30 May 2016-05-30

Marcelo Alonso and Robert Fariás in The Club

 

Out This Week

 

The Club (Network, cert 18)

Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín’s seething drama is set in a remote safe house where a group of disgraced Catholic priests are living under the steely eye of capable nun Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers). Life is simple and ordered, with the only bit of excitement coming from the racing of the priests’ greyhound at a local track, though the priests themselves are symbolically watching the race from a distance, through binoculars. This cosy life of the exiled pariah changes when new priest Father Mathias (José Soza) arrives and, having been read the rules – no self-flagellating, no self-pleasuring, no contact with anyone outside – he resignedly settles in, complaining bitterly that he doesn’t think he should be there with all these other twisted weirdos. Unfortunately for the holier-than-them Mathias, local fisherman Sandokan (Robert Farías) has seen him arrive, and is soon standing outside the refuge shouting graphic details about being sexually abused by him as a child. Soon, a shocking incident has occurred – no spoilers – and the Vatican has responded by sending in a fixer to shut things down. Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) is a clinical Jesuit with a background as a shrink.

The film really starts here, as a powerplay between the silken, strict Jesuit and the priests, with Sister Monica as a separate dramatic struggle since she, Garcia realises, is the smartest of the lot, sharper mentally even than him.

Like the Kevin Bacon film The Woodsman, The Club sets out to an extent to get us into the paedophile mindset, not so much to understand what drives it as to outline the predicament of people who have it – who, honestly, would choose to be turned on by kids, knowing the social penalty for such feelings? – but The Club also obliquely examines the Catholic Church’s attitude to sex, and how its insistence on chastity (no sex) and celibacy (no marriage) for priests is a cause of the paedophile problem. Before the less forgiving out there wonder why Larraín is trying to get us to feel sorry for a bunch of dirty old fucks, there is a corrective – and I don’t just mean in the milky shooting style of DP Sergio Armstrong, whose light in the lens is a touch mannered but understandable. It’s in the omnipresent Sandokan, the grown-up altar boy whose rantings about priestly semen and foreskins first precipitated the incident that brought the steely Garcia down upon the fold. But even here… it’s complicated… Sandokan’s character and, by extension, human sexuality. I will say no more except that this is a great and complex film – a cold crime thriller with a far from guiltless Garcia as its investigating cop (an echo of so many creepy cardinals in Alonso’s performance) – which takes a difficult subject and tries to unpack it rather than rush to justice.

Larraín, in films such as Tony Manero and No, has shown himself to be an adroit chronicler of the skewed interplay between the big institution and the individual. Here he’s taking on the Catholic Church, which has known for at least 800 years, as we learned in Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, that it has a paedophile priest problem. Larraín’s film goes further, showing how the Church has dealt with it – and the duty of care to abused children or even abusive priests doesn’t feature at all.

The Club – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Dad’s Army (Universal, cert PG)

Sadly, Dad’s Army isn’t a bad film. I’d so wanted not to like it, believing that the UK needs to face forwards rather than backwards, and that its myths about Britain “winning the war” need challenging, not serving up for afternoon tea. But hey, Toby Jones, Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon – doing on-the-nail impersonations of Arthur Lowe as pompous Captain Mainwaring, John Le Mesurier as superior Sergeant Jones and Arnold Ridley as dizzy Private Godfrey – they’re hard to resist. Throw in Catherine Zeta Jones as a lady journalist and double agent – c’mon, CZJ doesn’t play goodies – and there’s enough plot in there to keep things perking along for 100 minutes as the oldsters, physically substandard and shirkers of the Home Guard do their domestic bit to fight the Nazis, while the men fall out among themselves over a middle-aged glamourpuss. CZJ slips into what once would have been a Joan Collins role as into a silk negligee, and in the spirit of our times the female content all round has been beefed up – there are roles for Sarah Lancashire, Alison Steadman, Annette Crosbie and a particularly finely bittersweet Felicity Montagu, as Mainwaring’s verging-on-lesbian butch wife. Tom Courtenay (Corporal Jones), Blake Harrison (“silly boy” Private Pike) and Daniel Mays (spiv Private Walker) are also all present and correct. Staying resolutely in the past is the comedy – “I saw that, Jack Jones” says Steadman at one point to the butcher/corporal, “You just slipped her a sausage”. And survivors of the original 1970s TV sitcom Ian Lavender and Frank Williams turn up too. And wasn’t that Oliver Tobias? God knows what foreigners will make of it.

Dad’s Army – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Rams (Soda, cert 15)

Another of those bleak, wide, elemental Icelandic dramas – see Of Horses and Men for one of the best films of the past few years, or TV series Trapped – another fettling of the unsexy into something compelling. Here, it’s all about sheep-rearing brothers who haven’t spoken for decades – one guy called Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), the other Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), whose matted hair and beards make them resemble the animals they look after and whose enmity is made plain in a brilliant scene at a local sheep beauty competition, where Kiddi wins first prize for one of his Bolstadur sheep, a geographically specific breed. The brothers, though they haven’t spoken for 40 years, still have a bond – Gummi’s sheepdog will take handwritten notes to Kiddi, which is how Kiddi finds out that Gummi thinks his winning ram has scrapie. This is a degenerative brain disease akin to mad cow disease and means the entire flock will have to be slaughtered, wiping out the breed and the man’s whole reason for living – he’s too old to start again once the area has eventually been declared clean again. So, why have the two fallen out? Is this really the end for the Bolstadur sheep? There’s a semi-comedic note to the playing of the two brothers which isn’t entirely in keeping with the subject of the film, but director Grimu Hákonarson generates a belt of poignancy for these old-timers whose last few years of productive life have suddenly been taken away from them. And the flat, matt cinematography really suits a primal storyline that builds towards a highly dramatic and tender finish. Highly recommended.

Rams – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

600 Miles (Soda, cert 15)

600 Miles proceeds via a series of blindsidings, the first being that its apparent main character, Carson (Harrison Thomas), a scuzzball trying to buy a gun to protect himself on a cross-border smuggling run, is not the film’s focus at all. That’s his sidekick, the Mexican Arnulfo (Krystyan Ferrer) who, we learn through a series of encounters with older tougher guys, is possibly gay, maybe just a bit stupid, completely out of his depth. And then the focus shifts again to Tim Roth, as a plodding government agent specialising in gun trafficking, clearly on the trail of these two wannabe desperados. In an early scene taking place at a gun fair, all the big positives of this film become clear in one second, as Roth chats to a guy he knows running the stall, then casually adds in a “Hey, Greta,” to the woman (Harris Kendall) also behind the counter. She says, “Hey” back at him and it’s so casual, too casual, that we know there’s a back story there. The  film advances by similar tiny telling gestures, until the 600 miles of the title are explained, as Roth, tied up in the back of the car, is driven by Arnulfo to meet the kid’s uncle for a showdown which can’t end well for somebody. It’s only on this drive that I started to get twitchy – Is it all getting a bit propagandistic? Is this another tale of a silly kid doing the wrong thing for what seems like a good reason (money)? Yes, and no. But debut director Gabriel Ripstein sticks with his MO – drop us in and let us work it out – and Alain Marcoen’s camera, like the screenplay and actors, works by micro nudges, and the film is still parcelling out revelations beyond the big bloody finish and into a coda that is worth hanging on for because it’s so confounding.

