27 June 2016-06-27

George Clooney in Hail, Caesar

Out This Week



Hail, Caesar (Universal, cert 12)

To describe the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar as a love letter to Hollywood is to understate the woozy, delirium these two middle aged men must have been in as they planned and put it together. But then their entire career has been marked by a regard, if not obsession, with the golden age.

So what’s the plot? Josh Brolin plays a studio fixer trying to find an  sword’n’sandal star (George Clooney) abducted by a bunch of blacklisted communists – the Hollywood Ten in all but name. And… er… that’s about it. Clooney is a Victor Mature/Richard Burton composite, a white-teethed naive who’s sculpted a career on his looks, though he’s keen to prove (if only to his kidnappers) that he has brains enough to take in what communism is, if that’s what they’re talking about.

Over on left field is Alden Ehrenreich (the film’s standout) as a hick actor suddenly asked to drop the lasso and play a suave high-tone lead, a part for which he is fundamentally unsuited. An Esther Williams type (Scarlett Johansson), more sexually active than her squeaky public image suggests. The supercilious, gay, foot-obsessed British director (Ralph Fiennes). A pair of gossip columnists, stand-ins for Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons (both played by Tilda Swinton and the only role(s) that doesn’t work). Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly style hoofer.

And on they go. Glueing all these people together – though to be honest it’s a stew of tasty bites rather than a dish in itself – is superb cinematography that’s been colour graded to look like Technicolor, or in the black and white sequences steals from the aslant style of Welles or Hitchcock at his most expressionistic.

The Coens repeatedly pull the same trick – one minute it’s a film about being in Hollywood, behind the scenes, at the studio. And then we’re suddenly inside a Hollywood film itself, the standout scene being Tatum’s On the Town style dance sequence, the sort of thing that would take days to film but is here presented as a finished item, as if it just happened like that.

Don’t expect satire or dirt-dishing, in other words; there isn’t any – this is the Hollywood people who go on studio tours want to see. Is Hail, Caesar a great film? Nah. But it’s loads of fun, and great entertainment.

Hail, Caesar – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


A Bigger Splash (StudioCanal, cert 15)

David Hockney’s painting of the same name is the inspiration behind the second collaboration between actor Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino, an Antonioni-esque farce, if there could be such a thing, that looks at the lives of people whose cultural ground zero is the late 1960s.

Hockney’s picture is a freeze-frame of a diving board, a pool, a modernist building and a splash where someone has just jumped in. It’s notably empty and the film also mines that feeling of empty existential ennui, of having just missed something, as lived out by aloof, Bowie-like rock star Tilda Swinton, now silent after an operation on her vocal cords and recuperating in Italy.

Into her life of sunbathing, fucking new beau Matthias Schoenaerts and waiting… waiting… comes old husband Ralph Fiennes and his daughter Dakota Johnson. Husband Fiennes, it transpires, is back for the woman he “gave” to Schoenaerts. And after a while it starts to look like the daughter is after the younger man, especially once she’s seen him strip down to his swimming trunks.

There’s great acting on a grand scale here, which lifts the film beyond its potential to be a farce in the style of Frayn or Fo or Feydeau. Fiennes in particular is aflame as the babbling ball of unmedicated mania, driving the drama as his character drives the people around him semi-mad.

Guadagnino and DP Yorick Le Saux, meanwhile, lay on the glamour, the upscale, savage Sicilian locations really helping deliver that feeling of bodies heated through to the point where gristle has given up being tough.

But maybe Walter Fasano’s editing is the best thing of all, particularly as the film ups its pace and heads into the final third, when the jealousy and intrigue get particularly machiavellian and everyone (no spoilers) becomes dangerously implicated in everyone else’s affairs.

It’s a much better film than the previous Guadagnino/Swinton collaboration, the more Visconti-like I Am Love. But though Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich know exactly how to get into the heart of the things, they aren’t quite sure how to get out again. Antonioni had the same trouble, so that’s a quibble.

As a beautifully made essay summing up a generation, Guadagnino triumphs. And he’s nicer than some have been. This lot are dreadful and they’re self-obsessed, but at least they’re alive.

The Bigger Splash – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Iona (Verve, cert 15)

Scott Graham’s film Shell was a wow-some bleak beauty that made much of the face of its star, Chloe Pirrie, who played a young woman living a life of restricted expectation up in the wilds of Scotland. Shell was the girl’s name, and the name on the sign at the gas station where she lived.

It’s a case of same/same with Iona – the name of the main character, played by Ruth Negga, and the small Scottish island she’s returned to with her son after some bad stuff has gone down in London. And it’s again an almost Thomas Hardy-esque tale of woe about a woman having a tough time of it in pretty surroundings, Negga’s fascinating features – as if giant eyes, eyebrows and mouth had been dropped onto a waiting face – doing the same this time round as Pirrie’s did last.

Graham is a good and perhaps a great film-maker and as soon as his film starts he’s stoking a sense of almost Wicker Man-like dread as he introduces one member of the community after another. What is Iona running from? Are her kith and kin really that pleased to see her? Why is her skin colour dark (Negga is half-Ethiopian) and is that a case of colour-blind casting or some part of the jigsaw? Is this tight-knit community perhaps a little too tightly knit?

Indeed it is, and as the story progresses Iona re-establishes connections with Daniel (Douglas Henshall), who might be a blood relative, or a former foster father, we’re not initially sure, and her son works up a fancy for Sarah (Sorcha Groundsell), a pretty local girl with paralysed legs and a look on her face that says, “save me from my suffocating parents.” And what teenage lad doesn’t like a girl who can’t run away? Hardy again.

As in Shell, Graham and DP Yoliswa von Dallwitz’s do a lot without shouting about it, one minute focusing on detail, another capturing mood, using the camera in a non-dogmatic way, as a tool to do a job. They craft art in the process. I can’t wait for Graham’s next.

