26 October 2015-10-26

Jacir Eid and Hussein Salameh in Theeb (aka Wolf)


Out This Week


Theeb (New Wave, cert 12)

Jordan’s contender for this year’s Best Foreign language Oscar is, somewhat unexpectedly, an old school adventure story, the sort of thing Rider Haggard would recognise, set in a Lawrence of Arabia desert and starring Jacir Eid as a Bedouin kid. Eid is an untrained actor, as are most if not all of the excellent cast – goodies and baddies – and the plot is a basic dash across the desert, away from bad guys and towards a well which a floppy-haired English interloper wants to visit, for reasons probably nefarious. A sealed box provides a bit of a Maguffin, the cinematography knows that David Lean has been here before and so contents itself with sweeping up around the edges, and the soundtrack moves often into a lush, slow Brahms/Wagner territory as Theeb is subjected to most of the standard threats of the genre – sun, dehydration and bandits, all beautifully folded together to produce a drama of escalating tension. Adding a hint of spice is the First World War lurking in the background, the disintegration of the Ottoman empire and the arrival of the railway, a disruptive technology which has driven previously upstanding Bedouin men to the dark side. Will this cunning film win the Academy Award? Who can tell, though the Foreign language Oscar is generally the only one where absurd politics, tokenist voting and outright fantasy aren’t in the driving seat, and a great film generally wins. This could do it.

Theeb – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Terminator Genisys (Paramount, cert 12)

We should have guessed, when Arnie started doing all that social media PR before the launch of Terminator Genisys – playing a living waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s, tweeting about cycling around London – that the film sucked. Lacking any clear idea what it should be about, the fifth in the series goes for a multiverse approach, adding to the concepts we’re familiar with in the previous films (no, let’s be honest, the first two films) – in other words the awakening of Skynet and its attempt to secure its present (ie our future) by going back into the past (our present) and removing John Connor from the equation. Arnold Schwarzenegger is of course back, as both an old cyborg and a CG-airbrushed more recent arrival from a different future, and the line “I’m old, not obsolete” is bandied about quite a lot, in the hope it might become some sort of ironic catchphrase. Emilia Clarke is the best thing in the film, glowering fiercely as Sarah Connor and catching Linda Hamilton’s roid-rage attitude. Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke and JK Simmons (an Oscar last year, now back at work as usual like an “it won’t change me” lottery winner) are all thrown into the blender along with visits to the years 1984, 1997 and 2017 and there are a lot of the sort of special effects which were impressive when we were still impressed by special effects. A couple of chase sequences apart, it’s a lifeless, soulless, confusing and outright dull film, the sort of thing that might well indeed have been created by some entity with a titanium skeleton and not much stretched over it. As a couple of episodes of the Sarah Connor Chronicles, it might have passed muster.

Terminator Genisys – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Spy (Fox, cert 15)

Having done Bridesmaids and The Heat together, writer/director Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy finally put her in sole starring position in a spy spoof that would be a lot funnier if it just acknowledged that Mike Myers has been here/done this and just recycled Austin Powers’ jokes instead. In fact it does, at times, because isn’t that little sketch about McCarthy being fitted out with fiendish spy gadgets – most of them disguised as embarrassing haemorrhoid preparations – not an indirect  lift of the Powers’ penis pump gag? But, first things second, the plot being that McCarthy is the backroom wonk forced out into the world of derring-do when suave Bond-like field operative Jude Law is killed. Along for a shadowy ride is disavowed agent Jason Statham – playing an absurd version of his normal bullet-headed “you twot, what a pair of vaginas” character in a parody so close that you can sense he’s slightly concerned it’ll tarnish Brand Stath. He’s very funny, in fact, and provides the film with its best moments, when they should by rights have gone to McCarthy, whose ability to riff profane feels tacked on here. Other flavours in this enjoyable if non-essential comedy are Miranda Hart doing her latterday Margaret Rutherford act of dithering and winking to the camera, Rose Byrne as an evil and  hot Bulgarian villainess, Bobby Cannavale as a weapons hungry terrorist, Peter Serafinowicz as a randy Italian who’s probably got a “ciao bella” tattoo on his penis, Allison Janney as a funny spin on Joan Allen’s woman-with-balls character in the Bourne films. Everyone, in other words, is an expert at what they do. The result, however, just kind of lies there, a touch limp, as if no one involved had noticed that spy films already spoof themselves.

Spy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Pasolini (BFI, cert 18)

