25 April 2016-04-25

Liron Ben Shlush and Dana Ivgy in Next to Her

Out This Week

Joy (Fox, cert 15)

Joy tells the story of Joy Mangano, a real-life Mrs Mop who, as a young woman, invented the Miracle Mop and who went on to become the CEO of her own company. Joy is the bright kid whose early promise and dreams of further education and so on haven’t worked out, but who is now the Mrs Fixit of a family of dysfunctional no-can-do’s.

Director/screenwriter David O Russell breaks the film down into two halves. In part one, done in a screwball comedy style and speed, we meet Joy (Jennifer Lawrence), her flaky ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), flakier father (Robert De Niro), flakier still mother (Virginia Madsen) and rock-solid grandmother (Diane Ladd). It’s a fabulously choreographed, meticulously played extended farce, with excursions into the past, further excursions into Joy’s fantasy world, even further excursions into the world of the TV soaps her mother is always watching, plus a musical number, just in case we hadn’t caught on that David O is piling it on.

Then, not quite from out of nowhere but almost, Jennifer Lawrence invents her mop, David O pulls a handbrake turn and the film swings into affirmatory triumph-over-adversity mode as Joy prototypes her invention, raises cash and tries to get the thing on TV, where we meet Bradley Cooper, as the QVC honcho initially not too sure of this backwoods hick and her invention, but liking in his gut what he sees – it’s pure “what made this country great” corn.

The switch of genre is initially mystifying and unsettling – the cynicism of screwball has been replaced with the optimism of a modern-day fairytale – and it takes a while to adjust. But Lawrence has the goods, the adversities to be overcome are run through in an almost archetypal way – she’s not quite slaying dragons, but unscrupulous money men and shitty suppliers come close – and there’s an almost Citizen Kane level of mythologising going on, the mop being Joy’s Rosebud.

I’ve tried one of those mops and it was, you know, OK. And I’ve had the same feeling with all of the Russell-Lawrence-Cooper films (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle being the other two), arriving expecting awesomeness, going away entertained. Hey, “entertained” is OK.

Joy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Next to Her (Saffron Hill, cert 12)

OK, so Next to Her is a tough sell when its proposition is stated this baldly – it’s a film about a teacher looking after her mentally challenged sister at home. But it resists so many of the traps that films like this can fall into. It isn’t grimly shot, and it has an eye for the small beauties of everyday life. Cinematographer Amit Yasur’s compositions and lighting, in fact, are straight from Dutch still-lifes here and there. Nor does it fall into the trap of painting the able-minded sister as overweeningly virtuous, or at the mercy of a cruel system that couldn’t care less.

Nuance is the word for what I’m suggesting. And real humanity. And drama crafted from believable raw details. Perhaps these three virtues spring from the fact that key character Chelli, is played by Liron Ben-Shlush, who not only wrote the screenplay but has a sister at home with some of the problems shown by Gabby (Dana Ivgy) in the film.

Chelli, it becomes clear once she starts to form a relationship with hunky sports teacher Zohar (Yaakov Zada Daniel), is getting something out of the relationship she has with her dependent sister that isn’t entirely healthy – there’s a co-dependency of sorts going on, and Gabby has become, in fact, one of the definers of Chelli’s character, for good and ill – ill, as far as Zohar is concerned. A tough, unsentimental and credibly played drama that switches off in surprising directions.

Next to Her – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Uzumasa Limelight (Third Window, cert 15)

One of Charlie Chaplin’s later films, Limelight, tells the story of an ageing vaudevillian facing up to mortality and befriending a rising star, the whole thing crescendoing in the sort of bittersweet gush that gets Chaplin regularly marked down. Limelight is also a grimly sober film, so it’s no surprise it’s rarely included in round-ups of Chaplin’s best.

Ken Ochiai takes Chaplin’s story and pretty much translates it wholesale to Japan, changing only the profession of the protagonist – he’s now one of the extras regularly used to die convincingly in martial arts films, here hitting the home straight as the long-running TV show that’s been his regular gig for most of 40 years is cancelled.

Seizo Fukumoto is fabulously dignified as the venerable and remarkably limber Seiichi, a man in his early 70s realising the game is up, and falling in a never-expressed love with the shy ingénue (Chihiro Yamamoto) he’s tutoring.

What a lovely and painfully sad film this is, though I do agree with one comment I saw on the imdb that the ending is very long. In fact Uzumasa Limelight starts coming to an end with something like 45 minutes to go, leaving Fukumoto with plenty of time for farewells and various curtain calls.

Chaplin knew that the word “Limelight” contains an echo of the word “Twilight”, and there’s such a strong flavour of a human being hitting the end of the line that most people aren’t going to give this much of a go. This beautiful, bittersweet film is well worth it though.

Uzumasa Limelight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Innocence of Memories (Soda, cert 12)

Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk has devoted himself to documenting the disappearance of old Istanbul, where he lives, and in particular the places where the Islamic East and Humanist West chafe. Innocence of Memories is director Grant Gee’s attempt to get Pamuk onto the screen as he is on the page – warm and nostalgic, detailed and deep, kind and yet severe – and he largely succeeds in what is, in effect, a reworking of Pamuk’s 2008 book The Museum of Innocence, which is also the name of Pamuk’s idiosyncratic museum dedicated to disappearing and disappeared Istanbul.