600 Miles – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Dark Signal (Kaleidoscope, cert 18)

The giallo revival (eg Amer, Tulpa – Perdizioni Mortali and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears) continues with this contribution from Wales in a chiller about brutal murder and supernatural goings-on at a remote radio station. It’s a twin track tale – a sulky sultry radio DJ on her last night in one segment and a naive Polish immigrant out on a minor robbery job with a man we assume to be her boyfriend in the other – which only really starts to get interesting when a clear connection is made between the two. Bridging that gap is Cinzia Monreale, a woman with the looks and vintage of an original giallo bombshell, as a psychic who believes that the old AM radio signal is trying to tell her something. Around this point the killing gets going, director Edward Evers-Swindell starts bathing everything in an exotic red glow, and the beautiful large eyes of both lead women (Siwan Morris, familiar from TV show Skins, and Joanna Ignaczewska) are used to spooky and enchanting effect. There are some chilling old-school physical shocks, highly effective misdirection involving a sinister James Cosmo (such a great actor) and enough vinyl hitting turntables to keep the diehard hipster happy. Not to mention leather hot pants. All is not perfect: there’s a distinct flappiness about the script (Morris is a supposedly cool DJ yet addresses her listeners as “folks”), some wobbly acting and the odd bit of straightforward bad directing. But, on the whole, Dark Signal is a respectable entry in this neo-canon, and a welcome alternative to the many reality-based horror films that have assailed us since The Blair Witch Project changed the way things are. An analogue film in a digital world.

Dark Signal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Snoopy and Charlie Brown: the Peanuts Movie (Fox, cert U)

Peanuts always left me cold. Too cute. Not cynical enough. I know it became something like the most syndicated cartoon strip in the world, in its long run, and I suspect that if you loved Charles M Schulz’s characters, you’ll love this similarly cute, corny, brightly coloured animation true to the original. The film’s task is to translate something that works in three/four static panels – a setup and deadpan payoff – into something that works at feature length. Co-writers Craig and Brian Schulz (son and grandson of Charles) have decided to do it just the way dad did it – A bit of Story A (Charlie Brown smitten when Red-Haired Girl joins the class), a bit of Story B (Snoopy), a fair bit of Story C (Snoopy’s imaginative flights of fancy battling the Red Baron), then fill in the gaps with the minor characters such as Lucy, Woodstock and Marcie. Though I found it neither funny nor profound, I enjoyed Snoopy’s sequences with the Baron a bit – as I did in the original strips – because they introduced action, drama and pace. And I kept wondering about Charlie’s hair, which was fine on the page suggested by a pencil squiggle at the front. As a moving character, however, Charlie looks bald. Has he had chemotherapy? Is he related to Benjamin Button? The mind wanders.

Snoopy and Charlie Brown: the Peanuts Movie – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Our Brand Is Crisis (Warner, cert 15)

This Grant Heslov/George Clooney-produced drama stars Sandra Bullock as a political wonk trying to win an election in Bolivia for an unelectable patrician candidate. And by god… she… no spoilers! Clooney himself was originally intended to take the role played by Bullock, or so we hear, and if this is so (since most “was going to” speculation is just noise), my guess is that he passed for two reasons: the political chicanery was too close in tone and content to his The Ides of March; and the script just wasn’t good enough. Sold as a satire, and comporting itself as such, Our Brand Is Crisis is actually closer to a redemption drama for its star, who plays “Calamity Jane”, a highly respected political fixer who has been beaten in the last four campaigns she’s run by machiavellian Billy Bob Thornton, the guy the other side have hired. Director David Gordon Green has been given the gig, and brings in a tidy looking Hollywood movie, his regular DP Tim Orr giving everything a 1970s glow, that decade being the spiritual home of the political satire, which this, as I’ve already said, so wants to be. So why isn’t it? A political satire, I mean. Lack of substance, of detail about how wonks do their jobs, in short, though there is some great stuff early on about Bullock planting stories against her own man (Joaquim de Almeida, pugilistically believable) in an attempt to get him to fight dirty, this grandee’s only chance of winning against his man-of-the-people rival. Pity, it’s a hell of a cast – apart from Thornton, who has barely any lines (again, a satire would have bigged him up), there’s Zoe Kazan, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, all of whom probably thought they were signing on for something more balls-out. The Ides of March 2 – The Ides of April? Oh well. Next!

Our Brand Is Crisis – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

23 May 2016-05-23

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

 

Out This Week

 

The Revenant (Fox, cert 15)

Last year Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar for Birdman. The gongs have clearly gone slightly to his head and he now thinks he’s Terrence Malick. If there’s one thing this thrilling, frequently brutal and historically fascinating film doesn’t need is slo-mo glides through the awesomeness of its natural beauties – grandiose waterfalls, snowy wastes, virgin forests and the like. But we get them anyway, and if you’re feeling gracious, you might take them as a palate-cleanser between attacks by Indians, bears and the elements as 1820s fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) fights his way from a severe ursine mauling and almost certain death out on his ownsome in the wilderness back to civilisation and a showdown with human nemesis John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). DiCaprio, bathing in Iñárritu’s glow, won an Oscar for what is a good performance, certainly a lot better than Tom Hardy’s, which is another of his bewildering mumbling affairs with a fair bit of Robert Newton’s Long John Silver thrown in for… fun? Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is the real star of the show, Lubezki alternating his luxe YouTube pov style with up-close-and-very-personal details such as the water bubbling out of Glass’s punctured trachea when he takes a swallow of water, a problem soon fixed by applying gunpowder to the hole and igniting. This sort of stuff – eating buffalo liver warm, making a fish trap out of stones – are what give the film its claims to specialness, lessons learned from 12 Years a Slave that it’s historical specifics that make audiences sit up and take notice. Ignore the breathing on the camera lens – Iñárritu pulls this stunt twice – and other flowery poetics, and there’s a great film here.

The Revenant – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Victoria (Curzon, cert 15)

An even greater film is Victoria, by new-to-me director Sebastian Schipper. It follows a young Spanish woman having the night of her life in Berlin – meeting a bunch of lairy lads, falling for one of them, getting involved in a felony, and the fallout from that – and what makes it remarkable is the fact that it’s all shot in one take. That’s two hours and 20 minutes of seat-of-pants choreography of actors, camera and crew. It sounds like a gimmick but it’s artistically justified since this is a long heady rush of a night as it happens to a new-in-town impressionable character – one pause (ie edit) and Victoria (Laia Costa) might think twice and know she’s in over her head. The acting – by Costa, Frederick Lau, Franz Rogowski, Burak Yigit and Max Mauff – is remarkably fresh and street-real, though it’s Costa and Lau who carry the burden of the film, as the woman and man whose developing relationship also gives the film heart. Look closer and it’s clear that though this is shot in real time, all manner of liberties have been taken with dramatic time – Victoria and Lau’s punchy Sonne at one point go to the cafe where she works to open up for early trade, manage a bit of “getting to know you” business, he leaves, returns with his crew, leaves again, all in the space of around five minutes. Again and again the same compression trick is pulled, with things happening much faster on screen than they ever could in real life. The result is a film with grip, agility and flow, and makes Aleksandr Sokurov’s fabulous “one shot” movie, Russian Ark, look mannered by comparison.