Iona – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



The Chambermaid Lynn (TLA, cert 18)

Lynn (Vicky Krieps) is a flatliningly shy, depressed woman whose life means nothing to her. She has a McJob, cleaning hotel rooms and, being OCD, she’s really good at it. She’s also having half a fling with the greasy hotel manager, who reminds her “you know it’s over,” meaning their affair, before she unzips him anyway and gives him a blow job.

Voyeuristic to the point of going through guests’ stuff, trying on their clothes, Lynn’s life takes on new meaning when she’s caught on the hop one day and ends up hiding underneath a guest’s bed after a guest returns unexpectedly. It turns out that the guest has booked an S&M session with a local whore.

Not long afterwards, Lynn summons the courage to book the same woman, Chiara (Deutschland 83’s Lena Lauzemis), for a session too, perhaps hoping that maybe extreme pain will break through her carapace. And here The Chambermaid Lynn itself breaks through, having been so far one of those shadowless dramas about anomie, shot in the sort of flat style that’s been in favour in Germany at least since 2006’s grimly brilliant Requiem. And it becomes a film about love… of a sort.

That’s not to say Lynn’s anomie disappears. It doesn’t. But her condition intrigues Chiara, and in Lynn Chiara finds someone who is sheer, pure, artless, uncomplicated. And she likes that. Clearly it’s a contrast to her other clients. Quite how much Chiara likes Lynn’s mental state of being is what the film is about. Whether it works because of beautifully observed detail (a Benny Hill movement of a bare foot by Chiara’s client as a stiletto heel is driven into it), the vaguest suggestions that it’s dealing with Germany’s dark past (Lynn’s mother’s obsession with crochet and the repeated use of the word “Haken” (the crochet hook), as in “Hakenkreuz” – the Swastika). Or, less tenuously, because after the dry well of the opening scenes, The Chambermaid Lynn turns into the sweetest story of burgeoning emotion, and features an erotic seduction scene of exquisite tenderness.

It’s a slight drama, but a very winning one.

The Chambermaid Lynn – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



Warsaw 1944 (Kaleidoscope, cert 12)

In 1944 the people of Warsaw rose up against the Nazis. The Russians, who were on the outskirts of the city on their advance towards Berlin, instead of ploughing forward and liberating the Poles, hung back, and waited while the Nazis blew them to bits – saves us a job, kind of thing. This ambitious Polish drama tells the gruesome story of that massacre from the eyes of Stefan (Józef Pawlowski), a good-looking young man caught between two fine women – beautiful dark-haired city girl Kama (Anna Próchniak) and rich landed blonde Alicja (Zofia Wichlacz).

The film is as handsome as the casting, and if there is one problem with Warsaw 1944 (aka Miasto aka Warsaw 44) it is that it always looks like a film – big, choreographed, aesthetically just so – which slightly undermines the message that director Jan Komasa and his crew are trying to get across, which is that war is hell, and that the Warsaw uprising was a particularly hideous corner of hell. At one point an explosion kills so many people that blood, body parts and human offal literally rain from the sky. Nor are enough of the characters sketched in well enough before the chaos of the bombardment starts. I found myself going “hang on, which one is that again?”

In Komasa’s favour, he presents the mostly young Poles as a group relying more on enthusiasm than discipline (deliberate foreshadowing of the 1960s, maybe?) and he’s absolutely averse to the “death or glory” notion so prevalent in war movies. There is much death here, very little glory. The gore apart, it’s a very fine war movie in the Sunday afternoon style.

Warsaw 1944 aka Warsaw 44 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


Versus: The Life & Films of Ken Loach (Dogwoof, cert 12)

That this documentary about Loach’s career is so timely is down to luck to some extent. Loach came unexpectedly out of retirement in 2015 to “fight the power” after the Conservative party, slightly surprisingly, won the UK general election, presumably when director Louise Osmond was at least at the research stage of this handsome overview.

Then serendipity was added when Loach went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. I wouldn’t bother with Versus if you have no idea about who Loach is, or don’t have at least a vague timeline already in place about what he’s been doing since the mid 1960s. This is an appreciation and celebration rather than a definitive A-Z or 101 on the left-wing director.

Though there are plenty of biographical details, particularly of the early years when this son of an electrician stood as a Conservative candidate in a school election (Loach looks sheepish in interview at this point). It was only later, at Oxford, he admits, when he saw the sheer scale of the privilege and realised that no one else really had a chance, that Loach became politicised.

His career breaks into four chunks – the early years at the BBC where, heavily under the influence of the Czech New Wave, he learned his craft telling stories from the streets, shooting in sequence and relying heavily on his actors. He parlayed success on realist teleplays such as Cathy Come Home into a film career with the massively successful Kes.

Then there’s the Thatcher years of the late 70s and beyond, when Loach admits he simply didn’t know what to do, couldn’t get arrested and turned to making commercials (including, he admits with a shrug, one for McDonalds) and worked in the theatre.

Finally, as the Thatcher era ended, Loach’s career took an upswing with the likes of Riff Raff and Raining Stones. He’s been busy ever since, having made around 26 films since the early 1990s, though you wouldn’t know it from this documentary which moves at speed after the early years and starts to morph into a warm-up teaser for the new film, I, Daniel Blake.

Cillian Murphy and Ricky Tomlinson are among the names turning out among the more unfamiliar though more useful roster of writers and producers who have collaborated with Loach along the way. And there’s lots from Loach himself, most productively, who is as thoughtful, gentlemanly and open as others attest. It’s an admirable, short film, a lovely paean. Don’t expect any real engagement with politics and you won’t feel shortchanged.

Versus: The Life & Films of Ken Loach – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


The Seventh Fire (Metrodome, cert 15)

A downbeat documentary about life on the White Earth Indian Reservation, Minnesota, where Native American guys grow up, sell drugs and go to jail. We meet Kevin, a teenage lad with a terrible mullet hairdo, on the cusp of adulthood and keen to be a gangbanger like the bro’s. And we meet Rob, Kevin’s protégé and father figure, but a man who realises, as he’s about to go down for a three year stretch, that he’s already spent 12 years of his life in jail and it’s getting too much.