So the film of the book of the museum – some kind of first, surely, with the lovely silken voice of Pandora Colin providing much of the narrative linkage as Gee’s camera glides about nighttime Istanbul while Pamuk’s loose romantic tale about Kemal falling in love with Füsun plays out.

Diversions are taken – into the stunning photography of 85-year-old Ara Güler, most notably, but we also meet a ferryman, a rag picker and various other Istanbul denizens, as this strange work of psychogeography (the sort of mythologising Peter Ackroyd or Will Self do for London) plays out.

Gee isn’t interested in making the images compelling, and this would work almost as well as a radio play. But then we’d lose the thing that Gee is good at – making his images float on air.

Innocence of Memories – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Miss Hokusai (All the Anime, cert 12)

More enchanting loveliness, the story of Miss Hokusai, the painter daughter of Katsushika Hokusai (aka Tetsuzo), 19th-century painter of The Wave, posters of which adorn many a student wall.

So, why the daughter and not the man himself? Because it allows director Keiichi Hara to explore dynastic families, and how ideas are transmitted down the generations, in this case the notion of the serious artist, a concept to which both Hokusai and daughter O-Ei (that’s Miss Hokusai to you) subscribe. What’s remarkable artistically about the film is how it takes a style of animation that is in sophistication probably outstripped by Scooby-Doo and does remarkable things with it – a dog’s ear flapping in a strong wind, a candle flame shuddering. And it makes a case for sensuality as a useful avenue of artistic exploration – the father constantly pointing out to the daughter that she’s not really up to snuff in that sort of thing because she has no personal experience of sex.

And that arc – Miss Hokusai being courted by various gentlemen keen to pop her cherry blossom – is what this strange and serious and fascinating film explores.

Miss Hokusai – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


It Happened One Night (Sony, cert PG)

Legendary US legacy imprint Criterion arrive in the UK with a handful of films from their back catalogue of 800 or so. It Happened One Night is the one I chose to watch, largely because I remember watching it about 15 years ago when it debuted on DVD and being spellbound by it.

Frank Capra’s 1934 film is often cited as the first screwball comedy. What’s remarkable, even 80-odd years on, apart from the crisp restoration, which only blurs in a few scenes where first-generation material clearly wasn’t available, is that it’s still one of the best – fast and smart, as they all should be, with the two characters perfectly drawn in thumbnail sketches, perfectly contrapuntal, Clark Gable the hothead roustabout journalist who’s just been fired, Claudette Colbert the imperious runaway heiress he happens upon by chance on a bus heading for New York.

“Excuse me, lady,” Gable says to her when it appears she’s stolen his seat on the bus, “but that which you sit upon is mine.” And there it is, the proprietorial claim on her ass being all that’s necessary to generate all the “will they/won’t they?” tension such things require.

Made in the teeth of the Depression, with the Hays Code not yet doing its worst to US movies, this film might also be seen as an attempt by Hollywood to promote social cohesion – minted Colbert claims she’d swap all her wealth “in a moment to be a plumber’s wife” as her and Gable play verbal footsie with each other across the US.

The casting is perfect – Gable can and does play pretty much all the registers (drunk? maybe a bit of overplaying there), and Colbert is a perfect foil, but it’s the depth of the support playing that’s really impressive – from the bossy millionaire dad (Walter Connolly) to Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), the nosy guy on the bus who discovers the secret of the lady travelling incognito, and that there’s a big reward riding on her.

It’s traditional in reviews of It Happened One Night to mention the censor-baiting “Walls of Jericho” scene, a long set-up to a bawdy final pay-off. So there, I have. Less often mentioned is that Gareth Edwards’s brilliant no-budget monster movie, Monsters, borrows the entire plot pretty much wholesale. So it didn’t just work in 1934, but also in 2010. Good legs.

It Happened One Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


The Danish Girl (Universal, cert 15)

The story of the first recorded male to female transsexual, or how Danish artist Einar Wegener became, from the 1920s onwards, Lili Elbe.

Oh, The Danish Girl – misbegotten and miscast, inadvertently hilarious – in a post-Bruce/Caitlyn world unsure of what it’s meant to be about, did at least look as if it had got one thing right. And that was the casting of Eddie Redmayne as Einar/Lili, Redmayne being a man whose delicate features and fine cheekbones, it was assumed, made him perfect for the role. But then someone went and cast Alicia Vikander as his wife, struggling artist Gerda.

Vikander is by a very very long way the best thing in this film, and has an easy mastery of the Helena Bonham Carter boho posh accent. But next to Vikander, a creature so exquisite she makes other beautiful women appear dowdy, Redmayne – even in full female slap, masquerading as Gerda’s sister when they go to a ball together – looks like a builder.

Poor Eddie, sensing that the organic cogs needed to propel this film are failing to mesh, responds with one of those weird drag performances that “the movies” are meant to lap up. Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire, maybe, but in fact Redmayne appears to be channelling Les Dennis’s comedy impersonation of Mavis Riley in Coronation Street – no, that’s not a good thing when we’re meant to be taking all this business very seriously.