Victoria – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Spotlight (E One, cert 15)

If you’ve ever wished there could be more films like All the President’s Men, you’re in luck, because here’s Spotlight. The similarities start with it being a story about crusading journalists whose competitive camaraderie helps them nail a big story. But they don’t end there – this is a true story set in a city whose history and culture (Political Washington in the case of the 1970s film, Catholic Boston here) dictate what the story is and erect obstacles to the investigation. And both feature someone called Bradlee – Ben Bradlee in the case of All the President’s Men, the executive editor of the Washington Post as Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story; Ben Bradlee Jr (his son) in Spotlight, the editor at the Boston Globe responsible for the investigation that uncovered not just the city’s paedophile priest problem, but the Catholic Church’s cover-up of it. I’m going to stop comparing the two films now, except to say that William Goldman’s screenplay for ATPM was a masterpiece of silken exposition, and so is Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s here (Singer wrote whole chunks of The West Wing, so he knows how to do this sort of thing). In fact so good is the writing that it throws the actors into the shade a touch. Or, fairer, the actors subsume themselves to the grander purpose of the film, and what a job Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams do as the frontline journos, while Liev Schreiber (as editor Marty Baron) and John Slattery (as Bradlee Jr) are also magnificently right for their roles. This is one of those films where everything just clicks – Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as competing lawyers also ideal – in so satisfying a way that it’s easy to under-estimate how perfectly crafted everything is. And consider this – there is nothing essentially new being revealed here, since we’ve all known about these scandals now for some years. Which makes the manner of the telling of this in-many-ways standard procedural story all the more remarkable. No melodrama or false histrionics either.

Spotlight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Youth (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Though he’s clearly some kind of movie-making genius, I’m beginning to wonder if Paolo Sorrentino’s writing is getting in the way of his direction. Or possibly vice versa. In films such as The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend, Il Divo, This Must Be the Place, The Great Beauty (the ones I’ve seen, in other words), a sometimes austere but always languid beauty has been evident. But is the tempo of the verbal interchanges between characters slowing things down a touch? Or is it the exquisite stately visuals? Which is another way of saying that halfway through Youth I was convinced it was a masterpiece, but by the end it felt as if Sorrentino had dropped the ball. In structure it’s Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. There, a TB convalescent sat up a mountain in an alpine sanatorium and had long, searching conversations about the big questions in life. Here, the convalescent is Michael Caine, aping the owlish neck swivels and lizard gazes of Sorrentino’s stylish muse, Toni Servillo, and doing it brilliantly. Except Caine’s retired British composer isn’t recovering from sickness, he’s just old, recovering from youth, if you will. Alongside, to engage in debate about impending death and the life lived well (or not, which is the point) are a string of busted males – among them Harvey Keitel’s faded yet raging film director and Paul Dano’s Ryan Gosling-alike tyro film star. And bullshit-detecting females – Rachel Weisz as the composer’s upset daughter, Jane Fonda as the angry star of Keitel’s next film, the stunning Madalina Diana Ghenea, who, clothed or naked, seems to be there to make everyone else look bad, and Paloma Faith as herself, a bit of baroque fun being had with a pop promo Sorrentino creates for her in a fantasy sequence – it’s Madonna on stilts, essentially, and as eye-popping as it is amusing. The men are deluded or phonies, the women are real. The sanatorium, though, is at another level of artificiality and Sorrentino keeps dropping in shots of towels folded into swans, people bent over in steam rooms, stupefied, unmoving, glimpsed through fogged windows. It’s a statuary vision of hell, of sorts, of Death in Venice (another Mann story), a slow dissolve in the most gorgeous of settings, to the rhythms of Fellini, Sorrentino’s default setting, even if the director this time around saves the Full Sorrentino (a coming together of beautiful setting, dramatic lighting, swooping camera and nano-precise edits) only for his dream sequences. And Fellini’s films often smelt of despair. If Youth smelt of anything it would be, bitter arthouse irony, formaldehyde.

Youth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mavis! (Dogwoof, cert E)

Mavis! is the story of 75-year-old Mavis Staples, one of the Staple Singers and solo artist, which starts off with a tiny clip of Mavis warming up with her band backstage, and introduces us to her voice, a big, sensual moose of a thing which she’s been using for 60 years to make a living. You don’t see Bob Dylan turning up to testify in many documentaries about singers, but he does here, it turning out that Bob wanted to marry Mavis back in the early 1960 – “We got pretty friendly about that time,” he says, coyly – when she sported a Diana Ross straight hair style and looked quite the thing. “I’m just everyday people. I’ve never been on a star trip,” she says now. And though she’s saying it from the back of a limo, we suspect it’s true, her ever-present sister Yvonne’s pursed lips alone enough to keep her grounded. It’s the tiny moments that make Jessica Edwards’s affectionate documentary worth seeking out. Such as Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who’s largely responsible for her late career renaissance, playing back some of the mixes he’s done on old recordings by Pops Staples – guiding force of the Staple Singers until he died in 2000, aged 85 – and we see Yvonne and Mavis singing along too, so deep into the music that they sing oblivious to the fact they’re doing it. It’s a lovely film about a great singer, and details such as her tough early life in South Detroit, early introduction to Martin Luther King, and the Staple Singers’ embrace of rock music (not without resistance from the gospel mainstream), which would be the sell for a lesser talent, well, they add colour but they aren’t the reason to seek this out. The reason is the music. “If you don’t see me singing, look for me in heaven,” says Mavis, and this “gospel rough” (Chuck D’s assessment) voice isn’t lying.

Mavis! – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Dirty Grandpa (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Lots to be wary of here. Robert De Niro’s track record with comedy – I don’t count pulling an upside down smiley face as comic chops, sorry. Zac Efron’s smug Adonis routine. The fact that Dan Mazer is the director, Mazer having been behind the terrible romcom I Give It a Year. And then there’s the whole high concept, of a randy widower heading off to spring break with his unwilling straitlaced grandson. But then hang on a minute – De Niro’s seriously sour wedding speech in Joy was one of that over-praised film’s standout moments, Efron does at least poke fun at his buffness, and I Give It a Year might have been a film full of horrible people but there were at least some very funny moments (another wedding speech, notably, this time by Stephen Merchant). “Like Abercrombie fucked Fitch,” is how Efron is described early on, by Zoey Deutch, who, along with Aubrey Plaza, are the gal-pal duo who provide love interest for Efron and, remarkably, De Niro. De Niro’s Dick Kelly, not realising he is tangling with a girl who has a thing for older men, tries one of his many “ew” lines on Plaza as the foursome are discussing the golf game he is about to have with Jason (Efron) – “Obviously I’ve got the bigger 3 wood”, he snickers, comparing himself to his grandson. “Good,” replies Plaza. “Maybe, Professor, you can use it to knock your balls into my vagina.” And there it is – the film’s claim to glory. Dirty, funny writing. As for the rest of it – Midnight Run Slight Return, you could say, though De Niro never shouted “Party till you’re pregnant” at Charles Grodin, nor did Grodin take his top off as much as Efron. But a couple of mismatched guys travelling from Point A to Point B, properly filthy jokes, a standout turn by Jason Mantzoukas as a manic drug dealer. And Plaza, who’s got a gift for comedy that is rare. And didn’t we get to see De Niro rapping? And Dermot Mulroney with dicks drawn all over his face? Oh, go on!

