30 November 2015-11-30

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man

 

Out Now

 

 

Ant-Man (Disney, cert 12)

I’ve never signed up to the notion that Edgar Wright was the author of the Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End). That was Simon Pegg, clearly. But even so he was a vital component, and the news that he’d left this film before anything was in the can was a downer. On the upside, there is still plenty of his and Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish’s original script in Ant-Man – a fast, witty, inventive and playful thing, full of youthful energy, which Paul Rudd has made a decent fist of adapting (with Adam McKay). Rudd and McKay probably did the tinkering necessary to insert Ant-Man into the increasingly tiresome Marvel Comics Universe – with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon the film’s one utterly unnecessary digression. But, to the batcave – Rudd is the slacker jailbird trying to make a go of things but being lured by retired scientific genius Michael Douglas into trying on his ant suit. Cue many The Fly-style shrinking adventures, done at superfast speed (Wright and Cornish I’d bet) – Ant-Man in a bath, on a club dancefloor, in someone’s forest-like carpet, avoiding the hoover, and so on. Then, fun and games over, bona fides established, it’s on to the plot proper, an old-school wrangle about the forces of good and evil featuring twisted genius Corey Stoll who now runs Douglas’s company, and Douglas’s daughter, Evangeline Lilly, thrown in for love and smarts, her hard carapace revealing a soft centre. Rudd is a master at playing unworldly characters; Douglas is the epitome of guile; Stoll is a bullet-headed badass; Lilly exudes attitude – so the casting is spot-on. And apart from that Mackie/Falcon moment, this film drives and thrives on invention, particularly at the miniature level – the last 40 minutes is breathless action brilliance, put together well by director Peyton Reed (on a hiding to nothing, let’s face if, after Wright’s exit), who keeps all the physics consistent, so we’re actually on that mini-toy train as it hurtles round the tracks while Rudd’s Ant-Man clambers over it, fighting nemesis Yellowjacket (a wasp in British English). The SFX are great, the wit keeps coming and the references to Spielberg – so many imperilled children, so many totems of innocence – are used as a seasoning, not the meal itself. Best Marvel movie since Iron Man.

Ant-Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Gift (Lionsgate, cert 15)

He acts, he writes, and now he directs – Joel Edgerton is shaping up as a renaissance man of film-making. But before we get the Orson Welles comparisons down off the shelf, there is one thing to say about his thriller about a got-it-all couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) being menaced by a creepy loner (Edgerton) – there is always the sense of the other shoe about to drop, which does either rack up the film’s tension or undermine it, depending on what sort of a mind you’ve got, and whether you’re the sort who starts anticipating a twist. Either way Edgerton builds in such a sense of dread in the simplest early scenes – like when lovely back-in-LA Bateman and Hall run into Bateman’s old school friend in a store, and an acquaintanceship is renewed, very much at the loner’s bidding. After that, though DP Eduard Grau shoots the couple’s slick modern apartment as a place of dark corners, Hitchcock’s overlit thrillers are the most obvious reference point as director Edgerton lays on the trouble-in-paradise elements and shows us that there’s a touch of sham in the lives of this golden couple. This requires good acting, and both Bateman and Hall deliver – Edgerton the actor doesn’t do much more than skulk, but that’s all he’s meant to do. Nuff said, I think, except that Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi’s score of drones and sliding violins really adds to that sense of lurching, bubbly foreboding.

The Gift – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Listen to Me Marlon (Universal, cert 15)

He went from being the biggest Hollywood star to the fattest, but here’s Marlon Brando mostly in his own words, with his self-therapy and self-hypnosis tapes mined by director Stevan Riley – and did Brando ever like to talk. There’s so much material, in fact, that Riley has managed to build a biography of pretty much all of Brando’s life – a childhood as the son of a drunk mother and a bullying dad, the early career under the wing of Method guru Stella Adler (a second mother). His early success and how it changed him – “I was destined to spread my seed far and wide… the beast aspect of my personality held sway.” And for lovers of headlines, the big stuff is here too – that scene from On the Waterfront with Rod Steiger is evaluated, the making of the notoriously fractious Mutiny on the Bounty, Last Tango, The Godfather, Superman (“silly”). Of these, Last Tango seems to have given him most pause – “Bertolucci wanted me to be me… I wasn’t going to do that.” But as Riley’s cleverly deployed clips from the film show us, that’s exactly what Bertolucci got Brando to do (and that’s part of why Last Tango is such a great film). The public life is no less interesting, and we see that Brando was early on the scene in the civil rights struggle, that his espousal of Native American rights wasn’t just a stunt (though the rejection of his Oscar and sending a Native American woman in traditional gear to read out his rejection speech – that was). Then there’s the more private man – the infamous wrestling with his weight, Brando broken up over his son’s incarceration, his daughter’s suicide. With its suggestion that money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy you the time to be indolent and greedy, this is precisely the sort of biography that’s needed for our straitened times. It’s also a lovely, meditative film about a thoughtful and tender man.

Listen to Me Marlon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

By Our Selves (Soda, cert 15)

Is psychogeography the right term for what film-maker Andrew Kotting does? In this gorgeous and dreamy semi-documentary he examines both the psyche of the nature poet John Clare (1793-1864) and the physical landscape as Clare makes his escape from an insane asylum in Essex in 1841 and trudges towards Northampton in the centre of England. At this point, somewhat unexpectedly, comics legend Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) arrives on the scene to explain to Kotting that Clare was part of a tradition which goes back at least to Wycliffe, in which language, religion and politics fuse, and the pagan and shamanistic also play a role. It’s precisely the sort of history of a country, a place, that gets ignored – because it’s too off-message, too idiosyncratic – and Kotting’s shooting and editing MO echoes the fractured, fragmented, piecemeal nature of his assembly job. Boom mikes often swing into view, the actor Toby Jones (who speaks not a word), playing Clare, is often seen coming up against real modern people as he re-enacts his long lonely 19th-century trudge (“What’s ’e doin’? Is it actin’?”), while fluffs by the actor Freddie Jones (who played Clare in a BBC production decades ago) as he reads Clare’s poetry are left in. The soundscape is the same – ambient twiddles crash into archive sourced material, with a pair of ancient crackly BBC accents intoning “John Clare was a minor nature poet, who went mad” like a drone. A muted phantasmagoria, you could call it, with Wicker Man flavourings. Maddening too, at some level. But then that’s Kotting.

