The Best Films of 2015

Caren Pistorius in Slow West

 

 

 

There’s a tendency among people who watch a lot of films to boost ones that stand out rather than ones that are good. This can lead to some perverse choices in the “best of” lists that proliferate at this time of year. So that probably explains the rogue nature of the list below – ha ha. If you’re expecting to find Spectre (not at all bad) or the latest Marvel movie or Jurassic World, look elsewhere. These are just the films, of the maybe 350 films or so that I’ve watched in the past 12 months, that jumped out and grabbed me. Some of them are 2014 releases.

 

 

 

 

Ten Best

 

 

Paddington (dir: Paul King)

Operating in Mary Poppins territory, this adaptation of Michael Bond’s books is charming, funny and clever, has jokes for kids and some more thoughtful though never intrusive observations for adults, integrates the animated bear from darkest Peru with the live action brilliantly and there’s even an action-star gag by support-playing baddie Nicole Kidman that’s aimed at ex-husband Tom Cruise.

 

Wild (dir: Jean-Marc Vallée)

The redemptive drama is a hard sell, but this one about a broken woman’s long trek to self-realisation works in every way. Reese Witherspoon is believably frail as the wee girl dwarfed by her huge rucksack (metaphor), director Jean-Marc Vallée uses music perfectly and does something many directors have forgotten all about – he structures his film visually, using the editing suite to full advantage. His compositional work is remarkable.

 

Ex Machina (dir: Alex Garland)

Just as we are realising that technology’s grip is icy, and Google might not be our friend, along comes Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a dystopian slab of hard sci-fi in which geeky Domhnall Gleeson falls for robot Alicia Vikander while hipster tech uberlord Oscar Isaac looks on. A three-hander – give or take – getting perfect performances from all concerned, and it glistens like a tiny, beautifully cut gem.

 

Kajaki (dir: Paul Katis)

A gaggle of British squaddies with names like Tug, Spud and Smudge wander into a minefield and suddenly their casually homophobic banter is replaced by focused professionalism and a sharp interest in staying alive. Gruesomely tense, horrific in its depiction of the damage inflicted by IEDs, is this the best British war film since Ice Cold in Alex? It’s a great war film by any standards.

 

It Follows (dir: David Robert Mitchell)

Sexual intercourse as an engine of death isn’t new in horror films, but It Follows finds a simple and brilliant new way of telling the story all over again – zombies who are “slow but not dumb” and might appear any time, any place, anywhere, dressed in nightwear or perhaps not very much at all. A lurchingly subjective camera, expressionistic framing and Disasterpeace’s Wendy Carlos-alike score help rack up the intensity even further.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir: Ana Lily Amirpour)

The Muslim jilbab as a kind of vampire’s cape – what a brilliantly observed idea that is in one of the strangest horror films of recent times, which combines something of the mass-observation aesthetic of photographer Sebastião Salgado with the disjointed cool of early Jim Jarmusch. Shot entirely in California, yet clearly a film about and for Iran, it’s a fascinating, Middle Eastern take on the Let the Right One In “innocent vampire” genre.

 

Slow West (dir: John Maclean)

Michael Fassbender’s astonishing run continues with this out-of-nowhere debut by John Maclean, an exquisitely wrought western making clear its debt to old pulp novels and their love of hard-tack glamour and salty danger. Tense as hell, in fact the whole film is one long, slow build towards a great finale. And it looks the business too.

 

Aferim! (dir: Radu Jude)

There hasn’t been a great Romanian film for about ten minutes, but here’s a slightly different sort than what we’re used to – a historical picaresque following an 1830s cop and his son as they seek to capture a Gypsy and return him to his owner, a rich boyar whose wife has been too free with her favours. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon inspires some of the look and pace of it, and Don Quixote is clearly also a reference, though Cervantes didn’t finish on as gruesomely gripping a high as this does.

 

Theeb (dir: Naji Abu Nowar)

It takes a while for it to sink in, but what we have in Theeb – as we follow the exploits of the youngest son of a Bedouin tribe in the Laurence of Arabia-era desert – is a story straight out of Rider Haggard territory. It’s the sort of ripping adventure that once upon a time emboldened Spielberg and Lucas to make Indiana Jones but is done without a cocked eyebrow here, with genuine danger, tough decisions, cruel fate and a bit of socio-economic background (the collapse of the Ottoman Empire) all adding spice.

 

Mommy (dir: Xavier Dolan)

With Tom at the Farm it became clear that Xavier Dolan was something of a genius. Mommy is further proof, a tough drama about the stumbling relationship of a flaky mother (Anne Dorval), her aggressive, firecracker ADHD teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and their nervous neighbour (Suzanne Clément). It wears its emotions out there on a selfie stick – “fuck off” in this film often means “I love you” – and there are at least two scenes so powerful you might have to remind yourself to breathe.

 

 

 

Honourable Mentions

 

Victoria Almeida in What's Left of Us
Victoria Almeida drives the boys crazy in What’s Left of Us

 

 

Appropriate Behaviour (dir: Desiree Akhavan)

The life and times of a second generation Iranian, or of a confused bisexual, or of a girl in the big city, or of a struggling 20something – Desiree Akhavan gets it all just right in this through-the-fingers New York comedy.

 

Maps to the Stars (dir: David Cronenberg)

Still Alice won her the acting accolades, but Julianne Moore is actually better in this return to nightmarishness for David Cronenberg, as a fading star and member of a family for whom the term fucked really doesn’t cover it. The Player meets Sunset Boulevard.

 

Life After Beth (dir: Jeff Baena)

Aubrey Plaza gives it her absolute all as a newly dead zombie trying to have a relationship with old boyfriend Dane DeHaan – who finds her a whole lot more into him than she used to be – in a genuinely inventive comedy made all the better by the presence of John C Reilly and Molly Shannon as Plaza’s concerned parents. Dead funny.

