1 February 2016-02-01

Emily Blunt in Sicario

 

Out This Week

 

 

Sicario (Lionsgate, cert 15)

With Incendies the disruption had its roots in the politics in the Middle East, with Prisoners in American paranoia and with Enemy it was something more internal still, a disrupted psyche. In Denis Villeneuve’s latest intelligent, genre-extending thriller his unsentimental gaze settles on the US government and how its agents actually go about their business (according to this film, at any rate). Working on the Mexico border, where drug cartels are mostly in charge, laconic badasses Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are joined by seconded cop and audience avatar Emily Blunt, who looks on with jaw at various distances from the floor as the two CIA operatives (or whatever these guys are) set about on a schedule of disruptive mayhem in an attempt to force a cartel cog to run for the safety of the big wheel. This they do via a series of what are in effect terrorist attacks designed not so much to impress as disorientate the enemy – to “fuck things up” – while Blunt, too naive, surely, to be credible, shouts “but this is illegal” at almost every turn. Villeneuve’s cast serve him well – Blunt may be faun-like but she’s physically believably tough (that change of direction for the Tom Cruise Edge of Tomorrow has really paid off), Brolin swaggers like almost no one else can and Del Toro brings a dead-eyed courtly charm to a film that becomes increasingly his. Sicario’s plot winds with what feels like inevitability towards its murky conclusion, and the 1940s noir atmosphere is augmented by snappily modern camerawork and editing that makes for a thrilling if often pitiless entertainment. In this film, everyone who deserves to die, does die, often horribly and often just at the moment when they think they’re about to get out alive – the finale is a grim mini-masterpiece in comeuppance. Is there a better maker of smart, eloquent thrillers working in Hollywood right now than Villeneuve? Fabulous.

Sicario – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Eureka, cert 15)

Peter Yates made this film in 1973 five years after Bullitt. Bullitt had a top-of-his-game Steve McQueen as its star. The Friends of Eddie Coyle has an on-the-slide 50-something Robert Mitchum. That difference betokens everything you need to know about the film. There are no victories, tough or otherwise, in this downbeat tale of a smalltime Boston crook (Mitchum) trying to wriggle free of a jail sentence by selling info to the cops, even as he’s selling guns and ammo to bad guys carrying out bank jobs. Barely ever seen, this now fabulously restored piece of Technicolor-hued cinematic archaeology retains Bullitt’s sense of seediness, and Yates is clearly still in love with the long shot and the boxy American motor vehicles of the era. He’s also watched a few Robert Bresson movies, and gets his stars to approximate the dead-flat acting style favoured by the French director – there isn’t a speck of interiority from anyone, just surface. And if there’s one thing we know about Mitchum, it’s that he can do roiling interior like no one – see The Night of the Hunter. It makes for a hellishly dislocated film, this flat acting style, coupled with a plot that is working the hardboiled “ripped from the headlines” shtick of the 1950s cop movie, right down to the use of words like “rat” and “fink”. If I’m being honest, much as I wanted to roll around in this like a dog all over a dead seagull, it didn’t quite get me gimballing, though the disjuncture did keep me watching, and Yates’s fondness for flavoursome locations – bowling alleys and banks and the Boston waterfront, as well as Dave Grusin’s jazzy, Lalo Schifrin-style score – brings the period back to life. Four months after this film’s release, Scorsese would debut Mean Streets. At which point, for films like this, it really was game over. A bizarre, deadpan treat.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Miss You Already (E One, cert 12)

Brilliantly working off each other, Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore play the lifelong friends discovering that one of them has cancer just as the other is getting pregnant. It’s a drama with the strong smell of the familiar about it, not to mention the hospital ward. Terminal-illness weepies in general are so emotionally manipulative that they seem to have been made for people who think concussion is part of a normal relationship. But Miss You Already works well because writer Morwenna Banks, director Catherine Hardwicke and stars Barrymore and Collette are all so alive to these dangers. Banks, a comedian by trade, keeps the script dry and earthy, while Hardwicke – having done Twilight, a seasoned hand at the abusive-relationship drama (unless you think a guy who’s over a hundred and a teenage girl is normal) – doesn’t sugar the pill, throwing in shots of big fat needles going into slender veins and vomit exiting the body as the chemo drugs are going in. It’s a funny and heartwarming film that doesn’t pretend that dying is all airy rooms and gentle evanescence. And there’s an extra gun in the armoury, in the shape of Jacqueline Bisset as Collette’s flighty actress mother. True, she is essentially playing Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, but Bisset does it very well, getting a lot of the best laughs, while Dominic Cooper and Paddy Considine, as the ladies’ mostly supportive other halves, graciously do what a male supporting actor’s gotta do. Mostly, though, you watch for the Barrymore/Collette dynamic, so believable that some of those big eruptions of laughter must have been for real, yes?

