Antiviral

Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

29 February

 

 

Rare Disease Day

This day every leap year is Rare Disease Day. Initially chosen because the day itself is rare, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Orphan Drug Act in the USA (which makes it easier for therapies for designated diseases to be developed), it was first observed in 2008. When there isn’t a 29 February in the year, the day is observed on the last day of the month. A rare disease is technically defined as one found in fewer than five people in 10,000, but there are more well known rare diseases than might at first be thought – cystic fibrosis, conjoined twins, Creutzfeld Jakob disease to name three beginning with the letter C. The day is largely used to raise awareness and increase access to facilities and treatment, but is also seen as an opportunity for lobbying and fund-raising. The organisation’s website is at www.rarediseaseday.org

 

 

 

Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)

Meet Syd. He works at a strange medical facility which deals in celebrity infections. Not the curing of infections that celebrities have, but the culturing and selling on of infections – herpes seems to be a favourite – which a particular celebrity has had, the idea being that the adoring fan will buy anything, and especially something so intimately connected with fame. So that’s Syd’s job – selling famous people’s diseases. He’s at the fragrant high end of a market which, lower down the pecking order, deals in cloned celebrity muscle tissue, offered up on the black market at a handsome price to the fanbase. They eat it, apparently. In films where the “hero” works in some highly mechanised and not particularly savoury occupation, at some point he generally makes a break for it, or sets about bringing about a revolution. Syd does neither. Instead he sneaks some infection home from work inside his own bloodstream, with the intention of either doing some black market trading, or having his own private facetime with a celebrity virus, we’re not sure at first. But Syd’s theft has consequences, and he’s soon fighting the very thing that other people are fighting to get.
The time is the near future; the place is a sort of aseptic steampunk version of the present; the influences are the dystopia of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the body horror of David Cronenberg. And the director is Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, who could be accused of having cloned his dad’s sensibility, if we were being cruel. I suspect that Cronenberg Sr had some ancillary input in Antiviral – the technical work, the mis en scene, and the support cast are all perfect – but there is more going on here than Mini-Me horror. Cronenberg Jr builds a convincing universe, uses his cast well (Caleb Landry Jones as the pasty salesman/technician/thief; Malcolm McDowell affirming the Kubrick connection; Sarah Gadon blonde and charismatic as the Madonna/Gaga-esque star the plot hinges on). Brandon Cronenberg also has his own vision, tells his own story and follows his theme of vampiric celebrity culture – they live on us, though fans believe it’s the opposite – through to its pitiless satirical conclusion (OK, that last bit is definitely the father’s style too). More importantly, he fuses the clean-tech high modernist sci-fi look – the opening shot is of a white light and white is the key colour throughout – with something much more organic, wet, dark, even hairy. Enjoy.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The directorial debut of another Cronenberg auteur
  • Powerful, disturbing body horror
  • Old-fashioned physical special effects extremely well used
  • Part of the rise and rise of Caleb Landry Jones

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Antiviral – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

29 February 2016-02-29

Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan slow dance in Brooklyn

 

Out This Week

 

 

James White (Soda, cert 15)

Josh Mond was a producer on Martha Marcy May Marlene and now makes his feature debut with the sort of grown-up seriously accomplished filigree drama that more or less guaranteed no cinema release in the UK – wot, no guys in costumes? Instead here it is in what used to be the ignominious “straight to DVD” category. There’s a long ramble to be had here about the best films these days being more likely not to get theatrical releases, but let’s not go into that now. Instead let’s take a look at the film, which stars a seriously good “from the inside out” performance by Christopher Abbott as White, a 20something slacker dude first encountered having recently lost his dad, in emotional freefall, and with his mother (Cynthia Nixon, all Sex and the City sins forgiven) now handed the black spot by cancer. Mond gives us scenes from White’s life and leaves us to connect them up. James grieves, he drinks at a club, he gets into a fight, he goes on holiday to Mexico, meets a foxy woman, they take an acid trip together, they have sex, they get married. All done matter of fact, simply, yet Mond’s Altmanesque decision not to join all the dots forces us to lean in and commit to the film. Where does it go? Is James’s faintly louche life going to lead this good-hearted-but-wrong-headed guy right off the rails? Or is he going to hit the straight and narrow? Can he see that this girl he’s lucked into is way too good for him? Is he going to fight to keep her? Or not? Is mum going to get sick again? Yes, it’s simple. But it’s intense. James White feels very much like real life. Webslinging does not feature.

James White – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Brooklyn (Lionsgate, cert 12)

In every generation of my Irish family going back to at least the mid-1800s, one or more of us has gone to make a life in the USA. My brother lives there currently, also an uncle and aunt, and before them one of my grandfather’s brothers, and there was another Morrissey before him, at which point the trail goes a bit cold, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one more before that, propelled by the potato famine of the 1840s. But even with this personal connection, I was reluctant to watch this film starring Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, the Irish colleen heading for 1950s New York, away from a lovely though threadbare Ireland and towards a bustling New World of possibility. The grim thought of it being Angela’s Ashes Part 2. Well, I was wrong on every count there, because Brooklyn functions, at some level at least, as a corrective to Alan Parker’s rain-lashed 1999 adaptation of Frank McCourt’s memoir, director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby dredging everything with light and fairy dust, donning the rosy specs as lovely new arrival Eilis encounters a well meaning priest (in the shape of avuncular Jim Broadbent), a severe but twinkling landlady (Julie Walters doing her old lady thing), gossipy girls, strapping but decent lads, everyone and every thing gleaming like a jewel in a New York that’s civilised and with civic institutions as solid and functional as the big square buildings they’re housed in. It seems odd to describe the acting as lovely, but it is, with beautiful old-fashioned touches from Ronan, Ethan Emory (her Italian boyfriend in New York) and, best of all, Domhnall Gleeson as the lad back in Ireland who would tempt Eilis away from her new life. Just the way Gleeson stares at his boots or picks up a pint makes him look like someone from another era, and that’s analogous for the whole film, which attempts to situate us, rosiness to one side, inside the minds of people who lived those lives back then – deferential to the church and authority of whatever sort. Any suggestion that there’s a coded message to politicians of today – a country built on the back of immigrant sweat, whoever heard of such a thing – must be pushed to the back of the mind.