Having watched director Abel Ferrara do great things with little more than a single camera and two actors in his Dominic Strauss-Khan take-down, Welcome to New York, I had great expectations of Pasolini. Both men, Ferrara and Pasolini, are ripe for revival (with Ferrara, in his mid-60s, still young enough to make more classic films, if he wants to). So, yes, that is the sound of a gigantic “But” and a general sense of disappointment wheeling into view, because Pasolini doesn’t quite seem to know what it’s there for. Is it a story about an Italian artist, Catholic by birth and left wing by enculturation, plotting his next artistic move after the heady 1960s have evaporated into the arid 1970s? Or is it the story of a gay man in a stridently heterosexual society who gets beaten to death on the beach after taking one cruise-by assignation too many? Ferrara brings up Pasolini’s politics, and hence his art, only to use them as a kind of window-dressing, leaving us outside staring in at a film-maker with a unique and still influential style. So, instead, mostly we get the man, and in the shape of Willem Dafoe, an actor probably as good as you’re going to get as Pasolini, a sleek, fastidious if austere intellectual with a lively bullshit detector and an aversion to flattery. Ferrara’s most interesting, though not successful experiment, is to construct a kind of homage to Pasolini’s style of film-making inside the film, and cast Pasolini’s real-life former lover, Ninetto Davoli, as middle aged man – a Pasolini avatar – engaging in some bacchanalian celebration in which the “gays and the lesbians come together and they procreate their race” – love the typically wonky translation. All you’d need is a leggy Arab lad and golden dildo and you’d have the full fondue. Though it doesn’t really work, this is a small but beautifully crafted film, shot in stygian browns, a filigree work that’s quite lovely in spite of its  sepulchral tone. And for that, and Ferrara’s evident renaissance, let’s give thanks.

Pasolini – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Death of a Gentleman (Spectrum, cert E)

There are two films inside this documentary by bloggers Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber. One is the film the cricket enthusiasts set out to make, about the five day “Test” game and how it’s being tested itself by the arrival of the more baseball-like 20-20 game. Then there’s the film that eventually started to emerge – about a cabal inside international cricket’s governing body apparently trying to kill the five-day game as part of a covert plan to take control of international cricket for financial gain. What Collins and Kimber should have done, when they realised they had this bigger story on their hands, is sat down and worked out whether Film A and Film B were compatible. In tougher, kill-your-babies mode they probably would have jettisoned all the material about Ed Cowan, the upcoming Australian cricketer who says “Test cricket, for me, is the game” (Film A) and instead focused more on the deliberate suffocation of the game (Film B). On this tack, we get quite a bit on dubious Giles Clarke of the English Cricket Board, and on oleaginous N Srinivasan, the cement magnate at the top of India’s cricketing board of control. But really we need more about the murky machinations of recent years, and which have only redoubled since the International Cricket Council moved its headquarters to Dubai – that greensward emirate. Collins and Kimber, in late reveals, tell us that most of the national cricketing countries of the world are denied financial support by the cash-rich ICC . And that China (where cricket is extremely popular, perhaps surprisingly) gets next to no ICC funding to develop the game. The current arrangements are the result of some stitch-up between bad guys England, Australia and India, we’re told, in what looks like some Freudian late-colonial fever dream with reach-around benefits. Whether you agree with me about film B (corruption) over film A (sad decline), what we have here is a very overstuffed documentary. However, whichever way you slice it, the stink is unmistakable. Football, it seems, isn’t the only sport rotten from the top down.

Death of a Gentleman – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Barely Lethal (Signature, cert 12)

Something isn’t quite right about Barely Lethal, starting with a title suggesting it’s aimed at internet porn-surfers, when in fact it’s a high school movie working the John Hughes Breakfast Club angle, with a bit of Mean Girls referencing thrown in for the purpose of keeping things slightly up to date. Inching into Jennifer Lawrence/Shailene Woodley action-heroine territory is Hailee Steinfeld, as a teenage ninja who gives up tutelage under Samuel L Jackson and instead tries to make a go of it as a normal girl at a white-sliced high school. Cue “being a regular teen is harder than being a badass assassin” jokes. The film is well scripted, with bags of smart lines that play to and against the expectations of this sort of thing – jocks and nerds, embarrassing sex-talking dads, rake-thin bitches – given fresh impetus by the super-assassin twist. If only the direction were as nimble – there’s a spam hand at work in Kyle Newman, who should either study hard (and quickly) or get out and do something different.

Barely Lethal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Enchanted Kingdom (Universal, cert E)

There are two ways to go for a nature documentary aimed specifically at people who aren’t interested in nature documentaries. One is the approach best seen in 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, which piles on image after image in an attempt to arrive at a bliss overload – wow, isn’t the planet amazing! The other is the old Disney tactic of turning animals into human stand-ins with a “this cute little fella” voiceover. In Enchanted Kingdom, a BBC documentary narrated by Idris Elba in Beneficent Oz mode, there seems to be a determination to do a bit of both. As the camera roams restlessly from the bottom of the African ocean to the top of Mount Kenya, we are treated to image after spectacular image, with Elba occasionally dropping the omnipotence to make a joke about a wildebeest sniffing a fellow animal’s bum. Sections of the film could be pulled out and used as five-minute demonstrations of the BBC’s amazing skill at this sort of thing – those strange mountain plants that wrap up warm as the freezing night air arrives, then unzip in the morning as the tropical sun comes up; that crocodile lying 99 per cent submerged, an eyeball away from a drinking wildebeest. Personally, I wanted more facts and less of the Disney-esque soundtrack, and there is no real overarching story, no connection between the barracuda in the ocean and the sidewinder snake in the desert, apart from the African setting. Like I said, a nature doc for people who don’t do nature docs, though the footage, the footage…

Enchanted Kingdom – Watch it/buy it at Amazon






© Steve Morrissey 2015





19 October 2015-10-19

Michael Fassbender shaves Kodi Smit-McPhee in Slow West


Out This Week


Slow West (Lionsgate, cert 15)