Miss You Already – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Last Saint (Soda, cert 15)

Minka is a naive Polynesian teenager – so we’re told, though the beard rash says 24 to me – living with his drug-addled, schizophrenic mother, estranged from his gangster, club-owning dad. And this is his coming-of-age story, one about a kid trying to escape his origins, though constantly falling back, whether it’s by accident of birth (Tongan mafia are everywhere) or by design (falling for the pale waif Zoey who lives in his block). The tension comes from the simple will he/won’t he of this set-up. This no-budget New Zealand movie wobbles a bit here and there at the technical level, and occasionally the acting goes out for an extended lunch, but for all that it’s a fine drama that grabs hold early on and keeps hanging on. Many of the elements are familiar, and it features a couple too many scenes in which our guy Minka is confronted by a crack-happy loquacious bad guy babbling on his high. But there are also moments so fresh and horrible – the Tongan gangsters who indulge in close-harmony singing before getting out the power tools to torture someone; the dislocated happy family scene in which Minka, mum and dad have a night out, and mum and dad sing a soul duet before things all kick off in a mightily bloody way – that you have to applaud. The cinematography is a dark and dirty as Minka’s prospects, while the final reveal, which comes just at the point where you’re wondering if it shouldn’t actually have finished 20 minutes earlier, will make you glad it hadn’t. I’m using the word glad in a very special way there.

The Last Saint – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Regression (EV, cert 15)

There’s a good film somewhere in here, possibly on the cutting room floor. But it’s possible to make out the bones of it in what’s left of Alejandro Amenábar’s spooky thriller about a girl who accuses her father of satanic sexual abuse. Emma Watson is the girl doing the accusing, and has clearly been hired for that slightly stinky hauteur she specialises in – this young Bette Davis demeanour suiting her rather well, though let’s hope the wind doesn’t change one day when she’s at full lemon. Back to the film, and a distraught dad who can’t remember what he did, a frazzled cop on the case in the shape of botoxed (or more) Ethan Hawke, and David Thewlis along for the ride as a shrink who specialises in the regression therapy that’s meant to unlock the whole case. Well it would if the whole damn thing weren’t so confused and this entire “regression” strand didn’t just feel like a bolt-on – either daddy did or did not interfere with his nubile daughter, either satanists were or were not involved, so I’m not sure what the therapist is doing there at all. Oh, hang on, yes, to get a purchase on the truth from the amnesiac dad, or is it the schtumm mum, or the frightened-to-silence daughter or, another digression, the wayward prodigal son, also not given to saying much? As with The Others, Amenábar drenches it all in a 1940s atmosphere, as if Humphrey Bogart rather than Ethan Hawke were the cop on the case, possibly because you’d have to go back that far to find a time when satanists actually were frightening. Thewlis and Hawke make a nice double act, though, like something from the first half of The Exorcist, and Watson is also rather excellent at conveying the coiled defensiveness of the off-beam sex kitten.

Regression – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Zarafa (Soda, cert PG)

This old-school French animation (revoiced rather than subtitled) tells with Lion King cutes the story of a slave Sudanese boy befriended by a Bedouin Arab, who travel together by hot air balloon from Egypt to the court of King Charles X of France, taking a giraffe (“zarafa” in Arabic) as a gift. In the background there is a bit of historical detail – Egypt is being besieged by the Turks and the local Pasha is hoping to get France in on his side – and the whole thing is apparently a true story, so the end credits tell us. It’s nice enough, informative enough, well animated enough and the multicultural, religiously tolerant point of view is also timely enough, since people out in the real world seem to be drawing up the ethnic battle lines. But I was never sure who it was for. Adults will find it a bit slow and gentle, and the lively nine-year-old it appears to be aimed at might not buy into the realpolitik (though, to be fair, there isn’t that much of it).

Zarafa – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The House on Pine Street (Second Sight, cert 18)

A haunted house. A pregnant wife. A husband concerned that his darling Jennifer (Emily Goss) is going to have another of her breakdowns, which seems to be the case when she suddenly starts seeing, you know, stuff. From this point it’s just a matter of time, with the “why won’t you believe me?” complaints and the rolling eyes in response. Emily Goss and Taylor Bottles are the young-marrieds, and Goss in particular comes good later on as the hysteria mounts. But it’s a very familiar trudge, only made slightly more enjoyable by the decision of the writer/director Keeling brothers to introduce Rosemary’s Baby as an idea – is lovely Jennifer going to be Satan’s brood mare? The Keelings also appropriate Polanski’s shooting MO at crucial moments – up close, handheld, wide angle, and chaotic. It does make for some effective moments of horror, though on this showing I’d hire the Keelings (or one of them maybe – why overspend?) as cinematographer – they’re great on mood and look, less so on originality and actual, you know scariness.