In a film supposedly all about getting down to the nitty gritty, everything in The Danish Girl is gussied up, twee, tinkly, and gruesomely decorous. I loved Sebastian Koch’s gender re-assignment doctor, one moment of sanity in a film flailing for the shore, but as to the rest of the casting – Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw – it’s an ornamental use of actors for their names rather than what they actually do.

The early suggestion that Vikander is actually a gender bender too – cigarettes smoked through a holder – is parked and hopes are dashed that we’re going to get a carriage-clock disquisition on sexual roles. The entire promising  theme is discarded, in fact, much as poor Einar discarded his own genitals. Leaving painfully little to… grab hold of?… sink one’s teeth into?… and so on and so on. “Mad fucking bullshit nonsense…” is what I wrote at one point in my notes. But really I was just annoyed at the waste of my time. At bottom, and entirely appropriately, the film is a drag.

The Danish Girl – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2016

18 April 2016-04-18

Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker – In the Heart of the Sea

 

Out This Week

In the Heart of the Sea (Warner, cert 12)

Why have one sea adventure when you can have them all? Though ostensibly about the incident that inspired the writing of Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea also takes shots at Jaws, Mutiny on the Bounty and Robinson Crusoe in a tale of a whaling ship’s adventures, only some of which are whale related. Chris Hemsworth stars – and possibly that’s a strangled Boston accent or a Clark Gable impersonation – as the first mate of a whaler out of Nantucket whose ship is pounced on by a great white whale. The story is all set out in “dark and stormy night” flashback by Ben Whishaw (as writer Herman Melville on the research trail), teased out of old salt Brendan Gleeson over a long session of whisky and reminiscence. But in fact Ron Howard’s film ranges far and wide, diluting what might have been a simple man v beast adventure with various side stories – of the class conflict between oikish first mate and entitled captain (Benjamin Walker), of a shipwreck, of a desperate long-haul navigation in lifeboats, of cannibalism at sea… and so on. Howard has an eye for detail and we get plenty of the sort of thing that enhanced the Master and Commander film. So if it’s ropes running through windlasses, futtock shrouds, mizzen tops and the setting of stunsels that floats your 19th century sea-going vessel, you’ll already most likely know the derivation of the phrase “Nantucket sleigh ride” (it’s when the harpooned whale sets off for the horizon, or possibly the sea bed, dragging the whaling skiff along with it). The CG work varies from the extraordinary to the terrible, but then that’s normal for films relying heavily on digital effects. And there’s a touching faith in the dignity of humanity, so much so that you expect to see Spencer Tracy fetch up in oilskins at any minute. Not a classic, but a fine Sunday afternoon movie. The sort you can doze off to for half an hour and it doesn’t really make much difference.

In the Heart of the Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

10,000 Saints (Universal, cert 15)

The modern “blended family” is the multiplane focus of this funny ensemble drama which kind of centres on Ethan Hawke, as a flaky old toker who, in scene one, is informing his son that the reason why mommy is so angry with daddy is because daddy has got mommy’s best friend pregnant, and oh, by the way, you’re adopted. Cut to years later, the son is now a teenage Asa Butterfield and is about to receive a visit from the daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) of dad’s current squeeze (Emily Mortimer), a visit which ends up with the young woman pregnant by the young lad’s best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia). It’s the late 80s, Aids is almost as rife as promiscuity and the hardcore scene is loud and proud, and in particular “straight edge” hardcore, the version practised by youngsters who reject the countercultural sex-and-drug imperative. Emile Hirsch is its embodiment, the brother of Teddy creepily (because chastely?) insisting that he look after the pregnant girl after Teddy dies unexpectedly. Co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini bring the same vivid fascination for the underbelly, for life at the margins, as they did in their paean to comic-book artist Harvey Pekar in 2003’s American Splendor, and there’s a gothic tilt, a slightly heightened ordinariness of the settings, much as you’d find in Pekar’s celebration of the drab. In a film full of great things, which really catches a culture at a turning point, Ethan Hawke is the standout and gets all the best lines, as the impish and awful ganja-growing father who’d be a great guy if he weren’t such a skank.

10,000 Saints – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Man with a Movie Camera (Eureka, cert E)

Often described as the best documentary ever made, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film was shot in Russia as Stalin was moving towards taking total control and, to some extent, it is a justification of the importance of movie-making – as demonstration of the achievements of Soviet art, as weapon of propaganda and, notably, as a mechanical process rooted in the same soil as the heavy industry that the Man of Steel was in the process of fetishising. Interesting though all this is, contextual even, why the film scores so consistently highly in polls is because it’s a fascinating historical record and a remarkable artistic and technical achievement. Though Vertov (born: Denis Kaufman) and his cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman are clearly virtuosos, it’s the rhythm of the editing by Vertov and wife Elizaveta Svilova that gives the film its enduring appeal and makes it seem still remarkably modern. As for the techniques on display – Vertov tries everything from montages and freeze-frames, to close-ups, dissolves, animations, composites and mirror shots. These are a bit gimmicky, for sure, but Vertov was trying to make a work of art that stood on its own term, and didn’t borrow from the already mature forms of theatre or literature. He succeeded, and in the process invented many of the techniques and much of the film language still in use today. So what do we actually see? People, in short – at work, at play, on the streets, in trams, with prams, on planes, bathing naked in the sea daubed with mineral mud, giving birth, upright dead in an open coffin on the way to funeral, off on the way to a wedding, injured and being decanted into an ambulance. All human life is here, as the News of the World slogan used to have it. And like popular journalism, The Man with a Movie Camera is part of that great democratising urge of the 20th century – which went so wrong so often, but so right here. The restoration in the Eureka version I watched is by Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute and Lobster Films and is astonishingly good, pristine almost, and it’s complemented by a soundtrack by The Alloy Orchestra that is driving and percussive and mixes the electronic and orchestral to dramatic effect. This is still a great film.

