

Well worth a couple of hours of your time, I’d say.

Jack Strong – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Life Itself (Dogwoof, cert 15)

With movie theatres teetering on the edge of oblivion – finally smudging the distinction between cinema and home entertainment/TV irrevocably – it looks like Roger Ebert might go down in history not just as the most famous film critic in the world to date, but ever.

Ebert was an enthusiast, a champion, and among the many little joys of Steve James’s film is meeting some of the film-makers (Martin Scorsese among them) who owe Ebert their careers (as did James – his remarkable documentary Hoop Dreams was taken up by Ebert, who blew at the ember until it glowed).

It is in most other ways a standard doc – archive footage, a chronological timeline of Ebert’s progress from bumptious college newshound to accidental film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, his Pulitzer, his TV shows with Jean Siskel, with whom he had an initially fraught relationship (hilarious outtakes of them winding each other up) and his ascent to the position as “the definitive mainstream critic in American letters,” as the New York Times‘s AO Scott describes him.

Along the way there’s the stories of the drinking and the girls, the late blooming love with his wife, Chaz, and the cancer that first took his jaw and later his life. If you were reading Ebert’s reviews up to the point where he suddenly, seemingly, just ceased, the sight of him hooked up to tubes, the remains of his jaw just flapping in the breeze, his voice a Hawking croak, will make you marvel again at the supreme facility of a man who could still turn out such beautifully polished work with one and a half feet in the grave.

Life Itself, the clue is in the title, isn’t just a documentary about the life of a critic, it’s a film about dying, but going down elegantly, with all cannons still firing.

Life Itself – Buy it/watch it at Amazon


Nightcrawler (E One, cert 15)

Jake Gyllenhaal takes on another thin-lipped whackjob role, donning eyeliner and looking gaunt as Louis Bloom, the sociopath who discovers that he’s good for pretty much nothing in this world except… getting ambulance-chasing TV coverage. Having no real interest in people gives Bloom a real edge. Trampling over victims’ dignity and personal grief, playing hardball with other, rival LA cameramen as he shoots “if it bleeds, it leads” nighttime footage for whichever TV station is prepared to pay for it. Though, for the sake of dramatic economy that tends to be Rene Russo, a TV producer with bad ratings and so as desperate for ghoulish footage as “the Nightcrawler”.

As the title suggests, in style this is a 1950s “ripped from the headlines” crime drama, and somewhere in the mix the great news photographer Weegee must be an inspiration. Robert Elswit keeps the cinematography stygian, handy for Russo who must be decades older than any actual 21st-century TV producer.

However, it’s Elswit who mostly delivers the class, in a drama which fancies itself as profound and revelatory – hold the front page: news organisations can be a little flaky. Or is it a study of a twisted moral midget?

Gyllenhaal’s good, and god how he works the hyperactive tic shtick, but he’s dramatically negated by writer/director Dan Gilroy’s decision to shoot this all in Hollywood Valiant mode – lens choices, edits, focus and blocking are pointing towards this man being a hero. Or is that irony and I need a 101 on satire?

Nightcrawler – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Pictures of the Old World (Second Run, cert E)

It’s since been voted “the best Slovak film of all time”, but when this remarkable 1972 documentary was made it was shot in the country then known as Czechoslovakia and the life it showed didn’t please the Communist authorities, fervent in their denial of there being any poverty at all in the people’s republic. It’s one of the simplest films in construction, being a series of interviews with old people, intercut with vox pops about the most important things in life (health, as if you didn’t know).

To be old in 1972 meant you’d been born in the 19th century and lived through two world wars, massive social change and technological revolution. And here they are, these old peasants in the Tatra mountains, still smashing the ice on a trough of water to have a morning wash. Hard work. There’s the guys who crawls everywhere since a farm wagon fell on his legs 25 years before – “No man ever touched the ground so much,” he says with resignation. Or the shepherd milking ewes by hand. “I can barely walk now,” says another old-timer, clutching his cat grimly for companionship. “I’m going to die this year. I can feel it. I was a strong guy. But now I’m done for.”

What faces they have, what lives they lead. And yet, in a small tender scene in which old guys in a shack drink local distilled spirit and talk about the loves of their youth, it’s immensely touching too. Full of pity, a lovely film.

Pictures of the Old World – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Tommy (Arrow, cert 15)

What a strikingly beautiful woman Moa Gammel is. Here the blonde Swedish actress plays a gangster’s moll back in town, a stark contrast as she bustles about in a world of middle-aged and often ethnic men, gangsters at one level or another, and tries to sort out some unfinished heist-related business on behalf of her husband, Tommy, mere mention of whose name makes the toughest nut blench.