The House on Pine Street – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

25 January 2016-01-26

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Macbeth

Out This Week

 

 

Macbeth (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Director Justin Kurzel must have hired every smoke machine in the UK for this adaptation of “the Scottish play” about a warlike laird driven crazy, either by his own ambition or by supernatural forces. But the relentless visual effects, dark, swirling lighting and fabulous performances by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – as the high-born couple hoping to go just that little bit higher – aren’t the best thing about the film. That’s the superb filleting job that Todd Luiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie have done on Shakespeare’s original play, which has had many obscure references removed and has done away with any language that the visuals have rendered redundant. Everything left is invested in propelling the thing forward, whether it’s the taut performances by Paddy Considine as loving-dad Banquo or Sean Harris as Macduff (Harris’s piss-tang features making Macduff a credible check on the crazed “invincible” thane), or Jed Kurzel’s score, heavily influenced by the bagpipe’s drone, or the make-up – dirty, urgent, bloody and raw. Pretty damn fantastic.

Macbeth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Martian (Fox, cert 12)

Ridley Scott goes back into space after the fiasco of Prometheus with a production that sensibly has hired in Drew Goddard as the writer. Goddard’s great strength is his flip attitude and love of popular culture, exactly the sort of things a person might reach for if he was – as Matt Damon’s astronaut is here – marooned on Mars on his own, with little chance of ever getting back to Earth. Without that quippy screenplay and its references to 1970s disco et al The Martian would look much like a re-run of Apollo 13. Goddard seems happy to acknowledge the fact – look out for Damon watching an episode of Happy Days, a sidelong reference to Apollo 13 director Ron Howard. The whole thing is procedural, in other words, and I watched entranced as the shipwrecked astronaut, in Robinson Crusoe style, started working on the technical means of keeping body and soul together – growing potatoes in human shit, creating water by burning hydrazine. This is the film that gave us the line “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this”, eloquently suggesting that when people are in big trouble, they often react in a more light-hearted way than your standard Hollywood big-budget movie would suggest. Up on the spaceship where Damon’s fellow astronauts (led by Jessica Chastain) are heading back to Earth, initially unaware that he was alive when they left him behind, the tone is folksy (“Let’s go and get our boy,” says Commander Jess when she realises what’s happened). It’s only back at Mission Control – where an interesting collection of actors including Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and the new-to-me and excellent Mackenzie Davis run around trying to find a solution to the “one of our astronauts is missing” problem – can the seriousness of the situation be admitted. As said, Ridley Scott atones for Prometheus here, with a film that’s intelligent and mercifully free of mythic bullshit, and even shows the old dog is capable of a new trick with the odd bit of novel visual whizzbangery. And he’s watched Gravity closely too, as the big finale making full use of that film’s Newtonian action-reaction dynamics makes clear. A gripping space adventure. With jokes.

The Martian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Fear of 13 (Dogwoof, cert 15)

The Fear of 13 is a film that could easily be a podcast. In fact at one point I walked away and sat in the adjoining room, where I could still hear former jailbird Nick Yarris telling his life story, about how a petty thief and meth user became a convicted murderer on Death Row in Pennsylvania. There was no loss of impact – Yarris is such a good storyteller, and speaks in long, clear, articulate sentences of his time before and after his conviction, and how for many long years he tried to have his conviction for murder overturned. Who’d have thought that a guy sitting on a chair – or not even sitting on a chair if you’re in the next room – could be so compelling, but he is. The title comes from “triskaidekaphobia” one of the many words that the barely literate Yarris learnt after he discovered a love of reading and started consuming everything he could get his hands on. Big fan of Kipling. Why watch the film though? Because it’s a good story well told is one reason. Because it’s reminds us how exceedingly slowly the wheels of justice grind if the authorities are convinced they already have the right guy. And because, again, Yarris is such a good storyteller – the setbacks, the minor triumphs, the beatings, the draconian prison system, the illnesses, his time on the run, his marriage to a prison visitor (I know), his campaign for his own retrial, all are dealt with briskly, without false pity and with little rancour. Which in itself is unusual.

The Fear of 13 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tangerines (Axiom, cert 15)

Chechnya, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh – the list of areas in the former Soviet Union where conflict has broken out consists of names few people could locate on a map. Where’s Ukraine, for example? And that’s a big one. The disputed region of Abkhazia is one such, and this film about a couple of old guys, and the couple of young guys they end up playing host to, puts a human face on a conflict most people still know little about. The old guys are a tangerine grower called Margus and his friend Ivo, who makes crates for the fruit Margus is hoping will somehow get to market. But the entire village that might have turned out to help Margus pick them fled from the village where both men live, most of them back to Estonia, their ethnic homeland, once Abkhazia descended into ethnic civil war. Into this virtually dead village come two warring factions and, after some quickfire action, crate-maker Ivo finds he is playing host to two wounded soldiers, one a Chechen mercenary called Ahmed, the other a much more badly hurt Georgian called Niko. Ahmed wants to kill Niko and Niko, once he’s well enough to understand who he is recuperating with, wants to kill Ahmed. That’s the basics of a small but beautifully formed and intensely humane film, shot, scripted, scored and played with extreme economy. It won’t surprise anyone to find out where this arc of extreme enmity is leading, but it’s all done with no sense of déjà vu, perhaps because the acting is so natural and unforced – take a bow Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgo Nakashidze and Misha Meskhiall. All round excellence, in fact. Well worth seeking out.

