28 September 2015-09-28

Asuka Kurosawa in A Snake of June

Out This Week


San Andreas (Warner, cert 12)

A disaster movie like they used to make in the 1970s, with Dwayne Johnson as a John Wayne kinda guy – a helicopter pilot whose extraordinary likeability and bravery is simply a case of “just doing my job, ma’am” (actual line from film). And as with the 1970s, there are also girls being bimbos: Carla Gugino as Johnson’s estranged wife – about to marry smirking, rich architect Ioan Gruffudd (his job a nod to Towering Inferno) – and Alexandra Daddario, hired not because she can easily pass for the minor she’s playing (in fact she’s 28) but because she has Hollywood’s most bounteous rack right now, and is happy to deploy it in the parts of the film not dominated by Johnson’s easy charm and manly manliness. Paul Giamatti aims for the “acting in the face of the impossible” Oscar as the seismologist who realises that the mother of all seismic shifts is about to lay waste to much of California – though it’ll take more than mere tectonic apocalypse to move Gugino’s frozen face – but really this is a case of “trust the Rock”, something I was more than happy to do.

The script is lean to the point of the perfunctory, all part of the decision to keep this thing moving, moving, as Johnson pilots his chopper between collapsing buildings and rescues the odd innocent person while thousands die in devastation imagineered out of 9/11-meets-the-2004-tsunami nightmares. Apply popcorn and enjoy.

San Andreas – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Little Accidents (Praslin, cert 15)

Another old-school film, this time the sort of downbeat, blue collar affair which Sundance used to champion and which almost killed the movies – people want entertaining, not lecturing, and they’re right to want that.

However, this one stands above the pack, and I could point to all sorts of reasons – the acting, the several spiky dramas that are playing out simultaneously – but mostly I think it’s just down to the sheer innate film-making talent of director Sara Colangelo, who establishes an almost hypnotic rhythm using camera, performance, editing and soundtrack, all faintly reminiscent of David Gordon Green in George Washington mode.

Plot junkies need to know that there are two hooks. In one, Boyd Holbrook is the only surviving miner after an underground accident has killed all his buddies. In the inquiry as to what happened, is he going to toe the company line, or blow the whistle – as the union demands? In the other, Jacob Lofland plays a bullied kid whose “little accident” out in the woods will have a massive impact on the marriage of the mine boss (Josh Lucas) and his wife (Elizabeth Banks).

The three key players are Lofland, Banks and Holbrook. All are good, with Lofland reminding us that he was the kid who could act in Mud in a role that’s pretty much the same thing again, Banks reminding us there are wells of talent behind the dainty features, and Holbrook reminding us that Ryan Gosling isn’t the only charismatic actor in town.

Sara Colangelo, meanwhile, announces herself as a new director to follow. It sounds downbeat, drab and worthy – and, yes, Sundance-y – but I can’t recommend Little Accidents strongly enough.

Little Accidents – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


The Reunion (Soda, cert 15)

Whether you like The Reunion might depend on your attitude to the art of Tracey Emin – psychobabble made tangible, or raw honesty unmuddied by obvious theory? Swedish artist Anna Odell is an Emin-like figure, a woman with a confrontational stare who didn’t get invited to her class reunion a couple of years back and so used the snub as an anchor point for a film.

Part one reconstructs the evening, as if Anna had been invited. It’s a piece of fabulous, almost Festen-like through-the-fingers confrontational drama, built carefully to a screaming hysterical conclusion. Having had her fun as to how the evening might have gone, in part two we see Anna meeting various old class members, showing them the film (which has now become a film within a film) and asking them what they think, and why they didn’t invite her.

None of them ever says “This, Anna. This hysterical, everything-is-about-you, this turning of our downtime into your stock-in-trade, that’s why we didn’t invite you… not to mention that we can see the whites of your eyes around the iris the whole time and it’s unsettling.” Instead Anna takes control of the discourse, and turns the film into an exploration of her school years, when she felt bullied and friendless and low in status.

Watching middle aged people trying, while being filmed, to justify/excuse/condemn the children they once were is a grim and not particularly rewarding process. However, the fascination remains with Odell – hence the Emin reference – who never overtly points out that her entire film is a dish of revenge best served cold, about the low status girl who grew up to attain the very highest cultural status: the artist.

The Reunion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Results (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)

Mumblecore inventor Andrew Bujalski goes to Hollywood and loses a bit of himself on the way. His films – Computer Chess being the most recent example – are about two different types or modes or cultures of person rubbing up against each other, Bujalski shooting it all as if hanging back to watch the sparks fly, in the very lowest of lo-fi ways.

Here he collides professional fitness Nazis Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders with a pizza-eating dough boy, Kevin Corrigan. It’s a slo-mo crash, as Bujalski films tend to be, and Corrigan gets the best of it as his character takes these highly tuned fine specimens and tempts them with drugs and booze, fast food and bad living.

That they succumb at all is one of the film’s weaknesses – Bujalski doesn’t seem to understand there’s an entire philosophy behind people who obsessively train – and that none of the relationships between rich slob Danny (Corrigan), gym-owning loner Trevor (Pearce) and results-focused trainer Kat (Smulders) seem probable.

On a scene-by-scene basis, though, there’s lots to like. Bujalski’s strength is in writing little situations where what is said carries nowhere near as much weight as what is not said. And again and again we get beautiful moments where it’s clear to us what is going on, the fun being that the characters on the screen haven’t the faintest.

Results – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


52 Tuesdays (Peccadillo, cert 15)

We’re chucked in at the deep end with 52 Tuesdays, whose only real fault is that it’s 20 minutes too long, as teenage girl Billie is told by her lesbian mother that mum wants to transition to the male gender, that Billie’s going to be shipped off to live with her estranged dad for a year, and that the two of them are going to meet up once a week on Tuesday for some “us time”.

