31 August 2015-08-31

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in Phoenix

 

Out This Week

 

Phoenix (Soda, cert 12)

Nina Hoss and Christian Petzold have made six films together, of which I’ve seen only one – the outstanding left-field supernatural thriller Yella. Phoenix builds its drama in a similar way to that 2007 movie – withholding a piece of information and asking us to guess what exactly is going on. Here, we’re in a quasi-Vertigo story, with Hoss as Nelly, a Jewish woman who’s having facial reconstruction surgery in the immediate rubble-strewn aftermath of the Second World War in Germany. Why? We’re not sure. Though the fact she’s been in “the camps” is surely significant. And chilling. And what sort of a clinic is offering reconstructive surgery anyway? And to whom? Nazis on the run? All questions writer/director Petzold leaves hanging, as does Hoss, in her borderline inert yet intense performance. Petzold then takes this physically and psychologically damaged woman and, in a brilliant bit of story contrivance, re-introduces her to her husband, who doesn’t get that she’s his wife, but sees in her someone facially close enough to his wife to pass as her. With a devious plan up his sleeve he sets about moulding her into the image of the “dead” woman. And Petzold and Hoss start unwinding a huge metaphor for the German nation’s restoration of the status quo ante, and how silence about awful war crimes was both necessary and convenient. The Jews, meanwhile, had a different cultural landscape to negotiate, their identity having been forged, to an extent, by Adolf Hitler. All this going on quietly while the Frankenstein story of Nelly and her creator grippingly unfolds at its own unhurried pace, and builds towards an exquisite climax where everything suddenly comes together. After which, his job done, Petzold immediately fades with a dramatic flourish to black. It’s a remarkable and utterly satisfying way to end a complex and thrilling film constructed, as was Yella, like a magician’s trick.

Phoenix – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Body (Matchbox, cert 15)

Built something like a trolley problem, Body takes three girls of varying character, gets them drunk at Christmas, “the most wonderful time of the year”, puts them in a stranger’s house, which they’ve broken into, then has them get involved in a terrible accident, in which an innocent person dies. What to do with the body? Well, why not call the cops, is what we’re all asking. And, writer/directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen just about come up with an answer – because the girls are in a stranger’s house and they’ll be automatically accused of having killed the housesitter (or whoever it is). And they’re drunk and have been smoking weed which muddies the water, not to mention their thought processes. Basic situation established, Berk and Olsen then throw the three young women into a variety of exculpatory shapes – they come up with a “he was trying to rape us” story, and so it becomes necessary for the hottest of the three (Helen Rogers, since you ask) to get a bit mussed up, which entails the ripping of her T shirt – a rack used to mean something else in horror, I’m sure – while the most vampish (Alexandra Turshen) makes increasingly lurid suggestions, and the most moralistic one (Lauren Molina) squeaks “let’s go to the cops” at various volumes. The fact that the dead guy is played by Larry Fessenden, a cult figure in horror circles, will tell those in the know that Berk and Olsen have a few more twists up their sleeve, none of which I can reveal. But this a nice (ie short) pungent film which maybe doesn’t say anything too significant about the plasticity of morality, or whether to trust girls with great tits, but it does it with speed and a wink.

Body – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Girlhood (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Minus the lesbian sex, Girlhood takes the same arc as Blue Is the Warmest Colour – ie the sentimental education of a young French girl. Except the girl in this case is black and from the hood (title explained) and her choices are in a different register. So we meet the wannabe academic Marieme (fabulously natural Karidja Touré) as she’s being denied a place in high school and instead is offered a range of skivvy vocational courses. Thwarted, knocked about at home, she transforms, little by little, from timid, passive and bookish into a tough ball of gristle, like the other fly girls on her estate. Girlhood‘s actors are all remarkably fresh, and bring real depth to their roles. This band of sisters live in a mean world and need to be tough, and so they are. They rip the bras of other girls in fights, they intimidate shop assistants in the mall; they are formidable and frightening. But among themselves, they’re just young girls and are sweet with each other, get up to all the midnight feasting and sleepover-y behaviour you’d expect. There’s a beautiful scene in which – admittedly drunk and high – they all lip-sync to Rihanna singing “shine bright like a diamond” and the camera catches them bathed in blue light, dark skin glowing. But they won’t shine, this lot, will they? Tomboy director Céline Sciamma is otherwise sparing with the beauty shots, and uses music in tight stabs too, to express the boundless landscape of these girls’ fantasies. What other girls might call realistic life chances. A welcome layering in a film that can, at first glance, seem a bit familiar.

Girlhood – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Contracted: Phase 1 (Primal Screen, cert 18)

I can tell you the bare bones of Contracted, but little more than that. Because writer/director Eric England’s film is as much about what sort of beast it isn’t as what sort of beast it is. It’s a simple but effective plot though, of a timid, recently out lesbian who’s pissed off with her girlfriend, and so gets drunk at a party. Drunkenness leads to chatting with some guy by the fridge and before long she’s banging him in the back of a car. By the next morning it’s already clear that she’s picked up something. Over the next few days, things get a lot worse very quickly – vaginal bleeding leads to hair falling out, bloody lesions of the eyes, and so on. Kids, just say no, appears to be the message, if this is all about picking up STIs, or of being true to your sexuality, or even of not “experimenting” with sexuality at all. These are all possibles in a cheaply put together, occasionally improbably written, sometimes fairly badly acted film that moves at speed, with some beautifully horrible make-up effects (I doubt there’s much CG) and a few great “ew” moments – such as when the falling-apart Sam (Najarra Townsend), working as a waitress, manages to deposit a fingernail in a customer’s salad. Even though things start to end in a mad hysterical rush, during which the guignol is particularly grand, it’s worth hanging on for the last scenes, which deliver a horror coup de theatre that Eric England is never going to be able to use again. Contracted: Phase 2? Surely not.

Contracted: Phase 1 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Medium Cool (Eureka, cert 18)

Haskell Wexler is one of a small clique of cinematographers you could call legendary. And Medium Cool is one of his rare forays into directing. It didn’t do well on its initial 1969 release, but has become something of a cult item since, a film about the hot, in every sense, summer of 1968 and how the high politics of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King played into the low action on the streets, a summer of protests, riots and political chaos at every level. Look at today’s “culture wars” and snort. And there’s Robert Forster, an old guy now but in his prime here as a thrusting, democratically inclined TV news reporter trying to take the culture’s temperature – from the mostly white women on the gun ranges learning to shoot to defend themselves (ie their property), and from the angry black guys spouting black power slogans, some hot air and much sense out in the bad parts of town. Wexler ties all the strands together with a story about Forster’re reporter getting close to Eileen (Verna Bloom), a recent arrival in Chicago, an attractive hick woman with a pigeon-racing son whose dad is in Vietnam and possibly isn’t ever coming back. And at first the large chunks of documentary footage shot outdoors seem daunting (oh no, not another 1968 MLK/RFK film, I thought). But give Wexler time to weave his tale, because what starts to emerge is an “Altman before Altman” film of overlapping dialogue, irony, symbolism, sudden fascination with a seemingly non-important detail. And onto that a clear examination, a “Michael Moore before Michael Moore” fascination, with the causes of violence in America. Wexler also does a little bit of chronological tinkering, introducing the sort of foreshadowing that’s often seen as the invention of Nicolas Roeg in Don’t Look Now. And yet here it is some years earlier. You could ignore all those stylistic/thematic/technical/philosophical innovations and still enjoy this film as an almost-documentary, shot as crisply as these days are ever going to look (especially in the brilliant Eureka Blu-ray I watched the film on), of a key moment in modern American society, when things got so bad in Chicago that the tanks were sent in and martial law was effectively declared. As Eileen wanders the streets looking for her lost son, among actual protesters and in front of actual soldiers, here it all is. And the music, by a then fairly unknown Frank Zappa – whose contention that being a peace-loving hippie was a stupid response to the political situation – couldn’t be more apposite. A classic – way ahead of its time and yet entirely of it.

Medium Cool – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (BFI, cert E)

Chuck Workman, so Wikipedia tells us, is the guy who puts together the In Memoriam section of the Oscars, honouring recently fallen Academy comrades. There’s something of that spirit in his documentary about Orson Welles, which is so keen not to speak ill of the dead that it loses sight of some of the story – since, if Welles wasn’t difficult, or mendacious, or immoral, or bad/wrong in some way, how come he struggled so hard to get his films made? You’d have to go at this assemblage of talking heads new and archive with an archaeologist’s brush to uncover an answer. And even then the only one on offer is a vague “he was a bit late on set now and again”. This is a great pity, because what the world wants is a rounded portrait of this complex character. And the good stuff in this film is good. There is a lot of unfamiliar footage, Workman doesn’t mess about with chronology and takes us through Welles’s career from the precocious schoolboy to the clapped-out bon vivant dead at 70, pausing at his radio years, his Mercury Theatre successes, before moving on to Hollywood where Welles became, yet again, an immediate sensation, there’s the European wilderness period, and the slight return as an indie maverick before the term had been coined. Workman uses lots of clips from Welles’s films, drops in scenes from a couple of Welles biopics (Christian McKay’s turn as Welles in Me and Orson Welles; Liev Schreiber’s in RKO 281), copious footage from the many TV interviews Welles gave (unreliable as sources of information, we’re told) and the odd backroom moment about the actual nuts and bolts of film-making – Robert Wise pulling “what? what?” faces as he’s explaining how he recut The Magnificent Ambersons at the studio’s behest; Charlton Heston recalling that it was his idea to give Welles the gig on Touch of Evil (Welles completely rewrote it); editor Walter Murch showing us why that film needs to be put back the way Welles intended – why Welles’s version works, and the studio’s doesn’t, in effect. I wanted more of this stuff. If the guy was great, show us how, don’t just blow cigar smoke up his ass, as too many of the talking heads (among them Bogdanovich, Spielberg, Lucas, Costa-Gavras, Richard Linklater, Paul Mazursky) are doing. It’s a fine Welles 101, but this “destitute king” as Jeanne Moreau beautifully puts it, deserves better.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Monsters: Dark Continent (E One, cert 15)

The original Monsters film smuggled a lovely It Happened One Night love story past the defences of the sci-fi/horror crowd. Alien creatures hardly featured at all, turned up in the distance, and were a metaphor for, probably, immigration. Little of the wit, barely any of the original personnel and none of the inventive use of a tiny budget remain in this sequel, which has cash, an extensive and solid cast, decent SFX and no real idea what to do with itself. It’s a war film set in the Middle East where a troupe of standard-issue grunts are fighting some version of the Taliban/Al Qaeda/Ansar Dine/Isis/Who Knows while out in the sands, big extraterrestrial creatures make sport with any humans they come across. If this seems odd – who fights a human foe when there’s a huge, sophisticated, unstoppable and hostile extraplanetary one right over there – it’s no odder than the title (which Continent, exactly?). And if the action takes place in a weird double-headed world, the plot itself isn’t sure if it’s trying to be The Deer Hunter – here are the guys back home, here they are out fighting in the desert – while the action sequences are more a case of Black Heart Down, all carnage and mayhem. There are some pretty pictures of men out in the searing heat, all mirage shimmers and white sand, and we meet Sofia Boutella, a woman of an exotic beauty to get the dogs barking in the night. But I never said this was a bad looking or badly made film. It really isn’t. But its metaphor – I get it; this time we’re the monsters, the invaders – simply goes nowhere and the film has no reason to exist beyond the delivery of paychecks to people with good technical skills.