One of the best westerns for some time, Slow West plays with the tropes of the pulp magazines that first connected the Old West with a reading public – the glamour, the danger, the hardship and the austere beauty are all here in Scotsman John Maclean’s really rather extraordinary feature debut. It’s framed like an odd-couple road movie, with Kodi Smit-McPhee as a naive, priggish kid following Rose, his one true love (Caren Pistorius, a star), from Scotland across the ocean to America, and then across the increasingly wild badlands. Joining him on the journey is Michael Fassbender as a bounty hunter – there’s a price on Rose’s head, though the youngster doesn’t know it – and following these two, like scavenging beasts, is a gang of properly bad guys, led by a piss-and-vinegar Ben Mendelsohn in a gigantic buffalo-skin coat. Fassbender plays the mercenary-but-decent Silas as 50 per cent Clint Eastwood, and director Maclean borrows that sense of leanness from Eastwood too, and his picture of a down-at-heel, nailed-together, planks-and-bottles Wild West could almost be lifted from High Plains Drifter, though Robbie Ryan’s cinematography adds an extra sparkle. If it wanders towards cliché, that’s because it’s meant to, Maclean enlivening a campfire singalong with a smattering of off-screen orchestra as if to say “Back atcha”. He’s not just smart, but an excellent builder of tension, the entire film in fact one long slow build towards a finale that manages to be gruesome, funny, cathartic and beautiful all at the same time. Yup, unmissable.

Slow West – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Cop Car (Universal, cert 15)

This elegant, gripping thriller is pretty much a three-hander. On one side there’s a couple of runaway kids – perhaps 11-years-old – who find a cop car which appears to have been abandoned. Tentatively they play around in it, then start it, then drive it away down the highway – we’re in the middle of rural nowhere so no one stops them. On the other is Kevin Bacon, sporting a bad-man’s moustache, as the bad cop whose car contains… well, that would be telling. The rest of the film cats-and-mouses between the two parties, the impossibly naive kids who touchingly think they’re grown-up because they’re in this car, and the cop trying to do his best not to let on to his colleagues that he’s lost his car, while trying to find the kids and get the car back, before they discover what it is that the car contains. Diners and backroads, homesteads and wide open spaces, director Jon Watts dredges everything in Americana, and makes much of the kids’ fragility, as they play, in heart-in-mouth scenes, with the guns, defibrillators and other potentially lethal paraphernalia you tend to find in a cop car. It’s a high-concept B movie of real distinction, with its own languid pace and a discordant jazz-drone soundtrack suggesting everything’s a little off kilter, and so you nod indulgently it as it builds towards an OK Corral ending that’s a little fanciful, a touch overwrought and very bloody.

Cop Car – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Knock Knock (EV, cert 18)

Eli Roth’s remake of the 1977 cult film Death Game stars Keanu Reeves as a uxorious husband whose gorgeous wife and kids go away for the weekend, leaving the successful architect alone to finish some swish project in his fabulously appointed home. That evening, in the pouring rain, two wet, cold (and hot) girls knock on the door in a state of distress. Being the gent, Keanu invites them in. And being wicked minxes, the girls seduce him. Well what middle aged man of 43 (ahem) could resist? I say 1977, but there’s a lot more 1967 in Roth’s version of events – by the 1970s protagonists in films were always guilty; Keanu, by contrast, is simply an innocent man led astray by his dick. Roth also piles on the Hammer horror thunder and lightning here and there, to suggest higher powers (again, more 60s than 70s), though Roth insists the time is right here in the twentyteens with protests-too-much references to Uber and iPads, Facebook and what have you. Keanu is fabulous as the initially broad-minded guy who becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the girls’ increasingly sexual overtures (they say they’re 15, just one of a string of lies). He’s fabulous, too, as the man whose sexual urges finally sumo-flip him, Roth reminding us here of the sex/horror mash-up that was Motel. And Keanu’s fabulous again as the increasingly angry victim of the girls’ blackmail attempts/revenge plans. Why are they doing it? Roth inserts a line about Keanu being from “1% land” – more updating overload. If you want a horror film with the zeitgeist hardwired, go elsewhere. But Knock Knock works well as a fun, nasty exercise in victim-baiting, and in Keanu Reeves Roth has an actor always at his best when he’s playing back-to-the-wall characters.

Knock Knock – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Match (Praslin, cert 15)

And yet another small, tight film with a tiny cast. This time there are just three players – Carla Gugino, Matthew Lillard and Patrick Stewart, the first two playing a woman and her husband interviewing the latter, a New York dance teacher at the end of a seriously successful career. For her PhD, she says. This is not at all true, and as the spoilerish reveal arrives – once the characters have loosened up with booze and weed – the film shifts into a discussion of 1960s morality, or lack thereof. It seems that Stewart had a lot of sex back then, both straight and gay, and has left behind a certain amount of damage. More than this I cannot say. What I can say is that the theatrical origins of this story weigh heavy on it for a while, until things start to take off about halfway through. At this point I suddenly understood the point of Gugino, looking much younger and more attractive than she did in San Andreas, where she was required to act not only against a younger, rackier Alexandra Daddario, but also against a faceful of Botox. Here, she holds her own against Stewart, which is an achievement considering he’s playing a booming, flamboyant creature of the stage. More surprising, maybe, is Lillard, who starts quietly as a character on the sidelines but slides more towards centre stage as the film’s big reveal arrives – you can guess what it is already, I’ll bet. Here, the entire thing catches fire, melodramatically, for sure, but on fire it most surely is.

