29 June 2015-06-29

Maika Monroe in It Follows

 

Out This Week

 

Appropriate Behaviour (Peccadillo, cert 15)

The New York Neurotics Club – founder member Woody Allen, recent arrivals Lena Dunham (Girls) and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) – gets a new member in the shape of Desiree Akhavan, who gives us a smart, self-deprecating comedy about a slightly deadbeat woman struggling in a mumblecore world where everyone else seems to be doing OK. Playing, in Larry David style, a version of herself, Akhavan is Shirin, the bisexual daughter of immigrant parents who can’t or won’t come out to mum and dad, and whose private life is a shambolic mess like the rest of her life. The meat of the film is a chronologically messed-with analysis of Shirin’s relationship with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), which goes from sweet and hot to cold and contemptuous as we watch. From Maxine’s point of view, anyway. Shirin remains puppy-dog needy throughout, her bisexuality making her just twice as desperate. Akhavan’s writing is seriously good – there’s an edge-of-seat quality to every scene as we are teased with one wrestle for power after another, though how rarely anyone acknowledges that that’s what they’re doing. And the acting is seriously good too. Appropriate Behaviour swings constantly between exuberance and embarrassment, building to a brilliant portrait of life in your 20s – how great it is and how bloody awful too.

Appropriate Behaviour – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

It Follows (Icon, cert 15)

Rather than following, the huge reputation of this film preceded it, to the point where I was quite surprised by what I saw when I put it on. I knew it was a horror film about some sort of thing that followed a person, in slow zombie style, but I’d expected just that – a zombie film, with running and screaming and what have you (the trailer stoked this delusion). Instead I got a much moodier film than expected – mining a 70s/80s vibe, with a John Carpenter meets Wendy Carlos synthy soundtrack (courtesy of Disasterpeace) and the deep pastels of Mike Gioulakis’s cinematography making much of the cosiness of the American suburb where it’s set, and the young woman involved (Maika Monroe, touchingly vulnerable). The plot – thing follows person – “it’s slow but it’s not dumb”, as one victim says, until that person can pass the thing on to another person by sleeping with them. A straightforward metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases, then. So straightforward in fact that it’s barely metaphorical at all. The power of the entire film comes from this directness – of plot, and theme. And mood – director David Robert Mitchell matching his film’s pace to that of the stumbling creature who might shift shape but is always a touch under-dressed, in underwear or nightwear, which has the effect of keeping us straining, in scene after scene, for the first glimpse of the thing as it comes from out of the distance through the crowds, long grass, car park, cinema rows, wherever. Nice subjective camera too, all those moody dollies and pans.

It Follows – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Jupiter Ascending (Warner, cert 12)

I’m just recovering from the madwoman’s breakfast that was Cloud Atlas and here’s the Wachowskis again, with another “more is more” offering. The plot is a loose rerun of The Matrix – but this time Mila Kunis is the nobody who doesn’t realise she’s a somebody, an immigrant Russian cleaner who turns out to be the princess of some planet far far away. Yes, the Wachowskis have also got Star Wars in their sights too – you can’t fault them for ambition. Channing Tatum takes the Carrie-Anne Moss role, as the guide to the new world who falls for his charge (of course he does – you don’t cast Tatum and not throw in a romantic subplot). Whereas Eddie Redmayne goes Hugo Weaving, the baddie who likes to roll the words around his mouth rather than just spit them out. The same applies to the whole film, which is astonishing to look at, but rolls everything around a bit before trying to build it into a towering pile of froth, every surface embellished, every corner decorated. If there’s a crocodile, then it has to be a talking crocodile, and a talking crocodile with wings. I didn’t mention that Tatum flies about on gravity boots, or that he is a cross between a man and a wolf and has pointy ears. For what reason? Who knows? It’s highly enjoyable, until it collapses from a case of over-compressed storyline-itis, though its insistence on its own importance would have got it in the end anyway. Really, and this is something a lot of film makers are getting wrong right now, it should be a TV series.

Jupiter Ascending – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Force Majeure (Artificial Eye, cert 15)

Force Majeure has a setup so powerful that, in a sense, the film never really recovers from it. It’s no spoiler – the trailer does it, and the film gets its big idea out into the open within scant minutes of the opening credits anyway – to tell you straight up that it’s about a nice holidaying Swedish family who, as they have lunch in a mountain restaurant one day, are suddenly threatened by what looks like an approaching avalanche. The wife makes a mad lunge for the kids. But the dad grabs his iPhone and runs away. The “avalanche” over – they got only the preceding fog of snow – dad returns, the family continues with its lunch. Except mum is now not speaking to dad, and won’t even look him in the eye. He’s continuing as if nothing has happened. She is appalled and is questioning everything she thought she knew about this man – his suitability as a husband, as a father, the very nature of maleness – while he pulls variations on the “What? What?” response. There are other side characters introduced to get this discussion more fully into the open – a cusping middle-aged woman holidaying on her own and indulging in the sort of sex tourism you associate with men, a 40something friend of the husband and his new, younger version of the woman he left – but they feel like nothing more than writerly devices. But at its core are these two people and their big argument – why can’t a man be more like a man, to paraphrase Professor Higgins – and it’s a vibrant, interesting one couched in such a way that you’re never sure whether the film is a conservative re-affirmation of maleness, or an ironic comment on the same. Or you could just watch it for the Let the Right One In-style cool interiors and blasts of mountain snow.