The Tribe (dir: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Shot entirely in Lithuanian sign language, acted by first-timers and set in a school for the deaf where a new boy finds that the descriptor “sex and violence” barely covers what’s going on, this film sounds like a stunt – and it obviously is to some extent – but it’s a stunt that works. And the lack of dialogue is no bar to understanding when emotion this direct and action this unambiguous is concerned.

The Babadook (dir: Jennifer Kent)

There’s a touch of The Innocents in this highly atmospheric Aussie horror about a mother driven to desperation by her needy child. Or is it the child we need to feel worried for? Sure, it goes slack in the middle, and becomes over-focused on telling us that writer/director Jennifer Kent has seen a whole load of old horror movies, but wait for the finale – barking, scary and brilliant.

 

The Book of Life (dir: Jorge R Gutierrez)

A Mexican flavoured animation with a Day of the Dead theme and a plot with a distinct Orpheus and Eurydice flavour – she’s dead and he goes after her into the underworld (ish). The visuals are spaghetti western meets Ren and Stimpy, the songs are jaunty and mariachi-flavoured and the voicework (Ice Cube in particular) is exemplary.

 

Pictures of the Old World (dir: Dusan Hanák)

“The best Slovak film ever made”, the reputation of Dusan Hanák’s disarmingly simple documentary from the early 1970s – about the dirt poor lives of ancient peasants up in the back of beyond – is entirely deserved. “I’m going to die this year, I can feel it,” says one old timer. And that’s what it’s about – quite starkly. Death.

 

Two Night Stand (dir: Max Nichols)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, It Happened One Night and The Dick Van Dyke Show are all in the mix in this subversive comedy about a girl (Analeigh Tipton) who has hook-up sex with a stranger (Miles Teller) and then gets stuck in his apartment. Old-school screwball romance follows, charmingly, smartly and at speed.

 

Predestination (dir: Michael and Peter Spierig)

Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi story All You Zombies provides the backbone for the Spierig brothers’ follow-up to the similarly idea-crammed Daybreakers, a “guy walks into a bar” tale of a hermaphrodite (Sarah Snook) who walks into Ethan Hawke’s bar and tells him a story about time travel and the paradoxes that erupt from it. Refreshingly hard sci-fi.

 

Frequencies aka OXV: The Manual (dir: Darren Paul Fisher)

Strip away the romance and what is human courtship about? Status, clearly, according to this lo-fi, highly fascinating film about “what happens when a high frequency meets a low frequency” – hot, smart girl meets average guy, in other words. It’s patchily acted and a bit speechy towards the end, but there are enough ideas in this bizarre film for about 12 Hollywood blockbusters.

Turned towards the Sun (dir: Greg Olliver)

A simple and revelatory documentary about 90-something poet and Second World War hero Micky Burn, a long-form visual version of a Daily Telegraph obituary whose power lies in the richness of Burn’s Zelig-like life. He was – just one for-instance – the guy in the secret radio room at Colditz.

 

What’s Left of Us aka El Desierto (dir: Christoph Behl)

A simple but powerful Argentinian zombie movie about a girl, a boy and another boy all locked up together in a house while the world goes to hell in a handcart outside. And inside, it turns out, once sexual dynamics and the fallout of a fetid love triangle start to exert themselves. Victoria Almeida is a powerful and provocative lead, the sexy counterweight to the hothouse atmosphere of death.

 

Tusk (dir: Kevin Smith)

Kevin Smith reminds us how good he can be with a film about a guy (Justin Long) being turned into a walrus by a demented surgeon (Michael Parks) while his much-cheated-on girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) searches for him. A simple film, it somehow manages to be funny and appallingly gruesome at the same time.

 

Face of an Angel (dir: Michael Winterbottom)

Michael Winterbottom’s drama takes the bones of the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case and constructs a brilliant meditation on the modus operandi of the media, as well as a modern-day Dante and Beatrice tale in which film-maker Daniel Brühl is smitten by virginal Cara Delevingne, as anyone watching probably will be too.

 

While We’re Young (dir: Noah Baumbach)

Not-as-young-as-they-once-were couple Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts try to keep up with hipsters Adam Horovitz and Amanda Seyfried in a very Jewish New York comedy – smart, dry, a touch bitter – about the importance of being not just true to yourself, but of doing this absolutely and totally properly.

White God aka Fehér Isten (dir: Kornél Mudruczó)

Kicking off with a quote by Rilke, this unique Hungarian film is like a Disney animal flick about the adventures of a mongrel, except done as existential sci-fi – what exactly would happen if dogs had the same degree of consciousness that humans have?

 

The Salvation (dir: Kristian Levring)

Director Kristian Levring used to be a Dogme man, but shouts “I’m so over all that now” with this remarkable western that’s like a fusion of Sergio Leone, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich, with a perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen as a Clint Eastwood-alike quester after vengeance. If looks could kill…

 

Run All Night (dir: Jaume Collet-Serra)

Another of Liam Neeson’s geri-actioners, though this time he’s back with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a deliberately retro dash for the finish in which strong, silent Neeson takes on the good guys, the bad guys and eventually the whole of New York. Hugely overwrought, entirely satisfying, it’s genre done properly.

 

Still the Water aka Tutatsume no mado (dir: Naomi Kawase)

If Douglas Sirk had been Japanese he might have come up with this overheated love story about teenage lovers hedging towards full penetrative sex as the waves crash, storms rage and their families conspire against them. Leisurely, beautiful, lusty and lovely, an unusual mix of the entirely natural and the gigantically metaphorical.

 

Phoenix (dir: Christian Petzold)

The latest of a string of dark, intelligent films that director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss have made together is a revenge drama set in the aftermath of the Second World War where Hoss, just released from a death camp, is recruited by her own husband to play his dead wife – he doesn’t recognise her, obviously – and she plays along. Oh deary deary me.

Marshland aka La Isla Mínima (dir: Alberto Rodriguez)

Stunningly good-looking policier about an ageing Franco-supporting cop and his younger more democratic sidekick investigating a murder out in the photogenic Guadalquivir marshes in 1980. Brilliantly acted and shot, with locations and music to match, it’s even got does a car chase in an entirely new way. Did I mention how good it looks?