Match – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Overnight (Universal, cert 15)

Yet another tiny film. Only four people in this one, Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as an uptight married couple who have just moved to LA. Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche as the effusively friendly couple who befriend them so fulsomely that we immediately know something is up. So, Scott and Schilling turn up for dinner, with their kid in tow, and are first subjected to hospitality of an epic sort, in a house that marks Schwartzman and Godrèche out as super-successful, before the guests are invited to let their kid sleep over, and are then plied with booze and drugs. And thus begins a long night of through-the-fingers embarrassment – mostly related to matters sexual – which comes across as if Abigail’s Party had been crossed with the Danish comedy Klown. Or, put another way, as if Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice had been a) funny and b) sexy. And if none of those references mean anything to you, just laugh at the man with the big penis and the man with the small penis. Guess which is which?

The Overnight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Friday Download: The Movie (Spirit, cert PG)

Friday Download is a British TV show about a gang of cool kids who do cool stuff – such as appear in a British TV show. Think The Monkees for its knockabout and self-referential attitude and much of its humour. For this spin-off movie, the gang go on holiday – as is written in movie spin-off lore – but to the Downloaders’ credit, they don’t head off to sunny climes, as The Inbetweeners did. Instead it’s all aboard a rickety old van for a trip to a big old house, which is of course haunted. A live-action Scooby Doo is the result, with the same sort of genial ramshackle energy, some quite good jokes (writer Toby Davies has worked with Mitchell and Webb, hence a brief cameo by David Mitchell), some rather fine if cheap special effects and a couple of half OK songs by The Vamps and various members of the crew. It’s not for me, obviously, and if you’re a girl who’s yet to have that special talk with your mum, it might just be for you. Though mum might worry it’s a bit too frightening for you, like she’s got any idea.

Friday Download: The Movie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Soaked in Bleach (Platform, cert E)

Did Courtney Love kill Kurt Cobain? Let’s put that another, slightly less litigious way. Did Love know more was afoot than she was letting on when Kurt Cobain was announced as missing a few days before he wound up dead, apparently from suicide? Tom Grant, the private eye Love hired to find him, is convinced she was a lot more involved than she says, and is the foundations, walls and roof of Benjamin Statler’s late-in-the-day documentary. In some not-awful drama-doc footage, and assisted greatly by the recordings of telephone conversations with Love and most particularly with her close ally and music attorney Rosemary Carroll – which Grant made when he started to have his suspicions – we get the official story (the suicidally inclined Cobain escapes from rehab, buys a gun and a load of heroin, then heads off to a remote cabin, barricades himself in, takes loads of skag and shoots himself). In slightly ramshackle fashion, and without at any point making the throughline as clear as I have just there, the film then, with some (though not enough, if I’m being just) forensic detail, takes apart that order of events. We discover that Kurt was neither personally suicidal, nor did he come from a family of suicidal uncles, as is often suggested, not least by Courtney Love. A barrage of doctors stand up to point out that no one takes that large an amount of heroin and then shoots themself. The position of the suicide weapon seems all wrong. The cabin wasn’t barricaded. The suicide note seems forged. And so on. If you’re not totally convinced by the end, as I wasn’t – because Grant and Statler’s contentions are hardly given a thorough stress-testing – there’s certainly a lot of chin-strokey material to give pause. More than pause, in fact. And the fact that Kurt seemed to be on the verge of divorcing Courtney – and that a pre-nuptial agreement they’d signed meant she’d get nothing – certainly doesn’t make her position look any better. Cui bono, as they say in Latin. Or, as we now say in English, follow the money.

Soaked in Bleach – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2015





12 October 2015-10-12

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in Mr Holmes


Out This Week



Mr Holmes (EOne, cert PG)

A bit of a something and nothing here, with Ian McKellen playing a crusty 90-something Sherlock Holmes coming to terms with the loss of his faculties, wrapping up an old unsolved case (in flashback) and putting his remaining wits in the service of cracking an even greater enigma – himself. McKellen has been here before, in Gods and Monsters, when he played Frankenstein director James Whale at the ignominious end of his life. And so has director Bill Condon, who also directed the 1998 film, and again proves himself to be a deft stylist of wipe-clean period drama – Holmes’s ancient house, his beautiful garden tricked out with beehives, the setting on the English South Coast, all of it is gorgeous to beyond an estate agent’s wet dream. Laura Linney is probably the biggest surprise. She’s so good as Holmes’s peasant-level skivvy – and mother of his last amanuensis, a mini-me Watson (Milo Parker) – that you forget she’s a native New Yorker and stop monitoring her softly rolling accent. It may be that the locations, the sets, the acting is the main thing to take away from Mr Holmes, but there’s also a gently subversive tug too, a dynamiting of the legend, calmly, slowly, with the pretty pictures and all the actorly fuss working as a kind of misdirection. Nothing and something.