Monsters: Dark Continent – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

24 August 2015-08-24

Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts

 

Out The Week

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd (Fox, cert 12)

A remake of the 1967 film, rather than another version of the novel. Well that’s what it looks like, and considering how closely so many of the scenes mirror – in length, composition, camera angles even – scenes from John Schlesinger’s original film, the temptation has to be to compare like with like. It’s a fairly fruitless endeavour – is Carey Mulligan more beautiful than Julie Christie? Is Tom Sturridge more dashing than Terence Stamp in his prime? Can Michael Sheen outshine the first film’s finest performance, Peter Finch as landowning nob Mr Boldwood? The answer is no on every count. However, however. The Hardy story remains a robust one, a series of powerplays of men over women, high status over low, decent over rotten, convention over rebellion and duty over licence, with Bathsheba Everdene (a Katniss in petticoats – close to the same surname, of course) able to cross boundary after boundary thanks to her beauty (she thinks it’s iron in the soul, or fate, or being a natural leader – the conceit of the ruling class, nailed by Hardy). As the three men in her life, Matthias Schoenaerts is a fine Gabriel Oak, believable as both a man of the soil and as someone a fine lady might fancy; Sturridge is charmless as the rotter Sergeant Troy; and Michael Sheen struggles as Mr Boldwood, the landowning neighbour suddenly gifted this young, fine beauty – and she’s rich! It all hangs on Carey Mulligan, who shakes off the shadow of Julie Christie and welds the entire thing together, aided by David Nicholls’s tinkering adaptation, which positions Bathsheba as a romantic traveller across the Freudian superego/ego/id boundaries, and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography, deliberately less elemental than Nicolas Roeg’s in 67, though no less beautiful. In short, the whole thing works.

Far from the Madding Crowd – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Fast & Furious 7 (Universal, cert 12)

Another film that invites comparison with others. This time it’s new director James Wan with the director of Fast and Furious numbers three to six, Justin Lin. Lin somehow, by an effort of sheer will, it seemed, turned himself into one of the best action directors on the planet, and also showed himself a dab hand at holding together a large cast (just about, often). Wan is a horror director, and a new boy, and doesn’t get control of the F&F beast. Let’s take Jason Statham. No, hang on, the plot: the F&F team are pulled back together after it turns out someone is going round picking them off. That one. So, back to Statham – who feels bolted on and simply appears once per act like a baddie from a horror movie – only the chainsaw, big blade and mask missing – to monster the cast. It’s a nice big showcase for the Stath, but not so good for the film. Dwayne Johnson is pretty much written out completely, and shows up only at the beginning and end. Possibly this is less a slight against Johnson, more an attempt to re-integrate Paul Walker into the story. Walker died while this film was in production, though the story of the F&F franchise has been a painful one of watching his character have less and less reason to be in it – once he stopped being the antagonist cop and became part of the team (end of F&F1) what was he there for? Vin Diesel was always top dog, and once he returned (F&F4), Walker was entirely superfluous. And once Johnson turned up… game over. This meta mess to one side, the mystery of why Jordana Brewster is even in the films, since she’s not got into a car for three films now continues to be almost intriguing. Then there’s Michelle Rodriguez’s “I have amnesia” storyline, which is less than fascinating. And the fact that the use of Tyrese/Ludacris as comedy stooges is beginning to look like racism, in a franchise that more than any other has been colour blind (and the more successful for it, Hollywood being generations behind its audience). And so on. But never mind all those concerns, or the lack of Sang Kang or Gal Gadot or Gina Carano, who really contributed flavour and chutzpah in earlier outings. What about the stunts? Well, they are awesome in conception, but enjoyable though they are, they never entirely escape the CG stockade of various “tool” effects – airbrush here, shadow there and so on (clearly, I’m no expert, but I have eyes). Cars freefalling out of a plane is what I mean. The daredevil jump out of one high rise block and then across a huge void into another. And then the same thing again into the next. I’d watch it again for those bits. They would account for why this film’s imdb page has a list of credits that scrolls on and on and on. Yes, this is a bit of a bitty review, but then it’s a bitty film. F&F6 was better. You could skip this one entirely and just watch the trailer – it’s all there.

Fast and Furious 7 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Eyes without a Face (BFI, cert 15)

1960 was a big year for horror – Hitchcock’s Psycho, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and this French classic by Georges Franju, about a surgeon cutting the face off various young women, hoping one of them will not be rejected by the blasted raw skull on which his daughter’s face used to sit. Not too bothered about the clanks of establishing scenes early on, Franju puts all his effort into driving the story forward, and in short order we are introduced to the professor (Pierre Brasseur) and his skillset, his assistant (a creepy Alida Valli), and the strange big house where the prof seems to do a bit of specialised private work. Swift though Franju is, he’s withholding the entire time. And once we do understand what’s going on in the big house, he delays with a provocative tease before introducing the benighted daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob). And once we’ve met Christiane, he plays with us some more, denying us a view of her flayed face – when Christiane flips towards the camera, the camera flops the other way. Franju’s brazen theatrics are on a par here with Clouzot, another master of theatrical suspense. Meanwhile, in the bowels of the mysterious Professor Génessier’s building a cavernous cellar is filled with dogs howling in cages, a faint echo of the wolves in a vampire movie. The whole thing drips with foreboding, and I’m going to say no more about it, except that Franju’s skill is to lead one way and then the other. So just when you think this is a masterpiece of symbolism and classical allusion – that mask that Christiane wears – Franju ducks left. Just when you think he’s aiming for horror at a psychological level, he ducks left again, into something more visceral. As for the restoration of this intense exercise, it’s a beautiful job, lush blacks, bright whites and all the greys in between. They’re necessary.

Eyes without a Face – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Falling (Metrodome, cert 15)

Writer/director Carol Morley last film, Dreams of a Life, was a fabulous documentary work of social excavation, the everyday story of a city (London in this case) and how it robbed an attractive, gregarious girl of her social network and then her life. The Falling is similarly ambitious, a drama this time, taking the most derided of cultural forms – the picture story for teenage girls – and restyling it as a kitchen sink drama, with a few nutty twists of magic realism, for those allergic to grit. It’s set in the sort of girls school Morley herself might have attended in the early 1970s, and follows a group of girls as they are affected by a strange falling sickness, an outbreak of hysteria that is soon sweeping the school. Where Morley goes with this is interesting, because I’d expected her to be on the side of the girls. She is… but not entirely. At one point senior teacher Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) refers to hysteria as “the wandering womb”, echoing the diagnosis of tutting Victorian male doctors. Not for nothing, they would have pointed out, do the words “hysteria” and “uterus” have the same origin. It’s an unlikely, unfashionable position, which makes the film all the more welcome, though Miss Mantel’s “silly girls” diagnosis seems deliberately provocative, rather than a consequence of the drama. I wondered if Morley had seen Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s remarkable girls school film Innocence and fancied a bit of something similar. As for the acting, well it’s astonishingly good – Florence Pugh as the sex minx covered in love bites is a find, but Greta Scacchi as Miss Mantel, a world of disappointment and closeted sexuality reflected in her face, is leagues ahead. And Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams does the most extraordinary things too – when she is required to tell her mother that something terrible has happened to her best friend, for example, she giggles, as the nervous often do. The mother is played by Maxine Peake, and it’s a rare film that has her in it and she isn’t the best thing on show. But here is that film. But much as I enjoyed it, I wondered if a less-is-more approach mightn’t have yielded more real drama – the shading into melodrama towards the end as the otherwise sidelined Peake came into the spotlight felt like Morley had set off on the making of her next film. Which probably will be a belter.

The Falling – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Still (Verve, cert 15)

As with The Good Man and Mister John, another small film made better by a big Aidan Gillen performance. Here he’s a grieving London dad who can’t get over the death of his son in a car accident a year before. Wobbling towards a crisis, he befriends a local kid whose brother has just been murdered – grief being the link. It looks like that’s what the film is going to be about – Gillen and the kid, plus a bit of Gillen and his estranged wife, whose relationship seems to have fallen apart as a consequence of their child’s death. But then the local feral youth – straight out of a 1950s “dangerous teenagers” movie arrive. And while they do spice things up, the question does start to form in the air – as they push shit through Gillen’s letterbox, deliver a mutilated cat, before getting really ugly – what, dramatically, does this gang have to do with Gillen? And while it’s forming, Gillen and his journalist mate (old school – the sort who prowls the streets and isn’t paid by the square metre, the way modern journalists are) are variously getting drunk and doing drugs and having a brain-frying nice time. You’ll probably have worked out the shocking reveal before the film gets round to telling you it, but you probably won’t have worked out how it’s going to make Gillen react. It’s big, man, big. Though the film never quite shakes off the 1970s British TV drama aura. Gillen probably needs to go and do a Pirates of the Caribbean. He’d make a great pirate.

Still – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Futuro Beach (Peccadillo, cert 15)

A tale of a couple of gay guys who meet under tragic circumstance – one’s Brazilian, the other’s German. First they meet on Futuro Beach in Brazil. They form an intimate relationship after visitor Konrad’s friend gets into trouble in the sea, and local lifeguard Donato tries to save him. In the second act the action shifts to Berlin, where Donato has travelled to be with Konrad. Then shifts focus again for the third, when Ayrton, Donato’s younger brother, arrives some years later to find out what’s happened to Donato. Not much, is the answer. Donato is alive, but he’s a fish out of water in this foreign country, and the loss of all his affiliations of family and friendship has diminished him. As for Konrad, we’re not sure what he’s about, since the film isn’t about him. What a mournful film this is, like the opposite of a can-do 1960s drama full of youthful optimism, liberation and adaptability. Writer/director Karim Aïnouz does most of it in lock-shot, the camera as static as its chief character, who does move, but at tectonic speed. Composing on the thirds, like a stills photographer, Aïnouz has an eye for beauty. And if his story is never quite gripping, it’s not dull either. Like the scene towards the end, where Doni and Konrad dance together in a club, and while it’s clearly a Hi-NRG beat they’re dancing to, Aïnouz has replaced the live sound with sad, slow music on the soundtrack. Things can die fast, in a riptide, or they can die slowly… in a faraway foreign city, of neglect. Save this one for a day when you’re feeling perky.

