21 March 2016-03-21

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol


Out This Week


Carol (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Todd Haynes’s biggest success to date has been 2002’s Far from Heaven, the period-fanatical story of forbidden gay love giddy with the melodrama of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and starring Dennis Quaid, Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert. It’s tempting to see Carol as an attempt to repeat the trick, since it’s another period-fanatical story of forbidden gay love. But instead of man-on-man love, this time Haynes goes for woman-on-woman, and decks everything out in the colder, lonelier and butcher tones of an Edward Hopper painting – no Tupperware pastels here. It’s also a tale of love across a class divide, Cate Blanchett being the money, Rooney Mara the shopgirl she falls for. But not content to leave it there – Haynes loves his excess – there’s also a feeble side story of Mara discovering photography and learning to express herself. She develops, in more ways than one, allegory-lovers. Carol moves at the pace of a Perry Como record and is all over-engineered cars, booths in restaurants, tightly run department stores and clothes that are tailored to fit people who must also fit in.

“What a strange girl you are; flung out of space” says Blanchett to Rooney as the pair suddenly realise they have fallen badly for each other. Lovers of love scenes won’t be disappointed – they’re fabulous, touching, beautifully directed and played, and used to make Haynes’s point subtly – when love is this overwhelming, for it to be seen as dirty or illegal seems unnatural. The original story is by Patricia Highsmith, and if Carol has a fault it’s in comparison with other Highsmith adaptations – The Talented Mr Ripley or Strangers on a Train, for example – where love heading in an illicit direction is linked to a driving thriller plot. There’s no such coupling here, just the story of Blanchett possibly losing custody of her child to her husband, who knows what she is and is bridling at the fact that he’s lost not just his chattel but an aspect of his manhood. Kyle Chandler, as Carol’s husband, is actually quietly remarkable, not so much a 1950s husband, but a personification of the sort of actor who might have played a 1950s husband – slick, bland and well fed. The whole of this tender, regretful Brokeback-ian tragedy is a bit like that too.

Carol – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Beyond Beyond (Lionsgate, cert PG)

A fabulous animation from Sweden, dubbed into English, and recalling the Studio Ghibli of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle with its story of a parentless youngster having adventures in a fantastical realm. Here the youngster is a rabbit, and he’s off to see the wizard – a Feather King, in fact – who might not even be the boss of his own kingdom, since there is dark mention of a creature called Mora, a tentacular beast that lurks at the bottom of a bottomless well. How much more plot do you want? All you need to know is that Jonah the rabbit gets into scrapes, most of them brought on by his shifty sidekick Bill, a bluff and impetuous seadog (voiced by a booming Jon Heder) who puts the Feather King in a box, abolishes all the rules and… enough. No, what you do actually need to know is that the animation, though very simple, catches motion brilliantly in three dimensions and renders the reflection and refraction of light in a way that Pixar might find interesting. The flashes of absurdity and the veneration of steampunk technology are Ghibli again, and if there’s one more thing director Esben Toft Jacobsen might have got from the Japanese masters, but hasn’t, it’s to give the story enough time for its telling. At 78 minutes, this is simply too short.

Beyond Beyond – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Bridge of Spies (Fox, cert 12)

Bridge of Spies starts out a great film, but like so many Steven Spielberg movies ends up being merely a good one. It is a great story though, and true, of an insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) who gets embroiled in the case of a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance, Oscar-winning though not doing an awful lot), and is then co-opted by the US government to organise the spy swap of this communist for the American Gary Powers. History factoid: Powers was a U2 pilot shot down in his reconnaissance plane over the USSR and found guilty of spying by a Soviet court. The actors are magnificent, the sets on a scale that only Spielberg can afford, there’s a Spy Who Came In from the Cold sexiness that’s very much of the moment, lots of tense procedural action and lashings of modern relevance in its theme of the importance of protecting constitutional liberties particularly in times of external threat. Lots of good things, in other words. And two great stories, which get roughly half of the film each. In part one we get Rylance’s fatalistic spy Rudolf Abel’s arrest, his meeting with state-appointed lawyer James B Donovan (Hanks) and Donovan’s Hanksian good-guy insistence on playing it by the book to ensure a fair trial – against universal opposition, including his own family – all the way to the Supreme Court. In part two there’s Donovan’s arrival in Berlin just as the Wall is about to go up, and his negotiations with both East German and Soviet delegates to secure the release of his man (men, in fact, but let’s not go into that here). The two stories don’t really have anything to do with each other, and Rylance’s disappearance for most of the second half of the film admits as much. Two separate films – one a barnstorming courtroom drama, the other a great spy thriller – could and perhaps should have been made out of the material. Or a TV series. But Spielberg doesn’t do TV, not directing anyway. It’s our loss, and his too, especially since the Coen brothers had a hand in the dialogue, which prowls around Hanks’s latterday Jimmy Stewart yard dropping snappy lines. And is it too much to ask Spielberg to change his composers? Thomas Newman’s horns and strings – as if Yankee Doodle Dandy has been slowed right down and shifted into a wistfully uplifting minor key – it’s really not working any more.