Mr Holmes – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Jurassic World (Universal, cert 15)

“A Colin Trevorrow Film” it says proudly and in gigantic letters at the end of this latest slab of dino-action, as if Steven Spielberg weren’t pulling the strings in the background. It’s a playful acknowledgement by Trevorrow that he’s been a gun for hire, having only a few minutes ago been in charge of nothing bigger than the fabulous no-tech sci-fi slacker comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. And now… here he is with Jurassic World, a picture for anyone who wanted another Jurassic Park movie. Every aspect of it – its looks, its actors, its situations, relationships, dialogue, jeopardy, special effects, even colour grading – is consistent with the other films. Sure, there are differences. Here it’s Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard as the surly dino-wrangler and the wonky dinosaur theme park boss thrown together when a genetically modified creature escapes. And the bad guys are new ones too – Irrfan Khan as the megacapitalist owner of Isla Nublar, Vincent D’Onofrio as a redneck hunter with connections to the military. There are also clear advances in the technology too – most notably in the way the camera moves so nimbly around scenes in which computer generated dinosaurs and live-action humans are comped together remarkably (the style of the animation, rest assured, is still classic Jurassic Park). But they’re for the most part surface differences in a film which itself has been comped together from a trainspotterish checklist of Jurassic tick boxes. Trevorrow blows hard to get some of the small human details that made Safety Not Guaranteed (good name for this film too, obv) such a charmer, most of them coming from the wry observational mouth of Jake Johnson, whose moment is now surely upon us.

Jurassic World – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Buttercup Bill (Trinity, cert 18)

Buttercup Bill is a work of feverish Southern Gothic, tinged with Outsider Art naivety and fragrant with dabs of David Lynch. It stars Remy Bennett and Evan Louison as a brother and sister with a relationship so close that they’re surely at some point going to get down to it. What sort of brother and sister visit a lapdancing club together? Why aren’t the normal taboos in place? The answer is contained in the film, hinted at in the opening shots, pretty much completely divulged by the final scenes. And though there’s a tendency to say the same thing again and again, in lines often swallowed by Bennett (call it naturalism), Ryan Foregger’s cinematography drenches everything in gorgeousness – an achievement for a handheld film – and co-directors Bennett and Emilie Richard-Froozan build sexual and dramatic tension satisfyingly while little stabs of “authentic” music (blues, old soul, gospel) add a jangling counterpoint. It’s the first collaboration of these directors, also the first by new producing outfit Blonde to Black Pictures, the brainchild of Emma Comley and Sadie Frost. Well done, everybody.

Buttercup Bill – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Cooties (Universal, cert 15)

Cooties is a black comedy about kids at a primary school catching a disease from chickens and becoming murderously bloodthirsty and turning on their teachers – our heroes. It moves quickly and amusingly in its first, “set-up” half, then slows down a bit as it tries to turn this hapless harried faculty – including Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill and Leigh Whannell – into a crack team. I laughed a lot in the first half – at the idea of a superbrattish kid called Patriot, because he was born on 9/11; at Wood’s meek teacher deciding to be on first name terms with the kids, writing CLINT on the blackboard, and them shouting back “CUNT”; at the security guard outside watching the escalating mayhem through the haze of the psychedelic mushrooms he ingested just before things got squawkish. In part two I enjoyed Rainn Wilson as an angry blue-collar jock gradually becoming more likeable, though that’s a structural problem for the film, which also isn’t sure how to handle two unlikely heroes, Wood and Rainn. Most of all I liked that it tapped into a fear that must stalk teachers’ nightmares – that if the kids organised, they would be unstoppable. And I liked that the film acknowledged this threat properly – there are some seriously gruesome deaths visited upon the kids, who all deserve it.

Cooties – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Arms Drop (Dogwoof, cert E)

Originally titled Våbensmuglingen in Denmark – you don’t need Google Translate to see the words Weapon and Smuggling in there (though I did check) – this is a mostly English language documentary about a missionary called Niels Holck who, shocked at the West Bengal government’s atrocities against the Ananda Marga sect, in 1995 decided he was going to arm them. He contacts Peter Bleach, a British arms dealer with close connections to the British Secret Service, who arranges the shipment, Holck not realising that Bleach is keeping all the relevant authorities in the loop, and that he (Holck) is going to be arrested when he touches down in India after having made the arms drop. Where did Holck get the money from? We don’t know. Is Bleach quite who he says he is/was? We also don’t know. So when Holck goes on the run and Bleach instead ends up in an Indian jail – for years – disavowed by his country, we’re never really sure whether Bleach is an innocent man caught out in a game of realpolitik, or an arms dealer concocting a story to get himself off the hook. This lack of clarity pervades the entire film, which clearly fails as an “explains it all” document. But, with lots of archive news footage of the case – especially the very impressive Bleach briefing international camera crews on the fly in the seconds he has walking into and out of various Indian courtrooms – plus some dramatic reconstruction, plus extensive interviews with the two men now, we get a picture of a Kafka-esque labyrinth of claim and counter-claim, of international intrigue and “life is cheap” decision-making at the highest level. It’s like a James Bond film with all the glitter and product-placement hosed off. Well, maybe not exactly, but if it tells us anything, it’s that the much-vaunted separation of powers of democratic systems, be they in the UK, India or Denmark, only holds true when it doesn’t matter.