Futuro Beach – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Cinderella (Disney, cert U)

It’s traditional, it’s lavish, it’s rubbish – this is by far the worst Cinderella I’ve ever seen, its strict adherence to the original story planting the seed of suspicion within my dark heart that what Disney are really up to is a copyright grab. So Cinders does go to the ball, gets a glass slipper, mice become footmen and pumpkins turn into coaches, there’s a wicked stepmother and a fairy godmother, a handsome prince and so on. But like an enchanting story that’s been turned bad by impure impulses, this Cinderella stinks from head to tail. Kenneth Branagh, for it is he directing, manages (with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos) a couple of moments of Girl with a Pearl Earring Vermeer-style image-making, but for the most part this is a string of missed dramatic opportunities – the entrance to the ball (muffed), the dance with the prince (badly choreographed), the prince himself (charmless, and named Kit to indicate his flatpack character), the “whomsoever this shall fit” resolution (again, bodged), Cinderella herself (thin-lipped), the wicked stepmother (a backstory explaining her badness – madness!), the ugly stepsisters (wasted, unfunny), the prince’s refusal to marry for realpolitik (come on). And on it goes. Yuk yuk yuk. When it’s not boring, it’s sickening, when it’s not sickening it’s mendacious. Only the CG work on Lily James’s waist is impressive. And I know that makes me sound like a bitch, so I’d better stop. No, hang on, Stellan Skarsgård emerges unscathed, as the essentially decent grand duke, though he’s only got a handful of lines. And Helena Bonham Carter manages to be a dotty, charming Fairy Godmother. No, I will stop.

Cinderella – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

17 August 2015-08-17

Tessa Thompson in Dear White People

 

 

Out This Week

 

Dear White People (Signature, cert 15)

A sharp, smart and almost breathless satire on race, racism, post-racism and the whole damn thing, set in an American university where an all-black college asks the question that all black people are asked in some way… integrate or segregate? This basic question – hard enough – is further complicated by the people it’s being asked of: the entitled, preppy student president (Brandon P Bell), the chippy mixed race DJ (Tessa Thompson) whose Dear White People radio show offers snarky advice on the state of current racial politics (“Dear white people, the minimum number of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count”), the Afro-sporting kid (Lionel Higgins, a star) asking himself what mainstream black culture actually has to offer a gay nerd such as himself, and Coco (Teyonah Parris), the girl from the hood who wants fame, money, bling, – economic rather than racial freedom. Writer/director Justin Simien takes a similar balls-out approach to Spike Lee in Bamboozled. That also asked questions rather than sought answers, and turned over a few stones to reveal ugliness beneath. “Black people can’t be racist,” says Thompson’s Sam at one point, making a point that can be argued till the end of time, and simultaneously exposing this film’s one flaw – there’s so much contentious material, so densely packed, that you long for a bit of air. It’s certainly not coming from either of the potential sources of ventilation – the cabal of privileged white kids who run the satirical campus magazine, and the black reality-show TV producer looking for a firebrand of controversy to appear on his show. That flaw is a niggle. This is a brilliantly conceived, brilliantly written, funny, serious film.

Dear White People – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Still the Water (Soda, cert 15)

A swanlike film of extreme grace, though it’s thrashing away beneath the surface, Naomi Kawase’s coming-of-ager follows two cusping-teenage Japanese kids into the world of first love. If you’re not a fan of the pathetic fallacy, whereby interior emotions are signified by exterior events, stay away. Because waves crash and winds howl, rain falls in torrents, and out on the ocean the typhoon builds as the beautiful and precocious Kyoko tries to persuade bicycle-riding Kaito to be her guy. She’s even got sex on the agenda, something, Kawase suggests, this girl might have learned off an abusive relative. Kaito has sex on the agenda too – he’s pissed off because dad’s no longer around and his mother is shagging around – “at your age it’s disgusting”. This sounds – the unruly weather, the sexual agenda, generational discord – like the recipe for something brutish and unsubtle, but in fact the wonder of this almost Malickian film is how subtle and gorgeous it is. Kawase flows scenes together fluidly, interspersing dramatic encounters with the dynamic equivalent of pillow shots – water gushing, traffic teaming, crowds rushing. To the languor of Malick, the poetry of Ozu, the unfettered emotion of Douglas Sirk, I’m going to add one more – the subliminal manipulation of Claire Denis. By which I mean that by the time this quite wonderful film has ended, you’ll have experienced something, have been transported somewhere, and you won’t be quite sure just how Kawase did it.

Still the Water – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Love Me Like You Do (Lionsgate, cert 12)

About halfway through this one – about a freedom-loving railroad-riding guitar-toting hobo starting a tentative affair with a now-domesticated former minor music star, I realised I wasn’t watching a film at all. I was watching a rebranding exercise for its two stars. Ben Barnes, all covered in beard to hide the world-beating physiognomy, wants to be taken seriously as an adult actor, not as some himbo striking male-model poses in the company of a talking lion. Katherine Heigl wants to get away from romantic comedy, or possibly just wants a portion of the career potential back that seemed to be there after Knocked Up propelled her up the charts, and then 27 Dresses and a run of other duds took her down again. Barnes’s Ryan is a surprisingly clean singer just passing through Middle America en route for Portland; Heigl’s Jackie is in the middle of a messy divorce, is hurting inside and could do with a guy to put his arms around her. Aimed squarely at white-picket America and with made-for-TV looks, it’s got the unrequited longing of a Nicholas Sparks romance, the homespun folksiness of The Waltons and the musical style of Mumford and Sons, whose facial hair Barnes also borrows. Heigl, easy to hate, is actually very good at playing wounded women. Barnes… well he’s got a good singing voice but I’m not convinced he’s so great at psychological depth, though towards the end, after fairy dust has been sprinkled all around, he does tidy up the beard a bit to give us a squint at those cheekbones.

Love Me Like You Do aka Jackie & Ryan – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Pickup on South Street (Eureka, cert PG)

A sparkly restoration of Sam Fuller’s 1953 Noo Yoick crime drama starring Richard Widmark as a pickpocket and Jean Peters as the dame heading to a rendezvous with the Soviets, in her purse a microfilm of nuclear secrets. Of course he steals them, thinking they’re something much more easily tradable. The secrets are a McGuffin – this is the story of a man from the wrong side of the tracks and a woman who’s made the wrong choices. They’re destined for each other – if the various cops and spying agencies can be sidestepped – but along the way he’s going to smack her in the mush and she’s going to respond with a purr, Thelma Ritter is going to turn up as a stool pigeon and the word “Commie” is going to be bandied about a lot. Meanwhile the camera is swinging about on TV studio cranes, cops are drinking whisky while they’re doing the filing, the men are all wearing hats and the women are winking suggestively (to the audience as much as to the man they’re with) to indicate sexual congress is about to take place. It’s all immensely theatrical, nothing wrong with that, though Fuller tends to overdo the declamatory speeches, and the jazzy Ellingtonesque score helps give it exactly the sort of feel you want from something bearing the names Fuller, Widmark, Peters and Ritter. Peters is particularly good – a wounded toughie halfway between a film noir femme fatale and a more modern woman – one with agency. And she’s got a face that can take a close-up. Those eyes. And hasn’t Fuller spotted them? A classic B movie crime drama now polished so its blacks hum and its whites ping.

Pickup on South Street – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

A Funny Kind of Love (Kaleidoscope, cert 18)

A Funny Kind of Love is a compendium film pretending not to be, looking at sexual fetishism and how suburban it generally is. “I want you to rape me,” says wife Maeve to husband Paul, kicking off the first story. We cut to Richard and Rowena, whose sex lives are jazzed up when Rowena discovers she is turned on by crying. Cut to Phil and Maureen, whose sex lives revolve around a big fat zero until he discovers his penchant for fucking her while she’s asleep. And pinging about between these three couples is Steve, the new local resident who is obliged by law to apprise his neighbours of the fact that he’s a paedophile, which he does with a smile and a “nice to meet you” gift – some golliwog gingerbread men. Writer/director Josh Lawson pushes all these characters a satisfying extra comedic mile, apart from Sex-Offender Steve (who’s gone far enough already), in sketches that betray his background as a TV comedy writer. And right at the end, as if to confound that impression, he drops in an entirely unrelated story about a telephone operator who works at a signing relay for deaf callers – she speaks to them in sign language in vision over Skype then vocally relays the message on to its intended non-deaf receiver. Routine work, until she gets a call from a deaf man who wants to have phone sex and asks her to be the go-between. And what a great little story this is – of shifting powerplays at one level, genuine social discomfort (and comedy) at another, as the focus swings from horny Sam, to embarrassed Monica to practical Sonya. This comes to a head when Sonya has to momentarily take a break to feed her demented elderly mother and asks Monica to fill in. But I’m telling you the plot when I should be telling you to check out the film. The earlier stuff… funny. That last bit… inspired.

A Funny Kind of Love – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Metrodome, cert 15)

A competent remake of the 1976 slasher whose referencing stretches to inclusion of actual footage from the original. So you get the infamous “death by trombone” sequence. The original film was based on a genuine series of murders carried out by a masked killer who worked by night, and director Alfonso-Gomez-Rejon also refers back to this original 1940s period too, to keep things more meta than meta. Refreshingly, he also keeps the “you fuck, you die” 1970s slasher morality of the original film, so as soon as you see a pair of panties slip or a head bobbing in the front seat of a car, you know that the masked man can’t be far away. So old school it’s new school, if you’re being generous. Gomez-Rejon also goes for a half-hearted discussion of whether horror films about real incidents are prurient – Bible thumpers shouting “real people died here” outside the drive-in where the 1976 film is shown once a year in the town where the actual murders happened (am I losing you?). It’s all very clever, though the film itself works perhaps best at this academic level, not so much because of this meta-approach, but because Gomez-Rejon is too keen to use it as a showreel. His lighting, camera and editing skills are all shown to great effect, but they’re in the service of the films he’d like to make in the future, not the one we’re watching now.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

She’s Funny That Way (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Playing into and out of his film with Fred Astaire signing different Irving Berlin songs, the eternally nostalgic Peter Bogdanovich’s deliberately old-fashioned screwball comedy reminds us that he once directed What’s Up, Doc. Taking what might be described as the Barbra Streisand role here is Imogen Poots, her horrible Brooklyn accent the only real flaw in her performance as a call girl who bangs a theatre director (Owen Wilson), only to bump into him later at an audition after she’s decided she wants to pursue her dream and act. He’s with his wife, an actress (Kathryn Hahn). Who is being pursued by a fellow actor and ex-lover Rhys Ifans. Who saw Poots leaving Wilson’s room on the fornicatory evening in question. Poots is also being pursued by an elderly judge and his private detective, and is soon also being courted by the play’s writer, whose girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) is an entirely unempathetic therapist, one of whose clients is the judge. And so on. In the best sort of screwball comedy these characters would dovetail neatly. They don’t quite here. But the actors are on their game, and get laughs where the script doesn’t have any, while Bogdanovich works hard at spinning all his elements into something resembling a froth. Enjoyable, if hardly essential.