Bridge of Spies – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Lionsgate, cert 12)

As a lovely woman I was talking to last week reminded me – “it’s not for you”. The “it” was this sort of film, the latest in the big wet wave including Divergent, Maze Runner, The Giver, all of which seem in thrall at some level to Ayn Rand and her peculiar vision of a grave new world where there’s just big bad governments and oppressed citizens – not a global megacorp to be seen, bless. Then, having – in a manner typical of a middle-aged man who’s on his fourth drink – asserted that the entire Hunger Games series was for young women who’d not yet had sex with a man, another lovely woman chipped in with an “or a woman”. And hit the nail right on the head. Because for all the talk in these films of little (ie young) people fighting the man, there is nothing as tightly, uniformly in its box, or as propagandistically rigid as the YA movie, and the novels they’re based on. Hey ho: we live in conservative times, said the guy from the 1970s. The film, though, the film. Ha! It’s not bad at all, director Francis Lawrence marshalling his considerable budget into a series of well choreographed, tense action sequences as Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss makes her advance on Donald Sutherland’s President Snow and the Capital. I fell asleep for an entire hour in the first Mockingjay film, and it didn’t seem to harm it much. But this time I was gripped by the driving action if not the characters. JLaw (do we still call her that?) has little to do apart from pull resolute three-quarter-profile poses, allowing us to conjecture at what point exactly in the film’s shooting she had her nose done, Sutherland is fine as a Bond baddie manqué and still doesn’t really have enough screen time, Julianne Moore as the rebel leader lets the cat out of the already half-open bag with a character shift towards the dark side, nicely done too. At the cadet level, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman (if it’s CG, it’s good CG), Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci could all be deleted and the film wouldn’t suffer. Leaving us for the most part with Josh Hutcherson, a bale of sullen waterlogged straw who should be the film’s emotional core but is actually its biggest liability. Francis Lawrence knows it, as I’m sure does Hutcherson himself. Plot? Katniss et al advance on the Capital, there are some bloodless battles, Snow indulges in skulduggery, has a small moment of minor victory near the end, before Katniss… come on.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Welcome to Leith (Metrodome, cert 15)

Not to be confused with the dour, misfiring Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith, Welcome to Leith is a documentary about a rural North Dakota hamlet with a population of 24. That’s 25 once a “lonely old guy”, as one resident puts it, called Craig Cobb moves in. What the town don’t know is that Cobb is a vicious white supremacist and is in Leith to buy up all the town, create a thriving community of pure-blood Nordics, Nazis and Klan members and so on. And soon they start arriving, as Cobb and co lead a simultaneous bid to take over the local government. It’s always tempting – especially if you’re an urban, fairly liberal Brit like me – to think of Americans out in the back of beyond as being pretty far to the right. Maybe they are, compared to me. But if that is the case then what happens next is a sign of just how much further to the right Craig Cobb and his followers are. Because the townsfolk simply aren’t having any of it, and band together in the most joyous show of “they shall not pass” solidarity, standing behind the town’s single black face, who suddenly becomes something between a hero and a mascot as the townsfolk attempt to run Cobb out of town. The really fascinating thing about this documentary by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K Walker is that it’s the white supremacists who use the language of civil rights, the sort that Martin Luther King might understand, while the good folk of Leith are shown quite clearly bending the local laws to deny Cobb and his cohorts a place to live. So the bad guys are the good guys and vice versa? Not exactly. And even if the bad guys are the good guys, the supremacists are particularly adept at shooting themselves in the foot. Enter Cobb’s lieutenant Dutton, whose inbred-hayseed persona is like something out of a Coen brothers movie. And there’s a particularly enjoyable scene where Cobb is on a daytime talk show with a black host (Trisha, Brit viewers will recognise), where an analysis of his DNA doesn’t quite come back with the result he’d expected.