Man with a Movie Camera – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Hitchcock/Truffaut (Dogwoof, cert 12)

In 1962 François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock, offering the popular but critically under-rated director the opportunity to be feted as a genius. Hitchcock took the bait and in 1965 the resulting book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, was published, inspiring a generation of film-makers. “It took a weight off our shoulders – said we could go” is how Martin Scorsese puts it in this documentary about the book about the man. If that sounds a bit too removed for some tastes, then Kent Jones’s film probably is. But there’s plenty in here to like, especially if you’re interested in the director of Psycho, Vertigo, The 39 Steps and… (insert own favourite here). Jones has lined up an impressive who’s who of directors to bulk out the snatches of the two men in conversation (mediated by a translator), with David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Richard Linklater among the names in “we’re not worthy” crouches. Hitchcock points out that he was a silent film-maker first, that “silent pictures are the pure motion picture form” and that his films are all about geography. Hence his “all actors are cattle” line (heard here), since all his stars needed to do was be in the right place at the right time and speak the lines – Hitch’s elaborately storyboarded set-ups did all the rest. Well, that’s the idea, and if you want a contrarian point of view about all that, you’ve come to the wrong place. “A theoretician of space” is how Assayas describes Hitchcock, and if you’ve ever toyed with the thought that film-makers are visual people and perhaps aren’t so verbally gifted, this is the film to knock that notion out of the park. Fincher in particular is marvellously erudite – I don’t think I’ve heard the word “umbilicus” used before. But, most of all, no matter how many famous faces line up and speak, it’s the strangely leaden falling cadences of Hitchcock’s own utterances that make this what it is.

Hitchcock/Truffaut – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Made in France (Soda, cert 15)

Made before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, an intertitle tells us, this French thriller is about a moderate Muslim journalist (Malik Zidi) going undercover in a jihadi cell. Our man, Sam the journo, is the most devout member of the gang, one of the few who can read the Koran in its original language, in fact. This is a nice touch. But having started off cleverly, Nicolas Boukhrief’s film then somewhat lets the side down by presenting the gang’s leader, Hassan (Dmitri Storoge), as a boggle-eyed hothead surrounded by equally familiar types – the zealous bourgeois convert (Francois Civil), the guy with simply too much hyperactive energy (Nassim Si Ahmed) and the one who’s getting mad/even with some one or thing in his past (Ahmed Dramé). The temptation is to see this as a French, non-comedic version of Chris Morris’s film Four Lions and the plotline is pretty similar – Hassan tells his guys he’s been ordered to organise some terrorist outrage and they fall in with his plans, much to Sam’s increasing alarm. The difference is that this film is not a comedy and that since it was made hundreds of French people have died in appalling terrorist outrages. But it is a very good thriller of the “sweaty mole” sort. As an analysis of what drives jihadi action in Europe… mmmm… its propagandistic impulse gets in the way.

Made in France – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Daddy’s Home (Universal, cert 12)

Here’s a funny comedy built on such foul foundations that it’s fighting a poison in its own system. That it doesn’t drop dead is down to the expert playing of Will Ferrell, as the almost intolerably decent stepdad, and Mark Wahlberg, as the “real” father who’s effortlessly superior in every way (cool, charisma and cock size) and now back from wherever to stake a claim on his ex wife and kids. Watching a decent sap losing ground no matter what he does isn’t my idea of fun, but there are still some laughs to be had in this misanthropic film – watching Ferrell electrocuting himself while trying to top Wahlberg at skateboarding, almost every line uttered by Thomas Haden Church, who plays Ferrell’s boss at the cool jazz station where he works, and loves nothing better than to detain people with inappropriate stories about his own relationship fuck-ups. Bobby Cannavale also amuses as Ferrell’s fertility doctor (stepdad is firing blanks after a tragic but sadly rather funny accident with a dentist’s X ray machine). Sterility as comedy? Emblematic of the film.