She’s Funny That Way – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

10 August 2015-08-10

Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen) carries his dead son (Toke Lars Bjarke) in The Salvation

The Salvation (Warner, cert 15)

Having made his name with austere Dogma films, Kristian Levring makes clear he’s more than a one trick pony with a film that pulls every “big movie” trick available – lighting, cameras, costumes, location and sound are all used to the max in a lavish western that sees Mads Mikkelsen striking Clint Eastwood poses as he tries to gain revenge for the death of his wife and child.

One of the best modern westerns thematically, technically, artistically and in terms of pure entertainment, it references the medical violence of Peckinpah, the masculine codes of Aldrich, the operatics of Leone and the spartan ruggedness of John Ford, and ties them all together with a Morricone-esque soundtrack.

Is it a bit too self-consciously referential? On reflection, perhaps. Especially in its casting down the page – Jeffrey Dean Morgan is such a classic villain, Eva Green such a bad-girl female (her tongue has been ripped out in a bit of backstory dramatics, to reinforce her chattel status), and Jonathan Pryce exactly the sort of smalltime weasel we’ve all seen a thousand times that the whole thing does teeter on the edge of parody. As a genre exercise, though, it can’t be faulted. A meta meta western, perhaps. I’ve reviewed this at greater length here.

The Salvation – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Timbuktu (Curzon, cert 12)

What’s life like under the jihadists? Abderrahmane Sissako’s film dramatises the time when the fundamentalist Islamist group Ansar Dine occupied the Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012, banned music and football, forced women to cover up, destroyed beautiful carvings, imposed sharia law. It really happened, and Sissako is angry about it. So angry that he occasionally lets his heart rule his head and the film wanders towards propaganda.

A fish wife argues with the jihadists that it’s simply not possible to clean and sell fish wearing gloves. We see the guys who have just banned football chatting about the importance of Zidane to the French national team. The jihadists enter the local mosque with guns to make sure their stipulations are being followed, never mind what the mullah might say. We get it – the Ansar Dine strictures are unworkable in the real world, and in any case what’s going on here is a power play, not religious renewal. They are a violent rabble of colonialists who don’t speak the local language, only Arabic, and won’t speak any of the lingua francas (French, English) because these are the oppressors’ languages. The irony.

As the film moves from the general towards the more particular story of a lovely local family whose small cattle-rearing concern is threatened from two sides – by a violent incident involving the cowherd, and by the amorous interest of a local jihadi in the family’s matriarch – things do liven up. And here again, Sissako is shouting “foul” – where in the Koran does it prescribe the stealing of other men’s wives?

If you’re up for a film shot in this legendary and beautiful adobe city, which confirms the awfulness of Isis-like hardliners, this is for you. But don’t expect insight into the workings of the jihadi mind.

Timbuktu – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Les Combattants (Curzon, cert 15)

Also known as Love at First Fight, or Fighters, this deadpan almost-comedy about a pair of weird kids – he builds sheds, she’s a toughie hoping to join the army – is an offbeat romance that works because of the longing we can see in the face of Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) every time he looks at Madeleine (Adèle Haenel).

These two meet-cute at the beach at some organised fighting competition – kids stuff, not cage fighting – where he, realising he’s losing to a girl, bites her. From that moment on, if you’re like me, you’ll be plugged into the desperate “kiss her, kiss her” tension which writer/director Thomas Cailley works up, as he exaggerates the banked up passion with nonchalant performances, a hyper-real blandness of milieu, affectless dialogue, dislocating unusualness (the moment where they feed frozen dead chicks to a pet snake, for example).

I thought I could detect touches of the immersive deadpan of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake and the cock-eyed optimism of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s The Kings of Summer – the feeling you have when you’re young that this world is all there is, it’s all that matters.

And fighting that tendency to introspection is the electro-pop soundtrack by Philip Oëffard, Pierre Guyard and Christophe Rossignon, another strong element in a wistful lovely film whose simplicity is all skin deep.

Les Combattants – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


The Duff (E One, cert 12)

A high school comedy romance that adds the Designated Ugly Fat Friend to the usual list of stoners, goths, nerds and mean girls.

Mean Girls, is in fact, the apex of this sort of thing right now, and this gets about chest high to it, thanks largely to likeable, smart Mae Whitman as the kinda nice, kinda smart, kinda OK-looking girl who discovers that she’s been rated a DUFF. Cue much soul-searching, the development of an “I will survive” resolve, and an ugly-duckling transformation. Hang on, I didn’t mention the crush on someone unattainable while someone who is entirely gettable is hiding in plain sight.

As a working through of genre tropes this is limber enough and has its well observed moments. But its attempt to make it current by constant references to social media suggest a film that knows it’s not really in tune with modern teenagers’ tempers, and that this is really a light wipe-over of one of those Freddie Prinze Jr and Julia Stiles films that were knocking around 15 years ago. Nothing wrong with those.

And the outro section, where two teachers (Chris Wyle and Ken Jeong) make all sorts of very funny, entirely inappropriate remarks from the sidelines at the Prom suggest there’s a bolder, raunchier film in here trying to get out. 7/10 on the Mean Girls scale.

The Duff – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Run All Night (Warner, cert 15)


Run All Night is another Liam Neeson movie in which he’s looking after his family. This time he’s a gangster’s fixer who is trying to stop his son (Joel Kinnaman, overacting) going the same way as himself. So there’s a layer of psychological complexity that the Taken films never had. Not that an action movie really needs a layer of psychological complexity.

At its simplest this is the story of one man (Neeson) falling foul of one other guy (Ed Harris), then spending a night during which other bad guys get involved, until our man is running from the whole of New York, including the cops, plus an extra contracted hitman of the relentless automaton variety (Common, intensely effective), just in case the legion of heavies and boys in blue can’t stop our elemental force.

It’s all fairly basic, and in many ways it’s a 1980s movie, if not a 1950s fugitive movie. But Run All Night’s strength is that it’s directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, back with Neeson for the third time after Unknown and Non-Stop. And Collet-Serra is very good at chases. He’s a master of film geography – in any high speed encounter, whether it’s in a car or on a crowded street, we always know where our man is in comparison with the bad guys, which way he’s heading, how fast he’s going, so we know precisely how risky all this stuff is. Risk equals excitement.

Neeson brings Shakespearean levels of conflicted personality to the role, and the film is all the better for it. Plus Collet-Serra drops in little homages to the Michael Mann school of film-making, with super-luxe shots of the city at night.

Run All Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


The Dark Horse (Koch, cert 15)

The Dark Horse seems for a good stretch to be two films fighting in a sack. One is the underdog story of Genesis Potini, a bipolar Maori guy who winds up teaching an afterschool club of ne’er-do-wells how to excel at chess and stay out of trouble. The other is about a young kid called Mana, Genesis’s nephew, a bright and attractive boy with his life ahead of him, who’s being encouraged by his tough-looking but essentially weak father to join a biker gang – the ghetto or the big world, the lawless or straight and narrow, his dad or his uncle, these are his choices.

It turns out at the end, as befits a film in which strategic games are played, that the chess story and the gangster strand are closer thematically than at first seems to be the case. The big message is about the power of simple ju-ju in everyday life – we can choose, to a certain extent, which piece on the board of life we want to be.

Cliff Curtis keeps it underplayed as the troubled chess master. James Rollesten, with a Hollywood face that’s simultaneously handsome and pretty, is the kid in danger. And the support players – the mean biker guys, the sparky kids at the club – are all so believable that they really help what could easily have been a squeeze of the genre sponge burst into dirty, satisfying life. A true story, too.

The Dark Horse – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


The Good Lie (E One, cert 12)

The star billing goes to Reese Witherspoon, but this film isn’t about her at all. And it’s to her credit and of all involved that things aren’t bent out of shape to accommodate her. Instead it’s the admirably straight story of a bunch of Sudanese refugee children, part of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, whose lives were disrupted (ruined, we’d say if this happened to us in the first world) after the outbreak of civil war.

Fleeing the bullets, and en route to comparative safety, they suffer real privation. Extreme thirst forces them to drink their own urine. One of their number dies. Another is abducted by soldiers. The survivors make it to a refugee camp in Kenya. Years later, having become adults in the refugee camp but still a fierce group, they make it to America, where a semi-comedy of fish out of water sort plays out (“Are there any dangerous animals of which we should be warned?” asks group leader Mamere. “Such as?” replies the company boss he’s interviewing with. “Lions,” says Mamere), and Witherspoon eventually turns up in one of her perky, flawed blue-collar roles as a local job fixer.

The events don’t stop here – America has its effect on the three who have made it, the tension springing from the suggestion their essential human toughness and sweetness will be corrupted by the easy, throwaway life. There’s a lot of ground covered, too much in fact to keep the drama keen, but it’s a handsomely made film, with acting that’s as sweet and direct as the Lost Boys. You might not be surprised to find that most of the actors are in fact Sudanese refugees.


The Good Lie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2015


3 August 2015-08-03

Commanding officer Bruce Greenwood talks to drone pilot Ethan Hawke in Good Kill

 

Out This Week

 

Good Kill (Arrow, cert 15)

What happens when you force a Top Gun kinda guy out of his plane and into a bunker, where he is now commanded to kill people in Whereveristan remotely, using drones?

Writer/director Andrew Niccol and his Gattaca star Ethan Hawke reteam to answer the question in an anti-war film running through most of the arguments made by the liberal intelligentsia (ie the intelligentsia).

Hawke physically channels Tom Cruise, donning Ray Bans and copying the faux big-bollocks walk, while little touches nudge us even further towards the conclusion that drones are a bad thing – the voice coming down the line from Langley with lethal orders sounds a lot like Donald Rumsfeld’s.

Middle aged man finds he can’t get hard any more – for war, anyway – subtly played, intelligently told, though there’s no such nuance in the message.