As a plot outline, this has all the trappings of the earnest afternoon movie, with misunderstanding being followed by tears and forgiveness. But maybe because this is an Australian film, there’s none of that (OK, there’s a bit) and instead we get a film about a teenager running to the wild side – becoming obsessed with sex and transgressive sexual relationships, taking up in a threesome with some cool kids she’s spied making out in the school theatre  props room. The mother, meanwhile, is taking testosterone and preparing to have her breasts removed and moving towards maleness in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Change, the film tells us, is what life is all about, and it drops in quick clips from the day’s news bulletin to remind us of that fact – whether it’s a street riot in Asia or the Costa Concordia becoming beached (which dates the film) – these inserts also giving the film a strongly episodic, 52-part structure.

Don’t bother if you want a film about the transition of Jane to James (the androgynously named actor Del Herbert-Jane just about perfect), because this film is only tangentially about that. Instead it’s about the daughter’s reaction to the process. And it really helps here that in Tilda Cobham-Hervey, director Sophie Hyde has found one of those faces that the camera loves. As Billie runs off the rails, we run with her, realising this isn’t delinquency as such, more a cack-handed attempt to come to terms with a situation. The woman becomes a man as the girl becomes an adult.

52 Tuesdays – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Wasp (Matchbox, cert 15)

The classic three-hander has a happy couple whose relationship is disrupted by the arrival of a third person. The twist in Wasp is that the couple are gay, a shiny-skinned, gym-fit pair of successful British guys on a gite holiday in France, and the interloper is a woman – slightly needy and just off a spectacular break-up, and being comforted by old university friend James, slightly to the annoyance of the sardonic Olivier.

The film sells itself as a “can the leopard change its orientation” drama but then upsets this premise early on, as Caroline quizzes the two men about their sexual history. James has a 100 per cent record of only ever sleeping with men. Olivier also scores 100 per cent… but only since he came out. Ah haa.

Caroline muses at this point that she doesn’t really believe in all this “100 per cent gay” stuff, though the quick glances Olivier and Caroline have already been exchanging have rendered this scene and this dialogue unnecessary. That’s perhaps the problem with this film, which relies a little too much on chat, when it might have gone down a Claire Denis route of suggestion and insinuation – cinema rather than literature – and director Philippe Audi-Dor also doesn’t quite seem to know what sort of performances he wants from his actors, who respond with moments of dead air.

But Audi-Dor has an eye for an image, and drops in beauty shots between the escalating confrontations over drinks and games of Truth or Dare (where would films be without Truth or Dare?), and the relentless, almost mocking sound of the cicadas in Provence add their own Greek chorus too.

Wasp – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


A Snake of June (Third Window, cert 18)

When Shin’ya Tsukamoto made this monochrome noirish nightmarish erotic thriller in 2002, he was best known in the West as the director of the Tetsuo films, a brace of noirish nightmarish thrillers in which technology and organic forms fused to gruesome (and funny) effect.

A Snake of June eases back a touch on the machinery – though a man with a telescopic, snakelike penis does appear at one point, to little fanfare. Nevertheless, Tsukamoto’s fascination for the tech/flesh interface is apparent in his story about a pretty young woman called Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) who works as a telephone counsellor, one of her clients thanking her for talking him out of suicide by taking up stalking her. This stalking leads to him taking a series of photographs in which our pretty young miss is caught masturbating outdoors in the pouring rain, a marriage to an older, hygiene-obsessed salaryman clearly not bringing home the conjugal bacon.

This is just the first five/ten minutes or so of a remarkably stylish film, now restored for its Blu-ray release, in which Tsukamoto teases the plot one way – her blackmailer sends the woman on a shopping trip to buy a dildo, insert it and then wander the rain-lashed streets while high on the ecstasy of prolonged orgasm – then flips it onto another track entirely, making us the voyeurs and him – the director/narrator/stalker (all Tsukamoto) – the concerned audience stand-in.

If the boring old “male gaze” is one concern – and if anyone is a master of the subjective camera it’s Tsukamoto – the director keeps it lively with laugh-out-loud scenes in which Rinko tasers herself to orgasm, makes interesting points about our culture’s almost fanatical reverence for breasts, drenches everything in persistent typhoons of rain – tears? vaginal gush? – and edits everything in a brutal, and now clearly highly influential style to a tight, asperger-focus rhythm. This frenzied “cinema du look” style is actually the film’s great achievement.

A Snake of June – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2015



21 September 2015-09-21

Liam Walpole as Goob in The Goob

 

Out The Week

 

The Goob (Soda, cert 18)

Films like to suggest that life is rawer, more elemental away from the cosmopolitan, metrosexual centres of civilisation. And in British films there’s often a suggestion that out in Norfolk, especially, things tend towards the Wild West. It was apparent in 1996’s Dad Savage, a film largely unseen except by Star Trek nuts, who seek it out to watch Patrick Stewart in a Stetson. And we get that with knobs on in The Goob. It’s a terrible title, but the film itself is excellent, a High Noon kind of affair about a lad having a showdown with his own stepfather (a loose use of a term for the man who is shagging his mother, and most other women in town). In this flat landscape of low life expectations, lairy lads and peroxide girls, stock cars and booze, Goob (Liam Walpole) is caught in tension between his desire for independence, his love for his brassy mother (Sienna Guillory) and cowering respect for Womack (Sean Harris), the local psycho taking whatever vagina is available; quite a lot since he’s the gangmaster of a local picking operation and a new lot of East Europeans arrive seasonally. Writer/director Guy Myhill brilliantly paints the landscape and the people in Goob’s life, before throwing in a few destabilising elements – a slightly effete chap (Oliver Kennedy) who likes to dance to disco music and suggests there’s another life away from this desolate open-prison existence, and a pretty picker (Marama Corlett) newly arrived, who’s also caught the eye of Womack. Shake these elements together and prepare for a big finish. In a cast of lovely performances by Guillory, Corlett, Walpole, Kennedy and even S Club 7’s Hannah Spearritt, Sean Harris stands out as Womack, a rusty barb of a man constantly on the verge of sex and/or violence. And Simon Tindall’s cinematography (particularly the moody night-time stuff) is complemented beautifully by Luke Abbott’s gurgling electro-pop soundtrack.