By Our Selves – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Fantastic Four (Fox, cert 12)

This got such a pasting in the grown-up press that I expected it to be really bad – like Iron Man 3, say. In fact it’s really rather good, as long as you approach it with different expectations. Josh Trank directed Chronicle, you may remember – a bunch of kids accidentally get super powers and have a whale of a time with them, before discovering that with great power… etc etc. You can see why Stan Lee (whose line that is, borrowing from Voltaire) wanted him for Fantastic Four. And what Josh has given Stan and the Fox studio is a reworking of Chronicle – kids in trouble, rather than superheroes doing their thing. Maybe that’s why the critics didn’t like it – that, and the sudden change in sympathy for Miles Teller, who seemed to out himself as a douche in an Esquire article. But to the film: four bright kids get caught up in a weird machine that transports them to another dimension where they pick up their weird powers – stretchy, flame-y, rocky and invisible. It really is an origin story, too, with an acre of back history for childhood allies Reed Richards (Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). Sue Storm (Kate Mara) is the cute girl who works in the lab . Trank tries to dress up the sexism of her character’s pointlessness a bit, with some token staring by Mara at a clipboard and the odd smart line. But she’s not doing much and it’s the guys, including Michael B Jordan’s Johnny Storm, who do the hard science. Plus there’s Toby Kebbell as Victor Von Doom, whose parents surely knew he was going to turn out to be a comic book baddie when they named him. The film’s big problem is its Marvel furniture, particularly the strident soundtrack, which insists that what we’re watching is a superhero film full of grand actions and noble sentiment, when in fact it’s a bunch of kids largely out of their depth – again, Chronicle, a film that played with and against superhero tropes. Flip out the bombastic music and replace it with something a bit lower key and I suspect this really would fly. No Stan Lee cameo either. Was he not asked? Or didn’t he want to be seen near the crime scene?

Fantastic Four – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Max (Warner, cert 12)

Dogs. There we are. Either your heart just hardened or a little aah escaped from your lips. If it’s the former, give this film a miss. If you’re down with our four-legged friends, this unashamedly sentimental film might be for you. Thomas Haden Church is the titular star, but in fact it’s mostly about his son Justin, played nicely by Josh Wiggins, a disaffected kid who spends too much time on his X-Box and whose brother has just been killed in a firestorm in Afghanistan. All changes when Max, his brother’s now shell-shocked German shepherd, comes to stay with the grieving family. And before you can say “Woof”, Justin has forsaken his virtual relationships and forged one with his new pet. Romance arrives in the shape of dog-loving teenage hotness Carmen (Mia Xitlali), and jeopardy in the shape of Justin’s dead brother’s old army pal Tyler (Luke Kleintank), who does not like dogs. Repeat: does not like dogs. Adventures of a vaguely Lassie sort are had, which blow away any initial thoughts that this is going to be a canine War Horse, the setting being apple-pie America where BMX bikes are ridden and kids have adventures in the woods (I suspect that if these were UK kids they’d be doing home-made bongs and having sex in those woods, but there you go). The flag is waved, and I suspect some foundation for the promotion of Christian values is behind the whole thing. It all squeaks a bit, in other words. I rather liked it.

Max – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Shane (Eureka, cert PG)

Shane is one of a handful of genuine must-have classic westerns. Now, returned to pristine Technicolor glory for its Blu-ray debut, it stars Alan Ladd as the retired gunman helping a family of homesteaders tame the West. Ladd wasn’t a particularly tall actor – in most films he made his co-stars had to stand in an off-camera trench, or he on a box – but here his height, his baby face, his baby-blues and blond hair, not to mention his fringed buckskin jacket, are all played on to maximum effect. It’s a film full of domestic detail too, with children (in the shape of Brandon de Wilde), dogs and animals, as well as women and home cooking all featuring prominently, since this is all about the domestic versus the untamed old West, law and order versus the rule of the gun, the feminine versus the masculine. “A gun is as good as the man using it,” says the generally taciturn Shane at one point, having just saved the bacon of the Starrett family he’s now working for after riding in, like a prototype Clint Eastwood, from out of nowhere. “We’d all be much better off if there wasn’t a single gun left in the valley,” says Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur), wife of Joe (Van Heflin), Shane and Marian neatly summing up the current argument over gun control in the US. Is Shane going to whisk Marian away from her decent but lunkish husband and her squeaky loveable son? Is he going to stand up to the bullies? Those are the springs that drive this drama, a much more nuanced one than you’d expect from a western – bad-guy cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) even gets a speech which explains his position in terms we can fully understand. He fought for this land, with blood and sacrifice, against Indians and with none of the accoutrements of civilisation, and he’s damned if he’s going to be fenced in by sodbusting johnnie-come-latelys. The Wyoming landscapes are magnificent, Jack Palance (still being credited as Walter Jack Palance) puts in an early appearance as a bad man who’s quick on the draw, and whether it’s Victor Young’s score, Loyal Griggs’s cinematography or the production design, soundscape and special effects, it’s all designed to work on the most mythic, epic scale. It entirely does.

Shane – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 November 2015-11-23

Tom Cruise hangs onto a cargo plane in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Out This Week

 

 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Paramount, cert 12)

Tom Cruise’s desire to be James Bond really gets the better of him in M:I5, a flabby action spectacular which has visited Vienna, London, Langley, Paris and Havana within its first 20 minutes or so, right after the pre-credits sequence which sees Jason Bourne, hang on, Ethan Hunt clambering onto the outside of a cargo plane as it’s taking off. A stunt done for real, we’re told, and impressive whether it was or wasn’t. Christopher McQuarrie wrote and directed, so there’s plenty of that “who is the real bad guy?” attitude that was the making of The Usual Suspects, but here is just another muddying trope in a pool that’s never less than opaque. Simon Pegg is used as a motormouth explication device to such an extent that you start to feel sorry for him, with no action set piece getting the green light until Pegg has first talked us through it. Still, Rebecca Ferguson is impressive as the sort of badass babe Bond would do well to hire – when she kicks you, you stay kicked. And the support cast is excellent – Simon McBurney, Sean Harris (an excellent baddie), Tom Hollander, Alec Baldwin. As well as the opening sequence, there are plenty of big bucks set pieces – swimming into the water-filled torus of a power station was pretty cool – and at one point a car chase through the streets of Casablanca is immediately followed by a bike chase, so action fiends won’t feel short-changed. Plot? The usual disavowed – reavowed schtick.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Ted 2 (Universal, cert 15)

In Ted 1, loveable stoner Mark Wahlberg found a buddy in a talking toy bear who shared his sofa-surfing habits and babecentric worldview. Ted 2 picks up the bromantic plot at the point where Ted is about to get married to leggy babe Jessica Barth, only to discover he legally can’t because… he’s a bear. The rest of the film is a quest to have Ted’s rights affirmed, while over on the bad-guy side of the ring Giovanni Ribisi and John Carroll Lynch work against him, so they can have his magic innards and sell them to Hasbro (I do hope Hasbro’s lawyers were in on this joke). But never mind all that, this is a Seth MacFarlane film and so what it’s really about, in Family Guy style, is gags. And this time out MacFarlane’s intention appears to be to out-Airplane! Airplane!, because they keep on coming – jokes about Kim Kardashian, chicks with dicks, mega-powerful skunk, one involving Liam Neeson in “very special set of skills” mode, one about the opening credits to Law and Order, one about the Germanwings plane crash, and of course Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi turn up as MacFarlane shifts the focus to Comic Con, a setting that he (if he were someone else) might have built the entire film around. Amanda Seyfried provides love interest as the punchy lawyer hired by Wahlberg to regain Ted’s rights, and even in a film this insubstantial she turns on the magic – the romance works, even among the knob gags. But. Was it me or is MacFarlane’s grasp of popular culture just beginning to drift? He’s over 40 now and the Star Wars stuff is beginning to wear thin. Are younger people really that interested? Either way, this is a funny and entertaining film, though one probably best enjoyed with a bong.