Brooklyn – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Intern (Warner, cert 12)

Here’s Robert De Niro in a kindly old chevalier role as a 70-year-old returning to the workplace – like a shark it’s keep going or die, he reckons – as a suited-and-booted intern working for tech-head and reluctant equal-opportunities employer Anne Hathaway. It’s a comedy and it’s fairly charming and it’s De Niro, so we expect a bit of coasting too, and it’s a Nancy Meyers film so it’s observational comedy of a faintly Nora Ephron-esque sort with its weight firmly on the side of the older party. So, no, there’s no inappropriate relationship between Hathaway and De Niro. Instead he gets to teach her, and everyone around him, how to live, and that gadgets (a digital clock, pens, a calculator in his case; the computer, tablet and smartphone in theirs) have nothing to do with it. It’s about old school manners and respect, in a nutshell. The PJ O’Rourke book Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut is its philosophical foundation, and there is the constant suggestion that Meyers is trying too hard – the scene where company masseuse Rene Russo gives De Niro a quick shoulder rub at his desk and he indicates to his co-workers that he has an erection…There are several other moments when you might want to make the gag sign too, but on the whole this is a decent exploration of largely unexplored territory, played well by its leads, though I could do without its lessons in gender politics in the 21st century, from a Hathaway who suddenly gets an attack of “authorial voice” while drunk – it’s why can’t a man be more like a man, in a nutsack, sorry, nutshell. No, that terrible Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson Google film was called The Internship.

The Intern – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Sleeping with Other People (Icon, cert 15)

Described by its writer/director as ‘When Harry Met Sally… for assholes’, Sleeping with Other People is a standard rom-com dressed up in slutty clothes. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie are the updated Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, a couple who meet at a sex-addicts group and decide that, since they fuck up every relationship based on fucking, they’ll not go there. Cue extended cinematic foreplay by writer/director Leslye Headland as the two dance the will they/won’t they while talking almost exclusively about sex and trading tips such as the best way for a woman to masturbate. These supposedly “I can’t believe he/she just said that” moments might have the founding fathers of Hollywood turning in their graves but they’re unlikely to shock Generation Tinder. Sudeikis is well cast as a guy who could, let’s face it, be easily mistaken for a sex pest, and Brie is just as good as him at making the dialogue – and there’s a lot of it – seem to bubble out of the mouth like… searches for inappropriate simile and decides to drop it. Ernst Lubitsch would understand what’s going on here. And he’d appreciate that it’s hard to get this sort of thing right, and that messing with the screwball formula doesn’t generally work. But, in spite of all its sex-toy trappings, Sleeping with Other People does follow the strict old-time recipe – the gendered roles (he’s a tech start-up king, she teaches young kids), the ricochet repartee, the funny sidekick, the romantic impediment, and so on. It’s beginning to sound like I didn’t like it. But I did. Lots. It’s a romantic comedy that works as a romance and as a comedy. That’s not too common.

Sleeping with Other People – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Deathgasm (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Deathgasm is a comedy, of course, one about 1980s Australian teenage lads discovering that their revered heavy metal is, as the Christian fundamentalists used to suggest, a front for Satan himself. But is it any more than a funny title and a neat idea? Yes, as it happens, because writer/director Jason Lei Howden sets up a love triangle subplot to act as an ancillary motor. So as wimpy hero Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) leaves the stifling security of his uncle’s house – he’s there because his mother is now locked up after being “caught sucking off Santa in a mall” – and sets out on a quest to discover how a local metal hero, a forbidden dark dirge and an outbreak of zombiedom are all related, his “friend” Zakk (James Blake) is also trying to inveigle his way into the pants of Medina (Kimberley Crossman), the unattainably hot girl Brodie is keen on, even though she’s his cousin’s squeeze. That’s a love quadrilateral, technically, I realise. Other things in Deathgasm’s favour include a cheery approach to gore – when Zakk’s mechanic dad becomes a ravening monster, he and Brodie drop a car engine on his head, leading to Zakk opining that it’s probably the way dad would have liked to go. And Medina gets more to do than just stand there pointing her chest at the camera – she’s handier with an axe than the guys anticipate. Plus there’s sex toys used as offensive weapons – imagine trying to beat a zombie to death with a big prosthetic penis. In fact this clever crossing and re-crossing of the comedy/horror fault line is what gives this film its gas. If you’ve ever even vaguely nodded along to anything inspired by one of Tony Iommi’s lolloping basslines, this is probably for you. If you don’t know who Tony Iommi is, shame on you.

Deathgasm – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Visit: an Alien Encounter (Metrodome, cert PG)

The last film by Michael Madsen – not the actor – was called Into Eternity and detailed the massive engineering project designed to facilitate the underground storage of nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years. Until long after our civilisation is finished, in other words. Its most notable aspect was the way it interrogated scientists and engineers about their attempts to future-proof their warning systems – what sign might a human from the 47th century recognise as meaning “Danger – Radioactivity!”? The Visit: an Alien Encounter proceeds in similar fashion, asking questions of scientists, military men and bureaucrats about how they would handle the arrival of a visitor from outer space. Did you know the UN has a department for Outer Space Affairs? Mazlan Othman is its director and is one of the people Madsen interrogates, posing as an off-screen alien to whom Othman delivers her answers. Other officials Madsen grills in similar style include the chair of the Panel on Planetary Protection, the director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, an astro-biologist, an expert on space law, an engineer at the International Space University – institutions and job descriptions that are all new to me. Perhaps this film’s most singular success is the way it shines a light on this shadowy area of human strategics, Madsen effectively creating a work of cinematic long-form journalism as he tries to tease out from the experts exactly what would happen if ET showed up. And the answer he comes up with… well I’m not going to spoil the enjoyment of watching. But I will say that sci-fi movies of the 1950s seem to provide the basic templates. And that the human tendency to panic when we don’t understand something doesn’t bode well. There’s a touch of the conspiratorial tone of an Adam Curtis documentary here, and Madsen is hamstrung to a slight extent by the lack of killer visuals that made Into Eternity such a wow. Even so, this is a fascinating and also faintly chilling exploration of a subject that should, you’d have thought, have been done long before this.