Force Majeure – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Chappie (Sony, cert 15)

Neill Blomkamp was hailed as a fresh new voice in genre cinema when he arrived with District 9, which recast the alien invasion movie as a parable for apartheid in South Africa. Hollywood sucked him up, he gave them Elysium, in which his vision of a futureworld divided into the haves and have nots was eventually swamped by 1980s action-movie noise. Chappie is both the much vaunted “return to form” and “return to his roots”, another go round the block with the dystopian sci-fi movie, but this time back in South Africa, and with a budget he’d have killed for when making District 9. Anyway. And…? He’s made Terminator as panto. Oh yes he has. Dev Patel is the Buttons character, a lanky, larky programmer who has written a program that confers self-awareness, which he inserts into a broken police droid marked for disposal. This sentient robot is then stolen by some very skanky criminal exponents of the Zef style (after the white trash who used to ride around in Ford Zephyrs way, way back in the day) and trained to be their own secret weapon. Blomkamp says he had the idea of a robot being kidnapped while he was listening to the South African rave-rap band Die Antwoord. Putting literalism where his money is, he’s cast members of Die Antwoord Ninja and Yolandi as the Mad Max-alike low-lifes who get their hands on the discarded but super-capable Chappie, teach him how to talk Zef, gangsta-walk, how to accessorise with bling, hold a gun, and so on. All very amusing. There’s a nature v nurture thing going on here, Blomkamp firmly in the nurture camp, and his villain, played by Hugh Jackman, the sidelined cop with mad plans for even more hi-tech oppression, is on the nature end – his justification for his policing methods (in a nutshell: oppress the shit out of everybody) is that the people on the streets are rotten to their DNA. Talking of which, as a social commentary this film is quite bizarre – Chappie, for example, is an avatar for the oppressed black people of South Africa, and with or without surrogate mother Yolandi reading him The Black Sheep as a bedtime story, we’d have worked that out. But there are no active black characters in this film (Chappie himself is played by Sharlto Copley, taking an Andy Serkis mo-cap role for the team). Otherwise, this is an intensely interesting film undermined by its relentless snark – it’s caviar, that stuff, you don’t need much.

Chappie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Fox, cert PG)

No one is dirt poor and no one dies of heat stroke in this Sunday night sequel to the original, which reunites the majority of the cast (not Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton is only in it for a minute). It also introduces Richard Gere to the franchise, and uses what the target audience will recognise as the Hotel Inspector plot from Fawlty Towers as a device. Is Gere one? Or isn’t he? Having wanted to shoot myself while, and after, watching the first one, and then having been surprised to find everyone else in the world seemed to like it (as long as everyone is patronised by a film, that’s OK, it seems), I was pleasantly surprised by this second one, which has a loose Ealing feel, a few good one-liners and pretty much leaves the actors to do their work – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup as the pensioner Brits whose anteroom-to-death sojourn in pension-friendly India is complicated by a few minor bumps to be ridden over. Dev Patel’s progress towards marriage with the beautiful Sunaina (Tina Desai) is also blocked by a leaf on the line, and even enterprising Patel’s mother (Lillete Dubey) gets a romantic storyline – prizes for everybody, inclusiveness all round, a very British sense of fair play, unless you actually examine things too closely. Because it’s still “don’t they talk funny and I wouldn’t drink the water and you can’t get Bovril” and all that. Never mind racism; the Indians are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. It’s the Brits I was worried about.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (Soda, cert 12)

We’re told that this film is based on the true story of a Japanese woman who loved the film Fargo so much that she went off to America and tried to find the money that Steve Buscemi was seen burying in the snow towards the end of it. These are the acts of a clearly mentally disturbed woman, and I’m never really sure what the point of films about mentally disturbed people is, unless they are trying to show things from their point of view – which this film doesn’t. So, that off my chest, this deluded, depressed Tokyo salarygirl throws in the job after being insulted by the boss once too often, and jets off to snowy Minnesota to get rich. She meets a succession of quirky “characters” in what turns into a road movie, the writing/directing Zellner brothers occasionally delivering a Coen brothers-alike corridor or hotel lobby, while cinematographer Sean Porter keeps the looks matt and flat, in the now standard Let the Right One In style. Waitresses, motel clerks, shop girls, retirees, a bumbling cop – there’s a deliberate focus on the people of low status, at a wintry time of year, in a state no one ever gets too excited about. It’s no surprise to find that Alexander Payne is involved as a producer, given his fascination with road movies, unvisited locales and the sort of characters most films ignore. There’s a kind of quirky humour to it all, recalling David Byrne’s True Stories, from all those years ago. This film has won a bunch of awards, from festivals all over the world, but it didn’t do a thing for me. The story was novel, but its indie treatment, delivered with a hint of condescension, was the same old same old.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

22 June 2015-06-22

Christian Grey shares a tender moment with Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey

 

Out This Week

 

Fifty Shades of Grey (Universal, cert 18)

This decade’s Da Vinci Code – the book read by people who don’t often read books – is a basic Mills & Boon/Harlequin story (masterful man, virginal girl) with an added belt, if that’s the word, of S&M. In this film adaptation Jamie Dornan glowers but brings no real life to the role of buff CEO Christian Grey whom Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele meets as he’s buying cable ties in the shop she works in. Dakota looks like her dad, Don Johnson, and has the pluck of her mother, Melanie Griffith, which is handy because she is required to take off more clothes more often than you might expect from someone with this Hollywood pedigree. She’s pretty good, Johnson, not registering even once a flicker at the risible dialogue – “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard” says powerful dominant Christian Grey at one point – more entirely inhabiting her character than Dornan ever manages. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, meanwhile, toys with turning the whole thing into a spoof, but is presumably held back by the controlling hand of author EL James – though as thrusting brooding Grey is taking trembling wallflower Steele for a ride in his helicopter, ST-J did sneak a shot of the joystick, for lovers of fnaar-fnaar symbolism. Presumably references to choppers had already been excised by James. What can I say – it’s not for me. Or for lovers of the rough stuff. The  bondage is so vanilla you half expect the nipple clamps and anal fisting (referred to, never shown) to come with two scoops. But it does end well, satisfactorily, as if someone suddenly uttered the safe word and we were all let out.