 

Little Accidents (dir: Sara Colangelo)

Old school 1970s-style humane ensemble drama with a standout Boyd Holbrook as a survivor of a terrible mining disaster whose testimony about the event at an upcoming hearing are going to decide the futures of a whole lot of people in town. An ambling drawl of a movie, with Elizabeth Banks and Jacob Lofland almost as good as Holbrook, surely a star of 2016.

Turbo Kid (dir: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoan-Karl Whissell)

Utterly on-the-nail pastiche of 1980s straight-to-VHS movie-making, a post-apocalyptic Total Recall meets Mad Max story of a BMX-riding kid, called Kid, gaining special powers, falling for a special girl (a special Laurence Leboeuf) and saving the world. Funny and gory, with in-jokes for nerds, and a fabulous John Carpenter-like soundtrack by Le Matos.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir: George Miller)

Pedal-to-the-metal furious punk-funk madness, with a barely speaking Tom Hardy as Max, the road warrior on the road with badass Charlize Theron (the film’s real star) while director George Miller obsessively choreographs the relentless chase/action mayhem around them.

 

Tomorrowland (dir: Brad Bird)

Whatever happened to the futurism of jet packs and flying cars? Brad Bird answers the question with jaw-dropping visuals in a modern-day Wizard of Oz quest-adventure coolly received by critics with ass/elbow disassociation disorder.

 

Cop Car (dir: Jon Watts)

Another of those great Kevin Bacon movies he comes up with every few years, with our guy as a really bad cop on the trail of a couple of kids who have nicked his car, unaware there’s something in the boot they really don’t want to be discovering. A high-concept B movie of real distinction, lean, simple and with smart, believable dialogue, especially for the kids.

 

Palio (dir: Cosima Spender)

A remarkable documentary about the Palio, a horse race run in Siena, Italy, twice a year, which takes such pains to introduce us to its characters – chiefly, the young buck hoping to steal the grizzled champion’s crown – that when the race kicks off, you’re really in the medieval square with the riders.

Minions (dir: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin)

After the boring Despicable Me 2, who’d have thought that a spin-off – the backstory of Gru’s little yellow helpers – would have worked this well. Brilliantly animated and written, it’s a breathless, idea-packed, funny, inventive animated comedy.

 

I Believe in Miracles (dir: Jonny Owen)

Even if you have no interest in the 1970s, or British football, or managerial legend Brian Clough, this documentary about his astonishing success and idiosyncratic style will have you hooked. “The most charismatic man I ever met,” says one former player, part of the team of underdogs he willed to European Cup success, twice.

 

 

And if you want to watch or buy any of the films, this Amazon link will allow you to do just that – enjoy!

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

21 December 2015-12-21

Rupert Friend and Hannah Ware in Hitman: Agent 47

 

Out This Week

 

North V South (Metrodome, cert 18)

For reasons beyond human wit, the British gangster thriller has become a Christmas fixture, perhaps because it’s endangered, like the brussel sprout. This year’s front-runner takes the gang battle format – there’s a northern mob led by Bernard Hill, and a southern lot led by Steven Berkoff – adds a Romeo and Juliet romance subplot in the shape of a fixer for Hill (Elliott Tittensor) and the daughter of Berkoff (Charlotte Hope), then loads up with wrong’uns (Keith Allen, Geoff Bell, Freema Agyeman) and an exotic (Dom Monot in an Udo Kier role as a raging transvestite psychopath hitman), shakes and stands back. The actors are what make it, with Berkoff and Hill on particularly fine sweary form – if you enjoy people calling each other a cunt, this is your film – though writer/director Steven Nesbit also seemed determined to let us know he knows his Shakespeare, with a King Lear “who will inherit my shit” subplot also intruding, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern avatars turning up in the shape of Brad Moore and Geoff Bell, as a pair of florid verbal henchmen cracking geezerish at the periphery. And there’s a voiceover by Tittensor and Hope. Like Christmas, it’s all a bit overstuffed, with our young lovers as the bread sauce component – bland but probably necessary. Kyle Heslop’s cinematography comes with some lovely visual flourishes, and the soundtrack adds its own depth of atmosphere as things tensely wind towards a very claret-y finish. Like last year’s The Guvnors, and the year before’s Lords of London, North V South strangely defies expectation by being well worth checking out.

North V South – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Precinct Seven Five (E One, cert 15)

“Welcome to the land of Fuck,” says former cop Ken Eurell near the beginning of this documentary, also known as The Seven Five, which tells a tale that would be the stuff of a new Scorsese film, if Scorsese were still making this sort of film. And the central character, disgraced former cop Mikey Dowd, is its Joe Pesci, a fast-talking ball of smug, whaddyagonnado shrugs who sings like a canary about his time as the 75th Precinct’s bentest bad copper. The film kicks off with archive footage showing Dowd confessing to a Grand Jury around 20 years ago and then goes back to the beginning, to tell the story of a smart but greedy rookie cop whorealised there was money to be made on the streets of a city awash with guns and drugs – it was the 1980s. Precinct Seven Five is peopled with characters who look like central casting regulars, mainly the other ex cops who were Dowd’s buddies, and all give off that fuck-you odour of testosterone and middle-aged resignation. Though best of all is Adam Diaz, one of the various drugs barons Dowd and his fellows ended up henching for, a character so fly with his tidy beard, jaunty cap and designer shades, so loquacious – “I don’t like ghetto music. I don’t like that shit. I like Julio Iglesias and Bryan Adams,” – that if Tarantino had created this guy you’d be marking him down for cliched misrepresentation. “I consider myself to be a cop and a gangster,” says Dowd at one point, not a shred of regret, no visible remorse… and I’m not going to say any more about his story, apart from the fact that Dowd was pulling in $24,000 a week from Diaz at one point, that Internal Affairs also get involved, that there is murder, high living, fast cars, most of which you’d expect. But the beauty of Tiller Russell’s documentary is the willingness with which Dowd and fellow former buddies talk about what they did, but also the fact that the story just keeps getting bigger, badder and more amazing. And Russell’s also a dab hand at the dramatic reconstructions (sparsely used) and his editors (Chad Beck and James Carroll) should take a bow for the expert weaving together of original footage, reconstruction, library archive and contemporary talking heads. Very tasty indeed.