The Visit: an Alien Encounter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Lesson (Frightfest, cert 18)

The Lesson is an odd film in that it starts off being about one thing – a gang of feral kids who delight in vandalising and bullying – but then it slips into something else entirely. The something else is torture porn, and why this late-arrival at a very tired party works so well is because it spends so long introducing its two key characters. There’s Fin (Evan Bendall), handsomer and smarter than his even thuggier older brother (Tom Cox), whose girlfriend (Michaela Prchalová) is forever giving Fin the eye. And there’s Joel (Rory Coltart), the cock-of-the-walk nasty piece of work. These two lads are horrible, but their unpleasantness springs not from innate evilness, rather it’s from the shitty way they in turn have been treated at home. So when Mr Gale (Robert Hands), the hapless teacher these lads have been routinely humiliating at school, bangs them over the head, hauls them off to his lair, cable ties them to a desk, then gets the DIY tools out for “the lesson”, our loyalties are fairly evenly split. Writer/director Ruth Platt does another bit of even cannier splitting in writing that catches both the rhythms of the chavvy lads and the stream-of-consciousness rambling of the erudite-but-bonkers Gale as he delivers a lecture on subjects he could never cover in class, ranging from Milton to Blake, Rousseau, Hobbes and Charlotte Bronte. “What does inspiration mean, Tindall?,” he asks Fin at one point. “Ten seconds or I nail your hand to the desk.” And on it goes in this manner – questions and punishment, like old-school teaching with extreme prejudice. Shot up close and obviously on a low budget, with simple blue and yellow lighting effects like a 1980s Smash Hits cover and a soundtrack that was probably put together in someone’s bedroom, this film could never have been made before the digital revolution. But here it is, handsome and solid, gripping and smart, funny and horrible, a feature debut deserving to be seen.

The Lesson – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Stephen Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

22 February 2016-02-22

Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux in Spectre

 

Out This Week

 

Spectre (Fox, cert 12)

Trope is what they should have called this film, rather than Spectre, though god knows the spectre of so many old Bond movies hangs over a film which, in reviewing terms is worth about two out of five stars if seen as a standalone film, but four as a mash-up.

The usual recent writing team of John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Bond writers since The World Is Not Enough) is augmented this time by playwright Jez Butterworth, whose knack for snappy dialogue made Edge of Tomorrow into something worth listening to as well as watching. Here, this quartet send Bond off to Mexico for a Day of the Dead opener of spectacular Bond-trumping action before getting down to a nitty gritty plot that pits old-school spies, such as 007, against not just a supervillain in the shape of Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld, but also new-fangled 360-degree-eavesdropping, as practised by a government near you. 007 backs Edward Snowden shock.

Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera goes for the stygian look that made Let the Right One In such a lickable item. And ignore the newspaper articles crafted from wish-fulfilment that Monica Bellucci is somehow a better Bond girl than Léa Seydoux. There is no contest – Seydoux has all the equipment and know-how, and turns it on and off as necessary, though to be fair to Bellucci, she doesn’t get much screen time.

So, yes, the familiar elements – Bond girls, supervillains, locations and action, including action on a train, on a boat, in a helicopter (oh my god), on skis and at the villain’s lair. There are black-clad villains, a white cat, a plane losing its wings and carrying on regardless, in a manner reminiscent of Roger Moore and the motor boat in Live and Let Die.

It’s really clear why Bond nuts aren’t so keen on Spectre – this film is not extending the brand. But then the previous Bond, Skyfall, didn’t either, it merely hit the reset button which, let’s face it, had been hit as recently as 2006’s Casino Royale.

But for those of us who generally get fidgety about 40 minutes into a Bond movie, as location number three is introduced and the good or bad Bond girl slips into something a bit more deadly, this superb plate of delicious cold cuts works a treat.

And notice that scene – Seydoux asleep in the bed, Craig gallantly upright in a chair in the small hours and watching a mouse scurrying out of a hole and across the floor. “Who are you working for?” he deadpans.

It’s a beautifully written and played moment, which gives us just a second’s respite from the Bondage, before it all starts up again; the equivalent of a big deep breath and a wink.

 

Spectre – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

The Survivalist (Bulldog, cert 18)

So, Irish post-apocalyptic drama anyone?

The Survivalist is something very special indeed, and like Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf has no truck with the idea that after some devastating civilisation-ending event, we might go back to a prelapsarian world. Instead writer/director Stephen Fingleton opens with a shot of our lone protagonist (Martin McCann) burying somebody, his appalling ratty cornrow mullet hairstyle on its own an indicator that life as we know it has ended.

Into his hardscrabble world – imagine The Martian set in a damp Irish glade – enters an older woman (Olwen Fouere) and a girl of maybe 15 (Mia Goth), looking for some pickings from the vegetables he’s growing out here where the marauding gangs won’t find him, maybe. Mother and daughter, maybe grandmother and granddaughter, maybe no relation at all.

The deal, it soon becomes clear, since they have nothing else he wants, is food for sex, and it’s not with the old dear.

Without giving too much of the plot away, this sets in train a very tense dance between the two parties, who engage in an “everything is transactional” relationship which lasts considerably longer than Survivalist (as the imdb calls him) had reckoned on, in which love, art, beauty and the other appurtenances of civilised life have no place, and the nomadic rather than the sedentary have the upper hand.

There is no music on the soundtrack, the shooting style is clear and direct with little in the way of tricksiness in lighting, lenses or edits. This throws a big burden on the actors, who are all superb, but most praise has to go to Goth as the young girl Milja, who should win an award just for the look on her face when her body is being sold off for a few turnips – she’s not happy, her expression says, but needs must.

This taciturn, stark and utterly gripping film really has something to say about relationships between people – that perhaps we can’t help ourselves, that we just imprint, like newborn chicks – and it ends with a massive kicker which is well worth hanging on for.

 

The Survivalist – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Taxi Tehran (New Wave, cert 12)

Like Ai Wei Wei in China, the Iranian Jafar Panahi knows what it is to be gagged by his government, but also understands the special privilege that being an artist confers – even oppressive government don’t want to be seen as being overtly being nasty, so they often gift their artist dissidents a simulacrum of free expression, where a simulacrum is a lot better than what non-artist dissidents are getting.

This means that Panahi, whose work has always engaged at an ideological level with the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has carried on making films, in spite of the fact that he’s essentially banned from doing so. In fact you might have seen 2006’s Offside, a pithy and gripping tale of girls trying to go and watch a game of football (not allowed). This got Panahi into trouble with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Or 2011’s This Is Not a Film, which was smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive.