Welcome to Leith – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Good Dinosaur (Disney, cert PG)

Disney cuteness is like a Nazi virus: very hard to kill, tending to get about a bit. There’s a touch of it here in Pixar’s animation about a family of dinosaurs who cultivate crops (see: cute), live in a Monument Valley kind of landscape and aspire to the sort of nuclear-family lifestyle that was culturally on its death bed back in the days of Bewitched and The Addams Family. If you’re allergic to cuteness, don’t worry, it is just a touch, and once Pixar have eased us into this ridiculous set-up, they pretty much go with the logic of it, sending fearful dino-youngster Arlo off on a sinew-stiffening adventure in the company of a man-child named Spot. The name’s appropriate because Spot behaves like a dog – walking on four legs, communicating in grunts and howls, using his sense of smell a lot and, er, wearing a loincloth. It is the flights of fancy – a rhino with a Buddhist mindset, the accidental consumption of hallucinogenic fruit, tyrannosaurs who herd buffalo – that make The Good Dinosaur an enjoyable adventure, even if you’re wondering who exactly it’s for (the lively nine-year-old in us all, I concluded). The animation is as you’d expect from Pixar, who are doing clever things tweaking real-life footage and using it as a background, particularly effective when Arlo and Spot are hurtling down rivers or soaring through the air, as happens when the baddie pterodactyls show up. The music makes frequent references to the muscular soundtracks of Elmer Bernstein, which is appropriate since the message is that toughness comes from being exposed to, and surmounting, challenges. Not a bad message for our cotton-wool age.

The Good Dinosaur – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Black Mass (Warner, cert 15)

Goodfellas meets The Departed in a gangster movie that knows it’s deep in Scorsese territory and isn’t quite sure whether to run towards or away from daddy. Johnny Depp goes dark and take-me-seriously bald-pated to play real-life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, a “ripe psychopath” as cop boss Kevin Bacon describes him, being recruited by FBI operative Joel Edgerton to bust open rival gangs in 1970s/80s Boston. The corruptible cop is actually the more interesting character, and Edgerton the better actor – for all Depp’s attempts to play Bulger straight, odd nano-flashes of Captain Jack Sparrow keep intruding – and as a film it’s one I blew hot and cold over, pastiche not being a particular favourite. In fact, Black Mass at about the three-quarters stage started to feel a bit like a Joe Pesci impersonation competition – Edgerton going for the squeak and the hair, Depp going for the menace, and he even gets a “funny how?” scene. DP Masanobu Takayanagi is kept busy with gels and lighting trying to steer the whole thing away from comparison with you know who and the cathedral-esque score by Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL) works up a mood of bad shit coming this-a-way with the organs and strings. If you just can’t get enough Goodfellas, the parking lots, bodies-in-the-trunk, don’t-ask-don’t-tell wife, kind-to-grannies, Catholic church, parties, swank bars and so on, you’ll probably love Black Mass. But there’s the sense of a pass being fumbled, stories missed, avenues left unexplored. Look out for Corey Stoll, playing a new FBI chief, a character introduced towards the end of the film to sort out the stink, and tell me the film shouldn’t have been about him. He’s a refreshing, tough-guy actor too.

Black Mass – Watch it/buy it at Amazon







© Steve Morrissey 2016




14 March 2016-03-14

Thomas Bair and Sarah Bolger in Emelie


Out This Week



The Dressmaker (EV, cert 12)

Husband and wife team Jocelyn Moorhouse (director/writer) and PJ Hogan (co-writer) hit us with a curious mix of the comic, the tragic and the romantic, a flawed star vehicle for Kate Winslet, delivering a vaudevillian spin on her latterday Joan Crawford shtick as the troubled Aussie who returns to the Outback to make fabulous dresses for the town that exiled her years before. It’s the sort of town now familiar but once the antithesis of Aussie grunt – of Priscillas and Muriels, camp characters one and all who yearn, how they yearn, to cross-dress and lip-sync to a series of trash hits. Actually, The Dressmaker could do with a few tunes. It feels as if this is a mad old glory has been deprived of the one vital missing ingredient which would meld the various storylines and characters – Dior-trained mistress of gown production Myrtle (Winslet), her sweary, fruity old mum (Judy Davis in a role so vibrant you wish the film had been built around her), Liam Hemsworth as a lusty swain, crossdressing cop Hugo Weaving (revelatory, a prince of mince), Sarah Snook as the local frump transformed by Myrtle’s gowns into an Outback Princess, the crook-backed ancient perv of a doctor (Barry Otto). And on they go, an array of comedy grotesques with names like Pratt, McSwiney, Harridiene and Dunnage. At the back of the entire thing, knocking everything off kilter, is a serious story about young Myrtle and the boy she apparently killed when young. Knocking it back down again as it tries to get up gasping is the dangled possibility of a romance between Hemsworth and Winslet. Davis and Weaving are the saving of a film that isn’t actually salvageable, the switches in tone being too frequent, too abrupt and too mutually exclusive. Had Moorhouse and Hogan stuck with what the film initially looks like it wants to be, a western spoof of the sort James Garner used to make, maybe there’d be something here to celebrate. Maybe they looked at the drubbing that Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West got and just bottled it.