Precinct Seven Five aka The Seven Five – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Premature (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Rob, a high school lad, goes to sleep at night, only to awaken the next morning to a repeat of the previous day. But instead of Sonny & Cher on the alarm radio, in Groundhog Day style, he’s got nocturnal ejaculate all over his grey underpants. And the duvet thrown back. And his mother just walking into his bedroom. Premature makes no bones about where it’s coming from – as well as the Groundhog Day idea which forces Rob (John Karna) to repeat the day until he manages full penetrative sex, it throws in standard high-school rom-com stuff about our spunky hero lusting after the school hottie (Carlson Young), when his girl-next-door pal (Katie Findlay, quietly excellent) is not only pretty tasty, but also sweet, smart and likes him for who he is. Essentially, it’s a cheery comedy with an overlay of smut, never particularly funny but relentlessly wry and weird, and deals in such things as the difficulty of getting mayonnaise out of a beard, or piss from your trousers, or whether volleyball is a real sport, or the etiquette of threesomes. I was really not sure about John Karna and his side-parted hair as ejaculator-in-chief and the rest of the cast also felt like escapees from some Disney teen movie from an alternate universe. Maybe that was the idea. It’s been described almost everywhere as American Pie meets Groundhog Day, and of course that was probably the big sell at the pitch meeting. But there’s also something in here, in writing that deliberately wants to embrace “inappropriate” humour, that belongs to neither movie, and it’s there that the film is at its most interesting.

Premature – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Microbe and Gasoline (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Director Michel Gondry drops all the Eternal Sunshine/Mood Indigo whimsy for a refreshingly honest coming-of-ager about two French teenagers who meet at school – Daniel (nickname Microbe on account of his size) is serious and timid, Théo (nickname Gasoil on account of his clothes smelling of his dad’s garage) is well-read and outgoing – and end up becoming firm pals. And that’s it, really, a simple, heartwarming film about two people, a love story, if you will, that should appeal to 14- or 15-year-olds because it talks in language they will understand and approaches the world with a sense of wonder and frustration. In fact, there is actually a plot, about the pair of them building their own car, a sort of motorised shed, and setting off on a cross-country road trip in it. But in fact that’s just a Maguffin. This film is actually just about one boy being in the thrall of another, growing up a touch, and learning that coolness comes from being yourself, rather than having good hair. Great acting too.

Microbe and Gasoline – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Dark Valley (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Here’s a Clint Eastwood film, in all but name, starring Sam Riley as a 19th-century photographer arriving on horseback in a remote South Tyrol valley, where the locals are terrorised by a powerful family, and the droit de seigneur is exercised rigorously whenever a young woman marries. This Man with No Name doesn’t do that much photography for someone who’s ostensibly there for that purpose and director/co-writer Andreas Prochaska cuts Riley’s dialogue to the bone, to keep alive the idea that he might in fact be a German-speaking American. If you can’t guess what this stranger is really doing in the town, where he shacks up with a local family whose daughter is in love with a local swain, then you’ve probably not watched enough westerns. And all the types are present and correct – taciturn hero, giggling inbreed, timorous parson, complicit barkeep, bad cattle baron (adjust for Tyrolean setting). You don’t usually find Hitler popping up in a western, though, but he’s strongly evoked here in the character of local bad man Hans Brenner – a strong charismatic character (played pungently by Tobias Moretti) whose tyrannical rule is tacitly endorsed by the locals. It’s a good story, evocatively shot, with fabulous scenery and a camera-magnetic female lead in the shape of Paula Beer. What it does need is a little wipe down in the edit suite, a slight rethink on the amount of time given to the baddies (not enough) and a few changes of music choice (whimsical). Those cavils aside, an interesting, fascinating film.

The Dark Valley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Heist (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Heist isn’t a very good film but it does feature a strong performance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as a casino teller driven to stealing from his boss by his daughter’s life-threatening medical condition, and then compelled to take a busful of people hostage when the heist goes wrong. “Starring Robert De Niro” it says the box, and De Niro, in a performance that puts a Tony Bennett spin on his usual phoned-in turn, is the casino owner, a smug badass whose cold dead heart is kicked back into a sort of life when he visits his estranged daughter (Kate Bosworth), who now works handing out charity to poor folk, or some such – Bosworth fans (if there are any) should note that she’s only in it for a minute. This film is, in fact, full of people who aren’t painted in anything like enough detail. There’s Gina Carano as the cop on Morgan’s tail, in a nice understated performance, though her character makes no sense at all (she’d have been thrown out of the police for insubordination within the first five minutes of her appearance). There’s Dave Bautista, as Morgan’s psycho sidekick, the ranting yin to Morgan’s much more reasonable yang. There’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Carano’s bent boss. Morris Chestnut as De Niro’s henchman. A pregnant woman on the bus. Morgan’s sick daughter. The driver of the bus, for god’s sake, all given more time than seems necessary, not enough time to become properly established. However, I’ll recommend it for Morgan, who on the strength of his amiable and humane performance as a man pushed to desperate acts should really be hoovering up some of George Clooney’s roles.