Tommy is, we suspect from the start – something in Gammel’s nervousness – dead, and the delight in this bit of Nordic noir is waiting for the brutes to find out, and for the protective aura of Tommy’s malice to suddenly pffft.

This is an immensely sleek and cool thriller. So cool, in fact that it often forgets that it’s meant to be a thriller at all. But it’s intriguing to see a man’s world from this woman’s point of view, where only her marital status and her sheer damn sexiness are keeping her alive. Medieval, almost.

Tommy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Effie Gray (Metrodome, cert 12)

Effie Gray tells the story of Euphemia Gray, the middle class Victorian girl who married the art critic John Ruskin but later got involved in a scandalous affair with John Everett Millais, one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters championed by Ruskin.

As the film relates, the marriage to Ruskin was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation, and the apocryphal story goes that when Ruskin saw his wife’s pubic hair on their honeymoon night, he was so disgusted that he could never go near her again – the statues of antiquity came with no such undergrowth. However, Emma Thompson’s script shies away from such lurid tittle-tattle, preferring instead to cast Ruskin as a super-aesthete and/or possible closeted homosexual.

Poor Greg Wise (Thompson’s real-life partner) should get some reward as the prissy Ruskin, so meanly drawn, so waspishly played that sympathy is entirely with Gray, as surely is the purpose of a film that bears her name.

Dakota Fanning, as the redoubtable Gray, again (as in Now Is Good) puts so much mental energy into getting her English accent right that there’s nothing left for actual acting, again leaving a bit of a hole at the centre of the film.

It’s interesting that the film is concerned, at least tangentially, with the Pre-Raphaelites, since British period movies so often share the Pre-Raphaelites’ concerns and methods – Effie Gray is well lit; its subject matter is high tone; it’s full of well boned women of elevated social class; and it’s edifying, tasteful and liberal in the noblesse oblige sense. As is too often the case, in other words it’s hack work masquerading as art, and a dull old slog.

Effie Gray – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2015



The Plague

Up close and personal with the Filth in The Plague

 

The story behind this film is that it was made for buttons (£3,500) by 20something Londoner Greg Hall, and was then beginning the long slow slide towards festival obscurity when Mike Leigh saw it, started championing it, and hey presto, it has a cinema release. The story at its front is about an culturally and ethnically mixed crew of young, urban Londoners from a council estate. They walk the line between high spirits and illegality, these self-assured youngsters, but suddenly get into trouble by straying beyond the world of tagging, pills and parties.

If it isn’t tied up maybe as well as it should be, The Plague has enough of a plot to act as a frame for some very attractive work. The acting is unusually good, especially for a debut film, and Hall appears to have followed Mike Leigh’s practices to some extent – rehearse your actors, give them enough knowledge of their characters, then let them improvise the scenes naturalistically. Paco Sweetman’s editing is also very strong, a bit jump-cut happy occasionally, but he has a natural gift (could be him or Greg Hall, not sure who) for coming into a scene late and leaving early. This doesn’t just pique our interest, it gives the film a forward drive, as if the whole thing were leaning into the future, and us with it. Ensemble scenes are well handled, particularly the ones where the girls just sit around, chatting, sending texts, putting on make-up, swigging Bacardi Breezers, while in the boys’ camp we learn just how hard it is to break up a big block of hashish for resale – little but telling details. Drugs are everywhere in The Plague.

Of course it’s a cautionary tale, which is a slight disappointment, a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels done with much of the comedy hosed off, though there are still plenty of humorous moments – except here we’re much more likely to be applauding the characters’ lightning comebacks than laughing at their failure to be Mensa smart. For the most part, though, it’s a tangle of loose, conversation-over-conversation scenes, rich in street atmosphere, so individually pungent that the big-drama finish, when it arrives, does seem to pop up out of nowhere. The same focus on people rather than drama also explains the other lapse: side characters are sketchy at best – enter the cardboard coppers.

It’s not a perfect film, in other words, but the good bits are so good, the talent so raw and right, the conjuring of character and mood and milieu so well executed that The Plague‘s odd weakness can be forgiven. If the test of any debut is that you want to see what the director is going to do next, then The Plague easily passes.

 

 

The Plague – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

16 February 2015-02-16

Brad Pitt in Fury

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Babadook (Icon, cert 15)

The Babadook is a horror story about a nervous lone mum with a hyperactive and emotionally fractious six/seven-year-old child who was born the day his father died… in the car which crashed rushing his labouring wife to the hospital. If that isn’t the backstory to something psychologically intense, then what is? The Babadook has a lot going for it – the sombre production design and the creepy drawings in the book about the ghoulish Babadook that the mother ill-advisedly reads to her child as a bedtime story are just for starters. But it succeeds mostly, like all the best horror films, because it taps into a deep basic fear. And it does so while pulling an elegant switcheroo, in terms of its horror focus. Which is why somewhere around halfway in you might be feeling, as I did, that you’d seen the likes of this before (creepy kids are horror staples, and this does seem to be inspired at some level by The Innocents). And then the Babadook, ie the true focus of the film, reveals itself. And oh yes I could see why this film comes so highly recommended. Terrifying.