The Goob – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Hard to Be a God (Arrow, cert 15)

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky wrote the story on which Tarkovsky based his Stalker. And we’re on similar ground in this dirty brutal masterpiece based on another of their novels – a hopeless world where the advances of science and civilisation are all but absent. Shot in black and white, set on an alien planet 800 years behind our own, the film has a plot – if you look at the IMDb it will explain what it is, but I was struggling. What I could see was a lot of shit, and I mean shit of every shade and texture, from the opening shot of arse cheeks literally being prised apart by their owner, so as to make defecation on the people below easier, right to the very last frame. This is a wry joke of a movie, about a world where science is being ruthlessly expunged wherever glimmers remain. The barely detectable plot is about a scientist surveying this wretched realm and filming what he finds – hence the large number of faces gurning to camera, Baldrick style. Dead dogs hang from strings; dead people hang from ropes; there’s a room full of nothing but dangling rabbits. The picture Hard to Be a God paints of the medieval era is the one lampooned in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail – people in rags, work of unimaginable mundanity, rocks, mud, cold, misery, of ugly misshapen people scuttling about crook-backed – done without a scrap of humour. Director Aleksey German summons this world of Gormenghast Gothic meets Hieronymus Bosch with fanatical abandon, and if the film is a triumph of anything, it’s production design. It’s certainly not attractive, in the usual sense of the word, and I’m not convinced German needs three hours to make the pro-enlightenment, anti-clerical points he makes. But it’s a once-seen-never-forgotten affair, that’s undeniable, a work of medieval sci-fi that could only come from one country – oh those Russians.

Hard to Be a God – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The New Girlfriend (Metrodome, cert 15)

Like a romantic comedy with the laughs turned down but the wit turned up, The New Girlfriend examines power relations in many directions. But most significantly from one side of the grave to the other, between an attractive woman and her much more attractive friend, who, we learn in François Ozon’s admirably snappy set-up, was first at everything as the two girls were growing up – and this included (dry chuckle) getting a terminal disease and dying. Now, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) is left all alone. But not for long. Because she discovers, in the second of Ozon’s wry reveals, that her dead friend Laura’s husband (Romain Duris) is dressing in his deceased wife’s clothes, partly, though not at all exclusively, because this surrogacy placates the baby, who misses its mother, but also partly because he’s a transvestite. What plays out then is part revenge comedy – as Laura (now the more attractive of the two “women”), part romance (no spoilers), part wistful bereavement drama. It’s based on a Ruth Rendell story, but there are clear overtones of Patricia Highsmith in the sexual powerplay, with dark psychology underpinning the breeziest of interchanges. You can see elements of all sorts of other types of film in it – the Hollywood ugly duckling transformation where women try on clothes in montage sequences; the Richard Curtis comedy of strained middle-class manners; old school French farce as phantom affairs battle real ones. It helps enormously that Romain Duris is of a fairly slight build and so at a squeeze (for him and us) we can imagine him getting into a woman’s clothes, and that he’s so abundantly masculine – stubble, thick eyebrows – that we’re never in doubt that there’s a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing aspect to the relationship too, and that if he is hiding, then Claire is not being entirely honest either. Hollywood will undoubtedly remake it, hoping for some kind of Tootsie/Doubtfire payday. And maybe someone could persuade Tom Cruise to star in it. It’s physical acting, Tom, just what you’re all about.

The New Girlfriend – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Man Up (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Man Up tells the story of a serially disappointed Bridget Jones-y woman having a blind date night out with a man who thinks she is someone else. It goes well, until he finds out that she isn’t who she says she is. At which point the boy-loses-girl segment of the film is kicked blearily out of bed and onto the screen. Because if you were breezy, nerdy and needy Simon Pegg (for it is he), and you’d met sexy, smart and fun Lake Bell, you’d be fucking delighted, wouldn’t you? And hang the circumstances that had brought you together. In fact you’d be calling it astral intervention, wouldn’t you? This romantic comedy structurally doesn’t work, because it has waited far too long to introduce “the impediment” section of the wins-loses-regains schematic. You could say that there is an impediment to the impediment – we can see that these people have fallen for each other, and a detail isn’t enough to make them un-fall. Another problem is that Pegg’s character is just too prissy to like, though my god he works like a Trojan to blow air and cuteness into a script convinced it is funnier and more Nora Ephron like than it is. At bottom Man Up’s big problem is that it isn’t a rom-com at all, it’s chick-lit, like a book with a nice lilac cover that’s been accessorised here and there with the odd dirty word – “vagina” seems to be the one everyone agrees is naughty and yet anatomically forgivable enough to do the work – in an attempt to make it look a bit more grrrr. So I hated it? No, I didn’t. Even doing a British accent (well), Lake Bell has got that special something, and Pegg almost makes his character likeable, the supporting cast of great talents (Harriet Walter, Ken Stott, Sharon Horgan) might be thrown away but Rory Kinnear, as Bell’s old stalker boyfriend, gets a lot of laughs from his acts of sheer desperation, and once it’s got through its unconvincing meet-cute set-up and its structurally inept second act, it does barrel enjoyably towards the only finish this sort of thing can have.