Ted 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Inside Out (Disney, cert U)

The big “Pixar are great… But” caveat has always been their focus on the mechanics and physics of the real world. Remember those early films where they’d go on about the amount of processing power it took to render hair? In computing terms, it was a great achievement, but they got a bit hung up on it all, leading to what might be typified by Cars – lots of whizz, little fizz. In Inside Out it’s clear that Pixar have now worked through that phase, because here the images are in the service of the story, and if fantasy is required, then fantasy it shall be. Its action takes place inside the head of a young girl called Riley, where little avatars of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear work relatively harmoniously as they control her psyche. Mostly, Joy is in charge, and (cut to external world) we see that Riley is indeed a happy young girl. Then, one day, Riley’s parents move house, and this external event has an internal knock-on. Riley is sad, and Joy temporarily loses control of her and in a rush of events, she and Sadness are sucked away out of the Star Trek bridge (which is what it looks like) down into Riley’s unconscious mind, leaving Fear, Disgust and Anger in charge – Riley is plunged into depression. This interdependence of the emotions – all presented as positive and necessary for mental health (Anger isn’t just angry, he “cares very deeply about things”) – is what makes this film remarkable, and its idea of the human mind as a site where Freud’s primal drives and the more modern mind-as-computer might be duking it out reflects Pixar’s own artistic journey. Down in the unconscious, where unlikely buddies Joy and Sadness embark on a road trip, we see workers deciding on which memories to delete, to make room for more. They’re joined by Bing Bong, the imaginary friend Riley has grown out of and forgotten. Broccoli, grandma’s scary vacuum cleaner and the stairs to the basement all loom large down there too, as does a murderous clown. There is much imaginative fabulousness, in other words, before order is finally restored. However, strange as it might seem, the journey itself – the road trip to a happy end – is just kind of a bit “meh”.

Inside Out – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Southpaw (EV, cert 15)

Jake Gyllenhaal goes down the Christian Bale route of Modern Method Madness, putting on a lot of muscle to play world light heavyweight boxing champion Billy Hope, a man who has it all – lovely wife (Rachel McAdams), house, kid, money, title, acolytes, a mile-a-minute manager (50 Cent, good for a change, and looking fly in a snap brim hat) – only to lose it, then win it all back again. Southpaw makes claims to being more than the boxing movie you’ve seen before, aiming for depth with its maudlin tone – gloomy “spheric” music (as the subtitles called it), deliberately dark looks (the director Antoine Fuqua’s usual style), some really decent acting talent in the shape of McAdams and Forest Whitaker, as the sage old boxing head who will mentor our man back to glory from a backstreet gym that stinks of liniment and urea. It also claims to be the portrait of an angry man’s emotional development, though it isn’t sure on this point – is Billy’s impressive run of success down to his fanatical rage (which is what the plot tells us), or his ability to soak up blows in rope-a-dope style (which is what Gyllenhaal and Fuqua show us in the many boxing scenes). Which is it? Both, it seems, a decision that makes no sense emotionally. What is this man’s arc, what is he travelling away from? This indecision about Billy Hope’s character leaves a huge hole where the story should be. And explains why a film that deals with death, a child separated from its father, aggression in the ring and triumph over disaster has no emotional resonance whatsoever.

Southpaw – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Nosferatu (BFI, cert PG)

FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, his version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, has been restored before, and without having done a side-by-side analysis, I’m tempted to say this one has the edge. Even so, highlights are still bleaching out here and there, focus is lost now and again, there are still longitudinal scratches from the print having run through projectors too often and grain has visibly been added back in digitally to satisfy wholefood fans. New intertitles have been made too, using the same text as the original, and they’re nice and crisp. Most importantly the film comes with Hammer veteran James Bernard’s score, an appropriately orchestral piece full of Wagnerian horns and growling deep strings, which really helps bring the film alive. It’s the same film, of course, but watching it again, I was struck again at how much of it has been reused in other films, especially by Hammer in their various vampire efforts. The stagecoach racing through the night, the scene at the inn where the locals recoil when Hutter (ie Jonathan Harker) tells them he’s off to visit the count, the arrival scene at the castle where the count feeds and waters his guest while eyeing him like a juicy steak. The film is over 90 years old, and its power to shock or horrify has gone – “Parental Guidance”, says the certificate. But it’s still creepy as hell, particularly Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, the long nails, the ratlike teeth, the cadaverous face, the frock coat over a wiry frame. Shreck is also very light on his feet, yet in the scene where he carries his own coffin under one arm through the empty streets of the German town he’s about to make his new home, seems to be effortlessly strong too. I was also struck by Murnau’s love of a framing device, as if he were still thinking in terms of theatrical proscenium arches, though on the other hand his various digressions into natural history – a hyena here, a venus fly trap there, a polyp with its waving tentacles – suggest that his old-fashioned touches are deliberate, part of the gothic atmosphere he’s cooking up. Also evident is the fact that Murnau is precisely aware of how familiar his audience was with the story he’s telling – very – which means he can deal in atmosphere and theatricals (the shadows up the wall, that amazing pivot that Nosferatu does from out of his coffin, still the most remarkable sight, in spite of it being obvious there’s a plank wobbling behind him). Such a skilful film, such a work of expressionist beauty and sheer technical artistry. It still holds up.