The Dressmaker – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Güeros (New Wave, cert 15)

Güero, we’re told by an onscreen definition before the film gets underway, means an unfertilised egg or a pale and ineffectual man. A wuss? A pansy, maybe? Whatever spin we put on that bald definition, we believe it applies to Tomas (Sebastián Aguirre), a light-skinned kid by Mexican standards, a naughty boy sent off to stay with his older brother by his wits-end mother. Though his darker-skinned brother Federico (Tenoch Huerta) goes by the nickname Sombra (shadow), we realise pretty quickly that he is probably the güero: a limp, feckless student who drinks at breakfast and is taking no part whatsoever in a raucous student protest and sit-in, the sort of event that seems associated forever with radical 1960s politics. Unlike his girlfriend, Ana (Ilse Salas), a firebrand who Tomas, Sombra and Sombra’s likeable friend Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) meet as director/writer Alonso Ruizpalacios sends them off on a grand chase after a cult rock star called Ephigmenia, but who might as well be called Godot or McGuffin, as the film develops into an urban road movie and something of a tribute to the early work of Jim Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise in particular. Shot in high-key, close-up black and white and in the 4:3 format that seems to have become the new hip shape, this is a highly atmospheric film, given to visual and aural giddiness at key moments, the better to conjure the impression that we’re getting this all through Tomas’s naive eyes and ears. Things get a bit meta at one point, when a clapperboard comes into view and someone starts making a comment about the film’s screenplay (“bad”, he opines). Later Sombra has a small speech about “fucking Mexican cinema – they grab a bunch of beggars, shoot it in black and white and claim they’re making an art film.” Ho ho. As well as Jarmusch, Truffaut is in there too, and the very New Wave-y focus on youth, the emphasis on incident rather than plot, the interest in political engagement rather than consumption is all very reminiscent of another era, a feeling reinforced by Ruízpalacios’s use of old Mexican chansons. Well worth checking out.

Güeros – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Emelie (Icon, cert 15)

It’s clear Emelie is a good film – a case of sit back and stop worrying – within its first few seconds, with its opening scene of a young woman being abducted by someone in a mysterious black car. The camera stays back, dialogue is unintelligible, and in the half an indistinct minute of this short lockshot the seeds of a very creepy thriller have been sown. The action then cuts to a nice middle-class home, where a husband and wife are off out on a date night, leaving replacement babysitter Anna to look after kids Jacob, Sally and Christopher. Anna (Emelie, in fact) is the kids’ idea of a dream guardian – she’s a bit naughty, but such a libertine that even the kids after a while start wondering if she’s really babysitter material. Then we see Anna/Emelie unplugging the router, taking the laces out of the kids’ shoes… and it all kicks off. With its Hitchcockian device of keeping the audience more in the know than its victims, Emelie is the best “bad babysitter” movie I’ve seen for years, and Sarah Bolger is so on top of her role that she even pulls the occasional Rebecca De Mornay face – Emelie has The Hand That Rocks the Cradle in its sights. Advancing in dread jumps, writer/director Michael Thelin knows how to hit our buttons – I don’t want to get too spoilerish, but the family hamster doesn’t come out of it all too well – keeps the dialogue to a minimum, the lighting simple, characters few and the action almost entirely in the claustrophobic domestic space. This bathyscaphe atmosphere is reinforced by a soundtrack that’s full of alimentary gurgles. The result is a threat level that stays constantly high, Thelin managing to conjure that relentless-pursuit feeling that pervaded most of the first Terminator.