Fifty Shades of Grey – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Blind (Axiom, cert 18, DVD/digital)

Blind is a Norwegian drama written and directed by Joachim Trier, the writer of the excellently emotive Oslo August 31st, about a newly blind young woman (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). But hang on, who is this not unattractive other woman (Vera Vitali), also blonde, who starts having an affair with the blind woman’s husband (Henrik Rafaelsen), and who is also being stalked by a sweaty unsavoury guy (Marius Kolbenstvedt) with a highly developed interest in pornography? Things are not as they first appear in this “wait and see” psychodrama that does eventually explain itself admirably. It also manages to accomplish something that films aren’t actually very good at – depiction of internal mental states – by falling back on expressionist techniques when it’s not pulling what you might call the Douglas Sirk trick of simply jacking up the storytelling until its emotions teeter on the edge of the ridiculous. If none of this is leaving you any the wiser, that’s because I’m trying to avoid spoilers. Watch and enjoy – I did – and admire its coolness, frankness, novelty and occasional remarkable image. A broad mind is required.

Blind – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Wedding Ringer (Sony, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Kevin Hart plays the guy who turns out at the wedding of other guys who have no mates and pretend to be their lifelong pal, does the speech, charms everybody, takes his money and disappears. Josh Gad is the friendless guy in question in The Wedding Ringer, a shlubby but decent sort who’s getting married to a woman who, he says, is above his pay grade. We suspect, because she doesn’t look too far above his pay grade, that in fact they’re not suited at all, and exposure to Hart’s motormouth might shake things up a bit. And that Gad might find a pal. An arc for both, very neat. Because Hart is black, and America is obsessed with race, and this is a film about two guys, I was braced for the usual racial/homophobe gags. There were a couple. But there was also some funny physical comedy, jokes about disguised identity (did I mention that Hart is passing himself off as a priest?), fatguy gags, sexual grossout, redneck knockabout, all done at warp speed and with a supporting retinue of great comic actors as the crew of Hart’s familiars who he’s drafted in to play Gad’s friends. It’s actually a very funny film, with a nice warm emotional core too. But why cast Olivia Thirlby – now looking sensationally beautiful (as opposed to just very attractive) – and use her so little?

The Wedding Ringer – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Can’t Come Out to Play (Signature, cert 15)

The normally scary Michael Shannon is outdone by an icy Samantha Morton in this strange and gruesome chiller that also goes by the name of The Harvest – which does somewhat give the plot away before the film has revealed it. These odd pair play a doctor and nurse – she’s the doctor, he’s the nurse, and a whole power dynamic hangs off that inversion – who have a sick child who “can’t come out to play” with the feisty girl new to the area. What is so odd about this film is its Lifetime Channel production style – it’s shadowless lighting, corporate direction, right down to the by-the-yard score by TV-movie favourite George S Clinton (no relation of Mr Funkadelic). It’s directed by John McNaughton, who hasn’t troubled surface life much since 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and whose uneven pacing doesn’t help a film that needs assistance in overcoming its idiot-plot problem – when our plucky heroine (Natasha Calis) first discovers that dark deeds are being planned and carried out at the secluded home where the medical mom and dad keep too-watchful an eye over their son, why doesn’t she call the police? In fact on several occasions the question raises itself. For all that, this does have its moments. With Morton and Shannon you’d expect nothing less.

Can’t Come Out to Play aka Harvest – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Dior and I (Dogwoof, cert 12)

It should be Dior and Me, obviously, but in all other respects this is a very old school fly-on-the-wall documentary taking pains to do things properly. It follows Raf Simons, the designer newly arrived from Jil Sander, where he was a minimalist menswear designer of ready-to-wear clothes – at Dior he’s doing women’s couture for a house known for its exuberant formalism, so quite a lot of learning curve for Simons. Here, his back story might have come in handy – he was a furniture designer who went to his first fashion show in 1991, decided that this was the thing for him, and had launched his first collection a mere four years later – but director Frédéric Tcheng sticks instead to the plan, filming what he finds in front of the camera in a boardroom-to-bootroom cross-section of the fashion house. Simons is a fascinating man, not given to much flouncing or shouting, collaborative, relying heavily on the talented women (mostly) who work in the Dior atelier, most of whom have been there for decades, and on the emollient charm of his right hand man, Pieter Mulier, who is the shopfloor fixer, diplomat and engineer, the zippy yang to Simons’s more withdrawn ying. Simons relies on the work of Christian Dior too, using some of the distinctive shapes of Dior’s famous New Look collection of 1947 to inspire his new collection – and one of the small joys of this film is watching a contemporary model trying on some of those old clothes, which look strangely on trend. Another inspiration for the designer is the paintings of Sterling Ruby, whose, to my eyes, ugly tie/dye look Simons appropriates. Tcheng uses narrated excerpts from Dior’s autobiography to point up other similarities between then and now, Dior and Simons, allied to snatches of archive footage and photographs, these helping to locate Simons in the present, and giving an idea of what he’s up against taking over at a venerable institution and with very few of the skills associated with the trained fashion designer – Simons doesn’t draw, for instance. A shot of Marion Cotillard’s gorgeous neck at the eventual show, held only scant weeks after Simons has taken over, in a room whose walls have been slathered with flowers, sums up much of what is good about this film – Tcheng has an eye for beauty. He gives us fashion as fashion wants to see itself – inspired, different, hard working, nervous and creative. This isn’t the whole story, for sure. But, like I said, this is very old school. Fashion fans will gobble it down.