Nosferatu – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

13 Minutes (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Oliver Hirschbiegel made his name with the spectacular Hitler’s-last-days drama Downfall, unmade it with the Diana’s-last-days drama Diana and now returns with a perhaps fitting combination of the aggressive and the passive with 13 Minutes, a dramatisation of the little-known case of George Elser, the German who tried to assassinate the Fuhrer 8 November 1939. Hitler wasn’t around when Elser’s rather neat, but devastatingly effective bomb went off, having cut short a rally so as to get away sharpish before fog made take-off for his plane impossible. Elser’s bomb missed by 13 minutes. Hirschbiegel is an expert at the period setting, and though the story is ostensibly about Elser’s arrest and interrogation by the authorities, in fact his film is all about the sort of Germany that existed for normal people as Hitler rose to power. Much of it takes place in flashback, in the early 1930s, where the young pacifist Elser’s routine of flirting with girls, swimming at the lake and working at the steel foundry is broken by his increasing conviction that something must be done about the nasty demagogue and his adherents. In between shots establishing the period, we glimpse many “normal” Germans who aren’t particularly keen on Hitler, yet stand back and let him have his head. This aberration took over somehow, is the idea, rather than the more usual one, of the Germans clasping Hitler fanatically to their bosom. The film is a salve specifically for a nasty German wound. So it’s revisionist? A touch. But more problematical is that it lacks drama – passivity is hard to get worked up about, in a populace but especially in a hero, and even the torture scenes carry no charge because we know that Elser operated alone, so there’s no list of collaborators for the torturers to drag out of Elser, no matter what they do to him. All in all a muted, unshowy film, beautifully made, carriage clock stuff. Expect no explosions.

13 Minutes – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Stranger (Koch, cert 18)

A stranger arrives in town, looking, it seems, for someone. He is promptly beaten up, stabbed and left for dead by the town bullies, then is taken in by a local teenager and his fearful mother. Chief among the bullies is the son of the local cop, who is himself no stranger to fisticuffs and worse, if the situation demands it. But the stranger is no ordinary man. In fact, we realise after a short while, he’s some sort of vampire, but a decent sort, unlike almost everyone else he encounters in the village. From Chile, this transplantation of the Nordic Noir style to the southern hemisphere (posing as Canada) works almost entirely, with The Stranger turning out to be something of a Let the Right One In – a muted, guarded horror story, in other words, though director Guillermo Amoedo’s love of visceral horror shows through. If it can be stabbed, burnt, flayed, shot or oozed all over, it’s in this film. The very good make-up effects, soundtrack and camera might suggest that Eli Roth, the film’s producer whose name adds “Eli Roth Presents” splendour to some of the publicity material, has drafted in some Hollywood help. But no – Chechu Graf is cinematographer, music is by Manuel Riveiro and makeup effects are by Lorena Molina, all of whom have Chilean cinema CVs. Roth, if he’s going to continue the association (and he should) might encourage writer/director Amoedo to use the service of a script doctor next time – some of the dialogue is weak. And a casting director – the acting is very wobbly, belonging to the Lifetime/Hallmark school of cut-out performance. But the story and the idea behind it is strong, and that’s the main thing. And if you wonder why I’ve not said much about the plot, it’s because that’s one of the joys of this film, finding out how far its characters deviate from cliché. Which they do quite a bit. Amoedo is a name to watch.

The Stranger – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

16 November 2015-11-16

The Minions hitch a ride

Out This Week

 

 

Minions (Universal, cert U)

By the end of the first Despicable Me film, Gru, the archetypal bad guy, had been exposed as a bit of softie, which left Despicable Me 2 with nowhere to go, in terms of jokes about bad guys wheezing despicably and mwah-ha-ha-ing their way to world domination. But Gru’s Minions were still funny, and in this surprisingly lively, amusing, inventive spin-off, they get to show they can be funny at feature length, in spite of not being able to speak. Well, they do speak, but it’s a kind of Esperanto done with expressive voices and telegraphed emotions – Pingu, the Clangers and Shaun the Sheep territory. And Geoffrey Rush (in a voice cast including Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan and Jennifer Saunders) provides an explicatory narration so fruity he could be juiced. I doubt this is really a kids movie, since nearly all the jokes are about the gap between expectation and reality – and disappointment is adult territory – but they’ll probably enjoy the early stuff, a potted history of the Minions (helping dinosaurs, cavemen, ancient Egyptians, Dracula, Napoleon – despicable all, apparently). Before it winds us up to almost the present day, with the Minions trying to attend a Villains Convention in 1960s Orlando, Florida. This decision to stick with the logic of the initial idea – they’re minions, and they crave a nefarious master – is the film’s engine, and delivers all the narrative drive the film needs. But really, it’s all about the writing, and directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin’s team of jokesmiths, who have toiled long into the night to introduce sight gags every few seconds, then given themselves enough breathing space to have fun – what is a sumo wrestler doing in Queen Elizabeth’s retinue? For that matter, what is Queen Elizabeth doing in this film, and why does she live in a Disney castle? Like The Lego Movie, this could and probably should be watched multiple times.

Minions – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Hollywood Banker (Bulldog, cert PG)

The standard prejudices about Hollywood – by people who know nothing about Hollywood, and fostered by people who do but have an axe to grind – is that the creatives are good; it’s the money guys who are bad. Hollywood Banker upends that cart with a ridiculously informative, well researched and really rather nice film about Frans Afman, the dapper, urbane Netherlands financier who came up with (along with Dino De Laurentiis, his partner at the time) the pre-sales system, which has transformed movie-making since the 1980s. By taking the unmade film out on the road and seeing how many distributors they could get to finance it, Frans and Dino effectively reduced the risk at their end of the production chain. In this way When Harry Met Sally, Terminator, Rambo, Platoon and Dances with Wolves were all made. So were a raft of films by Golan and Globus, who took the idea to the next level. Along with Electric Boogaloo: the Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, the recent doc about the Go-Go boys (the title of yet another film about the period), Hollywood Banker tells the story of 1980s and 1990s Hollywood film, though here the stars and directors are lining up to sing Afman’s praises, rather than snicker. A decent guy, a gent, a mensch, a “class act” says Mickey Rourke, Afman was the son of culture-loving people and got into the film industry entirely by accident after De Laurentiis came to him needing a bank account. He was the antithesis of the ballsy dealmaker – in fact again and again we hear of how he’d send money to save a production, then deal with the paperwork later. His word was his bond. Kevin Costner is most effusive, pointing out how Afman financed Dances with Wolves when no one would touch it (first time director, subtitled, an unfashionable genre, very long). Oliver Stone and Paul Verhoeven are also full of warm words. This is clearly a legacy work, since it’s made by Afman’s daughter and with Frans’s help as he’s dying of pancreatic cancer. And maybe there is more dirt to find on the man than Rozemyn Afman has dug up, particularly in the details of the Credit Lyonnais/Carolco/Giancarlo Paretti/MGM fiasco which shook Hollywood in the early 1990s (the story behind which became the basis for Get Shorty). But Rozemyn Afman is a warm and personable interviewer and watching the likes of the usually guarded Costner opening up, it’s clear she’s good at it (it helps, of course, that she grew up in these people’s swimming pools). This film, in effect, is the autobiography Frans Afman wanted to write, but never quite managed. And it, like him, is a charmer.