Emelie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Peter De Rome (Peccadillo, cert 18)

Here’s a fascinating and really rather sweet documentary about Peter De Rome, the pioneering film-maker who has recently become the first pornographer to have his films preserved by the British Film Institute. What the BFI are getting for their archives is a selection of films made from the 1960s till the arrival of Aids kicked away De Rome’s enthusiasm – it just wasn’t party time any more. For the most part this is a straight chronological account – De Rome (real name, amazingly) born in Juan-les-Pins in 1924, raised in England, blissfully lost his virginity aged 11, then worked as a publicist in the film business, first in the UK, then in the US, where he started making erotic 8mm shorts. As talking heads author Rupert Smith and the BFI’s Brian Robinson point out, De Rome put stories in his films, and it’s this, as well as his Cocteau-esque tendency to go a bit dreamy (Buñuel’s surrealism is in there too) which makes him notable. Cock, after all, can be found anywhere, though there’s plenty of it in De Rome’s films. He died in 2014, aged 89, but is full of impish spirit in the interviews here, and it’s tempting to think that it’s this tidy energetic man as much as his work that impressed Andy Warhol, whose collaboration with De Rome never bore any fruit – De Rome found Warhol’s languid detachment a bit trying, it appears. This is a lovely documentary which cuts disconcertingly between half-timbered picture-postcard Sandwich on the English south coast, where De Rome lived out his later years, and shots of fully-timbered often black penises being thrust hither and yon. In between we get the last filmed appearance of Greta Garbo (from out of De Rome’s New York apartment window), and the first porn film shot on a living, breathing New York Subway train, guerrilla-style and handheld in more than one sense.

Peter De Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Prey (101, cert 15)

A gaggle of beautiful young people on holiday in Panama, keen to do more than the shooters-and-hooters usual, head off into the jungle, the boys in their shorts, the girls in their spaghetti strap tops. It cannot end well, and doesn’t, as an ogresome whatever starts picking them off like snacks at a conveyor belt restaurant. Prey goes by another title, Indigenous, and though there is the very vaguest of attempts to ground the mayhem in ancient lore – that myths about scary creatures shared by all humanity have some basis in reality – the film, like the two titles battling for pole position in some competition to find the blandest of the bland, has nothing new to say. The surfer dudes take off their tops to show their muscly bods, the girls are likewise scoped for their best angles. And undoubtedly attractive as everyone is, it’s hard to separate them out. This is the sort of film in which someone says “Everybody calm down. I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for all this.” It’s the sort of film in which people will insist on splitting up, when we all know… That’s not to say there isn’t good stuff here. In spite of the almost disdainful attitude of the producers to what they’re actually making, Alastair Orr’s direction is suspenseful, the music and sound effects work hard to ring the changes and the acting is effective and committed. It’s an enjoyable and efficient exercise in genre. Good enough for you?

Prey aka Indigenous – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Rocco and His Brothers (Eureka, cert 15)

What with The Leopard being one of my favourite films, I was teed up for Rocco and His Brothers, Luchino Visconti’s 1960 drama, especially as lavishly packaged by Eureka and now restored – supervised by no less than the original DP, Giuseppe Rotunno, now in his 90s, and also the DP on The Leopard. Both pictures tell the story of a family on the move – a noble family on the skids in The Leopard; here, a migrant peasant family from the south trying to make a go of it in the hostile north, a family shakily on the up. Both star Alain Delon, and feature Claudia Cardinale, and have gorgeous Nino Rota scores. The similarities don’t stop there but they do start to tail off, since Rocco and His Brothers is a more explicitly neorealist film given to moments of ejaculatory melodrama. As we follow the various family members establishing themselves in snowy Milan, the film’s main drama springs from the two brothers Rocco (Delon) and Simone (Renato Salvatori) tangling tragically over the prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot). Girardot is by a long stretch the best thing here, and manages to negotiate the stylistic shifts required by the screenplay – it helps that her tart-with-heart character is meant to be a loose cannon – and Delon is also impressive, not least his face, composed entirely of acute angles that the camera loves. As does, we suspect, the director. Though it’s a harder film to engage with than The Leopard, it’s worth watching for Visconti’s command of mood and tone. Here’s a film that starts fairly light, shot mostly indoors and concerning itself with a feminine domestic realm but winds towards dark, exterior, masculine concerns. By which I mean it ends up a big Greek, fraught, murderous tragedy as Rocco and Simone head towards a showdown. And the fact that both are boxers, Simone a plugging professional, Rocco a naturally gifted amateur, tells us what’s really at the heart of all of this. Coppola has clearly watched it and its influence is all over The Godfather, and you could fancifully suggest the two main characters in Scorsese’s Mean Streets are related to Rocco and Simone – the natural and the blowhard. However, for all its good looks and fine musical score, brilliant performances, grand themes and even relevance to the world we live in now (what more pertinent than migration?), I found it a hard watch, its styles tugging in two entirely different directions – the realist stalls and the melodramatic gods, in theatre terms.