Tangerines – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Star Men (Verve, cert PG)

A documentary following a gang of old mates as they return to the ground they stomped when they were young men. The guys in question are all astronomers, who are now all in their 70s and so benefited directly from the rush into space of the Kennedy era. They’re also, mostly, Brits, and so had the experience of a warp-speed transportation from a country still struggling to escape the drabness of the post-Second World War era to a California at the very height of its specialness – surfboards and sunshine and girls and all that. They’re joined in their revisit of various labs and telescopes by the film’s maker, Alison E Rose, who tries to inject a bit of jeopardy, as is the way of documentaries, in various hikes the men take, retracing trails they walked decades before. They’re not all well, and in fact the greatest service the film does – its ruminations on God and the Big Bang, life on other planets and so on to one side – is to remind us all that a life lived well, in pursuit of our interests and dreams, is really the only one worth leading. And that death, when it comes knocking, and it does in this film, is worth meeting head on.

Star Men – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Walk (Sony, cert PG)

If you’ve seen the documentary Man on Wire, this dramatisation of Philippe Petit’s 1974 World Trade Center highwire walk is unnecessary. Man on Wire is a better film dramatically and in every other way except one – this has Robert Zemeckis behind the controls at the point where Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, his upper body and comportment testament to having been trained in wire-walking by Petit himself) steps out over the void between the Twin Towers and sets off on the 140-foot journey to the other side. It’s heart-stopping and for the last 25 minutes or so of the film you will be gripped. If, on the other hand, you haven’t seen Man on Wire, there’s no reason not to watch The Walk, and to approach it full of confidence that it’s a good story well told. And told here in thrilling 3D, if you have it, Zemeckis dropping in madly ridiculously obvious shots of arrows coming towards the viewer as Petit and team try to get a line across the gap between the two buildings. Support is very good – Ben Kingsley as Petit’s mentor, Charlotte Le Bon as his girlfriend and right hand woman to name but two. Of course neither film would have been made at all if the World Trade Center hadn’t been blasted out of existence on 11 September 2001, but Zemeckis keeps that dark knowledge in check – we’re all fully aware of what these buildings mean.

The Walk – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Warriors (Verve, cert 12)

There are two documentaries sitting side by side here, in what’s being sold as one. The better of the two is an underdog story of a group of Masaai young men who have learnt cricket back home, and are now travelling to the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, to play against other amateur teams. These guys have no one to play against back in Kenya, and their ground – scoured out of the red earth by the British Army – contains not a blade of grass. They are useless, though highly enthusiastic and are all gents, tall, straight, handsome and true. Watching them play in full tribal gear stirs the soul – this, surely, is what sport is all about? The other documentary concerns the efforts of these same men to get the practice of female genital mutilation (cutting) stopped back home in Kenya. The fact that the young men call it “FGM” – as do various young women who talk about it – gives us an idea as to where this idea has come from. But for this part of the documentary to have truly succeeded, I’d have wanted to know why exactly the practice developed in the first place – what is the benefit of it, if any, and for whom is it designed? No answer is forthcoming and so the sound of the propaganda drum being beaten is a bit loud, even though, to be honest, the time spent on FGM is brief, leading to the suspicion of tokenism, or perhaps even kitchensinkism – we’ve got it so let’s get it in, any old how. Hey ho – shiny-skinned Masaai warriors jubilant at going up the London Eye, it’s worth it for that.

Warriors – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

18 January 2016-01-18

Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man

Out This Week

 

 

99 Homes (StudioCanal, cert 15)

The subprime meltdown done as Faustian pact, with Andrew Garfield as a naive jobless carpenter going to work for the unscrupulous property developer – it’s Michael Shannon vaping like a maniac – who repossessed his home. Before long, Garfield too is behaving like a monster, or heading that way, in writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s latest long cool look at life at the bottom (see Man with Cart or Goodbye Solo). Having been a lacklustre Spider-Man, Garfield has something to prove and does so in spades, aware of the fact that in Shannon he’s in the presence of serious acting muscle. No one can ultimately win against the Devil, which is who, in essence, the charming and dangerous Shannon is playing. And Bahrani’s message is pointed, political and at one point erupts directly out of Shannon’s mouth, in a big “America was built by bailing out the winners” speech, the developer’s every-man-for-himself justification for being such a badass. So, a great film? Almost. Bahrani struggles with a big problem – the bad guys have all the best tunes – and when he tries to shift focus onto the good guys, suddenly introducing a handsome and blamelessly heroic Tim Guinee to act as some last minute pity-stimulant, it all feels a bit forced. However, 99 Homes has the epic in its sights, and most films shot on a few suburban plots wouldn’t even countenance such a thing.