Dirty Grandpa – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Journey to the Shore (Eureka, cert 15)

Emotionally inert since her husband died some years before, a Japanese piano teacher is overjoyed when he simply returns to their apartment one night, apparently none the worse for wear, though dead all the same. They set off on a journey together, the living woman and her dead, though vibrant, chatty, engaged man, visiting other couples in a similar situation – one dead, one alive, sometimes witting, sometimes not. An intensely grounded supernatural movie is the result, a zombie film without the shuffling or the screaming, with emotion held at trembling distance, while a sub-Wagnerian shimmering soundtrack threatens at any point to burst into tears. Fabulous actress Eri Fukatsu, meanwhile, works the many registers at her disposal to suggest the emotions that might be competing in the psyche of a grieving woman who has her husband back – but why, and at what karmic cost? Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, meanwhile, using lectures in physics given by the returnee as a conduit, dabbles in the realm of quantum mechanics – if many worlds are possible, then one in which the dead are alive isn’t beyond the credible – and Kurosawa clearly intends for his film to be a long, deep meditational bath. Too slow for me, though. Too stone-faced. Maybe I have no soul.

Journey to the Shore – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

16 May 2016-05-16

Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt

 

Out This Week

 

 

The Big Short (Paramount, cert 15)

What is a mortgage backed security, a sub-prime loan or a credit default swap? At an early stage in this hugely entertaining film about the financial crash of 2007, Ryan Gosling’s voiceover admits it’s confusing and exclaims, “so here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain…” Cut to Margot Robbie up to her neck in suds, cradling a glass of champagne … “Whenever you hear the word ‘sub-prime’,” she tells us, “think ‘shit’…”. That’s The Big Short in a headline, a film unafraid to put on the brakes, wheel out a celebrity and roll out a colourful analogy – the chef Anthony Bourdain later explains Collateralized Debt Obligation (rolling up lots of bad debts with some good ones) in terms of turning old fish into new fish stew, for example. Truth be told, the story without the celebrity endorsements might be a little indigestible. Though it is hellishly fascinating – a number of disparate traders realising the financial markets are overcooked, that the agencies responsible for sounding the warning aren’t doing their job, decide that the housing market is going to crash and bet that it will. Christian Bale is key figure Michael Burry, the almost autistically asocial trader first coming up with the idea of the big short – much to his boss’s horror – Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett arriving later as a smart cookie realising Burry is onto something and seconding disaffected trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) into helping him. Meanwhile, out in hicksville, wannabe masters of the universe Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) persuade old hand Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to give them an in after they accidentally find details of Burry’s big short idea on a tossed-away piece of paper – the action stopping here as the young guys explain to camera that it didn’t actually happen this way, but hey… that’s entertainment. Co-writer/director McKay’s background in comedy (Anchorman, The Other Guys) stands him in good stead here, and he’s clearly decided that he’s going to do whatever he has to do to get this story across – cue Steve Carell explaining what a sub-prime mortgage is to a lapdancer at full grind. Or a financial deal discussed in terms of making a sundae – sprinkles and cherries and nuts all being what you get, what I get and so on. It’s the most good time, good fun film about the big crash bar none, though Margin Call does, admittedly, run it fairly close.

The Big Short – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Creed (Warner, cert 12)

When Sylvester Stallone made Rocky Balboa in 2006 he was about 60. That was 10 years ago and there was a certain, “I can’t believe he’s doing it at his age” aspect to watching Stallone climb back into the ring and go even a single round with men decades younger and fitter. If Stallone is anything it’s smart, and he knows that at nudging 70 there’s no way he can throw those shapes again. But he can give us another boxing movie, with another young contender and with himself as the trainer, and that’s what he’s done. It’s a long and unhurried affair, aiming for the full 12 rounds rather than a quick knockout, and once it’s got its uncomfortable meet-cutes out of the way – juvie Adonis Creed, son of Apollo, former world champ and one of Rocky’s most respected opponents, hooking up with restaurateur, retired champ and all-round good guy Balboa – it moves assuredly through its boxing-movie set pieces. The cast is good, Michael B Jordan as Adonis Creed is not in the business of hogging the limelight (clever producer Stallone, hiring him), and Tessa Thompson as his musician girlfriend a very likeable tough, smart presence, as she was in Dear White People. Most eye-opening is Tony Bellew as the Liverpool fighter Creed has to defeat to bag the title – Bellew is a boxer in real life and, it turns out, a fantastic actor who injects Scouse vinegar into his character’s ball of pugilistic spite. School of hard knocks, see. Ryan Coogler shoots the fights handheld and up close, and they’re outstandingly choreographed, brutal, bestial affairs. And he saves the Rocky theme for exactly the moment it’s meant to come, very very late in the day, knowing its emotional effect at that point will be magnified. Tears in the eyes.

Creed – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Assassin (StudioCanal, cert 12)

The British Film Institute’s serious film magazine Sight & Sound named The Assassin as its film of 2015 (full top 20 here) and its director Hou Hsiao-Hsien was also named best director at Cannes last year. So here’s a film garlanded in expectation, but what exactly does it offer? At the level of story it’s about a beautiful assassin (Shu Qi) in 8th century China going about her work – or failing to, since in early scenes we see her aborting a kill on a despot governor because he is playing with his child. She takes pity. Bad girl, admonishes her tartar trainer, also a female, unusually, and a nun. I’m not sure the story is really what this film is about, though. In early expository scenes set at the governor’s court, there is the feeling that we’re wandering into A Man for All Seasons as reshot by Zhang Yimou, whose obsessive colour-coded style Hou seems to have in his sights. This is perhaps more Hou’s Crouching Tiger wuxia epic – though the fight scenes, though glorious, are incredibly brief, so be warned if that’s your thing. Instead this is a film for aesthetes, Hou loading up every scene with imagery so lush that even Peter Greenaway, master of the static tableau, might take pause. Then, doing something strange in the circumstances, Hou shoots his epic sets and his vivid, detailed setups with an almost documentary camera, and very often through gauze, curtains, from behind trees, with a very shallow focus and lighting that casts pools of shadows. When he shoots outdoors, his camera is cusping on over-exposure, and frequently shots slip into deliberate defocus so things start to blur. It’s a strange, hypnotic film, and the visual style and set design call to mind Chinese epics of the 1950s. However, full pastiche it isn’t – Hou’s camera is too fluid, his compositions too 21st century. But never mind all that, is the film any good? And what is it really all about? Those questions I cannot answer. Deep symbolism is at work, and my knowledge of the precise meaning of pomegranates (for example) is lacking. More homework required. And a second viewing, if not many more. But hey, isn’t that Dirty Grandpa?