The Arms Drop – Not yet available anywhere (not even on the Dogwoof site, where it should be)




The Look of Silence (Dogwoof, cert 15)

The follow-up to Oscar-winning documentary The Act of Killing is more of the same – tales of political genocide in 1960s Indonesia, where groups of barely disciplined thugs killed “communists” (anyone who wasn’t toeing the line) in massive numbers – maybe a million people. This time, though, director Joshua Oppenheimer, clearly responding to the odd claim that he’d turned mass death into entertainment, approaches from the victims’ side. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer used the grand deceit of getting the killers to act out scenes from 1970s Hollywood movies – Pacino and De Niro were popular – and it did provide some ghoulish, saucer-eyed laughs, but also relaxed his interviewees to the point of extraordinary frankness. Here, there’s no such curtain to duck behind or emerge from. Nor is Oppenheimer very present, except as a camera operator and facilitator for a man called Adi, an optician who often uses the ophthalmic eye test (“is it better like this, or like this?” – that one) as a way of getting close to the people he wants to talk to, the men responsible for killing his brother Rami all those years ago. Adi’s ancient mother warns him against stirring up trouble, and Adi’s calm probing does again and again raise the ire of the old murderers, and those of them who still wield power make no bones about threatening him. But his patient and impassive approach also garners some remarkable admissions – what a woman’s breast looks like when it’s cut off, how the drinking of human blood stops a man going crazy from all the killing, and finally, how his brother’s killers killed Rami – in matter of fact fashion they discuss how they slit his throat, stabbed him multiple times and cut off his penis. “He was probably a good man, but what could we do? It was a revolution.” True, this film doesn’t have the structural ingenuity of the original, its gimmick, but it’s still remarkable to see men talk so openly and calmly about killing, with not a trace of remorse.

The Look of Silence – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Cut (Soda, cert 15)

Here’s an ambitious drama about the Armenian holocaust that loses its way a touch as it widens out to become more about the Armenian diaspora, then widens a bit further to become about diasporas in general and pretty much falls apart. As with the Armenians, its bounty is scattered on the wind. Tahar Rahim stars as the blameless blacksmith – a son of toil, a decent, honourable family man who loves his kids and so on – who gets caught up the First World War, as the Ottomans side with Germany against Russia. This bit we understand. But from here on, it becomes increasingly unclear as to who is doing what to whom, when, and why, except that our man, Nazaret, is in the thick of it all. Maybe director Fatih Akin – in his English language debut – is making a point about the fog of war. We see women raped and men pressganged into armies, thugs cutting everyone’s throats, and our man somehow surviving but losing his ability to speak, then becoming an itinerant worker in a soap factory, before discovering his family might still be alive… cue massive change of focus as Nazaret sets off for lands over the sea. It’s all bewildering and just a touch “so what?” and it’s anyone’s guess as to when, or even if, the genocide is being carried out. Drama is also thin on the ground. Akin shoots it all in the most photogenic of settings, initially in dry, dusty Turkey and points east out to Lebanon, while Alexander Hacke’s (of Einstürzende Neubauten) brooding score channels Brian Eno in his chiming synths era. It’s worth it for these aspects alone, and because Akin is a gifted director of flair and guts. I’d say for Rahim’s performance too, though he’s so hobbled by the decision to make him a mute that he’s essentially undone, notions of silent universal victimhood be damned.

The Cut – Watch it/buy it at Amazon







© Steve Morrissey 2015






5 October 2015-10-05

Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland: A World Beyond


Out This Week



Tomorrowland (Disney, cert 12)

When did we give up on believing in the future? Can we believe again? Writer Damon Lindelof sets out to tackle the turn to postmodernism – the most significant philosophical cultural shift in the West for a century – in a big, multiplex popcorn film. George Clooney is postmodernity incarnate, who as an eager, inventive little boy called Frank went to the 1964 New York World’s Fair (the high point of modernity and its showcase event) and met a young girl called Athena, was wowed both by her and by the scientific marvels he saw there. Then was wowed some more when he was granted access to an even more spiffy world where cars flew and people wore figure-hugging fashions, no one was obese and everyone seemed happy. Cut to 40 or so years later, where disappointed Frank – the future didn’t turn out the way he expected – is being tracked down by a sparky Casey (Britt Robertson), the latest person recruited by that same little girl to try and kickstart the future again. Many many adventures are had as this little team of Frank, Casey and Athena head off on a Wizard of Oz style quest and eventually meet the Wizard aka Nix (Hugh Laurie), the guy with the answers to the whole stalled future problem. It’s perhaps this “wha?” aspect to the plot – the big idea – that has prevented so many reviewers from giving this film its full due. Quite simply, and quite unfairly, Tomorrowland has been judged to a higher standard than, say, an Avengers movie, and so on Rotten Tomatoes, or wherever, its scores are a bit disappointing. Because, my god, this is an exhilarating ride: fun and visually a wow, thoughtful and smart, with so many upsides that you want to grab those “meh” reviewers and ask them what exactly it is that they want. In Britt Robertson we have the perfect girl-next-door heroine (and how often does a young woman carry a film?), Clooney dons a Harrison Ford persona as the gruff but essentially decent grown-up (referring to Casey as “kid” in finest Han Solo style), director Brad Bird serves the whole thing up as a feast of visual CG/live action crossover so accomplished that it’s hard to see the join, and by going for 1960s retro-modernist styling, he’s pretty much futureproofed the film too. Lindelof, meanwhile, has space for digressions – the scene in a shop selling sci-fi fanboy memorabilia stands out – has fun with history, and even deals with an overt bit of product placement by Coca Cola with a deft deflection. Downsides? I don’t share Disney’s faith in the orchestra for soundtracks, but then Daft Punk can’t be everywhere, and, yes, the big finale is a bit of an emotional gush. But I bet it brings a tear to your eye. Because, in this film, more or less every target Lindelof and Bird set out to hit, they hit.