Man Up – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tracers (EONe, cert 12)

Taylor Lautner’s post-Twilight decision to become an action star makes a lot of sense – he can’t act and he is physically fit. In fact, in Tracers, it’s clear he’s been taking acting classes, and a touch of charisma and character is now beginning to peep out from beneath that peevish bulldog-in-waiting face. The plot: he’s a cycle courier who falls for a parkour girl (Marie Avgeropoulos) he spies vaulting, running and bouncing through and over New York one day. Determined to get with her, he learns parkour skills in a Rocky-montage moment and has soon joined her gang of fellow free-runners, unaware that they are controlled by a Fagin (Adam Rayner) with criminal designs and a moral dead centre. Enough plot; is the film any good? Well, any film that has decided to model itself on bad 1980s actioners is on a hiding to nothing, and this right down to the use of locations (the New Yorker building, the Empire State, many many backstreets with iron fire escapes), and a tendency to stop the film’s action to explain what’s going on to the audience. But Avgeropoulos is an effortless star – attractive, feisty and physically capable. And Lautner’s physicality is hugely impressive too – god can that boy bounce. And while the film is barrelling over rooftops, running up vertical surfaces, hurdling walls, sailing over sheer drops, it’s actually highly enjoyable. Wait for the end, when director Daniel Benmayor announces as clearly as he can without arriving on screen with a megaphone that he thinks he’s made a genre pastiche masterpiece. It amused me for all the wrong reasons. But this film does have its moments, most of them belonging to Avgeropoulos.

Tracers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Rashomon (BFI, cert 12)

Critics use Rashomon as a kind of shorthand, to describe films in which multiple points of view are all given similar value. So in this story of the murder of a man escorting his wife through a forest, the question is: who did the killing, and how did all the parties involved react before, during and after? That’s the whole story, and Kurosawa’s entire film deals with the telling and re-telling of it. In fact this aspect – the novelty of director Akira Kurosawa’s philosophical position – has generally been given too much weight. The unreliable narrator was hardly a novelty (almost all of Orson Welles’s films use one to some extent), though it’s hard to think of a film where, by the end, no final “truth” has been revealed, as is the case with Rashomon. Even so, generally,  Rashomon has been invoked by critics too often – most people, after all, have not seen the film. Actually, back in 1950 the film was seized on for a simpler reason. That of all the films coming out of Japan – still being run by General Douglas Macarthur – this was the most recognisable, because Kurosawa looked so much towards Hollywood for inspiration. In the storytelling, Rashomon has the simple, forward-leaning drive of John Ford’s Stagecoach. In its key character – the bandit, played by Toshiro Mifune – it has a figure lifted from a Douglas Fairbanks film, head tossed back in laughter, legs athwart, Mifune throwing himself into the physical scenes like Fairbanks’s 1920’s Zorro. In short, if you’ve not seen it, this is not the arthouse exercise in arid theorising that you might expect. It’s a vivid, fast-paced affair whose framing devices (the “whose reality?” stuff) now suggest Pulp Fiction or The Usual Suspects (which most obviously uses the same structure). It’s vastly entertaining, though this restoration can’t hide the fact that detail has bleached out in certain scenes; Japanese films of this era often having been shot on shabby film stock to start with. And if you want to read it as a Japanese critique of honour in a country which had surrendered only five years earlier – the words “honour”, “shame” and “nowadays” come up an awful lot – then that’s there for digestion too.

Rashomon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Julia (Matchbox, cert 15)

A woman is fed an immobilising drug, is raped, bundled into a car and left for dead out in a bad part of town. Crawling home naked, she sits whimpering in the shower, bleeding from her wounds but also adding another notch to an arm already covered in self-harm scars. This woman of low self-esteem is then taken in hand by a woman dressed in quasi dominatrix gear and introduced to a man who offers revenge… though it must be done his way. As you can already see, a simple rape revenge movie has been complicated twice. Why the self-harming stuff? What does it add? And why the outside agent? Why couldn’t a woman who had been appallingly treated – even a timid one – go off on a revenge jag? The answer is because I Spit on Your Grave already exists. And that Julia is an experiment in neo-giallo, and those Italians always liked to pile on just a little bit more than the quivering edifice could take. Ashley C Williams, once a component of a certain human centipede, is our heroine, but really, as with original giallo, the camera is a protagonist too, its wonkiness and proximity suggesting Julia’s psyche, with an escalating sense of dread the aim of director Matthew A Brown. Job very much done. If you’ve never gone for giallo’s use of garish lighting effects, you’re unlikely to be happy here either. But Frank Hall’s electro soundtrack adds a Drive-era Refn-ness to the ambience and helps weld this dark, faintly preposterous film together. There’s even gore for the hounds and sex for the dogs.

Julia – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

14 September 2015-09-14

Raúl Arévalo and Javier Gutiérrez as cops on the case in the otherworldly Guadalquivir Marshes

 

Out This Week

 

 

Marshland (Altitude, cert 15)

A mismatched-buddy-cop drama set in Spain’s Guadalquivir Marshes – delivering a bit of Beasts of the Southern Wild watery otherness – and marked out by several outstanding features. No, not the murder, of two sexually active teenage girls. That’s pretty standard. Nor the reason why they were murdered. Again, not much to see here. Instead it’s the exquisite looks captured by director Alberto Rodriguez and cinematographer Alex Catalán, who lay lush images over a slow, almost ambient soundtrack to create an almost hypnotic effect. This is totally, brilliantly, at odds with the tacitly antagonistic relationship between the two men, who, in 1981 Spain, a country new to the democratic fold, find their relative power positions reversed – the older man (Javier Gutiérrez), a brute who used to be something in “Franco’s Gestapo”, the younger man (Raúl Arévalo) a meditative, relative peacenik product of the new Spain. Strangely, considering how languorously everything proceeds, the case itself is solved in something of rush towards the end. Giving the game away, perhaps, that the plot is only a peg, on which to hang a lot of atmosphere, some remarkable looking people (Jesús Castro’s piercing eyes will surely buy him a ticket to Hollywood), an evocative landscape, and some wonderful cinematography. There’s even a new spin on that old staple, the car chase. A compelling watch.