The Assassin – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

In a Lonely Place (Criterion, cert 12)

Criterion’s recent entry into the UK legacy home entertainment market means we’re getting more of this sort of thing, a nicely restored Blu-ray of Nicholas Ray’s 1950 drama. It’s an interesting film rather than a great one (sorry, Ray cultists), one of the first to deal with celebrity culture at any level, and one of the first in which a star works his own persona for effect. The star is Humphrey Bogart, at first the familiar Bogie from Casablanca, a sour white knight who, we’re sure, is going to come good when the chips are down. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter as wholesome as yellow snow who’s called on at short notice to write a treatment of a book he’s never read. Luckily, the hatcheck girl in the club he’s in has read the book. And she’s a bright breathy button only too keen to go home with the famous man, to help out, you understand, and she’s got a boyfriend, he just ought to know. In short order the girl is dead (this happens early on, no spoiler) and Bogie is being fingered by the cops. But his sexy next door neighbour (Gloria Grahame, director Ray’s wife at the time) can vouch for him – she saw him seeing Hatcheck off the premises, and is sure it was him, because she saw him looking up at her in her negligee. Negligee – woo hoo. So, did he or didn’t he? The film toys with that notion, with Bogie’s persona, with Grahame’s motivation (is she also hooked on his Hollywood celebrity?). Notions of the real and the bogus run right through the entire film – of honest people and Hollywood people, of guilt and innocence – with Grahame’s overdrawn lips and push-up bra suggestively perfect in this context. If Bogie is the only person in the film who can really act, Grahame comes close at moments, and scenes set down in the cop shop are stiff in the special way they tended to be back then. The film didn’t cost a hill of beans to make and the restoration has probably got as much detail as possible out of negatives that might never have been exposed properly in the first place – down at the black end, gradations of shade are a tiny bit suspect. These noirish thrillers were knocked out by technically competent crews who were often working at speed – good enough was good enough. What the restoration does give us is detail – look at how thick the material in the men’s suits is. Hair, too, is noteworthy, not always particularly kempt. If I’m overdoing the technical side it’s because I’m not entirely convinced by the “classic” status of the film, but then I’ve never been a worshipper at the shrine of Nicholas Ray. Johnny Guitar? Camp waxworks. Give me Max Ophüls any day.

In a Lonely Place – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Battle for Sevastopol (Arrow, cert 15)

A Soviet… whoops… Russian Second World War drama with a misleading title, it being a biopic about real-life sniper Lyudmilla Pavlichenko rather than a film about the Battle for Sevastopol, though Sevastopol certainly turns up and Pavlichenko was certainly involved. Prefaced by all sorts of imprimaturs – “sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation”… “the Russian Military Historical Society”… “the Ukrainian State Film Agency”… the film actually then goes on to tell the rather personal story of a beautiful woman who happened to be a crack shot. Her life, her loves, and how her celebrity as “Lady Death” took her to the USA in the early 1940s, where she met Eleanor Roosevelt. The two formed quite a bond. Mrs Roosevelt recurs – the film starts in 1957 with Mrs R as a private citizen visiting the USSR, then zips back to Lyudmilla’s childhood in the 1930s, before moving forward to the 1942 US visit, then back to Pavlichenko training, then forward again into the actual heat of the battle for Sevastopol, after the Nazis had invaded Russia in 1941. Most of what we see on screen actually happened (usual Wikipedia caveats apply), and unusually for one of these historical epics, the action doesn’t take place against a backdrop (or frontdrop) of a raging romance – though Pavlichenko has lovers, several in fact, the happy-ever-afters aren’t a given. Again interestingly for a Sunday afternoon movie – definition: you can fall asleep for half an hour and your enjoyment won’t be diminished – the film doesn’t flinch from the fact that killing people is horrible. It’s beautifully made – the production design is aiming for Technicolor sparkliness and Yuriy Korol’s cinematography is similarly exquisite, while Yuliya Pereseid, as Pavlichenko, heads a uniformly excellent cast. A touch of committee writing, a slight lack of poetry here and there? Maybe, but Battle for Sevastopol has plenty of flavour and is a lot better than most war films out of Hollywood.

Battle for Sevastopol – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mojave (Signature, cert 15)

Not being a fan of William Monahan’s writing – he’s verbose and showy (see The Departed) – I was slightly surprised when his directing debut, London Boulevard, turned out to be kind of OK. It was a London geezer movie and the American Monahan brought a welcome outsider’s viewpoint to a very tired Brit cliché. So… Mojave… what’s it to be – fresh eye or same old same old? It’s the latter, I’m afraid, a wannabe wiseass existential thriller sending Garrett Hedlund’s disillusioned Hollywood actor out into the desert, where he meets Oscar Isaac’s dangerous loquacious bum. Hedlund is essentially playing Jesus and Isaac the Devil – and the screenplay says as much – and it does indeed feel as if 40 days and nights have passed until we get to a point of resolution. Though there’s no real resolution at all, Monahan believing he’s waxing profound on the nature of celebrity, with the desert as some sort of metaphor for the soul of the Hollywood player. But, hey, isn’t Hedlund handsome? And Isaac, isn’t he doing a Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now thing? All very appropriate, because when Monahan isn’t writing long speeches in the “all words, no plot” style mastered by Tarantino, he’s reaching back to the 1970s, to Scorsese and Coppola and all that lot. Looking back at my notes, I can see there were things I did like… Mark Wahlberg as a greedy, coke-fuelled sex addict Hollywood agent, Walton Goggins doing a laconic Jack Nicholson routine rather well, and Isaac was actually rather good, too, sticking it to the kind of tic-driven Method style of acting that allows the big beasts of acting to wrest creative control from the director. A conversation for another time… Bottom line – this film lacks good original ideas and it isn’t stylish enough to fill in the gaps where those ideas should be.

Mojave – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Propaganda Game (Metrodome, cert 15)

We’ve all seen the documentary where the film-maker doesn’t get what he wants, and turns his film into the search for just that thing – Michael Moore’s 1989 Roger & Me being the classic of a style also perfected by Nick Broomfield. The Propaganda Game sees Spanish documentarian Alvaro Longoria heading to North Korea in an attempt to find out the truth about the place. He doesn’t get it, though what he does get is fascinating enough. That Longoria got to go at all is down to the fact that he was sponsored by fellow Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benos, a full-time resident of North Korea who dresses in full military attire and is so enthusiastic about the regime that he’ll break into patriotic song given half a chance. He’s an almost permanent presence as Longoria is conducted about the country, being shown carefully edited highlights proving that North Korea isn’t “mad, bad and silly” – its characterisation in western media. At five days in, having visited the border, talked to people on the streets, eaten “socialist hamburgers”, dropped in at a gleaming swimming pool and visited fine modern apartments full of tech gear, Longoria is almost convinced. Then he heads off to visit a Christian church – because freedom of worship is one of the things Westerners believe is verboten in North Korea – and the wheels slightly come off the pram. The church is real but the believers inside are, he believes, schills. His evidence? Scant. Who’s going to talk? On the other hand, Longoria tells us he saw no evidence of the black market that the entire country is meant to run on. And as anyone who’s ever been to a socialist country will tell you, you don’t find the black marketeers, they find you. So this is significant. Frustratingly, how Longoria decides to fill the gaps where his other revelations should be, is with commentary by western journalists, and vox pops from North Koreans, neither saying much we don’t already know. And his attempt to turn the “propaganda game” being played by both sides into the subject of his film doesn’t stack up either. However, if there is one valuable contribution this film makes to international understanding, it’s to explain the continued existence of North Korea at all – for China it’s a handy Communist buffer state; for the US it’s a justification for interfering in the region; for Japan it’s a way of preventing competition from a united country modelled on successful South Korea. The only people who want North Korea to collapse, it seems, is everyday North Koreans.