The Babadook – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Fury (Sony, cert 15)

Writer/director David Ayer’s film are often about male camaraderie in extremis – see Training Day and End of Watch. Fury continues the theme in a drama about a tank crew in the dog days of the Second World War just trying to hold it together until the fighting ends, though the last stragglings of fanatical Nazism are conspiring against them. What does and doesn’t happen in Fury isn’t as important as its relationships – Brad Pitt heads the cast as the battle hardened but essentially avuncular Wardaddy, leader of this tank crew, Logan Lerman is the rookie from whose point of view we are introduced to the guys, Shia LaBeouf is impressive as a dead-eyed grunt who’s seen too much, but by the time we get to Michael Peña, Ayer has kind of given up on defining characterisation. But then the dehumanising effect of war is at least part of what Fury is about – shots of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, people’s heads in a combat zone popping open like water melons, basins of blood being chucked onto the soil in field hospitals. This faintly plotless film – they’re “heading for Berlin” – doesn’t give Ayer quite enough of a hook to hang his usual concerns on, and on two key occasions (one is the “taste of how things used to be” interlude halfway through, the second is the slightly inexplicable “death or glory” finish) Ayer goes into painting-by-numbers war-film mode. But the relationships are still fascinating, its doggedly unglamorous approach is refreshing and it’s learnt from Downfall the importance of sound design in a war film – when that ordnance starts coming in, you really feel it.

Fury – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Book of Life (Fox, cert U)

One of the best animations I’ve seen since Pixar stopped being good, The Book of Life is produced by Guillermo Del Toro and clearly carries his DNA. And it juggles pretty well a story that takes place on multiple levels – in the present where a museum guide is telling a rough and ready gang of urchins the story of Manolo and Joaquin, a pair of Mexican lads from back in the day who jockeyed for the favours of the beautiful Maria. And behind that another story of two ancient immortals, Xibalba and La Muerte, who take bets on which boy is going to win. So why is it so good? First, the animation, which isn’t technically too special, but really makes claims with its sheer artistry, beautiful spaghetti western colour palette, delight in rococo characterisation (especially older people, who are often a jumble of features, warts, potato noses and moustaches) and anarchic action – a touch Bugs Bunny, a fair bit of Ren and Stimpy. Then there’s the use of music, which mixes jaunty and enjoyable new compositions with well chosen existing tunes done mariachi style – from Radiohead’s Creep to Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, plus Bizet, Beethoven, Grieg and Mozart. But a lot of it is because it deals with death, through the prism of the stories surrounding Mexico’s Day of the Dead, in a way that manages to be positive without becoming too metaphysical or soppy. And the voice talent is pretty good too, particularly Ice Cube as the Candle Maker – the immortal who adjudicates between La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) when their bet runs a little awry. Highly recommended for any age group.

The Book of Life – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 Love, Rosie (Lionsgate, cert 15)

An adaptation of one of Cecelia Ahern’s chick-lit novels, which usually feature lovely girls and unattainable males, Ahern’s light touch, wit and knack for everyday language separating hers out from innumerable romances which do just the same. Here Lily Collins is the girl, a bright, trembling and gorgeous thing not above having meaningless sex with a stranger, being a 21st century creature, while Sam Claflin, who’s obviously done the Hugh Grant rom-com course, dithers and stutters his way through the whole film as the boy who got away, but who remains very bestest friends with Rosie from the other side of the Atlantic. The trailer tells the whole story perfectly – they’re childhood friends who should become sweethearts but he goes off to America and instead of following him out there she gets accidentally pregnant and decides to keep the child and stay in the UK, while he goes through a succession of wildly attractive girlfriends and has a fabulous life out there while she bumps along the bottom over here and misses him like crazy. Deep breath. And if it’s just plot you’re after, the trailer is actually all you need to watch. Clearly a film of this sort is not aimed at a middle-aged saddo such as myself but I felt for the leads, could pick up on the warm glow that director Christian Ditter bathed everything in – did the middle-class British life ever look cosier? – and the will they/won’t they business is stretched repeatedly to breaking point but never quite snaps. As tremulous as a petal it may be, but that, surely, is the point.