Hollywood Banker – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Maggie (Universal, cert 15)

If Let the Right One In is the maudlin vampire movie par excellence, Maggie aims for a similar tone vis a vis the zombie movie. And it largely succeeds. Abigail Breslin stars as the daughter becoming a “necro-ambulant”, Arnie Schwarzenegger is the loving dad who knows that the disease is slow moving but that one day she will go full zombie and will have to be killed. We’re reminded constantly that he’s a man handy with an axe and a firearm. But he’s a long way from Standard Operating Arnie – the sort who kills people by the score without blinking. Here the instruments of mercy-killing are regularly in view, cleverly reinforcing the doomy “one day… one day soon” vibe that hangs over the whole film. Also clever is the way director Henry Hobson uses Arnie – he’s still no actor, but in terms of sheer likeability he’s hard to beat, and this aspect of his nature is played up. Around this father and daughter is a world carrying on as normal, through a zombie apocalypse. The health system hasn’t broken down, oddly, and a resigned spirit of relentless compassionate triage and merciful euthanasia and has taken hold. Teenagers still go out and drink around a campfire, as Breslin’s Maggie does at one point, where both her and an old flame who is also on the way to zombiedom talk about what’s coming in “this sucks” terms. Life going on is the strangest and most remarkable thing about the film – Maggie painting her fingernails though the arm they’re connected to is rotting. Zombie films are usually metaphors for something, and 20 years ago this would have been all about Aids. Now? A more philosophically existential bid to stay human, perhaps? Hence Arnie – Mr Skynet? Just thoughts. I don’t know. It’s probably there, though it’s really not that sort of film. Too downbeat and muted to do anything so declamatory. Quietly, grimly effective though.

Maggie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

I Believe in Miracles (Universal, cert 12)

Brian Clough is the English football manager who, looking back on his achievements, said, “I wouldn’t say I was the best football manager in the world. But I was in the top one.” This supreme confidence, headline-grabbing mouth and undoubted brilliance made him a gift for feature writers, talk show hosts and now, film-makers, since this must be the third film in a recent years to hash through the life of one of the game’s most colourful characters. Expertly collaging together interviews with Clough’s team, archive footage and a string of soul-disco crossover hits from the era, the film runs through, one more time, Clough’s remarkable return from the dead. He’d been sacked by Leeds United in 1975 (events covered in the Michael Sheen film The Damned United) and found himself being courted by Nottingham Forest. He took the job at this underdog team languishing halfway down the second division (this was the days before the Premiership, so equates to the Championship today). “It changed overnight,” said former NF player Ian Bowyer, one of many in the team who by their own admission were journeymen, sulkers and moaners. Two seasons in charge and Clough and assistant (and secret weapon) Peter Taylor had taken NF into the First Division (ie the Premiership today) and then went on to win the League Cup, then astonished everyone by winning the European Cup. The following season Forest won the European Cup again. The story of how Clough did this is fantasy montage-sequence stuff, as we’re told of training consisting of walks along the river, the lads all going for a drink together, Clough’s team tactics consisting of him saying “You get the ball, you kick the ball. If you can’t play, give it to someone who can.” “There was no plan,” says one player, indicating that Clough seemed to do it all by sheer charisma. Gary Birtles, we hear, didn’t train with the others. Instead, he played squash with Clough – that was his training. Hard man Kenny Burns recalls Clough always calling him Kenneth. “Only him and my mum called me Kenneth.” It’s a portrait of a manager who didn’t show fear in the changing room. When pushed, he pushed back, and he had one arrow in his quiver that the film doesn’t even bother to mention – as a player he’d been a phenomenal goal scorer (251 goals in 264 games, and it would have been much higher if he hadn’t had been invalided out of the game). The documentary fascinated me, and I have barely any interest at all in football. If you are interested in the game, I dare say this is unmissable. And if you’re a Notts Forest fan, I’m not sure how many Christmases this equates to. Granted, once we get to the point where Clough and Notts Forest have won the European Cup there’s a certain repetitiveness to seeing them doing it again. And at a certain point it becomes more about watching balls fly past goalies’ outstretched arms than the interpersonal whirlwind of Clough’s unorthodox managerial style. But director Jonny Owen and his editor weld together the players’ commentary with archive footage so skilfully, it feels like a demonstration of show-don’t-tell film-making – that mini essay on John Robertson, who “couldn’t tackle a fish supper” according to Archie Gemmill, but whose remarkable skill at getting a ball past a man without even touching it is conveyed in a brilliant composite of examples. And that, pretty much, goes for the whole film – the right images welded to the right words. A great film.

I Believe in Miracles – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Legend of Barney Thomson (Icon, cert 15)

I resisted watching this. Why, I’m not sure. Robert Carlyle is a remarkable actor, one of the few who can play big softies and frightening psychopaths with equal conviction. But here he’s directing and I knew his debut film was set in Scotland, his native country, and I suppose I just thought I might be getting a sentimental load of sub Ken Loach realism grafted to a Full Monty style comic jaunt. I was wrong to resist. It’s a film to savour, a macabre pantomime about a deadbeat barber who accidentally kills the boss who was about to fire him for scaring away the customers by being boring. Carlyle does it “grim up North Britain” style – apart from his scurfy barber’s shop it’s a milieu of ducks on the wall, that Green Lady picture, dog races, bingo, uncouth cops. And there’s Barney’s mum, played as an unrecognisable hag by Emma Thompson, a lifetime of disappointment on her face and a cigarette permanently in her mouth. There’s Ray Winstone, as a Cockney copper who hates the locals and affects not to understand a word they’re saying. What Barney and the mum actually do with the body of his dead boss is pure Joe Orton and while the panto shenanigans are going on, Carlyle entertains us with jaunty camera angles to indicate mental disorientation, a twangy guitar on the soundtrack and some visual nods to films we might have seen (The Third Man is referenced quite heavily, just for a bit of fun). It’s shot too much against the light – which used, in the 1970s, to indicate that you had a budget and film to spare because it’s so hard to do. Now it just looks like a pointless stylish tic. But that’s actually my only quibble with it. Tom Courtenay, James Cosmo, Ashley Jensen and Martin Compston all breeze on, and add their own tang. Highly enjoyable.