The Propaganda Game – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 May 2016-05-09

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in Room

 

Out This Week

 

 

Room (StudioCanal, cert 15)

Starting with 2004’s Adam & Paul, then continuing with Garage, What Richard Did and even in the comedic, less typical Frank, director Lenny Abrahmson has given us a series of intense psychological dramas examining human relationships under stress. Room continues the trend with a story about an abducted woman living in a shed with her son, he being the result of a rape by her abductor. The facts of the situation are dripped out in an un-explicatory way and keep things real, though it’s the current situation rather than the headline-grabbing aspects of the situation that fascinate Abrahmson: how the mother keeps her sanity; how she explains the world to her son, particularly the fact that this isn’t the entire world (luckily the TV helps here); and most of all, how and when should she switch from being nurturing, protective mother to a drill sergeant preparing the boy for escape? Having known that Room was “a film about an abducted mother and her child” before watching it, I was surprised to discover it is in fact as much if not more about what happens after the pair make their bid for escape. Constructed in three distinct acts – before, after and a very brief finale (staying away from spoilers here) – each gives Brie Larson an opportunity to do that strange thing she does, whereby she establishes some sort of unmediated link between herself and the audience. Not only did she win an Oscar for her performance, but she won it so convincingly that everyone knew she was going to win it before the nominations had been announced. I’m saying no more about this fascinating, surprisingly unmelodramatic drama – which continues to pay out new revelations and insights right to the very last shot – except that you should watch it.

Room – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Hateful Eight (EV, cert 18)

Quentin Tarantino’s best movie? For my money that’s Jackie Brown, and it’s largely because his tendency to sprawl is held in check by Elmore Leonard’s tramline plot. Here, as in most of his films, it’s all QT, and boy does he get medieval. At some level it’s a reworking of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians – a bunch of strangers gathered together in one place (a snowy refuge/chandler’s/coaching stop called Minnie’s Haberdashery in this case), where skulduggery is afoot and lives will be lost. How that happens is the fun of the piece, and I’ll say no more about it. Christie’s original title for the story was Ten Little Niggers, of course, as Tarantino knows very well, and it partly explains the relentless use of the word, which is liable to give the politically sanctimonious an attack of the vapours, the focus being Samuel L Jackson. This is another of his full-bore Tarantino larger-than-large performances. But then every one of the Eight – which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh as a runaway outlaw, Kurt Russell as a bounty hunter, Walton Goggins as the new sheriff of the town they’re all heading for, Michael Madsen as a slow cowpoke, Bruce Dern as a retired Confederate general and Tim Roth as an affected English hangman – is huge. It’s a western with a megaphone, a comedy with a straight face, even the title, one-upping The Magnificent Seven, tells us that. As for the rest of it – large! – from the 70mm Panavision cinematography, the mere fact of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, the roadshow print that included an intermission. Oh, and there’s more than eight of them too, Demián Bichir making a particularly fine comedic Mexican, with a strangled, ridiculous accent you’ll want to sample for your voicemail. The bloodletting – it’s spectacular and ridiculous and awful, once it gets going and vastly enjoyable if you like that sort of thing. A genre film, playing with genre, introducing nothing new, Tarantino having now become something like a jazz soloist parping away and throwing out treats. And sparks.

The Hateful Eight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Lesson (New Wave, cert 15)

As the Bulgarian drama The Lesson kicks off, a teacher is writing “Someone has stolen my wallet” in English on the blackboard and saying the words out loud. It’s an English lesson, we suppose, but within a few seconds we realise we’ve been wrongfooted and, no, the teacher really has had her wallet stolen, and she’s trying, in the context of the English lesson, to get the culprit to own up. Another click along the road in this fascinating, detail-rich drama and we’ve met the teacher’s husband, a feckless boozer who seems to be living out in a caravan parked at the front of their house. We’ve also started to meet a series of enforcers, all of whom want money off her, or him, or both of them. If we don’t know much about Margita Gosheva’s hard-working nameless teacher, we do know she’s in deep financial shit, and for the rest of The Lesson we follow her as she tries to pull herself back from the edge – to an agency where she does some translating but never seems to get paid, to her estranged father and his new hot bimbo girlfriend, to a loan shark who gives her money but with a lot of strings attached. If you remember that scene at the end of Argo, where tense moment is piled on tense moment as we wait to see if the Iran hostages are going to make it out of the country, The Lesson pulls a similar dramatic stroke. Every time this woman thinks she’s out of the woods, writers/directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov hit her with something else. And it really works, all the more because the setting is so domestic and drab and Gosheva keeps her features set just so, like a woman who is used to holding things together, though maybe not at this level. A simple, honest film, believable, tough, offering no cheesy getouts, no false heroics. And if you want to read it as an allegory about the recent financial crash, and what respected figures get up to when their backs are against the wall, Grozeva and Valchanov quietly offer that as a possibility, too.

The Lesson – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Janis: Little Girl Blue (Dogwoof, cert 15)

I’ll just say straight out that I don’t like Janis Joplin’s voice. In fact I think it’s horrible. Not as an instrument – because she really did have the pipes – just the way she played it, all those screechy harmonics virtually obscuring the note she was actually aiming for. This documentary about the rock singer who seems to be disappearing into obscurity – unlike Jim, or Jimi, more like Brian, maybe – seeks to bring her back into the light, to assert that she was in fact one of the greats. Whatever you think of the voice, it is a great story – product of a town that still had a KKK chapter, scorned kid at school, voted ugliest man at university by her nasty fraternity peers (“Made her cry. Saddest thing I ever saw, really was,” says old friend Powell St John), she discovered she had a voice and lit out for California in the early 1960s. It is in many respects a standard clips’n’quotes documentary, siblings lining up alongside old friends (“She was real dangerous to take to a bar” says J Dave Morley), now all cusping on old age, to tell the story of the girl who became famous in a band, was bigger than the band, but had a habit that was bigger than her – in a very male-dominated world Janis drank and injected with the best (ie worst) of them. It’s an “almost made it through the bad times” tale that’s bound to draw comparisons with Amy Winehouse’s – both dead at 27, both still to do their best work – though it’s not a comparison that the film itself makes. Things remain admirably rooted in period. In spite of many clips of Janis talking on chat shows, usually Dick Cavett’s (and he pops up to confirm that they may indeed have had a thing going on), the sense of the woman isn’t quite there. This, I suspect, is because the chronically insecure Janis herself didn’t know quite what she was – “All I’ve got now is strength,” she says, coyly comparing her voice to that of Otis and Ella. “If I keep going maybe I can sing.”