Love, Rosie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Way He Looks (Peccadillo, cert 12)

Meanwhile, romance of a different sort, and again tremulous, but for a different reason. Because this is a gay romance and seems determined not to scare the horses with actual, you know, doing it, and instead settles for moony longing – though I think there might have been a suggestion of a hand moving under a blanket at one point. Maybe. The story of a blind Brazilian kid Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) whose galpal Gia (Tess Amorim) really fancies him, though he doesn’t like her in that way, a feeling reinforced when new kid Gabriel (Fabio Audi) joins their class, so attractive he becomes the focus of all the girls’ lust. How Leo and Gabriel finally get together is what the film is about, fairly obviously, and it’s all done in such a straightforward way – like a daytime Australian soap – that its lack of guile is disarming. Add to that fresh performances and a roster of characters who are all, at all times, exactly what they appear to be – Leo’s overprotective parents, say – and you’ve a slight, unthreatening film delivered without any side whatsoever. But why is Leo blind, you might ask? It’s got to be a metaphor, surely – for not seeing what you truly are, perhaps – though even that is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact way that, you know, it might mean nothing at all.

The Way He Looks – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Keeping Rosy (Metrodome, cert 15)

Keeping Rosy isn’t a story, it’s four different stories that by rights shouldn’t be together in one film. In the first one we meet Maxine Peake, a high flying executive too busy to have kids who is suddenly fired and goes home to find that her cleaner is smoking (and she’s been told about the smoking) and appears to have stolen a bottle of champagne from her employer’s fridge (which only contains champers and sushi – nice touch). After a quick altercation with the cleaner something awful and spoilerish happens and story two begins, with Peake now dealing with the consequences of what’s just gone down, quite literally. Within ten minutes story three has begun, and Peake and her Money London apartment are again its focus, and like story two it has no real thematic connection to the earlier stories. By story four, The Inbetweeners‘ Blake Harrison has turned up, playing an Iraq veteran who now knows what Peake has been involved in and wants quite a lot of money to keep his mouth shut. Things pick up here, partly because Harrison plays a blinder as the bad guy, partly because it looks for a minute as if all four plots are going to somehow cohere. They don’t. But there’s enjoyment to be had from the always great Peake, holding together what looks like a 1940s woman-in-peril melodrama that’s been subjected to some sort of postmodern messing about.

Keeping Rosy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

United We Fall (Metrodome, cert 15)

Casting about for another film to review this slightly thin week, I read a few critiques of United We Fall, which aims to do for superannuated Manchester United footballers what Spinal Tap did for old rockers – take the piss. Opinion seemed divided quite evenly into lovers and haters. I’m with the lovers. Not because all the jokes about a quintet of players reminiscing about the 2010 season work, but enough of them do. And its actors are really very good – James Rastall as the dumb one, Ryan Pope as the chippy northern one, Jonathan Broke as the erudite, intelligent and decent German goalie, Jack Donnelly as the cock-blocking Beckham type always out to extend his brand, and Matthew Avery as the wildly enthusiastic African one who learnt how to play football kicking a human head into a bucket. Director/writer Gary Sinyor has had a patchy track record since 1992’s Leon the Pig Farmer (it includes the 1999 Chris O’Donnell romcom The Bachelor so “patchy” is being kind) but he keeps things moving at a pace here, surely aware that the mock-doc is hardly conceptually novel, nor is pointing out that footballers are often self-serving, overpaid racist homophobes. But what can I say – I laughed, frequently.

United We Fall – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

The Guardian

Ashton Kutcher in the swimming pool in The Guardian

 

The career of Kevin Costner seems to have come and gone. After having a run of mad popular success with The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves, JFK and The Bodyguard (even the Robin Hood movie: Prince of Thieves did pretty well), he followed up with two epic failures. First Waterworld, which went down like the Titanic. Then The Postman, which was so vainglorious – this is the one in which our hero restores civilisation to a post-apocalyptic America – that it stunned reviewers into a kind of embarrassed silence. These belly flops seem to have busted Costner back down to private and since then he’s gone for more modest assignments. The Guardian is one such, a “hell I used to be that guy” mentoring drama directed by Andrew Davis, who is a sound choice for Costner, having made Steven Seagal look good in Under Siege and turned a workaday chase movie into something special with The Fugitive. Davis does it again with The Guardian, a wearisomely familiar tale about a brave yet tragic US Coast Guard instructor (Costner) of rescue swimmers and his friction-filled training of a new kid on the block (Ashton Kutcher). At 27 Kutcher is at the top age limit for US Coast Guard applicants but he has a swimmer’s build and youthful looks, so… Meanwhile, director Davis guides the rookie and the pro through a screenplay that most of us could block out if asked to – the drill training, the locker-room machismo, the “sir, yes sir” dialogue, the crypto-homoeroticism and even the “hell, you remind me of me” scene, with of course each man learning something about life and himself on the way. And yet, in Davis’s hands, it all seems, if not fresh, then at least remarkably watchable, the action movie cliches and Top Gun homages (Kutcher even wears Ray Ban Aviators) piling up on each other with a certain degree of kinetic finesse, Davis’s stock in trade. Costner reminds us and possibly himself how he became a star in the first place – because he is so good at playing average guys. And Kutcher keeps the sullen braggadocio this side of unattractive and rises to the challenge of a more serious role than he’s used to – dude, where’s my career. Having started with a quick resume of Costner’s rise and fall, it’s necessary to point out that this isn’t really his film, or Kutcher’s. It’s the baton’s – this is all about one generation graciously ceding to the next, which is hungrily grabbing at what isn’t being offered quite fast enough. And on this level – and Davis lets looks and gestures rather than the dialogue do a lot of the work here – it rises right above the cliche, and the fact that this is a film containing a training montage set to rock music (Kasabian’s Club Foot) becomes almost forgivable.