Dior and I – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Focus (Warner, cert 15)

A Will Smith film, in which Smith plays a cool grifter, Margot Robbie the two-bit player he takes under his wing and polishes till she gleams. On the way he falls for her, but by this time she’s hared off in a different direction and is hanging off the arm of another guy. Here’s a film called Focus that loses its grip on the same around halfway in – the first half sees Smith’s glossy Fagin teaching his Oliver Twist the tricks of the trade, and it’s a slick champagne-and-cognac piece of almost Michael Mann-like super-luxe film-making. Entirely satisfying. But once we slide into part two, it’s as if someone has made off with the film’s wallet, its working capital, and we’re left with the lovelorn Mr Smith moping about till the end credits roll. Robbie, for her part, is doing an excellent young Sharon Stone act, and behaving as inscrutably as a high class bitch should, which only doubles the sense of a vacuum where Smith should be. It’s as if he were, say, about to run for political office, had suddenly realised he was in a film about people who steal things as a way of making a living, and had ordered a rewrite to somehow position himself on the side of the good guys. I don’t know, but there has to be a reason why what could have been an enjoyable Ocean’s 11 clone is such a mess.

Focus – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Stonehearst Asylum (Lionsgate, cert 15)

The lunatics have taken over the asylum in Stonehearst Asylum, a film that originally went by the name Eliza Graves, after the character played by Kate Beckinsale. Jim Sturgess plays the innocent who arrives at the out-of-the-way mental hospital, to find a clearly batshit Ben Kingsley in charge of the institution while real hospital honcho Michael Caine and his staff are locked in the basement. It’s an Edgar Allan Poe story originally, and this production attempts to weld the ethos of a cod-Freudian 1940s-style asylum movie such as Shutter Island to the faux-Victorian spooky house gothic of The Woman in Black – both pastiches in the first place. Perhaps that’s why this film simply refuses to take wing. The TV budget doesn’t help, nor does the lazy storytelling, hackneyed characters (ooh aargh Irish baddie David Thewlis is particularly funny), ridiculous situations – asylum patient Beckinsale unaccountably always dressed in a low-cut full-length ball gown, just for starters. Or the bizarre acting – though Kingsley clearly nicking Michael Caine’s line-reading rhythms is another point of pure enjoyment. It’s utter bollocks, all of it, but the gothic diorama it presents has a certain gritty edge, there are cryptic references to the work of RD Laing and the Stanford Experiment, for those trying to sift out a lump or two, and one of the key players bursts into flames at the end. Something the film has not managed.

Stonehearst Asylum – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

25 May 2015-05-25

Michael Parks and Justin Long in Tusk

 

Out This Week

 

Tusk (Sony, cert 15)

After the wobble of Red State, Kevin Smith seems to have got his midlife crisis out of the way and now roars back to form with a brilliant, and brilliantly discomfiting, grotesque comedy that sees shock podcaster Justin Long surgically turned into a human walrus by mad Michael Parks. The fact that Long has it coming is signified by his douchebag cheating on his superhot girlfriend, played by superhot Genesis Rodriguez, but nothing can really prepare us for the sense of pathos that Long conjures when he cries big walrus tears from out of his big brown eyes on realising his old human form has been irrevocably altered. It’s a heartbreaking film, absolutely fucking ridiculous and gruesome as hell all at the same time, and it’s only over the end credits that we hear the podcast (Smodcast) which sparked it all off, as Smith and fellow podcaster Scott Mosier goad each other with “top this” high concepts for the film. They are both crying with laughter.

Tusk – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Life of Riley (Eureka, cert 12)

Alan Ayckbourn’s farces typically feature middle aged, middle class married people getting themselves into emotional pickles. Very British. The great (and now late, this being his last film) Alain Resnais, having seen Life of Riley in Scarborough, where most of Ayckbourn’s plays have debuted, realised that, with little more than a translation, an Ayckbourn would work very nicely as the basis for the sort of witty sophisticated film that the French seem to be able to knock off effortlessly. And as if to prove the point, Resnais leaves a lot of theatricality intact in his production – actors walk through curtains, scene changes are flagged with sketches of different locales, backdrops are often painted. The actors (Sabine Azéma, Caroline Sihol and Sandrine Kiberlain are the women, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz, André Dusollier the men) are no less theatrical, since they’re all playing bourgeois Brits who intersperse their gossiping about each other with rehearsals for an am-dram production, that’s when they’re not speculating on the latest amorous adventure of the terminally ill Riley, who has clearly had all three women in his time. And the women all want him to have them again before he shuffles off. It’s a sweet film, though the theatricality of the whole thing is a double bluff – this really is a stage play banged up onto the screen, and there’s far less of that intensely layered, disruptive, drama-versus-reality meta approach you’d expect if you’d recently seen Resnais’s previous film, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. But it is there, beneath the Yorkshire stone and the pints of flat warm beer. A slight, sweet farewell.