Janis: Little Girl Blue – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Speed Sisters (Dogwoof, cert E)

More inspirational women, this time four Palestinian young gals who race cars for a living, and cop a lot of flak for doing so. Marah, Noor, Mona and Betty (plus team captain Maysoon) all come from different backgrounds and are the first Arab female racing team in the world. Some are Muslim, others Christian, but richer or poorer all experience the full weight of patriarchy telling them they can’t do what they are doing. And yet, and this is this film’s most charming aspect, we see teenage lads and grown men looking on in awe as the ladies put their cars through their rubber burning paces. Director Amber Fares introduces a bit of grit into the pearl – tension between Marah and Betty, the media savvy one who’s slightly less interested in being a team player than the others – and the “political situation” in Palestine is always there in the background. She also shows that the judges who administer the races aren’t above a bit of rule-making on the hoof, blatantly, and never to the girls’ advantage, it seems. It’s a fascinating documentary that bounces along to the rhythms of its Palestinian pop soundtrack. If there’s a niggle it’s that what’s going on at the races themselves is never really that explicitly laid out – a bit of the sort of storybuilding seen in Cosima Spender’s horse-racing doc Palio wouldn’t have gone amiss. The likeability and sheer – and how’s this for the wrong word – chutzpah of the girls is, however, undeniable.

Speed Sisters – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Welcome to Me (Precision, cert 15)

In the recent Daddy’s Home, a sap of a stepdad (played by Will Ferrell) was the butt of an entire 90 minutes of jokes about his inadequacy as a parent compared to easily superior biological dad Mark Wahlberg. Kicking a decent guy who is down is rarely if ever funny, and so it proved (the odd set-piece notwithstanding). Welcome to Me wades in similar waters, being a comedy about a nice but clearly mentally unhinged woman (Kristen Wiig) who, after winning a lottery bonanza, commissions a struggling TV station to make a series of shows entirely about her – Oprah is the idea, though Wiig’s Alice Klieg will enter on a white swan and then do and say pretty much whatever comes to mind. It’s car crash TV. And, amazement of amazements – it works! I mean both the TV show and the movie. Why, though? Well, the TV show because Klieg, though bats, is fresh and free of TV bullshit. The movie, because it’s not mean, Wiig is good at this sort of wide-eyed naive character and everyone gets a taste of the whip – the TV station bosses (James Marsden and Wes Bentley), online producers (a particularly fine Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh), Klieg’s shrink (Tim Robbins), everyone. And Wiig’s playing is just right: ironic but not pathetic – “Ladies and gentlemen, meatloaf cake with mashed sweet potato icing…” she ta-daas at one point in one of her shows, before later moving on to the live neutering of dogs. The self-help culture, and the way TV takes armourless types (think Susan Boyle) and does ghastly things to them is the real target, rather than Klieg – which rhymes with Wiig, and chimes with her career to date, playing characters which are gentle twists on herself. Here the twist is a lack of cultural capital – “I was born in 1971 and started using masturbation as a sedative in 1991,” is how her prepared statement to the press goes, which she reads out when the news of her jackpot win first goes public. The news item is cut short right there. The film, light as air, but packing some interesting ideas about TV as therapy, deserves to be watched to the end.

Welcome to Me – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Tulpa – Perdizioni Mortale (High Fliers, cert 18)

I believe that the backstory to Tulpa is that the director showed it at some festival, bristled at the negative feedback, then took the film away and altered it, removing the dubbed English and restored the original Italian, added subtitles, trimmed here and there. The result is a very respectable giallo pastiche, full of gore, softcore sex, bathed in the colour red, and with cheesy saxophones on the soundtrack. If you’re not familiar with giallo the first scene sets out the stall pretty well – a swarthy chap invites a fit young woman into his hotel room with a tilt of the head. Within minutes the pair are indulging in S&M, with him as the M – tied face down on the bed. A few minutes more and he’s dead by an unseen hand. Cue opening credits and a tinkly harpsichord theme tune. As for plot… I’m tempted to say it’s just a series of beautiful woman being killed in contrived ways (one on a fairground horse which is propelled into razor wire, round and round it goes until her face is a porridge of blood and her eye has popped out, another young woman getting hot fat thrown in her face before she’s staked through the heart – that kind of thing) but in fact it’s about this hoity toity hottie (Claudia Gerini) who, after a day of high-powered executive stuff at an office full of people from the 1970s – this includes fending off the advances of her old goat of a boss – likes to unwind at an S&M club. And it’s her partners at this club who are all dying in razor wire/boiling fat incidents. Like genuine giallo from four decades back it is all staggeringly inept, and there isn’t the tiniest smile from anyone involved (don’t invite the audience to laugh or they’ll never stop), but the style is off the scale, and it does, as it wends its way towards its big bloody finish manage to work itself into a dreamy crescendo of mad bloodletting to a great soundtrack, the mixing of which is one of this odd, enjoyable film’s great strengths.

Tulpa: Perdizionia Mortale aka Tulpa: Demon of Desire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

 

2 May 2016-05-02

Hayato Ichihara and Lily Frankie in Yakuza Apocalypse

Out This Week

 

 

A War (StudioCanal, cert 15)

The Danes do Afghanistan in a bloody, tense drama that takes a left turn about halfway through. That’s after we’ve been given a long immersive bath in war at its foggiest, leadership at its most difficult, focusing on Pilou Asbaek’s company commander Claus Pedersen as he takes his men out on patrol after a particularly bloody IED incident has left one of them with no legs below the knee, and his men having shown little enthusiasm for the “rebuilding the country” speech Pedersen has just given. After this, it’s a fairly familiar, though undeniably suspenseful journey through the dust, the evasive looks of the locals and the first-meets-third-world dynamic familiar from films such as Restrepo. Director Tobias Lindholm constructs action sequences brilliantly – one in which the Danes coolly and from an almost impossible distance follow a faraway Afghani as he plants an IED is a lesson in procedural lock-and-load tension. And there are human touches, too, as a desperate father comes to Pedersen begging for shelter, telling him that the fact that the Taliban now know the Danes helped his family means they’re all dead – grim scenes. All this, though, is merely a preamble, and rather a long one, for a court hearing brought after Pedersen has called in air power to bomb a village where his men got cornered in a fire fight. Were his reasons for requesting it by the book? Tough calls are then subjected to clinical scrutiny in a Danish court, where people who have never been faced with any difficult decisions work themselves into heroic postures over human rights – what sort of justice can obtain in a war zone being the film’s big idea. So, a halfway-house affair, neither a blood-and-guts war film nor a scalpel courtroom drama. Something different, you could say, and a decisive something that marks out A War as being more than just a johnnie come lately to the Afghanistan War party, a film about war that eschews almost entirely the usual false heroics.