Heist – Watch it/buy it from Amazon

 

 

 

Hitman: Agent 47 (Fox, cert 15)

Timothy Olyphant is out and Rupert Friend is in, as the automaton hitman with a barcode on his bald pate, in the uncalled-for sequel which also sees Hannah Ware deputising for Olga Kurylenko as the femme fatale. Neither does as well as the originals, but the film keeps the sub-Bourne nerviness of the original going. Cutting straight to the chase, as this game-derived chase actioner prides itself on doing, this must be the best made properly terrible film of the year. It consists of scene after scene of stuff we’ve seen before. Like that one where Agent 47 (Friend) is alone in a locked interrogation cell with his adversary – who has him handcuffed and incapacitated, and has a couple of armed goons as backup – and we just know Agent 47 is going to kill everyone in the room, somehow. Add to that the weird acting – Zachary Quinto unconvincing as a tough guy, Ciaran Hinds doing god knows what as the creator of the Hitman program, Friend overacting, badly directed, then enter Thomas Kretschmann in what looks like a Bond villain audition. His name is LeClerq – FFS. Ware has an attractive face and you can see her nipples through her shirt. And if you’re wondering why this isn’t so much a review as a series of unconnected sentences, that’s what the whole film is like – glam locations, beautiful people, impossible situations, fabulous cars, prominent product placement, as if a number of perfume, couture, car and weapons advertisements had been cut and shut together. By the end I was wondering if it was deliberate and I’d missed something, whether the whole thing weren’t an exercise in extravagant camp. I’m still not sure.

Hitman: Agent 47 – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

14 December 2015-12-14

Toma Cuzin as the escaped Gypsy in Aferim!

 

Out This Week

 

Aferim! (StudioCanal, cert 18)

In spite of the fact that it won the Silver Bear at Berlin, Aferim! had no proper cinema release in the UK, and even its home entertainment release is a muted affair. What a terrible shame that is, because it’s a hell of a film, a powerful wonder following a cop and his son on a rambling journey through 1830s Romania. Shot in a slightly mucky black and white – easier to get period settings right when colour isn’t a problem – it’s a Don Quixote meets Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon affair, with the chase after an absconded Gypsy (Toma Cuzin) providing the loose frame of a rambling plot. Because of this slave story aspect, it’s also possible to read it as a cockeyed Romanian take on Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and there are definite moments when writer/director Radu Jude’s screenplay rolls around in the comic possibilities of language, QT style. Such as when cop Costandin (Teodor Corban) and son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) happen upon a priest at the side of the road. “Gypsies,” Costandin asks the priest, “are they human or are they the devil’s spawn?” And out comes a long, hilarious, non-stop racist rant from the man of god – “Hungarians eats a lot, Germans smokes a lot, Arabs has many teeth, Armenians is lazy, Serbians cheats a lot… Gypsies gets many a beating. Gypsies must be slaves.” Tarantino would be proud. Keenly satirising the modern return to an ugly European nationalism, Jude manages to avoid the tendency of picaresque dramas to be formless and gradually winds us into the world not just of the bluff, boozy Costandin, an Oliver Reed of a man, and Ionita, a tender soul, but also into the life of Carfin, the Gypsy they eventually apprehend. This leads to a gruesome and entirely gripping finale in which the other focus of Jude’s satire – money – snaps wincingly into focus. With its period setting, Aferim! clearly doesn’t sit easily with other great films from Romanian New Wave (a long list includes Child’s Pose, Tuesday, After Christmas, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, The Death of Mister Lazarescu), which might explain why it’s been so overlooked. But it’s a modern morality tale all the same, and a great one at that.

Aferim! – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Vacation (Warner, cert 15)

I had grim expectations of this reboot of the old Chevy Chase franchise. But I laughed so hard in the first ten minutes that my prejudice just curled up and died. And the jokes were varied too – over the opening credits there were clickbait-style photos of holiday photo fails (people throwing up on a rollercoaster, sort of thing). Then we met Ed Helms as Rusty Griswold, a pilot on a dowdy domestic service, Griswold’s job allowing writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M Goldstein to show that they could do Airplane! gags (turbulence leading to Griswold repeatedly feeling up one of the female passengers). And this was followed by an introduction to the Griswold family and in particular the younger son Kevin (Steele Stebbins) whose ragging of older brother James (who, he insists, has a vagina) is both awful and very funny. Stebbins continues to be the funniest thing in the film as Rusty and wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) take the family off on a re-run of the family holidays of yore, when he and dad would go to frowzy theme park Walley World. The circle is complete, the reboot has reached back to the time when Chevy did exactly the same thing. It seems that whether it’s Norman Wisdom or Adam Sandler, there is a real constituency for comedies in which half-men are repeatedly mocked for being half-men. I’m not part of that constituency, and at some point during Vacation the accumulated weight of the failures of Rusty and older son James (Skyler Gisondo), due to a lack of balls or brains, started to make me feel sorry for them, rather than find them funny. As if to rub it in we have Chris Hemsworth as the boorish hyper-successful husband of Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann), a character we’re also clearly meant to laugh at, though the writers have more sympathy for him than they do for Rusty. Maybe they’re as transfixed by his big comedy cock sticking through his Calvin Kleins, as is Rusty’s wife Debbie, in a scene familiar from the trailer. So – Vacation is furiously hilarious to start with, and keeps the ante high with its jokes about Albanian cars, omigod gags about paedophilia and properly toilet humour about bathing in shit (a callback to the “floating turd” of Chevy-era Vacation movies). But kicking people who are down doesn’t make me laugh, and the attempt to redeem these utter dorks – with character arcs, sentimentality and the like – doesn’t fit a film that’s selling itself as a breezy anarchic whoosh.