Marshland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney, cert 12)

Simultaneously busy and lazy, Joss Whedon’s second Avengers outing gets the gang back together to combat a “global peacekeeping initiative” intelligence which has gone rogue, invaded the internet and is now building itself a body, its soul also on order. It’s basically a vampire story – Iron Man’s’ techno-tinkering has woken this malevolence with a drop of the data equivalent of blood – with the entire team as superhuman Van Helsings chasing after it and trying to kill it with the superhero equivalent of a magic bullet. No, Kevin, superheroes are not magic. That’s ridiculous. They’re creatures of fantasy. But never mind all that, there’s also the all-important universe-building aspect of the Avengers to be done, not to mention the franchise-extending, so more side characters are introduced (played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and we even get a bit of pseudo-psychological backstory, since this Ultron character is capable of accessing a character’s inner fears – enter even more characters (Julie Delpy, Idris Elba and Hayley Atwell doing the honours) though for such a brief time you wonder why anyone thought this was a good idea. There are simply, like the early X-Men films, too many characters here, chasing too much plot in too small a space – Jeremy Renner as the archer person, Hawkeye, what was ever the point of that? Added to that, Whedon’s customary quippy, culturally tuned-in dialogue is in short supply, and the CG isn’t quite up to the mark – it’s the old foreground/background separation issue again, techies. It’s not all disappointment, though. The battles resonate – especially the Iron Man/Hulk play-wrestling bout – the romance between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is tender and the few smartass lines that Whedon has finally got down to writing do hit home. On balance, Whedon somehow pulls off this eat-all-you-can smorgasbord of junk food, though there’s a general lack of wow that is best summed up in two tiny details – Scarlett Johansson looks less than megababelicious, and Ultron’s voice, provided by James Spader, is in the same ironic register as Robert Downey Jr’s, which is confusing, and is precisely the sort of wrinkle someone, early on, should have fixed.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Anti-Social (Spirit, cert 15)

On the blud-bruv-sweet spectrum, Reg Traviss’s pretty decent London gangster flick is the story of two brothers – Dee (Gregg Sulkin) is the handsome graffiti artist offered a big break and a bright future in Berlin, Europe’s new home of hip. While Josh Myers plays his altogether more proletarian brother Marcus, a career criminal whose exploits eventually threaten to ruin Dee’s future. That’s your film – will Dee escape before Marcus’s interactions with gangs, the law, baseball bats and shooters send everything south? If I never entirely bought Sulkin as a geezer – and the film tells us Dee and Marcus are half-brothers, so it knows there’s a problem here – I bought him enough, and director Traviss and his excellent editor Edmund Swabey intercut average scenes of “keeping it real” exposition and character development with some properly tense fast-cut action. Side details impress, too, such as the casting of the incredibly sexy Caroline Ford in a small but entirely key role, and there’s a new pulsing, keening song from Shara Nelson which made me pause the film and try to find out what the hell happened to her since Massive Attack. There’s room for just one more London crime flick after all, it seems.

Anti-Social – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The Dance of Reality (Curzon, cert 18)

It’s the refuge of the scoundrel, surrealism, is it not? Shot in buzzing colour, here is the revered Alejandro Jodorowsky’s … well, what is it? It’s billed as his autobiographical early years, but in fact it’s more a film about his father, and how this bullying communist in his native 1930s Chile tried to turn the son he suspected of being a sissy into a man. This while planning the assassination of Chile’s president. Realism is not on offer – Jodorowsky’s mother sings all her lines in an operatic style, but for the most part it’s a story told in the South American High Soap style, of shouting lines, emotions clearly on display, nothing nuanced when it can be spelled out. Jodorowsky throws in some épater le bourgeois shock scenes – mother lifting her skirts and pissing all over father to save his life – has his extras all dressed in masks, in the style of a mummer’s play, and so on. If you don’t understand it you’re not smart enough, is the idea – a classic attack strategy of the 1960s avant garde (whose supporters would, using this argument, defend any old tat by Fellini or Buñuel, to both of whom Jodorowsky owes a debt). Really, under all the flummery and distancing effects and so on, it’s the story of being Jewish in a town full of gentiles, with a tough, essentially insane dad and a soft, airy-fairy mum, the old Jodorowsky clearly seeing himself as a synthesis of the two. The man himself, dressed in a white suit, turns up as a guardian angel figure guiding his younger self at key moments, and the great man’s own son plays his father. A nice Freudian touch.

The Dance of Reality – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Tribe (Metrodome, cert 18)

Now this is a hard sell – a Ukrainian drama in sign language, no subtitles, no nothing – but a worthwhile one, I promise you. And it works because this film following a new arrival into a tough residential school for the deaf deals either in matters so mundane (our guy arrives and is sent to the principal’s office, is assigned a bunk in a room, meets the usual school stereotypes), or so brutally direct (sex, violence and crime, in a nutshell) that we’re never in any doubt as to what’s going on. And the teenage modus operandi on display is familiar – unlike the one you often encounter in US high school movies, which seem to exist in a hyperventilating vacuum (if such a thing is possible). By which I mean that the unnamed protagonist Sergey (I’m sure he is named in sign language, but as I say…) is soon involved in the business of renting out the vaginas of two of the school’s more attractive girls to lorry drivers down at the local truckers’ stop. And finding himself drawn to one of them… the girls, not the drivers. It does not end well. In fact it all ends so badly that this film is likely to stay with you for a long time. On the way it fully justifies its reception at Cannes, where it won the Critics Week Grand Prize, one of many, many festival wins. And of note is the way that writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky subtly extends certain scenes as a concession to the non-deaf. And the way that his locked camera is used as a pitiless unblinking eye. It’s all a bit dour for some tastes, maybe (OK, mine, I admit, though I grant you that not all films can or should be Pitch Perfect) but remarkable in conception, storytelling and execution – the acting alone, by a cast of deaf first-timers, makes it worth a few of your hard-earned.