At first glance you might also say that Taxi Tehran (aka Jafar Panahi’s Taxi) “is not a film”, since it appears to be simply a report from the camera Panahi has fixed to his dashboard recording conversations with people he picks up as he taxis around Tehran. But even the first shot – camera facing forward towards the street where the men clearly dress western-style while the women are veiled – is telling us something interesting about the society Panahi is documenting. And as this cunningly crafted film – the mock doc that dare not speak its name – proceeds, each one of Panahi’s fares tells us more about his homeland and the heavy manners it lives under.

Whether it’s a hawker of pirated videos (pointing out to the authorities that the prohibition on Hollywood movies doesn’t work), or his niece treating Panahi to some of her classwork on making a “distributable” (ie government sanctioned) film, or the old friend whose shop has been turned over, knows who did it but won’t turn them in (because death is what awaits the miscreant under this grim system), every “fare”, every encounter engages directly with the regime, in the guise of being just people in a cab talking about stuff.

En route we learn, mostly from the niece but also the “flower lady” who gets in towards the end, a disbarred lawyer we discover, that a “distributable” movie must feature respect for the scarf, no contact between men and woman, no sordid realism, no violence, that the good guys should have saints’ names, that discussion of politics and economic issues should be avoided. And so on.

By the end of the film, in a most remarkable fashion, as Panahi and niece leave the car and something rather shocking and believably real happens, we realise Panahi has systematically broken every single one of the rules that have been explained to us, and in ways that even the regime would find it hard to condemn. All the while smiling and shrugging disarmingly. He’s an immensely clever man, this Panahi.

 

Taxi Tehran aka Jafar Panahi’s Taxi – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Arrowhead (Metrodome, cert 15)

Since there are mixed reviews for this Australian sci-fi, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I slid the review disc into the machine.

But I was really extremely pleasantly surprised. Because what Arrowhead turns out to be is a massively accomplished work of old-school sci-fi – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, John Carpenter’s Dark Star, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and George Lucas’s THX 1138, plus a bit of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, all seem to be in there – made for very little money indeed, its intensely alien look enormously helped by the fact that writer/director Jesse O’Brien had the Australian desert to use as a backdrop.

For the rest of it… well, not very much in the way of tech or effects. I suspect one rather neat moment was crafted using tissue paper soaked in Vaseline. But… to the plot… which shadows that of The Martian, in that it sticks a lone fugitive up on an empty planet with only a partially on-side talking computer for company.

The film is about the struggle for existence, which is pushed into more potentially biological territory when our guy (Dan Mor, whose impossibly toned upper body is like something off a Men’s Health cover) is joined by a female astronaut (Aleisha Rose’s slender figure turning the heads of those not already turned by Mor’s).

But there’s no coupling – and here it’s interesting to note how wary sci-fi is of romance, compared to other genres – of any sort. Instead O’Brien merely strikes a spark between these two stranded astronauts, while keeping his main focus on the maintenance of a sense of external threat… there’s something sentient out there, possibly out to get them, but what is it?

This is an intensely plot-driven film, which moves into scenarios involving limb regeneration, shape-shifting, time dilation and stuff I’m not going to tell you about… because that’s what the film is for.

Arrowhead is massively ingenious in its use of the simplest effects for maximum impact, with O’Brien reminding us that a bit of smoke and a couple of well placed lights can do more in the way of imaginative atmospherics than all the CGI of Industrial Light and Magic.

At the time of writing, this great little film has 4.6/10 on the IMDB. The wisdom of crowds, eh.

 

Arrowhead – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (Dogwoof, cert 15)

Lisa Immordino-Vreeland cut her teeth making a documentary called The Eye Has to Travel, about her grandmother-in-law Diana Vreeland. Now she’s doing a similar service for Peggy Guggenheim, who was probably the pre-eminent collector of modern 20th-century art.

Luckily for Vreeland, in 1978-79, Jacqueline Weld interviewed Guggenheim at length for a biography she was writing, and those audio tapes provide a lot of first-hand testimony in this telling of a fascinating story – of the black sheep of a fabulously wealthy clan who knew the big names of 20th century art.

A New Yorker by birth, Peggy really got going after moving to Paris in the 1920s, where she hung out with Toklas and Picasso, Pound and Joyce, before opening a gallery in Cork Street, London, before the Second World War. It was the War which enabled her to assemble her astonishing collection. As Hitler’s tanks rumbled across Europe, art prices tumbled and Peggy, advised by Marcel Duchamp (“My great teacher”) charged over to Paris where she was able to go shopping, snapping up works by Miro, Giacometti, Tanguy, Brancusi, Picasso, Mondrian et al for a paltry total of $40,000.

Later, she worked the same trick again in the US, where she discovered and championed Jackson Pollock (after being nudged by Mondrian), as well as Motherwell, De Kooning and Rothko. Those two lists of names are the reason why she is so important, and it’s interesting to note that the famous Guggenheim Collection in New York is only as full of goodies as it is because Peggy gifted her uncle Solomon (whose collection it ostensibly is) the bulk of her collection, which his adviser on art, Hilla Rebay, had earlier deemed to be trash.

As for Peggy the woman, she wasn’t much of a looker but she enjoyed sex with most of the artists she championed, but lacked a maternal instinct, which left disastrous scars on her two children, Sindbad and Pegeen.

This largely chronological biography paints a picture of a sad and lonely life, the art apparently being something of a comfort to a woman who for all the advantages of her birth seriously lacked confidence. It’s also something of a thumbnail sketch of 20th-century art as its centre of power swung from Paris to New York.

It’s a solid endeavour that offers little in the way of surprises – if you already know Peggy’s story – though the sight of Robert De Niro turning up as one of the many authoritative talking heads (both his parents were artists and both were shown by Guggenheim in her Venice gallery) did catch me unawares.

 

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Smuggler (Trinity, cert 15)

A fat-faced people-pleasing waster (co-director and star Angus Sampson) is persuaded to act as a drug mule, heads off to Bangkok where he dutifully swallows a gutful of drug-filled condoms, then is detained at customs on the way back into Australia.

Certain he’s carrying something, the police haul him off to a motel and wait for nature to take its course – twice, to be really sure. That’s the first few minutes of The Smuggler (aka The Mule) dealt with. The rest of it watches and waits as Ray wrestles with his gurgling guts while the cops smoke and drum their fingers.