The Legend of Barney Thompson – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Magic Mike XXL (Warner, cert 15)

Well if it ever was an XXL it must have shrunk in the wash, because this sequel to the “Channing Tatum takes his clothes off” original is very unimpressive as a package. Newbies need to know that it’s still loosely based on Tatum’s time as an exotic dancer, and that it chooses the “getting the gang back together” form of sequel, sending the bickering dancers off on a road trip of pretty immense pointlessness. No one involved at the writing/directing/producing end seems to know what to do in terms of plot (scant) and character development (none), and the bump and grind sequences, when they come, are as much a relief as a diversion. Ah, the “dancing”? It’s very good again, particularly the big finale, shot, I suspect, at a real convention, where the fans deliver much needed hysterical atmosphere as various professional strippers do their thing. These apart, it’s a film of comings and goings, meetings and greetings, “Hey dude” hellos and “Later dude” goodbyes, with just enough female interaction thrown in to safeguard against accusations of being, you know, gay porn. Not that anyone isn’t comfortable with the idea of gayness etc etc. Love interest Amber Heard is the best thing in it, again proving she’s a natural in the Sienna Miller mould. And Gregory Jacobs, here the director but really more a second unit man, fails to demonstrate any real grasp of the bigger picture – individual scenes cohere, the whole doesn’t. Or maybe I’m asking more of it than it’s offering. Channing Takes His Clothes Off being the entire happy meal.

Magic Mike XXL – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Best of Enemies (Dogwoof, cert 15)

In 1968, instead of spending vast sums covering the political conventions properly, struggling ABC network got in pundits Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr to discuss what had gone down. The shows they featured on have since become legendary, largely because of the mutual hostility of the two men, who quickly departed from any pre-agreed agenda and went at each other hammer and tongs. Democrat Vidal believed Buckley to be a fascist; Republican Buckley knew Vidal to be gay and in the opening show refers to him as “feline”, before coming out with the full range of insults – whose ad hominem nature lost him the entire debate – further down the line (I won’t ruin it). In opening remarks, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary claims that these encounters were important because they laid the foundations of today’s culture wars in America. But the directors don’t actually pursue this line of argument, and prefer instead to focus on this pair of puffballs – one bouffant, the other reptilian – insulting each other. It’s great fun, though it’s a case of more heat than light. Was Buckley himself gay, as Vidal later went on to assert, as the pair of them took their slanging match first into the magazines and then to the courts? We don’t know, and we probably don’t care. But the pair of them are most remarkable florid, learned and able speakers, who can launch into a sentence without a safety net, against whom the modern talking heads commenting from a distance (including Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky) come up second best. As for who really won – it’s an open call.

Best of Enemies – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

9 November 2015-11-09

Saoirse the kelpie goes for a swim

 

Out This Week

 

 

Song of the Sea (StudioCanal, cert PG)

The Irish tricolour is firmly nailed to the mast in the follow-up to Tomm Moore’s animation The Secret of Kells – opening and end credits are in Gaelic – a whimsical tale of a young lad unaware that his dumb younger sister is in fact a kelpie, a mythical sea creature. Moore has set out to do the things with animation that Pixar rarely does, using its possibilities in a more expressive, impressionistic way, recalling Studio Ghibli and Sylvain Chomet, though the resolutely 2D approach also contains echoes of Noggin the Nog and other Smallfilms productions. The story is pure Ghibli though – children, separated from parents, off on an adventure together, in the company of enchanted animals, a quest story that’s simple and easy to digest. The same can’t quite be said for the tendency towards Oirishry – Brendan Gleeson (as lighthouse keeper dad) lays it on thick, to be sure – and there’s that slight tugging suspicion that by recoursing to old legends based in an undisputed ethnicity, Moore is ducking some of the discomforts of multi-cultural identity (part of what might be called the shadowy “ethnic European” tendency of the past decade or so). But while the viewer’s focus is on the animation there’s unlikely to be a quibble, because it is genuinely lovely, free and fluid. The way, for example that the Old English sheepdog accompanying the children will turn into a teardrop when sad, or the way the father’s gigantic protecting hand resembles a large homely ham. I had deep misgivings about The Secret of Kells, and its espousal of the “feel, don’t think” mantra – the Star Wars legacy. Song of the Sea is all about feeling too, but this time with our eyes open, using the evidence of the senses. So, if a kelpie is what your daughter or sister appears to be, you should give consideration to the fact that it might be true. Here endeth the lesson.

Song of the Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Palio (Altitude, cert 12)

From the producers of Senna, the blurb said somewhere, as if that meant anything at all. Except in this case it seems to. Because Palio is a similarly urgent, fascinating documentary, and it combines knowledge about a world most of us know nothing about, with a simple story of an underdog trying to have his day. The world is the Palio, the horse race run in Siena twice a year, in costumes and under conditions that can’t have changed much since the 15th century. And the men are a young buck called Giovanni Atzeni, the protégé of one-time champ Bastiano, and the reigning 13-time king of the course, Bruschelli, a wily, tough ball of gristle whose face betrays his nervousness at the arrival of this upstart, who looks, it must be said, like not much of a threat at all. Maybe Bruschelli’s anxiousness is down to his being a middle-aged man in a young man’s game. And what a game it is – a brutal hurl three times around a track the size and shape of a large city roundabout (albeit one hedged by beautiful Renaissance Italian buildings), at each of whose tight corners horses are likely to skid off, jockey might career into walls, the tangle of horses might collapse in an almighty pile-up of bone and muscle. The whole thing is rigged, in Italian style quite openly, with moneyed jockeys able to pay lesser riders to hold back or obstruct an opponent. And the rules include being able to beat a rivals horse repeatedly across the muzzle with your whip, not to mention punching, kicking, whatever it takes during the race’s brief 90 second-ish duration. Director Cosima Spender carefully gentles us into the world, so that by the time we see the first of the two races, we know exactly who the men are, and how the race is run. I was so gripped it was as if I had backed one of the riders. And then, for the second race (which I initially thought was a bridge too far), she does it again. No knowledge or love of horses or horse racing required.

Palio – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Beatles 1 (Apple, cert E)

Here’s a fairly simple proposition – that Beatles CD of remastered US/UK number ones which came out about 15 years ago, its visual equivalent. The CD sold by the containerload and I suspect this DVD/Blu-ray will too. What you get is the promo vid to each song. But hang on, some will say, weren’t promo vids invented by Queen with Bohemian Rhapsody? No, they weren’t, though the myth persists, largely because of the cannibalistic nature of TV documentary research. Digression over. Here, simply arranged with a simple bright red intertitle card announcing each one, are the hits from 1962’s Love Me Do to 1970’s The Long and Winding Road, the early years mostly composed of black and white TV footage, or promos shot in the studio. These have cleaned up spectacularly, and look great, even though many have clearly used originals from the days of 405-lines TV. When 1966’s Paperback Writer kicks in, shot on colour film, the effect is electric. If you like the Beatles, you’ll already have a favourite. If you don’t, you might be surprised to note how tight the band is, how driving Ringo’s drumming is on Day Tripper, those uncanny and unique harmonies that Lennon and McCartney were so adept at in the early days, and how we’re witnessing the invention of the modern world of lifestyle as we watch four lads initially presented as working lads, banging away on their instruments, straining for the high notes. By the later promos, they’re just, you know, hanging out. The second disc contains the B reel material, which hasn’t been subjected to same fanatical level of restoration.