Rocco and His Brothers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Time Out of Mind (Altitude, cert 15)

The renaissance of Richard Gere proceeds apace in a documentary-flavoured drama by Oren Moverman, who continues his homage to the 1970s evident in Rampart and The Messenger in this tale of a homeless man drifting down, down, down. We meet George (Gere) asleep in a bath in an apartment and shortly thereafter evicted. We’re not sure why. He moves out onto the streets and starts to negotiate life out there, his fancy overcoat granting him an amount of latitude most homeless people don’t get – he can enter and hang around in warm places. But once the coat’s gone, he’s a bum like the rest of the bums, moving blankly into one shelter or hostel after another, making a kind of friend in fellow “reduced” person Dixon (a sparky Ben Vereen), whose near-constant monologue makes up for the fact that George doesn’t say very much at all. Brooding. Moverman gives it the long lenses and ambient city soundscape you’d expect from a lover of Altman, there are many shots through glass of one sort or another to emphasise alienation and Moverman has access to actual homeless shelters. I have to say that as I walked to work the day after watching it, it made me think about the guy begging outside the station. How did he get there? What chance of escape once there? So it works at that level. The always excellent, and excellently antsy Jena Malone plays the bitter estranged daughter George has made a hash out of raising, and without her this film of the very most minimal of arcs would have none at all. Why is George living in this reduced way? More to the point, why is Moverman so reluctant to show us that he’s a drinker? Is he trying to keep us all on board? Gere, without overdoing the “look how shitty I look” theatrics, gives it his all, though we need a bit more knowledge about George to put structure into a film that feels like it could go on wandering, aimlessly, until the end of time. Though that, probably, is the point.

Time Out of Mind – Watch it/buy it at Amazon










© Steve Morrissey 2016








7 March 2016-03-07

Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller and Sarah Dumont in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse


Out This Week



Steve Jobs (Universal, cert 15)

Walking in to watch this film on the last day of the London Film Festival, I was struck by the number of people in the cinema, waiting for the lights to go down, who were absorbed in their tablets, phablets, phones and whatever. We all live in Steve Jobs’s world now, and the case could be argued that collectively we have become those people in Apple’s famous Ridley Scott Big Brother advert of 1984, the ones striving to be freed from tyranny by technology. Coming at this film from the other direction, there’s the Google-financed movie The Internship, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, which failed spectacularly to notice that attitudes to global megatech were changing. We might have loved Google when the film was greenlit, but by the time it hit theatres, we’d become worried about their ubiquity and over-reach. Director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin show they’re fully aware of both points of view in Steve Jobs, three snapshots of the life of the Apple co-founder – the 1984 launch of the Macintosh (complete with Scott advert); the 1988 public unveiling of Jobs’s post-Apple computer for NeXt (the company whose operating system would eventually save Apple, the company who’d just fired him); and Jobs’s announcement of the iMac in 1998, the piece of kit that would signal Apple’s dramatic turnaround. The arrival in Jerusalem; the Crucifixion; and the Resurrection from the Dead, if we’re getting biblical. Michael Fassbender’s performance is controlled and locked down, another way of saying he can’t really get a glove on Jobs. And I’m not sure Sorkin and Boyle do either – they assert that Jobs was right about “end to end” computing, where the company controls the whole product, software and hardware. This point is moot, and if we look at Apple today, it looks like it’s about to run into the same problems as it did in the 1980s with its “my way or the highway” approach. People chose the highway back then; they might do again. I wouldn’t buy Apple stock. But back to the film. It’s full of great stuff, its three acts allowing the same characters to be pushed on in new configurations, like some hi-tech mummer’s play – Kate Winslet as Jobs’s right hand woman and the film’s explicator-in-chief; Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the warm to Jobs’s cool, the conscience to his calculator; Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, the head of Pepsi brought in by Jobs and who would eventually fire him from Apple, somehow avuncular and steely at the same time. Sorkin is in full walk-and-talk West Wing mode with a screenplay that barely stops for breath, never loses its grip; and director Danny Boyle shows that his 127 Hours – a film conjuring something out of nothing – was just a warm-up for a drama that takes place entirely backstage. Curtain up… and it’s over. Worth noting that both Sorkin and Boyle are old theatre guys. They’re in their element here.