“Fuck that,” says cop Hugo Weaving, “I’m not waiting here all night for this cunt to take a dump” – a line which distils the flavour of this strange Oz offering that is played by all concerned as if it’s a comedy but contains no jokes, not even black ones. As Ray writhes on the greasy sheets – he’s told the cops he’s allergic to laxatives, so can’t be given one, to preserve his human rights – a collection of interested parties develops around him: police and a defence lawyer, his harridan mother, the local Mr Big who financed the drugs jaunt, plus the old mate who’s not sure if he should heed Mr Big’s command and kill his friend.

Set against the background of Australia winning the Americas Cup in 1983, being victorious – is it going to be the cops or Ray who wins out? – is the theme.

But the treatment, the treatment, that’s what’s so odd, and what makes this film so discomfitingly watchable. I see Leigh Whannell co-wrote it and he also co-stars, as Ray’s old mate. He of Saw fame. Torture porn. Makes sense. It’s the closest genre that this unsavoury film fits into. Especially when Ray starts, in the dead of night on about the fifth day, to feel like he really can’t hold everything in any more. No spoilers, but let’s just say it all gets a bit messy, several times, and in several different ways.

 

The Smuggle aka The Mule – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Benefactor (Arrow, cert 15)

The benefactor of the title is Franny (Richard Gere), a wealthy philanthropist who within minutes of this film opening has helped accidentally cause the death of his old friends, has become estranged from their daughter (Dakota Fanning) and become a Howard Hughes-like recluse up in Manhattan. Roll opening credits.

Once these are dispatched with, we meet an older, whiter-haired Gere, mojo seemingly restored, re-introducing himself into the life of Olivia (Fanning) and new husband Luke (Theo James). Re-introducing himself a little too intrusively, if they’re being honest, which they’re reluctant to be, since Franny’s cash is being splashed most magnanimously in their direction.

This tale of gross emotional manipulation hands a good role to Gere, whose career at this point is still ranging wide – with films like The Hoax, The Double, Arbitrage and The Second Best Marigold Hotel (not saying nothing, Robert De Niro).

Gere does well as the humanitarian with a dark side and some pains have been taken to present Franny as a complex man rather than just a bad one. Watch the scene where Franny takes Luke out for a wild night of partying and ecstasy-taking and you’ll be convinced Gere has actually taken it – that moist gleam.

What undermines the whole enterprise, though, is the constant shifts of focus: we’re seeing it all from Franny’s point of view, then from that of Luke and Olivia (though Fanning is actually barely in the film) when things would be more dramatic if they stuck with one party or the other. Is bad editing to blame? A screenplay rewritten to appeal more to a youth demographic, or pander to Gere the star? Perhaps just bad directing?

Whatever it is, what has the potential to be a fine Foxcatcher-like drama about the way financial largesse distorts relations at both ends of the transaction ends up being little more than an afternoon melodrama. Gere is rather fantastic though. Here’s to his late-career renaissance.

 

The Benefactor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

15 February 2016-02-15

Abigail Hardingham, Cian Barry and Fiona O'Shaughnessy in Nina Forever

 

Out This Week

 

Nina Forever (StudioCanal, cert 18)

If you ever saw the funny, dark and intelligent UK TV series Utopia – conspiracy nerds discover there really is a gigantic conspiracy going on – you’ll already know Fiona O’Shaughnessy, who played the mysterious and sexy lynchpin Jessica Hyde.

She’s mysterious and sexy again in this comic horror about a dead woman (O’Shaughnessy) materialising zombie-like in the bed where her clearly-not-grieving-enough ex (Cian Barry) is making the two-backed beast with the new girl (Abigail Hardingham) he’s hooked up with. These two are loved up, but their new relationship has to weather repeated re-appearances by the crack-voiced dead girlfriend, who develops the habit of turning up unannounced at their most intimate moments to piss over everyone’s picnic – “Basically,” Nina opines to new girl Holly, a trainee medic, “you’re Florence Nightingale sharing with Linda Lovelace”.

Written and directed by the impressive Blaine brothers, Ben and Chris, Nina Forever does that very difficult thing of being both gruesome and funny, though it’s the jokes that get the upper hand, and they’re often of a sexual nature: the threesome scene – two living humans, a dead one and a bed soaked in blood – is inspired.  But the Blaines also have an interest in exploring grief which lifts the film beyond genre – we meet the dead girl’s still-traumatised parents, played with real tenderness by David Troughton and Elizabeth Elvin. O’Shaughnessy, in other words, isn’t the only one who’s on the money. Both Hardingham and Barry are talented performers too.

For sure, the premise has run out of travel before things wind to a close, but it does have something to say, and it retains its mad comic energy to the end. And, of course, it’s a zombie thing with some naked goings-on. There is a constituency for that sort of thing, I believe.

Nina Forever – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Suffragette (Fox, cert 12)

Suffragette tells the story of downtrodden Edwardian skivvy Carey Mulligan and how she reluctantly but with increasing enthusiasm joins the suffrage movement and campaigns for women’s votes.

Written by British TV warhorse Abi Morgan (The Iron Maiden, River), it’s made very much in the BBC costume drama style – things are a touch clean, there’s an upstairs-downstairs noblesse oblige to class relations and the casting has tone: Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai, Natalie Press and Anne-Marie Duff, all very much as you’d expect.

Meryl Streep does what looks like a morning’s work as Emmeline Pankhurst, but she’s worth whatever she was paid because we really do believe that here was a woman who inspired loyalty and dedication beyond the call of duty. As for the rest of it, it hangs on Mulligan’s performance as the washerwoman who decides enough is enough. She is again, as she has been in so many recent films (Far From the Madding Crowd, Inside Llewyn Davis, Shame, Drive) rather excellent – committed, nuanced and she even rolls out the barrel for a style of Cockney accent that must have been researched from films of yesterdecade. No one speaks like this no more, mister.

You might be sensing that there is a big “but” coming. There is. Because, as we enter the final furlong, and the film switches to the race meeting where Emily Wilding Davison (Press) notoriously throws herself under the king’s horse, the big question raises itself – why are we following Woman A (Mulligan) when it is Woman B (Press) who gets the big from-nowhere dramatic finish, a development that seems to rob both of them of some glory? And the other usual questions that raise themselves in films of this sort – which retroactively back the winning party (in this case suffragettes) rather than explore the mindset of the time – quietly line up behind.