 

The Guardian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

9 February 2015-02-09

Luke Evans as Vlad the Impaler in Dracula Untold

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Dracula Untold (Universe, cert 15)

Dracula gets the superhero treatment, bagging an origin story that places him somewhere between Batman and Superman – Batman’s damaged psyche (the Turks want to take his son) and Superman’s special powers (thanks to a “gift” from an ancient cursed beast that lives in a dark cave). It’s the story of the 15th century Romanian/Wallachian ruler Vlad the Impaler, not such a bad guy if you ask many an East European, who claim he was more bark than bite, a sentiment this film largely goes along with, until his mwah-ha-ha transformation, at least. Shot in Northern Ireland and with Game of Thrones looks, it stars Luke Evans as the enlightened humanist Vlad and Sarah Gadon as his wife, a Hammer Horror female modelled on Ingrid Pitt. For the baddies there’s Dominic Cooper looking splendidly plush as Mehmed the Turk, whose Janissary army wants Vlad’s son – more as a token of his fealty than for the son’s contribution to any war effort. This is the incident that prompts Vlad to resort to desperate measures, his visit to the beast in the cave, his “temporary” adoption of supernatural strength, speed, shapeshifting and the rest of the vampire panoply. It’s a maddening film, dabbling in incendiary ideas – Islamic threat, the notion of Christianity as a playground fantasy – and then dropping them as soon as it’s picked them up. But once it’s got its giant slabs of exposition out of the way in early scenes, it settles down to being a sumptuous period drama – the costumes are particularly ravishing – with some effective battle scenes. Top marks to Charles Dance, as the aged master vampire (or whatever he is), a properly sinister presence the film could really do with more of.

Dracula Untold – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Palo Alto (Metrodome, cert 15)

Gia is the latest Coppola to take up directing (she’s the grand-daughter of Francis) and she’s opted for a subject and treatment not unlike her cousin Sofia’s feature debut, The Virgin Suicides. Fairly bored rich suburban kids getting into trouble, in other words. Looking back at The Virgin Suicides, Sofia managed to draft in James Woods, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito while rising stars Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett added youthful vigour. Gia has gone for an approach that fuses name and youth – this cast is full of Hollywood siblings, Jack (son of Val) Kilmer, Emma (niece of Julia) Roberts, Christian (son of Michael) Madsen. There are more. It’s a bit of a stunt, this casting, but in the case of the two leads it works really well, Jack Kilmer and Emma Roberts playing likeable teenagers of the drink-puke-screw variety who really should be together but callow youth and other distractions keep getting in the way. The whole thing is based on short Cheever-esque stories by James Franco, who takes an effective supporting role as the charming but skanky football teacher with an eye on young Emma. There’s a strong sense that we’ve seen all this before, but Coppola handles it all well, gets good performances out of her cast and crew and manages a couple of directorly touches just to show the film’s not using the “classic 1970s director” preset on some iDirect software. It’s a warm-up for the next stage of her career, and not a bad one.

Palo Alto – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

What If (E One, cert 15)

Does anyone want to see Daniel Radcliffe as a romantic lead? I honestly doubt it, but there are a few “aahs” to be had from this romcom co-starring Zoe Kazan – and thank god it does. It’s the boy-meets-girl-but-she’s-already-got-a-boyfriend story which asks the question – can a man and a woman just be friends? When Harry Met Zoe, you could say (Harry Potter? Zoe Kazan? OK, OK). Prompting a lot of mooning about on Radcliffe’s part, the grammar nerd called Wallace who meets witty wallflower Chantry at some party that’s otherwise full of woo-hoo jocks and cheerleaders, and then meets her man (Rafe Spall, very funny), who warns our bijou hero that he’d “better not try and put your penis into her vagina”. And the screenplay drops little wit-bombs like this to keep us awake while it engineers the two “friends” into positions where, yes, he might consider doing just that. But Wallace is a decent guy, and Chantry is a decent girl and, no, this wasn’t setting me on fire either. But it is a nice film, if that isn’t too wet an adjective, gentle and periodically funny, even if it’s so self-effacing, like Wallace’s character, that you want to give it a slap.