Steve Jobs – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Lady in the Van (Sony, cert 12)

So you’re wary of Maggie Smith’s old dowager shtick, and maybe the thought of another Alan Bennett screenplay directed by Nicholas Hytner (after The Madness of King George and The History Boys) feels like the offer of yet another bourbon biscuit. But the two knights and the dame pull it off grandly as they tell the story of ancient derelict Miss Shepherd, who ended up living in a van on Bennett’s driveway from the 1970s to her death in 1989. Once we’ve got the little frisson out of the way of being able to buy a three-storey property in bohemian Camden, London, for £13.5K in 1970 – now, maybe two million – and been introduced not so much to characters as the sort of British character actors who make you want to chuck another log on the fire (Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam, Selina Cadell), it’s shoes off, stretch legs and relax. And does Smith deliver, all cracking flute and comedy pauses as a woman so brusque and ungracious that, Alex Jennings’s cardigan-y Bennett divines, there’s a lot of hurt and damage buried way down in there somewhere. This theme – let’s be a bit nicer to each other, especially those who seem to least deserve it – is the film’s emotional and mechanical heart. There is a bit of playwright-y stuff that can be happily ignored, such as Bennett’s keenness on doubling – Miss Shepherd’s impoverished solidity is contrasted with Bennett’s own mother’s curtain-twitching fragility; and Bennett himself is split into two separate characters: the man and the writer. In spite of myself, I was grabbed, especially by the screenplay’s odd Edwardian wistfulness – Camden was built around then, Miss Shepherd must have been born in that era, and there’s always something of Elgar’s mournful stateliness about Bennett’s cadences – and by Smith’s limber boggle-eyed tour de force as Miss Shepherd.

The Lady in the Van – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Among the Living (Metrodome, cert 18)

When it comes to horror the French offer us a quality-over-quantity proposition – see 2008’s Martyrs or 2003’s Switchblade Romance if you are a doubter. The original title of Among the Living is Aux Yeux des Vivants, and there is definitely a nod to Les Yeux sans Visage aka Eyes without a Face in this story of three naughty French schoolboys – upper, middle and working class – who intrude on the dealings of a cannibal man-beast and so become his/its implacable target. No, there’s nothing of the plot of Eyes without a Face here, but there is something of its atmosphere, the way writer/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury repeatedly ramp up tension, carefully using lighting and a visceral soundtrack to wind us up and then let us go, wind us up and… Other things to like include the creature design of Klarence the half-human whatever – nice use of the mangina, guys, or whatever the hell that thing was – and a masterly ability to switch genre. One minute we’re in the realm of the psychological thriller, the next we seem to have entered the world of full-on gore, before things switch again into something more Spielbergian as the focus finally settles on Victor, the middle class kid battling Klarence when it/he finally arrives at his family home for some chase and chop. I think there’s even a BMX bike at one point. Tense? Very. But unusual. Bustillo and Maury leave a few threads hanging (what did exactly happen to Victor’s friends Dan and Tom?) and they seem happy to set up what looks like a clear focus for the bloody goings-on – an abandoned film studio – only to let it go. Perhaps they’re playing with Hollywood as much as with us.

Among the Living – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Curtain (Icon, cert 15)

Also known rather more boringly as The Gateway, this neat, short, no-budget horror movie has the most astonishing and astonishingly simple premise: a shower curtain that’s a portal into another world. Danni Smith and Tim Lueke star as a pair of charity chuggers trying to save the whale. She moves into a new apartment and discovers, the next day, that the newly installed shower curtain has disappeared. Another day, another curtain gone. And on it goes, until Tim (his character’s name as well as his own – that sort of movie) hits upon a ruse, and writes a message on the curtain: if you find it, phone this number. And off we go on what is about the best film that could be made for nothing, a simple piece of great storytelling about likeable, resourceful heroine Danni (also her character’s name) just trying to work out what the hell is going on while committed, hot-for-her Tim does his ineffectual best to help. It’s all done for the most part without violence or boo shocks, a minimum of gore, and director Jaron Henrie-McCrea doesn’t keep swinging his shakycam away from the action to catch glimpses of his female star’s breasts. What can I say about the acting? It’s a bit flimsy, as if the actors didn’t always have time to get into character, perhaps as a result of a guerrilla film-making timetable. It doesn’t matter much, since Curtain relies on plot, and like a lot of decent US indie horror films these days, feels like it might have taken a few cues from Doctor Who.