Suffragette – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Frankenstein (Signature, cert 18)

Bernard Rose has had a two-pronged career. There’s the jobbing director responsible for such genre classics as Candyman. And there’s the passionate pursuer of solo projects, such as his series of films based on the works of Tolstoy made with Danny Huston. If you haven’t seen Ivansxtc, The Kreutzer Sonata and Boxing Day, I can highly recommend them all. As for Anna Karenina and 2 Jacks, also Tolstoy adaptations, I haven’t seen them, so you’re on your own there.

Both the literary and the horrible come together in Frankenstein, a retelling of the old story which moves the monster-making action to a present-day techy California where, as the film opens, scientists Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss (look out for the clear references to The Matrix in her opening moves) are bringing to life a human they have made somehow – 3D printing and DNA sequencing and whatnot. What then plays out is a story remarkably faithful to Mary Shelley’s original – there are even narrated excerpts from her book – with visual allusions to James Whale’s classic 1931 movie adaptation of the story, as this great lumbering creature initially of great physical beauty (Xavier Samuel well cast here) is driven mad by mistreatment and, running increasingly amok, bumps into Candyman himself (Tony Todd as a kindly, blind, blues-playing panhandler – nice work) en route to exposing the folly of man playing god.

Rose was an early adopter of digital cameras and has always explored their possibilities more cleverly than many directors – I bet this film didn’t cost much but it never looks cheap. And what Rose saved on sets and name actors in supporting roles he has spent on make-up. And don’t those buboes, pustules and weeping abscesses look great!?

Frankenstein the movie charges off the blocks and is scary, exciting and even funny in parts. It doesn’t quite manage to sustain any of these atmospheres right to the very end, with the distinct impression gaining ground that Rose has become so interested in the read-across from Mary Shelley to our own age that he is slightly losing focus on old-fashioned dramatic tension. However, it’s never less than fascinating. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Rose fan.

Frankenstein – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust (Matchbox, cert 15)

Imagine what would happen if real-life zombies came upon a film set where a zombie film was being shot, a lousy one at that. That’s the idea behind this ingenious low-budget New Zealand comedy horror that’s sat down for a long weekend and watched fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson’s early gambols through prairies of schlock, particularly 1987’s Bad Taste and 1992’s Braindead. And out came this, a poorly acted, and not always well directed guffaw into the abyss.

But energy, the saving grace of Jackson’s films, is much in evidence and there’s a certain mad gleam in the eye as we follow dweebish runner and wannabe scriptwriter Harley Neville on his first day at work as he encounters stock comic film-biz people. The twattish director, the actor who never comes out of character, the definitely-not-gay leading man, the bimbo with twin assets.

That “not noticing there’s a zombie holocaust getting underway” idea is Shaun of the Dead, of course. And knock-off though that is, the antipodean tendency to dig deep for the really bad-taste laugh is in this film’s favour. For example, in one really funny scene the hot actress from the film within the film (it’s Reanin Johannink) is attacked by real zombies while taking, much against her hoity-toity wishes, a dump in the woods. On hearing approaching zombie grunts, she assumes someone is getting off at the sight of her on her haunches easing one out – “Are you touching yourself?” she chirpses. Just me? How about a man pissing blood from his zombie-infected cock? Oh go on. It’s only one hour ten minutes long, and even then it’s a bit overlong.

I Survived a Zombie Holocaust – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Last Witch Hunter (E One, cert 15)

Though he was great in 2000’s under-rated low-finance drama Boiler Room, Vin Diesel became a big star thanks to three genre films that followed it – Pitch Black, The Fast and Furious and xXx. All were action-hero vehicles and all had franchise potential, but for various reasons, some of them related to the inflation of Diesel’s ego, he only made it into the second of one of those, the Pitch Black sequel entitled The Chronicles of Riddick. And what a steaming mess that was.

Interestingly, having managed to revive his career by returning to the F&F franchise, Diesel has also returned to the genre roles that were once suddenly beneath him, first with a further instalment of the Pitch Black franchise, the cheap sci-fi pantomime Riddick, and now with The Last Witch Hunter, which inserts Diesel yet again into a dark world full of lore, Game of Thrones hairstyles and supernatural arcana (there’s an xXx reboot on the way too, apparently).

Michael Caine is here too, as the immortal Diesel’s venerable right-hand man, a priest much given to expository monologuing – “Witches live among us,” Caine tells us early on, sketching Diesel’s day job as the man who keeps malevolent forces in check. Later, when Diesel is explaining that, hundreds of years earlier, he and his kind “took all the most powerful witches that ever lived and put them in one place,” Caine handily deadpans “The Witch Prison”, lest we not understand what a place of incarceration full of witches might be called. Did Caine wink to camera? I think he might have done.

I exhort you to take it at that level – as a big laugh with everyone having a mighty time in the dressing-up box, not least Diesel who in flashbacks to medieval times seems to be a Viking.

The plot is a wafer, and Caine’s role is to be an Alfred to Diesel’s Batman. But there’s also Elijah Wood, as a younger priest, a kind of Frodo to Diesel’s Gandalf, if I might mix my movies.

Either way, Diesel is endlessly charming, his refusal to play the race game (Viking? Doesn’t matter) one of the many refreshing things about this strange fallen and resurrected star, while in Game of Throne alumna Rose Leslie we have a feisty young witch/wench sidekick who appears by devious magic to have summoned about half of Kristen Stewart – the smart, sulky-mouthed top half. No one has Stewart’s legs. And it’s a Young Adult film that isn’t in thrall to Ayn Rand, the last witch herself. Remarkable.

The Last Witch Hunter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Goddess of Love (Signature, cert 18)

It was Barbara Creed who coined the phrase the “monstrous feminine” – the tendency for the female of the species to be routinely represented by the patriarchy as being more deadly than the male. This Medusa/Gorgon figure and its variants have been less evident on screen ever since Glenn Close’s best-in-show performance as the bunny-boiling Alex Forrest in 1987’s Fatal Attraction.

So fair play to Goddess of Love, which seeks to get back to the business of properly demonising women by reviving the mad, psycho witch-bitch in the shape of Venus, a lapdancer who, after becoming super-obsessed with one of her johns, goes totally over the top when he goes a bit cold on her.