99 Homes – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Legend (StudioCanal, cert 15)

US director Brian Helgeland proves that Guy Ritchie isn’t the only director capable of doing gangster pantomime with his sumptuous rollick into the 1960s gangster demi-monde of the Kray twins, the East End villains who continue to fascinate from beyond the grave. Tom Hardy plays both brothers, gay fat psychopath Ronnie and sleek business-head Reggie. It’s stunt casting but Hardy pulls it off with a wink, and in any case the film is most concerned with Reg, Ronnie being pulled on and off as a bogeyman pantomime dame whenever the film threatens to get dull. Helgeland wrote and directed 2001’s A Knight’s Tale and the mix is similar here – a bit of music, a bit of comedy, a bit of name-dropping (Shirley Bassey, Joan Collins and Harold Wilson) though about one scene in three ends with claret on the axminster. The script is written in TV soap style – people saying what mean – so when Reg’s bird Emily Browning wants to say “You’re a gangster, and you’ll always be one,” then that’s exactly what she says. So, expect real life and you’ll be disappointed, but that’s not to say the film isn’t smart and urgent. And in its undertow, as sympathies are gradually shifted away from “sane” Reggie and towards “mad” Ronnie, it really has something to say about personal responsibility. Who, when one of these brothers really can’t help himself, is really the mad one, or the bad one?

Legend – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (Fox, cert 12)

Not being a fan of most of the Young Adult films that have come along in the past few years – especially the dystopian Hunger Games/Divergent/Giver sort of thing that seems to have Ayn Rand on the writing team – and having not exactly warmed to the first Maze Runner film, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed part two. I think that’s because writer TS Nowlin and director Wes Ball possibly feel the same way about these sort of films as I do, and have worked hard to prevent this one from being yet another “one damn thing after another” sequence of chase and chat. Following on from the end of part one, which saw Dylan O’Brien and motley crew escaping from the maze to make a go of it out on the outside, we’re now out in the big wide world where the whole maze concept is junked, as is the Lord of the Flies discussion about civilisation versus chaos, the zoo versus the jungle. Instead, a zombie movie, give or take, takes hold, once Aidan Gillen and Patricia Clarkson have been wheeled on, done some cackling, then wheeled off, and our gang have escaped from a place that seemed to offer salvation (like your parents might) only to discover that the world is in fact a bad place full of bad things as they head across the dystopian Scorch (ie desert) to another safe haven. A Lord of the Rings safe/jeopardy/safe/jeopardy structure asserts itself, and though the casting is ostensibly United Colors of Benetton in its ethnicity, it’s young, gifted and white O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and new recruit Jacob Lofland who get most of the agency. Kaya Scodelario looks hot in her white T shirt and Wes Ball seems fascinated with her breasts, but she gets little to do, as in part one, and has to suffer the double indignity of watching another new arrival, Rosa Salazar, playing the ballbreaking female lead role that should by rights be hers. Giancarlo Esposito, as a louche renegade leader, and Alan Tudyk, fruitiness turned up to 11, help with the overall impression that what we’re watching is straw being spun into gold, and it’s all aided enormously by the fact that everyone on screen can act. I liked it. And I’m still surprised about that.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Everest (Universal, cert 12)

From 1992 onwards, professional outfits started offering what were in effect package holidays to the top of Everest – if you had the cash, they’d get you to the summit. This way madness lay, apparently, and as Everest the movie kicks off, we’re in 1996, when a real-life catastrophe did happen, thanks to too many inexperienced people being on the mountain at the same time. Add bad weather and the whole thing tips over into multiple disaster. Though Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley are all higher up the pecking order, it’s Jason Clarke who carries the dramatic weight of this film, as a decent, honourable climbing-outfit boss trying to keep things sensible and, when start going badly wrong, risking his life trying to get his climbers, and those of rival outfits, off the mountain and back to safety. Baltasar Kormákur is the director, his “swimming in the frozen Atlantic” movie The Deep having presumably won him this gig, and he does a good job setting things up – life at base camp looks like one boozy festival. Make the most of it; this side of the film is the best bit of it. When the various climbing teams and faintly disdainful Sherpas get up on the mountain itself, it frequently gets difficult to work out who is who – this must also have been the case in 1996, but being in hock to the truth isn’t always a good idea. Oh, hang on, Sam Worthington is in Everest too, and actually seems to have found his niche here, as a properly masculine guy whose true character isn’t exposed until things go bad. Kormákur is good with the small touches – climbing Everest, he seems to be saying, is how rich guys like Texas Billy Big Balls Josh Brolin get the midlife crisis out of their systems – and he drops in some fascinating technical touches, such as the bit where a helicopter yaws about madly because there just isn’t enough air at that altitude to provide lift, no matter how fast the rotors spin. That’s a bit like the film in toto – swinging about a bit, never quite convincingly airborne.