What If – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Maze Runner (Fox, cert 12)

Another contender for the YA movie crown, this one set in a vast volcanic crater where young men live together in Lord of the Flies fashion until it comes their turn to run into the a deadly maze alive with murderous beasties. Or have I got that wrong and the young man who eventually does run into the maze does so against orders? I really can’t remember that well, and I think it’s the fault of the film, rather than my memory, because what The Maze Runner actually seems to consist of is a series of confrontations between our rebel hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the rest of the lads. They are to varying degrees happy to live in this zoo and accept its strictures; he’d rather live in the free world, the jungle. It is at base another Ayn Rand screed against over-powerful government, though big ideas are a mere pretext for its true ambition – to divert some of those Hunger Games dollars its way. But it’s undeniably done well, with energy and a good cast – Dylan O’Brien a believable hero, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Will Poulter standing against him, Kaya Scodelario (styled to look like Kristen Stewart) as token and largely pointless girl. More on the way.

The Maze Runner– Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Life after Beth (Koch, cert 15)

A cross between Warm Bodies and Shaun of the Dead, Life after Beth is a sharply written zom-com with lots of jokes and a great cast – Dane DeHaan as the grief-stricken guy who is overjoyed to discover that his dead girlfriend Aubrey Plaza isn’t quite as dead as she at first appeared. And what’s more she seems to like him a lot more passionately than she did when properly alive. Set, like Shaun of the Dead, in a well drawn stultifying suburbia, it derives much of its humour from that same disjunction, between the bland everyday and the bizarro, but also from its mode of delivery, which is Australian daytime soap – “She’s a zombie?”, rising inflection, says DeHaan to Plaza’s parents (John C Reilly, Molly Shannon, both straight-faced throughout). Aubrey Plaza throws herself into the role as the young woman who doesn’t actually realise she’s a zombie, who shouts “shut up you bitch” at DeHaan, licks his face and rubs her nethers into his groin to try and get him to fuck her. There’s nothing hornier than a freshly dead zombie, it seems. These little bits of lore – she is also immensely soothed by smooth jazz – sit nicely against the slew of Jewish zombie jokes that writer/director Jeff Baena gets off his chest as more of the undead return from the grave – “What happened to all the Formica” says one member of the walking dead on returning to the house that used to be her home. Very funny, highly inventive. Highly recommended.

Life after Beth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Enemy (Curzon, cert 15)

Jake Gyllenhaal reteams with Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve for a paranoid arthouse melodrama about a lecturer who becomes fixated on an actor who looks exactly like him. Exactly exactly. So the lecturer seeks out the actor and it all kicks off. More plot description than this would ruin a very plot driven film, but of course at one point person A is going to pretend to be person B – you’d feel shortchanged if he didn’t. But will one kill the other? Take his wife? Assume his life permanently? Effect some massive swindle-switch? Watch and see, enjoying on the way Villeneuve’s nods to Hitchcock’s “innocent man” theme and his conjuring of a mood that’s about 50 per cent David Lynch, spiced with elegant visuals and a haunting soundtrack that are on their own a joy to behold.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Overnighters (Dogwoof, cert E)

The Overnighters gets a bad case of Capturing the Friedmans towards the end, as it tries to produce a gotcha ending that changes the entire nature of the film. It doesn’t quite work and sits uneasily on what has been a fascinating documentary about a Lutheran pastor who is trying to give shelter to the many incoming males who are turning up in his North Dakota town hoping to pick up work locally in the fracking industry. Jay Reinke is a nervous, righteous and perhaps a touch self-righteous man who is standing alone against his entire town, who really don’t want him to be helping the homeless – “they have no intention of building anything,” says one stone-faced member of his congregation. “These people, they rape, pillage and burn and then they leave.” Another puts it differently – “This is not my home any more.” And there you have it, the illegitimate fear-mongering and the legitimate regret, the negative reaction to immigrants the world over. Most of the immigrants are skill-less blue-collar men in late middle age who are having one last go at making it after a life of failure and regret, and watching Reinke trying to hold back the townsfolks’ negativity (and his family’s veiled hostility) while pleading with the overnighters to keep their heads down and noses clean is what makes this admittedly overlong film such gripping, if often grim, viewing.