Vacation – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Eden (Metrodome, cert 15)

Mia Hansen-Løve’s drama about the rise and fall of a French DJ is heavily based on the career of her own brother, Sven, who co-wrote the screenplay with her. The arc is 1992’s hedonist raver to 2012’s has-been, with a suggestion that Paul (Sven’s avatar, played by Félix de Givry) and pal Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) are the guys who were always one step behind Daft Punk, in terms of talent, timing, cool and success. You might expect a film about the house/acid house scene – rave to grave, maybe – to be frenzied and always driving forwards. Instead, the Hansen-Løves give us something altogether more chilled: discrete moments from a life, delivered obliquely, forcing the viewer to fill in the blanks. There are endless scenes of coming and going, with Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet arriving and going in starry cameos, real-life DJs Terry Hunter and Tony Humphries turning up as themselves, then going, Kate Moss and Adrien Brody name-checked at one point as having “just been in” to one club or another. I’m not sure this episodic structure works, and it seems that Mia Hansen-Løve is trying to do for the rave years what her husband Olivier Assayas did for the early 1970s with Something in the Air (aka Après Mai). Assayas pulled it off, majestically, but the Hansen-Løves don’t. Not only is the film too reverential and solipsistic, it fails to explain the attraction of club culture – you’d never guess the idea was the generation and consumption of euphoria. As the years fly by in jumps, the action shifts from France to New York, to Chicago and back to Paris, where, finally, Eden actually turns into something worthwhile, as Paul’s life spins out of control after a mind-breaking melange of the usual (hot but horrible women, great but destructive drugs, wild but useless friends and a critical depletion of the raw animal spirit) and he hits crisis point. Is it worth sitting through the first bit to get to the second? Well, there are lots of small touches that make it clearly the work of someone who’s been there, and MH-L has a fabulous way with actors – you forget they are actors, in other words. Is that enough?

Eden – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The Bad Education Movie (EV, cert 15)

The Bad Education Movie is Holiday on the Buses with a couple of shots of Jack Whitehall’s ballsack thrown in for extra texture. In other words it lazily takes a British TV comedy, sends everyone involved off to somewhere cheap and cheerful, raunches things up a touch because this is da movies, and then introduces a couple of character actors to try and give the impression of the whole thing having a big-screen life of its own. It’s good fun, if you’re in the mood for a day of kiss me quicks and an STI. And if you’re not up on Whitehall’s shtick, it’s essentially Ricky Gervais’s – the boss who’s a tool but doesn’t realise he is one. This time though the boss is a teacher, though Whitehall plays the appalling Mr Wickers with such enthusiasm he can bounce the entire film over various gaping holes. Iain Glen is a good choice as drafted-in welly, playing the hard-nut leader of the Cornish Liberation Army that Wickers and his kids run into after they abandon the boring itinerary put together by severe PTA member Joanna Scanlan and instead go to the pub. Cue a series of jokes which might, if we’re being charitable, be satirical swipes at the current state of permanent terrorist alert. Though the film is actually happier when it’s rolling around in the world of the visual gag – like the one about a holy relic consisting of a saint’s foreskin which resembles a pork scratching. I think that’s a first.

The Bad Education Movie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Wolfpack (Spectrum, cert E)

This 90 minute thing is a curse sometimes. Here’s a delightful and fascinating documentary that would be perfect at 60 minutes, but at 90 it’s just a bit flabby. And it tells such an interesting story, about a lively family of New York kids who have been brought up in almost total incarceration by their parents. Well, not total imprisonment, but subject to a sort of extreme home-schooling, if you will – some years they’d leave the house maybe nine times, others not at all – forcing the kids to become friends with each other and create their own entertainment. This came in the shape of their own filmed homages to films they revered – Reservoir Dogs being easy, Batman requiring a costume made from yoghurt pots and cardboard, The Godfather a bit more commitment in the acting department. Commitment is something the Angulo family have in spades, whether it’s the parents’ determination to keep their kids safe, or the kids’ to their DIY art. Beyond its initial reveal, the film doesn’t have much to say, perhaps because it doesn’t want to finger the parents, with whose permission the film has clearly been made. We can draw our own conclusions, though. That the South American-immigrant father was a tinpot tyrant who persuaded his timid Mid-Western wife, using a mix of hippie bullshit and old-school patriarchalism, of the wisdom of living away from the world and raising their kids in a kind of secluded purity. And, strangely, that the bright, engaged teenage kids don’t seem to have suffered too much from their ordeal. In fact their screen-fixated, isolated upbringing might make them more suited to the world outside than something a bit more normally normal.

The Wolfpack – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Un Homme Idéal (StudioCanal, cert 12)

Mathieu (Pierre Niney), a crappy writer with a day job doing removals, happens upon an old diary while he’s doing a house clearance of a dead man’s apartment. It’s a vivid account of the former inhabitant’s time as a soldier in Algeria as the country was trying to throw off the French colonial yoke. Plagiarising the diary wholesale, Mathieu becomes an overnight success and soon is living the high life, with a hot girlfriend in the shape of Ana Girardot (of The Returned) as the icing on his cake. Things get interesting while he is sojourning with her BCBG parents in the South of France, where he is meant to be hammering out his follow-up novel, but is of course finding it tough. And then the “I know what you did last Summer” letters start arriving, at exactly the same time as the godson of his girlfriend’s parents is beginning to wonder if this writer is in fact all he says he is. Un Homme Idéal, aka A Perfect Man, plays out like an inversion of a Hitchcock film – our guy is guilty, even though we’re on his side – with similar gloss and awed attitude towards beautiful women. But Hitchcock would never have jeopardy coming from both a blackmailer and a suspicious godson at the same time, and this weird double attack doesn’t do the film any favours, though it must be said that writer/director Yann Gozlan and co-writers Guillaume Lemans and Grégoire Vigneron do eventually streamline things a bit with a character cull. No spoilers. Perhaps best watched as a comedy that never cracks a wink.