“Some guys like it in prison,” says Rob’s pregnant girlfriend with a touch of resignation, and if Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s documentary does anything excellently it’s this – it makes it transparently clear that when you have a poor education, few life chances and very low expectations, hanging around in jail isn’t much different from hanging around anywhere else. And having kids is what you do when you’re not on the meth pipe.

The philosophical nugget in this documentary comes from Rob’s realisation that he’s a Native American man with a whole set of traditions and culture that comes as a birthright. But this package now includes drinking, drug-taking and gambling. Tradition is a mixed bag, the old ways aren’t always the good ways and, he reckons, he can assemble his own version of “Indian identity”, bricolage style, though he doesn’t use the word bricolage.

Rob comes to this understanding thanks partly through exposure to the La Plazita Institute, a gang of Native American self-help evangelists who include hot rocks, teepees and sweat lodges among the more practical detox and counselling services.

But is Rob’s change of heart, joyous to watch, going to have any effect on the younger Kevin’s life? As the film ends, we see Kevin out in the woods, legs dangling from a metal railway bridge, dwarfed as a huge freight train rumbles across it, dangerously close to his back. The image is symbolic (and might be influenced by executive producer Terrence Malick) but Kevin’s future is not clear.

This slight, in many ways depressingly familiar film doesn’t offer solutions, but it does suggest the possibility of change.

The Seventh Fire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2016




20 June 2016-06-20

Bella Heathcote and Lily James in Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

 

Out This Week

 

 

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (Lionsgate, cert 15)

And it is literally that… Pride & Prejudice… and zombies. Once the famous preamble – lightly scrambled – was out of the way, and I had been apprised of the fact that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains, it was straight into the tale of Elizabeth, if not the most beautiful then certainly the smartest of the Bennet daughters, and her growing relationship with dark, thunderous Mr Darcy. Lily James and Sam Riley play it straight as Elizabeth and Darcy, and Sally Phillips and Charles Dance also fit so neatly into the traditional roles of garrulous, mercenary Mrs Bennet and the humane, other-worldly paterfamilias that you could easily drop them into, say, the Joe Wright/Keira Knightley P&P without damage to any of the parties. For what is, let’s face it, a one-joke concept, director Burr Steers, cinematographer Remi Adefarasin and production designer David Warren are lavishing an awful lot of time, money and effort on this film – everything looks right, feels right, albeit with a steampunk twist (I don’t think Jane Austen went into fortifications against zombie attack very much). Steers, best known filmically for 2002’s Igby Goes Down, a slackerish uptown Catcher in the Rye-flavoured comedy, is usually dismissively referenced as a member of the Gore/Kennedy clan (uncle Gore Vidal, aunt Jackie Kennedy) and there’s a strong whiff of the aristocrat’s dread of the working classes –the zombies are urban and threaten the life and land of the rural privileged set. Bare subtext to one side, watch it for the screenplay, which pulls off a number of brilliant masterstrokes – when Elizabeth and Darcy finally get to their declarations of love (surely no spoiler), it’s done as a fight. Sure, a woman who can kick ass does rather undermine Jane Austen’s point, which was to show the ways in which women wield power who have none overtly to wield, but the joys of genre provide ample recompense.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Evolution (Metrodome, cert 15)

Twelve years after her Innocence, another transfixing, faintly bewildering, ghoulish film about childhood from Lucile Hadzihalilovic, longtime collaborator with Gaspar Noë (she helped write his brilliant Enter the Void). And again we’re gripped by the otherworldliness of it – a town of white cubic houses set in a landscape of black laval sand, a place full of grown women and pre-pubescent boys, no men. “Why am I sick?” asks Nicolas (Max Brebant) of his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) who gives him drops every day before sending him off to his room, a spartan Van Gogh-ian chamber with a bed and a chair. We suspect that Nicolas isn’t sick, and that the drops he’s being given are to retard puberty, a suspicion reinforced when he’s taken to the doctor for having made some risqué drawings (a dead boy he claims to have seen floating at the bottom of the sea while out swimming) and is sent to the local hospital – again no men, only women, and a dark, clanking place out of Dr Mengele’s imagination. Trying to “read” Innocence was one of its joys – it was about how society turns girls into women, I thought – and the same fun can be had in watching a film about young boys trying to break through into manhood, while surrounding females hold them back. It doesn’t seem a very feminist point of view and at one point Hadzihalilovic cuts to a scene on the shore at night, where women moan ecstatically and roll around together naked in an insensate orgy – women, huh, seems to be the idea. Cinematographer Manuel Dacoss brings the eye for darkness he exhibited in The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears to a film whose look – sepulchral, alienated, horrible – is one of its standouts. Short, 80-something minutes, almost dialogue free, perhaps a distant gothic cousin of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, this gruesome and paranoid film is body-horror done with an eye for beauty which somehow just makes it all feel all the more unsettling.