Daddy’s Home – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Exposed (Signature, cert 15)

Here’s a three-legged dog of a movie. The front paws consist of Keanu Reeves as a gruff troubled cop trying to find out who killed his partner. The single back leg follows Isabel (Ana de Armas), a pious Hispanic primary school teacher who keeps seeing… if not dead people, then supernatural creatures at the very least. How do these two stories interact? And do either of them really have anything to say about story strand number three, featuring a small girl being abused in some unspecified way? I do know the answer to those questions, but I’m not sure that screenwriter Gee Malik Linton quite did, since there were some weirdly gaping plot holes in this film. Around halfway in, Keanu, wondering if a ring found at the scene of the crime might contain some clue as to its owner, takes a look on its inside surface, where he sees the name “Isabel” engraved. No one at the cop shop, it seems, had bothered to look at this vital piece of evidence properly before. This sort of WTF-ery happens throughout, and by the time the film ended – with a “there you are, all wrapped up” flourish – it still felt as if one or more pieces of information were missing. Debut director Declan Dale conjures mood nicely, but all in all Exposed didn’t do enough actual exposing.

PS. I’ve since discovered, thanks to a blog by Mark Kermode, that the film has been cut to ribbons and was originally titled Daughter of God. He has seen the original, I have not. Here are his conclusions.

Exposed – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

11 April 2016-04-11

BB-8 and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars the Force Awakens

 

Out This Week

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney, cert 12)

You don’t go to a Rolling Stones gig to hear new tunes. And you don’t turn out for Star Wars – reboot or not – for new stories. And yet. JJ Abrams, having done a remarkable job on the first Star Trek rejig, does bring lots that’s fresh to Star Wars in a film that seemed more remarkable the more I thought about it. At first it appeared to be a case of “same but different”, with every new thing and new character an echo of something from the first three films (numbers IV to VI) – Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a Darth Vader figure, John Boyega’s Finn is a wide eyed Luke Skywalker equivalent, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron has the chutzpah and reluctant-leader dynamic of Han Solo, even the new droid, BB-8, is a wink/nudge R2-D2. The clothes have that army blanket look that they did in the first Star Wars. Scottish accents abound. There is talk of popping a missile down a vent or chute or something. There’s a bar scene. Legacy film-making. Daft Punk drafting in Nile Rogers, kind of thing. And then, after a wobbly start, Daisy Ridley starts to assert herself. We have met Ridley’s Rey on a desert planet where she scavenges for scrap metal, and it soon becomes apparent that it’s Rey not Finn who’s the Skywalker figure, and also that it’s Rey who’s going to drive the last three films of the series (apparently there are way more than that planned, but let’s see). Finding an actor to play Rey must have been like casting Scarlett O’Hara in terms of stakes, and hasn’t Abrams got it remarkably right? A limber young woman of spark, grit and immensely likeable smarts is what Rey needs to be, and Ridley brings all of those qualities to the role. She also has a face that the camera loves. As to the film, there’s not much point going into it – you have already decided whether to watch or not – except to say that it’s cleverly sold as being about the search for Luke Skywalker, when it’s nothing of the sort, and is really about Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back – the series benchmark) reminding us what the last three films in the series seemed to have forgotten. That Star Wars is an adventure first and foremost and that all that “force lore” needs to be fitted in round the action, not vice versa. And there are jokes. Jokes, George Lucas. As for Han (or “Hon” as some of the characters call him, it being so long now since the original film that there’s been a vowel shift in American English), Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO and Luke, it’s genuinely lovely lump-in-throat emotional to see them all back, even in baton-passing roles. Unmissable.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Chronic (Curzon, cert 15)

Here’s an austere, grim but worthwhile film, coolly shot and played, mostly by Tim Roth, who has the role of a nurse who cares for people in the terminal stages of their lives. Roth not only looks the part but hauls bodies into and out of sickbeds as if he’s been doing it for decades. And we’re aware that this is a man who is taking great pains to connect with his patients, partly because he’s a compassionate human, but also because there’s a big hole in his life where his own family should be. This family theme is echoed in odd glimpses we get of the nearest and dearest of the dying people Roth cares for, all of whom seem to consider that because he’s doing the heavy lifting (literally and metaphorically) they don’t need to. This leads to… let’s say… an incident, a few incidents, in fact. And gives this film which would otherwise be a bit of a maudlin trudge adorned with skeletal humans, some covered in shit, a great dramatic push.

Chronic – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Sisters (Universal, cert 15)

I was surprised to find that Saturday Night Live veteran Paula Pell wrote Sisters – about two middle aged ladies having one last party in their parents’ house before they sell up – because it feels so naturally as if its stars, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, are just riffing off each other, trying to top what the other one just said, much as you’ve probably seen them do in their various awards show appearances. The plot is just exactly as I’ve described and there’s nothing really more to it than that – a tiny bit of love interest for both ladies, plus gags about dogs with yeast infections between their paw pads, vaginal reconstruction, penises, colonoscopies, pretty much exactly what you’d imagine in a post-Bridesmaids world. It is very charmingly and funnily done, with Fey and Poehler’s laserlike comic timing adding extra edge to Pell’s jokes. But oddly enough, it’s the simple things that really work – the sight of two women in their 40s screaming like teenagers and almost hyperventilating as they jump up and down on their beds, for instance… Like many/most SNL offshoots, it does have the feeling of an extended sketch, which is exactly what it is, and the urge to give the ladies an arc leads to the sort of feelgood big-hug finish that isn’t exactly what the set-up promised. Funny all the same.