It’s a to-the-absolute-hilt performance by writer and star Alexis Kendra, who has the kind of supertoned body that demands to be seen – and is, repeatedly – rolling around in bed, on the pole at the club, doing hash pipes, sobbing into her drink and masturbating furiously as the 33rpm record in her retro and rather lovely apartment belts out a mournful song. Give that woman an award, or a robe, or possibly a bone to gnaw on.

And give this film a chance to get through its flatly directed opening section, and let a few of the amateurishly played early scenes drift by too, because really this is all about Venus losing her cool and going gonzo, while director Jon Knautz screws up the courage to go full 1980s and reveal that he’s a big fan of David Lynch. All those dark corridors, the subjective camera, the paranoia. There will be blood.

Goddess of Love – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Bill (Universal, cert PG)

Sell to a pre-existing audience is the cinematic watchword of our times, it seems. So where Marvel and DC, 50 Shades and Harry Potter have cleaned up, surely there can be room for the Horrible Histories gang – 25 million book sales and counting? Well the British TV series has run for 15 years now, so a movie spin-off also seems overdue. And here it is, sticking close to the irreverent formula that has made the books and show a success.

Bill is a tongue-in-cheek history of William Shakespeare, and how he went from being a useless lute player of old Stratford town to the most accomplished of playwrights in “that London”. The plot sets Bill against a range of colourful characters – the creaking old Queen Elizabeth (Helen McCrory), her fiendish undercover rival King Philip II of Spain (who is always addressed as “King Philip the Second of Spain”), her comically nefarious masterspy Sir Francis Walsingham, dissolute fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, the flaky self-regarding Earl of Croydon (not Crawley, as everyone keeps mistakenly calling him, but Croydon – one of the film’s funny running jokes), plus cutpurses and hawking mendicants in a livelier, dirtier view of Elizabethan street life than you might expect for a film aimed at kids. The history actually isn’t bad, and the playing (familiar TV actors Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Ben Willbond, Laurence Rickard and Jim Howick all taking many roles apiece) is tossed off with Blackadderish brio, though the film seems slightly in awe of its subject – or possibly isn’t willing to fill in the yawning gaps with speculation – which leads to a slightly wan, if not dull Shakespeare.

However, bright easily distracted tweens should love it. And their parents might hover longer in front of the TV set than they expected to as well.

Bill – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

8 February 2016-02-08

Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini in Gemma Bovery

 

Out This Week

 

 

Gemma Bovery (Soda, cert 15)

Gemma Arterton plays the English belle getting French baker Fabrice Luchini in a tizz in this adaptation of the Posy Simmonds graphic novel which first appeared in The Guardian as a weekly cartoon strip. And very cartoon-strippy it is too, Arterton all tippy-toes sex appeal as a modern-day version of Flaubert’s hot-gusseted Madame Bovary, Luchini pulling a series of faces that Benny Hill would be proud of as the “no fool like an old fool” looking on haplessly as the new arrival in the French idyll forsakes lovely, broke husband Jason Flemyng and sets her hat at local rotter Niels Schneider. If it all feels vaguely familiar, that’s either because you know your Flaubert, or because Arterton played a similar character in Tamara Drewe, another adaptation of Posy Simmonds (this time a reworking of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd) – hellishly sexy and not entirely aware of the effect she has on men. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re after a “whoops there go my pantalons” farce full of broad comic stereotypes, all overlaid with an image of sun-dappled, bucolically splendid Normandy that must have the estate agents rubbing their hands with glee. Watch it for Arterton, who seems to be good at whatever she does, and for Luchini, who is one of the great boulevardiers de nos jours. And the pretty pictures.

Gemma Bovery – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Crimson Peak (Universal, cert 15)

An exercise in high gothic by Guillermo Del Toro, who welds elements of his Pan’s Labyrinth to Hitchcock’s Rebecca plot – poor little waif far from home being monstered out of her mind, plus ghosts. Mia Wasikowska is the waif – of course she is – and Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston are the mad, obsessive and unnaturally close siblings who welcome her as the new mistress of Crimson Peak, a godforsaken ruin in an armpit of Victorian England. But don’t mind the plot. Instead gaze in awe at the production design – the sets, the clothes, the lighting. In fact everything is beyond exquisite, and Del Toro multiplies the effect with cameras that swoop and track and soar, as if he’s been watching Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty a fair bit. And then overlays all that with special effects – of moths swarming in their thousands, of the old building decaying visibly around this luckless trio. Objections to the film seem to be of the “it’s all a bit de trop, isn’t it?” variety. But that, surely, is the point of the thing, which takes the feverish plots and characters of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone or The Woman in White and pushes them into going-for-broke territory. I mean, this is the film in which, thanks to some geological quirk, the ground literally bleeds red. If Crimson Peak had been made back in the day, the Technicolor technicians would have been wetting themselves, and Del Toro does somehow manage to summon up the florid excesses of that stylised process in his colour grading, which should get some sort of an award all of its own. Every shot a freeze-frame. But it can’t be denied that in his determination to get things right, Del Toro has nailed too much down – that vital breath of inspiration that might have lifted this above an exercise in high style is missing. If you can park that objection – and I could – this is a mad, glorious indulgence.

Crimson Peak – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Fidelio: Alice’s Journey (New Wave, cert 15)

Like Marion Cotillard, who she vaguely resembles, Ariane Labed has an ability to underact and yet be captivating – see Attenberg, Alps or The Lobster. Maybe it’s sheer talent or maybe the camera just loves her, which is a talent too, of course. In Fidelio she plays Alice, a ship’s engineer who plays as loose and free as the men she works with – a guy in every port, a fling with one of her colleagues, sex as a way of blowing off steam. The fact that the freighter she’s on is called Fidelio – fidelity – suggests that the film is all about sexual continence. And, I suppose it is, though the strength of this intimate drama is that it never bashes you over the head with its theme, or with the oblique examination of a woman’s right to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh like a man can. Instead, all is sublimated, and Fidelio comes across chiefly as a fascinating essay on life on board ship, in much the same way that the Icelandic drama Reykjavik-Rotterdam did – the hierarchies of gender and race (the real oily rags are all Filipinos), the little rituals that tie the ship’s company together, the hard partying on dry land and the tacit “what happens at sea stays at sea” compact between all involved, even the way that everyone is up on deck with their phones outstretched trying to catch a signal when they get within a whisker of dry land and a telecoms mast. Fascinating details in a wee but deceptively quiet drama.