Evolution – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

By the Sea (Universal, cert 15)

You’d have thought that a film starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would be getting some PR attention for its home entertainment release in the UK. Nothing. No press preview copies. Not even a press release to say it was coming out. On this evidence, you’d expect the film to be a dog. But By the Sea doesn’t bark at all. In fact it’s a much better film than Jolie’s Unbroken, which almost had the press machine throwing a piston rod. It’s about a married couple whose relationship is in trouble arriving in a French coastal town one hot summer. He’s a blocked writer desperate to give things another go; she’s a mopey madam who does little apart from drape herself over furniture and moon over some recent tragedy. It’s an archetypal cicada-hot place and they’re an archetypal couple out of the American fantasy of France somewhere round the mid-20th century. Soon Roland, our pussy-whipped Ernest Hemingway manqué, has made a friend in local barkeep Michael (Niels Arestrup), while Vanessa has made tentative contact with the newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) in the apartment next door, a couple she can hear banging away all hours of the day. And she can see them, too, once she discovers there’s a peephole on her side of the wall. What then plays out is a strange voyeuristic drama in which the jaded couple are slowly brought back to life by the energy of the newlyweds as Roland and Vanessa sit by the hole together and peek – a bit like watching porn together on the internet, before the internet, because though it’s never too specific about when By the Sea is set, it seems to be the 1970s. In many ways it’s a vampire movie, with Jolie as the languid master and Pitt as a fussing Renfield, that’s dressed up as the sort of thing Alain Delon might once have appeared in. And there is the suspicion that Jolie is proudly saying, “Look, my husband is the modern Delon,” though in truth Delon was more handsome than Pitt. And Jolie’s nipples, too, are presented as evidence of Europhilia throughout this cool, slow drama. Indeed, they almost have their own rampant character arc. By the Sea is not perfect – there are some terrible moments of heavy-handed symbolism – but it is an interesting, intelligent and well made movie. Twenty minutes off the running time wouldn’t have hurt it at all.

By the Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Grimsby (Sony, cert 15)

Another short-short comedy from Sacha Baron Cohen, at 83 minutes about the same running time as the Ali G, Borat, Brüno, and Dictator movies. But he packs plenty in, and seems to be testing – in iconoclastic Chris Morris style – how far comedy can go before it breaks down. Which is a bit of blow if you’re after knob gags. But first the plot… Nobby, a chav (Cohen) with Liam Gallagher haircut and big-balls swagger, is reunited with Sebastian (Mark Strong), his long lost brother, now a supersuave superspy. The stage is set for fish-out-of-water and mismatched buddy humour, which SBC is happy to supply. And there are many jabs at the working classes and their low expectations – Nobby’s kids (fathered with Rebel Wilson, who’s in the film for no justifiable reason) are named Skeletor, Django Unchained and Gangnam Style. Grimsby isn’t short of laughs – though the Mayor of Grimsby is unlikely to be naming a street after Sacha Baron Cohen any time soon – but it isn’t sure if it wants to be an out-and-out Bond spoof, which it does fairly well over short bursts, or if it’s really about going for bad-taste broke. This switch between low comedy and conceptual pushing of the boundaries of taste is the film’s most ambitious gamble, and it pulls it off, just about. Though it’s not exactly covered in glory. Which brings us to the elephant bukake joke…

Grimsby aka The Brothers Grimsby – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Triple 9 (E One, cert 15)

Triple 9 is a lousy movie masquerading as a good one, a film full of names who mean something, turning in performances that are beneath them. It starts out looking like your smart gangster thriller, with a neatly shot botched heist turning out to be the work of cops, not criminals. We’re in Atlanta, Georgia, where local gang boss Kate Winslet (Russian accent set to “variable”) is soon ordering another job which will have at its heart the killing of a cop, such an act immediately triggering a massive police response that will allow the criminals on the other side of town to heist away unmolested. It’s a good B movie idea, padded up way beyond its slender frame by heavy-hitting actors – Casely Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson and Aaron Paul all feature, and Gal Gadot wanders on for a minute, symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with this over-inflated production – she simply shouldn’t be there. DP Nicolas Karakatsanis works from the Christopher Doyle style book, making it all look gloriously dark, with many pools of splashy coloured light to glam things up, while director John Hillcoat, unaccountably off his game, wracks his brain wondering how to squeeze yet another unnecessary overhead shot or cutaway into almost every scene. It’s a crime thriller and a cop thriller and a story of ethnics and gangs, of immigrants and religious outsiders, trust and deceit and in a ten-part TV series (which is what it really should be), it would have enough space to breathe. The Wire’s David Simon could run the show, maybe. All this said, if you can hang on to the end, it’s got a great mean-streets big finish, and there is a tiny part for an actor called Michelle Ang who is going to be something someday.

Triple 9 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

I Am Belfast (BFI, cert 15)

Documentaries about cities seem to be in vogue, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (about Liverpool) have set the bar. Mark Cousins matches them with a tender and elegiac poem to Belfast, which he left years ago, regretfully, it seems. The conceit is that Belfast is played by actor Helena Bereen, as a 10,000 year old woman who wanders the streets, observing modern life, while in voiceover she recites history, makes observations, cultural comments, laments, with occasional interjections by a close-miked Cousins. This all sounds a bit twee, and it’s true that the whole thing could have been produced for the local tourist board. But Cousins has an eye for the marginal that lifts the film beyond booster fanboy business and he has a willingness to engage with the Troubles (“And then, like a tracking shot, the iceberg hit. We fought each other.”) It’s a piece about the power of place, and a work of a sort of cultural reclamation, with an ethnicity based on geography not tribalism – we’ve seen how badly that can go wrong in Northern Ireland. Interspersing archive footage with new stuff, Christopher Doyle handles the cinematography and conjures beautiful colours from what must be one of the UK’s flattest visual palettes – those overcast skies and streets of redbrick terrace don’t lend themselves easily to beauty – and David Arnold provides the music, ambient religious you could call it. Poetic, celebratory, a letter home from an exile to a world he can never recapture.