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner, cert 15)

This was never going to be easy – relaunching a franchise which was tied heart and soul to the punk ethos. But director/co-writer George Miller, realising the adaptability of what he’d created in the 1980s, and with just the tiniest tinker under the bonnet, turns out a Mad Max for the 21st century, one that’s absorbed the Fast and Furious and the Bourne franchises and is ready to race it out across photogenic Australian desert all over again. And that’s all this is – a race. Tom Hardy spends much of the early part of the film trapped in an iron mask – a little joke about the number of “mumbling” roles? – leaving the film pretty much to Charlize Theron, as the driver and honcho of this gigantic behemoth of a truck which is being pursued by a “very bad man” (Theron’s words, and another Miller joke, about the perfunctoriness of his script) who wants the harem of escaped lovelies she has in tow. Few words are said, many scowls are exchanged, and Miller gives us desert sequences and lots of action, much pedalling to the metal, lithe clambering under the truck moving at speed, and Nicholas Hoult as an eye candy Max-in-training. But forget the skeletal bad guys, in fact it’s the attention to mechanical detail that is the most gratifying thing about this film, and why it works so well. Miller tells us how things work, why they stay together rather than flying off into space, which makes it all the more gratifying when they actually do fly off into space, or barrel off into the desert in flames. He gives us a mechanical ballet, frequently set to a classical or operatic soundtrack, and his camera and editing choices work at the level of poetry of a particularly kinetic sort. Occasionally you can spot that the big truck is moving a lot slower than is suggested, and now and again you might spot a model being used, but these details are forgivable, I’d say, because the mood is right, the pace is right and the title is right too – this is all about fury.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Turbo Kid (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Retro in every respect, from the VHS style opening credits, to its “this is the future – this is 1997” serious voiceover, its Rocky style theme music of strangled vocals and screaming guitars, down to the casting of the fabulous Michael Ironside, the villain in Total Recall, as another villain here, the overlord of some post-apocalyptic world where water is in short supply and Ironside’s Zeus (hey, aim high) controls it. In this skanky world of privation moves The Kid (Munro Chambers), a teenager with a love of comic books, in particular tales of Turbo Rider, a mythical personage who turns out to have been real after all – The Kid finds Turbo Rider’s downed superhero vehicle and dons his apparel, at roughly the same time as he comes into the orbit of Apple (Laurence Lebeouf), a pretty girl of staggering naivety but so big-hearted the Kid is strongly inclined to let her tag along. Together these two, obviously, are going to fall in love and take on the might of Zeus and his henchman Skeletron, save the day, free the water and so on. Give this one a few minutes, because at first its obvious cheapness and the wobbly acting might have your hand hovering over the stop button. But once it finds its feet it’s a real charmer – a film smiling from ear to ear as it warmly homages the era it’s pastiching. The leads are unaffected, the jokes are witty – ranging from tiny allusions to Soylent Green to physical comedy about unintended consequences, such as an assailant rushing towards Kid and Apple with the intention of knifing them, tripping over and stabbing himself through the eye. Which brings us to the gore, which is spectacular and cartoonish – bodies cut up as if by a mad butcher fly through the air, blood cannonades out of neck wounds, and so on. And everyone – everyone – rides a BMX bike, as if this were BMX Bandits remade by Peter Jackson in his Bad Taste era.

Turbo Kid – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Danny Collins (E One, cert 15)

Just when you think Al Pacino will never do anything worth watching ever again, along comes Danny Collins, a supreme example of Pacino at his best, playing a coke-snorting, brandy-chugging rocker getting his mojo back. The backstory is based on a true one – about John Lennon writing an up-and-coming musician a letter in the early 1970s, a few lines of encouragement plus an observation about the important things in life (Imagine no possessions, being the gist). But… the letter went unreceived for decades. As in real life, so in this film, ageing, sold-out, lounge-lizard Collins gets the letter, bought for him by his corny, loveable manager (Christopher Plummer, again just pulsing out charisma), a letter which forces him to appraise his life thus far. Sickened with what he’s become, he checks into a cheap (for him) hotel and starts trying to write a few songs, stuff from the heart. The songs all sound like Imagine crossed with My Way, and that tone of mawkish “love me and my tiny violin” does tend to pervade the film. So when Collins tries to reconnect with his son (Bobby Cannavale) – product of a one-night stand many years before – the breast-beating tom-toms get going, when what we clearly most want to see is Al turning the charm right up, singing a few songs (he’s not bad), having a bantery relationship with hotel manager Annette Bening (touching and believable – because she resists) and the general “we’re not worthiness” of the civilians Collins comes across as he moves through the unfamiliar world of the cheapish hotel lobbies he’s now chosen to inhabit. With an edit this would be a classic in the It’s a Wonderful Life vein. Even without one, it’s a lovely film, particularly if you’re a Pacino fan. And aren’t we all when he’s on form?