Sisters – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Swung (Metrodome, cert 18)

Is it wrong to talk in an objectifying sense about a woman’s body when there it is, objectively beautiful? Leaving that to one side, here’s the objectively beautiful Elena Anaya, a Spanish actor with Almodóvar on her CV, in what looks like a Scottish movie about couples who swing. She’s the hot wife of the limp-dicked unemployed Owen McDonnell who, when challenged by her magazine editor boss to come up with some features ideas, decides to kill two birds with one stone by encouraging her husband to join her on the swinging scene. Soon, after a false start that’s actually the funniest and most believable bit of the film, they’re on the highway to group sex in a murkily lit party where matters come to head – one of them is enjoying the swinging quite a lot more than the other, it seems. Apart from one cock early on, and rather a lot of Anaya’s exposed flesh (see earlier endorsement), this is a far less explicit film than you might imagine, and one that’s not entirely sure of its emotional position vis a vis sex with people to whom one hasn’t been properly introduced. So while the sexual stuff does kind of work, and there’s enough actual plot to drag us from the beginning of the film to the end, something doesn’t fully stack up. Anaya is the reason to watch it, and is one of the film’s producers, too. Which does explain the refreshing lack of British sexual prudery.

Swung – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Krampus (Universal, cert 15)

Give Krampus a while to get going; it needs it. Until it does actually hit full speed, gaze upon its Gremlins-style production design, and the similarly angled acting of Toni Collette, Adam Scott, David Koechner and the gang, as a gaggle of ungraciously thrown-together family members trying to refrain from hitting each other over the Christmas period (I know, a Christmas movie at this time of year – I can only say the three words “home entertainment window”). That is until they are set upon by Krampus, the “shadow of Saint Nicholas” who has been invoked by the family’s antsy tweenage boy (Emjay Anthony) who’s basically done a “fuck you” to Santa and brought the pain… Krampus really does know who’s been naughty or nice. As I say, give it time, because the eye-opening aspect of this film is the design of the creatures who accompany filthy, enchained Krampus (only just glimpsed, in fact) as he huffs and puffs his way down the chimney – the malevolent gingerbread men, a teddy bear with razor teeth, menacing snowmen, a wind-up tin robot with stabbing appendages and plenty more. It’s all very very good, and as the film progresses, it speeds up, becoming almost magically manic by the time the elves arrive and things move towards a grim/Grimm finale that’s so engrossing you almost forget that none of the humans seem to be behaving as you’d expect them to – the missing daughter who’s never again referred to? That. Resisting Disney every inch of the way, Krampus does nevertheless have its Christmas cake and eat it. I’ll say no more, except that it’s not quite the classic it clearly is intended as, though it isn’t far off.

Krampus – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Victor Frankenstein (Fox, cert 12)

Victor Frankenstein is directed by Paul McGuigan, who has a few of the TV Sherlocks under his belt, and it shows. The other influences are Guy Ritchie – who directed Sherlock on the big screen, coincidentally – and Hammer horror. James McAvoy leaps about like Peter Cushing in his early years, as the demented young Baron-in-waiting determined to conjure life into assortments of offcuts, animal at first, human later. Helping him in his endeavour is Daniel Radcliffe as a circus hunchback and practical genius whom Frankenstein first cures (his hunch isn’t all it seems) and then renames Igor. It’s all rather jolly, in a fairly inconsequential way, though Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Sherlock) is rather snivellingly great as a religiously demented inspector affronted more by the fact that Frankenstein is encroaching on god’s turf than by the fact that he might be a murderer. And Jessica Brown Findlay is in it too, as a sort of love interest for Radcliffe, a relationship which in terms of credibility made the jolting of life into a bag of offal seem entirely plausible. Being kind, I’d say there are too many characters here with not enough to do, and Brown Findlay seems to be in it simply because she was in Downton Abbey. Pushed to be even kinder, I’d say that the steampunk “creation” scenes – lashings of rain, torrents of lightning – are rather dramatic. Yeh, you know, it’s OK.

Victor Frankenstein – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Estranged (Icon, cert 18)

There are throwbacks galore in this British horror thriller about a girl being monstered by her family. The fact that she’s an amnesiac takes us back to those Freudian thrillers of the 1940s. The fact that it’s a big old house and the family are behaving weirdly, particularly the two siblings, recalls The Innocents. But only a touch – let’s not get carried away. The film certainly doesn’t, keeping its powder quite admirably dry as January (Amy Manson) is spotted first on holiday in Brazil with her boyfriend – cue terrible motorbike crash – then as she is decanted back into the family pile, where feverish mother (Eileen Nicholas), stern father (James Cosmo), petulant sister (Nora-Jane Noone) and sexually creepy brother (James Lance) await. There’s a boyfriend too, and good though Simon Quarterman is as the luckless Callum, there’s no real reason for him to be in this film as long as he is (is that a spoiler right there?). Estranged’s big plus, in fact, is its actors, who add a level of menace and mystery above and beyond what director Adam Levins and cinematographer Gary Shaw are adding with cameras that frequently rise menacingly from down low or descend shockingly from on high. Brian Crosby’s original music, meanwhile, complements the clanking, wheezing central heating that’s keeping this draughty pile barely warm. In fact the talent on display started to make me wish for a story that was weightier than the rather familiar, if effective, one that Estranged is telling. Nicely done, though. Nicely done.