Good Kill – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

White God (Metrodome, cert 15)

Bizarro item of the week is well worth hunting down.

Imagine a Lassie story with dog-fighting, animals attacking and killing humans, extreme violence, bloody mayhem, with our hero dog eventually attaining a moment of consciousness and ganging together with other street beasts to lead an attack on the good burghers of Budapest, where this film is set.

This is that film. And because it sticks to the animal movie template – Black Beauty is actually what it’s closest to, with its story of a mongrel passed from human to human and having new adventures on the way – it’s hard to shake off the feeling that this is a Disney film as made by an executive who’s just done four straight days on crystal meth.

White God – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Hustlers Convention (Kaleidoscope, cert E)

The motherlode of rap, made in 1973 by Jalal Nuriddin of The Lost Poets, gets a belated appraisal.

No surprise to find that the guy who made it is now knocking on a bit, but he’s in good shape, both physically (thanks to martial arts) and mentally, because, as he tells us, “I chose the message over the money.”

Which is good for him, because though his album telling the story of life in the hood – gangstas and niggaz in utero – was massively influential, it never really crossed over, though a million sales on word of mouth alone is obviously impressive. “It was the human rights struggle in a nutshell,” says the eloquent and charming Nuriddin.

The line-up singing his praises is impressive – KRS One, Ice-T, Chuck D, all voluble and interesting fans – but the talking heads tends to repeat each other and the film is a touch formless, though director Mike Todd does make it build, vaguely, towards a gig at London’s Jazz Cafe, which he then shows almost nothing of (a rights problem?).

However, any gig that ends with its clearly enthused lead singer giving the black power salute and signing off with “power to the people” is OK by me.

Hustlers Convention – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Insurgent (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

After a quick “previously on Divergent” preamble, we’re into number two in the series, which sees Shailene Woodley advance towards the inevitable challenge to the rule of dictator Kate Winslet, in what looks very much like a re-run of the Hunger Games, because it is.

Nothing wrong with that – the story of a gifted lone individual leaving home, and being forged in the wilderness while assembling a rebel gang was good enough for Bilbo Baggins and Luke Skywalker, not to mention Jesus Christ.

What’s problematic here is how pedestrian the telling of the story is, the script in particular letting the side down with its resort to cliche and just dead flat writing.

As if sensing this, director Robert Schwentke makes an effort with the lighting and keeps the action moving. In fact the whole film is a triumph of production design.

And the acting isn’t bad either. Though Theo James as a rough tough badass leader still isn’t convincing, at least Shailene Woodley is on hand, that “not hot enough” trolling after the first film having persuaded her to tone up – shoulders are broader, waist is narrower, clothes and hair are cut just so.

It isn’t a good film, but then I’m not 13 nor a girl.

Insurgent – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Admiral: Command and Conquer (Signature, cert 15)

Sneaking out to DVD in the UK, though well worth seeking out, is this sumptuous Netherlands historical epic, the country’s second most expensive film (after Verhoeven’s Black Book).

It’s a rollicking Sunday afternoon adventure about naval hero Michiel de Ruyter and how he saved his country from the English navy. It’s done on the big scale, booms and dolly shots, lots of extras, sumptuous sets and costumes. More importantly, it’s well written, moves at speed and spends time with its luffs, mizzens, braces and jibs, so that when the big sea battles do come, we have some idea of the physical abilities of the ships, how subject they are to the whim of the wind, and the extreme skill it takes to manoeuvre them.

Pubby bear Frank Lammers is a coup as the brave, resourceful but modest de Ruyter, the sea captain who’d rather be at home with the wife and kids. Charles Dance turns up as the finagling crook Charles II of England, and he twirls his moustaches as if for the first time.

I’d swap out the over-Hollywood soundtrack, which gets a bit by-the-yard(arm) at times, and the odd bit of CG probably needs another few thousand euro spending on it, but it’s a good film – highly informative and vastly entertaining. Ahoy!

Admiral: Command and Conquer – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Glassland (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)

An Irish misery memoir, with an excellent Jack Reynor, in louche Michael Fassbender territory, its saving grace as the son of alcoholic Toni Collette trying to persuade her to stay off the bottle. I would say Collette was good too, since she always is, except that her Hollywood bleached teeth do slightly let the side down.

Don’t bother if you’re sick of seeing working class life as a shit-covered slide towards the grave, because that’s what we have here. Though if looked at as a strange sort of love story between a son and his mother, it gains a few plus marks, and the dangle of a possible redemptive finish does at least give the drama some tension.

Will Poulter fans should ignore his name in the credits. He’s in it for seconds, possibly just to help young director Gerard Barrett get his film financed.

Glassland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Woman in Gold (EV, cert 12)

A BBC and Weinstein brothers co-production. And both are up to their usual middlebrow tricks with a dramatised version of the true story about the ageing Jewish woman (overacting Helen Mirren) who decided to fight the Austrian government and claim back what the Nazis had stolen from her family – the Woman in Gold, Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her aunt, Adèle Bloch-Bauer.

Ryan Reynolds arrives early on, as the rookie lawyer she co-opts to help her, and the story is then bent very much into a chemistry-free facsimile of Philomena – prim pensioner and cocky guy double-act stuff.

It’s not as good as Philomena in any way, not least because there are no real stakes here – a perfectly comfortably off woman would rather like a painting back so that justice may be seen to be done. It’s hardly life and death.

Nor do we need backstory for Reynolds – his domestic setup with wifey Katie Holmes is just space-filling. And director Simon Curtis’s decision (or maybe it was the Weinsteins; they tend to interfere) to shoot the Nazi-era Vienna sequences in that flat sepia has the effect of suggesting the past isn’t as important as the present (which, most surely, flatly contradicts the film’s message). While, in the present, Curtis’s camera is ever busy, gliding about when it should be still.

Strange how a story with so much potential – the Nazis, a great artist, millions of dollars, an iconic picture, a legal battle raising spectres of mass extermination and national guilt – has settled instead for the chocolate box.

Woman in Gold – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

15 June 2015-06-15

Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

Out This Week

 

Cake (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Child actresses signal they’ve grown up and make a grab for respect by shedding their clothes; older actresses by shedding their makeup. So it proves with Jennifer Aniston, in a feel-my-agony performance as a woman wracked by relentless physical pain after some sort of accident (all is eventually revealed) which has reduced her to zombie-like shuffling and perma-scowling. It’s a good performance by her, and a reminder she’s only as good as her material. But this is good material, and Aniston is surrounded by actors who are up to the salt. In particular Adriana Barraza as the hired hispanic help who seems to have the share of human empathy that Aniston’s character has lost. It’s nice to see someone having a pop at the world of support groups and affirmatory yay culture, but nevertheless the arc of this is obviously going to be redemptive. Nothing wrong with that. Inside this unashamedly little film is another one about first world problems struggling to get out (how much of Aniston’s pain is a result of her being allowed to indulge herself?). And possibly yet another one: about an actress facing up to middle age.

Cake – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Wild Tales (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The compendium film is the curate’s egg of movies – generally good in parts. This selection from Argentina is better than most, thanks to the fact that they’re all by the same director, Damián Szifrón, and the fact that his tone of amused black comedy is evident throughout. Six tales, some short (the pre-titles Pasternak lasts a few scant minutes and is storytelling boiled right down to the pith), others longer (such as Bombita, in which Ricardo Darín, the biggest name here, plays a guy working himself into a lather over a parking ticket). A common theme is the stupidity of males, their tendency to ramp up aggressive tit-for-tat until things have got wildly out of hand – the road-rage story Road to Hell being a cute exercise in macabre escalation. Granted, the entire package does look a bit like a showreel introducing Hollywood producers to a versatile Argentinian talent, though with Pedro Almodóvar doing backroom production work, you’d hardly think that necessary. Recommended.

Wild Tales – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tokyo Tribe (Eureka, cert 18)

If you’re familiar with the work of Sion Sono, you’ll already be braced for anything from this master of excess. It turns out to be a sensible position to adopt, because Sono is ready to deliver with Tokyo Tribe. After a four-minute tracking shot to open, which deliberately recalls Orson Welles’s for Touch of Evil, Sono gives us a sexed up, gored up West Side Story of the gangs of Tokyo, all of whom pull niggaz poses and sing – there is virtually no dialogue, be warned – in rap rhythms their story of … and here I get slightly lost in the frame rather than the picture. It’s a stylistic exercise in sheer bombast, like a Snoop Dogg promo done feature length, with the wilful kookiness of Besson’s The Fifth Element, plus police sirens, pert breasts, raking searchlights, split screens, addresses to camera, sexy cops, neon lighting, a crazed Mr Big with a fondness for masturbation and glass dildos, his son, who uses human beings as furniture, and a mother-and-son duo who spin through the whole thing dispensing martial arts payback. Realism isn’t the point, though you want to signal to Sono early on that you get it, and ask whether he has something he wants to say. I’m not sure, this time, that he has.

Tokyo Tribe – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Love Is Strange (Altitude, cert 15)

Ira Sachs has made some great films in the last few years – check out 40 Shades of Blue, starring Rip Torn as a music producer about to slide right off into the deep end. But Love Is Strange feels more like a follow-up to Keep the Lights On, Sachs’s essay about what happens to the relationship of two gay men when the drugs and partying stops. Here, we’re a few years further down the line, where we meet John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, a pair of late-life gay men whose marriage is welcomed by all their metrosexual friends, not so much by the Catholic church, which employs Molina’s George as a music teacher. Cue a crisis of job, which leads to a loss of accommodation for this comfortable pair, who wind up bunking down in separate apartments – George with a pair of gay cops who like to par-tay, his wife/husband (I’m never really sure how these things are decided) Ben (Lithgow) with his nephew and family. Neither billet is really what anyone – the givers and receivers of the bounty – wants. Sachs seems to be reaching back to the films of his youth, recreating a drama of human character – New York by way of the New Wave, you could say – relying on performances to fill in the scant plot. Molina and Lithgow are so good together, I started wondering what it would have been like with Michael Gambon in the Lithgow role, as originally planned. More sonorous, for starters. As it is we’re left with a downbeat portrait of stoic love that could be seen as a distant companion to Haneke’s Amour – it’s towards the end that life sets it toughest challenges.