The Beatles 1 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Brand: A Second Coming (Metrodome, cert 15)

The last film I saw by Ondi Timoner was 2009’s We Live in Public, her exhaustive and fascinating documentary about Josh Harris, one of the first wave of internet entrepreneurs. Compared to Harris, Russell Brand is nowhere near as interesting, though there’s obviously mileage in the story of a comedian/junkie whose ADHD restlessness has driven him towards politics – fame is the lure, we’re led to believe, as it possibly was when Brand embarked on a Hollywood career, or married Katy Perry. The film divides into two halves – the story so far (in brief: raised by his mum, abandoned by his spitting-image cheeky-chappie dad, who took him to hooker parties when Russell was 16, an early show-off, a self-starting stand-up who played to empty rooms, early success, total drugs flame-out, rehab, Sachsgate etc etc). Then it’s on to where he is now, a political conversion prompted by a Comic Relief visit to Africa, where he spent some time with Kenyan kids who sorted rubbish on a gigantic festering dump. This ultimately led him to write his book, Revolution, which he understands will ostracise him from the very media who made him. “I’ve got a limited life now, using the machinery of my old life to promote my new life,” he says, astutely, before blowing into some US TV daytime news show and completely dominating it like a circus ringmaster or music-hall MC – the styles of entertainer he most closely resembles. At some level Brand is a dreadful foghorn of a man. But he’s a useful foghorn – at the GQ Man of the Year awards when he pointed out that one of its sponsors was Hugo Boss, who made uniforms for the Nazis, he made clear the reacharound relationship of the media and big business. It’s a free media, as we’re often told, but it’s their free media. In the same way Brand is “a narcissist, but I’m your narcissist”, he yodels to a crowd at one of his shows, a mix of comedy and consciousness-raising that situates Brand in the line of Bill Hicks, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. We see Brand hashing out the relationship between fame and integrity with Katy Perry (while they were married), with Stephen Merchant, David Lynch and Mike Tyson. Apart from his honesty about his dishonesty, it’s this boundary-crossing restlessness that is the most interesting aspect of the man, why he’s so derided in some quarters (for getting involved in the New Era housing demonstrations in East London, for example) and written off in others. Jeremy Paxman, who snottily interviewed him on TV, reckons that when it comes to politics “he’s divined something that people feel”. And he’s right, something’s is amiss with politics right now, and neither left nor right (nor even those labels) can fix it. “Don’t follow him, for god’s sake,” laughs one of Brand’s friends in this fascinating documentary with a tendency, like Brand, to ramble. The friend is probably right.

Brand: A Second Coming – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Technotise: Edit & I (Simply, cert 15)

A mix of the glorious and the not so great, this grungy animation from Serbia – an event in itself – is like an episode of Scooby Doo as written by a rogue team of escapees from 2000AD comics. It’s obsessed with war, fixated on pneumatic female breasts and centres on a hot female student on a Alice-like Wonderland quest (after having a memory chip implanted to help her pass exams) in Belgrade in 2074. Slobodan Milosevic turns up in a flashback, and there’s the lingering suspicion that the whole thing is in fact an allegory about the recent Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian nastiness. A feeling reinforced by the distinctly retro look of some of the hover-vehicles. Is that a Trabant? The animation is tasty though, in the way it shifts perspectives in a highly dynamic way, and its use of expressionism to convey inner thoughts sets it in a distinctly European animation tradition, a welcome change from the pursuit of realism which Pixar and wannabes seem to be on. Take an E and watch it – if the title weren’t clue enough, it is all a bit 90s.

Technotise: Edit & I – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Self/less (EV, cert 12)

Tarsem Singh is a bloody good lighting cameraman who should never have been given a directing gig. After The Cell, The Fall, Immortals and Mirror Mirror – all dire – he returns with his latest go at film-making with an in-theory-fascinating story about a billionaire buying a young man’s body. Ben Kingsley is the mortally ill billionaire, Ryan Reynolds the young man, an empty vessel who has been grown in a hydroponic tank and is lying there ready to be personated. Personised? Of course, it turns out that the whole “grown in a tank” story is bollocks and in fact Reynolds is a mind-wiped real person with a history and everything, which the billionaire, now inhabiting the limber body, sets out to find. Hang on, you might think at this point, why is a mega-rich man who has shown not the beginnings of an interest in humanity suddenly discovering a soul at this point? Has his brush with death humanised him? Or his proximity to someone else’s more virtuous – because simple and poor – existence? Singh allows Reynolds to give us no clue. Instead, after some fun scenes in which the old/young man – in superhero-first-discovering-powers style – puts his new bod through its paces (sex and fast cars), it seems cointent to devolve into a basic running/shooting chase thriller. Singh is a wood/trees director. Individual scenes are fine – a car chase here, some action there, a lot of Apple product placement pretty much everywhere. But he’s no idea how to weld things into a whole. Nor has he any idea where the drama in any given scene is, or should be. In one tiny, emblematic moment, we see a car driving into a gas station, an establishing shot which takes Singh about eight edits, of which seven are unnecessary. And, for all its neatness of concept, great looks, occasional action highlight, fine acting, choice locations, and so on, that’s the story of the whole film – flabby. Cut out half an hour and we might be getting somewhere. Another Tarsem Singh movie is already in development. Please God.

Self/less – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

2 November 2015-11-02

Amy Winehouse

 

Out This Week

 

Amy (Universal, cert 15)

Amy is a misery-memoir documentary about the singer Amy Winehouse, whose life ended at the age of 27 after she drank herself to death – years of bulimia had rendered her body too weak to cope with booze as well as the crack, smack and partying she’d put it through. Director Asif Kapadia proceeds in much the same way as he did with his film Senna – hide the fact that it’s a talking-head doc by laying archive footage, newspaper headlines, TV appearances, radio interviews with Amy, whatever you’ve got, over the recollections of journalists who interviewed her, musicians who worked with her, friends, parents, and so on. Kapadia doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff – we see Amy drunk on stage in Belgrade towards the end of her life being booed by a crowd who just wanted her to sing. We see her being harried by the paparazzi every time she went into or came out of a building. And Kapadia has been gifted Amy’s music, such personal stuff, and so lovelorn and despairing that it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Did Amy smile? What made her laugh? Did she enjoy spending time with family or friends? These are the sort of questions that aren’t answered, and the suggestion is always there that the “lady sings the blues” agenda overrides all other considerations in this blatantly one-sided though finely crafted chronological collage. There’s also no assessment of her talent, or of the directions she might have gone in had she lived – Amy Winehouse’s best work, relying perhaps less on musical pastiche, was surely ahead of her.