Un Homme Idéal aka A Perfect Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Black or White (Signature, cert 12)

If you’ve ever seen The Postman, Kevin Costner’s mad epic in which Costner’s postie single-handedly brings about the re-establishment of western civilisation after an apocalypse, you’ll know that his death-or-glory leanings didn’t die with Waterworld. Here, he’s the producer and star, and sets out to sort out the entire race problem in the US. FFS. No matter what you might say about his vaingloriousness, he’s absolutely fantastic as the grandfather trying to retain custody of his mixed-race granddaughter (Quvenzhané-cute Jillian Estell) after the death of her mother, while Octavia Spencer, as the girl’s father’s mother, is the black grandma convinced the little girl should live with her own kind – since white America will always see the kid as black. Spencer is also great, indeed when is she not? But Black or White is a courtroom drama – since the custody issue eventually resolves itself into a legal battle – that won’t simply get on and be a courtroom drama. Instead it gives us backstory and character studies, all beautifully done, for sure, of the lives of Costner and Spencer and the people who orbit them. It makes a show of being racially even-handed with much equivalence – between Costner’s drink problem and the crack habit of his granddaughter’s wayward dad (André Holland), between comfortably wealthy lawyer Costner and go-getting entrepreneur-in-her-own-garage Spencer, between his casually superior (though unfailingly not racist) attitude and her high-handedness. It all gets a bit wearing, this “on the one hand/on the other” and it’s noticeable that the film is at its best when it lets its actors fly – particularly Spencer, who does hellish spitfire like nothing on earth. Small shout to Paula Newsome as the judge presiding over the unruly courtroom where black and/or white is eventually to be resolved. Every time she opens her mouth the film kicks up a gear, and doubles the impression that what this really needed was to be set entirely in her bailiwick. But then that’s Costner – overreaching.

Black or White – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 December 2015-12-07

Tadanobo Asano (in horse's head) and Nathalia Acevedo in Ruined Heart

 

Out This Week

 

Trainwreck (Universal, cert 15)

Amy Schumer takes that slightly fey, dizzy-smart, passive-aggressive female comedy type (Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Jenny Slate, Desiree Akhavan) and sticks a rocket up front and back passages in this very New York and very funny comedy.

Schumer is the journalist on a self-important magazine sent off on a sports assignment even though she has no interest in … in fact it barely matters what the plot is, since all it’s there for is to provides enough space for Schumer to play keepie-uppie with the comedy ball.

This she does, riffing hard on modern living as it affects a sexually active woman in the 21st century. When you hit resistance, you hit paydirt, said Mr Freud (sort of ) and Schumer aims for jokes that transgress what most comedians, especially women, write about – beating up the stepkids, the effect of garlic on the taste of sperm, how a tampon found in the toilet by a visiting gentleman might change the relationship, even Woody Allen and Soon Yi come in for a bit of stick (a no-go for New York comedians at least).

She also writes good characters, and there are a lot of dreadful comic creations here – as well as the vile British harridan editor (Tilda Swinton, genuinely inspired), there’s the foul-mouthed dad, the professional athlete whose competitiveness is actually just monetised meanness and gracelessness (nicely observed), the panhandler with a cynical line for everyone. Brie Larson plays Schumer’s happy, settled sister, the yin to her yang, and a clutch of sports stars, including LeBron James, turn up to show they can act and do comedy, and they can.

If you’ve no idea who James is, be warned that Schumer isn’t tailoring her film (a Judd Apatow directing job, though it could be anybody) at you, and it’s full of very specific New York Right Now references. Even so, you’ll laugh. Well, I did.

Trainwreck – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mistress America (Fox, cert 15)

Talking of which (the dizzy/smart female comedy type), here’s Greta Gerwig getting more use out of her Frances Ha character – an uncool failure utterly obsessed with being a cool success.

Face of the future Lola Kirke plays Tracy, the ingénue in New York looking up the older more worldly Brooke (Gerwig) – one’s mother is about to marry the other’s father, making them sisters of one sort or another – and being shown the ropes in the big city.

Director Noah Baumbach and co-writer Gerwig, knowing that a little of this dizzy/aggressive shtick goes a long way, keep the film moving at speed, so we get an almost Rocky-montage level of writing as Tracy and Brooke hit the town doing all the cool stuff with all the cool people, while prospective restaurateur/eventeuse Brooke keeps up a breathless commentary on the totality of life as it touches her – “My restaurant should do a pirogi, a fusion pirogi…” seguing manically into “Autodidact is one of the words I taught myself…” Filter is there none, every thought gets expressed in this representation of a supreme form of narcissism.

If there’s one single utterly brilliant thing about Gerwig, it’s the targeting of her satire – the gruesomely up themselves. However, all this “Me” business is all extremely wearing, and Gerwig and Baumbach know it is. So they switch tack at a certain point and shift the action to the suburbs, where Brooke has taken Tracy so they can hit up an old boyfriend of hers for investment cash for the restaurant. And here, beautifully executed and exquisitely played, a riotously fast French-style ensemble farce plays out, which lifts the film from the potentially enervating to the genuinely entertaining.

Kirke is a camera magnet, which helps the film enormously. If only she’d give up the Steve McQueen tic shit – waggling various body parts about – and lose the acute sense of her own breasts.

Mistress America – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

Dressed as a Girl (Peccadillo, cert 15)

Hackney in North London has become the capital of UK hipsterdom – the home of the beard. This fact alone makes this documentary about the area’s drag scene more interesting, because there’s nothing hip about drag. Mouthing Minnelli with lippie smeared across your face isn’t an exercise in studied cool. But this documentary never makes the comparison, never assesses the world it’s delineating against any other yardstick except its own. It’s refreshingly old-school in fact, 1960s-ish in its Maysles-like focus on scenester Jonny Woo, Holestar (“the tranny with a fanny” – ie a woman who does drag!), Scottee (touring his one-man/woman show about growing up different and bullied), Amber (an ex skinhead now embarking on gender re-assignment) and other performers who orbit the scene that nucleated around 2003’s Gay Disco.

But mostly it’s about Woo and John Sizzle, another man of a certain age who talks a good talk and is, like Woo, facing up to the fact that drag and the hedonistic urban gay lifestyle is a young man’s game. And since they’re both 40 (being generous)…

And that’s the point of this meandering, bittersweet and genuinely life-affirming film – sex and death, the two biggies. Give director Colin Rothbart 20 minutes to insinuate himself into your psyche and you’ll probably be captivated.

Dressed as a Girl – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Man from Uncle (Warner, cert 12)

The original Man from Uncle was a cool, witty take-off of 007 – a TV James Bond with two spies instead of one, a prototype buy-one-get-one-free deal.