Estranged – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

4 April 2016-04-04

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine

 

Out This Week

 

Tangerine (Metrodome, cert 15)

A few weeks ago it was Tangerines, a blunt, austere Estonian/Georgian film about the conflict in Abkhazia. Now it’s in the singular, Tangerine, an over the top film about life in another conflict zone – on the crack-whorey streets of modern LA.

The film is all shot on an iPhone 5S and shows that none of us has an excuse not to make a film any more, if that’s the way we’re claiming we’re pointing. Though director Sean Baker is so good at post-production and editing that you probably wouldn’t guess exactly how it was shot.

The plot is simple yet ample – gender-transitioning street worker Sin-Dee hears from her not-quite-a-gal-pal Alexandra that her boyfriend has shacked up with someone else. And so, voice set to screech, bee-yatches echoing, off Sin-Dee and Alexandra head to find flaky fucker Chester. Meanwhile, cruising the streets is taxi driver Razmik, a man with a penchant for dick (one of whose rides is, remarkably and entirely incidentally, Clu Gulager, nearly 90 and still feisty). The action all takes place on Christmas Eve, making this one of the skankiest Christmas Movies ever, and eventually Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Chester and Razmik all wind up in the same donut shop together, where the mother of all flame-outs is scheduled to happen.

This is a frequently hilarious film, brilliantly acted and put together, with Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (as Sin-Dee) working his/her remarkably mobile face to such an extent that it threatens to break free of the screen. There are some magical moments of observational comedy – who’d ever noticed, for example, that the noises you hear in a drive-through carwash resemble a gigantic blowjob? – and there’s an underlying sweetness to it all, in the relationship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra that makes it not so skanky a Christmas Movie after all, maybe. Those unsure about crackpipes, blowjobs and sex for cash should probably keep away.

Tangerine – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Sunset Song (Metrodome, cert 15)

A Scottish Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Terence Davies, who brings the exquisite languor of his House of Mirth to bear on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel. It’s the almost Gone with the Wind-ian story of a young woman’s connection to soil and hearth, in this case a remote farm in early 20th-century Scotland, where life is tough.

The model Agyness Deyn is a force of nature as the bright, likeable, durable Chris, who puts hopes of going on to higher education to one side because she’s needed at home. There, strict disciplinarian dad Peter Mullan and exhausted baby-machine mother Daniela Nardini keep her busy until it’s her turn to rule the roost, meet a man and forge her own way, just as, uh oh, the First World War is arriving.

Chris is a woman to whom adventures happen, though Davies keeps us always – with frequent tableaux of corn waving in the sun – aware of the fact that her first love is the farm, Blawearie, whose name is spoken more than any human’s. There’s a Claire Denis aspect to Davies’s weaving of sensual magic through the rhythm of his shots, the flamboyant Catholic (lapsed) having aesthetic fun in what’s meant to be an austere Presbyterian world.

But it’s primarily a plot-driven, rather than mood-driven drama, its long running time (135 mins) necessary to get all the details in. Did I sense a hint of Ermanno Olmi’s Italian epic from 1978, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, in the fascination with rural life, local dialect, songs of the era, and the pulse of the agrarian cycle? I think so.

Sunset Song – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Forbidden Room (Soda, cert 12)

If you’re familiar with the work of Guy Maddin – who often has half an eye on the trustees of art endowments and takes a not-unLynchian gimcrack, oddball approach to film-making, shooting often in black and white, strongly aping much older styles – most of it is here in this collaboration with “co-director” Evan Johnson.

Maddin and Johnson essentially switch between about 20 different stories – or fragments of stories – all simulacra of Hollywood melodramas of decades long gone, and each shot in its own distinctive style, including the credits. So, a crew in a submarine with dangerous gelignite on board. A robber gang in a forest. A jungle movie. Skeleton women. A manhunt. Lunatics behind bars. A doctor experimenting on a brain. And so on.

Don’t expect a triumph of narrative coherence but together these film fragments are a stylistic marvel. Most of the female characters resemble Hedy Lamarr, the colour footage somehow looking exactly as you imagine ancient celluloid would look if it suddenly sprouted an extra dimension. And there’s the occasional recognisable name such as Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric and Geraldine Chaplin, all graduates of the University of Oddsville.

Disjointed as all the various strands are, Maddin and Johnson eventually contrive to start folding them into each other, perhaps suggesting that all stories are the same story (hello, endowment trustees), to pull off a remarkable climax in which all the various bits come to a simultaneous finish.

It might not grip entirely in the middle section, but stick with it, the final effect is a magician’s flourish of flickerbook brilliance.

The Forbidden Room – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Grandma (Sony, cert 15)

Now approaching 80, Lily Tomlin gets a crack in about her age early. In the opening scene of Grandma, as she is breaking up with her girlfriend (Judy Greer), she claims she is “rapidly approaching 50”, then half raises a botoxed eyebrow to camera as it to say, “What?!”. It sets the querulous tone for a film that asks imperious questions about the fate of 1960s radicalism as Tomlin heads on a mini road trip trying to secure an abortion for her suddenly pregnant grand-daughter (Julia Garner). But the Well Woman Clinic has become a sucky coffee shop where the strict rules of “Generation Appropriate” soon get them ejected. The second hand bookshop isn’t interested in grandma’s feminist classics. And an old much-married friend (Sam Elliott) they’re trying to tap for cash has a sudden attack of moral high dudgeon when he realises what they want it for.