Love Is Strange – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Green Prince (Artificial Eye, cert 15)

This is a documentary about a Palestinian who became a spy for the Israeli Shin Bet. And not any old Palestinian either, but the son of a preacher at the Ramallah mosque, for whom “Hamas was not just a movement… it was a family business. It was our identity.” Mosab Hassan Yousef is that guy, recruited in 1996 when still a teenager at exactly the point where he was about to become a weaponised individual, he worked as an Israeli spy for years after. This is a fascinating story not particularly well told – for me it lacked the contextual details (dates would have been nice, so would some journalistic orientation here and there) – of a young man whose espionage resulted in various spells in prison, torture; it was hardly the life of James Bond (it kept up appearances, we’re told). Nor was I particularly convinced by Mosab’s self-justification: that he was ultimately fighting for the same thing as his father and family by trying to thwart the worst excesses of the suicide bombing campaigns. He’s gay, isn’t he? I kept thinking. And that’s what Shin Bet and his meaty, wouldn’t-want-to-fuck-with handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak had on him? It is never dealt with, though seems to lurk in the fringes, possibly as some sort of artefact constructed in my mind only from remnants of other more conventional spy thrillers.

The Green Prince – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Blackhat (Universal, cert 15)

Going into Blackhat I was all anticipation. A Michael Mann movie, a cyberthriller, Chris Hemsworth. Lots to like. But god it was boring, and halfway through I realised it had fallen into the same black hole that so many films about hackers have fallen into – even the Julian Assange film, The Fifth Estate, did recently, and that had the expert Bill Condon directing. Here, after a descent literally from outer space into the inner workings, at photon level, of a computer – a bravura opening shot that reassures only to deceive – we get into the tired tale of a bad-boy hacker who is busted out of jail by the US security services to prevent some evil mastermind doing something to a power plant somewhere else on the planet. He is teamed up with Wang Leehom, for dick-measuring dialogue reminiscent of that film when Russkie Arnie Schwarzenegger was forced to work with US cop Jim Belushi – in fact the whole film is reminiscent of a midweight 1980s actioner. Also along for the ride are Viola Davis, adding sass to her lines even though she’s there just to deliver another audience quadrant or two (black, middle aged), and Wei Tang (or is it Tang Wei?), a beauty there for the purposes of exposition, love interest and to shout “watch out” when a gang of thugs is advancing. As said, it’s a Michael Mann film and so of course it looks great, with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh giving it Christopher Doyle dark, gloss and neon glows, while Mann fetishises the male body, cars, vehicles and machinery of any sort, and we all wait for a speedboat to come bouncing by at full throttle, Miami Vice style. It eventually does. The script stinks, and I’ve no idea how Mann got involved, to be honest, while Hemsworth responds to it with a sullen pout and withdraws all the charisma that made his Thor and James Hunt in Rush so attractive. Sandbox only.

Blackhat – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Taken 3 (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

“I will find you and I will bore you to death.” Geri-action king Liam Neeson doesn’t actually utter that line, but it’s Taken 3 boiled down to a soundbite, a half-hearted run through the usual routine – ex CIA guy Neeson’s family is threatened, he responds with extreme prejudice – all shot in the slightly bleachy 1990s style. The action is edited in the “we can’t really kick ass” style that’s now used even for people who can kick ass. And there’s a lack of regard for human life – how many blameless cops has Neeson offed as he works his way towards the villain, a surprise reveal that would have been more convincing if the villain hadn’t been wearing the “I am the villain” baseball cap the entire time. A couple of good stunts are enjoyable conceptually, notably reversing a car down a lift shaft, though it wasn’t edited together particularly well. And Neeson has a couple of superannuated pals this time out, which led me to the slightly appalled thought that someone is trying to get another Expendables franchise going. Forest Whitaker is in it, again as the bright cop who keeps his coals banked way down low. Er…

Taken 3 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

8 June 2015-06-08

Mark Stanley as a soldier in a minefield in Kajaki

 

Out This Week

 

 

Kajaki (Spirit, cert 15)

To find a really good, really British war film (so, no, not Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, both of which are over-rated) you have to go back a very very long way. Or watch Kajaki, which is out right now.

It’s a simple, brutal and unflinching portrait of the gruesomeness of war, the camaraderie of the fighters and the raw bravery in the face of sheer terror which extreme situations reveal. Told with the straightahead simplicity and bleach-bright looks that bring to mind Ice Cold in Alex, it follows a detail of British soldiers from 3 Para as they venture into a minefield to rescue one of their number, who has had his leg blown to rags after stepping onto an IED.

Tom Williams’s script catches the “stop staring at me arse, ya throbber” casual and relentless homophobia of the men, the utter boredom when nothing’s going on, the kicking-in of training and protocol once it’s action stations. Director Paul Katis screws the tension to breaking point and keeps it there, using the pitiless glare of the sun to make the point that even without bombs underfoot, these men are in a place that will kill them in short order anyway.

I could go on, about how the homophobic banter makes sense when the men’s backs are to the wall, how heroism doesn’t look any less heroic when it’s also stupid, how the brave aren’t necessarily the best looking, and how they don’t necessarily get rewarded for it, but that would be to ruin a great film that at only one moment – and I put it down to an acting wobble (the unknown-to-me cast are generally excellent) – seemed film-y. Best plonk yourself down and engage with it.

Kajaki – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Jauja (Soda, cert 15)

Coming out of Jauja (pronounced How-ha, in the Spanish way) – an in many ways simple film about a Danish-speaking father looking, The Searchers style, for the daughter who’s absconded with a handsome young soldier – was a real “what the hell was that about?” moment.

It’s set in 1890s South America, so director Lisandro Alonso’s decision to shoot it in 4:3 format, and with rounded frame edges clearly visible, might be justifiable as a harking back to the silent movies of the time. As might his single lens choice – nothing anamorphic or what have you going on here – a bog-standard piece of glass, with Lisandro staying almost entirely in long and medium shot the whole time. Nor is he moving the camera very much. But he is shooting in colour, so the whole “silent movie” thesis teeters at this point. There’s little dialogue, lots of natural sound, as surveyor Viggo Mortensen, clad in heavy coat and boots in the heat, heads away from the leering, sexually frustrated group of soldiers who have protected him and his lust-object, barely-pubescent daughter, and into the Argentinian version of the Outback, where he undergoes a series of ordeals, often lit in a melodramatic way giving the finger to naturalism, while the terrain gets more desolate and the surreal begins to encroach. Jodorwsky, I put in my notes, with a couple of question marks afterwards.

By the end, as the character Ingeborg is suddenly being addressed by the actress’s name, Villbjørk, you might well be looking around the room with a puzzled look too.

Jauja – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Girls Against Boys (Arrow, cert 15)

Austin Chick keeps threatening to make a great film. In 2002 there was the threeway relationship drama XX/XY, starring Mark Ruffalo as a bedhopping jerk. In 2008, his August was a state-of-the-nation address through the avatar of sexytime jock Josh Hartnett.

Is Girls Against Boys a case of revenge on Chick’s hitherto male-as-protagonist oeuvre? Because it’s a rape-revenge drama that sees poor wee thing Danielle Panabaker taken under the wing of sashaying vixen Nicole LaLiberte as she heads off on some extreme payback for Panabaker’s violation on the stairs of an apartment block.

Chick isn’t sure if this is grindhouse or not. He gets the power tools out at one point and it’s only a matter of time before a samurai sword makes an appearance. But there are also touches of visual poetry – don’t laugh – in Chick’s shooting style. And the way he keeps layering feminism with post-feminism, with lesbianism, and then throws in some Donovan tracks from the 1960s, is almost enough to convince that this isn’t some exploitationer with a college degree.

But exploitationer it is, Chick’s obsessive focusing on Panabaker’s face (beautiful lips, interesting angles) gives the game away. However ideologically muddy Chick tries to make the water, however vengeful the grrrls, the male gaze is all over this one. Nice try though.

Girls Against Boys – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Loft (Signature, cert 15)

There are quite a few “in their wildest dreams” films out this week (see below). First up is a remake by Erik Van Looy of his 2008 Belgian film about a gang of married men whose clandestine shagpad is compromised by the presence of a dead female. Whodunit? One of the guys? One of their wives? The girl herself?

In the fantasies of all concerned at the production/direction end, this is one of those hard-boiled early Neil LaBute dramas – Your Friends and Neighbours, say – crossed with The Usual Suspects. A lot of misogyny and a fair bit of investigative flashback and forward in an attempt to muddy the water more than is strictly necessary. And hide the fact that this is a dialogue driven and very stagey work.

Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Eric Stonestreet and Matthias Schoenaerts (the only survivor from the original) are the guys, and they’re all just fine. As is the script and set-up – with everyone concerned (mostly original writer Bart De Pauw) making it a cute exercise in the mass distribution of red herrings and in the outing of skeletons from closets. But the whole thing goes on too long, and as each revelation turns out to be something of a feint, the law of escalating melodrama/diminishing returns starts to apply.

The Loft – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Gambler (Paramount, cert 15)

The wildest dream of The Gambler is that it’s a patch on the 1974 original, starring James Caan. Now it’s Mark Wahlberg playing the cynical, possibly suicidal, floridly deadbeat English professor, who whiles away his evenings away from work getting further and further into debt with local bad men. But he can win it all back at the tables, right? Of course he can’t. Or can he?

This sort of cat and mouse goes on for an entire film. William Monahan’s adaptation of the 1974 film shows the same love of verbosity that he brought to Scorsese’s The Departed (you suspect that Monahan thinks the finest dialogue scene ever written was the “You can’t handle the truth” outburst by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, because he seems constantly to be tonally aiming there).

Wahlberg is good in this, which is a shame, really, but even more of a shame is that the film throws away Brie Larson, as one of Wahlberg’s students – we’re told she’s a genius writer, but there is no evidence of any character at all. The girl as catalyst but not agent – how very 1970s (here, Mr Monahan, is where your interference might have helped).

Around these two are a rake of character actors giving it maximum R&B – Jessica Lange, Michael Kenneth Williams, Richard Schiff (squeezing a few welcome laughs out of his single scene), John Goodman. All are flavoursome and in a less flabby film (one without an added subplot about Wahlberg seconding gifted sports scholar Anthony Kelley to help him with a betting scam) might have added enough grit to gain real traction.

The Gambler – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Trash (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

In Stephen Daldry and Richard Curtis’s drama about rubbish-picking Brazilian favela kids who find a wallet containing enough good stuff to change their futures, the intention is clearly Slumdog meets City of God. But there isn’t a single moment of emotional involvement (Curtis clearly should stick to the rom coms), no “stakes”, as we now say, and Daldry’s decision to shoot the dirt-poor milieu heavily filtrated and beautifully lit entirely undermines his young actors, whose fabulous, loose-limbed, snot-grinned performances are the sole reason to watch.

Martin Sheen and Rooney Mara, clearly on “two days, max” contracts, play a priest and a church volunteer whose purpose in the country makes more sense than their presence in the film. Plot: heretofore-mentioned wallet gets the boys to charge all around the city, and they go to places high and low, pursued by bad men and the law – I can’t remember why – thus offering the armchair viewer a cross-section of a city they’re never likely to visit.