The Tribe (aka Plemya) – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The Treatment (Peccadillo, cert 18)

The Treatment has been termed Belgian Nordic Noir, because of its dark looks. But it’s much more a standard British policier in storyline and character – troubled cop on the murder trail, most obvious suspect a red herring, jockish camaraderie at work, and all that. What sets it apart and made it very difficult even to get its 18 certificate is its subject matter – the abduction, sexual torturing and murder of young children. Geert von Rampelberg, of Cordon fame, is the too-tortured cop, a man whose own brother’s abduction and murder as a child continues to haunt him – as if we might not already be sympathetic to the plight of abused innocents. And director Hans Herbots ramps up the angst still further by placing this cop, as he works his way through a series of sweaty suspects with poor haircuts, in dark locations illuminated with stabs of light. It’s effective, as is Rampelberg, and the case itself really catches the attention, and the breath at times. But the form itself is so tremendously familiar that it constantly intrudes on the subject matter, which Herbots feels compelled to amplify still further, as if it weren’t sordid enough. He knows…

The Treatment – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Canal (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)

I’ll admit that I watched this Irish horror film because Antonia Campbell Hughes was in it, so impressive in Kelly + Victor, that I’m now something of a groupie for those saucer eyes and that voice – little girl meets one of Satan’s more insinuating angels. However, slight disappointment, she’s not in this film nearly enough. Is merely the slightly lovestruck office colleague of its star, Rupert Evans, who plays the Dublin film archivist who goes ape one night when he discovers that his entirely hot wife (Hannah Hoekstra) is boning the stud (Carl Shaaban) he spotted flirting with her at a party they were both attending. “Just a client,” she says, pacifying him. And shortly afterwards she is dead. But was it Evans, or was it a spirit presence he encountered at a Trainspotting-style shit-besmeared public toilet on the canal towpath on the way home? Or is it something to do with a sinister (and Sinister) series of characters he’s seen on an old film he’s been cataloguing at work? Why two possible sources of woooo? To obscure the fact that this is the old “is he going mad or is the supernatural at work?” plot. This is a wee film with a deliberately 1960s flavour, with Evans the cutout handsome-but-dumb hero/sap, and Steve Oram as the copper investigating the woman’s death, his full range of sarcasm put to fine use (“It’s the husband… always the husband,” he tells the grieving man, with a half-smirk). It’s not It Follows or The Babadook, but Ivan Kavanagh’s film has something of their sense of accumulating dread, is a fine exercise in an unfashionable style of horror, with a cast who are perfect as the types they are meant to be, and its atmosphere is dark, moody and does a lot to hide the fact that the film probably didn’t cost very much to make. Nice work.

The Canal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil Wears Prada

Women in black: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt

 

The sort of film that has an inbuilt media audience – women’s magazines – who will receive it with the same lack of scrutiny as they treat each launch of a new beauty product, The Devil Wears Prada is a clever title halfway towards being a clever film. It’s adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna from Lauren Weisberger’s chick-lit novel, and since Weisberger’s spent some time working at American Vogue as editor Anna Wintour’s assistant we don’t have to look too far for its inspiration. Anne Hathaway plays the simpering Weisberger avatar, an intern/newbie at a fashion magazine not unadjacent to Vogue. And Meryl Streep is also clearly styled on the fashion bible’s redoubtable editor, who isn’t nicknamed “Nuclear” Wintour for nothing, a woman whose helmet-haired pronouncements make and break careers both inside the magazine and out in the big designer-y world.

So far, so frightening. Getting the best of it is Emily Blunt, playing the posh English cow who guards the boss (and her own job) like a hound at the gates of hell. Stanley Tucci, meanwhile, puts in another of those amazingly camp performance he seems to be able to pull out of nowhere and provides an otherwise slightly absent beating heart as the magazine’s fashion stylist. The plot? Hathaway cowed, gulled, at bay, crossing fashionista swords with Blunt, shrinking in awe at Streep’s every utterance, consoled by Tucci, rinse and repeat. There’s more meat on a supermodel, but – as with the fashion world – what is on offer looks tasty enough. Structured like a fashion mag, it’s a case of one page of substance followed by ten pages of name-dropping, product placement and status-shaming. In the old-media world these are called advertisements. However, as readers of fashion magazines will tell you, the advertisements are every bit as much part of the experience as the editorial. And in among all this glossy stuff is a nub of something delicious, a drama that teases us about which way it’s going to go. Is this Cinderella (Hathaway blossoming and going to the ball)? Or a slo-mo Faust (Hathaway selling her soul for a gaudy bauble)? Not quite sharp or angry enough to be a satire, it’s clearly aimed at people who know their Jimmy Choo from their Dolce and Gabbana (yes, that’s an easy one) and don’t, unlike me, tend to buy their clothes on eBay.

 

The Devil Wears Prada – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Gypo

Chloe Sirene, Pauline McLynn and Rula Lenska in Gypo

 

 

Gypo is a Dogme film, the 37th made according to the strictures of the protocol dreamt up by a group of Scandinavian film-makers, including Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, in 1995. Naturalism is the stated idea, but Dogme could also be seen as an extension of Ikea flatpack design principles into film-making, or those of no-smells, no-bells Nordic Protestantism, or the “form follows function” of the Bauhaus, or fellow Scandinavian Carl Theodor Dreyer’s spare aesthetic. Take your pick.

What’s unusual about Gypo is that it is a British film, a kitchen-sinker set in the bleak coastal town of Margate. It tells the story from three different angles of a mother/daughter pair of Romany refugees interacting with a British family, in what used to be called the Rashomon style. What truth? Whose truth?

Key among these viewpoints are those of a married couple – played with daggy realism by Pauline McLynn and Paul McGann. And how their stalled, frustrated relationship is put under strain by Tasha (Chloe Sirene), the younger of the Romany women (Rula Lenska plays the other one, the mother). If I mention that Sirene is around 22 and pretty and that McGann is around 45… the dots barely need joining up.

McGann and McLynn both have form – he as a solid jobbing actor on TV and various films who seems to have deliberately steered himself away from the big time every time his career has headed that way; McLynn is best known for playing the tea-dispensing housekeeper Mrs Doyle in the TV series Father Ted. Sirene I’ve never seen before, and I was surprised to see she’s a London girl, not an east European. She’s good.