And so on – the world has changed. For all Tomlin’s age and obvious cosmetic work, she’s in great shape, an advert for Pilates or Yoga or whatever it is she does. But in spite of the fact that it’s a joy to see her back on the big screen and at full “fuck you!”, her acting’s a touch gamey here and there, as happens with stand-up comedians used to projecting. Luckily we can focus on the fabulous Garner, as the naive hurt petal through whose eyes we see the older, boomer generation behaving.

Funny to think that, a long time ago, Paul Weitz directed American Pie. His films since have become gradually more serious, but they’ve always tended to be about unusual relationships – About a Boy, Little Fockers, Being Flynn – no masterpieces there, and all written in the emotionally confessional style, forgivable in a knockabout movie that needs to be hurried along, less useful in something aiming for thoughtful, where people aren’t supposed to be saying just exactly what they’re thinking. Enter Marcia Gay Harden, as the over-committed mother of Garner, another semaphore role which Harden actually manages to do something with. But then that’s because she is so good.

A mixed bag of a movie, is what I’m saying. Weitz’s fascination for what happened to his generation’s hard won achievements tempered by his tendency to glibness. Lovely acting all around. Note, in particular, how good the support players are.

Grandma – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

War on the Range (Kaleidoscope, cert 15)

I’ve never heard of the director Kane Senes before, but he’s taking an unusual approach to the old-fashioned western, essentially dredging it in the sunny, 1970s lens-flare visuals and languid pacing of David Gordon Green (and cinematographer Tim Orr).

James Badge Dale stars in what looks like a Shane payback role, as a black sheep returning from the Civil War, shell-shocked, to the family fold, finding they’re being menaced by another local family, headed by William Forsyth – a dude so badass he fucks his wife even though she’s lost her mind and has no idea what he’s doing (it’s Beth Broderick, fans of Sabrina the Teenage Witch might be delighted to know). Things are complicated by some Romeo and Juliet love across the divide between Maika Monroe (of It Follows) and Rhys Wakefield.

In spite of its tendency towards B movie inconsequentiality, and its obvious TV-spend budget, there’s a coolness and assuredness to the film which, like its soundtrack, hovers and drifts before pouncing – though we’re introduced to the sight of animals being gutted early on, so we’re already warned that a bloody finale is on the cards.

War on the Range aka Echoes of War – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Ratter (Sony, cert 15)

Ashley Benson was one of the four hot girls in Spring Breakers, and is hot again in Ratter, as a student who is being stalked by someone who’s gained control of all her tech gear – phone, tablet, laptop, what have you. Based on the 2012 viral short Webcam, Ratter loses something unzipped to feature length, and its debt to Paranormal Activity is clear – though here DP Stefan Haverkamp is called upon to differentiate between one supposed device – a phone in a half open bag, a laptop camera suddenly hijacked by our invisible stalker and so on – which he does with skill, richly deserving his extended mention in the final credits.

Director/writer Branden Kramer puts a clever little spin on the notions of the scopophilic camera and the male gaze, quite deliberately not giving us shots of Benson at her most private, and instead including scenes in which we observe her interacting with people at the most mundane public level. Guys. And they all hit on her, even the nerdy tech guy she takes her “possessed” laptop to for fixing.

So who, exactly, Kramer asks, is doing the stalking here? A good cautionary tale whose sudden finish (no spoilers) can’t quite hide the fact that any of the scenes we’re watching could be shuffled with any other – not much in the way of escalating threat is what I’m saying.

Ratter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Jeruzalem (Matchbox, cert 15)

And in a week oddly thick with POV gimmicks, a film with the energy of [REC] whose found-footage conceit is that it’s all shot on Google Glass (though no actual brand was mentioned).

It follows Sarah and Rachel, a couple of young American Jewish woman on their hedonistic holiday in tourist Jerusalem, where, a grainy preamble has already warned us, one of the gates of hell is situated. We’re all set for a horror film with a Jewish flavour – the Golem, perhaps – when what plays out is more akin to a zombie invasion movie seen through one woman’s eyes, with heads-up dispaly visuals for added (ie diminished) impact.

There’s a special problem of identification in Jeruzalem, since our heroine Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) is invisible for the most part, while her comely friend Rachel (Yael Grobglas) hogs the screen, gets the guy and does the different grades of shrieking, fun to fright. Director/writers Doron and Yoav Paz understand this and work up all sorts of reasons for Sarah to take off the glasses for a moment and insinuate herself into the frame.

On the other hand, it does look like this might be guerrilla film-making in action, Sarah and Rachel apparently wandering into bazaars, through picturesque narrow lanes in the old city with every suggestion that no one involved has asked the Jerusalem city authorities for permission to shoot. Talking of shooting: the zombies – they’re the Palestinians, aren’t they? Just like in World War Z. Or is that just me?

Jeruzalem – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016