Everest – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Aaaaaaaah! (Icon, cert 18)

Out in the woods are two men. One is sobbing as he throws a picture of a woman to the floor. The men take turns to piss on it. Then one of the men (Tom Meeten) wipes a tear from the eye of the other man (Steve Oram) and then a driblet of piss from his cock. Yeee-aaaah, what do we have here? Cut to a house where a hot young woman (Lucy Honigman) is idly looking at a celebrity magazine, while her husband (Julian Rhind-Tutt) drinks lager and assembles flatpack furniture. Neither speaks, just grunts. Aah haa – the old fashioned critique of suburban bourgeois behaviour, presumed extinct since Luis Buñuel died, appears to be alive and well in writer/director/star Steve Oram’s absurdist dramedy conducted entirely in grunts and animal actions. Spike Milligan is probably another influence, as is Benny Hill, in a film first shown at London’s Frightfest, though Aaaaaaaah! is clearly more comedy than horror. There’s a kind of ramshackle glory to this mad grand concept in which everyone behaves like chimpanzees – mounting from behind is a regular occurrence – and it’s not at all clear how any of the household appliances might have been manufactured, or how this sub-articulate species is running the civilisation whose fruits are in evidence all around them. Put that small gripe to one side and enjoy a world utterly without nuance – alpha males take what’s theirs; beta males are either sent off to live in the garden (as deposed alpha Julian Barratt does) or act as henchmen and piss-driblet wipers for the alphas. Too long, even at 79 minutes, it’s also massively disdainful of how normal people live, but there are many joys to behold, not least Noel Fielding having his penis bitten off, or Steve Oram trying to mount Toyah Willcox, and the bouncy soundtrack (by Willcox’s husband Robert Fripp) is another reason to watch. File alongside Sightseers, the brilliant deadpan satire Oram wrote with Alice Lowe (who cameos).

Aaaaaaaah! – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Life (E One, cert 15)

Life is Anton Corbijn’s fifth feature as a director and what a pityfest it is. Telling the back story of one of the iconic photographs of all time, it centres on the relationship between snapper Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) and James Dean (Dane DeHaan) as they get to know each other and build towards that famous Times Square shot of Dean walking hunched against the elements with a cigarette sticking out of his chiselled face. Like Control, Corbijn’s Joy Division movie, it’s a story about an artist – two artists, in fact – trying to stay true, while the forces of evil commerce (Stock’s agent in one case, studio boss Jack Warner in Dean’s) try to pursue the easy buck. Corbijn makes a whole load of terrible decisions – chief among these is the casting of DeHaan, who is a great actor but simply too plubby in the chops to play a person whose jawline is about 70 per cent of his appeal. Then there’s the decision to start the film off as a Douglas Sirk-style crypto-gay exploration of Dean’s sexuality – when Dean and Stock first meet the tone is distinctly flirty – only to swerve away from that and into another exploration, of a character who’s become very familiar in culture since then: the drawling icon of cool, a character worn with diminishing returns by rock stars from Dylan and Lennon to whoever’s hot next week. Who was the real Dean? The film’s not sure, and it’s not sure either if the film is actually about him or about Stock, the up-and-coming photographer hustling to get a shot into Life magazine. And we’re not sure whether it’s even about Stock, or more about Corbijn, who made his name as a photographer, since scene after scene deals with the observational nature of photography and Corbijn appears to get confessional about the passivity of looking rather than taking part – Life as opposed to life. Corbijn restarts the film several times, the most successful bit being when Dean and Stock go back to Dean’s home town, and we finally get some sense of a real person. And then he restarts it again, in a more poetic vein right before the end credits roll. The overall impression of both men is that they’re a miserable pair of spineless egos seeking self-gratification and glory over honour. If that’s the film Corbijn honestly intended to make, then this is, in fact, a masterpiece. But I doubt it.

Life – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Irrational Man (Warner, cert 12)

Irrational Man is Woody Allen’s 147-billionth movie and a very familiar trudge it is. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as an existentially bored philosophy professor and Emma Stone as the young student who throws herself at him. In a plot that feels like something Allen might have doodled on a napkin, or written for the New Yorker, Phoenix comes up with a novel way of shifting the monkey on his back – he kills a stranger who is making another stranger’s life a misery. Since there is no way the prof can be attached to the victim, there is the high likelihood that he is literally going to get away with murder. The joy of the film comes from watching Allen push Phoenix and Stone around what is essentially a hole – how would Stone even know Phoenix is involved in nefariousness since he doesn’t tell her? – and there is a certain ingenuity to the solution Allen comes up with, which involves co-star Parkey Posey, as a sexual libertine, depressive co-worker desperate for Phoenix to take her, rather than the younger, hotter, brighter model. Yes, some joy from that, and from the acting, which is fantastic, Phoenix somehow having found a way to play the Allen avatar who is always the focus of Allen’s movies without actually using Woody’s tics or speech rhythms, and Stone every bit as good as Posey as the two love rivals. It’s a little arid, though, a little lacking in humour, and the constant voiceover speaks of a writer who simply couldn’t be bothered giving it one last rewrite. As for Allen’s big idea – “Trust your instincts… not everything can be grasped by the intellect”, as Phoenix opines at one point, this is wheeled out as if Moses had brought it down off the mountain, when in fact it’s the message behind almost every mainstream Hollywood movie since Star Wars.