Curtain aka The Gateway – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Mississippi Grind (E One, cert 15)

I was never really convinced that writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had shaken drug addiction by the scruff in the 2006 Ryan Gosling drama Half Nelson, and here they are doing gambling in a road movie/bromance starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds. If there was a gay angle you might be better able to understand what had sparked this sudden friendship between cocksure loquacious Reynolds and taciturn insecure Mendelsohn. Or if one of the guys were scoping the other out for some short of shakedown, maybe. As it is we have to take it on trust that Curtis (Reynolds) would just kind of glom onto Gerry (Mendelsohn) and together they’d hit the road, heading for the bright lights of the gambling boats and betting on anything, anything at all, as they go. Fleck and Boden make gambling look attractive in a simple animal way – the lights, the lifestyle, the avoidance of sunshine, all of it seeming immensely exciting, heavy with atmosphere, the duo’s real achievement. Butch and Sundance, Midnight Cowboy and Rain Man all sprang to mind as I watched the impressively swaggersome Reynolds keeping up with Mendelsohn, who is almost undone by a character who is so internalised that there’s almost nothing to latch onto, for him or us. It’s a portrait of a pair of losers and loners who have found some sort of companionship as they drift towards an uncertain future. But even as it ended, and I’m not going to say how it does, I still wasn’t sure why Curtis was interested in a man like Gerry. Maybe Curtis was betting on the relationship too, I don’t know. All I do know is that as an essay on addiction, I preferred Shame.

Mississippi Grind – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (Paramount, cert 15)

The latest arrival from Shaun of the Dead World takes great pains to disguise its provenance, kicking off with a funny Iggy Azalea lip-sync and then throwing much amusement at us – an undead cat, a zombie on a mobility scooter – as it tells a comic tale of three boy scouts taking on a zombie horde. It’s actually a high school rom-com in structure, with Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller and Joey Morgan as the three nerds who will never, ever be cool, on account of their membership of the scouts, finding that various skills learnt from camping, obtaining badges in knots and what have you, stand them in very good stead when things suddenly go rather apocalyptic. Enter the guys’ unwitting (and the movie’s) saviour, Sarah Dumont as a high school dropout now working as a stripper at local club Lawrence of Alabia (go on) and finding she’s a born natural when it comes to permanent termination. Dumont gamely points her chest wherever director Christopher Landon judges most suitable, and though there’s just a tiny look of “I’m really doing this as a favour, Chris” in her eye, it’s noticeable that the film falls flat every second she isn’t on the screen. As for the rest of it, toothsome young people in beach wear, a duet of Britney’s One More Time… with a zombie, a zombie penis stretched to infinity and beyond. It’s conceptually a case of been there, seen that, but it’s done with real bounce, fun, a lot of wit and the scout guys are given just enough Spielbergian juvenile-hero moments to give the thing an arc, but not so many that you want to hurl.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




The Hallow (E One, cert 15)

More a highly efficient Hollywood calling-card than a great horror movie, The Hallow is an Evil Dead-style “things in the woods” feature that also half wants to be an Amityville film, about mum, dad and baby being monstered by creatures out in the back of beyond because they’ve… well let’s just say they don’t like strangers round those parts. Those parts being somewhere in Ireland, though director Corin Hardy moves mountains to try and make it look like Oregon, or somewhere else that’s densely wooded, full of pickup trucks and people in check shirts. Starting off vaguely in Wicker Man meets Local Hero territory, it introduces us to marrieds Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic) and the unfriendly locals before night falls, things get ugly and the source of what at first seemed like aggressive poltergeist activity manifests itself. Somewhere around here Hardy starts to lose control of his film, unsure which of the various films already mentioned he’s meant to be making. Technically he never loses it, hence the “calling-card” summation, whether we’re talking about his actors, his command of the camera or the special effects, which come increasingly to the fore as the couple’s baby … not the baby! … becomes the target of the evil.

The Hallow aka The Woods – Watch it/buy it at Amazon








© Steve Morrissey 2016