Before watching it, I’d heard a review of this film on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and thought the guest reviewer (Larushka Ivan-Zadeh, I think) was being a bit harsh – the Daldry/Curtis backlash, and all that. Having watched it, I think she was being kind, Daldry’s weakness as an action director only compounding his initial aesthetic gaffe.

But it goes on. There’s a scene where Gardo, the darkest skinned of the boys steals a bag at a train station – up comes the rap music, FFS. “It’s all crap carp carap” my notes state, my fingers doing to the words what Daldry and Curtis have done to the meticulous work of the valiant young actors’ and brilliant technical crew. Trash by name…

Trash – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

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

Saving the worst till last, the latest stop on Johnny Depp’s descent through Dante’s rings of hell reminds us that he thinks he has a gift for comedy.

Here, taking his cue from the British TV series The Fast Show (on which he once made an almost successful guest appearance), he plays the sort of character who works best at catch-phrase length, a dandified British toff who might be original and funny if we hadn’t had three films from Mike Myers featuring Austin Powers, not to mention 50 years of James Bond spoof.

So, Mortdecai is a secret agent of sorts, has a wife (Gwyneth Paltrow again excruciating as a frigid sex goddess), and an aide-de-campe (Paul Bettany – actually rather good, because he’s putting on a performance, not just messing about in the dressing-up box, Johnny).

Permutate these three through various Bond-ian situations and you about have it. I laughed twice, truth be told, and one time it was Depp who prised the chortle from me, so perhaps I’m being harsh.

Mortdecai’s real problem is its lack of energy – fatal to match British upper class languour in this respect – and the fact that it doesn’t have a very funny script. Why didn’t the producer (one J. Depp) get The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse to do it? As it is Whitehouse just got a couple of cameos. Which was nice.

Mortdecai – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

1 June 2015-06-01

David Oyelowo in Selma

 

Out This Week

 

 

Selma (Pathe, cert 12)

Martin Luther King’s life done as a triumph, not the usual tragedy, the focus being the series of marches King led from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. These effectively rode a coach and horses through the prevailing practice of disenfranchising Negros by making registering to vote all but impossible. Up in Washington DC are two tricky customers – the conniving though not entirely venal President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, not over-reaching himself) and his homunculus, FBI boss J Edgar Hoover (another eel-like turn by Dylan Baker), while down in Alabama operates the strategically astute, tactically sharp King. Like last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, the success of the film comes down to good old fashioned Hollywood screenwriting, Paul Webb’s tight script sketching in background, putting just enough flesh on characters, running us through the events at a pace that never feels rushed. Oddly ignored by the Oscars, David Oleyowo has somehow become meatier, bulkier, looks like a man who likes his grits and gravy. He’s remarkable as King – smart, focused, proud. It’s a black film, Wilkinson and Baker notwithstanding, not a white film pretending to be black (see The Help), and inevitably tends to hagiographise King and his retinue. It’s also a simple film, low in budget (maybe that’s why Oscar wasn’t interested), lacking special effects, almost a TV movie in looks. But it works. What more is necessary?

Selma – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Shaun the Sheep Movie (StudioCanal, cert U)

A movie about the sheep who was first introduced in the Wallace and Gromit film The Wrong Trousers, which I have seen a thousand times, as an result of having a young son at the time it came out. It’s the Babe: Pig in the City plot (defenceless animal goes to town to bring back the farmer) and it’s done without voiceover or any speech at all. So no, there’s no actual explanation as to why animals want to hasten the return of the man whose job is to send them off to the abattoir. Sound effects and music and voiced grunts do most of the work of missing dialogue, the meticulously realised mis-en-scene of the animation doing the rest – this is urban Britain as most of us city-dwellers live it, of car parks and bus stations, traffic gridlock and a multiplicity of ethnicities. And very pointedly multi-ethnic too, directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak nailing their colours to the mast there. The question for me, as I started watching, was “who is this for” – the music choices (Elton John, Primal Scream etc) seemed to be those of a man in his 50s, the cultural allusions (Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver and a lot more) ditto. By the end, having been genuinely delighted by its wit, and reassured that it hadn’t lost that Wrong Trousers whimsicality and inventiveness, the question had become “who is this not for?”.

Shaun the Sheep Movie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

I Am Big Bird (Spectrum, cert E)

Caroll Spinney is the now-81-year-old who has been playing Sesame Street’s Big Bird since the 1960s, and this is his story. It’s a very sweet one, and for some stretches of Spinney’s tale – interested in puppets as a kid, a spell in the forces, early TV work in Bozo the Clown, then spotted by Jim Henson, followed by wobbles in his early days as a Muppeteer, until Big Bird takes off – I was asking myself, so what? And after a few more minutes of Spinney’s story, I stopped carping and started enjoying the way the documentary cross-sectioned recent history from an entirely refreshing angle – whether it was a reminder of Sesame Street’s transracial casting, Big Bird being in China with Bob Hope, to the offer of an orbit of the Earth on the Space Shuttle (the one that exploded, Big Bird being replaced by doomed teacher Christa McAuliffe at the last minute). On top of that it’s a story of a genuinely nice man, his home life with his kids, the bungee jumps and the waterskiing and the puppet shows. Spinney talks a lot about his life, his love for his wife and his hippie-ish philosophy, and his colleagues say so often that he is in fact also Big Bird in real life that you start to believe them (Spinney is also Oscar the Grouch, about whom less is said). He has no plans to retire, even though, you sense, some of those around him wish he would. His understudy, Matt Vogel, retains a poker face throughout.

I Am Big Bird – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Inherent Vice (Warner, cert 15)

Having been compared to Robert Altman on numerous occasions, Paul Thomas Anderson finally jumps in with both feet in something approaching a homage to Altman’s 1973 Philip Marlowe thriller, The Long Goodbye. Here, Joaquin Phoenix is the stoner PI in search of weed and answers and running into the hangover from 1960s hippiedom – astrology and spiritual coaches, ouija boards, Neil Young songs, zipless fucks and walking around in bare feet. If you’re in the mood for a takedown of that sort of thing, it’s a good one. If you’re like me you might think Anderson is decades late, as was Thomas Pynchon in his original novel. Pynchon’s Dickensian names – Agent Flatweed, Puck Beaverton, Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax Esq – remain, as do the similarly large characters (Josh Brolin as a cop with a fondness for popsicles resembling black cock, Martin Short as the cocaine doctor, Benicio Del Toro as a fairly useless lawyer). Phoenix is again very good as the button smart dude trying to function against an overhead of cannabis, and ace cinematographer Robert Elswit loads up the visuals with that bright, bright light that characterised films of the era (Chinatown is another strong reference). The individual elements of this stoned soul picnic are unimpeachable. Dickens would have stitched them together with a stronger throughline.

Inherent Vice – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Lost River (E One, cert 15)

So, Ryan Gosling directs a movie and the world stands back, sort of hoping he’s going to disgrace himself. He doesn’t. But by the end, the question asked at the beginning – is this a stylish, left-field film by someone trying something different, or an exercise in pastiche by someone taking a short cut to auteur glory? – has been answered. “A film by Ryan Gosling” it says at the outset, rather than the wankier “A Ryan Gosling film”, because in all honesty this is Benoit Debie’s film, the cinematographer who gave Gaspar Noë’s Enter the Void its remarkable, trippy kaleidoscopic looks and who, I’m guessing, also persuaded Harmony Korine that the girls in Spring Breakers would look extra special in hot neon bikinis. Debie does love his neon and his trademark colours are all over this very Lynchian tale of a mother (Christina Hendricks) and her son (Iain De Caestecker) in crumbling Detroit – he’s running wild and daily runs the risk of being taken down by the gang which has declared that it and it alone has scavenging rights in the dilapidated city. She, meanwhile, fearful of losing her house, is taking a job in a bizarro cabaret, on the recommendation of her bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) – who seems also to own the club. It’s this club that’s the site of most of the Lynchian goings-on, where sexual and aggressive underbellies are exposed and a popular song is sung in ironic fashion by someone you wouldn’t expect to sing a song. Eva Mendes also dons a basque for a bit of gory burlesque (“Look who I’m married to!” Gosling appears to be boasting. Don’t hate him). Blue Velvet’s power came from the fact that Lynch was making ironic comment on the standard ironic critique of America – pointing out that America’s moment had passed, though no one had yet noticed. What is Gosling doing? A “what he said”, I think. Visually, it’s an impressive exercise in sepulchral, crepuscular style, with lots to enjoy in the performances – Mendes and Mendelsohn, an unrecognisable and excellent Matt Smith as the local gang boss. Gosling has got all his artschool gothic out in one big go, and made a pretty picture while doing so. It’s his next film that will be the real test.

Lost River – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd (StudioCanal, cert U)

The bad things in John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel are only minor – Julie Christie is, at 26, too old and too knowing to play Bathsheba, the rural temptress whose beauty and wilfulness are a weapon that she can’t quite control, viz the three stunned/maimed men who trail in her wake. Alan Bates has a wandering accent and isn’t quite yokelish enough, as Gabriel Oak the shepherd. Terence Stamp’s Sergeant Troy seems to have his roots in the East End rather than the West Country, and lacks the crisp deportment you expect of a military man. Peter Finch is, however, practically perfect as the local squire hoping class and cash will work on Bathsheba where devotion (Gabriel) and sheer animal magnetism (Troy) have not quite. Which brings us to the great things – Schlesinger’s direction and Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography constantly situating the characters in nature, reminding us they are all subjects of a power beyond comprehension. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score, which also stirs dissonances into the bucolic rapture, a foreshadowing of The Wicker Man maybe. Frederic Raphael’s script, a marvel of concision, its episodic structure also suggesting something like the Stations of the Cross – except here all characters are tested and chastened. Derided for its trendy casting when it first came out (Stamp and Christie were thought to be the “Terry and Julie” of the Kinks single Waterloo Sunset), it is the film’s archaicisms that let it down the most – the post-dubbed dialogue knocking the life out of many scenes, especially earlier in the film; and the appalling use of soft on Christie’s face. The restored version I watched was beautiful to behold, but Christie is so besmeared with Vaseline effects that I wondered if it was an artefact introduced by the software.

Far from the Madding Crowd – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Interview (Sony, cert 15)

TV guys Seth Rogen and James Franco go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-Un in the comedy notorious for getting caught up in the whole Sony hacking debacle around Christmas. It’s a terrible film, the unfunniest comedy about dictatorship since Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator. But let’s not forget that Baron Cohen’s character was fictional, Kim Jong-un actually exists, and as well as being a butt of jokes for the free world’s media is also responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of his fellow countrymen. A fuller review of the film is here.