I Am Belfast – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

The Forest (Icon, cert 15)

The excellent Natalie Dormer is a member of the Game of Thrones cast and has her work cut out trying to inject something into this horror film about a woman arriving in Japan and setting out to find her sister, who has disappeared in the Aokigahara Forest. The forest, it turns out, is not just a beacon for wannabe suicides but is also possessed by unclean spirits, who prey on the vulnerable and bend even the tentatively unhappy towards the dark side. Dormer – as sister Sara (she also plays missing sister Jess) – is one such girl, of course. Good horror films work at the level of primal fear, but fear of losing one’s twin sister isn’t a fear most of us can identify with, which throws the film onto its second plan of attack, which is jump-scares. We meet Eoin Macken, a journalist helping Sara negotiate the forest, but who might be love interest or a bad guy, or maybe he’s being manipulated by the spirits too, the film doesn’t seem to be able to make its mind up. Similarly, it isn’t sure if this is a ghost story or a psychological horror. It doesn’t make much difference because either way The Forest is not frightening. In fact it’s fairly terrible, with Dormer only managing to rouse herself from dreams of the next season’s Thrones antics a couple of times to, you know, act. I see David Goyer (Batman Begins etc) is one of the producers. These low-budget genre quickies are harder to knock out than it looks, eh David?

The Forest – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 June 2016-06-13

Richard Jenkins and Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk

 

Out This Week

 

 

Bone Tomahawk (The Works, cert 18)

Someone somewhere described this as The Hills Have Eyes done as a western. That’s a good enough as a shorthand, but what that logline doesn’t quite capture is the amount of love and care – set design, locations, clothes, hair and make-up are all exquisite – that have been lavished on what is effectively a horror movie. And it’s off to an immediately strong start as we meet a pair of murdering robbers slitting a victim’s throat before they accidentally wander into an Indian bone cemetery. Bad shit happens in there, but we don’t find out exactly how bad until the film’s end, by which point we have spent time with the sort of group John Ford might have got together – smart principled sheriff Kurt Russell, uxorious husband Patrick Wilson, loyal wheezy deputy Richard Jenkins, dandy libertine Matthew Fox – all of them having headed off to find a woman abducted by the Indians as she was tending to one of the surviving robbers (David Arquette) we met at the get-go. Tarantino’s puckishness is all over the film. In the best sort of way this is film proud of its widescreen verbosity, though unlike a lot of QT wannabes, writer/director S Craig Zahler takes time painting in characters before setting them all in motion. Zahler also has a cunning eye and his camera frequently suggests threat with just a tiny movement up or down, as if someone were just peeking or has just peeked over the top of something. And he isn’t afraid of charges of racism – his Indians are no noble savages nor repositories of justified anger or subjugated pride; they’re fucking evil, insane, inbred wacko, frightening and their hygiene isn’t too good either. If it’s gruesome you’re after, here’s your film. I don’t think I’ve seen a man turned upside down and then cleft in twain (with a bone tomahawk, I believe) before. But I have now and I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. Yup.

Bone Tomahawk – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Our Little Sister (Curzon, cert 15)

Three older sisters take in the half-sister they never knew they had in Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest tender drama about family life. Koreeda’s sphere of interest is in the ties that bind – in Like Father, Like Son it was two sets of parents who had unwittingly raised each others’ children; in I Wish it was two separated brothers trying to reunite. And in Our Little Sister he does exactly what he did in his other films, which is to create a drama which in almost anyone else’s hands would be mawkish and unbearable. Why it isn’t is why you keep watching – it’s a story about real people. The three/four sisters are believably drawn and beautifully acted, impeccable playing being such a feature of Koreeda films that you wonder how he does it. Each of the main characters has their own gravitational field and drags the story towards themselves in a tremendously natural, organic way. Beyond this central phalanax are perfectly weighted minor characters – the ailing cafe owner down the road who’s a second mother to the girls; their real mother, who, it turns out, was as useless at parenting as their father was, though she and they only realise how much as the film progresses. Everyone is in flux, everyone is on a journey, yet Koreeda anchors everything tightly with observations that it’s memories of other people and the rituals we have inherited or establish as we travel through life which give our lives meaning and purpose. Shot in the crispest, artlessly artful way by Mikya Takimoto, it’s a clear-eyed, gentle re-assertion of the conservative view of family life, as gentle, supportive and enabling. And it’s remarkably emotional. Some films work you towards a teary finish; Our Little Sister had squeezed moisture out of my cynical, cracked face after only 15 minutes.

Our Little Sister – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Heart of a Dog (Dogwoof, cert E)

“This is my dream body,” artist/performer Laurie Anderson announces in her slightly robotic voice as a charcoal image of her familiar face and tousled hair appears on the screen, “The one I use to walk around in my dreams.” It’s a typically simple, direct and unsettling intro to a film that’s actually about – superficially at least – her rat terrier Lolabelle, whose death has nudged Anderson (who also lost partner Lou Reed not too long back) into a reflective frame of mind. A tiny “uh oh” surfaced in my mind. Please, no more arthouse kookiness. I had under-estimated Anderson, who slowly assembles something like Guy Maddin’s personal dreamlike collage My Winnipeg, except here it’s centred on her a dog not a city. Anderson uses old footage, new footage, recollections, animations, little songs, musings from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There’s a lot of loss in here, and though Anderson never refers to Reed, he appears in a blink-and-miss-him moment in a bit of old holiday footage, sitting happily on the sand. But Anderson does talk about the loss of her mother, of her friend Gordon Matta Clark, a sculptor who died young. “Feel sad but don’t be sad,” is the advice she was offered by a Buddhist teacher, and it seems like properly sensible advice and is, in a sense, what her film is about. What I hadn’t expected was humour. There are vignettes of Lolabelle playing the piano, something Anderson taught her after the dog went blind. “We made a Christmas record together,” Anderson recalls. “Which was… (comedy pause…) pretty good.” Lou Reed turns up singing the outro song, Turning Time Around – a maudlin, playful, conversational, questioning song which pretty much sums up the whole film.