Irrational Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

11 January 2016-01-11

Aomi Muyock and Karl Glusman

 

Out This Week

 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (E One, cert 18)

The 1970s are the setting for this intriguingly 1990s-flavoured semi-comedy about a teenage girl (Bel Powley) who starts having an affair with the randy boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) of her fairly lackadaisical mother (Kristen Wiig). Taking the now familiar line that the 1970s attitude to sexual liberation bordered on the creepy, it would in fact be no sort of film at all if it had been made back then – “nothing to see here” and all that. The 1990s flavours come from the fact that Powley is something of a budding cartoonist, with Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky her countercultural idols, and the screen tends to pop into life with cute representations of her work much as 90s indie screens tended to. The early 1970s were in many respects the 1990s in utero – the drugs, the bagginess – and Brandon Trost’s loose cinematography seems happy there, in a soft-edged world where light breaks between people’s faces, Skarsgård sports a moustache designed to catch food and Wiig is the mother whose feminism doesn’t stretch so far that she can’t instruct her daughter in how to use her body to catch a man. It’s brilliantly acted, with no hint of satire in the performances and this refreshing lack of 20/20 hindsight brackets it to some extent with Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air. Director Marielle Heller is similarly adept at her music choices – we expect T Rex and Iggy Pop, but Frankie Miller!? A girl power film of real distinction.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

45 Years (Curzon, cert 15)

Andrew Haigh’s debut, Weekend, put the new relationship of a gay couple under intense scrutiny. The result was electrifying. If 45 Years is slightly less so, that’s because the relationship under examination this time around – it is in many respects the same film – is a very old one, between a couple who live out in a terrain much like their marriage: the flat apparently sunless Norfolk Broads as autumn shades into winter, where the faraway bark of a dog is broken by mist-wreathed bare trees. So much for the pathetic fallacy being dead. Into this featureless but not unhappy marriage building towards the celebration of its 45th anniversary with a big party Haigh then drops a depth charge. One day Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter about a girlfriend he knew back in the 1960s. More than this I really can’t reveal, except that this letter and the door it opens onto the past forces his controlling but kindly wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) to reconsider the entire basis of their lives together. Haigh sets up the characters and relationship with almost audacious economy, keeps total control of the entire film throughout, in terms of sound, light, mood and rhythm, leaving the two actors to do their thing. And though I’ve never quite gone the bundle on Rampling that some do, she really has her moments of thespian majesty in this film, though Courtenay, it must be said, has more of them. Like Michael Haneke’s Amour, this is as much a film about physical decline as the persistence of emotional attachments, and like Amour, it comes with a sting in the tail that reminds us that the oldies are just people – still funny, still passionate, perhaps still dangerous.

45 Years – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Love (Curzon, cert 18)

The Argentinian controversialist Gaspar Noé opens this film with a shot of a naked couple, his hard dick in her hand, his thumb up her cunt. She wanks him off till he comes, all done in a lockshot, beautifully lit by master cinematographer Benoit Debie. We then cut forward in time, to the same man, now living with a different woman and their child. He’s older, he’s settled, but he’s deeply unhappy at the loss of the old girlfriend, and for the rest of the film we’re in his thoughts as he reminisces, essentially, about all the great stuff they did, the many great fucks they had, going backwards, backwards, until eventually we get to their meet-cute. And cute it is. Two things are immediately obvious – that Noé is back on the highly subjective style of narrative that was so apparent in his mad psychedelic thriller Enter the Void, and that he’s still hung up on that reverse chronology, as he was in Irreversible, the brutal rape drama that made his name. But most of all it’s about the sex, between the one who got away, appropriately named Electra (Aomi Muyock) and Murphy (Karl Glusman), an American in Paris aspiring film-maker whose two pronouncements on the subject – “I want to make movies out of blood, sperm and tears,” and “My biggest dream… is to make a movie that represents sentimental sexuality” – tell us entirely what’s going on here. Noé turns up himself, in a small role as Electra’s former boyfriend, and the child Murphy eventually has with new woman Omi (Klara Kristin) is called Gaspar, so self-referentiality is all part of the bigger idea. Noé’s Enter the Void is one of the must-see films of recent years and Love really is almost as powerful. If it doesn’t always hit paydirt, it achieves what it sets out to do – to represent the sheer almost heart-stopping effect of sex when it happens with someone you love and they love you back with an equal intensity.