Life of Riley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Big Hero 6 (Disney, cert PG)

Big Hero 6 is a Disney animated reworking of a little known Japanese-flavoured Marvel property. Disney have taken some liberties with the characters, hurting the professionally outraged by ditching the Japanese accents of the film’s human characters – Hiro, the bot-fighting kid with no interest in studying, until he discovers that his older college-going brother is part of some ubercool clique of savants who design and build bleeding-edge tech. Among which is Baymax, a big white marshmallow-y medical bot designed to heal, protect and serve. A National Health Service in android form, who can be persuaded to fight, if asked nicely. And once a dastardly villain arrives on the scene, riding a wave of endlessly reformable nanobots, off they go, Hiro, the dread dude, the skater geek, the hot girl, and so on, on a perky adventure. It’s a strangely uncharming film, with a Transformers-like insistence on movement and incident, humour that falls flat, earnest statements, calls to arms. The animation is sensational, though, and individual scenes are brilliantly done. But there’s little to hold the attention, no sense of threat, and the characters, even Hiro, are barely there at all. Without Baymax, a Gromit-like silent fount of wry wisdom, it would be unbearable.

Big Hero 6 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Stretch (Universal, cert 15)

With films like Narc, Smokin’ Aces and The A Team on the resume, Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre (I’m sure he’d laugh at the use of the word) can look like the work of a man who went out on a lot of heady cocaine-blizzard nights in the 1990s, and never quite came back. This latest in the same vein is a “night from hell” affair for Patrick Wilson, ideally cast for once, as a bit of a chump and acting wannabe who makes ends meet by driving a stretch limo. To Wilson driving all over town, Carnahan adds an unnecessary voiceover, a redundant dead limo-driver buddy offering advice, a couple of fairly pointless deadbeat Russians, a distracting eccentric billionaire (uncredited Chris Pine overacting exuberantly), an irrelevant undercover cop team, a superfluous white homeboy and his bitches, and so on, a sticky tower of chaos, the filmic equivalent of a knickerbocker glory, with extra nuts and sauce and a flake stuck on the top. If life is what happens while you’re making other plans, Carnahan’s film is a case of same/same. There’s no big plot – something about one limo company stealing clients from another – just a series of unlovable, unlikely and improbable people piling on top of each other and having schlocky conversations. It’s Smokin’ Aces in the back of a car, pretty much. Most of the major food groups are missing. It’s great fun. Juliette Binoche is not in it.

Stretch – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Dream Home (Network, cert 18)

It’s taken five years for this Hong Kong shocker about a meek call centre miss murdering her way towards her preferred apartment – one with a harbour view – to arrive in this country. Maybe London’s overheated property market has prompted its arrival. The film itself doesn’t actually say much about property, though it’s keen to lay the blame for displaced people and the general anxiety about accommodation at the door of capitalism, and the film’s temporal setting, between the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997 and the economic crash of 2007, reinforces that. But mostly it’s keen to show us gory stuff, the whole thing kicking off nicely with our heroine (Josie Ho) popping a plastic bag over a sleeping man’s head, then securing it with a zip tie, the camera going in close as he tries to cut the thing off with a badly wielded craft knife. Oh dear, blood everywhere. Later on we have a man stabbed in the neck with a broken bong, and a woman with a jagged plank of wood rammed right through her open mouth and into her brain cavity. I think it was the brain cavity, but to be quite honest when a barely dressed woman is staggering about with about four foot of wood sticking straight out of her gaping maw, you don’t always take everything in. Enough detail. You get the point. This isn’t a great film in terms of plot – too much backstory about this poor murderous woman being turned to the dark side by her family’s mistreatment by rapacious property speculators. As if we need to understand the exact motivation of a mad death-dealer in a slasher movie. But, I will say this, director Pang Ho-Cheung knows how to choreograph gore, understands that small trigger points are as squirm-inducing as showpiece stuntorama (the slicing of the webby membrane that separates thumb from forefinger, for instance), and has a keen appreciation for gruesome sounds. There are awful bloody gurgles that will keep a lot of people awake at night.

Dream Home – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service (Fox, cert 15)

The trailer makes it look great – a light-fingered street kid taken in hand by a suave gent, played by Colin Firth, a member of a secret spy organisation headed by a guy called Arthur, everyone else being named after a knight of the Round Table. Michael Caine, Mark Strong and Samuel L Jackson stoke up the anticipation too, as does Mark Hamill’s amusing turn early on as a bumbling old professor, about as far from Luke Skywalker as it’s possible to get. And for vintage gents like me, Firth’s use of a brolly as a weapon, and the use of Savile Row, St James’s and so on all lend a certain John Steed of The Avengers flavour (British 1960s Avengers) which is all rather jolly. And Matthew Vaughan directs, Jane Goldman writes – and they’ve had their moments, Kick-Ass, notably. But The Kingsman just isn’t good enough in pretty much every department – it’s underwritten and has an idiot plot, the music takes us places we’ve already arrived, the hero (Taron Egerton) is bland and irritating and his street gear is mysteriously 1990s. And it just hasn’t had enough money spent where it matters – even the wood panelling in the Savile Row tailors looks like a paint effect. Samuel L, again dressed in outlandish clothes, does another of his mad villain turns, as the megalomaniac handing out a sim card free to everyone in the world, a sim card that will, at the pull of this lever, render them all… end of sentence lost in the sound of mad cackling and moustache rustling. You can take issue with its underlying worldview – that it’s so much better to be posh than not – but that would be to dignify a film that isn’t worth spending any real time on, one that can’t decide whether it’s James Bond or Austin Powers.