Heart of a Dog – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Trumbo (E One, cert 15)

The true story of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), Hollywood’s highest paid writer until the Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s brought him low. He came back, of course, thanks in large part to Kirk Douglas – who in the late 1950s was breaking apart the studio system almost with his bare hands – hiring him to write Spartacus. Douglas insisted Trumbo’s real name be on the credits, rather than one of the many aliases Trumbo had been working under (and winning Oscars, as he did for Roman Holiday). Here’s a film with many undoubted pluses. Bryan Cranston, borrowing the cadences of John Huston, for one. Helen Mirren as poisonous gossip baggage Hedda Hopper for another. It name-drops like crazy – Lucille Ball and Gregory Peck (the good guys), John Wayne, Edward G Robinson (bad guys). But boy is it boring. And it starts way, way too early in Trumbo’s life, choosing to lay out the whole business of his blackballing, when it’s Trumbo’s return to glory that fascinates. A film about a writer that hasn’t worked out a way to tell his story well is some sort of tragedy – why not just do the earlier part of his life in flashbacks? Worse is the short shrift given to the likes of John Wayne, who is demonised here in just the same way as… you follow my drift. And the “poor Dalton” routine would be fine if his story was yoked to wider politics. But it isn’t. And it’s hard to feel really sorry for guys who are still rich, just not as rich as they once were. Louis CK as one of the “fellow traveller” members of the Hollywood Ten of blacklistees shows he’s a great actor (again), Diane Lane, as Mrs Trumbo, is again in a wife-and-lover role when she’s so much better, and Michael Stuhlbarg is fabulous as Edward G Robinson. He’s the film’s true tragic figure, because he did the wrong thing and knew he was doing it – and it’s written all his face. Great story, properly duff movie.

Trumbo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Nasty Baby (Network, cert 15)

We know Kristen Wiig best of all, probably, from Bridesmaids. But there’s more to her than just funny. In the recent Welcome to Me she somehow pulled off the almost impossible, a biting satire on narcissism whose central character was mentally ill – making fun of the loony always a tough sell. In Nasty Baby something similar is going on, this being about a group of fairly unpleasant New York hipsters – Wiig’s character rides a push scooter, nuff said – trying to have a baby. Wiig’s character Polly is at first trying to get pregnant by Freddy, a performance/video artist whose subject is himself. But when his sperm count turns out to be too low (God trying to say something?), she switches to Freddy’s boyfried, Mo (Tunde Adebimpe). What we’re never really sure of is who the baby is for – her or them? It’s a kind of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City kind of affair, though with far less glad-handing of its characters going on, a far less benign author being behind it all, in the shape of Sebastián Silva, who writes and directs and plays the uptight entitled Freddy. It’s a hard film to like because, Mo excepted, its characters are pretty foul, and its semi-improv (I’m guessing) style means there’s a tendency for characters to wave their hands, as improvisers do when they’ve nothing to say. Silva is onto something though, in his examination of the weird detached lives of hipsters and their often absurd pursuit of the authentic – a crackling log fire on the iPad? Sergio Armstrong’s loose, urban cinematography gives everything a bit of grip, which fellow Chilean Silva accentuates with a late-arrival murder, just to add extra grit. It’s worth hanging on for it. It really crystallises what the whole thing is about.

Nasty Baby – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Point Break (Warner, cert 12)

Well it is nearly 25 years since Kathryn Bigelow did it, so maybe it is time for a remake of Keanu/Patrick Swayze crime thriller whose tagline was “100% Pure Adrenaline”. Edgar Ramirez is in the Swayze role as the extreme-sports criminal mastermind and philosophical meathead Bodhi, Luke Bracey takes the Keanu part as Utah, the daredevil (retired) cajoled by the FBI into going undercover to bag him up. Both are well cast. Bracey is beefy, and has salt-kissed blond hair, Ramirez has charm aplenty. Both do a fair bit of dick-measuring in their early scenes together, before the film moves into Bond-style location-switching action-stunterama – on bikes and surfboards, in wingsuits, on snowboards and hanging off sheer mountain faces. You cannot fault the action sequences, and director Ericson Core has clearly taken a few pointers from Justin Lin’s direction in the better Fast and Furious films (five and six, since you’re asking). Fans of Teresa Palmer will be disappointed with the brevity of her appearance and by what appears to be an unnecessary boob job. As will fans of Ray Winstone, who is little more than Utah’s driver, though he does have a go at a Michael Caine impersonation, and there is fun to be had in watching him fail. Yeh, it’s an unnecessary film, but it’s exhilarating and enjoyable too. A bit of light in Bracey’s eyes would probably have improved things a bit more.

Point Break – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Scott of the Antarctic (StudioCanal, cert U)

A Blu-ray debut for Britain’s first Technicolor film, released in 1948 to great acclaim (“a saga that reaches to the marrow of the bones” said the New York Times), and now restored to glory. Everyone knows the story – Captain Scott (John Mills) sets off for the South Pole about the same time as Amundsen, a Norwegian rival. Scott uses ponies for transport, while Amundsen uses dogs. “Dogs, dogs and more dogs,” we see Scott being told when he’s asking for advice on how to do it before setting off. Refreshingly, there’s no attempt to hide why the expedition failed. Scott had the advice; he ignored it. He died, and so did good men with him. For all the snow and ice and talk of temperatures of 60 below, this Ealing production conveys no real sense of the extreme cold endured by the men on their expedition. Emotionally, however, watching this bunch of stiff upper lips heading for certain doom remains extremely effective. Drawing heavily on Scott’s diaries, it is also admirably brisk, with the Technicolor rendering it simultaneously more modern-looking (sharp, bright) and more antique (the plain weird sepia-acid colours). Three cinematographers – greats Jack Cardiff and Geoffrey Unsworth, plus outdoor specialist Osmond Borradaile – don’t help unify a visual palette, nor does the occasional library shot. They’re blots on an otherwise pristine landscape. Because this is a very good film, thanks to an understanding by director Charles Frend and writers Walter Meade and Ivor Montagu of what it is all about – the last hurrah of the imperial mindset, when a captain commanding a hungry, tired and desperate crew could say “Well, lads, only 900 miles to go,” and not cause an instant mutiny. Watch James Robertson Justice, stricken with terrible infection and soldiering on with only an “I’m alright, sir”, and the empathy – even on an obvious film set – is almost unbearable.