The Interview – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

27 July 2015-07-27

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

Clouds of Sils Maria (Artificial Eye, cert 15)

Olivier Assayas follows Something in the Air, his largely autobiographical personal meditation on the aftermath of the events of May 1968, with a different type of dramatic reflexivity. Clouds of Sils Maria is a meditation on acting, performed by a trio of actors at the top of their game. Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz are the three, all channeling vague versions of themselves. Stewart plays the personal assistant to Binoche, an actress now about to play the older role in a remake of the punishing two-hander that made her name years before. But who to play the younger role? Together, after a bit of international jet-setting and entourage-ing about, master and servant hit upon Jo-Ann (Moretz), a bad-girl actress currently riding genre movies to the top, and whose CV sounds not unlike the real-life Stewart’s. Though in the film for the least amount of time, Moretz is the most believable of this talented threesome. Perhaps because, over Assayas’s crypto-commentary on acting, young actors, living life in the public eye and so on, he lays a kind of meta-distancing effect by having Binoche and Stewart give slightly stilted line readings, unless their characters are meant to be acting, as when PA Stewart helps Binoche rehearse, in which case they’re remarkably believable. It’s a strange, very meta, very French thing to have them do. Stewart won a César (the French Oscars) for her role, the first non-French woman to do so. And since the film is, really, about her, and she is never less than magnetic (which she can’t help) and committed (which she can), it is kind of appropriate. Watch the scenes where her boss is about to meet Moretz for the first time, and Stewart gives her a crib sheet briefing on the actor. It is essentially her own story (fucking up in public, breaking up with a big name actor etc). Then try and work out whether discomfort on Stewart’s face is acting or not.

Clouds of Sils Maria – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (StudioCanal, cert 18)

To be bracketed with Let the Right One In, Byzantium and Only Lovers Left Alive as an essential recent vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is shot in California but is in effect an Iranian movie – everyone wears traditional garb, everyone speaks Persian. It tells two stories – of a lonely female vampire, and of a troubled son of a junkie dad, whose car is repossessed by a local dealer sick of carrying the father’s debt. The Vampire as Victim is the idea (like Let the Right One In), with a hint of the “more in regret than in anger” bloodletting of Only Lovers Left Alive in the way that our mournful Undead (Sheila Vand) reluctantly, and only when all else has failed, decides to suck blood in a manner that recalls that awful “jumping sack” moment from Audition. Its black and white, almost Sebastião Salgado looks and slight naiveté recall early Jarmusch, and it has Jarmusch’s drollery too – wait for one of the most spectacular meet-cutes between the two key players and I guarantee you’ll smile if not laugh out loud (no spoilers). And notice something that director Ana Lily Amirpour clearly also has – that the traditional black jilbab and a flowing vampire cape aren’t exactly that dissimilar. If vampire films are always a metaphor for something, here it appears to be the dulling of consciousness – you’ve only got one life; please live it! And if vampire films generally tend, like vampires themselves, to overstay their welcome, this does rather overdo the lingering arthouse pans through the night-time demi-monde here and there, though to be honest the cinematography is so spectacular (how can you shoot against naked white light like that?) that you might well let that go.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

While We’re Young (Icon, cert 15)

Childless metrosexual couple Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts meet Adam Horovitz and Amanda Seyfried – hipper, younger versions of themselves – and they start to hang out. Stiller is a documentary maker struggling for the next hit, Horovitz is in the same game but is on the rise. Both men genuflect before Charles Grodin, Watts’s father and revered old man of the form. Once he’s got these biographical details in place, writer/director Noah Baumbach unleashes a satire that has a Billy Wilder ferocity in a film structured like Steve Martin’s LA Story. The superb first half takes potshots at modern life (the midlifers and their iPhones and Wikipedia; the hipsters and their vinyl and typewriters, and so on) and the oldies’ unwillingness to admit youth has flown. Then there’s the more straightforward conservative second half, when life lessons are learned, plot ends are tied up and a homily delivered. Horovitz emerges as the star of the piece, as the younger man, whose wide eyes hide the fact that he is actually a player on the make. What’s the message? Grow up, it seems, the real barbs being aimed at the ones being greedy – ie Stiller and Watts. Seen another way, it’s all about that Jewish New York attitude that drives new generations to take the familiar and rework its meaning – so now Rocky 3, Baumbach’s little joke, is an interesting cultural text. All summed up in a final montage where Baumbach contrasts the viewpoints of three different generations of film-maker – same material, different cultural meaning – to dazzling effect.

While We’re Young – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

That Sugar Film (Soda, cert 12)

What’s odd about That Sugar Film is how closely it cleaves to the Super Size Me format – one man goes on a special diet for x days and reports back the results – and yet how it almost fucks it up. Australian documentarian Damon Gameau gives us a preamble about his how his hot girlfriend first encouraged him into the ways of healthy eating and now, pregnant with their first child, how she’s trepidatious about his big idea – to consume the same amount of sugar that the average Australian does, but without resorting to the obviously sugary things. So, no cola, instead fruit juices; no cakes, instead lots of low-fat “healthy” foods which, Gameau tells us, use sugar to replace the missing calories, mouthfeel and hit of the fat that isn’t there. So, off he goes, down Morgan Spurlock Avenue, having first had his body calibrated by a team of people in white coats. Gameau bulks out his experiment with detours – to the aboriginal community who ran a healthy eating program with spectacular results, until it was shut down by the government; to the 17 year old kid whose addiction to Mountain Dew (37 teaspoons of sugar in a 1.5 litre bottle) has reduced his teeth to stumps; with a bit about the work done by nutrition scientist Ansel Keys, who demonised fat and exonerated sugar; to some investigative rummaging into the funding of much nutritional research by Big Sugar. And so on. In spite of the fact that Gameau quite blatantly drops his “healthy diet” experiment at one point, to pig out on white sugar – making a point about the 40 teaspoons a day the average Australian unwittingly consumes – the scientific results after 60 days are stark. Even though he’s consumed the same number of calories, and eaten only OK stuff (his mad Al Pacino-style dive into sugar to one side) his liver levels are off the scale, his body fat is way up, his cholesterol is through the roof and his waistline is up 10cm. In truth, That Sugar Film looks like propaganda for the high fat diet – Gameau’s vague description of what his normal diet consists of would seem to place him in the paleo camp (meat, fat, vegetables, little starch or sugar). And in some ways I wish that that’s the film he’d made – except a man who’s doing a Super Size Me cannot make a film about switching to a diet he’s already on. Another thing: in exactly the same way that Morgan Spurlock never said to his partner when she aired her concerns about his consumption of a billion Big Macs, “But honey, I’m doing this for our future – to make our fortune,” the same unspoken subtext hangs heavy throughout the film. Interesting findings though, and I also learned about the concept of TOFI (Thin Outside, Fat Inside) and that Gameau has no idea how bad a rapper he is.

That Sugar Film – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Listen Up Philip (Eureka, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A portrait of extreme artistic narcissism, starring Jason Schwartzman as Philip, a young version of the Great American Novelist, and Jonathan Pryce as the mentor he leans on, an older version of the same. Philip Roth is the template, apparently, and there’s a novelistic voiceover spoken with well modulated, wry “I see what you don’t” gravitas by Eric Bogosian, a jazzy kind of soundtrack, a resort to Maysles brothers’ handheld sun-in-the-lens style of beat-cinematography – like the Great American novel, it’s all very 1950s/1960s. And like Schwartzman’s Philip, it’s hard to like. It’s also hard to work out whether Listen Up Philip’s slightly arch, self-important tone is another satirical stab at the Great American Novel or whether writer/director Alex Ross Perry is simply disappearing up his own assessment of himself. At bottom, once Schwartzman and girlfriend Elisabeth Moss have split up – which is all the paper-thin plot consists of – and Jonathan Pryce has revealed himself to have feet of clay, it slides into what many attempts at the Great American Novel slide into – a campus novel of failed hopes and self-sabotage, Pryce being particularly good here. Is it worth watching? I wouldn’t want to watch it again, but it’s a rare film that comes right out and says that artists are assholes, that their obsessions are often self-obsession lightly disguised, or that the public’s obsession with them ignores the demand end of the equation – there are lots of people engaged in artistic work; society chooses who “fits” and discards the rest. The attribute of brilliance is accorded to the successful, not necessarily the gifted. Artistic production as delusional private enterprise – discuss.

Listen Up Philip – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Mediumrare, cert 18)

A cult item from 1991, now restored the better to be able to see the wounds. It’s a distant cousin of Kung Fu Hustle, a hybrid of pantomime, kung fu and the splatter movie, and follows the Bruce Lee-like Riki (Fan Siu-Wong) into prison, where he has to fight the malevolent drug-baron Mr Big to retain his self-respect, and, being pretty, his ass. No, no, it’s really not that sort of film. Instead it’s the sort where one of Mr Big’s thugs runs at Ricky, and Ricky, having taken off his shirt to reveal his splendid abs, slashes him with a knife, forcing the assailant to pull out his own intestines from the gaping wound and attempt to strangle Ricky with them. Don’t expect psychological depth – there’s isn’t a move or action, reaction or set-up that doesn’t spring from nowhere – this is a Golden Harvest production and they generally paddle in those waters. Nor is there any sort of throughline. One minute it’s machine guns our hero is fighting against, the next he’s in a dungeon being filled with liquid concrete. You’ve got to admire the energy, and its audacious physical effects, and its ridiculousness. That’s not bad for starters.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Get Hard (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Plot: rich white guy Will Ferrell is about to go to jail for some major financial irregularity. How can he avoid being bumfucked to death? He employs the services of a carwash guy who works in the garage beneath his office. This guy, being black (it’s Kevin Hart), will know what to do to prevent anal penetration, and other degradations. And off we go with Get Hard – one half jokes about race, one half jokes about gay sex. And when those two wells run dry, there’s also the fact that Ferrell is very tall and Hart is quite small. Like Ferrell’s character, this is a tremendously flabby film, but there are genuinely funny jokes in among the folds, not that you’ll be congratulating yourself on your sophistication for laughing at Ferrell’s demonstration of the storing of shivs up the rectum, or his attempts at trash-talk (“I’m gonna punch you in the fuck”), or Hart cajoling him into learning how to suck cock – “When life puts a dick in your mouth, you make dickade,” Hart says to him. “Dickade doesn’t sound like a significant improvement over dick,” Ferrell replies. I laughed. I’d have laughed a lot more if it had been about 20 minutes shorter.

Get Hard – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015