Kingsman: The Secret Service – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

18 May 2015-05-18

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

 

Out This Week

 

 

Ex Machina (Universal, cert 15)

Joining Gravity and Interstellar, as well as a host of lower budget films, Ex Machina shows we’re in a golden age of sci-fi, this film’s theme being consciousness and whether the Turing Test has been passed: that a robot has become intellectually indistinguishable from a human. Or is it the Test itself that’s being tested?

Domhnall Gleeson is the geek brought in by his messianic megatech wizard boss (Oscar Isaac) to give the yay or nay, Alicia Vikander is the robot he clearly falls for the very first second he claps eyes on her – and with face, breasts and buttocks Vikander’s own, while the rest of her is a cyborgian chrome and perspex geeknip, you don’t wonder why.

A degrunged Blade Runner, a hi-tech Pinocchio, this is a “becoming human” story, with Alex Garland showing he’s as adept at directing as he is at knocking out his thriller-tinged novels.

Sensibly, for a debut, much of the action takes place in the simple, aseptic environment of Isaac’s Bond villain lair. Isaac again overacts but in a good cause here as the hipster-bearded, beer-chugging bad guy, while Vikander (all sibilant Abba esses) and Gleeson are far more nuanced, she letting us know that this is a robot who might be a lot more aware and self-aware than even Alan Turing could imagine possible, he a collation of lovability, nerdiness, decency and perpetual alertness – the underdog as puppy dog.

The soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow adds another layer to the modernist visuals – deep synth rumble with bright spangles jangling over the top. It’s well worth cranking up.

Ex Machina – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Whiplash (Sony, cert 15)

What to do when extreme teaching become outright bullying?

In the story of drumming wannabe Miles Teller and his brutal tutor (deservedly Oscar-winning tutor JK Simmons), the transaction swerves the discourse of abuse and is instead couched almost in commercial terms – with caveat emptor as the throughline.

But enough of the bollocks, let’s get to the plot. A scant one. Teller is the Buddy Rich fan at a music conservatory trying to bag a place on the school’s jazz orchestra. Simmons is the tough nut asking a high price of anyone who wants to join: total commitment.

And that’s it. In scene after scene Teller applies shoulder to wheel, and Simmons pushes back, most spectacularly. Not since R Lee Ermey berated his soldiers in Full Metal Jacket has there been a better demonstration of aggressive mentoring, and the dialogue is similarly salty – “you weepy willow shitsack” “you pathetic pansy-assed fruitfuck” – and so on. And Teller sucks it up.

It is the traditional “follow your dream” Hollywood film, dirtied up almost beyond the point of recognisability, and it also delivers some absolutely archetypal Hollywood thrills, the big finale finish being the standout.

Why it doesn’t feel formulaic is because Simmons is just coy enough to keep the true nature of his personality guarded to the end – is he a sadist who’s somehow been given charge of callow young minds, or a good guy who can’t let on that this is tough love, but love all the same? He’s fantastic. Teller’s great too.

Whiplash – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Altman (Soda, cert 15)

Robert Altman’s naturalistic style has become part of the language of cinema – the overlapping dialogue in particular – so it’s hard now to see how revolutionary he was. But Ron Mann’s admirable and informative documentary does it, giving us on the way a lot of footage that’s otherwise probably never going to be seen – Altman’s early years in industrial films, then directing for TV, both of which meant he knew how to shoot cheap and fast. “I became one of the top TV directors” says Altman in an extract of the archive interviews which are used well to give a flavour of the man.

Mann also drops in slightly arch declarations to camera from people who worked with Altman (James Caan, Elliott Gould, Robin Williams and Julianne Moore among them) explaining in bullshit terms what “Altmanesque” means (courageous, noble, revolutionary, godlike etc etc).

Otherwise this documentary is full of great stuff – how Altman quit when the sponsors of a TV series he was working on wouldn’t let him cast a black actor; how Jack Warner fired him for letting the actors talk over each other’s lines; how Altman’s film about pot smoking got him the gig on Mash (he was something like 18th choice). And how, even after this point, when he was one of the big names of the early 1970s, he struggled to work because he didn’t want the back office messing with his films. “I make gloves and they sell shoes,” declares Altman.

If you’re a fan, this is must-watch stuff. If not, shouldn’t you be?

Altman – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

A Most Violent Year (Icon, cert 15)

JC Chandor has given us two marvels so far – Margin Call, an ensemble piece which made the financial crash not only sexy but also vaguely comprehensible, then All Is Lost, a 180 degree about-turn of a drama about a lone yachtsman’s in peril on the high seas.

In A Most Violent Year he reaches back a few decades ambitiously trying to invoke Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in a thriller (Lumet), set in New York (Scorsese) about a businessman about to make his dynastic (Coppola) leap.

It is all a bit self-conscious, though Chandor puts enough flare in the lens and Marvin Gaye on the soundtrack to almost convince us we’re in the 1970s.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are the Lord and Lady Macbeth (Morales, in fact) of local oil distribution, and Chandor follows them as they negotiate an extremely onerous deal on some new storage with a local Hasidic Jew, the catch in the Shylockian contract being that if Morales can’t come up with the rest of the payment, he will forfeit a deposit so huge it will destroy him. And then Chandor throws everything in the way of the Morales duo to make this eventuality increasingly likely – accounting irregularity, union trouble, rival businesses, gangsters, the law, even a wobble in the marriage.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales (that name… c’mon) as a young Pacino, Chastain goes for Jessica Lawrence in her portrayal of the brassy wife, while cinematographer Bradford Young slaps on a lot of nicotine filtration, even in his barely lit interiors.