Scott of the Antarctic – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2016

 

 

 

6 June 2016-06-06

Deadpool, Warlord and Negasonic Teenage Warhead

 

Out This Week

 

Deadpool (Fox, cert 15)

From the guys who wrote Zombieland, a similarly knowing and smart play in the genre pool, though this time it’s superheroes rather than the undead who get a prolonged playful kicking. The style is Honest Trailers – YouTube fanboys with brains ((“Trailers that tell you the TRUTH about your favorite movies and TV shows”) – and follows Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous hero as he searches … actually, there is no need to recount the plot at all, since that’s why you watch the film, though I should say that it is more than just a mere peg for jokes. And they come in all shapes and sizes – from playing with the story’s chronology, to aural gags (Deadpool having his face pounded into a radio, which changes station with each pound), to gags which break the fourth wall and then break it again (“Fourth-wall-break inside a fourth-wall break,” says Deadpool at one point. “That’s, like, 16 walls.”), to self-referential gags about Reynolds’s abilities as an actor, to Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo, and this time it’s a good one, as a compere in a pole-dancing club. But, one step back from all this messing about – imagine Spider-Man at his quippiest multiplied by Kick-Ass – there’s a well crafted, well plotted and brilliantly cast superhero movie going on. Ed Skrein is a great hulking British villain, Morena Baccarin is a fast-mouthed love interest who also happens to look good in stockings and suspenders, while Michael Benyaer and Brianna Hildebrand make a great mismatched superhero double act as lunkish Warlord and attitudinal Negasonic Teenage Warhead. It is also brilliantly directed as a piece of superhero choreography – the big fight finale thrillingly mixes CG and live action together and isn’t too bothered if you can see the joins, because it’s the drama that counts. The old saw has it that when genres turn comedic, it’s the sign they’re exhausted. In which case the superhero movie is dead. Deadpool is a great way to go.

Deadpool – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Oddball & the Penguins (Icon, cert U)

An Australian film about a big friendly sheepdog saving a sanctuary for fairy (or little) penguins. It’s a true story and Wikipedia tells us exactly what the film does – that at one point the breeding population of little penguins on Middle Island, off the coast of Warnambool, Victoria, had shrunk to ten breeding pairs (I think the film makes this ten actual animals), placing the future of the colony under threat. And that depredation of the penguins was halted by the introduction of a Maremma sheepdog to keep foxes away. Oddball & the Penguins tells the story of that introduction. It’s a heartwarming and a genuinely delightful film working wholesale from Disney’s 1960s animal movie playbook – there’s Alan Tudyk as a bit of a villain, Sarah Snook as his too-virtuous girlfriend and the colony’s passionate protector, Shane Jacobson as her dad and owner of sheepdog Oddball, an animal useless about the farm but something of a natural with the penguins. Though Tudyk and Snook are bigger names, Jacobson is the star and beating heart of this film, playing a gruff Ocker farmer who will brook no nonsense from humans but has all the time in the world for animals. The whole thing is shot in the sunniest, wholesomest Australian way by DP Damian Wyvill and it’s aimed squarely at children, though I lapped it up wholesale and would happily sit through it again. A refreshing and entirely uncynical goodtime story.

Oddball & the Penguins – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Concussion (Sony, cert 12)

Concussion is based on a GQ article, Game Brain, which told the story of how a pathologist realised that the relentless head trauma that American footballers received during their careers was having a devastating effect, causing symptoms which were being confused with early onset Alzheimer’s. Appalled, Omalu set out on a one-man-against-the-system quest to get the authorities to do something about it. It becomes a sober, thoughtful film in the hands of director Peter Landesman, with Will Smith as the Nigerian immigrant pathologist Dr Omalu, a principled, educated, intelligent, compassionate, unorthodox, good-natured (ie the usual virtuous Will Smith character) doctor driven to find out what is giving youngish retired footballers dementia. Landesman directed Parkland, the film about the death of JFK and then Lee Harvey Oswald, a drama that flirted with losing its audience. And the same thing is happening with Concussion, an interesting film about a fine bit of sleuthing, slightly diminished by its insistence on American football being some metaphor for America itself – the rugged individual versus the corporate interest. James Newton Howard’s keening, mawkish score – someday his presidential funeral will come – really doesn’t help here either. These shivering cavils to one side, this is a fine, well made film with an unshowy performance by Smith, who seems now to have set out on a bid for Oscar glory – Best Variable Nigerian accent, maybe? Salvatore Totino’s cinematography, meanwhile, is particularly well suited to the intimate and the beautiful. Talking of which, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dr Omalu’s love interest. Albert Brooks, David Morse and Eddie Marsan, though under-used, are all also welcome presences.

Concussion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Intruders (StudioCanal, cert 15)

A home-invasion movie that effects a sleight-of-hand genre shuffle early on, as the tables are turned on the three guys who have broken into the house of grieving young Anna (Beth Riesgraf), a woman so agoraphobic she can’t bring herself to attend her brother’s funeral. And since she has now seen the burglars – who thought Anna would be at the cemetery – she’s now going to have to die. Except she isn’t, because Anna is a much gnarlier creature than the intruders had reckoned on, and her house is fitted out with all sorts of sliding doors, secret passages and two-way mirrors. Anna is a wacko, clearly, and soon the guys are being subjected to Saw-style violence that’s occasionally uncomfortable to watch. For those who are fist-pumping the fact that we’ve moved away from the cliché of the single female under threat, don’t get too excited, the mad witch bitch cliché is soon being tried on for size by Riesgraf, who gives it her all, and then a bit more. Perhaps a bit too much more. I didn’t tell you that Rory Culkin is in it, and the fact that he’s dressed up like a schoolkid when he’s actually mid/late 20s is clearly some sort of callback to brother Macaulay’s Home Alone, another home invasion drama, or else it’s just a weird wardrobe decision. It’s in the physicals – the house and the set design – that this film is actually at its best, so Culkin’s dress is probably not a mistake, and the entire cosy-gone-mad vibe rather than the wobbly acting make Intruders (aka Shut In) worth a look.