Amy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Manglehorn (Curzon, cert 12)

Like Danny Collins before it, Manglehorn is a vehicle for Al Pacino with the star’s character named in the title, and another attempt by the actor to hit the reset button and atone for too many years of booming, tic-driven, phoned-in performances. It’s a David Gordon Green film, and so it’s demure, quiet, and beautifully shot by Tim Orr – again the 1970s colour casts and wistful flare in the lens, though this time it seems appropriate, what with Pacino the man and washed-up Manglehorn the character being its focus. I’ve read some snarky reviews about this film – how Pacino is always playing to and against his baggage, in effect – but that really isn’t the case here. In fact he’s really quietly excellent and makes compelling what might not otherwise be – a simple story of a smalltown locksmith who has grown increasingly isolated over the years, but who’s offered a chance at reconnection to the human race thanks to the interest of a bank teller he visits with his takings once a week. Holly Hunter – where’s she been? – is the teller, and makes this a touching two-hander where both players are in exactly the same key. A sweet fugue about, and perhaps for, the lonely.

Manglehorn – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Get Santa (Warner, cert U)

Some films work in spite of themselves. Get Santa is just such a film, a simple story about Saint Nick (Jim Broadbent) getting lost on Christmas Eve, and the efforts of a newly released jailbird (Rafe Spall) and his estranged son (Kit Connor) to “save Christmas” by connecting (mythical) man and machine back up. As deliberately and defiantly British as the Shakin’ Stevens Christmas song on the soundtrack, though clearly Hollywood inspired, it’s brilliantly cast – Joanna Scanlan as Spall’s severe parole officer, Warwick Davis as a diminutive jailbird who’s inevitably going to be the butt of the “elf” joke. Or should that be the Elf joke? Ewen Bremner is a cock-eyed cop, Stephen Graham the decent lag who ends up helping Santa. Christopher Smith directs, and he’s miles away from his usual horror turf (Creep, Black Death and Triangle), and perhaps that’s the reason for the slightly breathless, scrappy pantomime quality to the whole thing. The musical score bangs and huffs away as if someone had got hold of a John Williams Soundtrack app and the CG is absolutely average. However, the big things all work, its heart is in the right place, Broadbent is a lovely Santa and when it commands you to thrill, or laugh, or well up, you probably will.

Get Santa – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Lambert and Stamp (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Here’s the story of the fun, flamboyant, optimistic and socially mobile 1960s rendered in a documentary about two guys – one posh, one an oik – who took a band called the High Numbers and made them into The Who. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the former privately educated, Oxford and the Army, happy to be interviewed in German or French, the latter brimming with East End vigour (and, incidentally, the brother of Terence Stamp, who turns up a couple of times to add a bit of glam), these guys wanted to be directors, and so, in Situationist 1960s fashion, went out and found a band so they could make their own A Hard Day’s Night with a London accent. Luckily, and entirely accidentally, one of the band of relatively ugly geezers they found could write songs. The rest is history. Luckily for director James D Cooper, there are a lot of people in his film who can talk – Pete Townshend admits freely that he was incredibly nervous about Lambert and Stamp’s method of creating a feedback loop whereby, in the early days of the band’s residency at the Marquee club in Soho the band would shift in attack and look depending on their punters’ expectations. The audience, he reflects, “was my patron”. Roger Daltrey is also frank about tensions caused by the grooming of Townshend by the managerial duo, in particular Lambert, who took it upon himself to broaden Townshend’s musical horizons. Lambert is now dead, and the film really misses his look back in languor at the events of five decades ago. But Stamp is good value. As is Townshend’s old dope-smoking college buddy Richard Barnes. For anyone seeking to emulate the skin-of-their-teeth approach of Lambert and Stamp, the key lesson to take away is – have an address in Money London. That way extended lines of credit can be yours. And it helps to have a famous actor knocking about in the background, for regular cash injections. And someone, somewhere, who can write songs. Ultimately, though this is fascinating, informative and enjoyable, it’s more about The Who than their managers. A bit of mis-selling Lambert and Stamp in their heyday would doubtless have approved of.

Lambert and Stamp – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (Universal, cert 12)

With documentaries on Fela Kuti, Hunter S Thompson, Lance Armstrong and James Brown behind him, Alex Gibney is looking like the go-to guy when it comes to awkward customers. The Apple co-founder is his latest, and he approaches it with a simple question – why did so many people mourn his death in 2011? Gibney never quite gets his answer, though he covers a lot of ground examining this odd man from cradle to grave, a charming asshole, if the evidence is to be believed. Jobs’s key realisation, something that no other maker of tech gear understood, is that the relationship between human and computer in the future was going to be intimate – and he spent his entire life designing and marketing bits and pieces that reflected this simple but ultimately devastatingly differentiating idea. It was phones and music, after all, that brought Apple back from the dead, the rounded corners and pretty colours, plus that lower case “i” in front of everything. For “intimate” – it seems so obvious now. In personal relationships, we hear that Jobs was in one of three states with people – ignoring, charming or vilifying them, whether it was people who worked for him, or those close to him. He “blew it” is the verdict of Chrisann Brennan, mother of the daughter he initially refused to acknowledge. And there’s a telling anecdote from Steve Wozniak – Apple co-founder and old friend – who relates that Jobs gave him $350, his 50/50 cut of cash they had earned for programming down at Hewlett Packard when they were kids. In fact Jobs had been paid $7,000, but didn’t tell Woz. Possibly, that’s all you need to know: the guy was a liar and a cheat. And the fact that this mountebank became a 21st-century guru perhaps says more about us than Apple, the “counterculture company” mistreating its workers in China, pulling most of its domestic philanthropic programs once it got big, barely paying any taxes, working to stymie the careers of key personnel and manipulating stock options for massive personal gain. Scratch a hippie, find a fascist, as someone once said. And in Jobs, Buddhist chanting or no, that seems to be just what Gibney has found.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Messenger (Metrodome, cert 15)

Robert Sheehan can be a global star if he wants to be. Pausing, perhaps, on the road, he stars in this dour psycho-thriller about a guy who sees dead people and, as we pick up the story, is in fact being followed around by the ghost of a recently dead investigative reporter looking to get help comforting his grieving widow. Sheehan runs through various interpretations of the word “harrowed” in a performance that tries to hold together a plot that’s simply moving too slow. Perhaps that’s because writer Andrew Kirk is writing to a pace he’s learnt from scripting the soap Emmerdale. David Blair, director of The Lakes on TV, keeps things visually murky, mirroring a plot that plays peekaboo with Sheehan’s mental state. Is he schizophrenic? Or perhaps traumatised after finding his dad dead in the garden shed when he was a kid? Or is he genuinely psychic? It’s not The Sixth Sense, but towards the end things do start to move in a genuinely interesting direction, as Blair and Kirk swap one explanation out for another in a quick shuffle of possibilities. Watch if for Sheehan, if nothing else.

The Messenger – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015