The Overnighters – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

2 February 2015-02-02

Rosamund PIke and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

Gone Girl (Fox, cert 18)

Authors are often not the best adapters of their own work for the screen, because they’re too close to the original – Norah Ephron’s Heartburn (a novel and film about her disintegrating marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein) being the classic example. But Gillian Flynn does an impressive job turning her smash novel into a big screen property, keeping most of the plot curlicues, and maintaining for as long as possible the “did he/didn’t he” structure. Ben Affleck plays the husband painted by every shred of evidence turned up by the police as the murderer of his disappeared high-maintenance wife (Rosamund Pike). It’s another example of solid, heavily procedural glossy film-making by director David Fincher – who has been doing this sort of thing well since Seven at least (The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also rely on Fincher’s adeptness at procedure). “Solid” might seem a bit flimsy as an adjective of praise, but it’s the solidity in every quarter that stands out – Affleck and Pike’s performance, as well as those of Neil Patrick Harris (as a creepy former beau of the “gone girl”), Tyler Perry (as the hotshot lawyer the husband hires to save his skin). Other little enjoyments include the fact that the women are almost always smarter than the men, though not necessarily nicer, and that guilt and innocence increasingly become a matter of media perception, outflanking facts and the workings of the legal system.

Gone Girl – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Maps to the Stars (E One, cert 18)

After the period drama A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg returned to social satire with Cosmopolis, but Maps to the Stars feels much more like the Cronenberg of old compared to that filigree chamber piece. The King of Venereal horror is what they used to call him and there’s plenty of venereal action going on in this drama, mostly courtesy of Julianne Moore as the fading Hollywood star crashing her career towards oblivion. Though the film is more about the super-dysfunctional family of her masseur, played by John Cusack – his appalling child-star son (Evan Bird), his deranged daughter (Mia Wasikowska), his fragile bird partner (Olivia Williams). Creepiness is the overall tone and chilliness is the emotional temperature – you don’t come to a Cronenberg film hoping for characters to warm to or identify with. It’s grand guignol stuff, in other words, with Cronenberg reminding us that he was David Lynch before David Lynch was David Lynch. And if it never quite attains Sunset Boulevard levels of blackness in terms of what it actually says about Hollywood, Bruce Wagner’s script has some jaw-dropping dialogue reflecting the sociopathic solipsism of its characters and there are moments of genuine yuck that will stick with you. Again, Julianne Moore – give that woman a gong.

Maps to the Stars – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

In Order of Disappearance (Metrodome, cert 15)

Great title, hugely entertaining film, a Norwegian/Swedish co-production borrowing heavily from Mr Tarantino, and starring Stellan Skarsgård as a snowplough driver who goes on a payback rampage after his son is killed – but coolly, methodically, as you’d expect from someone who is used to keeping his vehicle on top of an icy road. The hunt rattling the nests of two gangsters – the prissy loquacious vegan known as the count (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), whose henchmen are constantly exchanging glances behind his back (highly amusing) and the gruff aged and much scarier Serbian mobster known as Papa (Bruno Ganz) who says very little at all. Both men brilliantly cast. Director Hans Petter Molland and DP Philip Øgaard have opted for a bright, clean and sharp shooting style in keeping with the crisp, snow-stacked rural Norwegian locations, this crystalline look butting heads with some highly rococo deaths. I see that Roy Andersson, director of such oddities as You, The Living and Songs from the Second Floor, has a producer credit, which might partly explain the film’s straight faced whackness, and if it at times is a little too in hock to Mr T, it does at least channel the man with wit. Such as the scene where a couple of Serbian gangsters are having a time-killing conversation in a car, discussing the merits of Norwegian prisons – the “warm food” and “no rapes” getting the matter-of-fact thumbs up.

In Order of Disappearance – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Rewrite (Lionsgate, cert 12)

If you’ve ever seen Hugh Grant being interviewed you’ll have worked out that he isn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm for the acting thing, is cool about making movies and seems to particularly hate doing the publicity round. And instead of stretching himself – his appearances in Cloud Atlas perhaps notwithstanding –  he prefers to stay locked into the persona that arrived fully formed with Four Weddings and a Funeral. He’s a long way from being Britain’s hottest actor these days, yet the surprising thing about Grant is that his films remain, you know, OK. Here’s a case in point, a typically Hugh romcom in which Grant plays the cynical beaten screenwriter who winds up at a university teaching students who hang on his every word, though he himself doesn’t believe writing can be taught and is disdainful of anything that doesn’t come with instructions for undressing. The arc is obviously Hugh Redeemed, and the agent if not angel of redemption is Marisa Tomei, in another of those perky everygirl roles in which she’s smiley and smart, as the one mature student to somehow slip onto the old curmudgeon’s course. Expect not very much and you might laugh out loud, as I did – Grant can still deliver a line like almost no one else, is a master of interaction, and has geniuses of the craft to interact with – Alison Janney and JK Simmons, as faculty members. For those who remember Leslie Phillips “ding dong” comedies, this is essentially one of those, with Simmons as the amiable friend and Janney as James Robertson Justice in a skirt. It’s the fourth collaboration between Grant and Marc Lawrence (they previously did Two Weeks Notice, Music & Lyrics and Did You Hear about the Morgans) and Grant clearly feels comfortable with the writer/director. But he’s getting on a bit now and his romcom shtick is going to start looking creepy pretty soon, as he moves through his 50s. This is a funny, enjoyable film. But for Hugh it’s time for a rewrite of his own.