If there were a tragic flaw in Abel Morales’s character, it might all add up to something epic. As it is, it’s all very plausible, though never entirely credible. Nice to see Albert Brooks again, though, out-acting Isaac in every scene he’s in.

A Most Violent Year – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

American Sniper (Warner, cert 15)

What with Clint Eastwood’s dead-chairing of President Obama at the Republican National Convention in 2012, a war film from him with the title of American Sniper (against the more Democrat-leaning American Gigolo, American Beauty, American Graffiti, American Psycho and American Hustle, maybe?) does look like a provocation.

In fact the film is an admirably cool and remarkably standard “war is hell” affair, Clint deciding to take the Kathryn Bigelow Hurt Locker route of loving the man but hating the conflict, or at least saying very little about it. That’s wise. After all, 50 per cent of the audience probably aren’t Republican. Factor in the demographics of moviegoers/viewers and it’s probably more than that.

So, business matters out of the way, what do we have? A rather good movie, actually, Bradley Cooper resting his smirk to play real-life hotshot Chris Kyle, the naturally gifted marksman, rodeo toughie, straightforward but not stupid all-American guy who became a crack sniper out in Iraq, where he becomes known simply as “the Legend”.

As said, the arc is surprisingly familiar, though Eastwood shows you can teach an old dog new tricks – his direction is fresh, raw, tight, often handheld, and Cooper is in a lock-step with a focused, obsessive performance as a man whose interior life is very very interior indeed.

Working against them is Jason Hall’s screenplay, which starts bright and fast but then gets repetitive as one scene about Kyle’s deteriorating mental state follows another, things coming to a bit of a sorry finish when the film seems to just stop, rather than conclude… but, hey, that’s real life, I suppose.

Round the edges there is another brilliant performance by Sienna Miller as Kyle’s increasingly desperate wife. Nice to see her back (Foxcatcher was so fleeting it barely registered).

American Sniper – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Into the Woods (Disney, cert PG)

I pause before Sondheim, because I simply don’t get him.

The words, yes, those I love – his facility with a rhyme and a rapper’s ability to swing a rhythm. But the tunes, which to me often sound as if he’s taken a song from a proper musical such as Oklahoma!, thrown away the melody and kept the counterpoint, then set another, even more distant counterpoint against that. Again and again. Running up and down a modal scale is not what I’d call a tune.

This minor impediment apart, I actually rather enjoyed Into the Woods. I think it was the performances – Meryl Streep as the witch (largely borrowed from The Wizard of Oz) instructing a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to collect talismanic items from various fairytale characters – Jack the Beanstalk’s cow, Red Riding Hood’s cape, Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella’s glass slipper – their reward being a bun in the oven for her.

The singing and acting is almost universally fine, particularly Corden and Blunt, though I could have done without the Broadway honk of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the latest dressing-up-box turn from Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf.

Director Rob Marshall (of Chicago) resists the urge to make things cinematic, doing a lot with theatrical smoke and lights, throwing the emphasis back on Sondheim’s words and melodies, which are largely winning the battle to have the fairytale cake and eat it.

Into the Woods – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

11 May 2015-05-11

Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Out This Week

 

Wild (Fox, cert 15)

Apart from The Young Victoria (which was a hack job done for cash, I suspect), the Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has had a good run of interesting films since his breakthrough with 2005’s C.R.A.Z.Y, and then more recently with Café de Flore and Dallas Buyers Club. All have showcased his knack for allying music (often 1970s – he loves glam rock) with well crafted images. His lighting, composition and editing are generally exquisite. Vallée is a great storyteller, and uses all his skills brilliantly in Wild, a film that sounds potentially like either a monumental drag – a woman reconnecting with herself on a gigantic trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Or, perhaps something only marginally more enticing – a reheat of the Mia Wasikowska film Tracks, which was also about a young woman finding herself on a long hike (across the Outback, in that case). But Vallée and his star, Reese Witherspoon (who also produced this film) find their own way, telling the story of Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon), a young woman who has simply done too much too young and now needs a spiritual steam-clean. It’s a simple film in terms of story – woman with large backpack walks 1,000 miles – but far from it when it comes to the bespoke work Vallée has done on it. For example, his flashbacks to Cheryl’s former life start off as almost subliminally rapid drop-ins, only stretching out to give us more detail once the woman herself is starting to come to terms with her own mistakes and beginning to re-appraise her relationship with her life-affirming, deceptively tough hippie mother (Laura Dern). Generally, these sort of “spiritual” journey dramas are naked moneygrabs on the gullible masquerading as self-help (as are most self-help books), but I love this film, which demonstrates that it’s not what is shown that makes a film powerful, but what is withheld. Witherspoon’s performance is an intelligent one, as stripped back as her face is of make-up. But I can imagine another actress – Kristen Stewart, say – being in Wild and the film being just as good. You can’t say the same about the director.