Fidelio: Alice’s Journey – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

A Walk in the Woods (E One, cert 15)

Nick Nolte and Robert Redford are the odd-couple mates walking the Appalachian Trail in an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s travelogue. It’s a gentle, amiable affair – reasonable Bob and irascible old Nick wearing their roles like shiny suede slippers, and it’s strongly reminiscent of one of those old Hollywood movies in which a hard-drinking sea dog and a nun end up in close proximity. No surprise that it’s Nolte as Humphrey Bogart and Redford as Katherine Hepburn. One of the handicaps of the film is Redford’s reluctance to actually play his age, but the main handicaps are a lack of plot and a lack of “stakes”. What happens if these guys don’t complete the trail? Well, nothing at all. They’re just doing it because they have time on their hands and the only other alternative is to accept approaching death, one of the film’s sotto voce themes. Ken Kwapis directs with little in the way of visual flair, though he gets good performances from his actors, who might easily have slid into parody. Inconsequential is one way of describing it. Pleasant enough might be another. The joy of Bryson’s books is in the way he expresses himself rather than what he says. That authorial voice is missing here. We get bracing views, vicarious exercise and the joys of antique friendship instead. Nice though it is, it’s not a patch on Reese Witherspoon’s trail-walking drama, Wild.

A Walk in the Woods – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Lobster (Spirit, cert 15)

Yorgos Lanthimos’s schtick is to make the familiar strange – see Dogtooth and, less successfully, Alps, both of which examine aspects of human behaviour with an eye so dispassionate it’s almost extra-terrestrial. In The Lobster he’s taking a look at the dating and mating game, his film set in an English country hotel where single guests check in, find someone who catches their fancy, and hook up. And if no one catches your eye… then you are turned into an animal. Oh. So, which animal do you want to be, hotel manager Olivia Colman surreally asks new arrival Colin Farrell. He chooses the lobster – blue of blood, long of life and fertile right into old age, he opines, like the somewhat nerdy smartass he’s playing. What then plays out is a kind of arthouse Hunger Games, of a society heavily policed, and astonishingly literal – Ben Whishaw (another guest) pairs off with a woman because both share a tendency to have nosebleeds – while out in the woods where the real action takes place a rebel group of Loners plot to overthrow this dictatorial regime that demands a relationship within 30 days or zoological reassignment. It’s a sign of Lanthimos’s standing that he can stack his English-language debut with actors of the quality of Farrell, Whishaw, Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Léa Seydoux (as leader of the Loners), Rachel Weisz, John C Reilly and Michael Smiley. But The Lobster’s satirical message is heavy handed and Lanthimos’s bourgeois-bashing is simplistic, like Lindsay Anderson’s less successful “message” films, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. Even so The Lobster flashes into life almost in spite of itself – how we want Farrell and Weisz to get together, how physically remarkable Seydoux is, what fire-starting eyes Labed has – and there is some muted enjoyment to be had in Lanthimos’s deadpan visual style, which is aped in the Bresson-like flat performances by his cast. A barrel of laughs it is not.

The Lobster – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Pan (Warner, cert PG)

Right, who’s for a Peter Pan origin story? No one? Yes, one of the least clamoured-for reboots ever arrives on screen, with unknown Levi Miller in the role of Peter, the dyslexic snot who is saved from the orphanage run by the Trunchbull-like Kathy Burke and whisked off to Neverland where he learns to fulfil his destiny. There, before discovering that he can fly, he meets Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard and strikes up an acquaintance with a young, not-yet-a-captain Hook (Garrett Hedlund) who, complete with rakish hat, a swagger and a tendency to use the word “kid”, seems to be auditioning for a new Indiana Jones movie. Hang on a second – Blackbeard, in a Peter Pan story? And a nice-guy Hook? The demands of the franchise (which will never come to pass) seem to dictate some of the unusual elements in a film that actually has a lot going for it. If Hedlund is doing a decent Harrison Ford, Jackman has decided to play Blackbeard as a fruity Ian McShane, while round the edges we have the likes of Adeel Akhtar and Nonso Anozie adding light relief to what is, essentially, a breathless collation of CG and greenscreen action set pieces, in an elaborately imagined world where fairy dust is mined, galleons fly and mermaids (Cara Delevingne in triplicate) gambol. Director Joe Wright seems to be aiming for the effect of the central, animated sequence in Mary Poppins – it’s a jolly holiday with Hooky. In spite of the fact that Miller’s shoulders aren’t broad enough to carry the full weight of the film, this is a lively and enjoyable adventure for kids that will probably be re-graded upwards in a couple of years’ time.

Pan – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Program (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Because Stephen Frears doesn’t have a signature visual style, he tends to be underestimated as a director. But his track record of thoughtful, explorative films – from My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liaisons to The Queen and Philomena – is hellishly impressive. Sadly, The Program isn’t one of his hits, though it is heading in the same direction as his best work. It’s the investigative story of how Lance Armstrong won all those Tours de France, by cheating, and then got found out. Well that, ostensibly, is what the film is about. Because it’s based on the book by David Walsh, the investigative journalist who first blew the whistle, and found himself almost frozen out of the sport as a consequence. Ben Foster plays the robotic, petulant Armstrong with immense skill and pinched commitment, while Chris O’Dowd plays David Walsh with his usual intelligent blokiness (can I just digress to point out how good O’Dowd was in the almost entirely overlooked 2012 musical The Sapphires? – thank you). But who is the film about – the cyclist chasing trophies or the journalist chasing his story? It never seems to make up its mind, and so we don’t quite learn how Armstrong fooled the doping authorities, though it’s clear that lots of drugs and blood transfusions are involved and that many cyclists were at it to one degree or another. And we don’t quite get the sense of a pursuit as Walsh tracks down his man. Nor does it seem really credible that a grown-up cynical journalist with great experience of the sport he’s covering would be that incensed about doping. It would seem much more likely, wouldn’t it, that Walsh was driven by a lust for glory. Like Armstrong, in fact. If that is the case, this film doesn’t make it. But what does come across strongly is how in thrall to a story the media are, and that Armstrong got away with his deception for so long because his narrative – surviving cancer, founding a charity and using it for lots of undoubted good works – was simply too strong to buck. And for all the film’s missed opportunities, that really is worth saying.

The Program – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016