Intruders aka Shut In – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Axiom, cert 18)

For all its cinematic megaphoning, Peter Greenaway’s latest film is more of a theatre piece in the tableau vivant style, about the “ten days that shook Eisenstein”, the gay Russian film-maker, here met doing the groundwork for a new film in Mexico en route from Hollywood back, reluctantly, to the USSR where Uncle Joe Stalin is getting the anvil out. Elmer Bäck plays Sergei Eisenstein as a puckish spirit, a voluble live wire immediately suspected by the authorities of being a bad influence, perhaps because of the pornography they have found in his luggage. “It’s pictures of paintings,” Eisenstein protests to anyone who will listen, but mostly to the suave fixer Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti) who, when not giving Eisenstein a wall to bounce his mile-a-minute ideas off, is seducing the man and taking the film-maker’s anal virginity with his large penis. Ah, big cocks and Greenaway, is a PhD being written somewhere? Greenaway’s fantastic eye for an image – shots of Mexican cityscapes, mummified corpses in underground mausoleums, his familiar symmetrical compositions when the two men are à deux – is augmented by his DP Reinier van Brummelen, who lays on the split- and multi-screens in some homage to Eisenstein’s montage style. Greenaway’s script, meanwhile, when not discoursing on Marx and Freud, drops names such as Chaplin and Pickford, Einstein and George Bernard Shaw, pausing only to take his usual shots at the bourgeoisie. If pushed, I’d describe this as a terribly pointless period drama with pretensions not to be a period drama at all – I’m sure Greenaway believes he is bringing the past vividly to life and all that. Hence the cocks. Except that there’s no way in hell that Greenaway’s target educated liberal audience are going to find a few male members invigorating or shocking, or the persistent sex talk. A film about ideas that has nothing to say, except about its maker.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Go with Me (Metrodome, cert 15)

Everyone wants a piece of Scandinavian noir action, it seems. Even Anthony Hopkins, who is one of the producers of this dark and meandering, tamped-down thriller set in Canadian logging country. He’s also one of the film’s stars, playing a forklift driver at the local sawmill who volunteers to help a local waitress (Julia Stiles) who is being menaced by a local nutjob (an underused Ray Liotta). That’s the film… Stiles and Hopkins in a pickup truck trying to find Liotta and put a stop to his terrorising. Along for the ride is Alexander Ludwig, playing a local halfwit who is going, improbably, to provide some romantic lightening of the mood. Hal Holbrook plays the sawmill owner, and was 90 years old when the film was shot. He’s clearly there to make Hopkins (78) seem more lively. Though even Liotta (61) is a bit long in the tooth for this sort of scary-dude work. Stiles at 34 and Ludwig at 23 are in the right zone, at least. Go with Me was originally titled Blackway (the name of Liotta’s character) and is directed by Daniel Alfredson, the competent if workaday hand behind the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Alfredson handles the stops along the way well, offering visions of a depraved backwoods life, where drugs, commercial sex and poverty have combined to produce a hellish hopelessness. What’s less well handled is the presence of Hopkins. In many scenes set inside his pickup, it feels as if his character has been forcibly worked into a screenplay in which it originally did not figure, by the simple process of borrowing a line or two from Stiles’s dialogue and many more from Ludwig’s, the offcuts somehow being expected to add up convincingly. But nothing in this film is really plausible, apart from the sylvan British Columbia setting and the acting – you don’t hire Stiles, Hopkins and Liotta for nothing.

Go with Me aka Blackway – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

Overlord (Sony, cert 15)

Produced by Britain’s Imperial War Museum, Stuart Cooper’s 1975 film about the D-Day landings is a one-off bearing many of the signs of a maverick mind, plus some of the telltales of a state institution. It follows young recruit Thomas Beddows (Brian Stirner) into war, from the family hearth to the beaches of Normandy, pausing on the way to get regulation doses of the tough training, laddish camaraderie and existential soul-searching that war films demand. What makes it an interesting and unique film is Cooper’s inclusion of lots of actual footage shot by the armed forces’ propagandists, to which the director apparently had free access. He’s livened up some of this archive up by dubbing over sound that originally wasn’t there – as a train full of soldiers pulls out of a station we hear one waggish squaddie shouting to a girl on the platform, “C’mon sweetheart, show us your tits”. It’s common practice now but this must have been an early example. More fascinating for the war bore and gadget junkie is some of the contraptions made to facilitate a beach landing, such as the gigantic rolling wheel powered by catherine-wheeling firecrackers. And footage of covered trains, fields full of armoured vehicles, a warehouse full of bombs bring home the scale of the operation. The dialogue creaks a touch – “You got a sweetheart waiting for you?” being an attempt to loosen things up a bit as Thomas chats to a fellow soldier and shares a cigarette. Perhaps it’s the tone that makes it unique, with the attitude of “let’s get the blinking job done and go home,” as Thomas puts it. Not for nothing is he called Thomas – this is the point of view of age-old good-old Tommy Atkins. And, blow me, isn’t our hero well spoken, enunciating in fine Celia Johnson style while his comrades all oik it up. William Walton and Vaughan Williams, meanwhile, are evoked on a soundtrack. The country they’re saving is England, not Britain, and in particular the South of cream teas and leafy lanes, not the North and its factories. It’s a mile away from other war films of the era, and there’s no Spike Milligan fatuousness, no Francis Ford Coppola bombast. Nor has any other film-maker quite caught wistfulness so well, of proud, simple men who, at bottom, just really want to return to safety and their loved ones. This high-definition Criterion restoration does Stuart Cooper’s unique film proud.

Overlord – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015