Wild – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

What’s Left of Us (Peccadillo, cert 15)

Hell is other people, according to Sartre’s existential play Huis Clos, one of the apparent inspirations for this Argentinian drama which reinforces the point by placing these “other people” in a world of marauding zombies after some unspecified apocalypse. They’re in a house in the middle of nowhere, these two guys and a girl whose exact relationship to each other only becomes clear over the course of the film – and even then not explicitly clear. But what is obvious from the start is that Ana and Jonathan are an item, that gooseberry Axel has the hots for Ana, and that she has been giving him reason for thinking that way. This is a theatrical three-hander tricked out to look like anything but – flies, presumably feasting on the glut of rotting flesh outside, are legion; the threesome’s abode is a junkshop assemblage of air locks, spy holes and microphones hung to catch the first sound of approaching zombies; Axel is on a project to tattoo his entire body, perhaps as a gaudy mating display for Ana, perhaps because he’s lost his mind. What’s Left of Us, also known as The Desert, needs good performances to stop it looking like a stage production struggling to take cinematic wing, and it gets them, particularly from Victoria Almeida as the pivotal Ana, a complex, conflicted character played by an actress who can flash from hot to not in the beat of an eyelash. Warning: there are almost no zombies in this film. So not everybody is going to be happy. But if a boilerhouse drama about intense human relationships is your bag, Christoph Behl’s debut feature should hit the spot. Let’s hope he soon does more.

What’s Left of Us aka The Desert – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Drone (Spectrum, cert 15)

Styled DRONE with crosshairs over the O, this is a cool and fairly comprehensive documentary about modern warfare’s most contentious weapon – “flown” by kids in a bunker in the American boonies, who drop tightly targeted bombs on kids in Waziristan. “We sat in a box for nearly 12 hour shifts… I remember watching a wedding… it was just point and click.” This from Brandon Bryant, who’s been getting death threats since blowing the whistle on life at the blunt end, a former star operator with 1,626 drone kills to his name, but who now turns up at the UN to spill his tormented guts. On the other side we meet survivors of drone attacks in Pakistan, who are lobbying to have international arrest warrants issued against US agents (good luck with that). We are introduced to the hatchet faced smiling recruiters who tour game-playing conventions looking for candidates with good hand/eye coordination. And we meet Andy Von Flotow, the boomer-age drone manufacturer whose “young guys…heh… whachyagonnado? shrug” looks like one from a man wrestling with his conscience. The world needs this sober Norwegian documentary, which gives the opposing side a minute to make its case (drones give their pilots the luxury of time, something real, airborne pilots with a payload don’t have) before laying before us the secret memos that show just how imprecise drone attacks can be. Drones are cheap, though, and as this cool, instructive doc winds to a close, the point is made that we’re coming to the end of a decade when only the US had them. Anyone can get hold of them now. Be afraid.

Drone – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Discopath (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

We’re in the middle of a serious movie love-in with the 1970s, as film after film of pastiche proves. Discopath joins the pack, a serial killer horror made in something like the grain-n-grunge style of Basket Case, but with a high concept so ludicrous that it forces everything else in it to be seen as comedy. It’s about a serial killer who is driven to murder by the sound of disco music – you could guess that from the title – with Jérémie Earp-Lavergne looking like a young Christopher Lambert as he lollops around removing the heads from lesbian schoolgirls (I did say this was 1970s pastiche) before popping them on a record turntable and giving them a spin. Quite what the point of this sort of thing is, I don’t know, but then I had the same thought nagging at the back of my brain while I was watching The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, a 1970s pastiche no one is ever likely to match, though Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy comes close. Those two were both homages to Euro-horror titillation, this is much more urban and American, with its Saturday Night Fever suits, guys running down alleys in slo-mo, cops who like donuts, an 8-track player at one point, and a plot that seems to resolve itself with curiously little detective work having been done. Discopath is only 75 minutes long. Because by then director Renaud Gauthier knows he’s trying our patience. Get out while you’re ahead, eh?

Discopath – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Train (Arrow, cert PG)

Restored so its deep-focus black-and-white images pop, and the off-kilter camera angles yaw even more extravagantly, this great John Frankenheimer thriller stars Burt Lancaster as the initially bureaucratic, eventually patriotic French train driver steering pillaged artworks out of France and back to Berlin as the war winds to a close. It asks questions such as “how many lives is a Matisse worth?” without actually answering them (as if that were possible), an intellectual layer over what is basically a cat-and-mouser between Lancaster and the great Paul Scofield’s Nazi officer, a cultivated art lover being slowly maddened by the prospect of defeat. Three big influences on the film are the procedural detail of Jules Dassin’s caper thriller Rififi (1955), the sweat-and-dread atmosphere of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) and the 1950s nocturnal train photography of O Winston Link – big plumes of smoke, locomotives shooting along tracks lit by what must be vast fields of lights. Maurice Jarre’s score, meanwhile, debuts musical stings which would later be mined by Lalo Schifrin for his Mission Impossible work. In fact, see the whole thing as a noirish blueprint for M:I – both the 1960s and Tom Cruise incarnations – and you can’t go far wrong.

The Train – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Broken Gardenias (TLA, cert 15)

Hiding its eagerness under a blanket of nerdery, this lesbian road movie overdoes the mismatched buddies – one (Alma S Grey) a geeky garden centre worker crippled with shyness, prone to room-silencing jokes, the other (Ashley Morocco) a short-haired, rough dikey dike. But it’s part of a new (to me) wave of lesbian and gay movies that aren’t so much interested in sex as relationships, this one drawing inspiration from early Jim Jarmusch in its deadpan delivery and framing, and tendency to jump-cut out from what feels like the middle of one scene to the middle of another. There’s an eavesdropping quality. So, this duo, they hitch-hike their way to LA, getting lifts from a succession of kooks and sex pests, where director Kai Alexander and writer Grey have a few half-hearted pops at the land of me-me-me, shiva dancing, getting in touch with your spirituality just as soon as you’ve had your teeth bleached, and so on. It’s not a perfect film – it’s desperately underdeveloped in terms of character and plot – but it’s reaching for authenticity and honesty and it has a gigantic heart.

Broken Gardenias – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015