A War – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Black Mountain Poets (Metrodome, cert 15)

I’m not sure if Black Mountain Poets succeeds or fails, because I’m not sure what sort of film it’s trying to be. Or maybe the problem is mine and Alice Lowe is where I’m coming undone. She was the co-writer and co-star of the dark, awful, bizarre, hilarious comedy Sightseers and so I expected perhaps something dark, awful etc etc of Black Mountain Poets, something pointedly satirical too. None of these wheels ever really start spinning… and yet… Lowe and co-star Dolly Wells play a pair of opportunistic scammers who steal a car and, realising it belongs to a pair of cult sister poets, decide to pass themselves off as the dippy pair – whose impractical attempts to recover from the setback (pointing in the air, gaping like fish) are a running-joke through the rest of the film. Which plays out in Wales, where a weekend gathering of poets awaits the sisters in something approaching awe. I won’t go into the plot any further, except to say that if you’re expecting potshots at wannabe bards, there are a couple, though not as many as you might think. Nor, particularly, are the two miscreant imposters subjected to the sort of hammering you might expect – these two have just enough self-knowledge to realise they are a pair of useless fucks. The whole thing plays out like one of those early French and Saunders sketches when you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to see if they’re going to dry – Wells and Lowe never quite do. And instead of pointed satire we get… redemption of a sort, love of a sort, a warm, gushy feelgood movie in fact. With mud and a few bits of bracken caught in its woolly jumper.

Black Mountain Poets – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Forgotten (Metrodome, cert 15)

The Forgotten has alums of long-running British soap EastEnders both in front of and behind the camera, and is similarly obsessed with “faaaamly” and life at the sharp end. The setting is a sinkhole estate where cowed teen Tommy (Clem Tibber) moves back in with his scamming, violent dad Mark (Shaun Dingwall) and forms a puppy-dog attachment to local girl Carmen who works in a caff – Elarica Gallacher, whose spanner gob, cheekbones and hauteur beguile the camera. A poltergeist film, of sorts, then plays out, and what a great bolt-of-lightning idea that is, to set such a thing in a council flat where the electricity has been disconnected and damp wallpaper is hanging off the walls. It really helps, too, that there’s a score of moody electronica to pump some atmosphere into those already dark, suggestive corners where… something lurks. For some, this attempt to weld the supernatural to a form that makes claims to realism is never going to work. I found the relationship between the foxy Carmen and pasty wimp Tommy harder to swallow, particularly the scene where they get stoned together and share confidences (ie back story), before the banging… but let’s not go there. And that sort of banging is clearly not on the cards anyway. Yes, imagine EastEnders done as a ghost story – scutters, lowlifes, the police, dodgy geezers aplenty – and try strapping The Amityville Horror to it. Yeh…

The Forgotten – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

Yakuza Apocalypse (Manga, cert 18)

Takashi Miike used to be a force to reckon with but has gone right off the boil in the last ten years or so. So is Yakuza Apocalypse back up there with 1999’s Audition, or 2001’s Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris? The simple answer is no, though there are plenty of flashes of the old Miike genius in a film that starts out like Goodfellas meets Fight Club – as labile Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) embarks on series of trials that will make him like his indestructible hero, yakuza bad guy Genyo Kamiura (Riri Furanki) – then introduces a zombie element as the gangsters all become zombies and the “civilians” (non-yakuza) all go badass. The big problem here is that we’re so deep in genre territory that there’s no real reason for anyone who isn’t a devout zombie nut to concern themselves with the movie. Nor does Miike seem interested in dragging non-devotees through with anything resembling an interesting storyline – once he’s beyond the “I always wanted to be a yakuza” stuff at the beginning. However, he does bring something new to the fight scenes though – shot very close up and with few edits – which makes for visceral p.o.v. punch-outs. If masculinity in crisis hadn’t been done a thousand times already, Miike might be on to something here, though Miike on a bad day is better than most other directors on a good one. This isn’t a thought-through film, but rather a mad run-through of often disconnected ideas. But there are ideas in there, and images. Those scenes of guys sitting round in a knitting circle, and of Riri Furanki (billed as Lily Frankie), the yakuza who simply, by force of sheer will, refuses to die, are unusual, powerful and fun.

Yakuza Apocalypse – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Mercury Plains (Signature, cert 15)

The publicity material accompanying this film (on the DVD cover) shows Scott Eastwood pointing a gun in a shot highly reminiscent of father Clint’s in Dirty Harry. Mercury Plains then proceeds to tell us the story of Mitch (Eastwood) the smalltown boy recruited into a gang located in Mexico, where he takes part in one illegal hold-up or heist after another, working for “the Captain”, a loquacious bad man played by Nick Chinlund, whose hot girlfriend (Angela Sarafyan) Mitch is obviously going to boink at some point. So there we are, down Mexico way, with Mitch hanging with a bunch of bad guys and doing bad stuff for no real reason, apart from the large wedge of cash the Captain has promised. This, surely, can’t be right – Dirty Harry might have been unorthodox, but he killed bad guys because he was an avenging angel of natural justice, not because he was a thief. There’s nothing heroic about what’s going on here and early on in Mercury Plains it becomes clear that someone’s had a think about this and come up with a solution to justify a white knight hanging with all these bad hats. And that solution is… Mitch pulling a series of “really not happy” faces after, for example, an innocent man dies gruesomely on the first job the gang goes out on. Any half decent person would high-tail it back to the US and live till the end of their days in virtuous poverty. This problem – or epic fail at the conceptual stage, if you prefer – turns Mercury Plains from being a potentially interesting story about the attractions of the gang life into either a portrait of a coward or, more accurately, nothing at all. In its favour? The sharp, bright cinematography, Mexican locations and mariachi-flavoured soundtrack are flavoursome and Eastwood takes his shirt off enough times to make a Mercury Plains: the Drinking Game an option.

Mercury Plains – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Timber (Lionsgate, cert 15)

Snowy westerns seem to be quite the thing these days – see The Hateful Eight. I bet Anthony O’Brien, the director of The Timber, has had that comparison made before, and winced. Because for all Tarantino’s idiosyncrasies, no one doubts that he really can direct. O’Brien, sadly, can’t. And there’s such a promising story here – of a couple of guys off on some quest to find a runaway, heading off into the snows, out to a gold prospecting camp, into make-do-and-mend America where life is cheap, grudges linger and every stranger is met with rifle barrel. James Ransome and Josh Peck play the two brothers heading out into the wild beyond, on a journey that has a vague Apocalypse Now arc. The mysterious figure they’re after turns out to be William Gaunt, who is something of a shock as a Colonel Kurtz figure, but makes a good fist of it as the old timer who’s as loquacious as he is prodigal. There’s nothing to be said against the cast at all, in fact, though I bet Elisa Lasowski wishes there’d been more coherence to her role as one of the brothers’ stay-at-home wife, being hounded by the rapacious local banker keen to foreclose on their homestead. I say “one of the brothers” because it was so hard to get a handle on the who and the what and the why in this film, a fact compounded by O’Brien and co-writers’ decision to jumble the chronology (hey, if Tarantino can do it, right?). In The Timber, characters arrive and leave unannounced, spring up from nowhere, and O’Brien fails even at the simplest level to delineate people geographically in a scene. Is that maybe arthouse, as some commentators suggest? Ineptness, I thought, though I did like the film’s images, courtesy of cinematographer Phil Parmet, and the production design, whose tough grandeur brought suggestions, just a little, of Kristian Levring’s massively under-rated The Salvation. Which, I suspect, is the direction O’Brien hoped his film was headed.

The Timber – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016