We’re in capable hands, in other words. Director Jan Dunn clearly inspires confidence – this is her feature debut – and it’s repaid by performances of an intensity that fits a story about relationships being subjected to extreme stress-testing and lives teetering on the brink of great change. For McGann’s angry, racist Paul it’s shit or bust time in a career that’s run aground; for McLynn’s Helen it’s the chance to break free of a life of drudgery with a thankless husband; for Sirene it’s altogether more positive – she’s younger and got more time to play with. But, waiting for a British passport, she’s in limbo like the other two.

Dunn seems determined to stick to the Dogme dogma. Do other directors really not edit out or redo fluffed lines? There are a couple. And there’s the suspicion that the Dogme edicts are beginning to stifle rather than liberate – surely not the guiding idea behind that original 1995 manifesto.

But Dunn, McGann, McLynn and Sirene rise above these limitations. At first it looks as if we’re in for one of those dour, ranting British realist films with a joyless yet sentimental depiction of working class life – “we woz poor but we woz ’appy” – but that’s not what Dunn delivers. And as the McLynn/McGann relationship breaks down and McGann turns up the cold contempt – and doesn’t he do it well? – Dunn also allays the fear that she’s going to go redemptive, Billy Elliott style.

Gypo doesn’t take the easy way out. It’s an expertly made, brilliantly played and deeply unpleasant drama that sticks to its guns. In the current climate that’s highly refreshing.

 

Gypo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

 

7 September 2015-09-07

Keanu Reeves in John Wick


Out This Week



John Wick (Warner, cert 15)

Like some kind of undead film star, Keanu Reeves manages magnificent returns every few years – Speed, The Matrix and now John Wick, a super-sleek bit of badass comic-book adaptation relying heavily on Reeves’s blank persona (no one does it better) for much of its appeal. He plays a retired hitman so frightening that, we’re shown, even incredibly hard hardmen blench when they hear he’s on the warpath – after some damn fool goes and kills the pet dog that was the only reminder of his dead wife. And that’s all you need to know about the plot.

The screenplay is incredibly smart, a collection of simple scenes of Wick in deadly pursuit bolted together with ruthless efficiency, and some neat little ideas, such as the club for people like Wick – where hitmen, assassins and bad guys and gals of every stripe can hang out without fear of being offed. And Reeves is very good too at suggesting that Wick is past his best, that muscle memory is performing tasks that the body isn’t quite up to.

After a while directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch abandon all sham and admit they really want to make a 1980s movie – out come the grinding metal guitars and overhead shots of highrise buildings, technology is fetishised and an implacable Terminator-like foe (Willem Dafoe) arrives on the scene. But there are also throwbacks to the 1940s in femme fatale Adrianne Palicki, whose jaguar eyes are as dangerous as any weapon. Keanu gets one big speech, in which he explains just why he’s so angry. It’s a Clint Eastwood “make my day” kind of thing. And both he, and it, are terrible. Can’t wait for the sequel.

John Wick – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Pitch Perfect 2 (Universal, cert 12)

I didn’t expect to like Pitch Perfect 1. But even though I did, I wasn’t expecting to like this unnecessary sequel. But I did too.

It opts for a chapter one, page one version of the sequel – do the same film again – with our plucky a cappella singers the Barden Bellas now setting out on an another impossible quest, once again against insuperable foes, in a classic underdog story with a classic solution.

Why it works is because it works hard at making it work – right from the opening gag about Rebel Wilson’s vagina being flashed to President Obama at some prestigious soiree where the Bellas are performing, the event that takes the Bellas from hero to zero and allows the film to start climbing again.

After that, new director Elizabeth Banks just keeps piling it on – the witty interchanges between the two airhead commentators at a cappella competitions (played, again, by Banks herself, and John Michael Higgins, who gets the film’s best lines), the side stories of Anna Kendrick working as an intern at a vastly up-itself record company run by a total dick, and never over-extended forays into territory which might make for a second sequel, such as the introduction of new girl Hailee Steinfeld, and the revelation that there’s a Barden Bellas alumna group of mom singers (another spin-off?).

Anna Kendrick is just a touch astringent, which might help combat the potential sugar rush, Rebel Wilson is a touch underused, and the whole thing is strikingly unblack – one token black lesbian in the group, who clearly can sing, barely gets enough lines to establish that she is a lesbian, or even black. This in a film relying heavily on black culture for music content – Tina Turner, Beyonce, Montell Jordan.

But for all that it has zip and jokes, which wouldn’t work without the songs and the performances, which are genuinely, hairs-on-the-neck good, especially those of the Bardens’ great rivals, Das Sound Machine, a German a cappella outfit who sing Muse’s Uprising like a cross between Kraftwerk and a unit of Stormtroopers. Never forget, eh.

Pitch Perfect 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


A Royal Night Out (Lionsgate, cert 12)

The supposedly true story goes that on VE night in 1945, young Princess Elizabeth crept out and joined the celebrating hordes of Londoners for a night of revelry, possibly the only time in her life when she’d have been able to do such a thing incognito.

So what went down that night? This comedy, on one bended knee, deferential to the point of “oh FFS”, imagines it for us. The tone is set early on by Rupert Everett, playing George VI as a fruity Prince Charles, all strangled larynx and twisted brows, a pantomime turn not at all matched by Emily Watson, who seems keener on nailing the Queen Mum (if that doesn’t sound totally wrong) and manages it.

But the action’s not with them, it’s with young princesses Lilibet (Liz’s pet name) and Margaret – casting here reversing reality by having the prettier Sarah Gadon playing the future queen, Bel Powley her naughty sister.

It’s very much a case of “oh crikey”, “I say”, “how jolly decent of you”, “what larks” and all that, as the two young women are separated and end up in different parts of London, with Margaret getting the comedy knockabout stuff in Soho with tarts and spivs, Liz getting a more dignified quasi-romantic story with Jack Reynor, as an angry, possibly AWoL soldier with pronounced republican tendencies.