Danny Collins – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




London Road (Spirit, cert 15)

Something a bit different – a musical based on an actual spree by a serial killer in Ipswich in 2006. Steve Wright killed five women, all prostitutes, and the events and the effect it had on the residents of the rundown area of London Road were turned into a piece of musical verbatim theatre by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, with Rufus Norris directing at the National Theatre in London. It was a big hit, so a film version always seemed likely, even though this isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of a comfy night out, or in. First let’s dispense with Tom Hardy, who should be renamed Tom Hardly, because he’s barely in this filmed version, appearing as a cab driver for a few minutes near the beginning, then again for a few seconds near the end. Olivia Colman, surely the hottest thing on British TV right now, is in it, though, as one of the many curtain-twitching residents being interviewed and singing their remarks, often directly to camera. Rufus Norris remains the director of the film, graduating from the more soap-based “grim report from the suburbs” drama of his last film, Broken, to show himself a dapper director of the musical – his camera has fluidity, his lively ensemble numbers work as well as his more mournful solo pieces, often shot on sofas in living rooms, where the likes of Colman or Anita Dobson (formerly of EastEnders) express some often rather uncomfortable opinions – about the dead girls being slags, and worse. Sympathy is there, but it’s in short supply and is mostly supplied by sung testimony from the girls themselves. Musically you’d pitch it on Sondheim’s lawn – rhythmic and extrapolating the cadences of the news bulletin or “well I never” gossip exchanged over back garden walls to create melodies. Because of this fidelity to source, London Road works very well, though it’s a strange and macabre experience. Fascinating is the word so often used for this level of “entertainment” – where the subliminal is doing a lot of the dramatic driving – and fascinating is what I’ll reach for here, too.

London Road – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Physician (Arrow, cert 15)

And now for something very familiar – a big old school, cast-of-thousands epic that straddles continents and reaches back into a past epoch. Well, close half an eye and we’re there, because this is a German production (by Ufa, no less, studio of Murnau, Lang, Sternberg and Lubitsch) and so hasn’t quite the budget of a big Hollywood piece. But then I’m not so sure Hollywood would be quite so keen to embrace what Ufa are up to here, which is a defence of rationalism, the enlightenment and learning, as told in the story of a young medieval English orphan (Tom Payne, another capable Hugh Dancy type) who winds up being the student of the great Islamic polymath, physician and scholar Ibn-Sena aka Avicenna (Ben Kingsley). It is a lovely unashamed work of filmic theatre and I thoroughly enjoyed every cent of its slightly paltry $36 million budget, particularly the early scenes, where Payne’s Rob is taken under the wing of travelling huckster/barber Stellan Skarsgård and is taught the basics of the trade – which include amputations between the carousing and wenching. This medieval background is painted in more detail than anything that follows, the drama then moving at pace as Rob abandons the mud and misery of England for the ringlets and skullcaps of the Jews, moving rapidly on to the camel jockeys of the Middle East as he makes his way into Islamic territory – circumcising himself en route – so he can pass undetected as an infidel. Everything is done in the broadest of sweeps and you’re either going to give it a by – as I did – or object to the speed of the storytelling. Having met and been taken on by Avicenna, Rob invents the study of anatomy, for instance, divines the vectors of bubonic plague, pleads for religious relativism with Zoroastrians. So, yes, it’s a bit schematic, but Kingsley delivers gravitas as Ibn-Sena, standing in for Jack Hawkins or Rex Harrison or Peter Ustinov. I could do with less of Olivier Martinez, the wickedly handsome Frenchman who is currently Mr Halle Berry, as the dastardly local Shah. But he’s actually totemic of the whole thing, which is unafraid to just block out the entire drama and leave us to add the nuance. Maybe it was the Moroccan locations I liked so much.

The Physician – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Shooting for Socrates (Soda, cert PG)

In 1986 Northern Ireland, on one of their momentary David and Goliath jaunts, took on Brazil in their last Group D game of the World Cup in Mexico. They lost, of course. Is that a spoiler? I don’t think so, because if this tiny team had won, it would have been etched in the annals of football legend unto the crack of doom. Suffice to say that they played and didn’t disgrace themselves. I’m not sure the same can be said about this film, which has good intentions but doesn’t seem to know how to go about creating what is trying to be a feelgood Full Monty knock-off. It’s a strong cast though, with John Hannah as charismatic manager Billy Bingham, and the likes of Richard Dormer and Conleth Hill providing the sort of thespian welly that the screenplay seems coy about delivering. We’re reminded, for example, in frequent flashbacks to the working-class streets of Northern Ireland, that there is a religious/ethnic divide, which has fuelled years of strife, in snapshots of life inside a nice Protestant family and a nice Catholic family, each just trying to make the best of a bad situation. Do we learn, though, that the football team – which this film is meant to be about – also contained Catholics and Protestants? We do not. And there – life in microcosm, conflict on the field of play, teamwork, better together than apart – are the metaphorical pegs on which to hang this film, which instead swings back and forth between “back home” and the preparations for the big game, desperately trying to tie the two distinct geographies together. Manager Billy Bingham’s wife features, for no reason that makes any sense, unless the film is actually about him, and I’ve missed something. All in all it’s about as convincing as the large number of bad 1980s wigs on display. As for Socrates, it’s the Brazilian player the title refers to, not the philosopher, though god help us if there isn’t an attempt to tie those two together as well.

Shooting for Socrates – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2015