The Rewrite – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Violette (Soda, cert 15)

Biopics about artists of any sort are generally underwhelming, but about writers particularly so. This one about Violette Leduc isn’t, and that’s because co-writer/director Martin Provost also uses it as a way of casting sidelong glances at a group who continue to fascinate – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Genet and so on. Actually, Sartre doesn’t appear at all, is merely referred to (even more sidelong) but Simone de Beauvoir features heavily once the belittled, abused and ferociously ugly (Leduc’s view of herself) Violette has shed a spare man, embraced her bisexuality, learned to trust her judgment when it comes to writing and gradually been accepted by the post-War Parisian boho community she aspires to be part of. Provost gets the period look right – dark, muted colours, clothes designed to keep people warm in underheated houses, hairstyles that don’t need washing too often – and plaudits to production designer Thierry François for making not one bit of it assert itself. Everything is where it is because that is where it is meant to be. But at the heart of the film is a compare-and-contrast of two entirely different women – Leduc the homely, unkempt, unravelling and unthreatening; de Beauvoir the patrician, sleek, high tone and severe, with both Emmanuelle Devos and Sandrine Kiberlain excellent as Leduc and de Beauvoir. It’s the second “outsider” artist film by Provost, and if you haven’t seen Séraphine, about primitive painter Séraphine de Senlis, and enjoy this, then you probably should.

Violette – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Face of Love (Signature, cert 15)

A woman much in love with her husband of 30 years is bereft when he dies. Then, five years later she espies his exact spitting image and, against her better judgment, tracks down the man and sets out to woo him. Annette Bening and Ed Harris are the duo (Harris playing both the dead and the new man) and their names ought to be some guarantee of quality, you’d have thought. But there’s a tastefulness and restraint to this drama that holds it back – he’s a painter, she’s a friend of the local museum, don’t ya know. What The Face of Love needs to understand is that it’s a yodelling 1940s melodrama, rather than a deep psychological study, a treatise on grief, or some such. Symptomatic is Robin Williams as the widower neighbour of Bening who carries a torch for her, a character so underwritten he could be excised entirely without making any difference to the film.

The Face of Love – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Ganja & Hess (Eureka, cert 18)

Cult auteur Bill Gunn’s unique, beautifully composed 1973 drama was financed by a production company expecting a blaxploitation movie to feed off the success of 1972’s Blacula. Instead Gunn gave them a film that faces entirely the other way – not to the urban, “I’m black and I’m proud” self-imposed apartheid of the time, but to an entirely different version of blackness, one that positions black people as people first, black second. That’s not to say Gunn is denying blackness – there’s African chant, gospel and blues on the soundtrack – but his key character, Dr Hess Green, the anthropologist who has picked up the thirst for blood while researching African tribal customs, speaks standard English, listens to string quartets and has old masters on his walls. He’s a citizen of the world. Shall I tell you the plot? I don’t think so: you just need to know that the other person in the title, Ganja (frequent Gunn collaborator Marlene Clark), is a haughty beautiful woman who will have a severe impact on this latterday, supercool (though not superfly) Dracula (Duane Jones, star of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), and that Sam Waymon (brother of Nina Simone) plays the chauffeur and also supplies the excellent gospel singing. And also that the word “vampire” is not mentioned once and there are only a couple of blink-and-miss-em blood-drinking moments. This is not for gorehounds.

A note about the picture: there’s a hair in the gate in the opening scene and it conjures the very worst “uh ohs”. But get past that, the early 1970s use of rapid zoom, and the intense grain of the image (it’s shot on 16mm, though I’d readily believe anyone who told me it was Super 8) and it’s obvious that Gunn has an artist’s eye for composition and a natural editor’s feel for the rhythm of a scene. It’s so good, in fact, that I wondered whether there wasn’t a business opportunity for someone to do a shot-for-shot remake on better film stock. Then I discovered Spike Lee just has (called Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, apparently). Much much more than just a historical curio, this restoration is a complete eye-opener, a fascinating, enjoyable film, a one-off and something of a classic.

Ganja & Hess – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015