Love – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Straight Outta Compton (Universal, cert 18)

Ice Cube and Dr Dre are the producers of this rags to riches story about the making and breaking of NWA, the LA band that seemed to settle the East Coast/West Coast rap beef once and for all. It’s worth remembering that fact as we watch what is in effect a whitewash of their reputations – it’s Eazy-E who’s painted as the bad guy as Cube, Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella get together in the late 80s LA burbs, are signed up by machiavellian Jerry Heller (another sweating/grinning turn by Paul Giamatti) of Ruthless Records and go on to make music history. If NWA’s music had swagger, humour and ire, so has this film, but it’s really to the credit of O’Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell as Cube, Dre and Eazy-E (the other two barely get a look-in) that this by-the-numbers music biopic has any real individuality at all. No, that’s unfair to director F Gary Gray, who imparts the whole thing with a loose, amiable and entirely appropriately loping rhythm. You’ll see girls, you’ll see parties, you’ll see dumb brutal cops and you’ll see niggaz wit attitude. You won’t see drugs, girls being disrespected or anyone being beaten up (unless it’s Suge Knight doing it). Entirely one-sided? For sure. Entertaining? As hell.

Straight Outta Compton – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

No Escape (E One, cert 15)

A chase thriller with a bit of geopolitics strapped on for currency, with megacorp employee Owen Wilson, wife Lake Bell and kids all pitched into a “fourth world” country which erupts into an Iranian-style “kill all Americans” street revolution just as the family are checking into the swish hotel with a big “We welcome Jack Dwyer” (Wilson) headshot on an easel by the front door – which in an instant has become a Wanted poster. It’s a nice touch, the seeds of the Dwyer family’s destruction having been sown by their hegemonic culture’s over-reach. But never mind that, director John Erick Dowdle and co-writer brother Eric don’t lay on the politics too thick, and prefer to concentrate on chase dynamics. What they end up with is a beautifully constructed series of intense physical dashes through jeopardy interspersed with arrivals at places of sanctuary, only for that safety to be proven illusory. The Dowdles’ previous output has been mostly horror – Devil, Quarantine and As Above, So Below all spring to mind – but there’s always been a strong thriller element. That’s right up front here, of course, and it’s accentuated further with Christopher Doyle-style neon hues courtesy of Léo Hinstin’s cinematography, an atmospheric gamelan soundtrack (shades of Anton Karas’s zither in The Third Man, perhaps) with the curve ball coming from Pierce Brosnan as a jokey, Bond-alike “British CIA” guy.

No Escape – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

American Ultra (EV, cert 15)

Remember Chronicle, a superhero drama which took a conceptual leap – imagine if our “heroes” were in fact just slackerish average high school kids? Chronicle’s writer Max Landis (son of genre joker John) is up to something similar here, taking the Jason Bourne character of the amnesiac spy and re-imagining him, again, as a slackerish average stoner, in the shape of Jesse Eisenberg. Joining him on the sofa of life is Kristen Stewart as his equally bong-tastic babelicious girlfriend. And there they might have stayed, in reefer-y bliss if a nasty bit of factional in-fighting at the CIA hadn’t switched his status from “sleep” to “kill”. Eisenberg and Stewart play it entirely straight, as a couple of kids who have no real idea what the hell is going on, while around them a series of support players (Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo) play it for laughs – director Nima Nourizadeh should have gone with Eisenberg and Stewart’s decision, I reckon. The result is a cheesy entertainment full of ridiculous moments, some big laughs, at its best when its “revenge of the nerds” aspect is to the fore. It’s not the calamity some critics seem to have suggested, who were unhappy, perhaps, that Stewart and Eisenberg could be associated with anything you might call straight-ahead fun.

American Ultra – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Love & Mercy (Sony, cert 12)

Bill Pohlad is the son of a billionaire and this is his second film in 25 years. A picture of him on his imdb page shows a man with sad eyes and I wonder if that’s what attracted him to Brian Wilson. There’s plenty of good things in this film about the Beach Boys genius who disappeared into psychosis and eventually came out of it with his muse entirely vanished (my view, not the film’s). Two of them are the performances of Paul Dano, as Brian in his pomp, just as he’s building up to creating Pet Sounds, his sonic masterpiece, and John Cusack, as the older Wilson, a hesitant man who clearly once did have his own mind but has now lost it. In fact there’s good things all around – another on-the-nose Elizabeth Banks performance as the bright, beautiful and possibly on-the-make Cadillac salesperson who catches the older Wilson’s eye, and Paul Giamatti as Dr Eugene Landy, the shifty shrink who “saved” Wilson by taking over his life. Pohlad captures well the pitiless way of working in the pre-digital recording studio, where everything had to actually be done for real, and nimbly points out where Wilson’s genius lay in a simple scene in which young Brian hammers out God Only Knows on the piano, the complex chords counterpointing the purity and simplicity of the melody. What Pohlad hasn’t quite worked out is who the film is for. If you’ve grown up with Wilson, this story – the breakdown, Landy, the second coming – is familiar. If you haven’t, then Pohlad really doesn’t tells us why we should care. In fact the real story, it seemed to me, is told by the new Brian Wilson song that plays out over the end credits. It is bland and reinforces my suspicion that Wilson fled to drugs and “madness” because he was artistically played out and couldn’t face that fact. That story is here in this film, though perhaps out of deference to Wilson, Pohlad forces you to read between the lines to catch it.

Love & Mercy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016