Like all similarly-themed films since The Queen, it very much asserts the natural superiority of royalty, emphasises the burden of power and the sacrifice of duty, and even tries the old “they’re a lot more democratically inclined than we give them credit for” line.

Though there seems no reason for its existence, other than as a nice bit of heritage film-making practice for director Julian Jarrold (an old TV hand who also directed Kinky Boots), it’s pleasant enough, funny enough and energetic enough, and Sarah Gadon is really rather spiffing as the future queen. Members of the Workers Revolutionary Party might want to give it a miss.

A Royal Night Out – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Rosewater (The Works, cert 15)

People who think that movies need to be more like real life need to tread carefully. Take Rosewater, the debut film by Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show fame. It’s clearly angry and has an important focus, but it’s meek and underwhelming in effect. Perhaps because it’s closer to real life, and liberties have not been taken with the truth, in the same way that they were with its subject.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays the Iranian-born Newsweek reporter who was arrested after Iran’s Amadinejad v Mousavi elections in 2009 and held prisoner for 118 days while he was grilled, blindfolded, about the “spying” he was doing for the West. His captors were probably just razzing him and his paymasters – we don’t know.

As Maziar Bahari, Bernal is very convincing, playing a weak everyman who just wants to get out alive, and is haunted by the spirits of two members of his family – the father (Haluk Bilginer) tortured in the same prison by the Shah’s men for being a communist; the sister (Golshifteh Farahani) who is root and branch the political firebrand he isn’t.

Doing the dirty work is Kim Bodnia as Javadi, a torturer who smells of rose water and who might be less of a brute beneath the fragrance, or more. Bahari should be the emotional focus of this film, but his character moves not one iota – maybe that’s the way it was in real life too, but it’s no excuse –  throwing our hopes onto the bullet-headed Javadi for some psychological development… a story, in other words. Are we watching a The Lives of Others tale of the jailer who realises he’s the one really in prison? Sadly, just as this particular dramatic kite starts to fly, Stewart pulls it back to earth, and treats us to some late-event comedy, as Bahari realises he can explain all his mysterious diary dates as visits for a “special massage”. And isn’t the frustrated jailer interested in that? Here, Stewart is essentially insisting that the main course is out of the way, so we can all kick back and have a bit of fun. But nothing has happened. And nothing is what continues to happen right to the end of this strangely drama-free film. Which is presumably why, at someone’s insistence, Stewart inserts a sonorous “they cannot win” epilogue voiceover at the end, making noises about the essential moral weakness at the heart of dictatorships. It’s the film in microcosm, which asserts rather than demonstrates.

Rosewater – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Bait (Metrodome, cert 18)

A small, TV level shocker made by Dominic Brunt, who some people will know as the guy who plays Paddy Kirk in the long running British soap Emmerdale. If not, then get to know him now. Because Brunt is building a nice, niche second career, if Bait (previously known as The Taking) is evidence. I haven’t seen his previous film, a zombie allegory called Before Dawn, but have heard good things.

But to this film… a couple of struggling women running a cafe in a windy market are charmed when a smalltime local venture capitalist offers to lend them the money to get a shop and expand. Except he isn’t the genial philanthropist he appears, and suddenly the string of brutal little episodes with which Brunt has been larding this hitherto fairly soapy narrative begin to make sense. The ostensibly meek Jeremy is a loan shark of psychopathic persuasion who likes to bleed his clients dry. And off we go on a luge of increasing tension – the women try to bank left, Jeremy is already there; they slalom right, ditto. When the money runs out, they offer him sex. When that’s no good… well, that’s the finale right there.

There are some digressions into family life which Brunt uses to try and anchor the film to some recognisable reality, and to act as a reference point for when things get tasty later one… which they do.

The film isn’t perfect, with Brunt missing a couple of opportunities to build tension, but Victoria Smurfit is rather fine as the brassy blonde Bex and Joanne Mitchell is too, as her mousier, more sensible friend Dawn. But it’s Jonathan Slinger who makes it compelling, with a performance of extended sleaze which morphs nicely into a hyperbolic Freddie Krueger-like turn, eventually shifting Bait from psychodrama to a full-on head-slammed-in-the-door, this-fucker-will-not-die climax which involves both women stripping down to their scanties for no reason whatsoever. Big genre winks all round.

Bait – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Catch Me Daddy (StudioCanal, cert 15)

An out-and-out racist white guy (Barry Nunney) and his slobby, cokehead older partner (Gary Lewis) join forces with four Asian guys to find and retrieve Laila, the sister of one of them, who has run off with her white boyfriend, Aaron. The kids are in love, but the family’s honour has been besmirched. Compromise is impossible.

Director/co-writer Daniel Wolfe plays these two groups off against each other – the lovey-dovey kids hoping they can make a go of things and the increasingly angry guys on their tail. On both sides characters are powerfully sketched – Laila works at a hairdresser’s sweeping up, likes milkshakes made with Milky Way and Fizz Wiz, dances to Patti Smith’s Horses; Barry the racist likes to piss on his hands before meeting the Asian guys and shaking theirs. The Asians? Not so much character detail.

Catch Me Daddy is a powerful subject analysed in a one-sided way. What is this “honour”? Why is it important to this family? We never learn. The love of Aaron and Laila – we get plenty of that. We even get the stirrings of conscience from coke-addled Tony, who finally steps up when it dawns on him what the brutal Asian foursome’s agenda really is.

Wolfe climaxes the film halfway through with a shocking death and then struggles to pick up the tension again, while highly sought-after cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, Philomena) aims for a dark oppressive look. That was Ryan’s intention, I’m sure, but a “can’t someone switch a light on?” thought kept bobbing into my head as I strained to see what was going on, especially as a chase developed which saw runaways and pursuers charging about on the Yorkshire moors in cars.

This film is well made and very well acted, but the premature climax is a problem, and really, if everyone is being honest, it’s a knockabout horror movie – the Muslims as a kind of Texas Chain Saw kind of family – not a serious exploration of hot-button social themes.

Catch Me Daddy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2015