Guy Ritchie, working from a perky screenplay co-written with Lionel Wigram understands that. As does Henry Cavill, over-modulating his voice in an approximation of Robert Vaughn’s, and interacting well with Armie Hammer, as Ilya Kuryakin, a Red superspy who’s probably been dipping into the jar of hormones reserved for Soviet athletes and is subsequently permanently in a ’roid rage.

The film brings the two men from different global superpowers together early on and sets them off on the hunt for a common enemy who’s about to do something dastardly with a nuke.

Their relationship, cool but cordial in the original series, is relentlessly antagonistic here, and once Ritchie/Wigram throw superhot Alicia Vikander between them – dressed 1960s-style in a series of eye-catching Quant and Dior, Youthquake and scooter boots combos – things only get antsier.

Maybe this aggro is to distract from the fact that there isn’t really a plot; in fact if you were to remove Vikander and the antagonism, the entire film would read as an exercise in crossing off entries on a list put together while Ritchie and Wigram gorged on old box sets of the original series.

So we get individual quippy scenes, plenty of antique spy-tech (the Russian stuff being always more advanced is one of the film’s few good running jokes), a loquacious Bond villain, a chase, an island lair, some thrumming Morricone-influenced pop music, whipped together in flash Ritchie style.

Clearly designed as the origin story intended to launch a franchise, it’s all tentpole and no tent.

The Man from Uncle – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Ruined Heart (Third Window, cert 18)

Another Love Story between a Criminal and a Whore is this Filipino film’s subtitle, that “Another” being the operative word. There have been so many films of this sort, writer-director-artist Khavn is suggesting, that we don’t actually need characters sketching in any more, or plots, or even dialogue.

And there aren’t any of those things in this film, which consists simply of highly recognisable scenes – gangsters getting ugly with people, having sex with impossibly hot women, at parties, killing for fun, killing for business, and so on… Like Jeremy Deller’s art installation Acid Brass, which rescored acid house and techno music for a brass band, Khavn takes a conceptual leap by getting master cinematographer Christopher Doyle on board to rework familiar scenes as exercises in style, lighting, lenses and camera and digital effects.

If you’re aware of Doyle’s work – In the Mood for Love, Hero, 2046 – you’ll know he’s a rock’n’roll rebel fond of a lush image, a neon light, a brushed texture. He is really given his head here, and delivers an arresting series of breathtaking compositions. Khavn, meanwhile, doesn’t hold back. When these gangsters party, for instance, they party hard, and suddenly all those Scorsese-influenced shindigs seem just a bit silly compared to the bacchanal of sucking and fucking, snorting and blowing which seems exactly how you imagine a gangster – drugs and women not a problem, and no need to get up for work in the morning – might do it.

It’s a short film, at 70-something minutes, and just as the suspicion is taking wing that this is not much more than a showcase for Doyle’s techniques, magical though they are, this brush past the playbooks of Jodorowsky and Lynch, Fellini and Sorrentino, not forgetting a touch of Benny Hill, is over. I absolutely loved it.

Ruined Heart: Another Love Story between a Criminal and a Whore – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Colt 45 (Altitude, cert 15)

The names Gérard Lanvin and Joey Starr are prominent in the billing of this fairly standard French cop thriller. But it’s Ymanol Perset who is its star, playing a crack shot who prefers to stay working in the bowels of the cop shop rather than running around getting bad guys. Until circumstances force him out onto the streets.

A dead dad who was himself an officer, an older-man father figure, a bent copper on the take, shady politics much higher up in the police food chain, all are present and correct in this weakly scripted but forcefully played policier, French to its fingertips in its preference for grizzled middle aged guys.

Perset has the face and abs of a pin-up star, and director Fabrice du Welz gives us a few free shots of various muscle groups doing their thing to reinforce the point.

The brilliant Benoit Debie (Spring Breakers, Enter the Void) is cinematographer, so it looks a billion euros, and marks another rung on the gradual rise of du Welz to some sort of international standing. Don’t do the dialogue next time, Fabrice, though eh?

Colt 45 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Paper Towns (Fox, cert 12)

Having astonished and delighted in Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel, Cara Delevingne comes a bit unstuck in a film adaptation of one of John Green’s YA novels that is pretty much all unstuck.

She’s the manic pixie dream girl who turns timid neighbour Quentin’s (Nat Wolff) head in this ill-conceived attempt to cross a John Hughes high school comedy with the sort of “last summer of immaturity” dramas exemplified by The Last Picture Show.

Part one sees Quentin re-connecting with childhood friend Margo (Delevingne), who has in the intervening years become the coolest girl in school, or so we’re told. In fact Margo is patently a bitch and a fraud, but hey. Then, in a gear change, Margo disappears, prompting Quentin to embark on a massive search to find her, this eventually leading to a cross-country road trip with friends along for the ride. None of these friends points out that Margo’s not worth finding, but… again… hey.

And so, a teen romance has become a comic road trip. If you can chop onions, take a nap or catch up on some online paperwork, the second half of this film is worth hanging on for, because it’s genuinely sweet and funny watching a car full of variously nerdy teen kids bicker their way towards upstate New York.

Austin Abrams, as Wolff’s sex-obsessed Superbad-inflected friend is very funny. Justice Smith, as the supernerd Radar, does a lovely comic variation on Richard Ayoade’s character in The IT Crowd. Jaz Sinclair is convincingly hostile as Radar’s very needy girlfriend. But most interesting of all is Halston Sage as Lacey, the school hottie who is savvier than anyone gives her credit for.

Lacey, and Sage’s playing of her, detonates what remains of Margo’s character since she’s the sort of charming, clever, gracious and sexy girl that Margo isn’t, and tough as nails too. It’s all directed competently, nothing snags, by Jake Schreier, as if he believes in what he’s doing. It’s nice, the acting’s great, but it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t. Best film of the year. Just kidding.

Paper Towns – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015